On Time Spent Waiting 7″ – Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate)

Especially with Snowing having just broken up, Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate) are really one of the only bands out there right now that are playing this 90s-style, Sunny Day Real Estate-inspired emo. Their first, and so far only full-length record, 2009’s What It Takes to Move Forward continues to be a genre high-point, harkening back to a regrettably dead genre, as well as being an incredible release in its own right. The obnoxiously titled On Time Spent Waiting, or Placing the Weight of the World on the Shoulders of Those You Love the Most is the latest in a slew of 7”s since that full-length, and it continues the band’s streak of solid songwriting, while introducing just enough new elements to keep things fresh.

In truth, listeners of Empire! Empire!’s previous material will feel right at home here – you’re getting the same gloriously pretty and emotionally charged rock music as before, complete with the requisite high-pitched vocals and sparkly harmonized guitars that are typical of Keith and Cathy Latinen, the husband-and-wife team who are the focal points of the band.

There’s really only one new dimension that they’ve added to their sound, and it’s something I’d like to hear more of. “When You Are Living On Borrowed Time” adds in a single trumpet player at strategic points, and it works wonders. The tune would have been great without it – it’s just as beautiful and dynamic as any of the others – but the addition of that bright brass sound, which doesn’t seem like it should work at all, pushes the song into mindblowing territory, and makes this too-short EP a must-buy pretty much by itself. In fact, the one flaw of the EP is that it only gets truly transcendental once, with the rest of the songs fitting in admirably with the band’s canon but not quite reaching to the same height. That one trumpet part mixes so well with their sound, and in future releases I’d like to see what Empire! Empire! can do with adding other elements to their classic emo tone.

But I digress; the fact of the matter is that this is a great little release by an overlooked band. If you’re a fan, you may as well go out and buy it right now; you won’t be disappointed. If not, at only five bucks and just over 10 minutes, it’s a wonderful litmus test for whether you’d like the band’s full-length record. Here’s hoping for another one of those soon.

CHLLNGR – Haven

Moody and rich in vocals, CHLLNGR’s debut album Haven is kind of like the feel you got from that Mitsubishi Eclipse commercial that had the Dirty Vegas song Days Go By in the background: ethereal and mysterious and intense and forward-going, all at the same time. With artist Steven Borth altering his voice on the title track to be both male and female, with indecipherable words (or perhaps they are meant to be just raw emotions), the melody lulls the listener into a trance, willing to follow it anywhere. Intricate drumlines and a softer electronic track than plain house music, Borth explores some old-school dub rhythms, mixing them with alternative soul, if such a thing existed before now. Guest vocalists such as Coco O (on Sun Down) flavors the music while still showing Borth’s Scandanavian influence.

Although most songs end abruptly (which is unsettling) and all of them are near-standard length, there are some stand outs: Jessica Brown is so lovely on Dusty, her soprano range is stunning. Dark Darkness uses sharp finger snaps and nuanced bass underscore his lyrics “What is your game, what do you know?” to drive home a haunting score.

There is enough variety within this album to differentiate the songs from one another, something that isn’t always accomplished within a subgenre. There’s certainly room for Borth to have opened up and gone beyond the three-minute mark, but the mixes are sophisticated and filling as they are and perhaps the shortness of the tracks can be attributed to the fact that the album was made in the deep winter months of Denmark. As a first effort on a formal album, this is not a bad introduction to the artist, but it definitely leaves the listener expecting much more for the sophomore production.

Lights – Siberia review

Lights-a.k.a- Valerie Anne Poxleitner, releases her second album Siberia. I feel like I have heard this album several times in the form of some other brainwashed puppet. The only redeemable qualities are this: Lights is on her own personal label and she makes the electronic backing of her horrific voice-that is it.
Lights has collected Juno awards and is relatively “critically acclaimed” however besides her two redeemable qualities there is nothing special or significant about her music.

Unfortunately Lights isn’t contributing anything to the world of dirty bubblegum pop. Her choice of sound engineerd electronic samplings resembles the sounds of dental work and V.L.T machines, it is quite literally painful to listen to and maybe that is the intention.
Her voice is over-edited and doesn’t sound it any way real but by no means immaculate, it has a harsh ring to it and the words she is pseudo-singing are silly and superficial. This is particularly clear in the bubblegum self indulgent radio hit “Toes” and the quasi neo-philosophical “Fourth Dimension”. However no song is predominantly better or worse than the other as it all sounds the same and blends to some grimy club floor nonsense.

Electronic-pop is an overpopulated genre already and it baffles me they have room for this one. Perhaps it is a combination of Canadian conduct and the lack of her listeners exposure to stronger music that contribute to why one would feel at all compelled to listen to Lights.

After this listening experience I feel like a good shower and some Miles Davis will bring me back to sanity.

Plaid – Scintilli review

A classic story that has impacted the history of literature and has become a staple in many childhoods across the world is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Besides the mystical and colorful characters presented throughout the novel, there was a theme of fantasy consistently conveyed through the adventures Alice encountered, all beginning with her trip down a rabbit hole. Now, imagine that during her warped journey, there was a soundtrack to her descent, disaster, and deliverance. That soundtrack would be Plaid’s, “Scintilli.”

The seventh release from the London-based duo features a Latin title, meaning “I am many sparks,” and abstract cover artwork surrounding a thirteen-track album within a self-created realm of electronica and instrumental arrangements. The opening song, “Missing,” begins with a soft combination of folk guitars and other stringed ambience, creating a lighthearted, yet mysterious atmosphere, and also fits appropriately with the aforementioned correlation to “Alice in Wonderland” during the opening scene of the book as she falls down the abyss and goes “missing.” An animated maze of soundscapes continues throughout “Scintilli” as musical ups and downs are permeated through up-tempo beats and compositions, such as on “Unbank,” and are further enhanced by dark twists and an underlying emotionally-charged tone. On the closing track, “At Last,” a culmination of the album’s untold story occurs and is recapitulated through an awakening mix of drums and upbeat vibe.

As veterans in the wonderland of electronica, Plaid has confirmed their ability to continuously reinvent and reintroduce a talented work of dynamic and hypnotizing tracks. Let us hope that their contributions to music are far from “The End.”

MUTEMATH – Odd Soul review

MUTEMATH’S Odd Soul is a cornucopia of adverse musical genres. Never failing to conjure up any given emotion, MUTEMATH have the innate musical ability to create something that simultaneously sounds old and new. Surprisingly, Odd Soul was my intro into the MUTEMATH catalog which, given the constant positive press I’ve both read and heard by word of mouth, has been a long time coming.

Like previous albums, the rhythm section is always spot-on. Throughout Odd Soul’s various chord, time and tempo changes, the B and D combo always seem congeniality connected, which is something that not only gives the band the extra ‘omph’ to set it apart from the rest, but also allows the other members much more room to exercise their versatility.

“All or Nothing” was the first song that really caught me, with its 80’s synths and wave-like momentum. It’s the first marker on the album where lead vocalist Paul Meany sheds his rock n’ roll mantra and cushions into an earthier and more somber attitude. His voice changes from that of a soulful blues rock archetype, which is one of the main motifs that’s visited on the album, to resembling Thom York, which is something he has every right to boast about.

The album’s closer, “In No Time”, ends on a very high note as Meany sings “where’s your heart gone and where’s your soul, we’ll find it in to time at all.” A very beautiful piece, it’s amazing to see the contrast between that and songs like “Odd Soul” and “Prytania.” If these songs weren’t contained in the same album I’d bet they were two different bands.

Odd Soul is a terrific album, and MUTEMATH are an incredible band. The only possible problem is that there is no one particular song that really pops out, meaning the inconsistency can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. After being able to properly digest Odd Soul, I’m very interested in obtaining the bands other albums, if not only for the fact that this band is so damn talented that I can’t wait to hear what else they’ve come up with. After properly listening to MUTEMATH, I can safely say that the all the positive press was in the right place.

Jack’s Mannequin – People and Things

Jack’s Mannequin – People and Things

I’m biased.

I’m biased because I have very strong memories associated with Andrew McMahon’s first band, Something Corporate. I won’t get into it, but for an 18 year old it was the closest thing to “identifying with the music” I had at the time. McMahon took that energy and created Jack’s Mannequin in 2004.

A fusion of piano and rock, JM released “People and Things”, their 3rd full length album, in September, and for a fan, it doesn’t disappoint. Their first single, “My Racing Thoughts”, encapsulates the runaround love story that only teenagers can have. It’s a testament to being young, a reminder of late summer nights in the city.”People, Running” is a highlight, quick paced and considers the fragility of life. What does it all mean? Don’t worry about it; enjoy it while it lasts. Hey Hey Hey (We’re All Gonna Die) is an emotional (not to be confused with that awful genre of “emo”) track, and recalls back to that misunderstood side of being a kid. “Platform Fire” hits all the right notes, from the mellow intro to the break towards the end. It’s an enjoyable rest from the high intensity of the rest of the album.

Like I said, I have a certain affiliation with this album; it’d be interesting to hear a new listener’s perspective. For me though, this is a gem – the ghost of an unsung hero of my adolescence shines through in “People and Things”, and, with any luck it’ll open up a whole new fanbase. Don’t worry though, guys, I’m not going anywhere.

Brett Anderson – Black Rainbows review

Had Suede continued releasing music instead of breaking up in the early 2000s, an album like former frontman Brett Anderson’s Black Rainbows could easily have been the band’s current offering. This isn’t a bad thing, though. Anderson’s solo work in these intervening years honors his former group.

With Black Rainbows, Anderson carries on many of the structural and aesthetical elements that characterized Suede’s songs and set the band apart from its ’90s Britpop contemporaries. His high, clear vocals come to the forefront of each track but are never in opposition to the music.

The arrangement of songs on Black Rainbows is like the ebb and flow of waves, taking listeners up to the peak of joy or anger before sliding into troughs of introspection or sorrow.

The slow burn of the opener, “Unsung,” rises and makes way for the thoughtful “Brittle Heart,” and the The Cure-inspired pop rocker “Crash About To Happen.”

Back down again to “I Count the Times.” A buzzing guitar and pinging keyboard accompany Anderson as he sings “There’s patterns in your hair. The flowers faint when you’re near. You don’t understand me. I don’t pretend to be that clear.”

The scalding “The Exiles,” gives way to the solemn “This Must Be Where It Ends,” about the bitterness, mistrust and infidelity that eventually destroys so many relationships. Anderson cries out, “You cannot stop the tide from flowing. You can’t hold back the sea. This must be where it ends.”

The album takes the listener back up one last time with the cocky and fun “The Actors,” and the melodious, clanging “The House of Numbers,” before breaking upon the nasty-natured “Thin Men Dancing.”

The end comes in the resonant embrace of “Possession.” Anderson’s voice, and the harmony vocals, rise one last time in the repeated, climatic refrain of, “For her….,” before falling away into single notes on a piano. This is the true emotional peak of the album and I was moved literally to tears by this song.

Black Rainbows is powerful stuff and deserves to be listened to again and again.

Gem Club – Breakers review

I don’t play piano so I won’t pretend to know all about this, but if you shift through each track of Gem Club’s latest release, Breakers, you might notice a familiar sound. You hear a similar piano key. What note? I don’t know and it’s not always  the same, but maybe a variation of that key. Again, not a piano player…

It’s fantastic though, because your already mellow mental isn’t scrambled upon song transitions on account of Gem Club wanting to “change it up” or tweak the transitions so that everything doesn’t sound the same… The dreaded blend together.

Forget that. I love that the songs have sound similarities. The fact that they do (and my theory is that if you listen to the album several times-which you will- you’ll be able to tell which song was which and pick out content) brings more attention to the lyrics and lets them be the declaration of a new track. Plus, they are so poetic and light. You’re free to listen to them and love them.

Don’t take the song blend aspect the wrong way, though. You definitely differentiate between tracks when listening. Maybe I should have put it this way: it takes a couple listens to pick out specifics, the subtle and not-so-subtle details of the songs independently. After the first listen, you regard Breakers as somewhat of a single work like maybe one long song. Nothing stands out (except Kristen Drymala’s “oooooohs” in Twins-it’s a decent first impression track.)

The album is a smorgasbord for piano lovers. I love the dominant piano. It’s that kind of piano music that relaxes your body and makes you think about life, the stars…love. And thoughts of love and finding it and longing for it and being in it would most certainly not be out of line as Christoper Barnes sings of it so sweetly.

You wouldn’t want any weak music styling tricks to break your momentum between songs. The album sweeps forward, it has a momentum, not like classical music, which can be abrupt the way it carries on and is unpredictable at times.

The cello in some tracks and Christoper Barnes’ lullaby voice strokes your hair and holds your hand. You listen to his breathy, sultry delivery of the triumphs and desire of love within the indirect story lines.. The piano tones have a calming, subtle drive to them, they beat forward but they take the vocals with them; and piano notes and vocals wait for one another between their highs and the lows.

Don’t people who are in love do that?

My favorite is “Lands.” The female vocal accompaniment by Drymala is special every time it’s featured. “Twins” and “Lands” are standout tracks with her voice in them.
With “Lands,” it’s a song, no doubt, but if voices could dance, the vocals of this track would bewitch a ballroom. The words are more like poetry with no meaning assigned-it’s open to interpretation, like musical art. (It must be a bit of irony that Hardly Art is the name of the indie duo’s label then, right?)

What you derive or project from “Lands,” or any other track on Breakers depends on your own headspace, just like art. Not everyone will grasp the same thing as the next person or themselves, for that matter.
“I’m building lovers in our bed, I feel no real danger. I’m filled with desire, the back of my head split wide open and I saw the look of lands changing.”
Listeners are free to reinvent the meaning of lyrics like these each time they hear them.

We Were Promised Jetpacks Album Review

With the release of We Were Promised Jetpacks’ album In the Pit of the Stomach, fans get another taste of how “mad guitar skills” (as some people might say) take a band to a completely different level.

The follow-up to These Four Walls is all guitar and a whole lot of noise. Not bad noise. Just a lot of it.
Lead vocalist Adam Thompson brings a lot to the table and it shows when you listen to tracks like “Act on Impulse”. Of course, he may not have the best voice in the business, but his raspy and raw vocals continue to bring that “oomph” to the album.

In the Pit of the Stomach focuses quite heavily on guitar to make it work, and as much as it is good, there is something I feel is lacking from the album. It could be that there wasn’t a song that stood out from all the others. Or, it could be that the album as a whole didn’t wow me. It seems to be that with so much focus on the using instruments as the driving force behind the album, there wasn’t enough attention paid to lyrics or the actual production of the song to set one track from another.

Many tracks are similar to each other so the excitement I was looking for didn’t come through. Nonetheless, WWPJ plays their music well and they know how to use their strengths to keep their fans happy. With tracks like “Pear Tree” and “Boy in the Backseat” I can say you won’t be very disappointed.

In the Pit of the Stomach is a solid effort but I know there is so much more up the band’s sleeves that none of us have heard yet.

Acoustic Alchemy – Roseland review

In 1981, Simon James and Nick Webb formed the instrumental jazz-pop guitar duo Acoustic Alchemy. If you hear the words “instrumental jazz-pop” and want to run and hide, that’s understandable. The truth is, it’s been thirty years, and while change is a given when you’re talking about that kind of time, the duo does still sound stuck in the eighties. Neither of the original members is in it anymore. James left early on, and Webb died in ’98 of pancreatic cancer. Greg Carmichael has been in the duo for years, and Miles Gilderdale became Webb’s replacement in ’96. Acoustic Alchemy’s new album, Roseland, marks its thirtieth anniversary.

As Alex Henderson of AllMusic notes, there’s a line between light and lightweight, and with instrumental jazz-pop that line gets mighty fine. Unashamedly pretty, goofily sonically varied (check out the guitar sound on “Ebor Sound System”), one might even say cheesy, this album is absolutely lightweight. Maybe it’s your dad’s music; more likely it’s your weather channel’s music.

But on a rainy day it’s nice to sit inside with the weather channel on, huh? You’re not watching the channel, you’ve just got it on; what you’re doing is watching the rain. This is cool weather station music, and I like it a lot. Most listeners won’t regard this as anything more than background music, but perhaps some will agree that it’s such nice background music. These songs couldn’t hurt a fly.

Last month I criticized Cosmin TRG’s debut full-length, Simulat, for being soulless, saying it lacked an undercurrent of feeling or humanity. You could easily make the argument that this album lacks the same and that I’m being a biased chump. But at least in my mind this is no generic double-standard. This album sounds good to me because of its resemblance to weather channel music, which, strange as it may seem, calls to mind rainy days at home when I was a kid. Maybe it does something similar for you. Plus, the music is charming in its unassumingness. It doesn’t try to be anything more than pretty.

It’s not just the album’s beautiful songs, like “Templemeads” and “World Stage” that can take the edge off whatever you’re feeling; every song soothes stress and sadness, makes you feel a-okay. In other words, where Simulat lacked humanity, Roseland is almost humanistic.

The Feelies’ recent album, Here Before, had the same feeling as this one. Both were recorded by old pros doing what they love. That neither band’s sound has changed all that much since the eighties isn’t a big deal. That neither album has much of an emotional impact or even a clear focus doesn’t matter. We should just be grateful that these artists are still together and sharing their love and happiness with us.