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The Rosebuds – Christmas Tree Island album review

When it comes to Christmas albums, I usually stick with the classics—The Beach Boys, Mariah Carey, Celtic Woman. This year, I’ve got a new classic that I can add into my rotation. The Rosebuds’ “Christmas Tree Island” is an awesome take on holiday music. The indie pop duo’s 13 original Christmas songs are festive without being too kitschy, upbeat and fun without feeling frenzied.

The tracks that band members Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp put together have a nostalgic feel to them, fusing their own modern, alternative style with classic holiday song conventions and sounds. The first track, “I Hear (Click Click Click)”, opens with jingling sleigh bells, instantly putting the listener in a particular headspace, full of cozy fireplaces, snow on the ground and a blinding Christmas tree. As the melody introduces an acoustic guitar and Howard’s folky vocals, the song moves in a decidedly more modern direction that manages to retain the spirit, the essence of classic holiday tunes.

“When It’s Cold” is my favorite track on the album, twangy guitar and tinkling bells complementing an absurdly catchy chorus to create an utterly cheerful, entertaining carol. The jazzier tune “Lonely Light” has a deeper, more soulful spirit, with passionate vocals, a slower melody and beautiful saxophone work. The more bubbly, buoyant songs, like “Journey to Christmas Island,” wouldn’t be out of place at a summer barbecue or beach bonfire, but transcend seasonal limits and bring a certain lightness to the holiday season.

“Christmas Tree Island” really has it all. The Rosebuds flawlessly intertwine two totally different aesthetics, modern indie pop and traditional, nostalgic holiday anthems, to create an album that seems both familiar and fresh. It’s a record that I know is going to be on repeat in my house all winter long and, if my past holiday music practices are any indication, probably way into spring as well.

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Serena Ryder – Harmony album review

Canadian indie-pop-rocker Serena Ryder is back with a new album that sounds like an extension of her last album- a lot of emoting about the the little things in life. While there appears to be a little more variety in the songwriting department, the lyrical content revolves around relationships and the problems of the human condition.

‘Stompa’, one of the singles off of the album, is a little misleading. It’s much more upbeat, both in terms of the lyrics and the actual tempo. If you’re expecting the same vibe or aesthetic to carry through the rest of the album, you might be sorely disappointed. If you dig her overwrought soul-searching and emotionally ponderous style of songwriting, then you won’t be disappointed.

To be fair, she’s got the equipment for the job- song-writing chops and a 5 octave vocal range. She has solid vocal technique- her head voice is just as solid and full-toned as her chest voice, and the break between the two ranges is navigated with mastery. She knows how to place that voice in her songs skillfully, and how to sculpt the melodic contour and phrasing to highlight the considerable strengths of her vocal ability.

The problem is that I just don’t like her music. As stated above, the emotive life of her songs comes off as being a bit too much, aside from the fact that the album is basically one relationship song after another. That kind of thing is about as uninteresting as it gets for me, personally.

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Kowloon Walled City – Container Ships album review

Kowloon Walled City is a four piece band from San Francisco that has gained direction for their latest album Container Ships from history of the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong. This city is a location that after being deemed a Chinese military fort, became a crime infused community, eventually being reconstructed to a public park in the 1990’s.

The harsh wailing vocal’s is what demonstrates the unpleasant character the Hong Kong city landscape has grown to create. “The Pressure Keeps Me Alive” introduces the noise rock, sludge metal sound for the next 6 tracks of Container Ships. Containing a strong base line, heavy drumming and going back and forth between controlled and jarring guitar solo’s. The loud creative clashing of sounds that listener’s have found in their early work bring us to “50s Dad” fully committing to a less organized melody every time the song picks up, as Scott Evans sings “bad days come again after all.”

Container Ships album artwork is a factor to the album that puts listeners in the mindset of this desolate landscape Kowloon Walled City tried to represent. On the later half of the album “Cornerstone” shows their consistency with their heavy abrasive sound. The deep tone, once again later incorporating a dissonant guitar solo mesh well with the passionate vocals from Evans that he throws everything he has into.

Since having been released early Decemeber, Container Ships has been well received. Their ability to mesh together the sludge metal, noise rock and some might say, indie or alternative sound has caught people’s attention resulted in a strong and steady album.

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Teen Mom – Mean Tom album review

It’s not every day that you get three grown men unabashedly owning up to the fact that they play fuzz-pop love ballads. So when declaration like this does comes along, as it did with Washington, DC based trio Teen Mom, you had best believe it’s going to spawn something special. Such is the case with the short but sweet six-song EP, Mean Tom.

The debut release from the band is pretty easy to pin down from the start. Operating easily within the genre to which it has been named, each track has a delicate feel, as if its being heard through a screen. Vocals are airy and indiscernible, but still inherently sweet. Instrumentals are unexpectedly heavy at times, as in “Almost Happy” which help to give the band weight and keep the project from becoming too fluffy and insubstantial. As it progresses, you come to realise that Mean Tom is going to play out exactly how you’d expect it to, but it’s such an interesting product that that fact doesn’t necessarily work against them. Quite the opposite of boring, there are enough layers and emotions to make you feel something, even if you have no clue what they’re trying to say.

Perhaps it is this almost-rambling incoherency that makes Mean Tom remarkable in its earnestness. Simple lyrics like “I stay cause I really like staying/I stay cause I’m married to her/You know that I will love you forever/Yeah, I’m sure” (“Gehry”) make each track seem almost tentative and consequently genuine. It is immediately endearing, and undoubtedly a testament to the band’s declaration that they rely primarily on their own experiences when writing music.

It is these elements that make it pretty easy to see the band as they seem to want us to — just three guys playing love songs. After all, the record reads a lot like a shy dude’s first declaration of love — you might not get a lot of length, there might not be very many words, and most of them are likely to be pretty much incomprehensible, but it’s a wonderful thing that you’re sure to remember nevertheless.

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Alexisonfire – Death Letter EP review

Alexisonfire’s final EP takes its name from the infamous Son House song, “Death Letter.” House’s somber number tells the story of man finding out his true love has died and the melancholy that follows her wake. This is a fitting scene for Alexisisonfire’s final studio endeavor. The six-track EP has a requiem tone to it, and is basically a love letter to their fans – composed of old songs mellowed out with acoustic instrumentation.

Since Alexisonfire announced their disbanding in 2010 they have been slow to pull the trigger. Throughout the ensuing two years the band has gone back and forth on additional releases, performed a farewell tour, and extended said tour…etc, etc. This lack of urgency and hesitancy is present in Death Letter. The band that once described their music as “the sound of two catholic girls in mid-knife-fight”; now sound a bit more like “a few catholic boys in mid-introspective-moment.”

The majority of the songs on the EP are culled from 2009’s Old Crows/Young Cardinals. Because of this,  the EP also has the feel of a b-sides release.  On both albums, the instrumentation and vocals have leagues of depth, but they have much different effects in the two releases. The fissure between the styles is apparent right out of the gate with “Born and Raised.” The reworked version, lush with layered acoustic guitars and vocals, has an altered pathos of the original, strident tune. On the Death Letter track, lines such as “I’ve lost all direction/I’ve lost all my direction/And I wish that I would have believed/Could have believed” show a turn from the original’s frustration and angst toward a more contemplative point of view. This is a fine illustration of the depth in their songwriting capabilities after more than a decade of play.

“Midnight Regulations” is another stand-out reprise. Also taken from Old Crows/Young Cardinals, it is the longest piece of the EP. Again, we have  a slowed-down acoustic look at the material. Here the production and vocals shine, and we find the five boys from Canada channeling Tool at their most subdued. The result is a beautifully crafted gem of a song, which has the feel of rough a stone polished by water.

Alexisonfire’s swansong may make long-time fans weep, while leaving new comers scratching their heads over such a dramatic musical departure for a post-punk heavyweight’s finale. Despite their lingering, Death Letter is a nice goodbye note from a band that (for now) has chosen to burn out rather than fade away.

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Kate Earl – Stronger album review

The genre label that I am given when I look up Stronger is “country”.  Shame on you, lazy genre labeler guy.  I guess that’s because there’s the occasional Southern suggestion in a dobro, steel guitar, or mandolin.   In reality this is classic guitar based pop Americana.  In fact, it’s excellent guitar based pop Americana… with a very solid chick rock foundation.

I understand the inherent sexism in the term “chick rock”.  Sorry.  Would “Confident Young Woman Rock” be better?  Whatever you want to call it we all know what we’re talking about.  I do wish this album had been a bit more country, because country musicos tend to understand a need for a bit of fun here and there. There is an endless earnestness on Stronger that can be overwhelming.   So many breakups and needy relationships!  Country can throw in a fun ditty like “A Boy Named Sue” or, to be only slightly more contemporary, “Man!  I Feel Like A Woman!”.   There’s not really a “fun” song on here.  The closest we get is “Not the End of the World” about a, er, fun breakup.

My reactionary criticism should not be taken too much to heart.  Every song is good to almost great.  The album starts out solid with “Stronger” and “One Woman Army” and never lets up. And “California” is a pitch-perfect addition to the come-to-California-and-hope-to-be-famous-genre.  (Is that melodic nod to the Monkees “Daydream Believer” in “Shadows and Light” or is that just me?)  Generally speaking there’s great songwriting on here from beginning to end, and that’s what it’s really all about isn’t it?

If I may comment on the vocals for a moment:  I usually loathe noticeable vocal affectations.  I don’t know what Ms. Earl actually speaks like, but being an Alaskan I doubt she naturally has the accent of a southern soul diva.  That said, she manages to make it her own just enough that it doesn’t become too much of a caricature, like Adele’s near minstrelsy.

In the end I am yet again confronted by another album that I like but don’t love.  I suppose life could be worse.

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Lone Wolf – The Lovers album review

It’s been three years since Paul Marshall’s last release under the name Lone Wolf, but 2012 marked the release of the much anticipated The Lovers…anticipated enough that Marshall was able to raise funds for the album fairly quickly through crowd sourcing site PledgeMusic. With a collection of dark and gritty ballad type songs, there is a sense of deep introspection that undercuts Lovers, giving us a sense that Marshall is baring himself to us here.

Listening to The Lovers it isn’t hard to see a collection of influences at work. The songs seem to combine a folk sensibility with an electronic foundation which calls to mind bands such as Joy Division and New World Order. This is felt the most in the opening couple of tracks. Ghosts Of Holloway launches the album with a great mixture of electronic support, some engaging riffs and Marshall’s reverb-laden voice rising effortlessly over it all. The title track itself, The Lovers, is an interesting arrangement, keeping the music very minimalist and simple while letting the lyrics and vocal melody carry the weight. It really works well to create an intimate atmosphere, which with a title like this, is appropriate.

Needles and Threads was the track that stood out the most to me. I’m not sure what I connected with the most here, the simple guitar that supported the song, the hypnotizing melody…whatever it was…it was effective. Needles and Threads pulled me in deeply enough that all I could do was close my eyes and nod along with it. It was far from the only noteworthy song though. The falsetto driven chorus of Good Life stood out in sharp contrast to the verse and it was simply brilliant.

If I have any complaints about The Lovers it is that I would love to hear what Marshall were he to take the tempo up a bit. The Lovers hovers around the same pace for the majority of it…but to tinker with that too much would destroy some of the effectiveness of what Marshall has crafted here, so as criticisms go, it isn’t a big one. Despite being under the guise of Lone Wolf, Marshall has given us an insight into himself here. This is a very personal feeling album and that honesty is a large part of why it is great.

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The Winter Sounds – Runner album review

On December 3rd, The Winter Sounds released their fifth studio production, Runner. There are plenty of things that do describe Runner well but what seem to be easier to survey are the things which Runner is not. For one, the album is not slow and lazy. Nearly every track jumps with energy and nearly every track display indicators of artistic intention. Two, Runner is not quiet. Runner seethes sound from every corner. The Winter Sounds certainly ensconce the listener in their music with seismic texturing, balanced soundscapes, and intermittent bouts of free melody. Third, and finally yet, Runner is not an album to overlook. But… the enjoyment of Runner would best be suited if you already enjoy spacey punk set to 80s synths and vocal melodies most reminiscent of something between The Cure and Blink 182. If this sounds attractive then The Winter Sounds’ new project will probably be to your liking. For others, the album may be too much noise and relentless pop riffs. The songwriting makes up in cool production for what it lacks in quality of songwriting. Runner is not entirely unimpressive; The Winter Sounds just do what others do very well, too.

Shift attention: the leading track, “The Sun Also Rises,” proves an effective attention grabber. Its high paced nature and smooth slow vocals are pleasing and easy to enjoy. Equally as nice are the chorus breaks and their expansion of sound. Overall, the track is nothing out of the ordinary but nothing shy of appealing. Similarly, “Robots Marching” is an epic synth and violin combo anthem which is definitely a well-made song. However, some songs on the album are less interesting. “Everything Wounded Comes to End,” for example, is fun and bubbly but sounds a lot like what you expect (which is not necessarily a bad thing…).

Bottom line is, the album is a solid production but slightly lacks in originality. Creative?  Yes. A good intention? Seemingly so. What you expect of a 80s-like, punky pop album? More or less.

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Brad Sucks – Guess Who’s a Mess Now album review

One-man Canadian indie pop artist Brad Turcotte, aka Brad Sucks, has turned out his third full-length album, Guess Who’s A Mess Now. The simple electro-pop tunes, combined with Turcotte’s strong, low and ever-so-slightly-flat vocals, are incredibly catchy and fairly reminiscent of a somewhat toned down, unenthused Beck.

Moving away from the themes of depression and isolation present in the first two Brad Sucks releases, Guess Who’s A Mess Now is comprised of 10 uptempo yet chill tracks dealing largely with external pressures and the desire to belong. The title track refers not to Turcotte himself (despite his self-deprecating history) but to the rash of celebrities and their famous meltdowns, and Feel Free! Plastic Surgery! goes hand in hand.

While there were hints of electronics in his prior releases, Guess Who’s A Mess Now has firm roots in the realm of electronic indie; even the album cover features lasers. It’s not a dance album, and the songs would sound a bit out of place in most clubs, but the whole album has you bobbing your head and tapping your foot, with the chances of subconsciously humming a tune later being very high.

It’s hard to choose a stand-out track, as the entire album flows to perfection. Guess Who’s A Mess Now opens strong with In Your Face, the tune drawing in the listener perfectly. Waste of TV comes in a bit heavier, but the verses keep with the general mellow pattern.

What may be most notable about Brad Sucks is not necessarily the music, but the truly community-oriented, DIY way he goes about releasing it: an “open source artist,” Turcotte has his music freely available across various websites and is one of the first artists to release music under a Creative Commons license. He also encourages fan remixes of his song by providing sources for each of them, and will host remixes on his website.

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Sleeping Bag – Women of Your Life album review

For a trio of guys based in Indiana, Sleeping Bag channel California surprisingly well on their surf rock album, “Women of Your Life.”  The record has a dreamy, carefree vibe, focusing on the instrumental and vocal abilities and range of the band.

Though surf music finds its roots in the 1960s, Sleeping Bag brings the genre into the 21st century by creating a full, layered sound. Because each member has had his time as a front man, the harmonies are knock-your-socks-off good. The harmonies on “Allison Cole” take the ska-esque track from simple to infectious, the two-word chorus (guess which two words…) repeating in the listener’s head like a battle cry.

The first and title track, “Women of Your Life,” is an unfortunately disappointing opening to the record. The song lacks the some of the hallmarks of a successful surf rock track—undeniable catchiness, striking harmonies—and instead replaces them with monotonously low vocals and repetitive power chords. The unchanging verses blend into one another, while the chorus gets a relative lift from mildly interesting guitar work. While not offensively boring or poorly produced, the track takes the elements that work so well together elsewhere on the album and creates mediocrity that is unfortunately replicated on other songs on the record. “Soda You” and “Still Life” also both take Sleeping Bag’s dreamy pop to the extreme, turning it into sleepy pop.

On certain tracks, Sleeping Bag takes deliberate steps to evade this monotony. At the beginning of “Saturday Night” they use over-exaggerated strumming and whistling to create different levels of sound and timbre. “Soccer Ball’ features vibrato guitar techniques, creating a more bluesy sound, and “Walk Home” ends the album on a high note, the track creating different emotions within itself, the guitar moving between the background and the spotlight to build a driving, animated sound. It’s very cleverly and expertly done, a skill that would have been welcome throughout the rest of the record.