Dick Diver – Calendar Days album review

Building off of the momentum they gathered following their first album release, the Melbourne-based foursome Dick Diver are out with new material. While stylistically similar to New Start Again (Dick Diver’s debut album), the band’s sophomore LP features complexities and added texture that demonstrate a broader range of talent and greater depth than did their previous work.

Calendar Days still features the same catchy, relaxed guitar melodies and steady drum beats that give Dick Diver’s music a charming 90’s indie rock quality, but also includes a variety of devices that add layers to the compositions. “Blue & That” opens with a soft, consistent keyboard, and also features saxophone and harmonica. Pedal steel is sprinkled throughout the album, namely on “Lime Green Shirt,” a song waxing nostalgia about a past relationship.

But more than just the instrumentation on this album feature subtle intricacies and layers. What I love most about Calendar Days is the way it employs seemingly simple lyrics about the banal routines of life (hence the title “Calendar Days”) to explore complex themes of growing up. “Alice,” a tune about falling in love, opens with a line about his morning breakfast (“I get out of bed/I get/my toast/to the perfect shade of gold”). “Blue and That,” a song about getting high in the park, touches on the fleeting nature of leisure time with friends. “Gap Life,” an acoustic track about the uselessness of channel surfing, conveys a sense of wistful longing for something more (“I don’t know if it was a gap year, or a gap life/But there wasn’t much on between channel 2 and channel 9”). Every word on Calendar Days feels real–the basic yet elegantly described actions and routines described are easy to relate to and unifying.  The result is an incredibly intimate album. This ability to transpose everyday experiences with which we are all familiar into music makes Dick Diver the kind of band you want to listen to when you need some friendly reassurance.

Layering sensations of happiness, sadness, thoughtfulness and nostalgia amongst musically solid compositions, Calendar Days will go a long way toward putting Dick Diver on the map–after all, no one tires of reminiscing about their youth (or enjoying charming Australian accents).  An effort well deserving of praise and attention, I highly recommend digging in.

Wasnatch – Front to Back album review

Young white men and reggae music; it has become such a cliché that no further description is necessary. Having gone to college in Boulder, Colorado, a disdain for the suburban rich kids who pepper their speech with ‘jah, mon’ and grow dreadlocks as an excuse to claim their pot habit is a religion is practically in my DNA. Worse are those who actually try to play the stuff. These Trustifarians have never been oppressed a day in their lives, they have no concept of suffering, of the conditions from which the music was born. At best, their attempts sound emulative, hollow. More often, it’s embarrassingly exploitive.

Add to that, the fact that Wasnatch hails from the Wasatch mountains of Utah, (Antarctica has a bigger reggae profile than Utah) and I was ready to hang my head in disgust and shame. Surprisingly, though, I could not hate it!

What sets Front to Back apart from the myriad of other attempts by similar bands is the sense of humor that pervades the album. It’s as if they are well aware of the situation they are in, and manage to both call light to it, while still accurately performing the music they love. (Whether or not it is accurate for reggae to be lighthearted is a discussion for another time.) They are not pretending nor claiming to know the struggles life in Kingston. They’re unashamed to be white boys from Salt Lake City.

If songs like “Cougar Killer” and “Skanky Dirty” weren’t evidence enough of the semi-self effacing humor of the band, one look at the cover is enough to prove to anyone that they don’t take themselves too seriously. A twisted take on 70s porn and a brass section, it immediately sets the stage for the album before even a note is played; a fun, approachable dose of unoffending sleaze.

All the staples of reggae are all present; horns, punchy guitar rhythms and solid, crisp drums, but the band is also not afraid to draw from other genres. The guitar leads are often heavily inspired by blues based rock and punk. Don’t get me wrong; this is not earth shattering by any means. There is not really a whole lot going on in this record that is unique to either it or the band. References to weed and getting high abound. “I and I,” “Jah,” and “bredren” pop up a lot, often sung with a fake Jamaican accent. (Although, the one track that isn’t, “Dragon Butter,” sounds completely out of place, and end up in the white imitation league.) The police make an appearance and political corruption rears its ugly head. It is not redefining the reggae music. But, of course, it’s not claiming to, either.

Overall, though, it is an incredibly inviting, enjoyable record, especially for those used to despising white reggae. It is a solid, accessible collection, despite the cover’s best efforts.

Inter Arma – Sky Burial album review

In the dark, ominous musical realm of Heavy Metal, I am admittedly, only a sightseer. You might say I’m a softcore “hardcore” appreciator, or that I only collect precious “metal,” or even that I’m a light “heavy” listener; however you put it, the gist of the word play amounts to me being a mere scrapper among real metalheads. That said, I’m no virgin either. I’ve made it to second or third base, depending on who you ask, and I’m definitely not so prude to opposed the idea that music can healthily, and effectively be a compelling medium to express anger, sorrow, general dissatisfaction, or even apocalyptic narratives literally hell-bent on emphasizing everything dark and otherworldly. I’ve crowd-surfed (though that’s traditionally more a facet of hardcore punk), I’ve head-banged (which it’s own respective sub-genre in the heavy music department), and I’ve damn well moshed, thrashed, and slam-danced my way to the front of many a show, while bruising many a limb, and pushing my body to the utmost limit of exertion.

Throughout my occasional yet recurring half-assed metallurgical inquiries, I’ve found a tried and true fistful of anti-social noise that I can rely upon to make me feel much worse about a bad day (in a good way, however that works), but as of late, I haven’t found myself needing much more then that. Luckily for the intriguing grind of dark noise coming from Virginia based metallic psyche band, Inter Arma, occasional metal users like myself won’t need silly excuses like catatonic despair, emotional catastrophe, politics, or reality television to prompt them to seek a new vehicle for moral deprivation.
Sky Burial, Inter Arma’s furiously packed 70 minute sophomore album drearily blends a bountiful spectrum of metal genres to arrive at a sound that is seething with dark emotional force and apocalyptic fervor. Marking a debut release under the bands new label, Relapse, the five piece heavy set out of Richmond are concocting a plethora of hellish noise spanning chasms from thick, sappy southern Americana sludge, to dirty psychedelic stoner sludge, to doom, hardcore, grind, and black metal. Between Inter Arma’s lack of concern for genre’s, and the sheer level of noise and energy they summon, it is obvious why they have garnered such buzz among the dark circles of heavy music enthusiasts.

The first four tracks alone encapsulate nearly 35 anxious minutes of nail-biting clamor, beginning with opening track, “The Survival Fires.” Screeching vocals saturated in reverb echo above deliberately dense death riffs, while thunderous percussion tempo’s fall disorientingly in and out of pace. Like much of the songs, the opening track runs over ten minutes, and capitalizes upon lengthy transitional arrangements that allude to a nihilistic narrative perspective, and a unique sonic tension arising from dense layers of noise, and grinding contrasts in tempo. Tracks two and three, “The Long Road Home (Iron Gate),” and “The Long Road Home,” form a melancholic medley, offering a moment of respite, and evolving into a spacious atmosphere of acid infused acoustics that chart Pink Floyd waters. “Destroyer,” picks up the chaotic pace once again with a slave-drive drum beat, and repetitive chord structures that induce heavy head-bobbing, before eventually evolving into another 10 minutes of thrashing.

Sky Burial is both enduring, and expansive; within a genre that generally plays out as an intentionally chaotic frenzy of noise, Inter Arma is accomplishing something unique  by demanding so much attention in their arrangements. The first half of the album offers enough thrills and contrast to keep curious listeners around, but by the time the album hits track 5, “S’blood,” the sprawling compositions start to become more tedious then engaging. For a band liberally exploring several genres of metal, the sound still never finds a moment where it couldn’t be readily classified as heavy, if not full on metal.

I don’t doubt that the full-time metal grinders will have no problem consuming Sky Burial’s meaty 70 minutes of despair like flesh off the bone, but the occasional listener might not be as inclined. Either way, Inter Arma is without a doubt, crafting a unique style that will leave an infectious gash upon the metal genre as a whole, and they are definitely a pioneering force of sound worth checking out. I implore the part timers and even the mainstream music lovers to step outside your comfort zone for a minute, and immerse yourself in a physically charged celebration of angst and suffering. You might not like it in a conventional sense, but heavy haters out there need to quit being whiney hippies, and remember: it’s healthy to vent.

Edwyn Collins – Understated album review

The speed with which Edwyn Collins returned to music after he suffered two brain haemorrhages and underwent cranial surgery in 2005 astonished many. Although somewhat of a one hit wonder in the US, Collins’s continued influence within the UK and among various indie groups meant that he had plenty of fans eager for new releases. In his newest album, Understated, Collins tells us that his renewed energy was not merely a symptom of his recovery, but rather a contributing factor, singing on “Baby Jean” that, “I got music too see me through/I got art to ease the pain.”

Pop and rock are still the driving forces behind Collins’s music, but his habit of combining apparently conflicting styles is taken to new levels here. Reggae guitar melodies, rock-n-roll drums and choir-like background vocals meet in “Dilemna” to create an overwhelming feeling of rejuvenation, a sensation common throughout the album. Some songs are more conventional, like the title track, which uses electric guitar, piano chords and punk-style percussion to create a sound familiar to fans of Collins’s earlier work.

Collins’s medical crisis undoubtedly impacted his singing, but by no means for the worse.  According to the musician himself, he believes he’s actually improved – he told the UK newspaper Metro that “I actually think I sing a lot better now than I did on the early Orange Juice singles.” There’s less inflection in his voice and his lyrics are simpler and more repetitive than before, but this lends a raw, emotional vocality to his stylistic experimentation that was previously lacking in his music. On tracks like “Too Bad” and “Carry On, Carry On” Collins’s soulful voice is complemented effectively by an ensemble of background singers.

Seeing Collins will likely stay active for many years to come, Understated is an accurate indicator of the trajectory of his future work. Collins has proven his vigor, and the persistent broadening of his own musical boundaries demonstrated on Understated will hopefully continue in his next album. Collins’s singing has changed permanently, but whether or not this change was beneficial or not will depend on the listener’s perspective. Different is not always better; however, it would be best if his next album explores what would be then stale ideas. As his hell-and-back experience begins to haunt Collins less, his thematic focus may (and should) shift into new territory.

Understated will leave many listeners ambivalent, but it should also invite optimism as a sign of what is to come. Some songs on the album show improvement on even his most famous single, “A Girl Like You,” and there is a good chance Collins is only going to get better from now on.

Off With Their Heads – Home album review

There are no words to describe/the awful feeling I feel inside is just the beginning of the gruff angst that thrashes through Off With Their Heads’ latest and loudest album. Formed in Minneapolis in 2002, OWTH spent much of the beginning of their career touring full time, rotating members, and trying to make a name for themselves in a punk scene that isn’t always open to fresh talent. Finally in 2008 after self-releasing their video for “Fuck This I’m Out,” the band was named one of “50 Emerging Artists” by Beyond Race Magazine the following year. In 2010 the band signed to Epitaph records and released their second full length album, In Desolation, that following June. Since then, OWTH has been continuing to tour along with working on side projects and perfecting their latest release, Home.

Singer/guitarist Ryan Young encapsulates the albums title throughout many of the tracks by ensuring the listener that “home” isn’t always the place one may want to be when times get tough. Songs like “Nightlife” and “Don’t Make Me Go” are perfect examples of the struggles that many adults face and Young’s raspy vocals only emphasizes the hardships even more. Taking a more social turn, Home’s fifth track “Altar Boy” talks about the problems with falling in line with Christianity and the dangers that are often associated with the Church.

Songs like “Janie” take the album for a slight curve but the second half of the album delivers with enough angst to put your 15 year old self to shame. There’s no doubt that dark times for the band was the inspiration behind much of Home and Young, along with fellow members Robbie Swartwood and Justin Francis, do an excellent job at achieving a sound which makes the listener feel exactly this. Though, OWTH has managed to hold a consistent sound throughout their three full-length albums, it’s obvious this album was a slight turn in a more technical direction, however the bands punk roots continued to stay true throughout.

Home is one of those albums that can make one truly respect the punk scene and what it has become within the past decade. OWTH may be one of the last true punk bands out there, though there’s no doubt they’ll have a long and exciting career ahead of them.

Dogbite – Velvet Changes album review

Reverb. It is an effect that adds a layer of mystery and haze to almost any recording, and when employed correctly, can define the sound of a band or solo artist. Singers like Thom Yorke and Jim James have based their careers around creating sky-high vocals that seem to be transmitted from another planet, and their respective voices just might not have the same endearing quality without the added echo. The same holds true of Phil Jones, former keyboardist for Washed Out, and the mastermind behind Dog Bite. On his most recent album, Velvet Changes, Jones melds the looped and driving beats of early TV on the Radio with the disaffected vocals of Real Estate, and even adds in a little fuzz bass for good measure. It is an interesting debut album that can sometimes lose its impact on mere computer speakers, but shines on a more advanced audio set up.

Although it begins slowly, Velvet Changes begins to pick up steam beginning with track four, “Prettiest Pills.” The introduction to this song features some of the most raw guitar work on the album, and though the lyrics are mostly indecipherable it is easy to be hooked by the descending chord progression. There is little room to breathe within these sonic landscapes, but Jones does a fine job of making each instrument heard. By isolating lone guitar in certain portions of each song, or peeling away the reverberating din to reveal the drum track, Dog Bite keeps the middle section of Velvet Changes intriguing.

With the exception of the unmemorable “Holiday Man” the album remains particularly focused as it meanders towards its conclusion. Immediately following “Prettiest Pills,” “You’re Not That Great” features a fuzzed out bass line, and a steadily repeating drum beat. Its vocal section and guitar work could most readily be compared to that of Real Estate, all laconic singing and slow picking. “Native America” is another highlight, with even more propulsive drumming, and is interestingly juxtaposed with a chorus that tells the listener, “Let’s not rush.” Finally, “Paper Lungs” and “Stay Sedated” cap off a great three song run, with the former sporting a truly menacing guitar distortion, and the latter encouraging fevered air-drumming with its programmed boom-bap beat.

Last year a few of my friends saw Washed Out, and highly recommended Ernest Greene’s electro dance project. With Dog Bite, Phil Jones has taken some of the Washed Out ingredients, namely the driving beats, and paired them with a shoe gaze, reverb drenched backdrop. Velvet Changes is a rare album that can be played while you’re hanging on the couch, or walking quickly to the subway. Just make sure to bring along some nice headphones, so as not to miss any of the echoing goodness contained within.

Generationals – Heza album review

Hey! Want to hear something exciting?? The groove-jam duo from New Orleans, Generationals, released a new album! Wooo! Although the release of Heza  is somewhat old news, having dropped at the beginning of April, it is an exciting happening for anyone who enjoys upbeat, well composed, and professionally constructed music.

Heza  is not as much as a force to be reckoned with as much as an old friend. The music from the duo is inviting and very groovy. From start to finish it demands a steady head bob as well as a cheery disposition. Each song is quick and to the point but does not lack in leaving a great impression. As a third full studio album, there is no doubt that it fits tightly in the Generationals’ catalog. The most distinctive element of Heza , compared to its sibling albums, is that it is the most complete. It is difficult to produce an album which contains solid tracks from front to back. Good albums of history sometimes have songs which seem to frame the big hits and the more enjoyable recordings, often referred to as “fillers.” Great albums of history have a complete sound and leave no stone unturned. The Generationals have presented a complete album with the release of Heza with every track having its own earned place.

For a blast of contemporary flair, lend you ear to track four, “You Got Me.” This jam bounces like a speeding ball while retaining a smooth and mellow complexion.  The simple melody and its uncomplicatedness is a pleasant greeting for the psyche, inducing a trance-like attention to the layered bits and pieces of sound that cycle over and over. For a superb piece of indie rock and a great example of a track which sets the tempo for a whole album, turn to the introductory track “Spinoza.” The high paced yet spaced-out sound bounces off every corner of the room and resonates in the buds, cords, and plugs of any pair of headphones. Play it on your way to your favorite nighttime destination. Finally, for a peak at the versatility of the New Orleans duo, spin “Kemal.”

The Mavericks – In Time album review

In Time, the latest release from Miami based country group The Mavericks follows the pattern of their earlier works where diversity is the name of the game. Mariachi horns, country melodies, and Roy Orbison-esque vocals are found throughout the record but songs are diverse and almost all bring a new theme to the table whether it is the slinky surf guitar of “Come Unto Me”, which is also recorded in Spanish as the closing track “Ven Hacia Mi” or the upbeat ska horns of “That’s Not My Name”. Each track from The Mavericks proves to be a new surprise and listeners are never bored by the album in the slightest. Lead singer Raul Malo and the rest of the Nashville based band are much less Jason Aldean and much more Los Lonely Boys than most of what comes from Nashville, mainly due to the Latin influences that are felt throughout the record, from the Cuban danceability present on almost every song to the Tex-Mex shuffles heard on several tracks.

Possibly the best track on the album however is the subdued “(Call Me) When You Get To Heaven”, an eight minute long spaghetti western sounding opera, complete with faint jazzy flutes and chiming reverberating guitars while Malo croons “At night guitars will softly play for us/While angels beckon us to pray”. The track truly shows the range of The Mavericks as a group around the four minute mark when a gospel choir comes in repeating “Won’t you call me/when you get to heaven?” As the last original track on the album (it is followed by “Ven Hacia Mi”), it serves as a perfect closing piece.

Perfect for the upcoming summer, In Time may not be a staple at barbecues yet, but considering that it is the first time the Mavericks have recorded together since their dissolution in 2003, it is a solid album.  The Mavericks are also famed for their raucous live shows and they are on tour all summer in support of In Time. Tour dates can be found here (http://www.themavericksband.com/).

CHVRCHES – Recover EP review

CHVRCHES are here to remind everyone that eighties synth-pop is not dead, it simply renamed itself electro-pop and crawled back out of whatever space it was hiding in.

A three-person band from Glasgow, CHVRCHES spell their name with a v to differentiate themselves in internet searches. Their lead vocalist (Lauren Mayberry) is a young woman with a crystal clear tone and an ethereal style of singing. In photos she appears to be a wispy, waif of a girl who obviously has a powerful set of lungs, given the sheer size of her voice The ‘rhythm section’ is two Glaswegians (Iain Cook and Martin Doherty) who play synthesizers and engage in all sorts of sequencing and digital arranging magic.

The offering in question is a five song EP comprised of three originals and two guest artist remixes of the first track. The end result is approximately twenty minutes long and, if you dig highly danceable electro synth-pop, about as perfect as it gets.

This is a group that was meant to create music together. Mayberry’s vocals are a perfect match for the production skills of of Cook and Doherty. And what skills they are. Shifting textures, clear-yet-integrated sectional changes, beautiful tone colors, and a severely lazy backbeat that imparts so much vitality to the rhythm. Speaking of rhythm, the sixteenth note staggering of the high hat before the second downbeat of each measure on the pre-chorus of ‘Recover’ is an example of the kinds of subtle effects these two get up to. I think I’ll stop typing at this point. If you haven’t done so already, look them up and start reveling in the electrified beauty of it all. Don’t forget about the v.

Kotki Dwa – Staycations album review

It’s not a very arguable statement that the British band Kotki Dwa have a lot of good things going for them. They’ve got a rapidly growing fan-base, critical acclaim, and they’ve even got the National Trust of England to essentially act as a record label to their new album. However, even with all of these positives leaning their way, their band name is definitely not one of them. “Kotki Dwa” might be one of the most elusive band names on the face of this earth, as it’s virtually impossible to tell anybody about their music without having to follow the name up with “or something like that.” The group’s music, however, is not quite as elusive as their name, which was taken from a Polish lullaby. The art-pop group from Milton Keynes, UK have an undeniable infectiousness that is only rivaled by their sharp production style. The sophomore release “Staycations” showcase the trio’s ability to drum up tunes in a traditional indie rock format and are simultaneously able to circumvent the pretense and cheese that occasionally pervades the genre.

The band decided to record this album in an allegedly haunted chapel under a National Trust house in London called the “Sutton House.” Back in Medieval times, the chapel was used by the people of London who would to gather to to escape the plague. The historically alluring chapel’s natural ambience mixed with modern recording techniques (such as tastefully done auto-tune on the album opener “The End”) provide a very clever and workable aural environment for the lush and melodically rich tunes to rest in. What is most endearing about the release is that you can never guess exactly what is going to happen next. Upon first hearing the opening track, I was expecting for the album to drift into an 80’s style retro throwback, but as the crooner-meets-synth-pop “She Likes It” played I thought I may have been wrong. Then, as the Sondheim-esque melody of “Guests” played, I considered myself thoroughly engaged in the album. The synth sounds provide a musical constant throughout the album, while the melodies are crafted with such elegant complexity that it is always a trip hearing the next track.

Using musically genetic terms, the band’s sound as if Morrisey had a musical baby with Damon Albarn and the guys from Passion Pit raised it. Take that as you wish.