Junip – Junip album review

When a band takes a 12 year hiatus between formation and releasing the first album, it’s probably safe to say they aren’t too interested in rushing things along. Such is the case with Swedish folk-psychedelic outfit Junip, who, despite forming in 1998, have just released their second, self-titled effort. As you might expect, the best way to characterize it is, well, slow.

The album, a mere 10 tracks but still clocking in at 42 minutes, creeps along in an airy kind of way. Junip are notable in that they offer a unique take on the trend of folk-ensemble bands that seems to be so pervasive in music right now. Like Of Monsters and Men or The Lumineers, their tracks are infused with seemingly traditional instrumental elements and melodic, at times chorally-oriented vocals. But they depart from this in the aural quality of the tracks. Rather than swelling to overwhelming crescendos, Junip’s songs are thin and light, giving off an almost hollow vibe. They fill the role of background noise more than anything, which makes listening to them a unique, although mostly uninvolved, experience.

The album is definitely interesting, but it is slow and it is sleepy. It almost feels like the band is dragging its feet along through each song, dissolving into seemingly endless and fruitless repetitions with very little variation. As someone who is extremely partial to the overwhelming crescendos of bands like Of Monsters and Men, this was a source of immense frustration. I kept waiting for the band to break out, for some sign of life or emotion, but all I seemed to find was a constant deadpan sort of stability. Tracks obviously don’t need to be loud to be emotive, but when they are as timid as Junip’s, it’s very hard to relate in any concrete way. As a result, despite the soothing nature of Rodriguez’s voice and the band’s instrumental stylings, Junip seemed to me to be, above all else, tedious.

That being said, there does seem to be reason for hope. Having released this self-titled effort a mere 2 years after their decade-delayed debut, there is perhaps a new found need for speed that might just manifest itself in their music one day.

Oberhofer – Notalgia EP review

The five piece band fronted by Brad Oberhofer, aptly named Oberhofer, comes to us with a new EP. Notalgia follows up their previous release Time Capsules II under the same label of Glassnote Records. The Brooklyn based quintet comes to us with a handful of dance rock love songs destined to make waves.

Its rare to hear love songs with such a talented backdrop. Most often we are only privy to some rundown acoustic verses with minimal effort trying to impress the listener. Oberhofer, thankfully, isn’t content with churning out just another love song, though one would be forgiven for thinking as much by looking at their lyrics alone. While judged separately, they are the pretty standard affair, however its the total package that brings them to life, and the less than exceptional prose does not detract from that experience.

Where most bands would call a song finished, Oberhofer brings back something almost completely forgotten in these ruins of the civilization leveled by the loudness war: dynamics. Instead of maintaining the same volume and intensity throughout their songs, they know how to contrast their high points with some more quiet and tender moments. These can end as abruptly as they start, reminding you how loud they were to begin with. If it were not for the lack of this quality in most bands, it would not be a standout characteristic so much as a requirement to keep music interesting. Well as it stands not everyone seems to be interested in keeping their music interesting.

Even with a meager 5 tracks, one of which is a 30 second interlude, a couple of the tracks feel like filler. With so many singles under their belt I get the sense they were urged to release something more substantial by a manager of theirs. Personally I would have been happy with a two track release offering, by no surprise, the two tracks they seem to be putting on a pedestal: “You + Me (Still Together In The Future)”  and “Together/Never”, the first and third tracks respectively.

Albeit a rather paltry offering of songs, Notalgia may hold you over until their inevitable full LP release. I would find it hard to imagine Oberhofer not picking up steam and acquiring some mainstream radio play; their style is new enough, but doesn’t stray too far from previous efforts in the dance rock vein, a combination that is sure to win over many.

Charli XCX – True Romance album review

Well folks, it’s that time again. But this time instead of complication the word of the day is simplicity. When listening to the new cut from synth-popper Charli XCX, True Romance, you’ll know what I mean. Being of a multivariable nature, music is undoubtedly a faceless creature. It morphs and hides from plain view, for instance, and at the same moment blossoms and explodes with grandeur. True Romance is probably most alike to the latter. However, the rundown is this: the album shows little sophistication and does not arouse the inner-artist within the listener. But, all the shortcomings of True Romance is matched with energy and flair. True, Charli XCX does not deliver us from strife with her lyrics of woebegone lonesomeness but instead drowns our downtrodden disposition with bass and rhythm.

The first thing that falls short with this album is the awkward lyricism. Some statements make little sense and the meter of the words often feel forced rather than reconciled.  Take for instance heartbreak-track, “How Can I.” The lyrics of heartbreak include, “but I still taste your bones when I’m all alone/you’re the best I ever had,/but now you’ve got to go/and now I’m on my own/I said, “Please don’t go.” Okay, Charli XCX, but when an artist stretches rhymes, repeats “but” and”now” to excess, and illustrates only simple experience of turmoil there is not much emotional investment a listener can make. All in all, the album is hard to figure out as each song jumps to and fro between heartbreak and attraction but the same themes are repeated with each new beat. The lyrics are quite simply too rehashed and lazy.

But! Like I stated earlier, the lyrics are not so needed when the simple yet rockin’ music fills a room. True Romance truly shines with its easily approachable pop-nature and heavy-hitting electronic rhythms. The message Charli XCX is seemingly trying to convey lies in her energy and her apparent love for her make of her very danceable, very simple, very resounding composition ability. No matter what the words say, the music will always make up demand enough easily gained attention to make up for lost ground.

The Neighbourhood – I Love You album review

The Neighbourhood has that cool kid vibe. I didn’t think I was cool enough upon first listen. They remind me of the older kids in Dazed and Confused, who bring the young newbie into the fold, allowing him a glimpse into the cooler side of life where sex, drugs and rock & roll mesh together into one big party. Afterall, that’s where we all want to be, right?

Relatively new to the scene, this band possesses a confidence I rarely see in new bands. The imagery and presence seems to be real. They don’t seem cookie-cutter like so many new acts I run into. Their style is true California, a blend of the melancholia, the trivial, endless sprawl, combined with an intimate, conscious effort to find something more worthwhile.

The sound itself, on a pure musical basis reminds me of bands like Muse and Vampire Weekend. They have the chops and patience, noticeable immediately in the opening track ‘How’, of the kind of band that could rock a large crowd, or would make young girls and their friends bob their heads and sway their hips in a small club setting. I can imagine Kendrick Lamar sampling from ‘W.D.Y.W.F.M’ on a new banger.

‘Sweater Weather’ which I might describe as their most vibed out song, opens with that sweet click and bass drum track. The vocals invite you to sing along. The video for this song, which I recommend checking out, holds honesty in its visual chemistry with the music. I grew up in Southern California, and after listening to this song, I am reminded of all the endless possibilities the sand, the water and rock & roll are supposed to open us up to. Overall it’s a great song, even coming packed with it’s own ‘Karma Police’ styled ending as the song shifts energy, never dragging along at any point. By the end, you can’t help but sing along.

The album unfolds in a natural way. You feel small, like you’re living in a sand castle and as you watch the world grow and create new pathways, a dread lingers under the surface. At anytime this sand castle paradise might collapse. Albums like this are deserving of appreciation. They are presenting a solidly thought out presentation, from the look of the band all the way through the album from beginning to end. The Neighourhood isn’t lying to us. This is what they are.

I have a feeling this band is going to blow up. Their sound is not overwrought with tricks and gadgets. It sounds like something you can reach out and touch. And to me, that is the heart of rock & roll. Honesty reveals itself to the audience and the audience responds in kind.

Maybe The Neighbourhood is on to something. They could be in a short queue of musicians trying to bring us back to our roots.

To me, that is a good thing.

Har Mar Superstar – Bye Bye 17 album review

If all musicians currently making music possessed the talent, charisma, and songwriting chops of Sean Tillman, the world of music would be an amazing place to inhabit. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Fortunately, Tillman inhabits the little slice of the music ‘verse that he does, which is awesome.

Har Mar Superstar is a white R&B sex god in the body of a somewhat out of shape guy in his mid-thirties who, rumor has it, has a tendency to perform shows nearly naked. I’ve never actually seen him live, so I can only repeat what I have heard. What I do know is that this man can sing his ass off, and has a phenomenal sense of melodic development coupled with a solid command of the idiom he’s working in.

Bye Bye 17 is so danceable and infectious that, unless you really hate the faux-R&B style he works in, you can’t help but dig it. If you close your eyes and forget what year it is, you could possibly convince yourself that this record is a few decades old.

A great place to start is right in the middle, with the track ‘We don’t sleep’. The electronic clavichord coupled with the spoken word intro and that totally in the pocket bassline will get you bouncing along in your chair. When the vocals kick in, it becomes something else altogether. Other elements of fascination with that track include the horn parts and the brilliant rhythmic shift to a really lazy halftime feel on the chorus. The man is a genius.

The Brains – The Monster Within album review

There might just be some truth in the complaint that all the good band names are taken. If nothing else, it would explain why so many have taken to using phrases as monikers instead of the more traditional two or three word calling cards. It’s either that or recycle fantastic-but-taken names by long forgotten bands. It is the latter that causes difficulty in tracking down information on the intended version of a band. In this case, it’s the reason why most simple internet searches, and even the band’s Spotify biography, list The Brains as an early 80’s “new wave quartet from Atlanta.”

Thankfully, three seconds worth of The Monster Within proves that these aren’t The Brains they’re referring to! These Brains hail from Montreal, Quebec and lay down authentic, ripping psychobilly/horror-punk. The albums cover art single-handedly encompasses all the absurdity and seriously rough darkness the genre offers, and the music inside is the perfect blending of auditory expectations.

The band’s Facebook page lists influences such as Motorhead and Venom, but it seems to me that vocalist/guitarist Rene De La Muerta took a huge page out of the book of Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin. Beyond simply the tone and color of the two voices, The Brains make excellent use of the enriching, uplifting harmonies, a signature keynote of the Bad Religion sound. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine this mixed up in some kind of file-sharing mix up, erroneously labeled as Bad Religion’s horror-punk side project; it’d be a believable sell.

The melodic nature of the record seeks to further the comparison. Songs like “Bleed” and “Rest In Pieces” are infectiously catchy rockabilly songs…. with lyrics barely lighter than classic, Danzig-era Misfits tunes. In fact, nearly every song on the album is an instant, stand alone success, with one listen being all that’s necessary to firmly cement itself in your head. It will be hard to keep this one out of near permanent rotation in your collection, it’s impossible not to enjoy listening to it.

As much as I was impressed by the similarities with Graffin and co., I don’t mean to insinuate that The Brains are merely a Bad Religion knockoff; these guys have some chops themselves. Perhaps the albums’ single greatest attribute is that they have achieved a perfect balance of both punk and 50’s and early 60s rockabilly. For his part, bassist Colin The Dead beats the hell out of the upright and Pat Kadaver completes the driving rhythm section, faster and more maniacal than any rockabilly drummer ever should be, but never succumbing to the all out kit assault of pure punk, either. The guitar tone has been cleaned up and brightened from previous releases, giving the higher register a more authentic older sound. The instrumental, “Cucaracha In Leather,” is a quintessential showcase of psychobilly prowess.

In a genre that’s often marginalized as camp, The Brains bring piss, vinegar, energy and a sense of integrity. Just don’t call them a new wave band.

Iggy and the Stooges – Ready to Die album review

As a fellow Michigander, I have a certain inherent pride for Iggy Pop. Iggy and the Stooges did a lot for the blossoming punk scene in the seven short years that they were initially together. Listening to performances from that golden age of punk are so electrifying and invigorating, one is at risk of breaking something during the inevitable rocking out. That’s probably what makes their latest album, Ready to Die, so disappointing. I felt no compulsion whatsoever to rock out or even shuffle along with the beat.

The most disappointing and easily most obvious problem with this album is how deflated and subdued the whole thing sounds. I’m not saying Iggy Pop has lost his edge, but I think he definitely forgot to bring it to the studio with him this time around. There’s nothing to this album that has the same reckless abandon the Stooges’ older albums had. I’m all for musicians exploring other styles and branching out into new genres, but this isn’t it. In fact, is so much the opposite of exploring that it’s stagnation.

The album opens with “Burn,” which is nothing amazing, but it’s promising. The guitars wail and cymbals crash and Iggy’s voice takes on a Bowie-esque depth which is interesting. But then the song ends, and you are presented with the song “Sex and Money.” I applaud for Iggy’s desire to stay edgy lyrically, but to hear him sing it leaves one feeling bereft. The song is missing the raw, vulgar electricity of Iggy’s other racier hits like “Penetration.”

The rest of the songs on Ready to Die tend to follow this trend. “Gun” is an interesting comment on American politics and culture, but it’s so poorly executed that it’s hard to take seriously. Then there are songs like “Dd’s” which is about breasts and offers poetry like, “I’m on my knees for those double Ds.” Really, Iggy?

There are a few tracks on Ready to Die which are probably best described as ballads. These are the songs that are probably the most interesting, if for no other reason than it’s a dimension rarely visited by Iggy and the Stooges. “Unfriendly World” is a world apart from the rest of the album, and the subdued feeling actual works.

Overall, this album is not great. It has its moments, but for the most part, it just seems like a half-assed attempt at reliving the “good ol’ days.” It’s definitely better than the 2007 flop The Weirdness, and it’s probably worth at least one listen, but I think most of us still expect more from Iggy, even after all these years.

!!! – Thri!!!er album review

Electronic dance-punk veterans !!! (most commonly pronounced “Chk Chk Chk”) sound more raucous than ever on their latest release Thri!!!er.  The group, which has been together since the mid-90’s, has been making this music before is became as popular as it is today. Like originators often do, they sound more raw, lively and hardcore than any of their followers. On Thri!!!er, the dance vibe is matched by a rock appeal, like James Brown has been combined with the type of energy found in a Rage Against the Machine track.

!!! calling their album Thriller can be viewed as controversial or even egotistical insomuch as the group may be claiming to match the impact of Michal Jackson’s 1982 iconic album Thriller. On the topic of the album title, the band’s guitarist, Mario Andreoni, is quoted as saying “over the course of many long van rides, we concluded that Thriller is synonymous with any artists and/or genre’s a high-water mark.” [i] On the same topic lead singer Nic Offer states “it was just a fun game we were playing at the studio. Like, George Michael’s Faith is the white man’s Thriller. The heavy metal Thriller is either Back in Black or Appetite for Destruction.”[ii] Whether goofing on the road or in the studio about the title, the listener is left to answer the question: is this the electronic dance-punk Thiller?

Part of the issue in determining an answer to that is burning question that !!! tends to defy any single genre.  On “Even When the Water’s Cold,” Offer and crew sound like the funkiest possible version of Phish, offering expert instrumentation throughout a smooth and funky groove.  On “Californiyeah” the band chants to a funky but repetitive, pounding beat. Then on “Slyd,” there is much more of a house music vibe, with a sample of an air-heady chick repeating “I don’t really like you but I like you on the inside.”  “One Girl/One Boy” is a highlight with jangling rhythm guitars and falsetto vocals backed by a heaviness rarely achieved in this type of music.

The most interesting thing about !!! is that as futuristic as Thri!!!er sounds, the band has been making music along these lines for over ten years. This is now their fifth release and quite possibly the most dance-able collection yet. Since his band’s inception, Offer has viewed his brand of musical expression like an outsider looking up, stating “I would not say the world has caught up to me and that I’ve been proved right. That will happen later.”[iii] While it is totally certain that !!! offers the us the raw excitement and dance-ability with Thri!!!er, the story is yet to be told about the impact of this album, and their impact on the future of music as a whole; that will happen later.

The California Honeydrops – Like You Mean It album review

The California Honeydrops formed in 2007 playing in the BART subway stations around Oakland. The group has an easy-going jazz and R&B style that mixes with the occasional gospel vocal styling to create an easygoing vibe that you can’t help but tap your foot to.

Made up of accomplished Jazz musicians, it shows in the arrangements and instrumental stylings. The songs combine a New Orleans style of swing jazz with the smooth singing of R&B, occasionally straying into light blues territory. The result is a batch of songs that are sugary sweet and very easy on the ears.

Songs like the demure “All Day, All Night” play up to the band’s strengths: strong instrumental accompaniments alongside some silky smooth vocals, all wrapped up in an upbeat tempo and beautiful background singing.

Lead singer Lech Wierzynski has a smooth, strong voice that shines on every song, and when he merges with the gospel chorus behind him, like in the lamenting “Just Another Day”, the results are powerful. However, the band wisely uses their background singers sparingly, letting Wierzynski’s powerful voice take center stage for the majority of the album. The singer switches from a blues-styled croon to blissful R&B with incredible ease, and his casual approach sets the tone for the entire album.

The songs on Like You Mean It shift between blues, R&B and gospel almost effortlessly. The band’s amazingly varied list of instruments means they have the personnel to handle switching between a New Orleans-type jazz song like “Just Because” (complete with some nifty sax work) to blues numbers like “Other Shore”, giving the album a sampler-platter feeling in the best possible way. For all the variety, every song feels deliberate and thought out. There is no head-spinning changes of direction, instead each new style is casually introduced for the band to take up and run with.

Thanks to the consistently excellent vocals and strong instrumental chops, the songs that make up Like You Mean It just feel fun. They sound classic without feeling boring, genuine without coming up cheesy. This album sounds like one the group had a blast cutting, and their enjoyment is infectious.

Like You Mean It is one of those albums that doesn’t immediately demand attention, but its free flow and easygoing nature makes it a treat to come back to again and again. A perfect collection of songs to throw on while you grill out in the summer, or when you are entertaining friends with impossibly different musical tastes. Like You Mean It is a crowd-pleaser in all the right ways.

Brass Bed – The Secret Will Keep You album review

Notes on Brass Bed’s the Secret Will Keep You

On paper, I like Brass Bed. It’s not like Brass Bed is a sort of idealized on-paper band for me or anything of that sort, but the idea of a band like Brass Bed is quite appealing to me. After all, I have an appreciation of indie rock spanning from important early genre pioneers like R.E.M. and the Replacements to more contemporary heroes such as Arcade Fire, and Brass Bed is right out of the post-Strokes school of angular guitars, jumpy rhythms, and vocals that radiate detached hipster cool. By all accounts, I should be all over these guys.

And yet… I’m not. I have all of no idea why – it’s not like they do anything wrong, per se – but I just can’t get a lot out of this band. All of the ingredients for something I’d enjoy are there right from the beginning – “Cold Chicory” kicks things off with stabbing guitars and a spacey bridge to change things up – but the execution just doesn’t work for me. I don’t know, maybe it’s because it doesn’t have a very strong hook, or maybe it just feels too perfunctory for my liking, or maybe I feel like too many bands do it better, but there’s something I can’t place about it that doesn’t work for me. “Please Don’t Go” and “I’ll Be There with Bells On” fall in line with this song, and while they’re perfectly decent and perfectly competent, there’s no spark here, I guess. “Bells” is the best of the three, though – the slightly noisy guitars and more-assertive-than-usual vocals do add some life, which I guess is probably what this band is looking for.

Now, let’s give credit where credit is due – this album does get better, or at minimum more varied, as it goes on. There are a couple of nice, retro-flavored surprises here – how “Bullet for You” takes after Pearl Jam’s blues-by-way-of-Hendrix-by-way-of-grunge approach that gave us “Yellow Ledbetter,” how “Back and Forth” translates Brian Wilson’s pocket symphonies to churning guitars (and does so quite nicely – this really is a great song, and I for one would’ve appreciated more like it here) – but there just aren’t enough of these fun detours for my liking, and with the exception of “How to Live in a Bad Dream,” which is a blast, the Strokes-flavored main course isn’t all that exciting to me.

Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that there are two main courses here. See, this is the sort of album where one side is high-energy and the second slows things down a little. “Back and Forth” started this side off nicely, and I can sort of get down with the hazy, trippy, folksy “I Guess I’ll Just Sing,” but things dive right back into pleasant mediocrity with “Suspension of Vision” (cool title aside), and you’d better believe they stay there with “Have to be Fine.”

I have nothing particularly against Brass Bed. They have a generally likeable sound and give off good vibes and all that. Maybe not the potential for greatness, but at least those of pretty-goodness, and there’s plenty of room in this world for pretty-goodness, too. Maybe next time around.