Frightened Rabbit – Late March, Death March EP review

If you are like me and have slowly gotten over Frightened Rabbit, with the thinking that they have pretty much peaked at this point and that they can’t possibly add anything new to the indie scene; then their Late March Death March EP will work as a good lure to draw you into their new album. Early on in their latest effort Pedestrian Verse, the drums along with the keys are dramatic and prominent while the guitars play more of a complimentary role.  However they eventually return to the sound that you are used to hearing from them which is guitar heavy and has Scott Hutchison almost crying lyrics into the mic.

As a side note, I am not sure why men in indie bands are so fascinated with crying while singing. This only works if you are Prince and if you are singing Purple Rain. After seeing that movie and seeing how hot Appalonia was, how can you not cry along with him? Well thankfully Hutchison isn’t quite as whiny on this EP.

It starts off with the title track Late March, Death March and once again the drums are prominent. It’s a catchy song that you will find yourself tapping your foot too but it’s one of the weaker tracks on the album especially since it features whistling. Hutchison begins singing about how his cursing in church shocks everyone and how that also stops the joyous handclaps of the congregation; I guess that’s better than calling yourself a black skinhead right Kanye? Well thankfully after this you move on to the acoustic Architect which is a collaboration they did with Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra. It has decent guitars in it but musically it’s nothing special; the strong lyrics however to their best to save it.

I’m not normally down with alternate versions of rock songs however hip hop songs I’m ok with because typically it has a better beat and about 20 guest appearances by other rap artists. Rabbit’s alternate version of Late March sounds like it’s an 80’s cover. It’s like they went into the studio, popped the collar to their leather coats, threw on some face powder, and added in a little mascara before channeling their inner Simple Minds. The fact that they use electric drums and Hutchison’s voice isn’t as whiny as it is in the original, makes this version a little bit better than its predecessor. Now all its missing is a little Drake at the back end of it with P Diddy dancing in the video.’

The last two tracks are live versions of December’s Traditions and The Oil Slick. In December’s he sings about how depressing it is to lose the summer and the sun (obviously he doesn’t live in Texas) and wails “Ït’s not the answer treating cancer like a cold, what do you need from me” The ending is quite dramatic as well as it comes to an operatic climax both vocally and musically. Oil Slick is an odd track that tries to be a bit dancey at times but thankfully returns to a normal sounding Rabbit song by it’s end.  I think the live tracks properly capture the energy of their shows and lets you hear that they are clearly not just a studio band. Give this EP a listen and I am fairly certain that you will be back on board with Frightened Rabbit and with what they have to offer.

The Pastels – Slow Summits album review

There’s a reason why The Pastels have been performing together since 1981 and still haven’t ‘made it’ in the conventional sense. It’s not that their style hasn’t evolved over the three decades that they have been performing, rather it’s that they’ve always (un)successfully existed on the edge of discovery, navigating just on the border of the musical styles that evolved over the years since their beginnings, sort of playing it safe while claiming to be revolutionary. You can almost hear the cutting edge of something through several of their tracks from each album and yet it quickly fades as the tracks progress to something utterly ordinary, it’s as though fear of failure has continually kept them from succeeding. Unfortunately, after taking a 16 year break in-between studio albums nothing has changed in their new release, titled Slow Summits, other then their discovery of the contemporary sound of a safety-blanket.

In many ways this album is a great success, albeit one of simple comforts. Everything about this band (attitude, style, name, lyrics, and of course sound) cajoles us into a warm and fuzzy white imaginary world, full of pastel coloured clouds and cuddling bunnies where the only real danger is falling deeper into its loving arms, never to be seen again. And that’s just how frontman Stephen McRobbie, the only remaining member from their formation over 30 years ago, likes it. You really get the sense that McRobbie is making music for himself (and maybe his grandmother) and just doesn’t give a lot of thought to anything else, as though his response to criticism (positive or negative) might simply be “meh….” If their goal is to make bedroom music for a small but devoted fan-base and they can do it their own way, shambling past all the high-profile producers and labels without even noticing their fist-full of cash, then The Pastels have passed with flying (pastel) colours. If you are in the U.K. check-em out (if not maybe they’ll be heading on tour sometime in the next 16 year before their next album, so keep an eye out).

Victory Kicks – Rockets for Ghosts album review

They call themselves a “lo-fi rock & roll band” which, once you’ve heard the new EP, sounds a bit like self-deprecation.  This identification is of course no longer an indicator of inferior quality, but a classification that lumps Victory Kicks’ genre in with Elliot Smith, Iron & Wine, The Smiths, and the list goes on.  Still, it is worth mentioning that the quality displayed in style and sentiment on Rockets for Ghosts is anything but low fidelity.

Take the album title for starters, a throwback to the mid-forties Scandinavian ghost rockets—a series of missile-like objects that somewhat inexplicably descended from the sky in remarkable frequency.  It’s the sort of perplexingly shrouded tale that keeps you reading, and peaks your menial interest to up-all-night resolve.  It’s also a suitable EP title for an emerging band whose media presence is, by modern standards, slight.  Mysterious if you will.  A means of letting the music speak for itself perhaps.

Another noteworthy quality to this seven track Extended Play is the fact that it was recorded at home.  Sure it’s becoming more common, and the things you can do these days with ProTools and GarageBand are remarkable, but the discipline, experimentation, and trial and error required to pull it off with the finesse and imagination existent on Rockets for Ghosts is nothing to scoff at.  (Exile on Main Street, perhaps the most famous in-home recording, certainly didn’t come together without a struggle.)

From “Dive, Dive, Dive” to “Exit Industry” the music develops.  It gets louder then softer, then broader then narrower—it twists and shape-shifts and leaves you feeling good.  Yes, good.  There’s a gentle repetition to most tracks that the lyrics uphold and the instruments echo.  It’s standard, yet revitalizing.  Rockets for Ghosts is like an intelligent (think Scarface ’83 not The Karate Kid ’10) remake—you know the story, but you’ve never heard it told quite like this.

Kirin J. Callinan – Embracism album review

Kirin J. Callinan has something to prove musically, which seems to be that one man, a guitar, and a semi-circular arrangement of multiple effects pedals can sound like a tripped out version of new-wave music (Victoria M.) or like experimental music made by one man with a tonnage of effects pedals.

Honestly, when the second track- which happens to be the title track- kicked in, I thought I was going to be disappointed, because it was kind of a letdown after the first track, and I still think it’s a relative weak spot in the overall track arrangement. The general impression is that this guy has a very interesting musical imagination and tons of aural histrionics; this thing is all over the place stylistically. Even a track that I’m not terribly in love with, namely Scraps, is still so musically interesting that you can’t help but be pulled along.

Chardonnay Sean is an interesting musical tryptich. The actual body of the song is bookended by some very intriguing atmospheric work. The actual song itself ends up being a lot more musically interesting than it seems like its going to be.

As you can probably tell, I have a somewhat ambiguous relationship with Callinan’s music. He’s obviously really talented and has a unique musical mind, but there’s something about the end result that just doesn’t quite sit right with me. It has something to do with his crooning baritone and his choice of lyrics; the way those things are juxtaposed against the music does not come off as naturalized to me. The instrumental aspect of things is nothing short of visionary. Maybe I’ll learn to love the whole thing one day.

Ethel Azama – Exotic Dreams album review

It’s a rather paradoxical time for obscure releases from days gone by; on one hand, the recent resurgent interest in all things vintage has put old vinyl records in high demand. Often times, the more arcane and unknown, the better; a higher reverence can be bestowed on releases not out in digital formats. Yet, on the other hand, digital still remains the easiest way to reach a new audience, just as often rescuing forgotten masterpieces and artists from the depths of time. But just what determines if an older album is fit for digital re-issue?

Ethel Azama’s Exotic Dreams originally saw release in 1958. Ethnically Japanese, Azama made a decent living as a lounge singer in Hawaii, and all three seemingly irreconcilable elements come together with varying states of success on the album. Ultimately, however, it’s a bit too kitschy to appeal to the masses, and too bland to really strike a chord with jazz aficionados.

Comprising nearly entirely of standards and show tunes (oftentimes one in the same), Azama’s voice comes off as too polite, too overly emphasized, too “white.” This is stereotypical late 50s lounge singing at it’s dullest. Certainly, that was part of Azama’s commercial appeal at the time; lacking an Asian accent, she could sound exactly like the bored white middle class housewives lounge owners hoped to draw in. “Two Ladies In Da Shade (of Da Banana Tree)” is perhaps the quintessential example of just how much fun one really can suck out of a show tune. The other standards suffer the same vacuous, faux-chic, hollow sheen, as is often the case with white-sourced, female ‘jazz’ singers of the late 50s.

The entire thing is not a total disaster, however. The record does offer quite a bit of unique and creative energy on several tracks, most impressively the closing “Autumn Leaves.” A standard of standards, here is it almost unrecognizable sung in Azama’s native Japanese and accompanied by the koto and a heavy helping of chimes and gongs. “Lazy Afternoon,” riding in on cymbals and chimes, is spookily unsettling, hinting at a very real danger just out of sight, not at all the relaxing tune the lyrics suggest. Arranger Paul Conrad hits mostly when arranging songs that keep Azama’s background in mind, (“Mountain High, Valley Low,” “Green Fire”) but even the very Pacific instrumentation of “Kawohikukpulani” cannot keep it from falling flat on it’s face, like roughly half of the collection. Given that all tracks clock in at around 3 minutes, a relic of the time, the misses are never more offending than they need to be.

Certainly, lounge records are ephemeral, and it’s silly to think one would hold up in today’s atmosphere. However, even in 1958, this record was painfully behind the times. In the jazz world, Bop was already in full swing. Innovative records (to this day) by the likes of Monk, Jimmy Smith, Art Blakely, Cannonball Adderley and so many others were carrying the music in a new direction that when viewed either from near or afar, the verdict is the same. This record is square.

Serj Tankian – Orca Symphony No. 1 album review

I recall seeing a full page photograph of Serj Tankian standing in front of a fridge full of mason jars, and those mason jars packed tight with various strands of marijuana. Keep this in mind when you come to understand that Serj’s side project from System of a Down appears in the form of a full orchestra. Orca. Hah. Get it? I’m sure it took quite the epiphany to think of that one.

Off we go to a nu-metal stoner’s classical playground. It might not be any particular genre here, actually sometimes the Acts (1-4 instead of a song structure) change style in very off putting ways. However leaving the alternating styles to chance Orca does occasionally get a lucky roll. It always sounds as if we, the listener, are getting snippets of his favorite film scores here and there and then indulgent but playful excursions of someone with the power of an orchestra to play whatever they want. Admittedly that power would probably be a very gleeful place to mess around, so I can’t blame Serj for doing his thing. It wont, however, hold up to people with much more experience composing, conducting, and perhaps better and more numerous musicians. It wouldn’t stand out as ADHD musings if delivered via 30 second commercial spots or dramatic scenes on some TV show, but that’s not quite a ringing endorsement for something you are considering purchasing, though, is it?

Surprisingly there is no guitar track to be found on the album. The project exists in its own space, and depending on a few factors it could have been better or worse with the guitar tracks included. Its probably true that most bands would try to incorporate their old sound with the new so maybe it avoided being more generic. On the other hand, had the guitars been included, Orca would stand a better chance at having its own identity instead of just being the records of what kind of luxuries you can afford as a rich more-or-less-retired-but-tours-sometimes musician.

Is it worth the time spent listening to it? I doubt many people would be annoyed by the album except for the classically trained musician wincing at wasted opportunities and poor decisions in the composition. Its not going to reach out to anyone because its existence is only really meaningful to System of a Down fans, and I can imagine them being lukewarm about it. I get the feeling that Serj would be a big fan of this though. I bet Serj listens to Orca on repeat in his luxury sedan. Oh Serj.

Smith Westerns – Soft Will album review

“Every day’s a blessing, every day’s a hangover,” coos Smith Westerns frontman Cullen Omori in the song “Idol.” The line is less poetic device and more literal commentary for a bunch of midwest prep-schoolers turned Indie-dears raised on beers, blunts, and video games. But the Smith Westerns’ languid lifestyle is afforded by their prodigiously keen ears which grasp musical concepts with chalkboard ease. Since Cullen enlisted classmate and guitarist Max Kakacek in 2007, roping in his younger brother Cameron Omori to play bass and drummer Hal James (later replaced by Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Julien Ehrlich), the band has forged a highly-progressive path from lyrical garage-rockers to a sort of theory-smart, next-gen Shins as the young Chicagoans grow in scope and popularity with each successive album. In early 2009, the band was the albumless opener for Nobunny, returning to the stage after their own set to play backup for the eccentric Tucsonite’s prancing theatrics. Their “janky” self-titled debut hit the market that Summer—the same week as junior bandmate Cameron’s high-school graduation—and the relative success of its Nuggets-inspired retro-rock and sweet but drowned-out choruses prompted Cullen to leave Northwestern to consolidate efforts with the band.

I don’t want to have crappy grades and be alright at writing music, I’d rather be good at both or be good at one.

All for the better. As the well-documented sophomore album pressure set in, Cullen looked to the Clash for inspiration on how to evolve their sound.

You listen to their first record and it’s almost unlistenable. Then you listen further down and it’s like, ‘Whoa – this is, like, straight-up, really, really poppy, catchy, well-crafted music. I like that.

Lucky for them, the success of their debut earned them an ample studio budget for their next record, Dye It Blonde, which with it’s cleaned up sound and dreamy balladry charmed a Best New Music badge out of Pitchfork and became the Smith Westerns’ pop mainstream break. Released on major indie label Fat Possum in 2011, Dye It Blonde drew upon the charisma of 90s Britpop stars Oasis and Suede (and by pedigree the Kinks and Beatles) and saw the band plugging their melodic instinct into stylishly ho-hum love songs (later justified as a veiled, “tongue-in-cheek…means to talk about other things”) and teenage anthems bathed in whimsical studio orchestration.

After nearly two years in the making, Soft Will captures a more nuanced portrait of the band, now in their twenties. The balance issues that still haunted Dye It Blonde were mostly purged from Soft Will, which shows off an impressively tight ensemble and sleek, finely-tuned songs. In “Idol,” for example, where the independent voices rhythmically align for quadripartite verses of introspective couplets. At times like these it’s as if Cullen is channelling James Mercer’s soaring tenor (“White Oath,” “Only Natural,” “Varsity”), only with less abstruse lyrics. As the Smith Westerns actively diverge from their former reputation as a girl-wooing party band, their subject matter has matured accordingly. Cameron observed: “We’ve become more and more confident in ourselves and we can share more now. When you are older, it’s a lot easier to be personal.” Soft Will deals with the experience of returning home, navigating an uncertain social backdrop where old friends are graduating from college, breaking up, or pursuing traditional careers, all the while trying to rediscover one’s own social niche. Indeed, sometimes words just can’t quite express it: the fully-instrumental “XXIII” takes an admirable stab at trance-inducing drama that Pink Floyd or the Flaming Lips have championed. Then there’s the brooding bass riff and lazy strumming in “Cheer Up,” which begs for its own titular advice, showcasing a band whose coming-of-age is intelligently expressed both in words and a visceral musical pathos.

Of course, there’s always room for improvement. The Hotel California riff that starts “Glossed” wanders above an awkward bass line and non-intuitive chord shifts. Other times the band relies too much on homophonic textures, resulting in dense harmonies that flatly deny the melodic pull (“Only Natural”). And “Best Friend” is an epic eye-roller. But the band has proven a capacity for steep and consistent musical progress that leaves one to wonder what their next album might sound like. When Alex White of White Mystery and Missile X Records waxed prophetic to the Chicago Reader in 2009, I doubt she envisioned the current fate of her pet band, who at the time was just beginning to raise eyebrows:

“From where [the Smith Westerns’ music] was two years ago to where it is now, you listen to it side by side and you can hear a lot of growth and development,” says White. “I think it’s great that they’re kinda growing into their skin.”

Wise Blood – ID album review

ID is the most recent effort from Pittsburgh’s Chris Laufman, perhaps more widely acknowledged as the recording artist Wise Blood. Laufman is, for all intents and purposes, a beatmaker, sampling what seems to be thousands of sound clips from an eclectic range of artists. He manipulates them until they are miles removed from the original: essentially a musical Frankenstein’s Monster, sewn together in ways that make one wonder whether or not it’s playing God or just artistic ingenuity. There are arguments for both, of course.

Wise Blood’s end result is a varied, layered and entirely controlled pop record that serves as a snapshot of Laufman, existing in a swirl of modern luxury and discontent, his own vices and his own perception of himself. ID offers a foray into Laufman’s mind: shamelessly quirky and often tongue-in-cheek, yet entirely self-aware and overall sincere. Not only does the listener get a glimpse into the inner workings of the artist, but they are even further included in the joke, more than likely totally identifying with the subject matter. Regrets about the last few nights at the bar, a love song to the Target franchise and a list of things he wishes his friends could be make ID an almost classic testament to the love-hate relationship that young people have with youth culture.

Completely embracing that love-hate relationship, Wise Blood creates an entirely fresh sounding alternative to the blanket “indie pop” term that tends to be thrown around so haphazardly. ID is a pop record for people that don’t like pop music. Samples from everywhere under the sun are thrown into the mix and flawlessly strung together, driving forward Laufman’s vocal work and lyricism. His slightly self-deprecating, yet confident tendencies channel a Yoni Wolf-like persona; dripping with what prove to be complex array of emotions mixed with external factors and some element of existential woe. Laufman takes care to throw some humor into the mix as well, as if to make listening less like a visit to the shrink and more like exchanging grievances with a friend over coffee. The instrumental “8 P.M. – 10 P.M.” and “11 P.M. – 1 A.M.” act as wordless vehicles to the same end, in that one can almost imagine Laufman sitting at his computer in sweatpants for the hours indicated tweaking his tracks.

ID comes forth at face-value without compromising even a single bit. It has the ability to assert itself as having this sort of self-evident clout. The record itself has an attitude, an air about it the demands attention. Chris Laufman has been quoted as saying “I want to sign a big contract and take over pop music.” If ID is any indication, he probably can.

Bosnian Rainbows – Bosnian Rainbows album review

Bosnian Rainbows are the interesting new alternative rock project from Omar Rodríguez-López, founder of The Mars Volta. He had announced The Mars Volta would take a hiatus so that Omar can focus on this new project. He pulled his resources, bringing in Teri Gender Bender of Le Butcherettes on vocals, and keeping drummer Deantoni Parks who played with Omar in The Mars Volta and Nicci Kasper on keyboards, who has worked with Parks on various projects, Kudo and Dark Angels. The Mars Volta hiatus turned into an official break-up four months later, with singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala making a public statement about his departure: “I tried my hardest to keep it going, but Bosnian Rainbows was what we all got instead.” A rift in the large cult fan-base of The Mars Volta and mixed reviews from fans about the new direction Omar has taken with Bosnian Rainbows can be found all over the internet. Even as a distant outsider, it’s easy to tell there is more to this story.

At face value, the Bosnian Rainbows’ sound is fresh and futuristic sounding. They are electronically focused, with Omar’s guitar pushed down in the mix, and the personality of Teri Gender Bender shining through, slightly resembling Geddy Lee of Rush. On the opening track ,“Eli,” an ominous bass line leads us through the spastic guitars as the song builds behind Teri wailing out “Why do you smile at me?” Off the bat, a truly strange quality is recognized. It takes a few listens to process, but there are slivers of genius present. “Worthless” makes use of glitch production, an effect largely present in the rap, techno and EDM movements but relatively unused in alternative rock music. Kudos. Up next, “Dig Right in Me” uses the same type of effect with Omar’s reverb-laden guitar riffs coming through strong enough to cut through the wall of noise created by Teri, Deantoni and Nicci.

Strong songwriting reigns throughout the majority of tracks on the album. “The Eye Fell in Love” offers tight, melodic vocals broken by spooky sounding chord changes. The band plays with both minimalism and noise invasions throughout each tune.  The album features a few surprising breakdowns, like the one on “The Eye..,” in which an unaccompanied, dissonant, note by note guitar riff keeps the song alive. Bosnian Rainbows are expanding the limits of the alternative rock genre in a real Omar Rodriguez-Lopez fashion, which of course is now expected of him. This time, Teri Gender Bender’s vocals encapsulate the listening experience, causing the music to drip with sexiness and angst.

“Morning Sickness” comes across as one of the strongest songs on the album. Teri’s uncharacteristically light vocals are interrupted by a traveling riff and the introduction of a sudden mood change mid-way through. The first release by the band was “Torn Maps,” posted on the band’s SoundCloud page. Shimmering synthesizers are an odd feaure in the chorus. Teri sings “can we hold hands, I promise you they are clean;” a very modern line, indeed. “Turtle Neck” is also a very strong track, and one of the albums longest, and has an amazing shimmering delay effect on the vocal track towards the end. On “Always on the Run” we find Teri with the raw punk energy we would have expected from the front woman of Le Bucherettes.

These eleven tracks from Bosnian Rainbows have enough depth to spearhead a career for the band. They have a very well-defined identity for a new group, which can be attributed to the fact that their musical bond precedes the conception of Bosnian Rainbows by a number of years. For example, Teri Gender Bender’s band’s (Le Bucherette’s) first album, Sin Sin Sin, was produced by Omar back in 2011. Omar is listed as a bassist in the band. Also, on The Mars Volta’s last tour, Le Bucherette’s opened for them. Another example is that Nicci Kasper and Deantoni Parks’ have had a standing partnership as a writing duo for years. The finished Bosnian Rainbows product is worthy of a second and third listen. It may take a few listens for the music to make any sense. Practice patience and reap the benefit. Say what you want about The Mar Volta break-up, but Omar Rodríguez-López has proven himself capable of expanding his horizons in a totally fresh and interesting way. This a creation deserves attention on a musical level and should be respected as an achievement.

oOoOO – Without Your Love album review

What’s in a band name? I personally think that the name of a group can have direct influence on said musicians appeal to the listening public. Singular entities such as Queen and Radiohead seem monolithic and mysterious, while collectives such as Arcade Fire and Polyphonic Spree are inviting and joyous. A tendency towards pastoral ideas can be implied with an animal name like Fleet Foxes or Grizzly Bear, or a feeling of intensity and edge in the case of Nine Inch Nails. All of the aforementioned musicians have attained some sort of fame, and I would surmise that many casual listeners have been enticed by the words that these artists have chosen to represent their singular ideals. Because of these stated feelings about the importance of band image and language, I find it difficult to become entranced by a musician titled oOoOO. What is the meaning of the o’s in the name? Why are some capitalized while others are lowercase? Are they zeros instead of letters? These are all questions that run through my mind as I began to absorb oOoOO’s most recent record, Without Your Love.

Falling into the category of ‘Witch House,’ a genre of music that I have heard of but never intentionally sought out, oOoOO is the creation of Christopher Dexter Greenspan, a San Francisco based artist. In checking the Wikipedia page describing ‘Witch House’ I was intrigued to discover that is an avenue of music not only associated with occult subject matter, but also chopped and screwed hip-hop beats. The page also suggests that ‘Witch House’ artists oftentimes use symbols or strange characters in their band names in order to make them more difficult to Google or find information on (perhaps the reason for the seemingly random string of o’s that serve as Greenspan’s moniker). With these genre signifiers and ideals in mind I returned to Without Your Love listening specifically for eerie lyrics and off time rap beats.

This new ear approach to the album most definitely served me well, as tracks like “Mouchette” and “The South” snapped into focus within the aesthetic of the aforementioned ‘Witch House.’ Both tracks in particular could easily be utilized as the basis for hip-hop songs. Later on “Misunderstood,” Greenspan even adds some catchy guitar to the synthesizer and sampled female vocals that are present throughout the record. It is definitely the album’s most immediately striking song, and warrants repeated listening for full appreciation of the array of sound being played.

In the end, my listening experience with oOoOO was a surprisingly pleasant one. Although I still find the name of the project to be somewhat ridiculous, and difficult to type, I definitely understand how the music of Christopher Dexter Greenspan fits within the ‘Witch House’ genre. It is at times formless and sonically uninviting, yet occasionally there are glimmers of groove and beat to pique the interest of the listener.