Toy Boats – Diamond Teeth EP review

Hugo Costin-Neilson, of Toy Boats, points to The Cure as a band whom he would love to get in bed with musically. In an interview following the release of EP Diamond Teeth last April, Costin-Neilson says “I’ve covered ‘Love Song’ in the past and every time I listen to them I find a new song that I want to cover.” When asked if he could fill in with any band on tour, he responds again, “The Cure. I’ve always wanted to cover their songs, so why not play the original?”

While the influence of The Cure is not lost in Diamond Teeth, the EP manages to position itself as a very stout piece of effort. Rent’s dream-pop guitar riffs and playfully melancholy vocals are laced with hope and an air of rainy afternoon longing. These nostalgic wanderings are entwined with a hazy veil of the gloom rock of the late 80’s/early 90’s mixed with chord progressions reminiscent of Carissa’s Weird and Catherine Wheel (remember them?). Yet, while summoning the past, Diamond Teeth shoots beyond into new territory. Encountering this EP is much like meeting someone you feel you were born with. Exciting, comforting, and a little unsettling. (Are you sure you haven’t heard this before?) This particular EP is a collaboration with Hugo, himself, and the past.

Diamond Teeth touches the senses much like a walk along a city river at night, or perhaps New Year’s morning. Perhaps you’re hungover, perhaps you don’t know where your car is parked (or even if you have a car): there’s solitude, and yet in that solitude exists a feeling of comfort and solidarity with the unsettling of the world. Like a fever dream you never want to wake from. It beckons you to kick off your shoes and waltz with yourself in the kitchen. The vocals embody a maturity and age far beyond the youth Hugo encapsulates in his physical attributes, embracing and exploiting the wistful landscape of time. Diamond Teeth hasn’t left my stereo since I bought it, and it won’t for a long while.

Skillet – Rise album review

Skillet’s ninth album Rise maintains the metal-influenced sound they have had since their third and most popular album Comatose 2006 came out in 2006. Although billed as a Christian rock band, Skillet’s lyrics don’t outwardly endorse any religious beliefs (as in there’s no praising Jesus happening, although some older songs such as “You’re Better Than Drugs” definitely have a religious tinge). Instead of overtly Christian lyrics, many of the tracks on Rise are inspirational, encouraging listeners to work to make the world a better place. On the title track, “Rise,” lead singer John Cooper’s voice takes on an urgent tone as he asserts “This is the call/It’s our time to change it all/Rise and revolution!” Additionally, the end of the title track features a phone call to 911 from a distraught woman saying there was a man with a weapon in her home and urging her children to “get under the table.” This appears to speak to the increase of massacres that have been occurring all over America in the past year, costing many innocent people (including children) their lives.  With so many currently popular songs that are literally about nothing (I’m sorry, getting drunk and hitting on some girl at a club doesn’t count as a “topic,” especially when there are at least a thousand other one-hit wonder hip hop artists singing about the exact same thing), I was glad to hear that at least some bands that are popular among a younger demographic are singing about current issues and confronting what is going on, instead of just la dee la da dee, we like to party.

The rest of the album has a similar tone, urging listeners to take a stand and fight for what they believe in. However, not every song on Rise veers away from religious undertones. “Salvation,” the eighth track on the album, asks “Are you far/Will you come to my rescue/Am I left to die/But I can’t give up on you.” Regardless, “not giving up” seems to be an overall theme of this album, which is a good message to send to “the young people of today” and actually, just about everyone.

Although Skillet’s influences span from Amy Grant to P.O.D., their sound reminds me vaguely of Fall Out Boy, because of the driving rock guitar, the screaming vocals, and the overall tone of their music, which I can only describe as “shiny.” I read somewhere that Skillet has many influences from several different genres, all thrown together in a “skillet” to create the sound that got them awarded “Top Christian Album” in 2011 and nominated for many other “best of” awards in the past eleven years. People who like rock but don’t particularly enjoy Christian music are likely to enjoy Rise because of its inspirational lyrics, strong guitar and catchy songs. Especially people who like Fall Out Boy.

Palms – Palms album review

Palms is billed as a ‘heavy-metal super group’, consisting of former members of Isis, so you can figure out pretty quickly that this is going to be fairly non-traditional as heavy metal related things go, especially considering that Isis was always considered to be post-metal.

The size and shape of the release is misleading, because it is only six songs long, but the sheer length of some of the tracks means that the whole thing clocks in at just about an hour. That is another indication of what you will be in for when choosing to listen to this recording. This is very ‘composed’ heavy art music; the ironic thing is that it’s not very ‘metal’ in certain respects, despite the whole ‘heavy-metal super group’ tag. What it really is is an experimental rock band consisting of a chunk of Isis with the Deftones vocalist.

What these guys deserve huge credit for is writing music that is not very Isis-like at all. Caxide, Harris, and Meyer definitely have a certain rapport which developed through their time together in Isis. The current manifestation of this rapport shows through in the writing: the songs unfold at their own unhurried pace, and nuances are explored in a calm and confident manner. A perfect example of this is the song ‘Mission Sunset’. Over a fuzzed-out, sparse bassline, Meyer drops a very minimalist guitar part that is much more coloristic in nature than a traditional rhythm guitar part would be. All of a sudden, the main body of the song form begins to unfold, and what results is seven or so minutes of magic.

Heliotropes – A Constant Sea album review

In the rich realm of the Heliotropes everything is dark and buzzy.  Cici on drums, Nya on bass, Amber on percussion and vocals, Jessica on lead guitar and vocals, the lyrics, the album art (some of which, “I Walked With a Zombie,” was created by Steve Manale of the Scott Pilgrim comic), the attitude, the look, the accolades, even the name (a red and black mineral also known as a bloodstone).

The band’s first LP, A Constant Sea, is a veritable ode to the early nineties.  It’s been said before, but for good reason, these four women will take you back.  Back to the initial days of Hubble, commercial internet service, economic prosperity, and the reign of Seattle grunge.  Listen to their live cover of Nirvana’s “Negative Creep” back-to-back with the real thing, and the essence comes across loud and clear.  Thick, fuzzy guitar, muddled vocals and slightly deranged zest.

A Constant Sea is strong and loud, true it its roots, from top to bottom.  Even the slower, less raucous tracks toward the latter half of the album maintain the spirit of their muddy brand of psychedelic rock.  The lyrics, either screamed or sung in gloomy harmony, provide a satisfying jolt to the shadowy makeup of this debut LP.

From where I sit, the Heliotropes are four Brooklyn women with bona fide chops and a taste for grit that we should all keep an ear on.

Bell X1 – Chop Chop album review

Bell X1 is done being the “other Irish band”, that much is clear on “Starlings Over Brighton Pier”, the cascading Terrence Malick dream that opens up their sixth studio effort Chop Chop. After the electro-based nonsense of 2011’s Bloodless Coup, an album that was well received but tonally overwrought, this is U2’s only competition crashing back to earth, stripping skyward swelling anthems for spare parts, and cutting out all the bullshit. This is Justin Vernon’s cabin; it’s music as atmosphere.

Chop Chop is built around little piano hooks and subtle drumlines that expand into complete thoughts, like small pebbles thrown into a lake, making waves and waves of ripples as they hit. It’s less formula than clever escalation, successfully drawing every emotion out of singer Paul Noonan’s previously withholding (or underutilized) vocals. Noonan (no relation, by the way) is also a confidently malleable singer, moving between the soaring anthem of “The End is Nigh” and concrete dwelling in “I Will Follow You” with ease. It makes you wonder why he’s never been given this much to do before, and, then, how much more he might still have to offer.

Most of this vocal expansiveness can probably be attributed to co-producers Peter Katis and Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett. Katis is best known for helping The National become every indie band’s favorite indie band by helping them ditch their strummy roots and build the unconventional melodies that fill breakout albums Alligator and Boxer. Bartlett has also spent some time with The National, but a better point of reference might be Sam Amidon’s Bright Sunny South, an album Bartlett produced in 2012 that sounds as organic as a Portland menu. Both of these producers understand the architecture in their singer’s voice, understand the different levels they can reach, and Noonan might just be the most capable singer they’ve worked with.

This isn’t just a showcase for Noonan, though. It’s an impeccably organized work. The whole album is circular, opening with a dream made up of apocalyptic imagery and closing with that prophecy’s fulfillment with “The End Is Nigh”, a bloated anthem that doesn’t seem to fit upon first listen. It’s a stadium-sized song on a basement-built album, a hint at the scale of what waits outside the beautiful dream Chop Chop turned out to be. It’s the end of the world, to be sure, but for Bell X1, the apocalypse is a U2 song.

Sebadoh – The Secret EP review

Although the band members probably wish it wasn’t so, it is impossible to mention Sebadoh without the obligatory mention of Dinosaur Jr. One simply would not exist without the other; in the late 1980s, bassist Lou Barlow created Sebadoh as an outlet for his creativity when Dinosaur Jr guitarist J Mascis, in no uncertain terms, banned his contributions. It was really Mascis’ loss, though, as Sebadoh consistently turned out more interesting, if less commercially successful, tracks. Barnett parted ways with Mascis and the band in 1989, concentrating on various other projects. Ultimately, Sebadoh’s last collection of new material was released in 1998.

But, just like the recent resurrection of Dinosaur Jr (which included Barlow), Sebadoh too, has risen from the depths. The Secret EP, the newly released disc, comprising the 5 tracks that first appeared on the band’s Band Camp page last year (their first collection of new material in 15 years), is that increasingly rare accomplishment; paradoxically fresh and familiar. Picking up seemingly where they left off, each tracks is packed tight with the lo-fi, early 90s angst, attitude, and sonic schizophrenia established fans have come to expect. Yet, at the same time, the songs are current and viable, fitting perfectly alongside the modern DIY rock canon. Penned mostly from Barlow’s split from his partner of 25 years, the record is as miserable, lovesick and numb as one might expect, but the overall product is strangely uplifting.

While used to the point of exhaustion in others’ recent releases, the droning vocals of the lead track, “Keep The Boy Alive” immediately set the one-day-at-a-time tone of the track, and the record. Sebadoh’s calling card of fuzzy guitars and a simple, throbbing rhythm section take up the cause, forming the perfect accompaniment to a bad mood. In all reality, such collaboration is not necessarily reliant on lyrics, but the mature acceptance, “When I’m feeling sorry let it go / ‘Cause that won’t change a thing” sets it apart from the average pity parties of songs of lost love.

“My Drugs” is an up-tempo realization of possible substance abuse without glamorizing either side, and “All Kinds” reminds of upper Midwest underground rock and punk. “Arbitrary High” is perhaps the highlight of the entire thing, though choosing the strongest song is like picking favorite children; they all have their strengths.

The release of The Secret EP comes hand in hand with the news of a full length LP, reportedly titled Defend Yourself, also to be comprised of new studio material. Not only does this 5 track teaser stand alone as a strong collection, but it whets the appetite for the forthcoming release, reminding old fans just why they listen, and bringing new fans into the fold.

These New Puritans – Field of Reeds album review

Inspiration, confidence and vision – the three elements of successful songwriting, which have evidently been harnessed by the English band These New Puritans in their latest album entitled Field of Reeds. Consisting of three primary members, twins Jack and George Barnett and Thomas Hein, These New Puritans have realized a common desire to make Field of Reeds stand apart from their previous two releases. As they hone in on their unique sound, These New Puritans have attained new means of creativity, and have incorporated several new resources for their insatiable creativity.

Field of Reeds is obviously the brainchild of These New Puritans’ inclination to explore a new direction of their sound. Regardless of a crucial change in line-up, after the departure of keyboardist Sophie Sleigh-Johnson in 2012, the ambitious new album is a cautious tread into uncharted waters as These New Puritans enlist the help of numerous session musicians. While Jack and George Bennett tend to vocals and drums, respectively, bassist Thomas Hein fills in the unoccupied space, manning the duties of the absent keyboardist.

Realizing that they are not limited to recording as a three-piece, the eager trio reaches out to several new musicians, including a woodwind and string section, a children’s choir, and jazz singer Elisa Rodriguez, who is featured on “This Guy’s in Love With You.” Her voice is heavily modulated, seeming very distant, Rodriguez effortlessly glides over the buzzing backdrop of horns and strings. Jack Barnett, the usual, established voice of the band, also takes his share of the spotlight as the virtuoso vocalist, chanting out melodies over layers of calculated pianos, on tracks like “V (Island Song)” and “Fragment 2,” whose syncopated melody strives to captivate and enthrall, while their listeners can not help but find themselves tapping their foot to the beat.

Field of Reeds, in just under an hour, establishes that is can stand independently from its predecessors, and exist with its very own musical identity. As the product of seemingly limitless inspiration from a triad of musicians residing on the shores of England, the triennial album is evidence that a band can overcome the trials of a dissolved line-up, and eventually come to use the frustration to fuel their fire. Field of Reeds, in its experimental nature, succeeds in exploring a prospective new concept of songwriting. The new direction that it takes, and its use of a large catalog of session musicians proves that These New Puritans see no boundaries when it comes to their music. As they adapt to the changes that take place in their lives, their music reflects the emotions that come as a result. Not only is this a natural, and even inadvertent, method of expression, it is the most organic medium for inspiration and musical awakening.

Old Crow Medicine Show – Carry Me Back To Virginia EP review

With the proliferation of bands like Mumford and Sons and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, its pretty evident that the Americana jug-band genre is due for a comeback, if only in small doses. Traces of the homey, quick sounds can be found in the crop of bands blurring the lines between indie and the once-pariah of music, country currently ruling the airwaves, never quite leaning too far one way or the other.

Enter Old Crow Medicine Show, a band who leans so far into the Americana string area they are practically horizontal. Having just released their 9th studio recording, a three-song EP entitled Carry Me Back To Virginia, the band is back to prove that the traditional genre is perfectly capable of standing on its own without the indie crutch, even in the current era.

The three tracks are each well-executed, although that’s to be expected of a band that has been around for upwards of 15 years. Between the rapidfire lyrical delivery of “Carry Me Back to Virginia” and the slow mournful twang of “Ain’t It Enough,” both reincarnations of previous releases, the band does a convincing job of recreating the old-timey sound they are going for. Meanwhile, cover track “Dixieland Delight” which rounds out the album is equally authentic in its delivery, making the EP a short but sweet trip into the past decades of a genre that, until recently, has been somewhat under-appreciated.

The brevity of the release, as well as the fact that it is comprised entirely of previously released material, can make it seem somewhat redundant from a purely practical standpoint. Nevertheless, Old Crow Medicine Show represent a refreshing break from the myriad of current bands who edge towards this quality in their music but never fully commit. Interestingly, it seems like a true return to roots is just what was needed to shake things up.

Mavis Staples – One True Vine album review

What more can be said about Mavis Staples? She has pretty much lived the American experience down to the finer details. She was close with Martin Luther King, Jr., she’s rocked the stage with the likes of Bob Dylan, Booker T. and the MGs, and Ray Charles, and hip hop artists of every style and background sample her voice to no end. Ms. Mavis is without a doubt a staple of American music (excuse the dreadful pun…).

This time around, with the One True Vine–in the futuristic age of the 2010s far from the Civil Rights Movement and Bob Dylan’s dominance of the late ’60s–Staples does not fall short. Her contemporary ten-track album is an instant classic. Her voice stills soothes and cures most mental maladies. Her sound is original and unyielding, reminding a listener of the historically rich tradition of Americana. Needless to say, it is incredibly refreshing that despite all the musical evolution and sonic revolutions that have accumulated our modern era there are still artists like Staples holding the torch for to light their own way–the way they have pursued since the beginning. Much has happened since your first self-titled issue in 1969, Ms. Staples, but no one has forgotten your name.

For a quick taste of the quality of One True Vine, look no further than the last and title track, “One True Vine.” Smooth and emotional, Staples delivers her thanks to an exasperated love. Her voice is as clean as ever, although you may not have thought it possible. For a little more energy and a little less sentimentality, tune into “Far Celestial Shore.” It is this track where classic Staples gospel makes its lasting imprint. A guitar rhythm lays down miles of track to ground the ever-proceeding faith of Mavis Staples. She is neither obtrusive or pushy with her religiosity. She is simply passionate. For a great piece of classic Rhythm and Blues, blare the low register track “Can You Get to That.” Regardless of what you are seeking for, however, One True Vine should be approachable for any conscientious music lover. One must tip their hat to such a force as Mavis Staples whether or not one cherishes her style.

Cuttooth – Cuttooth album review

A friend of mine, who just so happens to be a world-renowned tobacco connoisseur, introduced to me to the pleasures of trip-hop, IDM, and downtempo artists off of labels like Warp and Ninja Tune. Though a lot of this music might induce sensual feelings or contribute to the swanky atmosphere of a romantic rendezvous, Cuttooth, who sound like many of those bands, are also ideal for other activities, like smoking hookah. A great deal of chilled out electronic artists like this are instrumental, however, Cuttooth features three different female vocalists throughout his self-titled second album. Maybe this is where the sexuality comes from. It also depends how much of a Freudian you are, or in other words, how much of a creep you are. Soothing beats and airy sonic textures contribute heady grooves to the overall sensual feelings. Don Juan would be pleased.

Two common critiques of downtempo music are that it sounds like porno music, and that it is sleep-inducing. In a clichéd embodiment of the what-are-the-kids-listening-to-these-days sort of moment, an older relative once remarked, as I was listening to Kinobe, that whatever I was playing sounded like elevator music (I’m not sure what kind of place would play that kind of stuff in their own elevators). There are traces of a Massive Attack or a Portishead here as well, with haunting vocals that sound as though they are from another planet, a dive bar Han Solo frequents besides the one where he shot Greedo. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s a track titled “All of Salem,” a sly reference, perhaps, to the witch trials of the colonial New England city. A staggering number of women were killed as a result of this historical monstrosity, and in some ways the voices here sound like “the return of the repressed” that those familiar with postcolonial studies will know. I will stop with the theorizing now as I hear angry replies from “the curtains were fucking blue” school of thought brewing.

England’s youth culture always seems to be one step ahead; the Huxleyian aberration known as dupstep emerged out of London, though its nascent form was much more tolerable. And once again, on Cuttooth, high-quality electronic music created by an English artist proves that the U.K. never misses a beat. If you’re looking for some new music to play in your brothel, or you just want to relax with some friends and enjoy tobacco or other mind-altering substances (like coffee), Cuttooth is a worthy choice.