Hacienda – Shakedown album review

The problem, if you could call it that, with having a distinctive melodic signature, is that it is immediately recognizable even when the music is supposed to be someone else’s.  Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach has produced all three of Hacienda’s albums and his influence is very evident in the track selection, seeing as he cowrote many of them. Big bass drumkicks, profound guitar riffs and medium-fast tempos blur nine of the ten offerings on their third release. Radio-ready, Veronica, Don’t Turn Out The Light and You Just Don’t Know are catchy tunes with weak lyrics, obviously meant for listeners who don’t care to have their music do anything for them except make ‘em feel good driving around with the top down.

If I had a favorite, Don’t You Ever (lots of ‘don’ts on this) would be it mostly because the tune is a little different (meaning, not a rehash of a Black Keys arrangement) and the lyrics seemed to come from the writer’s personal experience instead of some jingle-writing software. It’s a little more bluesy and less poppy and might fit well into an Indie/Alt radio station’s rotation.

Pilot In The Sky, the closing track is deliberate and thoughtful, buzzy cymbals and a nice piano in a sharp key and the vocals are subdued and scrubbed. I’d love it if there were more of this kind of effort, to really draw a line between what Hacienda could be and what looks like them trying to ride on the Leys popularity. They are a talented bunch and Abraham Vilanueva’s vocals have the strength and range for much more complex arrangements.   Hopefully there is a fourth album in the future, once they come off their tour and perhaps then they might be able to wean themselves away from being mini-Keys.

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Cookie Duster – When Flying Was Easy album review

Independent with pop-radio potential, Cookie Duster’s second album – in ten years – has buzzy vocals and simple backbeats typifying a lot of one-hit wonder groups. But main-man Brendan Canning is far from having only one hit under his belt. The six degrees of Brendan stretch from founding member of Broken Social Scene to associations with Feist and By Divine Right, and he takes a little bit of each with this production. Don’t let the cartoonish cover art fool you: this is some serious music

Two Feet Stand Up is a summertime Bangleesque tune featuring Jeen O’Brien on lead. I don’t know if there is a video planned for this album, but this track would totally rock it. No Solo has a similar pace, with a 90’s Eagles sound.

The album is very different musically from track to track, but not in the way that would make you shake your head and wonder if the producer just jammed a bunch of songs together. Tempo and changes in emphasis in reverb and percussion draw the listener in in subtle ways. We Stepped On Glass has a lovely elevator-music backbeat (I know, it doesn’t sound right, but it’s true) but the vocals are strong and dreamy and there is an occasional tymphonic crash, maybe some thunder in there too? I don’t know, but it’s a great song. Acoustic mandolin and guitar work in Living On A Fine Line satisfy the listener who would rather their indie artists sound solemn and thoughtful and without electronica.

For those who may have missed the group when it debuted a decade ago, this is a perfect album to get introduced to the kind of music that needs a few years to step and marinate in the artist’s heads and hearts before its ready. Hopefully, CD will stick around and continue the tunes. This is a great road-trip playlist, one you wouldn’t get tired of listening to on the way back.

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Holly McNarland – Rub Body Run album review

Canadian indie artists are having a banner year. The New Pornographers are still on tour, Feist has a top ten slot on the pop/alt charts and Arcade Fire just picked up a Juno award for Best Alt Album. Holly McNarland may have big shoes to fill with her seventh album, Run Body Run.  Back in the studio with no label and no producer, she wrote her own songs for this very personal journey. Occasionally introspective, such as the lead-off  Alone’s Just Fine or dishing out wisdom on the country-rocker It’s Only Money (“It’s only money, suck it up honey, Gravity’s got you and she’s a mean mean…), McNarland pours her heart into each line. Resonating bass and a full-metal guitar, her mid-range vocals find the sweet spot. The tracks flow together without sounding like a rehash and they are all different enough to be identifiable in spirit as well as in melody.

McNarland is no slouch writing lyrics straight from real life. She acknowledges the scrapes and scars and comes back all wrapped up in gauze and ready for more:

I hear the broken voices
Calling me all through the night
So I look up to the sky and I breath your name and sigh.

There are a couple of single-release candidates: After I’m Gone has CNSY-style reverb and quavery soulful vocals and the aforementioned opener Alone  should do well on alt/indie stations and maybe a little pop crossovers, if the station programmers are feeling brave.

Having put out six previous records, McNarland could be considered a seasoned artist and deep into her career. This album takes a nostalgic look back at the relationships that formed the person she is now, reflecting on what she should have done to save them or why she didn’t let go sooner. It’s not a sad collection by any means, as a matter of fact the title track is the last on and is an encouragement to her daughter to go out and grab her life and enjoy it. It’s a great way to end a solid piece of work.


Cold Specks – I Predict A Grateful Expulsion album review

A gritty, familiar iron-edged voice greets the listener on the opening track of this debut album by Canadian Cold Specks. More velvety than Joplin, richer than Kim Carnes, Specks has the same smoky  qualities with the range to back it up. A pseudonym of other pseudonyms, she hails from Canada but has settled for the time being in London. A single, Holland was recently released to critical applause.

The album is minimalistic as far as instrumentation used: deliberate piano and drums, a guitar undertone, and no fancy effects but a polished production all the same. Most of the splendor comes straight from Specks throat: whether as the sole accompaniment to single piano notes on Winter Solstice, one of my favorite tracks, as a balladeer weaving stories in Hector or a stylistic chanteuse a la Adele on Holland, she can crawl along the bass lines or soar into falsettos without a hitch.

Brooding lyrics, part southern gospel, part modern alternative anguish and sentimentality, the mixes encourage deep emotional responses and some thoughtful reflection. It’s lovely music and a nice collection for a debut.


Best Coast – The Only Place album review

First off, I love this kind of music: cohesive instrumentation, good production, ambient extras and most of all, sentient lyrics and harmony. New or old, it’s what speaks to my heart and mind and gets me to relate to what the artist is trying to say.

Bethany Cosentino’s voice is mid-pitch comfortable on the ears, even in the longer-than-really-necessary refrains in songs like Why I Cry. The title track opens brightly, moving along and introducing Cosentino’s followup album to 2010’s Crazy For You by declaring California, specifically Los Angeles we presume, is the center of the known universe. I’ve lived there and it’s an alright place, but I didn’t write any songs about it. Still, the group’s happiness about where they are comes through full-throatedly and its an infectious sentiment. Of the thirteen tracks, they could have left off a couple fillers: Last Year is appropriately titled and Do You Love Me Like You Used To tries to be a sentimental look at relationship, but ends up just whining a bit too much.

Cosentino and partner Bobb Bruno have a Spectresque girl-group sound, which shines with producer Jon Brion’s hand mixing lo-fi basslines and rhythmic percussion. Better Girl and Let’s Go Home are the best examples of the evolving “west coast” sound. Both songs speak to the yearning to have everything be the way it once was without being maudlin or syrupy and are two outstanding examples of Best Coast’s evolution.

Dreaming My Life Away slows the tempo and has a crystalline acoustical track backed by some nice orchestral work. Not a song to drift off to sleep to, but one to listen closely to and reflect on where the hell your life is going. My Life has similar inspirations, but is much more up tempo with a pretty catchy tune to go along.

If  Crazy For You  was more about a girl alone in her room writing scraps in her diary about the boys she liked and wondering if she was pretty enough, this is probably that same girl a few years and heartbreaks later, still writing in her diary but maybe not letting us see every entry.  There is still hope, apparently, for love to find her and for life to turn out OK. We may have to wait for the next album to find out but in the meantime, this will tide us over quite well.


Keane – Strangeland album review

Sixteen tracks to this fourth release by UK artist Keane, most of them echoes of what’s gone on before in some form. Generally, reviewers of this album complain that the group has not continued to experiment with edgier stuff, as if any self-respecting artist has only a newer, more evolving sound in mind. But Keane gathered quite a fan base doing what they do and you can’t argue with numbers. That being said, this is a formulaic production, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not any good.

The opening track “You Are Young” is a very pleasing middle-of-the-road piece of a parent making wishes for their children:  Of all the things that you don’t know, You’ve got time to realize, You’re shielded by the hands of love, ‘Cause you are young. You’ve got time you gotta try, To bring some good into this world. ‘Cause you are young, ’cause you are young.

The ballady Watch How You Go has sweet influences reminiscent of Paul Simon or Lennon/McCartney; thoughtful and composed and I would suspect that as the listerner’s mood changes upon each listening session, it would have a different meaning. On The Road is more uptempo and perhaps evokes some of their past efforts but it is at home among the other tracks.

Black Rain uses a nice time signature and winding falsettos to create a spectral atmosphere, quite different from the piano-infused 4/4 melodies for the other songs.  Neon River and Day Will Come could have come directly from a U2 studio session, but both are pleasingly sans the political messages.

There are no dogs on this album and most of the selections could see some radio play. At the very least, someone who has never heard this group might like what they hear enough to look deeper. If that turned out to be the case, they would surely find a diverse discography with some experimentation, but overall, a fan knows what this band is about and gets what they expect. There’s sure nothing wrong with having your expectations met.


The Raveonettes – Into The Night EP review

The opener on this 4-song EP is the title track, an ethereal, full-bodied nostalgia trip. Danes Sune Rose Wagner and Sharon Foo “followup” their previous EP with this gem available for streaming for the price of an email address. A nice introduction to the group with a growing cult following and a penchant for reverb and lyrics bursting with longing and impossible love.

Night Comes Out is the most dynamic of the selections, with subtly familiar guitar riffs that are admittedly buried under velvet reverb , but there all the same.

Too Close For Heartbreak could have used a stronger vocal track, if only to showcase the harmonies. The layers of fuzz and Buddy-Holly beats are pretty standard fare with this group, not that it’s a boring formula by any means.

Bad Ghosts lags pretty far behind in likability, musically and lyrically. It seemed like an effort for the duo to get proper production value out of this and thankfully it’s the shortest track.

Indie artists don’t always have to have the newest sounds or the edgiest refrains to be successful. The Raveonettes stick to a tried and true song structure that dates back to when Phil Spectre was a little saner and produced some of the best acts in the business with the same melodies, but they sound as though they have lived through the pain and heartache they are singing about. It’s also a plus to have a decent Scandinavian group that isn’t A) death/black/scream metal or ABBA.

Even if this weren’t a (relatively) free download, it would be worth a click on Itunes for the fact that it’s different music than you probably already have and its good. Give ‘em your email and enjoy.

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Weird Dreams – Choreography album review

For those not old enough to have been able to listen to the bands of the surfpop culture live, Brit band Weird Dreams dances along the edges of the late sixties with influences from the likes of R.E.M and dreamy Byrds.

The tracks are all at least 3:30 with the exception of the title song, and although the metallic sound of the 12-strings, soft-touch percussion and harmonizations all run throughout each song, the arrangements are varied enough to keep the listeners interest without blending into each other. Not quite alternative and definitely not pure pop, Weird Dreams selected the most charming bits of iconic punk and doo-wop to lull the passive listener into a happy place before knocking them upside their head with disquieting lyrics. Just because you’ve heard something similar (or perhaps your parents did) doesn’t mean a little twist on the idea would be a bad thing.

Little Girl manages to be sweet and a little creepy around the edges – I do hope this isn’t a true translation of one of Doran Edwards dreams but as far as his ability to render ominous unconscious thoughts into musical tunes go, it’s pretty impressive.

Holding Nails, released as a single and Vague Hotel, the opening track, are smooth and peppered with classic riffs and interesting chord progressions.  Suburban Coated Creatures is fuzzed-out and powerful, describing small-town life to the point where you can almost chew on the teenaged angst without the hopelessness of, say, Nirvana. Using a nice minor key and some deliberate fretwork, Faceless crawls over the lyrics and is a change of tone from the sunnier tracks. And that is what sets this group apart from other chillwavers: the music feels good, yeah, but the lyrics set your teeth on edge and your gut agrees with what they are saying, even though you want to believe that everything really is OK.

Weird Dreams can get away with one album of sound-alike tunes, even though the arrangements are edgier than the Beach Boys ever were and this album is a good listen, free-spirited and insightful. If they want to retain their niche in the niche of punkpop, they’ll have to beef up the aggression a bit and turn the screws of discordance. But as a debut effort, (notwithstanding a cassette-tape EP release) it’s an excellent introduction.

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Estelle – All of Me album review

Estelle’s third album, All of Me, features an elegantly classic black and white cover, all shadows and contrast. The artist made the jump from the U.K. to America because she believes she wasn’t taken seriously as an R & B singer and took some time off from 2008’s “Shine”, which featured her Grammy Award-winning song, American Boy.

For all her looking like a smoky-eyed chanteuse, the material ends up being pretty lightweight in intensity and  doesn’t deliver. There’s no discernable theme, if you will to what she is trying to be: a bluesy rapper, a hip hop R&B-er or a sultry pop diva. She is competing with the likes of Adele and Lauren Hill, powerhouse vocalists who know what genre of music they are in at the moment and go after it full-force. Estelle is tentative and uncommitted to a particular sound and ends up sounding watered-down. Produced by Don Cannon and Jerry Duplessis, there really should be more organization and clarity to the tracks.

Love the Way We Used To  has an odd time signature and ends up sounding like a mashup of two songs, in the way that listening to two songs through the same set of headphones does and is mostly irritating.

There are a couple of spoken tracks that sounds like parts of interviews thrown in to do…what? Don’t Break it  has a musical underlay to a discussion of breakups, so I don’t know if it’s the music that is the focus or the sentiments of whomever is speaking. I assume Estelle is in there, but who is she talking to?

Speak Ya Mind and Do My Thing (with Janelle Monae) are fun hip hop tracks, practically begging for radio play, but Break My Heart (featuring Rick Ross) and Thank You have already been released as singles. Estelle teamed up with Chris Brown on International (Serious), although neither she nor the track needs him and it gets kind of crowded in there with Trey Songz vying for airtime.

Estelle has the chops to do R & B and perhaps with a little more passion, to do hip hop very well. In this day of single-track downloads, it’s hard for an artist to hold their audience’s attention to follow the scheme of a whole album, if there is one. Estelle seems to want us to think there is a point to All of Me and by looking at the track listing, a listener might think it was about relationships. But don’t count on it.


Matt Elliot – The Broken Man review

It will take over three minutes of listening to classical guitar work on The Broken Man’s opening track, Oh How We Fell before Elliot’s rich, growly voice starts singing. Or rather, talk-singing. It’s like listening to the lamentations of a friend: intimate, somber, thoughtful. Truly, the verse “I am lost in this mournful refrain” describes the despairing tone of the album.  Actually, the lovely flamenco-infused stringwork drifts through most of the songs and while not lightening the tone, it adds a welcome undercurrent. Elliott’s acoustical work is deliberate and exacting, each note singular and well-formed.

If a listener had any thoughts that succeeding tracks would reveal a bit of hope, a hand offered in friendship to relieve the artist’s oppressive melancholy, the song titles alone would brush that aside. As a writer of different genres myself, I completely identify with the downward emotional trajectory and wistfulness for something that will never be again that is the centerpiece theme. The musical arrangements convey this independent of Elliott’s smoky baritone and choked refrains, but when you are in pain, another gut-punch always seems appropriate.

I am not familiar with the artist’s previous body of work, but musical anguish such as this is not a one-time thing. Woven throughout the tracks, over and between the unsettled bells and mournful guitar, are lovely strains of melody, although the pace of most of them is deliberate rather than peppy.

There is a definite place for this type of work, among the absolute drivel that is current pop and the sameness of many of the “alternative” musicians. It’s not depressing as it is meditative and an intentional reflection of the common state of more people than not. It would definitely be something one could relate to if there was personal tragedy afoot , but if drama is lacking in your life, a tour through Elliot’s somberscape should stir something up.