CHLLNGR – Haven

Moody and rich in vocals, CHLLNGR’s debut album Haven is kind of like the feel you got from that Mitsubishi Eclipse commercial that had the Dirty Vegas song Days Go By in the background: ethereal and mysterious and intense and forward-going, all at the same time. With artist Steven Borth altering his voice on the title track to be both male and female, with indecipherable words (or perhaps they are meant to be just raw emotions), the melody lulls the listener into a trance, willing to follow it anywhere. Intricate drumlines and a softer electronic track than plain house music, Borth explores some old-school dub rhythms, mixing them with alternative soul, if such a thing existed before now. Guest vocalists such as Coco O (on Sun Down) flavors the music while still showing Borth’s Scandanavian influence.

Although most songs end abruptly (which is unsettling) and all of them are near-standard length, there are some stand outs: Jessica Brown is so lovely on Dusty, her soprano range is stunning. Dark Darkness uses sharp finger snaps and nuanced bass underscore his lyrics “What is your game, what do you know?” to drive home a haunting score.

There is enough variety within this album to differentiate the songs from one another, something that isn’t always accomplished within a subgenre. There’s certainly room for Borth to have opened up and gone beyond the three-minute mark, but the mixes are sophisticated and filling as they are and perhaps the shortness of the tracks can be attributed to the fact that the album was made in the deep winter months of Denmark. As a first effort on a formal album, this is not a bad introduction to the artist, but it definitely leaves the listener expecting much more for the sophomore production.

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Umphrey’s McGee – Death By Stereo review

Umphrey’s McGee, a staple Chicago improv/fusion band, released their twelfth studio album on September 13, 2011. Richly textured and demonstrating a wide variety of influences, the songs fulfill the band’s mantra that none are ever recycled. In other words, every album is new and fresh in the truest sense of the word. For example, The Floor is a rolling, ambitious selection that could easily have also been labeled as a thematic score. Dim Sum, a straight acoustic instrumental piece, beautifully showcases Jake Cinniger’s guitar work. Soulful and funk-infused with horns, bouncy piano and vocal harmonies, Booth Love is decidedly a perpendicular musical turn, although no more out of place on this album than say, Conduit, which channels Led Zepplin in their better days.

Fans will most likely harken back to their 2009 release, Mantis as the closest comparison to the styles and rhythms found here, but when it comes to a selection like Domino Theory, its pure modern prog rock, no two ways about it. UM plays to crowds expecting long sets of searing riffs, deviations from studio cuts and plain old innovation, so to deliver less on a carefully crafted engineered recording would may be seen as treasonous, even given time constraints. Each song is distinct and layered with provocative lyrics, original arrangements and a unique ability to pay homage to the band’s influences (Genesis/Gabriel, Beatles, the aforementioned Zepplin among others) without sounding like a cover band. Collaboration is important among the six members, as is patience, with principal songwriters Cinniger and (Brendan) Bayliss preferring to wait for their ideas to truly gel (often months or years) before placing them in a composition.

Originally formed during their days at the University of Notre Dame, Umphrey’s McGee remains, after nearly fifteen years, collaborators and friends. “The thing we realized pretty quickly is that music is secondary to our relationships,” guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss points out. “If our relationships aren’t strong, it heavily affects the music. Some bands don’t speak to one another, they aren’t friends, and I just don’t know how that works.”   To date, the band has sold nearly 2 million tracks online but that figure is misleading. With a very liberal live-show  recording policy, there is perhaps more UM music floating over 3G and 4G networks than any other band out there at any given concert night.  “I can’t believe that we are 13 and half years in,” Bayliss points out with a mix of wonder and pride. “If someone told me that I would have been thinking: ‘No way! But sign me up. I’ll take it.'”

So will we, Brendan.

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Whatever Brains – Whatever Brains review

‘Whatever Brains’ frontman Rich Ivey summed up the band’s ambition by saying: “I don’t care about going to play South by Southwest; that’s not a goal. I don’t think we have a wide enough appeal for a [large record label] to make sense to put out our record.”

Be that as it may, this self-titled album has as many appealing characteristics as it does styles. “You’re Melting” is a brash, Kinks– style mosh of electric guitar and screechy vocals, while the opening track, The Fisher, makes use of juicy-soft drums and buzzy distortion, similar to their earlier (2009) cassette-tape release Soft Dick City sans tape hiss. Ivey’s distinctive nasal tenor is surprisingly clear and understandable: he doesn’t wail because he has nothing to say. It’s his enthusiastic emotionalism coming through, melding into the songs like another instrument.

 “Withnail”  is imbued with aggressive sarcasm (“We pray your daughter marries black and your husband joins the Taliban”), tempo changes and a wonderful throwback-to-the-sixties organ, while Holiday Weekend´ proves that the band can be drowsy and laid-back, even if only for two minutes.

The Raleigh, North Carolina quintet (Hank Shore joined on keyboards in 2010) spread their time among other bands (The Shards, Invisible Hand, among others) in addition to occasionally touring where they have friends. Bassist Matt Watson compares being in the band to having a girlfriend. “You have a commitment, except it’s awesome,” he says. “We all get to hang out. Nobody hates spending time on it.”

Wildly animated and frenetic, the overall feeling of this full-length release is one of bad-boy exuberance and daring, more polished than a garage-band trying out their first demo but definitely less structured and behaved than a proper studio product. They cut their production teeth on singles and limited-run CD’s, casual promotion and acceptance of small-crowd venues.  Clearly, Whatever Brains aren’t concerned with the state of the music industry. It’s probably a good thing, too, because as Ivey confesses, “We don’t sell many records. People will buy it, or they won’t. Y’know, whatever.”

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CSS – La Liberacion review

It’s hard to see how CSS could be tired of anything, let alone being sexy. Their third album, La Liberacion, is a gleeful punch in the face to the critics who thought they were over and done with. Heavily synthed and simply arranged, most of the tracks rely on a punk backbeat and attitude. American and European listeners should be able to make it through the only Portugese song, which is unfortunately the title track and not all that compelling. It’s a garage-band sound that seems out of place with the rest of the electro-dance numbers.

City Grrl opens with lovely Brazilian-themes guitar work but kicks into a poppy uptempo a la Katy Perry, although a more personal view of lead singer Lovefoxxx’s life. She connects with her audience with brazen confidence, and seems to be laughing all the while. The last song, Fuck Everything, is a perfect GenY anthem song and sure to be an enthusiastic encore at concerts.

South American punk pop (is there really such a category??) isn’t for everyone: after a nonstop listen-through of this album, the songs do tend to blur together and there isn’t much underneath the 80’s-sounding guitar work and some jazzy sax here and there. It’s unsophisticated, makes no attempt at social consciousness and is really focused on having a good time, now. And yet, if CSS’s album artwork is to be considered as a preview to what’s inside, it’s just one street big party and, well, Fuck Everything.

Some tracks recommended for download, but don’t spend on the album.

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Blood Orange – Coastal Groves review

The cover photo for Blood Orange’s Coastal Groves is of an Asian call girl, posed temptingly against a wall, so the listener may assume there would be Asian influences sprinkled throughout. Dev Hynes mixes the plucked-string sound of a shamisen and electronic keyboard with strong punk drums to create a delightful fusion. He definitely uses his experiences in London’s techno-dance world and US influences of such unlikely partners as Beyonce and Theophilus London in this production to lay a very British pop foundation with strong international undertones.

Some sweet guitar riffs, – notably on the opener, Forget It,  are reminiscent of The Vapors and Neon Trees and the song is as good an introduction to the reinvented Hynes as any on the album.

S’cooled engages a hypnotic beat and some nice bass work with just enough echo and delay to showcase the instruments. It’s party music at it’s best. For those not really into the post-punk sound, a couple of selections are more down to earth. Complete Failure exudes angst and the drama of the confusion of a breakup, complete with deep, singular bass notes. The longest track on the album, The Complete Knock has a most satisfying beat that makes room for Hynes deft guitar work. This song would be an exceptional live performance, not only because of the avenues for improv, but displays his vocal talents.

With each new group, Dev Hynes seems to create a new persona, one that fits perfectly into the music he wants to write at the time. Even if one weren’t particularly a fan of pan-asian melody, Hynes’ seductive arrangements on all the Coastal Groves tracks overcome any argument to wind around your ears and settle in. There isn’t a song on this album that can’t be recommended.

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Gold Leaves – The Ornament review

The title track for this album, The Ornament, showcases Grant Olsen’s Seattle roots: poppy, folksy, definitely indie, with drowsy tunescapes and pointed lyrics. As one half of the former Arthur & Yu, he crafts the nine tracks on this debut album with loving care, taking a bit of influence from producer Jason Quever (from Papercuts).  Although on sort of a hiatus from recording since ’07, it appears as though he has been busy writing and arranging,all to a good end.

Cruel Kind begins with a lovely acoustical guitar, percussion slipping in quietly and then Olsen adds the vocal layer, the whole process so smooth and easy that it’s the middle of the song before you realize there’s a crescendo occurring. Olsen holds the middle ground of his tenor range well and prefers to allow his lyrics to add intensity instead of straining to convince his audience how he really feels.

It works.

A lovely sense of vulnerability shines through on selections such as Silver Lining and Honeymoon, some notes just off-key enough to evoke a live recording. Rich and strong, the majority of the tracks lead the listener on a languid musical journey, using the mainstays of 4/4 time signatures and pleasant guitar chords.

With a 60’s feeling pushing Hard Feelings, I expected to hear Bobby Greensboro on backing vocals, although The Companion, the last track, lends a very western (not country) flavor. The use of reverb and echo on the harmony tracks keeps the songs firmly in the 21st century and no one would mistake this album for anything but pop-folk.

Grant Olsen’s intimate style plays very well as a solo artist and he would be a grand addition to any playbill, as well as any playlist.

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Pepper Rabbit – Red Velvet Snow Ball review

A pair of twenty-somethings that look like they would be more at home playing video games present their sophomore release, Red Velvet Snow Ball, named for a traditional southern comfort food-flavored snow cone.

Beautifully produced, it’s ten tracks of full of drifty, haunting melodies that make use of a variety of loops and instruments, although no one style really stands out. Xander Singh, lead and most instruments, and Luc Laurent on percussion meander their way through soft psychodelia-imbued synths, breathy mixes and surprisingly mature vocals. No off-key whining here, the lyrics are evocative and tantalizingly complex, especially the closing track “Tiny Fingers”.  There’s never an edge to the songs, though “Murder Room” starts off promisingly and the absence of an anchoring melody turns from pleasant anticipation to exasperation by the time “In Search of Simon Birch”, the seventh offering, rolls around. All of the songs are about the same length as well, adding to the overall feeling of, well, beige.

The duo promotes themselves more experimental than New Age, but this release doesn’t support that. I’m all for artists exploring their craft and reaching beyond boundaries but musically, there was not much distinction between the tracks. There is so much potential in an artist, or studio engineer for that matter, who is capable of really using all the instruments and techniques they bring to the table that it’s almost a shame nowadays to ‘only’ layer some tracks. I found this album to be an awkward cross between wanna-be electronica and old-fashioned fuze-pop, without a definitive nod in the direction of either.

Pepper Rabbit is touring to promote the album, including a swing through most Canadian provinces. Not sure what their fan base is up there, but I suspect a little more ‘pepper’ would be welcomed.

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Alex Clare – The Lateness Of The Hour review

Alex Clare’s first three tracks on this debut album were released as singles, to mostly positive reviews. Energetic and poppy, Clare’s lyrics are soulful enough to win over the romantics and his voice occasionally drops into a Rob Thomas-like sound, so the songs as a whole will appeal to a majority of top-40 listeners.

The arrangement for the background instruments ranges from a deep sine-wave bass in “Too Close” to a really lovely piano in “I Won’t Let You Down”. Clare’s voice doesn’t have the power behind the higher notes for that song, but the obvious effort lends an earnest quality. “Humming Bird” has an off-tempo kick and electronic keyboard (at times mimicking tweeting birds, I suppose), giving it a Jamaican-rock feel, a nice change-up. The song builds in intensity and Clare stays strong throughout.

“Tight Rope” was born in the New Orleans recording studio of Diplo & Switch and it’s a little thin on instrumentation and a little heavy on synth effects, enough to distract from an otherwise nice tune and interesting lyrics.

Clare wrote all of the songs on this album with the exception of his cover of “When Doves Cry”. It isn’t my favorite Prince song to begin with, but Clare doesn’t do it any favors and for the life of me I don’t know why he would include it with all the other material he has here. He has an excellent sense of relationships, being able to dismantle the emotions in a break-up or express the love he feels in an awkward situation and it’s a refreshing turn from the current crop of lyricists who insist on being as mysterious as possible in their writing.

Alex Clare is based in the U.K. and, having spent the last year writing and recording, is just now getting some British tour dates together. If he opened for some bigger shows and got some radio play, he should have no trouble headlining on his own by 2012 and hopefully he will have hopped the Pond and started a U.S. tour. He’d be a fun artist to see live, especially with the variety of sound and feeling he brings to his music. I would expect him to be very audience-oriented, especially at smaller venues, so if you see him on the bill, it’d be worth your time and $$ to go see him.

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Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can review

Initially released as the first of two proposed albums for 2010, I Speak Because I Can turned out to be the only music from folk-rocker Marling, and it caught a nomination for the 2010 Mercury Music Prize and won Best Female Solo Artist at the Brit Awards.. Before formally releasing any music, she appeared with notables on the British indie-music community and lent her vocals to tracks by The Rakes and Mystery Jets.

Only twenty, Marling has a seasoned voice and this sophomore release finds the polished production hand of Ethan Johns guiding a collection of ripened lyrics that go beyond the coming-of-age essence that her debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim, evinced. This album of ten songs ranges beyond girlish dreams and young love; it explores heartache and heartbreak, sex and dying and longing.

The arrangements and lovely acoustical guitar work prevent the overall feeling from sinking into gloom and despair. Marling’s voice is smooth and throaty, her London-country accent breaking through just on the edges of the quieter tunes.

The title track is the last one, lamenting on the bitterness of the aftermath of a broken marriage.  It’s quite a raw set of lyrics from someone who hasn’t been married, but that is the true soul of an artist shining through. The influences of her former drummer, Marcus Mumford, now of Mumford and Sons, percolates in the broad orchestrations of typical folk instruments: resonator guitar certainly, mandolin and soft drums. It works with her style and she is comfortably ensconced in the agony of relationships and responsibilities.

Hope Is In The Air is my personal favorite, the story of a relationship dissolving. It unwinds languorously, the music building in strength and the lyrics in vehemence until the final chorus. The background mandolin adds subtle sweetening that the piano can’t accomplish and is the perfect element for the increase in passion.

Blackberry Stone beautifully showcases Marling’s vocal range and her ability to write of wistfulness and regret, wrapping it in nostalgia and making you want her to just keep singing.

Laura Marling promises that second album this year, September perhaps. A Creature I Don’t Know has been deferred several times but she has stated it would be worth the delay. She is already touring with the new material to good reviews. If she continues to build on the style and strength of I Speak, her third release should firmly establish her as a significant force on the indie scene.

Recommended download.

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Washed Out – Within and Without review

From the opening ebbtide of synths on “Eyes Be Closed” to languid vocal trailings on “Soft” and then the thoughtful piano closer “A Dedication”, Ernest Greene’s finished debut product, Within and Without aches of longing and indolent, using silky synth and simple, comforting beats. While the music has a wide-open sensuality, it certainly has a home across many sub-genres such as house, techno, chillwave and maybe, on occasion electro-classic.

This is an album from a producer-songwriter who began composing and posting the loops he created on his laptop to MySpace and soon found an avid following. The album’s effort and upgraded production values (he now has a studio and real instruments) shine through, surrounding Greene’s writing and arranging with intentional elegance.

Taken in track order or mixed up, there isn’t a missed beat on the whole album and every song is beautifully different.

“You and I” features Caroline Polachek from Chairlift in a sexy spoken interlude, sure to make anyone lay back and listen, and translates well in any language. The title song’s lyrics are only four lines long and repeated once, but they curl up around the atmospheric elements and honeyed vocals so that you can almost chew the intensity of the passion.

It’s so wonderful.

This is lush, not at all mushy and the music never wanders. Greene hints at having more things to say and ways to say it, so even though there are only nine songs here, the promise of more is on the horizon. His blog followers will not be the only ones rewarded when that happens.

Recommended for download.