The Sheepdogs – Learn And Burn album review

Subscribers of Rolling Stone magazine may have noticed an overwhelming amount of promos for their “choose the cover” contest that went on for several months. Out of 16 unsigned bands, The Sheepdogs, with their long hair and soulful guitar driven-folk came out on top. Over one and a half million votes were cast online and this Canuck foursome landed not only the cover of RS issue number 1137 on August 5th, but an even more significant prize, a contract with Atlantic Records.

Before their good fortune and talent won them this amazing opportunity, Sheepdogs were typical struggling artists. Lead singer Ewan Currie told Rolling Stone in their recent interview simply that, “Shit was bleak.” Fortunately their demo was submitted in consideration for the contest, and voila, here there are. The Saskatoon natives have already achieved what many bands could only dream of, appearing on late night shows like Jimmy Fallon and performing at Bonnaroo music festival.

Their album Learn and Burn, released March 22, 2011, is a complete throwback to SoCo classic rock that could easily draw comparisons to Creedence Clearwater Revival. The band (Currie, Leot Hanson, Ryan Gullen and Sam Corbett) evokes bluesy rock & roll in its purest form. It may seem common for bands to lean in this direction, The Black Keys, The Raconteurs and Kings of Leon fall under similar categories, drawing from inspirational rock groups of the 70’s.

Sheepdogs are at the core of the actual 70’s. They don’t waste time trying to be anything old and new, there’s no barrier. They jam and vibe in between lyrical interludes in a way that I would normally hate, but somehow I don’t. “I Don’t Get By” is a perfect karaoke song and “Baby, I Won’t Do You No Harm” has Ewan Currie wailing like a badass Paul McCartney. A daring highlight is “Catfish 2 Boogaloo,” which possesses quintessential Guitar Hero solos.

If you put “I Don’t Know” or any ditties from Learn And Burn on a mixed tape with some Skynyrd, Steve Miller Band and the band that inspired the name of that famed magazine, Rolling Stone, your friends or even your parents would not flinch or question it. Tell them it’s an underrated Canadian rock band from four decades ago. That’s what it feels like, so that’s what it is.

Culprate – Flatline album review

Culprate, a one man-band electronic/experimental band signed to Dubsaw records, just released his maniacal album, Flatline. I actually have no idea who Culprate is, name-wise, he’s a mystery from Watford, England. The only real thing that is not a mystery to me is the man’s music. Void of vocals besides the very rare sprinkle of sample voices like on “Curious George,” which for brief moments seems like Culprate’s insane version of Madison Avenue’s “Don’t Call Me Baby”

Spawned in 2008 from the electronic depths of England, the “experimental” label fits Culprate quite well. I feel as if this album has been handed to me by a shady man outside a rave. It has a very very homemade feel to it, I’m not saying I could make this music, but I feel like this is the sound of Dead Mau5’s garbage being tossed out. Flatline starts out a little better than it ends, “Red Number 208.85” is drug/clubtastic and “Goat Vs. Bear”  and “Grime Frog” remind me of a quality early-90’s video game soundtrack.

After the midpoint, the highlights begin to fade, and the tracks all mesh together like some sort of bored child’s blender concoction. The song titles could also fit that description, “One Man One Jah” has no seeming musical correlation with its name, to the lord Jehovah or the Rastafari movement. BUT it’s instrumental, how am I supposed to know what a dubstep ode to Jah would even sound like? Maybe this is it. That’s the problem with Culprate, I don’t even know where to begin, or where to end, and neither does Flatline.

This is what I like to call a dubstep rant. It feels unfinished, rushed and too wild for its author’s own good. Listening to it on repeat is giving me a headache and I can’t even find enough Advil to cure it. I think this mystery man can do better.

Grooms – Prom album review

Don’t let Grooms’ Brooklyn roots or Friendster ties fool you, they sound suspiciously like the Midwest. Not just a band from the Midwest, but THE Midwest, or the West Coast. There is an airy glow to their latest album Prom, one seen from peers like Bear Hands or Smith Westerns. It’s not just me, indie band names are fucking weird aren’t they?

Regardless of title, Grooms and their fittingly named sophomoric effort are the epitome of melodic yet modestly ticked-off hipster twenty-somethings. There is something seemingly careless in Travis Johnson’s 90’s alternative-style voice, which is perhaps the reason he is drawing such strong comparisons to Stephen Malkmus of Pavement. It also explains the west-coasty feeling I’m perceiving, as their first CD was also heavily compared to Modest Mouse and Johnson with Isaac Brock.

Forget about who they sound like. Let’s talk about what they sound like. Guitar drifters, mostly strumming through songs slowly with intermittent bursts of aggressive amp electricity. The songs are relatively on the short end especially considering the architecture of each one, they feel as if they sprawl upwards and sideways like a New York loft with an open porch while factually they are as long compared to a skyscraper as my own two legs.

Prom focuses heavily on youth, with the Sonic-Youth-centric “Prom” obviously centering on the 17-year old age range and  “Aisha” zeroing in on the impact of virginity lost for a young woman. “Don’t Worry You’re Prettier” ventures into the bizarre, discussing an eight-year old homeless boy whose life mirrors Peter Pan, in the agelessness sense. Johnson belts out matter-of-factly over the song’s unusually strong bassline,  “You will never grow and twist, you will always feel, like this,” as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

On “Sharing” bandmate Emily Ambruso lends her angelically-childlike vocals to the mix, which only throws kerosene on the already visible theme of the album. The most magical is perhaps “Tiger Trees” which sets a tone for the record that is later broken by the crazy patchwork distortion of “Imagining The Bodies.” That tone is however, immediately brought back by the droning-romanticism of “Skating With Girl,” and continues thereafter. I felt Drummer Jim Sykes nearly falling asleep on that one.

There’s nothing on this CD I would subtract, no filler. I couldn’t even do without the minute-long instrumental on Proms “Psychics,” as it allows an intermission into the album’s equally or even slightly more ambitious second half. That’s how worthwhile this tranquil little experience is.

Machinedrum – Room(s) review

Travis Stewart is a character actor of electronic music, he’s been around forever (since 1999) but you probably don’t know his name. He is the man behind Machinedrum and a strong influence in the electronic music world in general. He cites many genres as his own inspiration, everything from the ordinary (urban and hip-hop) to the downright bizarre (Chicago juke and ghettotech) and all are strongly visible on his latest release Room(s) and second this year, though under a different name.

Stewart’s brand of dreamy sample-filled tracks are an electronic whirlwind, a mostly mid-tempo but nonstop acid-trip. People seeking simplicity and single-listen enjoyment should not look to Room(s). From a man with at least eight different nicknames and a discography as lengthy as a band as old as R.E.M. or Sonic Youth, though many of Machinedrum and his other main project, Syndrone’s albums are shorter, Room(s) is a full-length look into the mind of an electronic wizard. It reads as sort of a collage of genres, samples, beats, ideas, the ADD musings of a Brooklyn-based workaholic/producer.

This bass-driven jungle-infused mesh-up works and doesn’t. The schizophrenia of it may actually be planned, while each track differs just enough to still eventually blend. The unique single “Sacred Frequency” drowns its listener less than others and “The Statue” throws manic energy at you like a freaky techno hurricane. “U Don’t Survive” and “Now U Know The Deal 4 Real” stand out with stronger vocal sampling while “Come1” is sometimes reminiscent of 90’s house music. “Door(s)” and “Youniverse” could have been better but are lost in the repetitive auto-tune trend commonly found in this genre.

Overall Room(s) is conceptually nice but Stewart gets lost in the Edward Scissor-handing nature of his work, splicing sounds too breezily for his own good to a point of awkward abnormality. For all he talks about others pushing boundaries, he will likely never reach a level of success that allows anyone to realize he’s done so. As an artist he has to decide whether or not he wants to cook something with not only a great sounding recipe but something that tastes good as well.

Cut Off Your Hands – Hollow album review

Auckland, New Zealand, City of Sails, home of the Sky Tower, various volcanoes and rugby. Not to mention the band Cut Off Your Hands, which I used to confuse with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and in turn Does it Offend You, Yeah? Both great indie bands in their own right, though out of the three, Cut Off Your Hands is the most relatable.

Singer Nick Johnston has more than just brooding good looks on his side, he’s got the versatile vocals to match. The soothing side of Robert Smith and the lighter side of Ian McCulloch, with that familiar but never tiring indie kick to it. Cut Off Your Hands are now on their second album, and first since 2008’s You and I. The sophomoric effort from this kiwi quartet, Hollow, is a step down in pace from You and I, though never a step down in quality.

Mixed in Sydney, unlike its London-born predecessor, Hollow is very much the sadder cousin of You and I. The structure is very much the same but the paint is a different color. Grey. It kicks off with “You Should Do Better,” which is not the tale of a desperate admirer but the self-deprecating musings of Johnston as a boyfriend. Perfect for that resurged generation of indie emo. “Hollowed Out” is practically a new Cure song while “Fooling No One” is more their own creation and possibly the most upbeat song on the album.

With a band name like Cut Off Your Hands, a CD called Hollow and song titles like “Buried,” “Down & Out” and “Nausea,” it may be preferable though not required to be in a certain mood when listening to this. Johnston shrugs it off in interviews, calling them “…Slow songs and lazy stuff,” in that cute sarcastic nonchalant foreigner way. He’s truly fooling no one, because we all know that music like this doesn’t come from a sluggish place. This is emotionally-driven rock, with that post-punk sound, for fans of Morrissey, Editors, Echo & The Bunnymen and The Cure.

SBTRKT – SBTRKT album review

Aaron Jerome’s second full-length album, and first under the name “SBTRKT” (pronounced “subtract”) is an explosive contribution to the loosely-defined dubstep genre. Part Massive Attack, part Tricky part something you’ve never experienced, Jerome worked previously as a producer, remixing for friends and underground artists around the world such as Zap Mama, Nicole Willis and Bugz In The Attic. On this self-titled work, the UK-based DJ teams up with a variety of singers with Sampha representing the male aspect and Jessie Ware, Roses Gabor and Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon representing the female side.

When not instrumental this album is truly split into two parts, the mesmerizing songs sung by Sampha and the equally if not more mesmerizing songs sung by women. “Pharaohs” featuring Rose Gabor stands out electrically but the real heavenly bass overdose award goes to the vibrating shockwaves of “Wildfire” featuring Yukimi Nagano. This song was even remixed with a rhyme from none other than Drake, who performed with SBTRKT in Toronto on July 8th.

Electronic music being of course the hardest to translate to a live setting, some critics were underwhelmed by SBTRKT’s first show in the U.S. which included an overly confident Jerome on drums and Sampha keyboarding. I can only say that on record these boys are on their A-game. SBTRKT is an unpredictable CD, “Right Thing to Do” with Jessie Ware is a worldly number where Jerome’s jazz influences, the ones prominent on his first album Time To Rearrange, sneak through. “Never Never” with Sampha seems more a remix of a popular radio R&B or pop song than anything else, as does “Something Goes Right.”

The difference between this and anything on the radio is not just the beats, but the atmosphere. The bass is moody, the vocals are shady, the drums are slowly tribal or even twitchy at times. All I can say is, the man behind the mask, and behind the music has an innate gift that can only be improved over time. “Wildfire,” with its horrifying Grudge-like video, an ode to dehydration, is the best creepy song of the summer.

Alkaline Trio – Damnesia album review

Damnesia is Alkaline Trio’s eighth studio album, if you can call it that. It’s actually more of a hybrid acoustic/best-of album featuring an assortment of random favorites from previous records in unplugged format not to mention three new tracks, “I Remember a Rooftop,” “Olde English 800” and a cover of “I Held Her In My Arms” by The Violent Femmes. Damnesia celebrates the band’s fifteenth anniversary together, well, mostly, as lead singer Matt Skiba and bassist Dan Andriano are long term members while drummer Derek Grant joined in 2001.

This Chicago-based band has been around since 1996, releasing their first album in 1998. I can’t for the life of me recall anyone I knew listening to this band before their critically acclaimed Good Mourning album. So if you’re out there, hardcore Alkaline Trio fans, I salute you for hanging in there. The band has had some up and downs, and this may be filed under the latter.

Damnesia offers little to those who are not devout AT fans. This applies especially to the new songs. “I Remember A Rooftop” is emotionless while “Olde English 800” is a useless screeching bonfire drinking song that thankfully only lasts a minute and a half. The Violent Femmes cover is a great imitation, though you may be taken aback to hear Alkaline Trio do country.

Fan favorites like “We’ve Had Enough” and “Radio” fall flat while “Calling All Skeletons” and “This Could Be Love” are decently executed yet, like half of this album, sound like leftover build-up from a Linkin Park song. The other half will leave you wishing you were listening to the original recording.

Though it wasn’t a single, “The Poison” from Crimson feels like a song that should have been included though I guess it hardly matters. For a type of music that Spin branded as “punk with a bad liver and a broken heart,” nearly eight years ago, I have to say it’s getting old in 2011. I can only tolerate songs dedicated to sadness, skeletons, spiders and coffins for so long. Alkaline Trio should find a better way to reinvent themselves, because this album is cheesier than Elvira’s wig.

Noveller – Glacial Glow album review

Sarah Lipstate, a Brooklyn, NY transplant and former member of Parts & Labor and One Umbrella, has released her fourth album Glacial Glow, a themed foray into cinematic instrumental wisdom. Each track is very distinct and cleverly labelled but let me lay down what this is. Eight songs averaging around four minutes a song, none exceeding six minutes and none below 3:40 besides the intro. This is heavily acoustic, and one hundred percent absent of vocals; music that would be absolutely unarguably perfect on an indie movie soundtrack.

“Alone Star” could easily be nominated for an Academy Award for best original song. Yes, if placed in a film that got everyone’s heartstrings all pulled in varying directions, one where a death occurs, a groundbreaking lesson is learned, characters “find themselves.” Yes, this could happen. Alas, Lipstate’s CD, released under her musical moniker Noveller, like a movie it could easily score, lacks purpose. And I hate to be “that guy,” someone who thinks everything needs a purpose. Glacial Glow is disappointing only in its current format. I would have loved to see it on a soundtrack, rather than this underwhelmingly short album, a sort of hybrid LP/EP.

Lipstate is a fascinating musician, nobody could doubt her abundance of ambition. Her influences, besides Sonic Youth, are highly obscure. Her creativity in performing is artistically her own, once utilizing a carrot peeler for guitar effect. She delved into music in second grade, starting with piano then trombone then guitar, which she taught herself to play at 17. Lipstate received nearly instant gratification by being invited to tour with Parts & Labor shortly after she had learned to strum, tune and pick her preferred double-neck. She also started her own recording label, Saffron Recordings AND she’s an aspiring filmmaker, already the proud artistic parent of several short films.

While Glacial Glow is a more refined version of past Noveller efforts, it can get repetitive or even downright annoying like on “Blue” and “Resolutions.” While it may be my resolution not to listen to “Blue” ever again, I have nothing but admiration for Lipstate’s talent. Talent that would be better suited as a combination platter, the musician/filmmaker scramble. I want to see this epic music in an epic movie, not as an album where it largely holds itself back.

The Japanese Popstars – Controlling Your Allegiance album review

Want to hear Robert Smith lending his vocals to a flawless electronic haze? Do you want an opening track that leaves an impression that is not only a memory but a physical dent in your brain? Do you want to forget about your mortgage, your kids, your sweaty overweight girlfriend, your college loans, your every vice and obstruction and lack of motivation? Fret not, sweet things, The Japanese Popstars have a cure for you.

Their album, Controlling Your Allegiance, is Electronic bliss, something worth putting your headphones on for. Despite their name, The Japanese Popstars are based out of Ireland. Yes these “popstars” are DJs, Irish ones, pale and cute in a cuddly coffee shop nerd kind of way. They are however, not to be musically reckoned with, whether you’ve heard of them or not. They’ve remixed songs for heavyweights like Beyonce, 30 Seconds To Mars and The Gorillaz not to mention the entire Tron: Legacy soundtrack. They’re signed to Gung Ho Records, which boasts “110% Electronic Soul” on their website.

Japstars (one of their many monikers) are just that, electronic soul. They are part of a long-awaited and refreshing wave of artists who fit this label, among them Deadmau5, Justice and Crystal Castles. Controlling Your Allegiance boasts memorable guest appearances from the likes of none other than Robert Smith (The Cure, duh) on “Take Forever.” Also  Lisa Hannigan on the straightforward “Song For Lisa,” and Tom Smith of The Editors on the closing track “Joshua.”

My only gripes with this CD would be that parts of it sound like strenuously remixed versions of ancient console game soundtracks like some vertical-scrolling space shooter for the TurboGrafx-16. At times, this works in its favor, but on “Tomorrow Man” and “Falcon Punch” it can be a bit much, unless you’re on drugs.

The band were bold and right in their choice to include vocals for the first time in their five-year career. Controlling Your Allegiance is no flop or misstep, it’s a win. In no time you’ll find yourself repeating the line “You try too hard to keep control, just relax and let go,” in a robo-sensual monotone, from the unforgettable intro song “Let Go.”

The Black Dahlia Murder – Ritual album review

It is undisputed truth that metal is not for everybody. Many music fans snub metal, considering it a talentless and exceedingly abrasive version of punk music. Most people can only get on board with Metallica. Nowadays there are so many kinds of metal. Metal for dummies, metal for sadists, metal for teenagers (not real metal) and then there’s metal for metalheads. Metal for the semi-common fan. Metal that pulsates down your spine like god slid an ice cube along your backbone.

The Black Dahlia Murder are a death metal band and Ritual is their fifth album. Remember those moms that protested Kiss back in the day? They would spontaneously combust or drop dead upon hearing this music, which would probably reinforce their suspicions that this is in fact the devil’s music, if only they lived to prove it.

I wonder if the cops are having trouble ridding certain areas of hippies? Blasting BDM’s Ritual into the woods, featuring Trevor Strnad’s insanely terrorizing scream, is a surefire way to send their tobacco-rolling, mushroom-gathering, organic-chocolate-eating asses packing.

The guitars are strong and fast like a marathon runner, but something is missing here, heart. Some might consider “Carbonized in Cruciform” or “The Raven” to be beautifully horror-filled candies sprinkled with melodic wonder. I think to myself, I can hardly tell “Great Burning Nullifier” apart from “On Stirring Seas of Salted Blood.” Is the yelling different? Are the drums? Should I have to strain this hard to discern a separation? I’m all for songs blending together well, but I feel old and weary listening to this.

Hardcore Metal fanboys rejoice! The 80 year old woman who sometimes possesses my body and ears in particular, cannot handle this. The titles are thrilling and I’m sure “Moonlight Equilibrium” is just epic when you’re in the right mood. But I’m not in the mood to get my feet stepped on in a mosh pit or sacrifice depressed farm animals. I will confirm one thing, Ritual does pulsate through your core like an ungodly ice cube creeping along your backbone. For the less crazed population, a suggested dive into metal might be something more along the lines of Five Finger Death Punch or Mastodon.