Robert Randolph & The Family Band – Lickety Split album review

Fostered in the “sacred steel” community of the Pentacostal House of God Church, Robert Randolph began making sacred music as a teenager, learning to play the pedal steel guitar by observing how the gritty instrument was used in church services. “Growing up as a kid in the church, you always wanted to be the pedal-steel guy,” he told NPR. “Because you were, you know, the main rock star.” Later, when he began incorporating aspects of secular music, namely funk and soul, into his gospel act, his mastery of the relatively obscure instrument proved a lucrative gimmick, serving to augment his already notable talent by taking the pedal steel out of its conventional country music ouvre. In the early 2000s, Randolph fashioned a Family Band by commandeering cousins Marcus Randolph and Danyel Morgan (drums and bass, respectively) and sister Lenesha Randolph (vocals), along with guitarist/keyboardist Brett Haas, and with them he rode the gospel-blues wave straight onto Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists:

Randolph’s family band is one of the most intense live acts in all of jamdom. His thirteen-string instrument has a chillingly clear tone, and his solos are dotted with howling melodies and perpetually cresting, lightning-fast explorations.

As a jam band hero and enthusiastic showman, Randolph is already known for the echoing gulf between great live shows and disappointingly sub-par albums. Maybe it’s that the unspoken philosophical demands of albums, the pressure to produce a cohesive and timeless artistic statement that transcends the uninhibited revelry of a live show, remain unmet. Maybe it’s the fact that gnarled shredding and non-stop canned interjections (“Turn it up!,” “That’s it!,” “Cmon!,” “Get ready!”) lose their magic transitioning from stage to studio. Maybe it’s that on second listen, you realize that the stories of “Blacky Joe” and “Welcome Home” don’t develop at all (who is Blacky Joe and what did he even do? Yeah I didn’t catch that either) and/or amount to characterless empty clichés. That on the whole, Lickety Split feels embarrassingly insincere and fails to prove that the gospel artist’s chosen anachronistic idioms are alive and well.

Take for instance the track “Born Again,” which sets up a neat euphonic groove and carries energetic praise-the-lord lyrics, yet outside of being a solid, funky gospel song, it’s entirely forgettable. Mix some family-friendly hip hop breaks into a blandly dreamy Calypso shuffle and you’ve got “New Orleans,” which has the aesthetic appeal of commercial art, like those mass-produced paintings of the beach or a pretty sunflower you might find at your local dentist, and in that same sad, non-ironic way. The most noteworthy aspects of Lickety Split are Rudolph’s egotistic jam sessions with Carlos Santana, but without being part of a meaningful musical package, who cares about virtuosity?

Yes, the record is definitely “amped up.” At least seemingly so. But one could never say for sure when the emotion is expressed through boringly familiar rhyme schemes saturated with obnoxiously hackneyed phrases like “big trucks, big wheels” and “hot like apple pie” in “All-American,” or the dreadful title track with its 30-plus shameless clichés (I counted) including ye olde counting motif “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8” and “party like it’s 1999.” Not to mention jumping on the fuck-wall-street bandwagon while dissing the wife: “[she] sneaks my money while I’m asleep, never gonna get it back, rather have her steal it than the man from Goldman Sachs.”

Fortunately, some lyrical respite comes when Randolph puts the pen down and opts instead for a classic rock cover or two, such as the 1966 Rascals hit and rock-and-roll standard “Good Lovin’,” though I can certainly see why it fits the content-free spirit of Lickety Split. It’s a strategy used to great effect at his live appearances, where crowds will throw fits of tipsy delight for anything they recognize, but Randolph’s reiteration doesn’t have the same facile charm on record.

Looking at him as a benefit-hopper who founded the Robert Randolph Music and Arts Program and recently embarked on a project to remodel an abandoned school building in his New Jersey hometown, one could dote endlessly on Rudolph’s character and contributions to the world of music. Perhaps he was over-stressed while minting this fifth studio record in the RR&TFB collection. But its strict adherence to worn-out idioms and uninspired musical formulas are a recipe for another shelf-bound novelty album to break out the next time your coworker brings his kids over for a playdate.

Halo Halo – Halo Halo album review

“We are a MULTI-COLOURED PUDDING! And a dance-sinawi-pop-trio from London.” That’s their elevator pitch, and they’re not about to offer up anything more illuminating, nor could they. Halo Halo’s ultra-cosmopolitan nature conforms to the anti-auspices of leader and multi-band minstrel Rachel Horwood. Her parents having emigrated from the Philippines, “halo-halo” refers to a garish Filipino dessert of assorted fruits and legumes, and, translating from Tagalog as “mix-mix,” it’s a phrase which represents twice over the unmoored nature of Halo Halo’s musical mixups. Their first full-length, the self-titled Halo Halo, unfolds as a rollicking, no-holds-barred multimedia scuffle. Between the crop-circle otherworldliness and crudely psychedelic groove of “Is It Shiny?,” the polyrhythmic 80s New Wave “Want 2 B,” and the sweltering-punk-slash-pseudo-kletzmer “Sunshine Kim,” the adjectives certainly start to pile up. Suffice it to say that no sound world is off limits as long as they can tack it to a steady click and keep jamming.

Which pretty much describes their composition process. The three young Londoners of Halo Halo play their instruments and voices like sound samples, hanging short melodic repetitions off of a fundamental rhythmic ostinato. Add in frequent drones and odd instrumentation and the result might sound strange to Western ears used to big beats and guitars strumming progressive harmonies. Occasionally it feels like ethnic tourism, whether it’s the irreverent polka take on Amerindian dance music (“Eagle”) or the pure-mutt “Djeddjehutyiuefankh,” which marries a wan electric banjo with shimmering Gamelan-esque bells and grumbling dijeredoo effects. Bandmate Gill Partington offers her take:

We didn’t consciously decide to try and sound a particular way or play in a particular style. It just comes out like that. One reason is that Jack and Rachel’s vocal harmonies are big part of our sound – sometimes they work as an extra instrument. But also maybe we sound distinctive because of Rachel’s banjo, which sounds quite different to a guitar. It isn’t tuned like a guitar, and has to be played in a different way, so it produces different kinds of melody. Another thing is that we are all drummers, so we all play in a way that is quite rhythmical, too.

Those craving meaningful lyrics need not apply. “I find writing lyrics the hardest thing, we’re all drummers but none of us are poets,” says drummer Jack Barraclough. So the album’s lyrical prowess lays pretty flat, with an obscure cultural reference here or there—”Taro Taro Taro” employs an old Japanese tale of a time traveling fisherman and “Djeddjehutyiuefankh” references the eponymous Egyptian mummy found with its heart mysteriously missing—but even in the most dramatic musical passages, like the ominous ritualism of “Comet,” any particularly profound message fails to emerge. In this wild romp of a record, the Halo Halo trinity have proven themselves sharp and daring, but while they dance around genre pointing their fingers and going “neener neener,” the youthful band has yet to transcend cheeky pop fun.

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.”

The Danks – GANK album review

Life is good in Toronto, where fledgling rockers The Danks have recently nested, filling the local airwaves with feel-good energy. GANK, the sophomore effort of the Charlottetown natives, hit the shelves earlier this month, marking the end of a four-year hiatus which left the future of the young but talented Maritime band in question. Since the release of their debut EP In Alright in 2006, The Danks have gone through a couple personnel changes, swapping members with fellow Prince Edward Islanders Two Hours Traffic and The Robots before settling on their current four-piece, whose core members—singer-songwriter Brohan Moore and guitarist Alec O’Hanley (formerly of Two Hours Traffic)—pillaged The Robots’ set for bassist Phil MacIsaac and drummer Chris Doiron, a development matter-of-factly recalled by O’Hanley in an interview for Exclaim!: “We just kind of took their rhythm section. Well, borrowed, I guess.”

With blasé-hip turns of phrase (“I don’t care about always/I just sit back and it goes on and on”, “sharing a smoke in the park/telling your folks you’re honing your art”) and tip-toe ebullience, The Danks are at their best entertaining partygoers, concerned more with having fun than critical scrutiny. They’re masters of the hook, delivering teenage anthems about small-town woes in a neat sunshine-pop package. With tracks that get straight to the point, GANK runs a gamut of 11 songs in just over 30 minutes, breaking the three minute mark only twice. At times they manage to cast off their velvety twee strappings to flirt with the deeper convictions, but they inevitably dissolve back into a soundscape of druggy, carefree vibes. I was excited when the latent electronic embellishments of the garishly backbeat “Sharpshooter” transform into the album’s prog-rocky centerpiece “Octagonal” and the slightly-warped, Flaming Lipsian psychedelia of “Genre Tourism,” but it’s followed up by strum-heavy Green Day retrograde, the fun but rather monophonic pairing of “Sycamore” and “Big Picture.”

GANK by the danks

The Danks are an easy band to get along with, in that its familiar pop formulas have you humming the tune before it even starts. You can practically sing Twist and Shout on top of “Experimental Fiction,” the hazy vocals of which blend into the background in shoegazing fashion—and by the way, Moore’s characteristic raspy voice seems endearingly appropriate for a band whose name connotes good weed (a technicality which, according to an interview on pastarunmusic, entirely escaped Moore, who “never thought of checking Urban Dictionary”). Between the wonderfully melodic “Who Is You?,” the adorable “Sharpshooter” and the bittersweet album-finisher “Dreads,” an anecdotal outlier on an otherwise amped-up album brimming with stammering guitar riffs and basic chord cycles, The Danks both affirm their status as schoolgirl crush generators and reveal their distinctive talent as up-and-coming songsmiths.