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Zola Jesus – Conatus review

“Conatus” is a term used by the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, most famous for his work “Ethics,” to describe the drive in all animals to stay alive.  So it makes sense that Nika Roza Danilova, the one woman driving force behind Zola Jesus, who grew up in the Merrill, Wisconsin woods eating wild game, should choose that as the title of her latest album.  There is a dire chilliness to the tracks on “Conatus” which reminded me of Ayn Rand, of a forceful individualism impeded by society.

The name Zola Jesus fits into that aesthetic as well. Zola was taken from French nineteenth century novelist and social critic Emile Zola, whom I’ve mentioned here before, specifically in a review of “The Miner’s Hymns” by Johann Johannsson.  Jesus comes from Jesus.  In view of this combination of references, it makes sense that Danilova, who is only 22, spent time studying philosophy.

You won’t find, or at least I couldn’t discern, such intellectual references in the lyrics.  This is probably a good thing.  What you will find are waves of slow synthesizer punctuated by austere electronic beats behind Danilova’s practiced alto vocalizations.  At one time she wanted to be an opera singer, but her voice is probably better suited to what she’s doing now.

Danilova sites influences ranging from Throbbing Gristle to The Swans and Diamanda Galas.  I love Diamanda Galas, and you can hear the same solo power, a power perhaps garnered from an intrinsically isolated spirit, in “Conatus.”  The overall slowness of the album makes the songs sometimes seem similar.  They have an industrial, gothic sensibility that really needs powerful hooks to be truly successful.  But there are some good tracks, especially the mature melodic approach on “In Your Nature,” the echo laden crunch of “Vessel,” and what may be the best song on the record, “Lick the Palm of the Burning Hand,” a new wave ballad.

Having produced three full length albums, as well as three Eps, Zola Jesus is steadily maturing.  The band tours with Alex DeGroot on computer, Nick Turco on synth and Nick Johnson on drums.  They are currently signed to Sacred Bones Records.

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Dan Mangan – Oh Fortune review

Departing from the folksy jangle and simplicity of his earlier work, including heralded LP, “Nice, Nice, Very Nice,” Vancouver’s Dan Mangan has opted to go for full orchestration on his third full length album “Oh Fortune.”  Some of his sense of humor has been lost among all the noise, although it still manages to peak out here and there.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with being overwrought.   I myself spend a good portion of each day in a state of overwrought-ness, but it would’ve helped me to relate to his mood more if I had a better sense of what his songs are actually about.  The lyrics are absolutely distinct aurally, and absolutely the opposite when it comes to content.

As an example, on “Rows of Houses” which I discovered is about Steven Spielberg’s movie “Stand by Me,” one encounters the lyric “the taste of something.”  And not just once.  “The taste of something” is repeated, leading this reviewer to wonder even more what that something might be.  That indistinctness must have been an attempt to evoke a quality of, um, something.  I’m just not sure what.  After all, I couldn’t taste it.

Musically, “Oh Fortune” is a solid piece of work, exceptionally produced by Colin Stewart (Black Mountain, Cave Singers).  And there’s some fine guitar work by Gord Grdina, especially his fast picking and elastic strumming on “Post War Blues.”  The instrumentation also stands out when the brass section breaks into an exuberant crescendo at the end of “Starts With Them, Ends With Us.”  Mangan’s vocals are heady with a subdued sense of irony, somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke.  This sensibility helps the subtle humor on closing track “Jeopardy” in which Mangan bemoans his emotional and real-world befuddlement.  “What day is it?” he asks.  “Where did I go?  What am I doing?”

Mangan has had a great deal of fame in the last few years, especially on the Canadian touring circuit.  He was on the shortlist for the coveted Polaris Music Prize, and has played on the same ticket as The Decemberists and other indie luminaries.   There has been some comparison to Mangan and freak folk wonders Bon Iver and fellow Canadian Chad Van Gaalen, but his earnest approach is less affected.

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Gungor – Ghosts Upon the Earth review

Jesus Christ.  When I think of him, which is not often, I’m gripped by the fear that despite all my good works and intentions, turning a blind eye toward my redemption may end in an eternity in Hell.  Where I will burn.  Forever.   I feel the same way about Allah, Buddha, and Yahweh. 

However, the band Gungor, led by Michael Gungor, husband of Lisa, son of Ed, (and Pastor Ed did beget Michael, in Wisconsin, where a great bounty of cheese did befall those in attendance, and fishes became cheese, and loaves as well did become cheese, and someone went to the A&P to purchaseth the bread for the cheese, of which there was such a bounty) has a very sophisticated approach to Christianity., both musically and philosophically.  It would have been easier if Michael Gungor didn’t think about things so much, I could’ve just written off “Ghosts Upon the Earth,” Gungor’s latest album.  Instead, let’s talk about Narnia.

I’m not sufficiently erudite to approach C.S. Lewis’s use of allegory, but I know allegory is what he did.  Good vs. Evil, the forbidden fruit, overcoming temptation, etc., are all buried within his novels, including the Narnia series, and his book The Great Divorce.  This is important because the title of Gungor’s latest record, “Ghosts Upon the Earth,” is a reference to the latter.  The Great Divorce is basically about ghostly grey people living in a state of self-imposed bleakness who shy away from a grand realm of shiny happiness even though it’s right there for the taking.  Gungor sees parallels between this story and modern life:

“Ideas like love, like God, these things sometimes feel more disconnected and ethereal, like that’s the ghostly realm. This is turning it on its head, recognizing that God is real, love is real, and we are the ghosts walking upon the earth, wanting to become more real.”- Michael Gungor

Despite this, “Ghosts Upon the Earth” still often has that saccharine, cloying quality of many Christian bands.  It’s just hard to avoid with lyrics like “In you we live” from the track “Brother Moon,” or “Let church bells ring/let children sing” which reads like a combination of Kool and the Gang and Pat Boone until you get to the line “why…stifle their voice/just because you’ve lost yours.”

That being said, musically “Ghosts Upon the Earth” is like no other modern Christian music I’ve heard.  Michael Gungor is famous for using a toy piano, and his wife, the glockenspiel.  The album uses 17 other players, including four vocalists, a six person string ensemble and an entire boys’ choir.  It’s for this reason Gungor has been compared to Sigur Rós, Muse and even Sufjian Stevens.

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The Whip – Wired Together review

In another life I was an Aryan joyboy, blonde, lithe and jittery with dopamine enhancing club drugs, candy flipping and flipping out with the best of them, eating piles of Belgian waffles in Stuttgart at four in the morning after taxing my rock hard calves from 9 or 10 hours of constant bouncing, of indeterminate gender orientation and sexual preference.  Indifferent to run-on sentences and fragments alike.  I recall said other life fondly, although in this one I am a staid and hirsute Ashkenazi.  New album “Wired Together” by The Whip acted as a sort of the aural trigger for what could have been. 

Originally from Oldham, England, the trio has matured significantly since their 2008 debut album “X Marks Destination,” which featured the much commercially utilized single “Trash.”  The Whip is basically dance music, but now they are using more synthesizer and computer sounds, giving some of the songs the same electro funkiness of chillwave bands like Washed Out or Neon Indian.

Dance bands are hard pressed to come up with lyrics that have much forethought, but The Whip manages to do this on opening track, “Keep or Delete” with the rhyme “Move on much too fast, nothing these days is built to last.”  Well, I believe that is very true.  And speaking of candy flipping, the track “Riot” also has some interesting lyrical choices, considering the people dancing away to it are probably usually out of their heads on ecstasy.  I can’t be absolutely certain, because I couldn’t find the lyrics for “Riot” anywhere, but it sounds like lead singer Bruce Carter is saying, “your heart is just about ready to go pop, pop”!  Followed by something about drinking Redbulls and shots.  Now if it were me dancing to this, in between deep drags on my Gitanes, I would probably have to go to the medic tent and ask for some thorazine.

Similar to fellow Brits, Hadouken!, but with less of the frenetic zeal, The Whip is doing a fine job at producing danceable electro-pop music.  They are currently with Southern Fried Records.

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Vaz – Chartreuse Bull album review

My car broke down and I was living under an overpass in East LA.  I had been listening to Vaz’s new record “Chartreuse Bull” all week through the tinny speakers of my computer because my super expensive “review writing” headphones were back in my SRO in Chinatown.  Sometimes tinny little speakers don’t do a band justice, and I suspected this was the case with Chartreuse Bull, so I traded the back wash from a fifth of Ancient Age for a bum’s United Airlines headphones.  This made all the difference.

There is nothing namby pamby about Vaz.  Originally from Fargo, North Dakota, founding members Paul Erickson and Jeff Mooridian migrated to Minneapolis in the 1990s, and formed noise metal rock band Hammerhead.  Hammerhead did pretty good, and if you’re lucky you can chase down one of the cassette tapes they were usually released on, maybe trade it for some backwash from a fifth of Ancient Age in the alley behind your local dollar store.  You’ll recognize the guy listening to Hammerhead.  About 45, greasy hair, and bearing an unmistakable likeness to Sloth from The Goonies.

After they lost guitarist Paul Sanders,  Mooridian and Erickson struck out as the duo Vaz, later becoming a trio with the addition of guitarist Tyler Nolan.  They’ve been through lots of other changes, including a variety of record labels, but that’s what happens when you keep going for nigh on twenty years.

The expression of American angst through music is something we could use a lot more of these days, and a recent resurgence of bands which do just this has led to what is being called a resurgence of the “pigfuck” genre, a term first used by NY music journalist Robert Christgau back in the 80s.  That’s all fine and good, but a close listen to Chartreuse Bull shows a much large pallet than just the smash and spatter of heavily distorted guitars and wayward amphetaminized drumming.  The track “Neon Sunrise” is a delicate modern composition, and on “The 2nd” the vocal melody is a nicely enervated counterpoint to Mooridian’s drums.

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Neon Indian – Era Extraña album review

Neon Indian’s sophomore album, Era Extraña, is a bit softer than 2009’s debut Psychic Chasms.  The synth back beats still provide a foundation for founding artist Alan Palomo’s breathy vocals, and he continues to use ebullient sound effects and swooping video game sounds, but where Psychic Chasms bears a similarity to fellow chillwave pioneers, Com Truise (with whom Neon Indian is scheduled to tour soon), Era Extraña’s tinkly blur is a bit closer to the swirl and lash of Washed Out or Small Black.

Palomo began his musical career in the band Ghosthustler and as the solo artist Vega.  Although originally based in Denton, Texas, Palomo’s music, with its subtle sonic references to all things 80s, has a definitely cosmopolitan flavor.  Psychic Chasms was released in the UK on Palomo’s Static Tongues label, and Era Extraña was recorded in Helsinki, Finland during the winter.  Palomo reportedly had a hard time mentally while recording it, possibly because of the drear outdoors, and this is reflected in songs like “Future Sick” and “Heart: Decay.”  “Heart: Decay” is the second song of a triptych, the first being “Heart: Attack” and the last being the more hopeful “Heart: Release.”  Palomo avoids being thematically monochromatic by separating these three songs with other tracks.  

Equally synth-pop and new wave, one can hear everything from Depeche Mode to Joy Division on the album, but none of what Palomo creates seems completely derivative.  Interestingly, Palomo’s father was a Mexican pop-star briefly, and some of the samples were taken from his music. 

Neon Indian’s focus on the laptop and keyboard allow it to stay within the chillwave genre, but some of the songs might be better characterized more generally as synth-pop.  “Hex Girlfriend” with its radio ready chorus and traditional structure, and “Fallout” with its shades of Simply Red are both satisfactorily poppy enough to get radio play and appeal to a very wide audience.

Neon Indian - Era Extraña album review

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The Horrible Crowes – Elsie album review

Forgive me.  I have donned my hair shirt and flailed myself with a piece of barbed wire for what I was going to say about the songs on The Horrible Crowes’ first album, Elsie.  Something about how they had Bruce Springsteen’s aesthetic without the substance.  Then I found the lyrics for the songs online.

Many of the albums I get don’t include lyrics, nor have the lyrics been posted.  Brian Fallon, lead singer and writer for Horrible Crowes, had the prescience, or maybe just the wherewithal, to make sure people could read them.  And they’re good.  Very good.  Look at this stanza from “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together”:

Did you say your lovers were liars?
My lovers were liars too
Did you say you were dying?
I ain’t lived a single day without you

That’s only four lines, but in those four lines Fallon’s nostalgia and longing shine brightly.  I can practically see him in a parking lot somewhere in New Jersey, kicking a pebble with his steel-toed boot as he talks to a woman he has trouble making eye contact with.  And Elsie is full of lyrics with these poignant transitions that move from the moment to his self-reflection on what that moment means.

If you’ve ever tried to write poetry, wait, scratch that, if you’ve ever tried to read modern poetry, opened up Tin House or Seven Hills, you’ve probably read a couple of lines and thought to yourself, “I don’t give a flying @#$%! what this person is saying.  I could be playing Tetris right now, dammit.”  Poetry is hard, and Fallon is a good writer.  The problem I have with Elsie is this: a melody has an aesthetic, and you have to find the lyrics that absolutely fit that aesthetic.  That’s not easy.  Fallon is a great writer, but the emotional impact those lyrics are capable of is sometimes left behind as the songs move forward.  Poetry is good on the page, when you have time to digest it; lyrics have to be immediate.

Elsie, however, has grown on me.

Best known for his band Gaslight Anthem which was founded in 2005 and has produced three full length albums, Fallon’s comparison to Springsteen is something he has come to terms with.  It’s a good example of an artist seeming like someone else without necessarily emulating him.  Many poets for instance write like Charles Bukowski only because they have a similar voice.  Like Sprinsteen, Fallon is from New Jersey, and has even played next to him onstage.  Elsie shows a quieter, slower side of Fallon, and along with Springsteen it has many Tom Waitsian undertones.  If anything, Elsie is even closer to Springsteen than Gaslight Anthem’s 2010 record American Slang.  Still, it deserves a close listen.

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HTRK – Work (Work,Work) album review

Slap me on the back and call me shorty, I just don’t know what to make of these new fangled kids with there new fangled programmed drums and subgenres.  Exempli gratis, HTRK, pronounced “hate rock” has been determined to fit into the Witch House category.  You can tell if something is witch house because it will have triangles and crosses in the title, or around it, or just hanging out somewhere in the back freaked out on ecstasy.  They look like this:  ?†.  What do these strange runes mean?

Think witch.  She’s ugly and cranky.  Maybe she has Parkinson’s or arthritis so she’s very sllloooowww. Above all she’s creepy.  Then house, yes, beat driven electronica.  That about sums it up.  I can easily see Kraftwerk descendants in monocles and drainpipe pants beating the bejesus out of each other, arguing over this kind of nomenclature: “No man, it’s dark wave!” – Horrorcore!” –“Shweinhund, eet ees obviously chillwave…”  It’s cool man.  It’s alright, I kind of like it.  These days most bands exist for me on a scale of how hard they are to endure, and HTRK are very easy to listen to.

Vocalist Jonnine Standish ‘s fuzzed out, maudlin vocal stylings on the first track, “ice eye eis,” with it’s Tears for Fearsy intro, are sung in German.  I don’t know German, but I’ve always meant to learn it, and it’s really not her fault I couldn’t understand what she’s saying.   Of course, with all the reverb I couldn’t understand many of the English lyrics either, but as with their great-great grandparents Cocteau Twins (an influence especially evident in the arpeggio on the track Synthetik), the meaning is secondary to the aesthetic, and the aesthetic is molasses thick, an ennui inspired molasses mélange…!

HTRK hail from Melbourne and this is their second, forgive me, sophomore, album.  They’ve also released numerous singles and EPs and toured widely with underground luminaries ranging from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to *uck Buttons.   Percussionist/singer Standish and multi-instrumentalist Nigel Yang are continuing on with the band as a duo since the unfortunate suicide of their bassist, Sean Stewart, in 2010.

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Counting Crows: August and Everything After Live At Town Hall review

Diehard Counting Crows fans may already have bootleg video of Adam Duritz’s band via the torrent website CrowsTown.  If not, August and Everything After Live At Town Hall comes in dvd and Blu-ray formats (their first official live concert video), as well as a cd.  The album is a track by track recap of their 1993 album August and Everything After, which catapulted the band into fame.

Recorded at Town Hall in New York City in 2007, the album is full of the conversational interludes and improvisations Duritz is famous for in live performance.  Duritz has been through the mill.  His rapid rise to fame brought him to the edge of sanity, and he has suffered repeated nervous breakdowns, and struggled with prescription drug addiction.  A sensitive soul, he seems to use the stage as a way to process his manifold trials as an artist in the spotlight, and the audience responds wildly to his honest approach.

Founded in Berkeley, CA in 1991, Counting Crows were almost immediately signed by Geffen.  Their Bay Area roots still manifest today.  Camper Van Beethoven’s guitarist David Immergluck, who began his desultory relationship with Counting Crows in 1999, plays on the record.  In case you haven’t heard of them, Camper Van Beethoven were one of the best bands of the nineties.  I recently heard a cover of one of their songs at The Knockout in San Francisco, although the singer apparently didn’t know who had written it.  There is some reference to San Francisco on the record, but it is more a sweeping view of America.  “Round Here,” which combines “Raining in Baltimore” and “Private Archipelago,” “Omaha,” and references to the metaphorical “Perfect Blue Buildings” furnish Duritz with a landscape that is at once intimate and impressionistic.

Twenty years and 20 million records later, Counting Crows continue to be successful.  They have prodigiously recorded new material as well as a wide array of covers, including songs by Oasis, Otis Redding and Wilco.  The current release has a deluxe addition which includes a number of bonus tracks, including Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and a live recording in Elysee, Montmartre.

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Tinariwen – Tassili album review

The campfire flickers shadows on the sandstone cliffs.  The men sit playing Berber, Arab and African melodies, the creak and breath of their music a reflection of this austere landscape.   They have fought to make this desert, the land of the Tuareg nomads, a sovereign nation.  That they have not succeeded is irrelevant, for it is night, and the sand and sunset are there for them as they always have been.  They play to the applauding, multitudinous stars, into the night.

Then along comes Nels Cline of Wilco.  He plugs in his electric guitar, and patches it through circuitry.  For some reason his contribution doesn’t really fit.  Go figure.  Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio sit down too.  Perhaps if they help out Nels they’ll be able to fix whatever went wrong.  They take out the equivalent of a Twinkie from their musical lexicon, something artificial and slightly poisonous.  That doesn’t help either.  When the Westerners back off and let the men alone, the music starts to shine again.  The stars come back from their smoke break and relax into the music.  That’s the vitriol.  I could’ve said worse, but I’m holding back.  After all, I like Wilco, and TV on the Radio are great, just not on this record.  The addition of horns by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is pretty cool.

Tinariwen were formed in 1979 when founding members met at a refugee camp.  The freedom fighters had been supported by Qaadafi, and in 1985 they provided music for soldiers at a camp near Tripoli.  Their latest album, Tassili, is named after the section of desert it was recorded in, on the Algerian border with Libya.  This is a departure from their electric incarnation, a return to their acoustic roots.

Lead singer and guitarist Ibrahim ag Alhabib, originally from Mali, is a masterful guitarist.  I know not what he is doing with the instrument, all I know is that it is good.  His voice is full of “asuf” (spiritual yearning or pain) and “ishumar” (exile).  And as I said before, on some of these songs you can hear his inhalations in preparation for the verse.  I love this.  Forget the pop-guards; give me the sound of human breath.  It all has to do with authenticity.  That’s why Tom Waits recorded Mule Variations in a chicken coop.  That is why track number six, “Tameyawt,” bears a close resemblance to Nick Drake’s “The Road.”  Drake’s desert became the darkest level of the Bardo Plain, ag Alhabib’s desert gives him strength.  Both men bare their souls.