Nick Diamonds – I Am An Attic album review

Nick Diamonds, aka Nick Thorton, is the Canadian born songster partially responsible for the likes of Th’ Corn Gangg, Islands, Human Highway and most recently the much heralded Mister Heavenly, which featured actor Michael Cera on bass while they toured.  As oft happens with a la mode musician vocalists, it seems likely he came out with a solo record because he had some ideas he needed to get out, but he knew they wouldn’t gain much popularity (for example the recent solo album by Alexander Ebert of The Magnetic Zeros). 

I Am An Attic is a somber journey through Nick Diamond’s sardonic wit.  It is a witty wit, and a mellifluous wit, but the songs on the record operate at a leisurely pace, not that he’s slow witted.    There’s plenty of interesting synthesizer sounds going on, and even some theramin, but not much of the ecstatic keys you’ll find with his psych-pop band The Unicorns.

This album may be Diamond’s way of coming to terms with turning 30, a hard age to turn, not nearly as kind as 29, though perhaps less perilous than turning 40.  On “Used to Be Funny” Diamonds recalls all of the things he used to have and used to be: money, beauty, energy, and of course funny.  He has an interesting cadence when he sings, a sixteenth note lilt between phrases which gives an introspective quality to the lyrics.

There are no recycled ideas here, but I did hear a number of other indie bands which may have influenced him.  Most notably Noel Gallagher on “Dream Dream Dream” and a great deal of They Might Be Giants throughout, though they may be before his time.  On “The Vaccine,” a song which made me wonder what the vaccine was and what it was for and kind of wish I had some, I also heard Cake.

He is a capable vocalist, which is especially evident on “Don’t Do Us Any Favors,” a song that I took to be a sort of political dirge.  “That was your neighbor/it was harmless behavior,” he sings.  It is more sorrowful than angry, as is “You Must Be Choking,” a song about a dead friend.  Diamonds obviously has suffered loss, like the rest of us, and perhaps after processing it through I Am An Attic (think repository for sepia tinged memories) he’ll be able to move beyond it.


Razika – Program 91 album review

Four nineteen year-old Norwegian girls make up Razika, a ska heavy indie-pop band who work together as tightly as sisters.  And well they should.  Lead singer Marie Andam, Maria Rakal, Marie Moe and drummer Embla Dahleng have known one another since the age of six, and have been playing together since they were fourteen.

Named for New Wave Norwegian band Program 81, Razika’s debut album, Program 91, is full of jangly, high-gain retro guitar and concise melodic transitions.  The album is roughly half in English and half in Norwegian.  Primary songwriter Andam doesn’t utterly surprise with her English lyrics, though she does have some interesting angles.  On first track “Youth” Andam sings, “let me share my youth with you tonight…” revealing they are aware of the power of their wee age.  They have a practically alchemical combination of burgeoning sexuality, waning innocence, and above all an ear for the musical zeitgeist.  Comparisons have been drawn between Razika and Best Coast, Vivian Girls, and Tennis.

The album’s cohesion is no coincidence.   Because they were attending school while it was recorded, Program 91 took a year of weekends to complete.  Those musicians out there who have saved up their coffers for a marathon recording session would probably agree– maintaining focus for an entire year on a single project  is a daunting prospect.  However, Razika obviously had a great deal of time to refine their songs, and their youthful zeal no doubt helped.

Although the English lyrics are average, what really drew me in were the songs sung in Norwegian.  Norwegian indie isn’t something I hear everyday, and I was delighted by the taut intonation on songs like “Vondt I hjerjet” and “Eg vetsje.”  There is also a tasteful retro vibe going on, especially on “Why Have We To Wait,” a cover of a song by fellow Norwegians, 1960s band The Pussycats.

Although I don’t have the proper characters as I type this, a few translations of the song titles are New on New for “Nyt Pa Nytt,”  Middle Ages for “Middlealder” and Never for “Aldri.”  Razika is currently signed on the Smalltown Supersound label.

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Boy and Bear – Moonfire album review

I believe the disconnect between the individual and the family isn’t just an American phenomenon, and perhaps mistakenly found some evidence of that in the new album Moonfire by Australian quintet Boy and Bear.  The nomadic lifestyle the millennial generation has been forced into will probably be OK for a few years, say their twenties and early thirties, but eventually all that rooting around for the next buck is going to take a toll.   The best song I could find on the record, closing track “Big Man,” made me think about this, especially the lyrics, “somebody told me that your nephew was born…in a wonderful way it was making me feel so small.”  “Big Man,” is basically a love song about the importance of family, and for all I know it’s genesis came from one of the band member’s wife and kids.  Still, I imagine if you’re on tour for a few months, and on your travels you meet a kid whose ego is bigger than yours, it could put things in perspective, make you think about the future, and whether you have one.   Moonfire’s Paul Simon influenced song “The Village” may have similar underpinnings.

Originating from Sydney, Australia in 2009, Boy and Bear has had a skyward trajectory, with Australia-wide airplay on NovaFM and Triple J.  In 2010 they toured the UK with Laura Marling, and released their debut EP “With Emperor Antarctica.” Their song “Mexican Mavis” was even featured on an episode of “90210.”

Moonfire has some good points, including a well constructed sound manufactured by producer Joe Chicarelli (The White Stripes, The Strokes).  They use the banjo to good effect, and some mandolin. Comparisons have been drawn between them and The Killers and Mavis Mumford.

Thematically, Moonfire is rather disjointed, but the lyrics are often inspired.  They also use some inventive orchestration, which will hopefully increase as they mature.  The delicate Asian ambience on “House and Farm” and the stretched thinness of the vocals on “Percy Warner Park” are high points.

All five members are singer/songwriters, and if they can break loose of the pressure to fit into the indie-folk mold, there’s no telling how far they can go.


Comet Gain – The Howl of the Lonely Crowd review

Created in 1992 by founding member and current lead singer David Feck, Comet Gain are long established veterans of English northern-soul and indie music.  The band’s current configuration includes seven members, and has moved far away from the original trio, and Comet Gain’s later incarnation, which included Sarah Bleach who later sang in Velocette. 

The songs on the new full length album, Howl of the Lonely Crowd, are sometimes disappointing, if only because Feck sings lead on most of them and is often off key.  I really wanted to like this record and listened to it at least ten times.  But the maudlin, overwrought lyrical mood and clichéd melodies just didn’t work for me.  This sucks because if you listen to the songs on their sweeping compilation record, Broken Record Prayers, which includes 20 songs, you’ll hear many awesome, gritty tunes.

One of the more interesting elements of Howl of the Lonely Crowd is the use of obscure references.  “The Ballad of Frankie Machine” is a reference to a Don Winslow book.  “Yoona Baines,” to the keyboardist of post-punk band The Fall, later of Blue Orchids, Una Baines.  And then there’s “Herbert Huncke Part 2.”  Huncke is a notorious junkie and beatnik poet who died in 1996.  Apparently his writings had a profound effect on Feck.

Particularly challenging to the ear is the spoken word track “A Memorial For Nobody I Know.”  I think the title says it all.  It probably would have worked better if it were A Memorial To Someone I Know.  It’s par for the course as far as the lyrics are concerned, which seem to be groping for the emotional locus that will carry the songs forward.

Comet Gain’s current seven piece line-up include some great musicians.  Jon Slade, formerly of riot grrrl band Huggy Bear, is one of the guitars.  And Woodie Taylor, ex-Morrissey drummer, plays percussion.  The band has been signed to a number of labels, including Kill Rockstars, Wiiija, and The Track and Field Organisation.  Currently they’re with Fortuna Pop! Records.  Feck is a musical explorer, and extremely prolific.  Happily, there’s no way of knowing what shape Comet Gain’s next release will take.

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Ada – Meine Zarten Pfoten album review

After seven years, Michaela Dippel, aka Ada, has released a follow-up album to 2004’s Blondie.  Meine Zarten Pfoten, which translates from the German to My Tender Paws, is a departure from the poppy, more beat driven songs on her previous album, such as the popular “Blindhouse.”  One can’t help wondering why the songs on Meine Zarten Pfoten are so minimal in their construction.

Opening with an encouragingly high fidelity scratch on vinyl effect, the first song, “Faith,” is basically a three chord ascension with minimal lyrics.  At nearly six minutes long, it soon becomes tiresome.  This is followed by “On the Mend,” which features a two chord progression and modern jazzy abstract vocals, ala early Star Trek episodes.  Third track “Likely,” revisited as final track “2 Likely” relies on a two chord finger-picking progression, but is spiced up with some Hammond B-3 sounding synth.  The vocals on “Likely” consist entirely of the repeated phrase “happy you’re sad.”  The tracks are minimal to a fault, but have an exceedingly tranquil aesthetic.

Fourth track, “The Jazz Singer,” marks a melodic shift.  The beats become detectable, and it is positively spritely compared to the songs that lead up to it.  For some reason Dippel went with a default Casiotone piano sound for this track, which is a curious choice, but makes sense in light of her overall minimal approach.

“At the Gate” moves away from the experimental asceticism of the opening tracks into house music.  Various effects maintain a driving tempo throughout with a contemplative resonance.  The traditional jazz drumming that ends this song is a welcome distraction from the thematic repetition. 

It’s odd that the fifth track is called “Intro.”  I wonder whether Dippel recognized that her broader audience might feel alienated by the first several tracks on the record, and that at Meine Zarten Pfoten’s midpoint, she acknowledges that the rest of the songs will be more easily digestable.  Really, I doubt it, but the second half of the record does move more swiftly. 

Much of Meine Zarten’s Pfoten reminded me of video game music, especially when you’re at some pause in the action and whatever electronic melody is repeating in a loop.  I think the dearth of beats and bass detract from the album’s overall momentum, making it a little less palatable than her previous work, but it has many interesting ideas.


The Midway State – Paris or India album review

(Please note: there is a good review of this album on this site as well, you may want to click on that one instead.)

If you are addicted to Oxycodone, this music has the dissociative aspect that will definitely improve your high.  If your life consists of trips to strip malls and plasma screen televisions, and you high five your friends when a new Panda Restaurant is opened up because it will add exoticism to your life, this music is for you.

 If I were to choose music for a 90s romantic comedy, specifically for the ending credits, I’d definitely opt for any of the trac ks off  The Midway State’s sophomore album, Paris or India.  I can totally see Meg Ryan walking into the sunset to “Atlantic,” for instance.  It’s no wonder the band covered Spandau Ballet’s “True,” a song famous for its role in the John Hughes film, Sixteen Candles.  Their version, by the way, will be featured in the film Textuality. 

They are youthful and perhaps I’m jealous of their hairdos.  If this is the case, I’ve sublimated that aggression and am totally unaware of it.  Lead singer Nathan Ferraro’s breathy urgency rings false to me.  The lyrics are unimpressive, an incidental afterthought to fill out the catchy hooks of the synth.  I especially like the first seven seconds of the track “All Anew,” but the song is much longer than seven seconds.

There is a woeful quality of privilege and ease permeating the songs.  I believe the band’s cultural inheritance must be relegated to potato salad and commercial pop music, which I cannot stomach.  Although I do like my tater salad. 

Excellently mixed down by Randy Staub, the same engineer who did Avril Lavigne and Metallica, the album is flawless in its sterility.  Producer Gavin Brown has hit all the right notes for commercial success. 

Many of the songs, especially “Atlantic,” reminded me of  Christopher Cross’s “Sailing,” which is one of my favorite songs, especially when I need to calm down at the dentist.   I’ve heard all of these songs in other forms a hundred times already.  The aesthetic modus, a reductive smear, is like a mutating virus that has decimated the music industry.


Soft Metals – Soft Metals album review

Portland, city of crumbling iron bridges.  Of old brick buildings with signs for long forgotten health tonics, fading like prison tattoos.   Beleaguered hipsters find respite from the unceasing rain in its old-world turned new art galleries and music halls.  In short, it’s the perfect cityscape for the dreamy synth-pop duo, Soft Metals.

Vocalist Patricia Hall and keyboardist Ian Hicks began the band, and their love affair, in 2009.  Since then they have released one EP, the acclaimed The Cold World Melts.  The 2011 release of their first full length album, the self-titled Soft Metals, shows technical evolution.  Growing out of the old-school synthesizers used primarily on the EP, Hicks is now incorporating MIDI technology along with standby troopers of 80s synthpunk such as Yamaha’s DX7 and Ensoniq’s Mirage.  This has made for more layered sounds, as well as a nicely compacted assortment of gear for their live shows.

Citing influences as early as eighties post-punk synth bands The Units and The Young Marble Giants, it’s easy to see that Hicks and Hall have spent their share of time rifling through the bins of vinyl shops.  But Soft Metals has more in common with contemporaries like Miracles Club than they do with The Human League.

The music has a very cinematic feel, so it makes sense that the first track, “Psychic Driving,” was inspired by the work of documentary film maker Adam Curtis.  And although this is my least favorite of the songs on Soft Metals, it is still highly listenable.  “Psychic Driving” has a lyric that stays closer to traditional pop melodies than the rest of the album, which has a sweeping quality, integrating repeated vocal parts with Hicks’ excellent keyboard work.  “Always,” a funky synthesizer collage, and “Celestial Call,” with its soaring vocals, are a couple of my favorites.

Signed with Brooklyn label Captured Tracks, Soft Metals has a formula that makes it both danceable and smooth enough to put on in the background.   Although the layering and other effects make the lyrics sometimes hard to make out, the overall effect is entirely one of self-contained completeness.  Apparently, as Hicks and Hall have developed as a couple, their music has grown with them.


The Whitetrash Superstars – Loud review

Sometimes America seems more like an “economy” than a nation, less of a community than a roomful of strangers.  At least to me, but that’s my America, the America of the cities, where people from such completely different backgrounds are packed so tightly together, all they can do is turn their faces to the wall and ignore each other.

The small towns continue to exist, however.  And in them, with those cheap rents and slower paces, and time, especially, time to think, real music continues to be created.  Thus was the case with Megadeth and Metallica, and such is the case with Ukiah, California based Whitetrash Superstars. 

Vocalist Drew Ratzloff and drummer Davey Olmstead are childhood friends.  They polished their collaborative effort in a “filthy animal feces infested garage” somewhere in the verdant woods of Mendocino County.   With the addition of bassist Jacob King they are making music which pleases themselves, first and foremost.  If you’re a musician, that’s the first thing you need to do, and in songs like “Blue” and “Outside” from the band’s 2011 sophomore album Loud, you can hear them smiling as they, well, completely rock out.

There are some moments on the album when Ratzloff’s G N’ R influence is a little overwhelming.  It’s when the band gels into one of their many instrumental interludes that you can hear the compelling honesty which makes them good.  And when the Peter Frampton talking guitar effect kicks in, you’ll know, they don’t really give a shit what other people think, and thank God for that.  All three members are musically competent, and King’s Geezer Butler inspired bass style provides a strong glue to hold them together.  You can check them out at, and

While Simon Cowell measures a musician’s quality by how sterile a performance he can deliver, and the Los Angeles demonic music machine manufactures the poisonous pabulum which is driving the taste of our populace into utter decay, bands like The Whitetrash Superstars continue, not manufacturing but creating.  It gives one a little bit of hope.


Vampillia – Alchemic Heart album review

I will never see the new Jim Carrey movie, Mr. Popper’s Penguins.  I know this because I sat through the preview for it after paying eleven dollars and fifty cents to see the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  At the ten minute mark of the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, still disgusted by Mr. Popper’s Penguins, I got up and left, feeling someone somewhere was snickering at me for having handed over my hard won cash.

You may wonder how this is relevant to the 2011 Vampillia release, Alchemic Heart.  It isn’t really.  But that’s the point.  Alchemic Heart is a deconstructive, chaotic mélange of sound, and its two tracks, each of which runs 24 minutes, seemed very long.  Listening to it I rather felt like I was at the ten minute mark of the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  But it has its good points, too.

Vampillia, a self-dubbed “brutal orchestra,” is a Japanese ensemble comprised of three guitarists, a bassist, twin drummers, a pianist and three vocalists.  For Alchemic Heart, Jarboe of Swans and Japanese noise-god Merzbow also participated.  The two tracks are alternately titled “Sea” and “Land.”  This dichotomy of ideas is reflected also in the half-way points of both tracks, which change at around the twelve minute mark.

In “Sea” Jarboe begins and ends with quietly sung incantations such as “I breathe in the darkness, I breathe in the loneliness.”  Delicately simple string lines above various distorted vocal groans and equally distorted and dissonant string lines lead up to a keen break.   After the midpoint the electric guitars come in to deliver a barrage of sound, and operatic wailing can be heard in the distance.  The track ends when Jarboe concludes her initial musings with lines such as “to breathe out light” and “to breathe out fire.”   The lyrical bookends make a great deal of sense, and much of the ebb and flow of the instrumentation is evocative of waves.

“Land” begins with a melody reminiscent of the Christmas song “Silent Night.”  This tunefulness is unmoored with a subtext of clawing, metallic, cricket-like sounds, which continue until the listener is himself left pretty much unmoored.  Power chords enter again after the mid-point and a maelstrom of noise continues, fraying any hope of tranquility, until at last a gentle piano line re-establishes a sense of melody.

Vampillia were much loved at this year’s SXSW Festival, and use a boisterous theatricality in their live shows.  Their music is no doubt carefully rendered, but also has a devil may care post-modern quality.  The phrase “brutal orchestra” is an apt characterization of their sound.


Johann Johannsson – The Miners’ Hymns album review

The year is 1984, the place, Orgreave, South Yorkshire, England.  Truncheon wielding police on horseback clash with striking miners, as Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party cracks down on the mighty National Union of Mineworkers.  Ultimately the strike fails, the coal industry is dismantled, and ten people are killed.

This is only part of the story behind The Miners’ Hymns, Icelandic modern composer Johann Johannsson’s soundtrack to Bill Morrison’s film of the same name.  The rest of the story?  Start with Emile Zola’s 1884 novel, “Germinal.”  Imagine the sweat soaked bodies of dust blackened girls and boys sliding through crumbling passageways decade after decade, the twelve hour workdays, the desperation, but also the hope for change.  Then labor finally unites.

And with the unions, pride.  In its heyday the Miners’ Gala in Durham County, North East England, drew upwards of 250,000 people.  It carries on today, although the coal industry is long gone and the gala has been incorporated into Brass: The Durham International Festival, which commissioned Bill Morrison’s striking documentary.  Johannsson’s soundtrack for the film is broken into six sections which carry titles taken from the banners the Trade Union would fly.  I think those titles bare mentioning here:

 “They Being Dead Yet Speaketh”

“An Injury To One Is The Concern Of All”

“Freedom From Want And Fear”

“There Is No Safe Side But The Side Of Truth”

“Industrial And Provident, We Unite To Assist Each Other”

“The Cause Of Labour Is The Hope Of The World”

Recorded live in Durham Cathedral by a 16 member brass ensemble led by fellow Icelander Gudni Franzson, Johannsson later recorded there alone to add electronic embellishments.  After listening many times, I figured out that the strange ticking sound on “There Is No Safe Side But The Side Of Truth” was not ruffling pages.  It’s the sound of a pick striking away at a wall of coal, followed by the gentle thump as a piece is broken loose.

There is a tremendous feeling of space in The Miners’ Hymns, which is ironic given the cramped conditions of the mines.  The irony doesn’t end there.  The Icelandic economy now lies in partial ruins because of the greed of a handful of bankers, as does arguably much of the world’s.  The Miners’ Hymns is at once a grand portrait of human nobility, and a heartbreaking chronicle of what has befallen us.