Chad VanGaalen – Diaper Island album review

Chad VanGaalen’s roots are grounded in lo-fi basement indie-rock, bleeding over into genres like folk and muted electronica. Don’t misconstrue the term ‘basement’ for anything trendy though; he is a long-time resident in this loner-league, a soulful place where he sits and creates his art below ground. With the May 17th release of his latest album, Diaper Island, a play on words that most definitely depicts a theme that is ‘ultra grittiness’, it’s crucial to understand VanGaalen’s ongoing work as an artist. From a birds’ eye view, he is an illustrator, animator, and producer, backing the art-rock band Women. His debut LP, Infiniheart was put out by independent record label Flemish Eye in 2004, a label from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, VanGaalen’s home turf. It was then re-released the following year with Sub Pop, and what has emerged since are a handful of other albums, the fragmentary product of a full-length album under the alias Black Mold, and a spectrum of influences that lay out an endless stream of improv.

Diaper Island opens with “Do Not Fear”, a song that settles in slight antiquated tribal lures like that of Jim Morrison’s later work, leaving you in a trance-like lull. “Peace on the Rise” is as soft and subtle as “Replace Me” is defiant and raw. “Shave My P****”, which, despite its title, is deeply sad — an exploratory fascination for a woman’s self-image crises. “Sara” opens with a folksy whistle and an echoing vocal that wails over and over: “Sara, wake me up when you’re home.” In “Can You Believe it!” electronic riffs paired with VanGaalen’s voice shout messages like its a PA system. “Blonde Hash” delivers a psychedelic chamber that will call to mind vague but familiar early ‘60s rock ‘n  roll bands like The Byrds or The Turtles.

For a guy who’s been compared to the likes of Neil Young and Sonic Youth, a mixed bag that blurs through the jagged fringes of ’90s indie-rock and lullaby folk of a  much earlier era, he juggles the guitar, drums, keyboard and harmonica. According to Pitchfork,  Chad VanGaalen “internalizes feelings of restlessness into the fabric of his songs,” At his core, he is homemade and delicately keen.

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Wild Beasts – Smother album review

Even though Wild Beasts debuted their first full-length album Limbo, Panto in 2008 off the label, Domino Records this indie rock-pop band from the UK has been brewing tantalizing EPs since 2002.  With a voice like lead vocalist Hayden Thorpe’s (it stands in the shadowy corners with the likes of Morrissey), who teamed up with Ben Little, drummer Chris Talbot, and then Tom Fleming, the foursome have created one delightful new album. Smother is their 3rd album release to-date, following well-received Two Dancers in 2009. In a word, Wild Beasts is: romantic. Make that painfully romantic.

In Smother, you hear their influencers reach the page, bands like Twin Shadow, or Orange Juice, a Scottish post-punk group, and Sparks, who dappled with many a genre but found great affection in cheeky pop circa 1982 with the release of “Angst in My Pants.” What modernizes Smother, is its piano-synth combination.  In their opening song “Lions Share”, that pairing is delicately interlaced with the lyrics: “I wait until you’re woozy/ I lay low until you’re lame.” The track “Burning” will take you down a lazy, whimsical river, followed by “Deeper”, a song that so bursts with The XX’s low-flow aesthetic.

Spin Magazine says “Smother expertly captures lust’s unsettling urgency, equating it with fire, electricity, and predatory behavior.” The sentiment is evident in the track “Plaything”, a mellowy-lounge mix that swelters and falls deeply into “Invisible”, a song loaded with everything that makes Wild Beasts a band that seems to dig their hand into the fine sediment of that gentle grey line that was ’80s new wave.

Many a fan of Wild Beasts will acclaim they’re following a careful path that is written with one blazing word: Radiohead. Two Dancers was especially game-changing in placing Wild Beasts in that noteworthy direction.  You can hear luring hints of Thom York in “Albatross”, sure to be one of the album favorites.  Another track-love will be “Reach A Bit Further”, as Thorpe’s falsetto plays along the synth-pop current with such quirky, fanciful happiness.
Check out Wild Beasts’ website for their 2011 tour dates!

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The Sea and Cake – Moonlight Butterfly album review

The Sea and Cake has been trucking along since the mid-’90s. The indie-rock band that hails from Chicago has produced 9 albums over the last 17 years. Their latest, Moonlight Butterfly, took flight on May 10th. Sam Prekop is The Sea and Cake’s front-man. Drummer John McEntire also drums for the band Tortoise, another band born out of the Windy City in the late ‘80s, credited as pioneers of ‘post-rock’ with ultimate recognition paid in their second LP, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Another scenester from the underground music scene in Chicago, Archer Prewitt, and bass-player/synth-master Eric Claridge, complete the foursome that is The Sea and Cake. Claridge is responsible for Moonlight Butterfly’s album cover, an elephant drawing that calls to mind early 1900’s African royalty.

Moonlight Butterfly is a mini-album. A 6-song exploration through what one might call: a tranquil trace of a band that’s trying something new-ish. If you listen to some of The Sea and Cake’s earlier work – it’s clear that they’ve, in some ways, grown up. This isn’t to say that Butterfly is an ultimate successor to S and C’s 8 other albums though. Simply put: None of their new songs will sway you in the way earlier hits like  “Parasol” or “Alone for the Moment” did off their 1995 LP Nassau. “Covers” deliver the ins and outs of a stream of consciousness-like ambiance. Next up is the the fresh and wistful “Lyric” followed by an up-beat, synth-fest of sound in “Moonlight Butterfly”, which could very well be the album favorite. Well, no wonder! Then there’s the peppy “Up on The North Shore”, no doubt, a reference to the northeast suburbs of Chicago that rest along the banks of Lake Michigan. The 10-minute track  “Inn Keeping” reflects The Sea Cake at their core. And the sixth song, “Monday”, closes off the album with the quietness of a late summer afternoon.

It’s the kind of half-hour compilation that you could listen to while drinking your morning coffee. It isn’t meant to be much more than, what appears to be, some kind preamble to something else. The songs overflow daintily from one to the next, visually cinematic in their presentation. This album peels back the onion layers of The Sea and Cake, exposing a less-tattered, ethereal voyage.


The Sea and Cake Tour Dates:
May 18 –  Madison, WI – The Frequency
May 19 –  Milwaukee, WI – Turner Hall Ballroom
May 21 – Chicago, IL – Empty Bottle

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Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact album review

Gang Gang Dance, is, according to SPIN “for those who thought Animal Collective was too mainstream.” Make no mistake – they’re right. This underground group from New York proves to be all things avant-rock, a futuristic symphony of sound that is digestible and moody. Their fifth album, Eye Contact, the first album on their new record label with 4AD after ending their 8-year relationship with The Social Registry, was just released on May 10th.

Pitchfork reviews Gang Gang Dance as “evolving into purveyors of pan-cultural body-music, marrying club beats with lyrics about communing with the dead.” Perhaps they are referring to their 11-minute epic and the first song on the album, “Glass Jar.” The song pays homage to their former band-mate, Nathan Maddox, who was tragically killed in 2002 by a lightning bolt while he was admiring the fatal thunderstorm from a rooftop in New York. Another dedication is found in “Sacer”, for Dash Snow, the one-time New York photographer who captured the raw, gritty truths of his wanderings, until his untimely death in a Manhattan hotel room in 2009.

Singer Lizzi Bougatsos evokes a similarity in her sugary sweet pitch like that of Björk. She met Brian DeGraw, Tim Dewit and Josh Diamond, who in 1999 teamed up with film director Harmony Korine for his experimental project SSAB Songs, an album consisting of one single 27-minute track. It’s a zany and likely-paired indicator as to Gang Gang’s part-innocent, part-troubled, overtly out-of-this-world style. Taka Imamura and Jesse Lee make up the other half of GGD, rounding out the melding of what is, no doubt, a very special group of creatives who collaborate with such artistic expression, it’s no surprise this band has a deep relationship with the art community in New York. In some way, it seems to transcend their music, making their artform especially difficult to pigeon-hole.

However, for a group that is, if anything – tribal – Eye Contact seems to envelope what their previous album, Saint Dymphna lacked. It solidifies the panic and trippy, psychedelic explosion that doesn’t stop there – and continues further, reaching higher and higher points, placing you in a jungle in outerspace. In “Thru and Thru”, Gang Gang Dance accomplishes just that, finishing off the song with a voice that whispers: “Live forever.” Other songs like “?” integrate a rich Greek influence. The same can be seen in the interludes “? ?” and “? ? ?”, minute-and-a-half pieces that dip and swirl with the aid a synthesizer. The instrumentation of the keyboard and jazz percussion rattle and shake songs like “Romance Layers” and the spirited “Adult Goth”, which will make you feel like you’re on a high-speed car chase down a windy highway in a foreign city. “Chinese High” is exotic, fun pop.

What can be said for a band that influences so many other groups of their kind, who, meanwhile, have remained so low on the radar? Up-and-already-on-their-way group  Florence + The Machine credits the beats in “Rabbit Heart” from listening to GGD, as does Braid’s “Plath Heart” off their album “Native Speaker.” There is a lush, almost regal quality to Gang Gang Dance’s Eye Contact.

Check out Gang Gang Dance’s website, or ‘like’ them on their Facebook page.

Gang Gang Dance Tour Dates:

May 25 – Primavera Sound Festival – Barcelona, Spain

July 8 – Brighton Music Hall – Boston, MA

July 9 – II Motore – Montreal, QC, Cananda

July 10 – Horseshoe Tavern – Toronto, ON, Canada

July 11 – Grog Shop – Cleveland Heights, OH

July 12 – Outland Live – Columbus, OH

July 13 – Zanzabar – Louisville, KY

July 14 – The Bishop – Bloomington, IN

July 16 – Pitchfork Music Festival – Chicago, IL


The Gift – Explode album review

The Gift’s new album, Explode is a whimsical 12-song LP produced by Ken Nelson. The psychedelic synth band is a new sound in the U.S. but these guys have been kicking it since 1994. Comprised of Sónia Tavares, Nuno and John Gonçalves, and Miguel Ribeiro, this Portugese group has evolved from simple beginnings when the idea of The Gift was just a side project. True recognition surfaced in 1998 with the release of their first full-length album, Vinyl. With the success of another trio of albums to be released by their own label La Folie Records, their next LP, Film, went gold, followed by AM/FM and Fácil de Entender.

If The Gift is anything, they’re DIY. They finance their recordings and performances, a visual spectacle that intrigued the likes of The Flaming Lips, whom they toured with back in 2003 on TFL’s Yoshimi battle tour. A year before that, they were making waves at SXSW. And it’s no surprise. In songs featured on Explode like the twelve-minute epic “The Singles,” the melody seems to take flight in the way that synthesizers sway you, a Neverending Story-like ’80s trance, that switches gears into a jovial ’60s playground, settling in a soft reverie, and bouncing through imaginative harmonies. It’s crafty in its transitions like that of M83 or MGMT.

“Primavera” will expose the authentic beauty of their roots. In “My Sun”, the first few notes might inspire you to grab your skateboard and take it down the hill. It calls to mind visions of summer, like that of a movie when the hallways explode with papers and teens pile out into the hot June weather. In “Race is Long”, they sings: “Few are the ones who keep their dreams about the world/ Don’t need to sell your soul/ Leave your own goals behind/ Give up and take the next big step of your life…” Perhaps this in itself explains the entirety of the flight of fancy tone Explode seems to convey. “Just write a beauty melody” they go on. Sounds about right.

To keep tabs on the The Gift, check out their website, or their Myspace page.

The Gift is currently on tour:

May 12 – Coimbra – Queima des Fitas

May 20 – Barcelona – Forum FNAC Arenas

May 21 – Barcelona – Forum FNAC Triangle

June 14 – New York – The Bowery Ballroom

July 15 – Lisbon – Super Book Super Rock


Cass McCombs – Wit’s End album review

Cass McCombs’ fifth album, Wit’s End was released this past week, April 26, 2011. The California native who debuted his first EP down in San Francisco way back in 2002, Not the Way, has, well….certainly found his way. Wit’s End travels through the depths of unrequited love, a tragic sound that will evoke feelings of a desolate land, a table in the back of a bar, the pit of someone’s bedroom lit by the tragic spotlight of a desk lamp in the midnight hour.

The album opens with “Country Line”, a song that sets up all of those emotions, the saddening desperation of retreating from something that failed. In “Lonely Doll”, the lyrics speak of a girl, childlike and porcelain, something sweet and innocent, repetitive in its verses. “A poetry painted from truth but imagine the suit the lonely doll / For beauty eternally in youth those pity compassion and roots / the lonely doll.” “Buried Alive” proves to be the darkest song on the album, a contemplation of life and death. Spin Magazine said of McCombs album: “He’s aiming for timeless.” Many will agree. The instrumentation on this album, such as that of the piano, mirrors a brooding starkness like that of Leonard Cohen. The minimalistic aesthetic of Cass McCombs is comparable to Tim Hardin or The Decemberists’ realm of wintery perspective.

Pitchfork‘s review even went so far as to compare him to Elliott Smith or Nick Drake, which could seem like a stretch until you reach a point in the album, it’s final song: “A Knock Upon the Door.” HIs “Memory Stain” sounds like a bluesy folk song that could have been played at a coffee house in Greenwich Village in the ’60s. It is dainty and morbidly jolly with the aid of the clarinet. In “Hermits Cave”, McCombs cleverly sings: “In my twenty-seventh year / I set out to confront my fears / And found the role of a lifetime / You see, two plus seven is nine / And the ninth card in the Tarot / Is that Hermit I came to know.” There is a quality to his music that is stripped down, fragile in its delivery, and fit for a dimly lit cantina hidden under a cobblestone road in a foreign land.

Cass McCombs has toured with artists like Andrew Bird, Blonde Redhead, Band of Horses, Arcade Fire, Cat Power, and Iron & Wine.

To learn more about Cass McCombs or to download his album, Wit’s End: check out his Myspace page, or take a look at his website.


Afrobeta – Under the Streets album preview

Back in 2006, the duo that is Afrobeta, Cuci Amador  and Tony Smurphio, joined forced to create the kind of neon dance beats you’d hear on a sweaty Miami dance floor. The club-sexy, synth sound of this South Florida group was just beginning to create a fan-base. It was in 2007 that the Miami New Times titled them with “Best Electronic Group”, and later in 2008, they were announced by the same publication as “Best Local Songwriters.” Afrobeta has also been recognized over the years for their bilingual lyrics, gaining sponsership from Myspace Latino.Which comes as no surprise. Amador has the kind of  likability that stems easily from such ethereal vocals, and Smurphio, a long line of street kid among the Latino music scene, having toured with Pitbull as his keyboardist.

By July of 2009, Afrobeta was ready to release their debut EP, Do You Party? It was a melding of loungy electro-lite singles, a familiar Miami wave with bright pop undertones. 2010 became the year of all years for Afrobeta when they decided to get back into the studio to remix and remaster some of their older tunes. They also spent the better half of the year touring the world’s various festivals, most notably: Glastonbury in Somerset, England, a gathering that also welcomed bands that year like The XX, Bonobo, La Roux, and LCD Soundsystem. Afrobeta made its mark at Burning Man and Space Ibiza. After etching such a spot in the eletronica community, the Miami New Times gave Afrobeta the long awaited title of “Best Band of 2010.”

Their newest album release, which has been slated for Summer 2011, is Under the Streets, a full-length 13-track album. While they’ve been stamped as “cutesy electro-lounge”, many will find a bit of a dubstep influence on their new album, and perhaps that’s thanks to Smurphio’s intense bass-lines. Song favorites will include “Two Different Worlds”, “Nighttime”, and “Playhouse”, some songs familiar to Afro fans, and new songs that you will digest with simple and pure house beats.

For the latest on Afrobeta, check out their website, or their Facebook fan page.

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The Ravishers – Ravishers album review

Indie-pop group, the Ravishers, recently released their full-length self-titled album Ravishers, a follow-up to their Singles for Singles EP that debuted in 2010. The band hails from San Luis Obispo, California and moved to Portland, Oregon to truly get in touch with what any artist needs to make a happening song: a little gloomy weather. Their frontman and songwriter, Dominic Castillo, is classically trained and went to Berklee to be a jazz guitarist. The anecdote sounds a bit like Fences’ Chris Mansfield’s past. The second half of the Ravishers duo is Jonathan Barker, who also brings a jazz guitar background to the mix.

Their new album opens up with the song “I’m Him”, a story a guy you’re dating who apparently has two-sides, or layers. It’s about exposing that layer you have a harder time expressing, but want to. “The Chase” is of course, about the games and trials of love and what we do when we’re running after it with utter desperation. It has a sound that seems made for the kind of television show soundtracks like that of The OC or Grey’s Anatomy, that brought/brings new musicians into the mainstream with their lighthearted lyrics and feel-good piano arrangements. In fact, the entire album has that comforting friendliness fit for dramatic television show scenes.

In “Keep You Around”, Castillo sings: “I wish I could toss you off the back of this train / There’s so much that I’d like to change / But when you’re gone I miss your frown / I guess that I’ll keep you around.” There’s a slap-happy handclap under instruments like the guitar, chimes, bells, and a swift- passing soft-sounding synthesizer. “My Thoughts Are Killers” takes a darker turn, a welcomed lull in the middle of the album that combines deep vocals, an almost lovechild of Depeche Mode meets Kings of Leon. The greatest first-liner on the album is contained in the opening of “Lesson in Leaving: “You need a little bit of danger in a smile.”

How I Feel” opens with a drum beat similar to that of an old ’90s one hit wonder, and Castillo softly whispers the lyrics, climbing higher and higher, with that ever-so-tiny hint of Thom Yorke laying evident in the depths of a message of yearning and searching for someone to understand how you’re feeling. Ravishers closes with “Happening”, the kind of indie rocking anthem that creates a totality to the entire album. It is, in essence, the perfect last song of a set for any future Ravishers show.

The Ravishers fittingly released their album at the Doug Fir in Portland, OR on April 7, 2011.

For more info on the band, check out the Ravishers’ website, or their Facebook page!

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Ringo Deathstarr – Colour Trip album review

Remember when there was a thin line between grunge bands and shoegazers? In the late ’80s, the term came about when a subgenre of alternative rock took center stage and didn’t budge. Literally. In some ways, the art of simple stage movements or lack thereof was a slight ode to ’60s psych rockers like Jim Morrison who turned his back on the audience and immersed himself totally, well, within himself. It was shy. And fragile. Post-hardcore. Shoegaze rock was pushed under a rug at the peak of the grunge era. However short-lived it was, it’s totally making a comeback.

Ringo Deathstarr is Elliott Frazier, Daniel Doborn, and Alex Gehring, a Texan trio that found its spot at SXSW in March. Their debut album Colour Trip landed on February 21, 2011. The first single they released was “So High.” It was a cassette-only single. The lyrics are bitter but sweet: “Bubblegum and ecstasy/ Make me feel the power/ If you want to run with me/ I will show you how.” The song “Kaleidoscope” asks, “Have you seen her?/ She’s a kaleidoscope/ She can show you colors that no one knows.” Maybe that’s their aesthetic: multiple layers of feathery prettiness mingled in with infinite trains of loss. It calls to mind indie rock lyrics like Sonic Youth, or the sound of their most compared predecessors, My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and The Mary Chain.

The Guardian interviewed the band in January and Frazier was quoted saying, “We are about cool vibes, big sound, Marshall stacks, secret melodies and excessive volume.” It’s true. Hidden somewhere in the depths of their loudness, is a pop song that emotes heartbreak, in the way bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s seemed to knock you around with their heavy lightness, power guitars, and low voices. When you listen to “Tambourine Girl”, you might get the sensation that it’s 1992 and you’re driving in your beater on the way to a show. In that way, it’s a nostalgic feel-good.

Ringo Deathstarr will move you under a spectrum of different sounds, ‘gazers of a new generation that many will be quick to pigeon-hole as ‘hipster’ and nothing new. It isn’t new, it’s a fresh spin on something vintage classic. It’s an homage to subgenres that didn’t get their kicks quite as long as they should have. Deathstarr is kind of reinventing a little piece of music that is both introspective and detached.

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Rise Against’s Endgame album review

Rise Against Endgame

Rise Against has certainly extended its roots from that punk rock band we were introduced to a little over a decade ago. The hardcore group that hails from Chicago, released their sixth album, Endgame on March 15th, 2011. While Spin magazine was quick to categorize this new collection of songs as a concept album, the band surely disagrees. It’s true: they’re infamous for their political activism, and what better way to voice your stance than to write lyrics about it? But Endgame will prove to be a little more ambiguous. For starters, the album’s first released single, “Help is on the Way” contains likely metaphors: “She says that’s the shoreline/ With hands in the air/ Her words miss the dark light/ Does anyone care?” The song might be interpretive of the disasters this world has seen over the last few years, such as the oil spill in the gulf or Hurricane Katrina.

For a band that’s passionate about having a message heard: there’s no theme here, just a call to action. Such is the case for another song off the album, “Architects.” The lyrics ask: “Are there no fighters left here any more?/ Are we the generation we’ve been waiting for?/ Or are we patiently burning/Waiting to be saved?” It’s a numbing way to begin an album. The song sets up all of the other ones, like a domino effect, implanting this aching melody that goes onto say: “Let’s decide to be the architects, the masters of our fate.” Rise Against is onto something; they aren’t moping over the morbid currency of our emotional and physical climate, they’re talking about a revolution. Bands evolve, albums evolve. Rise Against has risen yet again with a series of pump-you-up anthems that, no matter what, will make you want to thrash.

Endgame is available for purchase on iTunes.

For more info on Rise Against, plus details on their tour dates, check out their website or their Myspace page.