Gold Leaves – The Ornament album review

Gold Leaves released debut album The Ornament on Hardly Art earlier this month on August 16, 2011. Singer-songwriter Grant Olsen, previously from the indie folk duo Arthur & Yu, spent nearly four years developing his new project Gold Leaves. The concepts behind Ornament went through many incarnations as Olsen’s original rough drafts were lost in a theft. Although the project is mainly solo work created by the Seattle-based musician, Olsen enlisted the help of a few friends to aid in the end production of the album. Backing vocals were provided by Thao Nguyen, Amy Blaschke, and members of the Moondoggies. Jason Quever of Papercuts was essential in shaping Ornament’s sound.

The Ornament has a strong doo-wop connection and even incorporates the use of vintage instruments such as the Mellotron, a polyphonic keyboard made popular in the 60’s by The Beatles. All of the backup vocals linger distantly, but add a soft, sweet dimension to each of the tracks

“The Silver Lining” begins the album poignantly with some shoegazey poetic/literary lyrics including a Steinbeck reference. Secondly is the title track “The Ornament” which is a swinging little piece anchored by tight percussion and tambourine, provided by Ben McConnell from Beach House.

Track four “Hanging Window” is a testament to Olsen’s early ideas of making “some kind of grand statement” musically. The vocals are wistful accompanied by Beach Boys-esque instrumentation and eventually a little violin. Seventh on the album is “Hard Feelings” that reassures the listener “it’s okay to change your mind.” The song is full of the dreamy quality that is present throughout Ornament.

Ending it all is “Futures” which brings the drama with booming bass drums and a very Fleet Foxes arrangement. Ornament mixes 60’s vibes with wall of sound techniques in a well-formed nod to the successes of past pop prince Scott Walker.

John Hiatt – Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns album review

John Hiatt released yet another studio album at the beginning of this month entitled Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns on New West Records. The several Grammy awards nominated artist has been creating his own brand of Americana folk bluegrass tinged new wave since the 1970s. Although he has had many a critical success, Hiatt has only broken through to the Top 40 charts a few times. However, the songs he has written have received the royal treatment, being covered by true greats such as Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton.

Dirty Jeans is the follow up to 2010’s The Open Road and the twentieth full release Hiatt has penned so far. The best tracks on the album are gritty down south numbers dripping with heartfelt emotion and hard truths. And then there’s the bad. All of the love songs are just terrible. The excellent storytelling turns into unnecessary romantic drivel.

“Damn This Town” starts Dirty Jeans off in the right direction. Twanging guitar surrounds a story about facing family hardships in a small working class town and finally getting the balls to leave it all behind. Lyrics include this striking line: “I’m 58 years old still living at home like a kid.”

Track eight “Train to Birmingham” is a lonely ride during which “drinkin whiskey for the pain” is common place. The second to last is “Adios to California” a song that would fit on any good road trip playlist. Ending the album is “When New York Had Her Heart Broke,” a very well meaning 9/11 tribute. The story is a familiar American tragedy, yet it is told in such a sappy manner that it loses any real impact it could have had.

John Hiatt will be on tour with his backing band The Combo comprised of Patrick O’Hearn on bass, guitarist Doug Lancio, and Kenneth Blevins playing drums along with some vocals. Big Head Todd and the Monsters will be joining Hiatt on select tour dates.

The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient album review

The War on Drugs released their sophomore album Slave Ambient with Secretly Canadian on August 16, 2011. Based in Philadelphia, this experimental indie band was originally formed by Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel in 2005. Vile left a few years later and today the lineup includes vocalist and frontman Granduciel, multi-instrumentalists Dave Hartley and Robbie Bennett as well as drummer Mike Zanghi. The band is named after President Nixon’s campaign to reduce illegal trade and consumption of drugs in the U.S.

Slave Ambient is a solid mix of Americana influences and psychedelic flourishes. There is a strong vintage Springsteen feel on many of the tracks. Even a little Neil Young is present on the album. Luckily, these old familiar ghosts are paired with reverb and background synths making an automatic throwback into something worthwhile.

It opens with “Best Night” which is basically a study in Heartland rock and roll. The following two tracks take much the same vein. Unexpectedly “Your Love is Calling My Name” enters in with a burst of blissed out undertones.

Track six “Come to the City” is driven by an ever present beat surrounded by circular electric guitar. Granduciel’s voice rises out of the instrumentation to put direction on this otherwise rambling song. Tenth on the album “Baby Missiles” is full of vitality and a real toe-tapper.

Next up is “Original Slave” which is a purely instrumental track that really brings all the musical ideas to a boiling point. Lastly, “Blackwater” takes the album out with a chill storytelling ballad. Rather descriptive visual lyrics are featured: “Remember me when you dissolve in the rain/When the rivers run dry in the cold mountain range.”

This fall, The War on Drugs will be touring all across America, briefly into Canada, and for a while on the European continent.

Philip Selway – Running Blind EP review

Philip Selway released his second solo work titled Running Blind on July 25 with Bella Union in the UK. The album is an EP derived of material left over from his 2010 debut Familial that has previously been made public during live sets. Radiohead fans may recognize Selway’s famously held position as drummer in the monster English band. That being said it is incredibly brave for Selway to release his own projects as it will infinitely be colored by his associations with the aforementioned. In interviews Selway cites his mother’s death as the cause of this newfound courage.

“Running Blind” starts the album off simply with just some notes picked out on acoustic guitar. Then Selway’s soft vocals come in with some refreshingly understandable lyrics: “Just like you, I’m running blind again.” There’s nothing special about this track until an unexpected Theremin joins the mix. Secondly is “All in All” which sounds very much like the track before it and has a positive message about appreciating everything you have.

Track three “Every Spit and Cough” sounds a bit fuller in orchestration. Some interesting lines are sung about presumably an ex-lover: “you’ll suck the light out of everyone.” Familial included the fourth track “What Goes Around” as a bonus demo. This recording is definitely more quality, but it feels like it needs more of a foundation. The sound hangs in the air uncomfortably, like an introduction that has gone on for too long. Let the beat drop and crash through the xylophone. Don’t be a tease.

While this EP has great rhythmic precision, it is also unfortunately kind of boring. There are well constructed themes and polished musical layers, but unless soft acoustic lullabies are really your thing, it misses the mark by being wholly unexciting.

Running Blind also includes a live session video of the title song as a final track.

Pictureplane – Thee Physical album review

On July 19, 2011, Pictureplane released Thee Physical on Lovepump United. It is the follow-up to 2009’s Dark Rift which explored much of the same musical territory. However, it is the conceptual matter that has taken a forefront on this latest effort. Travis Egedy, the mastermind behind Pictureplane, wrote a manifesto to express his thought process while creating the album. The art school student who made his home in Denver, Colorado at a warehouse named Rhinoceropolis has done remixes for Crystal Castles and collaborated with Zach Condon from Beirut. HEALTH’s Jupiter Keyes helped Egedy produce/mix Thee Physical and it is interesting to hear the idea exchange between them.

Thee Physical’s lyrical content deals with the struggle to feel real in an ever increasing virtual society. Tactile touch is compared to nonphysical closeness and (from the manifesto) a greater “understanding of the third dimensional “real” is expounded upon.

From the very beginning Thee Physical sounds a lot like a warped version of Dark Rift just with better samples and more interesting vocals. The first track “Body Mod” includes great placement of a portion of Wild Child’s “Renegade Master.” Pictureplane’s animated quick beats and manic keys make it a tight opening jam. Egedy has mastered a breathy vocal style that is both a little unnerving and kind of dreamy.

Fifth on the album is “Post Physical” which delves into the concept of “a world with no true physical limits.” It’s like an anthem for being emotionally close with someone without any proximity whatsoever. The track is so smooth and romantic with wailing industrial sound layered on top of deep dark electro. Number seven “Real is a Feeling” has a great club melody and the mid beat breakdown section is standout.

“Trancegender” is up next and although no featured singers are credited on the album, according to Stereogum the female voice is provided by Zola Jesus. This song seems to be hopeful for a world in which people feel comfortable to be in a relationship with anyone they want regardless of gender or sexuality. “I don’t care what we mean to them,” she sings. However, Pictureplane has received some flack for trying to represent a community he doesn’t belong to. All politics aside, the track is made for dancing with abandon.

The final track is “Thee Power Hand” and it is a straight up banger. With so much bass coming in waves and such intense emotion lyrically, the song closes out the album epically. The manifesto reads “The body. Your desire. Thee new desire. The burn. What does it feel like to feel? Touch your every desire. The human body/humanity understanding new forms of communication. Silent, physical communication through the medium of thee power hand.”

Pictureplane is touring the U.S. in July and August with Teengirl Fantasy and Gatekeeper.

Eric Copeland – Waco Taco Combo album review

Eric Copeland released his third solo album on Escho Records entitled Waco Taco Combo. Escho made a limited edition pressing of 500 vinyl copies in May of this year. It is the follow-up to 2009’s Alien in a Garbage Dump. Waco Taco can be seen as a continuation of the extraterrestrial sounds found on Alien, yet the new work has more of a twisted dance music bend. Copeland is best known for being one third of Black Dice and for collaborating with Animal Collective member Avey Tare, both experimental noise bands who flirt with ideas of pop. He spent six weeks in Copenhagen recording the album and was subsequently influenced by the culture.

Waco Taco moves through many weird musical scenes. First on the album is “Land of Foot.” It is sweet in the beginning with chime-like effects, but soon becomes a mutant song with random samples and unexpected key changes. The second track, “Beatlemania,” opens to an audience clapping. Then come in the pulsating noises accompanied by varied rhythms and multilayered melodies.

Track three, “Krankendudel,” simply sounds deranged. However, it ends in a rather conventional lo-fi guitar fronted section. Number four is “Warbug” which appears to be created from the effect of several robots shutting all of their systems off and on repeatedly. The fifth song is really crunchy and includes pieced in intergalactic noise.

Finally we come to the magnum opus of Waco Taco. The last track is titled “Spangled” and covers about seventeen and a half minutes. It is actually very good, surprisingly enough. It starts off loud and strong with club banger electro beats. Next, enters a series of weird breakdowns and then another turn of direction with strangely mangled vocal parts. Totally schizoid in composition, this song manages to keep the listener engaged by acting as a car radio being constantly switched from station to station. “Spangled” closes with a trancelike measure, a bit of extra noise, and that’s it.

Mexicans with Guns – Ceremony album review

DJ Ernest Gonzalez released his debut album as Mexicans with Guns called Ceremony earlier this year in May on the label Innovative Leisure. The San Antonio native has been fairly prolific as a remix artist and producer. With his MwG project, Gonzalez creates a provocative mixture of club music, hip-hop, electronic, and traditional Latin sounds. On stage his persona resembles a stereotypical Mexican wrestler complete with Luchador mask. Gonzalez insists he is an introverted person at heart and uses symbols to make people think. Considering the recent drug cartel wars in Mexico, his recording name has made some interesting impressions.

Ceremony was conceived as sort of a spiritual journey to be listened to continuously from beginning to end. Gonzalez is influenced by ancient rituals performed by indigenous people. The record features several artists who add direction to the tracks that they guest in. Without knowing the concept behind the album, some of the musical choices present would make little sense.

The first track sets the mood as the “Opening Incantation.” Pulsating drum beats are heard from off in the distance. Once they reach a louder volume, a little shamanic melody is thrown in as well as seemingly random Spanish lyrics. Third on the album is “Restart,” a slow and murky song with smooth alto vocals sung by Sasha Perera.

“Fields” is by far the most pop infused track. An undulating electro tune conveys an 8 bit attitude. Number six is “Highway to Hell” which from the start is a total banger. Dark sounds surround Freddie Gibbs’ angsty gangsta rhymes. Track eight titled “Me Gusto” gives a cumbia dance beat the electronic treatment. Excellent old school vocals are provided by Chico Mann from Antibalas.

Toward the end of the album is the eleventh song “Got Me Fucked Up.” West Coast battle rapper Nocando brings a hilarious fury on this track with lyrics like “they got me fucked up like a Tijuana boob job.” The background music is grimey and is a great accompaniment. “El Moreno” sends the listener out with a cosmic space anthem shaped by Helado Negro.

Mexicans with Guns’ have been touring the U.S. since June and will continue to do so until the end of July. Ceremony makes for an entertaining summer soundtrack.


August Burns Red – Leveler album review

August Burns Red released new album Leveler on June 21st with Solid State Records. The Pennsylvanian metalcore band has produced three other records since 2005. Their lineup consists of JB Brubaker on lead guitar and as primary songwriter, Brent Rambler playing rhythm guitar, drummer Matt Greiner who is also skilled in keyboards and piano as well as programming, Dustin Davidson on bass guitar and backup vocals, and Jake Luhrs the lead vocalist.

Leveler opens with “Empire” a fairly typical hardcore song. There’s lots of growling, sped up percussion, and a melodic middle section breakdown featuring extreme guitar riffs. Track two is “Internal Cannon” that at first seems in the same vein, but unexpectedly shows a flair for the classic guitar techniques of tango. Fourth on the album is a track called “Cutting the Ties” that is based on the same formula, yet has really dramatic lyrics. The phrase “Screaming at the sky” progresses to the sentiment “it’d be so easy to take the easy way out.”

Track ten, known by the date “1.16.2011,” is simply a short interlude of softer music that precedes the very hard “Boys of Fall.” It’s an intense ride from start to finish with lightning quick drums and electrifying guitar layered in screaming growls. Lastly, is the title track “Leveler” that includes overlapping vocals for nearly the entire song making it epically interesting.

Leveler is available in deluxe edition which includes several extra tracks. Track thirteen is an acoustic version of the second song “Internal Cannon.” While there are no lyrics present, the tango influence is hitched up a notch accompanied with castanet-like clapping percussion. The fourteenth track is a cover of “Pangea,” the fifth song, by The Bells. This band features former August Burns Red vocalist Jon Hershey and was formed in 2010. The cover has soft background vocals and is wrought with emotion. Number fifteen transforms track eleven “Boys of Fall” into a dramatic piano ballad covered by Zachary Veilleux. And finally the last track is a midi version of the opening song “Empire.” It sounds like a battle anthem created for an RPG.

The band is currently touring with the Vans Warped Tour and will be on the road until the middle of August.

Rival Sons – Pressure and Time album review

Rival Sons released their newest album titled Pressure and Time on Earache Records. This sophomore effort hit the shelves on June 20, 2011 and has gained the band a reputation for contemporary hard rock done right. Vocalist Jay Buchanan with Scott Holiday on guitar, Robin Everhart playing bass, and drummer Michael Miley have created a short (merely half an hour) record that delivers a strong impression. With their heavy classic rock influence, Rival Sons’ bluesy sound can be compared to a not bad imitation of Led Zeppelin or The Doors. This southern Californian band came together with major swagger in the summer of 2008.

Pressure and Time opens with “All Over the Road” which features raucous guitar licks that feel like a rip straight from a 70’s rock jam. Third on the record is the title track “Pressure and Time.” It is full of crashing drums and fuzzed out guitars.

The album really starts going by the sixth track called “Burn Down Los Angeles.” And who wouldn’t want to burn that mother down? The song is built around a catchy riot inciting chorus and verses commiserating the lives of citizens of the city who are not making it big. Track nine, “White Noise,” has such a vintage appeal that it’s almost a bit strange to hear Buchanan sing “when my cell phone ring.”

Finally the last track “Face of Light” is the most stripped down on the album. The lyrics include depressing highlights “look at my eyes, don’t even know who I am.” It sounds like a sweet little rock ballad until the very end when it revs back up into high gear to send the record out properly.

Throughout the month of July, Rival Sons will be touring with Judas Priest and Queensryche in the UK and will also be making a few festival appearances as well.

Matthew Barber – Matthew Barber album review

Matthew Barber released his sixth album named after himself on June 7th, 2011 with the Outside Music label. The Toronto singer-songwriter produced this self-titled work in his basement home studio last winter. Every instrument and vocal on the album were created by Barber alone. He also recorded and mixed all of the tracks. The Canadian musician has been making music since his collegiate days at Queen’s University. Barber’s first album was released in 1999 and since then his folk rock sounds have increased in production quality.

On this release however, he decided to make a record that was stripped down and honest. It is warm and inviting with simple lyrics that seem to be dripping truth. The subject matter of the album is best told through Barber’s words: “The heart of the record is about being in a long-term relationship, trying to make sense of all that goes along with your life becoming more deeply entwined with that of another person and how that influences both your outlook on the world and your understanding of yourself.”

Opening the album is “Keep It Alive,” which sets the bare bones atmosphere. The line, “Girl it ain’t easy living”, encompasses the thought process on this song. Life is hard, but never lose that fighting spirit. Third on the album is the single “Ring Upon Your Finger” which kind of plays like the male indie version of putting a ring on it. There is a strong soul influence and it’s the only track that has that feel. “If a shiny sparkly diamond could prove that you’d be mine,” the protagonist of this song wonders, ending in a wistful harmonica solo.

“Dust On My Collar” is a little upbeat honky tonk number that also features the harmonica. “Man In A Movie” is a slower piece with piano is used on the track very nicely. The words “I get what I need, and I hate what I want” seem to be quite telling as Barber sings a harmony with himself.

The last song was a disappointment. “Oh Lexi” is a gross love ballad. It is rather cheesy in all the wrong ways. Plus it seems very juvenile and out of place to close out the album like this. Maybe there is a good reason for it, but it’s not that apparent. Really, this is the only low point on the release. Otherwise Barber’s self-titled is an intimate and sweet piece.