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Rival Sons – Head Down album review

Rival Sons continues to call to mind the classic rock traditions of the ‘70s and ‘80s on their third full-length album, “Head Down.” Their bluesy, raspy vocals and guitar-driven melodies are more reminiscent of that time period than more current alternative rock trends. Though the band successfully manages to avoid sounding like an ‘80s tribute band, their own ambition leads them astray.

The hardest worker on this album is undoubtedly the guitar. More so than with the other instruments or the vocals, “Head Down” is a masterpiece in guitar work.  “Nava,” one of the final songs on the album, is an entirely instrumental, guitar-driven track. The exquisitely intricate, rhythmic fingerpicking produces a very folksy, delicate ballad, with no extraneous bells and whistles to detract from the impeccable execution. Known for their classic rock leanings, Rival Sons delivers on songs like “Keep On Swinging” and “You Want To” that bring together guitar-driven melodies and strong, stirring vocals into quintessential rock ‘n’ roll.

“Manifest Destiny Pt. 1” is a…weird song. Clocking in at just under 8 and a half minutes, the piece sounds, and feels, like several radically different tracks have been chopped up and pieced together. Not only do the different segments not mesh well with each other, moving haphazardly from falsetto vocals backed by distorted, grunge guitar melodies to a pop rock guitar solo to a dramatic hair metal finish, but they don’t make sense with most of the rest of the album.

In comparison, “Jordan” sounds like a totally different band from a totally different decade. Unlike most of the other tracks, “Jordan” keeps its background instrumentation to a minimum and puts the focus on the almost a capella vocals, creating a much more indie, folksy vibe. While the song is well executed and one of my favorites on the album, it falls victim to the same circumstances as the overly elaborate “Manifest Destiny Pt. 1” and instrumental “Nava”: they don’t sound like they belong on the album. Branching out from their skillful version of classic blues rock proves to be a risk that doesn’t pay off, creating a discombobulated, uncertain sound throughout “Head Down.”

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Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky album review

Formed in 1984, rock band Dinosaur Jr. is approximately four years older than I am, and their newest album, “I Bet on Sky,” makes it a nice, even ten more albums they’ve released than I have. It may seem absurd for me to comment on a band that broke up and reunited before I even hit high school, but I think they’ll overlook the incongruity since I (spoiler!) really liked it.

“I Bet on Sky” is a veritable archive of the history of rock ‘n’ roll, running the gamut from hardcore influences to more upbeat, punk styling. The album opens with “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know,” a quintessentially alternative rock track from its guitar-heavy melody to its raspy, distorted vocals. Dinosaur Jr. transforms these basic components—driving instrumentation and passionate vocals—over and over throughout the album. “Almost Fare” turns the distortion way up, channeling ‘90s grunge with its mellower, more somber sound. “Rude” is arguably the most upbeat song on the record, its buoyant ska-punk chorus worthy of oddly spirited foot-tapping. Though many of the tracks evoke different decades and different varieties of rock music, each one is unequivocally, undeniably Dinosaur Jr. Their knowledge, skill in and command of modern rock is unmistakable.

While Dinosaur Jr. shows their great prowess in navigating the different subgenres of rock music on “I Bet on Sky,” the band unfortunately seems to have no interest in progressing these established styles into new, unexplored territory. Pushing current musical boundaries shouldn’t be considered mandatory or an obligation for today’s musicians; a great album finds its greatness in being the most proficient and appealing in its sound, whether that sound finds its roots in traditional or avant-garde ideals. But knowing Dinosaur Jr.’s abilities, they could be the masters of any style they venture into or adopt or make up. It’s a shame the band didn’t try to conquer something new on “I Bet on Sky,” but that certainly doesn’t take away the fact that the album is consistently solid and fun. Here’s to ten more, boys.

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Communion NYC concert review

Each month, Communion NYC hosts a lineup of up-and-coming musicians in the basement of Union Hall in Brooklyn, NY. The Communion blueprint began in 2006 in West London, with a number of cities now hosting monthly Communion showcases.

I attended October’s Communion NYC event, though a situation with a couple of unrefrigerated scallops caused me to miss the first band, Elijah & The Moon. I showed up right when Pony Boy, the stage name of Marchelle Bradanini and her backing band, took the stage. Pony Boy lit up the room with her sassy attitude and ethereal, smooth vocals. Though she opened the set behind a hollow-body electric guitar, she truly shone during tracks like “Not in This Town” when she stepped out from behind the guitar and allowed herself to be more loose, more free with her performance and movements.

Unfortunately, the venue let Pony Boy down. I’ve eaten pizzas larger than the stage, which doesn’t bode well for its fitting the five-member band, one of which played the pedal steel guitar during the set. The disproportionately small stage caused Pony Boy to sound jumbled and discordant, the backing instrumentation often completely blowing out Bradanini’s vocals. Such execution flaws can’t be blamed on the band; they displayed their skill in numerous moments of true brilliance. Bradanini’s harmonica break in “The Murder Ballad of Carrie Lee,” the guitar player’s solo in the second to last song—the music proved full of potential, the catchy, funky country-inspired sound equal parts intriguing and satisfying.

The next act, Albatross, benefited much more from the stage’s size. Adam Stockdale and his travel guitar engulfed the stage, filling the room with his raspy, folky voice and pop guitar harmonies. Throughout his set, Albatross faced a number of technical problems, from inadvertently muted strings to dealing with a sore throat to having to retune his guitar after the second song. If anything, such obstacles endeared him to the crowd even more, his frank interjections giving way to soulful, effortless tracks. Albatross led off with “Puppet on a String,” an ultra-catchy, fun track that showed off his vocals and drew in the crowd. “Do You Think of Me” was another hit, intensely slow, but still catchy enough to be able to sing along with after just the first chorus. By his last song, “No Matter What,” Albatross had the audience in the palm of his hand, the entire room dead silent while he played.

Next to hit the stage was Trixie Whitley, known for her jazzy, indie voice and charming stage presence. Whitley’s set was an ever-evolving spectacle; she moved effortlessly between the guitar and keyboards and midway through brought another guitarist on stage who helped to round out the sound. On the second to last song, Whitley stomped her feet to the beat while strumming, creating an even fuller and jazzier sound.

Whitley’s an extremely skilled musician with a hauntingly beautiful voice, but her performance style often did her talents a disservice. When acting as lead guitarist during songs, like on “Fourth Corner,” Whitley is not as animated or charismatic. She is clearly more comfortable behind the keyboard, and the timbre of the keys fit better with her voice than the jarring harshness of the distortion and reverb she uses on her guitar. “Breathe You In My Dreams” was the highlight of her set for me, a perfect storm of all of Whitley’s best musical talents. She‘s behind the keyboards, and the song has a jazzier style than most of the other songs, which works better with her voice. On the more indie pop tracks, Whitley pulls back on her vocals, opting for breathy and ethereal instead of soulful and rich. On “Breathe You In My Dreams,” she really goes for it, her voice soaring and injecting the entire song with her passion and emotion.

There were more acts after Whitley, but the scallops threatened to make a come back so I spared everyone and excused myself. Even with missing the lineups bookends, Communion NYC put on an amazing show, putting the spotlight on a number of deserving artists.

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MS MR – Candy Bar Creep Show EP review

If good things come in small packages, great songs come on short records. MS MR’s “Candy Bar Creep Show” EP delivers all the color, fullness and emotion that takes most bands twelve songs in just four effortlessly produced and executed tracks. From the first haunting intonations of an organ on “Bones” to the last echoes of the lead singer’s vocals on “Ash Tree Lane,” the EP shines as a gloriously fun, dramatic electropop record.

While their name suggests a duo, MS MR has a sound so full and complex they could be fifteen people for all I know. The band toes the line between creating beautifully layered music and a convoluted cacophony, thankfully straying to the former much of the time. The heavy organ, elegant violin and increasing number of overlapping vocals of “Bones” should muddy each other, but they surprisingly elevate each other into a piece that wouldn’t make sense without each separate contribution

But sometimes, MS MR just has too many ideas. “Dark Doo Wop” begins simply, with just resonant vocals and finger snapping. It quickly brings in thundering drums and keyboards, transitioning the song from light jazz to a booming ballad in the blink of an eye. While MS MR executes both genres beautifully, the disconnect between the two takes away from the overall impact of the song.

Thankfully for MS MR, their lead vocalist’s ethereal and versatile voice grounds each track, no matter the style, in a way that brings cohesion without seeming repetitive. “Dark Doo Wop” flows into the album’s closing track, “Ash Tree Lane,” a much more upbeat and folky tune, better than it should because of their common thread: the vocals. Good thing MS MR has a female singer whose raspy, powerful voice I could listen to all day.

The biggest problem with MS MR’s “Candy Bar Creep Show” EP? It’s way too short.

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The Helio Sequence – Negotiations album review

The last thing I would have predicted about The Helio Sequence from their fifth studio album “Negotiations” is that the band is a duo. Throughout the album, track after track, the music sounds full, complex, and strong. It would be easier to comprehend ten people working together to record such full-bodied music than just the two who actually created it, a respectable and impressive feat.

While mainly an indie rock group, The Helio Sequence experimented more with synth and distortion effects on this album, describing the record as “warmer, more organic and more spacey/ethereal” than their previous work. If success were measured purely on how accurately a band explains their sound, The Helio Sequence would have hit it out of the park. “Open Letter” is an ambient, resonant ballad that utilizes heavy reverb and percussion to create a track that sounds like it’s being transmitted through a body of water or, more applicably, outer space. While the song clearly achieves the band’s goals, its overly produced presentation completely overshadows every other aspect of the track, leaving the lyrics, raw instrumentation and vocals as throwaways.

While at times successful, The Helio Sequence’s foray into more ethereal, ambient effects more often than not serves as a hindrance, putting attention on the production and staging instead of the raw musicality and talent. Arguably the catchiest song on the album, “October,” finds success in its combination of a punchy, anthemic chorus and intense, emotional verses. It, coincidentally or not, leaves behind overly showy, involved distortion and production techniques. “One More Time” also chose to focus on more traditional rock skills: heavy rhythm guitar, strong drum beat, powerful vocals. It’s clean, polished indie rock.

These two tracks open the album, setting the audience up for a very different album and listening experience than what is actually presented. Not to say that “Negotiations” should be considered disappointing or a failure; as a whole, the album is entertaining and skillful. Though not entirely triumphant, the band should be commended for branching out from what is accepted, what is expected.

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Sea Wolf – Old World Romance album review

Sea Wolf is back for their third full-length record, the folky “Old War Romance.” Founder and lead singer Alex Brown Church has retained a rotating lineup of backing musicians since the band’s inception, finding the ideal combination of keyboard, drum, cello, bass and guitar instrumentalists to create a beautiful, satisfying album.

“Old World Romance” is the type of album whose valleys fall higher than many other records’ peaks.  Flawlessly produced and executed, the album consists of ten tracks that range from ‘good’ to ‘great’ to ‘be in my ears always,’ the last category transcending the first in a way that can often be construed as success outshining failure. The record contains no failures, its less triumphant tracks still full of polish and musicality. “Blue Stockings” contains more cheesy, overwrought imagery (“baroque hotel room,” “new blue stockings”) than I usually prefer and the vocals seem to heavy for the minimalist melody, but I never found myself skipping the track or feeling disappointed when I heard its opening notes.

If there’s one thing to take away from the new Sea Wolf album, undoubtedly it is “Priscilla.” The album’s third track brings together the strengths of the entire album—soft, dreamy instrumentation; a catchy chorus; earnestly harmonious foreground and background vocals—into an effortless, colorful ballad. It’s an ethereal masterpiece, creating an entire world to lose yourself in, to keep coming back to again and again. The closing track, “Whirlpool,” echoes the dreamland of “Priscilla,” floating the reader between sweet, delicate keyboarding and more impassioned chorus breaks, the ebb and flow more reminiscent of the tide than a whirlpool.

Sea Wolf, for the power that their music holds, are admirably restrained in its execution, replacing bells and whistles with harmonies and instrumental breaks. “Old World Romance” is about as strong and joyful as an album can be, leaving its audience simultaneously unable to stop hitting repeat and greedily looking forward to more.

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Minus the Bear – Infinity Overheard album review

“Infinity Overheard,” the fifth full-length record from Minus the Bear, benefits greatly from the tricks of the trade the band has learned over the years. The ten-track album reads as a highlight reel of the band’s greatest strengths.

Minus the Bear prevents their brand of indie rock from becoming generic indie rock through their use of instrumental breaks and unexpected time signatures. “Lies and Eyes” transitions surprisingly seamlessly from a guitar-driven intro to alternative rock vocals back to an instrumental portion that, coupled its abruptness, sounds like a recipe for disaster that turns out to be a quite catchy success. Minus the Bear takes no shortcuts with their production and execution, leading to full, diverse tracks that highlight the capable musicians that they are.

While many bands with a distinct lead vocalist fall into the trap of having their entire sound defined by a single voice, Minus the Bear manages to avoid this by maintaining complex and varied instrumentation that reinvent lead singer Jake Snider’s vocals track after track. Their collective musical talents allow them to create completely different sounds, from the slower heaviness of “Heaven is a Ghost Town” to the more electronic “Lonely Gun,” that are grounded in the vocals instead of hindered by them.

But music isn’t only about the instruments; it’s also about the words. There’s no law that states all lyrics need to be wildly introspective and meaningful, but just one cheesy, vapid line has the ability to ruin an entire song. “Empty Party Rooms” loses much of its gravity and solemnity when the listener hears “Saw your eyes straight on, did I hold them for too long? Maybe no one saw.” The other edge of the sword is trying to be too ambitious with metaphors, like the calling up of “liquid concrete under our feet” in “Diamond Lightning.”

“Infinity Overhead” is undeniably a Minus the Bear record, and that couldn’t be a higher compliment. The execution is impeccable and the style is rooted in their indie rock background with largely triumphant forays into various other genres. With such a strong display of their musical prowess, Minus the Bear set themselves up for a career whose limit could, in fact, be infinity.

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AsOfLate – Widows & Orphans album review

Touting itself as a band that “records music to change lives,” AsOfLate has a lofty ideal to live up. While their alternative rock debut “Widows & Orphans” isn’t a bad record, it’s certainly not an album that has changed my life.

On the whole, the album is…fine. It’s fairly generic indie rock—not overly offensive but also not creating anything new, anything exciting. The set of ten songs largely remains within a small range of melancholy, none standing out fully as overly joyous and upbeat or slow and somber. The sounds and melodies of the tracks run and fade together in a way that suggests that not only do they all belong on the same album, but that they are simply offshoots of the same song, saying the same thing in the same way. “Nevertheless I’m Home,” is a bit lighter and more buoyant than most of the other tracks, but I would still classify it as on the upper end of bland than as upbeat.

It is impossible, of course, for this always to be the case. Truly focusing on the songs as individual works and actively searching out their differences yields success, though these differentiating points, in the contexts of the tracks, are not exactly what one would call successes. The album’s first track, “Thesis,” opens in mostly a capella, with light guitar work backing ballad-like vocals. AsOfLate attempts to put their own spin on the fairly popular trope by using distortion effects on the vocals, which, instead of creating a new, fresh tone produces a dissonance that seems accidentals and makes the singer sound like he is unable to hold or hit the notes.

After listening to “Widows & Orphans,” I know that AsOfLate has the abilities and means to create great music. “Everything Wrong” begins with difficult and interesting guitar work, but by the one minute mark, the interest has worn off and the listener is waiting for, really, any different eight bars of music. While the album isn’t something to write home about, AsOfLate has the talent and potential to one day record music to change your life.

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Anchors & Braille – The Quiet Life album review

As a super emo teen that attended Catholic school, I’ve been familiar with Anberlin’s music for a long time. I lost touch with that scene about the time I lost touch with my teenage angst, but as soon as I hit play on Anchor & Braille’s “The Quiet Life,” I recognized their lead singer, Stephen Christian, as Anberlin’s as well. Christian, with instrumental help from Micah Tawlks, shows a different, more versatile side of his musical self on this album, a presentation that appeals to both my current and 13-year-old self.

Anchor & Braille sometimes fall into the trap of distortion effects that causes tracks to sound unnecessarily messy and convoluted instead of lo-fi and resonant. In covering Jeff Buckley’s “Everybody Here Wants You,” Christian’s vocals match up almost seamlessly with Buckley’s in intonation, timbre and pitch. The instrumentation also takes its cues from Buckley, with rhythmic guitar and piano accompaniment supporting a solid, drum-driven bass line. The difference makes its appearance in the production. While Buckley goes for a super clean, crisp execution, Christian cuts his vocals and backing instrumentation with distortion effects that sound especially chaotic and confused when they’re the main distinction from Buckley’s.

Even on their original tracks, implementing distortion doesn’t seem to add anything to Anchor & Braille’s sound, though it also doesn’t exactly take anything away from it either. “Kodachrome” feels like filler, not overly exciting but also not offensively boring. As the track moves forward, both the distortion and the vocals become increasingly louder and amped up, clearly hoping to build momentum to a moving, powerful climax. Unfortunately, the track loses its focus, instead culminating in a mess of sounds and noises.

It’s not that Anchor & Braille don’t know how to execute emotion in their songs. On “Hymn For Her,” Christian’s vocals are full of passion, his anguish and longing for a lover tangible through his voice. “Goes Without Saying,” the album’s first track, lets the audience know that “The Quiet Life” isn’t just another rock album. Opening with a more hip-hop beat and lighter, mellower instrumentation and vocals, the track helps sets a high-quality, promising tone for the rest of the album.

“If Not Now, When” is arguably my favorite song on the album. It foregoes the bells and whistles of the album’s less successful tracks and instead lets Christian’s voice lead the way. Primarily a capella, isolated piano notes and light guitar and percussion fill out its sound and allow the track to build momentum naturally. Tracks like “If Not Now, When” and “Goes Without Saying” demonstrate how skilled and gratifying Anchor & Braille can be, and fortunately enough for the listener, these highs on “The Quiet Life” far outshine the lows.

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River City Tanlines – River City Tanlines album review

River City Tanlines has all the makings of a band that knows their sound and has the time and abilities to perfect it. Founded by formed Lost Sounds member and experienced guitarist and singer-songwriter Alicja Trout in the early 2000s, River City Tanlines also includes bassist Terrence Bishop and drummer John Bonds. The trio has moved past the stages of trying to find their sound and getting used to each other’s styles and have put out a polished, solid self-titled album.

For such accomplished musicians, their young and simplistic lyrics tend of undermine the quality of their sound. Frequently a standard characteristic of punk music, River City Tanlines’ frank, cheeky lyrics often skew too juvenile. Overall, “Stop My Heart” is a catchy, indie pop track, a bit more bubblegum than most of the other songs on the album but with a strong beat and anthemic vocals. The track lost me, however, on the chorus, when Trout proclaims that “I’m such a, such a retarded fool around you.” Not only is the line borderline offensive for no reason, it expresses a fairly commonplace event in a fairly unimaginative way.

Similarly, on “Can’t Stand U Anymore,” Trout talks of “a place…and there’s not a trace of your annoying face.” It sounds like the sentiment of a teenager, lamenting a lost love or unrequited crush. It doesn’t sound like accomplished musicians and adults creating entertaining, smart music, which everything else about the album implies. “Can’t Stand U Anymore” also cleverly utilizes rhythmic handclaps and a bright, upbeat guitar solo, but they are overshadowed by how out-of-place the lyrics seem.

The band also strays away from more expected rock styling, mixing in their Southern roots and influences with standard punk arrangements. “Dark Matter” pulls away from the catchier, more pop tracks that kick off the album. The entire track is instrumental, its deep power chords and rhythmic guitar riffs continuing on into the next song, “You Shot Me.” These two darker, more alternative tracks show another facet to River City Tanlines, the other side of what they have learned from punk and indie blues. While I may not have agreed with some of their stylistic choices, I cannot deny that River City Tanlines put together a well-executed, polished album that does justice to each member’s musical abilities.