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The Paellas – Long Night Is Gone album review

 

I will admit that I went through something of a goth phase.  Not lace gloves or eyeliner or anything.  I’ve always looked like your average moderately chubby middle American dude.  But this dude had a lotta Sisters of Mercy going on in his truck driving home from Walmart.  Or, at least, did for a short time.  Eventually, of course, I went back to more redneck appropriate fodder.

This record screamed goth at me.  It was a little weirdly happy and uptempo, or at least as happy and uptempo as goth can get.  Which was kind of cool because goth has spent far too much time flirting with metal and 95% of the stuff that has come out of that tryst is crap, crap, crap.  Given that track record of failure I think uptempo garage rock goth is an interesting avenue to follow.

It wasn’t until listening to the record a few times that I finally checked the band out on the old Internets.  Turns out they’re a  Japanese crew that thought themselves surf rock indie popsters.  Surf!  Of course!  There’s some Dick Dale in that there goth, boy.  Both sounds share that same reverb treble sound and it’s just like those adorable Japanese to confuse two Western things in a way that creates something new.

It also explains my biggest complaint with the record, the vocals.  They are monotone, echo laden and very low in the mix.  All of which annoyed the hell outta me.  Also, all of which are the kind of tricks I’d pull if I was trying to sing in a foreign language and knew I had a heavy accent.  Personally, I would have preferred confident Japanese vocals rather than muddled English ones.  But, of course, English vocals are more commercially acceptable worldwide and as an unrepentant capitalist I cannot really criticize someone for making the more saleable choice.

I can’t really recommend this album.  It is deeply flawed in both production values and songwriting.  But I think they just might have something here.  I will be happy to check out the follow up.

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Kate Earl – Stronger album review

The genre label that I am given when I look up Stronger is “country”.  Shame on you, lazy genre labeler guy.  I guess that’s because there’s the occasional Southern suggestion in a dobro, steel guitar, or mandolin.   In reality this is classic guitar based pop Americana.  In fact, it’s excellent guitar based pop Americana… with a very solid chick rock foundation.

I understand the inherent sexism in the term “chick rock”.  Sorry.  Would “Confident Young Woman Rock” be better?  Whatever you want to call it we all know what we’re talking about.  I do wish this album had been a bit more country, because country musicos tend to understand a need for a bit of fun here and there. There is an endless earnestness on Stronger that can be overwhelming.   So many breakups and needy relationships!  Country can throw in a fun ditty like “A Boy Named Sue” or, to be only slightly more contemporary, “Man!  I Feel Like A Woman!”.   There’s not really a “fun” song on here.  The closest we get is “Not the End of the World” about a, er, fun breakup.

My reactionary criticism should not be taken too much to heart.  Every song is good to almost great.  The album starts out solid with “Stronger” and “One Woman Army” and never lets up. And “California” is a pitch-perfect addition to the come-to-California-and-hope-to-be-famous-genre.  (Is that melodic nod to the Monkees “Daydream Believer” in “Shadows and Light” or is that just me?)  Generally speaking there’s great songwriting on here from beginning to end, and that’s what it’s really all about isn’t it?

If I may comment on the vocals for a moment:  I usually loathe noticeable vocal affectations.  I don’t know what Ms. Earl actually speaks like, but being an Alaskan I doubt she naturally has the accent of a southern soul diva.  That said, she manages to make it her own just enough that it doesn’t become too much of a caricature, like Adele’s near minstrelsy.

In the end I am yet again confronted by another album that I like but don’t love.  I suppose life could be worse.

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The Levis – Changing Tires album review

I couldn’t find much about the Levi’s on an internet search, but from a facebook page written mostly in Dutch, it appears that they’re a rock band from The Hague.  Note to bands: having the same name as a major consumer brand makes it hard for a fan to find your internet presence via Google. For instance “The Diet Pepsi’s”, as cute as it is, might not be the best idea.  “Changing Tires” is the bands fun little introduction to the world.  Behind the fun, though, you can hear a band that might just have the right sound to really make a splash.

The basic template here is guitar based garage rock. They declare this aggressively on opener “Foxy” which could be a song from any one of a million northern European garage bands.  As the EP unfolds for the rest of its grandiose 16 minutes, however, they distance themselves from that genre with a modern angular riffing style and danceability that makes them more than mere punky retro rockers.  Smartly, they introduce this delicately through the song selection.  If their repertoire is as diverse as the EP I think they can hold on to the underground rock folks while still having a Franz Ferdinand – like appeal to the ladies.

The dance rock sound is made known slowly through the EP, straight rock opener “Foxy” gives way to very slightly more left field “Can’t Stop”, until it’s the main theme in the second half.  For me, that means I can occasionally find the second half a little maudlin.  But I’m a hell of a lot closer to an underground rock type than I am to a lady.

I am a lucky man.  My wife will happily throw on Kiss or the Hellacopters on the stereo.  Usually she will demand it.  But I’m sure there are far less fortunate men out there with musical tastes like mine, and don’t have a woman that is so inclined.  Perhaps the Levis might present you with a reasonable middle ground.

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A Boy And His Kite – A Boy And His Kite album review

Languid comedown music seems to have been on a solid upswing for the past decade as Coldplay blazed the trail.  A Boy and His Kite adhere to this new standard aggressively, or at least sluggishly, throughout their self-titled album.  This characterization is probably not fair to the Kites, as they mix in acoustic Americana rather than the impenetrable Englishness that Coldplay wallow in.  Please don’t take my low grade kvetching as an insult to this album.  I don’t think it’s bad at all but I think you really have to be into this scene to get into this record.  A party record it ain’t.  It begins with a two minute ethereal intro and only gets slightly more energetic from there.

The second song “You Want It, You Got It” is probably the most driving on the album, which says something as it’d be a cool down track on most rock records.  It starts with a slow motion frenetic drumbeat and relaxes from there.  Soon we are into “Good Men” which confirms the bands style, lest there be anyone holding out for an up tempo rocker.

We are then gifted with nine more songs of dream-like lethargy.  Personally, I’m partial to the bass heavy “It’s Racing”, the woodwinds of “Let It Down”, and the simple rhymes of “Half As Tall”.  Whatever your own ponderous pleasures , though, you will find them somewhere in here.  Especially if you are partial to measured electric guitar picking, which the Boys have in spades.

Leaden as it is, the slow pace of the record hides its strength, which is that there are no dud tracks.  Every song is pretty to really good… if this is your thing.  And that’s the real question.  I don’t know if this style is enough to sustain a band through their career.  (Although I guess Coldplay haven’t done too badly.)  This seems like one hell of a niche. Then again, is it any more of a niche than death metal?  Cannibal Corpse has a solid tour schedule.  Good luck to you, shoegaze popsters.  You got a decent record here.

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Tusks – Total Entertainment album review

Canadian band Tusks “Total Entertainment” album is a relatively diverse set of tunes, though I think everything fits well within the modern indie mindset.  Opener “Little Pirouettes” is a bit of a turn off with its, to my taste, overly plodding style, but I think a listener without my prejudices towards energetic rock would enjoy it just fine.  The second song “Oceans” is probably my favorite track on the whole album, a polite little piano driven rock song that has no pretense to greatness but is fun enough.  For some reason I hear echoes of Andrew Gold’s “Thank You For Being A Friend”, probably better known as the theme song from “The Golden Girls”, in “Oceans” but that might just be because I am moderately mentally disturbed.

“Family Arms” continues the polite up tempo indie vibe until the mandatory mid-album ballad “New To Old Money”.  It was here that I finally really started to notice keyboard player, Shaw-han Liem.   It’s too bad the guitars are so much farther up in the mix, not merely because they overshadow Mr Liem’s capable playing, but because I think a lot of these songs would work pretty well as new wave style piano and organ driven numbers.  Mind you, that’s a minor artistic quibble.  The guitars as well as every other instrument are quite well written and played.  And the production has a crystal clarity that allows even the softer instruments to be heard clearly.  That production probably does hurt the album’s power somewhat, there’s not a bit of grit in here.  But this isn’t supposed to be an exercise in gritty rock’n’roll, the polished aesthetic is very much a part of their sound.

Second to last on the record is the most fun song, the uptempo dub of “In the Beginning/Give It Time”.  Unfortunately they choose to end with another plodding number in “To See It Through”, the first half of which almost touches on piano driven Billy Joel-style balladry.  I’d prefer a little more aggressive closer, but again, that’s personal taste.  All in all a decent little record, if affable indie rock is your thing.

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Sad Robot – 1.0 album review

Sad Robot’s “1.0” is a strangely structured album.  The record is bookended by two different versions of “Hold On”.  The first is electric and the second is (mostly) acoustic.  It also appears to be the single they’re pushing, which makes sense since it’s a reasonably catchy mid-tempo modern rock ballad with that vague melancholy that seems to be a requirement of indie music.  It is also quite different from the rest of the record.  After that half hearted attempt at banal modernity the rest of the album, while not exactly retro, comes bathed in the influences of fuzzed out 70’s hard rock.  Personally I keep getting reminded of Rush’s first album (the era of “Working Man”, before they became progressive rock mathematicians), but you will probably hear an echo of your own favorite classic rock hero.

If there is anything that sets them apart it’s the spunky punk meets Adele vocals of singer Katherine Pawlak. Whether her vocals are good or bad is something I shall leave up to you, as I haven’t been able to decide for myself yet.  Either way, they’re necessary in creating an identity for the band.  Substitute a fat, bearded, gravelly voiced dude singer instead of her jazzy moaning, screaming, and scatting and this band would sound far closer to neo retro stoner metal bands like Red Fang or The Sword than anything in the indieverse.  Again, whether that is good or bad is something I’ll leave up to you.

They do run into some problems.  The songwriting is solid but can be a bit samey.  Combine that with Ms. Pawlak’s unique, out front vocals and the songs can sometimes run into one another.  If I’m not paying close attention I frequently find myself missing the end of second track “Sing” and beginning of third, “Show My Love”.  Eventually the band break up the hard rock with slow burner “How Does It Feel” which manages to mix what might almost be described as a little cabaret into the mix, which somehow works.  A few more rock tracks and we end with the acoustic “Hold On”, giving us a solid if slightly scatterbrained record.

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Mika – Origin of Love album review

It shows how out of step I am with the pop music world that I had never heard of Mika.  Upon hearing the name I pictured an indie princess strumming her guitar through hipper-than-thou mopey songs, for some reason.  Instead, I find myself confronted by a gay British boy with a Freddie Mercury fixation and a gaggle of unapologetic pop songs.  Thank God!  While apparently quite the sensation in Europe he never managed to break in America.

I can sort of see why America would be less embracing.  While comparisons to Mercury are obvious in listening to him sing, his voice is a lot thinner.  He’s not going to belt out the showstoppers like a Lady Gaga.  Mika manages to accommodate this in his songs.  Sometimes through electronic trickery, like the chorus effect on opener “Origin of Love”, but mostly by sticking to relatively low key material that doesn’t demand a bigger personality than he can provide.

This should not be viewed as any kind of insult to his songs.  Everything on here is good to great and mostly the latter.  Thankfully he doesn’t stick to electronics the whole time.  The album opens with back to back songs based around simple piano plinks and the drums, while programmed, sound organic.  I can actually see a real band playing these without endless backing tracks.  In a world where dance electronica has taken over it’s nice to be reminded that someone can still write a fresh fun pop song without a bass drop. There’s still plenty of club numbers on here, like “Stardust” or “Overrated”, but he keeps them polite enough to fit in with the rest of the album.

“Polite” is a good way to summarize the album, and I mean that as a compliment.  There’s an innocence to this album that a lot of stuff doesn’t have these days.  So much pop mires itself in an ugly, base sexuality that I find horribly off-putting.  Even when singing about flings, like “Love You When I’m Drunk”, it’s still cute and harmless.  It’s also perfect pop confection.  If you don’t own this you’re wrong.

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Mean Creek – Youth Companion album review

There is a certain hint of melancholy to Mean Creek’s “Youth Companion”.  That they manage to shoehorn it in despite having an album full of reasonably up tempo material is, I guess,  a complement.  At least it is if you’re into downer music.

Musically the band is impeccable, fitting hard rock into a little bit more of a pop format.  I hear a rougher edged Franz Ferdinand but I’m not sure that anyone else would make that comparison.  Both bands have the same base of guitar music with danceability.  Kudos to drummer Mikey Holland for the driving the songs along with the prefect mix of power and taste.

Aside from Mr. Holland the other saving grace of this record is the band’s willingness to embrace bombast when it suits them.  The screaming ending of “Young & Wild” could be from a Danzig song (coming from me that’s definitely a complement).  And they are schooled enough in the ways of rock to know how to balance soft parts with explosions, like in “Evel Kneviel” or “Sweet Thing”, without leaning on a standard, tired soft verse/loud chorus model.

The strangest part on this very modern record comes at the end with “The Comedian”.  The rest of the album is about as forward thinking as a four piece hard rock guitar band can be, given that format’s age.  But “The Comedian” is a heavy blues freakout that could have come off a Humble Pie album.  I am of two minds about this.  It’s so different I found it to be almost jarring but it’s also probably the best song on here.  The band, too, appears to recognize the song’s strength since they released it as a single a few years ago.  So what do we do?  I hesitate to say “they should write more songs like ‘The Comedian’,” because we can’t live in the ‘70’s forever.  I think the real secret of “The Comedian” is that they turn up their melancholy into outright rage and pain.  And pain can make for great rock ‘n’ roll.  Horrible drug-riddled and depressing lives, but great rock ‘n’roll.

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Rah Rah – The Poet’s Dead album review

I’ll admit to being surprised by “The Poet’s Dead”, the new album by Canadian indie band Rah Rah.  This is loud, guitar based, fairly straight ahead rock.  There’s not a lot of timid navel gazing here, at least not musically speaking.  The lyrics navel gaze plenty with meditations on poetry, aging, relationships, etc..  Sure, I wish the subject matter wasn’t so maudlin but you gotta know when to let things slide.  This is a band with three lyricicts, all of whom are wannabe poets.  You can’t fight an oncoming tide so I say let ‘em follow their hearts and attempt some meaningful crap.

Unfortunately there is something that I can’t let slide: the vocals.  As I said before, musically speaking this is an unabashedly rock record.  I think it might even reasonably be called a hard rock record.  Yet for the vocals we get the standard disinterested nerdy warble, from both sexes, that has been an indie cliche since forever.  Why?  Why make loud rock and then sound like you don’t want to be singing it?  I’m not saying you have to be an especially talented singer.  The number of non-talented-yet-great rock ‘n’ roll singers is legion.  What those legion have is moxie.  But there’s no moxie on this record, Rah Rah’s  vocalists just warble along not sounding particularly interested in what they’re doing.  The worst part is that I doubt there’s a reason behind it.  It’s just what indie vocals are supposed to sound like, and since they’re an indie band, they just do it unthinkingly.  Too bad.

Otherwise, this ain’t horrible.  It’s not chock full of hits but the playing is good and they can write a perfectly fine tune.  More importantly it’s the first record I’ve heard in a long time by a new(ish) band that isn’t either a) weird or b) totally blah or c) overly derivative of some rock glory from a generation or two (or three) back.  We’ve spent the past decade digitally splintering into our own little niches.  If we hadn’t, if there was still such a thing as mainstream rock, this record might be what that sound was.  Preferably minus the vocals, of course.

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Dum Dum Girls – End of Daze EP review

Retro punk fuzz whatevers Dumb Dumb Girls are back with an EP “End of Daze”, and it’s hard to hate.  Be forewarned that it’s the kind of record that thousands of overly earnest teenage alterna-chicks will fall in love with.  You know, the kind who spend too much time sitting on the quad mysteriously scribbling into black notebooks.  That audience has the kind of taste that is completely hit or miss with me.  One minute you have a perfectly acceptable Ramones song going and the next you’re stuck with some second rate goth mopefest.  As hard as the Dumb Dumbs try to bring on the dejection of the latter there’s just a little bit too much fun in here to completely drag us into the abyss.

That fun is ‘80’s based.  Underneath all the ethereal noise and fuzz and there is a huge throbbing vein of 80’s pop in this EP, and it’s immediately apparent on opening tunes “Mine Tonight” and “I Got Nothing”.  Personally, I hear a lot of Go-Go’s.  I probably make that connection just because the Go-Go’s are a girl band as are the Dumb Dumbs and I’m a sucker for patriarchal gender norms.   Whatever the reason the Go-Go’s, at their less candy coated moments, immediately spring to mind.

Oddly enough the only song that doesn’t immediately sound ‘80’s is the ‘80’s cover: British new wave band Strawberry Switchblade’s “Trees and Flowers”.  The song serves as the formless, drumless ballad made to tell people it’s time to stop dancing and go have a bathroom break.  It also helps remind one why a two disc “Best of UK New Wave!” collection is probably all that the average music fan requires of that scene.

Finally, we get back on the pop train with “Lord Knows” and “Season in Hell”. All around, it’s good stuff.  If it were me I’d pare back the artiness somewhat and work on rocking a little harder, but I’d say that for just about everyone short of AC/DC, so I imagine for people more mature than me (which is damn near everyone) this rocks just fine.