Brick + Mortar – Bangs EP review

Brick + Mortar are a duo from Ashbury Park New Jersey on an uphill battle and gaining traction in the large and ever-changing  music industry. Long time friends Brandon Asraf and John Tacon, who have been writing and playing music together since middle school, officially joined forces in 2008. Asraf leads the duo with his unique vocals and aggressive bass lines, while Tacon fills in the details with drums, samples and back up vocals. They started off by playing up and down the coast of New Jersey, gaining a considerable amount of success with their live show. Eventually they opened for Jimi Eat World, played at 2012 SXSW Music Conference and more recently they have been showcasing for different labels for representation. They came out with their first studio release independently in 2010, titled 7 Years in the Mystic Room, which was well received by critics and fans. Independent label Anchor & Hope Music has since signed them.

On Bangs, Brick + Mortar seem to have developed a new even more adventurous, yet pop, sound with an undeniable “in-your-face” aggression. Compared to 7 Years, which overall has a mid-tempo and atmospheric feel, this is a noticeable difference. The title track explodes with a jarring introductory riff. Ruff and ready heaviness, catchy melodies and distorted overtones are immediate themes. Asraf’s use of effects on his vocals appropriately adds to the draw of their creation. Tacon holds things together with an apparent ability to find the most extreme and most fitting beats and fills to compliment the integrity of the song. The groups use of samples and various synthesizers is an attractive characteristic, adding depth and a modern vibe.

On “Locked In A Cage” Asraf voices frustrations “you know I got the anger of a burning sun, now hold up just a minute down burn me down.” Possibly, this a reflection of the difficulty of finding yourself with a dream in a thankless world. Ironically, this type of honest, up-beat and aggressive production will likely gain the duo even more well-deserved attention. The melody is repetitive and infectious.

The next track seems to have become a sort of anthem for the band. “Heatstroke,” previously showcased at their live shows, offers a memorable melody over Tacon’s rolling, pounding drums. The introduction on this track is exceptionally wild. The two different choruses offer eye to eye views inside Asraf’s angst about our cold-hearted world and the woes of lost love: “The strongest thing I ever felt was feelings for you, so try to look me in the eye, a difficult goodbye, to all the things we hide.”

Brick + Mortar deliver another raucous account of life on “Old Boy.” The drums are the driving force behind this track with an upbeat, party feel. The post chorus riffing shows displays the group’s ability to play well at super speed. Asraf points out “can’t be the best, still I hold on to.” On the next song, “No I Won’t Go” is well written, though follows a predictable pop song structure and familiar sounding melody, suggesting the group is looking for a broader appeal. The production at the end of the Bangs collection keeps things lively. On “Keep This Place Beautiful” Asraf brings morbid creativity to the pre-chorus with a conscious for future generations “one day I will be dead, I will be dust, keep this place beautiful.” On the last track, “Terrible Things,” Asraf and Tacon explore the deeper sides of their minds.

Brick + Mortar have many well executed creative ideas throughout this short seven song collection. Their well-defined sound, strong songwriting and musicianship prove them worthy of praise and attention. The stronger tracks on this release, “Bangs,” “Heatstroke” and “Locked in a Cage” soar with potential and prove their abilities as non-conformist songwriters. Brick + Mortar’s blend of alternative indie pop-rock music with ambition should not fall off the radar anytime soon, and in fact may be heating up right here in front of us.

The Leisure Society – Alone Aboard the Ark album review

At what point will the masses turn on ukulele wielding troubadours like they did on disco music that day at the ballpark on Disco Demolition Night in Chicago? Can we trick them all into thinking they’re playing the halftime show of the Super Bowl and then drunkenly throw our bottles of rye at them? Thankfully The Leisure Society isn’t all ukulele but there is enough entry level piano and banjo music playing to get you steamed; especially in the Alone Aboard the Ark opener, Another Psalm Sunday, which has a harmonica thrown in mid song just for your pleasure. Sorry, for some reason I can’t get that Hannibal Lecter movie Red Dragon out of my head right now.

The next song isn’t much better as it comes complete with violins and woodwinds that have bad 70’s lounge music as their background. I kept waiting for Jack Tripper’s sleazy buddy Larry to show up at my door flaunting tons of chest hair. By the third song, you realize that all this band is, is a bunch of hipsters who can play a random assortment of instruments . They got together one night and decided that their glorified grad student plays weren’t working anymore, so why not form a band to get girls. They aren’t talented enough to play any kind of solos and musically they are all over the place. They can’t decide what they are or what they want to be, which is ok if you perfect a certain style on one album and then decide to mix it up on another. But to be average at every style you play doesn’t quite work when you are trying to be schizophrenic.

Tearing the Arches Down is their most rocking song and I use that term loosely. They bring in some distorted guitar and it’s the closest thing you’ll find to a traditional rock song on this album. All I Have Seen is the clear highlight with its late 60’s psychedelic harmonizing which instantly draws you in and thankfully it has lyrics you actually care about. The song ends with Hemming singing “No More, No More, All I have seen, take it from me” and fades out with carnival like music, continuing their weird trend of schizophrenia.

Maybe you’re really into folk/rock music and by the end you’ll be drowning in young flapper Roaring 20’s hipster bliss with Forever We Shall Wait and the never ending We Go Together. But for the rest of us, the next time I see some dude with greased up hair, an unnecessary  5 o’clock shadow, and rolled up sleeves; I’m going to assume that he saw the Robert Downey Jr version of Sherlock Holmes one too many times and throw my fedora at him! Oh the irony!

Cody Simpson – Surfers Paradise album review

General industry knowledge and cultural observation suggests a short career for a musician who begins at age eleven. Long term success does not, by any practical reasoning, seem possible with such an early start date. Eleven is formative, an age meant for arcade games and laser tag not technical sound mixing and editing.  The exception, of course, is true motivation—the real stuff, not the brand you see on TV—the kind Cody Simpson appears to be full of.

Simpson’s story is candy coated, it’s the one you tell your parents to convince them that dropping out of high school to, “focus on your music career” is a good idea. In 2009, Simpson was discovered on YouTube and offered a contract with Atlantic Records. Since then, he has run at full speed, head first, with a collection of tours, a Nickelodeon Australia Kids Choice Award, two EPs, and two LPs all in just four years.

The latest album is a saccharine, vocoded rendition of what you’d expect when you think Surfers Paradise—upbeat, tame, Jason Mraz meets Sublime.  It’s eight tracks of precisely summed up teenage summer.  Cody Simpson has certainly found his niche, which is not an easy task for any musician, let alone a sixteen year old one.

In the 2013 pop-land of One Direction and Miley Cyrus, where auto-tune rules and image pays (ahead of perceived talent) the competition is stiff. What might set Cody Simpson apart is the fact that he remembers a time when all there was was a built-in mic and a YouTube account.  It’s that or a Bieber, Simpson, Emblem3 supergroup.

London Grammar – Metal & Dust album review

With only an EP spanning four tracks (one of which is a remix), the London-based trio appropriately named, London Grammar, have already made wavelengths through the internet and have even reached billboard charts in Australia and the U.K. Not bad for having barely over 10 minutes of recorded material.

Metal & Dust is their first release and in a very short amount of time, received great praise and garnered much viral popularity. The group’s sound is subtle, offering hints of varying samples and sounds that add up to their overall dark and ambient aesthetic. It is a very engaging and interesting mix but what really capture the spotlight are Hannah Reid’s vocals. The instrumental seems to act as only an aid in helping Reid just add that much more power to her already strong and confident vocals.

Despite the minimalistic nature of the music, Reid’s voice is brought forth full tilt with emotion, never holding back and the music itself seems to be under the tow and sway of her voice. Borrowing easy to identify influences from fellow U.K indie stars such as Alt-J and The XX, it would appear as though there is a certain love affair with drum pads and echoing vocals being sprinkled with spitfire guitar picking however despite the similarities, London Grammar bring their own individualistic strengths to the table.

It is hard to exactly say how a full length album would turn out with this group. Although they do what they do well, it unfortunately ends up sounding just a little repetitive and that is only with 3 songs. The promise is all there but their EP is not yet a fair assessment of the band. Even the remix ‘Hey Now’ by Dot Major is the most engaging and interesting listen, and it’s not always a good sign when the remix is one of, if not, the better tracks. They can certainly do it, but it will be interesting to see if the group can come out with a full length that will truly set them apart from their counterparts.

The Love Language – Ruby Red album review

The low-fi sound is a tricky one to master. On the one hand, it has the potential to be a unique, almost haunting listening experience. On the other, it often runs the risk of being dazed and slow, creating tracks that seem endless in the worst kind of way. It’s a struggle that, for better or worse, manifests itself clearly on The Love Language’s latest album, Ruby Red.

The band, which started as a one-man show for lead singer Stuart McLamb, is back with its third studio release. They’ve kept up the same washed out, suspended sound for this latest release, recalling the music of bands like Arcade Fire. However, something about the record just feels slow. McLamb’s vocals are not very powerful, and seem to mostly dissolve into the instrumentals, which sound cloudy. It has a very old time-y pace and feel, to the point where certain tracks end up sounding very schmaltzy and dated. For example, “Hi Life” features a background melody that sails along as if it came straight off an ABBA record.

The album is not a total miss however. There are times when Ruby Red puts itself on the other end of the low-fi spectrum, creating a unique and interesting sound. This is mostly when they pick up the pace and the power, adding stronger percussion and a more solid rhythm. The track “First Shot” is a great manifestation of this — McLamb’s vocals channel 80s glam rockers such as The Cure, the guitars are distorted, there is a rhythm to bob a long to, and background melodies jump rather than sail. The track is interesting — it comes off edgy, primal and broken, and ends too soon.

Tracks like this serve as proof that McLamb and The Love Language do know what they are doing — or at least, what they could be doing. It’s just a shame they don’t take that knowledge to its fullest potential.

Sarah Bareilles – The Blessed Unrest album review

Sarah Bareilles delivers a very strong selection of songs on her new album The Blessed Unrest. While we have grown to expect greatness from the critically acclaimed, Grammy nominated pop star, The Blessed Unrest stretches the artist’s horizons, proving her studio work can be an enhancement to her well established singing and songwriting skills.

On album opener and lead single “Brave,” Sarah Bareilles sings an uplifting melody with conviction over roaring piano chords. Songwriter Jack Antonoff of the band Fun co-wrote this song and the result is a bold anthem of a pop song. Excellent lyrics on “Chasing the Sun” display introspective lines reflecting on the difficulties of making music as an individual buried in the depths of New York City. Bareilles’ voice comes through strong and directly on pitch. On “Hercules” Sarah admits “I want to give up and start over” over staccato piano that leads us into a rolling chorus complete with backing vocals and a tempo change and she sings “I was meant to be a warrior, please make me a Hercules,” like a hero alienated at the top The quiet beauty of “Manhattan” is heart wrenching. Despair over lost love meets a traveling melody expertly crooned over deep minor key chords.

“Satellite Call” is a highlight, featuring a slow steady beat, effected vocals and a sense of importance in each measure. Bareilles nicely sings in the chorus: “Tonight you’re not alone at all, this is me sending out my satellite call.” The next track “Little Black Dress,” lightens the mood, introducing some light trumpet in the backing track. “Cassiopeia” expands on some previous effect-based material featured earlier on the album. The dynamic, heavy synthesizers in the chorus comes across as a nice step forward for Bareilles. She re-enters her deeper material for the serious “1,000 Times.” Well written lyrics of a heartbroken woman troubled by remaining love for her lost one stand out here and elsewhere. Hope returns on the lighthearted “I Choose You,” which is reportedly the second single to be released off this album.

The dynamic “Eden” goes in the “Cassiopeia” direction, showing her chops on a heavily effected jam that enters a sort of synthesizer dance beat during the chorus. This song is even more of a diversion on the album than others, but shows Sarah’s versatility. The beautiful “Islands” tells the story of growing up alone in the world and learning to cherish it. The closer “December” seems to conclude her self-reflection with a sense of hope and fulfillment, acknowledging the ups and downs of life as a necessary part of growth.

As a whole, the album reverberates with themes of perseverance through heartache and the roller coaster of emotions in love and life. The album is certainly well-written throughout, though seems to lack a concise direction as Sarah explores styles previously unseen in her other work. The production is credited to Sarah Bareilles, John O’Mahony and Kurt Uenala on all songs except for the two singles “Brave” and “I Choose You,” as well as “Chasing the Sun,” which are credited to industry heavyweight Mark Endert (Fiona Apple, The Fray, Maroon 5). Epic Records released the album on July 12th.

Hunx and His Punx – Street Punk album review

We’ve been hearing it for decades now; almost from the outset of punk rock itself came the battle cry, ‘punk is dead!’ By now, it’s practically a marketing slogan. And while its generally acknowledged that yes, punk as a movement has been dead for several decades now, punk as a genre, just like any genre, can never really die. All that is needed is for one band to work in the same vein, and if all the ingredients come together just right, instant resurrection is obtained. Easier said than done, of course, as countless bargain bin failures can attest.

While nothing can turn back the clock on a culture that no longer exists, and nothing can bring back your youth, if it’s loud, fast, aggressive, snotty music from a band who doesn’t give a fuck and are more than happy to tell you, then Hunx and His Punx’ Street Punk will be instantly accepted. Chugging out of the speakers with the lowest of lo fi sludge, the record sounds as though it was recorded in the same makeshift garage shack/recording studio as early Misfits output. Tracks like “Everyone’s A Pussy (Fuck You Dude)” and “Don’t Call Me Fabulous” barrel in like a locomotive; their only lyrics, their titles, shouted at breakneck speeds over fuzzy, throbbing instrumentations, both screeching to a halt in under a half minute each. In fact, the only misstep in the album is also its longest, coming in at 3:48.

“Street Punk” draws obvious inspiration from Suicidal Tendencies, and “Born Blonde” almost subconsciously reminds of The Detroit Cobras. Misfits sonic textures (or lack thereof, as the case may be) and melodies abound, perhaps (and surprisingly) most noticeable on “Mud In Your Eyes,” which also recalls the 60s girl group sounds of the band’s debut record, Too Young To Be In Love. Bassist Shannon Shaw lends her vocals to several tracks, balancing the sleeze of singer Seth Bogart with a bit of punk sultriness.

Thankfully, the other abundant element of Too Young to be left to the wayside on this attempt is the extreme limp-wristed campiness, and the high, nasal whine of a stereotypical sex-crazed homosexual. Bogart still shimmies around onstage in mesh and leather costumes that would turn heads even at the Folsom Street Fair (a style not too many degrees removed from Iggy and other punk pioneers, truth be told), and the lyrics still drip with aggressive homoeroticism, but the nails-on-a-chalkboard, clichéd snivel is gone, allowing the listener to focus more on the amazingly catchy hooks and witty lyrics, all considering.

The line between the punk and gay subcultures has always been a bit thinner than some would like to admit, and that is certainly one way to view this act: through his camp, Bogart is able to call attention the shared elements of two very different groups. But if asked, he would probably make no such claims. And why should he? The music speaks for itself.

Weekend – Jinx album review

The powers to be (a.k.a. the internet…) describes San Franciscan group, Weekend, as lo-fi shoegaze. I guess that means that while listening to their new album one might be most compelled to sway their shoulders side to side with chin against chest and eyes at the ground. Do not let the genre classification be the only basis of what to expect from new album, Jinx. Instead of head down swaying, this album demands a little more motion. With high energy and resounding soundscapes, Jinx is definitely a great production. Its sound can fill even the largest of spaces and evokes images of a deep-space-like, echoic atmosphere (even though such a thing is technically a contradiction.) Needless to say, Jinx is a wonderfully well-balanced  and intriguing piece of work.

For a glimpse of the expanse Jinx inhabits, tune into track track three, “Celebration, Fl.” Its pulsating snares coupled with reverb-obsessed vocals and instrumentation are on point. They ebb and flow like they should, compelling the listener to come back for a second or third listen. Moreover, the track is an excellent taste of Jinx on a whole. Following “Celebration, Fl” comes “Sirens” and again a listener might feel a nearly overwhelming sense of spacial sound. The electronic timbre fills your headphones with a comforting drone which proves almost meditative. And if that is not enough to sway you, turn an ear to track eight, “Rosaries.” It is this track where you will find a certain reminiscence you might expect from spinning your favorite Tears for Fears album. A guitar rhythm marches on as a epic drones and fleeting vocals create a visual arrangement of imagined color and shapes.

All together, Jinx is without a doubt relaxing yet, impulsively, it demands an uncontrollable notion to move. The production of the album is perfectly lo-fi which creates a uniquely intriguing electronic texture. It is obvious Weekend utilizes the studio to their advantage, applying it as another instrument. My opinion–as you most likely could have already guessed–pick up a copy of Jinx. It will fill that void for new electronic shoegaze that you have been sorely lacking for some time now. And if shoegaze is just not your style, give it a try anyway. You may be surprised how the genre can be interpreted.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros album review

When Rick Ross’s “100 Black Coffins” came flooding through movie theater sound systems during screenings of Django Unchained, drowning us in bravado and grunted foreshadowing, there’s a reason we didn’t laugh. Ross, an ex-correctional officer who reinvented himself as a rapper under an alias lifted from a real life drug trafficker, is able to sell us on a song like the bloody “Coffins” because his character was built to devour any doubt. This is why we rarely call bullshit on his fabrication of reality, and it’s the same reasons we watch action movies: we enjoy all this talk of violence and drug slinging as long as it’s in some alternate reality. When we hear the stomping, outsized western beat on “100 Black Coffins”, we’re reminded of exciting storytelling rather than CNN Headlines. It’s all about playing a good character.

Alex Ebert is playing a similar type of role. Once the frontman of the strung out electrodes in Ima Robot, Ebert found rebirth while in rehab as the character Edward Sharpe. The band he formed around this new creation sold a fan base on the mystery, releasing their debut Up From Below with a cover photo of the group literally jumping into the setting sun. There was a feeling surrounding the album, at least among Ebert fans, that this album could save your soul. Well, not quite, but something like that.

Up From Below ended up being a terrifically self-aware album, with songs like “40 Day Dream” poking fun at the grandeur expected of musical spectacle, even explicitly referencing The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. When you listened to Up From Below, you knew everyone involved was in on the joke, that they knew music alone couldn’t save your soul, but you also knew these dudes believed in the power of their own musical community. Up From Below was essentially just an extremely clever way of nailing down a cliché.

On their third album, however, Alex Ebert has lost himself completely in character, and the result is a festival pandering slog through mostly uninspired sing-alongs. The trouble starts right away with Ebert (as Edward Sharpe, it should be noted) singing “We don’t have to talk/Let’s dance”. He sounds like he’s straining here, and not in the way Dylan used to. This is closer to Sam Waterson on The Newsroom.

The record’s biggest offense is the painfully generic “Let’s Get High”, which seems confused by its own lyrics, especially on awkward lines like “Ain’t we all just Japanese when we’re high/On love?”. This is the type of writing festival organizers salivate over but fans should ignore. It’s just streamlining the process and is also what ends up making the self-titled effort nearly insufferable. In the end, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes is like listening to Rick Ross giving a lecture; it may have been put together with good intentions but makes little sense. It doesn’t give us anything we can’t already get elsewhere. Why play a character if you’re not going to make something worth watching?

Gregory Alan Isakov – The Weatherman album review

For proof that the ‘Americana’ style of music has nothing to do with being ‘American’, here is Gregory Alan Isakov, native of South Africa. For evidence related to this proof, listen to ‘Time Will Tell’, with the banjos, acoustic guitars, and whistle effects that are kind of reminiscent of a musical saw.

Isakov is an accomplished songwriter who manages to convey a type of intimacy through his music. There is a story-telling quality to his singer-songwriter vibe, which turns the songs into images of existence. The songs generally unfold at a leisurely pace, utilizing rhythmic techniques in the accompaniment that convey a heightened sense of motion amidst the incredibly lazy tempos.

If there is anything lacking on this record, it stems from the fact that there is an overabundance of slow, melancholy tunes. Isakov is a talented songwriter with a great melodic sense, but the general aesthetic he conveys unfortunately results in a type of blurring, as the songs tend to blend into one another.

On the upside, Isakov appears to have some kind of training, or at the very least he’s picked up a pretty solid understanding of harmonic relationships and song form since he started touring at 16. His ability to harmonize a melodic line and pace the harmonic rhythm to the line is really solid, leading to moments of subtle emotional intensity.

With Gregory Alan, it’s not about virtuosity or overt intensity, it’s about the human element, the story, and the lives that people live. All that’s needed is a little more variety in tempo.