Dylan Ewen – Alt 2013 album review

Basement shows are sometimes a mixed bag. When you’re half-cocked, sweaty, rubbing against a few dozen doing the same, any grunge-y blast of noise coming at you can be just as entertaining as the last. Amidst this blur often comes a hotbed of new ideas where people get ballsier than they would had they been playing for a more broad audience above ground. This can be a powerful force, although some musicians can get too comfortable in that reassuring cul de sac. It pleases me, then, whenever I hear an artist who has the potential to break free of that which they may not want to break free from. They are the ones who stand out from the pack as the alpha dog, although they may come in the form of any archetype at all, including the depressed, the lonely, and the frustrated.

Dylan Ewen seems to be a man who is nothing short of honest. Take a look at his tumblr and you’ll find comics and drawings about insecurities most men would take in silence to their grave. Yet through his art, and especially his music, he turns these would be destructive forces into the driving power of his work. This is never more apparent then on Bufu Records Alt 2013

Alt 2013 is a four song statement articulate in its brevity. Initially we get a fuzzy summation of the existential dread and philosophical confusion that comes with the early 20’s. “Ego Trip” can be a song in which you identify in the frustration of feeling nihilistic in the face of the zealous and blindly faithful, or a reminiscence of a former life lived in chaos depending on your point of view.

Even though the lyrics can seem negative at times, the fuzzy surf rock nature of Dylan’s aesthetic makes it all fun and worthwhile even if you don’t agree with his ethos. In “You’re a bitch Part 2 (still a bitch)” Dylan makes an antagonistic declaration which could have come off in a totally different way if it didn’t sound like he was standing up for himself and the bitch in question didn’t actually sound like a total bitch.

Musician and artist types, as well as those who rejoice in social media, will likely find “I live in public” to be an anthem for them. Once again its possible to read the song multiple ways, as an attack or an admittance, in this case I would say both. To me its admission of being an attention whore, and loving it, and hating it. Where to place the blame? Was I born like this? Or did my idols and lovers twist me into this? All of this is put to music in a simply effective way.

Of all the underground kids who lived and died by the basement house show, Dylan Ewen has what it takes to break out, if he wants to that is. I would be overjoyed to see him headlining clubs and making a living out of his work. At the very least there are hundreds of basements around the US and abroad who would be honored to have the chance to get drunk and sweaty near him, even if they don’t know it yet.

Riva Starr – Hand In Hand album review

At first listen Riva Starr comes across as a slightly tilted Thievery Corporation. At times it sounds like its nothing but stock loops and yet at other times it sounds like the result of a severely experienced DJ who knows exactly how to control the vibe. When it hits these highs it sounds genuine and worthwhile just for how it makes you feel. The anachronistic instrumentation dials in a mix of 90’s alternative rock and 60’s soul. The influences don’t end there, however. There are plenty of points where a new influence will arise from the stew to stir the pot. Despite the variety nothing really comes across as out of place.

Hand In Hand brings the positive vibes full force, never more evident than the first track: “I’ve got a beating heart, life is the sweetest make believe.”. Played at a party, Hand In Hand would do well to bring all your buds together in a sweaty dance party. The atmosphere is maintained throughout although the spirit may change from track to track. Sometimes the tender love turns into down right sexiness. If you choose to play this at your next house party that locked bedroom is probably locked for a reason. Riva Starr is definitely channeling some free-love leftovers from days gone by.

Ultimately its not original, but it doesn’t have to be. There has been a void left by passing trends for good-time lovey dove-y feels could fill in a heartbeat. I’d imagine Riva Starr has a greeting for anybody privy to his private parties: “Welcome home, grab a wine spritzer and a spliff. We’re about to get lovely in this bitch.” Its definitely not for everyone. If you don’t have the good time posi feels in your head and your heart you wont find much but a fairly unoriginal DJ set. There is a missing piece to his art, and that is your ability to meet him halfway. “If depression don’t get ya, then the drugs will”. Awfully wise for what amounts to a dance party power plant. Its not often you’ll find this kind of positivity in the club scene.

Daughn Gibson – Me Moan album review

With a voice normally reserved for serious TV crime-drama opening sequences, Daughn Gibson’s baritone rumbles will likely take some getting used to for most. Daughn’s singing style just hasn’t been prevalent outside more traditionally rural music. While Daughn does inspire images of life outside the city he thankfully doesn’t care much for tradition. Sample based music is a constant quest for new textures, sounds, and combinations thereof, with Me Moan Daughn Gibson dares to tread where most would laugh at the possibility of venturing.

He walks a lonely road for sure, and the folk trademarks don’t end there. Daughn is a man’s man, so-to-speak, who brings something unexpected to folk which was desperately needed. It may seem a gimmick to many but his electronic backdrops aren’t just backdrops, they are a piece of the whole. Sampling often gets overlooked lately with the excessive use of electronics as a way of “fixing” the performance of the artist or backing band, but here its part of the DNA. With proper attention the sampling and electronic creations can be as interesting and intriguing as the origins of a mysterious lyric that lingers in your brain. The ideas that Daughn communicates here are inseparable and the whole package can feel like a masterfully dissected Jenga tower where if one more piece was removed it would come crashing down.

By the third time the album broke my expectations it was clear to me that it wouldn’t topple over. Confidence in design is the hallmark of a visionary musician in my mind, and that confidence can provide a glow to their presence whether you’re listening in or watching them on stage. Not that he needs any help making a personable impression, as Daughn has that authentic rugged face and voice that many bar hopping open-mic’ers would smoke cartons to achieve.

In combining worlds that would rarely if ever intersect Daughn Gibson has achieved a number one spot on a list that he, himself, created, so its quite hard to say how good this album actually is since its the best of its kind. I would imagine that his futuristic blue collar tones will alienate those who like to adhere to strict genre guidelines, but Me Moan will be like an abandoned briefcase of unmarked hundred dollar bills to those of us who crave something new. Don’t think. Just take the money and run. Daughn would want it that way.

Serj Tankian – Orca Symphony No. 1 album review

I recall seeing a full page photograph of Serj Tankian standing in front of a fridge full of mason jars, and those mason jars packed tight with various strands of marijuana. Keep this in mind when you come to understand that Serj’s side project from System of a Down appears in the form of a full orchestra. Orca. Hah. Get it? I’m sure it took quite the epiphany to think of that one.

Off we go to a nu-metal stoner’s classical playground. It might not be any particular genre here, actually sometimes the Acts (1-4 instead of a song structure) change style in very off putting ways. However leaving the alternating styles to chance Orca does occasionally get a lucky roll. It always sounds as if we, the listener, are getting snippets of his favorite film scores here and there and then indulgent but playful excursions of someone with the power of an orchestra to play whatever they want. Admittedly that power would probably be a very gleeful place to mess around, so I can’t blame Serj for doing his thing. It wont, however, hold up to people with much more experience composing, conducting, and perhaps better and more numerous musicians. It wouldn’t stand out as ADHD musings if delivered via 30 second commercial spots or dramatic scenes on some TV show, but that’s not quite a ringing endorsement for something you are considering purchasing, though, is it?

Surprisingly there is no guitar track to be found on the album. The project exists in its own space, and depending on a few factors it could have been better or worse with the guitar tracks included. Its probably true that most bands would try to incorporate their old sound with the new so maybe it avoided being more generic. On the other hand, had the guitars been included, Orca would stand a better chance at having its own identity instead of just being the records of what kind of luxuries you can afford as a rich more-or-less-retired-but-tours-sometimes musician.

Is it worth the time spent listening to it? I doubt many people would be annoyed by the album except for the classically trained musician wincing at wasted opportunities and poor decisions in the composition. Its not going to reach out to anyone because its existence is only really meaningful to System of a Down fans, and I can imagine them being lukewarm about it. I get the feeling that Serj would be a big fan of this though. I bet Serj listens to Orca on repeat in his luxury sedan. Oh Serj.

I Can Make a Mess – Enola album review

Emerging from the early 2000’s surge of emo scenesters and awkwardly booked shows of hardcore breakdowns one minute followed by the inevitable lacrimal acoustic whining comes I Can Make a Mess’ (or I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody’s Business for the purists) new album Enola. Luckily they present a matured evolution of past trends and mistakes. Unlike many bands who find a scene and feed their incestuous feedback loop of fan service until nobody is left but those two girls who drove 100 miles to see their new crush and fill up on merch, I Can Make a Mess (ICMAM from here on out) is at least trying to craft something more relevant.

Not trendy necessarily, but modern for sure; deep bass and synthesizers make routine appearances as well as more abstract studio effects. However, they still retain their vulnerability as even when you think its time for a cathartic freakout there is always some element kicking around the mix to keep things from being aggro or intimidating. Their softer nature is no surprise given that ICMAM is a side project of The Early November, infamous for their pop-punk/emo musings near the turn of the millennium. Given that the genres primary draw is typically the singer and not the typically simplistic backing music, it should be a good sign that ICMAM is a child of The Early November’s front-man Author ‘Ace’ Enders. He does a good enough job wailing out his woes in a pleasant fashion, although these days its impossible to tell from a recording the real talent of a vocalist.

Ace seems willing to break out of conventions to the best of his ability, although the end result on Enola is not exactly all that different from what he is presumably trying to avoid. After a few tracks its pretty easy to see where the rest of the album is going. The backing music may have evolved the singing is still decidedly pop-punk and emo in style. What we get could be interpreted as just another expensive stay in a studio tweaking songs in artificial ways, or an open minded take on a dead genre. Probably a bit of column A and column B. Its always appreciated for musicians with a legacy to respect their fans wishes while guiding their sound in a new direction, but history has shown that more often than not the direction a band past their prime wants to go can be a bit….indulgent to say the least. But who cares, right? If its good its good, and indulgence has also paved many roads to fortune in the realm of music. It should be a good sign then that, at least temporarily, ICMAM has avoided these pitfalls on Enola and have used their instincts quite well in deciding how the songs are crafted in more than just the music itself as its produced extraordinarily well.

Once again I’m wondering how much of the fancy studio toys will make an appearance in their live show or if the expensive production techniques really were just used “because they could” and not just a part of the natural recording process. Regardless, this is a must have for fans of pop-punk and emo and anyone else who is curious what happens when a pop-punk band moves on with their life.

Black Sabbath – 13 album review

With a few glaringly indulgent uses of pitch correction aside, you’d be surprised at how well Ozzy Ozbourne keeps up with his presumably younger band. Then again, younger than Ozzy is a pretty easily met criteria. This fact is not lost on the maturing rock icon, as most of 13’s songs come to deal with his own impending doom. Its ironic, then, that their lyrics and sound haven’t changed, at least to my ears, except the inspiration from their doom and gloom lyrics has shifted. Black Sabbath, and particularly Ozzy’s emotional dread, somehow manage to make what could have been so much less sincere, (given how many musicians perform in their later years) a worthwhile effort.

Although all of this is hanging on one big contingent: if you like Black Sabbath to begin with. There really isn’t much to say as stylistically they have not changed much. There’s a predictable lack of inspiration behind many of the bands songs, in particular some guitar riffs that aren’t having the dooming drudging scare tactics the same sound might have had 30 years ago. Where the guitars should be harsher they can come off as snoozy. However there is still a lot to like in the musicianship. At times the bassist will rip through the guitars into the foreground to dial up and down the neck of his bass guitar at a rapid pace with a very strong and deliberate attack. There are similar breakout moments with guitars, but no surprises. Black Sabbath a lot of very competent playing on 13 but rarely did it ever impress me in any audible way, my appreciation came mostly from the skill required to play certain solos or riffs, but the riffs were often quite dull.

So its to my surprise that Ozzy seems to be the one leading the pack. I fully expected the opposite with someone of his age, but his very real fears and frustrations inspire empathy for him in an otherwise gloomy atmosphere. The music really isn’t that great though, its primed and ready for the next Sports Truck commercial complete with low-angle shots of some serious American tradition splashing mud onto the lens. Just because the lyrics are empathy inspiring doesn’t complete negate the content, which can be reminiscent of a modern teenager’s rebellion against their christian upbringing,, that is, if they even had religious family. I bring this up because for how old he is, Ozzy only seems to be seriously asking these dark philosophical questions for the first (serious) time now. I’m inclined to think its a sign of how secular the world has become if a drug addled 80 year old’s lyricised fear of death is equivalent to an angst ridden blog post of a 14 year old goth queen. With no more nuns to antagonize, I wonder what the modern teenage nihilist will rebel against when they’re 80.

Radiation City – Animals in the Median album review

Right off the bat Radiation City transports you back in time with a signature lofi sound. Blending soulful singing plucked out of a fifties jukebox planted in a diner known for their milkshakes. They aren’t without signs of their anachronisms, there are plenty of modern sounds slightly hidden in the background if you listen for them, and an occasional intrusion of some pretty futuristic effects. Some of the riffs seem to be played in a way most people would attribute to a keyboard demo song, but not for long, as they quickly carve out their nook as a ballsier Belle and Sebastian. The lyrics, singing, chord progressions, melodies, and rhythms are all carefully tuned, and carved away from the chaotic jumble some bands try to fight off, without any clue that playing this tight and controlled was anything more than casual gestures.

Their laid-back presence gives Animals in the Median long lasting appeal. Its an album and band you want to keep around just to have at your fingertips the next time you need a ray of sunshine in a road rage laden gridlock, or a day where despite proper precautions you still manage to get a sunburn. But not all is illuminated in Radiation City, some lower key tunes present a more mysterious and darker sides, and others a reluctantly depressive apology. The honesty gives their songs its own specialty. Instead of adhering to the futuristic 50’s RnB they are willing to take jabs at new ideas without sounding like they are playing in a different band. So while you may miss the vibrant sound of “Zombie” towards the end of the album you might find yourself getting attached to others along the way, each with the sense that going back to listen again will be sweeter still.

If anything has left a bitter taste its their staple lofi effect that covers nearly every nook and cranny of the recordings. Either by through recording to, or mimicking the sound of old tape recording studios they’ve encapsulated themselves with a “Do Not Open Until 2013” label on the front panel. Where the singers voice would soar up above the volume of the rest of the band with a spine tingling flair it can get cut off and sound as dirty and down-low as the guitars. This actually works quite well sometimes so I’m not saying its always bad, I just don’t think its as core of a positive attribute to Radiation City’s ability to impress and also come off as retro. They would sound great with slightly cleaner recording but I get the sense that if they ever acquire some fanboys and girls they’d be contentious with that statement.

And they do deserve their share of fans. I was impressed here more than usual, and this album wont be leaving my car’s stereo for quite some time. I just hope more people find something to connect with here as I did, Animals in the Median is one of the more rewarding LPs to come out this year, or in recent years. I wouldn’t expect it to stop giving even after their next album, Radiation City has managed to make something classic, at least in their own universe, its up to everyone else now to find out for themselves if this exceptional album will stick around in their lives.

Imaginary Cities – Fall of Romance album review

It opens with a somber piano playing over the crackle of a record player. Before long, though, the sadness gives way to more hopeful, but still slightly down, singing. Not what I expected, anyway. Along the lines of breaking expectations a synthetic bass and ghastly lead backs up the duo’s vocals. Its ballsy to start an album with a bittersweet ballad that isn’t without a key change. What would a ballad be without a key change or even a short breakdown to a lofi acoustic exit. Without a moments notice the beat picks up on the next track. “Its so far from me now”; the chorus of the “Bells of Cologne” may as well describe the location of my presumptions of where they will take me during the length of Imaginary Cities’ 12 song album Fall of Romance. Wherever they take me, its sure to be inspired at the very least.

Theatrical would be a good word to describe Imaginary Cities. They seem invested in providing emotionally tender moments through many filters, from the ghastly to the sublime. Some times it can come off as contrived, however. It sounds like they aim for each color instead of simply trying to make the best song they can. I am unsure if a song needed to go in a separate direction from their initial “concept” that they’d be willing to follow that direction. This is not necessarily a negative so much as it is the result of their theatrical nature, acting seems to be in their blood and I’d be surprised if non of them had a background in musical theater. As such, some songs come off more genuine than others, “Sooner or Later” is one such song. The gliding optimistic synth displayed in the intro and in the background throughout gives the singing the sublime backdrop it needs. But its not long before their flair for the dramatic makes another appearance, in this case the bridge comes in with a cinematic string section to try and hammer in the message.

I’m not sold on the order of songs here, too often bands place too little importance on the flow of an album but sometimes it can tip the scales. I feel like they ordered the songs for maximum dramatic effect but I don’t think they have that luxury quite yet. It may be the optimum order of songs for their die hard fans but newcomers may get turned off before they get a full range of Imaginary Cities capabilities and offerings. That would be moderately shameful, because they have a sound that many people are sure to eat up.

Dungeonesse – Dungeonesse album review

Dungeonesse’s music seems best suited for party atmospheres where people wont be paying much attention, because under any sort of scrutiny most songs on their self titled album tend to lose something. However, when it fades into the background it becomes rather pleasant, I can imagine mobs prone to dancing being all about Dungeonesse, though I think they’ll eventually gravitate towards inevitable remixes as the poppy song lengths contradict the dance floor affinity they’ve presented. There’s nothing worse for keeping people dancing than a song thats too short, and without any sort of functional outro there’s nothing in place for DJ’s to pick up Dungeonesse’s slack.

For self proclaimed fans of pop I feel like they missed the whole deceptively part of the deceptively simple formula. The lyrics don’t pull any punches and ironically are sometimes too verbose for their own good. Where some more concise prose would make an exceptional counterpart to the singers vocal capabilities, they seem hell bent on fitting as much fluff as possible into a three and a half minute stint. Their maximalist take, accidental or not, could use a masterclass from Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano; there is no need to write a word for every single note sung. There’s no shame in using the voice as an instrument first, and communicator second, especially when the lyrics aren’t deep in the first place. I’d love to see what she can do when if/when she breaks free from trying to emphasize each and every word to just focus on complimenting the music instead. Where Dungeonesse tries to take the scenic route it ends up like a GPS malfunction guiding you through the industrial district on a two lane 30 mph road, but damned if you aren’t in a brand new Ferrari during the journey. Dungeonesse has what it takes to be the luxurious and high end group they seek to be, but they may have to re-evaluate what it is that makes a great song, not just a good one. That is, if they even care about writing great songs, as they might be content with the sound they’ve crafted.

Even though I’ve found a fairly lengthy list of things to nitpick, Dungeonesse is a talented showing. Perhaps I’m being so critical only because its rare to see technical talent like this in the indie scene. There’s psychological effect I’ve found to be true with talented musicians: once you’ve given the listener a taste of your above average skills, they’ll expect you to keep rising above your own average, whereas an artist who’s appeal consists of their character or style alone can skate by with below average skills, so long as they craft a unique sound. In a way, the better a musician gets, the more critical the response they will receive as they’ve proven that they have potential for even greater heights. Imagine a band who only had one song with a guitar solo, but it was the best guitar solo you’ve ever heard (ok so maybe guitar solos aren’t currently in vogue, but just go with it). Going back to their other songs may be a bit of a let down if you’ve come to identify their singular guitar solo song as representative of their true potential.

Dungeonesse has yet to create that song, respectively with vocal and writing chops, but if and when they do it could be a game changer. I just hope their personal goals aren’t set too low by their fascination of pop songs.

Texas – The Conversation album review

I’ve been dreading an album like this to come along. It’s easy to sing praise for a release that pleasantly surprised you, and it can be equally as easy to trash something that is fundamentally flawed or just plain awful. The difficulty arises when everything seems to be calculated perfectly for a very specific audience. That very specific audience couldn’t be farther from my tastes. Texas’ The Conversation makes me want to shoot myself.

If it weren’t produced so immaculately, these songs could be found playing on the radio of a vintage car in a classic movie. The radio station wouldn’t be the one playing the classics people remember, however, no, it would be playing all the forgotten songs of days gone by. You know, the ones people tried to forget. You may have pictured a ’50’s era Chevy playing the tinny radio tinted songs cinematically in my metaphor, but the truth is Texas spans many decades. Many decades of genres in their lowest form made to order for their era’s respective top 40 (or more aptly, the bottom of the top 40).

Halfway through writing this review and listening to The Conversation, I’ve changed my mind. I’m no longer struggling to criticize this in the face of its competence, rather, I’m struggling to understand who in 2013 actually gives a fuck about this music. It’s so mediocre that it shatters the notion of being average and falls down into being completely aggravating. With each carefully crafted turd that rings out, my blood starts to boil a little bit more. I should give Texas accolades for affecting me in such a way, but I wont.

If you don’t care too much about music and/or have some nostalgic attachment to Texas’ heyday, you’ll probably gobble this up and choke on the bones. The rest of humanity would do well to avoid The Conversation though I doubt anyone besides Texas fans even know it exists.