Saturday, November 22, 2014

Nobody There



As the year has progressed, several great singles and EPs have been released for which I have written reviews.  I’ve waited for many of these bands to go ahead and release new full length albums before offering my thoughts, but several have not yet materialized.  So, over the next week or two, I hope to share my enthusiasm for some of these great singles that have come along during 2014 that I’ve neglected to share.



Veronica Falls
“Nobody There” 7”
(Beachy Head)

What a pleasant surprise this single turned out to be!  Late last year, I received an email message from veronica Falls about a limited edition 7” single to be released before years’ end.  I jumped at the chance and secured a copy, which actually finally showed up early in February - though the digital version has been available, while the vinyl version with a nice fold out screen printed sleeve (limited to 300) quickly sold out.  Veronica Falls have been a favorite ever since their debut of dread-filled songs came across my limited awareness in 2011 and the thought of a brand new single hot on the heels of their incredible second album Waiting for Something to Happen (my #4 pick of 2013) had me on the edge of my seat.

This could be taken as negative, but the A-side “Nobody There,” is no different than we’ve come to expect from Veronica Falls.  The song contains their wonderful forward momentum of jangling guitars, rolling drums, and amazing harmonies and it never ceases to get old, and as their songs have become bolder and tighter from their steady touring schedule and much better recorded, they sound like a band on a hot streak.  In fact, “Nobody There” could be one of the most joyous sounding songs about what seems to be complete isolation and loneliness one may ever hear.  The A-side’s rousing chorus – complete with handclaps – is letting us know that there is no one listening and that “there’s nobody there.”  Wow, that’s really depressing, but the message is wrapped inside such a pretty song, it harkens back to those lonely moments of dancing alone around my bedroom as a teenager to angst-ridden anthems (“Shut the door / don’t let them see / turn in circles endlessly”).

The B-side “Need You Around” is a more spacious song about loneliness, or an attempt to avoid it, as Roxanne Clifford pleas for someone to stay with her.  It’s up to us to decide if this exit is permanent, or just for the moment, but the desperation is palpable.  Plus, how many bands out there can create such ear catching vocal harmonies in just over two minutes?  This B-side is definitely not B material.  Both songs are as good as anything they’ve done so far, and that is about as high of praise as I can muster.



Veronica Falls "Nobody There"


 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

No One is Lost



Stars
No One is Lost
(Soft Revolution/ATO)

As a general rule, I do not write negative record reviews.  I don’t feel as though it’s worth my, or especially anyone else’s, time.  It’s already a stretching reason to consider the time I spend espousing what I believe to be good music to no one in particular, so wasting that time denigrating someone’s hard work seems especially pointless.  My goal here is not to judge the artistic value of everything that comes my way – good or bad – and place its social and cultural importance into some farcical hierarchy.  My only goal is to share my excitement about whatever music comes my way.

Having said this, the first few times I listened to Stars’ latest album, No One is Lost, I can easily say that I did not find it very enjoyable.  I’ve been buying their music since buying their debut, Nightsongs, via Parasol Mail Order back in 2001 – mainly because I was curious to hear their cover of The Smiths’ “This Charming Man,” so I’ve been a fan long enough to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Sure, I never grew very warm to their fifth album, 2010s Five Ghosts, but their last offering, 2012s The North (my #21 pick seen here), was a comforting return to form.  This is the same band that always brings fun and inspiration to their live performances, and have consistently put in the work and the growth for me to keep giving the new album a chance, and sure enough, No One is Lost started to grow on me.  I’ve been playing the album repeatedly for the last month or so and little by little it has chipped away at my initial dislike and now here I am trying to distill this information to my audience of one or two random people, because I think it’s worth the recommendation and the effort.

With The North, Stars seemed to hit reset and simply write and record an album of songs.  Since their incredible sophomore album, Heart (2003), it seems that they’ve put a lot of time and effort into creating cohesive thematic albums, which is great, but it felt as if they were stretching things too far and were losing focus on the actual songs.  Well, their back at it.  No One is Lost is predominantly about convincing us to let go and have fun – to just say “fuck it” and not ‘lose’ oneself in the daily grind of survival.  The album is bookended by two dance tracks.   “From the Night” is an 80s dance remix-style song encouraging us all to go out into the night and forget work and all the boring stuff we have to do (“let’s be young / let’s pretend that we will never die”), and though its not among my favorites on this collection, it is hard not to be charmed by the chorus “I don’t care if we never come back from the night.”  The closing title track similarly tries to reach the empty souls out there (I am raising my hand…) and encourages us to get out on the dance floor and to “put your hands up ‘cause everybody dies.”  So, even though Stars are trying to tell us to have fun and are providing the most rousing exuberant soundtrack they’ve ever presented, in the process, they are painting a bleak picture of our society and the massive need for escape so many of us need.  It may be that darker layer underneath the gloss that began to appeal to me.  “Trap Door” gives us a brilliant sing-a-long chorus, and a huge dose of bitterness.  Torquil Campbell provides his customary dramatic vocal turn as he sings about feeling old, fearful and out of place mixing with the kids at the club (“when you’re standing in the dark it’s hard to see the light”), which feels very identifiable.

Elsewhere it’s great to hear their knack for spectacular string arrangements on songs like the languid “Turn it Up” and gradual build up of “What is to be Done?”, like they featured so prominently on their creative zenith, 2004’s Set Yourself on Fire.  Their more orchestral songs are often the best settings for so many of their melodramatic songs.  However, in the end, it may be the two most straight forward pop rock songs on the album that will be my lasting favorites.  The Amy Millan fronted “This is the Last Time” is a fun and addictive buzzer, while the speedy “Are You OK?” rides along a fun stuttering mid-range bass-line, which belies the seriousness of the singer’s plea to help someone “running away from life.”

I’m not sure why it took so much time for this collection of songs to grow on me, but it did and in some ways, I think this may Stars’ best work since their landmark Set Yourself on Fire.  But I will leave that alone for now.  As it is, it’s an album worth investigating and they continue to be a band worthy of attention.  Get the album and go out and see them perform live.  Go have some fun!



Stars "From the Night"


 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Luxembourg Signal



The Luxembourg Signal
The Luxembourg Signal
“Distant Drive” 7”
(Shelflife)

When I bought The Luxembourg’s debut 7” single, “Distant Drive,” earlier this spring, I had no idea that much of the band used to make up Sarah Records staple Aberdeen from back in the day.  I simply knew that “Distant Drive” is an infectious and lovely song that perfectly fits its theme.  It makes for a great song to kick off a long road trip with its insistent drum beat and repetitive guitar riff literally carrying us along for the ride.  Likewise, the B-side, “Wishing Pool,” (also included on the LP in a mildly different version) captured my adoration by being simple, catchy, and dreamy all at the same time. 

So, now, finally, comes their self-titled debut full length and their long shared history as professional musicians proves why this band sound so seasoned and have offered up such a rewarding and fully realized album.  What is surprising is that though they share a history with the very reserved Sarah Records bands, this album takes away that beauty, but brings along a healthy dose of rock and roll edge.  Any question regarding this can be dismissed by the appearance of Melvins drummer Dale Crover on the absolutely pounding and psychedelic “Drowning.”  Speaking of psychedelic, this album has a few songs that harkens back to the late 80s UK indie scene where bands began to embrace at least tinges of psychedelics into their sound.  It makes me think of the Mighty Lemon Drops (oh, and look, former Lemon Drop David Newton helped record this album!) crossed with The Heart Throbs.  Check out the dreamy and trippy expanse of the opening “Dying Star” for a flashback or the atmospheric passages of “First Light,” before the power chords during the bridge.  



However, it’s the wistful focused pop songs like the two from the 7” single that really have me grinning from ear to ear.  The Beth Arzy fronted “She Loves to Feel the Sun” sounds exactly like an amazing lost Trembling Blue Stars song gone into overdrive (Arzy sang several songs on the last few TBS albums) and is one of the best songs I’ve heard all year!  Speaking of which, the penultimate “We Go On” is also a contender for great song of the year.  “We Go On” begins with a crisp build up that reminds of Cerulean era Ocean Blue, but with the beautiful voices of Betsy Moyer and Beth Arzy leading us into a fantastic timeless chorus.  Both of these songs fill me with warmth and a chill as they simultaneously present great hopes and dreams and missed opportunities and longing.

Finally, the album closes with the amazing and bitter “Let it Go,” whose knowing words straddle the line between escapism (“let it go / we’re lying in the sun”) and the desire to fight against the constraints that we all live in - in order to make a living and get by in this world (“and shove you aside”), despite the potential soul sucking side effects (“swallow your pride / till you feel nothing inside”).   It’s a battle that most of us fight to some degree every day, but it’s still comforting to hear an understanding voice convey the feeling atop a very tasteful tune. 

This debut album by the Luxembourg Signal feels like the return of an old long lost friend.  It makes me wistful for old times, bitter about what I’ve lost along the way, but thankful and hopeful for what is yet to come.  Do yourself a favor and buy this album.



The Luxembourg Signal "She Loves to Feel the Sun"


 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Nobody Wants to be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave



The Twilight Sad
Nobody Wants to be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave
(Fatcat)

It’s fitting that The Twilight Sad’s fourth album was recorded at Castle of Doom studios.  Though they do not sound like Joy Division, The Twilight Sad exudes a similar sense of doom with their music.  It’s not an overt, forced delivery.  It is a sense of an unspoken tragedy lurking just beneath the surface that comes naturally with every note played, and every word sung.  I don’t know what this says about me, but it speaks to me.  I cannot recommend their music enough, nor do I have the talent or breadth of language to express the reasons why.

The Twilight Sad’s third album, No One Can Ever Know (my #16 pick from 2012 seen here), was awash in keyboards and experimentalism, which was a striking change from their spacious landmark debut Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters and the claustrophobic, yet cathartic noise fest of Forget the Night Ahead, while this new album seems to see them returning to the basic guitar, bass and drums set, but now nicely augmented by the keyboard touches.  In a way, this album feels like a culmination of their entire career.  It picks and chooses from their strengths shown with each release and in a way have created their most spacious, melodious, and accessible album yet.

The album opens with the down tempo, but ominously building “There’s a Girl in the Corner,” where singer James Alexander Graham sets a story of heartbreak that “you’re not coming back from this,” and is augmented beautifully by Mark Devine’s muscular drum work, Andy MacFarlane’s tasteful guitar textures and striking keyboards.  On the next two tracks, the Sad up the speed and give us two sprawling nuanced and mesmerizing songs.  The first single, “Last January,” glides along with a relentless mid-range bass line and high end guitar flourishes that recalls the darkest early moments of the amazing Kitchens of Distinction, while the more grinding and heavier “I Could Give You all That You Don’t Want,” summons up a big, painful sing-along chorus.  Speaking of catchy, “Drown So I Can Watch,” is sinister and loud, but is an addictive listen. 

The Twilight Sad capture the slow gloom of early Cure (Seventeen Seconds and Faith) on the slow burning melancholy of “It Was Never the Same,” while the title track revisits the expansiveness of their previous album with the uncomfortable drum machine thump, an atmospheric feedback buzz and church like organ.  The album closes with a pair of haunting and slow songs that provide a sparseness that they have rarely displayed on record.  It’s difficult to pull out particular songs to highlight.  All of The Twilight Sad’s albums are best consumed from start to finish and this is no exception. 

Maybe the inherent darkness in this band’s music has kept them from achieving the notoriety and commercial success they so deserve, but it is their commitment and consistency that has made them such an important band.  I think their influence will one day be bigger than most of their contemporaries, so why not get in now, while we can go out and see them perform and enjoy the fruits of their labor now.



The Twilight Sad "Last January"

 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Unravelling



We Were Promised Jetpacks
Unravelling
(Fatcat)

It’s been three years since We Were Promised Jetpacks released their relentless second album In the Pit of the Stomach (my #10 pick for 2011 seen here) and for whatever reason, there stock has seemingly risen during their absence.  This is not a complaint, because they are a great band and I love to see the artists that I like find a growing audience, but it is curious that they sold out the Doug Fir here in Portland, where I saw them back in February without the benefit of any new material (live album aside), while their previous visit was as an opening act for label mates The Twilight Sad at an even smaller venue.  Now, just last week they headlined the Wonder Ballroom, an even larger venue, headlining this time with The Twilight Sad in support.  Maybe absence is the new marketing strategy.  I also saw the recently reunited Slowdive perform this last week and they sold out their entire US tour, while they were barely attended as an opener for Ride back in May of 1992.  Or it just takes time for word to spread, I guess.

At any rate, between albums, We Were Promised Jetpacks added a new band member, Stuart Michael McGachan on keyboards and additional guitar, and his impact is quite noticeable.  The elements of atmosphere that he is providing seem to have had a grounding effect on the band.  Their arrangements on Unravelling are fuller and more diverse.  The all out intensity of their first two ‘loud-quiet-loud’ albums is still intact, but not quite as in your face, and frankly, not quite as exhausting.  Don’t get me wrong, it is their all-in intensity that is what drew me to their sound to begin with, but it is nice to see them move beyond the on the verge of fisticuffs edge where they have always teetered.  Singer Adam Thompson continues to impress with his thoughtful lyrics, powerful voice, and assaulting rhythm guitar work, while lead guitarist Michael Palmer is now allowed to toss in some more intricate textures and layers, which only increases the welcoming rush when he floods the speakers with his overloading passes of noise.  Meanwhile, bassist Sean Smith and drummer Darren Lackie have really expanded their input, with an added element of staccato beats and spacious groovy post punk bass-lines that we first heard from the likes of Gang of Four and Orange Juice. 

It’s a bit shocking to hear the quiet and smooth keyboard introduction on album opener “Safety in Numbers.”  The first time I heard the song, my immediate impression is that they’ve been listening to too much Coldplay, with Thompson’s vocals smooth and soft vocal delivery.  Luckily, the song turns out to be maybe the strongest on the album.  Somehow it continues to build momentum throughout the entirety of the track making it difficult to move into the next song.  I actually played the song about four or five times before moving on.  Likewise, “Peaks and Troughs” builds and builds throughout, but instead of letting things run rampant and out of control as before, the song maintains its focus and allows its subtleties to drive its message home.   “Peace Sign” is another example of this new found restraint (and beautiful piano fills from McGachan) and yet still finds the time to reach for the noisy heights of past offerings. 

Elsewhere, “Night Terror” finds a buzzing groove with a heavy bass line and that staccato beat leading the way into an explosive chorus.  However, these new found rhythms are hit and miss for me.  While “Night Terror,” the grinding “Moral Compass,” and “Bright Minds” incorporate their new expansion of sound perfectly into the strengths that first attracted me to their music, the laborious “I Keep it Composed” feels tired, while the overly long and directionless “Disconnecting” bogs down the entire flow of the record.  I appreciate their experimental spirit, but this is really B-side material.

Despite one major misstep, this is still a great album.  The darkness of the story of someone (or all of us) unraveling throughout is actually tempered by the closing portion of the album – uncharacteristically allowing a ray of light into the band’s normally bleak outlook.  The heavy pounding of the powerful “Moral Compass” seems to find some cleansing and a resolve to try to overcome and persevere.  The majestic and spectacular extended instrumental passage “Peace of Mind” is a perfect soundtrack to a beautiful sunrise.  Finally, the closing “Ricochet” is a nice bit of reflection to end the proceedings.

I hope this band’s honesty, intensity, and ever expanding palette of sound continues to find a wider audience.  They are more than worthy of your attention. 



 We were Promised Jetpacks "Safety in Numbers"


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Spin-O-Rama



The Primitives
Spin-O-Rama
“Spin-O-Rama” 7”
(Elefant)

The slow re-introduction to the Primitives has finally culminated in a full length album of new material!  After eons away, they returned to action in 2011 with an EP (see review here), then graced us with an interesting covers record in 2012 (review here) and finally they teased us with the fun way pre-LP single, “Lose the Reason,” back in February of 2013 (review here).  They have always been a stellar singles band and luckily, “Lose the Reason” is included here.

It’s interesting to listen to new music from this band now.  I don’t know how to quantify my feelings for them.  I was a fan of theirs ever since hearing the spiky and endlessly addictive “Crash” back in 1988 and loved a lot of their songs, but never found their albums to be strong from start to finish.  Plus, I don’t think I fully realized back then how much of a 60s influence they had – it was simply somewhat disguised by speed and buzz in most of the songs.  It was the speed, brevity and feedback that caught me initially, so when they bring out their full blown 60s pop songs, I find myself missing the electricity.  About half of this new album sounds as if it were actually written and recorded in the UK back in 1965-66.  The songs fronted by songwriter/guitarist Paul Court especially capture this vibe.  “Wednesday World” relies on a spiraling rhythm, scratchy strumming guitars, Court’s mellow vocals, and drums relegated to the left side of the mix, but I have to say it sounds pretty fresh anyway.  Court decides to drop out on his breezy anti-9 to 5-work ode “Working Isn’t Working,” which is a sentiment I can definitely get behind (“I like to sit around”), but it’s actually the liveliness of the buzzing guitars and heavy pounding of the drums that emphasizes the chorus that sparks this song.  Less effective is the trippy (though, thankfully super brief) “Purifying Tone” and the okay, but somewhat aimless instrumental “Velvet Valley.”  Primary singer Tracy Tracy takes the lead on a couple of other Summer of Love style psychedelic pop songs with “Follow the Sun Down” and the bouncy “Dandelion Seed.”  

  
Thankfully, the Primitives have not abandoned their edge and they’ve clearly retained their strength for creating fantastic timeless pop songs in three minutes or less.  Lead off song, title track and single, “Spin-O-Rama,” is every bit the quality of “Crash” and quite reminiscent as well, with its cleanly picked guitar opening leading into a chugging number with handclaps and a serious hook (The single B-Side is the trippy, but really fun “Up So High,” making the single a must-have).  Likewise, the sheer fun whoosh of the organ in “Lose the Reason” places a thrill down the spine.  Meanwhile, “Hidden in the Shadows” allows Tracy Tracy to urge us the look for our own truths and directions and avoid being “tricked by a trend / fooled by a fad” with the same kind of distant disgust at what she’s seeing as she sang in the old favorite “Sick of It” way back in the late 80s.  It’s the song “Petals,” however, that has me truly realizing why I love this band and can never ignore them.  The rush and buzz and energy is in full bloom inside this treat, which rivals any of their great singles from the original days till now.  I absolutely cannot understand how songs like this cannot be huge worldwide hits, but what do I know?

Have a truly resolved my feelings for this band, or this album?  I’m not sure.  It’s a mixed bag, but overall with such great highs, it’s damn nice to listen to new material from this group!  It also helps that I have grown up and have a better understanding of both their influences and their massive influence.  Treat yourself and enjoy.



The Primitives "Spin-O-Rama"


 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Feel Something



The History of Apple Pie
Feel Something
(Marshall Teller)

I love love love the 2013 debut album Out of View by The History of Apple Pie (see #2 pick of the year here).  I cannot emphasize this enough.  What it lacks in all out originality (really, what is truly original these days?), it more than makes up with sheer exuberance.  Rarely have I come across an album so filled with a clear and tangible energy.  That album bleeds with a rush of electricity and momentum and never ceases to paste a grin upon my stupid face,

Well, that was 2013, and now they are already back (like bands used to do – release an album about once a year) with their second full length.  Not a lot has changed, except bassist Kelly Lee Owens has been replaced by new member Joanna Curwood.  The band is still spearheaded by the wonderfully adorable Stephanie Min and gurus Jerome Watson and Aslam Ghauri, whose twin guitar assaults continue to astound with force rather than intricacy.  This time around, the sheer runaway whoosh of their music is tempered a bit.  That rarely captured runaway train that is their debut feels more studied here and it stifles the initial impression.  This is visceral music that tends to sound better the louder it goes, so reeling in the reigns takes a bit of getting used to.  Luckily, the band has added a little more variety to the mix to make up for the less aggressive attack.

We initially got a glimpse of their minor expansion with last year’s single “Don’t You Wanna Be Mine?”  This bouncy – echo laden pop number has more in common with early Inspiral Carpets than anything they’ve done before, especially with the addition of some crazy organ and a dance vibe.  This album is more spacious and open overall – allowing these new sounds to make their impact in a subtle way.  There’s 60’s groovy sound of “Special Girl,” which adds more new wrinkles with buzzing keyboards and what at times sounds like someone letting squealing air out of a balloon.  The piano driven shuffle of the other pre-LP single “Tame” again brings some addictive elements, even if it doesn’t have the same urgency of their earliest singles like “Mallory” and “See You,” but check out the amazing drum roll transitions from drummer James Thomas!  Wow!   The newest single “Jamais Vu” (or never seen) strikes maybe the perfect balance between where this band has come from to where they may be headed.  The song includes more deft musicianship and space, but they let things loose and unleash some serious noise during the chorus (“Who cares?  I don’t”). 

Unlike their debut this album took me a few extra listens before its charms began to batter their way into my thick skull.  The cracks started with the final three songs.  The stumbling, off-kilter beat of “Ordinary Boy,” at first feels discombobulating, until its quick transition into a wide open massive addictive sing-along chorus and I love the bridge with their trademark simple scales style guitar “solo” that is really a layering technique for an explosive instrumental rush.  Next up, the penultimate song “Snowball,” which should be a freaking huge radio hit all across the globe, reclaims this band’s strength of creating super sugary sweet melodies within bubbling over noisy chaos and I never want it to end.  Finally, the album closes with “Just Like This,” which acts as a perfect dreamy conclusion to a pretty good collection.

It will be very interesting to see where The History of Apple Pie decide to go next, but in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the smiles they’ve been giving me the last 18 months.  What a treat.



The History of Apple Pie "Jamais Vu"