Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Broken Heart Surgery



Pete Fij / Terry Bickers
Broken Heart Surgery
(Broadcast)

I’ve been sitting in front of my laptop for what seems like forever, trying to come up with something clever to say about Broken Heart Surgery - this collaboration between Pete Fijalkowski (formerly of Adorable and Polak) and Terry Bickers (of the House of Love and formerly of Levitation), which has been on repeat the entire time.  Luckily, it finally just dawned on me that I am incapable of cleverness, so I should just get on with it.

These two guys are behind some of the most exciting, influential and amazing music I have ever encountered.  I get misty eyed when I think of the first time I heard the House of Love’s stunning “Christine,” or the thrilling drive of Adorable’s “Sunshine Smile,” but those songs were a long time ago and I hate to say it, but sometimes “super groups” or collaborations between musical heroes are often lackluster or disappointing.  Wisely, Fij and Bickers have slowly and quietly unveiled their shared musical vision.  It now seems like ages ago that the embittered ballad “I Don’t Give a Shit about You” reared its sardonic head teasing us with its tasteful simplicity.  And it’s this simplicity that makes this album so damn perfect.  Instead of each of them trying to somehow recapture their youthful exuberant work and potentially creating a mess, they instead have created a singularly focused album, where every damn song is about breaking up and dealing with the notion that if you’ve just broken up with someone, then that means that up to that point, well, you’ve failed in that department every step of the way for a lifetime.  In other words, the entire collection deals with that fine line of self doubt, disgust, anger, sadness and hurt of a freshly collapsed love affair all wrapped within a wry sense of humor.

The opening “Out of Time” sets the mood for the entire album.  A softly strummed acoustic guitar guides the way as Pete Fij states reasons why this latest relationship has failed entirely in terms of technology vs. romanticism, while Bickers’ stellar guitar melody elevates the song to a higher level.  Similarly, “Downsizing” places this failed relationship into business terms, which then sends our broken hearted narrator into seeking love rehab at “Betty Ford.”  Elsewhere, in “Breaking Up” he laments how she gets all the good stuff from their split (“she got the car keys & I got run over”), while “Loved & Lost” is two minutes of quiet clichés (“It’s better to have loved and lost…”) that abruptly ends with a threat to those who perpetrated such notions.  It’s this sense combination of humor and sadness that keeps this album from falling into a complete abyss, as well as the restrained, but subtlety fleshed out melodies of each song.

Naturally, I gravitate to the real heartbreaking moments of fragility of the collection.  “Parallel Girl” evokes heaviness with a tasty John Barry guitar line and a descending atmosphere, while Fij sings of the one that got away and imagining a parallel world where things actually turn out right.  Meanwhile, “Sound of Love” begins with a sense of hope (“the licking of her lips / just before the kiss”); before we soon learn that the sound of love is really the lingering memories of the good moments and the sounds of his former partner leaving.  Then there’s the painful realization in “Gravity” that we rarely can have what we most want. 

Broken Heart Surgery is, simply put, pretty damn perfect.  I recommend you find out for yourself.



Pete Fij / Terry Bickers "Betty Ford"


 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

All I Remember is Waiting



The Heart Wants
All I Remember is Waiting
(Junefourth)

It was maybe a little over a week ago when I felt like giving up this act I act of writing about music releases that have me currently inspired and excited.  The entire point of writing these things is to help expose musicians to a wider audience.  Of course, silly me, I forgot to go out and find an audience.  However, after either receiving news of upcoming albums by favorite artists, learning about some intriguing new artists, and then picking up a few new items last week, I decided that I just don’t care.  I’m going to share my thoughts anyway and hope to connect at least one person to a band somewhere along the line.  Good music gets me every time.  I cannot shut up.  Amongst the new items, the most immediate release comes from The Heart Wants, because this collection is being released as a digital download only.  So much of the music I buy on vinyl or CD is via mail order, so I often have a lag time between release date and actual arrival.  It’s also immediate in sound and has been on repeat around here for the entirety of the last week.

The debut album from The Heart Wants is actually a solo outing by Chris Y from Omaha’s Drakes Hotel.  If you are one of the only ones out there who have read any of my rough, unschooled music writing over the last several years, you will know that I am a big proponent of this fantastic duo (see references galore here).  Chris Y is the multi-instrumentalist / sound guy from that group, who very occasionally takes over lead vocals, but now we get the opportunity to hear more and not surprisingly, this is really enjoyable.

All I Remember is Waiting is not a far cry from Drakes Hotel, so if you’re already familiar and a fan, this is a must.  What may be the most startling is the sheer pure pop that we are introduced to from the get go.  The opening song, “Astronomical” has the familiar Drakes drum machine and the sparkling meshing of guitars and keyboards, but Chris Y eschews some of the veneer of mystery and intrigue and goes straight for the catchy direct hook and a chorus that is wordy, but still gets lodged into repeat mode into the consciousness.  And don’t get me started on that upwards bound guitar line and the chiming bridge.  This rivals the best pop nuggets of Ian Broudie’s sometimes brilliant Lightning Seeds 25 some odd years ago.  The similar sounding ‘Tales Like Factories” again provides busy breathy harmonies during each verse, before opening up into a direct hit chorus (which features an Amy Drake appearance on backing vocals).  I’ve never so happily sung “your heart dies” to myself so much.  Another three minute upbeat pop single comes along with “Evil Friends,” which closes with a majestic orchestral style keyboard flourish that for some reason reminds me of the beautiful instrumental second half of New Order’s goofy “Every Little Counts” (Brotherhood 1986).

The amazing music and lyrical imagery that help make Drakes Hotel so impressive continues unabated throughout All I Remember is Waiting.  “Leave the Scene” is a mid tempo exploration and reflection about ridding oneself of life’s regrets, mistakes and stumbles.  The clever chorus of “leave the scene on the cutting room floor” is a nice idea, but then we begin to realize that song is really a plea to an unrequited love and the palpable sense of loss and impending heartbreak makes the idea of getting rid of certain “scenes” more urgent.  “Currents in Shade” a dark sounding slow burning song that introduces some striking piano into the musical mix and evokes the darkness of a Joy Division song.  Elsewhere, the piano returns prominently on the album’s dramatic centerpiece, “Stay Home.”  The “Procession”-style keyboard wash of “Stay Home” augments the heavy crashing of piano chords (reminds me of the piano on The Hurting – era Tears for Fears - think “Ideas of Opiates”), but instead of feeling the menace of the oncoming storm, this song provides warmth and comfort, especially when the guitars and drums kick in.

The album closes with two of my favorite songs.  “Amelia” is a combination love song and plea for access into the thoughts and mind of his object of affection.  The dramatic chorus is an alarming juxtaposition to the gliding effortless sounding flow of each verse.  Meanwhile, the perfect set closing “Light is Low’ provides a solemn and resigned farewell.  It leaves the listener satisfied, but filled with lingering thoughts and questions.

Again, if you’re already a fan of Drakes Hotel, this will be right up your alley.  If you’re not, well, you should be.  Word has it that a new Drakes Hotel album is on the horizon, so Chris Y’s foray into creating The Heart Wants album only gives us all a chance to hear more of this incredible music!  Couldn’t ask for more.



The Heart Wants "Leave the Scene"


 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Honeyblood



Honeyblood
Honeyblood
“Bud” 7”
(Fatcat)

When I first heard Honeyblood’s single “Bud,” back on a very chilly evening last winter, I instantly fell in love.  They somehow captured the momentous bright shining energy of Belly’s “Feed the Tree” and crossed it with the lazy hot summer afternoon vibe of Mazzy Star’s “Halah.”  For anyone that has known me for a long time, they most likely know that I played those two songs to death upon their respective releases twenty plus years ago.  These were songs that I simply could not get enough of.  Over and over again, I’d play them.  “Bud” has been exactly the same.  The vinyl may have to be replaced soon, because the chiming guitar, crashing cymbals and soaring dual vocal chorus of Stina Tweeddale and Shona McVicar reminding me that “it’s not your fault at all” have been like a blissful narcotic, but the grooves are starting to dull from overuse.  When I was lucky enough to see Honeyblood open for We Were Promised Jetpacks back in February, I was noticeably disappointed that they didn’t follow their performance of “Bud” with a second one, because I always listen to it at least twice.  If there are any copies of the single left, I highly recommend tracking down the vinyl, but at least snag the download, because the B-side “Kissing on You” is also a wonderful piece of pure pop a la Best Coast, but as filtered through early Spinanes (think “Suffice” or ‘Spitfire”) guitar/drum simplicity.

Honeyblood "Bud"

It seems like it’s been eons since I’ve been waiting for Honeyblood’s album to finally be released, but finally it has arrived and it does not disappoint.  This Glasgow duo’s self-titled debut lives up to the promise of “Bud” and has me brimming with excitement.  I’ve never been one to take much stock in historical heritage, but sometimes I wonder if the bit of Scottish in my family’s bloodline is why I love so many Scottish bands and why I approach almost anything that I love with at least a small touch of dread and trepidation.  The opening song “Fall Forever” begins with an urgent guitar strum before bursting into a Pale Saints-like hazy and grinding fuzz of beautiful noise that somehow both finds comfort and solace in the early excitement of a fresh new crush, yet the lyrics are filled with harsh images of blood, lambs to the slaughter, punching and scratching.  In other words, this song is pretty much perfect.  It simply continues on from there.  Stina’s vocals and lyrics effortlessly roll off her tongue in such a natural conversational way.  In “(I’d Rather Be) Anywhere but Here,” she rattles off her escape plans from her childhood locale and common theme, but here it sounds so tangibly identifiable and the music is absolutely brilliant.  The echo-laden guitar layers and steady heavy beat evoke the huge sound of Whipping Boy’s 1995 masterpiece Heartworm.  The similar sounding “Biro” presents us with allusions to frustrations and the futility of writing about the human condition (“If I threw my pen into the sea / I know there will be someone to write after me”).  When does one cross the line from identifiable troubles to simply whining? 

“Bud” reappears on the album in an altered state, which of course, gives me ample excuse to begin listening to it as much as I did last winter.  Peter Katis’ production on this version is interesting, because he strips away the Mazzy Star blur, which gives Stina’s vocals a softer plaintive feel and Shona’s drums a bigger impact.  Luckily, Katis does not mess with the glory of that spectacular chorus.  Newest single “Super Rat,” is a vicious indictment of someone who has wronged them in love and with zero subtlety with a chorus of “I will hate you forever” and this: “SCUMBAG!  SLEAZE!  SLIMEBALL!  GREASE!  You really do disgust me!!” 

The second half of this album loses zero momentum.  “Choker” begins with a classic rock riff and pounding rock drums, all while providing a sinister peak into a troubling relationship (“What doesn’t kill you / just makes you stronger”).  Meanwhile, “No Spare Key” provides one of the sparest arrangements, Stina’s free flowing words, and a bridge to die for.  The pure pop side of Honeyblood shines through as “Joey” comes in with a bounce in its step and some fantastic vocal melodies, as does the handclaps and pop waltz of the breezy “Fortune Cookie.”  They also bring on song straight ahead rock with the shout-along ‘Killer Bangs” and another diss with “All Dragged Up” (“Why won’t you grow up?”). 

“Braidburn Valley” closes this incredible debut with a moody isolated autumnal walk outside that slowly reveals some kind of deep hurt, before breaking into a blistering buzz revealing that the hurt is both mental and physical (“Another fucking bruise / This one looks just like a rose”).  The simple imagery is amazing and intriguing and tells so much more than the thrifty use of lyrics.

All I can say is: get the album, see them live, and support this music.



Honeyblood "Super Rat"


 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Produit Collecté




BNLX
Produit Collecté
(Susstones)

Wow!  BNLX are overwhelming me right now.  What started out as an introduction via Big Takeover magazine (Produit Collecté landed at #26 in Jack Rabid’s semi-annual top 40 in the most recent issue - #74) has turned into an onslaught of new music to listen to.  This late 2013 album is actually a kind of best of collection culled from this Minneapolis trio’s first eight (EIGHT?!) EP’s and now I’m frantically trying to catch up.

It turns out that vocalist/guitarist Ed Ackerson has a long history in music.  He’s the co-founder of the indie label Susstones, former frontman of Polara (who I have faint memories of hearing at some point), and long time producer and engineer by way of his Flowers Studio. Thankfully, this history hasn’t dulled his creativity, because BNLX is brimming with exciting and absolutely electric songs.  BNLX is comprised of Ackerson, bassist/vocalist Ashley Ackerson and drummer David Jarnstrom and this trio lock down into some seriously tight good old fashioned Midwest post-punk.

What makes BNLX’s Produit Collecté so refreshing is the simple way they touch on all kinds of underground genres with such ease.  Even though these 14 songs are culled from eight different releases and all kinds of different sounds, they seamlessly fit together.  I guess the most obvious touchstone is their fantastic sing-along trade-off vocals of the Ackerson’s that hint at early X or even Eleventh Dream Day.  But I cannot emphasize enough how great it is to hear music like this again.  Listening to this collection reminds me of tuning into an especially great stretch of college radio back in the late 80s, where one might run into straight ahead US punk rock pounders like “Rise Above” and “Vaporize,” or a UK raincoat rock song that brings in beautiful atmospheric guitar textures and dreamy bass-lines like “Blue and Gold.”  I can easily imagine recent song (opening song from EP #8) “Opposites Attract” getting airplay on MTV’s 120 Minutes with its three minutes of a dance beat, squalling guitar line, and addictive chorus.  And speaking of addictive, every song they seem to write is freaking catchy as can be and there is a sense of fun.  They aren’t afraid to throw their own name in to a song (“BNLX Today”), or even the video game “Frogger,” or write a deadpan text message inspired song titled “LMAO (CMEO),” whose shout-along chorus is once again flawlessly fun and will get endlessly stuck in your head – and in this case, that’s a great thing.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing highs that come from repeated listens to the soaring “Where is the Love,” the relentless 50s shuffle via industrial feedback beauty that is “Over the Horizon,” and the breathtaking “You Left Me Here.”  Really, this collection improves with each listen.

Oh, how do I love this!  I am late to the game and, as I mentioned earlier, am in the process of trying to catch up with this band.  What I haven’t mentioned is that purchase of Produit Collecté will arrive with a download of all 32 songs from the eight EP’s – totaling 32 songs!!!  This is why I am so overwhelmed.  There is so much great music that it actually takes some time to absorb it all.  BNLX also released a debut full length LP back in 2012, which I need to get next, because it sounds as great as all of this.  I cannot recommend this enough – it is never too late to discover incredible music.



 
BNLX "Opposites Attract"


 

Monday, July 7, 2014

How to Keep from Falling off a Mountain



Slowness
How to Keep from Falling Off a Mountain
(Blue Aurora)

Last summer I read a glowing review of For Those Who Wish to See the Glass Half Full – the debut album from San Francisco band Slowness in the venerable Big Takeover magazine.  As I do while perusing each massive issue, I wrote the name down on a list and checked out their music online and then excitedly sought out the vinyl only release (sorry digital as well, but that is never my first option) at all the record stores I ventured into.  Unfortunately, time slipped by and I still had not tracked down a copy of the album.  Not until recently when the band announced the release of a new (vinyl) release when I knew I had better get my act together and order the new LP, as well as download their previous work. 

There’s something mysterious and lovely about Slowness.  Their name evokes ideas of the so-dubbed slo-core “scene” of the early to mid 90s, and though they share some of the transcendent qualities of some of those artists, they are really something completely different.  In fact their two earlier releases (including the 2013 LP and the 2011 EP Hopeless but Otherwise) are really straight forward affairs.  Musically, the band weaves a very attractive intricate guitar work to create pretty damn catchy songs.  I’ve heard them lumped in with the other modern ‘shoegaze’ bands, which is fitting, but their free flowing sound also reminds me of the dreamy post punk who favored chiming guitars and nice vocal harmonies.

On the latest LP, How to Keep from Falling off a Mountain, Slowness (Julie Lynn and Geoffrey Scott and guests) has decided to stretch their sound.  They have not lost their classy touch with creating enticing repetitive foundations for their songs, but here their power of drawing the listener into a wholly immersive near trance is astounding.  Almost every song on the album is the same steady tempo and the constant driving and drifting atmosphere is both soothing and intriguing.

“Mountains” begins the album as a perfect bridge from their earlier work to where they’re heading.  The soft vocals and glittering guitars sound like they could be taken from the first Stone Roses album and yet as the song continues, the edges sharpen, the keyboards begin to take on an increasingly menacing tone and by the end the coldness of Closer – era Joy Division begins to take hold of the song (check out that scratchy guitar).  “Division” rumbles in next and reminds of early Saturnine or (whatever happened to) UK’s Engineers from a few years back.  The near seven minute “Illuminate” closes out side one and is truly the most repetitive of all of these songs.  The Velvets-like buzz and relentless unchanging beat is both a little jolting and comforting. 

The second side of the LP is named “Anon, A Requiem in Four Parts,” and is the highlight of the album.  These four distinct, yet perfectly matched songs (fantastic production, by the way) flow so seamlessly that it’s almost hard to believe that 18 minutes have passed when the needle lifts away from the record.  The second part (“Anon, part II”) has the most wonderful side-winding bass-line and an oddly danceable groove, which is reprised in “Anon, Part IV,” but instead in a much darker and heavier light.  But it’s the entire voyage that makes this album so special.  It reveals new insights with each listen and transports the listener to another world.

This is a band that has quietly and quickly amassed a pretty special selection of music, which is deserving of a lot more attention.  Don’t be like me last summer.  Contact the band and buy the vinyl (it comes with a free download) before it’s gone. 




Monday, June 23, 2014

Beauty & Ruin


Bob Mould
Beauty & Ruin
(Merge)

What can I say about Bob Mould that hasn’t been said all kinds of times before?  Hell, he even has a tell-all style autobiography that you can go and read.  He has ten solo albums filled with deeply personal and often painfully angst-ridden lyrics – not to mention at least half of the songs from the six ground-breaking Hüsker Dü during the 80s and the three album side road for three albums as Sugar in the early 90s.  These tell the story alone.  If you are aware of his music from the last 35 years, you already know how you feel about him.  If not, then all I can do is recommend his powerful songs and hope you discover this legendary talent for yourself.

It’s difficult for me to truly judge where I’d place this new album amongst his amazing legacy.  The first listen felt like a mild let down after the spectacular tour de force of 2012’s Silver Age (#1 pick of 2012 seen here), which was so focused and so incisive and absolutely as fresh as he’s ever sounded.  But it’s not as if he was on a cold streak before Silver Age.  2009’s Life and Times was excellent, as well as District Line and Body of Song and on back we go.  And if I were to choose where this new album stands, I think I may like it better than any of those, so how could it possibly be a let down?  It’s not.  The album grows with each listen.  Mould continues to sound as revitalized as ever – due in large part to his solid – no stellar – touring and recording band for these last two albums.  With ex-Verbow bandleader Jason Narducy (please, I beg of you to check out their two great albums from the late 90s Chronicles and White Out) on bass and Superchunk (I’m sure you already know how great they are!) drummer Jon Wurster – this trio has gathered a lot of momentum and are tight as can be.  Mould is at a place in his life where he seems willing to enjoy his full musical legacy (the band ripped through several old Hüsker Dü numbers and played Sugar’s unbelievably great Copper Blue in its entirety!!) and soak up the appreciation that his too small following offers him.

Beauty & Ruin may not have the huge upfront impact of Silver Age, but it has a much wider variety and like his previous two solo albums we find Mould increasingly ruminating over his history and confronting past demons.  The album opens up with a Workbook or Black Sheets of Rain heaviness with “Low Season,” a cold look filled with mixed emotions due to his father’s passing.  Then Mould comes out with the rage on the speedy burner “Little Glass Pill.”  Actually, there are more truly fast songs mixed in this album than maybe any since his 80s punk days, with the self-deprecating “Kid with Crooked Face,” and the curmudgeonly “Hey Mr. Grey.”  He hasn’t lost his touch with catchy singles either.  The third song, which is always the album’s lead single, “I Don’t Know You Anymore,” is as addictive as any single he’s ever released - actually, so is the brief, but explosive Tomorrow Morning,” and the straight-ahead buzz saw of “The War,” and the amazing “Fire in the City,” or the easy going strum and delicate keyboard melody of “Forgiveness.”  It’s all so excellent!  The album closes with two positive tracks to end the proceedings on an uplifting note as well, which is a little strange after listening to so much bleakness and witnessing one of the angriest and loudest concerts I’ve ever witnessed in support of Black Sheets of Rain in 1990.

Beauty & Ruin is another winning collection from one of the greatest songwriters of our time.  That’s really all that needs to be said.




Bob Mould "I Don't Know You Anymore"


 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Initiation



Haunted Hearts
Initiation
(Zoo Music)

The other morning, just before I had to wake up for another day of work, I had a vivid dream.  The dream had me at a concert.  I was watching a band next to a few pretty women.  At a quiet lull, I leaned over to shout “I’m hoping to meet the Dum Dum Girls tonight!” into the ear of the attractive brunette next to me.  She smiled and yelled “If you play your cards right, maybe one day you will” into my presented right ear.  She and the three women with her then abruptly turned and walked away as the band on stage concluded their set.  As you’ve probably already have guessed, if you didn’t immediately stop reading upon seeing “I had a vivid dream,” the woman next to me was Dee Dee Penny from Dum Dum Girls.  Such is the crush that I have on this talented rock star and this is how happy I am that she has two albums out this year already!  Not only did DDG’s release an excellent long player back in February (see Too True), but now along comes the debut album from a side project - Haunted Hearts - with her husband Brandon Welchez fresh from his band Crocodiles (I know, right?  How am I supposed to propose to her now?). 

Their 2013 debut 7” was an intriguing glimpse into what these two might come up with together (#30 pick seen here).  It is somehow a perfect blend of what their two respective bands have done so far, despite not sounding a whole lot like either one.  Both songs from that 7” are included here in different forms.  The masochistic love song, “Something That Feels Bad is Something That Feels Good,” has softened edges now with added keyboard flourishes making it something more akin to mid-80s Psychedelic Furs than the Jesus and Mary Chain grind of the single.  Similarly, that b-side “House of Lords” (the superior song, if you ask me), is given an additional buzzing opening instrumental melody to augment the simple propelling bass of the original. 

If you liked that single you will likely enjoy much of the album.  The opening “Initiate Me” builds from a quiet bass-driven interlude into a bouncy handclapping three minute pop song – still infused with a layer of sleaze fuzz to give the air a general deviant, underground atmosphere.  Another catchy number comes in as the penultimate track, “Strange Intentions,” where Welchez takes over the main vocal duties, but it’s the bridge chorus and bridge that are the highlight of this one.  Two of the songs that have been featured with videos include “Johnny Jupiter” and “Up is Up (But so is Down).”   “Johnny Jupiter” is an echo-laden melancholic story presented by Dee Dee that has a growing charm with repeated listens.  Meanwhile “Up is Up (But so is Down,” is kind of messy like the title.  The song carries a woozy stumbling psychedelic feel – barely held in place by the insistent bass crawl – and lethargic vocals from both Welchez and Penny.  This song nearly turned me off from buying the LP when I first saw the video.  It surely achieves the vibe they were going for, but I’m not feeling this one.  Luckily, the second side of the record is much stronger than the first.  “Love Incognito” is their best song so far.  Dee Dee takes the lead over a haunting keyboard, a stumbling beat and a wandering bass-line, but again it’s the majestic chorus that makes this song so special.  Finally, the album closes with another strong song – the quiet “Darklands” – era JAMC “Bring Me Down.”  The rainy day reflection of this song makes for a perfect closer for this collection.

This album is not as good as the Dum Dum Girls and Crocodiles output so far, but it’s an entertaining album for the right kind of mood.  I certainly won’t complain when this talented pair decides to take some time and record songs together outside of their respective projects and occasionally share them with us. 




Haunted Hearts "Johnny Jupiter"