Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Arizona (redo)

Tracy Shedd
(New Granada 2013)

Back on January 15th of this year, I posted a “review” of Tracy Shedd’s fifth album Arizona, which was released in November of last year.  I put “review” in quotes, because it was really some kind of attempt to capture the feel of the album without the usual rundown of hyperbole.  It was framed as a letter to a long lost flame from a long time ago, who, rumor had it, was struggling with debilitating depression.  It was part album review, part letter in earnest, and part fiction.  It felt wrong the moment I posted it, but decided to stick with it hoping that it would seem better in retrospect (you can see the mess here).  But, as I listen to this album for about the 3,000th time right now, after contemplating my favorite records of the year (see here), I thought I’d revisit and try to correct – or maybe make things worse.

This 2013 album turned out to be my favorite album of 2014.  This is in large part due to the fact that it speaks to me in a deeply personal way.  These songs are about a good many things, but I have tended to decipher the bulk of these as a message of support to someone in crisis.  The song “Control” addresses suicide directly.  Shedd pleas to a person on the verge by simply saying to them “don’t end it all tonight.”  It doesn’t get more direct than that, nor does it ever fail to send shivers down my spine.  This direct communication may be part of why this album has been so powerful for me.  Shedd conveys a comfortable environment that’s about appreciating those we love around us (“and I’ll miss you when you’re gone” – “Take a Ride”), and the memories that can carry us through the worst of times (“Boats,” “Million Pictures”), and by giving a genuine heart to heart plea to someone to not throw all of these things away, as in “Control” and “You’re No Fool,” her music and lyrics act as a guiding light to those of us who are genuinely in dark places.  She says the things that need to be heard – the things that more often than not are not ever conveyed.  How does one broach the subject of depression to their friends and family?  How does one ask for help?  How does one help someone in need?  It’s not as easy as it seems like it should be.

This record is not only lyrically direct, but also musically.  These songs are stripped down to mainly the twin acoustic guitars of Tracy Shedd and her husband James Tritten.  Their interplay is seamless.  Tritten plucks out clear, memorable, and fully realized guitar melodies – making the spare arrangements seem greater than the sum of their parts, yet not so much so that the personal nature of Shedd’s lyrics gets buried in the mix.  This album feels and sounds like a few really talented friends gathered right in front of you playing amazing songs.  Her choice of covers (The Magnetic Field’s early classic “Candy” and Sonic Youth’s breakthrough steamroller “Teenage Riot”) is remarkable as well.  These are songs that have always resonated with me and have provided strong memories, yet framed in this sparse environment “Teenage Riot” is like a brand new song. 

The quiet solitude of the opening “Sweet Talking” is a concise love song that covers the joy of being with a loved one and the hope for it to continue all the way till death in a meager two and a half minutes.  Likewise, the beautiful “Sing to Me” balances between both the closeness needed in life and the despair of death.  This dichotomy continues on “Friday Night at Einstein’s” – a story about losing oneself on the dance floor (reminding thematically of The Sundays’ flowing “She”) that is both life-affirming and lonely.  Elsewhere the lighter touch of the duet “All the Little Things” brightens the overall feel of the record, as does the chorus of the soul searching “Million Pictures,” and the summery and hummable “Broken Arrows,” who’s mantra of “you can die trying / or you can die with a broken heart” is still a rallying cry that resonates and reminds to keep on giving this shit show an effort.

This redo plus the strange letter review from January may together make this review a little more complete, but I’m afraid I’m still missing the mark (part of the reason in general why I may give this writing about music hobby a permanent rest).  Simply put, and probably all I’ve needed to say is: Arizona is an album that is humble and subtle, but one of great magnitude and impact.  I cannot recommend this with any greater enthusiasm.

Tracy Shedd "Broken Arrows"


Top 20 Albums of 2014

This year I have finally chosen not to rank my favorite albums of the year, but instead present them in alphabetical order.  Consider this a 20-way tie for #1.  As always, I’d love to hear what everyone else was listening to for the past year.  Feel free to share your picks in the comments section below. 

Happy New Year!

Allo Darlin’ We Come From the Same Place (Slumberland)

BNLX Produit Collecté (Susstones) 2013

Cheatahs Cheatahs (Wichita)

Dum Dum Girls Too True (Sub Pop)

Pete Fij / Terry Bickers Broken Heart Surgery (Broadcast)

Gold-Bears Dalliance (Slumberland)

The Heart Wants All I Remember is Waiting (Junefourth)

The History of Apple Pie Feel Something (Marshall Teller)

Honeyblood Honeyblood (Fatcat)

The Lawrence Arms Metropole (Epitaph)

The Luxembourg Signal The Luxembourg Signal (Shelflife)

Bob Mould Beauty and Ruin (Merge)

The Popguns Pop Fiction ((Matinée)

Tracy Shedd Arizona (New Granada) 2013

Should The Great Pretend (Words on Music)

Soft Science Detour (Test Pattern)

Spotlight Kid Ten Thousand Hours (Saint Marie)

We Were Promised Jetpacks Unravelling (Fatcat)

Monday, December 29, 2014

Top Singles of 2014

Here are my 5 favorite Singles and EPs from 2014:

Close Lobsters



Marine Life

Secret Shine
(Dreams Never End)

Veronica Falls
(Beachy Head)

Up next: The Top 20 Albums of 2014!


Monday, December 22, 2014


China Drum
“Water” 7”

Oh my, did I love China Drum from the mid-90s or so until they disappeared from view a few years later!  All of their incredible singles and EPs leading up to their 1996 debut Goosefair were so stuffed with energy, excitement, and unstoppable hooks!  Don’t even get me started on their frantic and absolutely electric second album Self Made Maniac, where the songs all flowed into one another – turning it into an album that could not be turned off.  Doing so was a massive crime (there was a third album under the moniker The Drum, which I missed entirely).  The 90s was when the UK punk scene exploded with amazing bands like China Drum, Midway Still, Leatherface, Mega City Four, and Compulsion and unlike here in the US, they were all unique in their own ways – avoiding the sameness of the punk-pop Warped Tour sound that wore out its welcome the second the Warped Tour was conceived.  These UK bands were heavier, more substantive and gifted with better songs.  But this isn’t about who was better, this is about the fact that Midway Still rejoined the fold a few years back with new material, and now, 25 years after they began kicking ass, China Drum have graced us once again with some new music – this simple limited edition two song 7” single.

The original trio is back, but now bolstered with a second guitarist and a new drummer to allow singer Adam Lee to be out in front (I don’t know how Lee sang and played those frantic songs live, even though I witnessed it once at the Satyricon here in Portland).  “Water” kicks in with some muscular mid tempo drums and serious power chords letting us know that they are back to rock.  Each verse grinds along open and spacious, before the huge chorus kicks in with buzzing guitars and even some female background vocals from Kate Stephenson, the new drummer.  This is the “sound of water rushing past your ears” – refreshing as it washes over you.

On the flip, “Kitty’s Burn” returns the band to their speedier selves and another one of those killer sing-along choruses.  For a three minute song, it manages to be both hyper catchy, off-kilter with stuttering drum fills between lines during each verse, and dynamic with a tempo changing bridge. 

This is a solid reintroduction to a much missed band.  Now let’s see what happens next.  I sure hope this means they will continue to offer us new material.  Now, I’ve gotta go crank up the old collection and jump around the room.  Excuse me.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

When I Fall in Love

As the year has progressed, several great singles and EPs have been released for which I have written reviews or should 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 great singles that have come along during 2014 that I’ve neglected to share.

The School
“When I Fall in Love” 7”

The 7777777 7” singles club on the mouthful Where It’s At Is Where You Are Records has provided several excellent records in just a few short years.  That small UK label was already making a name for itself in the indie circles, but now with these 7 annual singles being released each year as limited edition picture discs and a high quality variety of artists such This Wreckage favorites as Allo Darlin,’ Eux Autres, Standard Fare, and My Favorite, I think I have been remiss in not yet signing up.

Unfortunately, I am not a subscriber and was too slow to pick up The School’s entry into the 7777777 scene, but luckily, all of this great music is available via download.  If anyone actually reads these music reviews I write, they’ll know that I love me some 60s girl group styled pop!  And The School has been perfecting this sound for several years now.  Their second album, 2012’s Reading Too Much Into Things Like Everything, was my #36 pick for best records of the year.  Liz Hunt’s naïve and plaintive, yet sweet vocals and words evoke simple times from our younger days, when worries were about crushes and who’s seeing who. 

The formula has not changed one iota here, but this versatile and oddly huge band (eight piece last I checked) makes simple pop music that is so spot on perfect, it could be direct from an early 60s date night movie.  The A-side, “When I Fall in Love,” begins with acoustic guitar strums, Hunt’s voice and tambourine splashes, before jumping jauntily into handclaps and a super catchy song espouses her determination that today is the day that she will fall in love and it will be eternal.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  Well, here it is.  Excellent!

The B-side gives us a flowing melancholic song guided by organs, strings, and an excellent trumpet solo, as Liz begs to be with her guy through troubled times.  This band’s strength is their simplicity and versatility.  They seem to be able to pull off any kind of instrumentation flawlessly, without ever overwhelming the song itself.  Now, does this mean there’s a new album coming soon?

The School "When I Fall in Love"


Wednesday, December 17, 2014


As the year has progressed, several great singles and EPs have been released for which I have written reviews or should 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 great singles that have come along during 2014 that I’ve neglected to share.

Arts & Leisure
“Weekend” 7”

Every time a new record is released on Sacramento label Test Pattern Records, I get the sense that I need to at least visit that city, if not move there.  I see the wonderful John Conley (Holiday Flyer, California Oranges, Desario) designed record sleeves and hear the great music coming out of that city and see show lineups to die for listed on social media and I think to myself – “What’s happening down there?” 

“Weekend” is a perfect little 7” single to follow-up last year’s Arts & Leisure debut LP ChooseYour Adventure (my #27 pick for 2013).  Arts & Leisure rose quickly from the end of veteran band Baby Grand, whom I had just learned of a few years back and was just getting involved with their cool, breezy sound.  Now they’ve got a very basic old-fashioned straight-forward pop sound and it proves that if done right, it can sound fresh every time.

The A-side, “Weekend,” is as straight-forward musically as a band can get with its simple mid-tempo drum pattern and walking bass line, buzzing twin guitars and Gerri White’s breathy voice enhanced by Becky Cale’s harmonies.  There’s nothing that stands out to describe about the song except that it sounds great, is memorable, and reminds of sunshine.  Maybe the fact that the lyrics tend more towards something from The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Darklands than a California beach party is a cool unexpected twist.  I’m a sucker for the girl groups and rainy day bleakness, so this will win out every time!

Likewise, the B-side, “Over You,” cruises along with a similar vibe.  The vocals are more emphatic, as the killer chorus lets us know that they are “done crying over you.”  If one is to be dumped, there’s worse ways to be let go than by a catchy tune.

This is a nice introduction to the band, but don’t let their debut go by the wayside – go out and get that one too!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Fool of a Kind

As the year has progressed, several great singles and EPs have been released for which I have written reviews or should 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 great singles that have come along during 2014 that I’ve neglected to share.

Marine Life
“Fool of a Kind” 7” EP

1998 was the last year that I subscribed to the weekly trade magazine CMJ (College Music Journal).  It was a ridiculous subscription for someone like me.  It’s for college radio stations, and was incredibly expensive, yet I would somehow scrape together enough money to renew for seven lean years.  Why was it such a draw for me?  Simply because the magazine gave me reviews of hundreds of new records each week, provided me with CD samplers of music from new music, kept me up to date with the latest and greatest imports and upcoming releases – enough to keep a fanatic attached to his addiction.  Every so often, a free CD would come along with an issue, aside from the regular sampler.  Most of these were pretty terrible, but two very important and memorable free CDs caught my attention.  The first one was a powerful shoegaze / dream pop EP from Los Angeles band The Autumns (Suicide at Strell Park, 1997), which led to a decade long search for their sporadic and often difficult to find albums.  Meanwhile, the other free CD was from a San Francisco pop band named Julie Plug with their 1998 debut album Starmaker.  Starmaker has been a regular visitor to my CD players pretty much ever since (has it really been 16 years?!).  It is a shiny, bright, and immaculately played pop rock album, highlighted by the absolutely adorable vocals from Des De Leon and all kinds of memorable songs that sit somewhere (I struggle with comparisons sometimes, but what other tools do I have that might invoke a relatable reference?) between The Sundays (especially vocals), the later poppier / less political (and popular) Cranberries, The Popguns (older band / recent discovery – see here) and the wonderful Dina D’Alessandro (see gushing review here) and her band The Beautiful Things.  Julie Plug had a second album in 2003, Whatever You Need, but for some reason it never connected with me the same way, and then they completely disappeared from my radar.

So, while I go and put the Starmaker CD next to my car keys in order to make sure I get it onto the stereo tomorrow morning, I have to tell you about how Des De Leon Nicolas and Julie Plug guitarist Terry Nicolas and pretty much the rest of the second LP Julie Plug lineup are back with a new band and four new songs that are easily the equal, if not better than anything they’ve shared before!  Leave it to the excellent Spanish label Elefant Records to find this obscure band and expose them to a larger audience and I’m so thankful to have their delightfully delectable music back in my life.

The A-side opens with the incredibly catchy “Fool of a Kind,” which is so bright and sunny and jaunty musically, yet filled with a melancholic overtone.  Des De Leon sings of her heartbreak from failing relationship and her foolishness for not wanting to let go, all awash in shimmering organ hums, piano, wonderfully textural guitars, a jaunty rhythm section, and chorus emphasizing horn section that really adds swing to this instant classic.  Next up is the upbeat “Big Sur,” which takes us on a lovely private visit to the beach with a soundtrack of perfect pop harmonies, gliding keyboards, and splashing drums to enjoy along the way.

On the flipside is the dreamy sounding “Boy from B-612,” which opens with a repeating chiming keyboard melody, which sends chills up the spine.  The mid tempo bass crawl and thumping drums set the mood for this song of longing and loneliness, as Des De Leon paints a picture of understanding and quiet support.  Lastly, the wonderful horn section returns on “For the Camera Shy” – an energetic breath of fresh air as she tries to pry a celebration out of a reluctant recipient of her affection.

This is another typically elegantly packaged 7” single (red vinyl) from Elefant and is part of their “New Adventures in Pop” series, where they expose good music like this (Just Handshakes anyone? My #7 pick for best album of 2013!).  I hope that Marine Life continue on with the label and get to releasing more music, because this is such a welcome return!

Marine Life "Fool of a Kind"