Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Great Pretend

The Great Pretend
“Down A Notch” EP
(Words on Music)

Music is important.  It has always been at the forefront of my consciousness.  My fascination with music is almost entirely founded on the sounds that great artists create, but there will always be a part of me that obsesses over the physical product.  Though the days of discovering new music in dark and dingy record stores in any city I would find myself in are now few and far between, I still cherish those moments.  I love holding the sleeve and artwork in my hands and to this day I can recite the place and often the circumstances I discovered and purchased almost any record or CD in my collection.  Since I entered my teens and began working for money to be used to feed my record habit, I have been occasionally haunted by dreams of finding imaginary obscure limited edition records from the bands I love.  The first of these that I still remember is one where I discovered a trove of Japanese import singles from Tears for Fears in the Lincoln City Safeway (and yes, back then Safeway groceries sold discount records near the checkout aisles).  Sadly, lately, many of those dreams are of trying to find lost treasures at “going out of business” sales.

It saddens me in a way that record and book stores have disappeared.  The highlight of visiting these types of cultural hubs in new cities has always been one of my biggest motivators for traveling.  In those days of visiting Seattle during Spring Break in my early High School years with my parents to visit my older brother were always exciting because I would get a chance to visit the huge Tower Record stores up there, or hit Fallout Records on Capitol Hill, or the random Cellophane Square stores in the malls around town, or if I was lucky hit the multitudes of little shops in the U-District.  Now when I go to that city to visit family and friends, it feels culturally bankrupt.  There are almost no record or book stores left.  Though, I fully realize that this is an ugly old curmudgeonly side of me popping out, it even saddens me that when I visit family and friends these days there’s a lack of music and records on display.  I am also a little jealous that they have homes with all this extra space not being taken up by huge shelves and boxes and stereo equipment that litter my place, because their music and books are all contained in phones, tablets and laptops.  In the end, what makes me most sad is that I no longer have any real memories or lasting excitement tied with the discovery of the increasing amount of music that I now collect digitally.  Yes, the music is what’s important and I sure as hell enjoy it to the fullest, but when I lay back and absorb that music I miss the distraction of the artwork and liner notes of the packaging.

I still remember when I first discovered the band Should.  No, it wasn’t by walking into a shop; instead it came from those old updates I used to receive in the post every couple of weeks from Parasol Records mail order throughout most of the 90s.  Those beat up brightly colored folded legal sized sheets of paper used to provide me with such joy and so many discoveries.  Each time an update would arrive I would study it, mark the 45s or CD’s that looked most intriguing and select the few of those that I felt I could afford (I couldn’t really afford them), phone the next day from work (free long distance) and place an order and then anxiously await the arrival of the new music and the nice little thank you note from Parasol artist/employee Angie Heaton.  Should’s 1998 second album Feed Like Fishes was one of those selections (most likely based on reference that the disc included a cover version of The Wedding Present’s song “Spangle”).  That was back in 1998.  Their next release was a reissue collection in 2002 of Should’s earliest work titled A Folding Sieve, which was once again excellent, but felt bittersweet as it seemed to be that their two CDs were really posthumous releases.  So it was with great surprise and excitement that when their third album Like a Fire Without Sound appeared 13 years later in 2011 (my #17 pick seen here) and it exceeded all hopes and turned out to be their best work yet.  

When I hit play on the Should’s latest CD, The Great Pretend (which shares the title of the closing track from Like a Fire Without Sound) and heard the quiet repetitive build up that is the mood setting “Don’t Send Me Your Regrets,” I knew immediately that this would be another stellar album from this reclusive post-punk duo.  There’s nearly a full two minutes of tension-building music before songwriter Marc Ostermeier sings “Oh no, don’t fill me with your regrets / Don’t fill the air with such nonsense” – setting the stage for an album full of quiet bitterness at the collapse of a relationship.  It excites me that many musicians have not lost the idea of albums in this day of downloading.  This is a collection of songs meant to be heard as a whole.  It is not just a bunch of songs.  It’s clear that the band carefully selected the running order and that it is meant to be heard in such a manner.  The second song finds the band continuing their long standing tradition of amazing cover versions (Wedding Present, Disco Inferno, Jean Paul Sartre Experience, 18th Dye) with a very straight forward version of “Loveless Devotion” from New Zealand’s Over the Atlantic.  This song is a revelation, because I was previously unfamiliar with this band, but it is also a perfect fit into the album.  It acts as a bridge between the newer more carefully crafted cleaner sounding Should and their edgier early sound as about two thirds of the way into this version, a grinding guitar boldly pops in and provides some urgency.  “Mistakes Are Mine” continues the bitterness, as our narrator sardonically accepts all of the blame for the failing romance atop a driving beat.  The catchy first single from the album, “Down a Notch,” provides a similar frustrated irritation (“If you’ve got all the answers / I’d like to hear just one of them”) inside a sugar coated musical message.  It isn’t until the closing orchestrated waltz  “Don’t Get to Know Me,” that the bitterness of the break-up turns inward, as Ostermeier and vocalist Tanya Maus conclude in a pretty repeated refrain that we should “all stay lonely” and give up the entire charade of getting along. 

Elsewhere, we find the band re-engaging with their early fuzzier sound on the upbeat “Dalliance,” while “In Monotone” and “A Lonely Place” guide us through their hazier and slower moods.  The penultimate song “Gold Stars,” offers a moment of beautiful melancholic reflection and sweetness to counter balance some of internal strife elsewhere.  Meanwhile, the unbelievably great sounding “Everybody Knows” channels the mysterious intrigue of post-punk legends and label-mates For Against.  The call and response vocals and the echo-laden soaring chorus had me singing along immediately.  Then there’s the hollow drum beat, heavy bass rumble, scratchy guitars, and heavy vocals of “Amends,” which I swear sounds like an outtake from Joy Division’s Closer sessions.  I love it when bands get better with age.  

Don’t miss the download only single “Down a Notch” either.  This includes the fantastic single from the LP – a great teaser for the uninitiated, but also two non-LP songs for the collectors.  “On Your Sleeve” is an excellent song that investigates the effects unspoken things that we want others to say or want to say at important moments.  It’s a powerful song.  Finally, “Animate” is a heavy and very straight-ahead instrumental. 

Should "Down a Notch"


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ten Thousand Hours

Spotlight Kid
Ten Thousand Hours
(Saint Marie)

The past few years have been a great time for me when it comes to music.  There has been quite a revival of new artists who have been heavily influenced by the types of music that first captured my endless attention so long ago.  I want to shout it out to the world!  Unfortunately, my voice gets lost among the million plus other people doing the same thing and what makes my opinion more important or distinctive than anyone else’s?  Nothing.  I am simply a fanatical music freak who gets all worked up and cannot shut up about how cool I think this stuff is.  I wish I could do it justice.  I wish I could convince people out there that it’s all worth a close listen and repeated listens.  I absolutely want these artists to be able to continue their art and the best way is for them to make a living at it.  And I want to talk about it.  I want to be turned on to other artists who may inspire me along the way. 

At the moment, I am listening to the third album from UK six piece Spotlight Kid Ten Thousand Hours.  I have been anticipating this release since last spring and summer when they released two digital singles that dazzled my heart and mind: “Budge Up” and “Sugar Pills” (both included here).  I wrote about them at years’ end (my #17 pick of 2013 here) and will sadly most likely not do them any more justice than I managed to squeeze out at that time.  “Sugar Pills” smashes onto the scene here, after a brief pleasant instrumental title track, just as singer Katty Heath declares: “Like a lightning bolt and a jolt to my soul.”  This damn song gets better every time I hear it.  The relentless pounding drums, the flood of atmospheric noise that feels like fresh spring air coming through wide open windows.  It begs for increased volume and complete rapt attention.  So too does that other single “Budge Up.”  The dramatic intensity of the song is both thrilling and exhausting.  By the time the song reaches its Pixies “Tame”- like climax, we are completely wrung out on the emotions fueling the song.  The other pre-LP sneak peak, “Can’t Let Go,” is another scorcher that reminds of the exciting forward momentum that many of the songs on their second LP, 2011’s Disaster Tourist, contained, or tried to contain.

Elsewhere, we find the bubbling brightness of “I’ll Do anything.”  This song’s sparkling music and Heath’s terrific voice are as addictive as the crush described and yet the endlessly repeated guitar line creates a hypnotic and mildly melancholic effect.  The very grinding rocker that is “A Minor Character” glides and explodes with energy and a bitter dismissal in the chorus: “you’re such a minor character in my life” (one minor complaint: this song is not recorded with the same fidelity as the rest of the collection.  It lacks the same depth and richness.).  Meanwhile, the rich, electronically based instrumental “Hold On” provides a chance to breathe and at various moments reminds me of early Art of Noise.  While the bigger sounding mostly instrumental (one repeated lyric: “smile – only want to make you”), “Bright Eyes,” glides and grooves and goes all interstellar.  Finally, the closing powerhouse is actually the title song that was seemingly absent from their last album, “Disaster Tourist.”  The striking hot guitar line of each verse absolutely goes haywire and overloads into a My Bloody Valentine-style disorienting meltdown in each instrumental chorus.  It is stunning and remarkable. 

So, why haven’t I tracked down their debut album yet?  I promise to get on that task, if you promise to check out this new album.  Now, to get them to perform somewhere near or in Oregon….

Spotlight Kid "Sugar Pills"

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Soft Science
Detour LP
(Test Pattern)

I love it when a really good band becomes even better.  So much for the sophomore album slump or jinx!  Soft Science, a Sacramento four piece, has presented us with a heaping second helping of their beautiful sound and it tastes absolutely delicious.  Highs and Lows, their debut was delectable in itself (my #37 pick of 2011 seen here), but in a subtle way they have tightened all the unnoticed loose screws and polished the surface.  The result is an emboldened set of songs - the keyboard layers create a soft canvass, singer Katie Haley’s pleasant voice is more upfront, Matt Levine’s guitars are sharpened, while his twin brother Ross Levine’s drums and bassist Mason DeMusey’s foundation for the songs is sturdy, and strong and highlight’s throughout.

All of the signposts of their sound remain intact.  There is a definite Lush influence, but increasingly now more in common with Split or Lovelife than the dreamier early EPs and Spooky like their debut.  But what strikes me is how much this reminds me, in feel, of the wonderful and criminally overlooked Erotica album from The Darling Buds.  The band sound so locked in to what they’re doing that the entire album sounds effortless, open and free, despite the heartbreak strife presented in many of the lyrics. 

The opening track, “Nothing,” is an excellent transition from LP one to two.  The song begins with a dreamy guitar strum and voice and slowly adds instruments and momentum as it builds.  Haley repeatedly sings “there’s nothing left to give” about a dying relationship and fittingly the song feels a little bit stifled and ends before coming to a musical peak.  It’s a perfect matching of sentiment and music, while also allowing the flow of the album to take us to the musical highs that lie ahead.  There’s not long to wait, as “Light” and “Feel” immediately provide pure pop highs.  “Light” shuffles along nicely, but it’s the melancholic keyboards that hint at the story of separation and longing in the song’s lyrics.  Meanwhile, the heavier “Feel” is absolutely brimming with the wah-wah guitars and grooving bass line that hints at the great singles from the old “Madchester” scene, similarly, the shimmering and buzzing beauty that is “Blue” could’ve been the hit single that the Darling Buds needed on their second album Crawdaddy – so too the urgent, swift, and addictive as can be “Cold” (yes, all of the song titles are one word).  It’s fun to hear songs like this again.  Of course, I’m also a sucker for songs like “Gone” and “Falling,” which both strive for a big sound.  Both songs surge with a deep low end, solid mid tempo drums (I especially love the syncopated beat in “Falling”), and plenty of room for the vocals and guitars to shade in the colors and moods.  Hell, the entire album is top notch.  The album is available as a download, but there is a limited vinyl edition (with download code) of 200 that is a must have, which I highly recommend.

There’s something very intriguing brewing in California’s state capitol these days and thankfully, Test Pattern Records has sprouted up to document some of this great music.  I’m beginning to believe that if bands such as Soft Science, Arts & Leisure, and Desario don’t come to grace Portland with some live performances soon, I may have to make a road trip.

Soft Science "Feel"

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Too Much Information

Maxïmo Park
Too Much Information 2xCD

I am thankful for bands such as Maxïmo Park.  They have now released five consistently excellent full length albums over the last nine years without line-up changes.  This is a band that retains its original passion and continues to progress as they craft each new entry into their cannon.  Sure, the full-on whoosh of their debut, 2005’s A Certain Trigger, has mellowed some over the years, but their ability to capture heart pounding tales of love won and lost, empathetic politics, and lost literary moments all within really catchy (oft-described as “angular”) tunes has never waned. 

Their first album was one of my favorite albums of 2005.  It was like sugar rush that I never wanted to come down from.  It remained in my car player for the better part of a year and my frantic drive-dancing, air drum fills, and attempts at keeping up with Paul Smith earnest and energetic vocals most likely had me in several near accidents, but it didn’t matter.  The album remains an instant quick jolt of adrenalin every time I decide to put it on to this day.  The swift step of the opening track “Give, Get, Take” hints at the breathless sprint of their debut, as does the two minute pound of the ode to activist author Audre Lorde, while the heavier, but in your face “My Bloody Mind,” whose rousing fist pumping chorus rescues the off-kilter opening couple of verses, actually gradually and subtlety unwinds into a quiet piano sprinkled fade out.  And so, it is notable to me that my early favorites on this new album are actually some of the quieter moments (like that tasteful piano) in the collection.  Guitarist Lukas Wooller channels a delectable Johnny Marr lick on another literary referencing “Lydia, the Ink Will Never Run Dry” on which the band finds a tight groove reminiscent of the Smiths’ breezy “Some Girls Are Bigger than Others, only more substantial.  Meanwhile, the slow burn of “Leave This Island” captures the point between desperation and resignation as the protagonist watches their love prepare to leave (“Tell me why there’s a map on the table / It’s a pack of lies – it’s not a peak, it’s a plateau / Let me know when you want to leave this island / let me know when you want to hear my point of view”).  Later on, another mid-tempo instant classic, “Drinking Martinis,” sets a wistful and airy stage as Smith reflects on past good times with someone long gone and wonders if that person has that same fondness of their shared past (“Now that you’re gone / do you feel anything?”).  The crystal clear build up of “Midnight on the Hill” is another spectacular moment that opens this song into one that feels like it’s always been a favorite.  Smith’s pleading voice vividly places us into his reflections of happier times as he tries to come to terms that they are now lost to time. 

Too Much Information is a great ride.  The band may have softened their edges and their relentless attack, but what we’ve gained along the way is a band that can put together a varied and rich album.  There are new touches and progressions like the wonderful moments of background vocal harmonies throughout and there’s the dance inducing echo chamber of the first single “Brain Cells” - an interesting new direction (I too wonder and worry about my brain cells decaying as I plod my way through uninspiring day after day), while the closing “Where We’re Going” strums along casually and finds solace in letting someone else take the wheel.  It’s inspiring to see a band stick it out through thick and thin, continue to grow and expand their sound, and yet retain their strong personality and passion.  Well done!

If you’re lucky and find the early editions of Too Much Information, you can be privy to a second disc of six cover versions (a la Veronica Falls covers EPs).  Other than reworking a few lyrics and the title to the Fall’s “Edinburgh Man” to “Middlesborough Man,” these covers are all faithful to their originals.  They take on Townes Van Sandt’s country lament “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” Leonard Cohen’s endlessly catchy “Lover Lover Lover,” Nick Drake’s beautiful “Northern Sky,” the landmark single “Final Day” from Young Marble Giants and finally Mazzy Star’s most popular “Fade into You.”  The EP is like a cool mix-tape from an old friend.

Maximo Park "Leave This Island"