Sunday, September 29, 2019

Center of the City Lights

Silver Bars
Center of the City Lights
(Shifting Sounds)

Writing this recommendation has been slow coming for me.  First of all, I absolutely love this debut album from this Austin, TX four-piece.  I’ve wanted to share this for several weeks now, but every time I sit down to write something, I get lost while listening and get nothing done.  The good part for me is that I keep hearing these incredible songs, and every time I listen, I come away with a new favorite song.

Shifting Sounds Records is sure building an impressive roster with releases like this one, Honeyrude’s incredible debut in 2017, and the gritty Magnet School.  Texas has become a hotbed for dream pop with an aggressive edge.  Much like Honeyrude, this debut feels and sounds like the work of seasoned veterans at the height of their powers.  In addition, both bands portray some of the most impressive and expressive soaring guitar work I’ve heard since I first heard the Chameleons back in the 80s, or maybe Chrome era Catherine Wheel.  Guitarists Ken Hatton and Paula J. Smith are on fire here.  Each song is highlighted by absolutely scorching hot leads that lead to descriptions such as: stratospheric and captivating, as well as intricate cascading picking that evokes images of the shimmering falling embers from a colorful explosive firework high in the sky.   Meanwhile Smith’s lyrics are thought-provoking and her lead vocals are unique and unassumingly alluring.  I do not mean “unique” in a takes some getting used to sort of way, but in a haven’t heard a voice like hers before sort of way.  This even truer when bassist Stephen Thurman lends his vocals seamlessly to hers, creating an intriguing melding that is wholly its own sound.

The LP kicks off with the slow burning “Pulse,” which is one of those particular majestic songs that would shine both as the perfect introductory song or the big dramatic closing finale.  In this case, as the intro, it does an incredible job at setting an intense mood and to foreshadow the amazing journey we’re about to embark.  Next up are the two pre-LP singles: the remarkably addictive bitter indictment of “Lost You to L.A,” which contains some serious moments of cranking revelation spurred on by the propelling rhythm section of Thurman and drummer Johnny Wilkins, and then there’s the redemptive “Last Crash Landing,” containing a guitar passage in the chorus that I’ve found myself humming eternally since I put this record on the turntable for the first time.  “Marching Song” concludes side one with a slow intro that comes on like the sun creeping its way over the horizon before building increasing tension to an explosive conclusion.

The second side begins with the heartbreaking epic “Green Trees,” before melding into the mid-tempo beauty of “Emergency,” which evokes the effortless gliding principles of prime Abecedarians.  “Put on Your Face” brings some up-tempo fire to side two with an elevating chorus.  The album closes this collection with the brilliant “Slowly but Surely,” and it’s smooth comforting electric warmth.

Luckily, the digital version of Center of the City Lights has two additional songs!  These are no throwaways.  In fact, I can’t get enough of the ‘what’s the matters’ of the verses “Get Comfortable,” as well as the instrumental grind of its chorus.  The second album finale, the melancholy “Spirit Guides,” is another spectacular highlight with a lot of great lines like “kingdom come is a moving target.”  This definitely one of the best albums I’ve heard all year.  Please consider discovering this great new band!

Silver Bars "Lost You to L.A."

Friday, September 13, 2019

Don't Feed the Bear

I often wonder what other people are listening to, when I see someone dancing around behind the wheel of their car, or wearing earbuds as they make their way around a walk, or run, or sit at a desk in a cubicle.  This includes the players I cheer on at the LPGA event I attend each year.  Especially this year.  Almost every player warms up before her round with earbuds on (in?).  Are they listening to DKFM, like I am when I go for walks around the nature park on my way home from work?  I would imagine that the music choices run the gamut from K-Pop, to hip-hop, country, maybe good old retro 80 and 90s music, or whatever passes for top 40 these days.  In my mind, they would be listening to the brand new New Model Army album to prepare for competitive battle, or something both quietly intense and calming like the latest from Slowness - like when I used to play New Order’s “In A Lonely Place,” or the twisted tragic turmoil of the Cure’s “The Kiss,” or strangely, “Welcome to the Boomtown” by LA duo David & David – in order to pass the down time before basketball games during my mediocre school sports career.

Everyone that knows me, knows that I love attending the Portland Classic golf tournament each year.  It is a highlight that in many ways keeps me moving forward – keeps me trying – so I can return the following year.  This year, keeping in mind that I would continue to follow my favorite players around the golf course from hole to hole, I decided to splurge and purchase what were called “Champions Club” passes for all four days of the tourney.  These passes would allow me access to the grandstands behind the 18th green, unlimited food and beverages, and V.I.P. passage into surprisingly nice porta potties.

Every year, after the tournament, I write about my experience with a little coverage thrown in.  This has been going on since 2012, and I am finally ready to stop trying to convince anyone else of the incredibly entertaining merits of this experience.  Instead, I will simply tell a bit about the week, simply in order to try to sort it all out.  It’s been a couple of weeks since it all went down and I’m still not sure if I can.  Now that I’m back fully immersed into the horrific work grind, it’s all fading rapidly.

To be honest, my annual vacation week did not start out great.  Every year I volunteer caddy for two Pro-Ams on Monday and Wednesday.  These are tournaments before the actual tournament, where corporate big wigs pay money to play a round of golf with one of the pros.  This money then goes to charity.  As a volunteer, I caddy for one of the amateurs.  It’s fun for me, because I always get to meet a pro, see them play up close and marvel at their ability, as well as walk a golf course from the fairway I will likely never be able to play.  There have been several moments where I have laughed to the point of hysterics out there – hearing the banter between a player and her caddy, or with a subtle jab at some of these corporate blowhards who are trying to show off.  This year the Pro-Ams were poorly organized.  There was a lot of uncertainty since a lot of people who were registered were not on the list.  Little things were not in place like water to drink, or napkins for the meager food spread, or any kind of set up for checking in.  The people in charge were confused and unprepared, which doesn’t make sense, because this has been happening pretty flawlessly for years.  Though this summer has been mild, the volunteer days were marred by miserable heat.  I was actually worried about my health out there.  For that matter, nothing went quite as planned all week leading up to the tournament.  Everything was off-kilter.  Nothing bad, but all my plans were changed or canceled last minute, and I was in a funk.  I guess it was fitting that it carried over into the caddying event.

Luckily, once the tournament began early Thursday morning, everything fell into place.  I had a group of players I was excited to see in person teeing it up at 8:10 AM and off we went.  Thus began four days of the fun emotional rollercoaster watching great players struggle and triumph as their rounds progressed.  I was discouraged watching Morgan Pressel play really well tee to green, yet she could not buy a putt.  Her putts all looked good, but none of them would drop.  As each hole passed, her frustration grew, and you could see the rest of her game start to crack.  It was not to be her week.  I did almost witness an ultra-rare double eagle in person, as Jeongeun Lee6 hit her second shot on the par 5 fifth hole to about six inches.  The ball slowly rolled by the hole, always looking like it was going to drop.  For the third year in a row, I watched Amy Yang play up close.  Though she struggled in the first round, she shot back to back six under rounds to get in the mix by the final round.  Unfortunately, that final day was rough.  She was off to a slow start, but then went on a great run on the front nine.  Then came a short missed par putt on the 8th hole, and a bladed chip shot on the 9th that led to a double bogey.  This erased her previous progress and she went into a stall the rest of the way – finally finishing in a tie for 20th.

When I wasn’t strolling around the grounds of Columbia Edgewater, I would find refuge in the Champions Club.  I had spent all that money, so I had to take advantage.  On Saturday, I stopped in for lunch as I came around the turn while following Amy’s round.  They were serving unusual looking enchiladas.  I grabbed a plate and silverware, place a little salad on there, then some sort of bean mixture, and then struggled a bit with the lid of the chaffing dish that kept the enchiladas hot.  There was no place to put the lid aside and having deficient control of my left hand, I was struggling.  This was the moment that a really old white haired man wearing an all red outfit nudged me aside, scooping another couple enchiladas onto his plate, pronouncing “These things are way better than they look!”  I was dumbfounded as I held the lid.  It took me some time before I realized that I had just been assaulted by the Bob from Bob’s Red Mill – wearing the same gear he wears on all of their promo pictures.  He was correct.  The food was really tasty!  I never saw him around after that. 

Later, after Amy finished up her round – going from a tie for 63rd to a tie for 10th - I returned to the luxury of the Champions Club, retrieved a beer, and watched all of the remaining pairings finish up on the 18th hole.  It was really cool.  They also had the television coverage playing up there, so we could keep up on action on other holes.  During some down moments, I was exchanging text messages with a handful of different friends who somehow put up with my occasional golf course updates, when I happened upon a GIF (in search of something else) of a chained bear attacking someone.  For whatever reason, I could not stop watching it, nor could I stop laughing.  The harder I tried to suppress the laughter, the worse it got.  Tears streamed down my cheeks, and the older couple sitting to my right moved to the row in front of me.  I laughed harder.  The guy to my left, who had been making small talk with regarding the golf, got up and left.  Soon there was a bubble of space surrounding me, and the laughter came on again.  This went on for some time, at least until I became emotionally overwhelmed by the rousing cheers for some fantastic shots into the 18th green, as we were witnessing some amazing golf being played.

I don’t know what to make of any of this, but by tournament’s end, the week was no longer off-kilter.  I was feeling thankful for the experience and excited that the tourney came down to a final putt from this year’s champion, Australian, Hannah Green.  I had rooted for her to win the Women’s PGA title while watching on TV in the spring, so was happy to see her succeed, and sad that it was all coming to an end again.  Along the way, I met a fellow fan, Alex, who said to me that this is his favorite week of the year.  That he takes the entire week off from work to be able to see his favorite players, and he thinks that the LPGA is the best event to see in person.  Weird, right?

One of these days, one of the players I follow around all 72 holes will breakthrough with the victory, so I can take full credit.  The soundtrack will be provided by David + David.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Right Now

I’m not sure what is wrong with me.  It doesn’t matter how old I get and how many years pass since moving away from the small town where I grew up, every time I go through those seven “miracle” miles, I become the same angst-ridden teenager anxious to get out as fast as I can.  When I was in High School, I used to drive around that dreary town, blasting tunes as loud as I possibly could, so I could emotionally shout along to the lyrics as some sort of primal scream therapy.  I wanted so badly to get away.  I wanted so badly to start a new life full of cool adventures and worldly pursuits that the incredible music I loved so much was educating me about.  I felt trapped, like so many of us do at that age.

The problem is, I still feel trapped, and somehow it all becomes amplified when I drive through that terrible town.  I revert back to cranking the volume on the stereo to blistering levels.  There is no loud that is loud enough!  I think this is part of the reason why I like many of the bands I do.  When I was that restless teenager, I developed a fondness for screeching feedback, atonal tunings, and explosive instrumental drama combined with doom-laden and nihilistic lyrics.  These things were like a defensive shield to keep people away – a warm cocoon of noise to keep me safe.

Luckily, I don’t return very often, and when I do it’s mainly to pass through.  That’s when the windows go down, the volume goes up, and my imagination seethes with images of the streets ripping apart behind me from the sonic waves of epic noise emanating from my shitty car stereo system.  I can almost see the poor passersby bracing themselves to stay upright – showing concern as their teeth rattle to the brink of shattering.  Meanwhile, the automobiles around me are swerving uncontrollably from the rippling roadway and their windows crackling under the intense pressure.

The last time I drove through that dreadful coastal town, I had just started playing the Blankenberge album More.  The first few songs are absolutely breathtaking with their sheer insistency, drama, and yes, passages of explosive sound.  These are songs that for me bring a huge well of emotions surging to the surface simply from the music alone.  The reality is that instead of the handsome dude in the sweet ride cruising through town with a destructively powerful sound system playing music that is literally too cool and powerful for anyone to handle, I’m a fat older guy, on the verge of damaging the speakers of my 15 year old car, that cannot handle the volume of the distorted music playing that no one around will notice at all.

Like I said before, I’m not sure what is wrong with me.  Other than some family medical issues, which would’ve occurred no matter where we would’ve been located, my upbringing was pretty stable and generally happy.  I have a handful of really great friends from that town that I cherish, along with a lot of fun experiences to remember.  It’s the reminder that when passing through that town, I’m really no different than that teenager was.  Just a lot older, less healthy, and a lot more easily frustrated and confounded by everything.  It makes me want to break everything apart and start from scratch.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Ex Voto

Ex Voto
(Earnest Jennings Record Co.)

When I first happened upon New York City’s Versus demo tape in early 1992, I immediately loved it and wrote about it in the old photocopied ‘zine days of This Wreckage.  At 21, and with a pretty limited lexicon of music history, I said this about them:

“The dual vocals of guitarist Richard Baluyut and Fontaine Toups, along with the bouncy drums of Rob Hale give you an inkling of the best early X songs – with a little of the gentle Go-Betweens thrown in.”

Not sure I would use the same description/comparison if running across them now, but I cannot really argue with it either.  It was that same year, most of the songs from this demo started popping up on 7” singles and compilations on indie labels around the country, and thus began my collection.  I’ve been a devoted fan ever since and have followed most of the band members’ other musical projects over the years (The Fontaine Toups, The Pacific Ocean, +/-, and Whysall Lane), including legendary NYC band, Flower, the band that Richard and Rob were fresh out of back when this demo appeared (Ex Voto was recorded by Flower’s Ian James).  The thing is, I’m not sure they’d ever made a great album!  Versus have a plethora of incredible songs, but, in my opinion, the albums were always a bit spotty.

Surprise, surprise, then that they reappeared this past May with an EP, Ex Nihilo, that is truly inspired, and now nine years after their last LP, comes their best full album, Ex Voto!

This collection is captivating from start to finish.  Versus sound re-vitalized and more energetic than ever.  “Gravity” and “Moon Palace” the one - two punch of the openers set an exciting mood with catchy melodies, lithe playing, and some existential lyrics.  “Gravity” finds Richard asking his significant other “Does the story end the way you want it to?” and “What is left behind when the spirit’s gone?”  It seems as though he is ready to move on, but not sure how to end the dead end relationship (“I can’t seem to say, I no longer love you”).  There is also a feeling of overcoming the mundanities and trials of everyday life and love and finding solace with oneself.  In this case, it almost feels like this new start is from some sort of apocalyptic event, and our narrator is finding strength and courage to find hope by letting go of the past (“I don’t know where I’m going / I don’t know and I don’t care”).  Next up is the mid-tempo floater, “University” (which includes the great lyric: “paradise lost but we are alive”) eases us into the busy “Mummified,” whose long intro includes excerpts of some kind of movie dialogue, that I can’t quite make out or place, but reminding me of second and third album Jawbreaker.  Once we get to the song, we see every member of the band featured beautifully with slashing guitar work, and crashing drum work from the other two Baluyut brothers: James and Edward, while Richard and Fontaine trade off verses vocally and share the sing-along chorus.

Side two opens with the interesting “Baby Green,” which opens with a plastic sounding drum machine pattern and a New Order-esque bass fill.  The song actually reminds me of New Order’s “Every Little Counts” in feel, but this is much more complex, and interesting and fully fleshed out.  The blunt sounding “Atmosphere” comes on full tilt next, as Fontaine urgently asks “Have you ever felt that way before? / Have you ever felt a weight you can’t ignore?”  “Atmosphere” bleeds nicely into the orchestral pop song “Nothing But U,” which is a nice brief reprieve from all of the intensity up to this point.  The epic “Re-Animator” closes things out perfectly with an explosive final half.

This album, along with the EP from earlier this year, have been quite a surprise!  A welcome return to a band achieving new heights after such a long absence.  This kind of thing gives me hope that maybe one day I too can get better at something.  Maybe.  Don’t hold your breathe.  Instead, go out and buy this record!

 Versus "Gravity"