Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top 40 of 2013 - #15 to #11

The countdown continues…


Drakes Hotel
Love’s Not Lazy EP
(DH Music)

Drakes Hotel is on a hot streak!  This five tracker, their first EP, comes a little over a year after their last full length, Logic Adopts Senses, which is ahead of their release every 2-3 years track record.  They must be feeling inspired, because this EP includes some of their best work yet and word has it that they will be releasing a series of EPs in the near future, as well as doing some touring in the new year.  The EP starts off with the extended melancholic “The Night Train Home,” where Amy Drake’s unique, strong and stellar vocals are placed fully out in front of the mysterious and haunting soundscape underneath.  This song would make a perfect soundtrack for a night time train ride - lost in thought, because it absolutely evokes that feeling of reflection and decompression.  The upbeat “Young Taste” is up next and finds DH getting right to the point with a fairly straightforward rock song that screams single!  The lyrics are thought provoking.  It seems to be spelling out some relationship troubles within each verse, while the chorus (which includes near power chords!) stretches the theme to a potentially more universal problem with relationships in general in a world of social media and over sharing.  The centerpiece, “Leave It Dark,” includes everything there has ever been to love about this duo.  The sing-a-long chorus is not only full of wisdom, but is catchy as hell, while the simple repeated piano refrain creates a solid tuneful base for Chris Y’s stellar guitar work that reaches for the stratosphere throughout – reminding of the graceful striving cascades that the House of Love created with “Love in a Car’ oh, so many years ago.  It’s amazing how much variety Drakes Hotel achieves with their modest recording tools, but “Sense Non Sense” is a huge sounding song that is full of open space and an atmospheric keyboard line that instills a sense of intrigue that is so attractive about their music.  Maybe this song would be better served as the hit single with its huge musical climax and its tale of a dying relationship, which is succinctly and memorably told (“We had a lack of progress / on a bed of promise / all we used to be got all fucked up”).  Finally, the EP closes with the dramatic and hopeful sounding “Sick Apart,” which again addresses relationship issues and miscommunication or lack of within, but seems to find that there can still be a strong enough core to survive and even thrive.  When Amy sings near the end “Keep holding me…I’ve wanted you for so long,” it feels as though everything will be alright.  Please do yourself a favor and track down this music (their last three albums can be found at  It is a journey well worth the price of admission.


Northern Portrait
Pretty Decent Swimmers 10” EP

Was it really 2010 when Danish band Northern Portrait released their debut album Criminal Art Lovers?  How can it have been that long?  Time goes by way too fast, but at least they are back and they started out 2013 with this beautiful ‘swimming pool blue’ colored 10” vinyl EP – ensuring that no matter what, this year would be a good year for music.  No, Northern Portrait has not lost their similarities to the Smiths, but you know what?  I’m glad.  I miss that energetic effortless sound they created, and NP come as close as one can get to such excellence!  They also bring to mind the pop explosion in Sweden from the early 90s from bands like Popsicle, Wannadies This Perfect Day, Happydeadmen and Easy, with their seeming limitless tunefulness.  These guys are so good at writing catchy tunes with lighter than air guitar intricacies and downtrodden lyrics that still exhibit a sense of flair and wit.  “Happy Nice Day” opens the EP perfectly with what sounds at first glance like an honest to God ode to the beginning of a happy nice day until we hear vocalist Stefan Larsen ask “Is that a possibility?” all while listing off a literal travelogue worth of lonely lost moments around the globe (“I lost my heart in Hamburg and then my breath in Nice”).  It’s a fantastic piece of pure pop filled with “oohs and aahs” and “la la la las” that cannot avoid improving my day.  The travels continue with “Greetings from Paris,” which weaves a fascinating snapshot story of lost souls trying to find meaning from dashed dreams.  The opening refrain “Delayed by an opportunity to cause a firm and effective mess” gives a hint at the quality storytelling within.  “Bon Voyage!” kicks off side two with a dancey shuffle beat and some sharp guitar strums atop some tasteful organ and occasional piano interludes and another travel tale (“destination: good time”).  Finally (and sadly it has to end), the EP closes with “I Feel Even Better,” which absolutely glides with a sparkling and yet somehow purely melancholic sound.  This one seeks solace in escape instead of familiarity (nice play off of the old Cheers TV theme: “Sometimes I want to go where nobody knows my name and they couldn’t care less if I came”) and I’m not so sure any hope is found by the end (“I’m so tired of this uninspiring life”).  It is damn refreshing to hear this band’s music and to be allowed to wallow in the superbly told stories of real sadness and disappointment.

Matinee recently released a new collection that compiles all of Northern Portrait’s EPs, B-sides and compilation tracks – entitled Ta! – which includes this 10” EP.  Great stuff!


The Ocean Blue

The Ocean Blue has always held a special place in my heart.  They came along with 1989’s debut as a rare American installment in the 80s UK raincoat rock I loved so much.  They fit nicely with the Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths, and so many more.  David Schelzel had a knack for writing deeply affecting guitar leads and the band could always provide a stellar landscape.  They never had the huge ego or edge to their music, which always felt like it kept them from attaining a bigger profile, but it was when they focused on their nice guy reflective songs that they were always at their best.  For me, their 1991 second LP Cerulean was their high water mark.  Gone was the gauzy rainy haze of the debut, instead they focused their attention to details and provided us with a sublime and immaculately crafted album full of sad and reflective songs and crystalline melodies.  It was an album that captured my imagination and comforted me through a rough and terrible year.  Well, four albums and 22 years later, they are back with another blue themed album, and though, not quite as perfect, this is a hugely welcome return to the fold (their previous release being 2004’s very solid Waterworks EP – whose opening instrumental, “Fast Forward Reverse,” has been expanded and improved and included here).  I hate to say it, but this is the Ocean Blue that I liked so much originally.  Their 1999, 60s pop influenced Davy Jones’ Locker, was okay, but not full of the big pristine sound that they always excelled.  Aside from the fine sounding filler that is “A Rose is a Rose,” every song here is strong.  The opening “Give it a Try,” has a huge low end and may be the most roughshod this band ever gets (which isn’t a lot) and about as political as well.  “Sad Night, Where is Morning?” and “Ground Gives Way” are both songs that could easily have supplanted a couple of the good ones from the masterful Cerulean, and not surprisingly both have been selected as singles to promote the album.  “New York 6AM” and “Sunset-Moonrise” are also standouts with their lush warmth and beauty, while the acoustic strumming of “Blow My Mind” and “If You Don’t Know Why” remind more of their exciting debut album.  Again, it pains me to say this, but their ability to recapture some of these old glories that has me buzzing.  I should be embracing their growth and continued change, and though I have stayed with them through thick and thin, it has always been their first three albums that shone the brightest, so this return to form – so to speak – feels so damn right.  Here’s hoping that this band thing becomes a more full time entity once again, so we don’t have to wait so long between releases.


The Chambermaids
Whatever Happened Tomorrow
(Old Blackberry Way/Guilt Ridden Pop)

After offering up two free downloads peeks at their new material early in 2012, Minneapolis’s The Chambermaids finally released their third album (mini album?) with this remarkable Whatever Happened Tomorrow.  I first learned of this band with their second collection, 2009’s Down in the Berries, whose seven songs fly by with a serious urgency and discordance that hinted at early Poster Children crossed with the dreamy dual vocals (provided by siblings Neil and Martha Weir) and atmospherics of Slowdive.  But it was those two songs last year, “Whirlpool” and “China Blue,” – both included here - that hinted at new possibilities and a big step forward.  “Whirlpool” opens this nine song album with its disjointed beat and simultaneously edgy and atmospheric guitar layers and spikes, while “China Blue” crashes in at the end of side one with its massive onrush of noise and a menacing low end bass rumble.  There’s no doubt that they’ve taken huge inspiration from the tremolo bending exploits of My Bloody Valentine, but they’ve retained their Midwestern sensibilities throughout – making this sound fresh and different somehow.  The acoustic strum that opens the powerful “I Wonder Why” leads to a verse that fights not to be overwhelmed by the beautiful haze of feedback that swirls in from all sides.  Similarly, the Martha fronted “Scraped Away” is steeped in buzzing noise, but hints melodically like the 60s influenced Primitives.  Meanwhile, “Electric Sky” has the rough hewn forward motion of Kiwi bands like the early Verlaines or more accurately, the Straightjacket Fits, or the UK’s late great whatever-happened-to Venus Beads, all the while concluding with an addictive cooing repetitive lyrical harmony that is guaranteed to stick in your craw forever.  The penultimate track, the ebbing and flowing” “Flight of Cranes” is another ground shaker.  It’s filled with splashing cymbals, a lazy low end bass crawl and walls of guitars that bring a striking interlude between the moody instrumentals that close the album.  Somehow I think this band has absorbed everything I’ve liked musically over the last 25 years and crammed at least a little bit of it all into a brief 25 minutes.  This is a must have and it’s inexpensive in any format!


Extended Plays
“Cut the Grass” 7”
(Wichita Recordings)

This year has had me all in a flux with music.  I’m confused.  I have always prided myself in not allowing myself to get stuck in a time period musically.  I always bristle inside when I hear someone say, “They don’t make music like they used to,” because generally in my age bracket that’s coming from someone who stopped paying attention to new music after the Outfield broke up.  I’ve always believed that every year is crammed with fantastic music, no matter what, it may take more effort to track down sometimes, but it’s out there.  But more and more, I’m starting to wonder if I truly am stuck in a time long gone, just in a different way.  Am I simply listening to new music by the same old bands (see Kitchens of Distinction, Swervedriver, My Bloody Valentine, The Ocean Blue, and many more – see elsewhere on this list!!)?  Or am I listening to only newer bands that remind me of times gone by (The History of Apple Pie, Chambermaids, Just Handshakes, Ex Cops, and many more – see elsewhere on this damn list!!)?  It’s starting to seem clear to me that I am stuck in a rut, or is it simply because there’s really nothing new anymore to begin with?  When I first heard Extended Plays by Cheatahs (a compilation of their two four song EP releases during 2012), I was stunned and still am how perfect of a melding their sound is of Ride and Swerverdriver.  There’s no way around it.  It’s almost as if Swervedriver stepped in to perform Ride’s Smile compilation (their US debut was similarly a grouping of their first two EPs).  It is that exacting.  They have the big pounding rawk and blistering feedback of Swervedriver and the more tuneful and melodic touches of Ride and the abandon of both.  The songs are all generally about escape or desire to escape, sometimes with a loved one, sometimes without.    So, how do I judge this?  Well, I’m trying to take off my “Oh my God I’m getting old!!” hat and just enjoy it all for what it is.  And damn, I enjoy this!  I have listened to the teeth rattling riff of “The Swan,” the teetering on the edge of control “Fountain Park,” the tight and endlessly addictive guitar hook of “Flake,” the two minute bursting at the seams “Ripper,” and the music collector nerd junkie escape fun of “Jacobi” (“Do you wanna ride tonight?  Do you wanna go inside?  I got loads of 45s?”) over and over again and it gets my pulse pounding and makes me bounce my head around and wish I could still grow the mop of hair I used to have back in the day.  When it all comes down to it, these eight songs are fun to listen to, and isn’t that what it’s all about? 

The double A-sided single released toward the end of this year features a snapshot of what we might expect from Cheatahs debut album due out in February.  “Cut the Grass” continues their thread of upbeat buzzing fire, but this time with a kind of spooky keyboard line that floats around the intro and the conclusion.  This sudden fade out of the song is a bit of a disappointment, but another great song nonetheless.  Meanwhile, “Kenworth” is a full on blaster of guitars and dreamy vocals that simultaneously floats and feels unleashed and chaotic.  Wow.  Not as immediately catchy as their other material, but maybe more of this is to come.  Looking forward to the debut, whether or not my mind will ever wrap around the idea of how old this stuff sometimes makes me feel, despite reigniting my old energy and fire for this music. 

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