Thursday, February 26, 2009

Darker My Love -- 2

Darker My Love -- 2 (Dangerbird)

This L.A. band makes a gigantic leap on its second album, perfecting a brand of psych-pop that encompasses a few different takes on the genre. I must first reveal that until Jack Rabid made this album his number one pick in Issue 63 of The Big Takeover magazine, I had never heard of Darker My Love. But his endorsement got me to buy this and listening to this made me pick up the debut.

Darker My Love’s first album is rawer in every way, from the production to the songwriting. But the promise was evident. What is astounding is how the band went from potential to outstanding album so quickly. This album has pure pop, shoegazing grandeur, Madchester jams and pure freak outs. The band puts this together effortlessly, finding a central sensibility that binds everything into a coherent whole.

This is one of those albums where the first half is so strong, it takes a while to appreciate the second half (yes, I remember back when this was Side 1 and Side 2). The track that immediately leaps out is the glistening yet muscular pop of “Two Ways Out”. This song comes across like the Inspiral Carpets with balls (and without a Farfisa). With Andy Granelli pounding out a steady beat on the drums and Tim Presley (or is it Jared Everett?) playing a melodic guitar figure that is sympathetic with both the rhythm and the vocal melody, the song just sounds great. Rob Barbato’s smooth lead vocal glides on the up-and-down melody and when Barbato and Presley harmonize on the bridge into the chorus, a California gloss adds just that much more to the tune. And did I mention the chorus itself is a killer hook?

The guitars are more prominent and harsh on “Talking Words”, with Presley, who wrote the tune, on lead vocals. This song starts with the chorus, and has more of that great blend of Presley’s and Barbato’s voices. This is another sing-songy tune, with the gentleness of the melody contrasting the fuzzy chords and Will Canzoneri’s organ fills.

The proceedings become decidedly more paisley tinged on “White Composition”. This is delicate Anglophile pop, with Canzoneri’s keyboards dominating the airy atmosphere. This is in line with the lighter material of The Bees (or Band Of Bees, if you prefer the American nomenclature).

That a band can pull off such a fey delight and then rip into a grooving and groovy Madchester-ish track like “Blue Day” is a testament to how this band has grown since its debut. “Blue Day” has a such a full colorful sound, and room for a great haunting harmony vocal coda in the chorus. Meanwhile, “Pale Sun” also conjures up memories of The Stone Roses and other rockers who could apply pop lessons to chugging rock that you can dance to.

The band has even mastered the epic tune, both on “All the Hurry & Wait”, which starts out slow with an air of mystery, and builds up to great heights, with fine guitar work and string and horn accompaniment, or the moody closer “Immediate Undertaking”, which is awash in reverb. Throughout the record, if I haven’t made this clear, the band is in command, no matter what they try.

The difference between the first two Darker My Love albums is similar to the difference between Midlake’s first two albums. The first announced a talent, the second is where it emerges, fully formed.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Features -- Some Kind Of Salvation

The Features -- Some Kind Of Salvation (self-released)

It’s good to see this Murfreesboro, Tennessee band is still around. The band built a buzz based on sizzling live shows and some EPs and singles that showed an ability to stitch together sounds ranging from ‘70s glam (the Roxy Music/Sparks type) to the harsher side of Pixies into something distinctly their own. This was greatly aided by the band’s frontman, Matthew Pelham, who is a talented songwriter.

The Features were snapped up by Universal Records, and Exhibit A was perhaps a tad less frenetic than I would have liked, yet it still captured most of what I liked about the band. But it did not capture enough record buyers, so the band was eventually jettisoned by Universal.

On this new album, the band’s sound is maturing. While this results in some of the music being less distinctive, both Pelham and his mates find a way to put a stamp on the material. This is because Pelham has a real personality and the band supplies a similar energy. And when you know how to write a catchy song and creatively arrange said song, good things tend to happen.

Early on, “The Drawing Board” has a structure like an Eastern European folk song. But this isn’t some Beirut-ish stab at indie-thenticity. It just provides a foundation for a horn-fueled slice of whimsy: “Take your woman by the hand/explain to her your master plan/if she cries then you will know/that your plan is full of holes.” In this song, Pelham sees romance as trial and error. I think he’s right.

The multi-tracked saxophones of Jim Hoke come back on the ‘60s R & B styled “Wooden Heart”. Pelham is not a classic soul singer by any means, but he brings his passion and this number smokes. The rhythm section of Roger Dabbs (bass) and Rollum Haas (drums) is rock steady. When the song breaks down, after Pelham keeps intoning “when you are mine/this heart will shine/I’ll set my watch to its perfect time” he starts screaming “time” as the guitar and keyboards vamp in the background, and it’s a magic moment on a great track.

This track is preceded by “Temporary Blues” in which Pelham “trade[s] in his tennis shoes/for steel toed rubber boots.” He’s a poor boy who has to join the army to make a living. This song starts softly and builds up to a pumping chorus that would appeal to any Hold Steady fan. The lines “one day we’re gonna make them change/we’re gonna turn this mess around” really resonate because you don’t think the protagonist really believes them.

Song after song shows that Pelham was spending a lot of time honing his craft. This is a balanced collection of songs. “Lions” comes out with pop bravado and mixes lower key verses with a sing-a-long “oh oh oh oh” chorus. Pelham shows that he can write a winning slower number on the breathy and dreamy (or nightmarish?) ballad “The Gates of Hell”. And “GMF (Genetically Modified Blues)” mixes new wavey sci-fi drama with slashing guitar fury.

I would strongly urge fans of intelligent pop music to check this out. Every aspect of this disc is of the highest quality. These guys deserve as much of your attention as The New Pornographers, and The New Pornographers certainly deserve your attention.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Nikka Costa -- Pebble To A Pearl

Nikka Costa -- Pebble To A Pearl (Stax)

After two albums of hyper retro ‘70s soul, Costa moves to the revived Stax label and tones down her approach, to her detriment. Costa is at her best when she’s being sassy and a bit out-of-control. Ideally, she should try a whacked out cover of Natalie Cole’s “Sophisticated Lady”. Okay, maybe I’m the only who thinks so.

While Costa is very respectful to ‘60s soul traditions on this effort, and the playing on is tasteful throughout, Costa fails to play to her strengths. This is exemplified on her rendition of Johnny Guitar Watson’s “Loving You”. Every detail is in place, from the warm swelling Hammond organ to the backing vocals. But Costa’s modulated vocal performance is adequate at best. She can’t find a way to lower her energy so substantially while still really inhabiting the song.

This applies equally to the mid-tempo slink of “Cry Baby”, a track co-written by Lamont Dozier. This tune percolates and sounds perfectly pleasant. But it lacks a bit of spark and goes on much too long, clocking in at just over five minutes.

This isn’t a bad album, just one that seems to fall a bit short in every department. Even the opener, “Stuck to You”, which comes a bit closer musically to the best material on her prior albums (though it’s more organic and less urban funk), is weighed down by some lame lyrics (“if you a case/I be a jury...if you a soul/I be your Otis Redding”).

Costa does score on “Pebble to a Pearl”, which unveils the clavinet for a bit of a Stevie Wonder feel. Moreover, the song has a driving hook. Still, if the energy been upped a bit on this track, it would go from being good to great. All the ingredients are there.

Sophistication doesn’t become Costa. She’s a screamer and a wild woman, and I hope that she gets crazy on her next effort.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sparks at Royce Hall, February 14, 2009

When I got into L.A. a couple of nights ago, it was apparent that somebody cared that Sparks was back in its home town. Articles in L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times and the cover of City Beat showed that Ron and Russell Mael were back, yet again.

This time around, Sparks played a near capacity show at the wonderful Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA, where Ron and Russell went in the '60s. Royce Hall is the type of place where you might find fine theater or jazz or Joan Baez. It's a classy joint.

Sparks began the evening by playing the band's latest album, Exotic Creatures Of The Deep (Hablo Ennui's number four album of 2008) in its entirety, for the first time in the States. Ron and Russell had the same crack band that backed them for Sparks' historic 21 albums in 21 nights stand in London last year. The rhythm section of Steven (Redd Kross) McDonald on bass and Steven Nistor (sporting a Malcolm Gladwell-esque hair-fro) on drums with Mother Superior's Marcus Blake and Jim Wilson on rhythm and lead guitar respectively.

Sparks has added a theatrical element to its shows since the 2002 release of Lil' Beethoven, which aids things a bit since the band's current approach sometimes requires backing tape enhancement to recreate the stacked choral vocals and layers of keyboards and synthesized strings. Nevertheless, Exotic Creatures melds better with the band format. In fact, there were moments during songs like "Strange Animal", "I Can't Believe That You Fell For All the Crap in this Song", and a couple of others where the band added some small wrinkles that sounded real good and served as a reminder that this was live music, not just some recreation.

The show started with models pushing shopping carts with the choral vocals of "Likeable" in the background, while Ron Mael was underneath the covers of a "bed" in the background. When the models exited the stage, the music kicked in, Ron got to his keyboard and Russell tore into "Good Morning", a song that has to be a real challenge as an opener.

After a spirited "Strange Animal", which is the most challenging song on the album, Ron and Russell did a little hand choreography for "Crap". This song really sounds like it could be a hit single if it were given the right promotion, and we'll find out if that's the case, since it's scheduled for release.

Other stage business included Ron doing his classic shuffle dance during "Let the Monkey Drive", and Ron playing the piano on the video screen background during "Photoshop", but having to contend with the image rising and falling and stretching and contracting and so forth. But the best bit was on "(She Got Me) Pregnant", where some college girls all dressed up like Ron with a bun in the oven did various choreographed dances and, at one point, surrounding Ron, who looked like he was in the midst of a nightmare. At the end of "Likeable", while the creamy choral vocals went on and on, Ronald went to the video screen, where the covers of the band's first 20 albums were set in flame (which is a holdover from the 21st show of the London residency).

Watching the set just confirmed to me what a catchy album Exotic Creatures is. The only song that didn't fully work for me was "Likeable", as the changes in the song seem a bit awkward live.

After an intermission, the band performed its 1974 classic Kimono My House. Having reviewed this show last year, I'm not sure what to add, other than it sounded great again and I was particularly struck by what an awesome song "Thank God It's Not Christmas" is. I focused on the structure. The rhythm (or is it the time signature -- I'm not a musician, if that isn't already obvious) is not standard and the song is full of such distinctive parts. Despite this less-that-typical structure, it's still a powerful piece of pop and recognizable as such, not just some piece of avant-garde rock.

Indeed, seeing the band play Kimono for a second time, I heard more than ever how Sparks was totally part of its time, and how the band fit in with the Roxy Musics and David Bowies, yet, more importantly, Ron Mael's compositions had a distinct character, even when I could discern and influence here or there (like Ray Davies, for example).

After this set, the band took a short break and rolled out one hell of an encore. Check this out: "Propaganda", "At Home At Work At Play", "BC", "Number One Song in Heaven", "Mickey Mouse", "Dick Around", "When Do I Get To Sing My Way" and, finally, "Suburban Homeboy". For about 40 minutes of music, that really shows off a lot of facets of the band.

I particularly appreciated hearing the complex "Dick Around" and the celebratory electro-disco pulse of "Heaven". But it was "At Home At Work At Play" that killed me, even though I saw them do that in London. The thing is, the last time around, I think I was in disbelief that I was hearing it and didn't soak it all in. This time, I made no such mistake.

If I had any other criticism of the show, it's that while the sound was good, sometimes the guitars were a bit too low. Otherwise, this was a dream show for a Sparks fan like me.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Eugene Edwards at Taix, February 13, 2009

Eugene Edwards and his crack band (i.e., good band, not band of crack addicts) are working on the follow up to his swell debut LP, My Favorite Revolution. Based on the new songs that Mr. Edwards played in barroom lounge of Taix in Echo Park, he may very well top his first effort.

For those of you not familiar with Revolution, it unveiled Edwards as a sharp songwriter who straddled the line between power pop and pub rock. His slightly weathered voice cuts through his pointed guitar playing and he sounded like someone cut from the cloth of Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and, to my ears, Clive Gregson of Any Trouble.

He did a bang up job on the title cut to his title plate (which he dedicated to the recently departed Ron Ashton of The Stooges and The Cramps' Lux Interior), along with some other material from that disc. But, to be repetitive, it was the new stuff that really knocked me out.

There were two reasons for this: 1) Edwards' new songs dig a little bit deeper into the roots of rock and roll, evoking a bit of Merseybeat (with more sting) and Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers, and, 2) Eugene's debut CD does not fully reveal what a devastating lead guitarist he is. Twice during the 40 minute or so gig, he uncorked creative guitar solos that would have surely gained nods of approval from great trad guitarists like Brian (Stray Cats) Setzer and Junior Brown. It's not just Edwards' nimble fingers, but he gets a great guitar tone, throwing just enough dirt on the smooth runs up and down the fretboard.

Making the evening even better, his drummer was spot on throughout and that rhythm guitarist of his sure could throw in some harmony vocals. Maybe because that guitarist is John Hoskinson, a darned good artist in his own right. And Edwards has a very engaging personality, and I think the ladies would say he's easy on the eyes.

And to provide a brief second opinion, my friend Jeanne noted that different songs reminded her of Squeeze and The Plimsouls. I would especially endorse the latter comparison. Tallboy Records maven Anna Borg, whose label released Revolution said that Edwards is really spending a lot of time on Disc #2 to really get it right. Based on what I saw, live in the studio would be one hell of an approach.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bon Iver -- Blood Bank

Bon Iver -- Blood Bank (Jagjaguwar)

Jason Vernon had a few more tunes in his arsenal, so this four-song EP is a bit of stop gap while people wait (possibly for a while) for the follow up to For Emma, Forever Ago. The collection gets off to a good start with the title cut. This song would have fit on Emma easily. Vernon doesn’t spend as much time in his upper registered, but his multi-tracked vocals are intent and the acoustic guitar creates the appropriate brooding winter feel that permeated the debut album. Vernon knows how to balance the downbeat guitar chords with a contrasting melodic section that makes this track very gripping. Moreover, the lyrics sketch out a tale of romance kindled at the blood bank. How lovely.

This is followed by “Beach Baby”, which is nothing like the 1974 smash single. Not that this should come as a surprise. This relatively brief tune has a classic folk rock sound. Here, Vernon’s emotional falsetto is in force. This is another example of what make Bon Iver so special -- a blend of backwoods pastoral music mixed with real soul (and often a dash or two of anguish). If anything, this song is a bit short, not really building to anything, in contrast to most of the material on the debut.

Vernon is joined by Mark Paulson on the nylon guitar on “Babys”. The song comes in with a pair of pianos, and the keys chopping up and down in a careening pattern. This song actually builds on what we’ve heard before from Bon Iver, just based on the discordant pianos. They eventually fade and the song is then carried by Vernon’s vocals over very spare accompaniment. Then the pianos eventually come back in and the vocal part is meshed with the pianos. This is the best song on the EP. In a sense, it reminds me of how Portishead, on its last album, got a lot of mileage out of mashing together seemingly disparate sounds.

The EP wraps up with “Woods”, and wasn’t it inevitable that a band that records in the woods would have a song with that title? What was not inevitable is that Vernon would break out the autotuner. I guess what’s good for Kanye West is good for Bon Iver. The vocals are the song, as a second, non-processed vocal works around the main electronic vocal. This is more of a curiosity. The song has a spiritual feel (musically, not lyrically), but doesn’t really go anywhere.

This EP shows that Vernon has more Bon Iver songs in him, and that he is not content to do exactly the same thing over and over. I wonder if he’s back in the woods now working on a follow up.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Pillbugs -- Everybody Wants a Way Out

The Pillbugs -- Everybody Wants A Way Out (Rainbow Quartz)

Hey, hey they’re The Pillbugs! They’re too busy writing ‘60s songs for the 21st century to put anybody down. Indeed, it’s amazing how this Ohio psych-pop band finds new wrinkles in those classic old songs.

I found this album to be a bit less striking than the two-disc Buzz For Aldrin. It’s really just a matter of degree. After a few spins, I’m pleased to say that there are plenty of songs here that, like so many other Pillbugs tracks, will stand the test of timelessness.

The song that I immediately took to was “Soundman”, a witty track that anyone who’s been in a band will really appreciate. With a little fuzz and a bit more jangle and a track that falls somewhere in the realm of The Beatles and The Move around 1967, the ‘bugs endear themselves to every dude manning the soundboards at clubs throughout the world: “For the next half hour you’re the hand of God.” It’s hard to pick out the most clever couplet, with so much to choose from, but I love how they come out of each chorus by calling out more instruments: “Guitar 1 (lead guitar plays) and drums. More drums.” If Flight Of The Conchords did a cover, this would be a good song for them to tackle.

The title of “Tragedy Anne” is amusing enough. But the song is grounded on something being run backwards, which effectively provides the rhythm track, while the guitars and keyboards add quasi-symphonic touches. This puppy just sounds really cool. But it’s not just the sonics, as main ‘bug Mark Mikel spins out some whimsical and winning melodies.

Moreover, The Pillbugs hit all sorts of different sounds, even when restricted to only a single disc. “Can’t Get It Right (So I’m Loving It Wrong)” is a languid, liquid tune that evokes Jeff Lynne and the Bee Gees, without sounding like a rewrite. And I don’t know if either of those artists would come up with a line like “Getting hungry always spoils my appetite.” That actually makes sense to me.

On “Hard Line”, the band traverses dramatic psych-rock territory. This is a tougher rock number with stinging lead guitar lines and an ominous melody. The composition is strong and the arrangement really brings that out. From the rock solid bass playing to all the various instrumental colors, this is top flight psychedelia.

In fact, while writing this review, I wonder why I wasn’t hit more immediately by the high quality of this record. I should never take the excellence of The Pillbugs for granted. They are one of the few bands where I think you can jump in with any album and, if you like great psychedelic music, you’ll become a convert.