Tag Archives: 2010

Album review: X-Ray Press "Uvb – 76"

Prog-rock has been around for quite a long time now. Though its roots can be traced back to jazz fusion many bands eschew those undertones in search of a new sound that still retains the complexities in the music but not so much the jazzer attitude that can come off as overly pretentious. Nobody wants to end up sounding like Yes, or (it pains me to type this…) Emerson, Lake & Palmer after all. X-Ray Press has created one of the more complex albums that holds a firm footing in the prog world, but is still so much more.

From the opening of the first track, “Everybody, This Is Everyone (And Nobody Cares)”, the guitar tone reminds me of Shellac. The aggressiveness of the music also matches Shellac’s own ethos in some ways, and though they can both be considered to be creating “math-rock” (a genre that side-steps the aforementioned jazz influences found in progressive rock but still holds to the same “complexity for complexity’s sake” constantly shifting time signatures) Shellac would never consider creating an album with songs that are linked thematically forming a deeply woven story about living in the modern age. X-Ray Press’s angle is more similar to that of The Dillinger Escape Plan, with more than just a nod to their metal leanings, but with not as much of the dialed up anger as Dillinger, and cleaned up a bit. Though there is not an overt jazz sound there are glimpses of its interesting harmonies and song structure that can sound reminiscent of “Starless and Bible Black” era King Crimson as in tracks like “Chord and Mumble” and “Holy Ghost, USA“. But then again, doesn’t every prog band have some element or other that points back to King Crimson in some way? There are also strains that sound like Pink Mountain’s avant–garde improvisations in “Bad Beard (God Under Oath).

Hopefully this will give you an idea of the truly rich palette these guys are working from. Of course, it’s little bits here and there, nothing overtly derivative or “ripped-off” from anyone. Strongly influenced yes, but X-Ray Press really does seem to be doing something different. With “Uvb-76” they have taken a rather complex structured album and, where most bands would leave the tracks at 20+ minutes in length, X-Ray Press is carving out little gems that are much more easily grasped because of their forgiving song length of 2 to 5 minutes. This makes for a prog album that is in your face and quite possibly “radio-friendly”. A significant amount of punch is packed into the 2 minutes of “Cubicle Racist” and “Thin Mint, FSA“.

X-Ray Press - "Uvb -76"

The concept of the album is primarily one of anger and frustration directed toward the world at large which eventually arrives at acceptance through discovering some way in which one can transcend, on ones own, the problems that are continually faced through creative action of some sort. In short: making lemonade from the lemons that life seems to perpetually dish out. From being just another automaton to making something out of ones life and moving on. The album is divided into 2 acts of sorts: I. Thought and II. Action. The first of these is divided up into 2 “scenes” while the 2nd is divided into 3. These “acts” are broken up by haunting, short piano interludes that appear between scenes. It sounds to me like a prepared piano (a concept first invented and developed by the American 20th Century avant-garde composer John Cage) where the strings are somehow stopped or otherwise prevented from resonating.

I told you it was a heady concept…

As mentioned before, their math/prog leanings means that the time signatures do not sit still for a second, switching all over the place before one can even begin to sort out where the downbeat is. As for the substance of the songs though, and there is a lot of substance that goes far beyond complex time signature changes and polymeter, the band has a way of working elements into each song that find them interlocking into a groove for a short time before pulling themselves apart again to go their own separate ways. The inclusion of a Rhodes piano to the ensemble adds to the hint of jazz influence as well as melding well with the guitar tone. It has the ability to sound like the guitar feeding back, but also adds to the bright high end of the guitar, often doubling it though you wouldn’t know until they choose to go their separate ways.

There is a lot to this album, but knowing the kind of fanaticism and dedication to detail that fans of this type of music are I’m sure that very little of it will be lost. If this is a sign of music to come in 2011 then we’d all better hold on because it is going to be an intense ride.

And check it out! You can stream the entire album at the band’s own bandcamp site!

Or, if you are in a hurry, I have uploaded two tracks below.

[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/XRayPress-07_Cubicle_Racist.mp3|titles=XRayPress-Cubicle Racist] [audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/XRayPress-12_Holy_Ghost_USA.mp3|titles=XRayPress-Holy Ghost USA]

Album review: Pepper Rabbit – "Beauregard"

Pepper Rabbit, with their most recent release, “Beauregard”, have produced a stripped down, folky version of ethereal dreampop with a bit of honky-tonk barstool blues added to the mix. The music has a familiar sound that is quite inviting, like music that friends would make some evening while sitting in front of a fire. The traditional “rock band” sound has been expanded to include clarinet, trumpet, ukulele, and mandolin, all of which assist in providing the songs with the aforementioned “folk” sound. The creative instrumentation doesn’t seem to bog down the process though. Each instrument is given proper consideration and space and most importantly never seem to not be exactly what the song calls for. Pepper Rabbit seem to be going against the “army of people on stage” ethos of Broken Social Scene and the like. Less is more in terms of orchestration. Finding just the right sound is much more preferred to figuring out parts for everything all the time. I think that the best way to get across an accurate description of Pepper Rabbit’s sound would be to compare them to a less guitar driven, less crowded sounding Arcade Fire. Pepper Rabbit can be quiet and introspective in much the same manner as Grizzly Bear, and they hit all the right emotional spots.

Pepper Rabbit photo by Brittney Bush Bollay (http://www.threegigs.com)

The songs are hopeful, catchy, sentimental, reminiscent and perhaps a bit remote and sorrowful, yet Pepper Rabbit singer and multi-instrumentalist Xander Singh, bassist Shay Spence, and drummer Luc Laurent are able to turn that sorrow into a celebratory remembrance of the past. Their sound is at once haunting and beautiful, to sum it up as succinctly as possible. Feelings are described perfectly with honest lyrics that are set effectively. Take for example the lyric, “That’s when you find there’s nothing there. Drink when you see that no one cares. You said I’ll see you soon, and back there’s the Harvest Moon” from “Harvest Moon”. The trumpet in that track echoes with a little help from the pulsation of a distant organ while the rhythm chugs along through a sea of voices.

With “In the Spirit of Beauregard” the normal pop-tune structure, which the band doesn’t deviate too far from through most of the album, is challenged. The songs goes through several changes with honky-tonk piano, followed by jovial klezmer band clarinets, followed by an upbeat quickstep and back again to the ethereal dreampop in an extended outro. These changes would probably never even occur to most bands, but Pepper Rabbit makes sense of it all in the spirit of pop experimentation.

Pepper Rabbit - "Beauregard"

The warmth of the songs, with layers of instruments with a recognized and welcomed style of thoughtful, introspective lyricism truly helps the music to achieve maximum accessibility. The band seems to also have a unique willingness to stand nearly unadorned and sing touching songs that have the ability to grab the listener’s attention based on the lyric’s emotional content alone. Alternately they can make really big statements with lush orchestrations of those same simple ideas. Take the song “Older Brother”, one of the more stripped down tracks consisting mostly of simple ukulele and voice. Incidentally I feel that “Older Brother” stands out as the song that could be the biggest “hit” with a rather upbeat and catchy chorus. They even tread pretty closely to pure ambience on “Song for a Pump Organ” with drones of sound, waves of voices and a glockenspiel ringing clearly through the cloud of sound.  Anything to help bring a song to life. Nothing seems to be off limits here.

This is certainly one of the more carefully crafted albums to be released recently. It’s great to hear an album where songwriting stands front and center resulting in a moving album with subtlety and style.

Listen: Pepper Rabbit – “Harvest Moon”

[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/02-Harvest-Moon.mp3|titles=Harvest Moon]

Album review: Motorifik – "Secret Things"

Motorifik seem to be wasting no time with their debut album, “Secret Things”. Normally one would expect it to take a band at least a few albums to develop a unique and well formed sound. This is not the case with Motorifik, though that may be because its two members are already busy musicians. Phil Kay writes songs for and produces Working for a Nuclear Free City and Idrisse Khelifi is an accomplished French songwriter. Their talents work well together on this album which features a direct songwriting approach and lush production that gives them a mature and distinctive sound right out of the gate. They seem to be going for a huge, spacious sound that is a mixture of shoegaze and perhaps a dash of arena rock, with layers of sound weaving in and out of each other, creating enveloping cascades of sound. Though one could easily draw similarities between this album and those of Working for a Nuclear Free City there are clearly more than a few differences.

Motorifik
Motorifik

The production values that bind this album together are similar to those of Working for a Nuclear free city, but combining that with this direct songwriting approach puts them a bit closer to Phoenix than Kay’s other band. The songs are just as catchy and laden with as many worthy hooks, but the melodies are a bit less angular with several more layers of instruments in the mix. The main focus of this album is the overall sound. The vocals just happen to be adding one more melodic line over top of a mass of guitars, synths and percussion. This isn’t to say that they don’t change their focus from track to track. Motorifik does take care to ensure not to push the production to the maximum threshold for more than a few songs in a row. Elements of shoegaze permeate throughout all the cascades of ever growing sound. The drums sound more like explosions than anything else, with the cymbals adding a hazy layer of resonance most notably in album opening “Secret Things” and “Flames on the Ocean”.

“Nostalgie” dials it back a few notches with sparse guitar and vocals. This more subdued track allows silence to creep in a bit creating a gentler, more subtle and intimate song. This contrasts with “Strange Weather” which serves to be the most brash of the tunes on “Secret Things”. The song begins with some feedback whose growls and squeaks grow increasingly loud before bursting forward with garage rock guitar grinding away for the duration of the song. This album is showcasing the songwriting duo’s desire to experiment with different textures. From song to song there are different approaches to the sound, though a certain thread is woven through the entire album that holds everything together.

Motorifik - "Secret Things"

Speaking of only the production values of the recording and discounting the songs would be a huge mistake though. Like I stated previously the songs are filled with catchy melodies and memorable hooks. For example “Sleep Forever” could easily become an anthem for college students and insomniacs alike with the line “I wish I could sleep, I wish I could sleep, I wish I could sleep forever” that instantly begs to be sung along. “Nameless Color” is similar to “Nostalgie” in that it is one of the subdued and stripped down tracks. The bare acoustic guitar is left untouched by effects here and we get only some delicate echoes from the distance during the chorus. There is a depth and complexity to the songwriting here. Motorifik doesn’t seem to find themselves beholden to any one specific style in particular, much in the same vain as Working for a Nuclear Free City. They are able to create quite a unique and easily recognizable sound with every song.

“Secret Things” is quite a strong debut album. It is one of those records where one can hear how much care and time went into the creation of it from top to bottom. My main concern is how well an album like this will translate in a live setting, because as good as the songs are quite a lot is owed to studio wizardry and production values. Sometimes atmospherics, like the ones so present on these songs, are difficult to pull off in front of an audience. Then again, perhaps allowing the songs to shine through on their own will uncover a new side to them. As far as the album goes though, this is perhaps one of the standouts of this year so far.

Flames on the Ocean:

[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/10-FLAMES-ON-THE-OCEAN.mp3|titles=Motorifik – Flames on the Ocean]

Sleep Forever:

[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/06-SLEEP-FOREVER.mp3|titles=Motorifik – “Sleep Forever”]

Album review: Deerhunter – "Halcyon Digest"

Deerhunter truly lives up to the hype with their much anticipated “Halcyon Digest”. This latest release takes a sharp left turn from previous work, like the album oriented “Cryptograms”. Where that album relied much more heavily on ambiance, spacious sounds and atmospheres, “Halcyon Digest” stands as more of a collection of songs with great hooks and flat-out catchy tunes with classic songwriting rather than an album length experiment. This is an album of much more palatable music that is less confrontational in its sound than their previous work.

This time around the band is clearly influenced by the sounds of groups from the 60’s. There are obvious nods to groups like The Kinks in some of the more up-tempo, driving songs like “Memory Boy”. In that way they have taken the same route as MGMT, turning to the sound of their influences, worn proudly on their sleeves, rather than forging ahead in their formerly bold originality. “Basement Scene” takes a very familiar motive from the Roy Orbison song “All I Have to do is Dream” and runs with it. Cox’s voice trails off, melding with the feedback echo in a blurred crescendo of sound.

The songs throughout are very tuneful and vibrant, which stands in contrast to their former concentration on the more ambient elements of their sound. This is not to say that they have changed completely to an unrecognizable sound, Deerhunter still manage to pack in some hypnotic allure into these tunes. But there is a new connection made. This connection links the band to their influences, which gives the audience a better picture of where it is that they are coming from.

Deerhunter - "Halcyon Digest"

The elements of ambiance and spacey, disconnected arrangements are not completely gone. “He Would Have Laughed” combines arty atmospherics with the newly dialed up accessibility as does “Sailing” with its gentle guitar and background sounds. The slap-back echo that envelops the vocals, with the doubled guitar tone combine to become a sort of characteristic sound for the album. These effects are especially noticeable on opening track “Earthquake!” and album closer “He Would Have Laughed”, making good bookends for the album. They take out their Kinks influence on “Memory Boy” which is an upbeat, forward driving and catchy song, and immediately contrast it with the noticeably darker “Desire Lines” and its gently sung vocals, arpeggiated guitar and echoes of background singing creeping in to create a dense, layered effect. “Desire Lines” lapses into a hypnotic repeated guitar outro that continuously builds for a few minutes only to be stopped when it is faded out and left to linger in your memory.

Singer Bradford Cox’s voice is a little deeper at spots now, and there is the slightest hint of rasp in his voice that adds an element of roughness to even the sweetest tunes on “Halcyon Digest”. Also, adding to their new sound is the addition of a saxophone to “Coranado” which brings to it an interesting old school rock ‘n roll color. They also show that their experimental side has not gone away with 2 part songs “Don’t Cry” and “He Would Have Laughed”. The former song collapsing in on itself into a slow acoustic ending while the latter develops further after you begin to think that the song was coming to an end.

“Halcyon Digest” is a great album that brings together elements of the bands’ influences and works them in with their own experimental sound. The emotional content of each song really grabs the listener and won’t let go, there is a strong connection made here, a connection with the past and a connection between the band and their audience.

Listen: Revival

Watch the official video for “Helicopter”:

Album review: Wonder Wheel – "Brave New World"

Los Angeles’ Wonder Wheel is back with their trademarked brand of pulsating rock music that stands somewhere between a dream-like haze, drugged out reality and a hallucination. The music shimmers with retro keyboard sounds amongst the swirl of delayed guitars and vocals.

On this latest release the vocals are not quite as buried in the mix, or as washed out in delay as previously heard on Paul A Rosales’ album “Wonder Wheel I”, which was released as a solo album, but in actuality a collection of previous work by Wonder Wheel. All in all this album shows a band that is in a constant state of evolution, with this album showing them at their best yet. There is some truly catchy material here in the choruses. The songwriting has become much more direct, and the songs themselves are structured in a more traditional manner. This familiarity helps make their unique sound a bit more accessible than before.

There is an honesty in Rosales’ vocal delivery. Sometimes it is double tracked, harmonizing with himself, sometimes his voice stands out in the open, solitary. It is more confident and pitch perfect here with the feeling of the lyrics coming across loud and clear. The album speaks mostly of a longing to not feel so alone. The sound captures the sadness and confusion of being in an unfamiliar place with nobody around to share your feelings. Truly something that each of us can relate to. There is a real connection to human emotion with these songs. The songs speak about that human connection that we all want to have. It is frightening to be out in the world alone, it’s like wandering through a fog in an unfamiliar city. Just hearing a song like “A Million Miles Away” with the lyric, “I’m alone, I’m sick and I’m alone” and later, “I need you, I want you” one can immediately grab onto that feeling of desperation in trying to make a connection. This feeling is unmistakably clear throughout.

The band captures a sound that I can only think to describe as “caught in between”. We hear something between a dream and reality with aspects of minimalist repetition with dreamy waves of sound from the delayed effects swirling around reminiscent of shoegaze. But, the familiarity also comes from a sound similar to the much lauded “chillwave” sound that seems to have popped up out of nowhere this past summer through bands like Neon Indian and Nite Jewel. Wonder Wheel does share a similarity in sound to these bands through their analog, DIY recording techniques and the heavily effected instruments and production.

Wonder Wheel - "Brave New World"

Even with these comparisons to other artists and classifying them into this genre Wonder Wheel has a very unique sound that is all their own and therefore very recognizable. The album begins with a very short synth crescendo before the throbbing pulsations of the full band kicks in. I detect a pronounced influence of The Cure on songs like “After Dark”, especially when the lead guitar line enters. “Wednesday” bounces jubilantly with its Bo Diddley groove, sounding like early Interpol in it’s brooding mood.

“IMHO” is an uptempo gem that is quite catchy and would really work well as a single with a spacious verse and rapid fire lyrics in the chorus. The rhythm change up at the end finds the band sliding into a half-time feel much like in the track “I Know (It’s All Good)”. These rhythmic shifts really add a new dimension of intensity to the songs by seemingly taking all of the energy of the song to that point and suddenly putting the brakes on. All of the forward motion generated by the song up to that point is being held back, just trying to break through the surface.

Wonder Wheel has something that few bands possess, and that is consistent and prolific output. They are constantly creating new material. This release is their 36th self-recorded album since June of 2003. Instead of working one EP or album into the ground until the songs get old and tired, they are continuing to work, writing songs, releasing material and touring. This album was recorded between May 4 and July 27, 2010 and is available for purchase on cassette right now over at Sixteen Tambourines.

Definitely worth a listen. Their unique sound, catchy hooks and emotional lyrics combined with an evolved sound, tighter songwriting and contagious energy is sure to make a connection.

Check out Wonder Wheel around the interweb:

http://mywonderwheel.blogspot.com/

http://www.myspace.com/thenogoego

And check out these tracks from “Brave New World”

IMHO

Below is the video for “After Dark”

WONDER WHEEL – After Dark from Moduli TV on Vimeo.

Braid re-releases on Polyvinyl

Braid was a band from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois that can be categorized with other early 90’s acts with a guitar driven, aggressive sound. They have the energy and abrasive timbre of Snapcase, the edgy stop-start math rock leaning of Polvo and sometimes the catchy hooks of Husker Du. Their sounds also exploits the kind of jumbled mess of guitars and screams that are each freely exploring all the possibilities of a chosen melodic and harmonic line. Somewhere between near all out improv and solid structure the band seems to be most comfortable constantly pulling themselves off in all different directions.

Braid
Braid

The band’s debut full-length album “Frankie Welfare Boy Age Five” is packed with short bursts of energy that are contained within a rush of loud, boisterous songs fueled by an urgency of fast, distorted guitars careening through 2 minutes of screamed vocals. The tracks are broken up by the constant turning of a radio dial that is sometimes interrupted by short ideas that are faded up, but quickly turning to new songs. Braid cuts through the noise of the radio dial with a noise of their own.

Through “Frankie Welfare Boy Age 5” there are many straight forward aggressive punk tracks like “Summer Salt” which is 2 and a half minutes of hardcore punk. “X Marks the Hope Box” leans a bit more towards math-rock with its running guitar line dashing across the fretboard frenetically that is doubled by the drums in stop-start fashion that is continued with the track “Brass Knuckle Sandwich”.

Braid live
Braid live

There is a lot of content on the album, showing the band in a steady trajectory. They are stretching out within songs but remaining true to their hard core sound, standing on the very edge of math rock and early emo-core. At the Drive-In would later tread a very similar path with their work.

With “Movie Music Vol. 1” their work becomes a bit more polished. Songs are lengthier, more developed and structured into parts that fit neatly together, dovetailing with catchy hooks that are begging to be screamed en masse. The guitars on this album seem to stay out of the way of each other. More room is made for the bass, and dynamically the band is more in control. On this album they make use of a broader sonic pallet and embrace more of a loud/quiet/loud characteristic that is added to the stop-start urgency of their songwriting which makes everything that much more powerful. They make room for each other, take their time and even show a much more reserved and quiet side with the track “Radish White Icicle” with its gently strummed guitar and light brass arrangement in the background. All of this growth of songwriting results in a more solidified sound that is thicker and more reinforced instead of wandering. Despite this their sound in general remains completely intact and easily recognizable.

Braid - "Frankie Welfare Boy Age 5"

Through all of this noise of guitars and punk rock attitude there is an honesty and sincerity added to the music through vocals that are untouched by effects, standing completely out in the open, totally vulnerable. The recordings have that lo-fi, home-recorded sound to them that is lacking in today’s uber-commercial and overproduced “emo” music. Braid’s music was not of gimmicks and trend, it was music of honesty and emotion before those elements became a musical commodity.

The fact that Polyvinyl has seen it fit to re-release each of Braid’s albums speaks to the importance of their output. They come from an era of music just before it was easy for word to spread through the internet. Their success was purely word of mouth built upon a reputation of touring and recording, yet their influence on other bands can still be heard today.

Braid - "Movie Music Vol. 1"

For more information on Braid, and to hear tracks, but most importantly to purchase their re-releases (which are nearly 50% sold out!) head over to Polyvinyl right now.

Album review: Women – "Public Strain"

Women’s latest release, “Public Strain”, is artier and more experimental than much of what is out  there right now. The album leans towards an early Sonic Youth aesthetic with its use of ambiance, noise, feedback drones and aggressive guitar attacks with through-composed song structures, but also throws in a few tricks from the prog. side of things with angular rhythms and odd time signatures. The album also juxtaposes ultra-lofi sounds with clear production and apathetic vocals that are paired with confident instrumental work through out.

There are many exciting contrasts on “Public Strain”. Songs that hide melody beneath layers and layers of ambiance and noise are placed next to more easily digestible material that features a catchy hook, or infectious guitar riff. The track “Bells” is simply a feedback drone that seems to come directly out of the bleak soundscape of “Penal Colony” which features, in spite of itself,  a sweet sounding vocal melody and is followed by “China Steps” with its minimalist groove and chugging, atonal guitar. There is certainly a lot of ground covered here songwriting wise. The band shows that they are not completely averse to the idea of writing a catchy hook in a recognizable form, though those catchy tunes are by no means “boring” or “ordinary”. Women put their own spin on their idea of what a song can and should be.

The sound, in general, on the album is described fairly well by the album cover. A yellowed picture with some small figures that are near completely obscured by the wash of white scratches across the surface (or perhaps it is a driving snow). The grit and graininess of that photo is the perfect analogy to describe their abrasive harmonies, harsh guitar tones, angular rhythms and the echoed and reverbed vocals that sound like Phil Spector got his murderous little hands all over them. There is something really sinister about the vocal delivery on this album. It is haunting, slightly creepy and truly unsettling, and it works perfectly with the music. The unsettling nature of the sound of the album is made more unsettling by the fact that none of these songs really have a chorus. The energy contained within each of the songs can not be hidden behind these aspect of sound though and something truly remarkable begins to happen when listening to the album repeatedly, (which is highly suggested as this album is definitely a “grower”) one begins to pick through all of the “sound” and find some truly intriguing and catchy parts. One can hold onto these parts and become absorbed in a trance of sorts, for example during the uncharacteristically “up” sounding final 2 minutes of the closing track “Eyesore”. Also, speaking to the lo-fi sound are “Heat Distraction” and “China Steps” that both open with bass and drums recorded from what sounds like a room mic replete with the noisy squeak of the kick drum pedal and “Untogether”, which begins by sounding as if someone started the tape after the band had already begun to play.

Women - "Public Strain"

The opening track seems to function as an anacrusis to the proper opening of the album. “Can’t You See” is a slow burning, contemplative and nearly ambient track while “Heat Distraction”, which follows, is a driving and disorienting song that is catchy, bright and radio-friendly(er) despite it being somewhat more cerebral from a compositional standpoint. “Can’t You See” shares with “Bells” a foundation in ambiance, though the veiled ambiance of the opening track is abandoned in the latter track for total unabashed guitar feedback hum and growl with organ-like overtones ringing out through a cloud of sound.

The most abrasive, in your face, and Sonic Youth-y track is the turbulent “Drag Open”. The vocals are nearly covered by the barrage of buzzing guitars, whereas “Locust Valley”, with its meandering arpeggios, sounds like the kind of 2 guitar counterpoint that Radiohead favors on their song “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”. “Venice Lockjaw” is the closest that the band gets to writing a ballad as it is another slow burning track that continues to build, while closing track “Eyesore” is another candidate for heavy college radio rotation.

Women sound like a modern band with old school production values. The reverb and sound in general is straight out of the 60’s much in the same way that Best Coast tries to capture the Phil Spector  girl group “wall of sound”. But Women isn’t nearly the same as Best Coast. There is something intriguing and sinister in their sound, something slightly creepy and disturbing about the vocals, something unsettling about the structure of the songs and all of these things are done to perfection so as to have the listener coming back for more.