Tag Archives: guitar

Stream: Abram Shook – “Sun Marquee”

I find it really hard to believe that, according to last.fm, Abram Shook has fewer than 500 plays, with only 171 people (including myself) having scrobbled at least one of his tracks. His album “Sun Marquee” is full of laid back, sunny tunes that any listener would find impossible to resist. With his laid back delivery and lush production this is the kind of album that deserves to be in heavy rotation, and might even help to quell the depression that usually sets in this deep into the winter.

Saying that his delivery is laid back might be somewhat misleading, as his delivery isn’t anything less than earnest, but one can be earnest and delicate at the same time, can’t they? The delicate delivery, and the precision of the guitar line, not to mention the production on tracks like “Taken” bring to mind Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s sound-world. But in there, amongst the swirl of guitars and the hushed vocals is a bass-groove that eases its way to the fore with flashes of grooving virtuosity. Take “Hangover,” a song that is, at least instrumentally speaking, completely driven by the bass. While the guitar and voice work together to create layers of melody and harmony until they mix together in an ethereal wash of sound, the bass envelops that entire sound and takes the lead. And “Distance,” from above, is much the same way with an effortless bass-line taking hold, sounding like Nate Brenner (tUnE-yArDs) is laying it down.

Every single track opens up new possibilities. Following “Hangover” is “Coastal,” where we find Shook’s voice moving from Washed Out territory to that of Mark Bolan. The falsetto is the same, but the overall timbre, and the doubling, bring out some previously hidden, rougher, attributes.

Throughout “Sun Marquee” a jazz influence is right out front, and when you take the mastery of an instrument that is required for playing that repertoire, combine it with a little rock and chillwave production, then the resultant sound is pretty captivating to say the least. It’s a complex collage that is impossible to pinpoint exactly. With all the comparisons listed above, we can add that “Black Submarine” adds a little Dave Longstreth to the vocals, and even to the guitar playing, with playing that takes sudden dramatic and unexpected shifts like one would expect from Dirty Projectors.

“Sun Marquee” is out now via Western Vinyl as a CD or LP that includes a digital download. Check out the tracks above and click the links below to learn more.

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Album Review: Marnie Stern – “The Chronicles of Marnia”

Marnie Stern - "The Chronicles of Marnia"
Marnie Stern – “The Chronicles of Marnia”

I understand that this album came out 5 months ago, but I also a.) don’t care and b.) think that this is not only her best album to date, but probably one of the best albums to be released so far this year.

There has been a constant and steady development across Marnie’s releases beginning with “In Advance of the Broken Arm” from 2007. That album was a great statement as a debut. The guitars were mindblowing, the melodies were catchy and the lyrics were deeply personal. That the album starts with a barrage of lightning fast guitar and Zach Hill’s bat-shit insane drumming set the tone for not only that release, but for Marnie’s sound as a whole.

With each album her overall sound has gotten tighter. The roughness in the production of earlier releases has been replaced with cleaner, more intricately layered guitar lines, with her voice alternating between the familiar highs with the increasing presence of more relaxed and effortless singing in her lower range. For example, on the track “Noonan,” we hear the line “don’t you wanna be somebody, don’t you want to be, don’t you wanna be somebody?” sung in the latter part of the song almost unaccompanied, save for a few dropped in guitar chords.

And, sticking with that song, it creates a good deal of space in the verses with different layers of guitars taking prominence, rising and falling in the mix. Marnie is in control of an entire ensemble of guitars. It no longer feels like the guitar tapping that she has been recognized for (and recognized for good reason) is felt to be the primary element of each of the songs.

Though, there is (immediately following “Noonan”) “Nothing is Easy,” that sounds a bit more like something that would be on an earlier release, but finding places to stretch out, once again. Some of the structures of earlier albums, like the terrific despite its blockiness “Roads? Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Roads,” from her album “This is it…” are abandoned for more standard verse-chorus fair. That is part of what makes this album sound all the more polished. It’s the tightening of these structures into more palatable forms that gives “Chronicles” a higher degree of accessibility.

There were always prog-ish elements to many earlier songs that explored tricky meter changes and several otherwise disconnected sections. And though these things worked well in those album, were interesting and part of the overall sound due in no small part to Hill’s drumming, the focus throughout “Chronicles” really shows what a great songwriter and vocalist Marnie can be. That is to say that a hint of prog remains, for example in “East Side Glory” and “Hell Yes,” but they hardly beg to be noticed, or take anything away from the overall cohesion of the track.

There does remain a degree of experimentation across this record. Stern is shown to be tooling more with the recording process, finding new ways to create textures with an array of different techniques, never relying too heavily upon one over another. As a result the album is more balanced. Perhaps this is partly a result of the departing of Zach Hill on drums, which are also, as a result, trimmed back a little bit. Again, this leaves not only a bit more space but also means that the songs don’t always feel the need to be super busy guitar vs. drums affairs. Songs are able to grow and take shape in much different ways.

Each previous release has pointed in this direction. There haven’t been any absolutely drastic changes in style from one album to the next, it’s just that with each album the elements that have always been present continue to grow and to be improved upon, while shedding a bit of the excess. On the surface the music still sounds and feels complex, but at its core this album is full of songs that are more stripped down but no doubt just as powerful as always.

As an added bonus, Marnie has released a new track for the previously mentioned Adult Swim compilation, “This Was It,” which can be heard below. As an added added bonus Kill Rock Stars has put all of Marnie’s albums on sale at her bandcamp page for $5 until the end of August. So head over there and download everything. There are also some upcoming tour dates throughout September that are posted below.

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09/05 Raleigh NC Hopscotch Festival
09/09 Minnapolis MN Fineline (with DEERHUNTER)
09/10 Chicago IL Metro (with Deerhunter)
09/11 Cleveland OH Beachland Ballroom
09/12 Toronto ON Phoenix Concert Theatre with Deerhunter
09/13 Columbus OH Skully’s
09/16 Boston Ma Royale
09/20 Lexington KY Boomslang Festival

The Blind Shake – "Seriousness"

The Blind Shake - "Seriousness"
The Blind Shake – “Seriousness”

Usually when walking into a venue for a show I expect to drink away the opening acts. Openers are something that, 95% of the time, must be endured rather than enjoyed. At The Empty Bottle in Chicago this past July 15 all of that changed for me. I was there to see Thee Oh Sees after a full and final day of the Pitchfork Music Festival, and sure they were fantastic (as previously mentioned) but I can’t put into words how astonishing The Blind Shake’s performance was.

After a brief soundcheck the trio left the stage and returned dressed identically head to toe in black, accentuating their already strikingly similar appearance: all around my height (5′ 10″) with shaved heads, one of the guitarists wears glasses with a band strapped tightly around his head, and for good reason as the show would soon prove.

They immediately obliterated the stage with the drummer pounding violently and unforgivingly on his set while the two guitarists stood firmly, leaning towards their mics as if at any moment they would jump directly into the crowd to throttle each and every one of us. The guitars were being battered just as hard as the drums with every  hammered strum threatening to rip the strings right out while the two of them barked into their mics on opposite ends of the stage in unison, and when they weren’t actively engaged in singing were flailing around the stage, instruments swinging freely as if they were at once trying to escape them or wield them as weapons.

With each song that passed more of the audience was won over. I kept turning to my friends in disbelief. My brother was standing beside me and we couldn’t figure out how to describe what we were seeing and hearing. The only phrase I could manage being “This is frightening. It’s fucking amazing.” And that it was: both frightening and amazing.

The Blind Shake
The Blind Shake

Listening to the album right now on Spotify is only capturing some of the experience (again, much like Thee Oh Sees). The songs on their latest full length, “Seriousness”, are straight forward, foot-stomping jangling and aggressive garage punk. Standout tracks are definitely the surf-rockin’ opener “Hurracan” and “Out of Work”. There isn’t a single track on the album that is over 3 minutes long, “On Me” comes closest at 2:58. Each song is an unrelenting, visceral, rhythmic jolt aided by open guitar tunings that allow for extra jangle. Everything they have recorded can be heard on their Bandcamp page, so you should head over there and check it out.

Right now those of you in the midwest are lucky as The Blind Shake have a few shows coming up in August in Chicago and Minneapolis according to their website, with a full fall tour schedule coming soon. And according to their Bandcamp page they have a  show in Florida and Georgia in September. They are also playing the Halifax Pop Explosion in October, you lucky Haligonians!

Their albums are available for actual physical purchase (highly suggested) from Learning Curve records. Their latest, “Seriousness” is available on vinyl.

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Album review: Wild Flag – "Wild Flag"

The much anticipated album from indie rock “super group” Wild Flag has finally arrived, giving everyone something to shout about. One could practically hear the reviewers proclaiming the, at that point unnamed project, “Best of the Year” after Carrie Brownstein announced that she was leaving her post at NPR. It was decided a priori that this group was going to be amazing. I don’t want to start to sound like I totally disagree with the excitement that is surrounding this group, I just am shuddering slightly at the nepotism of the scene.

Luckily for Wild Flag they have released an album that is capable of supporting all of the buzz that has been generated on its behalf. A backwards approach, but that isn’t their fault. From my point of view it seems as if they are starting from as new a place as they can. They can’t help that they were in Sleater-Kinney, Helium and a bunch of other more under-appreciated bands, and why would they want to? It’s that experience that no doubt influenced the formation of Wild Flag and the production of their solid debut album.

Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, formerly of Sleater-Kinney, are joined by Mary Timony on vocals and guitar and Rebecca Cole on keys to create a powerful guitar driven rock sound that seems to be influenced by the spontaneity of live performance. The album’s 10 tracks capture the rough around the edges sound of an experienced live band. Despite their only having been together as Wild Flag for about a year it is clear that their collective experience is guiding their way. This album definitely does not sound like a debut. It is a focused and confident release.

Wild-Flag - "Wild Flag"
Wild-Flag - "Wild Flag"

“Glass Tambourine” and “Racehorse” are two of the more experimental and lengthy jams while “Endless Talk” is reminiscent of The Cars with Brownstein’s sharp, clipped vocals matching to a degree those of Ric Ocasek while her guitar work adds a bit of a more abrasive tone over top. “Short Version” gets right to the point, full steam ahead with blistering guitar riffs cutting through the silence.

Throughout the album Timony’s vocals are contrasted sharply by Brownstein’s. Where Timony’s voice has a more natural and relaxed sound Brownstein’s delivery sounds purposefully forceful. Her guitar style matches her vocal delivery in that it seems to cut sharp angles against the rest of the band. It’s the difference between a song like “Electric Band” and “Future Crimes”. An exciting album from one of the most talked about bands of the year. Thankfully the music seems to match the hype, for once.


Wild Flag – Romance by MergeRecords

Album review: Wooden Shjips – "West"

Wooden Shjips’ drone of ultra fuzzed out guitars aligns them with the trend of retro sounding new-music that seems to have exploded in the past couple of years. They are taking the psychedelic/early hard-rock sound and very much running with it. The band seems to be more than happy to sit on one chord for minutes at a time in the minimalist style, rhythmically chugging through a cloud of distortion a la Queens of the Stone Age. Wooden Shjips actually shows up Queens in their dark heavy sound being that much more darker and heavier.

The vocals, though certainly not the focus of any of the tracks, remain downplayed and monotonous. They definitely do their part to make the songs sound all the more sinister. It’s like the singer is speaking of bad omens, or summoning spirits and the like. When you get down to it, his singing style is downright eerie.

Extended instrumental sections, like in opening track “Black Smoke Rise”, do their best to mimic the wandering, seemingly one-take guitar solos of the first wave of psychedelic music of the late-60s. These sections seem to serve the songs in capturing a certain vibe, and places that as a higher priority than “saying something”. That shouldn’t be taken in the pejorative sense, but in the sense that a guitar solo, or keyboard solo, that is flashy and driven by technique with flourishes of 32nd notes and technical melodic bravado would truly just not work against the backdrop they are laying down. They seem to be sticking to a very strict stylistic theme and mood here and something showy would stick out far too much. They do a great job throughout the album of establishing and maintaining a consistent sound.

Wooden Shjips - "West"
Wooden Shjips - "West"

After the mid-tempo minimalism of the first two tracks there is a burst of energy in the form of a catchy vocal melody in an upbeat tune that is (perhaps ironically) titled “Lazy Bones”. This tune, along with the heavy riffage displayed in “Home”, create a nice dynamic across the album. Wooden Shjips remains true to their sound but show that there is always room to move and create something new, and possibly contrary, without abandoning the aesthetic they have been developing.

The album forms and arc with droning tunes “Black Smoke Rise” and “Rising” as bookends. The latter of those tunes is a backwards track that casts a knowing wink to their already “evil” sound. But the more upbeat riff-based tunes happen towards the middle of the record with “Looking Out” creating a connection by being both upbeat and still droning it its persistent rhythm and complete unwillingness to change chords. Meanwhile “Flight” takes a page out of the Tony Iommi book of devilish sounding riffs, replete with a delay ridden keyboard solo straight out of “Inna Gadda Da Vida”. In a way a lot of these songs ride the line right between those two worlds.

With “West” Wooden Shjips creates droning minimalist music in the context of the heavy, psychedelic rock genre. The attention to consistency of sound most certainly pays off in the end.


Album review: White Fence – "Is Growing Faith"

For the past few years the retro-60’s sound has been featured very prominently in several albums that have made a lot of music fans stand up and take notice. Take for example Best Coast, Caribou, Deerhunter, MGMT and the list goes on. Well, all of that can stop now because White Fence has given us the peak of perfection when it comes to that retro sound.

Specifically stated White Fence’s album, “Is Growing Faith” is, at first glance, freak folk. The freakiest of freak folk. I would even dare to say that at some points this album borders upon sounding like outsider music a la Jandek, or Daniel Johnston in its strange, almost uninviting sound. The fact that their sound is reminiscent of Buffalo Springfield, early Dylan and The Left Banke while at the same time sounding as if it was all recorded on the shoddiest of equipment in a bedroom somewhere truly places this album in a category of its own. To say that it didn’t initially kind of frighten me would be a lie. There are, however, really catchy tracks on this album and its like no other album I have heard, or at least it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard done recently.

The lo-fi to the extreme approach in some of the songs is, admittedly, something that needs to be listened-through at first. There is a bit of a learning curve, or “accessibility curve” to this album. Like I said, it’s not outwardly inviting, but if you stick with it and really surrender to the world in which the music exists then there really are some hidden gems to be found. “A Pearl is not a Diamond” has an early psychedelic folk-rock feel to it with ethereal vocals and overdriven guitar that pans wildly from one side to the other while “Tumble, Lies and Honesty” strips everything back to just acoustic guitar, an early sounding vintage synth with its monotone buzz vibrating in the background throughout and tongue clucks used for percussion. Some of the songs sound as if at any minute they are going to fall apart completely, for example “Lillian (Won’t You Play Drums?)” with its off kilter drum machine and synth from the song it follows sounding off an atonal line that is buried beneath everything.

Imagine The Beatles discovering LSD while they were working on their first albums. What would “Love Me Do” sound like if John was taking acid? I suppose one could say that is what early Pink Floyd sort of sounded like with Syd Barrett at the helm. There is a taste of the west-coast surf rock vibe added to the mix via a good amount of the requisite reverb on everything, adding yet another dimension to the music. The guitars are rarely distorted, instead a clean and twangy tone is used throughout. The singing style of Tim Presley, the mastermind behind White Fence, even sounds like something from British Invasion era rock and roll.

Tim Presley of White Fence

The DIY element seems evident at the beginning and ending of nearly every song where snippets of other songs appear and are abruptly cut off. The tape stretches and warbles throughout, throwing the tempo askew and generally having a disorienting effect. The tempo shifts from the varying tape speed are not the only disorienting part of the album. It is quite an interesting experience listening to this work because my mind is telling me the whole time that there is now way that this was not created in the 60’s. I start to make up reasons as to why it is only being released now: Perhaps this is some lost or forgotten tape. But then a song like “Body Cold”, that is a little harder driving, begins and I’m torn by its farfeesa organ sound combined with a sinewy hard rock guitar. Then there are other moments like in the song “When There is No Crowd” when the lyrics speak of “[the] Summer of 2000, six years past the date and I wondered if I would come back…” which takes me completely out of focus for a few seconds each time I hear it. Up until that point in the album I find that I am completely immersed to the point where I have actually convinced myself that I am listening to an album from the 60’s. There is also “The Mexican Twins” which sounds to me to be directly influenced by The Mothers of Invention’s 1968 album “We’re Only in it for the Money”.

“Your Last Friend Alive” runs directly into “Enthusiasm”, the latter song actually starting before the prior song finishes. The tape then fades out and back in again as if it was a  last minute decision to leave the song in, or as if it is Presley improvising on the chord progression and later coming up with a use for it. Things like this give the album the feeling of it being produced as a home tape, distributed to friends. The track “Enthusiasm” really captures that surf-rock sound, though with a lot of background noise added to the mix and wild, erratic drumming while the country swagger of “Stranger Things Have Happened (To You)” is one of the most immediately inviting songs, complete with a catchy hook and bridge.

White Fence has outdone everyone with their retro stylings. Though, like Zappa, there may be “no commercial potential” for this album it is most certainly a statement being made about returning to core songwriting elements. The songs fit together like a run on sentence, or more like a stream of consciousness. The lo-fi, DIY sound, though initially offputting, actually grows to make the album to feel more like an intimate, homemade and tape-traded affair. If you spend some time with this album you will be rewarded.

[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/16-You-Cant-Put-Your-Arms-Around-a-Memory.mp3|titles=You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory] [audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/06-A-Pearl-Is-Not-a-Diamond.mp3|titles=A Pearl Is Not a Diamond]

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.