December 11, 2009
2009 | Rare Book Room
The first word that pops into my head listening to Sugarland, the first full-length from Brooklyn duo Talk Normal, is “industrial.” I’m hesitant to use the word, because I think it dredges up sonic images of the band Ministry and early Nine Inch Nails, and Sugarland definitely has none of the amped-up speed of those folks. (Yet, despite its ambient leanings, Sugarland isn’t a snooze either.) The “industrial” sound I’m referring to above most closely resembles the sonic landscape of the film Eraserhead by David Lynch.
The second and possibly strongest track of the album, “In a Strange Land,” features a start-stop guitar crunch punctuated by percussive crashes that sound like being stuck in a stylized assembly line or a particularly antiquated elevator. Layered on top of this foundation is a frantic, almost tribal drumbeat, and intermingling vocals by guitarist Sarah Register and drummer Andrya Ambro that shriek, pant and float serenely, delivering lyrics like “Help me/ I’m a stranger/ In a strange land/ Don’t push me away.”
The band’s Downtown New York/No Wave influences are pretty apparent (they’re even named after a Laurie Anderson song, for gosh sakes), and the comparisons to Lydia Lunch and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O that are frequently lobbed at them seem fair enough, but the band is far from hamstrung by their predecessors. Register and Ambro are equally inventive as performers and writers, easily distinguishing themselves and defining their sounds as their own. Ambro’s drumming is primal without being primitive, and it maintains much of the forward momentum of many of the tracks. Register, for her part, very rarely gets into conventional guitar heroics, instead preferring dirge-y guitar squalls, which, on most of the tracks, are layered into soundscapes of fuzzed-out tones.
More on Talk Normal | Sugarland
September 9, 2009
2009 | Twentyseven
Brooklyn gets a lot of flack for being the music capital of pretentious bullshit. And anyone who’s ever waded through a crowded Todd P show in a Bushwick loft that should’ve been condemned in the 70s just to see a band that plays exclusively through broken drum machines knows that description can be right-the-fuck-on a lot of times. But for every unnecessarily hyped band to crawl out of Kings County, there’s a band like The Drums that could have only come from our fair borough. The brainchild of longtime friends Jonathan Pierce and Jacob Graham, The Drums play saccharine pop somehow manages to find common ground between the discographies of Dick Dale and Ian Curtis. It’s a gonzo mix that really could only fly in a place like Brooklyn where musically anything goes.
Fresh off a series of well-received shows this past spring, The Drums finally got around to putting out their first proper release, the Summertime! EP. A lot of the songs here have already showed up on the unofficially released The Drums EP, which seemed to appear on the internet out of thin air earlier this summer. What ended up on Summertime! is a catchy mix of giddy 50s surf numbers and nihilistic 80s pop a la Factory Records. It’s a combination that seems awkward on paper, but sounds great on record. Songs like “Make You Mine” draw you in with a bouncy bit of exuberant pop and then hit you with a sharp jab of lovesick fatalism, all in under three minutes. There’s the obligatory tribute to surfing, “Let’s Go Surfing,” with the catchiest whistled hook since Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks.” And even over six quick pop numbers, The Drums manage to create a nice little arc, beginning with the sugar rush of “Saddest Summer ever, which slowly burns away until the only thing that’s left with is the brooding desperation of “Down by the Water.” Add in some melodramatic “ohhs” here and there, and you’ve got an EP that would make Moz croon with approval.
More on The Drums | Summertime!
September 7, 2009
Tall Tall Trees
Tall Tall Trees
2009 | Good Neighbor Records
The self-titled debut album from New York’s Tall Tall Trees is a perfect storm of catchy songwriting, spot-on performances, and crisp, inventive production. Even with the unfortunate inclusion of one utterly skippable track, Tall Tall Trees serves as one of the best albums of this year. Dishing up a stew of country, folk, and rock that can safely be tucked under the catch-all umbrella of Americana, Tall Tall Trees manage to create a separate sound for each of the twelve songs on their debut without being too precious or gimmicky about it.
Mike Savino, the band’s singer, principal songwriter, banjo player, and producer, attacks everything with a combination of whimsy and melancholy, allowing him to simultaneously play the role both of the sensitive indie folkie and the sly country rocker. Album opener “Spaceman” describes the state of mind of a loner who expects he must be from another planet, and does it with just enough delicacy to be touching without getting sappy. The sound is warm, punctuated by spacey keyboard noises, and Savino’s vocals have an invitingly open and naïve quality.
More on Tall Tall Trees | Tall Tall Trees
August 6, 2009
Joe Crow Ryan
This Machine Kills Purists, Vol. I
2009 | Weemayk Music
Joe Crow Ryan is a man of strict principles and strong moral scruples. Several years ago, Ryan was working at a semi-fast food, all purpose coffee shop/eatery (you’re probably familiar with the chain, Midtown is teeming with them), when his boss told him to fudge the expiration dates on some decanters of salad dressing. Rather than risk health code violations or disease amongst the chain’s patrons, Joe refused to follow instructions. Eventually finding himself not only unemployed but unemployable, homeless and broke, the amateur singer/songwriter decided to make a go at full-time performing. Joe Crow took his steel-string, full-size banjolele (and conventional ukelele) onto subway platforms and started eking out a modest income entertaining commuters and tourists in a venue that serves as a common thread for all New Yorkers. Because, if you don’t ride the subway (at least once in a while), how can you be a real New Yorker?
The average listener doesn’t need to know Joe Crow Ryan’s origin story, although I do truly believe that the term “origin story” is the only apt term to describe Joe’s shuffling from the coil of average, working class dude, to his rebirth as an entertainer to the passing-by masses. But as interesting as it may be, the back-story is secondary because his songwriting, selection, singing, and performance quality are all so compelling. Indeed, This Machine Kills Purists, Vol. I, Joe Crow Ryan’s first document of his live show, plays like his average subway platform set (banter and the caveat that “all requests may be approximated” included). Gently produced by Michael David Campbell, This Machine Kills is beefed up by the occasional, unobtrusive drumming of Elastic No-No Band’s Doug Johnson. Many purists would say that the integrity of Joe Crow’s stage show would be compromised by the addition of drums, but Joe Crow obviously holds quality over someone’s fool idea of “integrity,” and he and Campbell shot instead for being ideal. The resulting album sounds, pretty much exactly, like Ryan “whipping it out” on a platform (albeit a platform that has a piano and a drumset). The greatest producers understand the importance of attention to detail in the studio. It’s not enough to hit record and let the musician just bust away at his instrument. To make a great record, you have to factor in the space you’re recording in, as well as the instruments and players.
More on Joe Crow Ryan | This Machine Kills Purists, Vol. I
July 15, 2009
Opsvik & Jennings
A Dream I Used To Remember
2009 | Loyal Family
Sometimes a perfectly good pop song can be ruined by a singer. Whether it’s a lack of talent, distracting quirkiness, or oblivious egomania, a crap singer can completely diminish the work of his bandmates. Opsvik & Jennings have handily avoided this pitfall by eliminating all that unnecessary singing. According to their website, the New York-via-Norway-and-Oklahoma duo started off a few years ago making bleepy-bloopy electronic music. They’ve released two albums in this style, 2005’s Fløyel Files and 2007’s Commuter Anthems. But their third and newest album, A Dream I Used To Remember, is full of real, organic-sounding instruments, and is firmly couched in the indie/folk idiom.
The duo seems to have worked hard to create an album that could be mistaken for one long piece of music. It flows in a way that’s natural and, as the title suggests, dreamy. The delicate opening title track feels like an outtake from Bjork’s soundtrack to Dancer in the Dark and is immediately followed by “Canada,” an easygoing alt-country number with some twangy Chet Atkins-style guitar. From there, the album takes a turn toward chamber pop-folk in the vein of Sufjan Stevens or Neutral Milk Hotel, with hints of banjo, choruses of cooing voices, horn sections, and layered, textural ambience up the wazoo.
More on Opsvik & Jennings | A Dream I Used To Remember
July 9, 2009
The Low Anthem
Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
2009 | Nonesuch
The Low Anthem’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin will unquestionably attract devotees. It will also likely (though undeservedly) draw some detractors – which one would expect when considering the effect of revisionist folk music upon the current critical and commercial climate. Not until the recent reign of Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver had folk-based American music inspired such widespread accolade.
There are always detractors, because there are always going to be listeners insistent upon declaiming a folk performer, if not an outright thief, at best, derivative. Never mind that that’s what great American music is built upon (a dependant yet revisionist mentality); there are going to be haters. And Charlie Darwin does often sound, in its way, similar to Justin Vernon and Fleet Foxes, but only insofar as all three performers seem so inextricably drawn to the past, so disinclined to consider or incorporate any current popular trends in their compositions. Although Charlie Darwin fails to maintain the consistently revelatory heights of For Emma, Forever Ago or Fleet Foxes, at its best, it is breathtakingly good; and its finest songs sound worn and ancient, engrained in the modern folk vernacular.
More on The Low Anthem | Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
2005 | Load
I have been wrong many times in my little life. In Winter 2001, my college girlfriend Rachel pounded on my bedroom door, imploring me to go to Harvey’s with her and check out this band from Rhode Island, called Lightning Bolt. When she said they were a bass-and-drums noise rock duo, I turned up my nose, turned up the Ryan Adams, and told her I wasn’t interested. I may have thought Rachel was going to see drum and bass, which would have sent me into a frenzy of “electronic music isn’t music,” self-righteous rhetoric I subscribed to at the time.
Again, I have been wrong many, many times in my life.
Anyhow, Lightning Bolt. Rachel came home later that night, dripping sweat and hopping up and down about Lightning Bolt. The self-titled LP she’d bought was violently abrasive, and it made my eyes water to be in the room with the volume turned up to eleven. But there was something danceable to it. I could hear a steady one-two beat through the frenzy. I could imagine jumping up and down to that beat, and my eyes watering from the volume, and the screeching fuzz bass sending me running around in all directions. Then I imagined what it would be like to listen to this music in a room full of sweaty, frenzied people. And I really, really wished I had gone to the show.
More on Lightning Bolt | Hypermagic Mountain
July 4, 2009
HATE TO ADMIT IT, BUT…
1994 | Trauma Records
It was kind of fun to watch big bands of the mid-90s get poised for stadium success on the club level. In the last days of post-Nirvana rock and roll, paying one’s dues was still a necessary step towards coming up into mainstream success. Dave Grohl – former drummer for a band who had played in front of a quarter of a million people MANY times – took his Foo Fighters on the road for the first time in 1995, opening for former Minuteman Mike Watt. Ultimately, Grohl took his own songs back to the stadium (and, God bless him, Mike Watt still jams econo), but on the way, he had to – got to, really – play “This is a Call” and “Big Me” in the same sweaty clubs he’d started out in.
And it was really cool to see the combinations that bands got thrown into on tour. Summer 1995, I got to see Bush and the Toadies – one of whom was about to go supernova and the other to toil in semi-obscurity (albeit with a small, but rabid fanbase), though we didn’t know who yet – on what amounted to a double-headliner bill in Detroit.
The Toadies were good. They looked the part of a legit underground rock band (and probably still had jobs when they weren’t on tour), and they seemed to have fun, even though their songs kind of had that off-kilter rhythm and quirk about them. Bush, though – they had the stadium-level show down to a science, probably had been rehearsing it in practice spaces at home in England. Frontman Gavin Rossdale gestured to the crowd, and the crowd went wild. Floodlamps painted the four men onstage like gods. They could very well have been lip-syncing, that’s how little one could see through all the smoke and lights. The band played probably everything from their debut, Sixteen Stone, and maybe a B-Side or two. And here was another cool thing about mainstream bands touring their first albums – dudes had no choice but to play the B-sides.
More on Bush | “Glycerine”