ROCK YOUR WORLD: THE GROOVY PEOPLE

Just when you believe all that’s been said about Singaporeans – y’know that we’re repressed, not supportive of Singapore music and unable to show appreciation at concerts – you have an experience that totally blows all your pre-conceived notions out of the water!

Suffice to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the awesome reception the Groovy People and I received when running through our set at the recent Rock Your World. With each succeeding song, it seemed like the applause was getter louder and the enthusiasm was increasing apace. Halfway through, I really felt that it was going to be a magical night and in my mind I let go of every fear and anxiety and simply rode home on auto.

Inspite of the odd glitch – I forgot the lines of the second verse of Never Liked the Beatles for example – everything went smoothly and when we closed the night with My One & Only and Gum, I could not help but smile at the thunderous applause. Truly unforgettable!

My heartfelt thanks to the Groovy People viz. James, Brian, Thomas, HQ and Esther, without whom that fantastic night would never have been possible. I love you all!

Set list time – 

Hot Burrito #1

Never Liked the Beatles

A Climate of Fear

Beautiful

Easy

Jealous Guy

Feel the Same Way

Damaged

Heaven

My One & Only

Gum

… still there’s more …

BELLA

BELLA No One Will Know (Mint)

Fuzzy synthesizer and guitar-driven pop! Bella’s No One Will Know will either be your guilty pleasure or a cliche turn-off. Made with cheese, cheese, lyrics like “They don’t know us” and even more cheese, this record is perfect for the listener who just wants to dance away without listening too deep or thinking too much. Much of the music sounds like the prepackaged pop you’d expect to hear in the background during a the scenes of a feel-good teenage movie where the protagonist gets dressed before a party, or heads on a road trip to nowhere.

The groove is the strong point of the record, and you will find yourself bobbing along and tapping your foot to the beat, whether the lyrics make you cringe or have you singing along. The music and lyrics are corny and forgettable, but still worth hanging on to for the Retro themed party that you’ve always wanted to throw. No One Will Know, almost prophetically titled, is one of those dance records that you’re going to be embarrassed to own. Personally, I’m probably going to hang on to my copy.

(Visa)

Check out Bella’s myspace page.

THE CRUXSHADOWS

THE CRUXSHADOWS Immortal (Dancing Ferrett Discs)

Oh my. I’m not sure what exactly this genre is called, but I’d venture a guess to say it’s some sort of mix of trip-hop or techno/industrial/gothic music. The heavy synth, violins and club beats make for quite an acquired taste, which the casual listener may find terribly annoying. One imagines that they play underground rave parties with people in masks, heavy makeup and leather. Lyrics like “I do not know the mind of God and I cannot guess his thoughts, but I have searched for you across the void when my sense of self was lost” remind me of the sort of poetry you’d expect from an angsty 13 year old girl.

To be fair I did a little research about the band because it’s not really my forte or cup of tea, and learnt they’re actually pretty mild and listener-friendly for their genre. They make a good starting point for newbies so check out their MySpace (www.myspace.com/cruxshadows) if you’re curious. They actually have a strong following of supportive fans, who take them very seriously. Whatever you might think or say about their music, culture and lifestyle, they’re certainly doing well for themselves. 

(Visa)

WATCHMEN MOVIE

This is really cool. A version of the Watchmen teaser trailer utlizing clips from the Watchmen: Motion Comic. More proof (as if you needed it) of how faithful Zack Snyder’s vision is to the original graphic novel. Two more weeks!!!

SOUL DISTRACTION

SOUL DISTRACTION The Truth Pill (Self released)

I have to admit I was looking forward to reviewing this. I’ve always had a soft spot for raw and heavy hard rock music, and the simple DIY packaging of Soul Distraction’s The Truth Pill immediately made me imagine a dirty rock&roll band that was too badass and devil-may-care to give a damn about silly things like CD packaging, and probably spent the money on booze instead.

The guitars are crunchy, the bass is punchy and deep, the drums are raw and primal- the record refreshingly avoids the excessively compressed sound we’ve gotten used to these days, leaving its life and energy well intact. Frontwoman Elsa Faith (from Singapore! Majulah Singapura!) sounds like how The Cranberries’ singer Dolores O’Riordan would after heavy consumption of cigarettes and alcohol.

Elsa notably shines on “When You Appear”, an acoustic track which reveals a more innocent, vulnerable side to the hard-rock queen. While The Truth Pill as a whole may come across as rather average with nothing particularly spectacular or groundbreaking, it is still an enjoyable rock record with great musicianship.

(Visa)

Check out Soul Distraction’s Myspace page.

PRE-OSCAR’S 2009 ANALYSIS

Unlike the US whereby most of the Oscar nominated movies or those with high buzz for Oscar glory are out before the awards ceremony, Singapore doesn’t get to see all these talked-about Oscar films in time to make comparison for Oscar day.  There are even cases whereby smaller films have not been screened even or available in DVD.  Thus, the pre-Oscar analysis here is done well by watching whatever is available and relying on the analysis Oscar-watchers, pundits or experts (or whatever you call them).  Let’s hope this will be an insightful guide to the 2009 Oscars.

Best Picture/Best Achievement in Directing 

Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)

Stephen Daldry (The Reader)

David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)

Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon)

Gus van Sant (Milk) 

2009 is one of the years whereby all the Best Achievement in Directing nominees actually matches up to the Best Picture nominees.  Some of them are first time nominees (Boyle and Fincher) and are joined by previous nominees (Daldry and van Sant).  Howard has bagged Oscar gold a few years earlier.  My call for this category is Boyle for the feel good and well-paced Slumdog, for getting the best of the child actors –  and not turning the movie into a Bollywood song and dance flick!  I would say Fincher is close behind for his stunning vision in directing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button from the use of effects and make up.  Fincher made a film that is very difficult to realise and he deserve points for that.    

One gripe is that Christopher Nolan who directed The Dark Knight being left out of the directing race.  The Dark Knight was definitely one of the best well-paced with in-depth character studies, and the director manages to wring out of Heath Ledger and the other star studded cast excellent performances.  Nolan deserves to be nominated for reinventing the Batman franchise.  

My bets are on Slumdog for best film, even though I don’t quite agree with it being a best picture.  Slumdog is similar to TCCBB in the sense it is a fantasy, a little whimsical and a feel good movie.   Slumdog benefits from having an exotic setting to it – the slums in India – remember the time everyone was so enthralled by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?  Furthermore, Slumdog benefits by a more in-depth portrayal of the protagonist than over TCCBB and a tighter pace than the latter.  But the visuals in TCCBB are far more stunning than Slumdog, and its far more Hollywood glitz might edge out Slumdog in the last minute.  But the deserving winner is probably Milk which holds a theme relevant in today’s world – equal rights, change.   But I would say Milk scores in its overall depth as a movie that makes a resounding note after viewing – but its homosexual themes and roots may not go to well with conservative voters.  

Best Achievement in Directing

Who Will Win: Danny Boyle

Who Should Win: Danny Boyle 

Dark Horse: David Fincher

Overlooked: Christopher Nolan   

Best Film

Who Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire

Who Should Win: Milk 

Dark Horse: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Overlooked: The Dark Knight (this was one of the best films in 2008 – it transcended the comic book movie genre and humanised the characters)    

Best Actress (Leading Role)

Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married)

Angelina Jolie (The Changeling)

Melissa Leo (Frozen River)

Meryl Streep (Doubt)

Kate Winslet (The Reader) 

Streep and Winslet are one of the most prolific actresses working today.  It’s really great to see them competing together in the same category.  It’s a pity Cate Blanchett was overlooked for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button even though she delivered the most emotional part of the performance in the film.  It will be fun to see these current day three talented actresses fighting for the golden statuette.  I can’t comment on Leo’s performance because I did not get to see her movie.  I caught The Changeling and I think Jolie should be happy with the nomination – it vindicates the fact that she is bad actress, or that she could carry only femme fatale or Lara Croft like roles.  This nomination is a good make up to the snub she received last year and her partner Brad Pitt is also nominated for Best Actor (Leading).  I believe the race is between Streep (nominated for 14 times, won 2, but had not won an Oscar for more than 10 years) and Winslet (nominated for 6 times, won nothing).  It’s about time that the talented Winslet gets rewarded for her efforts in The Reader, although a lot of Oscar watchers preferred her other stellar performance in Revolutionary Road.  Winslet is billed as lead in The Reader, but her role seems to blur the lines between supporting and leading with her screen time not as much as the other nominees.  Furthermore, the movie is not centred on her character so this may lessen her chances of netting the coveted gold.  Talking about time, perhaps it’s about time Streep gets her dues after amassing 14 nominations, but gone without a win for a long time.  Streep delivers an unforgettable and forceful performance of a nun full of conviction and certainty of the guilt of a co-worker that it’s hard to forget.  She is equally matched with Winslet.  This would mean that Hathaway could come in for a steal if the votes get split somehow.  But from the looks of it, it is Kate’s to lose.             

Who Will Win: Kate Winslet

Who Should Win: Kate Winslet

Dark Horse: Anne Hathaway 

Overlooked: Cate Blanchett    

Best Actor (Supporting Role)

Josh Brolin (Milk)

Robert Downey Jr. (Tropic Thunder)

Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt)

Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)

Michael Shannon (The Reader) 

The winner is quite clear in this category.  Ledger for portraying one of the most chilling and psychotic villains in cinema – The Joker in The Dark Knight.  It is one of the most memorable performances of 2008 and perhaps all time for a baddy role.  There might be severe outrage if he doesn’t nail this award.  Downey Jr. was hilarious as a white man trying to portray a black guy.  The comic timing of the character was perfect.  It is probably one of the more memorable performances in this year’s mix.  Brolin brings to his character a right mix of quiet anger, resentment, haplesness as his world starts unravel around him.  Brolin has probably a good shot at winning the gold too.  Hoffman too manages to hold his old against Streep in Doubt but he seems too much of a lead than supporting.  My final call is still on Ledger.          

 

Who Will Win: Heath Ledger

Who Should Win: Heath Ledger

Dark Horse: Josh Brolin 

Overlooked: James Franco

(Darren Boon)

ADRIAN WHITEHEAD

ADRIAN WHITEHEAD One Small Stepping Man (Popboomerang)

Adrian Whitehead’s One Small Stepping Man feels and sounds like a Beatles’ record with a modern, clean production. It opens with  Caitlin’s 60’s Pop Song, with an upbeat piano and perfect vocal harmonies. The late-Beatles influence is unmistakable in the songwriting, arrangement and vocals and Adrian manages to do them justice while establishing his own personality and style. 

The seeming simplicity of the songs’ arrangements highlight the powerful melodies perfectly. The songs are infectiously cheery and fun; the vocals and arrangement float and shimmer like a pleasant summer’s day. A great pop record, and we’re talking about good ol’ pop that’s made just how it used to be done. With a more polished sound too, courtesy of some great production from Jak Housden. This is a keeper. Highly recommended!

(Visa)

Check out Adrian Whitehead’s Myspace page.

LIVE ‘N’ LOADED S1E4

What is the goal and objective of Live N Loaded? The initiative, I believe came from MDA, who wanted a TV show promoting Singapore music. 

I love S-ROCK. But that does not mean that just because you’re a Singaporean, I put on the blinders and accept your music, however bad it is. The trouble with mainstream Singapore is that it has been so blindly prejudiced against S-ROCK that the reaction of supporters has been to go to the other extreme. 

The only problem is that this plays perfectly into the hands of the detractors. C’mon, turn on Live N Loaded and chances are that the majority of the bands performing are going to turn off even the most open-minded Singaporeans out there. And that is because in my opinion, the quality control on Live N Loaded is very low. 

Take episode 4, which is probably the most mainstream installment of the series so far with genres like pop-rock from 53A (with B-Quartet;s Bani Hidir on bass!), ska from Glitched Roots Project, pop-punk from Face Off and folk-pop from Alternative Press being exposed on the program. I found the songs and performances seriously flawed in different ways. 53A was bland, Glitched Roots Project was lacklustre, Face Off lacked finesse and Alternative Press was just amateurish. 

This all sounds harsh but really, I found it really hard to be truly excited about the performances, although I thought that Face Off tried hard to entertain the crowd but still have some ways to go to make a proper impression. 

The “established” acts were Mark Bonafide with Alicia Pan, the AMPs and  Allura. Bonafide and Pan, despite their best efforts at modern R&B hip-hop posturing came across as empty posers. I don’t get Bonafide’s rapping although it was a kindness that at least he wasn’t trying to look African-American, it’s just that the songs were boring. And really… Bonafide does not even leave much of a visual impression either.

The AMPs are composed of industry vets like Eric Ng, Brandon Khoo and Ngak and their sole song performance was assured and dynamic. Pity the band was given only one song and Bonafide had three! I guess the producers’ priorities lay elsewhere.

Allura came on at the very end and they were certainly worth the wait. Playing Gamajazilion, Ladeda and Loose Change, Allura is proof positive of the tremendous potential of S-ROCK. Their sound defies easy categorization and every aspect of their approach is unique. Despite their tender years, the band push the envelope and never opt for the easiest solutions. Which sometimes results in ambivalence from local scenesters. Loose Change, an examination of old school classic rock values, caught the crowd a little unawares but by the end, the crowd had been won over by the song’s slinky charm – the mark of a great band and good songwriting. That said, it was all too obvious that Mark was nervous and Inch, out-of-breath with the adrenaline slightly overwhelming but there was no denying the unfolding power and grace. And considering all that was on display for most of the program, a breath of fresh air. 

Maybe it was the fact that this episode was not live but somehow the buzz of the first two episodes seems long gone. With time running out on this show, I personally hope that the likes of Nick Tan, Leeson and Indus Gendi get their chance on the show. Pretty please …

PoP10 – GRAMERCY ARMS

Dave Derby in the hot seat…

1. Why play music? 

Excellent question. I now know that I really don’t have a choice because I actually tried to quit music a few years ago and it didn’t work. I have to do it. Playing music, whether it’s in front of people or just for myself is something that is hard-wired to my DNA.  

2. Who are your influences?

I am a shameless fan of Fleetwood Mac, Big Star, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, George Harrison, Lloyd Cole, the Go Betweens, Cheap Trick, Nick Drake, the Knack, the Velvet Underground, Teenage Fanclub, Television, Bob Dylan, Nada Surf, the Faces and a lot more. (Awesome taste – Kevin)

More than anything now I’m influenced by people who make music with all their heart and soul and who strive to do something unique.

3. What is success? 

Success is creating art on your own terms and doing something that you actually enjoy listening to. Everything else is relatively meaningless.

4. Why should people buy your music? 

People should buy it if it touches them, makes them smile and instantly appreciate it. There’s no other reason to buy music.

5. Who do you love? 

My daughter. My wife. And I love everyone who was involved in making the record. I am happy to say that these people are among my dearest, oldest friends.

6. What do you hope to achieve with your music? 

I hope to keep making music on my own terms. I hope to keep making myself happy making music. Otherwise I’ll stop.

7. Who comes to your gigs?

My friends. People who like our music.

8. What is your favorite album?

Sticky Fingers.

9. What is your favorite song?

Moonlight Mile.

10. How did you get here?

I just kept doing what I wanted to do.

Gramercy Arms’ eponymous debut album is out now!

THIN LIZZY

THIN LIZZY Still Dangerous (VHI Classic)

“Meh!” will probably be the reaction of our youngest generation when confronted with the words “Thin Lizzy”. In an age unforgiving to live albums and 70s hard rock bands that come across like pop candy in this day and age, Thin Lizzy’s best selling album turned out to be 1978’s Alive and Dangerous, one of the definitive live hard rock albums of the era.

Well, until now maybe, as long-lost tapes of Thin Lizzy’s 1977 show at the Tower Theatre Philadelphia have been mixed down by legendary producer Glyn Johns and released to hordes of appreciative diehard Lizzy fans. Famous for its innovative twin lead guitar harmonies and frontman Phil Lynott’s charisma, this Irish band’s legacy has been felt in British metal bands like Iron Maiden, Motorhead and Def Leppard. 

This is an excellent live album, put on your headphones, play it loud and you might as well be in the front row as Lynott and company strut their stuff. And its clinical and rollicking style is highly enjoying especially when guitarists Scott Gorman and Brian Robertson combine to heady effect. If the rumors are to be believed, at least, Still Dangerous contains zero overdubs compared to Alive and Dangerous!

All the hits are played – Jailbreak, Boys Are Back in Town, Soldier of Fortune and Me and the Boys – this fine nostaglic look back to a simpler time is well worth the price of entry not only to diehard fans but to anyone who loves this special rock era.

SUCKERS

 

SUCKERS Self-titled Ep (IAMSOUND)

Turn up your volume knobs and let down your hair, because roaring straight into your eardrums with their raucously melodic singalong tunes is the eclectic Brooklyn-based quarter, Suckers. Putting aside the frat-boy sophomore chic name, one finds a very enjoyable concoction of wildly creative and sonically dense material, with shades of the wild experimentation of Yeasayer and the clap-alongability of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Despite all the lushness, each and every instrument in the mix brims with a lively verve and irresistible zest. No surprises there, as they’re all played by the four members of the band themselves. 

First track on the EP is Beach Queen, a track that stands out most at first listen for the spacey drums, but quickly evolves into a pop gem that sounds like The Police given a shot of joy juice that explodes into a catchy chorus. It’s followed by Afterthoughts and TV, a four and a half minute stew of pyschedelic Animal Collective-style organized chaos. There’s a video of the band recording the song on Youtube that’s suitably treated in mind-bending colors, if you want a more visual representation of the song. 3rd on the EP, Easy Chairs, is probably the weakest track, though it still makes for good listening with its loose chanted harmonies which spill over onto It Gets Your Body Movin’. The band saves the best for the last here, a magical blend of earthy Americana and pop melodies with spacious production and echoing, ringing instrumentals. Witness the soulful, rootsy whistling midway through the track that gradually floats into sonic outer space. It’s easily the best song and track on the EP. 

An energetic record, Suckers manage to inject much needed doses of liveliness into their experimentation while at the same time keeping their feet firmly grounded on Terra Poppa. Like a pleasant campfire encounter with marshmellows, hot chocolate, and guitars all around, but on the Moon. Beautifully uplifting, and mindfully pop-sticky. 

(Samuel C Wee)
Check out Suckers’ Myspace page.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

 

Slumdog Millionaire heads into the Oscar race next weekend with 10 nominations and a frontrunner for the Best Picture and Best Directing prizes having swept nearly all the precursor awards in these categories for this season.

There’s nothing to dislike in this enjoyable and likable film that Danny Boyle has created.  Shot in part Hindi/part English amongst the backdrop of the slums in Mumbai, Slumdog tells the story of illiterate street-urchin or ‘slumdog’ Jamal, who goes onto the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire not to win money but as a simple-minded devotion towards the love of his life – Latika whom he believes is watching the show.  Jamal astonishes everyone by managing to clear most of the questions which leasd to the wily and jealous host of the game show to turn him over to the police on the suspicion of cheating.      

It is under the police interrogation that the mystery begins to unravel as Jamal reveals to the inspector how he knows the answers to the questions.  In a simple twist of fate, the questions involved are intertwined with major incidents and circumstances Jamal encountered including that of The Three Musketeers, Amitabh Bachchan, blind young beggars, the anti-Muslim riots, running away from gangsters which left an impression on Jamal.   

Dev Patel portrays the teenage protagonist and hero as wide-eyed, simple-minded, naïve determination and devotion towards Latika with such likeableness that one could not help but to root for him.  However it is the performance of the child actors that are much more endearing to the audience.  

Overall, Slumdog is a feel good movie that embraces the old school feel of storytelling and filmmaking by letting the audience into the hero’s journey.  Just as Latika mentioned that audiences turn to Who Wants to be a Millionaire as an escape from life, we too turn to Slumdog for the distraction from the harsh realities of today’s world and all the bad news surrounding us.  Is Slumdog whimsical?  Yes, a little.  It is a fantasy of sorts for the audience to escape with the hero, no more no less.  

(Darren Boon)

THE READER

 

In The Reader, A chance encounter between a 15 year old Michael Berg (David Kross) and a woman twice his age – Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) leads to a short love liaison over one summer.  They engage in sexual trysts while he reads to her – anything from plays, D.H Lawrence, Homer, Chekov and comics.  Their lives continue and collide few years down the road when he now a law student attending a war-crimes trial only to find out that his one-time paramour is facing criminal charges for Nazi war crimes as a SS guard.  They finally reunite briefly when Hanna turns 60, and he (played by Ralph Fiennes) is now a detached grown man, wrecked by his own demons and guilt  – that result in a tragic ending.  

Nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, The Reader is an adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel.  It is another exploration info the themes of guilt and morality both in the individual and collectively that of post war Germany.  However, the film seems to plough through in the first half of the movie in the depiction of the relationship between Michael and Berg.  The number of sexual scenes seems to turn the film into an over-glorified porn flick.  Fortunately the pace starts to pick up, and things start to turn around when their characters’ lives intersect one another in the courtroom.  However one major gripe throughout the entire movie is hearing the actors speaking in German accented English.       

The performance of Winslet in The Reader is the selling point of this show. Kudos go to the talented Winslet for turning a leading Oscar nominated performance no less.  Winslet manages to convey the tenacity and simple-mindedness of Hanna.  Her Hanna is icy and mysterious masking her own fear and shame behind the looks of torment in her gaze.

The Reader is stylishly written and directed and leaves a haunting aftertaste in the vein of the other collaboration of director Stephen Daldry and writer David Hare  The Hours which shares in the same despair and sadness as evident in the main characters.    

(Darren Boon)

LIVE ‘N’ LOADED S1E3

 

Having caught the first two episodes of Live N Loaded on the idiot box, I very eagerly scuttled down to Mediacorp studios for the live recording of episode 3 to experience the crowd for myself. A quick glance at the lineup I was provided with left me a little less than enthused however, especially in the wake of the previous two “Sonic Youth” bands, Lamp Post Shadows and Finding Michelle, both of which delivered lackluster performances in previous weeks. To be honest, my expectations of finding a fresh act that even remotely excited me didn’t run very high, although the prospect of seeing some of the local legends I grew up with (Plainsunset, Kate Of Kale) in this environment did throw a little kick in my day.

Plainsunset opened the show with a frenzied offering of the fan favourite Girl On Queen Street, meant as a recording for their webcast episode on the LNL site, which has become a bona fide content aggregator for a small pool of local music as of late. Even with the ridiculously compressed studio sound, it was still an enjoyable atmosphere, one that carried on into Find A Way, Johari Window, Plainsunset, and The River Song, and had the crowd chanting for more.

Marchtwelve, a band I haven’t seen in a long time were also present on the show to deliver their tune Dear You, labeling themselves “Death Pop” on national TV, and giving me a good chuckle in the process. I’d still really like to know where they got that from. 

Kate Of Kale, another band I haven’t seen in a long time, delivered a kicking rendition of “Soundtrack To The Perfect You” a killingly simple pop punk tune that sticks with you for a very long time; a very subtle juxtaposition against EN-X, who played shortly before them, and oddly enough, dressed like them as well. It would be appropriate to mention that a good image isn’t an all-encompassing that floats your music, especially when it comes to the conviction behind playing rock and roll or punk. Substance counts too, perhaps to a greater extent. EN-X should definitely take note; they have a substantial ways to go.

As has become customary at local shows these days, the very obliging kids were in attendance, albeit with a markedly increased arsenal of kung fu moves to fling at each other and resplendent fashion victimization. As I stood out of range of their flying limbs and cursory self-awareness, I was left wondering if any of them realized how daft they looked trying to kill each other.

About midway through Kate Of Kale’s set, a minor scuffle erupted somewhere within the bowels of the pit. Amongst the sea of pugnacious faces, I barely noticed that a scuffle had erupted until Nizam of Plainsunset, Bass in hand, began gesticulating at someone in the crowd from the stage. Evidently respect for the artists has fizzled somewhat. Fortunately the producers had the presence of mind to bring in more security personnel to handle similar situations.

Further observations also led to wonder if the kids on the show were even aware of their significance in the greater scope of things. Seriously, “Hello Michelle”? You guys should be holding up signs like “I Love Plainsunset”, or “We Want *insert band name here*”. 

I have to admit though, even though I was expecting to be disappointed by the “Exposed” bands on the show, they held some merit, particularly the acoustic duo One Hot Minute from NJC, who had some very decent melodies and vocal harmonies going; very workable, and definitely appealing to their peers. I was also thoroughly impressed by singer-songwriter Racheal Teo’s performance. Pervy Boy however, as they have consistently done so for an extended period of time, failed to impress, delivering a set that was at best mediocre. If the voting system results in bands like them being put on the show, I suggest that the producers take a second look at its feasibility.

Ultimately, being present at this episode of Live N Loaded left me with mixed feelings. Of course the advent of someone championing the cause of local music is something to be thankful for, and further kudos to them for securing a platform (for a few more episodes, at least), but ironing out the kinks should be the topmost priority now. Perhaps some streamlining would be in order e.g. a more stringent act selection process. Come on, we can do better than that.

(Sherwin Tay)

PoP CLASSIC: YO LA TENGO (2007)

YO LA TENGO And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador)

Never liked the Velvets?

Well, that is an observation one cannot make about perennial critics’ darlings Yo La Tengo. The trio’s connection with the Velvet Underground stretches far enough for them to be cast as the Velvet Underground themselves in the movie “I Shot Andy Warhol.”

But thankfully, there’s more to Yo La Tengo than a well-developed Velvets fetish. After all, this is a band who number the likes of The Kinks, Love, Soft Boys & the Mission of Burma amongst their favourite influences.

Maybe Yo La Tengo’s immaculate music taste has something to do with the fact that leader-guitarist Ira Kaplan used to be a rock journalist. Whatever, together with wife-drummer Georgia Hubley, Kaplan has kept Yo La Tengo-ing for more than fifteen years with a variety of bassists, the current holder James McNew having signed on in 1992.

Upon inspection, Yo La Tengo covers roughly two distinct and contrary musical grounds. Most obvious, of course, is the Velvets-patented drone rock with Kaplan’s half-spoken vocals and buzzy guitar work recalling Lou Reed. More surprising, perhaps given Yo La Tengo’s place within the indie noise-pop community, is the band’s uncanny ability to deliver slightly askew traditional pop songs of sheer melodic beauty!

Pardon me, if I expose my prejudices and focus on the latter theme – sheer melodic beauty! Coincidentally (or not – you decide) Yo La Tengo um goes into that almost pure pop mode on songs that are sung by Hubley. So, on the oddly titled “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” the drone-rocking takes a back seat to a soft focus pop song that would not be out of place on Papas Fritas’ latest opus! And what about the elaborate Beach Boys backing vocals that support Hubley’s soft spoken vocals on “You Can Have It All” – simply irresistible! Or even the melancholic slow country (ala Low) lamentation of “Tears Are In You Eyes” – all examples of Yo La Tengo’s wide palette of tastes and approaches – clear signs of restless artistry. Not to mention such idyllic pop nuggets like “Madeline,” “Night Falls on Hoboken” and “From Black to Blue!”

All told, “And then nothing turned itself inside out,” is 77 minutes of pure magic – evidence that Yo La Tengo have truly outgrown their Velvets clones tag, and have done it with much aplomb.

PoP CLASSICS: BELLE & SEBASTIAN (2006)

BELLE AND SEBASTIAN The Life Pursuit (Jeepster)

Never liked Belle and Sebastian.

Well, if I had to be honest, I never even heard Belle and Sebastian.

My ambivalence towards Belle and Sebastian rested upon certain hyperbole being trust their way by well-meaning music journalists.

This is why I never liked the Strokes either. (That’s another story entirely)

So here I am, listening to The Life Pursuit, the 7th Belle and Sebastian album and wondering what my unjustified prejudice has cost me.

Better late than never?

I suppose it began with downloading (legally and legitimately – ahem!) a free download of “Another Sunny Day,” which as it happens, I fell head over heels in love with.

I mean, it has this cool breezy country-folk-rock vibe, a riff that locks onto your synapses and twee vocals that really don’t seem to give a damn! What a combo!

So, inevitably, I get a hold of The Life Pursuit and it’s everything I didn’t think it would be – unashamedly retro, creatively plagiaristic and very very cool.

Songs like the glam-lite “Blues Are Still Blue,” the organ-heavy bouncy “Sukie in the Graveyard,” the Kinks-inspired edgy “We Are The Sleepyheads” and the Motown-driving “To Be Myself Completely” are chock-full of handy references to decades of smart pop that genre trainspotters will absolutely love.

Simply put, an album that proves that contrary to first impressions, Belle and Sebastian deserve all that hype and praise. And how!

PoP CLASSIC: NEAL MORSE (2005)

NEAL MORSE ? (Radiant) 

“And then after all with our backs against the wall/We seek the temple of the living God/And now that it’s done, the heart of every one can be the temple of the living God.” 

Let us begin at the end shall we?

At the beginning of 2005, I had no idea who Neal Morse even was. Since that time, through my writing for the Christian music reviews site the Phantom Tollbooth, I have come across rave assessments of Morse’s first two solo albums (after leaving premier progressive rock outfit, Spock’s Beard) viz. Testimony & One. Intrigued, I sought out and obtained Morse’s new album, ?, and after having given it a couple of spins am thoroughly convicted that it is my choice as the album of 2005.

Why?

Perhaps because a musician would either be very courageous or insane to work within that misfit genre called ‘progressive’ rock. Not the progressive metal of popular bands like Dream Theater or Tool, mind you but prog that is faithful to its original 70s roots. Not only that, but Morse is a born-again Christian and has produced a concept album about the tabernacle i.e. the temple of God. Now, how marginalized does Morse want to be in these intolerant & ignorant times?

Arguably, if you wanted to write about concepts dealing in depth about the Old Testament sacrificial worship system, the mystery of the presence of God, the separation between God and man due to sin and God’s ultimate plan for man’s redemption then… I suppose prog rock is the perfect medium. Neal Morse has proved it conclusively with ?.

Morse has described ? as one song with 12 parts and it does pan out exactly that way, each part standing up well alone and yet only fully realized when seen as a coherent whole. This is one album that you must listen to completely at one sitting – all 56:28 minutes of it!

As an exercise in prog rock, ? is one of the best of its kind, blending Morse’s obvious references points i.e. Genesis, Kansas, Pink Floyd, Yes, Jethro Tull et al with well-placed pop allusions eg. The Beatles (“Solid As The Sun”). Morse – himself a top-notch technical guitar and keyboard player – has recruited some of the best to collaborate, with drummer Mike (Dream Theatre) Portnoy, bassist Randy (Ajalon) George, keyboard player Jordan (Dream Theater) Rudess and guitarists Roine (Flower Kings) Stolt, Alan (Spock’s Beard) Morse and Steve (Genesis) Hackett pulling out all the stops for an astonishing musical experience.

And unlike many concept albums, ? does indeed pay off at its conclusion and in fact is at its strongest in the last three parts. Actually, it begins with the instrumental passage in “12” on which Hackett guests with much aplomb before segueing into “Entrance” where Morse begins the denouement of his piece – an affecting piano ballad that introduces Christ into the equation and leads smoothly into the exhilarating “Inside His Presence” where Morse sings – “When he died and was born/The temple walls were torn/And God’s Spirit poured out to all the ones without/Now, the temple of the living God is you/The temple of the living God is you.” I am not ashamed to confess that as a Christian that this song reduced me to tears. Hallelujah!

What more can I say? If there is such a thing as a perfect album then ? is. At so many levels, it satisfies overwhelmingly and even if the spiritual context does not move you, then treat it in the same way you would a prog concept album about Tolkeinesque characters, deaf dumb and blind pinball wizards or psychotic musicians who live life behind an emotional wall – and recognize it for the masterpiece that it is.

PoP CLASSIC: KING RADIO (2004)

KING RADIO Are You The Sick Passenger? (Unreleased demo)

So why haven’t you heard one of the best sophisticated alt-country chamber-pop albums of the new millennium? Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that to date it remains unreleased. Are You The Sick Passenger? a 38 minute demo from Frank Padellaro’s King Radio deserves so badly to be released and recognized it isn’t funny anymore. 

I mean, for those serious pop lovers out there currently digging the likes of Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, The Pernice Brothers, High Llamas, Stereolab, Chamber Strings, Aluminum, Scud Mountain Boys, Mello Cads et al, will positively go mad with one listen to the wistful “Introduction” where acoustic guitar, heavenly strings and a throbbing bassline combine to transport you to pop paradise, will have you hailing King Radio’s majesty indeed!

From then on, it’s one glorious track to another, take note: the breezy “Caveat Emptor,” the lovely “Meet the Maker,” the jolly “Dead and Gone,” the music hall campy “The Busman’s Holiday,” the tongue-in-cheek instrumental “Intermission,” the folky “The Sick Passenger,” the movin’ “You Were the One,” the jaunty “Am I the Same Girl?” and the erudite charmer, “Famous Umbrellas.”

Let me just say, that if not for the fact that Are You The Sick Passenger? is an unreleased album, it would definitely have been in my Top 5 albums of 2003! If this intrigues you, head on down to the King Radio site to find out more and if you or someone you know would like to do the pop world a favour and release this hidden treasure, then get in touch with Frank Padellaro pronto!

PoP CLASSIC: NADA SURF (2003)

NADA SURF Let Go (Barsuk)

Nada Surf’s continuing growth and development from power emocore trio to distinctive sophisticated artists in their own right is evident on this superlative latest effort. Last time out, the self-released The Proximity Effect took two years of label wrangling and heartache to see light of day but still sounded refreshing, dynamic and a step forward from the hyperkinetic Ric Ocasek-produced debut High/Low.

Let Go is the masterpiece that Nada Surf has been promising to deliver and comes at a time where rock ‘n’ roll requires reinvention without sacrificing the basic foundations of melody and passion. Whilst eclecticism is always to be prized, Let Go does not stray too far from the folk-infused arousing power rock that Nada Surf excels in. However, the genius is in the details. 

Check out the vocoder-drenched vocals on the coda of “Fruit Fly” as the band carries the piece to an emotional climax. Or the achingly spine-tingling choral hook that anchors the poignant sentiments of “Inside of Love” as Matthew Caws sings longingly, “I’m on the outside of love/Always under or above/Must be a different view to be a me with a you…” Take note of the atmospheric “Neither Heaven Nor Space” where the band squeezes every ounce of emotion out of a minimal arrangement? Or even the cheesy synth lines that belie the Kinksian riff fest that is “Hi-Speed Soul.”

Much to admire here for modern rock fans – Let Go draws easily from the same well as A Rush of Blood to the Head – certainly there are many similarities to be drawn between Nada Surf and Coldplay. And that my dear readers is a recommendation.

PoP CLASSIC: JARS OF CLAY/NEWSBOYS (2002)

 

JARS OF CLAY The Eleventh Hour (Essential)

NEWSBOYS Thrive (Sparrow)

Inevitably, the mainstream success and acceptance of Christian Contemporary Music has turned out to be a mid-nineties phenomenon notwithstanding the current achievements of Creed and P.O.D. Two bands that rode that wave of popularity to international acclaim have delivered excellent albums in 2002. 

Jars of Clay took their CSNY-flavored acoustic pop into the charts and in to the public consciousness in 1995 and have since then proven to be no flash in the pan with strong follow-ups in the Much Afraid and If I Left the Zoo albums.

Their latest – The Eleventh Hour – is not just a great CCM release, it deserves to be named amongst the best pop-rock albums this year. Like their wondrous debut, The Eleventh Hour is self-produced and the band’s maturity as writers and performers shines through. Never hitting anyone on the head with their message of faith, songs like the gorgeous “Something Beautiful,” the pleading “I Need You,” the infectious “Fly” and the REM-derived “Disappear” demonstrate that Jars of Clay warrant serious consideration as pop masters in their right without prejudice. A

The commercial and critical apex for Newsboys coincided with a fruitful three-album collaboration with producer Steve Taylor. The last two albums without Taylor, whilst still solid efforts in their own right, never quite hit the same spots. Perhaps unsurprising, Taylor makes a return to the production chores for this latest album, the band’s eleventh. Whilst never really touching the same peaks as Going Public or Take Me to Your Leader, Thrive is nonetheless a robust collection of the Newsboys’ Britpop-inflected stylings. Which means you can expect sweet melodies married to Taylor’s unique perspective on the Christian experience. Highlights include the worshipful “It Is You” with my favorite chorus of 2002 – “Holy Holy is our God Almighty/Holy Holy is His name alone, YEAH” (Amen!), the new wavy “Live in Stereo,” the indie-popping title track and the quirky “John Woo.”

PoP CLASSIC: PERNICE BROTHERS (2001)

Into the new millennium, Pernice Brothers have always been reliable to produce great music…

PERNICE BROTHERS The World Won’t End (Ashmont)

There are very few things we can be certain about in life but this comfort I possess, a Joe Pernice record is always going to be a fulfilling pop experience. And I do not make that claim frivolously. My first encounter with Pernice arrived courtesy of the debut Pernice Brothers album, Overcome by Happiness which quite coincidentally found me floundering in a difficult time in 1998. It’s chamber pop melancholy struck a chord deep in my soul, the title track’s sombre humour mirrored my own situation uncannily – ‘You don’t feel so overcome by happiness, you’re broke…’ I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, honestly. 

Thus began my love affair with this talented singer-songwriter who served an apprenticeship of sorts with the alt. country amalgam that was the Scud Mountain Boys, manifesting an appreciation of Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell in the lo-fi-around-the-kitchen-table charm of Pine Box and Dance the Night Away, before the full blown Massachusetts gave notice of the magic to come. 

Even before the release of this new album (on Pernice’s own Ashmont Records no less), Pernice had issued two seminal records – the moody Chappaquiddick Skyline and the country folk inflected Big Tobacco. Pernice insisted that these fine albums were side projects and in no way to be confused with a proper Pernice Brothers record. Which is what we have now with The World Won’t End and listening to it, one gets the feeling that Pernice certainly knows what he’s talking about. Compared to the ‘side-projects,’ The World Won’t End is classic pop in every sense and meaning of the term. 

Co-produced with long-time collaborator Thom (Beachwood Sparks, The Chamber Strings) Monahan, The World Won’t End is gorgeously textured pop wherein the jangly nuances of Teenage Fanclub are married to the lush orchestral arrangements of the Electric Light Orchestra to stunning effect. When these upbeat musical sensibilities contrasted with the frankly morose nature of Pernice’s lyrics, they make for a potent albeit disorientating combination.

The starting point for an examination of his phenomenon is the bright yet wistful “She Heightened Everything” where Pernice remarks – ‘Waiting for the mortal wound/This fascination with the moribund’ to the accompaniment of sentimental strings. Likewise, the deceptively cheery “Let That Show” contains the lament, ‘It feels like I am dying as I watch you go’ as the chug-a-lug rhythm boogies. 

“7.30,” a chiming chunk of dynamism reveals ‘our summer years are Freudian slipping by’ and ‘there’s nothing there, just bitterness’. The fragile “Shaken Baby” conjures disturbing images likening a failed relationship to this appalling syndrome. “Our Time Has Passed” is a charming Bacharach-meets-Big Star number weighed down by regret and a ‘bitter-sweet hello/goodbye’.

With “Flaming Wreck,” Pernice sinks to the depths of despair, narrating his own demise in a aeroplane crash – ‘I was alright/Never knew it would be the perfect last word I spoke/As the cabin filled with smoke…did you know I would die for something new?/Take good care, someone whom I never knew’.

You have to admire Pernice’s uncompromising attitude in describing the world as he truly sees it, never sugar coating the pain and bitterness of everyday living. And he makes it so enjoyable to listen to! The World Won’t End is not just an album of bleak and hopeless themes, rather I prefer to see it as cautiously optimistic. I daresay that Pernice and company have diligently mapped out a new frontier for 21st century powerpop. One that blends compelling and infectious music with hard down-to-earth realities. File it next to The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump, The Heavy Blinkers’ Better Weather and Lambchop’s Nixon for distinct milestones of the new pop.

PoP CLASSICS: MYRACLE BRAH (2000)

Another blast from the past, this time from 2000. 

MYRACLE BRAH Plate Spinner (Not Lame)

A recent hot (and often heated) discussion topic amongst the power pop underground is whether Andy Bopp (a.k.a. Myracle Brah) is a genius or a charlatan.

The debut Myracle Brah record – “Life on Planet Eartsnop” – captured the hearts of many power pop fans (including yours truly). It represented a consistent expression of vintage pop tunesmithing circa 1964 to 1967.

Not that Bopp totally expected the ecstatic response to this low-key side project to his primary venture – Baltimore powerpop band Love Nut. 

Love Nut, in which Bopp functions as lead vocalist and primary songwriter, gained and suffered from the quick rise and descent of all things punk/grunge with their albums, the rather spiky punchy “Bastards of Melody” and the heavy rock-out fest that was “Baltimucho!”

Ironically, whilst the future of Love Nut remains in doubt, Myracle Brah continues to flourish with “Plate Spinner”, a quickie sequel of sorts to “Life on Planet Eartsnop”. Clocking in at a lean 32 minutes and recorded in mono; it would appear that Bopp is stridently carrying the flag for traditional pop values.

More than that, I would venture to say that “Plate Spinner” continues Bopp’s personal voyage of discovery into the classic pop-rock music terrain of the 1960s and 1970s. Utilising the technique of reverse engineering to conjure a magical science, “Plate Spinner” is a coherent, well-crafted work of art employing the tools of a cherished musical era.

His critics will no doubt raise the time-tested arguments that Bopp’s music with Myracle Brah is “lacking in originality” and “retrograde” and adds nothing ‘new’ to the established chronicles of pop. 

Well, the truth of the matter is that whilst there may be considerable merit on both sides of the proverbial coin, I would submit that ultimately the argument is moot if the songs do not stand up to the test.

Yes, the test – if you set out to write and record “good” pop songs then it has got to be able to live up to the legacy (all forty odd years of it) of the best that pop music has had to offer. Thus, discussions of form and style are irrelevant (and if I may be blunt, idiotic), it is the substance that counts, after all. 

In this respect, the inspired labours of Andy Bopp and his Myracle Brah more than make the grade. Familiar yet challenging, the irresistible melodies of gems like the winning “Isn’t It A Crime,” the elegiac “Drowning,” the jaunty “The Seeds Are Growing Faster,” the feisty “Mr Tuesday Man,” the captivating “Hearts On Fire,” the muscular “Faux American,” the heavy “Dead Overnight,” the nostalgic “Treat Her Right,” the psychedelic “Albert’s Hand” and the naïve “Slip Away” will charm the socks off cynics and believers alike. Joined together by intervals of sampled noise and effects, the twelve songs on “Plate Spinner” coalesce into a formidable whole – this is pop record making of a high order. 

I await Mr. Bopp’s next move with bated breath.

PoP CLASSIC: MATTHEW SWEET (1999)

Feelin’ nostalgic today so… I will be running some past reviews I did in the upcoming days and weeks…

MATTHEW SWEET In Reverse (Volcano)

 

For most of this decade, Matthew Sweet has been the flag bearer for classic pop-rock craft in an era where grunge, electronica and ska has come and gone. Like Tom Petty, Sweet has – despite his less than fashionable choice of medium – managed to build up a considerable body of consistent work and along the way a significant fan base. Girlfriend  (1991), Sweet’s breakthrough album was in fact his third after the relatively obscure Inside (1986) and Earth (1988) released by Columbia and A&M respectively. In the early 1990s, Zoo decided to take a chance with Sweet and Girlfriend was the result. It was the first album Sweet recorded with a live band, and its sound was considerably more immediate and raw than its predecessors. This new approach paid dividends and Girlfriend was a commercial and critical success. Sweet’s next two records, Altered Beast (1993) and 100% Fun (1995), were both critically acclaimed and relatively successful albums, with the latter reaching gold status and making many year-end “Best Of” lists. Sweet’s last album, Blue Sky On Mars (1997) received mixed reviews and it failed to match the success of its immediate predecessor

Matthew Sweet In Reverse is a concept album but only in the subtlest of ways. With some of the tracks, Sweet elected to employ the Phil Spector ‘Wall-of-Sound’ method (albeit stripped down) by recording multiple instrumentation “live” in the studio with minimal overdubs. This technique has opened up greater possibilities for Sweet’s tune-friendly material – it sounds more natural, more spontaneous, and more “alive” than before. This process has indeed breathed life into his sixties influenced repertoire resulting perhaps in Sweet’s greatest musical achievement so far. The results are consistently impressive. 

You know you’re in for a groovy ride when the trumpets (ala Arthur Lee’s Love) punctuate the opening self-conscious Millennium Blues. This psychedelic nuance is emphasized in the backward guitar intro to Beware My Love. Elsewhere, Sweet raves it up with the melodic Neil Young-ish rockers Faith In You and Split Personality. Conversely, Sweet pours it thick with the gorgeous ballads Hide and Worse to Live – which deserve to be played to death on radios all over the world along with the breezy and infectious I Should Never Let You Know. Unrelenting in scope and value, Sweet manages to top it all with the Wilsonesque suite Thunderstorm which is actually four songs woven into one coherent tapestry. 

At the beginning of this review, I described In Reverse as a concept album. If it only succeeds in making you appreciate the rich inspiration of the sixties as manifested in Matthew Sweet’s sublime songcraft, then that concept has become a vital reality – the power of pop

GRAMERCY ARMS

GRAMERCY ARMS Gramercy Arms (Reveal/Cheap Lullaby)

A pop collective based in New York, Gramercy Arms counts amongst its number, members of Guided by Voices, Luna, Joan as Police Woman, Dead Air, Dambuilders, Nada Surf, Pernice Brothers as well as Lloyd Cole, Chris Brokaw and comic Sarah Silverman. 

*Whew!*

Well and good. What I do like about Gramercy Arms is their affinity for West Coast pop-rock styles (i.e. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills & Nash, Gene Clark, Gram Parson, the Byrds, Fleetwood Mac etc) which Gramercy Arms achieve with great aplomb. Consisting primarily of Dave Derby, Sean Eden, Kevin March, Joan Wasser, Rainy Orteca and Hilken Mancini, Gramercy Arms recall the glorious British approximations of the West Coast sound by Teenage Fanclub and Belle & Sebastian. 

The sheer breezy atmosphere of songs like Looking at the Sun, Nothing I Can Do and Since Last September will transport the listener to a kinder, gentler era. But there are moments of powerpop crunch in tracks like Automatic and Fakin’. The rest of Gramercy Arms is more pleasing melodic easy listening pop fodder. I’m not complainin’…

Check out Gramercy Arms’ Myspace page

SUPREME ONE

SUPREME ONE Self-titled (Lowdown)

Try as I may, I just don’t get rap. For me, it’s an alien genre coming from an alien culture that I’m don’t understand. And it’s terribly repetitive music, bordering on monotonous. So if I say that I found it difficult to listen to Supreme One’s debut eponymous album, it’s more my fault than his. I should disqualify myself from reviewing this altogether. To be honest, the only track I found interesting was Oy! with its use of colloquial obscenities. The rest I believe would be of value to diehard rap fans only.

Check out Supreme One’s Myspace page.