ALEX LEVINE

Originally published at ReviewYou.com

ALEX LEVINE Falling Back Again (Self-released)

The cover of Alex Levine’s new album will remind Jayhawks fans of the seminal alt-country outfit’s third album – Hollywood Town Hall. Granted, Levine is posing in front of a church building rather than a town hall but the structures are uncannily similar. Not only that but the music on Falling Back Again will cement that particular comparison and reference point firmly in the minds of all right-thinking alt-rock enthusiasts. Basically, the continued alchemical quality of combining country and rock music. Simply put, Levine’s Falling Back Again is one of the more impressive alt-rock albums released in 2010.

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CHEATING SONS

I must confess that nowadays, it takes quite a lot to get me down to a Singapore rock gig. But of late, I have heard some good things about Cheating Sons over the grapevine. Checking out their Myspace page, I was rather surprised to hear country-folk-blues-rock from this new band! Now that is something you don’t often hear coming from a Singapore band. So definitely, this is a band I need to check out!

And you and I can tonight! Over at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre, Cheating Sons will be playing two sets –

7.30pm to 8.15pm and then 10pm to 10.45pm.

See ya’ll there, y’hear?! Hee-haw!

Listen to the Cheating Sons at www.myspace.com/cheatingsons.

LISTENING BOOTH: DAVID VANDERVELDE

David Vandervelde is a singer-songwriter that has interested me recently with his intriguing take on country-folk-soul-pop. What Vandervelde does is to filter a 70s classic pop-rock agenda through alt-rock sensibilities. In 2010, Vandervelde (via Secret Canadian) released four digital singles, which will now be collected on 12″ vinyl (cover art above, available on 3 August). My favourite of the lively bunch is Learn How To Hang (Great title! Listen below) which sounds to me like feisty hybrid of REO Speedwagon and Jesus and Mary Chain, if you can imagine that. Vandervelde probably sums it up himself best on the Lindsay Buckingham-channeling Wave Country. Certainly, David Vandervelde is one singer-songwriter to keep a close eye (and ear) on.

[audio:http://www.powerofpop.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/learnhowtohang.mp3|titles=David Vandervelde – Learn How To Hang]

Myspace | Secret Canadian

PERNICE BROTHERS

PERNICE BROTHERS goodbye, killer (Ashmont)

1998 was a bad year. For me. Due to the Asian financial crisis, my employer decided to go on an austerity drive which included cutting my salary (in hindsight, what I’m going through in 2010 is even worse, but that’s another story…) As always, music provided soothing balm for my wounds (real or imagined) somewhat. Most crucially, the debut album of Pernice Brothers, which was ironically titled Overcome By Happiness functioned as a soundtrack for those troubled times.

Twelve years on and multiple albums and side projects later, Joe Pernice and gang are back with their overdue sixth studio album, goodbye, killer. Somehow I do not feel the need to hard sell goodbye, killer too much. I’ve found that Joe Pernice is the kind of artist that seems to get every damn thing right, if you know what I mean. Words, music, instrumentation and arrangements just seem to fit perfectly and create the right tone and nuance that touches me deep within my heart and my soul. The man can do no wrong in my book.

I sense that goodbye, killer is a return to basics – more country-folk-rock and less post-punk vibe – even the vaunted Bee Gees chamber pop of that debut album is also MIA. The overall sound is a little harsher in some respect and rootsier in others. Certainly an album of the year contender and if you want me to name favourite tracks, it would have to be the bright Bechamel, the dynamic Jacqueline Susann, the Faces-channeling title track and the rustic & poignant The End of Faith.

Methinks I will be examining and exploring goodbye, killer more closely in the days to come.

Official Site | Myspace | Facebook | Amazon

HORSE FEATHERS

HORSE FEATHERS Thistled Spring (Kill Rock Stars)

I firmly believe that country songs are some of the most soulful and emotionally wringing sounds ever produced on this Planet Earth. Singer-songwriter Jason Ringle (aka Horse Feathers) understands this concept perfectly. So what does he do? He records his achingly fragile country-folk compositions with moving strings (i.e. violins, violas and cellos) arrangements and authentically rustic instruments (i.e. banjos, mandolins, saws and celestes).

With tracks primed to touch the soul, Thistled Spring is not targeted at the casual pop listener, but at serious music lovers who are able to appreciate the atmosphere and mood contained in such gorgeous songs as Starving Robins, The Drought, Cascades, As A Ghost and the title track.

This is an album to dissect and absorb over and over again, to capture every nuance – but definitely worth the time and effort.

Free download – Belly of June

Horse Feathers at the KRS site

Myspace

FRIDAY MILE

FRIDAY MILE Good Luck Studio (Timber Carnival)

Take authentic soulful alt-country material and deeply infuse a classic 70s pop-rock sensibility and you might be fortunate enough to produce the excellent country-folk-pop-rock hybrid that so gleefully inhabits the music on this fabulous album.

Friday Mile is based in Seattle, and fronted by gifted singer-songwriters Jace Krause and Hannah Williams, do a wonderful job in hitting all the right notes, to develop a heartfelt, melodic sound that is appealing on every level.

Songs like the poignant Lives of Strangers, the almost shocking Autograph (“I’ve been unfaithful to you”), the charming Adorable Machine (“as soon as I thought I was in, I was out”) and the sprightly FYI recall the diligent songcraft and delicate attitude of the Jayhawks, Blue Rodeo, Pernice Brothers, Neko Case, Cowboy Junkies and Wilco.

The icing on the cake must be the pleasing vocal interplay between Krause and Williams, adding spice to the multi-flavoured buffet already on offer in Good Luck Studio. Potentially, a PoP classic.

Official Site

Myspace

RADAR BROS

RADAR BROS. The Illustrated Garden (Merge)

The Radar Bros. are probably the quintessential 90s alt-rock band. Having released 5 albums (before The Illustrated Garden), they have distilled the Pixies-Flaming Lips-Dream Syndicate vibe perfectly. Y’know, equal parts country-folk and psychedelic rock. Throw in copious amounts of the inspirations of Neil Young and Pink Floyd and voila! The Illustrated Garden!

I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the hip and cool factor of the above references is high. And the songs on The Illustrated Garden bear this out as well. There is a weathered feel about the melodies and angular shape to the arrangements which strikes a fine balance between the classic and indie rock genres.

Highlights include the world-weary The Headlights, the obtuse and edgy Rainbow, the whacked out bluesy Quarry, the Syd Barrett-channeling People.

Official site

Myspace

BLUE RODEO

BLUE RODEO The Things We Left Behind (Telesoul)

This album, Canadian band Blue Rodeo’s 12th, is a testimony to the creative staying power of this extraordionary country-rock outfit. A double CD set consisting of 16 tracks, The Things We Left Behind is a lesson in how to deliver a first-rate country-rock album in this day and age.

In fact, in the absence of the now-defunct Jayhawks, Blue Rodeo is probably the alt-country standard bearer with its astute (and consistent) development of country-folk tunes matched with pop-rock dynamics.

On songs like the excellent Waiting For the World, Sheba, Arizona, In My Bones, the fragile soulfulness of the best country-folk shines through as acoustic guitars, pedal steels and violins pluck at your heartstrings. Whereas from the pop-rock perspective, wonderful songs like Never Look Back, the title track, Don’t Let the Darkness In Your Head and Wasted deliver all the right chops and hooks.

Yes, folks, this one is a definite keeper!

Official site

Myspace

LAMBCHOP

LAMBCHOP Live At XX Merge (Merge)

A brilliant introduction to the widescreen alt-country world of the magnificent Lambchop, this live album provides teasing glimpses into the genius of this genre-bending band. Believe me when I say that Lambchop is much more than your average alt-country outfit as they also incorporate elements of jazz and soul into their inventive compositions. With ten excellent studio albums to their name, it is not too difficult to come up with a winning set list every time.

Too clever for your common pundit? Probably but how can you not groove to Grumpus or smile to Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr.? As frontman Kurt Wagner leads his multi-instrumental band with his trademark drawl, one cannot help but wonder at the sheer eclecticism and audacity of the songs being presented.

A rock connossior’s dream, Lambchop never needs to dumb down its music for the masses as long as there are enough of the faithful to carry them forward. Come on in and be part of a unique clique…

Official Site

Myspace

THE JAYHAWKS

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THE JAYHAWKS Music from the North Country (American)

For me personally, the Jayhawks has been a band I have tried to emulate when I started putting together a new band – the Groovy People – about two years ago. Basically, classic pop-rock with an alt-country edge, a sonic representation of Gram Parsons’ mythical Cosmic American Music.

This 3CD deluxe edition of this Jayhawks retrospective provides a pretty good enough idea of what this excellent band was/is about. “Was/is” because the band has been on hiatus since the last album, 2003’s fine Rainy Day Music. Disc one cherry picks the band’s five official albums – Blue Earth, Hollywood Town Hall, Tomorrow the Green Grass, Sound of Lies and the aforesaid Rainy Day Music. Disc two features rare and unreleased tracks whilst disc three is a DVD of music videos and EPKs throughout the band’s career.

Regular PoP visitors will be aware of how much I loved the Jayhawks, I still listen to them whenever I need a “pick-up” and songs like Trouble, Angelyne, Smile, Blue, I’m Gonna Make You Love Me are mainstays on my playlist. Not to mention that Sound of Lies remains one of my favourite albums of all time.

What is even more impressive is that after the departure of co-founder Mark Olsen (after Tomorrow the Green Grass), the band actually became stronger as Gary Louris, Tim O’Reagan, Marc Pearlman and Karen Grotberg delivered timeless music that still resonates today.

The remastering of these great songs has worked wonders as even an longtime fan like me is finding new delights from this oft-heard repertoire. So I can’t recommend Music from the North Country any higher. Every PoP visitor MUST have this compilation in their collection and after your appetite has been whetted (and it will be) and you want know more, go to the albums in order of preference – Sound of Lies, Tomorrow the Green Grass, Rainy Day Music, Smile, Hollywood Town Hall and Blue Earth.

Bloody essential.

The official site.

MySpace

DESERTERS

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DESERTERS Pale Morning (Popboomerang)

Not to be confused with the Malaysian band of the same name, these Deserters are Aussies. However, like their Malaysian counterparts, the Oz Deserters managed to combine heartfelt melodies with a roots rock sensibility that is always pleasurable. Perhaps Pale Morning channels Cosmic American Music is a more obvious manner but I am certainly not complaining. PoP visitors will know that alt-country will always hit the spot for yours truly and when delivered with a touch of Beatlesque magic which Deserters accomplish on many occasions here, its pop bliss!

MySpace

GRACE BASEMENT

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GRACE BASEMENT Gunmetal Gray (Undertow)

As as if it wasn’t already enough that St. Louis’ Grace Basement manages to deliver a pleasing reading of fine melodic alt-rock influences like Wilco, Flaming Lips, Guided By Voices and Superchunk, the band also incorporates more rustic instrumentation into the powerful mix. Thus, we are treated to the likes of fiddle, viola, lap steel, banjo, harp, accordion, concertina, horns and even uilleann pipes, which brings the band’s sophomore album to an entire different level.

You’ve gotta respect the attention to textural detail that singer-songwriter-producer Kevin Buckley pays to these pop tunes – wonderfully indebted to the Beatles, XTC, the Beach Boys and Big Star for melodic invention. There is a magical balance between the sweet and raw qualities that blending the genres of powerpop and country-folk-blues results in. I am rather taken by this unique-sounding album. From the pulsating opening There He Goes onwards, one is never quite sure what twists and turns the impressive material would take, completely subverting expectations at all the right places. Which to me, is a testimony to a creative mind in action.

Official site

Myspace

Undertow Music

JOE PERNICE

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JOE PERNICE It Feels So Good When I Stop (Ashmont)

Sub-titled “Novel Soundtrack”, this new Joe Pernice album is not per se a proper Joe Pernice album in the sense that Big Tobacco or Chappaquiddick Skyline was. In fact, the music here is meant to function as a soundtrack (promo also?) for Pernice’s new book of the same title. Yes, folks, not content at being one of the finest singer-songwriters of his generation, Pernice is now also a published novelist.

Bastard!

“I had always thought of Del Shannon as being right down there with Pat Boone. Why? Because I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.”

Yes, there are excerpts of Pernice’s book (narrated by the man himself) littered throughout the album with the soundtrack operating as a mixtape of covers of Pernice’s personal faves (I presume). So we get songs from Plush, Del Shannon, Sebadoh, Dream Syndicate, Todd Rundgren – even one from Mary Poppins – rendered in Pernice’s trademarked melancholy country-folk-rock style (with 80s post punk/new wave undercurrent).

Well, there is one original, the gorgeous (what else?) Black Smoke (No Pope) – an instrumental, no less – which really makes you wish that Pernice would bless us with a new Pernice Brothers album soon…

As the album closes with a morose Hello It’s Me, the significance of the title hits home, remember that bad joke about this guy banging his head against the wall repeatedly and being asked why he was doing so… there you have it…

Sure, It Feels So Good When I Stop – novel soundtrack – is a definite oddity but as an exercise of song interpretation, it’s definitely worth checking out, whether you get the novel or not.

Official site

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MICHAEL CARPENTER

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MICHAEL CARPENTER Redemption #39 (Big Radio)

It’s been a while since Australia’s most consistent purveyor of pristine powerpop released an album of original material (since 2004’s Rolling Ball, if I’m not wrong, not counting SOOP#2 and the Cuban Heels side project) but finally the new Michael Carpenter album’s here!

And really, if you’re a fan of Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Crowded House, then hooking up with Carpenter’s authentic powerpop (laced with country-folk influences as well) is a no-brainer. After all, its breezy melodies, tight musicianship, sweet harmonies and quality production work will easily win over any (true) pop lover.

On Redemption #39, Carpenter spreads his wings a little wider with a song like the King of the Scene, a brilliant evocation of Queen and ELO (as well as Jellyfish) that hits all the right spots. A little more mannered and structured than usual for Carpenter’s music but it’s a pleasant surprise.

By and large, its par for the course – the Beatlesque pop of Can’t Go Back, the bouncy twangy title track, the rollicking Workin’ for a Livin’, the soulful Don’t Let Me Down Again, the Fannies-channeling I Want Everything – evidence that Carpenter is still on top of his game. Good news for all powerpop fans everywhere!

Official site

Myspace

DAVID BAZAN

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DAVID BAZAN Curse Your Branches (Barsuk)

Remember, Pedro the Lion? I do. Listening to PtL’s dark songs about power, corruption & lies with lyrics like ““you were too busy steering the conversation toward the lord/ To hear the voice of the spirit begging you to shut the fuck up” in Foregone Conclusions (off Achilles’ Heel), I never got the impression that PtL was your typical “Christian” band.

So how come the bulk of the press focus for the full length debut album of Bazan (the voice and brains behind PtL) is centred on Bazan’s recent crisis of faith then? Especially when a cursory glance at the lyrics of the songs on Curse Your Branches reveals an ongoing pre-occupation with the God that Bazan claims to no longer believe in. Does it really matter? Who really knows what is going on in someone’s heart and soul?

Sure, we have such priceless pearls of wisdom as – “wait just a minute/you expect me to believe/that all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree and helpless to fight it/we should all be satisfied with this magical explanation for why the living die and why it’s hard to be/hard to be, hard to be a decent human being” off the opening Hard To Be.

No better way to set the tone for Bazan’s “descent” into sacrilege, surely.

On the title track, Bazan appears to be railing at his creator when he cries – “all fallen leaves should curse their branches for not letting them decide where they should fall and not letting them refuse to fall at all”. Similarly on “When We Fell”, Bazan questions – “if you knew what would happen and made us just the same then you , my lord, can take the blame”.

You get the gist. On the closing In Stitches, Bazan sums up his current state of mind – “i might as well admit it/like i even have a choice/the crew have killed the captain/but they still can hear his voice/a shadow on the water/a whisper in the wind/on long walks with my daughter/who is lately full of questions/about you”.

Highly personal & confessional lyrics are what we all look for in our tortured singer-songwriters, isn’t it? And Bazan has certainly delivered, laying his soul bare for all to view. Doesn’t help when the music (a fine blend of country-folk-rock, electronic touches and muscular in-your-face performances – mainly by Bazan himself) is some of the most affecting, pleasing alt-rock you’re probably going to hear in 2009.

Hard to highlight favorites as the entire album deserves full attention but I would say that tracks like the rollicking Bearing Witness (that recalls Elvis Costello), the harrowing folksy Please, Baby, Please, the ethereal Neil Young-channeling Lost My Shape and of course, the spine tingling closer, In Stitches, do leave me opened mouth, misty-eyed and awed.

Yes, the back story to Curse Your Branches does give its material resonance and relevance, but beyond that as a reviewer I choose to take the album at its own merits and on that basis, it is a well-crafted musical work, with lyrical concepts that require further study and songs that bear repeat plays for maximum enjoyment. In other words, an album that amply demonstrates the Power of Pop…

My highest recommendation.

Official Site

Myspace

J. TILLMAN

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J. TILLMAN Year in the Kingdom (Western Vinyl)

You may listen to Tillman’s new offering and discover that he’s a member of Fleet Foxes and go “AHA!” But to be fair to Tillman, Year in the Kingdom is his 4th album, and he had been releasing his own singer-songwriter-centric music before becoming a Fleet Fox.

Fact is, the music on Year in the Kingdom is pretty much able to stand up to anything the Fleet Foxes has released thus far. Yeah, that’s a compliment. This album is very much a stripped down affair, with Tillman only embellishing his acoustic guitar backing with the odd exotic instrument.

Sure, it’s all rustic and rootsy, with equal parts folk of the alternative ilk and Laurel Canyon variety. Early on in the album – title track, Crosswings, Earthly Bodies – Tillman recalls Bon Iver’s best moments (not a bad thing) but on Howling Wind – with its strings, honky tonk piano and pristine harmonies, Tillman heads straight for CSN country and never looks back…

It’s all good for fans of strident folk harmonies and the art of intimate songcraft. Recommended.

Official site

Myspace

THE DEVIL MAKES THREE

The Devil Makes Three

DEVIL MAKES THREE Do Wrong Right (Milan)

When you live in a tiny tropical island in the midst of the Malay Archipelago, the stretched out parched valleys of the old westerns seem awfully far away.  Put on Do Wrong Right, though, the latest release from Santa Cruz three-man outfit The Devil Makes Three, and one is guaranteed to be instantly transported to the dusty cracked deserts of old-time America, where men who speak in gruff whiskey splinters break with their tough-guy image and invite you to join in their raucous cowpunk country romps.

The band, consisting of Pete Bernhard on guitar and vocals, Cooper McBean on guitar and banjo, and Lucia Turino on stand-up bass, is an anomaly and anachronism in today’s age of Autotuned radio, but what a delightful anachronism they are. The youth of today, born and bred on a mixture of grunge, punk rock, indie and R&B music might find themselves baffled at first listen, but closer inspection will reveal that The Devil Makes Three is just as thoroughly punk rock as anything on radio today. Simply substitute furious distorted guitars for pluck and strum acoustics, crashing drums for a stand-up bass and half-shouted singing for a warm southern drawl, and hey presto! A hillbilly punk wielding a banjo with a wicked glint in his eye and mayhem on his mind.

The record opens with All Hail, an energetic chugging rhythmic number topped off with fiddle and banjo flourishes that nonetheless manages to name-drop contemporary terms in a odd juxtaposition that works brilliantly, and sets the tone for the rest of the record. The title track is a gleeful exhortation to screw up gloriously and a tribute to the devil-may-care attitude of the old times, as is Gracefully Facedown, a drinking song updated for modern times. For Good Again is an utterly charming number that narrates the tale of a band struggling to overcome their own inertia, with laugh out loud lines like, “We drank and we threw up, sometimes we practiced and played, our drummer couldn’t figure out whether he was straight or he was gay.”

The record hits a small road bump on Johnson Family, a track that, with its European influences, sounds oddly out of place amidst all the Americana. Thankfully that road bump doesn’t last beyond one track. Help Yourself channels the good sense and sensibility of the common folk and snippets of biblical narrative into the simple reminder that “the Lord helps those who helps themselves”. The Devil Makes Three continues to reflect the sentiment of the people into Working Class Blues, a song that, with its apocalyptic streaks of howling harmonica, updates the protest song from the Great Depression into the 21st century’s own Great Recession. The somberness continues in shades until the album closer, Car Wreck, a mournful, pensive track that ends the album with a stirring reminder of the times we live in.

One will need some time to slip into and out of the charming oddball record that is Do Wrong Right, but the band should be applauded for having made old time country music relevant in this technological day and digital age. Impish, infectious, and sorrowful by turns, The Devil Makes Three reminds us that heart and soul is timeless and that good music speaks past genres and decades.

(Samuel C Wee)

Check out Devil Makes Three’s Myspace page.

GLADSHOT

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GLADSHOT Burn Up and Shine (Self released)

I love this album! Yes, it’s simple as that. Back to basics pop songcraft that maintains a consistently high quality of music and lyrics, laden with fresh sounds despite the weight of the obvious debts to the 60s and 70s. Immediately lovable yet filled with nuances that begs for repeated study, hearkening back to the time where the melange of country music and pop-rock still resided in experimental mode, full of excitement, wide-eyed optimism and unbridled enthusiasm.

References galore, boys and girls – from the classic viz. the Beatles, the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, Big Star, Blondie to the modern viz. REM, Wilco, the Jayhawks, Teenage Fanclub, Belle and Sebastian and the Elephant 6 collective – this album’s for all the ‘true’ pop kids out there.

Gladshot hails from New York and is made up of Debbie Andrews and Mike Blaxill and Burn Up and Shine is their third album (produced by John Agnello, who has worked with Sonic Youth & Hold Steady, amongst others) & is a band that the pop underground needs to champion and how!

Personal faves? All I Want is a really infectious pop ditty, Like the Angels Do is a smooth groover, American Night is a raucous country rock ‘n’ roller, Fabulous Friends is a tongue-in-cheek ode to materialism and 1961 (You Could Still Get Lost) is a spine tingling piano ballad. That said, Burn Up and Shine is an album you can listen to from beginning to end without reservation.

A shot in the arm for anyone feeling the depressing blues of a world in perpetual crisis.

Check out Gladshot’s Myspace page.

Download: All I Want

ARIEL ABSHIRE

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ARIEL ABSHIRE Excalamation Love (Darla)

This 2008 debut album from Abshire is an excellent approximation of modern alt-country-folk indie female pop in the vein of Jenny Lewis and She & Him. All well and good but here’s the kicker – Abshire is 17 years old! An astonishing fact when you consider how mature most of this debut sounds. From Abshire’s talented pipes to her world-weary (albeit from a teenage perspective) lyricism, from the spot-on catholic pop references to the austere production values, this teenager displays qualities pretty much beyond her tender years.

The highlights for me include the tautly wound Nervous, the delicate Unknown Encounter, the Dylanesque Thin Skin (see video below), the country-western Hotel Hallway and the lushly constructed Everybody Does. Yes, there are the odd raw and rough moments both in the vocal delivery and the songwriting but these are minor complaints when set up against the promise (some of it fulfilled) in these well-sung, well-written songs.

Suffice to say that Ariel Abshire is a name to look out for in the years to come.

Check out Ariel Abshire’s Myspace page.