BIG FRESH

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BIG FRESH B.F.F. (Big Fresh Forever) (Garden Gate)

I hate bands like Big Fresh!

Why?

Well, I’m annoyed by the level of pop magnificence they somehow manage to concoct in these home recordings. I detest the way the band creates these decidedly lo-fi albeit inventive pop gems with such seeming ease and much aplomb. I abhor the cute litte psychedelic touches, the electronic bleeps which make the songs all precious and spacey.

OK.

Let me put it in another way. I find it positively inspiring that so much has been achieved with (allegedly) so little. This is the bloody mythic core of pop tunesmithery – throwing the collective consciousness of pop cool (e.g. the Move, Syd-era Pink Floyd, Smile-era Beach Boys, ELO, XTC, Flaming Lips, Guided By Voices, Fountains of Wayne, Blur, even MGMT et al) into the melting pot and mixing it up!

Nothing is sacred as Big Fresh explores corny old school synths (Entertainment), psychedelic-folk (Joy Bombs #1), luscious surf harmonies (W.L.U.V.), Rhodes-channeled whimsy (Satan, No) and falsetto-tinged dirges (Heat Death of the Universe), in the supreme hope that we will cotton on to the buried treasures locked into every groove, melody line and instrumental choice. And we will…

Check out Big Fresh’s Myspace page and the video of Lost and Found (not on B.F.F.).

PAUL STEEL

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PAUL STEEL Moon Rock (Raygun)

Young singer-songwriter Paul Steel does all us music journos a favour by listing his influences inside the CD sleeve of Moon Rock. Handy, huh? Amongst them, we get the usual pop suspects viz. Brian Wilson & the Beach Boys, the Beatles, XTC, High Llamas, Super Furry Animals, Grandaddy and Supergrass. A first rate list. I must confess.

However, to these (weathered) ears, Steel seems to have omitted the most obvious inspiration of all – JELLYFISH! Yeah, the short-lived but beloved band fronted by Andy Sturmer and Roger Joseph Manning Jr that released two memorable albums, Bellybutton and Spilt Milk, in the early 90s, during the height (depths?) of grunge.

Throughout Moon Rock, the Jellyfish vibe is so pervading that you might even mistake this delightful debut LP for the long-lost 3rd Jellyfish album. Which is the best news for all fans of sophisticated pop. Don’t get me wrong. This is not a putdown of Steel’s own abilities. Neither does it take away from the achievement of Moon Rock. I’m not saying that Steel rips off or that his music is derivative of Jellyfish. Rather that Moon Rock is an album created in the spirit of Jellyfish.

In the same way that Jellyfish took the elements of classic pop-rock of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren, Supertramp, Queen and XTC to point the way forward for powerpoppers everywhere, Steel is flying the flag high for modern day proponents of this much underrated (and maligned) genre.

Favouring dense instrumentation and arrangements, melodic hooks galore, whimsical moments and trainspotting references, Moon Rock is one of those albums that true pop enthusiasts will obsess over for weeks on repeat mode, headphones on, salivating over every nuance.

Highlights are aplenty – the instrumental coda to the title track, the helium-inflected jaunty Oh No! Oh Yeah!, the softly infectious I Will Make You Disappear, the pleasing balladry of Rust & Dust, the 90s Britpop dynamism of Your Loss and the delicate beauty of Summer Song.

So exciting news for the pop underground, for I have seen the future of sophisticated pop and his name is Paul Steel.

Check out Paul Steel’s Myspace page and the video of Oh No! Oh Yeah! below.

LANE STEINBERG

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LANE STEINBERG Passion & Faith (Transparency)

If you like your music completely unique and bashfully eclectic in every possible way, then this album is right up your alley. An alley that echoes the beats and rhythms of old school jazz, Brazilian bossa nova, flights of calypso, the Grateful Dead and the Beatles. It’s almost like picking out the broken pieces of the shattered identity of someone with multiple personalities. Venturing into the variety that this album offers definitely requires an open mind.

This is Steinberg’s third solo effort having had stints as part of the equally eclectic duo Tan Sleeve. Passion & Faith comprises of 13 tracks, each burrowing into the ambience of the specific style being served with relish. Seven of which are Steinberg’s take on ethnic and rock classics that inspired him.

It begins with the first track, a cover of A Pagina Do Relampago Electrico by Beto Guedes, sung in its original language and nicely complemented by the jangly guitar riffs reminiscent of George Harrison’s licks. This is followed by the very interesting and original What Do I Do With The Rest Of My Life – co-written with R. Stevie Moore. It starts off once again with a comfortable and familiar Beatles-esque chord repetition and a catchy hook with the guys melodiously singing, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus…”. Don’t be surprised to hear a baby’s gurgling laughter mid-way through the track and just when you think it’s done, it starts again.

The next track is titled Clube Da Esquina after the legendary album by a selection of Brazilian musicians of the same name. Steinberg claims to have been floored by the album without understanding any of its lyrics and he pays tribute to it with this track sung in its native Portuguese. The rest of the tracks are truly an ecelectic (have I used the word enough?) mix of calypso with Two Bananas, country/blue grass with Equatorial (sung again in it’s native language), psychedelic rock with How Insensitive originally a Brazilian song but covered by Sinatra in English and it’s this version that Steinberg chose to do.

The title track Paixao E Fe (which translates to Passion & Faith) originally a Brazilian number as well and sung in Portuguese once again, in the likes of the Fab Four with psychedelic movements, complete with Harpsichords and harmonies.

Worthy of special mention is the very accurate take on Grateful Dead’s Dark Star, down to the vocals, the guitar work and the atmospheric echoes of the organ. This track just barely hits the 21 minute mark and it is quite the trip. Steinberg is a self confessed Deadhead.

An encouraging effort by Steinberg and definitely not for the masses but it does tatefully satisfy and calm the growing few who have embraced the wide and unconventional direction that music is heading towards. To quote Steinberg on his thoughts about the album, “I suppose most people’s eyes will simply glaze over at the eclecticism contained within this new CD. I can’t blame them, really. I have long made a career out of shooting myself in the foot, so why make things easier now?”. Enough said.

Check out Lane Steinberg’s Myspace page.

PATRICK WOLF

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PATRICK WOLF The Bachelor (Bloody Chamber)

What was meant to be a double disc album titled Battle has become two separate offerings by Patrick Wolf, a 25 year old, English singer songwriter and multi talented musician playing the harp, clavinet, harpsichord, guitar, piano, autoharp, organ, mountain dulcimer, clavichord, harmonium, accordion, theremin, ukulele, spoons, harmonica, mandolin, viola, and violin, among others. He has decided to release his epic musical cum rock, techno, electronic, indie, celtic themed opera storyline with The Bachelor (to be released on June 1 2009)  and The Conqueror (to be released in 2010). Wolf had gained international success with his previous album, The Magic Position (2007).

The Bachelor boasts of 14 artistically refined tracks which span from the cinematic promise of Middle Earth’s landscape, the futuristic beats and electric disco sensations of a psychedelic space age, to the gothic musings of a lonely drifter, who can easily be substituted for a modern day teenager. The album, originally conceived with political themes shifted focus to the depression experienced by Wolf while on tour. However, before entering the studio, he fell in love, changing the direction of the album again, and eventually providing enough material for two releases.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make out of this album when I caught a glimpse of the cover and of the titles of the tracks listed. But once the first track Kriespiel began, the 47 second intro set the tone for the amazing narrative that started to unfold. Again, this is in every way a soundtrack album for me. I don’t know how else to describe the beautiful eastern ethnic strings of the Sitar, complementing the clear and manifesting voice of Tilda Swinton (the actress) echoing Wolf’s deep, passionate and melodious pleas on the 12th track: Theseus. Swinton is featured as the “voice of hope”, the narrator on four tracks of the album. Wolf’s list of collaborations on the album also include, Alec Empire from Atari Teenage Rioter, electronic maestro Matthew Herbert, folkie Eliza Carthy and classical musician Thomas Bloch.

The first single of the album, Vulture opens with a snazzy feel of the post-disco, retro eighties hook and I’m already sold. Again, this is a one off in the genre pool explored throughout the album – because it immediately follows with the stirrings of a soft, piano ballad of Blackdown, building up slowly and beautifully with claps, drums, violins and winds down again with the lonely notes of the piano.

The Bachelor is an ambitious, complex yet sophisticated presentation of an amazing musical and narrative journey. I have to say that I was impressed with this album. Wolf’s music is perhaps best described in Tilda Swinton’s words in relation to working with him on this album – “His music feels like the unexpressed soundtrack of a great film I want to see — and try to catch every night before I go to sleep. It’s a lovely thing to be a part of that magical landscape.”

This is one artiste and the first of two albums to look out for if you enjoy musical storytelling and fantasy laden escapades with an assortment of genres all packed in one amazing production.

Check out Wolf’s Myspace page

ANDREW RIPP

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ANDREW RIPP 50 Miles to Chicago (Self released)

As far as endorsements go, they don’t come much more impressive than one by Audioslave and Rage Against The Machine guitarist, Tom Morello. It makes it even more impressive when the artist in question is a soulful funk riffer who comfortably incorporates jazz, funk, soul and slick R&B into his brand of pop-rock. Muses Morello in his blog, “He sounded great…like a mix between Ray LaMontagne and someone else I can’t quite put my finger on…” We’re talking about Chicago native Andrew Ripp, who debuted last year with his first album, 50 Miles To Chicago.

Produced by former Tonic bassist Dan Lavery, 50 Miles To Chicago is a collection of heartfelt songs that sound readily comfortable for Top 40 airplay. Album starter Get Your Smile On is infectiously funky and energetic with a bouncing bass, light keyboard flourishes and a confident vocal performance that assuredly straddles the middle ground between Jason Mraz and Anthony Kiedis. 3rd on the track listing finds Tim’s Song, a quieter piano-driven track strongly reminiscent of Gavin DeGraw, while hints of cowpunk find their way onto It’s All Good, from where the album takes its title.

It should be noted too that the talented Mr. Ripp is no stranger to a good hook. On  The Privileged Life, a track that makes a strong case for best track of the album, the Caribbean rhythms are incredibly infectious in that odd sort of manner where your body feels like its been taken over and you can’t stop yourself from moving to the beat. Throw in a snarling vocal, stirring lyrics and inspired, gleeful instrumental breaks and you have a winner. Unfortunately the album takes a detour into filler blandness after the genius of Privileged Life. The Gavin DeGraw influence makes a return together with shades of Train on Lifeline, a song that is a tad too MOR for my taste. The same goes for Just Another Song About California, a song title ironic in its self-fulfilment. Thankfully, however, the record picks up towards the end with the inspired bluesy You Saved My Life, a rollicking rocker drenched in gospel choruses. Dresden Wine finishes the album on a somber yet awfully emotional note, as Ripp holds nothing back and sings his heart out.

I’m going to stick my head out and predict that we’ll seeing a lot more of this fella in years to come as well as hearing him on our airwaves. Andrew Ripp marries a  strong, soulful and expressive voice with a fine ear for a pop hook and an inspired invention in arrangement. He’s harder than Mraz, looser than Mayer and edgier than Maroon 5, and I wouldn’t like to be the one who bets against him becoming just as popular as any of the aforementioned. One to watch out for.

(Samuel C Wee)

Check out Andrew Ripp’s Myspace page.

Video of Dresden Wine live in the studio below.

OCEANSHIP

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OCEANSHIP s/t (Self-released)

Inevitably, when discussing piano (or keyboards)-based music in modern times, it’s virtually impossible not to raise the spectre of Coldplay, the Fray and Keane into the conversation. Which in my view, doesn’t mode too well for this particular genre. Maybe I’m biased and old-fashioned but I used to enjoy it when piano-based music meant Elton John, Billy Joel or even Ben Folds. So where does that leave Canadian duo Oceanship?

Consisting of singer Brad Lyons and pianist Carly Paradis, both hailing from differents parts of Ontario, Canada, after having hooked up via a newspaper ad (yeah, cliched but what better way do you know?).

With a self-titled EP under the duo’s collective belts, and touring China extensively in 2006/2007, Oceanship’s debut album is a sophisticated work with well-crafted songs embellished with thoughtful arrangements and tasteful production. That said, the majority of the songs here cannot escape the references to the above mentioned bands, especially in the falshetto chorus of Excited, the familiar lanquid vibe of Don’t Wear Me Out and the epic, pseudo-classical Go.

The highlight for me is Hotblack (video below), where Lyons channels Peter Gabriel and the point of reference is more 80s, and the listener is captured by irresistible melodies and harmonies and a singalong chorus hook.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong in Oceanship trading in the soundscape of their sonic environment and certainly, there’s enough substance in tracks like the melancholy Anywhere At All, the fragile Wait For Me and the atmospheric Mistake to suggest that there’s much more to Oceanship than their influences. In fact, a concerted effort to pierce the veil will reveal nods to Pink Floyd, The Blue Nile and Rachael Yamagata. All good in my book!

A confident debut from a duo to keep a close eye on.

Check out Oceanship’s Myspace page.