BLACK LABEL SOCIETY

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BLACK LABEL SOCIETY Skullage DVD + CD collectors’ edition (Eagle Rock)

It’s easy to chuckle and snigger at heavy metal, with its cartoony imagery, leather uniforms and its creed of “faster and louder” but scrape beneath the superficial and like any other genre of music, you will find genuine artists who are simply good at what they do i.e. entertain and provoke thought.

I must confess that when I received this DVD + CD package in the mail, I laughed out loud. It took me a while to give it a go but here’s the review, better late then never. For someone who grew up on Deep Purple, Led Zepellin, Rainbow, Mountain, KISS, Rush, Budgie et al, you can bet I appreciate a tasty riff now and then but always leavened with melody, where possible.

Now Zakk Wylde, the brains behind BLS, is probably best known as the guitar sidesman of Ozzy Osbourne and judging from the cover artwork of skulls, killer dogs, beer and guns, I expected non-stop headbanging stereotypes to be ripping from the get-go. Instead, the opening scene on the DVD is Wylde on stage (somewhere in France) alone with a freakin’ acoustic guitar singing Spoke in the Wheel! Sure, the rest of BLS join Wylde at the end for a terribly loooong solo but hey, it sure got my attention. And of course, the rest of the live performances and videos revert to type somewhat.

Then, I slot in the CD compilation and I’m hit with two Southern Rock numbers – Machine Gun Man and Dead As Yesterday – with the latter track an absolute killer with acoustic guitar and cello (!) and a chorus that goes – “Oh Lord, can you help me find some shelter” and a string accompaniment that will touch you! And no guitar solo?!! What the hell is going on? Heh. The rest of the CD delivers blistering metal with 13 Years of Grief, Doomsday Jesus and Suicide Messiah. Pretty fine old school metal in fact.

But… the icing on the cake is the interview section where we find out a little more (too much?) about Wylde. He talks about his friendship with the late Dimebag Darrell Abbott, the stories behind the songs, his obsession with Barbie dolls and his penchant for wearing pretty dresses. Definitely someone who isn’t taking himself or his music too seriously (those Black Metal blokes may wanna take note!).

So, despite initial reservations, I would recommend this package to all metal & non-metal fans purely to enjoy honest-to-goodness rock music without pretensions or arrogance. Good enough for me.

Check out Black Label Society’s Myspace page.

YEAH YEAH YEAHS

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YEAH YEAH YEAHS It’s Blitz! (Polydor/Universal)

New York trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs viz. Karen O (vocals), Brian Chase (Drums) & Nick Zinner (everything else), have been on a upward spiral ever since they self-released their debut self-titled EP in 2001 (which incidentally hit #1 on the UK Indie Chart). In the course of eight years they have released 2 more EPs (Machine and Is Is) and 2 albums (Fever To Tell, Show Your Bones) to critical acclaim and commercial success.

It isn’t difficult to understand why. Riding the early wave of the post-punk revival, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ undeniable hip and cool factor, irresistibly melodic synth dance pop and of course, hot front woman in Karen O is a potent recipe for sustained universal (no pun intended) acceptance. The serious rock enthusiast can obsess on the band’s uncanny knack of referencing all the right post-punk influences whilst the casual pop listener will be thrilled to the tunes and simply dance along. Critics have suggested that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs provide a comfortable middle ground between the Killers and MGMT and they’re not too far off the mark.

Karen O has remarked that It’s Blitz is a change in direction for the band, as it continues to grow and mature. Well, the dance pop is still well in evidence, as showcased in the opening two dynamic singles – Zero and Heads Will Roll, which I’m sure you’ve already heard on the radio and elsewhere. For crucial portions of It’s Blitz, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to their immense credit, expand their palette to include slower, deeper songs that allow the pace and atmosphere to dictate the sound. On these tracks e.g. Dull Life, Shame and Fortune and Runaway, the style is almost Gothic, with Karen O coming across like a very modern-day Siouxsie Sioux (of the Banshees).

That said, the finer moments of It’s Blitz, are encapsulated in sweet indie pop goodies like the hypnotic Soft Shock, the gorgeous Irish soulful Skeletons, the new wavy Dragon Queen, the shimmering Hysteric and the fragile nearly alt-country-folky Little Shadow. Included in this CD are four bonus tracks of the band in acoustic mode – Soft Shock, Skeletons, Hysteric and Little Shadow. Which is always the sign of a band confident of their songs to be able to stand up even without the bells and whistles of full instrumentation. But of course, in this case, the guitars are embellished by lush strings, and that never hurts. For once, the songs live up to the “bonus” tag.

If after 400-odd words, you don’t feel the urge to acquire this stellar album by all means necessary, then I have failed to do the Yeah Yeah Yeahs justice. Believe me, It’s Blitz contains some of the best new music I’ve heard this year.

Check out Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Myspace page.

Video of Yeah Yeah Yeahs performing Heads Will Roll and Zero below.

CAMERA OBSCURA

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CAMERA OBSCURA My Maudlin Career (4AD)

Fans of this amazing Scottish band (and there are a handful that I personally know) can finally rejoice – their fourth and latest album My Maudlin Career was officially released last week. I’m fairly new to this brand of indie pop and was admittedly swept long with the tide of success from their pivotal previous album, Let’s Get Out of This Country (2006).

Having immersed myself in their warm and at times upbeat latest offering, I must confess that although it’s not a far stretch from their previous album, it does strongly charter a bolder presence lyrically and melodically. Even with a switch in their record label, the band wisely chose to work again with Swedish producer Jari Haapalainen (The Concretes, Peter, Björn & John). Probably attributing to some of the tracks being reminiscent of the previous album.

However the key element amidst Haapalainen’s masterful touch of layering the keyboards, horns and being very liberal with the saturation of echoes, is Tracyanne Campbell’s vocals. The band has been celebrated for connecting with its audience on a very personal level and this is largely due to Campbell’s ability to draw you into her world with her vulnerable, wistful voice and her first person narrative of situations, incidents, going as far as walking you through the stages of decisions made.

The album opens with its perky first single, French Navy, complete with hooks of string and horn arrangements. This is strongly followed by the harmonious The Sweetest Thing with Campbell sounding almost like Dusty Springfield as she sings “I’m going on a date tonight, to try to fall out of love with you..”. One can safely assume that the lyrical stance taken on all the tracks is one of a very personal nature. From start to finish, I found myself relating very strongly to Campbell’s dischanted/sensitive view of relationships and the manner in which they were conveyed. Not succumbing to the deluge of melancholy that might have easily been the album’s selling point, Camera Obsura instead builds a connection that eventually validates our voyeuristic tendencies and keeps it in check with Campbell’s sarcasm and wit in her lyrics.

My favourite tracks of the album are Away with Murder which begins with muffled drums and haunting keyboards. The very ballady and catchy James, which speaks of ex-partners missing the connection shared but dealing with the choices made – reminiscent of one of their earlier songs aptly titled, The Last Song. The title track My Maudlin Career opens with a beautiful early sixties feel to it and keeps it going with the help of raindrop-like notes from the keyboard and early Clapton-esque guitar style towards the end. The rest of the tracks have a pleasant Cowboy Junkies type aura to them save for the last track of the album Honey In the Sun which comes full circle, ending things perfectly with the same pace as the first track.

All in all this 11 track album moves at a pace much slower than the band’s previous one but what it sets the tone from the start so there aren’t any unpleasant surprises. Dare I say it, My Maudlin Career is fuller and richer and simmers with the maturity that can only come from a band that knows its audience.

(Charlotte Lourdes)

Check out their Myspace page

CHEWY MARBLE

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Brian Kassan formed power poppers Chewy Marble in 1995. In the years since, the band has been fairly active in the pop underground releasing two albums. New album Modulations – six years in the making – is perhaps its best so far. As expected, it draws from the usual power pop influences which any keen observer of the pop undergroung would be familiar with. That said, in order to appreciate Chewy Marble and Modulation, one has to realize that most of the material here are slow-burners. They may lack the immediency of Sloan (or even the energy) but careful repeated listens wil reveal nuggets of melodic inspiration.

Highlights include the twisting tune of Cross-Hatched World, the 70s rock-channelling Black and White, the psych-folk Picture the Finger and bossa nova XTC referencing instrumental Mental Toothache. Be warned though, much of the repertoire showcased on Modulations sound unfinished in terms of arrangements, almost to the point of coming across like demos in parts. Which is the only serious reservation I’ve always had about Chewy Marble – great musical ideas and concepts but somehow lacking in the final execution.

Strictly for fans of the band and the genre.

Check out Chewy Marble’s Myspace page.

THE QUEERS

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THE QUEERS Alive in Hollyweird (Punk Rock Social)

A 32 track album that captures the band’s 2007 performance in LA was released with the DVD of the live show on March 24. The reason why they could fit 32 tracks on one CD – as any hardcore punk enthusiast would know, each live track is less than 3 minutes long, blending perfectly from one track to the next in organized chaos.

These guys love their Ramones and their Black Flag and its clearly evident in their tight, fast and melodic set. The brainchild of the band Joe Queer, is the only original member since its birth in 1982 – with roughly 30 changes in the band’s lineup since then. The band officially broke up in 1984 and had a new lease of life when Queer rounded up yet another new line up in 1990 and has been kicking it since then.

Word of caution though, these guys aren’t your anarchy-fused Sex Pistols with the angst of a whole generation screaming out in violence and pain. They have often been cited as representing punk with a combination of the legendary Ramones with the melodic chord repetition of the Beach Boys. So if you had always been afraid to experiment with Punk as we know it, The Queers would prove to be the baby steps that you need, before you delve deeper into the glorious abyss of desolation.

Granted the tracks are about the essential subjects of drugs, sex, waste and hate but it’s packaged in such a manner that you would be singing along to the tracks before realizing that this wouldn’t be an album you would be playing out loud when your folks are visiting. Think MXPX or NOFX but with old school tributes to the pioneers and a hint of Dropkick Murphys’ bouyant vocal stylings.

Check out The Queers’ Myspace page.

An Interview with Joe Queer is here: Let Purity Ring

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.

AU REVOIR SIMONE

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AU REVOIR SIMONE Still Night, Still Light (Label – US: Our Secret Record Company / UK: Moshi Moshi Records)

Let me start off by confessing that I’m a huge fan of synth-pop infused tracks. Its one of the many marks of growing up in the eighties I guess. A reason why I’m hooked on this album.

It’s delectable and delivers warm, powerful electronic melodies fused with ethereal female voices – soothingly. The best way to describe the emotions invoked is to allow you a glimpse of the images running through my mind as the album unfolded into a flurry of pop sweetness. Floating on clouds and breaking out into a ballet jump from one cloud to another with the track Only You Can Make You Happy. Other images emerging throughout the album ranged from a slide show of foggy castles with moats at breakneck speed to sinking languidly with arms outstretched into a pond of beautiful lilies with sunlight breaking through the water between the gigantic lily pads. Love it.

Three ladies with three keyboards, a drum machine and their ethereal melodic voices is what Au Revoir Simone is about. Formed in Brooklyn, New York in 2003 and having had considerable success with their first effort – Verses of Comfort, Assurance & Salvation (2005) and the critically acclaimed The Bird of Music (2007), the band have remained true to their originality and have not added anything unsavoury to their pot of electronic mastery. You might have heard their tracks on TV dramas such as Ugly Betty, Grey’s Anatomy, etc.

If you like your Kings of Convenience and Stereolab, with a touch of mellow, a hint of melancholy and a breath of fresh, clean air – these ladies will fix you up nicely.

Produced by Thom Monahan (Vetiver, Little Joy), and recorded in various studios between Brooklyn – New York and Los Angeles, Still Night, Still Light will be released on their own label – Our Secret Record Company on May 19th. Au Revoir Simone will be playing this year’s SXSW (South by SouthWest), with a Still Night, Still Light supporting tour throughout the States till end of June.

(Charlotte Lourdes)

Check out their Myspace page.

PJ HARVEY & JOHN PARISH

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PJ HARVEY & JOHN PARISH A Woman A Man Walked By (Island/Universal)

This is as pure a collaboration as one could get. Producer John Parish is responsible for all the music on A Woman A Man Walked By (writing and instrumentation) and PJ Harvey is responsible for all vocals and lyrics. This album is Harvey/Parish’s second collaborative effort and there is little doubt that the duo make an impeccable team.

The ten songs on A Woman A Man Walked By are suitably visceral, spiritual, earthy and other-worldly. Going by Harvey’s track record for gritty, in-your-face fare, that comes as little surprise. Parish brings all his know-how and technique to the table with soundscapes that match the intensity of Harvey’s words and delivery.

To the duo’s credit, despite the thematic consistency, the musical styles are varied enough to keep things interesting. The opening Black Hearted Love (video below) has enough hooks and melodic riffs to keep the casual indie-pop fan engaged. The more discerning listener will find their tastes intrigued and challenged with the rootsy Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen, the quirky Leaving California, the austere The Soldier, the emotion-shredding pscyh-out of Pig Will Not and the glassy atonal Passionless, Pointless.

Fans of PJ Harvey, A Woman A Man Walked By may contain the strongest set of tracks Harvey has been involved with since 2000’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

CLAIRE DENAMUR

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CLAIRE DENAMUR Le Prince Charmant (Source Etc)

The excitement that overwhelmed me when I got to review this album was indescribable. It’s not everyday one gets to enjoy and review French music. So bear with me while I walk you through the eclectic offering of this emerging French artiste – because you won’t be able to find anything else on her unless you comprehend French.

Denamur credits the variety in her music to her mixed family background – an Argentinian mother and a French-Dutch father and spending her early childhood in Toronto and then in upstate New York. Her influences range from Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd to Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. These influences are evident on her album, which makes it such a treat because she has a vulnerable, pristine quality to her voice.

The title of the album literally translates to “The Prince Charming” and all ten tracks on the album explore themes of attraction, love and disillusion but with gentleness and at a whimsical pace that you’ll feel the music embrace you while De Namur soothes you through it all.

Worthy of mention is Je Me Sens Nue (I Feel Naked), a track where Denamur likens to how she feels when she’s performing – stripped down/transparent and giving everything she has. The track itself sounds chirpy and has an easy flow of a modern jazz feel.

Another track Mal Aimee (Evil Aimee), echos of a beautiful Spanish guitar which cues in this stripped down, quiet South American ballad, complete with harmonious vocals. Elio, the last track of the album is in a similar vein, it goes a step further with its tropical feel and Denamur’s vocals serving as a melodious lullaby.

My personal favourite is the second track from the album, Ah les Hommes (Ah Men). The bluegrass feel of this track is a hauntingly beautiful ode to men.

Le Prince Charmant is out now and should be on your list if you like jazzy, bluesy European fusion and French flair with your glass of wine.

(Charlotte Lourdes)

Check out Claire’s Myspace page. Video of Prince Charmant follows.

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.

ALLIGATORS

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ALLIGATORS Piggy & Cups (Applehouse Records)

This five piece band from Seattle is anything but grungy. Saccharine and dreamy, indie pop is what they’re all about. Probably a tad too sweet for my taste but props has to be given to these guys for coming up with a clean, marketable album. And by clean, I mean catchy hooks, vocals that exude lyrics one can easily decipher and a neat arrangement on every track that enables you to visually picture each instrument on its own. Nicely done.

This debut album was recorded at Death Cab for Cutie’s Jason McGerr’s studio and at the band’s residence. All 11 tracks on the album mix it up and refrain from sticking to a particular formula with regards to key changes and unexpected falsetto anguish. Influenced by Radiohead and The Beach Boys among others, it’s the Radiohead influence that comes through with the opening guitar riffs on a couple of the tracks on this album. The stand out track for most has been “If you want to”, although I wasn’t too taken by it as much as I was with their opening track “Where does it hide”. The latter reminded me of one of the many themes of TV shows from the early 80’s, before it steps into a darker level and then nicely grooves into a modern jazz layer, complete with a hypnotic bass in the background.

Kristian Arper and the boys explore various styles on this one album, even within a single track. Ambitious but does it pay off? Considering it’s a crisp, melodic pop offering, it certainly does.

Check out Alligators’ Myspace page.

TONY COX

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TONY COX Unpublished (Self-released)

When I received this CD in the post, I was pretty impressed by the cover and then mystified by the following note in the sleeve –

“I’m a Songwriter looking for a good home for my songs. So if you’re a music publisher, artist, producer, manager or record company… and you hear potential. I’d love to hear from you!”

So… Unpublished is not a proper album? Apparently not. But really, boys and girls, Unpublished is a collection of tracks worthy enough for one of those year-end lists. Perhaps mine.

These eleven songs represent some of the best British pop songwriting I’ve had the pleasure to listen to in quite a while. Singer Nigel Clark’s Lennonesque vocals does tend to give the songs a welcome Beatlesque edge and a powerful 70s vibe but hey, I’m certainly not complaining. It’s almost as if you’ve stumbled on a classic pop-rock jukebox in some alternative reality where hit songs like Sweet Elaine, Jamelia, Welcome To My World and Show Me Your Love rule the world. Fans of classic tunesmithery of the Britpop variety will no doubt enjoy Unpublished. Step aside, Noel Gallangher, the jig is up. Let Tony Cox should you what quality songwriting is all about…

Check out Tony’s Myspace page.

METRIC

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METRIC Fantasies (Self released)

Emily Haines and her band have been around since 1998 and they have had three full albums under their belt since 2003. Their fourth and latest offering – Fantasies, has this Canadian outfit taking a step back to reevaluate the current state of the world, the current state of mind of individuals and questions that the insightful are often plagued with.

In her own words, “This new record was about ending the fragmentation of my existence, Everything in the world right now—all the technology, the way we listen to music or watch films—everything has changed so much in my lifetime. People are allowed to have multiple identities—you’re somebody online, you’re somebody else in public—in multiple dimensions, scattered across the world … I wanted to bring all that into one place, one band, one records … I want to be one person.” – Emily Haines.

The album makes way for a synth-charged, new wave aura imprinted on all the tracks. The one constant though is of course Haines’ clear and crisp vocals that dips and resurfaces with an androgynous quality. The poppy dance beats, booming organ, flowing synths, choppy guitar riffs (courtesy of Jimmy Shaw) and heavy bass feels like you’re taking a dip into the pool of The Strokes, Yeah, Yeah Yeahs, Muse and for those old enough to remember – the quirky and brilliant Oingo Boingo.

Their first track and single Help I’m Alive, sucks you right in and keeps you on your toes till halfway through the album when the opening notes of Twilight Galaxy kicks in – reminiscent of the new-wave punk era of the late seventies. The slow melting ride is almost psychedelic with Haines’ reflective words, “there’s no glitter in the gutter, there’s no twilight galaxy….”.

Worthy of mention is Gimme Sympathy, a track with an infectious melody, steady beats and with a chorus that asks, “Gimme sympathy, after all this is gone, who would you rather be, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones..”. The band is on a path which illuminates filtering out the fantasies that cloud, yet embracing the ones that inspire.

Fantasies was released on April 14 & will cater to both fans and ardent music lovers discovering Metric for the first time.

An Interview with Emily and Jimmy and a collection of their acoustic performances is available here: Spin – Metric Unplugged.

(Charlotte Lourdes)

Check out Metric’s Myspace page.

RACHAEL YAMAGATA – LIVE IN SINGAPORE

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Sometimes I get really jealous. The kids nowadays get to catch their favorite foreign bands every week performing in Singapore. In the 70s, if we wanted to do the same, we had to rely on the odd concert movie coming to town e.g. Led Zep’s Song Remains the Same & Urgh!!! A Music War (featuring post-punk bands in USA/UK).

Better late than never. Rachael Yamagata can hardly be described as a classic 70s rocker or even old school. But believe me when I say that at the end of the glorious post-modern blues-rocking Sunday Afternoon, I had tears in my eyes. From Yamagata’s impassioned vocals to guitarist Michael Chaves’ screaming licks & Oliver Krauss’ atmospheric cello, I felt transported to a classic Pink Floyd concert in the 70s.

Yamagata had arrived in Singapore with a bit of a cold and depsite her profuse apologies, her vocal performance was not lacking in any way. I marveled at her sense of dedication to and passion for her craft as she put heart and soul into every word. The set list basically consisted of songs from her two albums and would veer wildly from the chamber pop of Elephants, Be Be Your Love and What If I Leave to the alt-rock posturing of Faster, Accident and Sidedish Friend. Personally, I prefered the former as her fledging attempts at rocking out did not strike me as unique. However, her ballads tugged at the heart strings effortlessly channeling the likes of Carole King and Karen Carpenter. Yeah, old school!

Still I have to go back to that final pre-encore song Sunday Afternoon, which to my amazement actually upped the ante from the recorded version. I was simply transfixed by Yamagata’s ability to coax her battered larynx (after 90 minutes plus of singing) into new heights. Spaced out, blissed out, emotionally resonant – everything the best rock music should be. Kudos to Rachael Yamagata for being the consummate professional, a super trouper but without sacrificing her humanity or sense of humour at any second. Quite possibly, one of the best concerts I have ever attended.

PS. Warm applause to me mates, Jack & Rai, for their short opening set, which entertained and pleased the crowd. Certainly, the boys proved that they could do justice to the occassion. Only matter of them before Jack & Rai headline their own gig at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Mark my words!

NB. I must say that there was a bloody idiot who happened to be sitting in front of me and this philistine could be heard muttering and complaining that Jack & Rai were taking to the stage. I have no problem with someone not liking Jack & Rai but to petulantly shout “No!” and throwing a mini-tantrum in his seat is just puerile behavior. More than that, I was pretty certain that this twit’s main objection was that Jack & Rai were Singaporean. I hope that this kind of colonial attitude is now in the minority and will one day be consiged to the darkest past.

Picture by Joanna.

NEIL YOUNG

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NEIL YOUNG Fork in the Road (Reprise)

Not entirely sure what to make of this latest offering from the legendary singer-songwriter. Fork in the Road is apparently a concept album about Young’s attempts together with biodiesel pioneer Johnathan Goodwin to develop a commercially viable electric power system for automobiles.  The prototype Lincvolt vehicle, Young’s own 1959 Lincoln Continental, is now completely finished, and a documentary is planned about the car’s first cross-country gasoline-free road trip to Washington, DC. for automobiles.

All well and good but what kind of album does all this make for. Better than you’d think. Without even bothering with the lyrics and themes, Fork in the Road is filled with good old fashioned rock n roll Neil Young stlye. Which is fine by me. I love the music’s pure and primal quality – it sounds like Young and band in a rehearsal jamming away. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Young’s backing band features all the usual suspects – Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, Chad Cromwell and the missus, Pegi Young. And this provides the comfortable bedrock from which Young springboards his own musical journeys. To be honest, I find the lyrics a little forced at times although in songs like the lone acoustic number Light A Cradle – “Instead of cursing the darkness/Light a candle for where we’re goin'” – rather inspirational for these depressed times.

The rest of Fork in the Road is suitably ragged with songs that pay tribute to Goodwin (“Johnny Magic”), songs about aging (“The Road”), songs chronicling Young’s trip (“When Worlds Collide”) and the current economic crisis (“Cough Up the Bucks”). It ain’t perfect but it’s still Neil Young and if you’re a fan, then you’ll know what to expect. If you’re not a fan, I’ll suggest you check out his 70s albums first and then work your way slowly to Fork in the Road.

Check out Neil Young’s Myspace page and a video of The Road below.

Neil Young – Fork In The Road

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.

FAITHLESS – LIVE IN MOSCOW DVD

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FAITHLESS Live in Moscow-Greatest Hits

I guess if you’re a fan of Faithless or electronica in general, you’re going to enjoy this live DVD. Although in this context, I’m not sure whether the “electronica” tag applies here. After all, apart from the mandatory electronic keyboards, there’s a full band viz. electric guitar, bass, drums, percussion and even mini-string orchestra providing the music. So to all intents and purposes, it’s probably most accurate to describe this live recording as a rock concert, in every sense of that term.

Which is fine with me, as I’ve always felt that pure electronica is a little tough to deliver in the context of a rock concert format. Certainly, no problems with the typical dance music that is presented here with its usual obligatory nods to Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk and the 80s synth pop pioneers of course. In addition, Faithless also indulge in a little reggae-ska workout at times, which is also cool.

I’m not familiar with these songs but taken at face value, there’s enough variation to recommend this live DVD to folks who may not strictly be fans of Faithless and/or electronica.

RACHAEL YAMAGATA – LIVE IN SINGAPORE

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With her sophomore effort Elephants… Teeth Sinking into Heart, Rachael Yamagata re-defined herself. From the ballad-heavy agenda that populated her debut Happenstance to the edgier model that emerges on this double-album, Yamagata is definitely taping into the so-called “rock” side of her musical persona.

Sure, you still have the spine-tingling, ornate orch-pop exercises like the opening title track and What If I Leave, both of which contain such memorable & sublime tunes. But by the time one gets to Sunday Afternoon, with its awe-inspiring Pink Floyd touches, orchestral blues atmosphere and Yamagata’s own breathless vocal delivery, one realizes that Yamagata is crossing an artistic threshold.

And with the 2nd disc – Teeth Sinking into Heart – the electric guitars come to the fore, the drumming ups the ante and even Yamagata’s vocals favours a gruffier style to present a totally different aspect. Personally, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s good to see Yamagata breaking out of her own (and that of the media/fanbase) mould. Nothing ground-breaking, mind you, as many other female rock singers-songwriters (notably Chrissie Hynde/Pretenders) have travelled this road many times but tracks like Faster and Don’t make for intriguing listening.

Me? I’m more interested in the transitional material between the poles, like the aforementioned Sunday Afternoon and Horizon, with its Beatlesque undertones & country-folk underpinnings. I’m looking forward to hearing these songs live with a cellist in tow. And of course, I will, come next Wednesday, 15th April at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

Tickets available at SISTIC.

THE LION STORY

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THE LION STORY Self-titled (Self-released)

In days of yore, this debut 7-track release from The Lion Story would probably have been a hot demo cassette. But with the advances in technology and lower recording costs, it is now possible for a newbie band like The Lion Story to self-release their own CD. Which in this case, at any rate, is a good thing.

The first thing that strikes a listener about The Lion Story is the “old-school” melodies and harmonies, which is unusual for a Singapore band in their twenties. Greatly welcomed, because bands who write and perform good ol’ fashioned pop-rock in Singapore are an endangered species.

There are some absolute gems on this debut EP, notably the opening track, Stars & the World, which is probably one of the best Beatlesque pop songs I’ve heard on these shores since maybe the sixties. Melodic hooks, pristine harmonies and tasteful arrangements permeate this track. Another highlight is Something’s Going On – featuring Don Richmond – and consequently possesses a stronger mainstream vibe. The rest of this EP does not match up but are still worth checking out.

In the S-ROCK scheme of things, The Lion Story reminds me of a more polished Oddfellows or Ordinary People and if the guys (viz. Amin, Khair and Haffiz) work hard enough and make the right moves, may even scale the heights of Couple, the powerpop kings from across the Causeway. That remains to be seen. But simply based on the promise of Stars & the World, the Lion Story is certainly a band to keep a close watch on.

Check out The Lion Story’s Myspace page.

THE FIVE CORNERS QUINTET

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THE FIVE CORNERS QUINTET Hot Corner (Ricky-Tick)

Tuomas Kallio, DJ, Producer and founder of The Five Corner Quintet, believes that everyone is a Jazz fan….it’s just that they don’t know it. Not wanting to disagree with him too much there, but I am most definitely not a Jazz fan, and I am pretty certain that I know it. So when Hot Corner landed in my ‘To Do’ pile of reviews I cannot say that I looked at it with a great deal of enthusiasm. Jazz is just a genre that has never taken root in my soul and given me any kind of yearning to be part of the whole scene or even an innocent bystander on the pavement as the parade passes me by. I am not opposed to Jazz, I don’t hate it or wish that it would fall off the planet like Miley Cyrus and her kind with their safe pop/rock for the ‘Tweens’, but I don’t think about listening to it in my spare time either.

I am going off track though, I simply wanted to point out that if you are looking for a review that can delve into the influences and meaning behind T.F.C.Q. then stop right now, this is not the review for you. It is not even a review that will end with a cathartic seeing of the light from myself and a declaration on my part that Jazz is precisely what I have been missing all of my life. I am simply saying excuse my ignorance, but this is a review by someone who is not all that bothered about Jazz, so if you find it lacking in comparison and depth that is why.

So who are T.F.C.Q and why are they here? Well as mentioned before, Tuomas Kallio decided it was time that the world found Jazz again and decided that this rebirth would start in Helsinki. So in 2005 he formed T.F.C.Q. and with some of Helsinki’s finest released Chasin’ the Jazz Gone By on Ricky-Tick Records to much acclaim. Kallio used his experience as a DJ on the dancefloor to breath some modern life into Jazz, not through updating it with beats and other gimics, but simply introducing a new flavor to the genre, and that is what he has tried to achieve again with Hot Corner.

I do have to say one thing about Hot Corner right from the offset; it does get your foot tapping. Easy Diggin and Rich in Time are both numbers that it is literally impossible not to at least have a quick nod of the head to. This doesn’t convert me people, I have tapped to Britney Spears and much worse in the past, but it does show that the aim of the album is hitting it’s mark by reaching out to the roots of the founding member. I cannot deny the repetitiveness sometimes spoiled my enjoyment while listening, Habib’s Habit especially had me gritting my teeth and taking longing glances at the timer of the track, but overall what was offered on ‘Hot Corner’ seemed to have a fresh quality to it.

Adding some heavyweight backing to the project, as he did on T.F.C.Q.’s debut album, is Mark Murphy. His voice fits the two numbers he sings on perfectly and opens proceedings on Come and Get Me, a sleazy, slick track that shuffles through it’s verse and chorus with ease. The second song he appears on is ‘Kerouac Days in Montana’ which is nowhere near as good as the first song, the vocals are more than competent but they appear to not be at ease with the music.

Overall I did enjoy Hot Corner, it was catchy enough to hold my attention and certainly I think someone who has more than a passing interest in Jazz as a whole will really go for this band. As I said and stated at the beginning though, although it is a good album and the musicianship is very high I would not think about going back to it. Kallio may believe that people just don’t know they are Jazz fans, but a friend of mine once also stated that Jazz is the only genre of music where the musicians have more fun than the audience.

(Adam Gregory)

Check out The Five Corners Quintet Myspace page.

EXTRA GOLDEN

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EXTRA GOLDEN Thank You Very Quickly (Thrill Jockey)

Not quite sure what to make of Extra Golden, an African-American combo (not what you may think but a quartet comprising of two Kenyans and two Americans) combining America rock stylings and African rhythmic structures. Also not what you think, i.e. nothing remotely close to what Talking Heads or Vampire Weekend have achieved with their hybrid format.

Thank You Very Quickly is the band’s third album and it features six tracks in all and they all feature very prominent African styled rhythm guitars, percussion, other instrumention and vocals. There is not too much to suggest that there is any American creative input in this. Personally, the melodies take a little time to fully appreciate but there’s no doubting the skill and expertise in the lively performances. And that will more than suffice for now.

WAND

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WAND Hard Knox or “Are You Sure Hank Jr Done It This Way?” (Estatic Peace)

Official releases of demo and home recordings are by their very nature tend to be strictly for fans only. That said, I must admit that I’m not familiar with Wand, which basically consists of James Jackson Toth of Wooden Wand. So I’m definitely not a fan so to speak. Yet, this collection of country-folk-blues songs succeeds at every level, in my view, notwithstanding (and because of ) the fact that the tracks are raw and stripped down. With acoustic guitars, minimal percussion (the odd electric guitar embellishment) and vocals from Toth and his wife (and Wooden Wand partner) Jessica, present a dark, gothic soundscape that will intrigue fans of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Nick Cave, Hank Williams (both Sr and Jr), Johnny Cash. I certainly am.

DANNY ECHO

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DANNY ECHO Danny Echo (Self-released)

So Coldplay are intently setting their sights on producing The Unforgettable Fire 2.0, Radiohead are giving away their albums for free and U2 are releasing singles that speak of submarines and gasoline (but not wars between nations!) What does this bode for rock and roll, 2009? Most would point towards the Kings of Leon or Oasis, leading purveyors of amped-up electric rock. But hold your horses yet, because bursting out from Vancouver is five-man outfit Danny Echo, and they are poised to take over the world.

Okay, fine, so world domination might not be so likely at this point, but even a cursory listen to Danny Echo’s self-titled album is going to tell you that this is a band with no hint of indie pretensions or alternative ambitions. No sir, this is music made by men gunning for top 40 airplay.  Their influences betray as much: Rolling Stones, The Beatles, U2…all bands who make liars out of everyone who have ever proclaimed their intention not to be big. And as if afraid we might not be getting the point, every single column on their Facebook Personal Information page is insistently filled in with “ROCK & ROLL”. Gee, are they subtle or what?

Their lack of pretension is almost refreshing however. In an era where most rock bands seem intent on denouncing the sorry state of the world and moaning about their desire to slit their wrists, Danny Echo are a breath of fresh air in their single-minded intent to have a good time. The band kicks things off with some U2 referencing on album opener Out Of Style, with soft atmospherics that give way to unabashed gleeful riffing over subtle, soaring sweeping synthesizers. (Hurray for alliteration!)  Killing Me is an inspired, thoroughly enjoyable track with its lifted choruses and supremely headbangable riffs, topped off with a wildly sexy snarl. It’s a combination of John Lennon and Pete Townsend updated for the 21st century, and it works.  On Tomorrow Today, lead singer Danny sounds thoroughly like the bloke from Oasis who sings with his hands behind his back, although the nifty Britpop touches on the track are much more derivative of Blur. The band take a detour into Americana territory on Help Yourself, which is at times reminiscent of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, before winding things down on a singalong number, Natural Disaster, a song that brings to mind the Rolling Stones’ 1968 effort, Beggars Banquet.

It’s a testimony to a band’s pop sensibilities when one’s first instinct upon finishing a record is to replay it. It’s an even bigger testimony to their talent when they manage to produce an album that pays off successfully both as a collection of songs and as a whole. In a day and age when most artists are paying more attention to the digital single instead, Danny Echo must be commended for producing a record as consistent and as wholly enjoyable as this one. Wonderfully addictive and thoroughly enjoyable, this is all that powerpop rock n’ roll is meant to be. Highly recommended.

(Samuel C Wee)

COLDPLAY – LIVE IN SINGAPORE

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When I was asked to review Coldplay, it was an amazing feeling. ‘I was there! I would know’, I thought to myself. After that, it dawned on me that it’ll be difficult to sum up a concert like Coldplay in a review. But so kindly given the opportunity to, I shall try.

I came when the opening band, Mercury Rev, were halfway through their set. There was something in the air that made me think that not a lot of people cared or knew who Mercury Rev were. I would think any band opening for Coldplay would be under tremendous pressure to put up a good show. I was not impressed with Mercury Rev, probably because I was too excited about Coldplay.

Coldplay played a mix of old and new songs, and the transitions between the songs were flawless. I enjoyed the other 3 albums, but I still have mixed feelings about Viva La Vida. I felt that the the set list had a nice flow to it with the mix of old songs and newer ones, although I felt that the differences in the musical direction between the older and newer albums were very distinct.

I’m a sucker for openings, and Coldplay opened with Life In Technicolour/Violet Hill. They played Life In Technicolour behind a translucent black veil, which would have been pretty cool to watch, except I was seated at the rear of the stage so I could see them performing, unveiled. After watching videos of the opening songs on Facebook/YouTube (you could probably get tons online), I realised that it would have been a treat watching them perform through the veil. The lighting behind the veil made it such that you could often see two shadows of Chris Martin, Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland and Will Champion, which would have been very nice.

After playing Life in Technicolour, the stadium went pitch dark, the veil fell and the stage was slowly illuminated while they played Violet Hill. I think about it and it still sends chills down my spine!

Clocks was next, and it was incredible, with a mix of red, yellow and white laser lights. By then, people all around me were dancing and singing along to Clocks. I was amazed at how much energy everyone had, and how the age gaps were quite large. There were a mix of people in office attire and those wearing casual attire.

It was amazing when they played Yellow, because all the lights were yellow and people from the exits brought it yellow balloons and people in the middle of the stadium could bounce them up and down. There were at least 50 of such balloons, and as the song progressed, they were popped by people, and confetti came out. It was an audio and visual treat for me, because I LOVE going for concerts/gigs that fuse the two together.

Towards the middle of the concert, Coldplay walked into the audience and played a few songs, which included I’m a Believer (The Monkees Cover) and Death Will Never Conquer, where Will Champion did vocals for the song. He sounded good, and the audience cheered him on and sang along!

My favourite part of the concert was when they played Lovers In Tokyo. Confetti fell from the ceiling into the audience and the coloured lights changed throughout the song. I loved it when Chris Martin twirled the Japanese umbrella while walked down the ramp as more confetti fell from the ceiling. I could just imagine him walking through Sakura trees somewhere in Japan!

Coldplay was an audio/visual treat for me. I enjoyed the fusion of music, videos and photographs, which were shown on the screen behind the stage and on balls above the audience. There was the use of different images to portray the moods for different songs, Lovers In Tokyo had images of Japan, and some of the other songs had videos of the performance on the balls above the audience. I felt that it added to the warm ambiance and setting of the concert.

The thing that made Coldplay special for me was how everyone in the audience was able to connect with the songs that were performed. The whole concert was well-put together and audience participation made a difference to the whole atmosphere throughout the night. People sang along, danced along, and even shouted “WHOOOOOOOA” from Viva La Vida as an encore instead of shouting the usual “Encore”. It was as if everyone present shared a special love for Coldplay, and I would rate this concert as one of the best ones I’ve been to so far. I still haven’t gotten over how spectacular the concert was!

(Rebecca Lincoln)

Here are 2 videos, Yellow and Lovers In Tokyo, from the Coldplay concert for your enjoyment.

TRENTALANGE

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TRENTALANGE awakening, level one (Coco Tauro)

Here’s the components of an exciting recipe/formula –

1. A singer that recalls the dark, sultry tones of PJ Harvey & Annie Lennox.

2. A multi-instrumentalist that plays piano, wurlitzer, moog, bass, flute, theramin, percussion, guitar, tibetan singing bowls.

3. A songwriter/arranger/producer that is able to combine influences of Blondie, Black Sabbath, Massive Attack & Nick Cave.

The result? Barbara Trentalange.

With this accomplished sophomore effort, Trentalange confirmed the promise of her debut with an assured control & mastery over  myriad styles and approaches, which keeps the listener intrigued and interested. Always.

The best part? Eclecticism, of course. My favorite attribute.

From the spaced-out Tex-Mex flavor of the Fever to the distorted & sinister growl of Heavy Metal Astroman, from the soulful inflections of Valentine to the torch-poppy confection of Racing with Nowhere to Go, Trentalange keeps one guessing and impressed with her sheer versatile grasp of rock’s dynamics in all its twisted glory.

By the time one gets to the atmospheric, shuffling final track – Awakening, Level One – this writer is convinced that Barbara Trentalange is a talent to note and that this album is one to consider at the end of 2009, for one of the albums of the year. Magikal.