PoP CLASSIC: KING RADIO (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

PoP CLASSIC: NADA SURF (2003)

NADA SURF Let Go (Barsuk)

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

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

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

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

PoP CLASSIC: JARS OF CLAY/NEWSBOYS (2002)

 

JARS OF CLAY The Eleventh Hour (Essential)

NEWSBOYS Thrive (Sparrow)

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

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

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

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

PoP CLASSIC: PERNICE BROTHERS (2001)

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

PERNICE BROTHERS The World Won’t End (Ashmont)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PoP CLASSICS: MYRACLE BRAH (2000)

Another blast from the past, this time from 2000. 

MYRACLE BRAH Plate Spinner (Not Lame)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PoP CLASSIC: MATTHEW SWEET (1999)

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

MATTHEW SWEET In Reverse (Volcano)

 

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

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

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

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

GRAMERCY ARMS

GRAMERCY ARMS Gramercy Arms (Reveal/Cheap Lullaby)

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

*Whew!*

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

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

Check out Gramercy Arms’ Myspace page

SUPREME ONE

SUPREME ONE Self-titled (Lowdown)

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

Check out Supreme One’s Myspace page.

SOLIN

SOLIN Energy Fair (Self released)

Is Pat Luciano aka Solin one of those old school geeks obsessing on John Lennon and George Harrison (y’know the dead Beatles) and who think that the best music ever was made in the 60s and 70s and whose greatest musical high is a Rickenbacker 12-string arppeggio? Well, I tell you what, throw in way cool songwriting chops, way cool collaborators like Jon Brion and way cool Lennonesque vocal stylings and you can bloody well sign me up for that old school geekdom anytime.

Cos if that traditional pop-rock education manages to deliver songs as good as Which Way to Sanity, Take it From the Top, Energy Fair, Diamond Gold, I Go Ghost and so on, then I see no good reason why pop-rock lovers should not be indulging in all things Solin.

More references? How about ELO, the Byrds, Elvis Costello, the Spongtones, Myracle Brah, Bob Pollard et al? I must confess that of late, I have shuddered to think of running through an album laden with the pop underground’s tired cliches but no such nightmare with Solin. The man is refreshing and most of his songs are winners. Sure, they stay true to the values of his heroes but the trick is the ability to craft tunes that stand up in comparison. A PoP recommendation. 

Check out Solin’s Myspace page.

MOUNTAINS

MOUNTAINS Choral (Thrill Jockey)

Is it possible for experimental music to be more than background soundscapes? Can such sonic approaches be at the forefront of a listener’s sensibility, rather than an after-thought? I’m not too sure about that. I guess it depends very much on context and ambience. 

Arty noise experimentals can be inaccessible to most ears but what if the choice of instrumentation is warm and friendly, like acoustic guitars, church organs and pleasing electronic sounds? Well, that’s a different kettle of fish.

Ambient-rock duo Mountain’s third album is an excellent example of this. There is a clear attempt to sculpt emotional resonances from sounds but the key here is a combination of both the organic and the electronic. There is a minute sense of 70s prog rock here (without any semblance of formal jazz or classical structures) in the way sounds are chosen and collaged together. 

Again, songs are slightly indistinguishable.  You may describe title track Choral, as the “accordion drone” song or Melodica as the “bells” song or even Telescope as the “guitar” song but this highlights both strength and weakness of this kind of material. Not for the faint of ears…

ANI DIFRANCO LIVE IN SINGAPORE

 

Pix by Joanna Kwa
Pix by Joanna Kwa

Esplanade Theatre, 10th February 2009.

Ani DiFranco’s first performance in Singapore was almost perfection itself. Displaying a mastery of guitar technique that blew all who witnessed it, boasting lyrical concerns that were diverse as they were direct and most of all, radiating the love and passion that held it all together and kept a rapt audience enthralled for just under two hours.

Delivering 20 songs (including two new unreleased tracks), drawn mainly from 2008’s Red Letter Year, Knuckle Down and Little Plastic Castle, Ani herself described her set list as schizophrenic – alternating between love and hate songs/up and down songs. Thus, you had Present Infant – Ani’s memoir on motherhood next to Nicotine, a harsh look at addictive relationships, then on to Atom – Ani’s protest anthem agasint nuclear energy next to Albacore, that new song celebrating her recent marriage.

But the audience was not too bothered, they were too busy being awed by Ani’s ability to express emotional and intellectual moments with equal gusto, with the basic building blocks of voice and acoustic guitar. And there were many many guitars, as a seemingly endless supply of cool looking axes were brought out (almost ritual-like) by Ani’s guitar technician.

 

Pix by Joanna Kwa
Pix by Joanna Kwa

Not that the role of the band viz. Todd Sickafoose (upright bass), Allison Miller (drums) and Mike Dillon (vibes, percussion) should be diminished. And when Ani and the band cut loose, it didn’t matter that there were no humongous pedal boards on the floor as everyone in the arena could attest to the sheer power that emanated from the stage. All of which certainly affirmed the relevance of folk music even in this modern day and age. Inspiring.

To top it all off, Ani debuted a new song called November 4th, 2008. Yes, a song celebrating Barack Obama’s historic election as the 44th President of the USA. To hear an American protest singer singing the praises of her President was well, shocking (!) and certainly pleasing. A great song, any way you look at it. 

An unforgettable virtuoso performance (with the venue sound crystal clear, no less!) from an artist in her prime.

FALL OUT BOY – LIVE IN SINGAPORE

Singapore Indoor Stadium, 10th February 2009.

Pete Wentz it seemed needed a hug last night. During Fall Out Boy’s appearance at the National Indoor Stadium he seemed at odds with the other members of the band, or them with him. It was odd to see a band so well known for their tongue in cheek attitude appear to be so solemn. I have seen Fall Out Boy before on the tour for their first major album From Under the Cork Tree and the band that greeted me last night was a very different one to back then. The wide eyed and youthful playfulness was replaced with a much more serious and focused act. Not that this detracted from their performance at all, Fall Out Boy were as tight and solid as ever, displaying the arsenal of songs that has taken them from underground Emo/Punk clubs to the Stadium tours that they fill today. 

Starting with Thnks Fr Th Mmrs from 2007’s Infinity on High album, the band ripped through a set of both old and new material and worked the crowd when it was needed, calling for the audience to join in on the obvious sing along parts and playing each song with vigor. Patrick Stump’s guitar playing and vocals never fail to impress, and he was in fine form last night. Picking through This ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race and Nobody puts Baby in the Corner, the singer faltered rarely and delivered his vocals superbly. At one point there was rare interaction with the crowd from Stump when he thanked them for helping him remember some lyrics when his guitar dropped out of tune and he forgot the words. Stump usually leaves talking to the crowd to Wentz and it was nice to hear him speak, despite Wentz’s snide comments to the front man when this occurred. 

The crowd was treated to a cover of Kanye West’s American Boy before bursting into Sugar Going Down and also played Michael Jackson’s Beat It. One thing of note was the amount of material the band played from their previous albums; this outweighed the songs from their new one Folie a Deux. They did play the lead single from the album, I Don’t Care, this saw the lights on the stage dropped and LED effects appear on the bands instruments which was both fun and entertaining to watch. Disloyal Order of Water Buffaloes made an appearance, a song the band admitted they had not played many times live, and also American Suitehearts which is one of the more melodic songs from their latest album.

Fall Out Boy closed with Saturday from their 2003 debut album Take This to Your Grave. It brought to a close a very good set that certainly had many sections of the crowd pleased with what they had witnessed. It was at this point that Wentz handed his bass over to the guitar player from support group Hey Monday and decided to fling himself into the crowd for that much needed hug. Despite the best efforts of security, and even a stage hand who literally tried to rugby tackle him, Wentz dived into the sea of hands and took a good five minutes to find his way back out again, knowing that at least Singapore loves him dearly.      

(Adam Gregory)

JEREMY JAY

 

JEREMY JAY Slow Dance (K)

There’s nostalgia, there’s referencing, and then there’s full out anachronism-baiting. Jeremy Jay’s sophomore album, Slow Dance, left me in a bit of a shock from the get-go. Swirling synthesizers and echoing drums…I did a spot of bewildered googling to make sure Kevin hadn’t pulled a fast one on me and sent me an obscure retro album. His promotional pictures didn’t do much to clear matters up: the fella dresses like he stole his dad’s chuck-away clothes and teenaged hair. The 70s pop stylings even extends to the font used on his album cover. I think it’s quite safe to say that Jeremy Jay isn’t exactly the most suitable frontman for Generation Y. 

Jay might have possibly upped the record’s accessibility factor if he could have married the quirkiness of the era with modern-style pop melodies, but unfortunately he seems to have inherited the fashion and none of the innovative, elegant spirit that characterized that time. Jay’s apparently received rave reviews, but listening through the half-hour long record, I found little to sustain my interest and change my initial opinion of him as a retro revivalist throwback act. For all its nostalgia, Slow Dance lacks the wit and invention that characterized the groundbreaking times of the 50s, 60s and 70s. 

To be fair to Jay, the record picks up towards the end with a few moments that worked for me, such as the soft piano breakdowns and high-school prom grooves of Will You Dance With Me, and the disco-inspired riffing on Breaking The Ice. But moments of magic alone do not the good record make; there is a certain discipline that is lacking amongst the self-indulgent retro wallowing of Slow Dance. 

My biggest complaint, apart from the secondhand Cure riffs and juvenile rhymes, would be the production sound on this record. Jeremy Jay really does himself no favors with today’s music-listening audience with the Martin Hannett and Joy Division aping. In 1979, the spaciousness was revolutionary and groundbreaking. In 2009, Jeremy Jay just sounds hopelessly dated.

Slow Dance sounds too much like a disparate combination of elements from the past few musical eras, but crucially ignores the most important era of all: the present. Strictly for fans only.

(Samuel C Wee)
Check out Jeremy Jay’s Myspace page.

ORPHAN SONGS

 

ORPHAN SONGS Self-titled (Self released)

There’s a certain plaintive brilliance to the way that these Scandinavian singer-songwriter types curl around the words of the English language. Just listen to this line taken off the debut album of Orphan Songs, the vehicle of Swedish musician Carl Otto-Johansson: “There were dragons there, of course/ and a million dollar horse/and a girl with pretty hair/and an endless flower bed.”  Maybe it’s the fact that English is not their first language, but there is a certain brevity and genius of juxtaposition to these words that feel alien yet familiar at the same time.

Otto-Johansson himself is the ex-frontman of Swedish band Eyedrop, and Orphan Songs is the introspective, introverted aftermath of their break-up as reflected upon by Otto-Johansson. One would expect an album written and subsequently developed under such consequences to be melancholic, mid-tempo and pensive. You’d be half-right with that assumption, but then again you’ll miss out far too much of the subtleties on this record. It’s much more wonderfully diverse than one would expect.

The record consists mainly of acoustic-guitar based pop melodies, with the occasional piano or harmonica colors bleeding in. Second track Dream On is one such perfect example, low-key and dreamy with a whiff of Americana. The Land Of The Free itself is mentioned on America, a depiction of America as the liberty fable it is for children in a Morrison meets-Rattle And Hum Era U2 number. 

Track six on the listing finds Black and White, all pearls and falsetto chorus with a tinge of blackness and spiritual depth. There are a few fillers here that feel more monotone than mesmerizing, such as Accidentally and Rosemary. The moments of magic that occur, though, do brilliantly to lift the album.  Standout track here, The Young and the Brave, is one such example. It isn’t so much streams of his consciousness as yours, and you’ll find yourself murmuring along presciently without looking at the lyrics sheet as the song builds towards a driving crescendo of shimmering, stirring goodness. 

It has to be said that Orphan Songs is not so much a collection of paintings as it is sketches. Otto-Johansson’s lyrics are evocative and impressionistic instead, and one is more likely to call to mind moods, colors and emotions that lush soundscapes while listening to this record. That’s okay. It’s a record that at times meanders and would probably have been better for a bit more discipline and a shorter track listing, but that’s okay too. This is a record made for those rainy nights and afternoons when everyone is out and you settle down with a warm cuppa. 

(Samuel C Wee)
Check out Orphan Songs’ Myspace page.

LUNAR NODE

LUNAR NODE Exploring Unknown Territory Ep (Wallwork)

Instrumental rock music escapes me somewhat, especially if there’s no properly discernible melody line. Alright, so who says, any music needs to have a melody line, in the first place? Granted, you could have a collage of sounds and call it experimental music, if you like.

But that’s not what new S-ROCK band, Lunar Node, are about. Taking its cues from Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky et al, Lunar Node, similar to other S-ROCK instrumental bands like I Am David Sparkle and Amateur Takes Control, strives to create mood, atmosphere and an emotional connection sans lyrics.

Consisting of Daniaal, Asyral and Gerald, Lunar Node formed a year ago to – in their own words – “create music that would connect people through eclectic and emotive sounds”. Well, listening to their debut Ep – Exploring Unknown Territory – I’m not quite sure if the band has achieved its stated goal, right off the bat, but by all accounts, it has certainly tried its best to.

As with any music composed mainly of guitar effects and smashing cymbals, the five songs here tend to bleed into a indistinguishable whole and thus, eclecticism may be hard to attain. Sounding very much like 60s psych rock (Syd-era Floyd), 70s space rock (Gilmour-era Floyd) and 90s shoegaze (Ride, Chapterhouse), the songs on this Ep never stray too far from that template to produce fairly engaging music. My personal favorite is the closing Voiding the Negative, with its cascading guitar appregios and explosive percussions which build up to a satisfying sonic crescendo and ultimate climax.

Not the finished product, by any means, but it should be interesting to observe where Lunar Node move on from here. 

Check out Lunar Node’s Myspace page.

If you’re interested to know more, come down to the launch of Lunar Node’s Ep on 7th Feb (this Saturday) at 8pm at the Arts House.

MARYKATE O’NEIL

MARYKATE O’NEIL Underground (71 Recordings Collective)

Last year’s mkULTRA Ep was a tasty appertiser for the main course, Underground, and by all accounts, its a sumptous feast! Underground (MK’s third album) encapsulates all that is wonderful and delightful about pop music. And when I use the term “pop”, I am talking in the classic sense, as in the kind of music that the world lapped up from Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Carol King, Laura Nyro et al, all those years ago. 

Thus, the eleven songs on Underground bear testimony to MK’s grasp of melody, reverential pop sense and literate lyricism. Whether intentional or not, Underground can be split into two halves. The first five songs are sophisticated, smart pop that combine technical brilliance and instinctive coolness. Tracks like the smooth Green Street (last heard on mkULTRA with the line “And I lived back in the village/Where there’s no more any sign of Dylan” prominent), the melancholy Easy to Believe At First, the countrified Nashville (resplendent with its Harrisonesque slide guitar), the provocative Saved (where MK protests against being judged), the Nyro-Rundgren channeling Mr. Friedman (and perhaps my favorite of the lot) and song #10, the Honeys produced by Brian Wilson influenced One Thousand Times A Day.

The rest of Underground tends to a little more folky, with MK’s acoutic guitar high in the mix, whilst MK either tugs at your heart strings or challenges your thinking processes. The wistful Me, the Bee and the Miner, the strident title track (“I don’t wanna leave the underground” the declaratory statement of intent), the pleading Attention, the twangy Joe Jackson cover – Different For Girls and the closing So Long, a loving tribute to the late great George Harrison – “I have found religion/I follow the sun/I don’t care a smidgeon what you are/Or who you have done”.

Simply magnificient! An essential for 2009.

Check out Marykate O’Neil’s Myspace page.

Here’s the music video for Nashville. Enjoy!

LADY GAGA

LADY GAGA The Fame (Universal)

In the CD sleeve, new dance pop sensation Lady GaGa thanks Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Prince, Madonna and Chanel. And listening to her hit debut album, The Fame, its the influence of Madonna that comes across strongly. Yes, you can’t mistake the 80s vibe that permeates this highly commercial effort. 

This former Interscope staff songwriter has taken a bold step into the limelight and is credited with co-writing every single song on The Fame. Nothing exceptional, I might add, the music is a typical modern mix-up of hip-hop R&B, electro-dance-pop with emphasis on the groove and hooky choruses, notably on Poker Face, Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say) and Just Dance.

The lyrical concepts are also typically aimed at the groin primarily. Here’s a sample – 

“I wanna take a ride on your disco stick” (Lovegame)

“Need a man who likes it rough” (I Like It Rough)

“Let’s go see the Killers and make out in the bleachers” (Boys Boys Boys)

Disposable teen fare? No doubt. 

The Singapore edition includes Disco Heaven as a bonus track.

Check out Lady GaGa’s Myspace page.

HERE WE GO MAGIC

HERE WE GO MAGIC Here We Go Magic (Western Vinyl)

To call Here We Go Magic a band is a pretty loose term, yes they consist of three members and appear under one name, but the real driving force and creativity behind Here We Go Magic is Luke Temple and this band and album are pretty much him just under another name. Brooklyn born Temple is joined by Baptiste Ibar on bass and Peter Hale on drums but this appears to be purely for touring and live purposes, there is no doubt that this is Luke Temple’s ideas and creation.  

Originally trained as a painter and mural artist, Temple soon took a transitional stumble into music and found his true calling. Releasing his debut solo album, Hold a Match for a Gasoline World, in 2005 he showcased his undoubtable talent as a songwriter and musician. This followed with more success on his 2007 album Snowbeast, which gained awareness from a wider audience when Make Right with You featured on Grey’s Anatomy (the show responsible for Snow Patrol being EVERYWHERE during 2006).

Starting with Pieces, Here We Go Magic instantly brings to mind comparisons with Paul Simon, it has a very tribal, looping beat that repeats, layered with simple vocals that sing nothing more than a single sentence. Much of the album is like this and it works very well, creating a structured clutter of instruments for the listener, just enough that it doesn’t become too crowded or claustrophobic. Temple produces a truly interesting and unique sound, parts of the album did remind me of the whole psychedelic rock/folk sound of MGMT but you don’t get the impression that he is trying to jump on that band wagon. Fangala, the most instantly striking song melodically on the album, breezes along like a daydream, making it impossible for you not to tap to the beat and drift off beyond the walls of your room. Ahab starts with a bluesy and gritty riff mixed with softly sung, haunting vocals, truly demonstrating how varied Temple’s sound is. He is not content with staying on one particular track and delights in deviating from it. 

If I had one criticism of Here We Go Magic it would be that it does lull after the first four songs of the album. The beautiful Tunnelvision is followed by Ghost List which is an atmospheric and haunting song containing no words or beat, just sound effects and distortion. This much slower pace continues right up until the concluding track and I felt it could have been broken up with the bouncier tracks at that start. When the album does come to conclusion though with Everything’s Big you are not left disappointed from the experience, the song feels my head with images of Paris and a misty morning walk along the Seine for some reason, it is a very stripped down song compared to the rest of the album and more simplistic in it’s structure and could almost be from another artist. This is Luke Temple’s gift though and what makes Here We Go Magic work, the fact that his influences and creativity is so wide and varied. 

(Adam Gregory)

Check out Here We Go Magic’s Myspace page.

BORIS SMILE

 

BORIS SMILE Beartooth EP (Count Your Lucky Stars)

Fronted by the vocals and guitar of A. Wesley Chung, Boris Smile are a collection of musicians (eight in total) and a whole community of friends who make guest appearances on their work. Based in California, their Beartooth EP offers a short but sweet sample of their music and what they have to offer. 

Opening track Beartooth (Spooky Version) is a mix of acoustic base, driven bass and machine gun drumming building to a conclusion of spooky backing harmonies. The real issue I have with this track is the vocals, there is no doubt that singer Chung has ability but the chorus is just so off key it is to the point of distracting. He repeats the words Bear Tooth and it is almost painful how Chung wanders and struggles to deliver the line. I am not one to criticize singing, I have not got the most angelic and powerful voice myself, and I can understand how in the slacker folk rock genre this is seen as appealing, but it is just not for me. 

Later tracks however do not suffer so badly from this problem. Hour of the Wolf is a melancholic and soulful song with emotional vocals and excellent female backing that really compliments the main hook of the song, Everybody loves you but yourself. It is bordering on Emo but my eyes refrained from rolling because despite this it is a very good song. 

Tut Tut is definitely the one song on the EP that made me sit up and really listen. It is a beautiful song full of melody and a cacophony of sound and instruments that draw the listener in. I had images of a Friday evening when listening to this song, knowing that the working week is done and your mind can finally concentrate on meaningless and stress free thoughts, with the troubles of the world sliding away at least for a couple of days. 

The last track on the EP, Books with Blank Pages, is quite an ironic title because the song almost feels like a non-event. It passes by without any real significance. It is a difficult song to listen to though after the previous song Program Me to Love which is an amusing robot love song about a synthetic being wishing for the emotion of love, the song skirts on the side of being too cheesy for it’s own good but just manages to save itself from disappearing over the edge.  

Beartooth EP is certainly an interesting collection of songs and shows a lot of potential. I am not completely convinced that Boris Smile will be a permanent fixture in my record collection but I am sure that there will be days that I will revisit this EP and perhaps find more to like about it, despite Chung’s vocal style and sometimes more cringe worthy moments. Will I await a full length album with bated breath? Not likely, but I certainly will give it a passing glance to see what this band is capable of with a larger scope of material to showcase. 

(Adam Gregory)

Check out Boris Smile’s Myspace page.

JESSIE KILGUSS

JESSIE KILGUSS Nocturnal Drifter (Self released)

“I consider all of the arts to be interconnected and think there is fluidity in the boundaries between them. Many of my favourite singers started out in some other artistic discipline; Joni Mitchell with painting, Leonard Cohen as a scholar/poet, David Bowie as an actor…” – Jessie Kilguss

Classically trained actress turned singer, songwriter – Jessie Kilguss’ Nocturnal Drifter is the second album, following Exotic Bird.

This Brooklyn singer’s sultry, husky, intoxicating vocals command the tone on each track.  Collaborating with production team Super Buddha, this feast of echoes, question-like harmonies, emphasize her vocal and lyrical foray into the likes of one of her idols – Mitchell.

The first track Gristmill captures you with the easy, cabaret-like atmosphere as Kilguss laments about life in a densely populated city with savvy, lyrical flair. This is then followed by the post-rock beats of Americana, again beautifully weighed by the soulful plea of Kilguss’ vocals.

Almost all of the ten tracks on this album showcase a different character being channelled to tell a story and to Kilguss’ credit – done seamlessly and without a hitch in the flow of the desired plot. A testament to tapping into the creativity of being in character with her training as an actor and painting the desired backdrop and tapestry of each piece with her talent as a songwriter and her unique voice.

You’ll be able to find at least one track, if not three, that you’ll relate to, just because it’s been delivered to you in a manner you can’t resist nor deny. Mine would be 31.

A tidbit that made me smile: She lives with her canine companion: Mr Walter Peanuts.

(Charlotte Lourdes)

Free Download: A Little Place Behind My Eyes

Check out Jessis Kilguss’ Myspace page.

DRIVING ON CITY SIDEWALKS

DRIVING ON CITY SIDEWALKS Where Angels Crowd to Listen (Red Plane/Count Your Lucky Stars)

“Driving on City Sidewalks was formed out of a genuine love for music…” according to Barry Mielke of this two piece Ontario band.

Their EP, courtesy of Red Plane Records and Count Your Lucky Stars is titled Where Angels Crowd to Listen and it is an emotion-driven album with a heavy emphasis on psychedelic post rock-infused guitars and raw vocals on some of the five tracks.

For someone who started recording music in his basement about a year and a half ago, the journey of the band seems to be a story out of a fairytale. Actively promoting their music on MySpace and being discovered by a French Label – Red Plane Records, both Barry and Darryl have set their sights on moving ahead with their brand music.

The track that stands out on the EP in my opinion would be Farewell to knowing it all. A 9 minute offering that leads with dreamscape-like soft guitar notes and kicks up the intensity by more than a couple notches with a steady flowing rhythm of crash cymbals and cranking it out in the final two minutes with brazen, heavy guitars.

This is definitely one not for the masses but the beauty of it is held in the originality of its offering and in the quiet stirrings of the story being told. 

An interview featuring Barry is featured on Stereosubversion.

(Charlotte Lourdes)

Check out Driving on City Sidewalks Myspace page.

LARS HORNTVETH

LARS HORNTVETH Kaledoscopic (Smalltown Supersound)

Much is to be said when time has to be scheduled to listen to an album. It’s been a long time coming and that is what Kaleidoscopic had me doing.

Kaleidoscopic is the follow-up to the critically acclaimed debut album, Pooka, by Jaga Jazzist and The National Bank leader Lars Horntveth.

Comprising of one composition spaced out in 36:47 minutes, Kaleidoscopic can be very easily labelled as cinematic – One can’t help but see various scenes play out before your eyes as the strings and horns blend and bleed from one emotion to another. Guided by 41 members of the Latvian National Orchestra led by Norwegian conductor Terje Mikkelsen, with Lars himself playing piano, horns and clarinets – your senses are immersed in the electro-tinged ambience, orchestral carpet rides and a frantic race to a place only you know.

This album is above all an auditory trip that harnesses a listener’s visual power – a little frightening even but beautifully seamless as the shifts and switches in moods with key instruments, paint your inner world with a touch of noir, epic and vast horizons, tranquil and forest-lush hideaways, and even a simple side walk at dusk, with just a pluck of a harp. My favourite ride on this journey began at the 27thminute mark –  strings and Horntveth’s own piano playing wrap up the trip over the final ten minutes. An album that will be savored by any ardent fan of visual music journeys.

(Charlotte Lourdes)

Check out Lars Horntveth’s Myspace page.

CAW! CAW!

CAW! CAW! Wait Outside (Slanty Shanty)

A young band that starts off playing punk-influenced, textured rock and roll before expanding their canvas and horizons to include dreamily ambient, atmospheric experimenting?  We’ll ignore the obvious temptation to reference the four lads from Ireland here and instead tell you that underneath all the alien-sounding pyschedelia is a very well-honed pop sensibility that ensures the record remains firmly rooted in Planet Earth-style accessible melodies. Besides, Caw! Caw!’s brand of experimentation is much closer sonically to the art-rock of Radiohead anyway.

The record opens with a little patch of outer space and twinkling star guitars coloring the soundscapes on Escape The Red Giant, before rollicking drums intrude and set up the song for the entry of lead vocalist Tim Tsurutani’s half-whispered, half-drawling lyrics. It’s followed by easily the catchiest track on the album, Organisms, one that deftly blends indie-style sonic colors and irresistible tunefulness. Wrapped Up Neat In The Bible is equally catchy and cosmo-spacey, but towards the end of the track there is some truly virtuso screeching-guitar work that would make both Eric Clapton and The Edge proud. 

There’s some really solid songwriting on display here, but at the same time an unconventional approach to song structure that will keep you on your toes, such as on the rocker number Work, which is probably the closest thing to modern radio alt-rock you’ll find on this record. Penultimate track Rotten Ghost is a dark and brooding number teased onto a razor edge, and the album closes on the sprawlingly gorgeous piece, Sheets. 

A gorgeously beautiful record at times and unbearably catchy at others, Caw! Caw! might be a bit too loose and unstructured for the mainstream, but one gets the feeling that something might be lost if they were to work within the confines and rigours of a traditional songwriting structure. Underneath the experimentation though, is a intuitive pop discipline that will definitely serve them well in future. A brilliant record worthy of every praise. 

(Samuel C Wee)
Check out Caw! Caw!’s Myspace page.

THE SAFES

THE SAFES Sight of All Light (Self released) 

There’s much to be said for doing some research about the album you’re about to review before you go into it at full volume. I say this because my eardrums are still ringing from the aftershock of being blasted with the raw garage-rock opening riffs of The Safes’ latest EP, Sight Of All Light. (In my defence, I was attempting to listen in on the dialogue of a particularly stubborn Youtube video earlier on my headphones.)

The brainchild of the O’Malley brothers trio, Sight of All Light is their fourth release and second EP. Clocking in at just around 11 minutes long, The Safes waste no time in getting to the point as title track Sight Of All Light sets the pace and tone for the rest of the record with a driving drum pulse and massive, ear-filling guitar power chords that wrap around the vocals in a very 1970s Cheap Trick manner. Second track Troublemaker doesn’t depart much from the opener as ringing distortion underline the harmonies on the intro, before settling into an abrasive repetitive format for the rest of the song. 

The rest of the EP can pretty much be summed up in the same few words really, catchy, hooky choruses on top of crashing power riffs that leave no space for breathing. It’s hardly as boring as that description might suggest, mainly due to the length of the EP itself. The unprepared listener might come out shell-shocked after the 11 minutes due to the breakneck frenetic intensity at which The Safes plow through the songs, but a few repeats on the playlist will offer up some rewards as one begins to notice the subtleties and layers that cleverly underline the songs. The Sky Is Falling is one such track that will offer up its secrets upon revisitation.

A rather good record that grabs you by the scruff of the neck on the first listen and demands you stay for the rerun. 

(Samuel C Wee)

Check out the Safes’ Myspace page.

THE ORGAN

THE ORGAN Thieves (Mint)

I hadn’t realized that when I previously wrote about The Organ with respect to a free download at RCRD LBL that they had split up in 2006! So, I was a little surprised (but very pleased) to receive the all female band’s final Ep, Thieves in the mail from Canadian indie Mint Records recently. Seems the story is that after the breakup, Debora Cohen, guitar; Ashley Webber, bass; Shelby Stocks, drums; Jenny Smyth, Hammond organ and Katie Sketch, lead singer; went back into the studio in 2007 to complete certain recordings the band had started before the demise of The Organ. The result of which is this truly excellent Ep, which only makes you wonder why this wonderful post-punk-influenced band is no longer making music together.

Anyway, fans of intelligent, multi-layered post-punk should at least be thankful for the existence of The Organ’s swan song. Songs like the opening Even in the Night, with its intricate instrumental interplay and Katie’s doleful & melancholy singing is a wonder to behold. Sure, it hearkens back to post-punk but presented in a unique manner. Same goes for the ironic jaunty Oh What A Feeling, the tweeful Fire in the Ocean (reminiscent of Felt’s finest moments) and the rustic Don’t Be Angry. 

I must really find out what these gifted ladies are up to right now cos the power of this Ep cannot stop here. Will keep you boys and girls posted of any new post-Organ developments.

Check out The Organ’s Myspace page.