03 November 2013

Review Round-Up: October 2013

Cass McCombs
Big Wheel and Others

Two years ago, Cass McCombs gave us two distinct, intriguing but oddly opaque albums; each a mere eight songs long.  At twenty-two tracks and eighty-five minutes, Big Wheel and Others (note the typically coy titular understatement) feels like a deliberate reaction against those records' mincing concision, although, as double-sets go, it's loose but hardly ragged.  Neither a conceptual epic nor a sprawling White Album-style smorgasbord, but a genial stretching-out a la Exile and Blonde on Blonde; an album to put on and just live in for a while.  Stylistically, it's somewhere in that ballpark as well; a rootsy ramble from the truckdrivin' title track's musclebound motorik to the dusty folk surrealism of "Unearthed," via pretty pedal-steel ballads, slinky beatnik blues, and jazzy yacht-country instrumentals – all gorgeously performed – plus three slightly bewildering interview clips (taken from the 1969 documentary Sean) with a four-year-old who probably could've penned off-color nursery-rock goof-off "Satan is My Toy."  Throughout, McCombs hits a brilliantly unpredictable songwriting stride, like a wry, wandering Silver Jew, peppering his romantic and socio-political ruminations with twisted neo-hippie logic ("I believe in littering: waste should not be hidden but seen") and tersely quirky quips ("what's it like to shit in space?") [8/10]


Now here's what I call a kaleidoscope dream.  Like a bookish limey Miguel with zero of the bravado and a flair for woozy, Floydian whirr, Kwes is a man of modest but nostalgia-rich pleasures.  The first vocal appearance on his long-simmering Warp debut (which comes ninety seconds in, once the sound-dust settles from the album's startlingly queasy initial eruption) finds the low-key Londoner listlessly "walkin' in the park, chuckin' bread to swans, hearin' em honk."  Soon he's picking berries while fending off butterflies; later he's reminiscing about a lover who once invited him rollerblading ("back in '93"), and someone else who suggested riding a cable car ("today," though the time difference feels somehow negligible.)  Words are feeble, fleeting things on ilp, but these at least offer some tangible, redolent images amid the album's hazy, paisley swirl.  Likewise, despite the occasional gummy refrain – like the burbling stutter-soul of previously aired highlight "b_shf_l" – Kwes' pop instincts typically prove incidental to his synaesthete's bent for structureless head-trip meanderings.  But it's hard to mind once they've gotten you in the door: rarely does one stumble into a world so richly realized and so warmly, curiously inviting. [7.5/10]

Schneider TM
Guitar Sounds

Dirk Dresselhaus is a man of surprises.  He slyly prefigured the micro-house boom with his 1998 Schneider TM debut LP, Moist, before shifting gears entirely to the (similarly prescient) Beach Boys-infused lap-pop of 2002's Zoomer.  Last year's Construction Sounds returned to the alias for an unprecedentedly abstract and experimental effort incorporating field recordings from building sites.  And while it bears substantial common ground with that work, Guitar Sounds essentially finds the Berliner broaching yet another new genre: per the title, it's a set of guitar-based electro-acoustic improvisation (or as he'd have it, "instant composition.")  It's a far cry from the playful humorousness of his early days (unless, arguably, you squint at just the right moments – say, the gently sputtering "explosions" toward the end of "Landslide.")  But his curiously organic approach to electronica and close attention to sonic detail remain, somewhere, among these meandering drones and tones, grindings and scrapings (and brief, occasional bouts – as on "First of May" – of actual guitar playing), which are warmly enveloping in many stretches and, even at their least palatable, still rather pleasantly unpleasant. [6/10]
originally published in Magnet Magazine

Ooey Gooey Chewey Ka-Blooey!

It's not every garage-punk band that follows up their Detroit techno covers record with an exuberant, party-starting homage to vintage bubblegum.  Okay, The Dirtbombs are probably the only one – but they're also the best.  Not just any ol' '60s pop re-hash, Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-Blooey (In The Red) stomps and shimmies, sugar-shocks and sha-la-las like the Archies gone pleasantly feral.  While these ten three-minute wonders are technically all Mick Collins originals, he's not above bolstering the project's authenticity by lifting a lick (or an entire vocal melody) from the classics: "Mony Mony," "Yummy Yummy Yummy," even "Good Vibrations."  Remember kids, only the greats steal.

Days Are Gone

Notwithstanding the Haim sisters' long-haired, shade-sporting LA rockstar image, their duly touted instrumental chops, legitimately ass-kicking live show and ample use of twitchy, palm-muted guitar licks, the songs on their long-awaited debut LP are no less technologically-abetted studio creations than those of that other red-hot hype-riding trio of the moment, Chvrches – though neither are they any less perfectly-formed pop.  And despite the Fleetwood Mac RIYLs that have been persistently trailing them, Days Are Gone (Columbia) lands a good deal closer to Thriller than Rumours.  Just remember which one of those had Van Halen on it.

Devon Sproule + Mike O'Neill

Devon Sproule and Mike O'Neill met singing Beach Boys duets on Youtube – like you do in the twenty-teens – and crafted the collaborative Colours (Tin Angel) long-distance, between Austin and Halifax.  But there's nothing new-fangled or logistically strained about the topics traversed here – family life, human goodness, ceiling fans, a minor boating accident, love – nor the album's unhurried, loosely jazzy folk-pop.  All of this reflects Sproule's usual open-hearted, modestly idiosyncratic milieu, which O'Neill slots neatly and effortlessly into.  His voice is high and pure like hers, and the results, colored by Sandro Perri's sympathetic, synth- and horn-flecked production, are rarely dazzling but consistently comforting.  The Wilsons should be proud.


Cameron Mesirow's gonna have a tough time shaking those chronic, facile-seeming Björk comparisons with her second LP as Glasser, and not just because of certain heavily reminiscent contours in the soaring, otherworldly acrobatics of her voice (which, to be fair, shares at least as much with the sweet, artful detachment of St. Vincent's Annie Clark.)  Even while Interiors (True Panther) remains undeniably Mesirovian, its architecturally inspired yet organically fluid techno-pop shapes evoke the exploratory, hypercolor digitalia of Homogenic more than anything Björk herself has touched in well over a decade.

VV Brown
Samson & Delilah

VV Brown emerged in 2009 as a perky, playful retro-pop songbird, but we've barely heard from her since, as the intended follow-up to her delightful debut was first delayed, then permanently shelved for artistic reasons.  Her actual sophomore release may offer some explanations: Samson and Delilah (YOY) represents an almost complete aesthetic overhaul; a dramatic left turn into gothic, quasi-operatic electronica that's as magnificent as it is unexpected.  Brown's voice, all but unrecognizable, weaves across frosty industrial synthscapes, deep distorted machine grooves and imaginative, darkly glistening dance-pop, compensating for its somewhat diminished personality through sheer emotive potency.

Vapor City

Much as Machinedrum's 2011 breakthrough, Room(s), refitted and streamlined the frantic antics of Chicago footwork, Vapor City (Ninja Tune) appropriates the floor-friendly architecture of drum'n'bass and skittering digital dancehall for much more shadowy, diffuse, wistfully atmospheric purposes, loading on the sonic detail – sleepy/spectral vocal fragments, brooding synth pads, infinitely divisible rhythmic tracery – to render a meticulously misty, greyscale urban moodscape.  (The title scans as flatly, almost blandly descriptive.)  Barring passable detours into chillwave, dappled Boards of Canada-isms and abstract ambient fuzz, the results tend toward theoretically danceable tracks which in practice are more ideally suited for deep, sullen vibing.


Unerringly proficient, if increasingly inscrutable, Anders Trentemøller continues to distance himself from the coffee-table tech-house and elegantly tailored club fare on which he made his name.  The Danish producer's third full-length, Lost (In My Room), is split evenly between instrumental curios – everything from noir-ish mood pieces to sludgy psych-rock to the occasional, dazzling display of programmed-synth kineticism – and mild, suggestible vocal features for assorted indie rock notables (members of The Drums, Blonde Redhead, Lower Dens, etc.)  It's an amiable mess strewn with captivating moments – plus, kicking things off with seven heavenly minutes of Low's unimpeachable Mimi Parker is gonna win you plenty of points around these parts.

Revolution EP

Once upon a time, Diplo made an album.  It was 2004, and it was a pleasantly low-key, trip-hoppy affair entitled Florida.  Since then he's hardly even sat still long enough for anything so laidback or long-format – these days he keeps a feverish, turbo-boosted pace of 140-character blasts, 130 BPM, and (per Forbes' 2013 highest paid DJs list) a cool $13 million per annum.  We'll still claim him as a de facto local, but his jet-set lifestyle and restless, rootless musical m.o. are about pan-global as it gets.

Last year's Express Yourself EP was a rare dispatch from the hedonistic heart of that one-man whirlwind – his first (ostensibly) solo production jaunt in eons – offering a typically delirious but uncommonly focused burst of twitchy, ass-twirling equatorial ghetto-tech.  Hard at its heels comes Revolution (Mad Decent), re-upping with another six cuts (four originals, two workmanlike remixes) of gregarious gutter-funk abandon.  These 23 minutes are more hyper-stuffed than ever, flaunting two to four collaborators per track and cramming in buckets of stutter-step machine claps, bass-rattling horn blurts, twinkly rave synths, tacky pop'n'B diva warbling, EDM screw'n'grind and a slew of quick and dirty rap verses from the game's finest young turks.  And if you can keep pace with all that, there's another drop coming any second now.

concert preview

For what was effectively a coronation pageant, 2011's Take Care hardly felt like a joyous occasion; compared to Nothing Was The Same (Cash Money/Universal Republic), though, it's practically a party record.  "I'm on my worst behaviour," Drake snarls – Canadian spelling, of course – over ominous, disjointed rattles and synth throbs, and he's not kidding: he's rarely sounded as crass, petty and angrily, needlessly defensive as he is at certain points on his third full-length.  As for his persistent emotional ineptitude (and crippling nostalgia for past romantic failures), well, that's been covered before, and it remains as perversely compelling if increasingly tough to sympathize with.  Mostly though, he's just awfully, inexcusably morose.  Noah "40" Shebib keeps on building him these sumptuous luxury suites – weird, staggering, adventurously modern moodscapes – and all he wants to do is mope around in them.  But he's still got that nagging, hard-to-define charisma; a knack for absorbingly intimate confessionals, even if it clearly stems from some serious boundary issues.  Also, it must be said that to see Drake in concert is to witness Aubrey Graham in his element: he really is a born performer, and if we ever finally get sick of listening to his elegantly-appointed sulking, he can totally fall back on that acting career.

Deltron 3030
concert preview

It's been 13 years since the release of Deltron 3030, the sci-fi comic-book hip-hop concept opus which paved the way for the improbable sci-fi comic-book hip-hop crossover success of Gorillaz (involving many of the same key players) – although apparently only ten have passed in the album's peskily dystopian, technocratic futureworld: according to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's ponderous spoken intro to Event II (Deltron Partners), it is now "Stardate 3040."  But – despite the efforts of our trusty hero, renegade rap-battle freedom-fighter/disenchanted "mech soldier" Deltron Zero (alias Del the Funkee Homosapien) – not much has changed.  Narrative specificity and conceptual coherence still take a definite backseat to the generally bad-ass, swashbuckling atmosphere created by Del's twisty, jargon-flourishing raps, turntablist Kid Koala's skittering scratches and producer Dan the Automator's lavish, widescreen sample-sourcing and adrenalized breakbeats.  While it's almost certainly better than we had a right to hope, this guest-star-studded sequel is probably best taken as an overdue victory lap; a gleeful exercise in warp-drive retro-futurist nostalgia.  But even if it's no more than an excuse for the triumphant triumvirate to head out on tour, with a sixteen piece orchestra in tow no less – and if Kid Koala's deliriously fun Vinyl Vaudeville shows from last year are anything to judge by – justice will be served right here in the present.

Bill Callahan/Lonnie Holley
concert preview

Through his dozen or so albums as Smog and, especially, the handful he's made more recently under his own name, Bill Callahan has etched out a reliable, dependably unhurried furrow for his quietly affecting musings.  But it's rarely felt as cozy as his latest, Dream River (Drag City), which settles into a loose, surprising seventies soul-jazz vibe: Callahan's laconic, iconic baritone drifting overtop congas, claves and electric piano like Leonard Cohen moonlighting with Gil Scott-Heron's band; his roving ruminations sharing space with fragrant flute and fiddle leads and guitarist Matt Kinsey's subtle atmospheric heroics.  The title befits Callahan's typically cryptic, trancelike stream of cast-off observations, cock-eyed profundities, corny jokes and come-ons, which circle here around familiar themes but with a cautiously more sanguine outlook, finding mundane beauty and savage splendor in the natural world and solace in the smallness of human relationships.  Lonnie Holley – an Alabama-born African-American artist who has, arguably, actually lived the kind of outsider's perspective Callahan often adopts in his songs – arrives at a similarly thoughtful optimism amidst markedly stranger circumstances in the surreal pronouncements on Keeping A Record Of It (Dust-to-Digital), with a decidedly more dynamic, colorfully expressive voice and to considerably chintzier musical accompaniment.

John Vanderslice
concert preview

John Vanderslice is one of indie's surest bets; a steadfast, sure-footed songwriter who's never made a bad record, even if he's never turned out a clear masterpiece.  (I'd probably point to 2005's Pixel Revolt as his finest hour, but each entry in his discography has its partisans.)  All of his albums seem to create and inhabit their own private, often insular worlds, but Dagger Beach, his ninth full length, feels especially personal; less for its songs than its archetypical array of warm, gritty textures – overdriven acoustic guitars, woody synths, brightly chunky drums, free-floating analog dribbles of uncertain origin.  A crowd-funded, self-released project following a stint on Dead Oceans, it was recorded – computer-free – at his own Tiny Telephone studios, and particularly knowing that it came in the wake of a significant break-up, it's easy to imagine JV sitting alone at his Neve console, finding solace and focus in meticulously building up layers of atmospheric sonics.  As much of a studio rat as he is, though, the quintessential way to encounter Vanderslice is in person at his shows, where he flashes a legendary chatty affability at odds with his understated, often elusive songwriting.

Franz Ferdinand/Frankie Rose
concert preview

Franz Ferdinand have always been as much a dance band as a rock band, coaxing the sharp, jagged lurch of post-punk into the plumped basslines and signature crisp, feline strut that fueled both the deathless "Take Me Out" and an impressive string of worthy successors.  While the seedy nightclub trawl of 2009's Tonight was their most overt, mildly experimental dalliance with "proper" dance music, morality-teasing fourth album/reset button Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action (Domino) drafts in some of the finest minds in electro/pop – Hot Chip's Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor; Scandinavian sooperproducers Todd Terje and Björn Yttling – yet results in the band sounding utterly like their own waggish, swooningly metrosexual selves.  It's their tightest, leanest effort since their debut, and it's great to have them back.  In the support slot is Brooklyn linchpin Frankie Rose, whose latest opus, Herein Wild (Fat Possum), weds the glorious layered-vocal luminosity and Cure-cribbing beat-beds of last year's great, quantum-leaping Interstellar to the spunkier garage-pop grit of her debut, and throws in the occasional string section.

The Dismemberment Plan
concert preview

The Dismemberment Plan were one of the most fiercely beloved bands around before their 2003 break-up, so it's understandable that there are a lot of feelings surrounding their recent return to the active column – a brief, triumphant tour in 2011, and now the curiously misspelled Uncanney Valley (Partisan), their first album since 2001's masterful Change.  A lot of excitement and eager anticipation, but also a lot of wariness and skepticism, especially surrounding the record – protectiveness, perhaps, toward the band's cherished memory and established catalog.  Well: the new disc doesn't sound much like, say, 1999's timeless Emergency & I.  But then again, neither did any of their other records.  They've always been a band in motion, and they return now evolved once more – as righteous emo diehards will be miffed to discover – into a looser, goofier, less existentially pensive and altogether more jovial (and synthesizer-happy) iteration of themselves.  But there's no mistaking Joe Easley and Eric Axelson's sparky, jittery math-funk grooves, nor Travis Morrison's densely geeky, reference-strewn lyrics; smirky and earnest in equal measure.  From the gorgeously whirring workaday introspection of "Invisible" to the sweetly unabashed affection of "Lookin'" to propulsive party starters like "White Collar White Trash," the band has never sounded so contented or so celebratory.  Truly, what's not to celebrate?

Saint Rich/Wild Belle
concert preview

If post-rockers could talk, what would they say?  Here's your chance to find out: Monday's double-bill pairs two new song-oriented projects from musicians better known for their instrumental-only affairs.  Steve Marion makes curious, captivating wordless guitar-pop with/as Delicate Steve, but he's switched over to drum duties behind bandmate (and North Jersey high school buddy) Christian Peslak in the recently-minted duo Saint Rich.  Their debut Beyond the Drone (Merge) is a rollicking, rootsy, riff-tastic rip through '60s rock and '70s boogie that feels a bit like Foxygen without all the anxious posturing (and with notably witty lyrics.)  Meanwhile, jazz-steeped saxophonist/experimental tinkerer Elliot Bergman made his name fronting (too-long dormant) avant-afrobeat heroes NOMO, with whom his sister Natalie has occasionally featured as a touring member; now the siblings are slinging globally-conscious indie-pop as Wild Belle.  Their predictably groove-rich, sonically adventurous Isles (Columbia) sets them up as something like a worldbeat She & Him, pulling from African pop and Motown but with a particularly emphasis on Caribbean rhythms which make it well-suited to help pass the time before the reemergence of summertime, and/or Santigold.

concert preview

Ty Segall has made a lot of records – let's just say that's a significant understatement – but he's never made anything quite so epically colossal, and at the same time so lean and laser-focused, as Fuzz (In The Red)  The obliteratingly self-evident self-titled debut from the West Coast scene-leader's latest collaborative venture spotlights the amped-up blooze riffs and brain-scrambling solos of guitarist Charlie "Moonheart" Moothart and the appropriately hefty underpinnings of bassist Roland Cosio.  Segall's still singing lead, but he's jumped from strings to skins here to show off some breezily ferocious, Mitch Mitchell-style dexterity behind the kit.  While this is a new project, these dudes have also been playing and starting bands together since high school, and there's a purity of purpose here that seems to stem from the spirit of those days, channeling fellow San Francisco outfits like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Blue Cheer.  Accordingly, Fuzz strips away the garage-bound shagginess and punkish snarl that typically characterize these guys' output to focus on heavy, heavily-Sabbath-indebted psychedelic proto-metal that makes this a power trio in the most classical, primal sense.  In other words: just what you'd expect from the awesome, fiery blue elemental space-demon on the cover.

concert preview

While obviously not as uncommon as the eponymous shaggy forest-dweller, it's still a rare and precious thing to encounter an indie-pop debut as sharp, succinct and perfectly formed as Bigfoot (Secretly Canadian), which breezes through eight great, unimpeachably summery tunes in just about a half hour.  The Santa Monica outfit, whose name is slightly modified from the beach burb of Cayucos, a little ways up the coast, have caught considerable flak for their nagging similarity to a certain East Coast band likewise beloved of 1950s archetypes, plaid button-downs and lilting, tropical-tinged guitar lines.  But while the Vampire Weekend-in-California call-outs are certainly apt – down to the literary details of their collegiate travelogues and sun-bleached romances, enthusiastic use of onomatopoetic yelps, and Futura-enabled album design – it's hard to see why that's much cause for complaint, especially now that Koenig and crew have moved on to decidedly less simple pleasures, and most especially when head Cayuca Scott Yudin can churn out something as instantly and persistently indelible as the snazzily syncopated "High School Lover," which I'd contend equals or betters anything on the first VW album.

Fuck Buttons
concert preview

In theory, Pitchfork-annointed electro-noise auteurs Fuck Buttons make a reasonable fit for the Making Time demographic.  But its troubling to contemplate what might actually happen when the assembled party-ready masses at Voyeur encounter the Bristol duo's portentous, magisterial sound barrages.  Probably the best bet is to hope they bust out some of the old stuff: 2009's relatively populist Tarot Sport at least boasted appropriately movement-friendly four-on-the-floor underpinnings on most of its tracks, plus a twinkling, major-key bent to its awe-inducing anthemics that rendered them rapturously uplifting.  (Enough so that they served to score part of last year's Olympic opening ceremony.)  As for the stark, soul-crushing monoliths that make up most of this year's negative-inverse offering Slow Focus (ATP), they seem markedly less well-suited to soundtrack a scene of happy revelry than to accompany the queasy aftermath of rubble and devastation following, say, the invasion of a popular hipster dance night by an army of demonic, emotionless alien cyborgs.  Maybe if you escape to the basement "bear den" the haze of sweat and stoner rock jams will drown out the screams.

concert preview

Raime – the British abstract electronic duo of Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead – record for a label called Blackest Ever Black, and it's hard to get around the aptness there: their music is just really damn dark.  The sounds they favored on last year's intoxicatingly potent full-length debut, Quarter Turns Over A Living Line, as well as several preceding EPs, include rumbling cavernous drones, gnawing, unblinking metallic tattoos,  and the occasional, muffled irruption of amorphous sonic violence.  But while it's easy enough to sum up their approach as purely and simply evocative of bleakness and dread, wholly subsumed by gloomy negatives, there's something oddly neutral about it too: a subjective, malleable emptiness.  There are shades within shades here: those creeping industrial heartbeats have a subtle, dubby, Burial-esque lilt that might be sensuous or sinister, depending on your angle.  Those churning streaks of cello could be savage or serene.  One person's gaping, ominous void may be another's womblike sanctuary.  After all, the blackest black is really no different from eternal, blinding sunshine once your eyes have time to adjust.

Holy Ghost!
concert preview

Holy Ghost! don't do very much to justify that exclamation mark.  The NYC production duo are more apt to induce sly, slow-building smiles than sudden ecstatic surges; the pleasures to be found in their sleek, shiny updates of 1980s electro-disco are, perhaps unusually for a dancefloor-oriented act, those of comfort, familiarity and expertly executed craftsmanship.  The title of their second album, Dynamics (DFA), suggests a broadened range, and it is indeed a more varied, well-rounded affair than their rather same-sounding debut, but it delivers that breadth via a further smoothing and softening – an occasional uptick in melancholy emotionalism; a generally plusher sound palette (including a string arrangement from the great Kelly Polar) – rather than any great deviation from their standard-issue mid-tempo template.  The exception proving the rule is "Dumb Disco Ideas" – easily their best single to date – an extended, multi-part cowbell'n'clavinet dance-funk jam that solidly cements their DFA bona-fides and probably warrants at least a little punctuation.

originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

No comments: