Welcome back Listeners!
It’s been a minute (well ok, more like a month) since we’ve brought you some fresh tunes. To get us started in 2014, I’ve picked an album I was delightfully surprised to discover while exploring Bandcamp on Valentine’s Day. Terra Traipse by Our Brother the Native stands out as one of the most creative and unique releases of the new year.
Superbly written and arranged, each song on Terra feels like dozens of bits and pieces – banjo and flute and electric guitar and percussion and much, much more – coming together to create a larger idea, a sum greater than the whole. These interlocking puzzle pieces, varying from primal, natural sounds to synthesized tones and textures, blending together in a wild, experimental sound with the spaced-out, trancy feeling I associated with artists like teebs. As heard on “Unquieted” this mix feels like a joyous, celebratory dance.
A few well-placed interludes help to round the album out and provide meditative breaks between the more lively songs. “Whinnying” makes skillful use of a cheerful piano riff, swelling horn lines, and an inarguably expressive drummer. The musicianship of Terra Traipse is complex, intricate, and impressive, but without any instrument over-stepping its function or over-playing its part.
Terra Traipse, along with other material by Our Brother the Native, is availale for purchase on their bandcamp page and you can read more about the band and their history on the FatCat Records website.
On first listen, Dog Society’s sophomore album Emerge brings on a wave of nostalgia for any ’90s lovers out there. Being only two years old when the NY-based rock pop band released their debut Test Your Own Eyes in 1993, I don’t typically count myself as very music-conscious for most of the decade. Even so, before the first track was over I could tell these guys were bringing the ’90s rock back with a vengeance.
Dog Society’s sound – the guitar riffs, the vocal delivery, the songwriting and arrangement – are reminiscent of parts Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, and Nirvana. Not to reduce Emerge down to its contemporaries though, Dog Society offers seriously talented musicianship and creativity throughout. There’s a touch of psychedelic-era Beatles in there too, especially within the textures of the chords and vocal harmonies. The background vocals on “Being Here” have the same overarching, embracing impact as the BVs on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
For calling themselves a rock “pop” band, Dog Society writes songs much more involved and in depth then most contemporary pop today. Within that ’90s rock framework are aspects of pop blended together almost seamlessly: Emerge is fun to listen to, it’s a little less aggressive and a little more accepting then play-till-your-eardrums-bleed rock, and there are ’60s pop ideas in a multitude of songs. “Pink Sun” is a perfect example of an instrumental intro that was pop canon when everyone was still seeing LSD-born giant flowers everywhere.
The themes of return and rebirth loom large throughout Emerge. It makes a lot of sense, these guys are coming back with an indie release two decades after their major label debut. From Dog Society’s lyrics to their musical style, you can hear the ’90s rock phoenix rising from the ashes of music industry. In fact “Salt”, the final and best track on the album, reads as a brilliant metaphor for the band/label relationship, sacrificing creativity and freedom for financing and marketing.
“Take a shine to the whore/give her what she’s asking for/She took away your freedom”
You can listen to all of Emerge below and buy a copy on Dog Society’s Bandcamp.
Listening to Chelsea Wolfe on a record and listening to her perform live are indeed two very different experiences. Wolfe is so much more than her “drone-metal-art-folk” label. The lush tones of Chelsea Wolfe’s most recent album were amplified tenfold in the live setting, the epic tint of the album comes across stunningly.
Wolfe began with the opening track (“Feral Love”) from her new album, Pain is Beauty, and continued through the next two tracks “We Hit a Wall” and “House of Metal.” The latter was particularly thought-provoking and left the listener with mouth hanging open. After a slow, meditative version of “Sick” from the new album, the band launched into cuts from Wolfe’s back catalog, such as “Mer” and “Tracks (Tall Bodies)” from her sophomore release, Ἀποκάλυψις or Apokalypsis, as well as a couple of other songs off of the new album, and a lovely, mostly acoustic rendering “Flatlands” from the Unknown Rooms album.
As impressive as Wolfe’s performance was, the experience was heavily shaped by her backing band. She had an extra guitar player, a stellar drummer, a violinist and violist, as well as two multi-instrumentalists who switched between percussion, guitar, bass guitar, synths, and keyboards. The talents of Wolfe and the rest of the band members were especially showcased on a gripping rendition of “Pale on Pale” which turned into a bit of an extended jam, complete with flashing drum sticks and thrashing bows of violins, which set the stage for Wolfe’s 4 song encore.
Despite Royce Hall’s classical concert hall appearance being somewhat opposed to Wolfe’s aesthetic, the acoustics and gold trim provided a stirring ambience in which to showcase the music. Although one could not help but wish for a bit more smoke and red backlighting.
Check Chelsea Wolfe out on her website
The opener, Anna Calvi, is a singer-guitarist whose music has been described as “brooding melodramatic goth-pop.” But, this description is not enough. With a 3 piece band backing her, Calvi provides a big sound: a soaring vocal style and impressive range that allows her to sing high enough to risk cracking her vocal chords. Her voice also carries a lot of power, reminiscent of the great soul and R n’ B singers of the past. And she can also shred like no other, providing Hendrix-esque solos atop the pounding bottom end of her rhythm section. Calvi is less of a rock star and more of a composer, with songs like “Eliza” calling back to film soundtracks of old westerns, especially the work of Ennio Morricone.
Check out the video for “Suddenly”: And Calvi’s Website
Before the show, there was a special student performance from Sister Calypso, the solo project of UCLA student Ali Kellog. Kellog is clearly influenced by Chelsea Wolfe, in that she provides a similar dark, minimalist atmosphere that echoes Wolfe’s earlier works, such as The Grime and the Glow. Ambient, repetitive, electronic, lots of repetition in the vocals especially. Minimalist percussion.
Check out Michael’s own music blog: http://audibleoblivion.
If the Day’s End EP from alternative/indie rock band House Fire was to be anthropomorphized, it would take the form of a lonesome specter drifting through the streets of downtown Los Angeles. A ghostly figure shimmering under the bright lights of the city, bristling with power and emotion, a whirlwind of inner turmoil flowing over and past the people abjectly absorbed in their own narrative.
And if that’s a little too esoteric for you, think the textures and sounds of Radiohead a la OK Computer, with maybe a dash more of pop mentality and alt rock edginess. The soundscape of Day’s End is a mixture of lite-to-crunchy distorted guitars, soaring vocals, and unbreakable grooves between the bass and drums. In fact, the creative use of sound on the EP – from feedback and reverb to a variety of effects and tones – are nothing less than what I would expect from producer Cary Singer.
In a lot of ways, Days End and House Fire remind me of one of my all time favorites: As Tall As Lions, a now-defunct indie rock quartet originally from Long Island. ATAL captured my imagination with their unique combination of, well, pretty much the same things as House Fire. Their bassist was manic, laying down aggressive lines that pumped life into the songs while the drummer was right there with him, although neither ever stepped on the entrancing chords and melodies coming from the guitarist and singer.
Take a listen to “Milward Drive”, when House Fire dives head first into crashing cymbals in an ocean of chords right around 2:30. It’s this explosive moment that features each musician giving everything to the song through their own voice, wherever it lies. The arpeggios on the bass are especially tits.
For a debut EP, House Fire’s knocked it out of the park. But what’s also exciting about a brand new band releasing their first album is getting to see where they go from here. I like it when singer Aman Alem waxes poetic – “I grew up in your ashes, raised in soot” – and wish more of his lyrics read like that. And now that they’ve established their footing musically, House Fire has the option to take future songs into more unknown, risker territories. They come closest to this on “Naked”, the standout track on Days End. Of all the songs, “Naked” expresses the introspective but not melancholy, almost jubilant rather, emotion of the EP.
Somewhere in between the rise of Glee and Miley Cyrus’s oral assault on a sledgehammer, many of us became increasingly cynical about the state of pop music. We watch the same candy-coated Katy Perry song stay on the charts for months and find ourselves forgetting a time when pop was defined by acts like Michael Jackson or the Beach Boys – groundbreaking artists who captured our imagination with their music.
Luckily for us, there are still bands slinging catchy hooks sung with lover-boy vocals and pushing the musical envelope at the same time.
Bubbling underground far from the screaming Bielbers above, LA-based trio Carlton has been in the lab working to bring back funky, fancy-filled pop in a big bad way. Their first official release since changing their name from Mercury in Summer, the Stretching EP is the kind of music I used to listen to on the walk home from my high school.
The instruments on “Miracle” fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, climbing to a dance-inducing chorus and a heavy bridge in half-time.
On the flip side, “Lost My Friend to the Stereo” is every inch a ballad. With a chorus that makes the sky open up and what can only be the perfect guitar solo for a song like this, “Stereo” pays homage to the entrancing power of the pop and rock epics we used to hear on the radio.
And never losing their sense of humor, Carlton’s release of the “Little Miss Sunshine” video plays as an amusing-but-confusing satire until the irony is really turned up to 11 when.. well I don’t want to spoil it for you:
Excellent use of wind machines! (and an especially tasty bass lick at 3:44)
It would be inaccurate to brand Stretching as purely pop. Carlton brings funky soul to the table and even some jazzy licks that wouldn’t be out of place on a Stevie Wonder record. Over six tracks, the trio takes us in and out of the house that pop built, all the while with a smile on their faces. Carlton’s music is fun, pure and simple.
And isn’t that what pop should be?
You can download Stretching and learn more about Carlton on their website.
The early ‘10s have marked a full transformation into the digital age of music. Forward thinking artists continue to set the curve, and attempt to stay ahead of it, beginning with their music and expanding into their branding. Volcano Choir’s Justin Vernon has emerged as one of music’s forward thinkers. From his roots in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, far away from the epicenters of the entertainment industry, he brings experimental, raw sound to ears the world over. His former band Bon Iver disbanded at the peak of success and an awkward Grammy acceptance speech summed up where success had brought Vernon. For bands like Bon Iver, authenticity is what fans value. While monetary success and awards are a dream come true to many aspiring bands, a by-product of that brand is that fame and fortune can be the kiss of death. Perhaps as Vernon stood at the mythical Grammy podium, accepting that fatal statue, his speech was a defense against the impending downward spiral.
Two years later, Vernon turns his attention to former side-project Volcano Choir. Their sophomore album Repave conveys a fresh start for Vernon and his bandmates. He sets aside the guitar, free to explore new lyrical and emotive territory. The dense lyrics associated with Bon Iver carry over to Repave, allowing listeners to form their own story (while simultaneously making us feel silly as we try to sing along). So what is the story on Repave?
“Tiderays”, the album’s opener, swells with an organ, stirring our senses as an acoustic guitar settles into the mix and Vernon sings “You wake up, soft denims on the floor, spent nights sleeping like 2 fours.” We’re treated to a bedroom in disarray. From there, the track begins a steady crescendo, adding snare drum, piano, and a subtle harmonic shift, all before a crunching guitar riff takes the song to its highest point, closing with the line “brace for the tiderays.” Tumult, soul-searching, and eventual discovery, make up the musical and lyrical matter. There is a joy in finding hidden meaning throughout Repave, superimposing our own experiences against Vernon’s verbal palate
The instruments in the opening moments of “Comrade” are chopped up and disjointed, dancing from speaker to speaker. Vernon pleads for loyalty, and the band erupts into epic mode. A shuffling, swashbuckling synthesizer superimposed over a straight-ahead rock beat characterizes the grandiosity that rears its head in unexpected moments, but never overtakes the album. Vernon and Co. strikes this balance with confidence and control frequently on Repave.
The closer,“Almanac”, ties together the musical and thematic elements of Repave: darting synthesizers, thundering drums, brilliant acoustic guitar, and the full transformation of the album’s protagonist. “SHED SKIN, like a master, and the pastor is coming down to the ground.” This moment is a cathartic arrival due to the richness of the story that unfolded throughout.
It’s easy to listen and say, “Get over yourself, man.” At one point, Vernon refers to himself as “a legend”, and in interviews he’s blunt about the “ass clowns” in the music industry. Repave embodies Vernon’s ideal to make pop sound experimental (or is it the other way around?). He disbanded Bon Iver because the attention and success were distracting. If Vernon stopped there, we could point a finger at his privilege, and group him with the others whose “celebrity plights” are impossible to empathize with. But Vernon doesn’t rest on his laurels, and Repave delivers the goods in a sometimes bombastic, sometimes introspective, always unexpected way.
In Vernon’s neck of the woods authenticity and Grammy-winning fame can’t exist together. Fans lose that precious ownership they once held, so they turn their backs. Is Vernon’s move to disband Bon Iver in favor of a new name, a new supporting cast, and a “new skin” the ploy of a business man trying to avert disaster? Sure. Maybe. But as fans and listeners, which story is more fun? Are we going to open our ears and hearts to the story, or are we so jaded and untrusting? If the words and sounds of Repave are true, then Vernon needs us to believe in the former. So put down your guard, turn off your mind, let the waves of Repave wash over you, and you might just be transformed as well.
You can buy Repave here
- Jack Kovacs
ListenOn takes great pleasure in featuring the first review from new guest writer Jack Kovacs. Jack is an accomplished musician living in Los Angeles and you can read our review of this latest album The State Line or check out his music on his site http://www.jackkovacs.com/
A wave is breaking in Echo Park, and it’s flavored Neo-Soul. If you were following the blog this summer then you’ve already heard a few of our favorite picks from this blossoming scene (see: King and Moses Sumney at the Bootleg). One of our favorite LA bands, Moonchild, just released a new single and with it, a stylish video featuring the rolling hills of (what appears to be) Griffith Park. Minimalism meets pop r&b and they have chemistry. This is a brilliant combination of essential elements and jazzy ornaments cleverly framing Amber’s vocals. With each new single she sounds more and more like Badu’s adopted cousin (in the best way).
You won’t hear distorted, over-processed saw synths or four on the floor beats on a Moonchild track – these things are left out in favor of transcendent pads and syncopation – a defining characteristic of this modernized Neo-Soul. Much like the punk rock/hip hop of the 80s, “All the Joy” is best understood by its contrast with contemporary music, and by that I mean electronic dance music.
Indeed, the EDM craze sweeping accross the nation has some striking similarities with the heavy metal fad that followed the ‘golden era’ of classic rock. But that’s a discussion for another post.
At some point in my life between middle school and high school a drastic and extreme shift happened to Bay Area hip hop. Led by rappers such as Mac Dre, and even engulfing older artists like Too $hort and E-40, this was the massive tidal wave of “hyphy.” Underground hyphy had become full 200 hour house rave mixes on the radio by the time I was a senior in high school, which lead me craving the old tracks of the day: After I left high school I continued to search for tracks similar to my old favorites from back in the day, and for a long time it seemed like the only albums we had to listen to were old dre tapes: It was in this period of searching that a second wave of hyphy-oriented music began to emerge. Spearheaded by rappers like D-Lo, Shady Nate, Lil Blood, J. Stalin and Philthy Rich with bay raps undisputed slap king DJ Fresh producing bangers that might have hit even harder than the original hyphy period, Livewire records managed to lend that old street toughness to hyphy while still knowing enough to not take themselves too seriously. Here’s a San Quinn track produced by DJ Fresh featuring almost the entire livewire crew: Next came Bearfaced Gang of Oakland, IAMSU!, and the Invasionof Richmond. Bearfaced came strictly from the streets, representing their respective hoods with an intense perspective on daily life and struggle, while IAMSU! raps about the glitzy, cleaner life that is reflected in many of his club oriented slaps. Here’s HD’s (of Bearfaced) video for “Triffe”: On the other spectrum we have IAMSU! whose videos need no introduction: Finally we’ve come to the final branches of the hyphy music tree, but even still artists are evolving. Rappers like Main Attrakionz from Green Ova records are repping completely new sounds influenced by the resurgence of drug rap, trap, stomp and creation of soundcloud. Peep their video for “Kushed Up Brothers”: Whenever I meet a rap fan from another state they never seem to like hyphy or understand it. It seems like people that grew up with it cannot help but know what going dumb and ghost riding a whip was, even before any of us actually took pills or drove a car. The Bay and its unique, constantly evolving scene will forever hold the ears of me and my friends at least.
Until next time,
At ListenOn, we (or most of the time just I) often compare music to landscapes. So many songs evolve and flow in much the same way the geography will develop and shift over a long road trip. LA artist Jack Kovacs‘ debut EP The State Line takes us on a journey past borders, over the oceans, and back home again.
Originally planned as a solo guitar record, The State Line is a vibrantly emotional mix of loving, living, and growing up. Kovacs opens with the title track, a duet between himself and phenomenal vocalist Caitlin Notey. The vocals have a Death Cab for Cutie indie feel that blends Sufjan-like arrangements and songwriting influenced by Paul Simon. At 3:00, Notey heart-wrenchingly unleashes the line,
“Please come home, I am so alone”
catapulting us into an etherial guitar solo.
Like “State Line,” “Jenny” starts off lightly before blossoming into harmonically rich chord progressions and another guitar solo, this time in a completely different style. Notey, again, is a sheer delight to hear on this track as well as following “The Empty House.” Kovacs ties us back to our visual landscapes with his enlivened poetic lyrics, accompanied by beautiful but haunting finger-style guitar.
“Summer’s floating softly on the treetops Wind is riding high above the clouds The leaves drink in their sunny light And underneath their shadows form A light bespeckled pattern on the ground”
But “At Sea” is by far my favorite track on The State Line. It’s sparse – just Jack and his acoustic guitar. “At Sea” embraces you with its bewitching melody and vivid ocean-based metaphors. On a such a highly polished EP, Kovacs’ single, brief crack in his vocals strikes a raw nerve of honest emotion. You can tell he’s not just singing, he’s feeling.
The State Line finishes off with “Song of the Summer,” an upbeat jam that grows and grows until it’s going full tilt. Kovacs throws down on slide guitar too.
Two years in the making, Jack Kovacs’ first studio album delivers in a big way: rich and vibrant arrangements, stellar songwriting and captivating lyrics. The State Line presents five tracks neatly wrapped into a package of love and loss, growth and change, inviting us to look into both the future and the past.