Articles posted in August 2009

2009′s road trip soundtrack

The Cave Singers - Welcome Joy
Their name suggests confinement, but the Cave Singers‘ music is anything but claustrophobic. The group mixes folk and backwoods blues into a gorgeous roots rock blend that evokes the seemingly endless highways and expansive plains of Middle America. Of course, the group actually hails from Seattle, not Middle America, but there’s no denying the shimmering, countrified guitars and singer Pete Quirk’s world-weary rasp.

Welcome Joy, the Cave Singers’ second album, manages to achieve timelessness while completely avoiding the clichés associated with roots music: there’s no two-step basslines or twelve bar patterns here. Its atmosphere is similar to Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams, although the disc is less easily pigeonholed as alt. country. With its gritty electric riffs and Quirk’s throaty shouting, “At the Cut” could could pass for hard rock if only it had a harder-hitting rhythm section. The guitar twang on “Shrine” sounds almost like a sitar, creating a psychedelic rock vibe that is complimented by gently pulsing feedback and pattering bongo percussion.

mp3: “At the Cut”

These stylistic forays may sound strange on paper, but they make sense within the context of the album. Welcome Joy is collection that is best experienced from beginning to end; there’s isn’t a dud to found, but neither is there a stand-out single or an unforgettable chorus. The album’s gifts are in the subtleties: the wheezing harmonica on “Leap” or the harmonized guitar licks of “I Don’t Mind.” Even if it doesn’t make you want to sing along at the top of your lungs, 2009 isn’t likely to produce a better road trip album than this.

Welcome Joy is out now via Matador.
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Lightning Dust @ the Biltmore Cabaret, 8/27/09

Lightning Dust
Lightning Dust’s self-titled album from 2007 was so sparse that most of its arrangements were easily replicated live by the band’s two members, Amber Webber and Josh Wells. But the pair’s new album, the gorgeous Infinite Light, is significantly more elaborate than the debut, meaning that the group has now expanded to a four-piece touring lineup, including a drummer and Amber’s twin sister Ashley on bass and backup vocals.

Although the new album dropped over three weeks ago, Lightning Dust had not played a hometown release show until last night, when the newly expanded outfit appeared at the Biltmore. The venue was packed, with Black Mountain cohort Stephen McBean lurking conspicuously in the wings, suggesting that the group’s increased press coverage is starting to pay off.

Even with two additional musicians in the fold, many of the live arrangements were significantly pared down from the lush album cuts. Without its programmed beat, “I Knew” was a straightforward country gallop, only Wells’s synth arpeggios hinting at the electro-tinged studio version. “The Times” was similarly unadorned, lacking its “Sympathy for the Devil”-aping bongo/shaker percussion.

Given that this was a hometown show, Lightning Dust was also able to enlist some additional help from friends; during several songs, they were joined onstage by a cellist and a violinist, and these moments of six-piece grandeur were the highlights of the set. The marching beat and “Eleanor Rigby”-style strings of “Dreamer” were chilling, while the extended outro of “Take It Home” was cinematic in its sweeping grandeur.

Surprisingly, given that the show was a release party for Infinite Light, the band ended with a series of cuts from its self-titled album. The main set finished with the rollicking folk stomper “Wind Me Up,” while the encore consisted of the haunting ballads “Highway” and “Take Me Back.” It was a surprising choice to end a triumphant hometown show on such a bleak note. Still, given that they didn’t even play the new internet single “Never Seen,” Webber and Wells clearly weren’t interested in pandering to their newly-won Pitchfork fanbase.
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Chad VanGaalen breaks the Mold (pun!)

Black Mold - Snow Blindness Is Crystal Antz
Calgary singer-songwriter Chad VanGaalen specializes in quirky bedroom pop, a style which earned his 2008 album Soft Airplane a short-list nod for this year’s Polaris Prize. But as fans know, his albums also feature twisted instrumental set-pieces and bizarre stylistic left-turns. Soft Airplane ended with “Frozen Energon,” which was nearly four minutes of guitar feedback, pulsing synth noise and directionless drum pounding. “JC’s Head on the Cross,” which appeared on his debut, Infiniheart, was a similarly wonky instrumental, with barely-in-tune guitar plucking and a stuttering electro beats.

On previous albums, such moments were oddball interludes; on Snow Blindness Is Crystal Antz, released under the moniker Black Mold, they’re the main attraction. The album is entirely instrumental, and there’s nothing here that remotely approaches a structured pop song. Rather, nearly every track features glitchy drum loops and squelching, buzzy synthesizers. Even melody is hard to come by, with “Dr. Snouth” being made up of nothing more than R2-D2-style blips and bleeps.

The fact that VanGaalen chose to release the collection under the alias Black Mold, rather than use his own name, is indication enough that this is more of a self-indulgent experiment than it is an attempt to recreate the magic of his previous albums. Still, it has plenty of moments of prettiness, from the purring clarinet of “Metal Spider Webs” to the meandering keyboard leads of “Wet Ferns.”

mp3: “Metal Spider Webs”

The album isn’t likely to appeal to the same CBC Radio 3 crowd that voted “Willow Tree” the “future classic” of 2009. Still, as a document of a restless artist at his most unhinged, it’s well worth a listen.

Snow Blindness Is Crystal Antz is out now via Flemish Eye.
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Bat for Lashes @ Venue, 8/25/09

Bat for Lashes
If Wikipedia is to be believed, Natasha Khan will turn 30 in two months. Watching her performance last night at Venue, however, the Bat for Lashes singer seemed much younger. The show played out like a schoolgirl’s fantasy: the mic stands were hung with silver tinsel, small statuettes were littered around the stage and the backdrop was a star spangled curtain that depicted a wolf howling at the moon. Khan herself wore glittery makeup and pranced around barefoot, gesturing flamboyantly with her lace-clad hands. Her between-song banter was as charming as it was awkward, as she giggled about school discos, chirping “Will you ask me to dance?”

Khan’s girlish stage presence belied the maturity of her songs, which were delivered with absolute conviction and flawless musicianship. Although there were only four people on stage, they did a surprisingly good job of recreating the lush arrangements and heady atmospherics of this year’s Two Suns. “Glass” began nearly-a cappella, Khan’s ethereal vocals accompanied by only the faint drone of an electric cello. It soon exploded into clattering tribal percussion and swells of synth ambience. “Traveling Woman” was similarly haunting, its plodding piano groove evoking Stevie Nicks at her most world-weary.

Despite these moments of refined beauty, much of show emphasized Bat for Lashes’ dance influences, with several songs stripping away melody and replacing it with densely layered percussion. “Two Planets” was a minimalist tribal jam, eschewing structure in favour of pure adrenaline; with a full drum kit, a floor tom and a tambourine almost drowning out the background synthesizer.

The set rounded out with “Daniel,” its pulsing electro beats and Hounds of Love-era synthesizers finding a middle ground between the group’s disparate styles. Ending the night with the hit single may have been a predictable move, but Khan’s unshakable enthusiasm meant that no one went away disappointed.
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Said the Whale prepares to take the next step

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Said the Whale - The Magician EP
Ostensibly, Said the Whale’s The Magician EP is just a teaser for the group’s second full-length album, Islands Disappear, due out this fall. It packages together the new single “Camilo (The Magician)” along with three outtakes that were recorded for the new album but didn’t make the cut. It might be fair to assume that such a collection would be a throwaway, a hodgepodge of material not good enough to make the cut for the full-length album. This isn’t the case at all, however, as every track on The Magician EP is a keeper; they’re so good, in fact, that it’s hard to fathom how they were ever considered unsuitable LP material.

The EP begins with the sort-of title track “Camilo (The Magician),” which is easily the catchiest song the Vancouver five-piece has ever released. The stuttering chorus is a moment of pure genius (“Ca-Ca-Ca-Camilo”), and its grungy drop-tuned powerchords and steadily pounding rhythm section sound like a distillation of the best of ‘90s alt-rock.

On the second track, “Love Is Art/Sleep Through Fire,” frontmen Tyler Bancroft and Ben Worcester take a cue from Lennon and McCartney, creating a medley out of two individually-written song fragments (which were initially released as separate tracks on the home-recorded EP Let’s Have Sound). By playing the singers against one another, the band draws out the strengths of each: the Worcester-penned “Love Is Art” is a gorgeous acoustic ballad while Bancroft’s “Sleep Through Fire” is majestic baroque rock, its heart-stopping build-ups giving way to sweetly-harmonized comedowns.

“Strong Swimmers” is less climactic, but easily as riveting. A gentle folk song laced with tinkling piano and electric guitar jangle, it vividly describes crossing a frozen lake in the dead of winter. “When we reach that frozen lake / I thought it looked like it was strong enough to stand on / Held your hand as we softly took the first step / Ignoring cracks and bubbles, we’re strong swimmers,” Bancroft sings, making it easy to see why the band was initially called WordsOverMusic.

Closing track “Upset Her” is a moody breakup song, its chugging verses swelling to a rock-out chorus that might sound triumphant if not for the bleak subject matter. With subtle horn swells and gently chiming electric piano, it’s a beautifully textured track that shows off the band’s sonic growth (production was handled by Howard Redekopp, whose previous credits include the New Pornographers and Mother Mother).

It’s only four songs long, but The Magician EP is a huge leap forwards for the group in terms of both song writing and production. Based on the evidence contained here, it’s hard to imagine the band’s new album being anything less than spectacular—especially considering that these are only the outtakes.

The Magician EP is out now on 7″ via Hidden Pony. Islands Disappear is due out October 13.
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The Lovely Feathers pack a punch

The Lovely Feathers - Fantasy of the Lot
I didn’t know it was possible for any band name to out-twee the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. But then I came across the Lovely Feathers, a pop rock four-piece from Montreal. In the canon of cute-and-fluffy band names, this one’s going to be tough to beat.

Thankfully, the group’s third album, Fantasy of the Lot, is harder-hitting than the band name would signify. Opener track “Lowiza” bursts out of the gate with a new wave stomp, its brash group vocals punctuated with organ drones and overdriven guitar leads. The next track, “Long Walks,” begins with jittery keyboards riffs and stop-start rhythms; when the vocals enter, they alternate between breathy whispers and strained shouts, evoking the twisted creep-outs of the Unicorns.

mp3: “Lowiza”

Not all of Fantasy of the Lot is as punchy as the first two songs. “Fad” is a wispy acoustic strummer with descending guitar leads that are accompanied by quirky falsetto humming. The title track is similarly hushed, and it’s so reverent that it could almost pass for Elliott Smith. These tracks aren’t thrilling, but they’re still an effective counterpoint to the more upbeat material. It’s a mix that makes the album a nice balance between tongue-in-cheek rock and heartfelt balladry—something that might not be conveyed by the flowers on the cover or the name on the spine.

Fantasy of the Lot is out now via Sparks.
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A tale of two Jacks

The Dead Weather
Is there anybody who has benefitted more from Jack White’s bizarre string of side projects than Jack Lawrence? A few years ago, the bassist was languishing in obscurity with the hard-toiling, little-known blues trio the Greenhornes. Then, White recruited him and fellow Greenhorne Patrick Keeler to play in the Do Whaters, Loretta Lynn‘s backing band for her 2004 album Van Lear Rose. A year later, Lawrence and Keeler became the rhythm section of the Raconteurs, White’s collaboration with singer-songwriter Brendan Benson. After the band released two albums and toured the world many times over, Lawrence had the opportunity to play bass on the White-penned Bond song “Another Way to Die.”

Now, as a member of the garage blues supergroup the Dead Weather, Lawrence is sharing the stage with Kills frontwoman Alison Mosshart, getting to experience her erotically-changed gyrations up close and personal. He might look deadpan—kind of like a gothic J Mascis—but I can guarantee that behind those massive glasses, he’s loving every minute of it.

Okay, so he has to suffer the indignity of being called “LJ” (short for “Little Jack”), but that’s a small price to pay for money, fame and the opportunity to play to huge audiences around the world. And did I mention getting to stare at Alison Mosshart? Dude’s got it made.

I saw the Dead Weather’s performance last night at the Commodore Ballroom, which was a sight to behold. Mosshart was the show-stealer, screaming and spitting her lyrics as she writhed around the mic stand and waggled her tongue at the audience; the only difference between her performance and a ritualistic tribal sex dance was…well, I can’t think of any differences right now, but there must have been one. The hear more about her sensual delights, check out my review of the show over at Guttersnipe.

In related news, the Dead Weather released a video for the single “Treat Me Like Your Mother” last month. It offers a fairly literal representation of White and Mosshart’s explosive chemistry, beginning with a fizzling bomb and culminating with the band members shooting the shit out one another with automatic rifles. Yikes.

“Treat Me Like Your Mother” is available on 7″ via Third Man. It comes with the B-side “You Just Can’t Win,” a Them cover. It also appears on the awesome album Horehound.
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Another curio from Dan Bejar

Destroyer - Bay of Pigs
Destroyer is one of the most instantly recognizable bands around today; there’s no mistaking singer Dan Bejar’s nasal voice, half-spoken delivery and oblique poetry. It’s so distinctive, in fact, that Destroyer songs have a tendency to all sound the same—a trend that, after eight albums plus a smattering of EPs and side-projects—shows no sign of abating. Bejar’s only apparent means to separate his works is by aping a variety of genres, disguising the similarity of his songs with a outlandish production styles. We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge was no-fi folk; Streethawk: A Seduction copped the lush pianos and biting guitars of mid-’70s Bowie; Your Blues was MIDI-based bedroom electronica.

This perhaps explains the new EP, Bay of Pigs, which is a foray into the invented genre of “ambient disco.” It’s only two tracks long, but at over 21 minutes, its nearly as substantial as many full lengths albums (it’s a few seconds longer than Vivian Girls‘ ten-song debut, for example). The title track is bafflingly experimental, beginning with aimless synth swells and breaking into danceable electro beats and upbeat acoustic strumming at various points in its 14-minute runtime. “Listen, I’ve been drinking,” Bejar begins, technicolor keyboards swirling in the background. No shit.

Track two, “Ravers,” is comparatively tame, although it’s still a far cry from Bejar’s usual man-with-guitar approach. With eight minutes made up of new-age-y synth chords and directionless vocals, plus a very brief section of cavernous keyboard arpeggios, it’s pure ambiance—there’s no disco here.

Still, despite the bizarre arrangements, you can’t help but hear echoes of Destroyer’s previous work in Bay of Pigs. The sparse electronics harken back to much of Your Blues, while the vocal melodies of the title track bearing a passing similarity to “Rubies.” Bejar, it seems, can’t escape himself. That’s not such a problem, however, if he keeps on releasing projects as interesting as this. More than just a stylistic oddity, the EP is classic late night/headphone listening; newcomers might want to start elsewhere, but it’s essential for any Destroyer fan.

Bay of Pigs is out now via Merge.
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Impersonating Elvis (but only sometimes)

The Paper Cranes - Chivalry's Dead
The Paper Cranes‘ first album, Halcyon Days, was essentially a new wave revival album, with breezy synths, straightforward dance beats and Robert Smith-aping vocals. It was an enjoyable collection, although it sounded a hell of a lot like Hot Hot Heat—not coincidentally, a fellow Victoria band.

Thankfully, group’s second album, Chivalry’s Dead, is a lot harder to pin down. It’s only eight songs long, its runtime barely exceeding 28 minutes, but it’s a more confident, memorable effort by far. On “Black Centipedes,” singer Ryan McCullagh spits and slurs like Joe Strummer while the band thunders through a drum-and-bass groove that sounds like a classic British spy song, right down to the delayed guitar flourishes and smooth sax licks. “The Cavelier,” meanwhile, plays choppy guitars against ’70s keyboard cheese, sounding so much like Elvis Costello that the song probably could have been slotted into Get Happy!! without anyone noticing the difference.

All of the album’s stylistic forays are enjoyable, but the best of the bunch are the bouncy piano pop numbers. Lead single “Telephone” is a straightforward rocker, its double-time piano pounding accentuated by wheezy harmonica breaks and fuzzy guitar leads. “Thorazine Shuffle” has a similarly chirpy rhythm, but the lyrics are pure Thom Yorke-style paranoia, containing allusions to Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film) and a refrain of “We have so many ways to get what we are after / We have ways of making you talk.”

mp3: “Telephone”

Despite the occasional tendency to lean a little too hard on their influences, the Paper Cranes have crafted a consistently enjoyable album in Chivalry’s Dead. And, as knockouts like “Thorazine Shuffle” prove, the band is well on its way to finding a voice of its own.

Chivalry’s Dead is out now via Unfamiliar.
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New Radiohead (everybody go crazy!)

Radiohead - These Are My Twisted Words
As the furor surrounding the release of In Rainbows proved, a new Radiohead album is a cultural event—so a new Radiohead song is worthy of a blog post at the very least.

About two weeks ago, Radiohead released “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” as a £1 download, a song honouring the death of the final British World War I veteran. It’s a pretty tune, but by no means your average rock single: it’s mainly orchestral, and the are lyrics entirely made up of quotes from Harry himself. All proceeds from the internet-only single go to the Royal British Legion.

Then, last week, an unknown song called “These Are My Twisted Words” leaked onto the internet; the source was unclear, but it was obviously Thom Yorke singing, so people naturally assumed it was another new Radiohead tune. They assumed right. Today the track was released as a free download from the band’s W.A.S.T.E. shop; unfortunately, it appears to be another one-off rather than a preview of an upcoming record—this is especially probable since Yorke recently told The Believer that the band won’t be recording an LP anytime in the near future. But two Radiohead songs are better than no Radiohead songs, so who’s complaining?

The track sounds a lot like something that could have been on In Rainbows, with clean, hypnotic arpeggios, a dreamy wash of reverb and Phil Selway’s feathery drumming. After a rambling instrumental intro that takes up nearly half of the song’s five-minute-plus runtime, Yorke offers up up a woozy vocal line with typically cryptic, mostly indecipherable lyrics, sounding a bit like OK Computer B-side “A Reminder.” There’s no refrain, and Colin Greenwood’s bass groove is the closest thing it has to a hook. Still, it’s sonically gorgeous, and the haunting vibe is guaranteed to get under your skin. And you can’t argue with free.

Head over to the W.A.S.T.E. shop to download it.
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