Sunday, May 30, 2010

Introducing...River City Extension

New Jersey octet River City Extension makes music I'm pretty much programmed to like--a combustible mix of folk, rock, and pop that revels in big choruses and gritty lyricism. So take that for what it's worth, but I'm fairly certain their full-length debut album, ...And The Unmistakable Man, is a great record despite any bias on my part. Having eight members in a band would suggest a lot going on, noise wise, and you get what you expect in that department. Thumping drums, crunchy guitars, blaring horns and more add to the record's energetic and often riotous nature, resulting in music that is consistently fun and thoroughly entertaining. Adding to the album's appeal is the fact that River City Extension isn't playing Americana rock by the numbers; songs rarely go where you'd expect and there's a wide array of styles on display over the lengthy 13 tracks, revealing a band with plenty of ideas and plenty of talent to carry them out.

Lead singer Sam Tacon's rough tenor fits perfectly amid the brass-heavy rock style, transitioning from a unhinged yelp to a smooth croon, often within one song. This is anything but a one man show, however, ...And the Unmistakable Man sounds like the work of eight tight-knit musicians working toward one glorious goal, and achieving it. Favorites of mine from the record include the tropically-tinged rocker "Something Salty, Something Sweet," the incredibly eclectic jam "Our New Intelligence," and the surprisingly sweet ballad "Today, I Feel Like I'm Evolving." River City Extension is a fantastic new band that absolutely should NOT be ignored--a must-listen for 2010.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review: The National - High Violet (* * * 1/2)

Any band that relegates a guest list including Sufjan Stevens and Justin Vernon to tiny font in the liner notes obviously sees no need to capitalize on the recognition recording with these artists might bring. And it’s true the National don’t need to be famous by association. These five gentlemen from Brooklyn have—in what could perhaps be described as a most traditional and unspectacular manner—transitioned into one of the indie world’s most revered rock bands. Now, with their fifth release, High Violet, they've about reached superstar status, and they’re ready for their close-ups, as it were. A quick look at the band’s two appearances on Letterman—the first to do Boxer highlight “Fake Empire” and the most recent to perform new single “Afraid of Everyone”—best exhibits what I mean. No longer does frontman Matt Berninger stand nervously clutching the mic, staring at the floor while delivering lines like he’s reading excerpts from his journal. Nowadays he gazes almost assertively outward, dressed to kill and sounding fantastic, while he and the band display previously unseen confidence as they run through a charismatic, dynamic performance. (Read the rest @ In Review Online)

Review: Sam Amidon - I See the Sign (* * * *)

Given the unusual way in which Sam Amidon approached his first two albums, you might expect him to either be relegated to the smallest of niche markets or to feel pressure to write a record using more conventional methods. Instead, the young folk musician has found his unique songcraft to be quite sustainable, and he's garnered increased acclaim over the past few years—especially with 2008’s lovely All Is Well. Of course, Amidon isn’t the first person to take traditional folk tunes and reinterpret them with a personal twist, but the obscurity of his chosen songs and the lengths to which he goes to make them his own labels him as a genuinely fascinating artist. His third effort, I See the Sign, is once again a collection of covers, though as is par for the course, it’s unlikely (with but one notable exception) that you’ve heard them before—and with his often dramatic rearrangements, it would hardly matter if you had. The new record isn’t necessarily better than its predecessor, but the growth Amidon shows here in the complexity of his arrangements and in the confidence of his presentation make it his most compelling to date. (Read the rest @ In Review Online)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Reviews in Brief: Roky Erickson, Aqualung, Apples in Stereo

Roky Erickson - True Love Cast Out All Evil (* * * *)

Roky Erickson's life and career have been marred by pretty severe personal turmoil (to say the least), but his latest record, True Love Cast Out All Evil, proves he's been able to put that behind him and still make great music. Recording with indie mainstays Okkervil River, the psychedelic rock legend offers a gritty, rough and ultimately uplifting set of bluesy rock tunes that appropriately focuses on such topics as faith, sorrow, love and redemption. Whether playing simple ballads ("Ain't Blues Too Sad") or upbeat rockers ("Bring Back the Past"), Erickson's songwriting and delivery are surprisingly strong, and the personal nature of these songs is easily felt and appreciated--especially for those familiar with the artist's difficult past. Okkervil River's superb musicianship helps make cuts like the spacey "Goodbye Sweet Dreams" and the gospel-esque title track absolutely riveting, meshing smoothly with Erickson's distinctive growl. True Love Cast Out All Evil a real triumph of a rock record. (MySpace)

Aqualung - Magnetic North (* * * 1/2)

I've never been particularly interested in the music of Matt Hales (known as Aqualung), but I'll admit I've found his latest effort, Magnetic North, to be a surprisingly enjoyable pop-rock record. Incorporating influences from The Beatles to Beck, Hales offers a set of tunes that is a generally upbeat, uplifting affair--one that shows his ear for infectious melodies and big, piano-centric hooks. Occasionally Hales veers uncomfortably close to mainstream piano-pop blandness, but more often he manages to be both accessible and interesting enough to hold your attention for the length of his new album. As for highlights, "Reel Me In" is a sunny, soaring number, "Fingertip" is impossibly catchy with its hand-claps and soothing vocal harmony, and "Thin Air" is a simply gorgeous ballad. This sort of earnest, straightforward approach may not appeal to those who spurn anything radio-friendly, but Magnetic North is an intelligent and charming album that has good reason to be heard. (MySpace)

Apples in Stereo - Travellers in Space and Time (* * * *)
It's once again obvious by listening to Apples In Stereo's latest record that the band has no intention of converting non-believers. What I mean is, if you liked it before you'll certainly like it now (perhaps even more so), but if haven't previously been convinced, it's unlikely you'll change your mind this time around. But speaking from the perspective of a casual fan, I can say Travellers in Space and Time is one of the best records the band has released. The eclectic, synth-driven pop tracks comprising the record are universally impossibly to resist, filled with quirky hooks and melodies that just about demand not only your attention but your best dance moves. You'll find most of the best tracks up front; the bouncy "Dream About the Future," the sexy and funky "Hey Elevator," and slinky "Dance Floor" are all excellent, unabashedly cheesy and all about having a good time. Maybe I should take that first statement back--I really can't imagine anyone not at least enjoying a few of these tunes. (MySpace)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Concert Review: Frightened Rabbit w/ Maps & Atlases

Urban Lounge, SLC
May 13, 2010

I've mentioned this before, but shows at the Urban Lounge start late. Like 10 p.m. late, and sometimes after a long day of work I find myself struggling to get excited about a show on the weekdays (yeah, I'm prematurely old - alright!?). But Thursday the 13th I had no issues getting myself out of the house to see Frightened Rabbit and Maps & Atlases. I arrived and--as expected--found the place fairly full, awaiting the latter band to take the stage (I unfortunately missed what was apparently a great performance by Our Brother the Native).

Maps & Atlases

Given that Maps & Atlases have yet to release their debut LP (they have a couple EPs to their name, though, check 'em out), I was curious to know what kind of reception they would receive, and if they could get the energy going that night despite their "under the radar" status. Turns out my worry was wasted as it immediately became clear that the band had all the talent and showmanship necessary to put on a great show. Maps & Atlases, a quartet, make extremely technical music--with weird time signatures, constant tempo changes, and some seriously impressive guitar work (if you geek out about that stuff, like I do). But it's also fun music, and when the band kicked into their first number, an upbeat, percussion-heavy tune, the crowd responded almost immediately. Throughout the group's 45-minute set, the audience grew increasingly connected to these engaging performers; Maps & Atlases certainly gained some converts that night.

Behind mountain man-esque frontman Dave Davison and his nasally croon, Maps & Atlases worked their way through both bouncy indie pop tunes and fiercer rockers with apparent ease, showing off with intricate riffs and a few lengthy guitar solos without letting things devolve into an uninteresting jam session. The joyful sound they made was impossible to deny, and though their more danceable cuts were obviously the best received tunes, no matter what the guys played they seemed to get a better ovation each time. The band ended with one of their best numbers, a burning rock 'n' roll tune that went on for some time, but though they'd played a very solid and satisfying opening set--I feel confident saying we all would have enjoyed an encore, even at the expense of waiting for Frightened Rabbit to play. Maps & Atlases proved clearly that even the most cerebral, technical music can--and should--provide for an awesome show.


Frightened Rabbit

Frightened Rabbit took the show around 11:30 that night, but even after a length sound check they had everyone's attention when they took the stage. I didn't really know what to expect from singer/songwriter Scott Hutchison, given the often dark and depressing nature of his lyrics, but he was friendly, personable, and complimentary of the group's previous experience in Utah. Then the boys launched into a slowly building introduction into "Skip the Youth" from this year's Winter of Mixed Drinks and it became obvious Hutchison isn't the withdrawn, tortured soul I half expected him to be. He sings loudly, confidently, and makes the most of the music's climactic moments. Earlier this year I was a little critical in my review of the band's new album due to the bigger, more grandiose style, but I soon was rethinking my analysis. The group perfectly replicates the more epic approach on stage, with each member contributing vocal harmony and playing a variety of instruments to do so. And with the crowd singing along at every turn, Frightened Rabbit turned in one hell of a performance.

They played about equal parts their new record and 2008's Midnight Organ Fight, with personal favorites like "Old Old Fashioned," "Swim Until You Can't See Land" and "Foot Shooter" given an extra boost by the rowdy atmosphere and increasingly intense Scott Hutchison, who seemed to get looser with each song. At times he became almost unhinged, yelling emphatically and then subsiding into a quieter passage with an equally powerful emotional delivery. The group finished with a fiery rendition of "Good Arms vs Bad Arms," but everyone knew the drill and cheered loudly until the band returned for their encore. Hutchison appeared alone at first, singing the terribly sad "Poke" with just his acoustic guitar, even removing himself from the mic for the end of the song so the audience could join in what became a drunken sing-a-long. Then the rest of the band joined for "Living in Colour" and "Keep Yourself Warm," the latter of which earned a hearty cheer when announced. It was a thoroughly entertaining and engaging finish to a concert that has set the bar high for any other shows I may see this summer.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Three for Wednesday: Emily Jane White, In Tall Buildings, Sarah Jaffe

Emily Jane White

We here at Chewing Gum for the Ears (we meaning me, of course) are always looking for those folk artists out there who deserve your attention, and Emily Jane White is one such musician. Her new album, Victorian America, is a darkly-tinged collection of Americana tunes that in no way belies her sunny California origins, but it does make very clear her gripping songwriting ability. Even at a solid hour in length and with its generally sparse aesthetic, the record remains entrancing due to White's vivid storytelling and her beautiful, emotive voice. Highlights like "The Baby" and "The Ravens" quickly make these qualities known, and she seems like such a natural in this genre you'd surely have a difficult time imagining her as frontwoman for the various metal and punk bands she performed with in college. Definitely take the time to get acquainted with Emily Jane White, who has crafted a superb folk record with Victorian America.

Download: Liza (zipped MP3)


In Tall Buildings

When I tell you that In Tall Buildings is the solo recording project of one Erik Hall, of Nomo fame, you'll likely envision music of a considerably different type than you actually find on his first and self-titled outing. In Tall Buildings is a restrained, often acoustic affair that focuses on Hall's hazy vocals and his multi-instrumental ability, and while the differences between this and his primary gig make the album interesting, the quality of the music makes it worth noting here. Several years in the making, the eight songs sound carefully composed and--at times--intensely personal despite some tricky chord progressions and tempo changes. It's not flashy or loud, but the record consistently reveals Hall's impressive musicianship with a variety of subtle flourishes that bring to life tunes like the eclectic "The Way To A Monster's Lair" and the odd yet engrossing "Good Fences." Artists have side projects for many reasons--I think Erik Hall just knew these songs needed to be heard.

Download: The Way To A Monster's Lair (MP3)


Sarah Jaffe

24 year-old Texas native Sarah Jaffe just yesterday released her debut LP, Suburban Nature, but I expect it won't be long before you start hearing quite a bit about her. Jaffe is a singer/songwriter who is difficult to classify, making raw, emotional music that ranges from quiet acoustic ballads ("Stay With Me") to soaring rockers ("Better Than Never") and everything in between. She proves equally adept at whatever she attempts, with her strong voice and stirringly honest lyrics immediately setting her apart from her less remarkable peers. The record's best, the driving "Clementine" and the dark, atmospheric "Swelling" would be my recommendations for where to start, but really you can't go wrong with any of the 13 tracks comprising the 45 minutes of Suburban Nature, which remarkably includes songs from as far back as Jaffe's teenage years. Keep an eye on Sarah Jaffe--you can bet everyone else will.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Review: The New Pornographers - Together (* * *)

Let’s face it: even on an off day, the New Pornographers make some pretty good music. And given that the group incorporates the collective talents of AC Newman, Neko Case and Dan Bejar, you would probably expect that to be the case. But even a great band becomes a lot less interesting when they release a by-the-numbers type record. There is something to be said for the fact that the Pornographers have album construction down to a science; and getting what you expect in terms of structure and style certainly isn’t a bad thing (especially after 2007’s Challengers disappointed many—myself not included). But while the group's latest album, Together, sees them return to the speed and form expected of them, it also sounds an awful lot like a less inspired version of albums that came before it. As a result, it plays as if it were composed by a band that’s merely coasting—and we all know the Pornographers have much more to offer us than that. (Continue Reading @ In Review Online)

Review: MGMT - Congratulations (* * 1/2)

You have to hand it to any band that willfully alienates a good portion of their fan base in the name of progress, though you may wonder if the decision MGMT made was the right one. Their first album left them among the hottest rock bands in the world, receiving critical acclaim and popular attention with hook-filled tunes like “Kids” and “Time to Pretend.” It seemed only logical that they would capitalize on this success by turning in an even more radio-friendly record, but instead MGMT head determinedly in the opposite direction for their second full-length, Congratulations. Of course, given the eclectic nature of their debut, Oracular Spectacular, this decision by the band to continue exploring instead of refining their sound isn’t a complete surprise. Across the album, their ambition results in some genuinely fascinating experiments, but Congratulations more often feels like an awkward first step toward the goal than its attainment. (Continue Reading @ In Review Online)

Monday, May 10, 2010

You Should Know: Dana Falconberry

Austin singer/songwriter Dana Falconberry seems to have already made a name for herself in her hometown. The Austin Chronicle even labeled her as one of the city's "most arresting female vocalists," which, considering what must be stiff competition, seems like pretty high praise. And with her most recent album, Halletts, I think she just might find a bigger audience for her stirring brand of folk music. The collection of eight tunes revisits some previous recordings and includes some new songs as well - though for me it has just served as a convincing introduction to Falconberry's simply beautiful songwriting.

With the help of a full band (for the first time), Falconberry works her way through this easy-going, yet emotionally engaging set of tunes with a spare, almost rustic approach. The presence of other musicians is obvious, with touches of banjo, ukulele, and more helping to bring these musical tales to life, but the songs stay grounded and focuses right where they should be--on her uniquely gorgeous voice. Highlights include the pleasant and warm "Blue Umbrella," the darkly tinged "Baby Blue Sky," and the lovely closing thought "Birthday Song." With Halletts, Dana Falconberry offers plenty of reasons to label her as an artist to watch--keep an eye on her going forward.

Download: "Crooked River" (not from the album, but one of the best I've heard from her)


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Introducing: Inlets

So working in a band has many advantages - it provides an exchange of ideas, it offers varied perspectives, etc. - but there's also something to be said for those artists who prefer to keep their music to themselves. Getting the best of both worlds is Sebastian Kreuger, operating as Inlets, who seems to make the majority of his creative process a solitary one, but certainly isn't opposed to collaboration. The talented newcomer has recorded or performed with the likes of Fiest and DM Stith, and on his debut LP, Inter Arbiter, he gets some assistance from Beirut frontman Zach Condon and Dirty Projectors vocalist Angel Deradoorian, among others. As a result, his first record often feels like a solo project in its darkly intimate style, but these mostly quiet songs feature striking instrumental backdrops and gorgeous vocal harmonies that help make the music especially compelling.

Kreuger's voice - both beautiful and haunting - weaves between acoustic guitar, subdued horns and banjo in a way that doesn't provide for many outright hooks, yet his intricate melodies and unusual song structures are absorbing just the same. The music of Inlets is brainy, cerebral stuff, and that's where most of its appeal lies, but Kreuger manages to include an emotional edge to his songwriting that allows the music to be accessed from more than just a technical standpoint. Highlights from Inter Arbiter include the constantly shifting "Canteen," the strange and melancholy "Bright Orange Air," and the enjoyably unstable "Famous Looks." It may be his full-length debut, but Kreuger shows a remarkable amount of maturity and depth here - no doubt the result of both a generous amount of creative energy and previously refined musicianship.

Download: "In Which I, Robert"


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Three for...Wednesday: Grovesnor, JT and the Clouds, Lawrence Arabia

Grovesnor -

Rob Smoughton, recording under the moniker Grovesnor, is a member of Hot Chip - though despite the connection it's unfortunately unlikely you've heard much about the guy. As Grovesnor, he makes a brand of electro-funk that seems in some ways related to the music of his other band, but Smoughton leaves behind the endearing geeky sentiment for a sleek, sexy pop approach that's just as difficult to resist on his new album, Soft Return. On cuts like the groovy "Taxi from the Airport" and the appropriately sultry "Nitemoves" Smoughton proves he's got a way with a hook and enough vocal firepower to make them effective. Thin digital drum beats and skittering electronics fill in the spaces between the keyboard riffs, with Smoughton effectively transforming himself into his playboy alter-ego over the course of the record's 11 tracks. (MySpace)

JT and the Clouds -

JT Lindsay, frontman for rock 'n' rollers JT and the Clouds, had something of a late start to his music career. But he's making up for it now, especially with his excellent new LP Caledonia, which was recently released and has been in steady rotation for me over the past few weeks. Lindsay and company make breezy, melodic rock 'n' roll with classic roots and a soulful edge - showcased best on highlights "Funeral" and "How it Runs," two hook-filled rock tunes that make me wonder why I hadn't been exposed to these guys before. The band works their way through everything from earnest ballads ("I Have Heard Words") to odd pop numbers ("Grow Your Flowers") with an equal measure of style, making Caledonia a consistently infectious and fun album from a band you should get to know as soon as possible (MySpace)

Download: "Fever Dream" (zipped MP3)

Lawrence Arabia -

Lawrence Arabia is the recording and performing name of one James Milne, who's biggest claim to fame was perhaps his being a touring member of Okkervil River at one time. Thankfully, Milne decided to step into the spotlight and has now released his second solo effort, Chant Darling, a wonderfully eclectic pop album that never stays still and always manages to impress. The album's highlights show several different yet consistently entertaining sides of Milne's musical personality; "Apple Pie Bed" has a slick, danceable edge reminiscent of Of Montreal, "Eye A" is a jangly bit of pop-rock, and the appropriately atmospheric "Dream Teacher" makes for a peaceful goodbye to end the record. This New Zealand crooner not only provides some undeniably catchy tunes with plenty of variety, but shows genuine promise for anything he decides to do next. Definitely an artist to keep an eye on going forward. (MySpace)

Download: "Apple Pie Bed"