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Music Reviews

Elk City

Elk City

Everybody’s Insecure

Bar/None

Just what the heck are “Root Beer Shoes”? I assume they’re going to be brown, maybe suede like a classic Hush Puppy. I don’t know though. I once saw a woman with ultra high platform shoes with live goldfish swimming around inside. Whatever they are, Renee LoBue is a little bit obsessed with them. She wrote a song pleading for a good man to please wear “Root Beer Shoes”. That song appears on Elk City’s new album, Everybody’s Insecure and it was the hook that drew me in.

On first listening, I thought Elk City were just another competent indie rock band. They write pretty songs that sort of float by without demanding too much attention. I hear a lot of nice music that doesn’t really grab my attention, but then the quirks started to emerge, things like those “Root Beer Shoes”. “No Depth” opens with a catchy guitar line that leads into a cynical song about the exploitation of young creative types. LoBue sings, “downtown they work for free because they bought into the myth.” As a freelance writer and photographer, I have lived that line.

Renee is aided and abetted by producer/drummer Ray Ketchem, former Luna guitarist Sean Eden, keyboardist Carl Baggaley and bassist Martin Olsen. As I mentioned at the top of this review, the music is lovely and, at least on initial listening, a bit Teflon. Everybody’s Insecure was made for repeated listening. Did she really just sing, “what if I said that you were dead?” They more I play the disc; the more the musical and lyrical nuances reveal themselves. Now, I’m digging lyrics about being as free as a sparrow, melodies carried by the bass, keyboard textures and tasty guitar licks. I remember what my first impression was, but I can’t hear that anymore. I’ve been seduced.

www.bar-none.com

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Music Reviews

Stevie Jackson

Stevie Jackson

(I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson

Banchory Records

I’ll say this for the indie rockers: they sure know how to collaborate. They also sneak off for side projects; the scene is a fertile breeding ground these days. Belle & Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson took off for a few weeks and spun out this 12-cut wonder with his buds from The Company, Bill Wells and a long stream of the up-and-coming.

Musically, Jackson assembles a pleasant and well-rounded collection of songs full of clever lyrics and catchy melodies. The sound mix is full and luscious. It’s not that there’s a full orchestra hanging out, but a violin here and a mandolin there and just a touch of reverb make this disc sound warm and full. “Just, Just so to the Point” raps over a jazzy backbeat, a choir on a multitrack backs him up, and he sings “Get yourself a backbone, you’re no invertebrate.” Truer words were never spoken, at least not on my laptop. “Richie Now” opens with a country twang; this might be the cut Bill Wells contributes to, although that’s just a guess. “Man of God” bounces in like The Monkees bippity bopping through a Brill building pop tune, and “Where Do All the Good Girls Go?” thunks along like an old Animals backing track. There’s plenty of pop sensibility here; it’s not exactly B&S, but a nice deviation. It’s double plus good.

Stevie Jackson: steviejackson.net

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Music Reviews

Mount Eerie

Mount Eerie

Song Islands Vol. 2

PW Elverum & Son

A new album from the enigmatic Phil Elverum is always a welcome thing, especially since severing himself from outside labels and the marketplace has given him the freedom to become more expansive in his output. Song Islands is not an album in the traditional sense of being a cohesive thematic collection of songs, but rather of rare non-album tracks, a sprawling series of transmissions from deepest Anacortes.

The lyrics are much more direct and strident than pretty much any previous album, wayyyyy more Minor Threat than Microphones, as Elverum takes direct aim at much of 21st century socially networked other life, though still delivered in his boyish, choral swoon of a voice — as pure as the Vienna Boys Choir. Departing from the ghostly hymns of the Lost Wisdom duets with Julie Doiron or the Black Metal homage of Wind’s Poem, the seventeen tracks herein are an eclectic mix of styles and genres, veering back and forth, and all the better for it. Some of the highlights include “Where,” a singsong checklist of pre-concert preparation masquerading as a beautiful lament; “Instrumental,” which brings to mind the primordial Burzum-esque majesty of Wind’s Poem; “Don’t Smoke,” a straight-up, strident, ultra-rocking anti-smoking screed; “Voice in Headphones,” a drastic rearrangement of the Lost Wisdom track, cut into a voices-only choral number; “Get Off the Internet” which swipes the melodies of “We Are the World” for a naked plea to maybe take a walk outside instead of submerging yerself in Facebook; and “You Turn Me On,” an overloaded grungy cover of the Beat Happening gem.

Elverum may be increasingly taking himself off the promotional grid, which is what he wants, but damn, this is music that engages and beguiles.

PW Elverum & Sun: www.pwelverumandsun.com

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Music Reviews

Broken Records

Broken Records

Let Me Come Home

4AD

Four listens in and I am still trying to get my head around Broken Records’ latest album, Let Me Come Home.

The Scottish band’s first album, Until the Earth Begins to Part, was more folkie, layered with violins, accordions, and brass instruments. It was an exciting debut that established them among the best of the Scottish indie folk movement, inspiring critics to dub them as the Scottish Arcade Fire.

This second album has a sound that is much more polished and pop-oriented. If The Killers are the best American band to sound like an English band, Broken Records may be the best Scottish band to sound like The Killers, especially on the second track, “Modern Work Song.”

A lot of that has to do with lead singer Jamie Sutherland and his inspirations for Let Me Come Home. He lists American movies like Badlands and East of Eden, as well as the music of Bruce Springsteen and Nick Cave. The Killers often make me think of the Boss, if he’d grown up in the high desert glitz of Las Vegas.

Sutherland’s voice resonates very closely to that of Brandon Flowers, lead singer for the Killers, and the arrangements of most numbers are like anthems, with big and lush soundscapes.

But the more I listen to this sophomore outing, the more I hear influences from other Scottish bands; from the hints of Frightened Rabbit on the opening cut, “A Leaving Song,” to the shimmery Cocteau Twins shoegaze of “The Motorcycle Boy Reigns.” There are even hints of Snow Patrol, Del Amitri, and Belle and Sebastian scattered throughout. The band has also been compared to The Verve at the height of their career.

It’s as if Broken Records has compressed the entire history of Scottish pop and rock into ten deftly crafted songs. It shows that Scottish music has come a long way since The Bay City Rollers. And that is not a bad thing.

Broken Records: www.brokenrecordsband.com

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Music Reviews

Slow Club

Slow Club

Christmas, Thanks For Nothing EP

Moshi Moshi

UK-based Baroque/noisepop duo Slow Club have delved into that most festive of rock traditions — the Christmas song! In fact, they’ve decided to do us five better with a digital-exclusive EP of covers and standards that runs the holiday hymn gamut, from a Phil Spector-style raveup to a severe case of Low-esque Christmas blues. The centerpiece of the album is, goddamn yes, a joyous, intense run through of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Sure, it’s a pocket-sized version of the Wall of Sound, but they throw in background singers aplenty, a legion of broken guitars, and the requisite sleigh bells. There’s also an instrumental cover of “Silent Night,” played on blown-out distorted organ pedals — all delicious snowglobe melancholy. The rest of the album leans toward the melancholy and cynical, knocking down them Christmas trees. “All Alone on Christmas” is a potent slice of wintry loneliness, summing up all of the bad feelings and hurt that a BETOGETHERNOW holiday like Christmas can bring. “It’s Christmas and You’re Boring Me” has vicious lyrics that Morrissey could probably use: “You’ve made me happy/ But you don’t excite me/ I’ll wait till New Year’s to tell you that we’re through.” Just when you’re about to throw the whole fucking thing in like last year’s tinsel, there comes the spry, bouncy, open-hearted declaration of arch longing (delivered under a wrapping of organ and jumpy acoustic guitar) with the sweet promise that if these two separated lovers actually manage to get it together and get together, they’ll just hold each other and watch Christmas TV. Well that’s just nice. Are those sleighbells I hear on the roof?

Slow Club: www.audiojelly.com/?a=singles/328995

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Music Reviews

Walking Sleep

Walking Sleep

Measures

From the opening barrelhouse piano chords on the first cut off of their first full-length album, Measures, Walking Sleep announces its bold declaration of powerpop confection drenched in boy-girl harmonies singing dark, disturbing lyrics. Think of The Shins with Juliana Hatfield on vocals, or Belle and Sebastian with a touch of Arcade Fire.

This six-piece California band, formerly known as The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra, came together to flesh out lead singer Hunter Curra’s songs. Sara Radle of The Rentals joined in 2009 after the release of their first EP, Escapements. Actually, she reminds me of Australian band Frente’s female lead singer, Angie Hart. Anyone remember, Marvin the Album?

Their embrace of ’60s sonics is firm on the second cut “In a Dream,” where a swirling Farfisa organ brackets the chorus: “I had a dream last night you were choking me/ I want to know where that came from/ You were calling me by name and asking me to speak/ Now I want to know, how come?”

“Final Chapter” is a bit of a raver about a love relationship that is either on its last legs or about to jump into the big “C” of everlasting commitment.

Following that, the band slows down with “As a Volunteer,” a reverb guitar-drenched ballad with fetching harmonies and a Leslie organ (or a synth approximating the sound of it) about realizing that what you wanted is gone before you realized it’s what you wanted.

The theme of longing and letting go is revisited from a different angle with the orchestral “Let It Go On.” Once again, Farfisa organ is lurking behind the curtains of this number as it builds to a crescendo that evokes Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” albeit at twice the running time.

“Arso” comes back with a spare arrangement about a friend that the band members seem to have lost in Modesto. That’s followed by the Dick Dale surf guitars and drumming of “Don’t Be Fooled.” I love the cheesy organ break. Hey, guys, the Zombies called, and they want their organ solo back!

I also like “What We Forgot,” a song about a relationship that seems to be costing the couple everything, including their friends, and wondering if they’ve reached the expiration date on their love, with the line about trying to make it one more night.

All the songs maintain a dream state with the use of reverb, echo, and Farfisa. It’s an album with catchy riffs and lyrics that occasionally catch you off-guard. Overall, a promising effort. I hope to hear more of this band.

Walking Sleep: www.walkingsleep.com

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Music Reviews

Wild Mocassins

Wild Moccasins

Skin Collision Past

I’ve always been a fan of indie bands that blend male and female vocals: Glass Eye, The Pixies, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and more recently, Film School.

I’ve just discovered a promising new entry to the boy-girl category in Wild Moccasins. This quintet of 20-somethings out of Houston have a great singing team in Cody Swann, the chief songwriter, and his girlfriend, Zahira Gutierrez. The band’s first self-released full-length CD, Skin Collision Past, offers ample examples of their sweet, slightly off-kilter harmonizing. No wonder this is one of the best bands out of Houston without a label.

The band has a real pop sensibility and a love of jangly, droning, buzzing guitars, and layered rhythms. Track four, “Late Night Television,” and track seven, “Calendar,” are prime examples of the bright, bouncy tunes you want to take on a trip to the beach.

“Chapter Four” slows things down a bit, and offers a little more of the atmospherics of a Belle and Sebastian cut with bright guitars over a sweeping organ riff, trading vocal riffs as they sing about the tug and pull of a relationship.

Most of the songs subject matter is about relationships, the boy-girl variety. That’s to be expected by a twee couple in love — just as long as Zahira carries most of the songs. She’s got some amazing vocal chops, and her keening voice suits these little pop gems about the pains and pleasures of being in love.

Wild Moccasins: www.facebook.com/wildmoccasins

Categories
Music Reviews

Kathryn Calder

Kathryn Calder

Are You My Mother?

File Under Music

Kathryn Calder is perhaps best known as the other female in the Canadian alternapop supergroup The New Pornographers. The niece of head Pornographer A.C. Newman, she was originally brought on board in 2005 as a live replacement for Neko Case when Case’s busy solo career didn’t allow her to tour with the band. Calder and her other band Immaculate Machine also opened dates for the Pornographers a few tours back.

Are You My Mother? takes its name from the children’s book and was recorded as Calder was caring for her ailing mother, who was dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a lovely, low-key, homemade-sounding record with often intricately arranged multi-tracked vocals.

Opening track “Slip Away” sets the tone nicely with Calder’s beautiful vocals bringing to mind Feist or Imogen Heap. The poetry of her lyrics expresses the dread of what she knows is coming.

“Quietly as autumn comes, the days are getting shorter, one by one,” she sings.

Once the song kicks in, the sound is pure New Pornographers. Other members of the band including Case, drummer Kurt Dahle and guitarist Todd Fancey, help out on several tracks here, as do members of Ladyhawke and Frog Eyes.

The ultra-cool, laid back “Follow Me Into the Hills” wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Uncle A.C.’s solo discs (he somewhat curiously doesn’t turn up on the disc), except perhaps for the mandolin solo, provided by Paul Rigby, a frequent collaborator on Case’s solo work.

But elsewhere Calder continually produces unexpected arrangements. The buzzy “Castor and Pollux” and driving “Day Long Past Its Prime” both reside in a different pop universe from the NPs, just up the street from late period Belle and Sebastian.

“Give my misery a place to rest, then let me rest in peace at last,” she sings on the latter.

“If You Only Knew” with its gang sing-along, hand claps and lazy percussion and “So Easily” with its outdoor sounds and lo-fi acoustic guitar are more sparse by comparison. But the multi-tracked vocals are no less meticulous and the overall effect no less charming.

The set-concluding “All It Is,” another Feist-like number, for all its stream of consciousness lyrics, is still unexpectedly haunting until it kicks in towards the end.

And then after a short ten songs, it’s over, fading away like an elusive dream. On Are You My Mother? Calder shows she has learned much from working with Uncle A.C. and the rest of the New Pornographers but she also demonstrates she has her own unique voice. The accomplishment and the promise exhibited here reveal an artist destined to be much more than an understudy. And despite its subject matter and what must have been a difficult time during which it was being recorded, this is ultimately a comforting record. Mom would be proud.

Kathryn Calder: www.myspace.com/kathryncalder

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Event Reviews

Sondre Lerche

Sondre Lerche

with JBM Jesse Marchant

The Social, Orlando, FL • February 9, 2010

After being thoroughly impressed by the diverse and charming manner with with Norwegian songman Sondre Lerche approaches the canvas of folk music with a broader-than-some palette, I had expected his live show to be a lively affair. Perhaps it would have been had the opening act not left us all wanting to either a) cry about every wrong we’ve ever suffered, or b) curl up in a ball and sleep.

JBM Jesse Marchant

Jen Cray
JBM Jesse Marchant

Jesse Marchant (or JBM, as he is called on the road), the source of the room’s near slumber, has a gorgeous voice and pretty acoustic melodies, but his painfully shy delivery made said songs become lullabies and little more. It wasn’t just that he only opened his eyes in-between songs, nor was it merely the scared-little-boy way in which he hid behind the microphone. The feelings Marchant emotes are of the same kind of heartbroken melancholy that Nick Drake or Alexi Murdoch gives off. There’s a time and a place for such sweet sorrow, but this was not it. I hadn’t gotten bundled up and ventured out into the cold in order to mope.

Folk music doesn’t always have to be boring, folks!

Sondre Lerche

Jen Cray
Sondre Lerche

As Lerche’s time onstage approached, the room had crept its way from being reasonably crowded to Good God! All of these extra bodies are sucking up all of the oxygen. Orlando was hip to the subtle nuances of the man best known for soundtracking the little seen, but lovable, indie flick Dan In Real Life. Who knew?!

The sprite young Lerche flashed his bright crystalline eyes and gentle smile as he strapped on a beautiful blue Gretsch that needed some tweaking before music could be made. “This is my first time in Orlando, I think that I owe it to you to at least be in tune,” he joked while twisting the knobs.

Sondre Lerche - packing a Gretsch

Jen Cray
Sondre Lerche – packing a Gretsch

Within seconds it was clear that the Nordic songster approaches his live performance with the same unrestrained gusto with which he records his music. Stalking center stage with his guitar pointed out like a shotgun at moments, the shaggy blond pummels the room with equal amounts of perky pop music and heart hugging balladry. Shirking the bounds of traditional folk music or indie rock, he hovers somewhere in-between — like Franz Ferdinand crashing into Donovan; Neil Diamond meets Belle and Sebastian; or The Avett Brothers covering Burt Bacharach.

Sondre Lerche

Jen Cray
Sondre Lerche

At the start of his evening-saving set, he woke up the room with “Airport Taxi Reception,” a brilliant three minutes that allowed the musician to not only stretch his vocal chords (ping ponging back and forth from low to high), but also to work out the kinks in his fingers by plucking the hell out of the guitar. From there it was one crowd pleaser after another, with “Heartbeat Radio” being a clear winner for the ears of Orlando.

The comfortable chit chat and stories that he told between songs gave the whole night a pleasant living-room feel. Though our feet may have been metaphorically kicked back, there was no napping to be had during this set, and though the show found Lerche with only his guitar to accompany him, his infectious energy filled up the space left empty by the missing instruments.

To see more photos from this show, and others, go to www.jencray.com.

Sondre Lerche: www.sondrelerche.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Pastels/ Tenniscoats

Pastels/Tenniscoats

Two Sunsets

Domino

It’s with some degree of personal satisfaction that I find myself holding a new album from pre-eminent outsider musician, independent artist, and librarian Stephen Pastel. As the leader of defiant Scottish misfits the Pastels from 1982 onwards, he played a huge part in defining the sound of postpunk alternative music as we currently know it, fashioning a catalog of fucking wondrous, shambolic, heartbreakingly sweet songs that influenced everyone from Belle and Sebastian to Primal Scream.

But Two Sunsets is miles away from the candy-apples-and-razorblades sounds that the Pastels perfected. It is a hazy smell of sweet grass in the afternoon kinda album, an album-length collaboration with Tokyo’s Tenniscoats. Born out of mutual admiration and excited promises to work together, the Tenniscoats and the core Pastels duo of Pastel and Katrina Mitchell met up at a Glasgow studio for several sessions of spontaneous recording augmented by various friends and Teenage Fanclubbers. The resultant album is a relaxed and quietly smiling collection of minimal ambient pop. All quiet, shimmering chord changes and breathy, whispered, duet-style vocals that can break your heart with the right consonant sound. Pastel’s voice is a thing of wonder, achingly out of tune, but still carefully harmonizing with Katrina or the female vocalists in the Tenniscoats. The instrumentation is so much more lush and harmonic than you would expect; horns and organs and pianos and flutes all melt together into a creamy whole. The songs shift between excitable buoyancy and dreamy almost-melancholy, with the ensemble never overplaying its hand into sugary sentimentality.

There’s a Jesus and Mary Chain cover in there too, as if things could get any better.

Domino: www.dominorecordco.com