Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Brendan Benson - My Old, Familiar Friend

Recently and widely known as one of the driving forces of The Raconteurs, Brendan Benson has quietly labored since the early nineteen nineties as a solo performer in the truest sense. Armed with a four track within the seclusion of his inhabitation, he began a career of crafting infectious power pop melodies, playing all the parts while mixing down each instrument. His latest release, My Old, Familiar Friend, showcases a more meticulously honed full sound, yet still has a sturdy foundation in the basic rich melodic pop styling’s which have always made Brendan Benson’s music so appealing.

This appeal is directly related to the knack Benson has to write a simple melody and being able to keep the dramatic action of the song intact through his musicianship. Lyrically his songwriting has long revolved around a series of smartly linked couplets which deceive as effortlessly elementary (“If she throws her heart away/I’ll be there on Garbage Day”). This simplicity is then supercharged by magnifying the couplets with layered harmonies that lift them right to your ear. The genius achieved is the preservation of this seemingly pedestrian structure developed in far more interesting compositions that come across far less complicated as the parts he’s meticulously composed.

As My Old, Familiar Friend is not only familiar in style for Benson; it is similar in the thematic first hand address he uses in confronting relationships. Within the psychedelic groove and hand claps of Whole Lot Better” the music is both ironically sweet and straightforward, mirrored by his brutally honest intentions: “I fell in love with you/and out of love with you/all in the same day.” The fresh and bright “Garbage Day” is a call to be saved from loneliness arranged with diving strings over a simple snare progression. In contrast, the dark intonations of “Feel Like Taking You Home” creeps into giving into self destructive impulses of separation, shaped with short circuiting guitar loops over a consistently maddening piano chord. While the progressive “Borrow” is a stomping rocker whose verses surge with strong fervor building to unleash a brash chorus a la early Police (“You don’t see it any other way/You don’t care what other people say").

Even the avid followers who revel in the more psychedelic country blues aspects of The Raconteurs will find something of fascination in indentifying the traces of influence that the band has had on Brendan Benson on My Old, Familiar Friend (This being his first release since forming The Raconteurs). At the same time they can also recognize what makes him unique in what he brings to the band in staying rooted in his old, familiar pop.

Aaron Simms

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Better Than Ezra - Paper Empire

Better Than Ezra’s seventh offering Paper Empire offers an array of mass appealing contemporary mid-tempo guitar driven balladry interred among upbeat songs infused with a heavier hand of electronic manufacturing; producing a mixed bag of contrived pop orchestrations.

Thematically Paper Empire examines closely how we choose to spend our time and the choices available inside those moments. The mid tempo rocker “Absolutely Still” leads off the album with a volley of arpeggiated picking in the opening riff which carries throughout the entire tune; stylistically mirroring the protagonist’s energy in the realization of an awakening. The heavy minded “Just One Day” pushes reflection to a point of severe hypothetical wishing (“If you could change choices you made/would you do it today?”). While the wisdom gained in revisiting the moment in the pulsing chord chorus (think Coldplay’s “Yellow”) of “Hey Love” is as painfully self afflictive in its awareness as it is beautiful. Yet, the simple acknowledgment of finding that place in time is most prevalent in the melodic waltz “I Just Knew,” a humble declaration and dedication to that one and only. Equal in tone is the solemn vow of “Fit,” a musical proposal filled with sweeping string arrangements.

Amongst the balladry the album offers a few anthems for the ear. “All in” is simple Dionysian tale of a life being a festival of endless summer fun. The blunt “Hell No!” provides a humorous and quirky gladiatorial punch to the face of a foe on the way to victory. Less successful is the gaudy “Nightclubbing,” using programming stolen from the late 1980’s that should have been left there. On the whole it’s only when the programming is secondarily applied in nuance does the augmentation truly thrive in being effective.

The bread and butter of Better Than Ezra’s sound has been dependant on lead singer/guitarist Kevin Griffin’s penchant for being able to bend the hard line of writing alternative rock anthems while crossing over in appealing to a more adult contemporary audience with articulate love ballads delivered with Louisiana soul. Paper Empire, more or less, walks that line conservatively and perhaps a little too straight and narrow at times, however the times when Better Than Ezra achieves that balance their music is at its best.

Aaron Simms

Sunday, June 7, 2009

james - hey ma

The 10th LP release from this seven piece from Manchester, England is filled with the same passion and fervor for life that brought James to the forefront in their early nineties hey-day, however while their indie Brit pop rock is terribly attractive in its grandiose compositions and quirkiness, Hey Ma is grounded in mature sound and style undeniably mirrored by the current state of ongoing terror; melding melodic allurement with abrasion.

Hey Ma features the same classic James line up that recorded their break out album Laid and it's counterpart Wah Wah with Brian Eno. Continuing in the vein of those sessions, Lee Muddy Baker, who produced lead singer Tim Booth’s solo album Bone, assumes the helm as producer. Thankfully he encouraged the band to record in a jam session process to capture their best work. By recording these free style sessions the music morphs and evolves into cascading pop songs fueled by inspired spontaneity and trust. The result is a distinctly melodic collection that assumes their own identity cloaked by their thematic essence.

Tim Booth’s song writing is both delicate and furious. The pressured ache of the yearning “Oh My Heart” is a trial of strength, faith, and destiny (“No Control/Refugee/Just this life living me”). On the single “Waterfall” he rebukes himself over awakenings and the triviality of life’s diminishing trials. Then he tackles unsettlement, dealing with the incivility and senselessness of military action (“War is just about business”) expounded upon in the album’s title track and “72.” From there Booth risks to confront a deeper sense of insensitivity and isolation. On the heavy puzzlement of “Semaphore,” he’s distant, floating within a sea of helplessness and riddled with regret.

Yet amongst the outspoken lurk the subtle and sublime. Even present on the darker tracks, the guitar work is consistently bright with deep rhythm work that plummets and rises like a roller coaster. The empowering “Boom Boom” is a celebratory finish line anthem in committing to stay the course. However the standout track is the torturously gorgeous “Upside,” filled with wammy guitars that fluidly dissipate and dissolve into the chorus only to be met with a punch of punctuated trumpets and ivories. The energetic bellowed brass outtro raises the songs conclusion to a triumphant highlight. The lead bass “Of Monster & Heroes & Men” charters a course through a hopeful allegory of civilization and responsibility providing a sturdy foundation in allowing the improvisations to truly bloom brilliantly out from underneath the verse. On the track Booth sings, “We are the drivers, yet we feel driven.” One can’t help to not identify with the ownership and sense of place in which the individual is challenged to accept their stake of responsibility in the triumvirate title.

Subtle or abrasive, James implores the listener of Hey Ma to be conscious of their humanity. Expounding on the idea that for one to be alive is hard, yet to be alive and be aware is quite something more difficult.

Aaron Simms

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kolker - Antenna

Antennas is a solid blues driven album filled with maturity and heart by New York City’s The David Kolker Band. What is refreshing about this blues outfit is that it isn’t a traditional straight blues outfit but a band steeped in blues roots with the ability to expand over many genres – including the ability to trancend blues styles.

These influences range from Southern Blues (“Top of the World”), Chicago Blues (“Gilligan’s Island”), 90’s alternative rock (“Get’s You Down”) and even adult contemporary (“The Heartache”). Undoubtedly, the impetus for this diversity is celebrated in the guitar work and song writing of the band's namesake, David Kolker. The title track weaves with arching leads, accentuated with high harmonic pricks that feelingly tell of the unsettling frustration beneath the skin of the storyteller. On the inundated “How Many Times” his intro escalates with a melancholic 80’s Brit metal-like tweaking then this signature riff dissipates and weaves into Texas Flood-like colorations layered over jagged rhythm bursts reminicient of CSNY. This affinity for diversity couldn’t be executed with out the solid foundation of the thoughtful bass playing of Derek Layes, the smart snare and tom popping of Nikolaus Schuhbeck’s drum work, and Pete Keppler’s thematically accurate ivory work and percussion; particularly on evolving standouts “Top of the World” and “Happy Johnny.” Paul LeFebvre’s pedal steel playing is intuitive and infuses atmospheric moods of yearning and space, particularly significant on “Wave on the Water.”

Kolker’s vocals have an appealing warmth and calmness in the sense of a man wiser for having once been weary. His slightly raspy baritone showcases his ability to dwell in a ponderous calm while boiling underneath, characteristicly similiar of the control of Roger Waters (“Wave on the Water”). While on tracks such as “The Positive” and “Mean World” he exhibits a mature pain and heaviness in which John Mayer could take beneficial note. Lyrically Kolker’s many observations have a welcoming openness; sharing similar resonance with introspection and social outwardness of Adam Duritz from the Counting Crows, yet Kolker's conduit is more through his musical ability rather than atypical crooning. A skill he uses to his strength to best illustrate his everyman point of view.

Regardless of style, Antennas is a finite statement from The David Kolker Band in sending out an S.O.S. from the soul.

Aaron Simms

Saturday, May 16, 2009

STARK - Put it to Your Head

As it’s title implies, Stark’s Put it to Your Head is an album motivated by strong actions drawn from life taxing experiences, their effects, and possessing the individual will to over come them all and chalk it up to being, well, just life. It is the second release from this New York City rock trio, whose music and attitude is directly informed and reflective of it’s home.

What sets Stark apart from being your run-of-the-mill New York City bar band are their subtly layered style and the cohesive incorporation of that style. Their music is decidedly rock but not subjugated to blind genre predictability. The more intense guitar work of Josette infuses slight southern tinged blues riffs beside Lani Ford’s gritty punk bass rhythms (“18 Again,” “Disturbed”). While on the ditty “Dreams Come True” the entire band is able to successfully turn it down a notch via the foundation of Sweet Rob Endermann’s drumming; resulting in an indie slice of life piece that would could raise the jealousy of Liz Phair.

Vocally Ford has a clean, strong, and melodic alto with a slight vibrato that can draw you in as well as soar over you. Lyrically she is a straight shooter with an onus for tell-all honesty with little subtext that resonates simultaneously as both tough and tender. The yearning “Co-Dependant” depicts a star-crossed relationship with dichotomistic cravings. “This Day” is a tailor made rock anthem about discovering and owning up to ones own self-image. While the stand out “OH NO!” realistically captures the flood of emotions in that first instant of awareness of the inevitable.

The album closes with the acoustic “Butterfly,” a painful and personal “Dear John” letter that exhibits ugly strength and melancholic pathos out of its necessity for finality and moving on. A fitting end to an album full of life experiences from a city that could make anyone put a variety of things to their head and yet still have the will to live again.

Aaron Simms

Monday, May 11, 2009

Travis - Ode to J. Smith

Ode to J. Smith harnesses Travis’ knack for writing thoughtful and melodic pop rock and being able to implement that talent through larger sounding guitar and rhythm work; marrying the bold sound with delicate and ponderous songwriting.

Travis may have started out as a band whose mantra was proclaimed on their 1997 debut Good Feeling: “All I Want to Do is Rock,” but this quartet from Glasgow, Scotland has developed a following for their history of crossover UK indie pop hits such as “Side,” “My Eyes,” “Why Does it Always Rain on Me?” and “Writing to Reach You” which blend insightful and introspective lyrics with a winning mix of acoustic rock, banjo balladry, and Brit pop. Laying the groundwork for other successful UK counterparts such as Coldplay, Starsailor, Snow Patrol, and Keane.

On this, their sixth album, Travis ushers in a broader sound with more emphasis from their rock youth. Fuzz bass lead-in’s (“Get Up”), solitary guitar chords dropped in front of deeper tuned toms (the big chorused single “Something Anything”), and even a recorded choir (“J. Smith”) energize the songs to bring about a larger presence as well as fresh individuality. The other facit that make the songs so attractive on Ode to J. Smith is the thoughtful songwriting. Fran Healy’s lyrics have a natural contemplative deconstructiveness that caters to a broad appeal. He delves into the quandaries of making choices, ghosts of the fleeting past, the uncertain future, and the struggle to define relationships. On the opening track “Chinese Blues” Healy sings: “A million lonely people with their head in the sand/Trying to make some sense of what they don’t understand.” An exemplary highlight of one the universal applications of Travis’ ongoing struggle with life’s elemental mysteries. Most notably present in the appropriately titled “Song to Myself.”

In the spirit of exploring conflict through introversion, the album consists of many an ode to the hopes and fears of the people’s champion: Everyman, implied by the title J. Smith (being the most popular name found any city’s phonebook). These odes run the gamut of the human condition. From loyalty in “Friends,” to alarming fear in “Long Way Down,” and on to tender nostalgia in beautiful “When You Were Young.” Surprisingly, the album is absent of a traditional hidden track. But when you write “Something Anything” for Everyman, what’s left to hide?
Aaron Simms

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Your Vegas - A Town and Two Cities

A Town and Two Cities, the debut album from Your Vegas, is a cleanly pieced and polished collection of epic, en vogue, and radio friendly Brit pop rock. The songwriting is worldly, appealing, and personal, but the songs themselves come across as uninspired, predictable, and safe. Making one wonder if the band will stand out independently or fall into a rotation within a saturated genre?

The songs are successfully built around variations of the verse, chorus, verse format with such science it’s hard to gage any real sense of Your Vegas’ individuality. Undeniably, this talented quintet from Leeds, England has a knack for aching sing-a-long choruses and attractively packaged songs that are instantly likable. And it is enough to like the songs for being par. But there is a severe lack of dimension for the listener interested in hearing more than the latest variation on a pop rock song passed down from the last decade.

Again, there is no real fault in this. It’s simply a matter of individual taste. But there are recurring trademark symptoms of this formulaic music that is blatant and obvious. The pop rock format by rote superimposes the vocals with overt audibility to the forefront thereby diminishing the actual music to uneven accompaniment. Which benefits the war heavy “The Way the War Was won” and “Salvador.” There’s the choice of the melodic falsetto chorus; instituted on the apologetic “In My Head” which hooks the verses of the song into unmemorable fodder, weakening the song considerably. Then the mixing is distributed among the instrumentation so evenly one can’t help but feeling the dull edge of digital editing. Dullness in the vein that it robs the listener from feeling any punch that these attentively crafted songs could deliver. Instead the music comes off soulless, with just enough bells and whistles to make the songs shinny and attractive to market. Take “Troubled Times,” it begins with muted Buggles-like intro verse that flows into a preview chorus that feeds into the full band second verse…to the grandiose finale. The irony isn’t lost on the song’s theme of lamenting opportunities lost.

Listening to the album as a whole makes one wonder if the yearning and passion of earnest pop rock has become such a predictably pedestrian form that it will negate even its own immediate appeal. The question then changes from: “Is Your Vegas built to last or are they only for right now?” to “Is Your Vegas even for right now?”

Aaron Simms

Saturday, April 25, 2009

U2 - No Line On The Horizon

No Line on the Horizon captures the essence and tone of U2’s greatest hits in all new material. It is a true culmination of their body of work. The album is amazing because it possesses familiar elements accumulated throughout their twelve-album history, as well as new elements of arrangement that augment and enhance their branded sound. No Line on the Horizon is a finite musical statement of where they have been and how it has informed them into making them who they are today.

A sonic wall opens the album with Achtung Baby like fervor on the title track. Immediately followed by appropriately titled “Magnificent,” highlighted by lead guitar chorus fills that hearken back to The Unforgettable Fire. The single “Get on Your Boots” has an infectious Escape Club-like groove that is could easily been found on their last offering How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. While “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is stuck in a moment of a contemplative action similarly found on All You Can’t Leave Behind.

However there are definite signs of where the band is heading toward in the future. “Fez- Being Born,” a meditation on the transformative state of traveling, is infused with an expansive combination of styles; opening with a fluid trance vibe that diminishes only to emerge with an “In God’s Country” rhythm attack “Stand Up Comedy” features Adam Clayton and Larry Mullin Jr. locked down in a funkadelic sass groove, giving freedom to Bono to scat on empowerment. While “Moment of Surrender” and “Unknown Caller” have subtle foundations of electronic percussive programming that amicably support The Edge’s superb chorus and reverb licks, delivering a timeless, yet progressive sound.

Thematically the album preaches the messages hope and the choice to love. With the recurring images of hills, mountains, land, sea they affirm our capacity to scale and overcome them anew (“…and again I’m reborn/ Every day I have to find the courage with arms out” (“Breathe”). Serving as a reminder that we all possess the will to surpass boundaries.

It is truly amazing that U2 is able to cover the spectrum of their progressive life as a band and maintain a definitive sound that is identifiably their own.

Aaron Simms