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SOME ARMY – One Stone and Too Many Birds

Album: One Stone and Too Many Birds

Artist: Some Army

Label: Potluck Foundation

Release Date: April 08, 2016

www.somearmy.bandcamp.com

Some Army

The Upshot: Richness and nuance in its idiosyncrasies and gentle obliqueness, it’s a record of gorgeous dreampop and more.

BY FRED MILLS

Carrboro, NC, indie stalwarts Some Army initially served up a 7” and a mini-album a few years ago, with the latter self-titled effort prompting yours truly to enthuse over their part-cosmic Americana, part-shoegazey dreampop. Since then the band—headed up by singer/guitarist Russell Baggett’s urgent vocals, powered by Patrick O’Neill and Elysse Miller on keyboards and guitars, and wholly grounded by the rhythm section of drummer Brad Porter and bassist Joe Caparra—has undergone a series of logistical and psychic changes, not the least of which was abandoning plans for cutting a new record entirely at Mitch Easter’s storied Fidelitorium studio and instead weaving in fresh material from sundry other sources as opportunities arose. (For example, some songs were completed in domestic residences and storage facilities.) Ultimately, as the press sheet accompanying the record explains, Some Army wound up with a “pastiche of hi- and lo-fi,” and to these ears, the term “pastiche” is no pejorative—it’s a badge of honor.

Let’s jump to the 7th track (out of 9 total) on the record first: “Crickets” is a gorgeously rendered, waltz-time delight, and with its tumbling piano, weeping guitars, textural synth, and Baggett’s spoke/sang vocals, it carries an emotional oomph that helps define this record as a document of ideals. Indeed, if you then scan back over what’s come before—check, in particular, the soaring My Morning Jacket-esque “Fever,” the thrumming, psychedelic anthemism of “Infinite Mirror,” the moonlit meditation and dreamy reverie of “Disorder”—one gets the sense of a collective search for something indefinable, something just beyond the horizon, for these musicians. With closing track “You Can Keep It,” amid gospellish harmony vocals and thickly droning keyboards and guitars, they seem to come to an uneasy peace, the kind that characters at the end of a movie sometimes reach following a protracted struggle for mutual understanding.

One Stone and Too Many Birds, though, is hardly inconclusive; instead, it’s got richness and nuance in its idiosyncrasies and gentle obliqueness. Think of it as the closing of one chapter and the start of a new one for a band that I’m already on the record as saying it shows great promise. This time around, let’s call it “promise fulfilled,” with even more en route.

DOWNLOAD: “”Disorder,” “Crickets,” “You Can Keep It”

ESCONDIDO – Walking With A Stranger

Album: Walking With a Stranger

Artist: Escondido

Label: Kill Canyon

Release Date: February 05, 2016

www.killcanyon.com

Escondidi

BY MICHAEL BERICK

The Upshot: On their sophomore outing, Nashville’s Escondido will seduce you with their laidback, alluring music.

Jessica Maro and Tyler James Geertsma might be a Nashville-based, but their music is less “country” than “western.” Western, in this case, meaning sun-baked Southern California, where the city of Escondido is located. Listening to their lovely, languid tunes will trigger thoughts of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Games,” with touches of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western soundtrack blended in.

Like their impressive debut, 2013’s Ghosts of Escondido, Walking With A Stranger exists in a dreamy musical world buoyed by Maro’s alluring gossamer vocals. Their songs of the heart and heartache typically get cushioned in soft, echo-y arrangements constructed by multi-instrumentalist Geertsma. He wisely does shake up these gauzy soundscapes throughout the album. Morricone-esque trumpets push the tempo in “Footprints” and “Gambling Man,” while flashes of electric guitars heat up the emotions in tracks like “My Heart Is Black” and “Moon Child.”

Stranger’s highlight moments, however, arrive with a trio of tunes – laidback but wonderfully melodic – anchoring the middle of the album. “Apartment” is a bright slice of ear candy that should be part of this summer’s road-trip soundtrack. The empowering kiss-off “Idiot” and the hopeful love ode “Uh Huh” similarly stand out as gentle yet energetic pop gems that project a Sheryl Crow-like quality.

While some might wish that Escondido’s smoldering songs spark a little more often, the band succeeds in seducing listeners with their quietly enchanting music on Walking With A Stranger.

DOWNLOAD: “Apartment,” “My Heart is Black,” “Footprints”

ROB NANCE – Signal Fires

Album: Signal Fires

Artist: Rob Nance

Label: self-released

Release Date: February 19, 2016

https://robnance.com/

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The Upshot: Music drawn from a somewhat primal source – the soulful side of southern rock, somewhat diffused to fit within the realm of a singer-songwriter approach, rough edges and all. It hits a deep nerve, refusing to let go – which can only mean a promise of good things to come. The music, the arrangements and a good deal of the musicianship are simply too good to be any accident.

BY ERIC THOM

Rob Nance is an unknown to me, despite this being his sophomore release. Yet this is simply one of the best albums I’ve heard in some time, blessed by that odd hybrid of southern soul I’ve grown to love from fledgling exposures to Eddie Hinton, Hour Glass recordings or, most accurately, the country-blues-rock invention revealed on those first few Allman Brothers albums. Think southern rock via country blues and a distinctive sense of a soul of its own.

However you choose to define it, Rob Nance exudes it in spades on Signal Fires – a truly off-the-wall recording on his independent label. From sunny cascades of acoustic guitar and deftly finger-picked electric hollow-body to the weeping loneliness of pedal steel, accented by the style of staccato, brushed snare effect that conjures a steam train picking up speed. Vocals that are far from standalone, yet possessed by a ghostly, eerie edge in all their imperfections. Ten simple tracks devoid of anything epic are, rather, music-fired conversations melding heartfelt vocals to very basic musical accompaniment, as if all the same instrument. In fact, it’s often the music and each arrangement that make Signal Fires so special, merging a lifetime of influences to arrive at a distinctive place few others would lay claim to. These original tracks endured the rigors of the road long before they were recorded and it is this process that seems to have created songs locked in some rough, steel-wool tapestry. There are few holes or spaces left for the listener to fill in – every step is laid out as Nance and Company creep across a barren landscape to arrive at no place in particular, creating an uncomplicated, simple soundtrack in the process.

There are no obvious hooks. You won’t find a drum solo or any showy lead guitar. There are many instances of vocals so off that anyone else would’ve re-recorded them – which is the only reason this release can’t score a 5/5. However, Signal Fires works hauntingly well – all piano, harmonica, propulsive drums, country-tinged guitar lines and those emphatically sad harmonies.

Opening with a ghostly acoustic guitar intro, “No Gold” adds stunning pedal steel, electric guitars and drums played with brushes, achieving a sad, mournful, southern rock/country feel that builds and builds but is never resolved. It just ends. Dickey’s “Jessica” comes to mind. As if holding his breath, Nance’s vocal follows the bass-led “Landslide Town” – like a dry leaf chasing the current of a small stream. It is paired with Mike Runyon’s distinctive piano – one of the band’s key strengths, coupled with a larger-than-life synth effect, adding further tension. “Different Ways To Lie” ups the ante with its energetic, upbeat attack, benefiting – again – from Runyon’s piano and the smart touch of uncredited harmonica as Nance retains his tired, weathered tone, his melodic electric guitar riding shotgun throughout. The distinctive guitar lick behind “Nightbirds” becomes its key hook as a massive wall of swirling B3 meets the rhythm section halfway. The disc’s best track is found in “The Breeze” ­– the penultimate horse-ridin’ song, featuring stunning piano, further distinguishing itself by Nance’s wounded-bird vocals and the harmonies of Andrew Constantine. An uncommon change in time signatures and the burst of energy it provides to what might otherwise be a downtrodden dirge of a composition, “The Breeze” delivers a quiet grace while mining subtle strengths to bristle the hairs on your neck. More comparisons to the Allmans’ sound will ensue – with a double order of Chuck Leavell. The title track provides a mellow, somewhat gentler version of the above as piano and drums merge with the delicate touch of acoustic guitars. “Shelter” continues their bluesy, country fare – a strong acoustic number – yet Nance’s vocals falter, falling out-of-tune more than once. The wickedly powerful organ leading “On My Way” can’t offset Nance’s occasional off-key vocal – revealing a somewhat limited range – while his guitar gently weaves throughout, lacing things together into what is otherwise a beautiful country ballad that begs re-recording. Not to be outdone, “Dear Shadow” leans on B3 prominently, providing another upbeat highlight. The catchy “Getaway Man” presents strong acoustic guitars in a lovely unison yet Nance’s voice heads south again, scuttling what is otherwise a standout composition.

This is clearly a band – the prominent bass lines of (brother) Jordan Nance and crisp drums of Ryan Lassiter join Mike Runyon’s significant keyboard strengths, the odd synthesized effect and the occasional touch of forlorn harmonica. It’s the warm, gentle tones of Nance’s electric guitar that provide the bedrock – his laid-back, finger-style technique recalling a more rudimentary Dickie Betts. Another consistent element is the mournful contribution of Jordan’s pedal steel contributions (when he’s not playing bass), keeping things grounded in a lush country vein.

As a singer, Nance has an unflagging ability to sound hurt, if not entirely desolate and as inconsistent as this instrument can be, it proves the heart and soul of this captivating release.

DOWNLOAD: “No Gold,” “Dear Shadow”

 

Snarky Puppy 5/1/16, Raleigh NC

Dates: May 1, 2016

Location: North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh NC

Snarky Puppy

The Upshot: Jazz? Not jazz? Who cares – call it rock ‘n’ roll with a twist (or ten).

TEXT & PHOTOS BY TODD GUNSHER

In the 1980’s Frank Zappa asked the question, “Does humor belong in music?” As evidenced by their set at the North Carolina Museum of Art on May 1st, Snarky Puppy would most definitely say “yes!” Snarky Puppy is a collective of nine serious musicians who are clearly having fun, and they bring their audience along for the ride. At a few points during their Sunday set, something was played that elicited laughter from members of the audience – no mean feat for a band playing challenging instrumental music.

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This was Snarky Puppy’s fourth show of a tour in support of their new studio album Culcha Vulcha, and after opening with “Strawman,” they introduced “Tarova” and “Sements” from that release. The fans were quick to recognize the older songs such as “Go” and “What About Me”, and during the set closing “Shofukan” even sang the melody line back to the band. That is something I’ve never seen at an instrumental/jazz concert before and goes to show their fans are paying attention.

But simply calling Snarky Puppy’s music jazz is too narrow of a classification that doesn’t do it justice. They throw in Latin grooves, funk, fusion, straight jazz, and at times outright weirdness. In addition to being accomplished musicians, their influences are obviously wide and deep. In addition to the ridiculously tight ensemble playing, each member had a chance in the spotlight for an extended solo, whether it was a more straight-up sax, trumpet or drum solo, or a distorted guitar freakout.

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Opening the night was labelmate Lucy Woodward, who was backed by various members of Snarky Puppy on a short set of sultry, jazzy vocal numbers. This pairing illustrates the collective nature of the band and their own label GroundUP Music. They are navigating the 21st century music landscape by doing their own thing, in both the musical and business sense. Given that 12 years in, they are still at it—continually growing their audience, running a label with 11 artists, recording with the likes of Charlie Hunter and David Crosby, and over the past two years being voted Best Jazz Group in Downbeat’s and Best Electric/Jazz-Rock Artist in Jazz Times polls, in addition to winning Grammy for Best R&B Performance—their methods seem to be working.

Murder By Death 4/23/16, Philadelphia

Dates: April 23, 2016

Location: Union Transfer, Philadelphia, PA

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 The Upshot: Easily one of the most consistently brilliant, original bands touring today, as a crowd at Philly’s Union Transfer venue found out.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

On the second to last night of their latest tour, a haul through the Northeast that’s had them out on the road since February, Indiana’s Murder By Death took to the stage bathed in purple light. With little fanfare, the Indiana folk-punk hybrid slowly eased its way into an achingly beautiful cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” in honor of the singer’s death just days before. The crowd was stunned into silence by the simple, stunning three-minute memorial.

Once the song was over, the audience reacted with wild cheers and applause, met with a quiet, Midwestern “Thank you” from singer/guitarist Adam Turla, before he and the band launched into string of dark, haunting songs including “’52 Ford,” “The Curse of Elkhart” and “Strange Eyes.”

“This is a depressing song,” laughed Adam Turla before starting the next one. “We have a few of those; don’t worry.”

Quite an understatement from a band that holds an annual residency at the supposedly haunted Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for The Shining. They may have been winding down the tour, but the band put on a prenominal show with the zeal of a group that was out to prove themselves.

Along with Turla, the band is made up of Sarah Balliet on cello, Dagan Thogerson on drums, Matt Armstrong on bass and David Fountain doing triple duty on piano, trumpet and mandolin. Over the course of the night, Murder By Death shuffled through their catalogue playing nearly two dozen tracks, from their latest, Big Dark Love, back to 2003’s Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?

Turla joked about their tendency to write depressing songs throughout the night, slipping in the jokey live staple “Pizza Party! (At Gloria Estefan’s House)” to lighten things up a bit. “We have an obligation to play our secret song,” he said before starting the audience sing-along. He moved back into Nick Cave mode just a few minutes later, introducing “Dream in Red” with the warning, “This is one of the darkest songs we’ve ever written. It’s about running into someone you wish you didn’t see. It’s really fucking dark you guys.”

Sure they’re dark, but they’re also easily one of the most consistently brilliant, original bands touring today.

Before starting “Send Me Home,” one of the band’s few up-tempo songs from their latest record, Turla admitted that they were channeling their inner David Bowie when they wrote the track. As the final chord was ringing out, he stepped back up to the mic and rather succinctly summed up what many were feeling at the end of that week: “Everyone great is dying.”

JAN ST. WERNER – Felder

Album: Felder

Artist: Jan St. Werner

Label: Thrill Jockey

Release Date: April 01, 2016

www.thrilljockey.com

Jan St Werner

The Upshot: Atmospheric soundscapes, at times wallpaperish, but with enough tidbits scattered throughout to hook closer attention for fans of his Mouse On Mars mothership.

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

Though best known as half of the German electronica act Mouse On Mars, Jan St. Werner has a thriving side business as a solo artist and constructor of art house installations. His third solo LP, Felder (“Fields”) soundtracks a museum piece that only St. Werner himself can see. The artist wanders all over the map in his search for sounds, touching on Enoesque ambience, 21st century glitch and Germanic soundscaping. Simple melodies get layered with found sounds and backward masking, rhythm is implied rather than stated and the sonic wash points to visuals the  listener must imagine for themselves. Most of Felder is pure atmosphere, suitable for enhancing whatever activity you’ve got going in meatspace, but there are enough tidbits scattered throughout to hook closer attention. Though not for every taste, Felder has enough going on to be more than just aural wallpaper.

DOWNLOAD: “The Somewhere That is Moving,” “Singoth,” “Kroque AF”

DEATH AND VANILLA – From Above 7”

Album: From Above 7”

Artist: Death and Vanilla

Label: Fire

Release Date: May 13, 2016

http://www.firerecords.com

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The Upshot: Reissue series for the group to capitalize on 2015’s full length.

BY JONATHAN LEVITT

In 2016, Fire records is unfurling some reissues of Death and Vanilla that follow on from last year’s release of the excellent, To Where the Wild Things Are record. I was quite taken with that album and really enjoyed the dreamy haze that permeated every track. The album succeeded in transporting the listener to a snow ensconced landscape where stuck in its chilly grip, they’re left with only the wind and drifting snow to guide them.

The first track on the 7” isFrom Above” and it’s a murky and dense affair that’s both alluring and unsettling. The vocals are like a siren calling to you from across the forest, luring you to your death. The various moogs and other vintage instruments provide a haunting subtext to the proceedings. The combination of the two are fascinating to listen to as dream pop and a mix of sinister-psychedelics blend in a belladonna like haze.

B-side track “Lux” is more classical in structure as it progresses with flourishes of tremolo distorted guitar as well as what sounds like a vibraphone. I really like it at the 3-minute mark when the song implodes in on itself and turns into this simple yet deeply moving repetitive guitar line that sucks us into its undertow. The production here allows the listener to breathe inside the song and feel as if we’ve been transported somewhere secret.

In another life the band are film editors and directors for their ability to weave a brocade of sound and turn out such compelling music. Unlike Broadcast a band they’re often compared to Death and Vanilla know how to wring emotion and ambience out of every second of tape.

DOWNLOAD: “From Above”, “Lux”

 

 

 

ERIC AMBEL – Lakeside

Album: Lakeside

Artist: Eric Ambel

Label: Lakeside Lounge

Release Date: April 01, 2016

www.ericambel.com

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The Upshot: An ace collaboration between Roscoe and Jimbo Mathus, it’s also one of the purest gut-level rock ‘n’ roll albums you’re likely to hear all year.

BY FRED MILLS

You’ve heard that term “tight but loose,” right? This new one from Eric Ambel is more along the lines of loose but tight, with that twinned swinging/in-the-pocket vibe. That for Lakeside, Ambel signed up Jimbo Mathus for production duties as well as sundry drums, bass and guitars, would suggest a summit of like-minded, er, swingers. Because this is one of the purest gut-level rock ‘n’ roll albums you’re likely to hear all year.

Ambel, of course, has a particularly potent CV: tenures with Joan Jett, the Del-Lords, the Yahoos and Steve Earle’s Dukes; production gigs with a who’s who of exemplars (among them: Nils Lofgren, Bottle Rockets, the Backsliders and Marshall Crenshaw); his own occasional solo excursions under his own name or as Roscoe’s Gang. But Lakeside, named after the NYC watering hole he used to operate, and cut with Mathus at his own professional recording studio in Brooklyn, Cowboy Technical Services, is something else, man.

It kicks off with a tune written by his old Del-Lords running partner Scott Kempner, a good-timey, twangy little shuffle called “Here Come My Love.” That’s immediately followed by a classic slice of heavy blooze-rawk, the Mathus-penned “Hey Mr. DJ,” a paean to turning up the volume (“crank that shit up all over the place”) that, with its Neanderthal thud and distorted solos, could pass for a vintage slab of Free, Cream or Mountain. Ditto with Ambel’s own “Have Mercy” (speaking of Free, the riff is not too far removed from “All Right Now”; that’s Phil Cimino manning the drum kit here and on several other cuts), and the downright nasty “Don’t Make Me Shake You Down,” which suggests Neil Young Crazy Horse assaulting the Don Nix classic “Going Down” (speaking of assault, check Ambel’s brutal leads). Meanwhile—speaking of Young—the Ambel-Mathus composition “Buyback Blues” is out of that same Cortezian wheelhouse, a slow, mournful, dark 12-bar thang that swaps nasty for haunted.

I could go on at length about every song here, but… for a change of sonic pace, certainly turn your attention to both the sweetly-textured, gently-paced cover of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ “Look at Miss Ohio” and the Ambel-authored instrumental titled “Cryin’ In My Sleep” that’s an homage to all the great Fifties and early Sixties instros (think Floyd Cramer). Meanwhile, there’s also a riotous take on the timeless R&B raver “Money” destined to be the ultimate set-closer for Ambel in concert, tailor-made for when everyone is perfectly lubricated, stomping their feet, and hollering along at the top of their lungs. I risk redundancy in saying this, but the bottom line is the album is about as pure a distillation of rock ‘n’ roll as I’ve encountered in ages.

Lakeside is a vinyl-only album, a gatefold beauty limited to 500 copies and pressed on sweet 180-gm wax (download included), so grab it while copies last, punters.

DOWNLOAD: “Buyback Blues,” “Money,” “Have Mercy”

 

 

AZIZA BRAHIM – Abbar el Hamada

Album: Abbar el Hamada

Artist: Aziza Brahim

Label: Glitterbeat

Release Date: March 18, 2016

www.Glitterbeat.com

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The Upshot: The singer/songwriter’s album fronts defiance of oppression everywhere, but comes equally loaded with optimism and hope.

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

Aziza Brahim had it rough when she was young. Born in a Saharawi refugee camp in the Algerian desert, she’s lived in exile from her home for two decades, currently residing in Barcelona. The singer/songwriter hasn’t let that poison her outlook, however. Her latest album Abbar el Hamada fronts defiance of oppression everywhere, but comes equally loaded with optimism and hope.

Over accessible grooves derived from the same source used by groups like Tinariwen and Terakaft, Brahim sings with an easy tone that coils her passion into a tight spring, rather than shoot it out of a cannon. “El wad” and the title track spark a brightly but not furiously burning flame; “El canto de la arena” and “Los muros” add a strain of melancholia that leavens, rather than obscures, the hope. The nimble, melodic guitar work of Kalilou Sangare and Ignasi Cussó adds beautifully-wrought webs of sound in support of her supple singing. Abbar el Hamada is a textbook example of turning hard times into hopeful art.

DOWNLOAD: “El wad,” “El canto de la arena,” “Abbar el Hamada”

 

FRANCES ENGLAND – Explorer of the World

Album: Explorer of the World

Artist: Frances England

Label: Self-released

Release Date: April 01, 2016

www.francesengland.com

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The Upshot: Strummy melodies, innocent lyrics, and a generally optimistic attitude for those days when you need it the most.

BY FRED MILLS

San Fran’s Frances England is a, quote/unquote, “kids’ music artist,” an area with which I am relatively familiar, having been the parent of a kid for a reasonable amount of time. Said kid is now a teenager, but I still remember fondly our early listening sessions with—and eventual concert forays to—the likes of Farmer Jason, Dan Zanes, Billy Jonas, and of course my friend Uncle Rock. And I also recall that one common thread among all those performers was how they never talked down to their audience, eschewing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” fluff for material that respected these budding young citizens’ minds and sensibilities.

Which partially explains why England’s fifth album is a success on a far deeper level than “just another collection of cute kids’ songs” from a kids’ performer. While she has actually released a record targeted at adults (Paths We Have Worn), I would propose that for the uninitiated, there’s nothing remotely juvenile going on here, nothing that, unless you examine the lyrics within the context of them being written in order to appeal to both young and old, would tip you off. The title track, for example, with its sing-songy vocal and minimalist piano-based arrangement, could be a Feist tune (England’s voice recalls Feist, with maybe a hint of Neko Case), while the jocular “See What We Can See” has a gentle Elephant 6 collective vibe (love that trumpet). Even a track like “Closer to You,” a strummy ditty that features England and her friend Stew Peck swapping hopeful lines “I’ll take a freight train/ I’ll take a scooter/ We’ll get together somehow” that might suggest to a child how important interpersonal bonds are, works—for lack of a better term here—in a vacuum.

My suggestion: check preconceptions at the door and listen with the same open minds we ascribe to our children. After all, music can and should foster freshly-tilled innocence, not cynicism. There’s plenty of the latter in the world already.

“Hi Fred,” began the handwritten note that accompanied Explorer of the World, in lieu of a bio or one-sheet. “I know there’s a slim chance of you listening to this given how much music you must receive. This is a little different… Fingers crossed you’ll give it a listen, Frances.”

Correct on two of the points, Ms. England, but not the one about a “slim chance” because honesty counts for a lot in my book. And lord knows I read enough hype-filled hoo-haa in my line of work. All the best, Fred.

DOWLOAD: “Explorer of the World,” “See What We Can See”