The Ghost of Escondido
Label: Kill Canyon
Release Date: April 09, 2013
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
If The Ghost of Escondido isn’t one of the most auspicious albums of the year thus far, then it certainly comes close. The first foray by its namesake duo, it sets a bar that may prove hard to beat. Jessica Marcos’ soaring, seductive vocals, framed by the sturdy background of Tyler James’ sumptuous and sweeping arrangements, enhance the couple’s darker designs — particularly evident on such songs as “Rodeo Queen,” Bad Without You” and “Special Enough.” Fortunately though, this Ghost… isn’t of the menacing variety, but rather, one that pleads, whispers, cajoles and tugs at the heartstrings. The music gets under the skin on first encounter — no wimpy folkies this pair — and on a song such as “Don’t Love Me Too Much” they set up a scenario full of obvious longing, even as they manage to keep all entreaties at arm’s length. Imagine X, Heart and Nick Cave sitting in an empty room, passing around a bottle of cheap wine and exchanging tales of despair and desire. Once can only hope that Escondido has the gumption to maintain these levels of agitation and emotion, and that future outings at least come close to conveying the conviction expressed here.
DOWNLOAD “Don’t Love Me Too Much,” “Bad Without You,” “Special Enough”
Artist: Sin Fang
Label: Morr Music
Release Date: February 19, 2013
BY MISCHA PEARLMAN
Perhaps more than any other country, Iceland’s bands have a habit of creating music that perfectly reflects its geography and climate. They do so in a variety of different ways and to differing degrees, but there seems, in most, to be an inherent element of environment present, from the spectral, fragile beauty of Sigur Rós to the distinctively odd and experimental musings of Bjork, the bizarre rough rock of Mugison to the delicate, whispered eccentricities of rising star Sóley. As both Sin Fang – the name of his solo project – and as the founding member of seven piece collective Seabear, Sindri Már Sigfússon has been a staple of the Icelandic music scene for over a decade. Flowers is his third solo record and, unsurprisingly, it’s a collection of lush, textured compositions that, intentionally or not, accurately depict the graceful, exciting and endless landscapes that Iceland is so famed for. “Look At The Light” is a glorious pop song that contains as many layers of nostalgia as it does instrumentation, “Sunbeam” is a joyous, hopeful blast of youthful innocence and inexperience (“And you’re sleeping in some cold house with someone you don’t care about”) and unfettered ambition (“When I grow up I’m going to be a sunbeam”) and “Not Enough” is a paranoid, horn-filled jive through an impending futuristic nightmare. There are a great many ideas present on Flowers – both musical and thematic, technical and emotional. Together, as one, they combine to create yet another worthy facet of Icelandic music – and Iceland itself.
DOWNLOAD: “Sunbeam”, “Look At The Light”
The Fall & Further Decline of The Mighty King of Love
Artist: Phil Lee
Release Date: February 12, 2013
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
When Phil Lee sings the blues, the emphasis is often more on humor than heartbreak. Witness “It Can’t Hurt,” the live bonus track affixed to Lee’s latest, The Fall & Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love, and its saucy monologue to boot. And while the album boasts a tongue-twister of a title, the music is anything but, mostly down-home homilies sung with a Dylanesque drawl and an authentic aw-shucks demeanor.
Blues and Bluegrass share space with jaunty shuffles, easy saunters, swampy narratives and rough-hewn ballads, an eclectic mix fueled from Lee’s back story as a go-fer for Neil Young, an associate of producer Jack Nitzsche, a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers and a steady presence in bars and juke joints from here to yonder. Veteran producer Richard Bennett cultivates Lee’s everyman persona without detracting from his no-frills delivery, but while dobros, washboards, fiddles and banjos provide backwoods embellishment, it’s Lee’s raspy vocals, gutbucket guitar and wailing harmonica keep the proceedings grounded. “Cold Ground,” “What Your Baby Wants” and “All You Need” bring humility to the proceedings, but it’s the soulful saunter and stirring gospel-like chorus of “I Hated to See You Go” and the sepia-tinged hue of “The Hobo’s Girl” that allow Lee to revel in his roots.
DOWNLOAD: “Cold Ground,” “What Your Baby Wants,” “The Hobo’s Girl”
Summon the Faithless
Artist: Lord Dying
Release Date: July 07, 2013
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
With members of various local metal acts at its component parts, Portland’s Lord Dying can’t help but be good at what it does. The quartet’s growling crunch-metal pound whips up a burly riff-storm on par with – and more than a little similar to – High On Fire. But Lord Dying uses HOF’s teeth-gritting stoner grind as a launching pad as much as a template, adding bits of death metal (“Perverse Osmosis”), experimental noise (“In a Frightful State of Gnawed Dismemberment”), psychedelia (“What is Not…Is”) and plain old chugging heavy metal (“Descend Into External”) to its dirty mix. But even when the bands digs into a familiar groove, as with the title track, its ease and familiarity with swingin’ that axe pushes aside questions of derivation in favor of rocking the fuck out. Originality ain’t that important in the heavy metal realm in any case – ability to deliver power, volume and the almighty riff is, and in that respect, Lord Dying’s got it down, clown.
DOWNLOAD: “Descend Into External,” “Summon the Faithless,” “What is Not…Is”
Label: Western Vinyl
Release Date: March 17, 2013
BY JENNIFER KELLY
These are gorgeous, atmospheric soundscapes, recorded in the interstices of Úlfur Hansson’s stint as Jonsi’s touring bassist. A few burble and pop with something like Jonsi’s electro exuberance, but most move slowly, weightlessly and without much of a grounding beat. White Mountain begins in the sound of birdcall (that’s miasmic opener “Evoke Ewok”) and proceeds as a sort of slow motion nature walk, soundtracked in turn by haunting synth overtones, stray guitar resonances and a chamber group’s piping woodwinds. Hansson made use of what he could find while travelling, building a fragile beat out of a cousin’s rock-skipping in Iceland and hooking up with Mountain Man’s Alexandra Sausser-Monning for the ghostly vocals in “So Very Strange.” The birds caught mid-squawk in “Evoke Ewok” were taped in Chicago. All very catch as catch can, this sound gathering, yet it coheres in a remarkably tranquil, remarkably lovely whole.
Much of the album proceeds on its own time, drifting and hovering like low-lying fog, yet a few tracks have more visible structure, particularly the dream-glitched “Black Shore” with its shimmery chimes and scratching, shuffling beat. “Heaven in a Wildfire” and “Knoll of Jupiter” have different sorts of spines, their interweaving reed instruments layered over swooning violins, all organic, more chamber orchestra than chamber pop, but full of flashing movement. Both sound like the National’s more baroque and orchestra intervals (“Geese of Beverly Road” for instance). The title track glows like Joanna Newsom’s Ys, a medieval folk song wrapped in unearthly spaceship lights.
White Mountain evolves very slowly, without much adrenaline, and certainly without an “a ha, this is brilliant” focal point. Yet it is quite lovely, a serene and magical oasis, set apart from the daily to’s and fro’s. Who’d have looked for such a place on Jonsi’s tour bus?
DOWNLOAD: “Heaven in a Wildfire” “So Very Strange”
Label: Safety Meeting
Release Date: March 24, 2013
BY JOHN B. MOORE
You wouldn’t expect a band’s swan song to be all rainbows and teddy bears would you? Modern Sounds, the final record from San Francisco/New haven, CT-based band Titles is a bit of a bummer, but it’s intentional.
Brad Amorosino’s melancholy croons lay nicely over the lush, sometimes jangly pop contributed by his band mates across the country (the singer living in San Fran recorded his parts first before shipping them back to his buddies in New Haven to incorporate their contributions). The result is surprisingly seamless.
Though the songs don’t deviate too much from track to track, Modern Sounds still manages to elicit a cozy feel. The album closer (naturally), “Wild Blue” in particular is one of the strongest offerings. As this is the group’s final record before breaking up, it serves as a nice soundtrack to endings and goodbyes. Perhaps there’s a new genre in there: Sad Bastard Music for those moving on to other things.
DOWNLOAD: “Be Not Afraid,” “Poltergeist,” “Wild Blue”
Waiting For Something to Happen
Artist: Veronica Falls
Release Date: May 14, 2013
BY TIM HINELY
It’s nice to see that bands like Veronica Falls. Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Allo Darlin (all three happen to be on the Slumberland label) are at least getting some recognition these days. The bands that came before them (C-86 scene, Sarah Records, pretty much any jangle pop band, etc.) in the late ‘80s couldn’t get arrested in this country. And honestly, on this record, what’s not to like, the songs are good, very good.
After a terrific debut in 2011 this British quartet (2 females and two males) follow it up with a strong sophomore effort. Ok, so maybe not quite as good as said debut, but that record was hard to beat. Having said that, songs two and three, “Teenage” and “Broken Toy” are at least as good as anything on that debut and the title track and the noisier “My Heart Beats” are close (“Everybody’s Changing”, too). The production is definitely a bit cleaner and there was certain recklessness to the debut that’s missing here, but honestly, those are really minor quibbles and what can I say, Roxanne Clifford’s vocals are special (and they have the those harmonies down pat).
Waiting for Something To Happen is an excellent record and unless something really weird happens (like a ton of great releases get released between now and early December), it will make my top 10 of 2013. An early prediction, I know, but hey, I know my own tastes.
DOWNLOAD: “Teenage,” “Broken Toy,” “My Heart Beats,” “”Everybody’s Changing”
My Rocks are Dreams
Artist: Psychic Friend
Release Date: February 19, 2013
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Psychic Friend… the name alone conjures up creepy images of mediums and fortune tellers just waiting to pounce on those too gullible and naive to resist. Fortunately though, newcomers have nothing to fear here, as Psychic Friend offers a warm welcome. The band is mostly a one man show, s handle used by one Will Schwartz, a musical wunderkind who sings, scores and plays the majority of instruments maximized here with occasional help from his friends.
And what emerges via the oddly obtuse My Rocks Are Dreams is a perky foray into catchy piano-based pop, giddy to an extreme and pop perfect as a result. Songs like “We Do Not Belong,” “Once A Servant” and “Water Sign” are, despite the auspicious titles, guilty pleasures for the most part, and even when Schwartz ramps up the tempo on the somewhat ironically dubbed “Softer Side” and “Silent Snow,” the music maintains its sugary sweet appeal. Ornate arrangements underscore each and every entry, foretells the fact that Psychic Friend is a major player just waiting to reap the attention he deserves.
DOWNLOAD: “We Do Not Belong,” “Softer Side,” “Silent Snow”
Artist: Builders and the Butchers
Release Date: July 09, 2013
BY MIKE SHANLEY
With a lineup that includes two drummers, a handful of guitars (baritone, electric and acoustic varieties) and keyboards, with several friends adding strings and horns, the Builders and the Butchers come off with a lot of brute force. The E chord that opens the album practically yells, “Listen up,” as it hits and slowly decays, giving guitarist Ryan Sollee a chance to step up to the mike. His nasal voice and the band’s attack make Western Medicine sound like a collision of the Decemberists and Crime & the City Solution.
The band took some lyrical inspiration from the works of author Cormac McCarthy, peppering their songs with Southern gothic characters with checkered pasts. The problem is the lyrics come off like sketches we’ve heard numerous times in greater detail, from the Louvin Brothers to Nick Cave to the aforementioned Decemberists.
No less than three songs talk about fires and destruction (two of them in a row). There’s also a metaphorical song about demon alcohol (“Poison Well”) followed by the obligatory song about religious salvation (“Redemption Song”). Worse, most of the songs are built on the same few chords, which diminish the impact of that opening crash since it repeatedly shows up over and over. Sollee also has a tendency to repeat the first verse at the end of the song, when all the thunder has calmed down. It might work better if most of the songs weren’t nearing the five-minute mark by then. When the Builders and the Butchers get rolling, with banjos and mandolins tumbling over guitars, things get exciting. But they sound like they’re trying to create epics without the narrative skills to pull them off.
DOWNLOAD: “Blood Runs Cold,” “The Snow.”
Above the City
Artist: Club 8
Release Date: May 21, 2013
BY TIM HINELY
It’s hard to believe that this Swedish duo has been around since 1995, that’s nearly 20 years folks, but it’s true. I was lucky enough to get turned on to their terrific debut, Nouvelle, which came out on Spain’s Siesta Records label in 1996. Their middle records came out in the early-mid 2000’s on the Parasol offshoot, Hidden Agenda but since then all of the band’s records have come out on band leader Johan Angergard’s Labrador label (the other half of the band is vocalist Karolina Komstedt). It sure seemed like I was the only one who enjoyed their previous record, 2010’S The People’s Record. On that record Club 8 abandoned their soft pop sounds for a left turn into more tribal territory complete with bongos and upbeat, danceable rhythms and a real African flavor.
It was a bold move for the band but after much thought, the band decided to return to its simple, soft synth sounds on Above the City. Angergard , who produced the record, has once again pushed the boundaries of pop music (and Club 8’s sound too) while delving into samples (children’s choir music, a Russian field recordings, etc.) but still making unique pop music. They toss in airy pop that they’re know for (“You Could Be Anybody”), dancey near-disco (I’m Not Gonna Grow Old”), a minute long instrumental (“Instrumental) and a final song that kinda rocks (“Straight as an Arrow”).
Club 8 exist in their own bubble and continue to make music for themselves. You can’t fault them for that, on the contrary, they deserve your deeper respect for it.
DOWNLOAD: “You Could Be Anybody,” “A Small Piece of Heaven,” “Hot Sun,” “I’m Not Gonna Grow Old”