Monthly Archives: July 2014

Angel Olsen 10/1/13, Northampton MA

Dates: October 1, 2013

Location: The Iron Horse, Northampton MA


On Oct. 1, songstress Angel Olsen and Windy City pals Pillars and Tongues utterly captivated a Northampton, Mass. audience at the storied Iron Horse venue. BLURT’s contributing editor was there to bear witness.


Two Chicago bands– one stuffed to the gills with equipment and instruments, the other spare as a twig in winter – played Northampton’s Iron Horse last week (Oct. 1). Pillars and Tongues, a trio, wove dense, drone-y layers of violin, synthesizer, bass guitar and harmonium into enveloping textures. Angel Olsen, touring in support of her recently-released Half Way Home album, sketched a stark landscape with folk guitar, minimal bass and drums and her extraordinarily expressive voice.

Pillars and Tongues by Sarah Derer

Pillars and Tongues is already in full swing when I arrive, the current line-up — Beth Remis, Ben Babbitt, and Mark Trecka – engaged in a heady conflation of rich string tones, mechanical beats, ruminative main vocals (Trecker) and staccato, wordless counterpoints from Remis and Babbitt. Towards the end of the song, Trecka leans over the boxy, wooden harmonium and pumps furiously at its back end. The sound that comes out, filtered through amplification and pedals, is not what you’d expect from such an antiquarian instrument. It sounds futuristic and synth-like, a gleaming, fluctuating, space-filling drone that tips Pillars and Tongues’ songs into overload.

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Trecka’s voice is a big indie-rock instrument, resonant and flowery and reminiscent of 1980s alt-rock mainstays. Indeed, on the long, meandering “Bell + Rein,” he sounds like Bono or, especially, Peter Gabriel, rampaging through a murky, vaguely ethnic landscape, big pop crescendos occurring in half-lit miasmas of drone and overtone. On the record End-D, this song seems a bit shapeless, but here in performance, it sounds more fluid and organically complex. You can hear all the bits clearly – the violin, the supporting vocals, the drums, the synthesizer, the Harmonium – so that what’s muddy on disc turns multilayered in person.

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After Pillars and Tongues, it takes a long time to reset – and, curiously, much of what is being done is taking away, rather than adding to. By the time it’s done, the Iron Horse’s stage is close to a bare floor, just a couple of mics, a drum set and a bass propped up against an amp. Bass player Stewart Bronaugh and drummer Joshua Jaeger come in first, then Angel Olsen enters carrying her own guitar. She is dressed in a high-necked, ankle length black dress with a cape (later she calls it her “druid dress”) and has her hair pinned up loosely, with bits coming out. There is something daguerreo-type-ish about the way she looks, yet also something very modern, which is, incidentally, true about the way she sounds as well.

Olsen starts her set with her back to the audience, playing beautiful liquid chords that splay slightly and turn, as she turns to face the audience, into “Acrobat.” Her voice starts soft and slightly blurred, then blossoms into spectral trills and finally as she sings “I am alive” gains a tremulous force. The band is beautifully minimal, a few notes of bass to mesh with her picking, a soft heart-beating drum. She follows with “Tiniest Seed,” little yelping, yodeling slides coming into her voice, the band following in hushed country waltz time. By “Always Half Strange,” her singing has become feral and raw, cutting a ragged path through the air. The notes shake and vibrate, and she seems to swallow some of them as she moans “Aa-all wa-ways in love.”

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Olsen has a varied, emotionally charged voice, now soft and jazzy like Joni Mitchell, now vibrating with feeling like Connie Francis, now hiccupping and wailing like a female Charlie Feathers.She’s so powerful, when she turns up the volume, that you begin to wonder, mid-set, what she’d sound like in a punk band. Then, a couple of minutes later, she and her band oblige with the hard-rocking portion of the set with a fuzzy, VU-and-Nico-ish version of “The Sky Opened Up,” a syncopated “The Waiting” and a blistering, tambourine whacking “Sweet Dreams.”

For the last bit of the show, Olsen’s band steps down, and Olsen sings a few songs by herself, quieter, but still intense. It’s mesmerizing, even at low volume, and Olsen is a singer to watch. That said, though, she’s a little prickly as a performer, making eye contact only intermittently with the audience and talking, really, only a very little bit. She stops, abruptly, at the end, and as people clap and wonder whether there will be an encore, she starts pulling the plug out of her guitar. “I’m going out tonight,” she announces. “Where?” someone asks. “That’s a secret,” she says.

Live photos: Jennifer Kelly. Angel Olsen: Sabrina Rush. Pillars and Tongues: Sarah Derer.

Angel and P&T are on tour through this weekend. Dates at Olsen’s website.

Gregg Allman + Sturgill Simpson 7/19/14, Los Angeles

Dates: July 19, 2014

Location: Century City Plaza, Los Angeles



Seeing Gregg Allman perform nowadays creates a range of emotions. Considering his serious health problems, there’s a “not-to-be-missed” feeling lingering over his appearances because it might be the last chance you get to see him. His health, however, also affects performances, naturally, so Gregg Allman isn’t the not “Gregg Allman” of rock lore.

My mixed emotions about going to see Allman at his recent, free concert in Los Angeles (at Century City Plaza, July 19) wound up reflecting the show itself, which turned out to be something of a mixed bag. The good news is that Allman delivered a surprisingly sturdy performance, especially considering that he had to cancel shows earlier in July. Freed from the albatross of doing an “Allman Brothers concert,” Allman delivered a nicely diverse set that ranged from the strong rendition of “Stormy Monday” to a new-ish rocker “Love Like Kerosene,” which was one of the potent performances of the night. He included tracks from his solo hit-and-miss solo career (“I’m No Angel,” “Before The Bullets Fly”) and, of course, classic Allman Brothers songs (“Statesboro Blues,” “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” “One Way Out,” “Melissa” and “Whipping Post”).

When he was in his twenties, Allman already possessed a voice that sounded like an old bluesman and, now in his sixties, he has certainly grown into his voice. While his singing holds some raspiness now and is fraying around the edges, he certainly knows his way around a song. In particular, his singing on tunes like “Ain’t Wastin’ Time,” “Before The Bullets Fly” and “Stormy Morning” convey a sense of surviving life’s hardship.

His performance overall has a rather subdued quality that might have been due to his still recovering from his most recent health woes. Somewhat hidden behind his keyboard setup, Allman sometimes disappeared in the shadows of his corner of the stage. He also wasn’t especially talkative, which was disappointing considering all he could have said about L.A. and his times there. Allman did, however, deliver several soulful organ solos. His playing on a rather stripped down version of “Melissa” and on the set’s encore “One Way Out” stood out as highlights, but too often solos were doled out to the other bands members and the results, while well done, weren’t particularly memorable.

Allman’s current band favors a bluesy sound that leans as much on horns as guitars and keyboards. While saxman Jay Collins has some solid solos, they created a mellower groove than you expect at an Allman concert. Similarly, his guitarist (and music director) Scott Sharrard is a talented player who can turn out a nifty solo. His playing on “Melissa” and “Whipping Post” would be impressive if you don’t compare them to those who played them before him – this might be an unfair burden but one that is hard to ignore.

One of the problems with this show, in fact, is the ghosts of Allman Brothers performances that loom unavoidably (and unfortunately) over the show. The band’s roadhouse sound was certainly first rate but it lacked the dynamism that made the Allman Brothers’ concerts so fabled – the percussion jams, the keyboard interplay between Gregg Allman and Chuck Leavell and, of course, the guitar battles from the Duane Allman and Dickie Betts days to, more recently, Wayne Haynes and Derek Trucks.

Allman closed his 90-ish minute set (that included him taking a short break about midway through) with a brawny take on “Whipping Post.” When he sang the song’s closing line -“Good Lord, I feel like I’m dying” – the thought undoubtedly crossed more than one fan’s mind that hopefully this line won’t turn out to be prophetic anytime soon for Allman. Happily that line didn’t turn out to be the last one of the night as Allman and his band returned to encore with a rousing rendition of “One Way Out,” which got the audience singing along for the first time that night.



This performance was part of a free, outdoor concert series organized by local public radio station (and national taste-maker) KCRW and the Annenberg Space for Photography, which currently has a wonderful exhibit: “Country: Portraits of an American Sound.” They have put together a dandy series entitled “Country In The City,” which paired well-known headliners with cool up-and-comers (the other concerts featured Shelby Lynne with Jamestown Revival and Wynonna with Nikki Lane). Opening this show was the much buzzed-about singer/songwriter Sturgill Simpson and his Waylon Jennings-inspired hard honky-tonk style fit “County In The City” theme perfectly.

While Simpson’s songs hit upon familiar country topics (alcohol, love, heartache, the open road and trains), Simpson presented them with a freshness that made him feel like performer maintaining country traditions and not just a revivalist. It’s not that Simpson tried to hide from country music history either. During his set, he covered “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” which he acknowledged was written by “one of my heroes” Lefty Frizzell, and later urged the crowd to buy a Stanley Brothers’ album before launching into “Medicine Spring.” The slyly witty Simpson also remarked, before doing “Railroad of Sin,” that his wife urged him to write a train song since he worked for a railroad and was a country singer, additionally introducing his standout original “Living A Dream” as a song “I wish I never wrote.”

Simpson’s 3-piece backing band matched his rugged rootsiness with guitarist, the Estonian-born Laur Joamets particularly memorablewith his nimble guitar playing. They ran through their 40-minute set as if they were trying to squeeze in as much music as possible, which some times resulted in tunes feeling like they ended too quickly. But having the audience want songs to go longer than shorter is a nice problem to have. With his brief but impressive set, Simpson showed the sense of authenticity in both his music and his personality that has made him a rising star on the Americana scene.



Album: Deadstock

Artist: Michael Rank and Stag

Label: Louds Hymn

Release Date: May 06, 2014

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The other night I dreamt of my recently-passed aunt, who was my late mom’s elder sis and the de facto matriarch of our extended family, if such a notion as a “matriarch” is even curried nowadays, in this era of scattered families and shattered domiciles. She was dressed as a debutante, and I could almost hear her gentle Southern lilt encouraging me to walk with her—and in the background, there was a kind of antebellum musical accompaniment made up of Dixie-fried fiddles, kudzu-stained mandolins, brusquely-bashed git-tars and all manner of mmm-hmmm vocalizations. Things get hazy after that; but upon awakening I realized that I must had been missing her terribly, and that realization allowed me the peace of a beautiful dream’s aftermath, including lingering whiffs of its soundtrack.

Not to get all Gone With The Wind on you. But I have to say, it left me with the proverbial sense of closure, And here’s another thing: the music in my nocturnal mind, without question, had its origin in this latest recording from my old friend Michael Rank, of whom I’ve been an admirer since his mid ‘80s Snatches Of Pink days. More recently I’ve marveled at his prolific output as Michael Rank and Stag. Those ‘tars, mandolins and fiddles densely populate his new Deadstock (Louds Hymn Records)—which makes, what, four full-lengths now (five, if you count both discs of the 2CD Kin) in two years? As I had been listening to the album on and off in the days prior to that dream, its tones must have seeped into the firmament.

With 2012’s Kin, it was eminently apparent that something had died deep within Rank. He spent the bulk of that rocking, ruminating, raging album scraping off still-festering scar tissue from the aftermath of a relationship that had gone brutally south. By the time of last year’s masterful Mermaids (in between the two was In the Weeds), he seemed to have regained his personal equilibrium, his songs and singing style reflecting a newfound sense of confidence, although lurking in the shadows of tracks like “Bound to Me” and “Stray” were ghosts and, at times, even ghosts of ghosts. It was like those lines from Springsteen’s “The River”: “Is a dream a lie/ If it don’t come true/ Or is it something worse?” Put another way, Am I doomed to relive these memories for the rest of my days?

Maybe so. A segment in Deadstock leaps out: “Last night/ I dreamt that you were leaving me again/ Nothing that I did could make that whole.” It’s from “All the Animals” and it’s a chronicle of a series of dreams Rank had not long ago about, first, a moon-lit desert, and then of a surreal ocean scene, all set against a mournful John Teer (Chatham County Line) fiddle melody plus Nathan Golub’s pedal steel and Skylar Gudasz harmony vocals, with Rank singing in a half-awake rasp, as if literally recounting the dream for the first time and we, the listeners just happen to be there in the room with him. It’s so intimate, it’s intimidating; in the same sense that we often want to cling and push away, simultaneously, a frightening dream because it’s not only lined with real memories, it has so much power over us that it threatens to leave us paralyzed.

Four albums in, Rank has no more bested the demons that taunt him that the rest of us can claim to have the answers to life itself. What he has done, though, is allowed the struggle to make him stronger, to finally summon the resolve that eluded him back around the time of Kin and draw up an uneasy peace with those demons. That peace unfolds with opener “Burn the Page,” a loping, bluesy-grass number in which the singer resolves not to take hostages anymore “’cos I’ve run out of chains… [and] ‘cos they always wanna stay” (three guesses what he means by “hostages”); through “This World On Fire,” with its hint of newfound love and the accompanying optimism it brings, not to mention the wonderfully woozy Gram Parsons/Rolling Stones vibe (there’s Gudasz again, adding an Emmylou); to the Celtic-flavored, Steve Earle-esque mountain folk of “Bounty,” a pledge of permanence—not necessarily servitude, but a pledge nonetheless, something Rank clearly does not offer lightly.

Deadstock, to be sure, takes a few spins to sink in. It helps to know its three predecessors, although they are not strict prerequisites, and even after more than a few spins the record is still revealing subtleties, like a recurring dream that unfolds and alters its folds over a succession of nights.

In “Little Late for Me,” another Rank-Gudasz duet as haunting as they come, one encounters guitars, mandolin, fiddle and pedal steel murmuring soft remembrances in the background as the two singers come together—in equal measures vain hope and regret—to ruminate upon how we always want to believe that the past can be altered:

“I been listening now

But I don’t hear a word

When your lips don’t move

And my heart don’t work

I ain’t afraid of laying down in the dirt

‘Cos the time’s gone faster

Than I thought it would

It’s too late for me…”

But as we surely know, once something’s done, it’s done. In that moment Rank along with the listener—me, you, whatever random strangers might have gathered—gain a twinned since of devastation and relief. This is why we need our songwriters, our poets, our authors; they provide for us, as Patti Smith once advised, a reliable shoulder to lean on when we find ourselves in an unsteady world, one where it’s all too often very tempting to retreat to the shadows of dreams (literal, chemical or otherwise) in order to avoid facing it.

Michael Rank, three decades in to this game, would probably be the first to admit to all the follies of youth, indulgence, arrogance and hubris. But the mark of an artist is to survive and learn, then translate for the rest of us, well… My sense is that with Deadstock, he’s finally made the transition from student to teacher. It’s the culmination of a remarkable four-album journey, and it’s my most fervent hope that he never takes this gift for granted.

DOWNLOAD: “Little Late For Me,” “Burn the Page,” “The Stars Were Brighter”



JOHN MAYALL—A Special Life

Album: A Special Life

Artist: John Mayall

Label: Forty Below

Release Date: May 13, 2014

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Well, here is some news that is guaranteed to make you feel old: last November John Mayall celebrated his 80th birthday. That’s right. He is closing in on 81. And he is doing a world tour this year. On A Special Life (Forty Below Records) he proves that he is still a vital musical force. And as an aside how wrong Pete Townshend was when he penned the immortal line: “hope I die before I get old.”

Mayall of course is called “The Godfather of British Blues.” A half century ago he formed his first band: the Bluesbreakers. Back then in England, many great American blues artists—starving for work in their own county—went to England to make a living. The Bluesbreakers ended up backing people like John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and Sonny Boy Williamson. When a guitarist named Eric Clapton quit the Yardbirds, Mayall offered him a spot in his band. What resulted was one of the classic albums of all time, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton. It is hard to imagine any rock music fan that does not have that album in their collection.

And Mayall established that an apprenticeship with him was essential training for upcoming British rock stars. Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood left him to form Fleetwood Mac, Andy Fraser created Free and Mick Taylor was hired by the Rolling Stones. In the 1980s he would do something similar in America for guitarist like Coco Montoyo and Walter Trout.

Through it all and beyond, Mayall kept making albums and refining his own blues.

A Special Life is Mayall’s first studio album in five years. It kicks off, which might surprise some, with a zydeco song written by the great Clifton Chenier and performed by his son CJ as a guest of Mayall’s band. The album also includes covers of Jimmy Rogers’s classic, “That’s All Right” along with covers of songs by Albert King, Sonny Landreth and Eddy Taylor.

But it is on the three songs Mayall wrote that he proves that he still has what it takes. “Just A Memory” is a slow and smoky piano blues that might be one of the best blues songs written by anybody in recent years. At 80, John Mayall could have rested on his many accomplishments and brought in others to play his classic songs and just grab another payday. Instead, he produced a damn good and vibrant album. In the process he shows us that he learned something from those old blues masters he backed half a century ago. He learned that you never give up on your music no matter what numbers appear on a calendar. You play your blues until you die.

DOWNLOAD: “Speak of the Devil” “A Special Life” “Just A Memory.”


EVERYMEN – Givin’ Up on Free Jazz

Album: Givin' Up on Free Jazz

Artist: Everymen

Label: Ernest Jenning

Release Date: May 20, 2014

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On their second full-length, this nonet come across like a ginned up, Jersey-fied version of X, scorching guitars and boy/girl vocals cast in vintage rock framework, slathered in dirty horns and dyed in communal punk attitude.

The long shadow of Jersey son No. 1 Bruce Springsteen presides, and the band wisely embraces that fact with the same pride they do their oft-mocked home state. The Everymen turn in a rousing rendition of the Boss’ “Ain’t Good Enough for You,” and channel E Street Band guts and glory on many tracks, most notably the raucous “A Girl Named Lou, Part II” and the Spector-esque “Fingers Crossed.” The two-and-a-half-minute blast of “NJHC” – “New Jersey Hard Core” – roll calls Jersey royalty from Meryl Streep to Glenn Danzig, songwriter Mike V’s lyrics insisting the list could’ve gone on much longer before even getting to Springsteen.

Scott Zillitto’s billowing sax does a passable Clarence Clemons throughout, and Mike V and Catherine Herrick trade off songs like Exene Cervenka and John Doe. Herrick really impresses on the X-like “Another Thing To Lose,” though Mike V’s reedier vocals don’t hold up quite as well when the band dials it back and goes acoustic. “All I Need Is You” may work as a mid-LP breather/tempo change, but it’s not much of a song, and the piano ballad “Izzy” deflates the listening experience after the 7-minute blues storm, “A Thousand Miles.”

These are relatively minor scuff marks, though. The lasting impression suggests a blue collar band in it for the joy of rocking asses and playing together – a Jersey blueprint that’s worked before.

DOWNLOAD: “A Girl Named Lou, Part II,” “NJHC,” “Ain’t Good Enough for You”

DAVID OLNEY — When the Deal Goes Down

Album: When the Dead Goes Down

Artist: David Olney

Label: Deadbeet

Release Date: July 08, 2014

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Only an artist who’s as seasoned as David Olney would possess the singular savvy to be able to pen a song that recasts the Greek god Sisyphus as a poor Indiana farmer back in the ‘30s or the kind of imagination that allows him to a write a tune that captures a dialogue between the Lord and Satan, and then pits them against one another in a poker game. Nevertheless, leave it to Olney to craft those scenarios and more, resulting in an album boasting a baker’s dozen of hard luck tales and weathered ruminations.

“Servant, Job,” “Soldier of Misfortune” and “Sad Saturday Night” are intense and austere, but leave a vivid impression regardless. That’s not so surprising; Olney’s music sifts the rich top soil of arcane American music while retaining his own distinctive spin. A sturdy blend of elegant ballads, turgid deliberation and additional elements of blues, roots and even a bit of vaudeville, When the Deal Goes Down is not only one of Olney’s best offerings to date — and that alone says a lot, considering a resume that stretches back some thirty years — but also an extraordinary hybrid of sounds and styles.

Every deal should be as rewarding as this… or at least as pleasing.
DOWNLOAD: “Servant, Job,” “Soldier of Misfortune,” “Sad Saturday Night”



Album: Hypnotic Eye

Artist: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Label: Warner Bros.

Release Date: July 29, 2014

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While its somewhat cerebral title might suggest otherwise, Hypnotic Eye places its emphasis on strictly visceral appeal. In typical Petty fashion, the songs hew to the approach the group’s maintained since the beginning – a forthright, forward-leaning sound that finds the leader’s bedraggled vocals supported by hints of harmony, and a generally dour disposition that precludes any possibility for frivolous distraction. The album’s opening track, the driving and determined “American Dream Plan B,” makes those intentions clear; Petty’s unusually gnarly singing offers more than a hint of intimidation and exasperation.

Elsewhere though, it’s groove over gravitas. A deeply furrowed bass line underscores the restless rhythm of the aptly titled “Faultlines” and its apparent companion piece, “Shadow People,” while the boogie and bluster of “Burnt Out Town” sounds amazingly like a lost long gem from the ZZ Top songbook. More on point, the full throttled, unrelenting pace driving the majority of these tracks – “Forgotten Man” and “All You Can Carry” being two examples – brings to mind such early standbys as “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and the equally edgy “American Girl.”

Although it’s easy to lament the fact that Petty and the Heartbreakers don’t vary all that much from their usual template. Hypnotic Eye also affirms the fact they remain an austere and unapologetic outfit, which has pretty much been their mantra since the start. After nearly 40 years, it’s almost reassuring in a way to find Petty’s still so full of purpose.

DOWNLOAD: “Forgotten Man,” “Faultlines,” “All You Can Carry”

THE MUFFS – Whoop De Doo

Album: Whoop De Doo

Artist: Muffs

Label: Burger

Release Date: July 29, 2014

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This veteran (since ’91) L.A. combo still makes a deliriously loud pop-punk sound, and the fact that it’s been absent from the record bins for a decade makes the racket all that more righteous. Whoop De Doo finds feisty frontwoman Kim Shattuck abetted by longtime Muffsmen Roy McDonald and Ronnie Barnett on a dozen hi-nrg, tuneful gems with the same kind of vim ‘n’ vigor that marked their teenage selves’ efforts. Raise your hand if you remember their ‘90s classic Blonder and Blonder.

The tropes are endearingly familiar, as befits an old musical friend: hi-nrg buzzsaw pop (“Weird Boy Next Door” and “Take a Take a Me,” wherein Shattuck snarls and howls in her best two-packs-a-day rasp to out-Love Courtney Love); sassy, thrashy, anthemic punk (“Where Did I Go Wrong,” “Because You’re Sad”); British Invasion-meets-Nuggets garage (“Paint By Numbers” and album standout, the Who/Kinks-esque “Like You Don’t See Me”). The energy on display is infectious, giving this trio a larger-than-life oomph.

To quote a great musical philosopher, there’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Shattuck was the wrong “fit” for the Pixies during her short-lived tenure last year as Kim Deal’s replacement (recall that she was fired from the band by proxy following a tour). When she walks into the room, the operative term instantly becomes “fun,” something the dour, balding real estate agents of the Pixies haven’t had since Kurt Cobain died. Muffs fans, then, are the ultimate winners here, as it sounds like Shattuck & Co. are having the collective time of their life.

DOWNLOAD: “Weird Boy Next Door,” “Paint By Numbers”



DUPLEKITA—Sound of My Name

Album: Sound Of My Name

Artist: Duplekita

Label: Kinsella

Release Date: July 29, 2014

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Duplekita splices extravagantly arranged indie pop to electronic dance, its large ensemble building intricate meshes of synthesized and organic sounds. Several of the songs start in a primal soup of undifferentiated sounds, then gain traction in a programmed beat. It is as if they need the thump of dance music to give them structure.

The group is headed by Tim Batke, best known for his dreamy electronic pop band, Faunts. There are 13 other people in the band, and on a video released for “Rideau Park” you can see some of them working together, wandering between banks of synthesizers, mostly listening, but occasionally interjecting a sound. It looks like a very contemplative process, where tracks bu8ild slowly out of widely spaced, disparate elements. There are guitars and drums and a saxophone in evidence, but you get the sense that, even with live instruments, the note is just a starting point that will be shaped and altered until it fits.

These tracks start in delicate ways and build to crescendos, in a way that reminds me of certain large scale Scandinavian bands – I’m From Barcelona, Loney Dear and Architecture in Helsinki for starters. “Holiday,” the opener, emerges from scattershot harp runs and fluttering flute, moving forward only when it picks up keyboard and altered handclap rhythms. A high dreamy voice threads through the dance rhythms, dim and altered enough that it’s hard to pick out the words. There’s a melancholy early on, and hard to say how it happens, but it turns with volume and density to joy by the end.

A few of the songs lean too heavily on synthetic R&B elements. The singer uses Autotune freely — evidently not because he can’t sing but because he likes the sound. I don’t. “Everywhere For You” and “Sons & Daughters” are both distanced, chilled and made less convincing by the way the vocals are altered.

And yet where the balance shifts modestly towards organic sound, Duplekita intoxicates, as in lovely, guitar-jangling “Roots of a Mountain” and, especially, in the album’s final title track. “The Sound of My Name” describes a mystical experience, in which the singer hears his name three times, then goes out chasing through the world to look for it. The song itself melds shimmering synth atmospheres to a wonderful syncopated beat. It is one instance where Duplekita’s lovely, not-quite-real sound seems to fit perfectly with a narrative of awe and wonder, and it ranks among my favorite pop songs of 2014.

DOWNLOAD: “The Sound of My Name”

HAPPYNESS — Weird Little Birthday

Album: Weird Little Birthday

Artist: Happyness

Label: Weird Smiling

Release Date: June 17, 2014

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Happyness is a trio out of South London, whose fragile, twisted little songs follow frosted-sweet melodic lines through corroded colloquial landscapes. Look up for orientation from the middle of Weird Little Birthday and the closest large landmark is likely Pavement, but you’ll also catch scraps of Wilco, Neutral Milk Hotel, Jesus & Mary Chain and Guided By Voices.

Weird Little Birthday threads a meandering way through a sort-of story about a boy who shares a birthday with Jesus (grudgingly), beginning with the tremulous “Baby Jesus (Jello Boy).” The cut is radiant, spare and lovely, with guitars that refract the light and whispery vocals that slip into your head. It’s also spiked with grit of daily life. Its line “I’m the motherfucking birthday boy, don’t steal my thunder, baby Jesus” is as a good a starting point as any for considering this band’s mix of profanity and surreal lyricism. That theme continues in the long, semi-title track “Weird Little Birthday Girl” with its endless “Girl from Ipanema” vamp that coalesces after three or four minutes into something like a song, though reduced to a fragile shadow of itself; you can see the sun shining through its melody.

Other cuts are more raucous. “Great Minds Think Alike, All Brains Taste the Same” is easily the most Pavement-esque cut, with its slack, sly guitar clangor, though “It’s On You” comes in right behind (not least because of its inexplicable koan “I just want John Coltrane’s retirement plan”). “Refrigerate Her” leans more towards Guided By Voice’s gleeful racket, and “Naked Patients” pits the breezy, guitar-strummed tunefulness of Summer Teeth-era Wilco against queasy lyrics about illness. Ed Harcourt, who mixed Happyness’ 2014 EP, steps up to sing “Pumpkin Noir,” but there’s no discernable shift in personality or timbre. The bemused oddity, the casual hookiness, the blurry glow of arrangements is all of a piece and distinctive from nearly anything else going on right now.

Weird Little Birthday is one of those albums that sounds like nothing much the first couple times you hear it, before you begin to lock onto the war between musical ease and lyrical dislocation. At some point, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself humming along to lines that kind of bother you, slipping gradually into a world that is warm and inviting but also fundamentally off. At that point, Weird Little Birthday will be hard to shake — but you may not want to anymore.

DOWNLOAD: “Baby Jesus (Jello Boy),” “Pumpkin Noir”