Friday, August 27, 2010

Album Review: Title Tracks - It Was Easy

Title Tracks: It Was Easy
[Ernest Jenning 2010]


I caught Title Tracks live by chance about a year ago when they played the last set of the Fort Reno outdoor concert series, a summertime tradition in Washington, DC. The hipster-ish audience had properly cogitated over the previous high-concept bands when Title Tracks started playing a slice of infectious pop as irresistible to the artistic set as it was to the passersby on the street. Soon enough, a few dozen people had gotten up from their blankets on the grass and started dancing together in front of the stage like they were all best friends. It was a memorable scene to see just about everyone letting loose so blissfully, but I’ll also remember it for one guy struggling to let down his guard: frontman John Davis.

Davis is not averse to this kind of setting. For years he was on drums for the notable post-hardcore outfit Q and Not U and briefly performed with Laura Burhenn in the indie pop project Georgie James. I didn’t necessarily need him to sell his music with a commanding stage presence that night, although that would have surely improved matters. Standing somewhat rigidly and giving only shy half-smiles early in the performance, Davis didn’t quite reflect the exuberance of his music that the rest of us were so charmed by. Regardless, I tracked down the debut LP It Was Easy upon release six months later to see if the lack of confidence translated to the recorded medium. For all Davis’ skill in crafting tight and universal pop songs, It Was Easy begs for a little more assertiveness at the helm.

As Title Tracks, Davis seems intent on playing his favorite kind of broad-appeal powerpop that was obscured in Q and Not U and perhaps not fully embraced in Georgie James. Surely songs like “Every Little Bit Hurts” and “Steady Love” are irresistible testaments to his impressive songcrafting. Each accomplishes what any proper pop song should: delivering an exceptional chorus and bouncing around in your head long after their three minutes are up.

A half dozen or so tracks prove Davis’ skill in melody, but they don’t always translate to successful pop. The aggravating jingle “Black Bubblegum” and the simplistic “No, Girl” feel overly deliberate in a quest for universal likeability. Painting more of the songs, unfortunately, is a lacking production quality. When Davis isn’t at his most convincing, the songs feel recorded on a tight budget when the sonic subject matter deserves much more. Within the context of fairly simple pop songs, muffled lyrics feel more like production flaws than stylistic choice. Perhaps it was too easy.

The ultimate surprise on the record is two guest appearances by Tracyanne Campbell from renowned Scottish indie pop group Camera Obscura. She provides backing vocals on “No, Girl” and, much more noticeably, alongside Davis on a so-so cover of “Tougher Than the Rest”. (Campbell seems to be passing this around: Camera Obscura performed their own excellent cover earlier this year.) I don’t know how Campbell became familiar with Title Tracks, let alone decided to contribute vocals to them, but while it’s a pleasant addition, she’s ultimately not a game-changer here.

What may read and sound like an underwhelming debut I actually prefer to contextualize as a promising debut that’s just stumbling out of the gate. The album’s hooks, and Davis’ efficiency in cranking them out, are undeniable, but a brighter future would be characterized by a shoring up of production issues and incorporating a broader melodic palette so that each track isn’t a simple sink-or-swim pop song. Oh, and also, smile!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Video: "North American Scum" by LCD Soundsystem

This past weekend I went to a small nightclub where their Friday night thing is a dance party with indie-variety music and music videos playing on a large projector.  Two of my friends lit up when this particular song started, which I was unfamiliar with.  I couldn't make out much, but soon enough every 10 seconds we were screaming "NORTH AMERICA!" Passing by the projector to see two slow-motion astronauts wearing aluminum foil space suits and fighting on the moon, I knew then that I would be youtube-ing it once I got home.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Album Review: Five Iron Frenzy - Our Newest Album Ever!

Five Iron Frenzy: Our Newest Album Ever!
[Five Minute Walk 1997]


Christian bands get a bad rap. Often categorized as preachy, musically predictable, and melodramatic, explicitly Christian musicians more often than not rub less- or non-religious listeners the wrong way. Simply put, most Christian music seems to preach to the choir, leaving little room for newcomers to the faith or those who want to listen to the music but bypass the messages expressed.

In the crowd of such bands, Five Iron Frenzy, a ska punk outfit from Denver, became one of the few Christian bands to achieve modest appeal outside of their core religious fanbase in the late 90’s. It turns out all that was needed were some catchy, upbeat ska tunes and a lighter, less dense approach to the word of God. The proof lies in songs like “Oh, Canada,” in which lead singer and songwriter Reese Roper remarks, “I want to be where yaks can run free / Where Royal Mounties can arrest me.”

It is an understandable criticism that their brand of music was just one of many copycats and look-alikes that combined to form the third-wave ska explosion of the 90’s. The jumpy melodies, upbeat horn instruments, and satirical themes are all qualities found in many ska punk bands of the era including Five Iron Frenzy, but where the band lacks in musical originality they make up for in their unique Christian themes, mastery of the catchy ska chorus, and the clear, powerful vocals of Roper.

Through the rise and fall of third-wave ska’s mainstream popularity, Five Iron Frenzy lasted from 1995 to 2003. At the time of 1997’s Our Newest Album Ever, the band consisted of Roper on lead vocals, Micah Ortega on lead guitar and vocals, Scott Kerr on guitar and vocals, Keith Hoerig on bass, Andrew Verdecchio on drums and vocals, Nathanael "Brad" Dunham on trumpet, Dennis Culp on trombone and vocals, and Leanor Ortega on saxophone and vocals.

Regarded as one of the band’s best releases, Our Newest Album Ever! begins on an interesting note with “Handbook for the Sellout,” which chastises the longtime fans of alternative bands that become popular to the point that those same fans turn their backs on the past idols because, as the song states sarcastically, “Being popular is lame.” In addition to being quite catchy, the song is a funny commentary on the cool factor that comes with loving obscure bands. The issue of bands selling out, however, is nothing new that FIF is bringing to the table, not even to the 90’s ska scene: powerhouse Reel Big Fish kicked of their 1996 album Turn the Radio Off with “Sell Out,” the band’s biggest mainstream hit and a song about payola scandals on FM radio.

What “Handbook for the Sellout” as well as the next couple songs demonstrate is that the band extensively shifts the focus of their music from religion to common, if often childish and silly, situations and occurances that the masses can relate to. “Where is Micah?” is an extended musical joke on how guitarist Micah Ortega frequently missed band rehearsals. Following this is “Superpowers,” an upbeat song describing life as a band. What is interesting here is that the song very subtly hints at the band’s religious message: “Don't want to rock the mic / Don't want to meet the pope / I just want to share with you / How we got this peace and hope.”

After these three catchy yet similar songs comes the interesting “Fistful of Sand,” which seems to bare a Middle Eastern influence and clear lyrics describing the emptiness of life on earth without God. To complement the serious nature of the song, Ortega breaks out a loud guitar riff implying impending doom while Roper sports an impassioned screaming of the lyrics just under 3 and a half minutes into the song that stands out against the other optimistic tracks here.

The album continues along at an excited pace, going back to high school days in “Suckerpunch” which reassures outcast youth that God still loves them, through the nonsensical joke/throwaway song “Kitty Doggy,” and “Blue Comb ’78,” Roper’s catchy but lame attempt at secular sentimentalism. The remainder of the album is marked by the infectious “Oh, Canada,” one of FIF’s best known songs, and “Every New Day,” a powerfully optimistic closer, that stick out amid a pool of solid yet repetitive songs.

The album is instrumentally polished and the band communicates well together to create good ska and pop punk melodies. But overall, in terms of instrumentation and songwriting, there are few big surprises as the band stays close to a bouncy ska rhythm formula. Roper’s songwriting skills yield satisfying rhyme schemes and, for Christians, some inspiring words of worship, but overall Roper is caught in the down-to-earth, often immature lyrics that are innocent but lacking much depth.

As far as 90’s ska bands go, Five Iron Frenzy fits into a common mold and formula with a large part of their individuality stemming from their Christian beliefs. Despite this, Roper’s clear, powerful vocals and tight instrumentation from the rest of the band make FIF a particularly interesting and fun ska band to listen to. Listeners can take what they like away from the band’s music in terms of religious teachings, but moreover, ska fans will enjoy a slew of infectious melodies with Our Newest Album Ever!.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Video: "Which Song" by Max Tundra

Ben Jacobs is quite the quirky Brit. As Max Tundra, he crafts sleek and bizarre electropop that makes you question what pop is. Is this catchy? Is it odd that I'm singing along to this?  That's not saying you can't have a blast listening to Tundra, particularly 2002's bloody brilliant Mastered by Guy at the Exchange, but it undoubtedly turns your expectations for hook-laden pop on its ear, and it's not for everyone.  At the bare minimum, you have to say that he's economical: £22 bought him this daffy video for "Which Song".

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Album Review: Quasi - Featuring "Birds"

Quasi: Featuring "Birds"
[Up 1998]


Photo by Nathan Backous
Forget New Year’s resolutions, forget self-improvement, forget about “getting out there”. If your stuck in the doldrums of existence, it can often be so much easier to let time pass you by and just accept the futility of the world and life itself. After all, aren’t we all just dust in the wind? Portland indie rockers Quasi seem to think so, but that’s nothing to get down about. The band could have found an outlet for their persistent pessimism in self-hating grunge or tearful emo. Instead, thankfully, Sam Coomes and ex-wife Janet Weiss prefer to wrap the shortcomings of life in sweet pop melodies and witty dark humor on 1998’s sorely underappreciated Featuring “Birds”.

The strong pop sensibilities of the group are perhaps a byproduct of years of rubbing shoulders with the legendary Elliott Smith, with whom the band toured, collaborated in the studio, and at a time, shared a band (Coomes and Smith in Heatmiser). But while Smith’s brand of pop barely concealed the thoughts of a troubled mind, Quasi’s “*** happens” outlook on life makes for a much cheerier, if still bitter, message and album experience.

The album appropriately kicks off with “Our Happiness is Guaranteed,” which drops listeners into a chaotic pit of Coomes’ distinctive keyboards, Weiss’s drum slamming, and loud guitar fuzz before the main pop melody arises. Coomes’s light and clear voice is as pleasing and likable as is needed to take on the Quasi’s sardonic subject matter. His electronic keyboard is another powerful component of Quasi’s sound, contributing to the innocence of the melodies and their interesting contrasts to the lyrics.

Despite packing most of their tuneful pop jams into songs below the 3-minute mark, the band still finds time for wordless instrumental experimentation and ambiance building. “Nothing From Nothing” builds anticipation on a lengthy and energetic drum-led introduction (well, it’s 2/3 of the song, but still a great listen). “I Give Up” features bouts of rompy keyboard and crazed drumming before letting Coomes’ get a word in. The band even sets aside almost a minute and a half of simply birds chirping on “Birds,” the album’s self-proclaimed centerpiece (get it?).

As is clearly evident, the lyrical nature of Featuring “Birds” is darkly humorous and full of wisecracks and sighs on despair, hopelessness, and boredom. Summing up these notions, on “California” Coomes laments “Life is dull, life is gray / At its best it’s just ok / But I’m happy to report / Life is also short.” While Coomes smartly puts such downer musings into witty matter-of-fact phrasing, the pure pop intentions of the melodies and energetic instrumentation make the message work in consistently interesting, fun, and unique ways. And beyond being fun, the album is certainly funny (“Walt Disney cannot make me happy” Coomes moans on the mesmerizing “It’s Hard to Turn Me On”).

Considering the album’s plethora of solid pop gems, it’s difficult to pick favorites, as they are almost all designed for eager replay, if not a sing-along. Highlights surely include the sunny tempo pickup of “The Poisoned Well,” the utterly fantastic, rocking guitar riff of “Ape Self Prevails in Me Still,” and the delicate Elliott Smith-brand folk number “Please Do,” whose closer is probably the album’s most lyrically heartfelt, and heartbreaking, moment. Not to be forgotten are the vocal contributions of Weiss, who, in addition to acing the drums, sings the haunting “Tomorrow You’ll Hide” and provides sweet backing vocals, as on the drawn out howl of “Repetition.” Finally, the wordless concluding song “Only Success Can Fail Me Now” is, as the album’s final statement, a beautiful and lush piece of acoustic guitar strumming and a building-up drum beat that is a testament to Coomes and Weiss’s chemistry together (musical chemistry, that is) and a pleasantly optimistic sounding end to the album.

Armed with a knack for warm melodies and a biting humor, Quasi’s broadly accessible indie pop makes for an ironically fun celebration of the downers in life. In the end, perhaps Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss have been looking on the bright side all along (Coomes encourages us to “Smile, it’s not so bad” on 1999’s Field Studies, but that’s another issue). So, on the other hand, the good advice is to go out and actively enjoy life. Sure you’ll feel down sometimes, and sure you’ll want to, temporarily at least, just mire in your own dissatisfaction with life for awhile. At least now, when you do, you’ll know the perfect album to listen to.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Currents: Wavves, Best Coast, Taken By Trees

Wavves: King of the Beach
[Fat Possum 2010]

Wavves' breakthrough second album Wavvves was highly divisive for the audacity of its production: ridiculously bare, ugly lo-fi. It was grating, rude, and, in my mind, actually pretty interesting.  Under the impression that Nathan Williams will do what he wants regardless of the haters, it's no surprise that King of the Beach is also divisive, but for a different reason: an embrace of snappy pop punk. King of the Beach is significantly more cleaned up and user-friendly than prior releases and much more focused on catchy hooks that still punch with punk sneer and fuzzy flourishes.  That said, while songs like "Post-Acid" and "Super Soaker" are propulsive hits, many of the album's hooks actually don't have much staying power and the album feels awkwardly ordered between tight punk and looser atmospheric noise rock.  King of the Beach still sounds pretty good blaring with the windows down in its native summer/beach habitat, but those seeking a more enduring revolution in Wavves' progression will have to wait longer.


Best Coast: Crazy For You
[Mexican Summer 2010]

Bethany Cosentino keeps it simple: summer, love, lovesickness, weed, and her cat form the conceptual crux of her droll, easy-going surf pop. Rising artists since last year after releasing a number of catchy '60s-girl-group-inflected singles (including the as yet un-topped "Sun Was High (So Was I)"), Best Coast (Cosentino and Bobb Bruno) have finally released their first highly anticipated LP Crazy For You.  Their hooks still hold the melodic charm and sunny innocence of their earlier, more lo-fi tracks, but as before, Cosentino's punky SoCal demeanor and Bruno's fuzzed out guitar lend a not-so-innocent underbelly to the surfy aesthetic. The format is consistently engaging and pleasantly accessible, although the base level simplicity of her lyrics can make Crazy For You a drag at times.  But simplicity is a powerful thing in music, and when it's as happy and catchy as Crazy For You, it's hard not too like.

"When the Sun Don't Shine":

Taken By Trees: East of Eden
[Rough Trade 2009]

The world is rapidly shrinking and "world music" (the term and the common idea) doesn't cut it anymore. For the modern discerning indie music community, influences are pinpointed and appraised for authenticity and creative contributions, not the fact that "African" drums and Latin influences are thrown into a mix to let listeners be passive globe-trekkers.  I think these critical listeners would welcome Victoria Bergsman's second solo album East of Eden as Taken By Trees.  Bergsman (The Concretes, "Young Folks") traveled from her native Sweden to Pakistan to record her new album and in working with local artists, the results are immersed in qawwali instrumentals and a decidedly South Asian bent.  She keeps one foot in the West, however, singing in Swedish on "Tidens Gång" and producing a easy-going cover of Animal Collective's "My Girls" (it's "My Boys" here).  Her graceful melodies and delicate vocals allow the West-meets-Pakistan fusion to feel seamless, with the only downside being the too-short 30 minute run time.  Finding this beautiful inspiration in such an unexpected place is a credit to Bergsman's abounding creativity and already builds anticipation for where it will take her next.

"Watch the Waves":

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Album Briefs: Delorean, Ween, R.E.M.

Delorean: Subiza
[Mushroom Pillow 2010]


There's not a single cloud in the sky when Subiza is spinning.  Full of club-ready beats but sun-drenched with airy Mediterranean charm, Delorean's third but indisputably breakthrough LP is a dreamy summer dance record living on nothing but good vibes.  A focus on rich atmospherics and recognizable pop structures makes Subiza too smart for the standard night club, but the strong Balearic influences keep intact the warm ecstasy of beachside dance parties.  While the formula becomes a bit repetitive, with many of the tracks filling similar four-and-a-half minute frames, the music suggests that you're not meant to be fully conscious, but rather blissfully lost in the haze.

Ween: The Mollusk
[Elektra 1997]


Ween is Ween. Despite this being the first Ween album I've gotten into, it's clear that for almost 25 years the experimental Pennsylvania duo have established a legacy of charting their own ultra-quirky, often hilarious brand of alt-rock. Considered by many to be their pinnacle, The Mollusk is a scatterbrained gem unified by a whimsical nautical theme. It's categorically all over the map, skipping from showtune ("I'm Dancing in the Show Tonight") to faux prog-rock (the uproariously satirical title track) to sea shanty ("The Blarney Stone") to fast-paced riff-rock ("Waving My Dick in the Wind").  The Mollusk is full to the brim with side-splitting one-liners, but the songs themselves are thoughtfully crafted and convincing (particularly "Ocean Man" of Spongebob Squarepants fame).  Still, The Mollusk is for a rather silly mood, and I haven't been able to get over this album as a (however accomplished) joke record that's disjointed enough for me to simply pick and choose songs of the moment.

 R.E.M.: Accelerate
[Warner Bros. 2008]


I've accepted that the R.E.M. that I most adore is not coming back (Murmur and Reckoning era, that is), but so it goes.  More propulsive alt-rock has been their angle for a while since then with some still fantastic hits... and a good number of misses.  And at this point, Accelerate was needed to stop the bleeding, and it did. Most of the tracks are melodic frazzled-edge rockers for the masses that don't have the endurance of R.E.M.'s best, but Accelerate is still competent and enjoyable, which signals the band on a modest rebound.  Judging from the excellent "Horse to Water", you could even say that, while perhaps not on the surface, deep down, they still got it.