Archive for the ‘indie’ Category

Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part Two

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Here’s another entry in my short-review series; these three are instrumental albums.

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Boy Named Charlie Brown
An entire generation grew up with the music of Vince Guaraldi, becoming familiar with he melodic brand of music even if they (we) might have claimed not to like jazz. As the background music of the enduring and popular Peanuts cartoons, Guaraldi’s piano-based tunes reinforced the onscreen emotional content of the animated characters and action. The most popular entry in the series remains A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Fantasy/Concord reissued the accompanying soundtrack several times, most recently in a cleverly designed die-cut package.

But an earlier program was made, and it too had a soundtrack featuring Guaraldi’s trio (the pianist plus drummer Colin Bailey and bassist Monty Budwig). But for a host of complicated reasons, A Boy Named Charlie Brown never actually aired on television. Yet in an unusual move, Fantasy Records (Guaralidi’s label at the time) did release its soundtrack, originally titled Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown. Subsequent pressings played down the connection to the unaired program and shortened the album’s title.

The music is just how anyone who’s ever heard a note of “Linus and Lucy” remembers it: emotionally expressive without the use of lyrics, varied in tone and style to fit the demands of the program’s scenes. The trio’s music bears close listening, but is effective as (dare I say it) background music as well. The 2014 reissue appends an unreleased alternate take of “Baseball Theme” and Guaraldi’s reading of the standard “Fly Me to the Moon,” though the latter has noting to do with Peanuts. The original edit of the accompanying animated film is lost – presumably forever – but the music remains, and it’s delightful as ever. (A limited edition orange vinyl pressing – with the original Jazz Impressions artwork – is also available.)

Express Rising – Express Rising
Music is filled with the work of outsider artists. Decidedly and determinedly avoiding the mainstream, those following their singular and idiosyncratic paths create and release music wholly free of commercial considerations. Most of these artists are, by definition, underground, neither seeking nor finding mass acceptance. Some of these artists are quite prolific: pop auteur R. Stevie Moore has self-released literally hundred of albums. Others turn out music at a much more measured pace.

One example of the latter is Express Rising. The inscrutable Dante Carfagna is Express Rising, but nobody can tell you much beyond that. What is known is that Carfagna’s earlier release featured breakbeats and sampling, two things you’ll find very little of on Express Rising. Moody, hypnotic, gauzy, impressionistic, melancholy: those are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind while listening to this album of instrumental (with occasional wordless vocalizing) music. Real instruments feature prominently here: Wurlitzer electric piano, acoustic guitar and gentle tapping of a drum kit.

But for something that at first glance seems forbiddingly outré, Express Rising is exceedingly tuneful and accessible. More textured and nuanced than new age, gentler than rock, the album’s eleven tracks are fully-thought-out musical excursion, modest in their approach but memorable. By design, the package provides little information, but the press kit offered this suitably oblique nugget: “Carfagna had this to say about himself and about Express Rising: ‘My last record came out ten years ago. Much has changed and much has not.’” The modest and assuming yet lovely Express Rising is well worth seeking out.

Percy Jones – Cape Catastrophe
Outside jazz/fusion/prog circles, the name Percy Jones isn’t well known. But within that rarefied world, Jones’s reputation looms large. As a key member of pioneering fusion group Brand X, Jones’ rubbery bass lines were an integral component of that group’s sonic attack.

After Brand X ended, the Welsh bassist relocated to New York City, where he would eventually cut a solo album called Cape Catastrophe. The album is a decidedly DIY effort, laid down in 1988-89 in a Harlem studio using drum machines, Casio synthesizers,digital delays and loads of Jones’ signature bass.

On the ten-minute-plus title track, clattering drum beats collide with Jones’ kinetic bass figures; “found” spoken word bits float in and out. The overall effect is a but like slightly funkier, equally arty My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Jones’ fretless work on “Slick” is expressive and entrancing, and overall the album sounds far less “dated” than one might expect. “Hex” feels like what The Police might have produced had they all given in to their suppressed prog-rock backgrounds. And the lengthy “Barrio” (which fills more than a third of Cape Catastrophe‘s run time) feels like an inspired, exploratory in-studio live jam, belying its one-guy-with-overdubs origin.

More “short cuts” to come.

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Yuck’s “Glow & Behold” — Shoegaze Meets Melody (Part Two)

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Continued from Part One

The first record was self-produced; for Glow & Behold, the band chose to work with Chris Coady, who’s worked with other indie-styled artists like Smith Westerns, Wavves and Beach House. Max Bloom says that the “brightness” of Coady’s sound works well with the songs on this album. “I’m used to doing everything [in the studio] myself; I’m very hands-on,” Bloom says. “And Chris is a hands-on producer. So this meant giving a lot of responsibility to him. And just the opportunity to have someone else in the room, someone to talk about what you’re doing, is a big help. It’s a different way of working for me, and it was a very interesting one. And a positive one, for sure.”

The album’s primitive/abstract artwork (by Katherine Campbell) is likely to start a few conversations. “I gave her the tracks, told her a little bit about the album, and she went away for a long time, and came back with a few things,” Bloom recalls. “The [art chosen for the] album cover stood out for me; I don’t know what it was.” He prefers to leave its meaning open to individual interpretation. “We have a backdrop of the album cover when we play. When you look at that, you might have your own opinion of what it might be. And that’s what we wanted out of the artwork.”

On Glow & Behold, Yuck also moves beyond its guitar/bass/drums format to include brass on a few tracks (among the album’s strongest). “It was an urge to try something different,” Bloom says. “With the first album, we had a strict limitation. It worked, and it was fun to write within those guidelines; we used those limitations to our advantage.” He describes the addition of horns – played by him and two guest musicians – as “a way to amuse ourselves,” but the end result expands on Yuck’s sonic palette in a logical way that feels quite natural.

That said, onstage, Yuck is sticking to its stripped-down trio featuring Bloom on guitar plus bassist/vocalist Mariko Doi and drummer Jonny Rogoff. “I like the live experience to be something completely different form the record,” Bloom says. “A lot of people who come to see us live comment that it does sound a lot different. When you’re at a show and that’s what you’re seeing, it’s special in that way.”

Yuck released “Rebirth” as a single ahead of the album, and then “Middle Sea” as a single after the album came out. Asked if he views the album format as viable in this age of download culture, Bloom says, “I don’t know if it’s necessarily the best way, but for me it’s the only way. The album is the highest form that a band or an artist can use to express themselves. For me,” he continues,” I only ever listen to albums. If I like a song, I want to listen to it in the context of an album. In this day and age, that might be old-fashioned.”

Like writing catchy songs, you might say.

Yuck will be at The Mothlight in Asheville NC on Tuesday, February 11.

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Yuck’s “Glow & Behold” — Shoegaze Meets Melody (Part One)

Monday, February 10th, 2014

In October 2013, London/New York-based Yuck released Glow & Behold, their second album. And while a “cold” listen to it – as in, using ears that had never heard their self-titled 2011 debut – led to me naming it as one of the year’s best releases, some fans don’t agree. They remind me of the stories surrounding The Doors‘ signing with Elektra in 1966 amid frenzied cries of “sellout!” from their L.A.-scenester fan base. Like the man said, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

The fact remains that with Glow & Behold, Yuck has in fact turned toward a slightly more tuneful brand of music than they served up on their first long player. But the elements that made them special remain, only now supplemented by sweet ear-candy melodies that remain in the listener’s head long after the insistent squalls of looped feedback on the title track fade away.

Though Daniel Blumberg – one of the band’s two guitarists and songwriters – left before the second album, Yuck’s more streamlined approach serves them well. “Because we changed our musical style [and went] into the studio to do things a little bit differently, it’s easy to think that when Daniel left, he took what was on the first album with him,” says Max Bloom, guitarist and (now) primary songwriter for the band. “And for a person like Daniel to have left the band, whatever we did after that point would have been under scrutiny. Anything that was different would have been [blamed on the fact that] he left.” So in that sense, anyone who wanted Yuck to effectively make the same album a second time was bound to be disappointed.

“At the end of the day,” Bloom continues, “the easiest thing to have done – which in fact is what we did do – was to ignore all the circumstances and make the album we wanted to make.” And while an allmusic.com review criticizes the band for having “focus[ed] on the pretty and melodic side of the equation,” I fail to understand how that’s a bad thing in and of itself. “The initial idea,” Bloom says, “was about the flow of the album, the way it starts, unfolds, and finishes. On the first album, we had a bunch of songs that were put on without a thought as to track listing.” On Glow & Behold, Bloom says he wrote songs to fit into the “jigsaw” of the overall album’s sequence. Asked if he consciously writes songs that are built on foundations that include a strong hook,” Bloom laughs and says, “That might be true.”

Often pegged as a shoegaze group, in truth Yuck’s sound – especially on the second album – bears the influence of song-centered artists such as Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub and Aztec Camera. And even “Sunday” from the first album is redolent of The La’s and Belle and Sebastian. Bloom guardedly agrees, but adds Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, as well as “a lot of bands on Sub Pop and Merge” to the list of acts whose music has informed his songwriting, especially on the debut. “Loud, guitar-noise kinds of things.” As for Glow & Behold, Bloom says he listened to “Wilco and Jim O’Rourke” while writing songs.

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Hundred Word Reviews: February 2014, Part Three

Friday, February 7th, 2014

I’m making progress in bringing my the contents of my in-box down to a manageable size, but there are still so many albums deserving of coverage that I’ll be doing a few more of these capsule reviews. This time ’round I’ll take quick looks at artists who have either self-released, or put their music out on an indie label. All deserve wider notice, and like the government, I’m here to help.

Ezra Furman – Day of the Dog
I have difficulty getting past a vocalist I don’t care for; even if the songs are strong, if you sing like Geddy Lee or that guy in Cake, I’ll have a tough time with your music. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try. This is just such an example. With a sound that combines a stripped-down Phil Spector vibe with punk, Ezra Furman’s album is bitter, angry and restless. And filled with some pretty cool music. Greasy r&b saxophone battles it out with noisy guitars, except when Furman goes in an acoustic direction (see “My Zero,” an album highlight).

Rovo and System 7 – Phoenix Rising
When I first heard Ozric Tentacles, my first thought was that they had successfully updated the sound and aesthetic of Steve Hillage for the 21st century. But of course Hillage is still at it as well, and his latest project is this, a collaboration that includes him and partner Miquette Giraudy (as System 7) with Rovo, a five -piece from Japan featuring a former member of notorious band The Boredoms. Hints of 90s-period Porcupine Tree can be found. If you understand and appreciate the distinction between “trance” and “jam” and prefer the former, this one is highly recommended.

The Fire Tapes – Phantoms
This one makes me sad. I discovered this Charlottesville VA band in 2012, and found their moody onstage musical presentation even more affecting than their (excellent) debut LP Dream Travel. With a sound that builds upon the fuzzed-out sonic drone of the Dream Syndicate, the band offered a twin guitar attack that reminded me of Television. They followed up with a single later that year, and in late 2013 released the full-length Phantoms. But right on the heels of that release, they broke up. What they left behind is an album that betters the debut. Find it if you can.

Michael Des Barres – Hot N Sticky Live
On this live album, Des Barres avoids the crushingly obvious temptation to self-cover his Power Station-era material, and instead lends his raspy pipes to material from his latest studio album (2012′s Carnaby Street) and knowing covers .The highlight among the latter is a reading of Humble Pie‘s version of “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” as part of a medley. Des Barres was born to sing that kind of material, and he and band (featuring Bigelf‘s Damon Fox on keys) crank out rock, soul and r&b as if their lives depended on it. It’s as fiery as prime-era Graham Parker.

Dog Society – Emerge
Is there a place in the 21st century’s second decade for straightahead rock? Apparently, NYC based Dog Society think so. With a sound that builds on the best of 70s album-oriented rock, the five-piece is all about the vibe. The songs are catchy and memorable. Soaring, sustained guitar lines will transport you back to rock’s classic era. Bonus points for great vocal harmonies and stellar arrangement. Fans of Howlin’ Rain are sure to dig this, though Dog Society have a wider musical palette (see the clever melding of bossa nova and arena rock on “A Good Friend” for proof).

Weird Owl – Healing
This year’s winner in the Cleverest Band Name sweepstakes (say it out loud if you haven’t already gotten it), this Brooklyn outfit is of a musical piece with like-minded associates such as Black Angels and Brian Jonestown Massacre. Much of the album sounds if it was recorded in an empty gymnasium, but that deep-echo vibe is what the fuzzy, head-nodding-inducing songs require. Points to you if you can decipher the lyrics amidst the sonic haze, but that perhaps misses the whole point. Memorable Revolver-styled guitar leads and some tasty analog-sounding synth work are among the highlights of this excellent record.

Murray Hockridge & Dave Kilminster – Closer to Earth
I reviewed Kilminster‘s solo album Scarlet: The Director’s Cut about a year ago, and generally I don’t cover indie artists twice with in a year unless they do something especially remarkable. And that’s just what he’s done on this new record, in collaboration with fellow guitarist/vocalist Murray Hockridge. There are no original songs on this album; instead it’s filled with fascinating, soulful acoustic covers – reinventions is a better word – of well-known songs. REM, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Steely Dan and Radiohead are just a few of the acts whose work is recast here, and it works amazingly well.

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Hundred Word Reviews: February 2014, Part Two

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

As part of my continuing effort to thin the pile of to-be-reviewed CDs on my desk – and that’s after culling all the ones I’ve decided not to cover – I present the second in this month’s series of 100-word capsule reviews. This batch will feature new music by artists with whom most readers will be unfamiliar, though a few established names will pop up. All these are worth seeking out, especially for those more adventurously-minded readers/listeners.

Felsen – I Don’t Know How to Talk Anymore
Imagine a slightly more laid-back Fountains of Wayne, and you’ll have a rough idea of the sound of this Oakland-area band. The Venn diagram of Americana fans and powerpop fans doesn’t feature a large common area, but this self-released effort aims for that sweet spot. They go all anthemic on “Rock and Roll’s Not Dead,” and then wait ’till nearly the song’s end to actually, y’know, rock, but it’s worth the wait. Elsewhere they serve up a breezy, straight-ahead sound that evokes memories of The Cars, crossed with Gin Blossoms. The self-produced album sports a fully-developed glossy production finish.

Dan Miraldi – Devil at our Heels EP
Miraldi doles out his music in EP rather than album form, but the truth is that he delivers the goods. That is, if the goods are 80s-styled new wave influenced rock. It’s Miraldi on vocals, guitars and keys here, joined by guitarist, bassist and drummer. The melodies and arrangements all have a vaguely familiar feel to them, which might send more ambitious (read: less lazy) listeners back to their 80s vinyl in search of the answer to the where-have-I-heard-that-before questions. But as throwbacks go, Devil at our Heels is fun stuff. This EP is an improvement over Miraldi’s 2011 effort.

The Claudettes – Infernal Piano Plot…Hatched!
This is a strange one, and wholly out of step with pretty much anything else that’s going on in music in 2014. A piano and drums duo that plays barrelhouse instrumentals? There’s more to them than that one style, of course, but Johnny Iguana (piano) and Michael Caskey (drums) seem intent to stay well outside the mainstream. On “Hammer and Tickle” (yes, they have a sense of humor) they sound more like a swinging Vince Guaraldi than anything else, but the blues figures mightily in their approach as well. Might this catch on as the hipsters’ Next Big Thing?

Gun Club Cemetery – s/t
Yeah, the band name makes no sense to me either. Leader Alex Lowe is an Australian (sorry) a Scottish troubador/pub-rocking sort of fellow, and his songs – performed here with little filigree, hewing to the guitar/bass/drums format with a spot of keyboard – are appealing and straightforward. In places he’s reminiscent of Rockpile; in others (specifically “Sunset Shadows”) he’s a dead ringer for Michael Penn. And the acoustic-leaning cuts here call to mind Together Alone-era Crowded House. Lowe’s warm voice and heartfelt lyrics mean that time spent with this album yields rewards, as its virtues reveal themselves on repeated spins. A winner.

Peter MacLeod – Rolling Stone
Released (like Gun Club Cemetery above) on Alan McGhee‘s new 359 Music, this is highly worth seeking out. With a breezy vibe applied to soaring, big-chord anthems, MacLeod sounds a bit like prime-era Gin Blossoms. The electric guitars chime, the acoustic guitars shimmer, and the uplifting vocal harmonies are the cherry on top. The song titles might seem a bit by-the-numbers (“Let it shine,” “Give a Little Love,” “Hold Me Now”) but the tunes themselves are ear candy of the most addictive sort. MacLeod crafts songs that will stay with you, and move you to hit “repeat.”

Mick Farren and Andy Colquhoun – Black Vinyl Dress
Truthfully, the late Mick Farren was one of those artists I’ve tended to admire but not listen to. His late 60s work with The Deviants is no doubt influential, and his Stiff Records-era stuff reinforced his relevance. And he was an expert on many topics, from (radical) politics to (equally radical) music. This album will go down in history as his final statement. It’s spoken word with instrumental backing. Yeah, poetry, right down to what sound like bongo drums. How you feel about the genre in general will probably determine whether you dig this. Again: relevant, yes. Enjoyable? You decide.

Laurie Biagini – Sanctuary of Sound
It seems perverse to label Vancouver-based Biagini an underground artist: her music is so infectious, chirpy and friendly that the tag seems to confer a vaguely mysterious, sinister vibe that the music simply doesn’t warrant. Trafficking in a style that might almost be termed neo-Brill Building, Laurie Biagini crafts poppy songs that call to mind Lesley Gore more than anyone else. Her sunny and bright musical disposition keeps her out of the singer/songwriter ditch; even on contemplative material, the listener gets the sense that she’s a glass-half-full kinda gal. Production is professional but clearly on the DIY side of things.

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Album Review: Night Beats — Sonic Bloom

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Modern perspectives on 60s garage rock have littered the musical landscape in the 21st century. But I’m reminded of an oft-repeated response to all that by a friend of mine. Upon hearing the latest band claiming to faithfully re-create the garage rock vibe of 1965-68, he often remarks upon the result, saying something like, “Aww…that’s not garage.” Clearly, to him, these young whippersnappers took the wrong cues from the era; perhaps the focused more upon sartorial concerns than musical ones.

And the sixties identikit isn’t enough. Nor is it enough to simply outfit a band with Rickenbacker guitars, fuzztone pedals and some Vox amps. While it may or not require consumption of drugs, there’s little doubt that an understanding of the musical goals of the sixties antecedents is the foundational prerequisite to getting it right.

Some do succeed. Austin’s Black Angels (on tour this coming spring with no less a psychedelic light than Roky Erickson) understand the vibe; their albums are awash in the fuzz-and-feedback aesthetic, and they get the tmepose right. But beyond that, they understand what it takes to put together a good song. Because one of the foundations of that sixties garage stuff was songcraft: you had to be able to dance to it, and (with some exceptions) the song had to make its musical mark quickly.

Another band that “gets it” is Night Beats. I reviewed their self-titled debut in Summer 2011, and I’m happy to report that on Sonic Bloom, their 2013 followup, they deliver more of the same quality.

Lee Blackwell still sounds like Sky Saxon. His guitars consistently reverb, feed back and fuzz out. There’s a pleasingly nodded-out vibe on groovy tunes like “Playing Dead.” And some tasty Farfisa enlivens “Outta Mind.” Throughout Sonic Bloom, the vocals and guitar – and to a lesser extent, everything else – are treated with sheets of reverb, phase and other sonic trickery of the late 60s. But it’s all done lovingly, and with an understanding – once again – that the basic song has to be there for it all to work. No, you probably won’t find yourself singing along to “Real Change.” Bonus points to you if you can even decipher what Blackwell’s singing about. But that’s not the point; the sound of the vocal – and the sound of that keening, squealing lead guitar break – is what’s important here.

“Satisfy Your Mind” is a Dylanesque jugband romp filtered through a fuzztone. Elsewhere, the band’s musical time machine goes back to the past to invent proto-shoegaze. “The Seven Poison Wonders” sounds like it could fit nicely into the “dance club” scene in the soundtrack of a Roger Corman film from way back when. And the album’s closer, “The New World” folds in some jazzy elements, suggesting that should Night Beats wish to expand their sonic horizons, they could do so effectively. (Here’s betting they won’t.)

Sonic Bloom represents a small step forward from the band’s debut, but since they started from such a solid place, little movement is needed. They haven’t yet said all they have to say where they are.

Sonic Bloom is a prime contender for Top Ten albums of the year, if the year is 1966. And from where I stand, that’s high praise indeed.

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Fall Capsule Reviews, Part Three

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I wasn’t kidding when I wrote of having a massive backlog; here are four more capsule reviews. Don’t infer that these releases are somehow lesser than those receiving more in-depth coverage; these are all worth further investigation. As per usual, 150 words per review is my limit here.


Breaking Laces – Come Get Some
This one is kinda hard to pin down. On the opening track, “Better Than Me,” this trio sounds a bit like 1990s alternarock. Good stuff, I mean, like Fountains of Wayne, Goo Goo Dolls and so forth. Billy Hartong‘s carefully enunciated lead vocals are backed up with power chords and tight harmonies. But then on “Be a Hammer,” they head in a wholly different direction; the tune’s rubbery riffage is more redolent of, say, Soundgarden. “When the Lightning Came” is almost a power ballad. Elsewhere you’ll hear echoes of Gin Blossoms (“Before you Drown”) and Jellyfish (“Extra time”). Have you noticed a theme yet? Yep: 90s. Not that that’s a bad thing. With the exception of the Cakelike “I Used to Be a Boy Scout,” the last half of Come Get Some is weighted toward ballads. Summary: if you like 90s FM rock, you’ll enjoy this.

Update October 10, a mere nine days after posting this review: The band announced today that they have broken up.


Dewa Budjana – Dawai in Paradise
Looking at the cover and sleeve notes of Dawai in Paradise, one might expect the album to be an excursion in a sort of George Harrison/Ravi Shankar kind of vein. The song titles would reinforce that notion: “Lalu Litas,” “Rerad Rerod” (Yeah, I dunno either). Listen to the CD and you find something a bit unexpected. Yes, it’s progressive rock, mostly (but not completely) of the instrumental variety, but there’s a strong sense of melody at work here. Dewa Budjana (electric, acoustic and synth guitars) is ably joined by a loooong list of players: many of them are drummers or bassists, but you’ll also find some left-field instrumentation too. Violoncello, bamboo flute, and even harmonica. Mellow and jazzy in places, it’s knotty and angular in others, but that sense of melody is the foundation upon which the songs are built. The Eatern-centric vocals reinforce the album’s worldbeat flavor.


Jackson Scott – Melbourne
As happenstance would have it, Jackson Scott lives here in my hometown of Asheville NC (pop. Around 70,000). But neither I nor anyone locally I’ve asked had heard of him, and he doesn’t play here much. His album Melbourne has elements of psych-folk and just plain psych; he’s clearly absorbed influences ranging from Cluster and Eno to Sufjan Stevens (what ever happened to him, by the way?). The cracked folk thing has been done to death, but Scott manages to bring a fresh sensibility to it. Melbourne has a guy-with-guitars-and-effects-and-a-recorder-at-home vibe, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. Some of the tracks (“Never Ever,” for example) feel like the soundtrack to a bad acid trip, with chirping tape experiments that recall early Frank Zappa by way of Ant-Bee (another Asheville gem). But then “Sandy” is shimmering 60s folk pop a la Jackie DeShannon. Confusing yet worthwhile.


Antoine Fafard – Occultus Tramitis
Skating along on the knife-edge that is the border between progressive rock and jazz, bassist/guitarist Antoine Fafard has crafted an alluring album in Occultus Tramitis. Enlisting the aid of some heavy hitters (but using them in a way that further his aims rather than allows him to be overwhelmed), Fafard delivers eleven tracks of varying mood and texture. Jerry Goodman – an esteemed violinist with his own style – channels Jean-Luc Ponty‘s 70s work on “Peace for 4,” the opening track (and one of the disc’s best). An all-star list of drummers (Dave Weckl, Chad Wackerman, Gavin Harrison and others) always does more than hold down the beat. On cuts like “The Chamber,” a trio lays down a thick, menacing groove. On “Good Reasons” Goodman’s violin sounds more like Joe Satriani‘s guitar. When Fafard takes an extended bass solo (“Sum of 6”) it’s tasty, and never indulgent.

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Dig the DIG Festival: August 15-16

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Asheville, North Carolina is host to more festivals than one might expect of a city its size. This cultural magnet nestled among the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Western part of the state has a population of about 70,000 (more if you count the outlying areas, but it’s still modestly-sized), but the city is home to more than its share of creative types. In addition to a vibrant mountain music/bluegrass/Americana scene, Asheville boasts active communities of jazz players, as well as progressive, metal, singer/songwriter, punk, and just about every other genre you might think of.

The big annual street fair Bele Chere may or may not continue into the future, but that free three-day festival has brought big national acts to Asheville. Moogfest has done the same (the influential and innovative Moog Music is headquartered downtown).

But for locally-based acts, the festival scene is a bit tougher. So to right that wrong, a group of high-profile music people in town have put together the DIG (Downtown Independent Groove) Festival.

Here’s a quick summary by the numbers: With a lineup that includes thirty-six bands at five venues (The Orange Peel, LaB, The One Stop, Asheville Music Hall, and The Emerald Lounge) across two nights (August 15-16) for only $15, DIG Fest can’t help but give good value for the money.

All five venues are a short walk form each other. “And that’s a goal of the whole thing,” says organizer Justin Ferraby. Scheduling Friday’s shows to begin shortly after the free Downtown After Five street festival (situated right among the DIG venues) means that festivalgoers can enjoy even more hours of nonstop music. “It creates a long-weekend” feel,” says Ferraby.

The DIG Festival is always scheduled for the third week in August, to coincide with the time when students return to classes at UNCA, Mars Hill, Warren Wilson and other colleges in the region. And DIG has grown since its debut four years ago. At that point, it was one of two prominent locally-oriented festivals (the other being Pop Asheville).

“We make it a Thursdays-Friday festival,” explains Ferraby, “because Asheville is such a heavily hospitality-driven city. There are so many people who work in restaurants and bars” on weekend nights. The DIG schedule gives them a chance to attend as well.

In keeping with the local theme, most of the sponsorship comes from local companies (primarily breweries, something for which Asheville is known and admired). Ferraby says that local breweries “Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium “were all excited to get involved,” as was Lagunitas. And donations will be accepted at all DIG venues to support the work of the Asheville-based Bob Moog Foundation. “The whole festival is about community,” Ferraby says.

Attendees can look forward to some one-off combinations of players form various bands coming together onstage; Ferraby notes that last DIG festival yielded three new bands created during the two-night event.

Along with Justin Ferraby, the team of organizers includes Oso Rey, Jeff Santiago, and Erika Jane. Rey and Jane were involved in the original DIG Festival in 2009. Ferraby jokes that “It’s like the World Cup or the Olympics: every four years something great comes along!” But going forward, DIG is planned to be an annual event. “The lineup and low cost allows people to take a chance on a band they might not otherwise see,” offers Ferraby. “We’ve already got a good music scene, but anything we can do to help it, we want to do.”

Details about venues, ticketing (tickets available at the Orange Peel box office) and the lineup can be found at https://www.facebook.com/DIGFestival.

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Album Review: Stuck In Love, The Writers Playlist

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

The 2012 theatrical release Stuck in Love somehow completely escaped my notice. In fact I still haven’t seen it, and know virtually nothing about it other than what I’ve read on IMDB. (Update: Turns out it was initially release in 2012 but got limited theatrical release in the USA in July 2013.) It stars Greg Kinnear (Mystery Men) and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind).

Varese Sarabande is a boutique-type record label that deals mostly in soundtrack releases; in my somewhat vast album collection I have but one of their releases, a now long-out-of-print best-of Hudson Brothers collection. But now the label has released a new vinyl album called Stuck in Love: The Writers Playlist. One supposes that this indicates that the record isn’t exactly a soundtrack, but rather a collection of songs (some from the score, some sympathetic to the story line or vibe) selected by the writer/director Josh Boone.

Boone’s liner notes explain his motivations for selecting the songs; he observes that “[m]usic is one of the most powerful tools a filmmaker can use to evoke emotion.”

He’s right, of course. Selections include a selection of mellow/acoustic-leaning indie artists of a pretty high caliber: Conor Oberst (“You Are Your Mother’s Child”), Bright Eyes (“The Calendar Hung Itself…”) and a 1997 Elliott Smith track (“Between the Bars”). Things do rock up a bit with Like Pioneers‘ “Polkadot,” but in general a gentle feel is the order of the day. The songs evoke a contemplative, emotion-laden atmosphere, one that conjures images of a younger (say, mid 20s) mindset and perspective. Perhaps the strongest track on the entire set is “Will You Be By Me” by Wallpaper Airplanes.

The Mike Moggis/Nathaniel Walcott (the latter of Bright Eyes) songs and score pieces fill out a large chunk of the record; those shortish pieces range from Eno-esque “Nosebleed” to the impressionistic “Rusty Tucks Kate In,” which sounds like The Cure at their most wordlessly tuneful. Not to sell these pieces short; they’re finely textured and quite lovely.

The album sails by quickly, which is impressive seeing that it’s a good 40 minutes or so in length. Oberst’s song was written and recorded specifically for the film, and the other songs feel as though they were, too. The film is billed as a comedy-drama, but if the tone of the music is any indication – and all signs suggest that it is very much the case – then Stuck in Love will almost certainly lean more in the dramatic direction. If it’s as consistently good as the music on its “writers playlist,” the film might be well worth seeing.

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Capsule Reviews: March 2013, Part 2

Friday, March 15th, 2013

Here’s yet another in my occasional series of capsule reviews; once again I had a huge stack of CDs deserving of review, but time doesn’t allow for full-length reviews of everything, and these were in danger of gathering dust. They deserve better. As per usual, my self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.

Red Jacket Mine — Someone Else’s Cake
I don’t like to quote from the one-sheets that often accompany review CDs, so I won’t. But I’ll agree heartily with the angle taken on the one-sheet for Red Jacket Mine‘s album: this is an act that’s hard to pin down stylistically. Some retro elements (combo organ textures) are folded into the modern-feeling songs, but overall there’s a classicist approach that reminds (albeit not overtly) of the best AM radio rock of the 70s. Someone Elses’s Cake sounds like a record full of hits’ at least it will to those who came up in the 70s. It’s the kind of thing that can (and should) appeal equally to those with and without any sense of musical history. Because in the end, good songs and good arrangement are timeless qualities. Often those qualities are in short supply, but not here. Consistently entertaining, this will stick with you long after it’s done.

Stephen Lawrenson — Obscuriosity
Here I go on another mini-rant about album packaging: the red-herring cover art says “Americana” but the music says…well, it screams “rawk!” Claustrophobic production technique doesn’t always work, but it suits Stephen Lawrenson just fine, and gives his power-chording ravers an up-close and personal feel. Those creamy harmonies serve a nice counterpoint to the crunchy, distorted guitars: think of Smithereens‘ balanced and effective approach. The short, snappy songs pack a wallop; while spinning Obscuriosity, listeners may think of Owsley, Redd Kross, Greenberry Woods and other from the class of Early 90s alt-powerpop. Lawrenson is a one-man-band here, but the results sound organic enough that you’ll be happily fooled into thinking the album is the work of a four-on-the-floorsome. I have a strong feeling that this CD is going to get quite a few spins, especially in my car stereo: it’s very much that sort of album. Strongly recommended.

Dave Kilminster — Scarlet – The Director’s Cut
As Eric Clapton and a few other aces have shown, a guitarist can bend one’s guitar style to the needs of another artist – say, Roger Waters – while maintaining one’s own musical personality. Dave Kilminster has done this. On his solo album, he purveys a vaguely funky (but stridently rocking) direction. Other than bass, drums and string sections, it’s all him. His vocal range allows him to go from the lead parts to some soaring bits all within one song. The funkiness is of a Red Hot Chili Peppers sort, but with a stronger sense of melody. His axework is generally out front – the songs are often built around powerful riffage, such as on “Static” – but not in a showoffy way. When he heads for softer territory (see “Just Crazy”), he shows a pleasing subtler side, but it’s on rockers where he’s at his best.

Golden Bloom — No Day Like Today
I reviewed Golden Bloom‘s last EP in 2011, and while I rarely allow indie acts a second drink from the well – there’s simply so much else to cover – No Day Like Today is engaging enough to merit an exception. Last time ’round we got six songs; this time, five. But they’re chiming, appealing tunes that balance wistfulness, melancholy and an overall sunny disposition. There’s a welcome, introspective maturity on “Deliver it for Me” that shows this group has plenty of range within their chosen approach. “Shadow of a Man” combines campfire vibe with a punky attitude, and the result is neither Americana nor pop-punk; it’s simply good. Usually on an EP an artist trims away any filler, and that’s what Shawn Fogel and his bandmates have done here – but if you put this together with the last EP, the result is a pretty strong album.

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