Thursday, February 25, 2010

Midlake playing Plush on Monday

Denton, TX folk-rockers Midlake are hitting Tucson on Monday for a highly anticipated show at Plush. I have an interview with the band in today's Tucson Weekly:

From Ancient Days

Perhaps it's easier to imagine the members of Midlake as cloaked druids performing secretive rituals than as a group of former jazz students from Texas.

It's certainly by design that the band's new record weaves its spell from ancient days, conjuring that same sense of elemental, shrouded powers at play that drives fantasy art. Midlake worked to craft The Courage of Others into an escape, the type of music that suggests it might literally cast some magic on the listener.

"If you think about humanity and where we are in 2010, and where we were in the last couple thousand years, fundamentally, we're the same beings, but there are things that have been lost," says bassist Paul Alexander. "That's one thing about the music—(we're) trying to make people think further back than their lifetime or the last 50 years ... like classical music will get you to do."

With mostly acoustic guitars and plenty of flute, The Courage of Others draws more on the British folk music of Nick Drake and Fairport Convention than on the 1970s Californian folk-rock sound of the band's breakthrough record, 2006's The Trials of Van Occupanther.

Midlake—Alexander, singer-guitarist Tim Smith, guitarists Eric Pulido and Eric Nichelson and drummer McKenzie Smith—toured solidly in support of Van Occupanther, an album well-received for its darkly organic sound, balanced by sunny harmonies. The single "Roscoe," which married off-kilter lyrics (again, rooted in a sense of timelessness) with a retro Fleetwood Mac vibe, was named the 90th-best song of the decade by Rolling Stone.

The band approached the new record with a willingness to take risks and a fervent desire to progress musically.

"One of the main things we were trying to achieve was just to make a better album. We were proud of Van Occupanther; we knew when we made it that we made the best album we could, but we weren't entirely satisfied," Alexander says. "Most of it initially was just trying to go beyond that.

"We had been touring Van Occupanther for about a year and a half, so we still had that in our heads. It wasn't like we just flipped a switch and had all the ideas for the next album. We had to play a bunch of different things and throw away a lot of them before figuring out which way we wanted to go. We had to experiment. It just takes time."

Midlake records and produces in the band's own studio in Denton, Texas, an invaluable factor in allowing for experimentation and growth. The title track, in fact, was the first song Midlake completed—and then they re-recorded the entire song from scratch at the end of the process.

"If you want to deliberate a little bit over your arrangements, and have the ability to listen back and make new decisions on the same song, that's a luxury. You'd spend a fortune in a regular studio to do that," Alexander says. "Recording is an aid in being creative. We own our own studio, so we can keep trying."

Smith has an imaginative reach lyrically, dealing in images of deep and ancient forests with an almost worshipful reverence for nature.

The first song, "Acts of Man," is an apt tone-setter for The Courage of Others: "When all newness of gold travels far from where it had once been / born like the Earth over years / And when the acts of man cause the ground to break open / Oh, let me inside, let me inside, not to wait."

"Core of Nature" runs in a similar vein, finding a reverent beauty in sadness, approaching the end of life almost like one would a sunset: "I will let the sound of these woods that I've known sink into blood and to bone / I'll remain no more than is required of me, until the spirit is gone."

"We have a vision of what we're trying to achieve," Alexander says. "This pre-Baroque Western world is what we were imagining, trying to make some music that lulls you into that mindset."

The record's cover is another element in achieving the band's goal. Taking inspiration from the 1966 Andrei Tarkovsky film about Andrei Rublev, a 15th-century Russian monk and painter, band members pose in robes amid lush vines. The image is mirrored about the middle, creating a still and eerie symmetry.

"Tarkovsky made a film that really brought the feeling, at least for me when I watch it, of being transported to another time," Alexander says. "I don't know that we're going after trying to mimic it, but we liked what he did in making the viewer feel this other time period."

Midlake began about a decade ago, formed by Smith, a trained saxophonist, and friends in the University of North Texas music program. The band members' jazz roots faded quickly, though, as Alexander explains: "We realized that there was nothing we could do for jazz. Jazz had its peak by people who were far greater than we would ever be. It would be dumb to keep trying it."

Coming to rock and folk music at a relatively late age, and with well-formed musical chops, the band began by chasing an unorthodox muse. The first Midlake recording, the 2001 EP Milkmaid Grand Army, and 2004's debut LP, Bamnan and Slivercork, were keyboard-heavy, mildly electronic albums that earned the band comparisons (though not always favorable) to Radiohead, the Flaming Lips and Grandaddy.

The band's evolution has continued, driven by a quest to make music that's distinctly Midlake.

"In 2010, there's been a whole lot of stuff that's been recorded now, and there are a lot of terrific bands. So when you pick up your instrument and play something, there's a chance it's going to sound derivative or closely associated with something else," Alexander says. "It's really hard in this saturated period, in this culture and in art to really be distinctive.

"We want to develop as musicians (and) do some different things with our playing that we hadn't before. And we're always trying to make the best album we can. If at the end of the day, we record something, and we like the song—we like how it sounds, and it's something we would listen to as musicians—that's the way it's going to be."

Midlake - Acts of Man
Midlake - Live KEXP (2007 - 19 minutes, 26 MB)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Garboski CD release Friday @ Plush

I've been waiting for this for weeks now - Garboski is set to release the band's first full-length album, with a hell of a good line-up (with the Gentlemen of Monster Island and Dead Western Plains) Friday night at Plush. Check it all out in the new Tucson Weekly:

The veteran musicians of Garboski get set to release their first full album

Homesick after a move to the Northwest didn't work out, Beau Bowen and Garth Bryson decided to move back to Tucson and start a new band—and they started brainstorming about a new drummer before they even left.

Lo and behold, they got their man in Josh Skibar, whose band Is to Feel had just fallen apart.

"We listened to Is to Feel on MySpace, thinking it was such a long shot that he'd even be in the band," Bryson says.

Catching up with old friends after his return in late 2007, Bryson ran into Skibar, and the talk immediately turned to music.

"Lucky enough, Garth came over to my house, and I asked what he was doing band-wise, and he and Beau were just noodling around together, and they happened to be looking for a drummer," Skibar says. "I was totally up for not playing metal. My big challenge at first was to play in 3/4, because I hadn't had much experience in that, and Beau mostly writes in 3/4. But the first song came together so quickly. It just clicked."

All veterans of numerous local bands (Bowen: Maintenance, Lloyd Dobler; Bryson: Ladies and Gentlemen, Maintenance; Skibar: Is to Feel, Fun With Dirt), they fit together naturally, creating bombastic rock music, full of starts and stops and tempo changes, soaring melodies and rapturous, frenzied instrumental passages. With heavy drumming, melodic basslines and unorthodox chord changes, Garboski sometimes recalls the Seattle explosion of the 1990s, but leans more post-rock than punk.

"One of the natural things we do, more often than not, is give the songs these huge instrumental, super-busy, crazy finales," Skibar says.

That's part of the band's essence, using each instrument to its fullest, working in balance and letting each player stand out.

"Beau and I wanted to be a three-piece. I knew I wanted to be heard bass-wise, to play bass more like a guitar," Bryson says. "I was afraid it was going to be empty at first, and we worried about having to fill out the sound. But it works. This is probably the easiest band I've been in—friend-wise and compatibility-wise."

Garboski's songs start with Bowen, a self-taught guitarist, described by Skibar and Bryson as unorthodox and original.

"A lot of people who take guitar lessons seem like they're stuck playing what they're taught," Bowen says. "I always try to write something I haven't already (written)."

Bowen and Bryson work with the rough idea, solidifying the guitar and bass parts before bringing it to Skibar. "It's Beau's at first, but it's a small step ladder," Bryson says.

Says Skibar: "They give me free rein to do what I want, so I have to write my equal part in a piece of music. It challenges the shit out of me, because I can't get away with playing just a simple drum beat. It's balanced. It's like three primary colors. Everyone has his color and is equally heard. When Beau shows me a riff, I don't have a beat in my head. I have to think completely differently. I had to learn to be my own color in this band."

Bowen and Bryson had played together for years in the prog- and math-rock-leaning Maintenance, which they tried transplanting to Portland in 2006, while Skibar had mainly drummed in metal bands. When they booked the band's first show in spring 2008, Garboski had only three songs, so they rushed to finish another handful.

But there was still the matter of a name for the band.

"We were tossing around band names for the first couple of months, and we couldn't come up with anything," Skibar says.

The winning suggestion came from Ian Philabaum, who was practicing with Chango Malo next door and jokingly combined the names—Garth-Beau-Skibar: Garboski. (Or gär'b'sk, the phonetic guide Bryson devised for the band's MySpace page after encountering frequent mispronunciation.)

"It wasn't our last resort. It's just that through all the names, it's the one that kept growing on us. It's our family name, our married name," Skibar says.

Garboski released a self-titled EP in January 2009 and spent the late part of the year recording, with friend Tom Beach again as producer. The new album, Take a Pull, is essentially a double-EP, with six new originals, a cover of Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You in the End," and new mixes of four songs from Garboski.

Gathered outside their practice space for an interview, the band members ran down the songs, describing them with a characteristic irreverence, reaching for the core of what the songs feel like instead of what they're about:

• "Enjoy Dick" is a drunken fistfight.

• "Painted Plastic" is a pity party, but beautiful.

• "Black Coffee" is an anxiety attack.

• "No Hand Hold" is a birthday party.

• "Missed a Lot" is a romantic comedy.

• "Old News" is a morning seduction.

• "Lost Friends, Gained Pets" is homesickness.

• "Roommates and Sitcoms" is going to the dog park.

• "Punch Jesus" is trying not to laugh in church.

• "Post Sober Night" is a brutal hangover.

"I just like that we basically have a full album now. You can only know so much about a band when there's only five songs," Bowen says.

Garboski has been sharing Skibar with local metal kings The Bled for the past year, with assurances that the new project didn't mean he was walking away.

"It does suck that it's become a part-time thing for me. But I just couldn't pass up playing for The Bled," Skibar says.

All past or nearing 30, the band members say that Garboski is the band that's given the most contentment of any project over the years.

"I'll do whatever for fun, but I'm the most comfortable in this band. It just works too well," Bryson says. "The music is there; the songwriting is there; the friendship is there. We just have so much fun."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I'm really kicking myself now for having missed out on the Fanfarlo show at Club Congress back in November. The band was excellent the other night on Letterman and is out on tour again, but skipping passed Tucson this time. I did, however, get to interview singer-songwriter Simon Balthazar for a feature story that appears in this week's East Bay Express:

Finding pop in the darkness

Fanfarlo's Simon Balthazar discusses his childhood, penchant for trumpets, and intellectual inspiration.

Growing up in Sweden, Simon Balthazar had a house full of instruments, but no real musicians in his family to guide him in any one direction.

That childhood introduction to music — inventive, unrestrained, and enchanting — carried through to Fanfarlo, the band Balthazar formed when he moved from Gothenburg to London in 2006.

Relying on mostly acoustic instruments, Fanfarlo nevertheless plays and records with a distinct sense of grandeur, building a rich and orchestral sound that relies on trumpet, mandolin, cello, violin, ukulele, clarinet, and melodica far more than the standard rock backbone of guitar, bass, and drums.

"I grew up in a house with not many records but a lot of instruments," said Balthazar during a tour stop in Copenhagen. "No one in my family is a musician, but the instruments were just kind of around. It was a mix of things people had taken lessons on and abandoned. I would learn to play a few chords here and there, a few notes here and there — mandolin, ukulele, piano, glockenspiel. That kind of stuff was always around, so it feels natural for me to write for those instruments."

Drawing attention in both Europe and the United States, Fanfarlo's 2009 album, Reservoir, is a forceful debut, a lush and ornate record that's earned the band accolades (NPR's "All Songs Considered" named it best new band of 2009) and comparisons to Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Belle and Sebastian.

Fanfarlo began as simply a recording project for Balthazar, who says he moved to London with no specific intentions of forming a band. But the combination of his homemade demos and new friends interested in playing music together gradually led to the full band.

"When I moved I got to know a lot of people who were doing music, and these songs quite quickly became something that we could start playing live even though it was quite different from what we're doing now," he said. "People who were coming to those early shows are now in the band. We put out a few seven-inches even before there was really a band. The first few were just from bedroom recordings."

According to Balthazar, he had the big, orchestral sound in mind from the beginning and knew that the band had to have a trumpet player above all else. "When I first started listening to music I fell in love with the trumpet, bands like Belle and Sebastian and Neutral Milk Hotel that have taken that trumpet sound, kind of like Sixties pop or even Spanish music," he said. "So I was looking specifically for a trumpet player."

Now a five-piece — Balthazar (vocals, guitar, clarinet), Cathy Lucas (vocals, mandolin, violin, keyboards), Leon Beckenham (keyboards, trumpet), Justin Finch (bass, vocals), and Amos Memon (drums) — the band also included guitarist Mark West until he left in 2008.

Naming his band after a dancer/actress character in Charles Baudelaire's novella, La Fanfarlo, Balthazar is both well-read and a skillful songwriter in his own right. Though he admits that a tongue-in-cheek remark to Spin Magazine — "We're intellectuals" — was taken too seriously, Balthazar says the band members are all drawn to philosophy, literature, and film — any sort of artistic expression that is challenging and compelling.

Though enigmatic, Fanfarlo's lyrics reflect that well of knowledge. Balthazar leans toward storytelling, often using historical characters as jumping-off points, rather than writing lyrics that could be confused for his own diary.

Reading about Harry Houdini, Balthazar came across the character of Father Marcello Pellegrino Ernetti, a Benedictine priest and exorcist who reportedly claimed to have invented a time viewer. On "The Walls Are Coming Down," Balthazar uses that sense of escapism to look at reality itself falling apart as historical eras fade into one another: The preachers and books of your empire will fight here alone/Some day they will be forgotten and die one by one. The song's video even features an escape artist, suspended upside down above the band as they play on stage, shadows dancing on the back wall. Writhing and contorting, the escape artist has freed himself from a straitjacket by the time the song ends.

Balthazar drew inspiration from Howard Hughes for "I'm A Pilot," sketching out those famous eccentricities as a tragic fall from grace: Like a stone, you'll come back when thrown up. But alongside that unraveling madness is a noble persistence, a belief in his inviolable essence as a pilot: If I stay in this room/They'll remember me for my youth.

"Songwriting for us is something that starts as a very introspective and brooding affair," said Balthazar. "It's a quite solitary thing. I'll write songs on my own first, often sitting up at night. Then we put them together and have fun with that material. I work quite a lot around melodies more than anything else. That's why it starts out as introspective and obscure, dark lyrics and comes out as a pop song."

When it came time to record Reservoir, Fanfarlo whittled down a list of producers to Peter Katis (The National, Interpol), their dream choice, and took off for Connecticut for six weeks of recording in October 2008. "It just seemed right," said Balthazar. "We'd never met him, but most importantly we liked the sound of the records he made. It was important to get away from London and record in a small town in America with nothing else to do."

Reservoir is 11 songs that span 43 minutes, and with buzz built from CMJ and SXSW appearances, Fanfarlo self-released the album, originally selling downloads for $1. The official, widespread release was in October 2009 as the first record from Canvasback Music's joint venture with Atlantic Records. Heavy touring in both Europe and the United States has filled the band's time during the past year.

"It's important to realize the recording process and playing live are two very different things," he said. "We don't necessarily try to do everything the same way. Some songs are pretty close, other songs were recorded in a certain way because of the studio we recorded in, with lots of amazing equipment. We did work quite a lot with 10, 20, 30 overdubs of the same thing, a lot of layering of things. We have a fairly complicated live setup as well. We do switch instruments a lot, and everybody sings. To play live is to bring the music to people and to meet them before and after the show, and the room we play in dictates the sound and the mood and what we chose to play."

Balthazar says he finds touring interesting, between the rhythm of the travel and the differences between the United States and European venues. Plus, there's the forced perspective that comes from living so intensely in the present moment.

"You really kind of get to know yourself and the people you're with and become a family," he said. "Mentally, it's a really interesting place to be. You never really know what time of the day it is or what day of the week it is. I think you really learn to take things as they come and learn to adapt. In an odd way, you learn to focus and enjoy the here and now."

Fanfarlo - The Walls Are Coming Down
Also, visit the band's Web site for an exclusive single off the new Live EP

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dylan at the White House

The times, they did a-change:

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review - The Album Leaf

I have a review of A Chorus of Storytellers, the new record from The Album Leaf, in the new Tucson Weekly:

With carefully controlled atmospherics and minimal vocals, The Album Leaf deals in calm, impressionistic beauty.

Led by San Diego guitarist Jimmy LaValle, The Album Leaf resides in its own little Venn diagram segment that combines former tourmate and obvious influence Sigur Rós, electronica's softer side and the pop-ambient hybrid of labelmate The Postal Service.

A Chorus of Storytellers marks the first time The Album Leaf has recorded as a full band. "Stand Still" makes the most of the prominent energy of live drums, blending in hypnotic strings to achieve an enjoyable balance of urgency and restraint. But even though LaValle's talents lean toward moodiness and a comforting lull, tension and contrast is too often absent here, leaving the slower and more stately songs to pass with barely a flicker.

"Until the Last" is another standout, with strings washing over a trippy beat and a repeated, exultant keyboard riff. "Blank Pages" is sketched with a discreet uneasiness, sounding like it's made for heavy late-night introspection. This is an easy album to slip into, one that shades its prettiness with a bit of mystery and melancholy.

Still, there's a restraint that runs contrary to the possibilities of recording with a full band. A Chorus of Storytellers sounds just as purposefully and slowly layered as LaValle's solo studio efforts.

The title and the new approach suggest a presentation of The Album Leaf as something of an orchestra, but if it is, it's an orchestra held back by clipped wings.

The Album Leaf - Falling From The Sun

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Today's song

Elvis Perkins in Dearland - Sweet Roseanne (from No Depression)

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Austin & Back & Reviews

So I had a whirlwind of excellence times over the past week in Austin. Congratulations to the bride & groom - I hope I did well enough marrying you folks.

Too bad it was too cold to walk around much, but I did hit some really cool places along South Congress - and the Waterloo Records stop yielded some great 7 inches. I can guarantee that my first visit won't be my last. It's just too bad there weren't any shows that fit into the schedule while I was there.

Now that I'm back, I have some reviews for everybody to check out.

First up is the Dave Rawlings Machine, in this week's East Bay Express:

Hardly a background player during his excellent career as a producer, cowriter, lead guitarist and harmony singer, Dave Rawlings has nevertheless been content to hand over the reins. On the first album recorded under his name, Rawlings reveals a more well-rounded talent than he shows as a sideman. His clear tenor and distinctive acoustic guitar work become the cornerstone, rather than merely providing accents. Across nine songs, Rawlings is a master at subtle stylistic shifts in his bluegrass-tinged folk and boisterous old-timey music.

His band — The Machine — is a collection of friends and past collaborators: Gillian Welch, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Benmont Tench (The Heartbreakers). It's hardly a surprise that they mesh so well. As a songwriter, Rawlings shows both cleverness and tenderness, but he's also drawn to playfulness in his cover of Jesse Fuller's "Monkey and The Engineer." With its gentle strings and glorious harmony, opener "Ruby" is a laid-back country-rocker that recalls the early 1970s. "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)," cowritten with Ryan Adams, is a hootenanny stomp with a fiddle and mandolin leading the way. The record's centerpiece is "Method Acting/Cortez The Killer," which has Rawlings stitching together a meditative, minor-key reading of Bright Eyes and a breathtaking cover of Neil Young.

It's perhaps deceptive to call A Friend of A Friend a debut, but he is indeed a first-time frontman, and he approaches the role with clear vision, excellent musicianship and a fantastic batch of songs. (Acony)

Dave Rawlings Machine - Bells of Harlem
And check out Dave Rawlings at Daytrotter.

And next up we have Charlotte Gainsbourg, from the Tucson Weekly:

Music about life's pains and sorrows is nothing new, but rarely is it presented so directly.

Largely shunning metaphor and other songwriting veils, Charlotte Gainsbourg delivers an album that unravels the fear, disorientation and panic she felt in suffering and recovering from a brain hemorrhage in 2007. From the album's title—the French term for an MRI machine—to its lyrics and general soundscape, that health scare permeates the entire recording.

On hand to guide the French actress and singer is Beck, who co-wrote the lyrics, wrote the music and produced the recording. It's impossible to know whether Beck and Gainsbourg are close musical kindred spirits, or whether Beck simply placed his creative energy at the core of the project, but in all but the vocals—which exchange his slacker drawl for Gainsbourg's breathy and subdued singing—this is a Beck album.

The haunting electric hum of the MRI machine itself is woven into the music on the title song, while the lyrics lean toward medical terms: "Leave my head demagnetized / Tell me where the trouble lies."

While there is an openness and piercing honesty to baring her experiences so directly, Gainsbourg's sincerity sometimes ends up yielding some clunkier lines, like, "Drill my brain all full of holes / and patch it up before it leaks," from "Master's Hands."

But when the album peaks—like on the album's first single, "Heaven Can Wait," and "Time of the Assassins"—it's certainly a trip, down another twisting side path of Beck Lane.

Make sure to check out the excellently weird video for "Heaven Can Wait":

And stream a KEXP performance here.