Friday, September 30, 2011

Cymbals Eat Guitars at Congress on Tuesday

Tucson's video? - with an excellent 2011 release on the heels of last year's Fort Lowell Records 7inch - open an excellent show on Tuesday night at Club Congress. Headlining are New York's Cymbals Eat Guitars. Below is my Tucson Weekly interview with the band:

Cymbals Eat Guitars were eager to change things up for their much-anticipated sophomore release

Opening a second album with a dense, bombastic, 8 1/2-minute song is certainly bold, but Cymbals Eat Guitars treat such a move as a calling card.

Lenses Alien is a big, loud alternative-rock album that showcases the multitude of strengths of a band on the verge of breaking big. Both catchy and complex, with big drums and churning guitars, the album recalls some of the stalwart alternative bands of the 1990s, but never comes off as a mere homage.

"The only conscious goal that we started out with for how it sounds was to have it sound closer to how the four of us sound together when we play live," says bassist Matt Whipple.

That adherence to live performance is no surprise, considering the two years of touring the band put in between the debut record and its follow-up. But it also points to how Cymbals Eat Guitars has been able to carve out a unique niche in the indie-rock world, distinct from both their peers and their influences.

"It's a second record for Cymbals Eat Guitars as a project, but it's the first record the four of us have made together where everybody had an equal say," Whipple says.

Guitarist Joseph D'Agostino and drummer Matthew Miller—classmates at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J.—formed the band in 2007, taking the name from a description Lou Reed used for the Velvet Underground. Sound-wise, the band's inspiration came from the generation after Reed—primarily Sonic Youth, but also Pavement and Modest Mouse, all trendsetters in different ways. Keyboardist Brian Hamilton and Whipple came on board later, replacement members recruited just in time for a stretch of touring with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and the lineup was set.

The band released Why There Are Mountains themselves in 2009, earning buzz-band praise from Pitchfork and the like. They toured the U.S. with Los Campesinos! and the Thermals, scored European dates with the Flaming Lips and the Hold Steady, and played festivals like Lollapalooza and Glastonbury.

For the follow-up record, Cymbals Eat Guitars signed to Barsuk Records and teamed with producer John Agnello, whose work with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Screaming Trees made him a dream fit for the band.

"Working with John was wonderful. Obviously, his discography looms pretty large for us in terms of influence," Whipple says. "Creatively, it was also a great partnership. He gave us exactly the kind of leeway to pursue the ideas we already had, and he also gave us exactly the right kind of pushback that we needed."

Despite the incredible reception Why There Are Mountains received, the band knew from the start that they wanted to go in a different direction.

"The last record was heavily overdubbed. There are a lot of extra instruments that obviously we don't re-create live. That aspect wasn't something we were interested in," Whipple says.

On Lenses Alien, gone are the horns and strings, and in their place is the process that took years of touring to come into place: four musicians sharing ideas, creating sounds together and stitching together different parts instinctively. The whole is a sound that depends on each member's equal contribution.

"When a band goes through lineup changes, or even just one new member joins, it takes a little while, a few tours or however many shows, to just get comfortable playing together and to develop that intuition of knowing what the other guy is going to do, and doing something complementary to it," Whipple says. "It took about a year to get to where we could collaborate on writing parts and writing songs and have it be a little more effortless."

Lenses Alien is psychedelic, crushing and noisy at times, somber and hazy at others. There's a dark undercurrent to the lyrics, drawn out and matched sonically with a seductive, magnetic pull.

"There's a little bit darker of a vibe with this record than the last one," Whipple says. "That has a lot to do with Joe's lyrics and some of the sounds we created to match the vibe of those poems that eventually became songs."

Lenses Alien, released on Aug. 30, has met with positive reviews, typically centering on "Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)," that ambitious album opener that's an ever-shifting thrill ride of a song. D'Agostino's howling vocals and the shrieking guitars drive the midsection with apocalyptic noise, but Hamilton's piano rings out through the haze. It's a song that sets the stage for the rest of the album.

"Keep Me Waiting" begins with a guitar squeal, but chugs along energetically like a classic power-pop single, with a shouty chorus that frames the guitars in a clear melody. "Plainclothes" is road-trip music thrust into a darker realm. "Wavelengths," a laid-back song that leans toward romantic, brings acoustic guitars to the front. "Secret Family" finds the band turning playful, more garage-rock than alternative.

Published Sept. 29, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Cymbals Eat Guitars - Definite Darkness video? - I'm Afraid of Everything

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Growing up, Rad was my favorite movie. It still is. So when I heard about the 25th anniversary celebration was scheduled for this August in Calgary, I had to go. I did, and subsequently wrote thousands of words about the extraordinary weekend, the film's strange and inspiring afterlife and the subculture it came to represent:

I pedaled leisurely rather than furiously, making no quick turns, hopping over no jutting tree roots, never trying to weave in and out of the other riders. But there I was, on the Helltrack qualifying course, riding BMX with the likes of Eddie Fiola, Martin Aparijo, Kevin Hull and Everett and Beatle Rosecrans. Twenty-five years after the movie that changed BMX forever, I was celebrating with some of the movie’s star stunt riders, who despite a lifetime of crashes, bruises and breaks are still nimble magicians on bicycles, none of them seeming to be anywhere near as old as their late 40s.

Read the entire piece at Souciant Magazine.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review: St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

Annie Clark's music is a beautiful hybrid of folk, electronica and art rock—a tough combination to get right. But the multi-instrumentalist with the haunting voice has made waves with her pristine execution on Marry Me and Actor, two acclaimed albums that actually lose some luster in comparison to the new Strange Mercy.

Clark drops the veil slightly to bring more passion and intensity to her third album, making it the sort of achievement that cements an artist in the upper echelon of her craft.

Clark could easily toss off gorgeous, unadorned folk songs—and there is perhaps something to miss in the fact that she doesn't—but she instead strives for a more-experimental, artistic use of electronics and offbeat instrumentation. What that requires is directness and a sense of balance between vocals and the myriad other sounds; this is where Strange Mercy succeeds more so than Clark's first two St. Vincent albums.

Such inclusiveness could—and occasionally did, on 2009's Actor—sound cluttered, as if a group of unnecessary sounds conspired to weigh down an already-completed song. But here, the wide array of sounds has everything in its right place, from the thick, swelling electronics of opener "Chloe in the Afternoon" to the moaning-bass groove of "Champagne Year."

Strange Mercy has orchestral sweep, intimate vocals and a whole universe of sounds that demand attentive listening. But in topping herself, Clark relies on more than just musical complexity, delivering a record all the more compelling for its emotional heft and honesty.

Published Sept. 29, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Review: Fruit Bats - Tripper

Over the course of a decade, the Fruit Bats have quietly been dancing in and out of trends carried by fellow Sub Pop bands that have garnered much more attention. Folky, sunny, poppy and now slightly more psychedelic, the lineup-shifting band led by Eric D. Johnson has never jumped into the spotlight, but has asserted itself with quality albums.

Working with producer Thom Monahan on the heels of soundtrack-recording for Our Idiot Brother, Johnson has crafted Tripper into an album that's mellower and more experimental than its predecessor, the rollicking and catchy The Ruminant Band.

Though as melodic as ever, this Fruit Bats outing gives a significant amount of its sonic space to musical flourishes and a deeper, layered background, at times with abstractions and atmospherics that would fit in a film score.

Still, the largest change with Tripper is in Johnson's songwriting. He's now delving into the lives of colorful characters, often at crossroads with themselves, and telling stories of personal escapes with a great lyrical eye for detail.

Johnson first crossed into that territory with "Singing Joy to the World" from the last Fruit Bats album and now seems comfortable dealing almost exclusively with narratives, starting with those quiet internal moments that lead to big decisions and then following his characters down new paths.

Tripper is an album about journeys, about people who have left behind one thing but have not yet gotten anywhere new. Standouts like "Tony the Tripper," "Wild Honey" and "You're Too Weird" may sound easygoing, but hold within complex adventures.

Published Sept. 8, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Fruit Bats - Tangie and Ray

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Review: Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes

Fountains of Wayne songwriters Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger are masters at peppering their songs with all sorts of slice-of-life details, and on Sky Full of Holes, the duo is sharper than ever at using those mundane observations to draw out a gallery full of familiar emotions.

Fountains of Wayne's fifth album opens with the line: "She's been afraid of the Cuisinart since 1977," just one of those off-center details that Collingwood and Schlesinger employ to heighten the impact of the more-subtle revelations about the parade of dissatisfied characters that make up Sky Full of Holes' 13 songs.

The band's surging power pop and mid-tempo acoustic rock again exaggerate every hook, but it's the honesty and realism in the lyrics that stand out here, often replacing the more wry observations and winking humor of songs like the hit "Stacy's Mom."

The album is about lives that somehow got off track—people overtaken by self-destructive impulses, hubris and selfishness, and often left with a pressing uneasiness with how things unfolded. In "The Summer Place," a woman's memories of her teenage outbursts of theft and drugs seem to win out over her boring adult existence.

Fountains of Wayne's underlying message here may be that life is a struggle, but it's the clever framework that the band uses to deliver the message that's the album's real takeaway. When people are yearning for things to be better, a quirky rhyme and a catchy chorus can go a long way.

Published Sept. 1, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Introducing... Dead Western Plains

Dead Western Plains refuse to get 'stuck'

The colorful, shifting soundscapes of Dead Western Plains' songs are the fortunate result of what Johnnie Munger calls "too many cooks in the kitchen."

The five members of Dead Western Plains piece together sounds like collage artists, with each musician adding his own distinct style and personality, until a song reaches its rich and layered conclusion. The band, voted the TAMMIES Up-and-Coming Artists of the Year, will spend a month or two on a song, writing and recording as a single process, exploring different sounds and paths each step of the way.

The band formed two years ago after Munger and Wesley Sebastian Tucker—who had both been working on musical projects rooted in looping and electronics—decided to try writing songs together. Munger says the project wouldn't have amounted to much if they hadn't recruited friends Michael Sanger, who was playing drums with Munger in Juarez at the time, and Darren Simoes (The Bled) on guitar. Nathan Ziebell (The Swim) joined on bass about a year later.

"It's an honest sound. It's a Crock-Pot of all of our likes. I can actually hear the personalities of every single person in the band," Munger says.

He elaborates: "When I start layering what I'm going to do, it's definitely going to have electronic stuff and a sample. Darren—who's pretty much just a mastermind of guitar; he's got impeccable taste for riffs and guitar tones—he really provides the traditional sense of guitars. Wes has a very atmospheric type of sound. Most of the guitar-produced atmospherics are from Wes. Mike Sanger grew up (with a) very rock background and really levels us out. We might be a little too dance-y, so he helps bring in a little bit of the bottom. Nate gives us an anchor. We didn't have a lot of harmonic bass, and adding that low end has been crucial, especially for live shows."

Munger handles vocals, accordion, piano, synthesizer, organ, glockenspiel, electronics, samples and percussion. Prior to DWP, he was playing electronic, beat-oriented music on his own Milk:Blood project, and also playing bass in the heavy-rock band Juarez, which was the fourth band he and Sanger teamed up in, each one playing a different type of music.

"We all have a very wide taste of likes. (DWP) is just another color on our palette of music. It just so happens it's the one I love. From my heart, I've always been a very electronic-music type of person. I didn't grow up listening to punk rock or rock at all. I grew up listening to the classic electronic," Munger says. "I do enjoy playing in anything I can get my hands on. But there is something to being where you feel good, and where you feel strong, and eventually, you'll do a better job."

Dead Western Plains' debut recording, "Alta," a 7-inch vinyl single for local label Fort Lowell Records (with "Gift Horse in the Mouth" on the B side), was released in November 2010.

"Their sound is simply so fresh," says James Tritten, of Fort Lowell Records. "Their caliber is much more in line with a national level than they even realize themselves. As long as their music is getting out, they'll continue to grow and challenge themselves as a band. I knew I wanted to help get their sound out there outside of Tucson."

Dead Western Plains has indeed gained some momentum outside of Tucson, with a mention on the LA Weekly's music blog comparing the band's "psychedelic swoon and upbeat power-pop" to Animal Collective. Elsewhere, indie-rock blogs have compared the band to Arcade Fire and Band of Horses.

"Being able to record was really defining for us," Munger says. "Up to that point, we'd written songs, but we hadn't really solidified much, just tinkered."

The band recorded everything except the drums themselves, going over every small detail collaboratively. The process involved a lot of long nights, with five musicians jammed into a little room, and the songs growing bit by bit.

"Every little thing comes into question when we do it. We get really into the details and try to explore a lot of things. When we're sitting down to write the music, most of the talk is about carrying a vibe," Munger says. "Despite all of our differences as far as too many cooks in the kitchen, our end goal usually ends up trying to carry a certain story throughout the song. When we write like that, it ends up with the parts growing, and it isn't built on a planned structure."

For the "Alta" release celebration at Plush, the band put together a live show that focused on visual art as well as the musical performance. Each musician wore all-white clothes, and the band projected video across the entire stage during the performance.

"We're very hands-on with every aspect of the band, from recording to live shows. We have a little bit of (attention deficit disorder) when it comes to that type of thing," Munger says. "We happen to have also in the band a lot of different talents visually. Everybody comes up with something, and we just have a lot of tools at our fingertips. We'll definitely be growing that as we go along."

The current agenda for Dead Western Plains, however, is a period focused on writing and recording new material. The band's third song for release, "People Beat," will appear Oct. 18 on Luz de Vida: A Compilation to Benefit the Victims of the Tucson Tragedy, a collaboration between Fort Lowell Records and Music Against Violence. (Full disclosure: I am involved in the project.)

"We're giving ourselves the time to be total schmucks about all the details," Munger says. "We go into the studio, and we click well, so it lets us have blinders on to everything else."

The band has four or five other songs already written, with plans to release one or possibly two EPs by the end of the year.

"We're pretty much in record mode right now. Our main passion is creating," Munger says. "We've decided to go for shorter, more-frequent releases. We want to tackle as much ground as possible without getting stuck."

Published Sept. 1, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Dead Western Plains - Alta
Dead Western Plains - People Beat