Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Jessica Lea Mayfield TONIGHT at Congress

Ohio singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield is no doubt a young talent on the rise, and blessedly free from big record label meddling. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys has produced both her debut album and her just-released sophomore effort.

It's tempting to look down the list of song titles from 21-year-old Ohio singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield—"I'll Be the One You Want Someday," "Our Hearts Are Wrong," "Trouble," "Nervous Lonely Night," "Run Myself Into the Ground"—and expect "woe is me."

But Tell Me is actually a record about dark impulses, about losing self-control and the careening damage of careless lovers. "All that I can think about are things I should not do," Mayfield sings on the first song, and the rest of the way is filled with the fallout of those brutal, cold-hearted choices.

What's most impressive is Mayfield's what-will-she-say-next candor: "I broke the little cabana boy's heart to let you fondle me in the dark," she sings on "Sometimes at Night."

On "Trouble," Mayfield sings, "You overheard us doing blow in the bathroom. I was kissing, holding hands with some other girl's grown man." On "Somewhere in Your Heart," it's, "I'd rather die young and be forgotten than live to grow old loving you."

Even the album's more positive lyrics—"Suddenly I can see blue skies again"—are about an emergence from some dark place.

Produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Tell Me deals with extreme darkness and sadness, but by writing her lyrics with a stark, matter-of-fact honesty rather than in confessional tones, Mayfield keeps things from sliding into downer territory.

Published April 21, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.
DOWNLOAD: Jessica Lea Mayfield - Our Hearts Are Wrong

Check out Mayfield performing "Our Hearts Are Wrong" for Seattle's KEXP:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Birthday playlist

Here are some of the songs I reached for this morning to set the proper tone for my 32nd birthday:

Old Crow Medicine Show - Wagon Wheel

OutKast - So Fresh, So Clean

LCD Soundsystem - All My Friends

Damien Marley and Nas - Count Your Blessings

Bob Dylan - Sooner Or Later (One Of Us Must Know)
(YouTubing Dylan songs is impossible because of all the horrid self-recorded cover versions that are posted.)

The Band & Staples Singers - The Weight

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Those Darlins at Congress Wednesday

Well, how's this for a birthday show? Tennessee's Those Darlins, who just released a sophomore album that stacks girl group harmonies, old soul and garage sounds on top of the country-punk of their debut. It should be a rowdy good time. Check out the story I wrote on the band for the Tucson Weekly:

From Murfreesboro, Tenn., Those Darlins combine girl-group attitude with a garage-rock edge

Jessi Darlin is glad rock 'n' roll can still shock people.

Nearly every review of her band Those Darlins' new album, Screws Get Loose, zeroes in on a line from "Be Your Bro," a song about the trouble girls face while trying to just be one of the guys. "I just wanna be your brother, you just wanna be my boyfriend / I just wanna run and play in the dirt with you / you just wanna stick it in," Jessi sings.

It's a bouncy, playful song, showing all the competitive mischievousness of a tomboy who, as Jessi sings, has girlie parts but a boy's heart.

"I knew when I played it for our band that they were gonna laugh," Jessi says. "I'm not too surprised that everyone has mentioned it. It's just funny that, for some reason, it really does shock people.

"I got the idea from some tours that we've done with some people who were married, or whatever, (that they were) afraid to talk to us. It's a lot of different situations mixed into one."

Those Darlins—Jessi, Kelley and Nikki, who all sing and trade off between guitar and bass and use Darlin as their last name, along with Linwood Regensburg on drums—toured steadily for two years after the release of the band's 2009 self-titled debut album, a mix of country and punk straight from their Murfreesboro, Tenn., roots.

While both albums lyrically have a strong sense of, "This is who I am; take it or leave it," Screws Get Loose leaves behind most of the band's country sound in favor of a garage-rock edge, with elements of surf guitar, 1960s girl groups and vocals that drop most of the twang in favor of attitude. Jessi can snarl through the lyrics, turn them into a bratty shout or melt into girl-group harmonies with the other Darlins.

Screws is clearly a more mature record, which isn't to say Those Darlins don't sound just as wild and tough as they did before; instead, they're flush with new experiences from two years on the road and reaching out with greater artistic ambitions. And still full of rowdy fun and pure pop instincts.

"Once you accomplish one thing, a new challenge arises," Jessi says. "It's an ongoing process, learning to work with each other. You're always progressing; you're always getting better and learning new things. ... We come back from a month, and people say, 'Wow, you guys are tighter than I saw you last month.'"

Lately, Those Darlins have played with the Old 97's, and Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, and in the past have performed with the Black Lips and Dan Auerbach, a diverse group that Jessi says is united by energetic performances that Those Darlins have learned from and sought to match.

"In terms of those bands, they're fun and energetic, and so that kind of branches over into what we do. It's the same kind of feel. It's not about genres or what you play stylistically," Jessi says. "The crowds are really cool and seem to cross over pretty well. That's pretty much all you need."

Those Darlins got together in 2007, playing music just to entertain each other and to have something to do while hanging out.

"We didn't really know each other that well before we started playing together. We used music as an excuse to hang out, and that's how we got to know each other," Jessi says.

When it came time to choose a name, it was already there.

"It's just a Southern thing. We all just called each other 'darlin' anyway. It's like a gang, being recognized together," Jessi says. "In Murfreesboro or even Nashville, it's real common if you're in a band that whatever the band name is becomes your last name, anyway. People would call me Jessi Darlin, no matter what."

The writing for Screws Get Loose began during tours in support of the debut record, and Jessi says that as the songs began to take shape, it was natural that they took on a different feeling than the band's earlier songs.

"Most songs I write are about more than one person or more than one thing at a time, so I was really proud when I wrote 'Tina Said.' I did it in a way that I didn't really expect," Jessi says. "It was about a personal family issue. I couldn't deal with it in any other way other than to write a song. I felt pretty awesome when I wrote the lyrics, because I felt like I had summed it up in four verses."

Those Darlins recorded in Atlanta with producer Jeff Curtin (Small Black) and engineer Ed Rawls (Black Lips), and released the album on the band's own Oh Wow Dang label.

"Screws Get Loose" opens the album with a fistful of attitude: "Can't blame me for what I do / Oooh, screws get loose / Can't change me after all these years / Oooh, screws get loose."

After "Be Your Bro" is "Let U Down," with lead vocals from drummer Regensburg. The aforementioned "Tina Said" is a response to the self-destructive obstinate nature of a family member. "Boy" is a travelin' song about love(s) on the road, with a chorus that runs "hold me now" right into "I'll see you around." The acoustic-driven "Waste Away" glimpses one potential end of the wild life: "I don't want to watch you waste away / You don't want to watch me do the same." Taken together, it's a lot more than tales of running wild.

"I just feel like I have more of a handle now," Jessi says. "When I went to write a song, it was more controlled. From start to finish, I knew what I wanted, and I got the actual product I was shooting for. It felt a lot easier, felt like second nature to write the songs."

Published April 14, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

DOWNLOAD: Those Darlins - Be Your Bro

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Howe Gelb - Spiral

"There's a lot of people out there having a hard time tonight," sings Howe Gelb, offering up a song of consolation in his own distinct way. And as 2011 opened with Tucson suffering through the city's worst ever tragedy, that sort of consolation is doing all it can, filling emptiness and soothing unspeakable pain.

The song "Spiral" is itself a gorgeous piano ballad, and the understated choir from Gelb's Sno Angel sessions elevates the song out of the realm of simply music. Just as a day itself can turn in an instant into history, a song like "Spiral" moves from vinyl 7-inch single to cultural touchstone. That transcendence into unforgettable is such a rare thing for a song. On a cultural level, it's "Blowing in the Wind," or "What's Going On," or The Rising, songs and records that simply moved obstacles right out of the way, that grabbed the collar of history and tugged. And things were never the same again.

On a personal level, this version of "Spiral" is exactly that for me. Just as Amos Lee's Mission Bell and Jackson Browne's "For a Dancer" gave me strength, "Spiral" creates a space for reflection that is priceless. It's a song that right away shoved itself into the inner circle of the songs that are most important in my life.

That refrain, "Reinvent some new form of decency," can be applied to so much of what's happened since the Jan. 8 shooting that its hard to believe the song wasn't actually written and recorded in response. From the Jackson Browne / Alice Cooper benefit concert (read my preview interview) to ongoing efforts at civility and specific responses in terms of advocating for more sensible gun laws, simple DECENCY has been a guiding force.

"Spiral" originally appeared on Giant Sand's proVISIONS, which I wrote a guest post about for the excellent So Much Silence blog (coincidentally, that was the only bit of music writing I did at all during the six months I worked on the Giffords campaign).

So thanks Howe, for this performance, and thanks Fort Lowell Records for picking the right song at the right time.

Howe Gelb - Spiral (Sno' Angel)

Friday, April 15, 2011


Death Kit - Devadasi

The booming drums that open "Devadasi" point to yet another direction for Fort Lowell Records, taking a turn toward the dance clubs with the label's fifth release.

"Devadasi" is dance rock, with an incessant beat, surging keyboards and a keen sense of melody, similar to the sounds of the Manchester scene captured in the film 24 Hour Party People.

Sharing members with FLR mates Wet & Reckless, Death Kit has both rock grit and dance sheen, while the "I don't know a thing about you" chorus takes a bit of a turn toward the spooky.

The B-side is a remix of Death Kit's "I Can Make You Love Me" by the electronic masterminds of ...music video?, who lend some ominous, sci-fi tones. Check out the eerie video for the original.

Death Kit - Devadasi

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dead Western Plains - Alta

"The house I’m in is surely moving" begins the remarkable first single from Tucson's Dead Western Plains. The ever-shifting collage that is “Alta” takes on so many different hues in its five and a half minutes that it's a challenge to follow at first, certainly a rewarding one. It's a heady bit of orchestration, but marvelously executed.

The song opens with a soft organ, some whistling and background harmonies, then springs up with bass and drums and the line "Spies! Spies! Watching me sleep, sharpening teeth when my head slips beneath the sheets." From there on, it's sort of a roller coaster, where instrumental shifts abound and the lyrics turn toward life's big mysteries with lines like "Jesus won’t answer your wicked souls" and "If the heavens won’t hold you tight, the ground surely will."

The most obvious comparisons for Dead Western Plains are like-minded indie experimentalists like Animal Collective and at times - like on B-side "Gift Horse in The Mouth - Arcade Fire. But, and maybe it takes a fellow Tucsonan to hear this, there's also a certain desert airiness even in the songs' denser moments.

The band also released several remixes of "Alta," offering a glimpse at how many different musical ideas went into the debut single.

Both Young Mothers and ...music video followed their Fort Lowell Records singles with full length albums about nine months later. Perhaps a Dead Western Plains album is just a few months away?

Dead Western Plains - Alta

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Wet & Reckless- New Guy / Tracy Shedd - Tear It Up

I go back and forth about whether it’s that playful, catchy guitar hook or the “Oooh Yeah Yeah Yeah” chorus that really kills me about “New Guy.” It’s both elements in tandem that make the song so obviously a beach tune – an energetic ball of carefree pleasure that you might as well put on repeat for a little while.

But like great pop songs since the early days, that party vibe carrying the music is used for lyrics that point in a whole different direction – in this case the fits and starts of possible new romance, even though the old flames aren’t necessarily out: “I know it looks like I’ve moved on, but I’ve needed someone else since you’ve been gone”

Wet & Reckless is basically a Los Angeles band, but it’s the Tucson roots of bassist Jessica Gelt that allow Fort Lowell Records to stretch its definition of local music just a bit.

On the B-side is an entirely different vibe, on which Tracy Shedd manages to invert the inverse that “New Guy” uses so well. Here is an almost spooky sounding song about a night out dancing. Moody and slow, “Tear It Up” breaks the mind free from the body, bringing about a slow-mo, drugged-out cinematic feel. And that mandolin… ominous and chilling, like a beast circling, closing ever so slowly on its prey.

Wet & Reckless - New Guy / Tracy Shedd - Tear It Up

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

...music video? - I'm Afraid of Everything

From the opening drum beat, it's clear that Fort Lowell Records' second single is nothing like it's inaugural release. ...music video? is electronic pop music that finds its roots in R&B and trip-hop, a combination that holds together remarkably well with Paul Jenkins' smooooooth vocals front and center.

"I'd take my own life, if I could try it out for 30 days," Jenkins sings on the downtempo groove of the A-side, guided by slinky guitar chords and a deep keyboard bass line. It's the disorienting swirl of self-doubt cast as a slow jam, with a haunting, echoing chorus: "This is what it's like, when you dream about dying."

B-side "feelgooddesperation" steps out with a piano, but jittery electronic rhythms soon blend in and then the song just kicks. It's more of a R&B feel and again Jenkins' vocals shine. J. Lugo Miller is patient with the beats, letting the song's yearning power grow and grow.

"I'm Afraid of Everything" also shows up on If This TV Could Talk, the latest ...music video? album, released in February. Again, the 7 inch serves as a perfect introduction to the band's upcoming full-length release.

...music video? - I'm Afraid of Everything

and check out a fascinating clip of the band in rehearsal:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Young Mothers - Come On The Cross

FLR's first single – released on my birthday, no less – is classic indie rock, opening with an easy mix of acoustic and electric guitars and then blossoming into its catchy chorus. Zach Toporek sings with conviction and a refreshing throwback sense of passion – far more Fogerty than his emo contemporaries.

The power-pop burst of "Come On The Cross" is tempered by the B-side "Our Swords," a soft tune, with multi-layered vocals and guitars. From the front to the back, the single has a spring-autumn feel, a nice sense of completeness that's hard to accomplish in just two songs.

Looking back, the 7 inch did exactly what it’s supposed to for a band – introduced a new creative path that culminated in the full length Have Some Fun record, released in December. While neither song from the single is on Have Some Fun, the tunes functioned as teasers for what was to come.

And though the Young Mothers have largely gone their separate ways in the last few months – Toporek moving to Phoenix to pursue other projects and Jasensky’s new group Faster Than Light creating quite a bit of buzz – the band is playing Saturday, April 16 at Sky Bar as part of Club Crawl, Friday, April 22 at the Fort Lowell Records Showcase at Club Congress.

Young Mothers - Come On The Cross


So stoked on this:

25 Years Later: A RADrospective from Marc Dewey on Vimeo.

I grew up on Rad and it's great to see the movie being celebrated. Maybe I can even make my way to Canada this summer...

Check out more about the documentary at ESPN. And in case you ever wonder about what back-flip pioneer (and Arizona resident) Jose Yanez is up to, wonder no more.

Record Store Week

Sure, Record Store Day is this coming Saturday. And sure, it's been one of my favorite days since it began in 2008 (witness my three Zia Records shirts, one from each from RSD). And sure, I'll certainly be there at the Speedway store for Tracy Shedd and Howe Gelb. But why just one day?

So, it's Record Store Week here at Catfish Vegas presents.

I see the whole idea of Record Store Day as a series of goals – to celebrate independence and expertise in music retail, to celebrate the intersection between artistic creativity and expression and the material value of collectibles, and to create a day of surging enthusiasm for music and the shared culture of music fans.

And yes, it’s under the ideals of Record Store Day that I can reconcile the existence of a crate of CDs in my kitchen that I want to sell to Zia with an ongoing desire to purchase yet more music on vinyl.

You see, it’s those 1,000- or 3,000-copy, limited release 7 inch records that are so much fun to have. New, exclusive singles and B-sides are the very essence of music collecting. And with the master list of Record Store Day releases bigger than ever, there will be both expanded options and limited access. So everyone’s experience at the local record store will be more different than ever. And I like that. I have no clue what I’ll end up with – or end up gunning for – but I’m going to get to Zia early and spend a good bit of time looking over as much as I can.

As an added bonus, Fort Lowell Records will have a mini-showcase of in-store performances there: Tracy Shedd at 11:30 and Howe Gelb at noon. This will be the official Record Store Day release of Gelb's contribution to FLR, the label's sixth release, coming at the close of its first year.

I wrote an article for Zocalo a year ago about the label's beginning - and reading back over, it's clear that label founder James Tritten has easily accomplished his goals. Now this is a pure devotee - he sold his Jeep to fund the first release and jokes that his tombstone should read "He put vinyl into the world."

Since then, I've attended record releases and even put together a Fort Lowell Records showcase at Sky Bar in September. But, somewhat embarrassingly, what I haven't done yet is written about any of the music itself, even though reviews of the first few releases are long overdue. So, here's the plan for Record Store Week: a chronological run through the label's releases, which truly show the diversity and excellence of the Tucson music scene.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart at Congress on Wednesday

Brooklyn's The Pains of Being Pure At Heart will play Tucson next week, touring in support of the band's second album, Belong. I interviewed the band a couple years ago, after their self-titled debut had burned up the blog scene and was about to land on hosts of year-end best-of lists. What struck me most was both how surprised they were at the success and how little it fazed them. It was all about the music.

Belong has different roots, to be sure. Famed producer Flood is on hand, for one, and there's no way for the band to recapture the element of surprise that boosted the debut so well. Still, it's a fine album and it'll be great to see the Pains again. Here's my review from the Tucson Weekly:

Imagine if angst hadn't blanketed the alternative music of the late 1980s and 1990s—and a bright earnestness had been the core impulse instead.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart exist at the heart of that alternate reality, playing music that's polite and joyful, all the while employing the wall of distortion that served their shoegaze influences so well.

Belong, the band's second album, combines ambition and consistency, bringing back the fuzzy guitars, driving beats and sugar-sweet boy-girl harmonies of guitarist Kip Berman and keyboardist Peggy Wang. But throughout the record are flourishes and stabs at new directions, from the Smashing Pumpkins-esque bombast of "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now" to the quiet-loud sonics of the Pixies on "Belong."

While typically a strength, the band's earnestness can be blamed for the album's sleepy middle and some clunks in the lyrics. But lines like, "Even in dreams, I will not betray you," and, "When everyone was doing drugs, we were just doing love," are entirely in line with the band's name.

Anyone who heard the Pains' debut and passed will do the same. But although the band remains committed to the same aesthetic that won them fans in the first place, there are plenty of sonic upgrades on Belong. It's catchy pop music built from starry-eyed romanticism.

Published April 7, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Belong by Slumberland Records

Opening the show is LA psychedelic rockers Warpaint. Check out Undertow, from The Fool, the band's Rough Trade debut.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Review: Faster Than Light - Moment of Chaos

Moment of Chaos is a debut bursting with musical ideas, bright and brash but meticulously well executed, with enthusiasm that runs over the edges.

The three-piece rock ‘n’ roll band brings such an impressive pallet that it’s a challenge just to keep up. It takes multiple listens to begin understanding just how much raw determination and talent is behind these songs.

Though the title is Moment of Chaos, the whole album seems to be an exercise in tightly controlled chaos. It’s a lot to take in at once, but the ever-shifting sounds fit beautifully together in context, a feat of great sequencing as well.

Readymade, the exhilarating nine-minute opener, is like sprinting up a flight of steps – the changes come incrementally, but quick enough to be a blur. There are shifts in tone and tempo throughout, from its acoustic beginning through bluesy breaks to the spacey guitar jam out that hits the realm of Built To Spill or Crazy Horse. And the lyrics ramp up the ominous quotient just a bit more: “If you’re going to fight in every battle, please be on my side.”

Planet Matter is a wild instrumental that rushes by with the jitteriness of math-rock, each player (Nate Nasensky on guitar, Chris Pierce on bass and Jim Borquez on drums) weaving tightly together for quicker and quicker flights. With its spooky, hollow echo, Come & Gone is country music for a horror movie.

Halation stacks up meaty riffs, pushing close to the prog-metal realm, not screamy but nonetheless recalling Tool, especially with lyrics like “I will caress this light that I have found here.” The instrumental Robot Butterfly starts acoustic but drives strongly toward funk, while Moosecall is built around pummeling drums and drops into a breakneck pace, featuring the album’s catchiest moments on its punk-style chorus.

In terms of theme, through sound, lyrics and album artwork, Moment of Chaos keeps pressing toward the notion of some futuristic alienation and powerlessness, all the more troubling for how little we know of the future’s potential doom.

Published April 1, 2011 in Zócalo.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Spring 13

Now that it's officially spring - though oddly dreary in Tucson today - I thought I'd weigh in with some of the songs that have really grabbed me so far this year.

So, without further ado, but with the greatest of pleasure, here are the Catfish Vegas Spring 13:

Wye Oak - Civilian

This stripped-down simplicity of this acoustic version shows what a powerful song "Civilian" is, mesmerizing and mysterious straight through.
DOWNLOAD: Wye Oak - Civilian

Those Darlins - Be Your Bro

Equal parts spunky and infectious, this tune throws a garage rock feel into the Patsy Cline meets the Runaways vibe of the band's debut.

Akron/Family - So It Goes

After the band's show last night at Club Congress, I'm sure the strange and sprawling Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT will be on my short list of the year's best albums. It's folk music at its core, but it also bleeds over the edges into any number of imaginative areas.
DOWNLOAD: Akron/Family - So It Goes

Amos Lee - Flower

I interviewed Amos Lee five days after the Tucson shooting - and since he recorded Mission Bell here, we talked about the city and its artistic community and how music is a force of healing and love. And then diving into the album over the next days and weeks, I found exactly what I needed.

Papercuts - Do You Really Wanna Know?

DOWNLOAD: Papercuts - Do You Really Wanna Know?

The Go! Team - Back Like 8 Track
The Go! Team - Back Like 8 Track by thegoteam
The strongest track on Rolling Blackouts, an album that's blissfully frenetic.

Iron & Wine - Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me

This is Iron & Wine taking a journey into the weird, but what a captivating tune. It's an epic, circling, widening-gyre type of song, with the chanted “we will become, become” growing bigger and wilder with each repetition.

Rural Alberta Advantage - Two Lovers

Haunting, in the Neutral Milk Hotel tradition.

Smith Westerns - All Die Young
Smith Westerns - "All Die Young" by forcefieldpr
Woozy indie-rock at its finest.

Social Distortion - Still Alive

It's a Story of a Life, another two decades down the road. Pure Mike Ness.

Wanda Jackson - Thunder on the Mountain

A neo-Dylan classic turned into barnburning rockabilly by the Queen, with a little help from Jack White.

Baseball Project - Panda & The Freak

The Baseball Project was a delight at the Barrio Viejo Festival and this song is pure fun. Since the last baseball game I saw was in the Giants park, I had to support them on the Series run last year, and it's great to hear Sandoval and Lincecum immortalized in song.

Low Anthem - Ghost Woman Blues

Probably the album I've listened to most this year. I just can't get enough of The Low Anthem, especially after the band's performance at the End of the Road Festival last summer in Dorset, England. The band hits Tucson on May 8.
And the song is so good, you get two videos!

And a download:

Oh hell, and Letterman too...

Monday, April 04, 2011

Akron/Family at Congress on Tuesday

Akron/Family, touring in support of the wild and strange Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, will headline at Club Congress tomorrow night.

I talked to the band's singer/guitarist Seth Olinsky a couple weeks back about the new record's origins. Here's the story:

Akron/Family creates multiple stories through multiple versions of its newest album

Music bred in the parallel isolations of a Japanese volcano and an abandoned train station in Detroit deserves the name Cosmic Birth.

Like everything else about Akron/Family—whose members are spread from Portland, Ore., to New York—that new record sprawls all over the place. Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, released in February on Dead Oceans, was nurtured by a sense of unhinged expression learned from a series of Japanese bands, says Akron/Family singer/guitarist Seth Olinsky.

"We performed with a lot of artists there, and there was this energetic commitment to performance, a little less self-conscious," he explains. "When we went to decide what we wanted to do to make the record, one of the inspiration points was this energy that was more extremely expressive. We wanted to push the boundaries of our own expression, and there was something that triggered that from the way the artists were working in Japan."

So, naturally, Olinsky, drummer Dana Janssen and bassist Miles Seaton holed up in a cabin built into the side of Mount Meakan, an active volcano in Akan National Park on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, to dream up a new album that broke free from any boundaries they thought they'd hit in five previous albums.

Like any hybrid, Akron/Family is difficult to categorize. Imaginative and plenty experimental, the band's music is folk at its roots, but any of number of things at its sprawling edges. It's music that pauses to deconstruct itself. Across the whole of Cosmic Birth, you get the sense of musical collage, accented by all manner of distortion and myriad incorporated sounds.

At times, the band can sound like overloaded electrical circuits; at others, the sound is calm and delicate. Throughout Cosmic Birth is the sound of pure motion. Like a mind-bender movie, the first time through, you're just trying to follow along. But once the outline is established, more passes reveal all of those little things that were done well.

"This record, I think, is the most genuinely collaborative," Olinsky says. "It was a beautiful experience for us all, before any of the music was written, dreaming up this imaginary world of these different qualities and emotions and things that we wanted the album to do, and the way we wanted it to sound and feel. And through that process, we identified some emotional and sonic components that we'd left behind."

Early in the process, the band returned to a hard drive from their early days, digging out old samples and cutting them into new pieces. Akron/Family's extensive use of samples and various sounds helps to create a "sonic environment" for the music, Olinsky says. In a sense, the album comes from a place, and all those samples and sounds re-create that place for the listener.

"If you hear the sound of frogs, when someone's listening, they automatically visualize this pond at night. It sets the imagination to see a space," he says. "If you imagine any film, whether Old West or science fiction, the viewer is taken to that place for a few hours. It was more about using those sounds to create an environment. It's an intuitive sense of feeling a space around the music."

To record, they hooked up with engineer and producer Chris Koltay ("He's able to capture sound how we hear it, so we can relax and just perform," Olinsky says), who set the band up in the abandoned Michigan Central Station.

"Detroit is this place that was once the future city of America, and now (it's) this place that's abandoned. The city is in a state of trying to figure out how to re-create itself, and it's forcing more of a community-oriented perspective on how to do that," Olinsky says. "Being in a place that's more raw and forced to re-identify itself, there's something in our artistic process that's inspired by that energy."

That notion of re-creation and an ever-shifting identity is at the core of Cosmic Birth. The rough tracks and raw mixes can become so many different things, Olinsky says, and in an artistic sense, the band values process over product.

"The record itself, just because it's the one released, doesn't mean it's the whole story, the whole expression. The artistic base of this stuff is a little bit broader than just one finished product. It almost feels like this is one take on something that could've had 30 or 40 different lives," Olinsky says.

To let the potential energy of the project flourish, the band made a number of different mixes of the entire album, leaking several onto the Internet in advance of the formal release of Cosmic Birth. Wild and noisy, the more experimental mixes are a fascinating look at the road not taken. But those improvisational and experimental mixes were more than just an exercise; the explorative and introverted part of the process also points to ways the songs can change in live performances.

"When we get on the road, we've filled the well with new ideas, and it's an explosion of this whole new palette we've created. Not only are we playing the songs as they are on the record, but we're taking it to the next step," Olinsky says. "On this tour, we're definitely incorporating a little bit more electronics. Having the ability to extend the palette just kind of opens up the space of our performance. Using these electronics allows us to explore further territory.

"We're really feeling a lot more dynamic and creative in how we're approaching the live show, and the shows have been very different night to night."

Published March 31, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.
Akron/Family - Silly Bears
Akron/Family - So It Goes