Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: We Were Promised Jetpacks - In the Pit of the Stomach

As localized music scenes capture broader attention, the boundaries blur between the bands that count among the influential originals, and those that are mere copycats.

In the Scottish scene—which is making waves on England's Fat Cat Records—the tendency for young bands making names for themselves is to make a sophomore album that's bigger, bolder and louder than the debut. It's a sure way to meet heightened expectations without risking repetition, and Edinburgh's We Were Promised Jetpacks is no different.

Like label-mates and fellow Scots The Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit, We Were Promised Jetpacks have a guitar-heavy yet dance-ready attack that draws readily from both Manchester post-punk and 1990s American alternative.

Part of what stands out for We Were Promised Jetpacks are the punky shout-along choruses of guitar anthems like "Picture of Health" and "Circles and Squares." Elsewhere, "Act on Impulse" and "Hard to Remember" are brooding songs with reverberating low ends; they're ominous and edgy enough to balance out the arena bombast that drives the rest of the album.

The band is still wound up with youthful energy, but is already starting to branch into subtle variations in song structure and arrangement. While it's not entirely clear whether that's the result of artistic vision or enthusiastic experimentation, those compelling changes launch the band beyond what it achieved on These Four Walls.

In the Pit of the Stomach should place We Were Promised Jetpacks on the leading edge of Scot-pop.

Published Oct. 20, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Riding Out the Storm - Crooked Fingers

To wear armor at all is to need protection, to fear wounds beyond what the body can sustain. So when that armor begins to fail, the resulting vulnerability is so much worse than an unguarded safety. On his sixth album under the Crooked Fingers name, Eric Bachmann takes a songwriting trip into a state of such startling vulnerability that it’s hard to count all the wounds contained in its 11 songs. Its title Breaks In The Armor points not only to flaws, but also to those mechanisms people use to stay guarded.

Read the entire piece in Souciant Magazine.

Crooked Fingers - Angelina

The War On Drugs play Plush Oct. 20

The War on Drugs' Adam Granduciel makes big music by starting with little snippets

Adam Granduciel describes his home studio as a playground for haphazard things.

In his tinkerer's shop, with a minimalist analog setup, Granduciel labors to create an ethereal batch of sounds, experimenting with combinations. It's only after he's accumulated a solid bed of sounds, often from mere snippets, that Granduciel starts seeing the outline of a song.

And then he rocks out.

As Granduciel, mastermind for The War on Drugs, describes his band's process, it's clear how expertly crafted the new Slave Ambient truly is. It's a sort of classic rock for an alternate universe. The comparisons that Granduciel has drawn to the likes of Tom Petty and Bob Dylan are certainly apt, but supporting that rock 'n' roll sound is an entirely different sonic world of layered loops, ambient tones and swirling textures. And the combination is seamless.

"It's really dense and pretty and beautiful, and a rock album, too," he says. "It's unique-sounding, but arriving at that is different than thinking about it.

"A lot of the time, I was just starting from scratch and building up some different sounds, sculpting it from the ground up until I saw where there was a song, and then writing it from there," says Granduciel, describing the four years it took him to record Slave Ambient. "Even though I was supposed to be delivering a record, I was mostly concerned with learning some new tricks. I knew the songs would come."

After the band's well-regarded debut, Wagonwheel Blues, Granduciel set out to expand his process, treating Slave Ambient like a suite of songs, flowing naturally from one to the next, with echoes of both melodies and drones forging a continuity amid the distinct tracks.

"The original vision was for every song to have its own identity, and still have it feel like a record," Granduciel says. "I knew I wanted it to be more than just a collection of songs. I wanted it to be a representation of all the time I've been recording and developing this strange process within my home studio. I expanded on that a lot with this record."

The album's centerpiece is the trio "Your Love Is Calling My Name," "The Animator" and "Come to the City." It starts with a propulsive rock song that carries with it background melodies that emerge as the focus of an airy instrumental song, which then uses that same propulsive beat for a return trip. The songs sit well together tonally, with an early version of one song serving as the instrumental backbone for another.

The very first seed was a single short drum loop. Granduciel invited two friends over to his Philadelphia home studio, set up two drum kits and three microphones, and just had them play for a while. He plucked from the recording a few-second segment where the drummers had locked into a great beat.

"I'd spend some time playing with different effects on it, re-sampling it and building up percussive tracks from things that weren't drum machines. It's human, but it's looped. It's not a straight drum beat, but something that's consistent," he says.

Granduciel started layering synthesizer parts on top of the percussive track and then picked up a harmonica and started recording it right through the board. That combination of melodies formed the backbone of that three-song suite.

Though the songs for the album were recorded at different times, in different places, and with different people, Granduciel says his steady vision for Slave Ambient provided enough cohesion.

"I was still looking for 'a-ha' moments even as I wrapping up the record. The last six months, it was about finding how to connect all the songs into something that really felt like it was a unique experience," he says. "It's a question of either keep doing what you're doing, or take the chance and go down one little side street, and I'd usually end up with a more-amazing sound.

"You can always play with it a little more, but I'm definitely able to know when the song is done. I'm not concerned with the rough edges," he says. "A lot of songs would have so many transformations, but in the end, they became what they are now. I could have spent another month making sure they were all perfect, but that would have gone against the point."

Granduciel says he didn't start out with any particular unifying ideas lyrically, but what came out along the way tends to center around the idea of "searching."

"Maybe it's just the idea of looking for something to latch onto," he says.

The recording process itself came to serve as an inspiration for Granduciel's writing. That struggle to create, to lock on to a vision and bring it to reality, became the record's central theme.

"Although nothing is really written lyrically in a linear way, when I did vocals for a song, it was in a time of flux, a time of working on stuff really obsessively. So that mentality came through a lot of the lyrics, along with self-doubt and hope and moments of ecstasy and reinvention and feeling down in the dumps," he says.

Slave Ambient came about during a period of change for Granduciel, who was also playing guitar in Kurt Vile's band The Violators. Vile had played guitar in The War on Drugs, but left to devote more time to his own project.

"(Slave Ambient) was a working title for a lot of the stuff just because of how I was cataloging it in my head. I had a million different titles for it, but even I admitted to myself that was it. And I just like the way the words sound together and how it looks on paper."

Granduciel is now looking forward to performing the songs live, where the experimenting drops off and the rocking elements emerge.

"The home studio is where you can spend a lot of time re-evaluating and changing, and you have the time and the space to do something and immediately erase it. To me, the live thing is great, because now the songs are there. The studio is where the songs are born, but live, you get to re-create them."

Published Oct. 13, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

The War On Drugs - Come To The City
The War On Drugs - Baby Missiles

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Reviwe: Lindsey Buckingham - Seeds We Sow

Sounding reflective and emotionally raw, Lindsey Buckingham takes a bigger turn toward folk music on his latest solo effort.

The album leads off with its strongest song, the title track, which is a gorgeous showcase for Buckingham's signature voice and virtuoso guitar style. Fast picking and a mournful wail blend together into a song as powerful as anything he's sung in the past.

Though punchier and fuller in instrumentation, "In Our Own Time" and "End of Time" also find Buckingham playing comfortably in the folk-rock realm, with particularly sharp use of his own layered vocals. "Stars Are Crazy" blends his ornate finger-picking with a hazy reverb on the vocals.

Still, there are songs on Seeds We Sow that mine the '70s vibe of classic Fleetwood Mac—particularly the Rumours-esque "That's The Way Love Goes," the incredibly catchy "Illumination," the meditative "Rock Away Blind" and the rock-ballad "Gone Too Far."

Buckingham does fall into a soft-rock trap on "When She Comes Down," and misses the mark on "One Take," which features half-rapped braggadocio and out-of-place aggressive—though skilled—guitar solos.

Buckingham closes with an excellently chosen cover, the Rolling Stones' "She Smiled Sweetly," which he turns into a somber and aching reflection.

Though his has been a long and fruitful career, Buckingham still can earn attention with his signature style as both a guitarist and a vocalist—and even better, he has the production smarts and skill to continue molding those familiar elements into new and fresh music.

Published Oct. 13, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing

Paring down some of the band's more-unhinged tendencies, Blitzen Trapper look backward on American Goldwing, an album about growing up that sounds like the music that guided those formative years.

Often writing distinctly about his past, his upbringing and those distinctly rural characters of a generation-ago America, Eric Earley has hit a rich vein lyrically, writing with a rustic sincerity, while the rest of the band plays tighter than ever. Perhaps less-experimental than before—but no less versatile—the band runs through 11 songs with everything from cranked electric guitars to plucked banjo and wheezy jaw-harp.

The album's push-pull is between home and the great big world outside, between nostalgia and ambition, between familiar comforts and a sense of longing and adventure. Musically, American Goldwing is the type of celebratory roots-rock that bridges Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Dylan, or in this era, Dr. Dog and the Drive-By Truckers.

"Fletcher" builds into a sing-along chorus; "Your Crying Eyes" is boogie-blues rock; "Street Fighting Sun" is live-wire guitar muscle; and the title song is a feel-good jam built around electric piano, twangy guitar and harmonica blasts.

Trading idiosyncrasies for familiarity, Blitzen Trapper makes a different kind of progress on the band's sixth album, one that indicates a staying power every bit as strong as the band's heartily worn influences. American Goldwing is Blitzen Trapper at their lively best, showcasing a band that sounds like they're having fun just being alive, struggles be damned and washed away in an easy burst of song.

Published Oct. 6, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Blitzen Trapper - Love the Way You Walk Away