All posts by Nate Seltenrich

Dropsonic – Insects with Angel Wings

DropsonicInsects with Angel Wings (Rowdy)

Dropsonic is the perpetual band-on-the-verge. For over five years they’ve been called a band to watch, a promising newcomer, the next big thing – but nothing has materialized. Insects with Angel Wings, their fourth release through as many channels, probably won’t find them any closer to their goal.

That’s not to say they don’t deserve it. Dropsonic’s most recent effort is easily their best – a raw, edgy, hard-rocking blend of classic Led Zeppelin and early Radiohead that perfects the formula they’ve been working on since their self-released debut. But without major or even just steady label support, Dropsonic is again unlikely to reach an audience beyond critics and college radio DJs. While math-rock specialists 54-40 or Fight!, who released 2002’s Belle, seemed an appropriate home for the group, Dropsonic’s latest label is a big puzzler. Rowdy Records, based in the band’s hometown of Atlanta and owned by producer Dallas Austin, helped launch the city’s R&B/hip-hop scene in 1995 through the release of Monica’s Miss Thang. Today Austin is trying to revitalize Rowdy’s name through his latest find, rap group Da BackWudz. How Dropsonic fits into that scheme is anybody’s guess.

Besides being ever-nascent record company castaways, something else has remained consistent across Dropsonic’s career – comparisons to Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. Rather than changing their somewhat derivative sound, Dropsonic has embraced and continually improved this approach. The union of the two styles is more forthright than you may imagine – Dan Dixon literally sings like Thom Yorke and plays guitar like Jimmy Page. Amazingly, it works. The result is riff- and groove-heavy rock and roll with an intelligent, angsty slant. On Insects with Angel Wings, Dropsonic’s sound is familiar enough to sound welcoming at first listen and distinctive enough to establish its own sound by the middle of the record. By the end, it’s clear they’ve released one excellent hard rock album.

A fat, plodding bassline runs through opener “Summer’s Gone,” giving way to a chorus with a ripped-up rhythm, then a breakdown, then back again. Coupled with Dixon’s guitar work, it’s unmistakably Led Zeppelin. Not until Dixon screams his way out of the song does a real Dropsonic touch appear. A Page-style guitar solo in “Spiders” falls between choruses that signal the second coming of Thom Yorke’s Pablo Honey rock phase. The distorted harmonica part that runs through “My Girl” calls to mind Robert Plant’s work with the instrument in “When The Levee Breaks.” “When You Die” places two guitar tracks front and center – frenzied riffs and rhythms tossing each other about, reckless and loud and sounding a lot less deliberate than they are. This is organic, jammy hard rock, something like what Led Zeppelin used to deliver live when they’d extend their already massive tunes. From one song to the next, Dropsonic matches the power of Led Zeppelin and the intensity of Radiohead in a blend that comes better through the ears than the eyes.

They aren’t afraid to deviate from this formula. Okay, “Rotten Luck” isn’t all that different, fusing instead Black Sabbath and Soundgarden. But the difference is notable – there’s more of a hard/soft dynamic, Dixon does his best Chris Cornell, and the guitar riffs are pure evil. Again, it really works. “The Big Nothing” is a calm, plaintive song that offers a break from the energy of their typical full-steam-ahead approach. “Insane” does the same, dropping the tempo to a near-crawl as the record comes to a close. Ghastly background vocals recall yet again – you guessed it – Radiohead. No matter; both cuts are hard-earned and well-appreciated.

Insects with Angel Wings is a fine record on all fronts – writing, performance, and production – leaning equally heavily on balls-out rock, instrumental precision, and independent, creative spirit. Dixon’s lyrics are strong in the mix but ultimately unobtrusive – not good, not bad, not worth mentioning. That notwithstanding, almost every song is good, and the whole is even better – proof that originality and innovation aren’t necessarily the best measuring sticks for good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. Dropsonic may be perpetual dwellers in the vast realm of underground rock, but they sound as energized and hopeful as ever.

Timber – The New Gentlemen’s Shuffle

TimberThe New Gentlemen’s Shuffle (Ships at Night)

The New Gentlemen’s Shuffle‘s melodic folk-pop opener, “Bloodhound,” is built upon beautiful male/female vocal harmonies and the rousingly precise picking of an acoustic guitar. The tune is six minutes of mournful folk bliss – a propitious beginning to this impressive debut from Timber. The sad, somber, mid-tempo folk of the next three songs are more of a deep breath than a lull, and the vocal harmonies and perfect guitar work graciously persist. Also quickly established is astute production that keeps the instruments sounding alive: present, and minimally mediated – especially the guitar, which is always picked and never strummed.

As with most folk music, it’s the subtler things that count. The whining Wurlitzer that winds through the second half of “Bloodhound” is a small effort that plays a big role in setting the song’s mood. A bass solo leads “Reckoning” to fade out, summoning the spirit of jazz in an odd, yet pleasing sort of way. Like the opener, “Classical” rides a quicker tempo, but the chiming of the 12-string solo in the center of the song is what’s left behind. “New Gentlemen’s Shuffle” stands out as a finely played country shuffle, but is remembered for its running background banjo, soulful vocal harmonies, and wispy trumpet.

The only cut that fails here is “Showtune” (mp3). Its vocals follow the exact same melody from chorus to verse to chorus to verse for five interminable minutes. The song is lazy and annoying, especially on such an idyllic album. But it would be a shame to dwell on a negative among positives.

“Now to the country I go / Just to take it slow,” from closer “To the Country,” could be the album’s motto – except as with most works of art, dualities confound such easy conclusions. At once vintage and contemporary, raw and sophisticated, Woody Guthrie and Mason Jennings, the record’s three best songs – “Bloodhound,” “New Gentleman’s Shuffle,” and “To the Country” – shape up as fine examples of modern Western folk music. No matter what they do in the future, Timber are already a band worth hearing.

The Value of Music

The highest inhabitable branch...I lie in a thinker’s grave. I have reached the limits of my imagination. I am buried by the stubborn belief that the void I seek to fill actually needs filling, that music really is this important. On my judgment day I may ascend to the glorious sound of every song on every mix tape I’ve ever made played at once. Then all the words I’ve ever written will raise me up to my proper place. But that is just a vision, and I cannot move.

I remember when I first heard music. I was 11, and it was the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. Kneeling in innocence on a wine-red carpet, I was piecing together a puzzle of a big picture of Santa Claus when my dad came into the room and put on a song for me. Something clicked. My life changed.

Continue reading The Value of Music

The Life and Times – Suburban Hymns

The Life and TimesSuburban Hymns (De Soto)

For those familiar with earnest Midwest post-hardcore of the last decade, the Life and Times deliver just what’s expected: a heavy load of tightly packed rhythms, crushing guitar, and yearning vocals. But not much more. Ex-Shiner frontman Allen Epley teams with Someday I’s John Meredith on bass and the String and Return’s Mike Myers on drums to craft a sound that doesn’t achieve the promise of its DNA.

Suburban Hymns foregoes Shiner’s math rock complexities and restrains Someday I’s punk aggression while employing the String and Return’s dreamy patience only on select occasions. The album hits like a blunt object – a sense of force and weight is there, but the nature of the weapon is unclear.

Yet it has its moments: the bass solo in “Skateland,” the arching guitar lines of “My Last Hostage” (mov), Epley’s excellent vocals in “Coat of Arms” (mp3). “Thrill Ride” recalls Sunny Day Real Estate with a slow-building start that releases into a compelling crescendo and than fades off into silence. In “Muscle Cars,” the Life and Times finally lock into a good rhythm. It’s one of the few times they sound like the new band they are rather than three weary studio musicians banging out an album. Hallmarks of their genre like minor key tension, chiming guitars, and frequent drum fills are so rampant they appear forced.

While Epley may appreciate the chance to play something a little more straightforward than his work with Shiner, he must know that Suburban Hymns‘ novelty is probably lost on most of its audience before the first song is done. After 40 minutes, it shapes up as a heavy, nondescript rock album that is certainly listenable but doesn’t offer anything to hold on to. Math rock, no. But great background music for doing math homework.

The Hard Lessons – Gasoline

The Hard LessonsGasoline (No Fun)

It may be a hard lesson to learn, but Detroit garage rock lived and died with the Stooges and the MC5. Today the world beyond Motor City limits can sustain only one Detroit rock revival band at a time. This group must possess something special – a heady blend of charisma, chops, chaos, skill, bravado, noise, hair, insanity, defiance, and genius – in addition to reverence for the spirit of the genre’s architects. (That band might currently be the Dirtbombs.)

The Hard Lessons are most definitely not that band. Their debut full-length, Gasoline, is fuel for the fire into which all wannabe retro Detroit rock-and-rollers should be flung. The awkwardly uneven record progresses from contrived (the infectious yet all-too-obvious opener “Feel Alright”) to sentimental (singer Ko Ko Louise is more than a little bit country in “That Other Girl” [mp3]) to plain irrelevant (“I take milk and sugar in my tea,” pronounces Agostino Visocchi in “Milk and Sugar” [mp3] – now that’s rock and roll).

Only a few of Gasoline‘s 11 songs approach success. Highlights “Share Your Vanity” and “Feedback Loop” draw from the raw, primitive energy that defines Detroit garage rock. If the Hard Lessons could throw ten more songs like these on a record, they just might get somewhere. But if not, forget about it – the rest of their stuff is simply no fun.

Le Concorde – Universe and Villa

Le ConcordeUniverse and Villa (March)

Le Concorde is Chicago’s Stephen Becker, and his debut full-length is a benign collection of indie and chamber pop. Not that Universe and Villa is boring or dull – there are some fantastic melodies and hooks sprinkled over the record. Almost every song has at least one standout moment – try the super-catchy chorus of “Little Stabs at Happiness” or the alt-rock fuzz in “It’s the Minor Chords that Kill You.” But an album that takes this few chances also has little opportunity to win big.

Becker’s warm, welcoming voice has a great range and calls to mind folks like E, James Iha, and Ben Folds. Musically, Le Concorde’s closest contemporary kin include the Magnetic Fields and Belle and Sebastian.

The record’s greatest quality is that it’s always changing. Its 13 songs rarely get complacent; thankfully, they avoid the indie pop pitfall of splish-splashing around in a warm bath of strings and synth. Becker keeps his tunes continually moving from one place to the next with changes in tempo, volume, and structure. His lyrics are also varied and multi-dimensional, exuding wonder here and pessimism there. The album’s last song, “I Hate Rock and Roll,” solidifies Becker’s sensibilities with some bitter humor: “I don’t mind planes / I don’t mind press / I hate the stupid way you rip your heart out of your chest / I hate rock and roll.”

Universe and Villa is not a great album, but a fine pop record with enough peaks to keep the valleys intriguing. Often, that’s all you need. Take off your thinking cap and just enjoy.

Tom Brosseau – What I Mean to Say is Goodbye

Tom BrosseauWhat I Mean to Say is Goodbye (Loveless)

To approach this record head-on is to miss its subtle, timeless beauty. It must find you at the right moment, sidling into your consciousness as you fold laundry or rest in your favorite chair on a Sunday afternoon. It must float around with hidden design until your soul is ready to receive it. Only then will Brosseau’s voice, a wonderfully precise and delicate male falsetto, resonate to its fullest potential. Only then will his tales of North Dakota woe, sparing guitar work, and occasional harmonica flourishes really make sense. True beauty and fine art do not smack you across the head; they simply wait, patient and unchanging, for you to understand them.

What I Mean to Say is Goodbye is Tom Brosseau’s fifth album. His first came out less than five years ago and he is only 28, but he could be as old as the dust in his songs. Opener “West of Town” is the story of the flood that destroyed most of his hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1997. He’s not a mourner but a storyteller: “I have forgiven the big Red River for doin’ what she done.” If you love something, let it go. Perhaps to foster this intimate distance, Brosseau recorded What I Mean to Say in Topanga, California, near his new home of Los Angeles – 1,500 miles and a world away from the rural northeast corner of North Dakota.

Brosseau’s sad and sweet folk songs flow seamlessly from one to the next. There are no jarring moments; no pauses or break-ups or surprises. “Wear and Tear” is an up-tempo shuffle with a great harmonica solo. The traditional “In My Time of Dyin'” is turned from a spiritual into a ballad with no loss of spirit. “My Little Babe” finds Brosseau accompanied by piano instead of guitar. The songs are an articulation of fluid inspiration, composed and performed by a master craftsman – daytime lullabies, so sparse, spacious and slow.

In the last track, “Quiet Drink,” Brosseau yearns to be “far away from any noisemakers.” He draws as much as he can from each syllable, squeezing every last drop of meaning from his words. For those who have made it this far, the lesson becomes clear: Tom Brosseau’s music succeeds because it is simple and quiet, and can be more profound than silence.

The Cloud Room – The Cloud Room

The Cloud RoomThe Cloud Room (Gigantic)

Fresh out of the NYC womb, dressed in what may as well have been second-hand suits from the Killers, the Cloud Room drummed up some serious buzz at this year’s SXSW festival. But their self-titled debut, on New York independent label Gigantic Music, can hardly hold up to the hype.

Mellower than Hot Hot Heat, happier than Interpol, and humbler than British Sea Power, the Cloud Room performs a blend of vintage styles that have enjoyed a renaissance in popular and indie circles for almost half a decade. That’s not to say that we’ve always enjoyed it too – like many of their peers, the Cloud Room doesn’t do much with their first album but advance a borrowed aesthetic. A few fantastic songs sprinkled amongst a larger body of yawners are not enough to salvage the collection from mediocrity.

The consummately infectious first single and album opener “Hey Now Now” (excerpt) makes a damn good go of it. Threatening to forge a unique and confident sound in a scene of imitators, it’s the song that has been spreading the Cloud Room name around the world. Just two tracks away on the record is another highlight – the sexy, energetic sing-along “Blackout” (excerpt). Anchoring the second half of the album are “The Hunger,” which rehashes “Hey Now Now”‘s Bowie-meets-Duran Duran approach, and “We Sleep in the Ocean,” which finds lead singer J mimicking Ian McCulloch to a T.

Other than that, there’s not much to grab onto. The Cloud Room worked through many bad ideas to discover a few good ones, and unfortunately committed the entire process to tape. The few moments of brilliance are drowned out by what must’ve been a severe case of writer’s block. Promise and potential isn’t enough to keep this band from being another failed experiment in ’80s revivalism. Here’s to hoping their follow-up proves me wrong.

The Hotel Alexis – The Shining Example is Lying on the Floor

The Hotel AlexisThe Shining Example is Lying on the Floor (Broken Sparrow)

A visit to the Hotel Alexis is a self-contained vacation, a 43-minute respite from the rigors of high-speed life. The power of The Shining Example is Lying on the Floor – the debut solo project of songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Sidney Alexis (who’s ably backed by eight musicians over the course of the 12 songs) – is in its pace. Its stories take time to tell, and Alexis is in no hurry. More impressively, not once does a song beg to be sped up or cut short. Even the remarkably patient opener, “The Season for Working,” does not lack for tempo. From the onset of a pedal steel guitar languishing over a softly brushed snare, the song renders irrelevant the passing of time. Seemingly inconsequential details like the vibraphone droning in the background and the subtle cracks in Alexis’ low voice become essential.

Similar to its slowed-down folksy forefather Sparklehorse, the Hotel Alexis remains interesting even when it is shades away from a whisper; when a guitar sounds as if it would fall silenced if it missed so much as a note; when percussion can come and go as it pleases without disrupting the song’s flow. These are very careful compositions, mated to the speed of life in the idyllic Northeast – home to Alexis and his newly formed label, Broken Sparrow Records.

Alexis shares Sparklehorse songwriter Mark Linkous’ affinity for the old-fashioned. But while Linkous often interprets his subjects with whimsy, Alexis remains staunchly down to earth. There is no fantasy here. In its place is the understated hardship and sadness of everyday life. It is the sort of matter-of-fact melancholy in which it is so easy to take comfort. In “Comeback Kid,” when Alexis sings “The cure is gonna come tonight / They’re bringing me the good, good stuff,” it is certain that he needs a cure, and that we have found ours.

“Dapper Dan” perfects Alexis’ formula: compelling lyrics expressed convincingly over a tranquil yet tuneful accompaniment. “Sell all you have, buy a piano / If you get sad, play just the black keys,” he advises, carrying a gentle melody in his wistful voice. “Ain’t this life sweet, ain’t this life sweet,” he jokes with a straight face later in the song. It’s one of the few lighthearted moments found on The Shining Example is Lying on the Floor, and it makes the album’s refreshing humanity all the more real. What a deal: $15 buys you a lifetime of restful retreats to the Hotel Alexis.

The Murdocks – Surrenderender

The MurdocksSurrenderender (Surprise Truck)

The Murdocks are unmistakably a garage rock band. Punk, blues, grunge, and pop weave their way from time to time into their sound, but at the heart of it, the Murdocks are simply loud, dirty, and catchy. They favor fuzz-drenched guitars, distorted vocals (yes, a la Strokes), simple basslines, and lots of cymbals in the mix.

This Austin trio’s debut LP is not perfect, but promising. Its strongest and most consistent element is lead singer Franklin Morris’ voice, which manages to be expressive and acrobatic while retaining the requisite fierceness of true garage vocals.

Just a few minutes in, opener “The Saddest Star” (mp3) was already slated to appear on The Next Big Mixtape I’m working on. More catchy and refined than the rest, it begs to be heard. Why this song is not on the radio I DO NOT KNOW. “Bloody Murder” is pure punk-garage rock, and seriously folks, rock and roll doesn’t get much more fun than this. Three chords, lots of distortion, subtle melody: it sounds good, it sounds mean, and it just rules. By contrast, “Da Da,” “My Scarlet Purse,” and “Death of a French Whore” (mp3) are too clearly derivative of some of the bands that inform the Murdock’s sound. These selections fail on record and would likely work better in a live setting, where the inner critic is drowned out by booze and body movement.

Surprisingly, the final two songs don’t sound anything like the rest of the record. “Easter Moon” (mp3) is just Morris and his acoustic guitar, while the untitled hidden track – another Morris solo vehicle – patters along to the pained cadence of a sullen keyboard. Together they prove that the Murdocks can do more than just crank it up to 11 and rock. But out of context the songs aren’t worth half as much.

When you get down to the nitty gritty, the Murdocks do often sound too much like their influences and peers. But this is a young band whose second album I would really be interested in hearing. A lot of talent went into this record, and there are likely many more ideas brewing somewhere below the surface that didn’t make it onto Surrenderender. This is a fine effort, and I have the distinct sense that the Murdocks can do much better.