All posts by Vitas Zebraitis

Shearwater – Thieves

ShearwaterThieves (Misra)

On Thieves, Jonathan Meiburg and Will Shelf continue their collaboration in Shearwater with just enough songs to keep their core following satisfied with their charming little Okkervil River side project. The five track ep stays true to the tone they’ve set with previous efforts. Echoey vocals accompany dreamy arrangements with plucky strumming guitars played at a leisurely pace, sporadically accompanied with banjos, organs, and dulcimers.

The songs presented here are so much in the spirit of the previous Shearwater albums Everybody Makes Mistakes and Winged Life, that they sound as if could have been recorded during those sessions and left as outtakes.

Overall it’s a decent ep, but unfortunately it doesn’t have much to set it apart from other releases. This album will appeal to completists of both Okkervil River and Shearwater to be sure. Though, if you’re looking at a starting point with Shearwater, I’d recommend you look into Everybody Makes Mistakes and go from there.

Download “Let the Bombs Fall (I Can’t Wait)” via the band’s official site.

The Dirty Switches – The Dirty Switches

The Dirty SwitchesThe Dirty Switches (Longhorn/Cargo)

Straight up garage punk done right. No sheen. No over production. No posturing. No posing. If you want your rock straight up with a side of tits and ass from a bunch of likely lads from the UK, then The Dirty Switches are bound to please. Buzz saw guitar heavy grooves with attitude reminiscent of Radio Birdman, Stooges, Flaming Groovies backed up against the bluesy punk slop ethos of The Saints, The Real Kids, and The Dead Boys.

For the most part, the album pretty much races with short tracks played at frantic paces, with tracks like “Bad Luck Loser,” “Won’t Change,” and “Evil In Me” rising to the top. Though one song, “Cold Hearted Woman,” offers a reprieve from the manic barrage of sonic crunch with its blues infused rock and roll swagger that will lock you in with a sound that seems like the Rolling Stones filtered through the Stooges. Hey, and the cover’s got girls in bikinis wrestling. What more could you ask for?

Big Buildings – Hang Together For All Time

Big BuildingsHang Together For All Time

There’s a lot of stuff going on here that reminds me why I fell in love with music in the first place. At most times loud, sloppy, stupid, and scratchy, it always comes across as heart-felt and sincere. Once you give this band a shot I bet you’ll find yourself pulling for them. You’ll see, it’s sort of like the kick you got from listening to early Replacements, Sebadoh, or GBV while driving around your shit home town in your beat-up piece of crap car as a teenager looking to run away from something, but not exactly knowing where you’ll go. Big Buildings is asking us out for another joyride to nowhere in particular, but with lots of fun to be had. With Hang Together For All Time, sloppy sure does sound good to me.

Lots of mp3s available on their website or you can stream lo-fi snippets of the whole album at CD Baby.

Jay Kaiser and Mandy Carter – No Complaints with the View

Jay Kaiser & Mandy CarterNo Complaints with the View

I feel a little guilty admitting this, but when I grabbed this cd from the GLONO goody bag it was with the sole intention tearing into it because it looked like such a lame release. I can’t say that it didn’t meet and exceed my expectations. Come to think of it, No Complaints with the View became a musical high colonic to clear my system of all the great music I’ve been listening to lately. Jay Kaiser’s voice really bugs the crap out of me. Not exactly a falsetto, but definitely in the higher register and whiny enough to get on my nerves. But, once you get over that treat you get some really lame lyrics and lots of open mic acoustic strumming. And that’s only the one-two set up for the knockout punch – it’s even got wah-wah!

Lyric sample: “I’m the guy you wouldn’t talk to / I’m the guy who sat alone / I’m the shadow in the back of the room / Looking for someone to talk to / You’re the one that stood me up / You’re the one that made me wait a long, long time.” Get over it, dork. Man, if an album could reek of stanky hippie patchouli, this one would be it. For the folkies at all the food co-ops, hippie coffee shops, and new age crystal stores this one’s for you. So, Jay and Mandy I raise my organic soy triple chai latte in your general direction and wish you the best of luck.

Mp3s available at

Blessed Light – Love Lights The Way

Blessed LightLove Lights The Way (Mill Pond)

Sugary summer tunes with interesting arrangements played with an adroit musical presentation makes this a somewhat enjoyable listen. The album’s high points are the Gram Parsons’ flavored “Texas Songbird” and the Pink Floyd infused “Angel Of The Air.” Overall the album comes across more like a K-Tel collection of 70s AM golden nuggets.

Mp3 available from Mill Pond Records.

Bound Stems – Levity

Bound Stems – Levity EP

Like the indie rock equivalent of Fruit Stripe gum, on their Levity EP Chicago’s Bound Stems throw out three quirky, kinetic tunes that burst with enough flavor to send you reeling for a few minutes, though falling away all too quickly. It leaves you wishing you had more, but accepting that too much of a good thing might not be that great. Whether the Bound Stems can’t scrape together enough scratch to put together a proper full length or if they harbor some sort of an EP fetish, their fervent passion proves that less can indeed be more.

You can download the Levity EP from the Bound Stems’ website.

Split Lip Rayfield – Should Have Seen It Coming

Split Lip Rayfield – Should Have Seen It Coming (Bloodshot)

With Should Have Seen It Coming, Split Lip Rayfield continues to expand on its trademark psycho version of bluegrass, often times played at manic break-neck speed that would make fingers bleed, other times reduced to quieter moments of plucking and strumming.

The album careens between downright serious and accomplished to goofy and care-free, working both extremes pretty well. From painting humorous caricatures of hillbilly life and telling pensive tales of doom, to celebrating the excesses of drugs and plenty of pre-requisite country tales of lost love.

Though, it’s a lot to take in at once—Is it insurgent country or goofball bluegrass? (Both and neither)—it doesn’t really matter. Just call up some friends, crack a few Miller High Lifes, get some Bar-b-que going, and enjoy.

The Damnwells – Bastards Of The Beat

The DamnwellsBastards Of The Beat (Epic)

There’s a lot on the Damnwells’ Bastards Of The Beat that will seem familiar to fans of alt-country over the past decade. That can be both a good and bad thing. There are nods to the obvious: Westerberg, Wilco, Jayhawks, Whiskeytown and the Old 97’s, with leanings toward the poppier moments of americana-turned-pop acts like the Marah, Goo Goo Dolls and Soul Asylum. Most of the time I can’t tell if the Damnwells are playing it a little too close while they wear their influences on their sleeves or if they’re trying to figure out a specific formula for success and are studied in what has worked for a certain sect of bands over the past decade.

All the same, there are a handful of decent tracks on this album that warrant repeated listening and might even make it onto a comp for a friend. Although some songs are strong and stick with you, they don’t have enough of their own legs to stand on. The power pop of “What You Get” and rock and roll shuffle of “Kiss Catastrophe” takes a page out of the early solo Westerberg songbook. The more pensive “I’ll Be Around” could be a throwaway track from Being There-era Wilco. “Newborn History” sounds as if Damnwells’ drummer Steven Terry got his old bandmates from Whiskeytown to show up and cut a track for his new band.

The second half of the album starts to falter starting with “Sleepsinging” which actually crosses the line to AOR and falls a little flat. The decline continues with the next several tracks sounding like poor covers of 80s college root rock acts like the Bo Deans, dB’s, the Silos, and the Del Lords. Though before they completely wipe out they catch their step with the soft drone of the closing track “Texas” which actually stands out on its own and feels fresh against the backdrop it’s propped against.

Given the influences that shine through in the songs on this album, I’d expect to like it more, but the album comes across a little too studied and unoriginal. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of talent displayed on this album. I’ll definitely keep my eye out to see if the Damnwells can step out of the shadow of their influences to create something amazing with their next album.

Nora O’Connor – Til The Dawn

Nora O’ConnorTil The Dawn (Bloodshot)

If you’ve been paying attention to the Chicago insurgent country scene over the past half-decade, you’ve probably noticed Nora O’Connor, albeit indirectly. She’s been a member of such Chicago favorites as Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire and the glam-twang outfit The Blacks. And if that wasn’t enough to fill up any sane person’s schedule she’s also played or recorded with the likes of The New Pornographers, Archer Prewitt, Neko Case, The Aluminum Group, Otis Clay, Chris Mills, Janet Bean, Frisbie, Justin Roberst, Billy Corgan, Jeff Tweedy and Kelly Hogan. All this while still serving up drinks at the best bar in Chicago. She’s definitely put her bid on winning the hardest working woman in alt-country, if not all entertainment.

This time around Nora O’Connor gets to step out of the shadows and take the spotlight with her latest release for Bloodshot Records, Til The Dawn. Pulling in favors from friends she’s made over the past handful of years playing around town, she’s assembled a damn impressive guest roster of musicians in the likes of Andrew Bird, Gerald Dowd, Ryan Hembrey, Kelly Hogan, Andy Hopkins, and Scot Ligon, which gives her latest album the well worn and comfortable sound of people that have been playing together for a long time.

Til The Dawn falls into that comfortable place between folk and honky-tonk, with just the right measure of torch song lullabies and hipster country to keep things moving along smoothly. With a couple of self-penned originals, a handful of spirited cover selections, and a few contributions from friends, O’Connor presents a delightful grouping of songs that make for an entertaining selection of urban twang.

The first of two James Mathus cuts, “Bottoms”, is a traditional lament of lost love is set against plucking banjo, fiddle, and strumming guitar. A Fleetwood Mac song is stripped down to it’s country soul effectively with “That’s Alright.” My favorite track, “Revolver” by The Drapes’ Kevin McDonough, is a folksy rock tune that has shades of Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home”. O’Connor’s original, “Tonight”, is filled with beautiful harmonies, swelling violins and inspired lap steel.

The album stumbles a bit with the “Love Letters.” On its own this Kitty Lester cover is welcoming with breathy vocals and a nice arrangement, but is out of place against the rest of the album.

Overall, an impressive solo outing filled with wonderful songs, inspired musicianship, and endearing vocals. It may not grab you the first time through, but with repeated listening you’ll find you’ll understand that’s she’s worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with her labelmates Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, and Sally Timms.

The Album Leaf – In A Safe Place

The Album LeafIn A Safe Place (Sub Pop)

With the third offering from his side project The Album Leaf, Tristeza’s Jimmy Lavalle presents an ambient soundscape accompanied by slight percussion and subdued vocals that eases the listener toward that dreamlike state. With assistance from friends from Sigur Rós, Múm, and The Blackheart Procession, Lavalle builds upon his signature sound adding vocals and varied percussion to achieve a more accomplished sound, one that finds him eclipsing the musical largesse achieved during his involvement with Tristeza.

To find inspiration while crafting this album, Lavalle traveled to Mosfellsbaer, Iceland to record at Sundlaugin, Sigur Rós’ home studio and the fruits of his journey and collaborations are evident. Shedding his comfortable surroundings of Southern California, Lavalle finds himself in the half way across the world and in unique surroundings that help shape the dreamlike atmosphere of this album.

Sparse, soft, intricate and fluid, In a Safe Place is an album that should be listened to in its entirety. “Window” sets the mood of the album with subtle beats and a plucking organ allowing things to evolve. “On Your Way” (mp3) introduces vocals to the mix of ambient sounds and beats that follow the organic progression of the album. Sigur Rós’ Jon Thor Birgisson lends sweetly eerie background vocals to “Over the Pond.”

“Streamside” Lavalle sheds the beats and organ for a more elemental sound built with acoustic guitars and strings. The vocals return on “Eastern Glow,” set against a backdrop of strings, beats and organ, pulling elements found throughout the album into one track before moving toward a tranquil exit with the placid “Moss Mountain Town.”

Fans of ambient, post-rock and IDM will find this a rewarding album. And for those who generally overlook those categories, you may be surprised at how engaging the encompassing aural soundscape on In A Safe Place can be.

More MP3s from the Album Leaf.