Wednesday, July 23, 2014

REVIEW: Astronauts - Hollow Ponds

As Astronauts, former Dark Captain Dan Carney takes you on an unlikely space journey.  Rather than launch the listeners beyond the atmosphere, the new LP dares you to venture inward.  To face the dark corners, the regrets, the insecurities, as well as the hopes, strengths and dreams.  So for this one, turn down the lights, settle into a chair, put on your earphones and become immersed in the brooding, atmospheric electro-folk/pop of Hollow Ponds.  Just in time, it is raining here.

Perhaps perversely, given my introduction, the album commences with a soaring ray of light in the form of "Skydive".  Already released as a single, I think it is one of the highlight songs of the year so far.  Such moments of brightness aren't typical here, to be fair, but the emotional weight of the songs is adeptly balanced by the thoughtful acoustic instrumentation, hushed vocals, ambient electronics, intriguing rhythms and, quite notably, the judicious use of space.

The brooding begins in earnest with the contemplative "Everything's A System, Everything's A Sign".  The song is emerging as one of my favorites on the album for several reasons, but one is the delightful rhythm track.

Driven by ominous instrumentation, electro-pop track "Vampires" is one of the more up-tempo songs on Hollow Ponds.  Then the pace drops to dream state for the standout track "Flame Exchange".  Hushed vocals float on gently picked acoustic guitar and a barely-there synths to create a sadly beautiful song.

"Spanish Archer" gets the blood going again, bouncing along as perhaps the most mainstream pop song on the album.  But Carney's more melancholy purposes pull us back on the following title track.  In fact, the first third of "Hollow Ponds" is so sparsely adorned that the listener might be tempted to adjust the volume.  Patience is rewarded, however, as the beat rises and vocals drop in, resulting in a very rewarding seven minute exploration of inner emotional landscapes.  "In My Direction" continues the hushed vocals over yet another delightful rhythmic foundation.

"Try To Put It Out Of Your Mind" is the electro-pop version of a relaxing babbling brook, while "Openside" crosses the line into indie rock territory, and is the most expansive track on the record after the opening "Skydive".  The album closes with the acoustic plucking and nearly whispered musings of "Slow Days".

Hollow Ponds is an interesting and rewarding journey.  And at the end, we may all be able to call ourselves Astronauts.  The album is out now via Lo Recordings.

Lo Recordings

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Molten Gold" from The Chills

The Chills are among the stalwarts that made Dunedin, New Zealand a frequently name-checked source of great guitar pop in the '80s and '90s.  Founder, frontman and sole constant member Martin Phillipps has assembled the latest edition of the band to tour and record.  Last year they released new song "Molten Gold" only in digital format, as well as Somewhere Beautiful, an album of a live performance at a private party in 20ll (review here).  Now the glittering guitar pop of "Molten Gold" is getting a well-deserved vinyl release.   It will be paired with an re-working of the band's famed 1982 song "Pink Frost".  You can stream both tracks below.

"Molten Gold" will be released on July 29 via Fire Records on vinyl with an accompanying digital download.  Pre-orders are available now.

The Chills are Martin Phillipps (guitar/vocals), James Dickson (bass/backing vocals), Todd Knudson (drums/backing vocals), Erica Stichbury (violin/backing vocals), Oli Wilson (keys/backing vocals).

Fire Records
Fire Records pre-order page for "Molten Gold"

REVIEW: Melted Toys - Melted Toys

The usual path of musical discovery to to become familiar with a band, and then experience the side projects of its various members.  I've done things a bit backward here, as I first became aware of, and enamored with Brian Wakefield's recording project Emotional, which I covered several times in the recent past (herehere, and here).  Through Brian's project I became familiar with Melted Toys, a west coast band consisting of founders Daniel Rosado and Steven Harkins, with Brian Wakefield and Ole Haarstad.  Melted Toys' sweet spot is a hazy, lo-fi psychedelic pop that they first displayed on their 2009 Washed & Dried EP and have perfected for the new self-titled LP.  Overall, the twelve tracks on the album reveal an impressive ability to create interesting dream pop songs infused with vitality and a welcome upbeat vibe.  The sounds are a bit woozy and warped, with gentle but bright guitars and tastefully restrained synths.  The vocals blend in with, rather than ride over the top of, the instruments, which enhances the relaxed atmosphere.

If you are looking for an album to make you dance or pump your fist in the air, Melted Toys isn't the answer.  But I've been hoping for a full length from these guys for some time, and I'm very pleased with what they have wrought.  Every time I listen to it a feel peaceful and happy, and who couldn't use a big dose of that in their lives?  And looking beyond that, songs this carefully constructed suggest that we can expect more good things in the future from Melted Toys.

Melted Toys is out now via label Underwater Peoples.

Here is the video for "Observations" --

Underwater Peoples

Friday, July 18, 2014

REVIEW: Honeyblood - Honeyblood

FatCat Records is based in England, but over the years it has shown a keen eye for talent north of Hadrian's Wall.  It's catalog shows releases for The Twilight Sad, We Were Promised Jetpacks, Frightened Rabbit, and PAWS.  And now they've scored the right to release the self-titled debut album from Glasgow duo Honeyblood.  What Shona McVicar and Stina Tweeddale offer on the album doesn't break new ground.  Female-voiced gauzy, sometimes grungy guitar pop also is available from September Girls, La Sera, Frankie Rose, Dum Dum Girls, Best Coast and others.  But I think there are several attributes that suggest that Honeyblood deserves a harder look and a chance to be in your music collection.  One is that Tweeddale's lead vocals, and the harmony provided by McVicar's contributions, are compelling.  Another is that the songwriting is very good, with plenty of punch and plenty of hooks on top of the punch.  And then there is that bit of edge to the lyrics and the delivery, that touch of Glasgow hard guy that you could get with, for example, The Shop Assistants, but not from Best Coast.  For my taste, a bit of riot girrrl in my current music is a welcome touch.

Those familiar with the band's earlier work will find the sound a bit different.  The energy and attitude remain, but the increased production budget has brought a cleaner sound.  I have no complaint about that development.  I serves to better showcase the vocals, Stina's guitar, Shona's drums, and the economical arrangements.  Moreover, the clean production doesn't blunt the attitude.  Based on the evidence of these songs, the women of Honeyblood are rambunctious and ready to give at least as good as they get.  There is a lot of velvet in their voices, but a velvet wrapped hammer is still a hammer.

Honeyblood is out now via FatCat Records.  The band is playing several shows in the eastern United States in late July, so US fans should check the band's website at the link below.

FatCat Records

Rolling Stones Friday; 2120 South Michigan Ave.

We're going way back this week, to 1964 and The Stones' 2nd US release 5 x 5. 

"2120 South Michigan Avenue" is a short instrumental jam, inspired by Chicago blues and R&B, the title being the Chicago address of the business offices and recording studio for Chess Records, home to Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and so many others. The Stones recorded the song there at the Chess studios during their first US tour.

For me, the best part is Brian Jones' harmonica playing, simply fantastic. That's Ian Stewart on keyboards, and Keith Richards playing the tremolo guitar riff.

Every band has its influences and the Stones wore theirs right there on their sleeves.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Skygreen Leopards - Family Crimes

Imagine if years ago members of New Zealand's The Bats secretly joined forces with The Byrds in a sunny California hideaway, and spent several days writing and recording.  Inspired by their surroundings, the collective produced 14 sunny guitar pop tracks in all of their ragged 'one-take' glory, and then boxed up the results and hid them away to be released in 2014.  Of course, that didn't really happen (at least, I don't know that it happened).  But Family Crimes from Skygreen Leopards could make you think that it happened.  Sun kissed, hazy and lo-fi, it gives me that pleasant blissed-out feeling that I get when I go to a picnic on a sunny summer day and drink a bit too much wine a bit too fast.  Suddenly I'm happy and affectionate, albeit not particularly focused.  So grab a bottle of chilled pinot gris, a copy of Family Crimes, a blanket or two and some friends.  There you have it -- a summer afternoon all sorted out.

This jangling nugget of good summer vibes is out now via Woodsist


RIP Johnny Winter

Blue guitarist great Johnny Winter died  yesterday in a hotel room in Zurich.  I would take every opportunity to see Johnny.  The thought in the front of my brain was, "This is probably the last time I will ever see him play."  Johnny beat the reaper for decades.  Years of alcohol and heroin abuse,  from 1980 through 2005,made Johnny a perennial top draft pick in "death pools."  Winter resumed his career 2006 after kicking multiple habits.   I saw him a couple of years ago at the 35th Reunion for Vegetable Buddies - an iconic midwest music club.  Gaunt and frail but still capable letting loose with monster licks.

 In 1968,  Winter signed a contract with a bonus of $600,000 after being "discovered" by Columbia Records executives sitting in with Mike Bloomfield ad Al Kooper at the Fillmore East.  The following Spotify playlist is Winter's 1969 major album release.


Johnny left his own indelible mark when playing other artist's originals.  Everyone has their favorite Bob Dylan cover.  My favorite is Johnny's cover of "Highway 61 Revisited' - a version so rousing that i once found myself unintentionally driving over 100mph while lost in his guitar playing.

My favorite Johnny memory is from 1981 ChicagoFest on Navy Pier.  Muddy Waters was playing the blues stage.  I had scored tix on the SS Milwaukee, an old Lake Michigan ferry, 29 feet behind and 20 feet above the stage.  It was a humid 90 degree night with the audience packed cheek to jowl.  The fist half was classic Muddy and then Johnny walked on stage.  Fire up the Enola Gay.  It went nuclear.  I recently found this recording of the concert.  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"We Go On" from The Luxembourg Signal

We featured the excellent two-track Distant Drive single from London/Los Angeles project The Luxembourg Signal in late April (link here).  Today, we have for you another song, "We Go On", and a reminder that the group will release and album later this year.  Save your pennies -- we think it will be good.

Shelflife Records

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

REVIEW: Reigning Sound - Shattered

I doubt that When You Motor Away is alone in its love for a sound that combines garage rock, southern rock, and soul.  And a band that does it about as well as anyone around these days is the current iteration of Reigning Sound.  Unfamiliar with them?  The band is organized around George Cartwright, whose past projects include Detroit Cobras, Deadly Snakes, and The Oblivians.  For Shattered, the new album just released on Merge Records, Cartwright, is joined by his longtime collaborator and keyboardist Dave Amels, and Mike Catanese, Benny Trokan, and Mikey Post.  Mike, Benny and Mikey all had played with Dave in a soul band called The Jay Vons.  The combination of  players may be new, but the result, when melded with Cartwright's songwriting, is rock and roll magic.  The songs are sincere, emotionally direct and span from roadhouse rock and roll to ballads.  As appropriate, the vocals convey world-weary resoluteness and rock and roll swagger.  Moreover, the music jumps out of the speakers with a live recording vibrancy, while still leaving no doubt that the band is tight, crisp, polished and punchy.

The album opens with "North Cackalacky Girl", a rocking number with organ trills and guitar solos, Cartwright's gritty and velvet tenor and a driving beat.  The following "Never Coming Home" (stream below) emerges as one of the standout tracks, the upbeat melody carrying a story of a clear eyed view of a failed relationship.  The Reigning Sound soul revue kicks into high gear with the glorious "Falling Rain" (stream below).  Soulful, nuanced ballads "If You Gotta Leave" and "Once More" hold tracks four and six, respectively.  Those ballads sandwich one of my favorite tracks -- the forward-pushing '60s garage rock nugget "You Did Wrong", which to my ears plays like a lost early Zombies demo.  But for me, the best soul rocker on the album is "My My" (stream below), which makes me want to go for a drive with the windows down and the stereo turned up (thank you, Merge, for not releasing this album in the winter).  And to give props when due, the bass player absolutely earned his share on this song.  I think that the best of the ballads is track eight, "Starting New", as it showcases Cartwright's ability to deliver a note-perfect '70s slow burning soul song.  "Baby, It's Too Late" is rousing soul rock.  "In My Dreams" is an atmospheric, organ-driven, mid-tempo blues song.  Shattered closes with "I'm Trying (To Be the Man You Need"), an absolutely delicious soul ballad.

As news of this album trickles out, I expect that it will garner a lot of praise.  That praise will be well deserved, and you deserve this album.  Check it out.

Shattered was recorded at the Daptone studio in Brooklyn.  It is out now via Merge Records.

Merge Records page for Reigning Sound

Saturday, July 12, 2014

RIP: Thomas Erdelyi a/k/a Tommy Ramone

The last living original member of The Ramones, drummer Tommy Ramone, died of cancer yesterday.
Thomas Erdelyi was born in Budapest Hungay in 1952, his parents both Holocaust survivors. He was raised in Forest Hills, New York.  He started his music and studio career at a young age, serving as an engineer on Jimi Hendrix' Band of Gypsys record (1970).

Tommy Ramone was the glue to The Ramones, and a highly influential drummer. He was as responsible as anyone for The Ramones indelible sound, and their uncanny ability to sound primitive and incredibly precise at the same time. And he was the main writer of one of the Ramones most iconic songs "Blitzkrieg Bop", done here live in 1977, fantastic footage:

Joey Ramone was The Ramones original drummer when they first got together in 1974, and Tommy was their manager. But Tommy had to take over on drums when Joey couldn't keep pace with the increasingly fast pace of the songs they were writing, moving Joey out front to sing. Tommy left the band in 1978 (replaced by Marky Ramone), though stayed around to produce Road to Ruin and later Too Tough To Die (1984).  But The Ramones sound and legend was made on their brilliant first three records, all featuring Tommy on drums and as co-producer -- Ramones, Leave Home, and Rocket to Russia.

Tommy had a long career in music, playing many instruments and styles of music, including bluegrass. But he further left his mark on rock and roll by producing one of the very best albums of the '80s, Tim by The Replacements. While so much '80's music is nearly unlistenable for its production (I'm talking to you Bruce Springsteen, and you too The Police), Tim sounds as perfect today as it did upon its release in 1985:

So The Ramones are all gone, which makes me feel both sad and old. Hard to believe every Ramone is now gone while every other member of the Rolling Stones has survived since Brian Jones' death 45 years ago.

I can't imagine any new band coming along now that would so turn everything upside down like the Ramones did in 1976, such equal parts anarchy and exuberant fun.

So we'll remember the great Tommy Ramone with one more, "Rockaway Beach", one of the greatest all time rock and roll summer songs; how this was not a top 10 hit I will never understand. Pay close attention to the drums, so perfect:

King Post Kitsch offers free sampler

Recording and performing as King Post Kitsch, Glasgow-based musician Charlie Ward has released several EPs and two albums, 2011's The Party's Over via Song by Toad Records, and this year's Sheep On A Beach via New Pleasure Recordings.  Charlie has generously created this free sampler of his music so fans and potential fans can sample his art.  Personally, I find his brand of garage rock to be raw, but intelligent and compelling.  I highly recommend that you download the sampler, and then seek out the recordings from which the songs were culled.  You may find some new favorite albums.