Friday, June 28, 2013

Pond - Hobo Rocket

Pond’s Hobo Rocket is an exercise in organized chaos. When the band organizes its classic rock tendencies, hammering down power chords and feeding a hunger for severe fuzzy guitar freakouts, it makes for a perfect storm. The seventies merge with today, creating timeless songs that get inside your head.

“Xanman” sees Pond reaching that pinnacle, riffing hard and building a strong melody and chorus that’s clever and hooky. As the song develops, the Perth, Australia band stretches into a hushed bridge before bursting back into the familiar riff and a balls-out finale.

We hear the similarities between Pond and Tame Impala, who share a few band members, on the psychedelic rumblings of “Giant Tortoise” and “O Dharma,” a gentle trip into the spacey ether that Tame Impala perfected on their last album.

But that sense of calm evaporates as the album progresses, when the band leans toward the chaotic end of the spectrum. “Aloneaflameaflowe” erupts into a nonsensical burst of fuzz and drudgy guitars. Album closer “Midnight Mass (At the Market Street Payphone)” is hardest to follow. It follows no linear pattern, getting lost into a cacophonous sound for minutes at a time.

Parts of the album feel too sloppy, too wayward and too unfocused to really encourage repeated listens. When Pond tightens their sound, the cutting grooves are hard to ignore. It’s those times in between, the chaos, that allow room for growth.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Dent May - Warm Blanket

Who knew disco beats and syrupy-sweet choruses could sound so forlorn? With gooey harmonies and enough falsetto crooning to fill the back of a semi-truck, Dent May is bringing back more of the sticky pop songs he introduced on Do Things. But on his third full-length, we’re getting a sense of the lonely undertones of such sunny music.

You can surmise the plot of “Do I Cross Your Mind?” by the title alone. The lyrics aren’t awfully complex. We’ve all been there, wondering when that unrequited love will notice we’re alive. “Don’t worry darling/I’m coming home,” he repeats, with a sad shred of hope that the object of his affection will anticipate his arrival.

The summer sipping-on-margaritas vibe of “Born Too Late” snakes around with a Bee Gees-esque bass groove, bursting at the seams with enough synthesizer magic to power a small army of flamboyant Oompa Loompas. It’s pure fun, much like “Let Them Talk” where May gives the middle finger to anyone who doesn’t approve of his relationship.

Elsewhere, the mood softens long enough for May to wax poetic about aging. “I think the future will feel much better than I feel now,” he croons. It’s an interesting sentiment amidst the thousands of his generation with a live fast, die young mentality. But for now, May seems content illuminating his loneliness in waves of pop mastery, allowing bold, bright notes to light the end of his dark tunnel.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Dodos - Carrier


The Dodos know something about push and pull. They come at you viciously, screaming guitars and rushed pacing, tying your heart in knots. Then they withdraw, gently floating into acoustic wonderment, a fragile and vulnerable state. It’s tension, it’s unease, it’s bliss, it’s joy.
Carrier is a transitional album for the band, who lost guitarist Chris Reimer last year when he unexpectedly passed away from a heart condition. The two remaining members, Meric Long (vocals, guitar) and Logan Kroeber (percussion), carry on his legacy by making a bold album that takes you places.
The best songs are slightly off. “The Carrier” begins with two guitar parts playing in unison, slightly discordant. But then, in comes the percussion and a third guitar part, and this imperfect collision of sounds is just right. The result is menacing, intense, and the kind of rare piece of music that is still mysterious after several listens.
The Majik Majik Orchestra, who you may have heard on past John Vanderslice recordings, contributes to several songs on Carrier, further fleshing out the band’s sound. A horn section rounds out the climax of “Substance,” making it something truly grand. Lucky for us, the Dodos then let the song wander off into a hazy acoustic retreat for one final minute of guitar picking so sweet it rivals German chocolate cake.
“Death,” perhaps a tribute to Reimer, is a gorgeous ballad, among the most tender of the Dodos’ songs. It’s followed by the album’s grand finale, “The Ocean,” which picks up in the middle with tribal percussion and a background of string instruments. It’s yet another example of how strong the band can be when they build their songs like small universes, starting slow and racing upward until they’re high above the clouds. It ends on the refrain, “Why won’t you be where I want you to be?” A common question, a familiar feeling, but wrangled by tension and conflict, the end of this album stops just short of relieving the unease. Better, it leaves you wanting more. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Japandroids at Headliners Louisville

I wrote this for LEO Weekly to preview Japandroids' June 15th show at Headliners.

We’ve heard all the clichés. Two heads are better than one. Great minds think a like. Two is company, three’s a crowd. We get it. Two can be a magical number. So what is one to do if not born with an Olsen twin?

You find one, of course.

Brian King and David Prowse may not be related by blood, but the two powerhouse players of Japandroids move together like two sides of a beating heart. When one slows down, the other follows. When one screws up, the other compensates.

“Dave and I are not actually very good musicians. We’re not actually good at playing each one of our instruments. But we are very good at playing together,” explains King, who handles the guitar and lead vocals for the duo while Prowse keeps the songs racing with unrepentant percussion. “Our timing, the way we interact, and understanding what the other person is going to do before they do it… all those sorts of things, they’re all integral to us performing the way we do.”

Japandroids aren’t known for their subtleties, musically or otherwise. They’re going for loud and unsteady, the kind of anthemic music that sounds even better when its magnified by 20 different amps crowded onto the stage, ripping away at eardrums without mercy.

And the band’s three-ish albums (they count No Singles, an album that compiles singles and tracks from their EPs, as their sophomore release, between 2009’s thunderous Post-Nothing and 2012’s Celebration Rock) are full of the kind of half-shouted, half-sung garage rock that all but forces heads to shake and bodies to vibrate.

What makes the band something to watch is the way Prowse and King follow each other’s leads almost instinctively. It comes from hours and hours of practice, and is constantly solidified with the more than 200 shows they play supporting each album.

“It’s just second nature,” says King, “That’s the foundation for our live show. We can play really hard, and what seems to be totally wild and out of control, but we never really lose control, actually. We both kinda know what we’re doing all the time inherently. Even if we’re not looking at each other, we just know.”

With hundreds of shows in their belt over the last five years, Japandroids have grown from a small Vancouver twosome to one recognized around the world. It started with “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” the incredibly raw single off Post-Nothing that blitzes by so fast and strong that you don’t have time to figure out why that chorus is so catchy. They built audiences around the addictive quality of their songs, and stage banter like, “Don’t worry, our lyrics are really fucking easy. You can sing along after 30 seconds.”

Now, they’re putting much more consideration into the songs they write, knowing that they’ll be playing them hundreds of times on multiple continents. They’re planning more, reaching for larger ideas and finding new ways to enhance their performance.

Japandroids’ most recent and only show in Louisville was opening for the Walkmen a couple years ago at Zanzabar. King says the crowd seemed to want them to get their set over with so they could see the main band. Now that they’re coming back to play the headlining slot at Headliners, the situation is different. They will be playing for people who are at the show specifically to see them, a privilege that is not lost on them.

But if there is any concern that their heads are getting big as their fanbase grows, King is quashing that fear.

“We’re Canadian. There’s like a natural sense of humility involved in life in general. You can’t really help it, I don’t think.”

King brings up the modesty of Arcade Fire, one of the most successful Canadian bands in recent history, as proof that there’s something fundamentally down to Earth about people raised up North.

“Who the hell knows what would happen if we achieved any kind of monstrous fame or success or wealth or something? Maybe we’d both turn into two Kanye Wests or something, I don’t know. But I do think there’s an inherently Canadian thing about most bands that are from Canada that keeps them relatively modest, no matter how successful they are.”

Thursday, June 6, 2013

John Vanderslice - Dagger Beach

 Stepping inside a John Vanderslice album is like touring a factory where every room is filled with a new texture. Popping and crackling on one track, then smoothly polishing a haunting melody on the next, this master of unique effects makes his listeners think. Sometimes, it feels overwrought. On album opener “Raw Wood,” miscellaneous guitar tones can distract from the lyrics. Better are songs like “Sonogram,” where the many moving pieces work together to create beauty that sounds less busy. Vanderslice worked out most the songs on Dagger Beach post-breakup, while walking through about 200 miles of trails. It’s a confusing world he captures here, but a spectacular opportunity to soak up the diverse paths he carves on his wild adventure.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

CSS - Planta

At the end of a really long day, sometimes we settle for a Big Mac at the drive-thru. And most of us have, at some point, dated a dud because it takes a lot of work to find a winner. We’re only human. But why settle for vapid party songs when they’re not even catchy enough to make a single toe tap? We all like sleeping, but not right in the middle of the party. Usually, bedtime music and club jams fall on opposite ends of the spectrum. But if CSS is accomplishing anything, it’s the creation of a new hybrid: party songs so dull and insipid they kill the buzz before it even starts.

Some of the songs on Planta begin as dark as the worst in Interpol’s catalog. It’s really no fun, and the tone makes it a lot harder to choke down the lyrics. In the predictable “Too Hot,” we hear details of a god-like sex partner whose “hair is like a lion/blowing with delight.” It might come off as whimsical and playful in different circumstances.

If the album could be redeemed, it would do so by heavily leaning on “Hangover.” It has a semblance of heart with zesty horn blasts and a hefty dose of syncopation. For once, the band seems to let loose, so much so that we can forgive it for lines like, “let’s get happy, drinking bloody mary/I don’t want to be your sour cherry.”

Elsewhere, listeners have to deal with grating synthesizer and dirty speak-singing. You can only order so many fast food burgers, and spend so many nights bored of the person sitting across you at the table. It’s time to get off your butt and leave the mediocrity where it belongs – alone.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The National - Trouble Will Find Me

The National is not a band that has matured. It's a band that is mature. And a quality often associated with boring has actually never sounded more vibrant and alive.  The slow burn of Matt Berninger's baritone, the tension he is able to convey with one-liners that sting and then stick, could easily be overlooked. But when you pay attention, the gravity of these stories – overlaid with expansive, all-encompassing guitars, ever-present percussion and well-thought out melodies – knocks you down like a bottle of bourbon. Highlights include the gradual build of “Humiliation,” a five-minute song that ends with a minute-long tangent so beautiful, so different from how it began, that it’s hard to imagine how The National laced it all together so neatly. The gentle freak-out of “Sea of Love” is a reminder that calculated refinement is not a curse, but a blessing. 

I wrote this for LEO Weekly.