Sunday, March 23, 2014

Week 11

Mind Over Matter by Young the Giant

Here's your alternative rock fix.

Young the Giant is an indie rock (what does that even mean?) group out of Irvine, CA that's been making waves on the alternative rock scene lately. They consist of Sameer Gadhia singing, Jacob Tilley on guitar, Eric Cannata on guitar and backup vox, Payam Doostzadeh on bass, and François Comtois on skins. You may remember their single "Cough Syrup" from their self-titled debut album. Love that song. Mind Over Matter was released late last year and even though most groups have a sophomore slump when it comes to their second release, luckily YtG dodged it here.

After a stringy intro, the album's first track "Anagram" is up. Don't let the syncopated muted guitar fool you, this group is no stranger to 2's and 4's. It's really refreshing to hear a group that has made their stake in the alt scene mix up the textures and rhythms in their tunes. This one is a great example. 

Without making your mind up for you regarding the meaning behind the lyrics of this one, YtG's songwriting is some of my favorite. Period. If you remember the opening lines from "Cough Syrup:"

Life's too short to even care at all oh
I'm losing my mind losing my mind losing control
These fishes in the sea they're staring at me 
A wet world aches for a beat of a drum

then you're already familiar with the creative stylings of this group. "Anagram" among others is no exception.

Next up is this album's first single "It's About Time." This one reminds me of some of 30 Seconds to Mars more recent stuff. Less screaming, more nuance in between the power chords. That's all I have to say about that (read in a Gump accent).

"Crystallized" is the first track from the album that addresses that comes close to a love song. Once again lots of muted guitar and plenty of handclaps and displaced drum grooves. Very refreshing. Not to mention the songwriting is pretty solid. Floating through space until you find the one who's heartbeat matches yours never sounded so good.

'Bout time we heard Sameer Gadhia move a little air. The album's title track is next and this one took a few extra listens, but has actually become one of my favorites. The retro piano gliss into some distorted synth lines may turn you off. Don't let 'em. Instead let the strings and half-time groove pull you in. This anthem of independence and solitude will probably end up on Sportscenter commercial at some point.

The next track is only saved by the chorus. From an instrumental standpoint "Daydreamer," sounds like it belongs on a Killers release: uptempo surf-rock with some extra reverb and rhythm guitar. Not a huge fan of this one.

To me the next two tunes are sort of a tandem pair. "Firelight" and "Camera" have a very similar vibe and share a few ideas as far as content goes. For "Firelight" the tempo is back down and Sameer is basically whispering in your ear. As far as ballad-y rock tunes go, I dig this one. Very serene and personal. Makes you think! "Camera" continues the somber vibe with a little extra in the way of drums and guitar. Since I didn't write 'em, I can't definitely say what either song is about, but both speak to the struggles of being a 20-something. If you check out this album, try to listen to these two as a single entity.

"In My Home" is up next. This one will get you pumped about doing, well, just about anything. At first it sounds like Sameer is describing the band's arrival as a group. However, the further I got, the more I thought that instead this one's more about not giving up when it comes to your dreams. Cliché? Yes. Still good. Also, a great contrast to the two preceding songs.

The quintessential modern electro-pop from Mind Over Matter is definitely "Eros." I think the writing is pretty solid, but I'm not a fan of this joint's sound as a whole. I know that electro-pop is largely dependent on relentless, driving backbeats and pop chords, but this one is just fatiguing.

Speaking of fatiguing, "Teachers" is no exception. This is another uptempo one that has plenty of emotion, but it's pretty much 0-100 is the first few seconds and it never lets up. The message here is pretty introspective though, especially to a listener like me who has grown up in the city and has to make a lot of decisions between things like work, alcohol, the opposite sex for meaningful relationships.

"Waves" is an interesting one. The penultimate song from this album is obviously alluding to drug use as a way to escape hardship and pain. The way it's presented is pretty interesting though. The never-changing background arpeggios are well, waves. The rest of the instruments contribute to this idea without really contributing anything. Simple yet impressive.

Rounding out YtG's newest disc is "Paralysis." Coincidence that this one follows "Waves?" I think not. Although the repeated ending redeems the slow start this one takes a second to enjoy - at least for me. Polished pop-rock full of, once again, dark themes remind you of why the album title was chosen.

In conclusion, Mind Over Matter is an interesting release from Young the Giant. It's definitely good, but a lot of that has more to do with small nuances in the songwriting, instrumentation, and juxtaposition more than just the overall sound. Even though a lot of this album's themes are dark in nature, I suppose that's a lot of what being a 20-something is about: sifting through temptation and self-realization? If you're a fan of groups like Neon Trees, Atlas Genius, 30 Seconds to Mars, or Maroon 5, I think YtG will offer a slightly different take on the adult indie sound without taking you away from your comfort zone. Check it out!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Week 10

Revolution by Rusconi

So here's something a little different...

Rusconi is an avant garde, electronica, groove, contemporary jazz outfit from Switzerland. It's taken me a few listens, probably because I don't listen to music of this genre much, but I've slowly come around.

Before I go any further, you should know that two of the groups full-length releases can be downloaded for free from their page... just sayin'.

Stefan Rusconi, for whom the group is named is responsible for writing most of the songs, and let me tell you this is some trippy stuff. Granted I don't know a lot about avant garde styles of jazz, there is still something about the ideas and energy this group generates that makes this album pretty awesome.

The opening track, "Tempelhof" is certainly exemplary. Out of tune piano with 808 style backbeats and then triumphant piano chords that sound more like they belong on a mixtape than anything else come together in a pretty groove-tacular way. A little upright bass soloing reminds you that you're still hearing a jazz group, but otherwise you might think that this is an instrumental track for a '90s underground hip hop group!

The following tune, "Milk" is a little more out of left field. Sparse stumbling piano harmonies with a hiss-filled background lead to some eerily engaging vocal harmonies. Not sure how I feel about this one. Maybe that's the point...

Next up is "Alice in the Sky." This is one of my favorites on this disc. Very atmospheric. Ethereal percussion and upright sounds eventually give way to some distorted guitar and then piano. The first five minutes of this one would be right at home during the opening or ending credits for an indie film festival winner. Haunting but not depressing. Think Fracture (a la Ryan Reynolds) meets Butterfly Effect.

Following "Alice" is a very trippy joint called "Berlin Blues." The weird harmonies first heard in "Milk" are back, along with some unpredictable feel and time changes/stops. Good luck trying to bob your head to this!

The free rock side of Rusconi is very evident in the next tune, "Massage the History Again." If you've ever enjoyed the stylings of Porcupine Tree, I can't imagine you wouldn't find something to like in this one. 

Just like "Alice in the Sky," the next track, "Kaonashi" would be right at home in an indie film credit roll. I won't say that this tune doesn't go anywhere per se, but it is very simple. But also very complex. But at the same time, really simple. The droning vocals and piano progression yield a little more every time you hear it. Some analytical listening may be required.

"False Awakening" is next to last. Trickling keyboard arpeggios play host to what I'm pretty sure is a kindergarten class playing with kitchen utensils on other found kitchen items. If not, it sounds like it! Eventually some distortion interrupts the kindergarteners and gives way to the last track, "Hits of Sunshine."

This one is a tune that's just, well, weird. Weird harmonies. Weird string sounds. Weird ethnic percussion and strings. Until the groove settles. Eventually a very MMW thing settles in, giving the listener a little more of a melody to latch onto, plus plenty of 2's and 4's. There's a little Michael Jackson-inspired tag that you'll have to check out yourself! Weird track. Cool Ending.

Overall, Rusconi's first independent release is a solid example of what some contemporary jazz musicians are doing these days. There are elements of Coleman, MMW, Porcupine Tree, and Avishai Cohen to be found throughout, so if you've ever gotten down on any of those groups, I definitely recommend Revolution by Rusconi.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Week 9

Live at the Royal Albert Hall by Adele

Who's ready for some sangin'?

Long story short? I think that Adele's live album more than either of her full-length studio releases or her iTunes EPs. This one is recorded brilliantly and holds a few gems that only a live recording would yield.

This album is part of a DVD/CD combo from her show on September 22, 2011. The band sounds great, and whoever was running the board knew exactly what he or she was doing! This recording has a front-row seat sound that gives the you plenty of her voice with a good balance of band, backup vocals, and even the rest of the audience.

The show starts with a pretty straightforward version of "Hometown Glory" on which Adele takes a short scat solo. It's sparse in arrangement, but she doesn't hold anything back vocally. Nice way to start the set.

She follows with "I'll Be Waiting," "Don't You Remember," and "Turning Tables," all of which are pretty straightforward. 

Next up, "Set Fire to the Rain." This one has all the power the studio version evokes - rich piano, plenty of strings, and lots of energy. Speaking of strings, they're a standout on this one. A little forward in the mix to me, which makes a great platform for the listener to feel power of this song.

The next song is one of three covers from this album entitled "If It Hadn't Been for Love." This is a swampy, bluegrass tune from Nashville's The Steeldrivers. Interestingly enough, Adele's cover is about as true to the original as you can get. This one gets a set change, trading in the string section for some guitars and banjo, full-sized kit for a 3-piece, and piano for a melodica no less! Definitely one to check out to hear something a little outside of her typical neo-soul thing.

The next tune "My Same" is the first from the show that's not from the 21 album. The original has a good bit of digital effects, and it's pretty nice to hear her do it with basically a jazz trio set up. Very cool smoky jazz lounge thing going on. One of my favorites.

Following "My Same" are some energetic, but once again pretty much studio copies of "Take It All" and "Rumour Has it." "Right as Rain" follows with a rock'n'roll ending, but yet again, not really a departure from the studio version.

I'm not sure why, but the live version of "One and Only" deserves mentioning. It's just powerful. There's obviously lots of emotion in this one, an even though its in one of the largest, most well-known performing venues in the world, it still feels very personal. I like the CD recording, but watching it on YouTube will give you a better idea of what I mean.

"Love Song" is next. Stock. Following is another tune that gets the strings-on-steroids treatment largely with the same effect as "Set Fire": "Chasing Pavements." This is my favorite song from the 19 album in part because of the vulnerability of the lyrics, and in part because of the accompanying layers. Just some great orchestration here.

Next up is the second cover featured in this set, Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me." Maybe the best performance on the album. It's an incredibly simple tune, but for a lot of songs that's what makes them so special. It's just Adele and a piano and she sings the crap out of it. Really gorgeous.

Honestly, I didn't know that the next song was a cover until a good friend mentioned it the first time we listened to this record. Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love" is a gem. Like the Raitt cover before it, this is just voice and piano, but still rich with emotion.

Second-to-last is my favorite from this record "Someone Like You." Why is it my fav? Simple. She has the audience sing the chorus a couple of times and every time it makes me laugh out loud. The recording is excellent and with a high quality audio file and some nice headphones, you'll have to try to keep from looking around you for the extra voices!

This one rounds out with none other than "Rolling in the Deep." Great way to end it. Even though they've been in the same room for about an hour and a half, the audience is all over it - clapping and singing throughout. Adele's voice is still strong, as are the rest of the band, strings, and backup singers. 

In conclusion, Adele's Live at The Royal Albert Hall is one of my favorite live recordings ever, especially out of the last three decades or so. The venue is great. The band is great. The audience is great. And Adele doesn't disappoint either. If you already like what she's done in studio, you won't be disappointed with this one, plus the DVD comes with plenty of extras that you won't get anywhere else. Chiggity-check it out!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Week 8

Run Wolves Run by Sean Hayes

Yeah yeah, I know I'm late on this one. So what. Some reviews take longer than others!

Sean Hayes is a North Carolina native that doesn't exactly fit the bill for today's indie artists. For starters, he's 44. And then, he's four years over the hill. But don't let that influence you. I've been diggin' on Sean for a few years now, and I've always found his songwriting and folk-blues style very refreshing. Maybe an appropriate mashup would be between Bill Withers and Neil Young?

Anyway, Run Wolves Run in Hayes' seventh studio album. Every track on this one has a very organic, un-digitalized feel. I think this is pretty characteristic of the folk genre, but in any case, not having my face blasted by synth patches, electric guitar, and 808s is appreciated!

This album is simple. It's a collection of thoughts about life. You could probably argue that most real albums are, but it takes some serious experience and creativity to reduce complex ideas like love, life, loss, and truth down to a few verses. Luckily for us, Mr. Hayes done did it. 

The first track is "When We Fall In." And you could probably guess that it's referring to love. This along with "Powerful Stuff" are my two favorite songs from this album for the same reason. They're both wide open in terms of instruments and vocals, but still portray some heavy ideas without making me feel like I'm in a grunge power balled music video. Funky acoustic guitar riffs, upright bass, and the occasional call-and-response background vocals make both songs hard to skip.

The album's third and ninth tracks are more centered on life and its totality. "Garden" and "One Day the River" comment on our limited time as human beings, albeit in very different ways. "Garden" is the more optimistic lyrically speaking, but it's wrapped up in a plodding, pensive package where "The River" is the opposite - upbeat groove with the same ideas as the ol' 'dust to dust' proverb. 

It wouldn't be a Sean Hayes album if there weren't a few tracks that boldly addressed the chemistry (or lack thereof) between a man and woman. Songs like "So Down," which begin with 'Put on your high heels and give it to me baby,' and the Mofro-esque "Gunnin'" leave little to imagination with regards to what we're talking about here.

One of the most thoughtful songs on Run Wolves Run is "Soul Shaker." This one you need to hear for yourself. Just know that once again, Mr. Hayes combines a very upbeat feel-good instrumental section to a subject that is not. 

The remaining tracks, "Me and My Girl," "Shake Your Body," and "Stella Seed" are solidly written but didn't do it for this reviewer. You can check 'em out for yourself.

In conclusion, this album is a great foray into that which is Sean Hayes. Thoughtful, simple writing combined with down-home blues funk makes this disc enjoyable for fans of indie, folk, and good old-fashioned blues alike. 

Check it out!

Week 7

Brave by Marillion

This one was tough. Concept albums present an interesting situation. The reviewer has to remember that the band has chosen to limit the album according to a single idea. An appropriate analogy would be instead of using the 64-ct Crayola box, the group has intentionally chosen to use the 8-ct. This one took a few more listens than normal, but I think I'm on board.

Brave by England's Marillion is a concept album from '94 centered around the story of a girl who was found on the Severn bridge in the middle of the night without any idea of who she was or how she got there.

Before I go on, if you're unfamiliar, Marillion is the U.K.'s most successful alternative/progressive rock outfit to date. If you're someone who can dig on more progressive rock groups like Kansas, Styx, or Rush, then this group should please the aural palette as well.

From the get go, Brave has an eerie atmosphere to it. The (almost) instrumental intro entitled "Bridge" is ripe with foreboding power chords and ethereal synths that let you know exactly what to expect in the following tracks. Interesting tidbit here: some of the ambient sounds found in "Bridge" and others were actual sounds from a cave in Buckinghamshire.

Next up, "Living with the Big Lie." That should tell you plenty there. This one is full of commentary on the state of things. Ranging from love to education to entertainment and heavily to government, "Big Lie" more than anything, yields a bleak canvas on which the remainder of the album can rest. No happy-go-lucky, fancy-free, lollipops-and-unicorns feelings happening here! Other songs with a similar vibe and message are "The Hollow Man" and "Paper Lies." 

Next, we get a direct address to the woman from the story. "Runaway" questions the circumstances of her 'discovery' as well as her mindset. This track has a slow-to-build arena rock sound that is both powerful and sensitive. Some very cool bass playing also! The next installment that seems to most directly address the girl's story was "The Lap of Luxury" and then the prog-ified power ballad "The Great Escape" gives this album the dash of suicide that it was missing all along. 

The third track "Goodbye to All That" yields the first taste of Marillion's instrumental prowess. Fans of Liquid Tension Experiment will be quite happy. Some mixed meters, double bass drumming, and screaming electric guitars take the mellow beginning to some pretty awesome heights before we return to some ethereal, string-patched places. This one presents an interesting concept within a concept as the lyrical part of the song is in five parts. I haven't decided for sure what these parts represent to me, but they seem most likely, to fill in different gaps of the girl's history. Let's just say this: this ain't a pretty picture.

The album's title track is one that requires multiple listenings. It's one of the disc's longer songs, but lyrically one of the most sparse. Here the listener has to reconsider the girl's position. I won't tell you what I think, but there's a lot more to this track than you get on the first, second, or seventh listen.

"Hard as Love" is my favorite track on the album. Very cool music and the lyrics offer an interesting take on love as an idea. Lot's of '80s guitar with some pretty cool layers going on underneath - parallel to the words which tell, "Well it makes you hungry and it makes you high/It makes you/suffer and it makes you cry. But it's all worthwhile."

The album ends in an interesting way: optimistically. The final song "Made Again" is the first and only track with 1. acoustic guitar 2. major tonality 3. flute 4. happiness. Some may kill me for saying this, but the overall sound of this one reminds me of REO Speedwagon or early U2. Very interesting that such an otherwise dark and ominous album would end this way. Props to Marillion for keeping me on my toes.

Overall Brave is a pretty impressive album. Both from a concept standpoint (props to vocalist/songwriter Steve Hogarth) and musical view, it's no surprise that many consider this album to be Marillion's masterpiece. Something else to consider is that this disc is almost 20 years old. That's crazy. If you're looking for something new to check out, this is one that I'd suggest only if you're willing to invest a little time with it. It's good at first, but becomes great the more you understand.