Junip - “Line of Fire”
It was prescient that Swedish singer/songwriter Jose Gonzales rose to prominence initially with his heartbroken acoustic cover of The Knife’s bittersweet dance anthem “Heartbeats” back in 2006. Both with his solo project, and more directly with his band Junip, Gonzales makes folk music the way that DJs make electronic music. He has a knack for replicating the evocative crescendos and decrescendos that characterize the technic thump of house and trance, and although Gonzales’ medium is considerably more of-the-earth, the dynamic sensibilities of his rhythmic folk invoke the same kind of synthetic energy with which the best turntablists build their careers.
Junip’s latest single “Line of Fire” — off their forthcoming self-titled LP — aims for something more grand than the yacht-rock informed sublimity that defined their 2010 record Fields. Yet, like Gonzales himself, this song also begins from humble origins. Gonzales’ Spanish guitar and mellow organ pads lure the listener in, establishing a subdued base line from which the track can slowly build into its remarkable climax.
Sidewalk Dave - Hard On Romance (2012)
Stream: “Wait Forever”
David Van Witt — aka Sidewalk Dave — is at the very least enigmatic, if not a downright paradox. The ponderous, lanky 20-something has spent an number of years living the unpredictable troubadour’s life, travelling the country and cranking out volumes of thoughtful, solid folk rock and alt-country under his humble pseudonym. Then something changed. He sojourned to Brooklyn, and somewhere along the way, created a record that is qualitatively leaps and bounds ahead of any of his other work. It’s a record that bears conceptual unity the likes of which I have not witnessed in any other record this year — an album displaying the songwriting chops of a grizzled veteran much Van Witt’s senior, but with the attitude and grit of a rambunctious, sexually frustrated teen. It’s an album so fully realized in its production and execution, and yet so utterly (and purposefully) immature in every other facet of its existence, that it can’t help but come across as paradoxical. It’s also one of the best albums I’ve heard in 2012, and it’s called Hard On Romance.
As its title suggests, Hard On Romance is profoundly and explicitly sexual. Dave wastes no time with subtlety and tact regarding this subject; rather, he embraces it like a voracious, perpetually unsatisfied lover. And yet, despite more sexual references-per-minute than even the most explicit Lil Wayne single, Hard On Romance never uses sex for purposes of braggadocio or self-aggrandizement. On the dirgey psych-gaze opener “2k Girls,” Dave moans about sleeping with the titular number of women as if it were a form of punishment. “I am my father’s mistakes,” he sings. To Sidewalk Dave, the concept of “hard on romance” — that is, romance fulfilled only by physical stimulation — is an elusive and dangerous beast that yields short term satisfaction and long-term trauma. In a way, it’s rather like an addiction.
But that’s not to say he doesn’t enjoy it. Dave may recognize the inherent problems with a relationship built only on copious amounts of copulation, but he also recognizes the benefit. In the guitar-crunching chorus of the Pixies-like highlight “Wait Forever,” Dave sounds like a tortured beast demanding sustenance, alternately howling “I want you here now” and “I want you out of here.” The contrast between pleasure and pain is dizzying, and often it is the musical tone that determines the side on which each song comes down. For instance, despite the insecurity that its lyrics reveal, the stuttering second track “Something About Me” is probably the most outwardly happy track on the record. Likewise, the chugging, penultimate track “Soft Portal” exudes swagger despite opening with the revealing line “Baby, please understand that this ain’t love” and ultimately unraveling into a Titus Andronicus-level chorus of yonic philosophizing. Meanwhile, the atmospheric buzz of “Honey Bee” and the moody synth swells of the closing track “Wake Up Baby” take on a more dour tone. Given the sexual energy that courses through Hard On Romance, perhaps it’s fitting that the album ends on a rather limp note.
It’s fitting and understandable that the most successful songs on the album are those in which Dave’s ratio of enjoyment to suffering is most even. “Cayenne” — the song that owes the most to Sidewalk Dave’s country roots — lilts slowly underneath lyrics that describe the complicated longing that remains for a former lover. Later on, the Classic Rock indebted “Climbing Out The Window” finds Dave caught “in between staying young and growing old” — a crucial moment in a man’s life that much of Hard On Romance attempts to reconcile. Far and away, the best track on Hard On Romance is the supremely bittersweet “Happiness Is An Art: We Must Learn While We’re Apart,” which is not only most morally complicated, poetically developed lyrical work on the record; it’s also probably the catchiest and most singular song. Although these tracks may be more pensive than the rollicking, cock-out garage rock numbers, they pack enough musical grit and shoegaze-influenced guitar textures into their slower tempos to maintain a formidable bite.
On “Honey Bee,” which serves as a reflective intermission in the middle of the record, Dave describes the surreal combination of agony and ecstasy with which a male worker bee copulates with his queen, letting her use him for her pleasure only to rip out his innards and let him fall to his death. It’s a powerful metaphor for a concept that Hard On Romance as a coherent unit explores so well. And yet, even without that context, this work still stands up on its own. In all, Hard On Romance is an inimitable collection of some of the best garage rock songs 2012 has had to offer. From any perspective — lyrical, musical, or conceptual — Hard On Romance is unapologetically and unassumingly fantastic.
Hard On Romance is out now via The Telegraph Recording Company. You can stream it via Bandcamp and purchase it on CD for $8. The CD comes with liner notes, including a brief essay regarding the album’s concept called I Am A Virgin - Please Give Me The Sex Talk, and a set of (censored) nude photos of Dave himself because what else would you include in the packaging of an album like this?
Elison Jackson - I Do Believe She Flew Out The Drainpipe EP (2012)
Stream: “Man From Lowell”
Before I begin giving this album, the new EP from the Connecticut folk rockers Elison Jackson, the praise that it undoubtedly deserves, I should be clear about a potential conflict of interests. In my past year of writing and recording my own music, I have played numerous shows with Elison Jackson, in basements and apartment venues throughout Connecticut. I’ve gotten to know frontman Sam Perduta very well, and I look to him as a very inspirational figure in the Connecticut music scene for my own songwriting.
That said, I do have a critical responsibility to be as objective as possible when it comes to reviewing new music. This blog has been popular enough for some time now that I can no longer post about all my friends’ music and pass it off like it’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. Still, every once in a while a band comes along here in the Nutmeg state that truly wows me, inspires me, or otherwise impresses me enough to warrant positive press. Elison Jackson has for some time been my latest local obsession, and with their new EP I Do Believe She Flew Out The Drainpipe, they are poised to actualize the potential that I have witnessed them approach at so many packed basement shows in New Haven.
For years now, Elison Jackson has been a perpetually shapeshifting beast, having started out as an acoustic solo project for Perduta. I Do Believe She Flew Out The Drainpipe finds the band in its most expansive and tightest form yet, playing with a raw live energy that is supplemented by some lush overdubbed instrumentation. It begins with “Man From Lowell,” a five-minute track that, by the time its pining chorus kicks in for the first time, easily surpasses anything that the band has done before. “Man From Lowell” is as good a folk rock anthem as nearly any that I have heard before, drawing from Bob Dylan and Neil Young’s lyricism while evoking Simon & Garfunkel’s soothing guitar atmospheres with its gentle acoustic picking. The track builds on a steady shuffle beat with upright bass and electric guitar until it erupts into a thoroughly sing along-able chorus replete with multi-tracked vocal harmonies, keyboards, and a triumphant horn melody. The trumpet is used so pristinely on this track that I can’t help but sigh wistfully every time I hear it; much like the horns in Love’s classic Forever Changes opener “Alone Again Or,” the trumpet part on “Man From Lowell” simply carries the song into another dimension of quality.
Along with subsequent tracks like the slow blues dirge “Burned” and the bittersweet hometown paean “New Britain,” the clear standout track “Man From Lowell” takes much of its sonic influence from the 1960s. The production on these tracks is dirty and slightly lo-fi, and although I occasionally wish the sound in my headphones came through more clearly, the effect definitely affirms the 1960s vintage vibe. Along with the improved songwriting, what sets The Drainpipe apart from Elison Jackson’s previous work, particularly their ramshackle 2011 full length Spectral Evidence, is the experimental edge that rounds out this EP. “Parking Lot” and the 6-minute “Family Vacation” are shockingly dark and psychedelic, owing as much to early progressive rock as they do Highway 61-era Dylan. With its haunted-house hammond organ, choir-like vocals, and reverb-heavy guitar riffage, “Family Vacation” ends the 23-minute record on a particularly crushing high note.
I Do Believe She Flew Out The Drainpipe does not feel like the end of Elison Jackson’s story, nor should it. Rather, this EP seems to hint at a directional shift for the band, as they grow in prominence and become even more of a powerful live unit. The styles represented on The Drainpipe are diverse, and the band never commits fully to any of them, which might be my biggest criticism of the EP. That said, I am confident that with an enhanced focus and dedication to a particular style in the complicated and expansive realm of folk music, Elison Jackson could do something incredible on their next release. Until then, The Drainpipe does more than just suffice; it excites and whets the palate in a thoroughly fulfilling way.
Key Tracks: “Man From Lowell”, “Family Vacation”
I Do Believe She Flew Out The Drainpipe will be released on vinyl by the Telegraph Recording Company. Its release was funded via Kickstarter.
Woods - “Cali In A Cup”
Despite hailing from Brooklyn, the psychedelic-tinged folk rock band Woods have always given off a west coast vibe. On their sunny new track “Cali in a Cup,” they seem to be acknowledging some of that west coast influence. “Cali in a Cup” is certainly not the only ode to the Golden State to emerge in 2012, but it definitely comes across as more sincere than Best Coast’s cloying, similarly-themed single “The Only Place”.
On this track, the lead single to their new album Bend Beyond, the band seems to be moving further beyond their lo-fi psych rock origins and into some more accessible, clear-sounding sonic territory. Jeremy Earl’s soothing vocals and crystalline acoustic guitar chords form a comfortable foundation for the track, while a distant, distorted harmonica ties “Cali in a Cup” back to their experimental roots. Ultimately, this is a track that sounds great on a sunny summer day like today. Open your windows, go outside, and stream this great new song above.
First Aid Kit - “King Of The World” (featuring Conor Oberst)
The Swedish pair of sisters otherwise known as First Aid Kit gained some recognition stateswide this past year as the main opening act for Bright Eyes on their lengthy tour behind 2011’s The People’s Key. The buzz that they garnered on that tour put them in a convenient place to release The Lion’s Roar, their sophomore LP, towards the end of last month.
The album as a whole isn’t particularly memorable, but its lush mix of folksy instrumentation and rambling, harmonious vocals provides a solid framework for some seriously great standout tracks. On The Lion’s Roar, Johana and Klara Söderberg save best of the bunch for last; the joyful, exuberant closer “King of the World.”
One of the most interesting things about this pair of sisters is that, as far as I can tell, their music bears very little influence of ‘traditional’ Swedish music. Instead, they derive their sound, both musically and lyrically, from the great American singer/songwriters of the 1960s and 70s. It’s such a convincing pastiche that you almost forget where these girls are from. “King of the World” briefly reminds us of their Scandinavian origins, beginning with a jarringly spoken Swedish count in, but as the song picks up, jangly acoustic guitars and resonant accordion melodies come in, and the listener may as well be at the Newport Folk Festival. Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis handled the production on this record, and he certainly deserves some credit for getting such a rootsy sound.
Indeed, this band’s ties with those Omaha indie folk pioneers must be pretty strong. In addition to touring with them and getting their record produced by 1/3 of them, First Aid Kit actually managed to wrangle Conor Oberst himself into providing a guest spot on The Lion’s Roar. He drops a verse and sings a rousing chorus at the end of “King Of The World” — his well-worn voice contrastingly pleasantly with the angelic harmonies of the Söderberg sisters. After the synthed-out weirdness of The People’s Key, there’s actually something comforting about hearing Conor sing folk music again. Here’s hoping that his influence rubs off on First Aid Kit more in the future… and that their influence rubs off on him somewhat.
Song of the Day Number 190
Nana Grizol - “Circles ‘Round The Moon”
This track from Nana Grizol’s 2008 punkish debut record Love It! Love It! might be my second favorite song under 2 minutes ever. The first is definitely “Game of Pricks” by Guided By Voices.
The only problem with this track is that it really could be longer, and it always makes me upset that it isn’t.
Highlights include the part in the chorus where singer Theo Hilton double-times his vocals. The guy could probably be a rapper if he actually was inclined to do so, but I think he should stick to life affirming folk punk music.
Song of the Day Number 171
Spider Bags - “Waking Up Drunk”
If Titus Andronicus played country music, they would be Spider Bags. Or perhaps I should say, if Spider Bags played punk music, they would be Titus Andronicus. Spider Bags are one of the bands that I’ve discovered through the recommendation of the aforementioned New Jersey punk rockers, and it’s easy to see why the members of Titus Andronicus enjoy their music. Today’s Song of the Day “Waking Up Drunk” is simultaneously aggressive and anthemic; defiant, but also tender. It’s a lo-fi country rock anthem for the ages, and one that sounds absolutely timeless given its fairly universal subject matter. The way in which singer Dan McGee delivers his lyrics is so endearing that the listener can’t help but root for him, even when the sentiment he is expressing is such a bittersweet one.
“Waking Up Drunk” appears on Spider Bags’ 2007 debut LP A Celebration of Hunger, which I recently reviewed as part of my Summer Albums Project. That review can be found HERE, along with a download link. If you like this song, check the album out!
Summer Albums Project #3: Spider Bags - A Celebration of Hunger
Genre: Country, Folk Rock
Last year, I met a guy who I wish I could still call my friend. He was really into Bright Eyes at the time of our meeting (and probably still is now — I haven’t seen him since December) and was then in the process of becoming familiar with every band and artist that Conor Oberst was even remotely associated with, which included an in depth exploration of the Saddle Creek Records back catalog, among other things. It got to the point where he was checking out subsequently obsessing over bands simply because Conor Oberst mentioned them. I always thought this was strange.
Anyway, lately I’ve realized that I’m kind of doing the same thing, except with Titus Andronicus instead of Bright Eyes. Patrick Stickles’ blog posts are often filled with recommendations of bands that he’s become acquainted with on the road, and he always seems to namedrop interesting artists in interviews as well. Now that Titus Andronicus has started sponsoring shows in Brooklyn via TA LLC, it’s easier to connect with the bands that Stickles is into now than ever before. Being touring musicians in a well-regarded but still relatively underground band, the members of Titus Andronicus have a unique opportunity to shed light on some more obscure bands that they’ve encountered on their travels. Additionally, Titus fans like me benefit by getting an insight into the personal music tastes of the band. One of the bands that I’ve discovered through them in the past year is Hallelujah The Hills, a Boston group who assisted with the recording and touring of Titus’ excellent album The Monitor last year. As of today, I can add Spider Bags to the list of Stickles-approved bands that I really enjoy as well.
Even though I’ve been hearing about Spider Bags for quite some time now, I never had the opportunity to listen to their music until today. Their debut album A Celebration of Hunger was released in 2007, and contains an assortment of fourteen songs of differing themes and moods that are united by a common sound. Spider Bags play a raw, lo-fi brand of country rock that recalls the early work of Wilco and, to some extent, Drive By Truckers. This is country music done right, with an authentic edge and a real sound that’s far removed from the twang and drawl crap that gets played on commercial country radio. Singer Dan McGee conveys a broad range of emotions through his songs, contemplating death, love, and loss with a clever pen and a penchant for soaking his lyrics in alcohol, most notably on the bittersweet drunken anthem “Waking Up Drunk”, the album’s most obvious initial highlight. Other lyrical themes include, interestingly enough, McGee’s own blood. The contrasting messages of the raucous “Blood For You” and its more mellow counterpoint “Bleed for You” are both fascinating in their own right, but when the songs are taken into consideration as a pair, they both benefit.
Throughout A Celebration of Hunger, the band never seems to settle on one particular style. From the jangle of the somber opener “Bad Complexion” to the stuttering blues of “Alphabet City Blues” to the harmony-laden strum of “Devil When I Go”, the band restlessly explores multiple facets of country and folk rock music. The result is a diverse and great album with intelligent lyrics conveyed with heart and genuine emotion. Regarding Titus Andronicus, Dan McGee actually sings a verse on “Theme From Cheers” from The Monitor, a song which was undoubtedly inspired and influenced by the work of Spider Bags. While the rest of Titus Andronicus’ music doesn’t necessarily sound like Spider Bags, the parallels are clear. Apart from both being great, both bands are led by relatable frontmen who have a lot to say and aren’t afraid to lay it out on the line in order to do so. Thanks for the recommendation, Mr. Stickles!
Check out previous Summer Albums Project entries HERE
Song of the Day Number 168
Okkervil River - “White Shadow Waltz”
If you still haven’t listened to the new Okkervil River album I Am Very Far, why haven’t you? The veteran folk rock band from Austin opened their show at Toad’s Place in New Haven with this on Saturday night, and it was awesome. The album as a whole is somewhat divisive among fans, but the songs are good and the new sound is definitely worth hearing. Seriously, give I Am Very Far a spin or two. If you still don’t know how to find free music on the internet, what are you doing on this blog? But seriously.
My full review of the show on Saturday, which also included performances by Future Islands and Titus Andronicus, can be read HERE.