Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Review - Delphic - "Acolyte"

I had planned to start this review with a clever state of the nation electro pop slant, but then realized I'm not really equipped nor qualified to do that.  My interest in music that mixes electronic and traditional guitar/bass/drums instrumentation has always been there to varying degrees, but in the last number of years there have been some young bands who have mastered a really slick sound and electro pop has become a solid staple genre in my regular listening routine.

"Slick" under certain circumstances would be the last musical styling an artist might want to employ in their arsenal of listener impressions.  It harkens a mechanicalness (absolutely a word - but I might make a couple other words up before I'm done with this one) or sterility that many bands would view as diminishing their ability to project as heartfelt or soulful.  Understandable, but context of sound and a slightly different lens can uncover a depth, complexity, and connectedness in electronic music if a listener is prepared to invest the right type of energy.

So my opening rant this time is a not so brief way of suggesting the debut album, Acolyte by Manchester electro popsters Delphic is every bit as emotionally engaged as anything the best dirty bearded hippies with neck braced harmonicas and undersized accoustic guitars are able to offer up.  Acolyte is a terribly ambitious record with some of the most complex and subtle song dynamics I have heard in a long while.  Just about every track has a strong central theme, often rooted in a solid bass line, yet the band can take their songs in a number of interesting directions without straying far from the core path they set out at commencement.  Prog acts often get lost in their own ambition.  Delphic bare the same type of musical adventurism, but never stray into self indulgence or grand standing.  Some songs are long than others are, but all are appropriate length for the story they tell.

"Clarion Call" kick starts the album with a patient set-up.  Some of the repeating vocal lines are reminiscent of fellow Manchester scenesters The Longcut.  If you're vehemently opposed to heavy synthesized sounds, this is your first signal that this might not be your cup of tea.  This is a shame though because this track sets the tone for how the longer journey will play out and when the drums kick in at about half time you're aware that this is more than just another electronic album.

"Doubt" is one of the more recent singles from the album and what a perfect way to have dancers and melody fiends unite for some arse shaking and head bobbing.  This is perhaps where you can first hear traces of why there have been so many New Order references surrounding this band.  Maybe in the guitar bits and timings, but in the grander scheme of things, other than being from Manchester, they're a pretty different band than New Order.  If it helps people find them and ultimately enjoy Delphic on their own merits, so be it I say, but let's not get bogged down in a comparison that's truly a stretch at best.

Many of the tracks use minor chords and notes that give an erie sort of vibe that is brilliantly juxtaposed by some of the most clever little beats and percussive packaging you would hear more from commonly with DJ and mixer based music.  These subtle tricks are particularly prominent on "Red Lights", the song that first hooked me on this album.  There's a whole host of segments where different sounds get dialed out and the whole song sounds like it's running out of gas.  When they bring it back it never sounds the same twice.  This also breaks up some of the monotony that can sometimes permeate itself in synth type music.

There is some great falsetto scattered throughout, some dreamy vocals lines, and some incredibly whimsical and gentle keys as effects in the background.  The band makes you curious as to whether a track will introduce vocals at all (on "Acolyte"), yet leave you feeling completely okay if they decide not to.  On certain tracks it's almost as if the band is taunting the listener as to whether the song will drop into full on dancy dance.  "So do you want club...okay...we can do that."

Acolyte is the first album of 2010 where I consciously decided to tread cautiously after reading some initial reviews.  Any band compared to New Order, rightly or wrongly, is worth checking out in my opinion.  I just think some of the reviewers missed the mark on this album somewhat.  Perhaps it's that now infamous pissing match between US and UK critics, where US writers (often accurately) feel UK writers are prematurely propping up mediocre bands who end up in used bins alongside Starsailor and Dodgy.  Or perhaps its the unfair reality that the US simply doesn't seem to have the musical DNA to produce bands in this particular sonic zone.

So even as this rag-tag Canadian based blog with unidentified readership and rampant hyperbolic tendencies attempts to sort through the biases of the big time reviewers in the interest of objectivity, I'm mostly inclined to just close by saying this is an absolutely fantastic album by an interesting young band that makes impressive use of all the sounds and tools at their disposal.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: Star & Micey

Bands will always tell you what an eclectic sound they have. I'm instantly suspicious when a band takes way too much pride in the proclamation of how from one song to another on their album they can jump from one extreme genre to another. To be able to capture Rage Against the Machine in one breath and Tom Petty in the next is not only terribly forced and contrived, but speaks to an utter lack of focus.

What does this have to do with the self-titled debut album from Memphis trio Star & Micey? Nothing. It just really bothers me when bands do that sort of thing.

Okay so not quite true. The point is that after multiple full listens to this album, what becomes apparent is how every one of the ten tracks is completely unique, with an homage to the band’s various core sound staples, while still maintaining a very familiar earthy warm common string through the whole set. There is a also a Memphis ghost that seems to have sat in the studio during the sessions to ensure these young men were constantly aware of the big brand and lesser known musicians responsible for so many of the most famous sounds their city has offered over so many years. There is a great deal of respect for the past you can hear on this record, while still being very forward looking.

Initially I wasn't sure this Star & Micey thing was going to work for me. Not so much due to quality or any issues of theirs, but more due to my own aversion to folky slide guitar type roots music. Then track three, "Carly", hit my headphones and I understood why this collection made its way to me for consideration and feedback in the first place. This song has everything a good guitar pop song should have. Multiple hooks in their right places, repetition in the right places, hand claps in the right places, and "ba ba ba ba's" in the right places. The vocal lines and lyrics are perfectly vulnerable and believable. I would have been onside with the hand claps alone.

"I Am The One She Needs" shows the guys have their white boy groove stuff in perfect proportion and check. Like "Carly", there are echoes of Pernice Brothers and even a Steely Dan-esque smoothness young twenty year olds should not be able to pull off on their debut. This middle section of the album is straight out hooky and catchy and really where I was sold. It actually helped me approach the openers with more ease and mostly to get over myself.

The guests on the album are prominently showcased in numerous media spots, and if they have helped Star & Micey to register on radars at all, then so be it and good for them. For my money though, this recording stands well on its own. The craft and composition shows a maturity well beyond the years of the band, the broad spectrum of sound (strings, percussion, and keys) make an understated album sound larger without compromising intimacy, and the dynamics between vocal play at key message points is something some bands are never able to get right over the course of whole careers. The vocal build including falsetto that matches to the instrumental crescendo at around 2:30 is the stuff of classics.

What was immediately obvious to me though, before even hitting play, was the very focus I mocked other bands for at the outset of this review. Ten songs with an average song length of three minutes. Bands with various tenure seem to feel they have too many interesting stories to tell and too many ways to tell them. Ten songs is generally the perfect length for an album and three minutes is the ideal indie pop song length. When I finished the album for the first time, I wanted to hear what these guys had to say again right away. 10 X 3:00 is the perfection.

This is a very solidly put together recording by a band that clearly already knows itself really well. To me it should appeal to people with an affinity for stripped down quality indie pop as well as those who may not get exposure to music this sincere on the radio, but would pay close attention if they heard a song like “My Beginning” on FM or satellite. Good on the lads in Star & Micey for figuring out some stuff quickly as a band and for settling into their musical skin so seamlessly on a first recording.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Heavy Fives - Week of February 8, 2010

All 2010 releases this week that I seemed to have in heaviest rotation.

Class Actress - Journal of Ardency

The Album Leaf - A Chorus of Storytellers

Hot Chip - One Life Stand
The Go Find - Everybody Knows It's Going to Happen, Only Not Tonight

Vampire Weekend - Contra

Friday, February 12, 2010

Classic Disinterest

In the last number of years I've been reflecting and attempting to reconcile a particular realization of my less than casual music listening endeavours.

I really hate classic rock.

The thing is, I'm not even sure what "classic rock" even means anymore. I'm accutely aware of the fact that I live in one of the most vibrant cities in North America for independent music, but also how that fresh and creative energy is generally drowned in the recycled playlists of not one but two classic rock format radio stations in a city that should be ill equipped culturally to support even one. This point would be more relevant of course if I could say I have even bothered to dial into an actual AM/FM radio station in years. Regardless, it hardly seems necessary to me that I should ever have to hear "Fly Like An Eagle" by Steve Miller, "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd, or "Two Tickets to Paradise" by Eddie Money ever again in this lifetime. Is it a question of overplay and aging ears with song fatigue? Perhaps, but not entirely.

I have always had a hard time with the idea of digging in stubbornly and deciding that the original bands can never be outdone by newer bands. Sabbath and Zeppelin made some interesting heavy music at a time when no other bands had really quite gotten there, but "Dazed & Confused" and "War Pigs" sound dated and dare I say silly compared to folks Tool or Soundgarden, neither of whom I really listen to much these days either. Will their stuff hold up in thirty years? Time will tell. I just don't believe older artists should get a free ride or be held in sacred regard because they're "classic".

The Stones and Beatles deserve much respect and large portions of their respective catalogues still hold up quite (Tattoo You and back for the former in my opinion, since they've now sucked for longer than they were good), but can we as critical listeners still say with straight face that they're still the two best of all time? Radiohead have taken anything interesting or innovative The Beatles did and turned it upside down 50 times over while still respecting that original melody and form and not falling into the innovative yet unlistenable trap that some experimental artists subscribe to.

The key reminder for myself and for others as part of this discussion line is how I was actually a fan of most of the music with which I've become disinterested. I have the Zeppelins, Bostons, Aerosmiths, Van Halens, and Skynynrds still very much in my original vinyl collection. This is the part that seems most curious to people. Many people I speak to in my 38 year old age bracket (give or take a year or two), seem to still love their 70's blues based hard rock stuff. Fair enough, to each their own and all that. I just find, quite honestly, that most music released before 1980 is terribly boring compared to music being made today, and over the last thirty years in general. Listening to Aerosmith and saying it's better than Tv On the Radio is like saying you think the Commodore Vic-20 is still better than the MacBook. If you like the Vic that's cool, but don't say it's better just because exploring new computers isn't your thing.

So taste and preference semantics aside and other things that can't be proven or quantified even though they're fun to chirp about, I have assembled a list of artists who released music before 1980 that I still listen to actively. I used to flippantly say I could count them on two hands, but upon closer refelction and scrutiny the tally is probably around 25. So here is a list, if only to prove to myself it can be done, of the artists with pre-1980 output that I think still hold up well. Because it makes for a better list, I have also assigned an album by the artist from 1979 or earlier that represents my favourite work by them in that timeline (or at least what feels like favourite as I type this).

25. Magazine - Secondhand Daylight
24. The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
23. Prince - Prince
22. Split Enz - True Colours
21. Ultravox - Systems of Romance
20. Gang of Four - Entertainment
19. Squeeze - Cool For Cats
18. The Police - Outlandis D'Amour
17. Roxy Music - Roxy Music
16. Michael Jackson - Off The Wall
15. T. Rex - The Slider
14. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Damn The Torpedoes
13. The Cars - The Cars
12. The Cure - Boys Don't Cry
11. The Beatles - Revolver
10. Television - Marquee Moon
9. XTC - Drums & Wires
8. Big Star - Radio City
7. Elvis Costello - This Year's Model
6. Brian Eno - Here Come The Warm Jets
5. Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle
4. Talking Heads - Fear of Music
3. David Bowie - Low
2. Cheap Trick - In Color
1. Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures

In the event that someone reads this, and in the even more unlikely event that they feel like verifying release dates, please feel free to correct me if any of those albums came out in 1980 or later. It's 1:00 AM and I can't be arsed to check them at this point. :)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

As many random songs as I can cover in 30ish words or less each...

One hotel room. One iPod. One pretentious music nerd, with no one to tell him to go to bed. A random manual selection of tracks that kick various proportions of ass. My Brevity Resolution almost in action.

The Courteeners - "Not Nineteen Forever"
There are a couple layers of guitar harmonics that set this up. Absolutely Manchester, with one key hook and dirty grace.

Miike Snow - "Cult Logic"
This song is a cornerstone track on a virtually perfect album. Only a handful of bands can bridge the organic instrument and electronic continuum this seamlessly.

(no proper video available)

Amerie - "1 Thing"
This is not a guilty pleasure because it's too well put together.  The percussion is up front and completely off kilter, and the guitar fills follow.  Beyonce has never released anything quite this solid, and that`s from a fan.

Dinosaur Jr. - "Over It"
There is an inevitable 90`s grunge type indie guitar rock revival due to happen this decade.  It will likely suck, but if we`re lucky it will sound like this and not Candlebox.

Marion - ``I Stopped Dancing``
It`s amazing after some 15ish years that 3rd tier type BritPop actually sounds like top 100 calibre sounds of all time compared to modern mainstream music.  Go ahead Daughtry...write a song this good...I dare you.

Raphael Saadiq - ``100 Yard Dash``
One of the purest R&B tracks of the last 40 years and one of the best examples of showing respect to the sounds of old with a solid freshness.  Pretty slick video too and wardrobe is absolutely on point.

Red House Painters - ``All Mixed Up``
For whatever reason, it took me a long while to get my head around RHP, especially for such a simple sound.  This was the song that cracked that code.  Perfectly beautiful and ... ahem ... mixed up.

Gary Numan - ``Are Friends Electric``
Almost 30+ years later and this still holds up 100%.  With all the clever gear electronic artists have access to these days this should be redundant.  It`s not.

Ra Ra Riot - `Dying Is Fine``
There will be plenty of casualties from the late 2000`s influx of Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands, Talking Heads type bands, for better or worse.  I really hope these guys keep it together and don`t slip even further into obscurity.

Julian Plenti - ``Games For Days``
I`m sure some would say it`s counter intuitive for a Paul Banks solo track to sound like Interpol.  I would say wrong.

James - ``She`s A Star``
One of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands from my favourite city of music.  Perfect in every possible way right down to Booth`s brilliant falsetto and the haunting slide guitar fill.