Obsessively Detailed is a new column where I go at length about the trivially minute details that make me unreasonably excited while listening.
I’m writing about the song “Black Light” from J Roddy Walston & the Business’ Essential Tremors (who, by the way, I also mentioned in the previous Quick Hits). But more specifically, I’m talking about a single sound. The first thing you hear in the track. The song itself is a sultry, T. Rex groove with a falsetto vocal pitched somewhere between preening glam and a Prince come-on. The vocals carry the song, but it’s anchored by the plodding kick drum. You can hear the sound die at the spot, no reverberation, no echo. Just a dry kick, like someone walked in and played a drum set that’s been sitting in a cave for the past 100 years, you can hear the dust being disturbed, the sound hits the walls but instead of bouncing off it gets eaten up. It’s like dropping a watermelon on a 12 inch-thick slab of mozzarella cheese, like throwing a baseball against a wall of melted silly putty. No bounce, no transfer of momentum, just a collision, a sound, and a cessation of all motion. It’s a small detail, sure, but it’s a treat.
Quick Hits is a column where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on (relatively) new releases.
Sleepwalkers – “Off on the Weekend”
I’ve seen Sleepwalkers four times this year without even trying. They emerged from some shadowy bend in the James River, wielding psych-funk jams and making shameless dalliances with 80’s pop in the various back alleys of the city. Their early shows opening up for local heavyweights like Black Girls and Avers typically started with a shellacking of heavy groove riffage found in songs like “Prey and Pressure” (which I happened to take a look at a while back as well). Then things got kinda weird. I was pretty sure they were covering a Flock of Seagulls song with some consistency and I was a bit lost. Maybe even taken aback at first. Which might not be fair, but I’ve no shame in my lack of affinity for popular 80’s music not made by Prince. Now, after a long wait, their most excellent debut album is here, and against all odds the mash of styles kind of makes sense. That pseudo-Flock of Seagulls track turned out to be their very own “Run Right Back”, which is unmistakably a lost 80’s pop-rock hit, but is executed so well it doesn’t even matter. “Off on the Weekend” is my favorite of the pop leaning tracks on the album. The guitar figure’s so lazy it can’t help but linger deceptively behind the beat, the drums shuffle with an alarming lack of urgency, and the bass line snaps things together with the kind of ambling precision that underpins any great laid-back soul-pop number. And then that pre-chorus. That chorus. That post-chorus! When you’ve got hooks and chops like these you can afford a dip this deep into the cheese bowl.
Spoon – “Do You”
It’s recently come to my attention that large parts of the world, and the online music-community especially (as manufactured and downright silly as that community is, me included), don’t see eye to eye on my estimation that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is Spoon’s undeniable masterwork. That people out there really do prefer Gimme Fiction or Girls Can Tell. Which is fine, I just assumed we were all in agreement for some reason. Spoon have been masters of their sound since their second album, wrangling together groove-heavy (but, by design, never funky) beats, percussive guitar playing, the occasional squealing noise freak out, atypical piano and synthesizer utilization, and a voice that can crack into a rugged shout without ever sounding like it’s trying very hard. To me, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was the album where the mastery of their sound was finally paired with a mastery of their songwriting style. 2010’s Transference was a fine album, but it also seemed like a retreat to the comforts of their sound. Their latest, They Want My Soul, feels more like the true predecessor. It’s all unmistakably Spoon, just with a sharper set of songs, and “Do You” might be the finest among them. As mentioned, Britt Daniel’s voice has a fascinating ability to reach a throaty howl without ever sounding like he’s trying to hard. Likewise, his songwriting has a knack for wringing pathos without ever going heavy handed. “Do You” is breezy pop-rock (it’s hard not to describe something as ‘breezy’ when it kicks off with a series of “doo-doo-doo-doo’s”) in the best possible way. If I cared about such things as a “Song of the Summer”, this would be my personal front-runner, and not just because one verse starts with the line “Someone get popsicles/someone do something ’bout this heat!”.
Manatree/Herro Sugar – “Animal Quietlies”
Herro Sugar were one of the first bands I saw when I moved to Richmond. Opening up for Black Girls (I’m sensing a pattern for these bands), they weren’t even old enough to enter the venue as audience members, but their songwriting chops and instrumental chemistry were obvious. Only a couple of years later, and with a name-change in hand, they’re prepping the release of a proper debut after a successful Kickstarter and a heck of a lot of support from veterans of the scene (their album was co-produced by members of Avers and The Trillions (whom I’ve somehow yet to cover here, but that will be rectified soon enough as they’ve got a new album on the way as well)). “Animal Quietlies” along with “Something” mark the first new music from these guys and it’s an impressive leap forward. The guitar interplay is especially impressive, cycling through riffs and intertwining leads. The track starts with a cloying, trebly guitar figure, occasionally bolstered by some distorted reinforcements. Elsewhere, the fuzz gets turned up, arpeggios spiral in from the sky, and tempo shifts bludgeon you into submission. There’s a palpable chemistry in the instrumentation that shows how long they’ve been playing together. It’s one thing to be able to stack layer after layer onto a track, it’s quite another to have multiple playing and writing styles mesh together to such a cohesive whole. The singing is borderline deadpan, but deftly manages that fine line between weary pathos and boredom/lack of confidence, always finding itself on the winning side. Considering the two tracks on display here aren’t even professionally mastered yet (in the audio sense, that is), and that this band is putting out songs of this quality so early in their career, it’s hard not to get a little overly excited about what’s to come.
J Roddy Walston & the Business – “Take It As It Comes”
OK, so this song isn’t new, but the video is (kind of, new enough at least), so I think that’s excuse enough to write about it. It also happens to be a song from my favorite album of the past 12 months (I wrote about Essential Tremors in my 2013 Top-Ten post, and it’s since taken over number 1) and my most played album in the time by what I estimate to be a very healthy margin. This track is among my favorite from the record (top 8 at least, which is high praise, even considering there’s only 11 songs) and the video more than does it justice. A steady groove accented by some reggae-like snare hits start things off with an infectious bounce before Ziggy Stardust harmonies line the pre-chorus while boogie piano and bluesy guitar licks lurk behind what might be J Roddy’s best vocal performance on record yet. His voice goes from soulful croon to out-and-out wailing with incredible ease. It’s also worth noting that it’s worth the price of admission to a live show just to see him bounce in his piano bench singing this song. What I like most about the video though is the focus on the lyrics. At first blush they sound straight forward (“You gotta take it as it comes” isn’t an overly complicated sentiment after all) but on deeper inspection (and the help of not having to decipher his howl) there’s a healthy dose of absurdity and darkness lurking under the surface (not to mention a knack for unique imagery that most songwriters in rock bands never even approach). Families claimed, money made, guns loaded, it’s probably best you figure it out for yourself. It’s been a pleasure watching this band’s stock steadily rise this year, and though I likely won’t get to see them in punk clubs like Strange Matter again, I can’t say I’m surprised with songs this good. “Your eyes say there was a choice but/Mouths move for destiny”.
Some albums sneak up on you. You listen once, and shades of appreciation creep in, but the record’s true worth doesn’t come across until much later. Until you’ve listened to it over and over again, and suddenly you come to an understanding of what it’s about and how it works. Dereconstructed by Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires is not that kind of record. Dereconstructed starts with a blistering riff, grabs you by the throat, and proceeds to kick your ass for roughly 35 minutes. Don’t be alarmed, this is a good thing.
Not that the album doesn’t have depth as well though. Sure, the intrinsic thrill of layers of fuzz and distortion oozing out of the speakers as two guitars grapple for supremacy is undeniable. Yes, the rhythm section is both forceful and nimble, with frenetic beats merging southern blues and punk supporting the low-end rummaging of the bass that’s both relentlessly physical and melodically graceful when it’s called for (check out the precision wrecking ball underpinning “What’s Good and Gone” especially which I’m pretty sure features Matt Patton of the Drive-By Truckers). Then there’s the visceral joy of the sound taken together, a maxed out affair with a ragged production that gives every song a palpable grit. It sounds as if the album wasn’t recorded so much as melted down to a toxic sludge and smeared against your ears. It sounds sloppy, but as it’s done with an expert’s hand. Anyways, that’s all well and good, but what makes the album feel really special is how it sticks around with you.
Lyrically, Lee Bains proves himself an expert at balancing erudite and considered writing that sounds surprisingly natural. Listening to the impassioned and ragged delivery you wouldn’t expect striking imagery such as
But just consider the weeds downtown, and how they grow/How the Queen Anne’s Lace covers hot parking lots like snow”.
It’s even more fun when the waxing poetic turns vitriolic, like in “Flags!”,
Senior year, you could go deaf from all the talk of terrorists and Muslim fundamentalists/And I thought it strange in a town where so-called believers blew up women’s clinics we had the gall to act so offended/And when it would come time to say the Pledge in class, I would sit my ass down at that desk/And the only words of it I said were “under God,” I figured we were beyond the help of anybody else.
The album is both seething indictment and impassioned support for the culture of the South and America at large, as it’s perceived, as it is, and as it’s warped and twisted for monetary gain. Not that you need to dig that deep to find something to like here, as I said, it’s thrilling on its own merits as a quality rock & roll album.
As I write this I’m listening to the record again and a lightning storm is terrorizing the Richmond skyline. The torrential downpour, anchored by growls of thunder, pounding relentlessly on the metal roof sounds a lot like what’s coming out of the speakers. Guitar fuzz like barbed wire wreathed in electricity smothering a swinging backbeat, anchored by a guttural low-end rumble. The sky’s dark, and some sub-logical part of me is afraid for my city and the people in it, trying to get home. But there’s light emerging off to the West; and it’s a glorious fire.
Quick Hits is a column where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on (relatively) new releases.
Avers – “Evil”
Sometimes a song can act as a skeleton key for a whole album. When I first listened to the debut album from RVA’s own Avers, Empty Light, I did it as a cautious skeptic. Which is odd for me; I typically take the route of unabashed enthusiasm. But the level of adoration the local media was heaping on these guys irked me a bit. After all, some of our finest homegrown talent had banded together to create…a shoegaze record? The initial offerings of “White Horses” and “Empty Light” were texturally beautiful and well built. They sounded pristine, but my (admittedly cursory) first listen left no impression. It sounded more like shoegaze than psych, and though as a person who writes about music, I am legally required to be unabashedly in love with the genre (I’m not), I was a little disappointed.
So when the record came out I turned it on and promptly busied myself with other work and paid it little mind. Until “Evil” came on. The beat plods, unchanging yet somehow dynamic when put against the shifting background. A persistent cranium thumping that feels different depending on how the bass lines up next to it. And oh my, those bass lines; the low end evolves from droning rumble to descending hammer of the gods, from dextrous showmanship to bricklaying ascension making way for what constitutes a bridge here. That bridge is naught but a chiming guitar, spinning around four notes, sucking the air out of the garden and into the depths of space. I heard this song and suddenly the entire album changed. Avers came to wash over us in beautifully crafted guitar tones, yes, but they also came to rip our heads off, point them to the stars, and set the world to spinning. Wonderful.
Lee Bains II & the Glory Fires – “The Weeds Downtown”
I know a lot of people who’ve left their assorted hometowns to find glory and adventure in the New York’s and Los Angeles’ and etc.’s of the world. I’ve also thought a lot about how this drift of talent and creativity affects the places that are left behind, and often wonder how that connects to the proliferation of strip-malls, chain restaurants, and vinyl sided houses; the lack of excitement and community in so many places. The fact that we’ve designated locations for taking chances and creating something that excites us, and places to make do. As if creativity and entrepreneurship can only exist in pre-approved pockets of the land. One day I’ll cohere my thoughts enough to write intelligently about it, but in the meantime I think Lee Bains III says something close with a fiery passion better than I can on Dereconstructed.
His message is much wider and better expressed than what I’ve shared, but this song hit me hard because it’s seems so close in spirit. “The Weeds Downtown” is my favorite cut from that excellent record at the moment, the emotional linchpin where their ragged and raw garage rock fury slows down just a tad, finds the optimum amount of heart-string pulling in the fuzz drenched chord progressions, and slams the point home. Key lyric: “I know the new architecture is largely depressing/And the politics are pretty regressive/But ain’t shining a light on what’s dark kind of your thing”. Also, The Bitter Southerner happened to do a fantastic write-up on Dereconstructed, check it out.
Lightfields – “Junior”
Maybe what Silversun Pickups would sound like if they listening to Blink 182 instead of all those kinda boring shoegaze records? Who cares about comparisons though, these boys hail from Richmond, VA and just released a fairly strong debut by the same name as this stellar track. But if delightfully fuzzy guitar melodies, a fervently ridden cymbal, chant-ready gang vocals that compel you to write in all-caps (“I DON’T NEED IT ENOUGH TO WANT IT!!!”), and a slow burn guitar breakdown that leads into a big time sing-along doesn’t reach into your soul with a Gibson SG shaped arm and pull out a stubborn, weary catharsis this probably isn’t for you. Then again, if that does sound like something that might work on you, fucking fuck, listen to this track already.
Morning Teleplortation – “Expanding Anyways”
I saw these guys open for Modest Mouse a month ago and was mightily impressed. Their live show matched prog and math rock chops with some bluesy guitar intensity and a voice that was sincere if not wholly confident. It was wondrous and I left with a CD in hand. On record, they hew a bit closer to Ween then anything else, flitting through genres as they see fit, manically spitting out lyrics that can be surreal at one turn, poignant the next. “Expanding Anyways” sees them toning down the antics (a bit) just enough for a truly joyous chorus to peek through. The almost jazzy interplay reminds me of seeing White Denim live in their earlier days, where both band are able to effortlessly glide from uplifting to frenetic and slide into some devastating guitar solos. This song is a bit old, hailing from their last album, 2011’s Expanding Anyway, but here’s hoping they’ve got some new stuff planned.
A bit of a confession. I don’t know much about this record. I only vaguely know who’s responsible (some occasional members of Olivia Tremor Control and Vic Chesnutt’s band, according to the handy sticker on my record jacket). I’m mostly unfamiliar with the myriad influences here, and honestly feel unqualified to speak much about an album filled with music that has only tenuous connections to the worlds I typically deal in. I bought this record on a whim while in Athens, Georgia’s wonderful Wuxtry Records, and only did that because the giant wooden dancer on the cover spoke to me in ways I didn’t fully comprehend (this is a wonderful way to buy records by the way, it has never steered me wrong).
The music here occasionally sounds like folk and classic country. It occasionally sounds like a New Orleans funeral procession, and often like a long lost pre-rock Psychedelic album. Some of it sounds vaguely Native American, but that could be the cover coloring my perceptions. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album with so much clarinet. I’m reminded of Modest Mouse at times, at their freakiest and folkiest, but I think that says more about my lack of knowledge than it does about the music itself.
Remarkably this mix never feels disjointed from song to song, each shrouded in mystery with influences bleeding together like watercolors. The disparate parts form a heady mix as a banjo-led, middle eastern dirge dives into unconventional yet familiar folk rock. The sharp left turns shouldn’t work on paper, but the album leaves the impression that an underlying presence is at work, and it comes across in the details more than the aesthetic signifiers.
What drives these songs is the sense of barely contained chaos and brooding existentialism in the instrumentation. Banjo riffs attack frenzied and heavy, pedal steel adds a wistful lightness that’s more heartbreaking than uplifting, the percussion, in it’s many forms, plods with a creeping inevitability, while fiddles buzz menacingly. The music is often bracing, even when it’s completely off kilter, but the effect is belied by the coying fullness of the clarinet and horn parts.
These unconventional instruments anchor most of the songs here, thick beams of light teasing out melodies pitched somewhere between schoolyard chants and childish lullabies. They’re the parts most likely to push away casual listeners while being the easiest pieces to get lodged into your skull. It makes for an intriguing dynamic throughout the record. As the base arrangements and lyrics boil over with churning anxiousness and guarded catharsis the horn parts serve to pervert and amplify whatever feeling is at work. They serve as the helping hand in times of need; the unrealistic perceptions we measure ourselves against; the hollow promise behind a tired cliche; a reliable slice of illogical but much needed optimism. The back and forth is fought throughout the record, the end result an uneasy existential truce that feels hard won but well earned.
And yet, after all that poetic waxing, the showstopper of the album does away with that dynamic entirely. “Everyday I’m Building a Fool” has everything a great folk ballad could want; tinges of regret and loss, a self deprecating wit balanced with a slice of unknowable oddness; harmonies suitably gorgeous, coming when least expected but most needed; fiddle playing that is not to be fucked with, and a stomp that hits like the weight of the world falling on your chest at every beat.
Wester Easter is a record that feels like a place to explore. It manages that tricky feat where it brings together the emotions underlying the songs and the details propelling them together to feel like a realized whole, even when the songs feel as if they’re falling apart. Simply put, Wester Easter is a fantastic place to be lost.
This review was originally published at antiquiet.com. You can read it in its original form here.
The Black Keys have never been good at playing the part they’ve been cast in. Starting out in the clubs of Akron, Ohio, Dan Auerbach was fond of saying the bad was too bluesy for the punk crowd, too punk for the blues crowd. Now he’s the frontman for the sorta-two-piece blues-rock-soul outfit that happens to be among the biggest rock bands in the world. They’ve been characterized as rigid traditionalists and crass sellouts. A quick perusal of customer reviews will show accusations from long-time fans and blues purists deriding the synthesizers, disco-heavy beats, and Danger Mouse’s atmospheric fluff. At every turn the band has managed to find a new set of complaints to be levied against them. And with Turn Blue, the group’s 8th album, they manage to plant themselves in every detractors cross-hairs, coming away gloriously with one of their strongest records to date, one that solidifies every strength they’ve been honing for years since turning away from their early two-man riff rock.
This wonderful mess of contradictions is made apparent from the get go as “Weight of Love” starts with a country-blues-esque acoustic guitar before being joined by piano melodies and crashing drum fills. And then, an honest-to-god, skyward-reaching, guitar solo comes in. Fuzz drenched and emerging from a low rumble, more David Gilmour than Junior Kimbrough. They’ve never sounded so much like a classic rock band, yet they sound as vital as ever. The song ends in twin guitar carnage, left and right matching each other note for note, building to a thrilling climax.
And from there they proceed to roll through every trick in their ever-growing arsenal. “In Time” starts with a crooked railroad spike beat before turning into a horn fueled New Orleans-ian stomp. “Fever” takes the currently omnipresent disco back beat and turns it into the sort of arena rock stomp the Black Keys have perfected of late (albeit with a synthesizer lead where distorted guitars once reigned for them). Meanwhile the title-track disassembles the four-on-the-floor approach into a pulsing bass line and crashing symbols, turning down the bravado and upping the sultry quotient by several times. It’s the sound of falling into quicksand, being pulled under, and falling out the bottom into a pit of recently fluffed pillows waiting below. It’s an intriguing track, and a testament to how far the group has come in their songwriting, being able to apply their tried-and-true approaches to new sounds.
And the new sounds are brought in by the bus load compliments of producer Danger Mouse. From the horn fueled fanfare that spell the verses on “In Time” to the crystalline harmonies that overtake and power “Year in Review” or the encroaching wall of fuzz in “10 Lovers”, the details are exquisitely rendered, and I’ll admit to getting a bit giddy at some of the hidden gems tucked behind Auerbach’s full voice.
A voice which is also the star of the show here. From the beginning of their career, he’s sounded most at home with a ragged bellowing over top Patrick Carney’s oversize beats. The biggest treat here though is the falsetto that came as such a shock on Brothers’ opener, “Everlasting Love”. What once was a new trick is now a favorite weapon, deployed strategically throughout the album as either a buoyant ray of light on the bass heavy beats or for a disarming turn of phrase.
What’s most impressive, though, is that his growth as a singer is matched by his growth as a songwriter. I’ve never so thoroughly enjoyed watching a band delve into the mainstream consciousness as I have the Black Keys, and a large part of that is due to the growth in Dan Auerbach’s songwriting. Where he once relied on matching tried-and-true blues boilerplates with big riffs, his obsession with soul and R&B paired with a knack for surprisingly catchy melodies allow a wider variety. Of the many bands mining classic soul and blues, few make it theirs like the Black Keys do.
And even fewer, it should be said, have the likes of Danger Mouse to give their songs a psychedelic depth and Carney’s facility at turning a slow burner into a low-end heavy, radio-friendly blaze. Almost-closer “In Our Prime” is a perfect example of that growth, the emotional centerpiece of the record that starts as a standard R&B ballad until the first verse ends and you’re thrown into a see-sawing trapdoor; deceptively upbeat and subtly disconcerting. The chorus offers the emotional payoff the beginning promised while never really offering the catharsis you’d expect, “we made our mark when we were in our prime”.
It’s a relatable lament, but one that doesn’t quite ring true for the Black Keys. Whether they’re in their prime or not is debatable, but regardless, Turn Blue is among the strongest offerings yet from a band that is slowly but surely solidifying themselves among the greats.
Two bass hits. Kick drum. Snare. Again. Hi-hats slot themselves in between. REPEAT! Richmond, Virginia’s Black Girls have never been a subtle band and not yet half a dozen seconds into their second album, Claire Sinclaire, they’ve established what your next 35 minutes are going to be about. Funk and soul had always been an influence, but now it’s a mandate. There’s swagger and energy, a groove that pretends to accidentally bump into you then grinds into your hips. You’re not sure if you want to join, but you probably will. Singer Drew Gilham slides in with a whisper. He exhales the next line, doesn’t even sing it. Coos to you next. Guitars descend and suddenly it’s no longer a suggestion, “You’ve got to get your hands up..if I survive, I will supply!”
“On the First Night” suggests Black Girls is narrowing its focus to the soul funk inflections that made their last album, 2011’s Hell Dragon such a danceable affair, and to a certain extent that’s true. “Soul Tornado” is propelled with spiked jazz chords and a disco beat, “Waltz” kicks its feet up again drapes of piano and a Stax-esque hi-hat and cymbal ride, and “Del Mar” would be a disco ballad if not for the fuzzed out guitar lines. The touches share a common theme but the album’s most fun when they stretch themselves out of that box.
“Bangin’ LA” grinds, but not the kind the band typically deals in. This is more of a slow motion jackhammer dismantling a lawn mower as a tiny war elephant looks on (and that ripping sax solo is the sound of said war elephant fighting said lawn mower as a nearby bonfire is fed a crate of worn-out Sticky Fingers records). First single “Buyin’ Time” nestles surf-rock guitars next to jaunty indie pop and buckets of reverb (while not my favorite piece of work here here, it seems directly targeted to indie-blogs who eat up anything described by the words surf and pop and slathered in reverb), and “Waltz” has a literal countdown to the solo while the coda to “Sometimes” allows the shimmying psych-soul nugget to soar away on guitar-solo wings.
And then there’s “Lover”, a staple of their live set for some time and a perfect distillation of the funk, soul, and psychedelics that Black Girls likes to call snuff rock. As pop songcraft it’s as effortless as it is masterful. The kind of song that walks up to you to hold your hand but cops a feel instead. Guitars wah, the beat struts, a trumpet circles in from above, all grinding to a halt for the chorus. Sung slightly differently every time, yet always pitched with an indelible mix of resentment, determination, lament, and wistful hope, “If I was your lover/You should know/I’d treat you better”.
As sophmore albums go, it’s hard to do better than Claire Sinclaire does here. The record shows a further refinement of their sound while branching out enough to bring in new fans. It’s weird but accessible, danceable but complex. It’s an exciting next step for a band that seems to be getting better and better.
Quick Hits is a new colum where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on some (relatively) new releases.
The Black Keys – “Fever”
Here is a list of ways to describe “Fever” I scribbled down while mildly drunk and listening to this song for the first time:
- Like falling down a set of stairs into a moon bounce
- Like kissing a stripper you thought was your sister only to find she’s neither
- Like birds chirping in your ear because they wanna get busy with your beard
- Like drinking a beer, spilling it, and having the libation fall into a wormhole which opens back up in your mouth so you get to drink your dropped brew
The Black Keys – “Turn Blue”
And in a similar vein of questionable sobriety, here’s how I would describe their second single:
- Like stepping into quicksand, being pulled under and falling out the bottom into a pit of recently fluffed pillows waiting below
- Like getting high and listening to a rave three houses down while trying to watch the Earth turn
- Like watching your friend drop acid and wonder why the lights are suddenly looking at you funny while you slowly begin to believe he’s right
- Like getting lost in a strange city that’s speaking a foreign language and you’re tapped on the shoulder by a face you think you know but can’t quite place
Jack White – “Lazaretto”
I have nothing clever or interesting to say about this, I just have a feeling Jack White’s second solo album will be something really special. Also, the hornets nest buzz he gets between notes on his solos get me all giddy inside. It’s as if instead of playing guitar he just tears down some powerlines and shapes the resulting sparks into whatever unholy sounds he can concoct. It’s probably my favorite new wrinkle White’s added to his playing recently.
Rotary Downs – “Flowers in Bloom”
What’s that song about tripping on daisies or something? I don’t know. Anyways, this song sounds like tripping and falling into a face full of mud but being so high you think it’s a cloud and you’re floating away on gusts of Rotary Downs-patented psych-guitar counter-melodies as the voice of someone else’s god calls out, obscured by static and reverb. In less esoteric terms, these guys put out one of my favorite albums of the past few years with 2010’s Cracked Maps & Blue Reports, and although this song sounds like a return to their pre-Blue Reports ways, I couldn’t be more excited they are finally peeking their heads out of their New Orleans home for us fans in the rest of the world to get our fix.
HYPERCOLOR – “100 Hands”
A new song from Richmond, VA’s own HYPERCOLOR (they just released a new EP you can check out here) that also happens to feature two members also in RVA’s Avers who also just released an excellent record that I will be writing many words about when I get around to it. But more to the point of this song, can I just talk about the coda for a bit (except for a brief mention of that killer guitar solo in one of the instrumental breaks; the guy’s about to fall out his chair in the video and I really, really, really hope that’s the take they used)? It’s a continuation of the theme the song runs on but with a monstrous drop into a heavy groove; clean-tone guitars snaking through tom hits bouncing from ear to ear. It wraps the whole song together with a nice little bow before the hammer swings down and smashes the whole thing to pieces at the last second. I’m also listening to this song on repeat as a Spring downpour pummels the trees outside and this particular mix of sounds and circumstances makes the world seem like a pretty fucking amazing place.
I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I happened upon the Sleepwalkers debut release. I’ve seen them play a handful of times, and in each show they seemed to be juggling several identities. The songs cycled between near-stoner-rock riffology, Americana-tinged rock, glam-indebted psych-funk, and (inexplicably) 80’s pop rock. If this 7-inch is any indication though, they’re ready to bring it all together.
“Crisis” leads things off with a swinging bass line and stuttering drums underpinning Michael York’s coos and come-ons. The song builds and sways, layering melodies, reverbed harmonies, and descending guitar riffs. What could have been a concise pop song stretches out into a funky three guitar trance punctuated with tangles of pre-choruses, each catchier than the last, and the track’s all the better for it.
“Prey & Pressure” rounds out the set, a psych-rock workout with an indelibly simple riff. Equal parts ear worm and meat tenderizer, it’s a riff that strikes that cerebral sense of inevitability. You know it will reliably hit on the downbeat, yet through every iteration it seems to lag in mid-air for a second too long, you un-wince believing the danger gone, and finally it falls from the sky with a floor tom thud. This is a tricky kind of riff to pull of. It’s made all the more powerful when the chorus comes in, “I’m feeling pressure all the TIME!” It’s a commendable wail but I can’t help but want to peel off the glossy reverb and let some of the ragged tone the song calls for shine through.
Still, Sleepwalkers are showing they have a lot to offer and, if this initial release is any indication, they’re proper debut could be something special.
You can listen to and buy the single here.
Some nights just feel like an event. There was a buzz about this show that gave the impression that this night could be a turning point for this band. I arrived at Balliceaux and found a line waiting. There were murmurs we wouldn’t be getting in, that the venue was packed. A girl in front of me reassured her friend that this band was, indeed, quite funky. The line doubled in size. Word came down that we were, indeed, going to be getting in. Sighs of relief reverberated along the line. Not five feet away some guy took a piss in the alley, walked up to me and informed with more than a hint of confrontational swagger, “I just took a piss.” Like I said, this was an event.
Sleepwalkers opened the night and with their synthesis of 70’s riff-rock, soul, and the glam-rock influences that Black Girls execute so well it was easy to imagine why. Sleepwalkers build on that base though, shown especially well with show standout “Prey and Pressure”, sporting an almost stoner-rock descending riff, equal parts earworm hook and pounding tenderizer ushering in the shouted chorus with just a touch of manic energy, “I’m feeling pressure all the time!”. The back and forth between a supple rhythm section and the steady riffage made for an early highlight of the night. The sound didn’t do them many favors, though. When their lead guitarist (you’ll have to forgive this writer for not knowing which Yorke brother is which) regularly decimated songs with slashing guitar solos, they too often felt more like suggestions than star turns, a flurry of notes hiding underneath a suffocating rhythm section.
Anyways, the night continued. The line to the bathroom crawled. The guy who pissed in front of me in line made a pass at my date. Someone handed me a PBR that may not have been intended for me, but was drank by me regardless. And finally Black Girls took the stage with a trace more confidence than their typical swagger allowed. The night started with some old standbys from the excellent 2011 LP Hell Dragon. A sharp contrast to their recent shows that have been predicated on starting with the new stuff before easing into the familiar crowd favorites. The Claire Sinclaire cuts did come though, and they hit hard. The new songs show a stronger predilection towards funk and soul as disco backbeats abound while lead guitarist Mike Bryant often joins the rhythmic frenzy with wah wah stabs and staccato strums. “Low” was the standout it always is, with most of the room joining in on the chorus, “I’ve been low, but I’ve never been that LOW!” The call and response vocals on “So Sorry” ignited the crowd as well, some shouting along to both drummer Stephen Farris and singer Drew Gillihan, others choosing one or the other. The end result rather cacophonous but riotously fun.
Then the guests started coming in. First Charlie Glenn from The Trillions on keyboards, then a smattering of horn players from the NO BS! Brass Band stepping in as the horn section, sax and trombone in tow. And though they sat in as guests, it’s hard to imagine songs like “Lover” and “Broadway” without the call and response and loping horn lines they provide. The latter was, as it often is at Black Girls shows, a highlight of the night, the band locked in, horns flailing, bassist Jeff Knight ambling on the end of the maybe inch-high stage, rhythm guitarist Fletcher Babbs wandering into the crowd crossing at least half the venue, audience chanting back in response “NEW YORK CITY!! GAWWWWD DAMN!” Any semblance of band/audience separation long forgotten.
And that was it. We ushered ourselves from the mood lighting interior of Baliceaux into the night. Event over, album launched.