Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free
There's a strangely rural thread that winds its way through the entirety of Akron/Family's newest, Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free, seemingly pointing backwards from the band's NYC-bred sound to their roots in the Midwest, and that rustic, Middle America upbringing does indeed shine through at quite a few points on the album, particularly on the Fleet Foxes-esque "Set 'Em Free," the pastoral Cat Stevens-ness of "The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen," and the subtly folky intro section of "They Will Appear," for three. They're more than capable of playing sweet, delicate folk that sounds like it should be ringing (softly, of course) across fields of grain and in between the stands of majestic pine trees.
What Akron/Family really deserve credit for, though, is their ability to graft that rustic/pastoral sound into songs that are most definitely not rustic and/or pastoral, or even folk-y. Try as you might to shove the band into any one prescribed little box, they make their escape, whipping out big, shiny knives to carve their collective way out of the box entirely and leaving weirdly compelling gouges, scrapes, and shadows as evidence.
Take "They Will Appear," again, for an example -- the music begins with low-key drums and spiraling guitar lines, then shifts into a gorgeous chorus of male voices singing to the sunrise (well, that's what it sounds like, at least) before the raggedy, Neil Young-ish guitars come squalling in and the drums drop everybody into a Williamsburg loft for the coolest all-night party you've ever been to. The song crashes and careens, a stomping, confident hippie-church service that lifts its hands up to the skies with a cheery, almost manic smile across its face.
The rest of the disc follows suit, grabbing influences from all corners and dumping them pell-mell into the kitchen sink to brew up a sound that's not really any one thing except maybe psych-rock, and that stretches even the boundaries of that rubbery-edged musical genre. The folk stuff slams head-on into noise-rock guitar ("MBF," which wouldn't sound out of place on a Parts & Labor album) and jubilant, Elephant 6-ish horns ("Gravelly Mountains of the Moon"), pinballs off to morph into a shambling, rambling pseudo-jazz orchestra (the all-left-turns "River"), stops in at the local bar to get down ("Everyone Is Guilty"), and even winds up colliding with a Big Easy-style jazz funeral horn jam (no, really; "Sun Will Shine (Warmth of the Sunship Version)") before melting into a woozy rendition of "Auld Lang Syne."
Through it all, the combinations work nearly flawlessly. The risk of a kitchen-sink effort like this is that by trying to be too many things, a band can end up sounding adrift and unsure, but that's not what's happening here. The trio of Seth Olinsky, Miles Seaton, and Dana Janssen play with big, mischevious grins, mixing and matching like mad scientists and with all the skill that implies. The result is definitely scattered and hard to handle yet absolutely worthwhile, like a less-loopy, more-organic Beta Band with a heavy dose of Sufjan Stevens horns and some Spoon-esque sharp points.
The best track on here, perhaps fittingly, is the first -- "Everyone Is Guilty" immediately kicks all preconceptions in the head and leaves 'em in the gutter to ponder their existence, leaving you to feel your jaw slowly drop as the band cranks into what sounds like some crazed remix of a lost Maceo & the Macks classic. The funky/squishy-sounding keys sound like they fell straight off the soundtrack to Shaft, the percussion's tinkly and busy and yet somehow not irritating, and the gang-shouted verses are nearly impossible to get out of your head, even after one listening.
From there, it's a trippy, swirling spiral down the rabbit hole; you never know where Akron/Family's headed next, but after a track or two, you no longer care about anything beyond hanging on for the ride.
[Akron/Family is playing 2/23/10 at Walter's, along with Warpaint & Buxton.]
The Eastern Sea
When I first heard The Eastern Sea, it was in a live setting, with all guns blazing, and the band turned the club into a grinning, sweaty hoedown/tent revival, ending by inviting everybody in the crowd up on the stage to dance and sing. And it was pretty amazing. The recorded experience, however, is a little different -- there's less of the all-out energy, the unabashed joy, evident on the band's two EPs (the self-titled debut and this one here, somewhat unobtrusively titled EP II), which is to be somewhat expected without the live dynamic between the band and their audience.
What you get on EP and EP II, instead, is essentially one intricately-crafted song cycle about love and a girl and, um, I've got no idea what else. It's playful, yet smart as hell, and possibly more deliberate and thought-out than any set of songs I've heard in a long time; listening to tracks like "The Sea" and "Your House," you can't help but believe guitarist/singer/primary songwriter Matthew Hines knew exactly what he wanted these two EPs to sound like and bent the instruments and equipment to his will until it all clicked into place. Everything fits right where it needs to be, from that mournful horn line over there to the half-desperate backing vocals over here; Hines isn't writing songs, he's composing pop symphonies, Brian Wilson-style.
And yes, it's amazing. That's the only word I can come up with that'll encompass the whole thing, and I can't say it enough; I can literally listen to this band play for days on end, in part because my ear'll find some new little piece to focus in on each and every time I listen. Sonically, it's beautifully serene, warm and close-sounding, with the mostly-gentle guitars moving up to stand next to you while they play their part and Hines tells his stories into your ear on the other side. The bass, drums, and assorted other instrumentation meanwhile busies itself in the near distance, always within the room but set somewhat apart.
I'd worried after the debut EP came out, back in 2008, that there'd be no way Hines and company could ever match up to it, but they've blown my fears right out of the water with EP II. They start off with the jaunty, low-slung "The Mountain," a sing-song-y piece of traveling indie-pop that's insistent, sincere, and addictive as hell, and it immediately feels like I just finished listening to EP and have merely moved on to the next song. Hines meanders through the music, coming off like the internal musings of some mostly-contented roadtripper out riding the freeways.
If I hadn't heard second track "The Sea" before, on a split-7" The Eastern Sea did with Houstonian bros News on the March, I'll admit that it might've thrown me off, just because it's so different from anything else I've heard from the band so far. There were bleak, melancholy tracks on EP, to be sure, but none of them approached the level of spooky, unsettling isolation channeled here -- there's some kind of a story being built about a house situated on a constantly-eroding beach, and the music washes appropriately in and out, inexorable as the tide, and as it rolls along it becomes apparent that it's all a mirage, crumbled away when the sun comes up. The narrator (I'm not going to assume it's Hines himself) starts out reveling in the cut-off, out-of-touch nature of the beach life but ends up trapped and alone. Add to that the eerie, Radiohead-esque descending riff the chorus rides, and the end result is a song that's both pretty and sinister at once.
Thankfully, the band lifts the mood somewhat with the cheery, fuzzy-edged "The Name," which reminds me of the best stuff old-school Austin indie-pop guys Silver Scooter ever came up with. It's a toe-tapping, head-nodding joy of a song, one worth hearing on repeat all by itself; I love everything from the overfuzzed guitars and near-shoegazer melody to the cheeky lyrics: "Tell me your name / I swear I'll drop it whenever I can / If you're using mine / I'm pretty sure people know who I am." Closer "Your House" turns things down again and gets more melancholy and somber, with the narrator addressing (presumably) the girl he loves on the eve of her/their departure, although it's never clear whether he's actually saying these things to her or just thinking them and wishing he could speak them aloud.
The song moves along subtly, led by brushed, low-key drums and horns and by Hines' mournful, almost Christopher Cross-ish voice (I know, I know, but I don't mean that in a bad way, just that both voices have this strangely gentle feel to them), as the two people involved make their quiet drive to wherever it is they're going. The track's sweet and poignant, saying just enough to keep you interested but never giving it all away...and then, before you know it, it's over, and you still want more. Put together, the two EPs do indeed complete one another, but hopefully that just means they're one complete beginning for The Eastern Sea, not an ending. If we're lucky, these folks will demolish my expectations yet again.
[The Eastern Sea is playing 2/12/10 at Mango's, along with listenlisten, Peter and the Wolf, & Limb.]
The Gold Sounds
Deer Park boys The Gold Sounds know how to start off an album, that's for damn sure. Opener "She Got Me Singin So Low" comes crashing in, so rambunctious and wild you can practically hear singer/bassist Sean Donnelly's knowing smirk right through the speakers, and the track steadily gets more and more chaotic 'til drummer Dee Donnelly is doing a full-on Keith Moon drum blowout at the end and brother Sean and guitarist Chris Fuentes is creating a spiraling squall of guitar sound that all but collapses in on itself. Best. Opening. Track. Ever. (Okay, maybe not Ever, but hey, it's close.)
Admittedly, I'm a bit biased -- after all, Seismic Love is the full-length I've been eagerly awaiting since late in 2007, when I first heard this Deer Park trio's brand of dark, rough-edged, garage-y rock and had to pick my face up off the floor. Since that time, the band's been hard to pin down, only releasing a couple of EP/demos with a shifting set of early-cut songs on 'em; Seismic Love is far, far, far overdue, in my book, and I'm happy as hell to have it here in my hands.
There's a risk, of course, with that kind of anticipation, but The Gold Sounds have delivered, well and truly. They shrewdly kick in the door with the barnburning rockers first, following up "She Got Me Singin So Low" with the slinky snarl of "Champagne," which showcases Sean Donnelly's thick, fuzzed-out, meaty-sounding bass quite nicely and sounds like a song Jack White dearly wishes he'd written, and then with the seriously murky, sinister-sounding "Keep It Rolling," which switches between Ziggy Stardust-ish vocals for the verses and a low-down, almost unbelievably bassy growl for the chorus. Again, Donnelly's bass crunches and rumbles perfectly, sounding like classic Mudhoney but slightly cleaner and more tightly-wound.
The Sounds wisely wait 'til a little ways in to throw the first curve, with the seemingly gentle, sweetly yearning "College Radio"; the song starts of drifting and pretty, but it's all a bait-and-switch for the snapping, propulsive mid-'90s indie-rock that comes in after a minute-and-a-half or so. When it comes to this song, I've found that I honestly don't care how many times I've heard it before. It's just such a smart, wonderfully catchy, well-put-together track that it works every single damn time I put it on. By the time the band gets to the frantic desperation in the line, "My heart starts shaking / and the world starts shaking / and it's all gone," I'm beaming and foot-drumming away like a fool. It's like Superchunk covering the Ramones, in the best fucking possible way.
I should note, by the way, that several of the songs on here -- "Champagne," "College Radio," and "Parfum," for three, at least on the version of the EP I've got -- have popped up on the demo-ish EPs I mentioned earlier, but don't take that to mean any of this is throwaway. Everything but "Parfum" was re-recorded in 2009 for the full-length, and to my ears the previously-released songs sound tighter, more confident, and flat-out better than they did the last time out. (And hey, at this point the odds of digging up one of the early EPs are pretty slim.)
The newer stuff's great, too, mind you. "Too Old To Be Young" may be a bit premature in its self-assessment, if you ask me, but the track's nicely melodic while still having a great, ragged crunch to it that I just can't help but love; both "College Radio" and "Too Old To Be Young" remind me heavily at points of a less-backwoodsy, more Stones-y Kings of Leon, and I don't think that's any kind of bad thing. Then there's "Two Ways," which is remarkably heartfelt and sweet, the tough guys showing their collective heart on their collective sleeve over a rootsy "walking" rhythm and almost Springsteenian melody.
"Rain Machine" brings the dark edge back to the proceedings, placing that awesomely rumbling, fuzzed-yet-tight bass sound right up front and coupling it with Fuentes' twisty, dizziness-inducing riffs to come up with a song that bumps along but sounds genuinely threatening, like a Tarantino-ized take on West Side Story or something. "Parfum" is probably my least-favorite track on here, honestly, with its slow-moving country/blues feel dragging things down a bit, but even that seems to fit better now than it did on the EP.
Plus, it's redeemed by the great, resigned melancholy of "All Love Songs Get Old" and the swaggering stomp of the title track (which makes me think of the Queens of the Stone Age, for some reason). Closer "I See the World Fall" strikes a more poignant note, swooping and meandering along beneath sky-high guitars, and it makes me think (favorably) of Benjamin Wesley more than anything else, both in terms of the melody and vocals.
It's funny, but for a musical genre that holds nonconformity and breaking rules dear, rock & roll as a whole sure seems to have a ton of rules rock bands "have" to follow for things to click. You've got to mean what you're doing -- but not too much; you've got to take risks, to blaze your own trail -- as long as you don't stray too far off the beaten path; you've got have attitude (seriously, how else could you sing about "Seismic Love" and mean it?) -- but not too much. There's a tight, tight target bands like this have to aim for, and you can tell almost immediately when somebody makes a misstep. The Gold Sounds don't just hit the mark, though; they fucking nail it.
[The Gold Sounds are playing their CD release party 2/12/10 at Walter's, along with Paris Falls, T.V. Torso, & The Small Sounds.]
Hours From It
Wow. It's always a funny thing when you've heard a band before, liked the bits and pieces you've run across, and been curious to hear more, and then when you finally do get a glimpse of the full picture, as it were, you realize that you'd previously had no freaking idea what they were really about. And then you feel like an idiot for not paying attention sooner.
That's kind of how I'm feeling right now about Holy Fiction, after listening repeatedly to their brand-new full-length, Hours From It. I'd heard a song or two, liked 'em well enough, hoped to see 'em live some day, and then, when I put the CD on, was immediately floored. It's taken a while, but the overarching awe at what they've created is steadily beating back the creeping shame and slap-the-forehead annoyance I'm feeling towards myself.
Because these folks -- a star-studded bunch, alumni of bands like Ethan Durelle and Hemyah that intrigued me but never really caught my ear in a major way -- have crafted something really, truly wonderful here. I already can't imagine not including this in my 2010 best-of list, and since I generally try to remain a bit aloof and see how these things wear on me throughout the year, that's saying something.
First and foremost, there's an awesome serene feel to the whole thing, a thoughtful, relaxed vibe that brings to mind Mark Kozelek's Sun Kil Moon project (the languidly pastoral debut album, at least). The impression's deepened by frontman/guitarist Evan Lecker's voice, which is a gorgeously warm, impassioned baritone akin to to Kozelek's; when he's at his best, as on "More Than Ever," Lecker can truly belt it out, with a voice that's warmly confident yet has a nice, vulnerable quaver to it, like a confused-yet-defiant man alone and howling out his soul alone on a cliff somewhere.
The thing I'm reminded of the most, though, when listening to Hours From It, is Peter Gabriel's sweeter, less out-and-out silly/strange moments. There's a serious resemblance/influence, at least to my ears, to the Afropop-tinged sound of Gabriel's classic So -- there are a few points of various songs where I'm half-tempted to start singing the words to "Red Rain" and figure they'd work quite nicely. I mean no slight by saying it, mind you; I find myself loving the gently urgent, somber feel of it all, with the up-front jangly guitars and desperate, instrument-like vocals.
"Iron Eyes" sets the tone quite nicely, starting off distantly and delicately folky but shifting quickly to a more World Music-sounding rhythm with a subtly funky, melodic bassline, violin, and understated hand percussion, melding the two genres seamlessly. "Exit" rides the line between Sun Kil Moon and Jeremy Enigk's solo stuff, driving and bright (it's probably the most "energetic" song on here, all things considered), and "Golden City Lights" slows things down but keeps the folky, poignant country thing going.
"Song Ten" is practically folk-soul, with delicately beautiful strings and shaker underlying that wonderful voice, and "Two Small Bodies" drifts along until the crescendo comes crashing in with military-style drums and Arcade Fire-esque atmospherics. Title track "Hours From It" steps away from the rest of the album somewhat, beginning with murky, nearly baroque instrumentation and radio-static-y vocals before switching halfway to a bit of a faster tempo and a strutting, grim-sounding groove.
The album closes with "Yes They Were Here," again with the far-off, somewhat distorted vocals, but here they still sound as incredible as they did early on. The song revs up steadily 'til the very end, building and building like something by The Gloria Record before dropping back to a much more minimal, electronics-tinged Afrobeat denouement.
I'm envious of people like Holy Fiction who can write songs like these, I'll admit it, because the songs they come up with feel like honest-to-God compositions, like real-live symphonies, crafted using guitars, drums, and the occasional violin rather than an orchestra. It's intricate, stunningly beautiful, and infectious as hell.
[Holy Fiction is playing its CD release party 2/20/10 at Warehouse Live, along with The Wonderful Future, The 71's, & They Were Stars.]
Retribution Gospel Choir
It took me until a full minute into "Workin' Hard" to get it. I'd been enjoying 2, the aptly-titled second album from Retribution Gospel Choir, definitely, right from the first ringing chords of "Hide It Away," but I didn't really get it. When the choppy, almost Van Halen-esque guitars came in, though, followed by the blue-collar, shout-along chorus, it finally hit me: this, right here, is frontman Alan Sparhawk's classic rock band.
And hey, I can't blame the guy -- playing for so long in minimalist, low-key indie-rock outfit Low, Sparhawk's bound to need an outlet for loud, raggedy-edged guitars, belted-out vocals, and thundering drums, which 2 has in spades. Where Low is all about restraint, on 2, at least, Retribution Gospel Choir is about full-on bombast and rocking the hell out; it's a bareknuckled punch of an album, where even the lighter, more upbeat tracks could probably still beat you down if they had to.
All of which is a good thing from where I sit, especially given how well Sparhawk and cohorts Steve Garrington (also of Low) and Eric Pollard pull it off. The two aforementioned tracks are the album's highlights, to be sure -- "Workin' Hard" is packed full of honest, down-to-earth swagger and may well be the single best classic rock track I've heard since I was a kid listening to KLBJ on nights when the clouds were low and I could pick up the signal on my car's crappy stereo, while "Hide It Away," with its insistent, military-sounding rhythm, roaring guitars, and pleading/soaring, almost Band of Horses-esque vocals, is definitely the closest I've ever heard Sparhawk come to a genuinely, defiantly uplifting song. The latter is one hell of a milestone, all by itself.
Most of the other tracks on here fall somewhere in-between. There's "Your Bird," with a sinister, stutter-stepping beat and bitter lyrics about how "You want to sing your little song" (which makes me think of Arcwelder's kissoff to Nirvana, "Remember to Forget"), and there's "Poor Man's Daughter," the stark, spread-wide-open noise of which sounds like either Joel R. Phelps or Arbouretum covering Neil Young, I'm not sure which, and then, further on, there's "Soemthing's Got to Break," where Sparhawk spends the bulk of the song singing through what sounds like a transistor radio, 'til all three band members come collapsing in near the end and it all turns into a Queen song minus Freddy Mercury.
Things head downhill after the halfway mark, unfortunately -- "White Wolf" and "Electric Guitar" are both middling, particularly after the other stuff on here -- but are redeemed somewhat by closing track "Bless Us All," where Sparhawk and company ride an unrelenting, heartbeat-like rhythm throughout, using a sparse, hypnotic melody to meditate on, well, I can't tell what the hell they're meditating on. Religion? The death of a relationship?
Sounds like it could be either, but the end effect is like a somber prayer meeting where all eyes are downcast as everybody sings along. The hardworking rock band's packed up and left the building, leaving the choir itself behind, at least 'til next time.
[Retribution Gospel Choir is playing 2/10/10 at Wired Live (formerly The Meridian), along with The Bloody Mushrooms.]