Archive for August, 2012

Review: Mode Moderne – Strange Bruises

Sometimes things don’t quite work out as planned. Take Mode Moderne who originally teamed up with the intention of starting a dance-oriented project. Admittedly, it’s feasible that ‘Strange Bruises’ could be a soundtrack to a particularly fey indie disco but this Canadian outfit ended up, in their own words, “drawing on the auteurism of Herzog, the prose of Kurt Hamsun and the legend of Scott Walker”.

Initially at least, the brave new world these words promise seem like mere hyperbole. ‘Nightly Youths’ evokes Wild Swans so closely it’s basically a pastiche, albeit a very good one; from the glum guitars to the wavering, emotional vocals of frontman Phillip Intile. There certainly isn’t much on this album to make you think that this record was made after 1985 but when the period level detail is matched by the brooding infectious qualities of the title track or the Bunnymen-esque insouciance of ‘Private Library’, it’s easy top buy in to the Mode Moderne ethos. Even more intriguingly, final track ‘Open Air’ summons up the underrated kings of Scottish glum, Lowlife.

An occasionally muddy production tends to dull the impact of some of these songs and – considering the group have been championed by Pitchfork – one would expect to hear a band with some kind of USP. Nevertheless, the songs are attractively moody and grasp what made their apparent influences so special in the first place.

Web Sites:
Mode Moderne Bandcamp
Mode Moderne Facebook

Further Listening:
Wild Swans, Lowlife, Echo And The Bunnymen


Review: Arcadia Gardens – Memory Machines

Arcadia Gardens’ Daniel Rutstrom takes the gentle approach to dreampop. So whilst others add rhythm and beats to keep the music robust, the Tennessee man’s songs are content to drift by on an ambient trip. Having said that, if one would expect ‘Memory Machines’ to be a soporific experience, then one would be incorrect.

1960’s psych informs a surprising amount of this genre and ‘Sun Sphere’ is the main concession to this influence here; recalling at once the fey brilliance of The Drums. The folkier ‘Come Wander With Us’ is another throwback to generations past but Rutstrom doesn’t need to recycle anyone else’s magic this time.

Furthering the chill-out vibe, the dreampop glow of ‘Relax Tonight’ lives up to its title. Elsewhere, the heavenly harmonic glory of My Morning Jacket is recalled for ‘New Sky, Blue Sky’ but ‘Empty Dreams’ ends the album in rather awkward fashion with some tidy analog synths and an unexpected (and not entirely welcome) rock guitar solo.

Flawed ending aside, ‘Memory Machines’ packs in a lot of ideas in to its thirty minute length. The real skill is managing  to turn what could be inoffensive background music in to memorable melodies.

Web Sites:
Arcadia Gardens Bandcamp
Arcadia Gardens Facebook

Further Listening:
My Morning Jacket

Review: The Mommyheads – Vulnerable Boy

Despite being largely unknown on these shores, San Francisco’s The Mommyheads have been in operation since the late 1990’s but even then they were a band out of time choosing to proffer prog rock and power pop whilst their contemporaries took the grunge route to stardom. However, they are still an active operation and might just have the last laugh with their new album.

Their style is encapsulated in the first song from ‘Vulnerable Boy’. What begins as a piano ballad has morphed into a power-pop/prog concoction by its denouement. The fondness for complex movements is a regular theme on the album and tracks such as ‘Gimme Silence’ and some of the songs in the second half of the record seem to value experimental challenges above addictive songwriting.

Yet such indulgences are forgiven when one hears a track as warm and melodic as ‘Science And Reason’, where the ambition is matched by a lovable song. Indeed, a cracking chorus is never far away (most notably for ‘Medicine Show’) and there’s also some uncharacteristically incisive moments at the centre of the record; namely a new wave track called ‘Skinny White Uptight’ and the minimal funk of ‘Devastate Me’. Gems are more difficult to find thereafter but ‘Bleed From A Glass’ offers a neat modern alternative to Procol Harum’s ubiquitous ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’.

Since The Mommyheads are unashamed of their prog-rock influences, there are one too many moments of clever indulgence here. Yet at the heart of the album is an eagerness to charm and a tunefulness to rival those other great purveyors of power pop, Jellyfish.

Web Sites:
The Mommyheads Official Site
The Mommyheads Facebook

Further Listening:

Review: Grand Resort – Vanguard Dreams

They may be considered very British institutions but the influences of C86 and shoegazing have entered the mind of an impressionable teenager from the Dominican Republic. Andrés Pichardo is the musician in question and after decamping to Massachusetts, the now twenty year-old has put these ideas on to tape.

‘Buena Vista’ sets the scene with a colourful explosion of dreampop but it’s a mere prelude for the jangle-fest that is to follow, beginning with the light and airy ‘Running Out’. Occasionally these songs are so light they recall the kind of paper thin, insipid fare which diminished the C86 portfolio. However, the plusses are greater than the minuses and half of this album  (namely ‘Night Is Dark’, ‘Never Ever’, ‘All I Want To Do’ and ‘Recreation’) strikes the perfect balance between strident pop hooks and Pichardo’s permanent sense of wistfulness.

‘Vanguard Dreams’ is essentially nostalgic escapism and those looking for more robust material should cast their glances elsewhere. However, for fans of The Field Mice and The Wild Swans, it will feel like summer has just begun.

Web Sites:
Grand Resort Bandcamp
Grand Resort Facebook

Further Listening:
The Field Mice, The Wild Swans, Twin Cabins

Review: Western Affairs – 2000

Washington DC trio Western Affairs have set the controls for a journey into outer space. The only problem is they didn’t think they’d miss loved ones so much but they were kind enough to write some great songs about the experience and here we have half a dozen tracks almost overcome by melancholia and dreampop effects.

For ‘Iowa’, the spacious production and emotional cracks in the vocal delivery call to mind a low budget version of The Helio Sequence. It’s possibly the most uptempo track on the EP, which is remarkable considering the first line is “Give it up. You’re in over your head”. Yet as the album draws on, the cosmic synths come in to sharper focus and closer comparisons can be made to The Flaming Lips; the earnest soulful vocals allying particularly well with the jabbing synths and increasingly frenetic drums for ‘Part 2’.

The highlight, however, is ‘1999’ (which bears no relation to the Prince song of the same name) and it’s the moment where the human fragility and outer space effects are most closely in unison to present a gorgeous heartbreaking melody. The sense of loneliness becomes more apparent track by track (in fact it’s hard to think of the word “alone” appearing with such frequency on any other record) so on ‘Control’ the sadness and sense of loss is very tangible and by the time of the title track – featuring the distant calls of children and a melancholic guitar figure – there’s no turning back at all.

By the end of it all, dreampop only tells half the story. This is electronic soul music which has a grounded, very human feel despite its associations with space. Imagine Eels’ Mark “E” Everett marooned on a distant planet and you’re there, complete with the requisite tunes to make these doomed romantic tales sound a whole lot more attractive than they have any right to be.

Web Sites:
Western Affairs Official Blog
Western Affairs Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Flaming Lips, Eels, The Helio Sequence

Review: The Voodoo Trombone Quartet – Dress Down Friday

The name will be unfamiliar to many but material from The Voodoo Trombone Quartet has appeared on shows like ‘Ugly Betty’, ‘Being Human’ and ‘Little Big Planet’. Although they perform live as an eight-piece band, their appointed band leader is muliti-instrumentalist Paul Thorpe, who guides his well-drilled outfit through a cornucopia of styles assembled under the loose confines of quirky instrumental music.

‘Dress Down Friday’ is the second album from the project and it’s obvious that versatility is the watchword for Thorpe and his crew. On this evidence, they really do have a piece of music for every occasion; whether it’s easy listening/disco (‘La-Dee-Loo-La’), space/Krautrock (‘Easy To Learn’), film noir (‘Cold Reader’), 70’s cop themes (‘Number One Selecter’) or late night club music (‘Ripples’). There’s even a ska track which features vocals.

With such variety, the only danger is that the effect can sound like a mix tape by ten different artists. However, what a fine mix tape it is and the overall feeling is one of exuberant instrumental music with occasional moments of quiet reflection.

Web Sites:
Voodoo Trombone Quartet Official Site
‘Dress Down Friday’ Soundcloud Album Stream

Further Listening:
Lemon Jelly, John Barry

Review: the bilinda butchers – goodbyes

Naming yourself after a member of My Bloody Valentine is one of the more obvious ways of nailing your influences to the shoegazing mast. Thus we have the bilinda butchers, from San Francisco who, as it turns out, sound only slightly like the band who inspired their name.

the bilinda butchers are certainly not as hard-edged as MBV as is immediately clear from ‘teen dream’, the opening track to ‘goodbyes’. It’s the jangliest of jangly pop, complimented by fey vocals. ‘hai bby’ is poppier still but with a noticeably stronger emphasis on electronics that puts it in the bracket of modern acts like Delphic. The EP then moves on to the giddy, constantly shifting soundscapes of ‘crystal tears’ whilst ‘half open’ and ‘little leaf’ bear close resemblance to the blissful brand of dreampop The Radio Dept. regularly produce.

On a melodic level, the bilinda butchers are hard to beat. Each track is memorable and resolutely tuneful but the only minor problem is that the whole experience, because it is so cleanly produced, possesses a slightly artificial feel. Perhaps a full album’s worth of their material will provide the acid test that their sugary songwriting can last the course.

Web Sites:
the bilinda butchers Tumblr Site
the bilinda butchers Bandcamp

Further Listening:
The Radio Dept., Letting Up Despite Great Faults, Delphic

Review: The Dr. Seuss Project – The Dr. Seuss Project

The Dr. Seuss Project is a new musical endeavour from Massachusetts led by pianist Paul Bloom. Joined by, amongst others, a cellist and a tenor sax player, the sextet have expressed the Dr. Seuss stories via the medium of jazz.

Fifty minutes of jazz may be a lot to take in one sitting but if there are two words to describe ‘The Dr. Seuss Project’ it would be “playful jazz”. ‘Cat In The Hat’ features cracking key changes which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Steely Dan record. ‘One Fish. Two Fish’ contains a lovely, warm melody at its centre whilst the beginning, middle and the end sees the tune ‘Oh The Places You’ll Go’ reprised but with a different shade of mood on each take. Not everything works as well as intended. So the somewhat random flow of ‘Green Eggs & Ham’ and ‘Yertle The Turtle’ sound more like improvised takes, albeit of the proficient variety.

As tributes go, this is one of the most affectionate and without ever running the risk of sounding too reverential. Indeed, the musicians sound like they’re having fun and evoke the humour, melancholy, confusion and sheer joy of the stories they are based on.

Web Sites:
The Dr. Seuss Project Bandcamp Page

Further Listening:
Steely Dan

Review: Apsis Lappet – The Fear Of Farewell

As a prelude to their second album, Apsis Lappet reassuringly describe their acid pop as “nothing less than face melting”. Hyperbole aside, though, ‘The Fear Of Farewell’ certainly deserves be positioned at the extreme end of modern psychedelia.

‘Frozen’ kicks off the album and will cast worrying doubts in the minds of those who likes their tunes happy and catchy since it’s a Krautrock drone of a song. ‘Quickly Slow Me Down’ is a better example of their psychedelic pop sound but its crazed harmonies are certainly challenging. Likewise, ‘Fishing’ combines primtive electronica with vocoders to incongruous effect.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Apsis Lappet’s most enduring tracks are the least complicated. ‘No News Like Bad News’ shows the benefits of a primal rock riff and the group produce a song which rivals Dawn Of The Replicants at their most raucous. The drum and bass versus twinkly synths collision that is ‘Rejected’ is worth a listen too. Those moments of relative glory are somewhat crushed, however, by ‘Anaerobic’ and its eleven minutes of repetitive static, bird noise and drone which can only prompt the simple question, “why?”. Contrary artists they are, the album then ends with ‘Hidden Track’, which features proper singing and a sweet, if slightly saccharine, melody.

In terms of reference points, ‘The Fear Of Farewell’ should be filed somewhere between the out-there productions of Klaxons and Ariel Pink’s lo-fi pop. Naturally, Apsis Lappet don’t quite have the killer hooks of those bands but what they do have are some curious songs which will intrigue adventurous listeners.

Web Sites:
No Source Label Page for Apsis Lappet

Further Listening:
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Klaxons, Dawn Of The Replicants, Blackloud

Review: Beach House – Bloom

Even though it’s a term used more now than when it was coined some twenty years ago, “dreampop” has always been a contradictory descriptiion. Of course, there’s always ambition for the artist to appeal to as many listeners as possible but equally there’s a determination to put melodies through an effects blender and let music lovers work for their rewards. So not really “pop” then. Baltimore’s Beach House are proving they might be the act to buck that trend.

The ornate, trembling melody which forms the basis for opener ‘Myth’ is not unlike The Walkmen in its execution. Fine track though it is, it seems like a scene setter compared to ‘Wild’ which uses just about every dreampop hook available and when the vocals are performed by Victoria Legrand, who swoops and sighs on demand perfectly, the duo have clearly bottled their formula on this record. Spreading their magic potion further, ‘Troublemaker’ – thanks largely due to its wonky fairground organ motif – is edgy and mysterious and then crescendoes in to a beautifully melancholic chorus whereas ‘New Year’ is queasily attractive.

Elsewhere, as far as dreampop goes, this is as commercial as the genre can get. There’s no shame in it but if Abba had started twenty years later, it’s feasible they could have written ‘Other People’, ‘Wishes’ or ‘The Hours’. The tunes are epic, hummable and have a universal appeal.   Yet before Swervedriver fans yell “sell out”, the prolonged codas and repetition for the final two songs will keep the shoegaze purists mildly satisfied.

‘Bloom’ is more a consolidation of all that made ‘Teen Dream’ so good and who could blame them for taking that approach?  Infact this will probably be the most sumptuous album anyone could hear this year. Criticisms would be that the production now sounds a little too polished for its own good and there are a few occasions when the formula (languid verses, euphoric chorus) could do with an extra ingredient.

Web Sites:
Beach House Official Site
Beach House MySpace

Further Listening:
The Helio Sequence, Deerhunter, Natureboy, Coastal