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Wednesday, Sep 16, 2009

Holcombe Waller is one of those underground artists that doesn’t seem to care about what is happening on the surface of the popular music landscape. He writes songs in his apartment in Portland, he performs (straight-forward performances, fused with a smattering of performance art), oh and he teaches a little too…an elective course at UC Berkeley, to be exact. All of which seems to be executed, and indeed achieved at the artist’s very own creative whim.


How my love affair with this man’s music began, is simple. I discovered him just over a year ago in a back issue of Butt, and from that moment, I felt compelled to ‘discover’ whether Holcombe had the artistic credos to back up his cheeky interview persona.


The quest began with a long wait, for a US import of his release, Extravagant Gesture to arrive to the UK. Once fully loaded and synced, it was only a week, before four tracks off of the album were in my Ipod’s most played list, with the layered, melodic cataclysm ‘Anthem’ taking the prized spot as the number one repeater. At that point, I started to understand why I felt so passionately about Holcombe. Somehow, he had managed to fuse Van Morrison’s lyrical delivery, with a touch of Gospel soul, and cradled that within the airy melodic landscape suited to the The Smiths.


On his next release, 2005’s Troubled Times, Holcombe seemed ready to tackle a different beast. The self-confessional poetry of his previous effort is still all over the place, except now it is aimed at us with a political undertone. The artist weaves his way through shiny melodies that intersperse tales of war and identity, with stories of powerless lovers in helpless relationships. To the reader it may sound ridiculous, but somehow Holcombe manages to begin with the refrain “Condoleez, baby pleez” (on ‘No Enemy’), only to shift to the nonchalant candour found in ‘You Love Me’, where the singer confesses to his lover that he is going to be “vacationing from pain”. From then on, we assume that the couple are on official ‘break’, when Holcombe suddenly tells him “if I [still] love you, we’ll be fine” (that is, if his lover manages to heat things up in the bedroom, of course).


The rest of the album is equally welcoming. The singer meanders between catchy refrains, where minimalistic lyrics have the power to ignite the imagination. When Holcombe sings on title track: “What you doing, patriot? Come buck-naked dance for free, Watch one-monkey down the last cherry tree”. One wonders whether Holcombe is singing about the brutalities of the Bush administration, or a more personal, romantic war – one that may be tearing the artist up inside.


After all this, I have yet to mention Mr. Waller’s greatest gift, his voice. An astonishing instrument, the singer’s four-octave vocal range veers from a gentle simmer to a pointed falsetto with a beguiling ease and precision. This instrument, coupled with his bare and evocative lyricism suggest that Holcombe is one of the more exciting, (and underrated artists) of recent memory.


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Tuesday, Sep 15, 2009

In the UK music scene, the city of Glasgow is the stuff of legend. Considered by many to be a Mecca for discovering new talent, it possesses one of the most vibrant music scenes in the world. Texas, Primal Scream, Snow Patrol, Oasis, Simple Minds, Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai, Young Marble Giants, Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura, and the eponymous, Glasvegas—are all in some way or another indebted to the city for their success.


The reasoning behind its flourishing musical environment is simple. Marred by consistently rainy weather, an industrial past that left deep class divisions, and a cultural regeneration unparalleled in Europe in the 1990s – Glasgow has all of the signature trademarks of a city like Seattle or New York. It is no wonder then that the artists who live, breathe, and play in Glasgow, are propelled by a spirited urgency.


From this very cloth, there comes a new musical outfit called, Paper Planes. Fronted by New-Jersey Girl, Jennifer Paley, along with three Scottish boys, Craig O’ Brien (drums), the boyish Fraser McFadzean (bass), and Christopher Haddow (guitar)—Paper Planes serve as an accessible trans-national link between the two divergent music worlds. Their inspiration comes from the American ilk of the Velvet Underground and The Modern Lovers, but is also interspersed with the whimsical melody of Scottish players such as, Belle & Sebastian and Camera Obscura.


The band’s first single, ‘Doris Day’, to be released in October, is a catchy Rock-pop tune that mixes the abrasive edge of Kim Gordon, and perhaps even Weezer, along with the lilting charm of Jenny Lewis, and a resounding guitar riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mission Impossible soundtrack. Bolstered by a lyrical simplicity (i.e. the refrain: “How absurd, how obscure”), Paper Planes’ music holds a unique spot between raw Rock and Pop. The B-side to, ‘Doris Day’, ‘Restless’ utilizes a more restrained approach, and finds Jennifer waxing lyrical about the drudgery of the everyday (“Same old, Same old…and this and that”).


Together for just over a year, the group are renowned for keeping their gigs short and spare – to allow them the time to develop their niche, at their own pace. This isn’t to mention of course, the numerous woes that have troubled the lead singer, Jennifer, who has struggled to maintain her UK residency. Luckily though, this laid back approach seems only to have helped the foursome hone in on the kind of music that they want to make. And If they keep it up, this bunch of art school graduates may very well find themselves singing in the clouds.


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Tuesday, Sep 15, 2009

Retrospective accounts of British alternative rock circa 1991-1992 have it that the domestic indie scene was filled with faceless hordes of shoegazers with no ambition until Suede emerged to kick off the Britpop movement. That’s a bit unfair; while there were quite of few interchangeable UK alt-rock bands at the time that couldn’t hold a candle to top-flight contemporaries like the Stone Roses and My Bloody Valentine, they could still crack out the occasional great song.


Adorable’s “Sunshine Smile” is a perfect example. The Coventry, England group was one of the lower-tier acts on Creation Records wiped off the map in the wake of the rise of Britpop. While now forgotten, the band did manage this fantastic 1992 single that steadily rolls out and envelopes the listener over the course of its five-minute length.


Adorable’s debut single starts out simple enough, with a chiming lead riff that is delivered at a leisurely pace. However, after the first verse the song’s unassuming nature gives way to loud, swooping chords and swirling leads. Throughout, vocalist Piotr Fijalkowski sings the song’s sun-kissed lyrics in a relaxed, contented manner that allows the peaks and the valleys of the music to float around him. The apex of “Sunshine Smile” is its outro, where the group increases the tempo and wraps the tail-end of the song in coils of pedal-drenched melody.


At its core, shoegaze was psychedelic rock reconfigured for a new generation. Adorable did its forbearers proud by crafting this kaleidoscopic pop gem full of lovestruck optimism (and the group earns bonus points for throwing in a reference to “How Does It Feel to Feel” by The Creation). For a band characterized as arrogant in its press interviews, Adorable definitely had at least one thing worth boasting about.


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Monday, Sep 14, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

Eminem - “White America”
Written by Marshall Mathers, Jeff Bass, L. Resto, and Steve King
From The Eminem Show (Aftermath, 2002)


I’ll just say it right out front: I didn’t learn to appreciate Eminem until 2002, a-thousand-in-hip-hop years after his commercial breakthrough. It would be dishonest to state or imply that I “slept” on him at first. The fact is, I actively avoided Eminem’s work from the beginning. I figured that I, a funkafied, culturally-savvy mixed-race Californian musician old enough to have original Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five 12-inch singles in the crates, needn’t pay heed to this perceived imposter from the heartland who, as far as I knew, was just party-crashing the most important musical development of the late 20th century. I had also heard horrible things about his rampant homophobia and other questionable philosophical positions. I changed the channel when his videos came on TV,  and closed my ears when folks tried to tell me he possessed skills. Then one day, shortly after the release of The Eminem Show, I heard “White America”, and had to take a closer look.


Songs that deal with race and racism in American pop music can usually be traced to a handful of specific traditions. There’s a protest/socially conscious tradition, which typically laments the current race relations climate, and sets eyes on a future where things will be better for all (e.g.,  Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child”). There’s a more confrontational tradition, which aims for revealing uncomfortable and previously unexpressed truths about race relations, often addressing institutional power (e.g. Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”, the work of Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy, and Oakland hip-hop artist Paris). There is also a more observational and/or metaphorical tradition, which aims to teach about the perils of racism through a story, observation, or ironic narration (e.g., Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is”, Kid Creole’s “Consequently”. Lastly, there’s a kind of transcendent tradition, which aims to transcend racial (and other societal) barriers by refusing to acknowledge or believe in the barriers in the first place (e.g., Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”, Prince’s “Uptown”, any song with the phrase “black, white, red, yellow, or brown” in it).


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Sunday, Sep 13, 2009

Sitting in a coffee shop the other day, I heard “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” by Camera Obscura, and while I knew the song, I couldn’t immediately recall if it was from a recent listen or something from high school. The song put me in mind of the female vocalists of my youth, all the Clare Grogans (Altered Images), the Hope Sandovals (Mazzy Star), the Margo Timminses (Cowboy Junkies). And I was suddenly seized with a fever to run home and listen to some Shelleyan Orphan Thankfully we live in the age of the internets, so I can just Google them rather than trudge through the milk-crates of vinyl in my mother’s garage, which have no doubt fallen prey to spiders and mildew and Mom’s random Goodwill donation sprees.


It has been 20 years since the release of no-hit wonder Shelleyan Orphan’s shimmering and beautiful album Century Flower. The Bournemouth, England-based duo of Caroline Crawley and Jemaur Tayle made fanciful and complex pop music in the 1980s and ‘90s, and brushed up against more famous shoulders (the Cure, This Mortal Coil) on their road to eternal obscurity. 


Contemporaries the Sundays have “Here’s Where the Story Ends”, Mazzy Star have their “Fade Into You”, but Shelleyan Orphan can’t even hang their hats on a song that might turn up on a show like Nina Blackwood’s New Wave Nation.  It’s a shame, too, because the music more than holds up against any of the floaty, ethereal dream-pop that girls like me listened to back then.


With vocalists like Camera Obscura’s Traceyanne Campbell and even Arcade Fire’s Regine Chassagne sounding so much like Caroline Crawley, I don’t think I’m the only one who has Century Flower lurking in their collection.



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