PopMatters home | short takes home | archivesPopMatters Music Short Takes
The Slow Signal Fade, Through the Opaque Air (Stroll Music)
Every listen to Through the Opaque Air, the new six-song EP from Los Angeles quartet The Slow Signal Fade, surprises a little bit more with its unique vision. It's Disintegration-era The Cure as done by The Cranberries, all epic slow tempos and one-note guitar lines fronted by Marguerite Olivelle's lovely, pitch-perfect, urgent vocals. It's a combination that shouldn't be nearly as enjoyable as it is, but the wall of sound on display is exotic, acid-washed, and somehow really accessible. The six songs tend to work best when they pass the six-minute mark, giving them time to devolve from pretty melodies and straightforward rhythm lines into a veritable miasma of reverb, delay and distortion. Even more impressive, however, is final track "Backstroke", where the reverse happens, and the song ends on a gorgeous, quiet instrumental jam, closing the EP with pleasant release rather than continuing the extended tension of the rest of the disc. The Slow Signal Fade is a band that knows how to temper their deliberate, noisy psychedelia with moments of sublime beauty. You can't dance to it -- Through the Opaque Air is music to sway to, and it deserves far more of a chance than it's ever going to get.
Brother JT, Off Blue (Birdman) Rating: 4
For the lion's share of his intimate new record Off Blue, Brother JT (née John Terlesky, ex-the Original Sins) holds his songs to within an inch of their lives, allowing tiny gasps of melody to escape the stranglehold. Full of zoned-out drones, drugged tempos, and husky, sleepy vocals, Off Blue never quite gets its slippered feet balanced and pacing. Brother JT (who recorded the album alone in his living room) can cleverly twist old metaphors ("Father's Eyes"), but more often than not, falls victim to old clichés ("High School"). Still, for those willing to brave the narcoleptic waters, Off Blue offers a few Grant Lee Phillips-cum-John Lennon ringers: "Son of Man" is a beautiful, fractured ballad that reminds us "everybody was somebody's baby once"; "Becoming" sports jingly music box guitars that bob and weave with a sedated nonchalance; and "Nowhere, Slow" plays like a showtune napping on Brother JT's couch. Off Blue isn't exactly a hallmark of lo-fi folk, but when its eyelids aren't half-closed, some ears may perk up.
The Lyndsay Diaries, Midwestern (The Militia Group)
The story goes something like this: A close friend of songwriter Scott Windsor was paralyzed in a car accident. Windsor organized a benefit show, and played a song he wrote for his friend at the concert. Those in attendance loved it and asked him for a copy. And before he knew it, he had distributed a few hundred burned CDs around town. Perhaps buoyed by the positive response, Windsor released his first full-length Remember the Memories under the moniker the Lyndsay Diaries way back in 2001. Now three years later, Windsor released Midwestern, a limited edition (2500 copies only) EP release. The spit-shine production job by emo go-to guy Ed Rose is almost painfully perfect, but he can't mask Windsor's simply uninteresting songwriting. Yet another sensitive kid, wearing his heart on his sleeve, Windsor's music joins the growing legions of emotionally transparent Dashboard Confessional wannabees. Windsor certainly doesn't help himself by penning such trite lines as, "Roll the windows down / turn that frown upside down" or, "You're getting on a plane / you'll arrive in Spain / it's such a foreign place / with such a foreign tongue." There is certainly an audience out there who will eat this bland and immediately accessible stuff up, but anyone who is even mildly put off by this sort of thing would be advised to stay far away.
Kptmichigan, Kptmichigan (Aesthetics)
German musician Michael Beckett has plenty of credentials and panache for the type of warbling computer music that is his forte. He's in Schneider TM's live band, and 2003's Player, Player had praise. Mixing elements of pop with abstract gurgles and clicks, Beckett attempts to reach a sublime middle ground on this self-titled full length, but falls short. When the mood is solemn, the listener should be a sympathetic ear, but on a cut like "Hey People!," somber strings are undercut by vocoder vocals; giving the song a plodding, dull effect. "Some People Take Tablets" is a dippy folk aside. Highlights include "Some People Cry," which starts with a crackling glitch, then launches into a buzzing pop overdrive, that could be a Jesus and Mary Chain noisy fuzz anthem, and "Mount Michigan" rides a triumphant digital noisewave. Mr. Beckett is bound to have more in store.
Ghoststory, Before the Night's Around Me (Bluefog)
2004 has been a good year for Deadly Snakes side projects. Earlier this past year, Snakes co-frontman Andre Ethier released his terrific solo debut With Christopher Sandes Featuring Pickles & Price, and now, Chad Ross, who plays guitar and bass in the revered Canadian garage rock outfit, has put out When the Night's Around Me, a low-key effort, recorded under the moniker Ghoststory. Ross and his cohorts, drummer Paul Vernon, bassist Jeremi Madsen, and guitarist Colin Randell, amble lackadaisically for nearly an hour, channeling such luminaries as Son Volt and Wilco, at times wonderfully evoking the same frigid Ontarian visions of early 70s Neil Young. Ghoststory's adherence to such sleepy country strains does drag a bit, but when they nail the sound, it's almost devastating, best exemplified by the absolutely gorgeous, eight minute epic "Oh My Captain", which greatly benefits from the multi-instrumental talents of former Wilco and Blue Rodeo member Bob Egan, who is all over the track with his exemplary pedal steel playing. Elsewhere, "Damn Good Friends" is the closest thing to an upbeat song, the rough-hewn "Lead Me To Pasture" does the Crazy Horse thing as well as Built to Spill, and the ethereal "George Burton Blues" is highlighted by the haunting saw strains, performed by Jason Tait of The Weakerthans. Perfect for desolate, cold winter nights, this is a modest little hidden treasure that Americana fans should seek out.
Air Formation, Stay Inside / Feel Everything (Clairecords)
Air Formation's latest release, Stay Inside / Feel Everything is drifting mix of ambient guitars and programming layered over hushed vocals. The effect may not be breathtaking, but it does nothing if not embody fully its shoegazer genre. The songs are exploding with distorted guitars that create a wall of sound that is both huge and spacious. As an undercurrent to the guitars feedback drifts in and out of the foreground to help provide the songs with additional texture. The stand out tracks on the album are "Why I Lost You" and "Caught upon the Waves". The songs' guitars and programming ebb and flow beautifully, bringing the songs fully to life. Unfortunately, other songs on the album are not quite as fortunate. When compared with ambient rockers such as Sigor Rós or shoegazer acts like My Bloody Valentine, Air Formation's droning guitars and lethargic rhythms become tedious, never quite reaching the peaks or valleys with the precisian or timing of their predecessors. The result is songs that although spacious and melodic, hang in the temperate ether between intensity and serenity.
Choo Choo La Rouge, I'll Be Out All Night (Preoccupation)
Fun and witty pop rocks from this Boston-based group. Choo Choo La Rouge have their own good time sound, and that's certainly original in itself in this day and age of indie groups pooling together in as much generic clamor as the bands on the majors. Standouts include "Black Sheep", "I Get Lost", "Extinct Music", and "Sinkhole". Sometimes these guys sound like a rattletrap street corner group, and other times they rock tighter than most current bands I can think of. So yes, they can play it straight or serious, and that's what makes I'll Be Out All Night the captivating and charming album that it truly is. This one's definitely a keeper, and should certainly thrill those listeners out there with a thirst for the different without turning into the fringe. Good stuff.
Richard Abel, Tribute to Canadian Composers (Abelin Productions)
Richard Abel is an established pianist who falls somewhere in line with fellow pianists such as Frank Mills and Richard Clayderman. His new album is a series of covers of contemporary and old Canadian songs beginning with an instrumental of Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" and then Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire". Accompanied by guitarist Francis Goya, the songs often have a laid back, muzak-type quality to them that is quite relaxing, reflective and soothing. But Abel is able to show a different side on the catchy cover of Daniel Lanois' "Jolie Louise" as well as the mid-tempo rendition of Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown". Then there is Goya's turn to steal the spotlight on Roch Vosine's "Helene" which builds somewhat into a crescendo a la the Moody Blues. The oddest cover though is Bryan Adams' "Straight from the Heart". But again Abel and Goya are able to paint a pretty picture with Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now". Abel begins the homestretch with Paul Anka's "(You're) Having My Baby" which seems to exemplify this well-crafted and melodic genre.
Gabe Lee, Haunted Hollowbody (Tight Lip Tunes)
Guitarist Gabe Lee seems to be a cross between surf guitar and rockabilly, especially on the ambling train-rolling "Can't Stop The Train". This is just a teaser though as Lee's soulful sound goes into a downbeat, blues-fueled "Hey Mr. Driver" that comes with supporting harmonies. For the most part, the album is basically a feel good barroom series of songs like "Bring The Boss Down" and the rollicking, winding "Sea of Love". The latter feels like an early blues tune Mick Jagger and company might have attempted. Lee shows his softer, singer-songwriter side on the harmonica-tinged "Pretty Baby". The highlight might be the weaving, retro '80s sound of "Double Entendre" that comes off like a cross between The Cure and the Stray Cats. A sleeper pick is the Tom Waits-meets-Dr. John "The Wind in New Orleans".
The Gelheads, Stars Motel EP (Warp Speed)
The first couple of times I heard this disc, I was under the impression that it was rather enjoyable. However, a couple more listens proved to me that The Gelheads are headed straight for Top 40 stardom. Nothing wrong with that, except these guys are ultimately offering up the same kind of jerked-off vacuous rock that other "rock" bands are dishing out on singles these days. Cleanly rocking guitars, revved up choruses, and a blank stare underneath it all complement this group's lack of real talent. Junk like this doesn't deserve to be released anymore, and the handful of people who are already into this sound should know better. The seven songs here are beyond way too many, and once you've heard the first track, "Come Alive", you've heard it all. Too bad these guys' muzak is as lame as their band name. Carson Daly's calling, boys!
Wormburner, Joy in Mudville (self-released)
Remember when pointed storytelling was a component of quality songwriting? Steve "Hank" Henry does, as he leads his Wormburner mates through a solid five track EP, channeling the spirit of alt-country rock visionaries the Byrds and Long Ryders. The tracks maintain an appealing balance: "Skinny Leather Tie" transports listeners back to the barren new wave wasteland without causing undue grief; "Muscle Car" lays down a catchy synth riff from which Henry's vocals hint at '80s popsters Big Country and the English Beat; the up-tempo fun of "The Sunday Song" and "A Hero's Welcome" will have everyone dancing in the aisles, while the closer, "Turndaround" incorporates enough melancholy into the ballad format to stay comfortably within the realm of "thought provoking". The value of Joy in Mudville comes as much from the enjoyment it provides, as from the potential that Wormburner has to stake a claim for itself in the very near future. Sharp lyrics and jangly guitars make this disc well worth the time, as it is grounded in what can best be described as tastefulness and musical integrity.
Shortstack, Shortstack (Planaria)
Shortstack comes in some really nifty packagaing. Pictures of cowboys, railroadmen, Victrolas on fire and choo-choo trains decorate the outside. So you know you're in for something slightly rustic a-la Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection. But these guys have little to do with the '70s pop cowboy tales of yore and more to do with swamp-honky-tonk-rockabilly-gutbucket dementia. It's all fine and dandy. I'm not really into the whole genre, but these guys are good at what they do, but really, they haven't done anything that Michael Nesmith hadn't done outside of The Monkees back in the '60s. And that's always the problem with this kind of thing; there's plenty of swampy honky-tonk bands on the indie circuits these days and so if you've heard one, you've heard a lot of them to say the least. "Plenty Time For Sleepin'" recalls Camper Van Beethoven on their second album, but again that's just recalling better things from the past. If you're into this kind of thing, you'll dig it, but it wears thin before the 14 tracks are over.