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KRCC’s Delvin Neugebauer reviews new releases from Burn the Maps, The Head and the Heart, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Keren Ann, Low, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Raveonettes and STRFKR. All the albums reviewed are recent additions to KRCC’s music library. Tune in to any of the Music Mix programs on KRCC to hear selections from these new releases.
Burn the Maps
Terra Incognita is the debut CD from the Colorado Springs-based folk band Burn the Maps. Three members of the group guitarist Kate Aronson, bassist Mike Kimlicko and guitarist Paul Lilley wrote all the songs on this disc, and deliver them here with strong, distinctive voices. Percussionist John Litchenberg completes the quartet with his light-fingered, intricate rhythms. A lot of the songs on Terra Incognita seem to share a common lyrical thread about light. In the opening track, the 7/4-timed “See in the Dark,” Kimlicko sings, “It came to me/Not in a flash, but in a spark/‘Cause when it’s gone, you have to learn to see in the dark.” In the banjo-driven “Pilgrim’s Heart,” Aronson counsels the song’s antagonist about “Building walls so no one sees you/Hiding from the light/Walking in the shadows/Letting nothing change the night.” “Canyon Walls” is a delicate song graced with a violin solo; on this one, Lilley sings, “The sun has risen, but I still can’t see/These canyon walls are closing in around me.” Even Aronson’s “Rose of the Night,” a solemn tale of youth, love and abandonment, climaxes with the line, “He turned away without speaking/As the stars fell from above.” (Litchenberg’s subtle cymbal work is particularly impressive here, in the way it draws the listener into the song’s forlorn air.) Throughout the album, the musicians perform with true synergy, never crowding each other. And the three singers’ voices blend in some superb harmonies. The only tune that mars the overall effort is the closing “Jump, Jump, Jump,” a track built around ukelele and kazoo. It’s so irritatingly perky I couldn’t wait for it to end … and it’s less than two minutes long. Apart from that, though, Terra Incognita is an enjoyable debut from some fine local talent. (Visit the band’s web site for more information.)
The Head and the Heart
The Head and the Heart
On its self-titled debut, The Head and the Heart offers a comfortable, inviting blend of coffee-house folk and melodic pop. Guitarists Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell take turns on lead vocals; one sings with a grainy tone, the other a smooth croon. Kenny Hensley’s bright piano chords provide most of the songs’ energy, while Charity Thielen adds texture with her violin, not to mention the occasional plaintive grace note with her vocals (most notably on “Rivers and Roads” and “Winter Song”). Bassist Chris Zasche and drummer Tyler Williams guide the tunes through numerous time-signature shifts and dynamic turns without overplaying. An added layer of percussion enhances about half the tunes the rim shots and shaker that open “Cats and Dogs,” for example. The Seattle-based sextet’s ensemble playing is always solid and steady, and never fails to leave plenty of space in the music. If there’s an overarching theme to the songwriting on this album, it’s the big step of young people striking out on their own, with all its scary risks and exhilaration. “Ghosts” alternates its tempos between bouncy pop and a sea chanty, with the singer sharing his aggravation with his fellow twenty-somethings: “Is it any wonder why we all leave home?/People say, ‘I knew you when you were six years old’/And you say, ‘But I’ve changed, I’ve changed, I’ve changed …’” In “Rivers and Roads,” the singer solemnly reminds the listener, “A year from now, we’ll all be gone/All our friends will move away.” Of course, even the best freshman efforts include an immature mistake or two. The most glaring one on The Head and the Heart is the opening couplet to the folkish “Down in the Valley”: “I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade/Like riding around on railcars and working long days.” Really, dude? Seriously? Ask anyone who does that kind of work how he or she likes being a “slave” to it. Throughout the disc, though, the band’s warm camaraderie and musical empathy radiate through, and make the occasional youthful gaffe easy to overlook. A pleasing debut from a young band with a lot of promise.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Here We Rest
(Lightning Rod Records)
This is Jason Isbell’s third album since the Alabama-born guitarist/singer parted ways with The Drive-By Truckers. Like his former band, Isbell stays true to rock & roll’s deepest sources: blues, country and folk. Almost all the songs on Here We Rest are about loneliness, in whatever form it takes. The disc-opening “Alabama Pines” is a tale of homesickness, delivered over rustic guitar and violin and Hammond B-3 organ. “Go It Alone” is a swaggering, Stonesy rocker whose title says it all. In the country song “Codeine,” the singer complains, “If there’s two things that I hate/It’s having to cook and trying to date/Bustin’ my ass all day to play hurry-up-and-wait.” Over the raw guitar and electric piano of “Stopping By,” the protagonist sings to his estranged father, “Guess it’s been 15 years/Since I came through here/Probably should have called to warn you/That I’m stopping by.” In the raucous road-house number “Never Could Believe,” Isbell sings about a deceitful woman and her tall stories: “Fame and fortune never came her way/They just slid on by/Like springtime in the South.” (That image is sure to resonate with anyone who’s lived down South during springtime.) On the disc’s last song, “Tour of Duty,” over a bed of acoustic guitars, mandolin and fast, shuffling rhythm, a soldier plans his return to normal home life after the war: “I taught myself to tolerate the pain/All the loneliness and boredom/And the work I did in vain/Now I’m not the same as I was/I’ve done my tour of duty/Now I’ll try to do what a civilian does.” After so many shades of loss, dejection and reproachment, “Tour of Duty” wraps up Here We Rest with a note of redemption and hope a graceful conclusion to an excellent album.
(Blue Note Records)
The latest solo effort by the Israeli-born, Paris-based artist Keren Ann Zeidel is a subtle, absorbing pop album. The bulk of 101’s arrangements are marked by subdued acoustic guitars, mostly synthetic percussion, supple, understated keyboards and the occasional string quartet backing, all in support of the singer’s cool soprano. Keren Ann writes songs filled with arty uptown characters whose sophistication has hardened (or dulled) into jaded emptiness. “All the Beautiful Girls” is delivered from the point-of-view of a woman who hosts get-togethers of her ultra-fashionable friends, who discuss art and poetry while judging one another, including the hostess: “I sip the rest of the wine/While I hear them repeat/What upsets me the most/That instead of a man/I married a ghost.” In “Sugar Mama,” one of the more upbeat tracks on the disc, the character of the title tells a potential new boy-toy, “Take me for a ride/You can surprise me/Somewhere in the wild/You can lay down beside me/You know I need a special friend/And I’ve got dollar bills to spend.” “You Were on Fire” is sung to an actress whose façade is failing her: “Out here, there is no other/Who has seen you broken down/Bare and blameless for your lover/Bold and fearless for the crowd.” With its piano chords over a tango rhythm, “Blood on My Hands” could pass for a classic Marlene Dietrich show tune: “I was the darling no one could defeat/Grand Hotel suites were my home/Men at my feet, limousines in the street/First-class to Paris and Rome.” In the slow, melancholy “Strange Weather,” the singer counsels a dissolute man about going back to his lover: “She’ll take you back/Don’t make believe you want to think it through.” It all adds up to a moody, dreamy album that’ll sound great with late-night cocktails.
Low made its debut in 1993 playing quiet, stripped-down songs at slow tempos, partly as a jokey riposte to the louder, faster grunge sound that was rock’s stock in trade at the time. Since then, the Duluth-based trio has refined its style rather than changing it, developing some impressive melodic skills and vocal harmonies in the process. (Robert Plant covered two of Low’s songs on his Band of Joy disc last year.) The group still centers around the husband-wife duo of guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk and drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker; Steve Garrington is the group’s current bassist. On C’mon, Low’s ninth long-player, at least half the songs focus on sleep, dreams, nightmares, and other things associated with bedtime a fitting topic for a band that plays lullaby-like tunes on rock instruments. In “Witches,” an electric number with a banjo riff over the top, Sparhawk sings, “One night I got up and told my father/There was witches in my room/He gave me a baseball bat and said, ‘Here’s what you do.’” In the waltz-tempo “Especially Me,” Parker sings, “You’ve fallen into slumber/Just wait one more time/To miss or put asunder/Would be a crime.” “Done” and “$20” are sparse country laments, the latter with just barely enough guitar to drive the song along and no drums to speak of. The trio takes the opposite approach on “Majesty/Magic” and “Nothing But Heart,” building up layers of guitars and intertwining riffs. The disc’s principal topic comes full circle with the mostly acoustic, poppishly melodic “Something’s Turning Over”: “As a child I hid between the pages/Cutting secret phrases overhead/But things we turn our back on when we’re older/Only drag us back into our bed.” As soothing as its music sometimes gets, Low doesn’t pretend its songs really are lullabies.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
For its second long-player, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart endeavored to get closer to the sound of its collective dreams. To that end, the New York-based quartet chose to work with the producer/engineer team of Flood and Alan Moulder. The resulting album, Belong, should sound familiar to fans of such ‘90s alternative rock icons as My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins and especially Ride all of whom worked with Flood and Moulder as well. Kurt Feldman’s drums are mixed for maximum impact; Alex Naidus’ bass lines are thick and resonating. Kip Berman’s guitars and Peggy Wang’s keyboards are densely layered, while their whispery vocal harmonies seem both close to the ear and far away at the same time. The lyrics are full of loneliness and the desperate need to connect with someone. In “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now,” Berman and Wang warn a bereaved lover, “She was the heart in your heartbreak/She was the miss in your mistake/And no matter what you take/You’re never going to forget.” Through the slamming rhythms and shimmering keyboards and guitars of “The Body,” the protagonist tells the object of his desire, “You try so hard to keep it together/And you look so hot in fishnets and leather/But I know who you are/You are just a lost saint/And if we go too far/There’ll be heaven to pay/What a price.” In “Even in Dreams,” Berman suggests, “You can drive around all night with the radio on high/And wonder what it’s like to be liked.” Lyrics such as this might make the group seem self-absorbed and self-pitying, but the high melodic factor makes each song soar, no matter how dense and deep the music gets. From start to finish, Belong is the sort of rock that can make just leaving one’s room and taking a ride somewhere feel like a leap of faith.
Raven in the Grave
Since the Raveonettes made their debut a decade ago, their sound has gone nowhere slowly. From one album to the next, the Danish duo has continued to proffer the same blend of Duane Eddy-style guitar rock and Spector-style classic girl-group pop, all brought to you through a tunnel of echo and feedback. Within this limited sonic framework, though, guitarist Sune Rose Wagner has worked steadily to step up his songwriting game, and while that hasn’t prevented their albums from sounding alike, it has enabled the Raveonettes to maintain the interest of their fans. As its title suggests, Raven in the Grave carries an air of dark foreboding much more so than the duo’s last album, In and Out of Control (which sounded cheery even on such songs as “Suicide” and “Oh, I Buried You Today”) not to mention a higher feedback quotient. “Recharge & Revolt” includes some knife-edged lead guitar slicing through the synthesizer foundation. The blissful keyboards that open “War in Heaven” slip away, leaving a noisy, sinister guitar line to carry the lyric’s images of Paradise as not only a war zone but a refugee haven, as Sharin Foo sings: “Wait/A war in Heaven/I hate it when they forget/To let people in.” “Apparitions” is a haunting track that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Cure album. On the warmer side, there’s “Forget That You’re Young,” in which singer/bassist Sharin Foo swoons over her latest impulsive romantic pursuit. “Ignite” is a fast-paced, upbeat track, and “Evil Seeds” is distinguished by a banjo-like guitar break. It all adds up to the Raveonettes’ most wide-ranging collection of songs to date. Not bad for a band that proudly declared on both its first two albums that all the songs on those albums were in the same key.
It goes without saying that a band name like this presents a challenge to any radio station. When announcing a song by such a band on the air, the group’s name has to … well, go without saying. (Forget about an artist changing his name to a symbol; that’s kid stuff.) In the case of the band otherwise known as STRFKR, though, it’s a challenge that your loyal DJs at KRCC have been willing to rise to. Whatever you might think of the Portland, Oregon-based quartet’s name, its second album, Reptilians, offers twelve tracks of delightful, instantly accessible pop. On about half of this disc, STRFKR sounds a lot like another band that abbreviated its name, MGMT. Much like that group’s Oracular Spectacular, Reptilians is loaded with tremendously catchy songs, and the group’s delivery manages somehow to sound melodically sophisticated and charmingly amateurish at the same time. “Born” opens the disc with strummed acoustic guitar, breaking into synthetic percussion, buzzing synth, playful sing-along voices and burbly cartoon sounds in the background; it could pass for a missing track from the Flaming Lips’ classic Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. “Julius,” “Mystery Cloud” and “Millions” are deliriously poppy songs with swoony, echo-sheathed vocals and keyboard sounds that could’ve been taken from Eighties arcade video games. “Death as a Fetish” opens with similar Atariesque synth, but breaks into acoustic guitar strumming and possibly the most natural-sounding drums on the album, all in service of a great melody. The trio flips that arrangement around for the title track, whose finger-picked guitar gives way to video-game synth (not to mention some cool, chunky bass guitar). “Mona Vegas” lays its icy keyboard grandeur over a hip-hop-influenced beat. “Quality Time” is a big, triumphant-sounding closing track. From beginning to end, Reptilians is such a dazzling pop album that one can’t help but wish the band hadn’t saddled itself with such a limiting name. Then again, if Cee-Lo Green’s big hit single from last year can win a Grammy you know which song I’m talking about; it goes without saying then perhaps STRFKR has a chance to win the wider audience it deserves.
Contact the reviewer at firstname.lastname@example.org.