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KRCC’s Delvin Neugebauer reviews new releases from The Antlers, David Bazan, Hammerstadt, Parts & Labor, Raphael Saadiq and tUnE-yArDs. 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.
This New York City-based trio specializes in stately, elegant pop that evokes dark, dreamlike moods. “I Don’t Want Love” opens with a subtle wash of electronic sound; then Michael Lerner’s crisp drum thwack comes in, followed by Peter Silberman’s jangly guitar chords and Darby Cicci’s shimmery keyboards. “French Exit” moves at a brisker pace, driven by strummed guitar and electric piano. “Rolled Together” has a hymn-like feel; “Every Night My Teeth are Falling Out” opens with Spanish guitar opening and moves on toward a more bluesy style. The gleaming “Hounds” has a more chiming guitar sound, with Cicci’s trumpet carrying the melody as the song reaches its ending. Silberman sings in a smooth voice that rises into falsetto about half the time. This carries the blissful, gliding feel of the songs, even when his lyrics are more distressed. In “I Don’t Want Love,” he tells his obsessed antagonist, “You wanna climb up the stairs/I wanna push you back down/But I let you inside/So you can push me around … So if I see you again/Desperate and stoned/Keep your present locked up/And I will leave my gun at home.” In “French Exit,” the singer expresses his discomfort to his companion: “Every time we speak/You are sitting in my mouth/If I don’t take you somewhere else/I’m gonna pull my teeth right out/Every time we meet/You are shrieking in my ear/If I don’t take you somewhere else/You’re gonna make this insincere.” Silberman is at his most soulful in “Putting the Dog to Sleep,” even though the lyric’s metaphors are as painful as the title: “My trust in you/Is a dog with a broken leg/Tendons too torn to beg/You let me back in.” This tug-of-war between The Antlers’ lush, warm music and the dark sentiments of the group’s songs makes Burst Apart a good selection for long drives on melancholy days.
On his second solo album (following a decade leading the Seattle-based band Pedro The Lion), singer/guitarist David Bazan offers ten songs that reflect on the theme of delusion the struggle to avoid it (and to recognize it when it occurs) and the difficulty of dealing with people who are caught up in it. The opening track, “Wolves at the Door” is about someone who makes a Faustian bargain with those “wolves” and blames the usual easy scapegoats for the consequences: “Surprise! They took your money and ate your kids/And they had their way with your wife a little bit/While you wept on the porch with your head in your hands/Cursing taxes and the government.” In “Level with Yourself,” Bazan considers the rationalizations that people often renew every day just to get by: “Sell it to yourself, man/‘Cause it won’t make a difference/If everyone believes it, but you don’t.” The antagonist of “Don’t Change” has his daily routine down pat: “When he wakes up in the morning, he tells himself/‘Today I’ll make a change’/But falling into his bed at night, he thinks/‘Man, it was a beautiful day to stay the same.’” In the rustic-sounding title track, Bazan addresses the mentality that’s become the Wal-Mart generation’s legacy: “You cut your leg off to save a buck or two/Because you never consider the cost/You find the lowest prices every day/But would you look at everything that we’ve lost.” Bazan offers a clear, sobering path through all this delusion in “People”: “When you love the truth enough/You start to tell it all the time/When it gets you into trouble/You discover you don’t mind/‘Cause if good is finally gonna trump/Then man, you gotta take stock/And you gotta take your lumps.” In the closing song, “Don’t Let Go,” the singer pledges his devotion to someone who helps anchor his life in this deluded world: “Who or what controls the fates of men, I cannot say/But I keep arriving safely home to you.” Bazan sings these songs in a warm, grainy baritone, and keeps their arrangements stripped-down and lean usually just his own guitar, Andy Fitts’ vivid, chunky bass lines, Alex Westcoat’s understated drumming (plus some handclaps here and there to goose the rhythm along), and a touch of keyboard support on a few songs (not to mention what sounds like a kazoo ensemble in the break of “Future Past”!). Strange Negotiations is a solid, consistent, satisfying rock & roll album from an artist who writes about big concerns with a clear eye for the small details.
Hues of Blue
Colorado Springs guitarist Wayne Hammerstadt recorded Hues of Blue, his third studio album, with bassist Dan Nelson, drummer Scott Bown (both former members of Myzar) and a rotating (or rather, overlapping) roster of keyboardists — Tom Capek, Tommy Duhon, Paul Haller and Bryant Jones, as well as Bown and Nelson. For the first two-thirds of this disc, the band lays down a Seventies-style fusion of rock, blues and jazz that recalls Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin. The album-opening “Dark of the City” begins with a wash of keyboards and hints of urban noise, until the guitarist’s ringing tones and Bown’s delicate cymbal work come in. The whole band then locks into a graceful, laid-back groove that includes some excellent Hammond organ and electric piano, plus a Latin-style break from guest percussionist Christian Teele. That song sets a mood, and the musicians sustain it well through the next five selections. “Revival” builds up slowly, with buzzing synth and soulful, wordless vocals from Cheryl Hines and Phadra; this track gets more propulsive and features some tight power-trio riffs. “Stratosphere” flows on its jazzy chord changes and its filigrees of piano and guitar; the subtle synthesizer number “Debussy’s Day Dream” sounds almost orchestral. “Blue Matter” starts quietly but builds up a good head of rock steam, with some bluesy, string-bending guitar. Throughout these tracks, Hammerstadt the guitarist focuses on tone, texture and clarity. He strives to engage the listener with playing that feels conversational, rather than showing off how many notes per minute he can fit into the song the weakness of many a hot-shot guitarist. And Hammerstadt the band is all about space and interplay. The musicians take turns stepping into the center of the music and then stepping back, never hogging the spotlight. The last three tracks are where Hammerstadt lays it on thick. “Psycho Lounge” starts with a strutting rhythm, then shifts into a more reggae-tinged groove; then it veers into fast piano jazz stylings before lunging into a harder prog-rock attack. (Michael Reese is credited with “Martian and backwards guitar” on this number.) “Dark Days” starts as a heavy blues-rock number with a violin-like guitar tone, until the band builds it up to a hard-rocking climax. The four-part closing suite “Transylvanian Fantasia” is where the band truly piles it on, shifting through various heavy-rock grooves and time-signature changes (not to mention more of that piano-lounge jazz) as Wayne throws in guitar licks that echo everyone from Carlos Santana to Brian May to Chet Atkins. Hues of Blue is an accomplished album from start to finish, but its most enjoyable offerings are the ones where the musicians focus on how well they can play, rather than how much. (More information can be found at Hammerstadt’s web site.)
Parts & Labor
“Fake Names,” the first song on Parts & Labor’s fifth full-length release, sets the album’s tone right off the line. It opens with a gentle keyboard; then drummer Joe Wong begins thudding out a spare, quasi-tribal rhythm and Dan Friel joins in with a melodic lead guitar hook. Suddenly, Wong cuts loose with a furious snare-drum roll that threatens to atomize it all. When the drum roll ends, though, those sonic components all rush back in, blending together and driven by B.J. Warshaw’s bass into a hurtling rock juggernaut. That’s just the opening salvo. From there, the Brooklyn-based trio makes each of the album’s tracks, element by element, into something big, bold and triumphant. The title tune begins with an electric guitar riff that sounds like something played on a Simon game, until the drums and a buzzing synth come in, driving the song beneath its country’ish melody. “Echo Chamber” starts with a bumblebee-like guitar and a cascading synth until the whole trio races in exultantly. The band introduces more dynamic shifts in songs like “Pure Annihilation” and “Skin and Bones”: in those tunes, instruments drop out rather abruptly, leaving Friel’s voice supported only by a shivery synth or bass guitar for a verse before surging back in. The guitarist sings in a robust, full-throated voice; his vocals often get buried in the tumult of sound, but a few choice lyrics from “Rest” seem to sum up the album’s lyrical approach pretty aptly: “After all these spinning clocks have come to rest/And done their best to throw us/We’re still hanging on with both our hands/And while the gears with gnashing teeth/They chew and creak/They groan and speak our names in nervous ways/Ignoring our demands.” Too often, a band that strives for such a deep, overpowering sound (not to mention one whose lyrics are on the pseudo-poetic side) tends to get carried away with the length of its songs. Only four of Constant Future’s 12 songs, though, stretch past the four-minute mark; half of them come in under three minutes. This is a tight, focused ensemble that’s far more interested in building its songs up to towering heights rather than letting them sprawl. And each one of those songs boasts enough melody and more than enough hooks to keep the listener drawn in. Artistic without being gimmicky, absorbing without seeming escapist, Constant Future is the sound of a talented band that labors to make each song much more than the sum of its parts.
Oakland-born Raphael Saadiq (Charles Wiggins when he visits his family) began his music career in the mid-Eighties while still a teenager, playing bass in Prince’s touring band. Two years later, he formed the R&B trio Tony! Toni! Toné! with his brother and his cousin. Since that group’s split in the mid-Nineties, Saadiq has racked up a long résumé of collaborations; indeed, it’s hard to name a performer in R&B, soul or hip-hop from the past 15 years who hasn’t worked with Saadiq. All this experience has made the artist something of a soul chameleon, and it shows on his fourth solo album, Stone Rollin’. With its mix of hard-rock and funk guitars, the opening number, “Heart Attack,” comes on like early Sly & the Family Stone. “Movin’ Down the Line” is a Motown-style groover with lightly strummed guitar. “Just Don’t” sounds sort of like an out-take from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, with a slightly Asian-sounding guitar and a lush orchestral out-groove. “Good Man” is a slow-burning soul lament, addressed by the title character (“I’m a good man/Food on the table/Workin’ two jobs/Ready, willing and able … Good man/Never lie or cuss/Never did time/Well, maybe just once”) to the woman who betrays him. Over a marching snare drum and muted horns, “The Answer” is Saadiq’s plea for people to step up and take an active role in redeeming this world the sort of plea that Curtis Mayfield always made so movingly. Saadiq looks back further into the classic past on a couple of tunes. “Day Dreams” has a faster, Chuck Berry-style 2/4 tempo, not to mention some tasty steel guitar from Robert Randolph. Likewise, “Radio” has an early rock & roll feel to the groove and the instrumentation although none of the musicians from that era would’ve described a sexual encounter as explicitly as Saadiq does in this tune. In fact, the opposite sex is on Saadiq’s mind a lot on this album. Over the funky guitar and wailing harmonica of the title track, he extols a particular woman’s appeal: “You don’t call her fat/Yeah, that girl is stacked/Come on/Everything is wide/She walks with much pride/Now come on.” In “Movin’ Down the Line,” his idea of romantic talk is “Just take off your clothes/Relax a bit.” Saadiq sings in a warm, full-throated voice, and relies on natural-sounding drums, guitar, strings, horns, and female gospel-style backing vocalists. He also plays Mellotron on a lot of the tracks here, for that distinctive, vaguely queasy Sixties’ish flute sound. (This is an artist who, after all, titled his first solo album Instant Vintage.) Stone Rollin’ is accomplished and enjoyable, but listeners familiar with the sources of Saadiq’s inspiration might just get tired of the spot-the-influence game and prefer to dig into those classics for themselves.
Whokill is the second album by Merrill Garbus, a solo artist who records under the name tUnE-yArDs. She opens the disc with the bouncy beat of “My Country”; singing a lyric that turns the well-known patriotic hymn into her own ambivalent statement, she builds the track into an energetic playground chant with a saxophone section. “Es-so” moves to a shuffling rhythm like a wind-up toy, with bluesy guitars and jazzy stand-up bass (courtesy of Nate Brenner, who has backed up Garbus on stage and who co-wrote four of this disc’s songs). From there, several of Whokill’s tracks seem to form a mini-opera about life, love and loss in the ‘hood. “Gangsta” incorporates a choir of distorted voices and saxes playing the chords over a mechanical groove, as Garbus sings, “What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta?/Anger in his heart, but he’ll never be a gangsta … Bang bang bang, oh/You’ll never move to my ‘hood/‘Cause danger is crawlin’ out the wood.” Over lightly strummed guitar, “Riotriot” opens with its protagonist revealing to a policeman, “I have a secret to tell you/About the night I met you/You had come to put handcuffs on my brother … I dreamt of making love to you.” That interest, of course, is about as forbidden in this milieu as it can be: from there, the track becomes denser and noisier, layer by layer (much like inner-city unrest itself), as she’s forced to choose which side she’s on: “They are rioting and looking/And they’re knocking at your door/Who are you for? … If you do nothing/You still do something.” “Bizness,” arguably the CD’s most musically accomplished track, might reflect the viewpoint of someone who was caught up in that riot perhaps the brother who was arrested. Over a playful cascading keyboard, clattering wood percussion and a steady, funky strum of guitar, the antagonist is asked to face and confront the lifetime of cause and effect that led to his arrest: “Can you weigh the part that represents the thing that scarred you?” Over the sunny, African-flavored melody and gorgeous overdubbed harmonies of “Doorstep,” a woman whose lover was killed by the police stands up and insists on justice: “Don’t tell me the cops are right in a room like this.” The mini-opera concludes with “Wooly Wolly Gong,” a dark, mournful lullaby that’s possibly being sung to the child the woman had by her gunned-down lover: “Go to sleep, my baby/There is nothing that the morning can’t undo/I will watch and weep/At your peacely sleep/And make sure the beddy-bugs don’t get you/‘Cause they’ll try to harm you/That’s what they do.” Throughout Whokill, Garbus is remarkably imaginative with sound and texture; the music is so vivid, it feels almost as if you’re hearing it while she’s creating it. Her voice is elastic enough to move from bluesy belting to an airy falsetto in one line, from girlish and playful to passionate shout in one verse. Complex and quirky without showing it off, sophisticated without relinquishing its homemade feel, freewheeling without ever losing track of its songs, Whokill is a delightful, impressive album from an artist who seems to be just getting started.
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