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KRCC’s Delvin Neugebauer reviews new releases from Battles, Black Lips, Bootsy Collins, The Donkeys, Marianne Faithfull, Fonda, Foster the People, Kids on a Crime Spree and The Yes We Cans, as well as the Rave On Buddy Holly compilation. 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.
The second album from this New York City-based trio consists mostly of instrumentals. Dave Konopka and Ian Williams usually play palm-muted guitar chords, adding effects gradually to make their guitars sound like other instruments. (Konopka doubles on bass; both guitarists add keyboards as well.) Battles approach their songs the same way a good techno DJ does, creating evocative moods and taking them through multiple changes in the same track. “Africastle” opens the album with a bright, tense guitar melody over washes of chords; drummer John Stanier kicks in hard with a fast calypso beat, and about two-thirds of the way through, the whole song changes abruptly to a dramatic rock number that would make a great theme for a spy film. (Stanier doesn’t play with the same merciless precision he used in his previous band, Helmet, but his drumming on Gloss Drop is no less impressive.) The clipped guitar chords that open “Futura” ping-pong around each other; then a cathedral-style organ adds a somber tone. Wriggly guitar leads come in, followed by more pizzicato guitar that sounds like Caribbean steel pan percussion. With its jolly keyboard underpinnings, “Inchworm” moves with an almost cartoonish feel that imitates the undulating motions of such a larva. The fast-paced number “Wall Street” opens with clipped, energetic playing that captures the urgent, brusque activity on a stock exchange floor; then the song moves to a startling, pastoral-sounding middle section, with guitars imitating birds and insects and the rippling waters they’re flying around, before returning the listener to the fast action. (Is that a lunch break at the NYSE? Or the sudden wishful reverie of a weary stockbroker?) “Toddler,” “Rolls Bayce” and “White Electric” act as a triptych: the first track consists mostly of sonar blips on guitar, the second builds upon the first by adding a wheezy keyboard riff, and the third brings in martial, staccato drums and throws in everything else Battles do so well, with instruments dropping out and back into the mix. The trio features guest vocalists on a few of Gloss Drop’s tracks. The guitars that open “Ice Cream” build up in layers as Chilean singer Matias Aguayo adds grunts and groans; the chords accelerate and blend until they sound almost like a calliope, as Aguayo begins adding lyrics and scat vocals, his voice heavy with reverb. Gary Numan is an inspired choice for a song called “My Machines”; his voice sounds as icy and robotic as ever: “Welcome to the sound of now/Come inside/And you’ll find all you’ve dreamed of.” Blonde Redhead vocalist Kazu Making lends her wispy voice to the relatively conventional “Sweetie & Shag.” “Sundome” ends the CD with moaning keyboards that sound almost like whale cries; they veer and blur as the guitarists play gospel-sounding riffs and Boredoms vocalist Yamataka Eye adds a mixture of witch-doctor invocations and mock-tribal chants. It’s a lively finale to a a fresh-sounding, entertaining album.
When a band already renowned for its raw, unpolished approach enlists (or gets saddled with) a big-name producer, the pairing usually sets off alarms with the group’s fan base. So when Black Lips, an Atlanta-based indie-rock quartet known for rough, ramshackle recordings and unhinged live shows, signed Mark Ronson (a Brit known for his polished, up-to-the-minute work for Robbie Williams, Lily Allen, Macy Gray, Christina Aguilera, Adele and most notably, the recently departed Amy Winehouse) to produce its sixth studio album, a lot of fans held their breath, anticipating the mismatch of the year. Good news: the resulting album, Arabia Mountain, is a non-stop treat. Ronson didn’t try to do a studio makeover on Black Lips; he simply cleared away the sonic haze that had marked the group’s previous work, letting the band’s enthusiasm and garage-rock attitude come through more forcefully. For their part, guitarist/vocalist Cole Alexander, bassist Jared Swilley, drummer Joe Bradley and guitarist Ian Saint Pé responded with more focused songwriting and performances. “Family Tree” starts the party with a rowdy sax riff coursing through the band’s punkish attack. “Modern Art” rides on a cool guitar riff, with glockenspiel and musical saw on the chorus as Alexander sings a story about tripping in the museum: “Keyhole in the Dalí/Seeing the unknown/Well it might have been a Molly/‘Cause my mind’s being blown/Take the escalator/To the next floor/Such a strong sedator/Now I can’t find the door.” “Spidey’s Curse” sets a sympathetic tale about Spiderman over chiming Merseybeat-style pop: “Peter Parker’s life is so much darker in the book I read/‘Cause he was defenseless/So defenseless when he was a kid.” “Mad Dog” and “Bicentennial Man” also sound like long-lost gems from the Nuggets canon #0151; maybe from the Sonics, judging from the low-down dirty sax, the sinister lyrics and the unhinged screams in the backgrounds of each song. “Raw Meat” sounds like a lost Ramones classic. “Bone Marrow” opens with handclaps behind the vocal, and moves into more spare, echoey sound like a Phil Spector production; musical saw pops up again on the chorus of this one, too. “Dumpster Dive” and “Time” hint at the early Stones, right down to the latter song’s lyric, which recalls the Stones’ version of “It’s All Over Now”: “When you see me walkin’ by her side/Don’t give no dirty looks/Thinkin’ how you could be my bride/Well, I just removed your hooks.” “Don’t Mess Up My Baby” sounds like one of the Stones’ early covers of Bo Diddley, with funny lyrics to an antagonist whose party time is over: “You smoked all my dope/Chased a rainbow and then sang this song/You drank all the beers/Picked some flowers when things were going strong/You tripped all our blotters and went up for a ride/Now settle down and have some children/‘Cause your brain is fried.” With its backward guitar noise, “You Keep On Running” wraps up the CD with a freak-show tone. From start to finish, Arabia Mountain is full of cool, down-and-dirty fun. It’s the kind of album that’s sure to merit repeated spins, and earn a lot of new fans for Black Lips. This is one case where the gamble with a big-name producer paid off.
Tha Funk Capital of the World
Bassist extraordinaire in James Brown’s band, then iconic member of George Clinton’s P-Funk crew “the world’s first wind-up rock-star doll, baby-bubbah,” as he once sang Bootsy Collins opens Tha Funk Capital of the World, his first album of new material in nearly a decade, with “Spreading Hope Like Dope,” a basso profundo reading from the gospel according to “the High Trinity of Funk, three undeniable geniuses: The Godfather himself, James Brown, the Funkmaster, George Clinton, and the Funk Teacher, Bootsy Collins.” From there, the teacher opens the first class of this term: “Hip Hop @ Funk U,” a textbook lesson in classic funk, featuring raps from Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Chuck D. “Mirrors Tell Lies” includes samples of Jimi Hendrix not playing guitar, but speaking during interviews from the Sixties. The music echoes Funkadelic’s mixture of heavy guitar and R&B groove, while the lyrics extrapolate from Hendrix’s “Room Full of Mirrors,” telling a cautionary tale on the dangers of self-deception: “You tell yourself that it’s who you really are/‘Cause you made a little money and people call you a star/But don’t look now in the looking glass/Ninety miles an hour really ain’t that fast.” Several tracks show that, for Bootsy and his band, funk really has no instrumental boundaries. Avant-rock guitarist Buckethead drops by to add his buzzing, zipping leads to “Minds Under Construction”; “Siento Bombo” then clears the air with its delightful Latin groove. A loose, jazzy violin adds melodic appeal to “Kool Whip,” “If Looks Could Kill” (which also features banjoist Béla Fleck) and “Stars Have No Names (They Just Shine).” In that last number, Bootsy offers an elegy to his brother, guitarist Catfish Collins, a fellow JBs/P-Funk alumnus who died in 2010: “Sometimes I question God and ask why/Why did he have to go?/And God said, ‘Son, you perform on the stage/While I run the show.’” Tha Funk Capital of the World includes another tribute to Catfish in “Don’t Take My Funk,” the last recorded session with the guitarist. Bootsy gives tribute to another P-Funk member who died last year: “Garry Shider Tribute” features vocals from Clinton and Linda Shider, P-Funk backup singer (and Garry’s widow). On the downside, the artist chooses to let a couple of other teachers or, more to the point, lecturers use his music as a platform. On “JBStill The Man,” Bootsy actually gives Al Sharpton room to deliver a sermon about James Brown’s influence on music. You read that right: Reverend Al drops by to hector the listener about the Godfather’s contributions, on a recording by a musician who is a living, breathing part of that legacy. In “Freedumb (When-Love-Becomes-a-Threat)” Bootsy offers some clever lyrics on stupidity and thoughtlessness (“You say you got a smartphone/But you’re still making dumb decisions/You’re acting like you’re full-grown/When you still need your mama’s permission … If you wanna be free/Then you can’t be dumb”), then lets Dr. Cornel West drag down the track with a harangue on that topic. There’s no question that Bootsy has plenty to offer musically, whenever he chooses to drop more of the funk on his pupils. Hopefully, though, next time the Funk Teacher won’t waste his time (or ours) on such gambits. Never mind those ideologues, Bootsy. Just remember the words of the Funkmaster: “Funk is its own reward.”
Born with Stripes
On their fourth album, these guys from southern California take a light-hearted, irreverent attitude toward their classic-rock influences. (Of course, no one would expect a band called The Donkeys to be a particularly serious bunch.) The title track rocks its Sixties’ish guitar and organ over a 2/4 beat; “New Blue Stockings” sounds a bit like a rewrite of “Love Potion #9”; “Bullfrog Blues” has a Walker Brothers-style feel, with spaghetti-Western guitar. Over the layered keyboards, slow beat and echoey guitars of “Kaleidoscope,” the singer tells a lost-astronaut story: “The further away it is/The closer we get/Our life has no end/Death makes us infinite/Jupiter’s on the right.” “Ceiling Tan” has a languid Sixties feel to the guitars and organ, a bluegrass feel to the vocals … and, well, I’ll let the reader decide what kind of feel the lyrics evoke: “Cataclysm on my front door/Sun is going down on my kitchen floor/And I’m sorry/I’m sorry that I said/I’d never seen a girl with varicose head.” “Don’t Know Who We Are” has more of an early ‘70s pop feel, with its steady, dry beat, a simple melody picked out on electric guitar over synth backdrop, and the charming lyric, “I’m a boy/You’re a girl/You’re a universe in my world/I’m a singer at a fair/I wanna twist your brown hair.” With its poppy melody and harmony vocals, “Oxblood” sounds a bit like The Archies … except that The Archies never sang anything like, “Baby/You got me running a fever/And I don’t know if it’s either/The punch or the weed/Oh, and honey/My skin is covered in hives now/I find I’m scratching my eyes out/But now I can see.” “Bloodhound” starts as a country goof about a girl leaving, a Greyhound bus breaking down, a dog running away and all that sort of thing; the band then turns the song into something else, piling on more guitars, organ, echoey vocal asides and dub effects. “I Like the Way You Walk” is another country-flavored number, with lightly picked electric guitar over organ and the protagonist telling his love interest, “I like the way that you walk/And all the things that you do/You’re like honey too/Those bees are all around you … You cannot drive a shifter/But you can always steer.” The Donkeys also include two very appealing, Indian-flavored instrumentals. “West Coast Raga” opens with sitar, then adds folky acoustic guitars, tremelo-laden electric guitar and electric piano over an appropriately laid-back, Indian-flavored groove; “East Coast Raga” essentially is the same song with a different arrangement, its sitar droning over oscillating keyboards and a hard, funky beat. Here’s hoping The Donkeys stick around a while, so their touring adventures across the heartland eventually inspire them to record a tune called “Rocky Mountain Raga.” I’d love to be the first to review it. Me! Me! Pick me!
Horses and High Heels
Marianne Faithfull began her singing career in the mid-Sixties, hitting the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with her version of the Jagger/Richards song “As Tears Go By,” a year before the Rolling Stones recorded it themselves. Her renown as a singer was quickly overshadowed, though, by her romance with Mick Jagger; her involvement with the Stones intensified as their fame grew, along with their notoriety and excesses. The singer’s relationship with Jagger ended, but the excesses did not. By the end of the Seventies, her once airy, girlish voice was ravaged by years of smoking and substance abuse. Rather than disappearing as another lost talent, though, Faithfull came back in 1979 with a shockingly strong album, Broken English, that framed her cracked voice unapologetically in New Wave-influenced rock arrangements. Most comeback albums amount to the artist trying to break a curse; Broken English sounded as if Faithfull had become the wicked witch. Three decades later, her explorations of various musical genres (blues, country, jazz and cabaret pop, among others) have taught her how to deploy that voice with more sensitivity. Her latest album, Horses and High Heels, shows her working mostly in classic rock modes, with pretty consistent results. In the opening track, the foreboding “Stations,” Faithfull’s singing is framed by spooky guitar, strings and a slow drum beat; her voice is perfectly suited to the lyrics, which are full of religious images and fear: “I hear the Rapture’s coming/They say He’ll be here soon/Right now there’s demons crawling/All around my room.” In “Why Did We Have to Part,” she mourns a broken relationship over a guitar groove straight from classic Southern-style rock. “That’s How Every Empire Falls,” a richly produced country-rock song with orchestral backing, offers sad, detailed vignettes of a society decaying, one citizen at a time. She delivers the Shangri-Las’ “Past Present Future” as a weary spoken reverie over somber piano triplets and strings. “The Old House” is a funereal piano-driven number, with cathredal bells tolling in the background. For all that, though, there’s a lot more to Horses and High Heels than just somber, sad music. Marianne Faithfull isn’t one to wallow; when so moved, she can bring the celebratory spirit of a true survivor to the proceedings. “No Reason,” “Gee Baby,” “Eternity” and Allen Toussaint’s sensual “Back in Baby’s Arms” are delivered in classic-sounding soul arrangements, heavy on the barrel-house piano. In that setting, the timbre and rawness of Faithfull’s voice really aren’t that far removed from Tina Turner’s (although Faithfull doesn’t sing with anywhere near the same abandon). “Prussian Blue” is an excellent, upbeat rock number; the title track is waltz-timed rock with a Celtic feel that would sound great on a Richard Thompson album. And the artist’s stately rendition of Carole King’s “Goin’ Back” makes it sound as if it was written specifically for her: “Thinking young and growing older is no sin/And I can play the game of life to win.” Rather than trying to sing hits, as she did in her teen years, or stake new ground with something startling, as she did in her thirties, Marianne Faithfull simply is doing what any mature artist should be doing: focusing on good songs, and performing them in a style that suits her. Horses and High Heels should satisfy anyone looking for rock that offers substance as well as style.
It’s been seven years since the last release by the L.A.-based band Fonda. Since then, most of its members have drifted to other projects, leaving singer/songwriters Emily Cook and David Klotz firmly in charge of the project. And those two have kept busy as well: Cook colaborated on the screenplay for the animated film Gnomeo & Juliet, while Klotz has become the musical editor for the television series Glee. (Oh, and they also started a family.) So it’s no surprise that Better Days is such a brief musical appetizer five songs in just 14 minutes. But it’s a truly tasty one, with not a second of wasted sonic space. In the spirit of such Nineties favorites as My Bloody Valentine and Ride, Fonda plays tuneful, shimmery pop with deep layers of guitars. The title track and “A Love That Won’t Let You Go” open the disc with surging rhythm guitars and chiming leads, tuneful bursts of synthesizer that seem like rays of sunlight breaking through the clouds, plenty of drive to the rhythm section and Cook’s clear, English-accented voice. The band eases back on the guitar rush a bit on “In the Coach Station Light” and “Summertime Flight,” letting the keyboards and Klotz’s breathless, Robert Smith-like voice carry the melodies. “My Heart Is Dancing” is a fast closing number that lives up to its title, with tremelo-heavy guitar over a bouncy beat. Hopefully Cook and Klotz will pencil in more time for Fonda soon; Better Days leaves the listener wanting more.
Foster the People
On its debut album, this L.A.-based trio lays down dance-oriented pop similar to that of other like-minded artists, from Phoenix and MGMT to Cut Copy and STRFKR. “Helena Beat” opens the CD with a dry drum beat; a wheezy synth and chugging guitar come in, as keyboardist/guitarist/songwriter Mark Foster sings in a rather feminine-sounding higher register (which shows up on one other track, “Life on the Nickel”) and bassist Cubbie Fink and drummer Mark Pontius crank up the rhythm. “Pumped Up Kicks” (the debut single) offers another dry, danceable beat; Foster sings in his more natural range on this one, but his voice is distorted, as if he’s telling a story over the phone. “Houdini” and the gospel-tinged “Call It What You Want” lay down jazzy piano grooves; the band takes a lighter pop approach to “Waste” and “Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls).” “I Would Do Anything for You” opens with a similarly light tone, but kicks into a deeper dance groove with clean, funky guitar, rollicking piano rolls and handclaps. “Warrant” starts with an angelic-sounding choir; gospel piano chords come in over the walloping beat. That about says it all: Foster the People never loses hold of its pop smarts, and with ten songs in under 38 minutes, it never overstays its welcome from one track to the next. For all that, the group doesn’t let anything get in the way of its grooves. Torches is a fun, consistently enjoyable album; the band establishes its sound and stance well. Next time out, hopefully, we’ll get to hear what they can do with it.
Kids on a Crime Spree
We Love You So Bad
After releasing three indie-pop albums under the pseudonym From Bubblegum to Sky, Mario Hernandez has returned with an actual band, Kids on a Crime Spree. Working with drummer Becky Barron and guitarist Bill Evans (both of whom worked in Hernandez’ previous projects), the California-based singer/multi-instrumentalist is the latest artist to explore the big, echoey sound of Phil Spector’s productions. The eight songs on We Love You So Bad all are marked by strummed guitars drenched in echo and reverb, steady drum beats, hushed male lead vocals, female back-up harmonies coming in with “oooh, oooh” or “sha-na-na-na” between the verses, and Hernandez’ boyish, guileless vocals. “Trumpets of Death,” “Dead Ripe” and “I Don’t Want to Call You Baby, Baby” all lay a sunny Sixties feel over punkish grooves. “Sweet Tooth” rides on its sharp downstruck guitar chords and handclaps, until chiming guitar comes in on the verses. A snarl of feedback opens “To Mess with Dynamite” before the guitar and drums ride in; Hernandez sings, “You let things escalate/Shock waves ‘round your life/You’re old enough to know better/She’s old enough, so just let her/Goodbye, my baby/So sad, my baby/Sha-na-na-naah-na.” On “It’s in My Blood,” the band takes a more straightforward attack, but still comes up with a chord progression more interesting than the usual punk rock song. The disc gets noisier toward the end. “Impasto” opens with Sonic Youth-style guitars over a slower, heavy beat; chords begin to take shape out of the tumult. Similarly, a bright sunny vocal melody cuts through the guitar noise and feedback of the closing track, “Jean Paul Sartre 2”; that track also is marked by an odd time-signature twist between verses. Like most indie-rock albums in the neo-Spector template, We Love You So Bad is pretty short on variety. But it’s fine in short doses. Heck, at just over 22 minutes, the disc is a short dose in itself.
The Yes We Cans
Fonda isn’t the only band with a disc in KRCC’s New Releases rack titled Better Days. The Yes We Cans, a Colorado Springs-based group, has used that title for its debut CD. The quartet mixes healthy amounts of Sixties-style rock flavorings and just the right classic country touches into their melodic power-pop songs. The instrumental “Sunburn” kicks things off with sinister, spaghetti-Western guitars over light cymbals and percussion; “Vampire Girl” upshifts that sound into high gear, with John Sayers singing his warning about the girl his friend is seeing: “I just can’t stand by/While this vampire girl drags you down into her world/Her empire of pain and misery/That bitch will bleed you dry of all the happiness inside/Until there’s nothing left to you but apathy.” “You and Me” features crisp tandem guitars and handclaps over a springy rhythm. “Messages” is an energetic country-styled farewell to a past love: “You’re married now and have a family/Despite your protests, I don’t feel there’s any place for me/Though you keep on calling, and I feign I’m so busy/I have your messages/And my memories.” The band blends its Sixties and country touches most effectively on the title track (despite a somewhat clumsy guitar break). “A Place to Hide” works as the disc’s centerpiece track: Brandon Rogers’ lead guitar echoes Sayers’ vocal line elegantly, and the band members lay some excellent vocal harmonies over Farfisa-style organ. That organ sound shows up again in the closing track, “Motor City Anthem,” along with the uplifting message, “Things will turn around, my friend/This I promise/Hold your head up high/Give it time/Don’t give up on the power of a little faith.” Throughout the disc, Sayers sings with youthful brio, bassist Sean Beedle and drummer Troy DeRose always make sure the rhythmic attack is right for the song, and the band’s overall sense of energy and enthusiasm (not to mention its tunefulness) never falls short. So, are better days on the way? That’s always hard to answer, but in the meantime, The Yes We Cans have provided a batch of good tunes to enjoy. Check it out.
Rave On Buddy Holly
Released to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s birth at least that’s the label’s official reason; never mind that they released it nearly three months early for that Rave On Buddy Holly features 19 artists covering some of the rock & roll pioneer’s best-known songs. Like most such projects, it’s a mixed bag; some artists succeed at reinterpreting the originals, others stay more faithful to the source material (which isn’t a bad thing, if the results are good), and a few artists make the listener wonder who invited them. Florence & The Machine give the most fascinating interpretation on the disc; their cool, spooky version of “Not Fade Away” frames Florence Welch’s haunted, soulful vocal in stark percussion, tremelo-heavy electric guitar, electric piano, organ riffs swooping in and out, and a tuba handling the bass line. Kid Rock makes “Well All Right” sound like a long-lost Motown classic, giving a soulful, energetic performance over handclaps, horns, female backing vocals, and a rhythm section that would’ve made Berry Gordy proud. Patti Smith offers a plaintive, graceful reading of “Words of Love,” alternating between singing and speaking over guitars and strings. Cee Lo Green lays an Elvis-like vocal over briskly strummed acoustic guitar and a calypso-flavored groove on “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care.” On Modest Mouse’s performance of “That’ll Be the Day,” singer Isaac Brock twists the melody on the verses, turning Holly’s ebullient original into something that sounds more sinister. (Considering the song’s lyrics, that seems like an approach that someone else should’ve been considered by now.) The Black Keys crank things up on a great, bluesy rendition of “Dearest”; Justin Townes Earle brings similarly high spirits to “Maybe Baby.” My Morning Jacket takes the opposite approach on its beautiful rendition of “True Love Ways,” stripping the song down to just vocals and acoustic guitar over strings. On the downside, the synth-based groove in Julian Casablancas’ version of “Rave On” really doesn’t groove very well, shifting between staccato and laid-back in each verse. Curiously, the weakest performances on this collection come from the artists old enough to have heard Holly’s songs when they were current radio hits. At four and a half minutes, Paul McCartney’s rendition of “It’s So Easy” is the longest track on the CD, and the one most listeners will wish could end sooner. It’s a surprisingly raw performance for McCartney; his voice is distorted to the point that it takes a few lines to be sure that, yep, it’s him. The tempo drags, and Sir Paul’s spoken part in the middle is kind of embarrassing. And his spoken part at the end is even more embarrassing. Lou Reed sounds even drier, duller and more off pitch than usual, vocalizing “Peggy Sue” over growling guitars and droning strings. (Interestingly, John Doe follows Reed with a version of “Peggy Sue Got Married” that sounds like a Velvet Underground tribute.) And Graham Nash’s melancholy take on “Raining in My Heart” is listenable, but nowhere near his best work. Overall, though, the good tunes on Rave On Buddy Holly outweigh the disappointing ones, making the disc a pretty good introduction to this great artist’s songs.
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