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KRCC’s Delvin Neugebauer reviews new releases from AM & Shawn Lee, Blood Orange, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Dum Dum Girls, Hercules & Love Affair, Chris Joss, Matthew Sweet, Mates of State and Trombone Shorty. 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.
AM & Shawn Lee
Both of these American musicians have sustained very busy careers. AM not to be confused with DJ AM, who died in 2009 has focused for the past ten years on scoring television series and films; Shawn Lee has spent more than 20 years as an indie-rock artist, landing quite a few of his songs on popular TV shows and movie soundtracks as well. Their first collaborative effort, Celestial Electric, offers twelve pop songs tinged with hints of Sixties psychedelia and Seventies funk. “City Boy” opens the disc with a languid guitar groove over shuffling trap drums. A similar easy rhythm drives “Dark Into Light”; the guitars shimmer and trill around the margins of the tune as the singer contemplates how we spend this earthly life: “When we’re gone/Our ghosts live on/Have we tried/Have we done our best to turn the wrong into right?/Turn the dark into light?” “Different Forces” and “Down the Line” are faster, but only by a bit; AM and Lee strive to draw listeners in, but aren’t in a rush to take them where they’re going. “Promises Are Never Far from Lies” and “The Signal” ride on funkier grooves, with keyboards that approach the video-game technophilia of groups like STRFKR. “Can’t Figure It Out” features spare electric guitar strums on top of clattering percussion, with light bells on the chorus. And the cover of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ 1975 hit “Jackie Blue” is a highlight; the duo gives the classic a fresh sound that fits perfectly into the album’s flow and style. Throughout the disc, the vocal melodies and choruses are appealing, the instrumentation never seems overly retro or obvious, and the overall texture of the music is lush without getting crowded. Both Lee and AM also drop in some pleasing guitar solos without ever showing off. Celestial Electric is a thoroughly enjoyable album the kind that listeners will want to play again and again, and share with friends. Hopefully it won’t be the last collaboration between these two musicians. Very highly recommended.
Houston-born, British-raised musician Devonté Hynes started out as a member of the UK-based dance-punk trio Test Icicles. That group split up after just one album; since then, Hynes has released two albums and two EPs under the name Lightspeed Champion, and has lent his talents to records by the Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx, Solange Knowles and Florence & the Machine, among others. Coastal Grooves is Hynes’ first album of original material under the name Blood Orange. Most of the album’s songs move on clipped, tense guitar riffs and reverb-laden drum beats that recall New Wave. Songs like “Forget It” and “I’m Sorry We Lied” sound a little like The Cars or The Strokes, except with a good soul singer up front. Hynes doesn’t rely entirely on that Eighties sound, though; his guitar playing takes on vaguely Asian tones in songs like “Sutphin Boulevard” and “The Complete Knock.” The latter track also features some funkier guitar riffs, with jangly Byrds-style guitars mixed in toward the end. “Can We Go Inside Now” and “Complete Failure” are spooky ballads with a spaghetti Western feel; “Instantly Blank (The Goodness)” adds light percussion and brief glissandos of keyboards over a heavier beat. Hynes sings in a quavery, somewhat androgynous voice; perhaps for that reason, he’s often willing to sing a lyric from a woman’s point of view. (In “Can We Go Inside Now,” he sings about being “the lonely girl.”) The production on Coastal Grooves is spacious and echoey; the instruments have plenty of room to move within each song, yet Hynes’ voice sounds isolated most of the time. Even on the more upbeat tunes, the sound maintains a sinister, noirish feel, as if the “coast” Hynes refers to in the title is one where the tourists might want to avoid the waterfront hangouts after dark.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
The Brooklyn-based quintet Clap Your Hands Say Yeah received a lot of attention when it released its debut album in 2005, without the help of even an indie record label. The self-titled release went on to sell 125,000 copies through the Internet and sales at the band’s shows. After touring behind its second album, the relatively underwhelming Some Kind of Thunder, CYHSY decided to take an extended hiatus; Hysterical is the group’s return to active duty. Produced by John Congleton (whose name probably can be found in the credits on at least one of any random selection of ten indie-rock CDs from KRCC’s library), Hysterical has less of a homemade sound than either of the first two albums, with more emphasis on keyboards and firmer beats. “Same Mistake” opens the album with shimmery guitars; the synthesizers bloom up extra-large into a big melodic riff. The title track sounds a lot like The Killers, with singer/guitarist Alec Ounsworth doing his best to channel Killers vocalist Brandon Flowers over Eighties-textured synths and a driving rock beat. “Yesterday, Never” and “Into Your Alien Arms” also resemble The Killers. In fact, the latter number sounds as if The Cure gave one of its best new songs to The Killers to record. (The Cure probably wouldn’t have added such a noisy guitar coda.) The keyboards in “Maniac” imitate a soul band’s horn section over a driving, jumping beat. “Misspent Youth” is a plaintive, piano-focused ballad, with Ounsworth sings about “Trading sex for drugs … driving drunk in Daddy’s car.” Martial-sounding drums come in on the chorus, as the singer considers that “The water is just deep enough to take another chance.” All the album’s songs are solid, and the group plays them with confidence and enthusiasm. Fans of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s previous work might be put off by the thicker, more polished sound of Hysterical, but Killers fans who’ve been hungry for a new album from the boys from Vegas should check this one out in the meantime.
Dum Dum Girls
Only in Dreams
Up to now, the Dum Dum Girls have been a band on stage only; their recordings all have been the solo work of singer/guitarist/songwriter Kristen Gundred (who goes by the stage name Dee Dee). Previous Dum Dum Girls releases have been recorded at home by Gundred alone and sent to producer Richard Gottehrer for the final mix. On Only in Dreams, however, Dee Dee and her similarly one-named bandmates (guitarist Jules, bassist Bambi and drummer Sandy) actually play and sing together in a real studio. This change of environment gives Gottehrer working again with Raveonettes guitarist Sune Rose Wagner, who co-produced the Girls’ He Gets Me High EP earlier this year more opportunity to clear up the murk of the previous records. The producers put Dee Dee’s smoky, achy voice front and center in the mix, rather than letting her hide behind the wall of guitars. They add a surprising amount of sparkle to those guitars, too, not to mention a beefier tone to the rhythm section. All this studio polish shows up at the right time, because it gets applied to Gundred’s most mature set of songs to date. The L.A.-based quartet sustains its Ronettes/Shangri-La’s fixations: tunes like “Always Looking,” “Bedroom Eyes,” “Just a Creep” (“Poor thing, it must be hard/To be yourself each day”) and “Teardrops on My Pillow” show off as much tough-girl attitude as ever, with their urgent rock & roll drive, tasty guitar twang and loads of hooks. But this time, the songs tackle subjects of loss, grief and loneliness specifically, the recent death of Gundred’s mother (whose photo graced the cover of the Girls’ debut album, I Will Be) and the stress of being separated from her husband while her band was on tour. On the soaring “Heartbeat,” Gundred sings, “I don’t know where to go/To get away from this sorrow.” On “Caught in One,” she assures a dying person, “All skin and bones, but in your eyes/I see that you are still alive/This year’s been a drag/Who knew it’d be so bad?” And in the disc-closing “Hold Your Hand,” she relates her experience gracefully, but directly: “You’d do anything to bring her back/Oh, it’s a game/How tight can you shut your eyes?/Shut out the light/Death is so bright.” The only time all this emotion results in a bummer track is on “Coming Down”: the Girls slow the tempo to a torpid pace and drag the song out for six and a half minutes. Apart from that misstep, Only in Dreams is a consistently satisfying album. It’s amazing that, as Gundred faced what must have been some of the darkest times of her life, she chose to step out of the private cloister of her bedroom and bring her music, and her band, into brighter light.
Hercules & Love Affair
(Moshi Moshi Records)
The second album by Hercules & Love Affair, a New York-based project led by DJ Andrew Butler, offers plenty of crisp, funky, danceable grooves. Most of the tracks feature spare instrumentation, with vocals by Butler’s cohorts Kim Ann Foxman, Aerea Negrot and Shaun Wright. “Painted Eyes” begins the CD with flutes wafting over New Order-ish bass and a simple, straightforward dance rhythm; gusts of synthetic strings come in to drive the song. “My House” moves on its skittering high-hat-over-handclaps rhythm and needling keyboards. “Answers Come in Dreams” has a similar groove, with a vocal by Negrot that resembles Grace Jones. In “Visitor,” Negrot even offers lyrics that would make Jones proud: “We are done with words/It’s time for noise … It’s no time to stand/It’s time to jump/No time to creep/It’s time to thump.” “Leonora” is distinguished by fuller sound, with piano providing the main riff and bird-like sounds twittering at the margins, until Kraftwerk-style blips come in toward the end, as if to scatter the birds away. After those synthetic-based grooves, the acoustic guitar that drives the riffs in “Boy Blue” feels surprising. “Falling” has a brisker dance rhythm, with appealing keyboard and percussion sounds, driving horns and a soulful vocal from Wright. Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke shows up to lend his instantly recognizable voice to the sparse “Step Up.” Foxman sings the disc’s last few numbers, including the dance tracks “Shelter” and “Revenge” and the ballad “It’s Alright,” a cover of Sterling Void’s 1986 single (later redone by the Pet Shop Boys). It’s a shame that the latter song’s opening line about turmoil in Afghanistan remains up to the moment 25 years later. Blue Songs includes plenty of good grooves, and Butler doesn’t really repeat himself from one track to the next. Still, the end result is better suited to dancing than just listening. That’s not a criticism … just a statement to make sure the music shopper knows what’s in store. (The CD package includes a second disc, with four remixes of “My House” and three of “Painted Eyes.”)
No Play No Work
This fall has been quite the season for funk. French multi-instrumentalist Chris Joss delivers lots of energetic grooves and retro-sounding, soundtrack-worthy funk on his seventh album, No Play No Work. The opening track, “You Make Me Happy” kicks things off in style with a great conga and trap drum groove; clavinet and crisp, funky guitar come in to carry the busy riffs. Joss’s voice sounds a lot like Stevie Wonder’s in this song. “Toxic People” moves on a fast, skittering stop-start groove with funky guitars and keyboards; muttered vocals drop in, along with baritone sax and light turntable scratches. “Come On It’s Time to Get Up” is an equally fast-paced number, with funky guitars and Seventies-style talk-box vocals. “Spectators” has an insinuating, Latin-flavored groove with reedy-sounding organ. The artist slows down the tempo on “He Got the Shakes,” partially in order to show off his clavinet playing again. Joss is strongly influenced by classic film score composers like Lalo Schifren and John Barry. Indeed, “Get Cloned” and the title track both sound like they might fit well into a retro-hip remake of a Sixties spy movie, and “Blazing Ashes” sounds as if it could’ve come from David Holmes’ Ocean’s Eleven score, with its ringing, reverbed electric piano over stand-up bass. “Radium Girls” features brisk, chugging organ riffs over a fast, strutting rhythm reminiscent of New Orleans brass bands. A sax and organ exchange riffs over a high-speed percussion workout in “Morse Attack.” Joss keeps his drum patterns complex and mixes them up front in every song; the trap drums and percussion always sound live. He’s clearly more interested in grooves and riffs than in songs; a lot of his tracks end abruptly, as if he’s said all he needs to say and is ready to cut things off and move on to the next one. And when he bothers with vocals at all, the song’s title often is its only lyric. But every track here is strongly structured and marked with a genuine sense of motion. No Play No Work is the, uhh, work of a musician who clearly brings a sense of play to what he’s doing. And it’ll invite repeated plays, especially when the party calls for something funky.
Mates of State
On their seventh album, Mates of State a Connnecticut-based husband-wife duo of keyboardist/vocalist Kori Gardner and percussionist/vocalist Jason Hammel present ten synth-pop songs loaded with melody, hooks, and emotion. “Palomino” starts the proceedings off with vibrant synths and soaring whoo-hoo-hoo vocals before settling into soothing electric piano-driven verses and the comforting assurance that “You know you’re not in Hell, Palamino.” “Maracas” alternates between floating verses over squishy keyboard bass and a sprightly chorus about “Syncopated breathing.” The sunny major chords and chiming bells on “Sway” give the song an anthemic feel. Over the spare keyboards and clattering rimshots of “Unless I’m Led,” Gardner sings about finding her way through the wood with the help of her closest partner. The song builds to a stately chorus full of layered keyboards and radiant one-woman vocal harmonies. “Total Serendipity” is a fast-paced tune with a jump-boogie rhythm; the duo trade lines in a story (perhaps their own) about a couple meeting and, by good fortune, connecting: “She almost didn’t give you the message/Where would we be? … You’re a pot of gold/Sitting at the rainbow’s edge.” “Basement Money” is a brisk song about the cottage-industry aspect of being in an indie-pop band. In the minor-chorded “At Least I Have You,” the Mates sing about relying on that special someone when co-workers, friends and family members seem so distant and alienated: “I looked up the things that we couldn’t say/In a language that we use every day.” The acoustic guitar that carries “Desire” is an impressive change-up, but not so much of one that it distracts from the album’s overall flow. Throughout Mountaintops, Gardner’s keyboard palette is so broad from warm, elegant piano chords to classic-sounding electric piano, from shimmering washes of synth to whole synthetic string sections that on some songs, it’s hard to believe the music is made by just a duo. Hammel keeps the rhythms lean, and incorporates plenty of time changes within songs, but does it without ever sounding like he’s trying to draw attention to himself. The two musicians complement each other well as singers, too, whether taking solo turns, trading off lines, or harmonizing. (And Gardner’s one-woman overdubbed harmonies never fail to impart majesty to the music.) The duo’s production leaves plenty of space for the keyboards and vocals to move and blossom; in song after song, the hooks seem to jump out from the music. Mountaintops is a superb album, full of energy, spirit and passion; it’s the kind of album that’ll make a newcomer want to check out the rest of the band’s music.
(Missing Piece Group)
Since breaking into pop music consciousness twenty years ago with the album Girlfriend, Nebraska-born singer/songwriter Matthew Sweet has drawn his inspiration steadily from the power-pop sounds of The Beatles, The Byrds, Big Star and The Raspberries. (He’s recorded two duet albums with Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs, covering the pop hits of the Sixties and Seventies. Don’t expect them to extend that effort into the Eighties any time soon.) So the title of Sweet’s eleventh studio album is at least a little bit ironic: on Modern Art, the artist stays true to the classics. A cascade of backwards-recorded guitar heralds the opening track, “Oh, Oldendaze!” (Even the title tells where Sweet’s mind is at.) The song’s riffs and rhythm seem to turn back on themselves continuously beneath the melody and lead guitar figures, creating a push-pull tension as Sweet looks back on “Golden ways/Olden days/When you were mine/Memories never stand the test of time.” “She Walks the Night” is one of Sweet’s best songs ever, with a gorgeous melody, chiming Byrds-style guitars and lyrics that paint a picture of that dream girl who’s always just out of reach: “Why would I pretend she wasn’t there?/If I can feel it/She’s real enough to me.” “A Little Death” is a chiming ballad, with just bass, vocals and guitar lines intertwining with each other. “Late Nights with the Power Pop” adds crunchier guitars to the mix. The title track glides on stately, echoey piano and synthetic strings, as Sweet sings of someone who’s “Abstract, like the world around me … You make a modern art/From your head/For your heart/You put on display.” “Ladyfingers” takes a bluesier turn; “My Ass Is Grass” is more folky-sounding, its acoustic guitars moving over bongos. Guitarist Dennis Taylor and drummer Ric Menck (who also co-produced the disc) provide sympathetic support throughout the album, and Sweet overdubs his own reedy voice into one-man harmonies that might impress a Crosby Stills & Nash fan. The result is an intimate-sounding album that echoes classic pop while still being informed by the artist’s own sensibility. Like the best modern art, Sweet’s inspirations and sources may be obvious, but the end result is all his own.
(Verve Forecast Records)
With the support of a first-rate backing band and some distinguished guests, New Orleans-born Trombone Shorty (Troy Andrews on his driver’s license) offers a feast of soul and funk grooves on his seventh studio album, For True. Trombone is his principal instrument, of course, but Andrews also shows some impressive chops on trumpet and organ, as well as an excellent, soulful singing voice. “Buckjump” opens the disc sounding like something from prime-period Funkadelic, with a muted, liquid-sounding bass over percussion and handclaps; the horns from the Rebirth Brass Band support Shorty, as guest vocalist 5th Ward Weebie exhorts listeners and musicians alike to let go and get into the groove. Kid Rock adds a grainy rap-style vocal to “Mrs. Orleans”; two of the Neville Brothers, Ivan and Cyril, add their classic funky imprimatur to “Nervis.” The strutting two-part track “Lagniappe,” the laid-back “Dumaine St.” and “Big 12,” and the title track all are great instrumental showcases for Shorty and his backing band, Orleans Avenue guitarist Pete Murano, bassist Mike Ballard, drummer Joey Peebles, percussionist Dwayne Williams and sax players Dan Oestreicher and Tim McFatter. The briskly moving “Unc,” in fact, is a one-man band effort by the star. And even though “Do to Me” and the gospel-tinged “Encore” both feature some sharp guitar from two renowned guests Jeff Beck’s signature sawtooth tone on the former, Allman Brothers/Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes’ swampy funk on the latter Shorty’s own lead vocals are what draw the listener into both songs. For True is a great, energetic, funky album that will satisfy any listener with a taste for funk, soul and/or jazz, and makes a great addition to anyone’s party playlist.
Delvin Neugebauer hosts the Overnight Music Mix each Thursday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.