music writing

Review:  The Highway’s “Forest People”
Originally for the Deli New England

Psychedelic swirling lures, introducing Forest People with atmospheric effects, slide guitar and nebulous, distant vocals, building softly before finally dropping into one crunchy, snarled-lip guitar lick.  The band kicks it aside with the verse, Daniel Tortoledo’s vocals immediately in the high-register, the rhythm guitar jiving like 70’s funk.  It’s as hypnotizing an opener as this listener has encountered in a very long time.  But The Highway, much as the name suggests, isn’t content to idle in one place.

“Frozen Sun” cruises away from a desert sunset and a troubled past; there’s defeat in the lyrics, but it’s accepted and calm, soothed by the breeze and the knowledge that tomorrow is a new day.  The title track, “Forest People,” reminds what a spell well thought out chord progressions and back-up vocals can weave – it’s a stunning, down-tempo meditation.  “Song for the World” is utterly beautiful; if you’re the type to let music touch you, this one will, and it’s thanks to plum ingenious songwriting:  An entrancingly bittersweet opening gives way to one hell of a surprising French interlude (yes, both linguistically and musically); the song loops back on itself, gaining weight and fleshing out, and by the end, you might not know whether to laugh, cry, or sing along – even though they’ve switched languages again, this time to Spanish.

Now, I know I’m a bit of a sap, but the raw emotionality of the record is worth noting because it’s a field in which psychedelically-minded rock ‘n roll rarely succeeds.  But it’s rock and roll, after all, so fear not if you just want to put your fist in the air – there’s attitude in abundance, sharp and edgy soloing, rhythm changes; hell, there’s even a sing-along drum-and-vocal break.

There’s still some residue of the “rock is dead” prophesying, some grumbling that rock and roll is all, at this point, recycled goods, and that the new breed of rock is not really “rock” so much as indie, as experimental, as post-this or that-core.  Buy Forest People.  And then buy it for anyone you know who buys that sh*t.

Review:  King Orchid’s “I Sound Much Better In the Sun”
Originally written for the Band Over Boston blog

So maybe I’ve got a slight bias towards duos.  Aside from being a member of one, I love the energy (whether it’s friction or pure momentum) of two musicians pushing themselves and each other to create music for an audience that’s largely accustomed to >2 piece bands, acts, ensembles, etc.  There are obvious limitations when there are only two musicians at work, and they call for more creative thinking than might be apparent.  The usual concerns of songwriters are always on the minds of a duo, but dynamics, technical ability, and variety are of particular concern.  It’s the nature of the beast… and it’s really exciting to see a duo pull it off and make you forget there isn’t another musician involved.

I saw King Orchid set fire to the Precinct on a cold night in early January, and immediately asked for a record.  Despite both having graduated from Berklee’s Engineering and Production school, Zack Fierman and Doug Wartman say they took the material to Mad Oak Studios and The Record Company; the record sounds incredible and does the duo justice.

“What I Would Listen to if I Were a Bat” explodes with cracking snare and depth-charge bass drum, and the guitar jumps easily from a menacing wolverine prowl into the air, jiving funky with the cymbal bell and echoing off into the distant night.  The production is as expansive as the song and eventually opens up into a beautifully dark piano landscape, the guitar painting clouds while the deep tom-toms roll hills below.  If you close your eyes, it’s really music you can see.  The band thinks in themes, creeping back to the opening riffs before sending the piece off on a reflection of the bridge, making the song feel instead like a journey.

There’s a wide color spectrum on this album, moody movements sitting easily beside funk swinging (try to keep still during “Hot & Bothered”) and upbeat jams like “Trigger Finger” and “Jinx.” The latter features layered guitar and vocals, some sing-along “Na na na’s,” and a prog-funk (whoa!) stumble in the middle that proves that, at their poppiest, they’re still thinking way outside the box.  In fact, the duo sounds as at home with acoustic dittying as they do with more progressive instrumental kicks.  The EP’s title track is a testament to this and a real tour de force.  The song pushes and pulls, jumps rhythms, and climbs and dives through dynamic atmosphere layers, dive bombing straight for your melon one moment and tiptoeing over your feet the next.  If you play this record loud, which, if their live show is any indication, is the desired volume (if not very), the effect is really exhilarating.

Now, when I say “saw them set fire to the Precinct,” it might come across as a tired metaphor.  Their closing song, however, aptly titled “Fire,” is about the closest I’ve heard to an actual aural representation of flames.  Didgeridoo and bowed guitar loom like smoke blotting out the sun; the instruments emerge and start at a slow smolder before speeding like wildfire, licking out unpredictably and whipping into what seems an uncontrollable frenzy.  The smokey haze blows by and the song ignites once again, and after the album’s final climax, the last guitar echoes out just long enough to reflect on the fact that, though it may have toed the line, nothing about these seven songs was ever uncontrolled.  All the breakneck turns, dynamic nosedives, atmospheric guitars and thunderous drum fills, whooping and sliding and exploding – all wrung tightly by just two guys with instruments, like a couple of dynamic wizards.  (Or kings.)

Review:  Day Sleeper’s “Wonderland Kid”
Originally written for the Band Over Boston blog

There’s a line in the second song of this EP that stuck with me throughout subsequent spins of the disc.  In the middle of “Maggie May I,” Cas Kaplan speaks through a swirling build:  “As long as you live, you will never be right about anything, ever.”  The cyclonic bridge comes to an abrupt halt on Kaplan’s command, and the rest of the song rides out on a group chant:  “This is real.”

The sequence seems so poignant because not being “right” is what is so right about “Wonderland Kid.”

Luke Pyenson’s drums rotate and flirt with standard rhythm but never settle there.  The chord progressions stay dizzy, rarely landing where you might expect them to.  The high-register, playful guitar plucking, a unifying theme across the EP, is almost indecisive and curious, like a child’s wide-eyed wondering at the current moment without a care for the next.  There is a familiar whimsy to Kaplan’s vocal delivery, especially in the beautifully introspective, down-tempo title track, but the band is at its most engaging when they revel in their delirious circles around pop structure and melody.

Recorded mostly at WERS studios, the production is crisp, cohesive, and tight, but the last track, “You Knew,” recorded live at TT’s in Cambridge, is soaked in the cavernous reverb of the room, and it sounds like the best way to appreciate this band: totally immersed in their sound, with the impression that their next move might be a surprise even to them.

Various Short-Form Reviews
For Band Over Boston’s “Recently Added” Column

WALTER SICKERT & THE ARMY OF BROKEN TOYS
LP’s:  “SteamShipKillers” ; “Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys”
An intensely vivid trip through an ash-gray landscape.  The music rolls in the muck and howls at the sky; it’s dirty and raw and resonates with jangling strings, various acoustic percussion, wilting orchestrals and horns, and, above all, Walter Sickert’s lyrics – growled, slanted, chanted, chugged, belted, and, yes, sung. And when he sings, he means it.

GHOST BOX ORCHESTRA
EP: “The Only Light On”
This is music to watch Baraka or Koyaanisqatsi to.  There are seriously groovy sections (see if the opening of “The Lodge” doesn’t get you bobbing), washes of guitar, and expertly-chosen flourishes like chimes, barely-there vocals, percussion, cymbal sweeps, and a few effects I can’t even exactly name, but suspect come from a guitarThis EP fearlessly goes where few have gone before – it’s a long march, but it’s something like traveling with a hooded and mysterious companion, one that keeps you glancing and guessing the whole way.

THE SUN LEE SUNBEAM
LP: “Beneath the Burning Sky”
Old-school pop (when it was pop) bounces off graffiti’d building sides in this marriage (or fling, at least) between the rock of today and yesterday.  The songs propel and compel – Sun Lee’s voice romps and rolls and gets tangled in the sheets with the band, but seems to, well… control the proceedings.  If you aren’t one to twist, then those sweet hooks will at least shimmy in your ears all night.

SIDEWALK DRIVER
Selections from their LP, “For All the Boys and Girls”
What can be said about Sidewalk Driver that hasn’t been already?  They’re pop royalty, but they don’t preach or issue decrees – they lead by example.  Tight, chugging guitars, perfectly-placed harmonies, and an impeccable rhythm section set the stage for Tad’s skipping over, weaving through, and soaring high above.

DEAF COUNTRY
EP: “Ultra Mega Gold”
From the opening drum loop of “Full Spectrum Bulbs,” soaked in reverb and grand enough to move mountainsit’s apparent that this is an immersion-minded album, whether it’s right in your ears or blanketing the dance floor.  Infectious synths slide and cascade down over sawtooth basslines; other production choices range from tinkling piano to chunky, power guitar, and give each song its own character.  There’s even a little spoken word, right out of the 80′s, and the bonus Broken Social Scene cover brings indie rock right into Deaf Country’s bubbling, shimmering world. “Ultra Mega Gold” wants you to dance, but if you must listen sitting, it will settle for a smile.

VERB THE ADJECTIVE NOUN
EP’s: “Novella,” “Reds”
There are two very different sides of the band set in relief by these two EP’s, but, like an optical illusion, it’s how they complement each other that forms the focus.  Like a scene at a bar, things are boisterous here and melodramatic there; there’s introspection, camaraderie, stumbling, shouting, and, yes, some singing along. If the genuinely folksy vocals on the slower numbers don’t find their way under your skin and make you feel the music, well… you can always go drink with the rock crowd instead.

BARN
LP: “Solace,” Three Singles
I got “Solace” by Barn from my friends over at F Nice Records, and I spent a full fifteen minutes looking for him online to ask his permission to include the music in Band Over Boston.  Is he a willfully faceless voice in local music?  Or is he just, as he says, “terrible at promotion?”  I don’t yet really know who the man behind the music is, but one thing is clear – he can rock.  There’s a disarming humility and huskiness to both his voice and the songs, which leaves you a little surprised to find hooks like “Annadean,” riffs like “Whisky and Guns,” and even drum beats like “Tonight!” stuck in your head later.  He sounds stubbornly stuck in the rock days of yore, but who’s complaining?  I ain’t.

BACCHUS KING
LP: “Bacchus King”
I’ve seen rock bands stir up mosh pits and then stop everything or even leave stage when things get too ugly, but I imagine Bacchus King just rocks harder when the picket tips. “Medicine” stomps with dead-eye tunnel vision as if to challenge rock as we know it to duel.“Snake Oil” is a slinky, glint-eyed loomer.  “God Only Knows (What I Do),” a drawly, bluesy meditation, almost sounds ready to bare its soul in a grandiose chorus until it twists into a discontented, steely scowl staring right into yours. This is the spirit of the lost desperado, here to shake you out of those comfortable, worn-in boots.  Sure, you could run, but the revolution hasn’t sounded this powerful in ages.

THE HIGHWAY
LP: “Forest People”
I’ll confess that I’ve looked forward to this album ever since I first shared the stage with The Highway about three years ago.  Despite the years in between, the LP doesn’t disappoint.  This rock is pure and heartfelt; every unexpected chord means as much musically as do Tortoledo’s lyrics on brotherhood and strife, oneness and differences, despair and optimism. There are expanses of psychedelia that pull you down in the spirals on the backs of your eyelids before snarled-lip riff explosions that less demand than command attention.  There are subtle (and not-so-subtle) tempo and rhythm changes that guide you all over the rock map, and even, briefly, as far away as South America and France.  Most memorable for this listener, though, are the layered vocal melodies and deep chord progressions that, for all the psychedelic spinning and rock attitude, bring something a little less expected to the genre – heart, spirit, and even beauty.

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