7/28/08: Qwel & Kip Killagain

The New Wine
Galapagos4 Records
Release Date: June 10, 2008
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sounds like: Golden Era hip-hop with a barbed, progressive bite; socially aware rhymes, skeleton-sparse snare-and-bass beats, and live instrument flourishes

Underground Chicago rhyme technician Qwel joins forces with well-known jungle producer Kip Killagain for a rock-solid slice of real-deal hip hop. Touted as the third in his four seasons/four horsemen series, The New Wine represents Qwel’s vision of springtime in a corrupt world full of social, political, and cultural atrocities. Opener “Adam & Eve” features an eerie guitar sample and a meager finger-snapping beat that matches up nicely with Qwel’s urgent, free-flowing verses, which deftly cover extensive ground. “Big Eyes” creeps at a slower pace, with deep trance-hop drums and a minor-key bass line, while “Agape Rain’s” piano/violin combination casts a more hopeful eye on the world, with Qwel evoking carnal law, karmic justice, and the ancient ideal of agape (unconditional or divine) love. After that opening trio, The New Wine bogs down a bit inside Qwel’s complex rhyme schemes, but unpredictable and well-executed instrumental samples courtesy of Killagain keep things from dragging too much. The title track burns luxuriously with a jazzy retro horn-and-sitar melody, and other highlights include the self-explanatory satire “Reality TV” and the looser Asian-influenced “Frost Seedling.” But each and every track on The New Wine shares a common thread: the fierce onslaught of Qwel’s rapid-fire indictments of the world spinning madly around him. The line between prose, poetry, and rap disappears in the face of Qwel’s awe-inspiring ability, and although the idea of one artist commandeering an entire 41-minute hip-hop album seems insane in this guest-spot dominated world, one listen to The New Wine will convince you that Qwel has plenty of fire left to burn.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/qwelg4
Label: www.galapagos4.com/artists/qwelinterview.html


7/27/08: The Apples

Buzzin’ About

Freestyle Records
Release Date: June 2, 2008
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Sounds like: Fast-paced hip-hop beats mixed with exuberantly jazzy horns, topped off with nimble turntable scratches and funky flourishes

The latest hip-hop/jazz/funk fusion comes from the unlikely Holy Land of Israel, where nonet The Apples have gained considerable steam on the strength of their eclectic and infectious blends. Eschewing traditional instrumentation like guitars and keyboards in favor of three DJS, four horn players, and a rock-solid drum-and-bass core, Buzzin’ About serves as an excellent introduction to The Apples’ immense talent. From the quirky acid-jazz feel of “Debil’s Dream” to the old world-influenced “Kol HaYom BaHalal,” The Apples cover large swaths of musical ground with ease. Classical sounds crash into the modern world on “Yablaki,” which features a feverishly fast off-key violin sample that pairs up nicely with its eerie ambiance, and the stuttered scratch-jazz of “Killing” updates bebop’s improvisational style for the 21st century. The shortest track on the album, “Run Shai Ran,” outshines the rest of Buzzin’ About in its brief minute-and-a-half, riding a loose New Orleans groove into an ecstatic horn-heavy sunset. A bit of scattered monotony sets in after Buzzin’ About’s 52 minutes, but this diverse and enjoyable debut proves that The Apples have the hooks and chops necessary for widespread success.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/theapplesmusic
Label: www.freestylerecords.co.uk/index.php?page=filter&artist=The%20Apples


7/22/08: Young Widows

Old Wounds
Temporary Residence Limited Records
Release Date: September 9, 2008
Rating: 3.25 out of 5

Sounds like: Noise-punk riffs laid over a solid hardcore backbeat; jagged Fugazi meets squelching The Jesus Lizard by way of gutbusting The Melvins

This Kentucky power trio brings a whole kitchen sink full of noise on the rambling, at times hard-hitting Old Wounds. After losing the lead singer of previous hardcore/metal incarnation Breather Resist, guitarist Evan Patterson took over vocal duties and led Young Widows into more experimental territory. Although Old Wounds opens slowly on the dirge-ish “Took A Turn” and the lumbering mess “Mr. No Harm,” the band finds its metal-influenced groove on the last four tracks of the album. “Delay Your Progress” blends psychotic clattering and throbbing, tough-as-nails bass into an early ‘80s punk redux, and “Let Him Be” features stomping chants and staggering drums ideal for sweaty, drunken live venues. The fuzzy cacophony of “Feelers” points in a solid direction, and album closer “Swamped And Agitated” merrily drowns under washes of psychedelic guitar blasts and ramshackle walls of sound that highlight the band at its pinnacle of energy. Piecing together Old Wounds from dozens of hours of live recordings may not yield the most cohesive results, but it does draw attention to Young Widows’ explosive and unpredictable abilities.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/youngwidows
Label: www.temporaryresidence.com/bands/young-widows.php

7/22/08: Horse Feathers

House With No Home
Kill Rock Stars Records
Release Date: September 9, 2008
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sounds like: Ultra-hushed Northwestern folk with mournful backing strings; early Iron & Wine without so many of the Southern Gothic undertones

Idaho native Justin Ringle joins sister Heather Broderick and multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick for a reflective journey through the tranquil folk landscapes of the American Northwest. Containing little more than sparse acoustic guitars and sorrowful cellos courtesy of Heather, House With No Home trots quietly along on intricate tracks like “Rude To Rile” and the lower-class ode “Working Poor.” Sunny orchestral arrangements make “Albina” stand out from the otherwise melancholy Horse Feathers pack, and Ringle’s tender vocals hit their stride on the playful “Helen.” Plodding, scratchy guitars give “Heathen’s Kiss” a darker feel, while the next-to-last track “This Is What” finds Horse Feathers picking up the pace (finally). While House With No Home doesn’t pull off anything that Sam Beam and Iron & Wine couldn't master five years ago, Horse Feathers still represents another solid notch in the ever-deepening Americana/quiet-folk catalog.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/horsefeathersmusic
Label: www.killrockstars.com/artists/viewartist.php?aname=feathers


7/18/08: King Khan & The Shrines

The Supreme Genius Of King Khan & The Shrines
Vice Records
Release date: June 17, 2008
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Sounds likes: A mouth-watering gumbo of unabashedly retro 1960s rock/soul/funk influences

*This review originally published in the July issue of Drift Magazine (www.surfthedrift.com)*

“Retro” comes in all shapes and sizes these days. Fashion, architecture, advertising, cinema… nothing in our pop culture world escapes the nostalgic pull of a little retro-fitting, evoking memories of the past for people who may or may not be familiar with what they’re reliving. But when it comes to the music of Canadian-born King Khan (whose parents were immigrants from India), there’s no separation between retro and contemporary. In fact, give his latest album The Supreme Genius Of… (a collection of tracks recorded with twelve-piece psychedelic big band The Shrines) a listen without any context, and you’d swear up and down it hailed from a very special moment in 1969.

On The Supreme Genius Of…, this modern-day soul man bobs and weaves through a wonderfully greasy stew of rock ‘n’ roll, R & B, soul, and funky psychedelia, with touches of Frank Zappa’s lewd humor and an auditory murkiness making the whole album sound like buried treasure from a bygone era. From the opening guitar crunch of “Torture” to the Stax Records send-up “Land Of The Freak,” King Khan proves that he’s got a solid handle on the most memorable and emotionally appealing aspects of vintage American music. The eerily sensual blues rock of “Shivers Down My Spine” will make you want to practice your sleaziest slow-dance, while the horn-heavy funk of “Destroyer” brings to mind the Edwin Starr classic “War” (“Huh! What is it good for?”). Surfed-out guitars and hollered screams give “Land Of The Free” a frenetic pace, which is perfectly mirrored by the album closer “No Regrets,” an unapologetic barn-burning dance number.

King Khan also dabbles in tropical doo-wop on “Crackin’ Up” and electrified jangle-rock on “Burnin’ Inside,” but he and The Shrines’ complete mastery of all things retro sets The Supreme Genius Of… head and shoulders above any other ode to the 1960s in existence. If the groovy sounds of yesteryear get your blood a-boilin’, the raw authenticity of King Khan & The Shrines should serve up the perfect period soundtrack to your unabashedly retro summer. Who knew a Canuck with Indian blood could bring American music full circle again?

*This review originally published in the July issue of Drift Magazine (www.surfthedrift.com)*

Official band site: www.king-khan.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/kingkhantheshrines
Label: www.vicerecords.com/khan.php
"Torture" mp3

7/18/08: Firewater

The Golden Hour
Bloodshot Records
Release date: May 6, 2008
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Sounds like: Feverish world music punctuated with a New York gypsy punk snarl

*This review originally published in the July issue of Drift Magazine (www.surfthedrift.com)*

World music seems to be all the rage in 2008, and foremost in that movement stands Firewater and its frontman Tod A, who from 2005 to 2007 journeyed through India, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, and Israel accumulating recordings with local musicians for The Golden Hour. And where many world-influenced artists submerse themselves in their chosen regional specialty, Firewater injects enough New York punk attitude into its sound to keep things both familiar and exotic at the same time.

No stranger to political dialogue, Tod A opens The Golden Hour with the gypsy big band mash-up “Borneo,” which features pointed jabs at our current administration: “Gonna set my sails for virgin soil/You know I don’t wanna die for the price of oil.” From there it’s on to the authority-challenging “This Is My Life,” the strutting farfisa and electric banjo on the instrumental “Banghra Bros,” and on down the line with the joyously angry jazz-punk of “Hey Clown.” Israeli trombones resonate on the swinging “Weird To Be Back,” and a sad clippity-clop of djembe drums teams up with a weeping acoustic guitar line to tinge the drinking ode “6:45 (So This Is How It Feels)” with a massive amount of melancholy.

Firewater closes the album with the slightly bluesy “3 Legged Dog,” which sums up The Golden Hour's pained worldview and Tod A's tortured outlook: “Just because I can’t recall their names/All the faces and the places just begin to look the same/When you’re a 3-legged dog on the roam.” Other world musicians may boast of a summer residency in Paris or a revealing trip to a street market in Peru, but Tod A’s search for musical globalism reflects a different sort of obsession: in order to create Firewater’s next body of work, he went out in search of something completely foreign and unfamiliar in Southern Asia. Whether he made any kind of personal discovery along the way is up for debate, but The Golden Hour proves that long, hard journey certainly wasn’t made in vain.

*This review originally published in the July issue of Drift Magazine (www.surfthedrift.com)

Official band site: www.firewater.tv
Myspace: www.myspace.com/realfirewater
Label: www.bloodshotrecords.com/album/firewater/353
"Borneo" mp3
"Three-Legged Dog" mp3

7/18/08: Endless Boogie

Focus Level
No Quarter Records
Release date: June 17, 2008
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sounds like: A steaming slab of straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, tinged with blues, psychedelia, and heavy jamming

These four New York music industry insiders (Matador Records employees, world-renowned record collector, etc.) churn out 80 solid minutes of jammed-out, balls-to-the-wall rock, from the sweaty boogie of “Smoking Figs In The Back Yard” to the chugging Zappa-like freakouts of “The Manly Vibe” and “Steak Rock.” What was once just a Tuesday night “old man’s hobby” has turned into a legitimate rock-for-rock’s-sake enterprise, with the band living and dying by fiery guitar solos, deep blues grooves, screeching lyrical howls, and fifteen-minute improvisations. Endless Boogie is so cool they won’t play shows unless specifically requested to, and Focus Level is the ideal backing track for drinking, smashing things, getting dirty and nasty, or obliterating your better senses.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/endlessboogie
Label: www.noquarter.net/bands/eb.php
“Smoking Figs In The Back Yard” mp3
“The Manly Vibe” mp3


7/17/08: Dr. Dog

Park The Van Records
Release Date: July 22, 2008
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Sounds like: The Beatles’ endearing psychedelia, The Band’s rootsiness, and The Beach Boys’ crystalline vocals, all wrapped in a modern-day Philadelphia-soul/indie-rock package

Full disclosure up front: I’ve been a rabid Dr. Dog fan since 2003. I can still remember the hazy, drunken evening when Toothbrush, the band's self-released debut album, first set my insides aquiver… nostalgia aside, the band's fourth full-length Fate stands as quite possibly the strongest outing from this quintet of quirky Philadelphia retro-rockers. Although they’ve been dogged by constant comparisons to The Beatles, in terms of musical touchstones, you can’t ask to be lumped in with better progenitors. On Fate, the give-and-take songwriting team of Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman exhibits considerable growth, evolving into a deeper and more complex unit while still maintaining the band’s firm foundations: heart-tugging multi-part vocal harmonies, peculiar yet pleasing ‘60s-era recording techniques, and the kind of emotional depth and self-confidence most indie rock bands can only dream of. Album opener “The Breeze” rolls softly to shore with yearning lyrics and tender acoustic guitars from McMicken, along with quasi-tropical percussion and beautiful pianos. From there, the band takes a trip through jazzy yet passionate territory on “Hang On,” jumpy, off-time shimmying on “The Old Days,” and the slow-as-molasses R & B/classic-rock/weeping-soul amalgamation “Army Of Ancients.” As always, McMicken’s nasally delivery serves as the perfect counterpoint to bassist Leaman’s growling vocal power, which rises to a cataclysmic peak on the simmering slow-burner “The Beach.” Packed full of monumental organs, smoldering guitar solos, and true sing-along catchiness, “The Beach” may just be the best Dog song yet. This is all assuming you dig heart-on-your-sleeve exuberance and upbeat yet reflective pop songcraft. But if Fate garners the same positive responses as last year’s excellent We All Belong, Dr. Dog could stake a firm claim as one of the most enjoyably eclectic bands on the contemporary music landscape.

Official band site: www.drdogmusic.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/drdog
Label: www.parkthevan.com/drdog
“The Old Days” mp3

7/17/08: Earlimart

Hymn And Her
Shout! Factory Records
Release date: July 1, 2008
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sounds like: Introspective indie pop with a moody bent; a slightly happier Elliot Smith teaming up with a downbeat Yo La Tengo

Earlimart returns one short year after its last celebrated album Mentor Tormentor with another batch of moody pop reflections. Stripped down to the duo of Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray, these pillars of the L.A. underground maintain a fairly straightforward pop-rock line while drawing heavily from the overstocked well of Elliot Smith inspiration. The breezy “Face Down” relies on melancholy pianos and sad horns to make its case, while “For The Birds” combines tortured, breathy vocals with jangly drum hits and morose organs. Espinoza conjures up the ghost of Elliot Smith on “God Loves You The Best” and “Cigarettes & Kerosene,” not only cribbing the late master’s vocal delivery but also adding washes of strings and plunky pianos reminiscent of his symphonic arrangements. Earlimart surprisingly dabbles in danceable material on the midtempo “Teeth,” but returns to meditative form again on the churning title track and the drenched-in-sadness closer “Tell Me.” But don’t let the album’s title fool you: Ariana Murray’s sugary pipes turn up only sparingly, instead ceding the upper hand in this vocal lover’s duel to Espinoza’s fractured lyrics. Hymn And Her is the perfect soundtrack for any introvert who loves overcast skies and downhearted yet hesitatingly hopeful pop tunes.

Official band site: www.earlimartmusic.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/earlimart
Label: www.shoutfactory.com/browse/146/earlimart.aspx
“Song For” mp3

7/17/08: Pygmy Lush

Mount Hope
Lovitt Records
Release date: July 1, 2008
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Sounds like: Hushed, haunting country folk; a darker Iron & Wine or the quieter moments of My Morning Jacket

This band of Northern Virginia musicians comes from influential hardcore stock, but since 2005 Pygmy Lush has allowed its members to focus on their infatuation with the shuffling simplicity of folk music. Although the band’s debut album Bitter River split the difference between raucous punk and quieter acoustic tunes, sophomore release Mount Hope is filled with hushed, sometimes barely audible lyrics, along with softly strummed acoustic guitars and slight droning echoes of the band’s earlier noise. But Pygmy Lush handles the majestic space of their backwoods tranquility with skill, pairing gritty intricacy on “Asphalt” with haunting numbers like “No Feeling” and “Red Room Blues,” which both resemble My Morning Jacket’s exploratory quiet rock. “God Condition” ever so slightly picks up the Pygmy Lush pace, allowing the nearly indiscernible vocals to emerge from a distorted haze; but the following song, the wonderfully jazzy title track, only acts as a teaser due to its far-too-short 1:30 running time. “Frozen Man,” “Hard To Swallow,” and “Dreams Are Class” hearken back to Neil Young’s lo-fi beginnings, while adding evocatively eerie layers to keep things firmly rooted in the 21st century, and “Concrete Mountain” inexplicably tosses junk percussion and exotic accordions into the mix. And just to keep any easily applicable tags from latching on to Mount Hope, “Butch’s Dream” waltzes off in a romping rockabilly direction, proving that Pygmy Lush has the wide-ranging chops to tackle any genre. Way below the surface for now, Pygmy Lush’s evocative folk musings might just bask in a much brighter light thanks to Mount Hope.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/pygmylush
Label: www.lovitt.com/index2.html


7/6/08: Duchess Says

Anthologie Des 3 Perchoirs
Alien8 Recordings
Release date: September 2, 2008
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Sounds like: Feverish blend of electronica, garage rock, and fem-punk; The Pixies, The Kills, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Be Your Own Pet

The first time I listened to Duchess Says’ debut album, I hated it. Giving it one more chance, I loved it. This Montreal quartet unexpectedly succeeds by merging blistering guitar assaults, thumping punk-inspired drum kicks, and distorted keyboard squelches to create a tantalizing and neurotically unique sound (the band calls it “moog rock”). Lead singer Annie C opens the album with gunshot blast vocals on “Tenen No Neu,” while prog rock and staccato start-stop explosions punctuate “Ccut Up.” Although Duchess Says lives up to their celebrated electronic influences on Six Finger Satellite cover “Rabies” and the weirdly computerized live anthem “Black Flag,” the finest moments of Anthologie Des 3 Perchoirs come when the band veers down the experimental rock path. “C.H.O.B.” is a one-minute grenade onslaught of ferocious punk basics, while “Aeae” staggers along with a snot-nosed attitude and incomprehensible screams. “A Century Old” shifts gears into spooky Devo-in-a-dark-alley territory, but its orgasmic apex represents the far-reaching galaxy Duchess Says seems to be reaching for. And “I’ve Got The Flu” shreds genre distinctions to pieces, signifying the psychotically symbiotic marriage of geeky techno beats, ‘80s retro-pop, indie-punk snarl, and sultry lyrical come-ons. One listen to Anthologie Des 3 Perchoirs’ alluring weirdness may make you forget all about those other Canadian buzz bands.

Official site: www.duchesssays.com
Myspace: www.myspace.com/duchesssays
Label: www.alien8recordings.com/artists/duchess-says
“Ccut Up” mp3

7/6/08: The Donkeys

The Donkeys
Dead Oceans Records
Release Date: September 9, 2008
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sounds like: Dusty folk-pop with a sunny and skewed Southern California twist

Even with a tepidly mediocre name, this San Diego quartet relishes warm-hearted layers of feel-good summer haze on sophomore album Living On The Other Side. Sounding like a more laid back The Eagles or a more stoned and rock-centric The Beach Boys, The Donkeys piece together groovy organs, bittersweet vocal harmonies, and bristling electric guitars on the languishing "Dolphin Center" before going the unassumingly organic route on the rustic breeziness of "Traverse Wine." A little mod revival/ acid pop weirdness teams up with ironic hipster lyrics on "Nice Train," while a sprinkle of pyschedelic sitars and flutes makes "Dreamin'" stick out. The retro-sounding, completely unartifical "Excelsior Lady" smacks of 1971, but a telling line from the weepy country-blues "Boot On The Seat" sums up The Donkeys' whole country-love-pot-n-sunshine- trip: "Call me sentimental/I love things that are old/I'm just young and grateful/That I've had hands to hold."

Myspace: www.myspace.com/thedonkeys
Label: www.deadoceans.com/artist.php?name=donkeys
"Walk Through A Cloud" mp3


7/3/08: Wolf Parade

At Mount Zoomer
Sub Pop Records
Release Date: June 17, 2008
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Sounds like: Complex and challenging yet enjoyably listenable progressive indie rock

Being a relative Wolf Parade newcomer, I won’t attempt to dissect the intricacies of the band’s evolution from acclaimed first album Apologies To Queen Mary to follow-up At Mount Zoomer. I will say this ain’t no sophomore slump, though, and even with shades of Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, and the finer moments of Tapes ‘n’ Tapes showing up in Wolf Parade’s sound, this Canadian quintet still has one leg firmly planted in the future of musical exploration. Recorded in Arcade Fire’s church/studio, At Mount Zoomer’s production is brittle and crisp, making the intense layers of the album hit on all synapses. The buzzing and rollicking opener “Soldier’s Grin” segues perfectly into the sparse yet dense Spoon-like rock of “Call It A Ritual,” while the slowed-down “Fine Young Cannibals” features a spectacular guitar riff and shimmery synths that place the track in timeless territory. The two epics on At Mount Zoomer, the six-minute “California Dreamer” and the eleven-minute “Kissing The Beehive,” may be a little too ambitious for all but the most seasoned musical connoisseur; to my untrained ear “An Animal In Your Care’s” lo-fi, early ‘80s fuzz stood head and shoulders above the rest of the album. So long as Wolf Parade sticks together, instrumental excellence wrapped in a thin layer of experimentalism should remain on the musical docket. And that’s good news for indie fans, even if you're still a few listens away from understanding what the Wolf Parade buzz is all about.

Myspace: www.myspace.com/wolfparade
Label: www.subpop.com/artists/wolf_parade
"Call It A Ritual" mp3

"Language City" mp3

7/3/08: Suarasama

Fajar Di Atas Awan
Drag City Records
Release Date: August 19, 2008
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sounds like: Hypnotic, exotic, Indonesian-influenced folk

If you’ve ever been to Indonesia, then Suarasama’s Fajar Di Atas Awan will no doubt conjure up memories of that most exotic of locales. If you haven’t made the long trek to Southeast Asia, then this album represents the quickest, cheapest way to get there. Originally released in 1998, Fajar Di Atas Awan (which translates to “Dawn Over The Clouds”) is the work of two Sumatran ethnomusicologists, along with up to 20 of their academically-trained colleagues. But rather than focusing on their own geographical area (one of about 18,000 Indonesian islands), husband-and-wife team Irwansyah Harahap and Rithaony Hutajulu embrace a more sweeping view of the world's musical culture, including African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Sufi, and Pakistani sounds in their contemporary mix. And although you may not be able to understand Fajar Di Atas Awan’s words, the emotional impact of Suarasama’s music comes across clearly on the haunting “Sang Hyang Guru” and the fast-moving “Silang Bertaut Bunyi.” Amazing string work appears on "Playing Gambus," a self-explanatory song title that refers to the twelve-stringed Malay gambus, and on the 14-minute exploratory journey "Merangkai Warna," which features the Arabic Al' Ud, a fretless, pear-shaped predecessor of the modern lute. Offbeat instruments, I know, but it's this kind of non-Western beauty that keeps the popular world music train chugging down the 2008 track. Make no mistake, though, the mystical authenticity found on Fajar Di Atas Awan can't be duplicated or co-opted by Americans looking for a sultry new sound. Now if I could just afford that plane ticket to Indo to hear Suarasama’s music with my own ears…

Official site: www.suarasama.com
Label: www.dragcity.com/bands/suarasama.html