Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Liz Lawrence - Monday Morning

This is a cute song, from UK punk singer turned acoustic folk guitarist Liz Lawrence. On first listen it sounds like something that could be directed toward a romantic interest, but not necessarily so. Rather, it's a heartfelt expression of friendship and camaraderie, spoken very simply and eloquently and coated in the rich cadence of her Britishy accent. It was released as a free download on her bandcamp page. It's from her debut full length Bedroom Hero, which unfortunately you can probably make plenty of snarky jokes about. It's an okay album; most of the material doesn't really hold up to the quality of this track.

In spite of it all, I think I like this version better than the studio recording. Much more organic and refreshing.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Garage rocker Ty Segall strikes with irresistible crowd surfing tunes

Proto garage rocker Ty Segall headlined the Nashville's Dead Birthday Party at local motorcycle shop The Zombie Shop last fall, but I was a klutz and had to leave before he went on. So given a second chance to see the Bay area wunderkid, it was inconceivable to miss out again. He delivered for the sell out crowd a sound that is very sun soaked, retro, and melodic, but at the heart of it all is covered in a two inch thick coat of grime and distortion.

It all led to what surely must have been one of the most frenetic nights that Nashville's The End has seen in some time. Broken beer bottles had to be scooped off the stage before Mr. Segall made his appearance. Once he got going, there was no safe hiding place anywhere on the floor. The entire area directly in front of the stage transformed into a gigantic mosh pit.

San Francisco based rocker Ty Segall unleashes on the Nashville crowd.

Attendees were being thrust against the stage, jostled all around, and continually crowd surfing. It was like a no holds barred, anything goes melee; there was always someone climbing onto the stage, turning around, and hopping into the audience to crowd surf. At one point, a big shirtless Hispanic guy dove into the crowd right where I was standing and sent my glasses flying. Fortunately, I retrieved them in one piece.

Segall himself was in fine form. At twenty five years old he's still babyfaced, but his curly blonde mop of tangled locks hangs down into his face and obscures his eyes, making him appear positively leonine. He blistered through his set in about 30-45 minutes, kicking it off with "Thank God for Sinners," the opening cut from last October's Twins album. When the glorious clarity of its opening chords rang out, the power keg in the audience that had been primed to blow finally went off. The abundance of fuzz and the jam session style of its various guitar solos threatened at times to verge into metal, bearing similarity to the sound of Tony Iommi in Black Sabbath.

But Segall is equally proficient at driving, straight ahead, 60s drive in theater rock and roll. A few songs from last summer's Slaughterhouse, his most successful album to date, illustrate the point. "Tell Me What's Inside Your Heart" is buoyed by vibrant power chords, and filled with a joyful euphoria that for so long was noted as one of surf rock's hallmarks.

He also has a zany side that he revealed when giving some little known backstory from a couple of Slaughterhouse tracks. Setlist staple "I Bought My Eyes," he explained, is about a space alien who has his eyes ripped out and has to go to another planet to buy some more. He followed up a little later before he played "The Tongue " describing that song as being about the alien going to see his girlfriend, but she rejects him because of his new eyes. He goes mad, tears his tongue out, and gives it to her as a gift. A bit wacky, but hey.

He closed it out, fittingly, with "Wave Goodbye," during which he was much more expressive with his hand gestures, including waving at the crowd while delivering his lines. It ended with an explosive instrumental cauldron that drew inspiration from Black Sabbath, The Stooges, and Jimi Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic." After two dates here within the past six months, he also announced it would likely be the last time he'd be in Nashville for quite awhile. As much as we'll miss him, he's certainly earned a break after demonstrating himself as one of the best at delivering scorching, sweat soaked, and rollicking hard rock performances.

Memphis punk band Ex-Cult have become a top understudy of Segall.

He was preceded by a slew of opening acts, all heavily influenced by proto garage rock and punk. The problem with Ty Segall openers, demonstrated well by the Nashville's Dead party, is that they sound almost exactly identical and are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Maybe one is a little more punk influenced, or little more hardcore influenced, but it's all a wash after a couple of hours of it.

The best of the bunch was Memphis's Ex-Cult, whose 2012 self titled debut was produced by Segall and recorded in the same San Francisco studio where Thee Oh Sees and other bands of their ilk have recorded. Their set was upbeat and adrenaline charged, with lead vocalist Chris Shaw doing his best to carry on the Oi! tradition of old British punk singers. He employed an energetic, in your face style, while bassist Natalie Hoffmann blared piecing shrieks into the mic. The crowd was already starting to get nuts even at this point. Shaw's mic cord got tangled around one of the crowd surfers and he pulled on it desperately trying to yank it free, to no avail. Eventually he had to borrow Hoffmann's mic just to finish out the song.

See also: Ty Segall - Slaughterhouse review

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Toro y Moi shows flashes of brilliance on poppier Anything in Return

Love him or hate him, there's one thing you can't take away from Chaz Bundick: he's never made the same record twice. Bundick, better known under his stage moniker Toro y Moi, got his big break during the height of chillwave, a short lived movement from 2009-2010 championed by a cluster of bands dedicated to making mellow, relaxing electronic music.

Unfortunately, the scene vanished almost as quickly as it arose, leaving its adherents scrambling for a new creative direction. Bundick's debut, 2010's Causers of This, could be placed firmly within the chillwave network, yet Bundick never felt like the type of guy to get pigeonholed within it.

Appropriately, his 2011 followup Underneath the Pine took a different approach entirely, presenting itself as a pseudo Saturday Night Fever electronic funk album. By contrast, his third album Anything in Return is much more energetic than his debut, but by no means as funky or bass driven as his last album. Instead, as Bundick declares, Anything in Return represents his attempt at a pop album.

He does a fantastic job at creating intricately illustrated mental images as evidenced on "So Many Details," which takes place on a Friday night with a special lady. He masterfully portrays his tingling sensation of anticipation as his mind wanders toward undoing the locks on her door and disappearing inside with her. Yet at the same time he is still trying to be a gentleman and respect his lady. His nobler instincts win out in the end, as he declares, "save yourself tonight, tomorrow I'll get you back."

One constant on all of Toro albums is its modern vibe; as expected, Anything in Return is sleek and sophisticated. This is music for the cool kids, providing the perfect soundtrack for cruising around with your friends on the way to some hip club. Standouts "Harm in Change" and "Say That" present a playground of smoky nighttime electronica; neon shapes and textures come whooshing out of the darkness, while a dazzling progression of piano chords ignite your brain's pleasure centers. "Say That" is boosted by a mesmerizing gaggle of wordless voices. If last year's Kindred EP from Burial had been warmer and more inviting,  it might have sounded something like this.

Most of the lyrics are pretty simple, focusing on boy girl relations or just relationships/friendships in general. "Never Matter" speaks most eloquently, touching on failed relationships and isolation: "I think I let my mind go wild/ and I think I'm on the verge of crying/ It's the fact I'm not closer/ to letting anyone inside my life. Bundick's voice is plaintive, but very mellow and listenable. He comes across as likable everyman who is easily relatable.

But he begins to lose steam as the album progresses. After a while, the heavy emphasis on production begins to take away from Bundick's intention of crafting compelling pop. Despite all the elaborately structured loops and layers, it's the chords more than anything else that drive the most successful cuts. Unfortunately, that only comes to full fruition on about half the songs.

"High Living," with Bundick's stunning octave switching, is the strongest cut after the opening  one-two-three punch. "Never Matter" and "How's It Wrong" are charming and engaging, while "Cake," with its strong 80s vibe, is one of the album's most danceable cuts.

That's not to say any of the songs are necessarily bad. The weakest moment comes on Cola, a repetitive  meandering track that suffers from an overload of low end frequencies  Yet Bundick misses a great deal of potential because he forgets the first lesson of pop music: it's done best when it's kept simple.

And so it was that Chaz Bundick created another listenable album, propped up by a few fantastic singles here and there. And yet, despite his well documented penchant for genre hopping, there is one other constant connecting all of Bundick's albums: he has yet to release an album that consistently holds up from start to finish.

Score: 77/100

Friday, January 18, 2013

Bad Religion still serving as model of consistency with True North

Over the last 30 years, Southern California punk rockers Bad Religion have become an institution. They have established themselves as one of the hardest working bands, never taking more than a few years off between records. Although they hit a period of decline starting in the mid 90s, most of their work since 2002's The Process of Belief has been as sure as a smoking solo sizzling off the strings of Brett Gurewitz's guitar. True North marks their 16th full length album, and once again they've opened a tantalizing bag of tricks for their fans.

True North avoids the pitfalls that some of their weaker albums have fallen into. When Bad Religion albums go awry, it's either because they're trying to churn out an overproduced  syrupy mess for the Warped Tour crowd, or else there isn't enough melody and it gets boring. The production on their latest album is more sugary than its predecessor, 2010's Dissent of Man, though True North holds the advantage of being more consistent.

Dissent of Man was a good record in its own right but it had a different tone from most of their recent works; it felt more like a melodic rock and roll record that just happened to politically conscious. True North gets back to the business of punk rock. The closest comparison within their discography would be Against the Grain. Pushing 50, Greg Graffin and crew don't possess the same level of anger they once did, but the sonic aggression and sense of urgency on True North bear strong parallels to the band's landmark 1990 release, Against the Grain.

As usual, Bad Religion exercise their penchant for well thought out, in your face political lyrics. "Robin Hood in Reverse" sees Graffin blasting the Supreme Court for their 2008 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which asserted that corporations are people and gave them wide latitude to make campaign contributions to political candidates.

"Past is Dead," meanwhile, takes the general public to task for their slovenly approach to education.  It discusses how people don't pay attention to history, and therefore don't have the advantage of historical precedent upon which to base their decisions. Graffin unloads: "Who can say what constitutes the most important sector of society?/ The dominant portion seek an instant gratification/ And are proud of intellectual poverty."

Yet in the same breath, Bad Religion are a band also capable of taking a much more subtle approach by speaking in thought provoking metaphor. The album's title track talks about trying to find a location on a map and using it as a metaphor for finding your own moral code. The catchy, driving and forceful delivery fully drives the point home.

Also of note is lead single "Fuck You," which basically says you don't always need a well thought out argument; sometimes you just need to say fuck you! The tempo varies throughout the song, tossing in a tasty guitar solo following a slow paced bridge.

"Hello Cruel World" is the album's sole slow tempo song, and by far the album's longest cut at just under four minutes. The slower pace allows the band to focus on their harmony section, an often overlooked component of Bad Religion's sound. It leads into a flowing guitar solo before the song's final refrain, with powerful clashes coming from drummer Brooks Wackerman near the end.

"Head Full of Ghosts," "In Their Hearts is Right," and "Popular Consensus" sound the most like old school Against the Grain or No Control era Bad Religion with their punishing and frenetic fury. "Popular Consensus" in particular is very intriguing, as Graffin seems to be modifying an old position that once seemed ironclad for him. He approaches matters from the government's position, asserting that just because the public demands something doesn't mean they are necessarily right. His claim that "popular consensus doesn't mean much to me" is evidence of dramatic development of thought for a man who once argued so forcefully for the role of citizen in government on 1987's "You Are the Government."

The biggest musical departure comes on "Dharma and the Bomb," a sun soaked retro tune which sees Gurewitz taking lead vocal, referencing I Dream of Genie and the Bhagavad Gita in his ominous lower register.

True North succeeds in all of the key areas a Bad Religion album needs to deliver, and should satisfy fans hungry for more. It presents a decided contrast to Dissent of Man, which was a much more thoughtful and mellowed out album. It would have been intriguing to see what the band could have accomplished had they pushed that sound further, though True North captures a well done take on the sound they've spent the better part of three decades championing.

Score: 82/100

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A$AP Rocky shows he's not to be trifled with on major label debut

Anyone who considers themselves a rap enthusiast must be encouraged by the influx of new talent streaming in. Harlem rapper Rakim Mayers, better known as A$AP Rocky, is making a strong push toward the front of the line. He's establishing himself in the industry the way many of his brethren are: with mixtapes. Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean, most notably, have presaged highly successful albums with independently released mixtapes. Most notable is Rocky's $3 million record deal with Sony/RCA subdivision Polo Grounds Music, the fruit of which is his full length debut, LongLiveA$AP.

One thing this album does not do is try to be intellectual. In strong contrast to recent albums predicated delivering sociopolitical messages, like Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music, or albums with strong thematic elements like Kendrick Lamar's Good kid m.A.A.D. city, Rocky's record doesn't make an effort to be lyrically deep. Rocky himself puts it best on album closer "Suddenly," declaring "don't view me as no conscious cat, this ain't no conscious rap/Fuck the conscious crap, my mac'll push your conscious back."

What LongLiveA$AP does do is display Rocky's boundless skill as a rapper. His delivery is loud, forceful and clear; he is able to spit rhymes with great rhythm and flow. It also serves as a great showcase piece for the youth rap movement. LongLiveA$AP rounds up most of the key names being shouted now within the indie community (with the obvious exception of the Odd Future collective).

But it doesn't take long to find Odd Future parallels. Album opener "Long Live A$AP" is an ominous and foreboding track that shows off Rocky's sense of paranoia. He asks, "who's that looking in my window with a pistol to my curtain?" With its stripped back beat and its introspective nature, it is reminiscent of Tyler, the Creator's "Yonkers." It features a surreal falsetto chorus that gets downright creepy near the end when a chorus of children's voices join in.

Lead single "Goldie" was a great choice as a teaser, as it highlights many of Rocky's critical strengths. The lyrics are not the most inventive of all time; it's mostly just him bragging. But the track succeeds not due to the subject matter, but because of how Rocky presents himself. He comes across as very focused, determined, and charismatic.It's not hard to believe he deserves the lavish praise, even though he's the one heaping it on himself. The flute beat is also great;  it gets out of the way and lets Rocky do his job but is distinctive enough to give a tangible coloring to the track. It makes Rocky feel outside the box and inventive, something many people disillusioned with the current state of rap are looking for.

Unfortunately, his penchant for unmemorable lyrics continues on the next track, "PMW (All I Really Need), which stands for pussy, money, weed. This is one of the most blatant, sexually explicit rap tracks since Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The verses have that sort of loud, in your face club quality that was best captured by Sean Paul. Schoolboy Q's guest appearance here is very effective,  as both rappers prove themselves as talented emcees. But lyrically however, there is no debating that this is one downright vulgar track.

One of the album's biggest strengths is that very few songs sound the same. On "Lvl" he mellows out considerably, slowing things down with a beat not unlike Aphex Twin's "Xtal," while "Hell" features Santigold sounding a bit like M.I.A. on the chorus hook. The song has a ravey beat, but it's slowed down and subdued to the point you wouldn't notice if you're not paying attention.It's like the record label wanted him to have a dancey club beat on a song, but he was embarrassed so he slowed it down and spliced it around hoping you wouldn't notice.

The seventh track, "Fuckin' Problems" is one of the most star studded on the album. 2 Chainz powers what is most certainly the catchiest hook on the album, while superstars Drake and Kendrick Lamar join Rocky in putting on a solid but not stellar performance  All three have dropped better verses in their career, and given the collection of talent one must wonder if they were more concerned with trying to wow their audience with name brand than they were with constructing the caliber of verses that won them name recognition in the first place. Yet even despite this, the song is still an easy album highlight.

Yet no track is more star studded than "1train," an effort that features so many guest rappers it would be too much to even list them all here. There is no hook, just six minutes highlighting the best up and coming talent in indie hip hop. The piece does an outstanding job of establishing the personality of each individual rapper, and in that regard it bears great similarity to Eminem's D12 pieces such as "Purple Hills" or "Under the Influence." All parties involved do a fantastic job, but honors for best verses go to Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, and Big K.R.I.T.

"Wild for the Night," featuring the always sensational Skrillex, is about as subtle as dropping a dishwasher on the listener's head. The real highlight, though, is Rocky's blistering spitfire verses. "Fasion Killa" is easily the lowlight of the album. His penchant for being fashion conscious  a common theme in many of his interviews, comes to full fruition here. He spends the entire time name dropping top shelf designers that no one outside of the Hamptons cares about or is impressed by. The lame hook doesn't help either.

Album closer "Suddenly" is the album's most startling song. It is very surreal, reflecting on how he went from living in the hood to all of a sudden being famous. The beat is almost nonexistent. In the background you have what sounds like TV cartoons from the 1950s playing, along with a chorus of singers from the the big band era. The first verse is slow and meandering but on the second verse he starts spitting faster and the effect, contrasted with the first verse, is pretty clever. Rocky has managed to bookend the album with two very mystifying, unsettling tracks.

Thinking back to the kids in high school who listened to Lil' John and Ludacris, it isn't hard to think their seventeen-year-old selves would be into something like this. However, to blanket lump him into this category would be selling Rocky short. LongLiveA$AP often sounds like it could be played at a club, without sounding specifically tailor made for that type of environment. He shows a great deal of creative potential, demonstrating that he can spit fast while mixing it up with a slew of mid-tempo tunes, and he often intersperses mellow R&B hooks throughout. He possess great command of his flow, while doing a supreme job of establishing a sense of personality.

But there is room for improvement. His lyrics could use some work, as the best of them do little to move rap forward and the worst are downright silly and sophomoric. He also has a tendency to rely on downpitched vocals too often, and some of the album drags. Ultimately, LongLiveA$AP  does not place him at the head of the young hip hop class, but does demonstrate he's a force to be reckoned with.

Score: 74/100

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Totally Unauthorized's Most Anticipated Albums of 2013

As satisfying as it is to close the page on another year, it's never too soon to start surveying what the new year will bring us. This year doesn't boast as impressive a list as the one we had at this time last year, but there are still more than a few heavy hitters primed to get music fans salivating. In no particular order:

Arcade Fire - TBA

Montreal indie rockers Arcade Fire can lay claim to having released one of the most revered albums of the previous decade with 2004's Funeral. But their contributions to the current decade are none too shabby either. 2010's The Suburbs was one of those rare albums that bridged the gap between the Pitchforky indie world and that of the mainstream, having snagged the coveted album of the year award at the Grammys in what was a colossal breakthrough for the entire independent universe. Few details have been unveiled about its encore, except that the band is aiming for a end of year release. It would be no surprise if it was an album that once again redefines the status quo.

Atoms for Peace - Amok
February 26

Radiohead's Thom Yorke has never been one to sit idly by. Following the mixed reception of 2011's King of Limbs, he's gotten back to work with a new side band, Atoms for Peace. But he's hardly the only heavy hitter involved in the project, which also includes Chili Peppers' bassist Flea and producer Nigel Goodrich. "Default," the album's lead single, indicates a very chill electronic vibe (not surprisingly), but its B-side, "Watch What the Eyeballs Did" exposes a bit more experimentation with a wall of brass horns providing a subtle mood and coloring, while an infectious bassline roars beneath. With this exotic lineup, Atoms for Peace seems primed to deliver one of the first big blows of 2013.

Nine Inch Nails  - TBA

Among the many accomplishments Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor can point to is that he popularized an entire genre of music and brought it to the mainstream with with a series of releases beginning in 1989 and culminating a decade later with The Fragile. He hasn't confined himself to Nine Inch Nails however. With his quality work with various side projects, as well as the praise he's garnered for his film score work, Reznor has established himself as a one of a kind mind in the music industry and cementing a place for himself within its annals. Now, it appears more NIN work is headed our way, possibly sometime around summer. It will be a point of great interest to see what direction Reznor's creative juices will flow following the band's hiatus that occurred after their supposed final tour in 2009.

My Bloody Valentine - TBA
Pretty much any day now

Remember Loveless by My Bloody Valentine? Remember how influential it was at the time, how dizzying it all was? How it summed up not just a genre, but an entire subset of a generation as a whole? Remember how they never followed it up? There's a good chance you don't. Many of today's hip youngsters weren't even born when that disc was released in 1991, but now the band is on the cusp of finally releasing new studio material. They've been deliberately opaque about an actual date or details, but perhaps that's fitting for a band that's been shrouded in the mist of history and expectations as My Bloody Valentine have been. The mastering stage is apparently complete, so it shouldn't be long before the band breaks its silence.

Steven Wilson - The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other Stories)
February 25

It takes no small level of trust to insert Mr. Wilson on this list, given that the last several releases he's been involved with are somewhat spotty, but he must be given his due. The announcement of the oddly titled "The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)" came as a bit of a surprise given that his last solo album, Grace For Drowning hit shelves just over a year ago. "The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)" will mark his third solo release in five years, and is said to focus on supernatural themes and lyrics. The 12 minute lead single "Luminol" is largely instrumental and is bolstered by a flowing infectious bassline, while offering a heavy helping of solos on almost every instrument imaginable. 

Bad Religion - True North
January 22

As a band that's been around since the Reagan era, Bad Religion have long ago cemented their principles. They helped reign in the era of pop punk that dominated the 90s and have stuck around long enough that most people aren't sure what constitutes punk today, or if it even still exists. What is certain is that the band's 2010 album, The Dissent of Man, was a tasty concoction consisting of driving melodic rock and roll complemented by politically conscious lyrics. The title song of True North has been issued as its lead single and promises more of the same.

Earl Sweatshirt - Doris

When they aren't grabbing critical acclaim they're at least grabbing headlines, and Odd Future isn't looking to let up in 2013. Since there's no telling when Tyler will deliver Wolf, or if it will be worth the wait, Earl Sweatshirt has positioned himself as Odd Future's best hope going forward. The 18-year-old rapper certainly has a lot on his mind, as evidenced by the introspective lead single "Chum." Earl's emergence has signified an infusion of new blood into hip hop, and his ideas are already shaking up the scene.

Autechre - Exai
March 4

Out of all their IDM contemporaries, Autechre have always been the most experimental, dissonant, and challenging. Often described as being heavily influenced by computers and technology, Autechre's output has often sounded like something you would physically have to be a computer to enjoy. However, the British duo have typically found a way to extract method from the madness, and the crackling cacophony tends to morph itself into something beautiful. There is no other artist on earth who does anything quite like Autechre and they'll be doing plenty of it in 2013, given the announcement that Exai will clock in at an astounding 2 hours.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - TBA
Spring 2013

Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been through quite an evolution. They started off with a very grimy, low key indie rock sound with an obvious Brooklyn flair, before morphing into the shimmering electro-pop found on 2009's It's Blitz! Not may details are known about their upcoming fourth full length album, but if Karen O is successfully able to work her magic once again it will be an extravaganza you won't be able to take your eyes off of.

A$AP Rocky - Long Live A$AP
January 15

The hype for A$AP Rocky has been building since his high profile signing with RCA in 2011, and has been riding the mixtape circuit while his fame and fanbase increases every day. He possesses a veteran presence and savvy on the mic that belies his youth, and his debut LP features plenty of today's best and brightest stars. Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Skrillex, and Big K.R.I.T. are but a few guest stars he's brought along. Add to that the hype Long Live A$AP has already garnered, including a best new music tag from Pitchfork, and it appears certain that this will be the first key release of 2013.

Orphaned Land - TBA

For Orphaned Land, it's been a long journey from their dusty black metal roots to progressive metal. For their fans, it's usually a long journey from one record to the next, as the acclaimed Israeli metal outfit usually takes about five or six years between albums. This time around, though, they appear to be bucking the trend, as recording has already commenced on the followup to 2010's The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR. That album snagged this site's album of the year award that year. The new album will be the first since the departure of guitarist Matti Svatizky, who left last year for what he termed as personal and professional reasons. Orphaned Land is aiming for a midyear release.