Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Zachary James & the All Seeing Eyes - Space Case (2013)

Back in 1973, when David Bowie introduced Ziggy Stardust to the world, Ziggy was a character, a persona that Bowie temporarily occupied like a role in a Drury Lane stageplay, and something easily discarded once audience expectations became too high. Since that time the world's seen all manner of similar tactics and pop chameleons, to the point that we barely expect our precious rock gods to be anything other than cracked actors biding their time until they can cash out. Which makes Zachary James and the All Seeing Eyes' new album seem as unlikely as it is thrilling, because exactly 40 years after Zig's rock & roll suicide, they've reanimated that alien critter's spangly corpse and dragged it mule-kicking and screaming into the new millennium.

Which isn't to say Space Case sounds like Bowie, because it doesn't. It sounds like the album the character Ziggy might make, with lyrics of sci-fi romance and more nods to T.Rex than Bowie (and more to the Stones than either). Subsequently, it also embraces the glam dichotomy, the inherent contradiction of an androgynous future utopianism juxtaposed with the music's desire to search and destroy (to wit: just check the distance traveled between "Soul Love" and "Suffragette City" on the original artifact). With Space Case, James makes those two opposing poles obvious and distinct. The entirety of Side A, for example, is a much more direct and guileless proclamation of romantic love than any of the authentic glitter dudes ever waxed. "My Planet is Red (Your Planet is Blue)." a duet with Alexandra Starlight, practically oozes domestic bliss, and "Little Girl From Mars" is, its title notwithstanding, a fairly straightforward love song. Only "I'm Not Alone," with James' Joey Ramone drawl grafted on to a T.Rex choogle, challenges the languid pace of the first four tracks. 

Side B, on the other hand, mostly gives up the romance and gives in to the impulse to rock. It's the opposite side of the coin, and the Rolling Stones are all over this side. It's an interesting stylistic choice, not so much because of the influence - which has always been part of James' sound - but because of the thematic repercussions. Let's face it, the Stones have typically (at their best) been fueled by an unapologetic, almost malevolent, macho heterosexuality (along with a flirtation with misogyny), which collides face-first with the romantic idealism of Space Case. James seems to intrinsically understand the contradiction, allowing his stomper "Outta Space" to organically drift into the unmistakable riff from "Satisfaction" before zooming off into its own boogie orbit. Similarly, "Starpeople," a hook-filled rocker built on a solid Chuck Berry foundation and neo-hippy sentiments, blatantly steals its chorus from "Star Star" as if attempting to offer a spiritual apologia for the  awesome petulance of that great Stones classic. The comparatively low-key slow burn of "That's Just Life" exists between those two tracks like a palate cleanser.

And then, at the end of it all comes "Runnin' Outta Tyme," a propulsive mid-tempo groover with a spectacularly seductive riff. More than any other song here, this track suggests James can have it both ways. It reconciles his desire for utopian positivity with his need to just kick out the jams (muthafugga), and subsumes those warring urges into a single tension-filled entity. It's pure pop drama, befitting the original concept of the Zigster himself. But Zachary James is no mere character. He's the living embodiment. The leper messiah with glitter on his cheek. And maybe he takes it too far but (you know the drill), boy, can he play guitar.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Bamboo Kids - Safe City Blues (2013)

Four years after their last transmission (and seven since their last full-length), the Bamboo Kids show up with their very own London Calling.  Twenty-one songs (with 9 bonus tracks accompanying the digital download), chockful of everything these guys can think of, which amounts to a glorious sprawl of punk rock, Stones licks, pianos, horns, hooks and gutter wisdom. Songs like "Dumb for Life"  power through on sheer adrenaline, while "Batshit Crazy" chews on an Exploding Hearts bubblegum melody and "Privacy" jumps on top of a 50s rock & roll strut. Singer/guitarist Dwight Weeks wields his guitar as if he's spent equal amounts of time listening to Keith Richards and Johnny Thunders (and moments like the muscular lead that explodes out of "The Most Important Rule" suggest a Mick Ronson influence as well). The various keyboards, from pounding 88s to droning roller rink organ, coupled with the wise-ass strain in Weeks' vocals conjure up the days when Mott the Hoople was attempting to draw a line between Dylan and Jerry Lee Lewis. This is seriously on that level.  Safe City Blues presents a band with all the right influences wearing those influences on their collective sleeve, playing their hearts out, all while being fully aware of the futility of taking a stance like this in 2013. I tell ya, it ain't nothing but heroic.

Bamboo Kids at Drug Front Records

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Waves of Fury - Thirst (2012)

The conceptual conceit of dark, scuzzy punk rock goosed by classic Stax/Volt horns is enough to make me do happy backflips. Forget that it’s an idea mostly borrowed from the Saints, because a) the Saints left it alone after Prehistoric Sounds found nothing but audience indifference, and b) it’s a totally great idea that MUST NOT DIE. So here’s Waves of Fury, pulling it off like they thought of it themselves, and even though the ultra-amateur vocals do their utmost to kill the whole enterprise, there’s still enough drama, tension, chaos, and future promise to keep me listening and loving.

Waves of Fury on iTunes

Oh Mercy - Deep Heat (2012)

Oh Mercy wunderkind Alexander Gow makes his move on this album, and it’s a move that will have fans of his previous output scratching their heads. Gow has deep sixed the touches of power pop and delicate acoustic minstrelsy of old – or at least buried ‘em deep - and instead he’s jumped headfirst into a strangely singular brand of, I dunno, let’s call it dance pop. The beat is big, horns litter the landscape, and groove usurps hooks as a song’s primary focus. It took me a long time to get my head around it. I kept waiting for a trademark Oh Mercy irresistible chorus – and the precocious little fucker never gives it up. He makes you work for it, makes you find your own way in. For me, the entrance came late one night, tired and alone, drinking a Manhattan, the hazy glow of the city spread out below, and suddenly the way “My Man” cribs the horn line from Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug” made perfect sense. The rest of it all clicked into place. And now there’s no going back, for any of us.

Oh Mercy on iTunes

Erin Costelo - We Can Get Over (2012)

An album that didn’t win me over at first, a miscalculation I attribute to the second song, “Count to 10”, which is an annoyingly chipper ditty that sounds like a kissing cousin to Alvin & the Chipmunks. Minus that confection, We Can Get Over is remarkably assured adult pop that looks back at the days when Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick were hitting the Top 30 charts. Costelo possesses a voice that’s both airy and soulful, and it’s the latter quality that imbues these songs with the emotional weight to resonate beyond the melodic hooks. The arrangements meld Memphis soul to cosmopolitan 60s mod pop, and Costelo’s vocals float above the band, although always at the service of the song itself, employing tasteful restraint instead of soaring into the American Idol brand histrionics that beckon. And it keeps growing on me with every spin. Just as long as I skip that one song.

Erin Costelo on Amazon

Nick Waterhouse - Time's All Gone (2012)

Unapologetically retro, Nick Waterhouse starts with a foundation of 50s rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues, tosses in some soul and a modern eye to cool, and comes up with something that struts more than it rocks. Probably sounds best in a small dingy club rather than a concert hall too. Waterhouse’s reedy vocals and twangy geetar hold their own charm, but it’s the way he uses the horn section to propel the momentum - a honking, unstoppable groove that steamrollers all resistance - that pushes this album over the top for me.

Nick Waterhouse on Amazon

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Yukon Blonde - Tiger Talk (2012)

The word lush has been as misused by our modern rock journo ignorati as much as bombastic and angular, but it’s a fairly accurate description of Yukon Blonde. It’s not just that the production possesses a rich depth, it’s the way the band piles harmonies on top of harmonies. A song like “Oregon Shores” starts fairly sparsely, but by the time the hook of the chorus kicks in the entirety is bathed in so much harmonic bliss it’s almost hard to take. This is what Fleet Foxes might sound like if they had a pulse instead of emulating the stillborn dullness of Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Yukon Blonde reaches for Brian Wilson as if Brian Wilson hadn’t got scared of rock music and negative ions.

Yukon Blonde on Amazon

Nude Beach - II (2012)

Sure, they sound like a buncha kids trying to play “Born to Run” by memory after hearing it only once on an older brother’s eight track, but that’s where most of the charm emanates from. These guys harbor dreams that are big, huge even, so big they can’t possibly realize ‘em, which makes this a classic case of reach exceeding grasp, which in turn somehow adds up to magic, because they so clearly know what they want but can’t help but splay noise and mess all over these pop readymades. Not sure what’ll happen when they’re good enough to play ‘em the way they hear ‘em, probably something like Marah (poor fuckers), and I’ll probably still like them, just not quite as much.

Nude Beach on Bandcamp

Archie Powell & the Exports - Great Ideas in Action (2012)

Sometimes it’s all in the details. Archie Powell may not challenge the poppunkrockwhatever paradigm in any meaningful way, but he does manage to inject these songs with his unerring sense of dynamics. Sometimes, like on “I Need Supervision,” he’ll keep his foot off the gas until the 2nd chorus. Other times, like on “Metronome,” he’ll withhold the climactic hook until the song’s time is ticking down to near zero. And what’s remarkable is how those tiny twists pay off in such big ways, how effectively they sink in after repeated plays. If you wanted, I guess you could argue that it’s a case of craft over art (although I wouldn’t), but it’s doubtful anyone could argue that this is an extremely high level of craft.

Archie Powell on Amazon

Salim Nourallah - Hit Parade (2012)

There’s really no use fighting that this album will get filed under the power pop category, but there’s much more to it than that modifier suggests. Nourallah knows his way around the Beatles-esque hook, no doubt, but he also knows how to play against that hook with surprising arrangement touches. Opener “38 Rue de Sevigne” starts as a soft ballad, but flashes of electricity playfully interrupt, portending its eventual acceleration. The witty character sketch “Travolta” openly hints at disco during the verses, then gives way to power chords at the chorus. “Goddamn Life” uses a circular guitar riff as both a thematic motif and its melodic hook. Every song holds some kind of subtle invention that rewards repeated listening. And as much as Nourallah is a craftsman of pristine pop, here he’s also surrounded himself with a band that doesn’t mind tracking a little mud on the carpet. The end result is fairly magical: power pop that transcends its own genre.

Salim Nourallah on Amazon

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Needles//Pins - 12:34 (2012)

The brittle concision of Pink Flag meets the pure pop instincts of Singles Going Steady, and the fact both of those references come from the top of the class of ’77 is no mistake. These guys tap into a similar redefinition of rock moozik fundamentals as that first wave’s urge to kill the king. There’s no fat here. It’s all been trimmed down to their own singular vision of pop essentials. Vocals bark out hooks while guitars grind out their own, and it all tumbles out in an exuberant rush that’s over before you can settle on the couch.

Needles//Pins on Bandcamp

My Jerusalem - Preachers (2012)

Maybe a whole new brew of “cosmic American music,” incorporating strains that didn’t yet exist back when Gram Parsons was first coining the term. I hear the expected melodic folk and rootsy Americana in this soup, but they’re boiling in a mishmash with the smooth gloom of 80s goth and the noisy clamor of 90s alt.rock. That’s a gumbo I ain’t never even smelled before, let alone tasted. Their debut last year was similarly schizo, but nowhere near so clearly the work of a single artistic vision (possible kudos to the production of Spoon’s Jim Eno, but probably more to do with the simple math of time x distance), and that makes all the difference.

My Jerusalem on Amazon

Friday, January 11, 2013

Ian Hunter - When I'm President (2012)

In a year that tossed accolades at the geriatric set, further lionizing the likes of Neil, Bruce, Van, and (that charlatan of charlatans) Dylan, the one old guy who truly delivered has been roundly ignored. Hunter is over 70 years old, and here he’s put out the album I would’ve hoped the Stones to make as a follow-up to Exile. Profound, pissed off, and still plugged in to the r’n’r source, he also benefits from having an actual touring band rather than an assemblage of session musos. They don’t simply back him up, they step on his toes and elbow for space. Hunter’s Achilles Heel remains his penchant for the same tune-challenged ballad he’s been writing since “Trudy’s Song” derailed The Hoople (although his apparent insistence on hideous album covers is perhaps an even bigger weakness), but he keeps those moments down to a minimum, instead concentrating on the kind of surging rockers he’d mostly abandoned after Mick Ronson tragically skipped out on his mortal coil. Easily his best since ’78.

Ian Hunter & the Rant Band on Amazon

Foxy Shazam - Church of Rock and Roll (2012)

I didn’t know how to take this at first, then realized that’s a function of the band’s genius. Lead singer Eric Nally is equal parts Freddy Mercury and Andy Kaufman, and in concert the band behind him is capable of the kind of clowning that can upstage their frontman at any given moment, but on record the obvious weapon is the songwriting. As well as these guys can play (in at least two definitions of the word), they also manage to write songs brimming with hooks, intelligence, power, sensitivity, vulgarity and outright weirdness, each one better than the last, and all polished to a professional sheen. I can stand back and laugh at it all from a distance of detached irony, or I can get sucked into the moment, helpless to resist the pop drama in every 3 minute over-the-top opera they concoct. Either and both. Genius.

Foxy Shazam on Amazon

Blackfoot Gypsies - On The Loose (2012)

Don’t look here for anyone re-inventing the wheel. Instead, it’s all about looking at that worn-out old radial and realizing what a miracle of perfection that simple shape represents. This is yet another guitar ‘n’ drums duo, a configuration that has been abused a fair amount since you-know-who (White) and you-know-what (Black), but Blackfoot Gypsies mostly stay away from blooze and instead stick to rollicking party R&B, sounding a whole lot like ’65 Dylan fronting ’65 Stones (although occasionally breaking out the Ronnie Lane “Ooh La La”-style ballad). Yeah, you’ve heard it before, but you’ve also seen the hero’s journey a million times before and yet you’re still gonna line up for that next super hero flick at the multiplex, arncha? Some things are just part of human DNA. Might as well appreciate it when it’s done right.

Blackfoot Gypsies on Bandcamp

The Pilgrims - It's Not Pretty (2012)

Roughly a zillion bands have worshipped at the stained altar of the Replacements in the last couple decades, and maybe five of them have even come close to matching the glory of their ragged idols. It’s the contradictory vectors that give most bands (and casual fans) the trouble, because the ‘Mats simultaneously distrusted success even while they held ambitions of immortality. The Pilgrims somewhat miraculously contain that same magic dichotomy. It’s Not Pretty sounds like it took as long to record as it took the band to run through a first take, and at the same time it sounds like a buncha guys putting it all on the line, reaching for the moon and stars, and taking a shot at greatness. For anyone who still believes in that stuff of old dreams, it’s like getting a hit from a defibrillator.

The Pilgrims on Bandcamp

Wanderlust - Record Time (2012)

One of the 90s most criminally neglected bands (although that’s a long list) reunited for this master class on power pop. First single “Lou Reed” is perfection manifest; a muscular riff gives way to a plaintive verse that builds to a soaring chorus, and by the time of the final fade-out all you wanna hear next is this same song all over again. That fact that almost every song on the album comes close to a similar quality pretty much ensures that Wanderlust will be included on that even longer list of criminally neglected bands in the ‘10s.

Wanderlust on Amazon