If one thing’s for sure, the production of this four-song EP by Knugu is damned impressive. Not one note or beat is out of place, and the vocals are well balanced with the instrumentation. However, if feels like there’s something missing here. The opening song “Getting Over You” has a nice melody and memorable chorus, but it seems to end far too soon. “Dark Angels” is delicate and crystalline in its guitar work, but lyrically it feels as if it’s running in place (beautiful background vocals, though). The vocals by Knugu on “Ad in Personals” sound a little too dramatic at times, and when he twists some of the notes at the ends of the words at times, it’s a little cringe-inducing. And “Running Back to You” sounds like a nice little flashback to the mid-‘80s. It’s pleasant enough, and the whole thing is supposed to depict “the life of a young American couple in the first decade of the 21st century,” but overall there’s not a lot to hang your hat on here. Perhaps a full-length release could fix this problem next time around. (Self-released)
John Paul has the sort of musical dynamic that runs through a lot of Paul Westerberg’s best solo stuff. The guitars have a nice twang to their tone, and the rhythms and attitude are very much like the former ‘Mats frontman. Vocally, Paul sounds like a really young Don McLean mixed with Ryan Adams’ rough edges. Very impressive, no matter how you cut it. “21” is a killer song, showcasing all of these elements. “Set Me Up” certainly swings more to the twangy side of the Ryan Adams pasture, and “Chameleon” sounds like a great, long lost song from early ‘90s college radio. Sometimes things get a little CMTV sounding, as on “.45,” which has great potential but almost becomes undone by its arrangement and lyrics. But a song like “Sleepless” quickly remedies that, where Paul’s formula works perfectly. It’s also on this song that he sounds like his own man, and it’s definitely a standout tune. The production is lush and with any luck, John Paul will soon be a recognized name with this nice collection of songs. (Self-released)
Whitley (a.k.a. Melbourne singer/songwriter Lawrence Greenwood) lies at the junction of Nick Drake, Paul Simon, and bedroom-electronic pop acts like the Postal Service and Cassettes Won’t Listen, and his debut effort, The Submarine, is filled with husky-voiced, mostly acoustic goodness for lovers of any of the above named artists. It’s an uncommonly assured debut, one that resists showiness in favor of gently catchy melodies and thinly layered arrangements. At first listen, The Submarine might sound like just another album of wispy navel-gazing from just another indie-pop songwriter, but give it time to sink in – there’s more going on here than may initially meet the ear. Greenwood has a gift for production, and a knack for grafting small, subtle bits onto his deceptively simple songs; plug in your favorite pair of earbuds, and you can easily get lost in the soundscapes he paints here. Toss in a cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Mojo Pin,” and you’ve got an undeniable magnet for the hoodies-‘n’-iPods set, but something with crossover appeal for fans of good old-fashioned singer/songwriter stuff. Whitley won’t kick your doors in, but if you sit still long enough, he just may end up becoming one of your favorite musical discoveries of the year. (Dew Process 2008)
Born in Ireland but a New York City transplant since 1992, Mark Geary has quietly worked below the radar while fashioning an eerily hypnotic musical motif. There’s always been something both confessional and contemplative about his material, a shadowy aura that casts him at a distance. With Opium, his fourth album, Geary takes steps to remedy that elusive stance, thanks to a set of songs that’s beautifully beguiling in its sensual, seductive appeal. The music is framed with his usual hushed ambiance, but it finds its footing in muted tones, plaintive vocals, gentle entreaties and wistful sentiments that soar with a quiet resolve. The delicately percolating rhythms of “See-Saw (Houpacka),” the kinetic urgency of “Not on Your Life” and the easy shuffle of “Tuesday” ensure a steady foundation rather than an aimless drift and an array of organic instruments – acoustic guitars, violins, clarinet, flute and piano – combine to create some lovely soundscapes. Ultimately, this Opium proves as addicting its title might imply. Sonablast Records
It stands to reason that when the bass player of a successful band opts to make a solo album, he’d choose not to compete with his day job. So you won’t find Murry Hammond following the lead of his longtime collaborator Rhett Miller and recording a solo set that suggests his regular gig with the Old 97s is a superfluous sideline. Despite its exhaustive title, I Don’t know Where I’m Going but I’m On My Way offers a rootsy respite, one that shares its foundation with the Old 97s’ alt-country core, albeit at a more essential level. In fact, there’s more than a hint of Johnny Cash in these meditations and ruminations on mortality, spirituality, the railroad and the hereafter. Hammond takes a solemn and scholarly approach to these themes, and if some seem rather solemn and austere, the heartland authenticity remains true to tradition. Happily too, there’s enough sentiment stirred in the folk-like flourish of “In The Shadow of Clinch Mountain,” “Wreck of the 97” and “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad” to provide compelling listening, with acoustic guitar, banjo, harmonium, yodeling and whistling ensuring authenticity. It all adds up to an impressive solo foray and one that also ought to raise the worth of his stock in his regular band as well. (Hummingbird 2008)
Detroit’s biggest indie-rock act in terms of popularity is the White Stripes, but the city’s biggest-sounding group has to be the Silent Years. The group is technically a five-piece, but they certainly aren’t shy in asking others to join in, with over a dozen people being credited as “performers” in the liner notes of their sophomore album The Globe (and that doesn’t include the horn section, who are billed as an ensemble). Not surprisingly, The Globe is a epic-sounding record, with arching guitar riffs accompanying omnipresent keyboard melodies and driving beats while backing singers and the previously mentioned horn section wait in the wings ready to flood your speakers at a moment’s notice. Amazingly, no matter what the Silent Years try to do, they pull it off. When they’re trying guitar-driven rock (“Climb on My Back”) it works, when they get crazy with percussion and keyboards (“Goddamn You!”) it works, and even when they kick it down-home country-style (“Black Hole”), it works. Some might say that they need to tighten up a bit and pick a sound, but why? Sure, there may be a lot going on with The Globe – but it’s all good. (First Date Records 2008)
Sunfold is a unique band. Not musically, actually – in that regard they are quite average. No, Sunfold is unique because while they are technically a side project of the Annuals, the two bands’ lineups are entirely identical. The only difference between the bands is that Adam Baker and Kenny Florence have switched places, so the drummer is now the singer/guitarist and vice versa. Some may consider the move brave and unique; others (like me) consider it a cop out and cowardly. The Annuals could have released this CD as themselves, but they probably knew that their incredibly jaded, ultra-pretentious fan base wouldn’t have liked it (because it doesn’t sound like Broken Social Scene), so instead they released it under a different name. Now the same crowd that would have most likely slammed the group for abandoning their carbon copy indie-rock sound will now most likely embrace Toy Tugboats, even though it’s nothing more than a mediocre collection of guitar-driven pop songs. If any other band had released Toy Tugboats it would have gotten no attention at all, because quite frankly it doesn’t deserve it. There are few good songs here; the psychedelic “Gnosis” and the electronic-infused “Gorgée de Rubis” are both worthwhile, but most of the album is utterly forgettable and bland. Sadly, trying to explain the relationship between Sunfold and the Annuals is far more interesting and complicated than either of their records. (Terpsikhone 2008)
Okay, look…I like Joy Division. I really do. But as a people, we need to move on. Following in the steps of Editors, Interpol and She Wants Revenge, Chapters is the latest in an increasing number of bands who believe that Joy Division is a genre of music. Throughout their five-track EP Wife , the band clings to the memory of Ian Curtis like a noose clinging to a neck of a strung-out rock star. Snare-heavy mixes, grinding guitars and intense snarky vocals are all present in spades. And if getting hung up on a singular band for your sound wasn’t enough, they also stick to the common Joy Division themes of broken relationships and broken love. But while Curtis was fond of self-loathing, Chapters seem to project their despair and the result almost comes of as misogynistic at worst or just annoying and whiny at best. Find another late 70s/early 80s British act to crib. guys. How about Ian Dury & the Blockheads? We need more of that. (Chapters 2008)
Leave it to New York’s Morningwood to make another video that stands out from the pack. “Nth Degree” was an instant classic with its references to album covers past, but their latest clip, “Sugarbaby,” goes in a different direction. Three words: sex with puppets.
All right, this version doesn’t actually show any puppet sex, but there is a quick cut that suggests the guy in the limo was about to receive a happy ending, if you know what I mean. And psssst: if you go to the YouTube page this video is on, you’ll see a link to the uncensored video. Haven’t watched it yet, myself. I just ate lunch.
Can’t get enough Morningwood? You’re in luck – they’re on Letterman tonight. And they don’t even have an album to promote yet. They’re still in the studio. Hurry the hell up, guys.
Trey McGriff is Hills Rolling, and on his second album under the moniker he has not only made one of the most compact releases of the year (nine tracks at 27 minutes), but also one of the most enjoyable. Opening track “I Wake Up” instantly reminds one of a great old Lou Reed tune, with its two-chord verse structure before melting down into a tasty, beautiful bridge. “Need It” is all retro and fuzzed-out with its garage band riffage – a new dose of Nuggets for the new generation. “Nothing Like Good Times” treads into Teenage Fanclub territory with its pretty acoustic guitars and lyrical pursuits. “Aditude” is electric, danceable, and just plain good rocking fun. McGriff is never flashy or tries anything he can’t. This is fun, smart pop that anyone can enjoy. Certainly one of the best DIY indie releases to come around in a while. Snap it up now, please. (Whiskey Child Records)