As a self-professed anglophile and fiancee to one very cheeky Brit, I certainly appreciate the many aspects of our wry, Founding Fathers. From stodgy meals, statuesque cathedrals and sublime music, England is a nation enriched in all aspects: cuisine, culture and most importantly, creativity.
My most recent English example? Indie/blues/rock/soul/funk mash-up musicians known as The Heavy.
Hailing from Britain’s rain-sopped turf are The Heavy; four very talented lads who emerged onto the music scene circa early 2000s. Their most notable song, “How You Like Me Now?” has been featured in countless adverts, movies and video game trailers (and was the first tune that sparked my fan frenzy).
The Heavy reeks of rawness. They’re uncut and unparalleled artists who perform as well at gigs as they do on VEVO. I would know; I’ve frequented three of their concerts within the past two years, and have yet to be disappointed.
While The Heavy is relatively under-the-radar, their undeniable talent is worthy of high accolade. Take a peek at the ghoulish video for their new single, “Can’t Play Dead,” and let us know your take on this British, bass-heavy/bad-ass band.
RIYL: Dirty Projectors, David Bowie, anything on Kompakt
Though he may be more known for his role in indie rock supergroup the New Pornographers, Dan Bejar has been enticing people into his strange world for the past 15 years via Destroyer. Backed by a frequently rotating cast of band members, Bejar uses Destroyer to craft his own brand of avant-pop-rock, unmistakable to anyone who has ever heard it. Over the course of nine albums, he weaves tales of numerous women, told in a hybrid of speech-yelp-singing with non-sequiturs, dense, visually striking metaphors (so dense someone created a Wiki for them), and references to his own body of work. So what happens when you’ve spent 15 years basically perfecting your own genre? What happens when what starts out as weird suddenly becomes the standard? With Kaputt, Destroyer’s ambitious tenth album, Bejar proves he can still make us question our notions of normality and taste.
When he serenades someone in “Blue Eyes” with the line, “Your first love’s New Order,” Bejar surely must be speaking of himself, because with the heavy synths, the saxophone and the female backing vocals that flutter throughout Kaputt, he seems to be unleashing his inner ‘80s. But, as tacky and oppressive as those reference points can be, under Bejar’s particular guidance, they are transformed into something delicate, as though he accidentally played dance records at half-speed and heard something he liked.
The first half of “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” would make a decent soundtrack for footage of outer space. It opens with slow, steady synths, various sounds floating in and out of the background, such as a quiet guitar riff, light chimes, and what sounds like someone breathing. The song shifts drastically about half-way through, when some relative of the flute jumps in, followed by Bejar’s voice, cautioning, “Fool child, you’re never gonna make it / New York City just wants to see you naked, and they will / Though they’d never say so.” By the time the backing vocals arrive, one might conjure an image of Bejar in a white suit, performing at a hotel somewhere in Hawaii with a Robert Palmer-style all-woman band.
Though it arrives at the end of the album, “Bay of Pigs” serves as the obvious transition piece between Kaputt and Destroyer’s earlier works. Loosely relating to the 1961 invasion of Cuba, Bejar built an EP around it last year. In its original form, “Bay of Pigs” was over 13 minutes long. In its slightly trimmed down length, the 11-minute opus still finds time to transition from droning ambience to scaling blips that sound like they could come from an early Nintendo game, to the guitar-based avant-pop sound he became known for, complete with hand claps. It was around “Bay of Pigs” that Bejar’s record label, Merge, coined the term “ambient disco,” which is the most apropos classification for anything off of Kaputt.
Take off one of those Ts, and Kaputt becomes “kaput,” which means to incapacitate, break, ruin, or destroy. Knowing Bejar’s self-referential tendencies, it could be that he found a cheeky way to create a self-titled album. But with the new direction he’s embarking on, it speaks more fittingly to the ways he is destroying the Destroyer of the past, killing his old sound to create something new. (Merge 2011)
RIYL: The Kooks, Dogs Die in Hot Cars, The Futureheads
Those coming to the Law via their international exposure on the soundtrack to “The Men Who Stare at Goats” might be a bit surprised when they listen to the rest of the album. Whether that is a pleasant surprise or not will simply be a matter of taste. A Measure of Wealth is just that, a little slice of energetic indie rock that begs the question whether a band from Dundee Scotland would be insulted to be called Brit-pop. Whatever their feelings, their influences are clearly ’80s and ’90s Brit-pop, more on the Blur side of the tracks than Oasis. They lack the Trad-rock elements of the Gallagher brothers, though the album was recorded at Sawmills Studios, the studio that gave birth to Definitely Maybe. This isn’t what you might expect after the lead track “Don’t Stop, Believe” (which is also found on the aforementioned soundtrack) comes blasting out like a Wolfmother lead. Full on blues-based hard rock, with Robert Plant-like wailing in the background, “Don’t Stop, Believe” is pedal-to-the-metal music, and nothing like what follows.
As track one grinds down into a single Hammond chord, the album transforms and we are greeted with a heavily Pulp-influenced tune called “The Chase,” which truly sets the tone for everything to follow. The Pulp influence resurfaces in riffs and refrains throughout, but halfway through, on “Television Satellite” they drop any subtlety to wrap themselves fully in the glam-influence and swirling guitars of the biggest heroes of Brit-pop, Suede. More than a few tracks would have been right at home on an album like Coming Up, and this is a good thing. All in all, the Law have created a romp of an album, one that should be shuffled into any discerning college student’s party mix. So, while anyone looking for more stoner rock based on the opening track might be disappointed, A Measure of Wealth is a solid, energetic debut that shouldn’t be overlooked. (Local Boy Records 2010)
RIYL: Dinosaur Jr., Foo Fighters, The Replacements
In the Dark starts out by rolling over you with a wall of guitars that, far from dissonant and buffeting, instead envelops you like the wind before a promising storm, and like some great thunder, the Whigs continue to prove they are an experience not to be missed.
Coming off their well-received second album, Mission Control, and a series of acclaimed live shows (not the least of which was a standout performance at the 2008 SXSW), it is evident that the hard core touring and energetic playing has only invigorated their songwriting. In the Dark is the Whigs’ best album yet, and one that engages from beginning to end.
The album is power rock, through and through, but it never forgets that melody and rhythm shouldn’t be sacrificed for that power. It is the same for the lyrics, as throughout Parker Gispert is clearly singing from those hidden places where anger and regret fester, but he refuses to either rage or mope. There is as much a sense of resolute energy as anything, even when he sings “Kill Me Carolyn” or questions his lust for “Someone’s Daughter.”
Most of the album openly embraces their primary influence, the more hard-rocking post punk of the Replacements (most evident on “Automatic” and “So Lonely,” with no little bit of the Godfathers thrown in there on the title track and the opening “Hundred/Million.” The production is just tight enough and the arrangements original and lush enough to push it beyond any assumed imitation, and the first five tracks are solid Whigs.
Then, just when it feels like you have a handle on the album, they throw you a hard curve right in the middle. “Dying” comes on and everything shifts into a heavy rhythmic chant full of psychedelic influences. It tosses you into dark places only hinted at up until now. That is the flow of the album. An energetic, but evident descent into the viscera of the music, but then the steady, strong drive that leads us back out; an inverted emotional parabola that never slows, but never lets us off the ride, either. Check out “I Am for Real” as the perfect catharsis moment.
In the Dark ends with a mini-jam session of a song, “Naked,” at times minimalist and echoing, while at others a pulsing rocker. It is one of the more inventive and original works that lets the Whigs flaunt their talent, energy and idiosyncrasies.
Check out In the Dark. It is one of the better albums to come along so far this year, and it should win them new fans while pleasing their faithful. Listen loud! ATO Records 2010
Sometimes great singers try a bit too hard to prove that they’re great. April Smith is not one of those singers. The arrangements on her latest and most impressive album Songs for a Sinking Ship fit her sultry voice like a glove and her songwriting is both playful and intellectual. April Smith is clearly capable of controlling the whole circus when it comes to vocal acrobatics but possesses the restraint to allow each song to shine as bright as her ability.
After numerous listens, I’ve yet to find a track that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. A standout track on Songs for a Sinking Ship is “Wow and Flutter” which combines semi-dark theatrics with a refrain that could have found a home on a Ratt record. Odd, I know, but it totally works. Additionally, the closer “Stop Wondering” is easily the most delightful “fuck you” to a former lover ever recorded.
Aside from her glowing talent behind the mic and the pen, she’s clearly figured out the business side of things as well. She used kickstarter.com and her ever-growing fan base (acquired from near constant touring over the past few years) to fund this release. We always hear stories of bands collecting cash online to fund their latest projects but many of those bands were once privileged enough to receive that initial “major label” push. April did it her way from the start and we can only hope that in the years to come she will be recognized as the fearless trailblazer that she is.
There are no gimmicks on Songs for a Sinking Ship. Only great writing and performing which is a very welcome change of pace from your typical release. You’re going to want to sing along with April Smith but you had better stretch out before attempting it or you will most certainly hurt yourself. (Little Roscoe 2010)