Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ladies and gentlemen, the fabulous Top 11 of 2014!

What a difference a year makes.  Twelve months ago I was bellyachin' about having a difficult time coming up with even SEVEN records to be passionate about.  Well, 2014 doubled-down and served up a damned bonanza of musical ecstasy.  I'll get out of the way and let the music do the talking...hang on, because this one goes to 11!

1.      Sugar Stems – Only Come Out At Night
This year’s album of the year came from nowhere and rode a wave of buzzsaw guitars, melodic organ and powerful female vocals directly into sugar-pop nirvana. Straight outta Wisconsin, Sugar Stems’ latest is a veritable feast of melodic goodness and singer Betsy Heibler’s gale-force voice, like a stronger and brasher Belinda Carlisle, is a goddamned thing of beauty. The whole thing is a sweetly tart treat, and if the title track isn’t used to soundtrack a “rebellious teens driving around LA at night” scene, Hollywood has failed.  Hands down, my most played album this year, and I cannot wait to see what the group does next!

2.      Matthew Ryan – Boxers
It’s inspiring to see a rock lifer put out the finest album of his career 17 years in, and “Boxers” is a helluva record!  Ryan forgoes the acoustic-based treatments of his last several albums, cranks up the guitars and makes a glorious noise. Producer and secret-weapon guitarrorist Keven Salem allows this passionate set of songs to breathe and roar, highlighting the beautiful universality of Ryan’s personal, detailed narratives. If your heart doesn’t race at the emotional and sonic rush of “An Anthem For the Broken”, I pity you and hope your soul finds solace in whatever Maroon 5 record you play to cry yourself to sleep. 

3.      Bob Mould – Beauty & Ruin
Uncle Bob is clearly hitting his stride and follows-up 2012’s excellent “Silver Age” with a collection that is as sonically bracing and far more emotional.  Sounding like the 4th album Sugar never made, “Beauty & Ruin” finds Mould working through loss the only way he knows how…via the sharp bite of his Fender strat and the rockfuckingsolid backing of bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster.  Rockers “Kid With Crooked Face” and “Hey Mr. Grey” show the kids just how much howl a 50-something can bring to the table.  Another stunner in a career lousy with them.

4.      Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else
It takes a lot of life lived for a 24 year old to sing with this type of conviction.  Lydia Loveless’ latest is the alt country album that Fleetwood Mac never made, coked-up drunk dials and reminders that sometimes the sex has to be good to keep a relationship in line. Loveless owns her sexuality and heartbreak, and while purists and longtime fans may bemoan the smoother textures, the dusky and downright sexy production and songs match Loveless’ voice like a glove…the kind that just might slap you if you are naughty (or beg for it well enough!)

5.      Swans – To Be Kind
It takes cojones to follow up a beloved double-album with another two-disk set, but Swans has never been shy in the balls department.  The fact that “To Be Kind” is EVEN BETTER than the masterful dark thrum of 2012’s “The Seer” is a testament to the genius and songcraft of Michael Gira.  Realizing that the only way forward is to give the music hips, Gira and co (and a coterie of guest vocalists) add groove to their sonic assault and finally capture on wax the violent beauty of their legendary live shows.  

6.      Sweet Apple – The Golden Age of Glitter
There is a temptation to view any band that numbers J Mascis among its members as “Dinosaur Jr., Jr.” but Sweet Apple’s second record is clearly John Petkovic’s baby.  Ten songs packed with power-pop deliciousness and shot through with the most gorgeous vocals of Petkovic’s career, “The Golden Age of Glitter” plays like a fab radio station that you catch while passing through some godforsaken part of the country on a long, solitary ride.  You may not recognize all of the songs, but it just FEELS right.  Perfectly under-thought and joyously beautiful.

7.      Split Single – Fragmented World
Jason Narducy has been holding down the low end for so many indie rock luminaries (Bob Mould, Superchunk, Bob Pollard) for so long that it’s almost shameful to have forgotten what a damn fine songwriter he is!  Backed by Jon Wurster and Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Narducy’s Split Single released the debut record we didn’t realize we needed: melodic, urgent, unassuming, and filled with fully-formed paeans to everyday life.  A nice reminder of his estimable abilities and hopefully a first step back into the spotlight for one of the 90s’ most underappreciated songwriters.

Ween is dead, long live Aaron Freeman!   After falling into the throes of addiction and out of step with the band (and best friend) he had since he was a teen, it was easy to think that Freeman (the person) would be yet another casualty of the rock n roll lifestyle and that perhaps his finest days were behind him (a Rod McKuen tribute record?  REALLY?!?). FREEMAN the band firmly establishes that this is the second act that he deserves.  Full of the wit and charm that imbued the finest Ween songs, this is a “recovery” record in the finest sense of the word.  It’s heartening to see that a talent as robust as Freeman’s can reclaim his spark and create something as deliciously weird in sobriety as this record.

9.      Afghan Whigs – Do To The Beast
Reunion records stink.  Reunion records with only a couple of original members are usually downright awful.  So, how in the hell did Greg Dulli and John Curley (the only two members left standing from the Afghan Whigs 90’s heyday) create an album that is not only NOT an embarrassment but that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with their other records?!?  Make no mistake, Rick McCollum’s hinky, sideways leads are missed throughout, but these songs exhibit that unmistakable, swinging wallop that is embedded in the DNA of their finest material. Dulli’s dirtysexycool croon has aged into quite a nuanced instrument, wrapping seductively around gems like the brilliant “Can Rova” and the frighteningly powerful “These Sticks”.   

10.  Eyelids – 854
A psych-pop mini-masterpiece from guys with enough talent and time logged in the ranks of indie’s finest to spin gold.  Chris Slusarenko, John Moen, and their comrades have created an album that is the equal of the 60s albums they take as an influence.  Lead track “Seagulls Into Submission” is the most gorgeous single released this year and is indicative of the massive wealth of melody and wit contained in these 37 minutes of pop bliss!

11.  J Mascis – Tied To A Star
I’ll be honest, as long as Mascis has a six-string in his hands, I am probably going to listen obsessively and wax rhapsodic.  Far more robust and immediate than his initial solo foray (and better than Dino Jr’s lackluster “I Bet On Sky”), Mascis weaves gorgeous melodies across these largely acoustic songs. The difference here is that he also allows himself to spew out a couple of his trademark solos, and the sudden, violent interruption of his Jazzmaster is arresting.  He’s also created the single most beautiful track of his 30 year career with “Wide Awake”, an absolutely gutting duet with Chan Marshall.  For someone whose demeanor can charitably be dubbed “laconic”, he puts a whole lot of heart and effort into this…viva J Mascis!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Won't you call me please...I'm still around...

The finest moment from one of the most under-heralded bands of the past 25 years. Their 2nd album, "Two Words", encapsulates all that was good about melodic, Huskers-indebted indie rock in the early 90s...Bob Reed and his band of deceptive neanderthals plunged and parried with a benevolent churn that was equal parts tenacious craftsmanship and resigned shrug. All and none of it mattered, and that was exactly as it was supposed to be. Truly a band of its time and a shoulda-woulda-coulda in the story of 90s underground rock. The Overwhelming Colorfast is dead, long live Overwhelming Colorfast...

Friday, December 12, 2014

INTERVIEW: Arrica Rose

Photo by Brooke Nipar

It takes a lot to write a catchy song that isn't simple aural dross, and Arrica Rose has been diligently and quietly crafting exquisite pop for well over a decade.  In a just world, her most recent album "Wavefunction" would be nestled among the Taylor Swifts and Sam Smiths on the Billboard charts - it's that damn good!  The LA-based songstress reached out via email for a brief confab about "Wavefunction" and her songwriting.  Enjoy!

Your new album with the …’s, “WAVEFUNCTION”, is a really quite moving and a step away in some respects from some of the more downtempo feel of your previous work. Your vocals, in particular, seem more buoyant. What precipitated this change?

Thank you! The collection of songs I had was pretty diverse when we set out to make Wavefunction. A lot of change was happening for me at the time. I began splitting my time between northern and southern CA. and I think being invigorated by a new environment lead me to writing more uptempos than usual. In terms of the vocals, my producer Daniel Garcia always encourages pushing yourself even farther for each new release. For Wavefunction, I did focus on the vocal melodies being even more dynamic than some of my previous work.

One of the very interesting things about the record is the way in which it’s sequenced.  You really seem to have given some thought to the way the tracks are laid out, instead of just being a collection of tracks.  In particular, the track “Oh the Day, Then the Night” appears twice, closing out both “sides” of the album.  Was this intentional? 

We did put a lot of time and effort into Wavefunction being something to experience as a whole and not just as individual tracks and the sequencing was a big part of that. “Oh the Day, Then the Night” is very much about perspective and ties into the concept of the record so its placement was definitely important to us.

It’s obvious that you put a lot of craft into your work.  What is your songwriting process like?

I keep journals of words and phrases that jump out at me me. It might be something I read, something someone says, or something I misheard. I’m always most intrigued by creative play on words as a starting point and I like to try to use words or phrases in ways that aren’t the most obvious choice if I can. I then play around with chords and melody on guitar, sometimes piano. Once something sticks I usually search through the journals I keep of lyrics ideas. Sometimes the lyric and melodic idea will come together though and other times a song will start with an idea Daniel Garcia will have. I guess I try to be flexible in terms of the process but there is often a pattern in terms of how I go about things.

A lot of the songs on the new album have a very heavy LA “dream pop” vibe to them…what are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to? 

 I have so many influences and really do appreciate a wide variety of music. A few of my influences I always tend to go back to are The Velvet Underground, Dusty Springfield, Elliott Smith, Mazzy Star, David Bowie, Television. I’ll stop there so the list doesn’t get too long!

I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?

You’re right. It’s difficult to choose songs as favorites but I guess I’d have to say for Wavefunction the first thing that comes to mind as a track that’s special to me is “Oh the Day (Then the Night)” and well as its alternate version “(Oh the Day) Then the Night”. I really enjoyed taking one song idea and doing two drastically different versions of it.

What’s on tap for you next?

We are currently working on making a corresponding video for every song on Wavefunction. We’re hoping to have a visual interpretation for each track finished up early next year. Also, we’re starting the writing process for a new record and hoping to do some more touring in the Spring.