Puff Pieces – Bland in DC

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Rating: ★★★½ ·

Puff Pieces are anything but what their band name might lead you to believe. They’ve compiled 11 songs for their latest release, Bland in DC, with each providing listeners with a message. You needn’t look further than some of the titles like “March of the Idiots” or “Money” to see where they take aim. But, in order for the record and the message to completely endear itself to the audience, the band has to supply the musicality to make it last…and boy do they.

“Wanna No” kicks off the album in a jittery, proto-punk fashion while the vocals are drawn out across the tune, seemingly working against the heart of the track. Emphasis is given by backing vocals sporadically shouted from the distance. Staying long isn’t the band’s cup of tea on Bland in DC, as they bounce right into the next track, and so on and so forth until the end. At times, it almost feels like you’re falling off the tracks or racing towards the finish line, such as on tracks like “Wondrous Flowers;” it’s remarkable how quickly and flawlessly the rhythm section moves throughout.

Yet while the group definitely has a signature sound they’re pushing, they also open up the chords for a more traditional approach on tracks like “Pointless People,” which again takes on a furious pace that would likely have normal humans rushing to catch their breath.

I think my favorite track is “Goths and Vandals;” there seems to be a dark sense of humor that lurks in the track, if not a slight bit of sarcasm. My favorite lyric comes via “Y” where the band proclaims “the future’s like a big locked door.”

All in all, I found the record really enjoyable, but I can see detractors proclaiming that it’s too one-note. On the surface, sure, but those of you looking for energetic, yet artful, punk with a message will find a happy home with Puff Pieces.

Kevin Morby – Singing Saw

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Rating: ★★★★ ·

Kevin Morby has been making albums under his own name for a few years now, and with each release, this brand of Americana-influenced rock seems to grow and take a more definite shape. Singing Saw is his third full length on his own, and its nine tracks of delightful folk rock, well orchestrated and complex, haunting and lingering in their construction.

The album eases you in gently, with Morby at his quietest with Cut Me Down, but then picks up quickly with infectious single, I Have Been To The Mountain. Opening things up, you get the impression that Morby is picking up where he left off with his last release, Still Life, which came out in 2014. This track has got that stewing darkness that centers around Morbys smoky vocals, akin to what you found on that last record with tracks like Drowning, but where this song nails down the difference is the way in which Cut Me Down, starts and stops, creating newfound drama. Morby looks you in the eyes as he takes his stance and proclaims And youre going to do/what you came here to do/ So why not do it now/cut me down. This kind of welcome confrontation adds a bit of a punch behind the folk blend.

Such a lyrical punch is mirrored in the instrumentation on the next track as the first track begins to pick up in pace before the second track makes its entrance. I Have Been To The Mountain, is an exceptional songone that makes you want to dance as well as marvel at how detailed it is. Theres this brooding darkness underneath the groove that comes from the string work and the acoustic guitar that begin the track and then simmer underneath through its duration. To balance this darkness, there are the popping horns that chime in and the gospel choir Ahhs that intercede and combine with Morbys vocals.

Singing Saw, the title track, follows up on the dark undercurrents of the previous number, the licks of guitar snarling through the mix like flames of a growing fire. However, this song doesnt just stay in one place, but picks up strength as it goes. Theres so much going on here, and yet, each instrument and vocal note feels precisely placed as the number builds and builds. The rest of the album keeps surprising youwhether its the bouncy Dorothy, the gentle, lyrically driven Black Flowers or ending blues-inspired Water, you remain with Morby to the very end.

What sets Singing Saw apart from your average folk rock is that does both the quiet and bombastic tracks superbly welltheres never a dull moment on the album. The brevity of the nine songs works to hold your attention and keep you rooted in their fine craftsmanship. You ought to take a listen.

 

Otis the Destroyer – Belushi EP

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Rating: ★★★★ ·

“This one goes to 11,” I couldnt help quoting Spinal Taps legendary Nigel Tufnel while listening to Otis the Destroyers freshly released Belushi EP. Recorded with Austins resident Rock n Roll mastermind Frenchie Smith, Belushi unleashes a killer quad combo on the Austin Music Scene.

An avid rock n roller myself, Belushi, and Otis the Destroyer in general, are a welcome antidote to a music scene saturated with cutes-y folks-y ukulele strumming duets. The heart and soul of the music leans heavily on the early 00s charging guitar rock of Grohls Foo Fighters and Hommes Queens of the Stone Age, but Taylor Wilkins penchant for eerie chromaticism sets them apart from these now classic bands.

The lead track Fight comes out taunting the listener with a pumping drum intro and stuttering guitar lick. The chorus comes in quick and threatening and the guitars are layered and mixed masterfully. Cheetah, the single off the EP, follows Fight and builds on intensity. Again, the guitar layering is skillfully executed and the guitar solo screams like a back alley catfight. Otis manages to avoid the pit of muddy, distorted tracks here. It would be easy to leave a listener with ear fatigue from so many roaring six strings, but throughout many listens of the EP I always appreciated how clearly separated the guitar tracks were, and how they managed to be so dang loud (…this one goes to 11). Guitar aficionados and engineers out there will understand how difficult it is to make a record sound and feel loud its a feat thats hard to do right, and quite frankly it can make or break a record like Belushi.

My favorite track off the EP was actually not the single Cheetah. I absolutely loved Swallow, the third song off the EP. The opening plinking, syncopated riff just took me back to an 80s or 90s opening action montage from some B movie (the movie definitely takes place in a gritty harbor town, and the bad guys definitely all have mustaches). The last chorus on Swallow just crescendos like a damn tidal wave ok actually I am pretty sure this movie in my head is about a crime boss setting off a tidal wave with a stolen generic pan-Asian dictators nuclear bomb. Yea. This one definitely goes to 11.

Closing out the EP with the strong, jarring Hatchet (rated pg-13 for strong language and diminished harmonies), Belushi comes to a satisfying finale. Belushi builds on a strong foundation that Otis the Destroyer has laid out. For those of you headbangers out there missing the golden era of hard rock this EP is a must listen, and music preferences aside Swallow is one of those rare songs that has a genre spanning appeal. Catch them at their EP Release show March 5th link (https://www.facebook.com/events/530556140444240/539749096191611/) with Megafauana, Think No Think, and the Shame and the Waste.

Michael Nau -Mowing

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Rating: ★★★ · ·

Its possible youve heard the work of Michael Nau in some capacity over the years through his work in several other outfits (See Cotton Jones). Mowing marks his first debut recording as a solo artist, and its a nice first album that wont hit you too hard, but will slowly work its way into your heart.

Mowing comes across as a collection of carefully crafted folk lullabies, perfect for those days when you want to dissolve into your music, or at least be carried away on its light breeze. Youll begin to understand this notion when you first enter into the album with While You Stand. Gentle acoustic guitar wafts in like wind chime, and the warm, full vocals of Nau contrast the sweetness of the only other element in the track. Simple, yes, but so elegant; a refreshing break from the usual multilayered hyper-complex music we have so much of these days. But then, The Glass, kicks things into gear with the addition of other instrumentation that puts a little spunk into the mix. Theres a nice presence of ragtime piano and the guitars are a little fuzzy and jazzier. Naus voice is smoky and smooth, riding above the rest of the mix.

The rest of the album continues in this vein, later on in the album, you get the incredible So, So Long, which really hones in on the lullaby nature of the tunes on here. But then, theres also the deep classic blues bass line that you find in alt-country. This beautiful track is followed up by instant stick out favorite, Winter Beat, which is rambunctious as Nau gets; slow simmering drums give it a jazzy flair once more, subtle strings work their way in and out of the background. Youll find yourself closing your eyes and slowly nodding your head with the beat. Its gentle music for Sunday afternoons or waking up slowly in the morning.

Whats wonderful about Mowing is its breezy carefree spirit; it never gets too bogged down in itself. At the same time, this airy lightness makes it bit too transparent at moments, during which, its easy to let the music slip out of your focus. This is a small qualm in a soothing album, and I advise you to pick up a copy and give it a spin.

 

Wild Nothing – Life of Pause

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Rating: ★★★½ ·

When you hit the ball out of the park on your musical debut and sophomore album, I imagine its somewhat of a daunting task to try and create something that will repeat your success and move into different musical territory. Whether or not this was on Jack Tatums mind when he was working on his third full-length record remains to be known. Regardless, Life of Pause strikes a balance musically between the straightforward dream pop of Gemini and the well-orchestrated synth heavy pop of Nocturne.

Reichpop, begins the album in classic Wild Nothing fashionboiling electronic elements create the undercurrent of the instrumentation as the song heats up. About a minute and a half of build up later, the song coming into itself, the guitars and bass join the mix, adding their lush influence to the simmering track. This song in its easy and steady coolness sets the tone for the rest of the album.

The key to understanding this record comes in the title track, which marks the center point of your listening journey. Synths soar and bubble into the groovy beat, Tatum sings repeatedly at the crux of the chorus, How can we want love? and the synths stutter coldly in the background as he questions human desire for affection honestly and openly. Herein lies the detached emotion that the entire album is entrenched in. On the first few listens, its easy to mistake this for a lack of emotional accessibility, but upon further investigation, Tatum comes through quite vulnerably as searching for something and narrowly skirting jadedness. This is where Ive found the album to be quite raw and not the icy-cool sleek collection of eleven tracks that it may sound like at first.

While the album becomes more accessible with this in mind, the vulnerability is still subtle, hidden under those loud synths and danceable 70s grooves. Life of Pause has immediate hits that will grab you upfront, but there are some slow burning gems that take a bit of time for you to gravitate towards, like Lady Blue, which ends in a switch in rhythm that is simply impossible not to turn up loud and jam out to. Of course there are those reach out tracks like TV Queen and To Know You, that are wonderful examples of Tatums skills at crafting solid tunes that bridge the gap between dream and synth pop.

At the end of Life of Pause, theres a bit of a longing for more; while theres no denying the artful skill that Jack Tatum has poured into the record, you sort of wish that there was more of a fire within the tracks on here. Still a remarkable and worthwhile listen nonetheless.

 

Pete Astor – Spilt Milk

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Rating: ★★★★½

People rarely rave about records anymore. No matter what, people inevitably find themselves listening to single and hits, but don’t you dare do that with Pete Astor‘s new album, Spilt Milk. If you do, you’re likely to miss one of the purest pop albums likely to surface this year.

You can possibly separate Spilt Milk into two styles, bouncing jangle pop and pure pop balladry. Opener “Really Something” falls into the first category, while a song like “Good Enough” ends up in the latter grouping. But, what one should focus on is the central theme of pop music. To me, it means accessible and catchy, and I feel like if we were all given such options more often, then Pete Astor might be our favorite artist. But, that’s not where we live, nor where we seem to be heading, making this effort all the more outstanding.

Some bands rush songwriting, trying to push out the next hit, trying to stay relevant in a culture adhering to consumption, but within the confines of this album, you have the purest dedication to great songwriting. In doing so, Pete’s managed to craft an album that endears itself to fans of all styles, leaving you with a lesson incraftsmanship; it’s one that I can see enduring in my playing rotation for time to come (and probably yours too).

In the end, Spilt Milk isn’t a musical exercise that will hit you over the head immediately. You have to digest it slowly, which is best with tracks like “There It Goes” that will pull at your heartstrings. Still, you’ll find an inner joy (and maybe a hop in the step) when you put on “My Right Hand,” among others. It’s a listening journeyyou must dedicate yourself to, and in doing so, you’ll reap the greatest reward…a listen that won’t easily be turned off…or forgotten.

Cross Record – Wabi Sabi

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Rating: ★★★★ ·

Cross Record consists of Emily Cross and her husband, Dan Duszynski. Put these two absurdly creative individuals out on a ranch in Dripping Springs, TX after living in the buzzing metropolis Chicago for years and what you get is Wabi Sabi; a stirring example of highly contemplative and carefully crafted experimental folk music. The album balances minimalism with explosive bursts of sound for thirty-five minutes that seems to last much longer in its infinite depth.

The Curtains Part is the opening number on the record, and the band slowly eases you into their eclectic folk soundings. A storm of instrumentation wells up around Emily Cross’ central vocals, hollow guitar strumming, orchestral fluttering and cymbal fills encompass this peripheral storm, hinting at whats to come. The band begins to really sink their teeth into you on Two Rings, the instrumentation here playing on the quietness that they established in the first track and building upon this with their layers of both electronic and organic sounds.

Then you get to the gale-force strength trio of tracks that starts with Steady Waves, and Cross Record completely wins you over. While the first two tracks come across as a bit of an awakening for the duo, this middle portion of the album gives you a taste of their utter power and strength once theyve come to that awakening. First off, Steady Waves is an utterly gorgeous song, an example of the precise balance between softness and ferocity that Cross Record do so well on Wabi Sabi. Cross vocals are impossibly tender and lush, contrasted by the growling guitars that buzz in and out of the mix, while winding acoustic guitar simmers underneath. The number is at once serene and unsettling, building its way to a crescendo and then petering out to a quiet ending, akin to wind chimes gently stirred in the breeze.

Next up in the meat of the album is High Rise, which takes Cross vocals to an impossibly translucent level, their whispery quality floating atop the bombastic, exploding drums that give the song its drama and such a drama continues on Something Unseen Touches A Flower To My Forehead, which forsakes the gentleness of the previous two tracks and just hones in on the violence of the folk music.

The rest of the album falls under the quieter side of Cross Records spectrum of sound, though this is by no means boring or too subtle. On the contrary, I found myself constantly enamored with the entrancing simplicity that these two have harnessed into Wabi Sabi. Do yourself a favor and savor this album, as its bound to become one that you revisit over the coming year.

 

Sea Pinks – Soft Days

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Rating: ★★★★ ·

Belfast’s Sea Pinks have become a staple in my listening catalogue over the past few years; its strange to think that a band who has only been around for six years has already been so profoundly prolific, but it seems that releasing a solid LP almost every year is just the way Sea Pinks roll. Soft Days is the latest of these stunning releases, and while more subdued and grounded jangly rock, the band finds yet another way to hook you and keep you interested.

This tightening up can be felt from the albums initiation. Opening number, (I Dont Feel Like) Giving In, begins slowly and with a bit of drama: some small guitar and soft building drums light up the path for a good minute of the track before the band launches in with those cutting guitar riffs and the vocals of Neil Brogan. The guitars are bleached out surf jangle to a T, interchanging with a bit of distortion on the chorus for a perfect pop arch. Immediately, youll notice the shift in focus from those orchestral elements that the band employed in the past, to the dueling guitars and their ceaseless jangle. At the end of the first number, you get the feeling that whats to come will be great.

And this intuition isnt wrong; Sea Pinks trade off track after track of spunky jangle pop with more subdued tunes, but its all beachy and lovely. Of course you have stunning singles that fulfill your rock and roll needs like Depth of Field and Yr Horoscope. The former employs the luke-warm vocals of Brogan and pushes them to a new height on the chorus, and the latter reminds me a bit of The Vaccines with its quick lipped lyrics and staccato drums. These bright flamed singles are balanced nicely with slower burning tracks like Green With Envy and I Wont Let Go, on which the guitar riffs meander more than shred, reminding you of beachy sunsets with a cool sea breeze coming off the water.

Soft Days is an album that you wont tire of easily. You will reach its end and feel ready to jump right back to the beginningit has the proper amount of catchy singles and deeper cuts to keep you interested. I will be spinning this one through the seasons for sure.

 

Hinds – Leave Me Alone

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Rating: ★★★ · ·

Within the past few months it seems that this group of four girls from Madrid have been all over the news in the indie scene. Hinds(formerly Deers) have released a fair number of singles over the past year, building up the buzz around their lo-fi garage tunes and with good reason; each of these singles has been catchy and fun to sing along to, all while those slightly gritty guitars jangle on infectiously. Leave Me Alone is an impressive debut, filled with lo-fi tunes with a pop twist to them, though not much more than what the singles have been hinting at.

What’s great about this record is that it is unapologetically messy and raucous and never really too much so. Hinds reach a balance of precision carelessness, which you get on the louder, in-your-face tracks like “Castigadas en el granero, or Warts,” or any of the singles that youve probably already heard. The vocals on these track trade off between quick lipped solos and -sometimes together-sometimes not- distorted girl gang shouting. On paper, this doesn’t sound like something that would make a lot of sense, but it works alongside the tight knit guitar riffs. “Chili Town” is a prime example of how well this dynamic can shine and the band uses the variation in vocal style to give the track a tonal variety and climactic chorus associated with your favorite pop tunes.

The album ends with a succession of slower, less rowdy tracks, but the vocal performance doesnt shift: theyre sloppy-chic till the end. Of these ending tracks, “Walking Home” is the standout. With its the surfy guitar riffs and start and stop instrumentation it grabs your attention and holds you through the last notes of the record. The guitars on this song are catchy and light, while the vocals bring the lo-fi aspect to the mix.

And so at the end of Leave Me Alone Hinds have given you exactly what you came for, so you can’t complain too much; there are no bad tracks on the record. My only real qualm with this album is that these ladies dont stray too far from one style of track and one singular sound. Dont get me wrong, it’s a good one, but the lack of variety prevents excellency and lands on mediocre. Nonetheless, Hinds are destined to remain a buzz band through 2016, and I’m interested to see where they will go next for a sophomore record.

 

Salad Boys – Metalmania

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Rating: ★★★ · ·

We seem to be in the era of jangly rock and roll. That is to say these days have brought the indie rock scene to a point in which the norm is now those angular workings of guitar riffs in whatever genre you like; there’s the stoner rock of bands like Mac Demarco, or more tightly wound pop groups. Regardless, in order to stand out, you’ve gotta make the jangle your own, taking it in a direction different than before. Enter Salad Boys of New Zealand, whose sound ranges within the genre, from laid back to melt your face off in the mere jump of a song on Metalmania. 

This group of gentlemen open the album with a delicate sound on “Here’s No Use–” with the winding guitar work that won’t quit and the urgent yet soft vocals of Joe Sampson, the song seems fairly subtle at first. The drums are barely there, merely gentle clicking to match the rhythm of the guitar as it loops in its neat and clean sound. As the track progresses, the elements gain a bit of traction; secondary vocals join the mix and the guitars are doubled up to round out the opening track. The next song, “Dream Date,” shows the other, less chilled out, rock side of Salad Boys– the guitars are faster and heavier, drums join the mix, adding a thick layer of percussive sheen with the abundant crashing of cymbals.

These two directions of tracks seem to account for the direction of sound that Salad Boys take on this record; you get the laid back sun-bleached indie rock of the first track, or the more high-energy rock of the second track. Each style seems to suit the band’s sound fairly well, and the back and forth doesn’t feel like whiplash as it does a trip through changing terrain, soft and lush at one moment and biting rock the next.

Most signs point to Metalmania to be a grower of an album– while each track is pleasing to the ears and begs for you to play it outside at a barbecue or driving around in your car with the wind blowing through, there aren’t clear standout tracks. Originally, I thought it was when the band ripped into the rockier side of their sound, but those with mild tonality seem to grasp my attention just as much. Perhaps in time, these numbers will be apparent, or perhaps the tunes on this album are a little too mild. Regardless, I look forward to hear what Salad Boys have in store for us next.

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