Balmorhea – All is Wild, All is Silent

balmor

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Balmorhea, pronounced Bal-moor-ay, is a band from here in Austin, Tx. consisting of principle songcrafters Rob Lowe and Michael Muller. Their sophmore effort entitled All Is Wild, All Is Silent is a beautiful album that touches upon influences from Ludovico Einaudi, Six Parts Seven, Claude Debussy, Ludwig Van Beethoven,  Gillian Welch, Max Richter, Arvo Part, and John Cage. The music is mostly instrumental except for wordless singing in peak areas of a song and sometimes in soft, delicate areas almost like that of gospel. Grazing with post-rock, classical, and folk music, Balmorhea reek of romantic music that can take you away to landscapes of the cold arctic to the lush forests of northern america. With this impressive imagery exhibited, it’s only a matter of time before soundtracking films is next on their resume.

Kicking off the album with “Settler,” one can see that this band will be welcomed with open arms to theaters and concert halls across the country in no time. The opening piano line repeats and nestles itself into your head, then with the cello soon chiming in, the drums begin with a nice riding tap of the cymbals and lift-off…

Though I love the arrangements of the longer epics, the shorter songs like “March 4, 1831” and “Elegy” really show off the acoustic guitar playing that digs under my skin and finds a home. These noteworthy melodies give goose-bumps and make me want to jump in the car and take Ranch Road 12 to Wimberly. Spring is on it’s way, and I’ve found my hill country, road- tripping soundtrack.

“Remembrance” is another stand-out with the haunting opening of a finger-picked guitar. A banjo lends a nice descending run which is soon accompanied by a wordless gospel-like chant and again the tension/release formula opens up when the drums begin. There’s never a dull moment, which can be found often in long instrumentals for me, but they keep it concise and to the point with evolving sections.

Balmorhea have a handful of shows for SXSW and then are off to Europe for April and May. Be sure to check-in here or their website for updates on their inevitable North American tour.

Elvis Perkins in Dearland – s/t

elvis

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Elvis Perkins finally has a band to back up his soft-spoken folk leanings, but that isn’t too say that he’s moved entirely away from his original sound; in fact, he hasn’t traveled that far from where he once began his journey into the musical world.  His latest release, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, is just another reminder of how capable a songsmith the man truly is.

Opening the album is “Shampoo,” which starts off with a mellow little progression on the acoustic guitar, as an organ fills out the background.  Suddenly, the band kicks in, and Elvis’ voice comes sweeping in with a slightly more country-fied tinge than most listeners might be used to at this point in his career.  It’s a testament to the man’s capabilities when he’s backed by a complete band, and it’s a phenomenal start, nearly a perfect song.

The next few tracks find Elvis walking the lines of his past, as he slows the numbers down so his voice can unfold before listeners.  You can tell that he’s yearning for more, reaching for more with his voice, which is perhaps the reason why he brought in a complete band for the recording process of this album. Steady percussion fills in the space where Elvis previously was forced to fill it all with his voice.

His trademark six minute song, “Send My Fond Regards to Lonelyville” is just another example of how wonderfully he can craft a song.  Simple strumming typically doesn’t have the lasting power to garner your interest through six minutes, but when accompanied by his voice, and his attention to lyrical details, you find that you are drawn into the depths of the song.  Horn arrangements added midway only build upon the already sound structure of this song.

Each time you listen to his voice, it seems to waver just a bit, much like Devandra Banhart, but with a less aggravating persona behind it all.  It’s surely the focal point of each song, but his ability to maneuver in and out of different pitches is what makes the entire set of songs listenable, as he clearly understand exactly when to pull back.  It’s an emotional attack on the listener, and it succeeds on almost every level.  Listening, your drawn into the strength of the songs, but your mostly attracted to his voice, and that feeling is certainly not fleeting.

You’ll find that every song along the way has extra details added in to create an ornate composition.  The folk stylings are merely just the beginning, as the backing band here has fulfilled the promise of Elvis Perkins, pushing his songs far beyond anything he’s written to date, and the listeners will be rewarded time and time again, as each listen unfolds new little secrets.

Handsome Furs – Face Control

furs

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Dan Boeckner and his wife/girlfriend/whatever, Alexei Perry are releasing their second album, Face Control, on Sub Pop Records under the Handsome Furs moniker.  The first outing had a lot of interesting moments, carried mostly by Boeckner’s voice.  Interestingly enough, you don’t find the band breaking new ground with their latest release.

The instant the album kicks off with “Legal Tender” one will immediately note that the beats on this round are a lot more prevalent than on the last outing.  That’s not to say that Dan doesn’t throw in some slicing guitar licks, as he surely does so on this track, but they seem merely as extra moments.  It’s as if the beats support the entire infrastructure of the songs, while the guitar seems to be an afterthought.

Still, one has to question whether or not this is enough to carry an entire album’s worth of songs.  Answering this question will more than likely divide a lot of people, as the better tracks coming from this album, such as “Talking Hotel Arbat Blues” or “All We Want, Baby, Is Everything,” are really fantastic, displaying how some of the more thought out moments on the album can rise above the simplistic formula.

And yes, there is Boeckner’s phenomenal voice.  As part of Wolf Parade, he’s pushed his voice to the limits, sometimes letting his voice curl into a bit of a yelp.  This is not so on the Handsome Furs work, where we find him restraining himself quite a bit, allowing for the vocals to pull out every ounce of emotion from both his voice and the listener. Clearly the power of his voice is capable of serving as the backbone of an entire album, but probably not as the sole focus of said album.

“I’m Confused,” for instance, relies upon Dan entirely, using his voice to carry the entirety of the song until his guitar work angularly cuts through the background of the song.  It’s an interesting sound, but it fails in the fact that it comes across as if the whole song was just merely a momentary thought; it has no flesh or filling.  This is not what one asks for in such cases.  Sadly, this is the feeling a lot of listeners will be left with when listening to this album all the way through, time and time again.  There are moments when you can’t help but to be taken aback by the songs, but other moments exist when you might ask for a bit of density to the songs, a little exaggeration if you will.

You’ll come to the end finding that you’ve enjoyed the album as a whole, most notably for previously mentioned tracks, but you won’t find yourself dying to listen to it over and over again, only asking yourself questions about whether the band could have done more to fill some of the blank space that stands motionless throughout the album.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/03-talking-hotel-arbat-blues.mp3]

Download: Handsome Furs – Talking Hotel Arbat Blues [MP3]

Cursive – Mama I’m Swollen

cursive

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Tim Kasher has always been a voice living on the darker side of lyrical content, filling his words with his own animosity, with the subject often turning to his own reflection.  Aptly titled, the new Cursive album, Mama I’m Swollen, is another album based on his own self-reflection, and, well, deprecation.

It takes a few seconds of ambient noise, thirty-four to be exact, before Cursive burst in with a fever known to most fans of the band.  The guitars cut through your ears with the sharpness of a polished knife, as Kasher sings ” don’t want to live in the now/don’t want to know what I know.” The sentiment seems to be that the man, himself, is unhappy with the way things have turned out.  Regardless, the ferocity of this song is a welcome opener.

Skip right ahead to the obvious single, “From the Hips,” which starts the opening minute with a gentle pace, pushed along by the guitar; its reminiscent of The Good Life, Kasher’s other focal point for musical expression.  That is until the drums kick in, carrying the song forward, with the remainder of the song revolving around the drums and Tim’s remarkable voice.  Happy Hollow horns close the song, a wonderful second track.

Then we find the angular guitar work of the band echoing in the dense hollows of the next few songs, as the sounds seems to bounce off your ears, just as Kasher’s voice rises and falls with that dark edge that only he can wield with such perfection.  It’s clear that he’s borrowed a bit from his other musical outing, but the darkness associated with Cursive albums clearly shines through the familiar elements. By this point, your four tracks into the latest musical excursion.

“Caveman” brings in a newer element to the fold, as it seems like a barroom stomper, filled out with the accompaniment of horns.  Here we find a man that seems content with where he’s at in his life.  On top of that, its clear by this point, the middle of the album, that Tim’s voice is back; its probably never sounded as strong as it does here. But, the sentiment is contradicted by the following song, as the gentle statement of “we’re going to hell, we’re going to hell” rings in listeners ears.  Lyrical content aside, this is one of the most beautiful songs on the albums, one where we once again see the passion of our pained hero.

From here on out, the fierceness of the songs diminishes, but there is clearly a brighter side to things.  Each of the following songs has a new attitude in the songwriting process.  While still holding tight to the stylistic leanings that put Saddle Creek Records on the map, there’s a new sense of clarity to the songs, as they seem less dense than previous efforts, which has made way for some of the stronger songs this side of the Cursive catalog.

Closing out the album is “What Have I Done.” Here, you find one of the better lyrics of the album, if not, the year, as Kasher sings “I spent the best years of my life, waiting on the best years of my life.”  It seems as if he’s looking back upon his whole life, or career, with a sense of regret, which is unfortunate, as this sets of songs are some of his best yet.  When he asks the audience “what have I done,” our response to Tim should be that he’s put together a complete album, full of masterful songs, including the grandiose closing statement at the end.  You’ve done great Tim.

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone

neko

Rating: ★★★★ ·

From time to time, not very often, we bear witness to the amazing talent of an artist that we may not fully understand the impact and powerful force they have wielded upon us and music as a whole. Speaking not only of the present accomplishments they have made but also of the resonances that will be heard of their music to come. It always seems easy to speak greatly about an artist of this caliber in hindsight after they are gone and notice the scar they left on the medium, but to notice the force of the artist in their prime and sit back and admire them is harder to come by. Such is the case (no pun intended) with Neko Case.

With her latese effort entitled Middle Cyclone, Case builds her myth and casts spells upon the listener with every song. When Homer wrote the Odyssey and spoke of the Sirens, the voice he must have heard would’ve been of Neko Case. She commands attention with every word she sings and leaves the weak to the wayside. Opener, “This Tornado Loves You” spins into your heart doing just that. The opening mandolin strum with the rolling snare that follows makes for the perfect musical soundscape for Case’s vocal whirlwind. Lines such as “carved your name across three counties” and “their broken necks will lie in the ditch” tells of the search, destruction, and anger she has toward a lover and the demise of weak men she spits out in search of him.

“People Got A Lotta Nerve” is another girl power anthem that’s meaning works on many levels. All men have been hoping a song with this powerful of a chorus would never happen, but are forced to reckon with “I’m a man-man-man, man-man-man—eater!” JEEZUS! Did she have to go and do that?! Every time us guys are in a bar or at friends house and this song comes on, we are gonna have to swallow our pride for 2 1/2 minutes while you girls get too big for your britches and think you have some sort of dominant role over men. Pffft. (Babe, if you’re reading this, I cleaned the dishes and did the bathroom too.)

The middle section of the album is composed mostly of acoustic numbers that allow for the potency of Case’s vocals to take effect. Her vocal delivery is amplified by the stark imagery and subject matter of her lyrics. First and foremost an amazing vocalist, her lyrics take you further away by descriptive tales of  romance and love without being twee and silly. Murder, blood, and knives are common in her dark vocabulary as spiderwebs,  magpies and tornadoes are thrown into the mix for natural measure. A simple lullaby like, “Magpie to the Morning” can only be taken to such heights by the beauty of such inventiveness.

There are two covers on the album, Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” and Sparks“Never Turn Your Back On Mother Nature.” Both songs sound a bit strange for the album in terms of flow, but it seems they are songs held close to heart for Case with good intentions like “N.T.Y.B.O.M.N.” Case owns a 100 acre lot with a house in the lush greenery of Vermont which I’m sure contributes to the inspiration for covering this song. In fact, the nature surrounding the house has had such an impact that it yielded it’s own 30 minute track. The albums’ finale “Marais La Nuit,” was recorded outside of her house with the sounds of crickets and the nightlife bringing the record to a close.

The Great Nostalgic – s/t

thegreatnostalgicstalbumcover

Rating: ★★★★½

It’s rare nowadays when an artist will actually create a world and sound, one which takes you upon a journey within an album.  We’re a culture that’s reverted back to the days of singles and 7″s, but some of us still yearn for that legendary trip throughout an album, carried up and down by the songwriters; that is precisely what newcomers The Great Nostalgic have created with their debut self-titled album.

Opening the album with “Grace,” a song based entirely around deep piano chords creates a moment of solemnity, encouraging the listener to settle down as the album begins to take flight.  And from here the band go straight into “The Kingdom” where the band slowly start to assert themselves as a complete force to reckon with as guitars crash carefully mid-song.  Subject-wise, the band sets us up as singer Abram Shook carries you back home with him to a place where his memories hold great importance.  Listen close as wave after wave of guitar noise crash upon you near the song’s end, coated in a dense fog of noise.

From here, we journey into a song about “Young Lovers,” one of the songs destined to be a hit with audiences.  Here you find a bounce to the band that wasn’t present in the earlier moments of the album, and its a welcome change of pace as the band carry you to yet another plateau in their reptoire. Listening, you can bounce along the entire time, but the prize comes as the snare drum rattles in tight unison with guitar work at the end of the album.  But, just as soon as your body is moving, they draw you back in with a more subtle song.  Shook seems to be dealing with a bit of defeat, but his undying love, or infatuation, pushes him to hunt his love, played in part by the band’s occasional guest female vocalist, Pink Nasty.

Still, they’ve got haunting elements to carry with them, as they do in “Fall River Dream” in which the narrator seems to follow aimlessly down a river filled with mistakes and dreams both touching and demonic.  Our narrator yearns to be free, hoping the water washes it all away.  And off we go with “Fire Brigade,” which has a looming sense of doom, especially when the guitar work is shortened, matched by the pounding of phenomenal guest drummer John Kolar (Sunset).  It’s an epic moment in the album, one filled with a sense of complex dark chaos.

Thus comes one of the best tracks on the album, though admittedly, they are all exceptional in their own right, “County Line.”  Combining keyboard elements and angular guitar work creates a certain tension, yet allows for pristine pop moments.  It takes us back to the story of the young lovers, but in doing so it brings a certain sense of ferocity, along with accusations of someone “living someone else’s life.”  Juxtaposed, however, is “Legend,” one of the songs that bubbles with creativity alongside an atmospheric sound of swelling guitars and electronics just before the pace is quickened; the introduction of horns certainly moves this song into a realm beyond its predecessors.  And so “Queen and Country” reintroduces you to Pink Nasty along with Diedre Gott and Abram Shook, together at last, at least as far as lyrical delivery goes.

And the album begins to draw to a close with ‘The House of My Father.”  Rumbling drums melded with Shook’s voice, as it echoes in the forefront of the song make for memorable moments, and the urgency with which the band performs does not go unnoticed.  Here we rise to the seeming climax of the album, after various ebbs and flows through the valley of the album.  Then we have the end, the “Return to the Kingdom” where we go back to where it all began, to a place where its full of memories.  Marching goes the band, and our heart beats along until the end, where we are blasted by the album’s coda.

So through it all, the band mixes up their textures, their approaches and their delivery.  They carefully craft an album that allows you to start at one point, and follow the band until the end.  One couldn’t have asked for more from a fairly young band, as they deliver one of the most complete albums to come out this year.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/07_county_line.mp3]

Download: The Great Nostalgic – County Line [MP3]

You can catch this band Friday (3/6) at Club Deville as part of the Cacophony Records party.

Delta Spirit @ Emo’s Show Review

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Saturday night was probably not the most enjoyable evening on which to catch a show, as it was freezing cold here in Austin, but many brave souls opted to push through the wintry weather in pursuit of a good evening of music.  Those in attendance were able to catch Dawes, Other Lives and Delta Spirit honing their skills on stage. Here are our thoughts on the evening.

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The Boy Least Likely To – The Law of…

boy

Rating: ★★½ · ·

Britain’s The Boy Least Likely To have made waves in the past with their multi-instrumental pop tunes, and their back at it again with their latest release The Law of the Playground. Their sound clearly hasn’t evolved too much on this album, as they rely upon the same set of tricks that gained them popularity in the first place.

Once you press play, those of indie-pop should surely find a resemblance in vocalist Jof’s delivery, as his voice is a clear descendant of Matt Sharp of Rentals and Weezer fame. Even the musical accompaniment encourages this association, but its nice to have a familiar voice singing in your ear, even if it comes from someone entirely new.

Musically, you can find lots of similarities to various bands.  The usage of multiple instruments throughout the album recall memories of other groups such as Architecture in Helsinki or I’m From Barcelona.  All three groups rely upon an extensive use of layering in order to complete the accomplished goal at hand.  And their is no shortage of bells and whistles here, not by a long shot.

You know the saying “everything and the kitchen sink,” well, it certainly applies.  There indeed are bells and whistles, and it seems as if the band uses any thing at their command to create infectious melodies.  Add some horns, and you’ll find that every single instrument you could imagine to find on a pop album is utilized here.  It’s great in concept, but it has a tendency to wear the listener down.  Just saying.

Now, looking deep in the lyrics will be hard to, as there really isn’t a great deal of depth swirling around the presentation here. Let’s take a song like “When Life Gives You Lemons I Make Lemonade.”  Can you work a larger cliche into song than that one?  Probably not.  Which is precisely where this band loses you; their lack of interest, or seeming disinterest, is where you start to feel frustrated in listening to the band.   They’ve built these perfectly crafted songs, yet they can’t ever seem to close the deal by attaching quality lyrics to such melodies.

Two albums into their career, the band have created a wide array of pop gems to their name, each built with precision and attention to every melodic detail.  Time after time, they surprise you with moments of splendor, as they do in “Stringing up Conkers” on their most recent release.  But, in the end, they always leave you craving for more, be it in regards to lyrics, or in regards to wanting more well-crafted songs, you’re sure to ask for more.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/06-stringing-up-conkers.mp3]

Download: Boy Least Likely To – Stringing Up Conkers [MP3]

Boston Spaceships – The Planets are Blasted

boston

Rating: ★★★½ ·

Ohh Bobbie, how we love your Miller Lite infused high-kicks. How we love walking into your shows dry and leaving sopping wet from not only our own but other peoples body sweat. How we love being able to throw beers in the air at innocent by-standers and not give a shit. Above all else Bobbie, we love your unmatched creative output of material. Slurrrrrp.

Boston Spaceships return with Planets Are Blasted only 5 months after their first LP Brown Submarine. In a recent interview, Chris Slusarenko has said they already have a third album ready tentatively titled Zero to 99 which should be out before October. With no trimming on the song count, Planets Are Blasted boasts another 14 songs just as it’s former had. The line-up has stayed the same with booze buddies Chris Slusarenko (GBV, Svelt, Sprinkler) on guitar and John Moen (Decemberists, Jicks, Elliott Smith) on drums. Now implemented as an official band and not a side project, Boston Spaceships carries on the sounds of pop infused punk/garage rock and beyond. In classic Pollard fashion, all the songs are generally under 2 1/2 minutes in length with the exception of one which goes into prog zoning of 4 minutes.

The treats keep coming on this sophomore release which I wonder if they were recorded at different sessions or what? I’m curious to hear more details on the recording process of these songs. For the most part, the way these songs see the light of day all starts at Pollard’s home. He comes up with raw demos, usually consisting of him on an acoustic guitar and singing vocal melodies on top. He’ll go through the songs deciding which ones will work for his solo project and which ones are Boston Spaceships material (The man has a self-proclaimed 3,000 un-released songs give or take a thousand depending on how many Miller Lites he’s had).  He’ll then call Slusarenko up and say that he has some ideas, they’ll get together, have drinking challenges, write notes on songs usually ending with KICK-ASS the more they drink. Slusarenko will then take these songs home, mull over them until he knows every subtle part, take them to Moen and flesh it all out.

It’s amazing at the ease in which Pollard can come up with a catchy chorus. Such is the beast of album opener “Canned Food Demons.”  It immediatley takes you back to GBV days of old, maybe missing the piss and puke buckets, but as close as we’ll get and I’ll gladly take it.  I mean, the man is 52 years old and can still squeal with more power than any rock singer I’ve heard at his age. When you hear him howl, “now she’s coming aroooound, canned food demons aliiiiiiiive!” Just surrender already. This may be the best song on the album but it definetly doesn’t stop here. Gems like “Queen of Stormy Weather” and “Heavy Crown” will quench your thirst for more R-A-W-K.

As a whole, Brown Submarine too me is a much more polished album with catchier and inventive melodies than this one. I don’t know if the songs were picked first for Brown Submarine and the ones on Planets Are Blasted were picked afterward from the same collection of material but either way, this album still holds up in my opinion. Not as strong or consistant throughout, but still many perks that will turn an ear. Most of all, I’m really happy to know that this isn’t a “project” and that Pollard is having fun and pumping out little bits of gold over and over. (insert high-kick here)

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/bigogetsanearful.mp3]

Download: Boston Spaceships – Big O Gets an Earful [MP3]

Clem Snide – Hungry Bird

clem

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Eef Barzelay had promised us long ago that his days with Clem Snide were well over, which was odd, seeing as he was the primary musician behind the band’s music.  But, here we are again with Clem Snide’s newest album, Hungry Bird.

Barzelay is one of those singers who has a very distinctive voice.  It’s somewhat near the nasal region, yet in an endearing way.  This quality in his voice makes you immediately familiar with him as a frontman, and it draws you in closer to the group; it is meant to draw you in closer to the lyrics.

As in the past, Barzelay weaves his lyrics around the most mundane of things, though this time around, there is less of a childishness to the entirety of the lyrics.  Well, childish is probably not the word to use, so let’s use wit in this case.  Seemingly, he’s thrown these lyrical concepts a little bit away from the group, which inevitably bring a more serious tone to the album as a whole.  It’s a different approach for the group, one that might lead long-time fans through a period of adjustment.

A serious tone has been established through the vocal and lyrical element, which really sets the mood for the listener.  The band, always lumped into post-country genres, has never been one to fiercely pick up the pace, but it seems here they definitely slow the tempo all the way down.  Take “Hum,” for example, a slowly sprawling song, ending with a seeming crescendo of ferocity, but pulled back just in time for the band to hone that slowdown hoedown that covers the album.

Most will appreciate this album’s gentleness, as the level of intimacy achieved here is one that will bond with listeners.  The quietude of the mood is soothing, and it forces you to pay attention to every little aspect of the album.  Strong production allows you to see those littlest details, as the band has filled out all possible areas of their sound.  It’s almost as if its a late slocore album, shedding the walls of country tinge away as they created, and ultimately finished this album.

Long time fans will surely be glad to have this band back together, working to create that soft edge of country sound that many people lovingly dote upon.  While it may not be the best of the group, songs such as “Burn the Light” will surely show that Clem Snide is still a strong force to be reckoned with, now, and in the future.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/03-hum.mp3]
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