Growl – No Years EP


Rating: ★★★★ ·

Austin, Texas has a lot of things going on musically…it’s got psych, garage, indie pop, but it’s been lacking a great guitar rock band.  Well, Growl aims to change that by releasing the really powerful and melodic No Years EP.

“Afra & Me” immediately kicks things off with some dueling distorted guitars working against each other.  But, when they join to bring the vocals into the mix, they’ve got an incredible force that really makes a lasting impression on the listener.  Think Surfer Blood if they made a more mathematic rock tune; these dudes are better. Then things get slowed down just a touch for “Yacanlu,” which is a song that really relies upon the vocals to propel the song; it’s good to let the focus shift from musicianship to vocal prowess, and in that area, Growl excel.

“Buffalo” is one of the tracks that really stands out to me on my run through of the record.  In the beginning the guitar noodling in an angular manner really lets you sink your teeth into the track, then the vocals and their drawn out soaring syllables provide you with that moment you’re always looking for in a good rock track: singable moments.  It’s definitely a youthful vibe.

The latter half of the No Years EP is still devoted to the guitar, though the lighter-fare.  “Going Blind” has incredible hooks built in to surround the listener with a feeling of joy.  There’s a stomping sensation inserted with “Review,” which is a fitting return to the band’s more riotous sounds; it’s filled with crashing cymbal work and ringing guitars that are built to break down your eardrums. Then it all ends with the well-constructed long-burner, “Rosie.”  It begins rather casually, with a softer side showing through (and the vocals remind me of Very Emergency-era Promise Ring), but they blast off with the chorus, really breaking things open.

We thought when Growl released their Gallery EP that they were off to a really good start, but they’ve made an EP that begs for you to listen to anywhere you please, just as long as you aim to have a little fun.  Get the No Years EP, turn it up loud, and remember what it’s like to rock out.  Good to know Austin has a voice for great guitar rock.


Gem Club – In Roses

In Roses Cover

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Rarely do musicians nowadays set out to make grandiose pieces of art. Some hide behind the guise that they’re breaking new ground or that they’ve been waxing nostalgic, but they often skip out on attempting at the loftier side of crafting beautiful pieces of art.  That being said, Gem Club have done just that with their sophomore release, In Roses; it’s an ornate and carefully constructed piece of majesty.

The Massachusetts act opt to open up with “Nowhere,” an instrumental piece that effectively build the mood by draping atmospheric textures atop one another.  It sets the stage perfectly for the listener’s entrance into “First Weeks,” which opens immediately with a softened piano line.  Soon, Christopher Barnes answers the call to the stage, entering with his lofty voice, accented by the careful string accompaniment the group has employed since their inception.  It’s a somber tune, fit for gazing out your window on a cold wintry day; I especially like the fuzzier moments in the recording as the song walks away towards its close.

In Roses often lives on the softer side of chamber-pop, so that might worry some who don’t have the time to sit and listen to the details of the world.  But, in songs like “Michael” there are these moments where Barnes’ voice collides with cello and woodwind accents to glorious effect.  Similarly, on “Hypericum,” there’s a percussive heartbeat haunting the background as dark tones are carefully pounded upon the piano.  These are surely artistic details that many people choose to overlook, which sadly makes music like this harder for people to create.  What’s the point when your greatest addition to the musical lexicon goes unnoticed?

Sure, it’s difficult to absorb in today’s quick paced lifestyle, but creative efforts like this one from Gem Club are ultimately what make music so rewarding.  Movements sweep into new movements within the same track, and voices unite in harmony; these things remain impactful hours after the music has stopped playing.  Just take a listen to a song like “Soft Season,” and ask yourself why there are so few artists creating these incredibly lofty pop constructionist tracks.  This is one of several songs within this album that have chased through my mind, even after several listens.

Admittedly, In Roses is not the sort of record I can come back to time and time again; it’s far too unique in that manner.  It requires special attention to its every detail and touch; it begs for the listener to devote endless hours to playing it over and over again.  Most would call it an arduous task, but if you’re willing to give yourself over to Gem Club, then they will push you towards places, emotionally speaking, that you might not visit enough; you’ll be eternally thankful to the band for giving you such a rare opportunity…and piece of art.


Download: Gem Club – Polly [MP3]

Jess Williamson – Native State


Rating: ★★★★ ·

It’s been a pretty great few months for Austinite Jess Williamson, with press clamoring to hear her latest album, Native State in its entirety.  Listening through, the hubbub is definitely justified, as a great deal of musicianship is accomplished in a short span of seven songs.  Those that devote time to the record will be rewarded with an album both thoughtful and well-crafted, giving you a listen that you’ll come back to again and again.

The longest song on Native State, “Blood Song,” opens things up, seemingly developed in the Western frontier of Texas plains.  The tone of the guitar seems distant, in an enduring sense, forcing the listener to focus closely on the soft release of Williamson.  As slide guitars echo in the distance, there’s a rising tension that seems to build, increasing the emotional investment of the listener. It’s a song that leaves you drifting, mentally, carried away on the winds of Jess’ songwriting.  And, things only begin to get better as we move into “Native State,” which takes on a more traditional folk aspiration centered around a banjo. For me, the vocals are what steal the show on this track, as there’s a faint hint of a quiver; I’m a sucker for the fragility of a good songwriter.

While many of the songs Jess Williamson presents here seem offer up a look at the artist, naked and honest, there’s a few tracks that really are perfectly fitting for providing the sound scape to a road trip or a photography showing.  “Spin the Wheel” is one such song, starting off with little to no pace from the beginning.  As the songs moves forward, there’s faint cymbal touches, string arrangements, all adding depth to the track.  Yet, going forward, guitars enter the picture, cymbals create a wash of percussive waves and Jess uses her voice to propel you towards the ending.  Whether the intention was to provide an image of movement or the passage of time, the varying moments of music within, definitely provide you with that wistful feeling.

As strongly as the effort opens, it closes in just as strong a fashion, if not more so.  There’s more of a light-hearted spirit in tracks like “You Can Have Heaven on Earth” and “Seventh Song,” which definitely seem to contrast the ominous spirit of the opening numbers. For me, this serves perfectly to fit the mood I’ve associated with my listening experience.  Sure, the poetry is well-written and personal, but my emotional attachment seems to place a sense of moving on or pushing forward as you go from track 1 to 7.  Ending on a positive note is never a bad thing.

Clearly this is going to be a wonderful year for Jess Williamson.  The accolades and interest in her music seems quite justified after spending a great deal of time with Native State.  Lyrically, it offers a great deal.  Musically, you won’t be disappointed.  Do yourself a favor and immerse yourself in this listen and see where you end up…odds are you’ll be grateful you did.


Shy Boys – s/t


Rating: ★★★½ ·

A lot of the press leading up to the first release from Shy Boys  centered around the band’s home of Kansas City and their lack of mastery on their instruments.  Perhaps that’s a good place to start, but isn’t it just the music that ultimately matters?  If so, then the Shy Boys are off to a great start.  Imperfections do exist on this self-titled effort, but they make the most of those moments, turning those inadequacies into gems.

“Is This Who You Are” kicks the album off in the right way, using a deep-toned guitar line to really build the emotion for the listener, but then things fall quiet for the vocals to make their introduction; they’re perhaps a bit too soft building to the chorus, but that chorus is supremely rewarding.  Shy Boys then slide into their ode to the Beach Boys with “Keep Me On My Toes.”  The harmonizing here is something quite special, almost perfect, but then the song abruptly ends; I could have used a few more minutes.

When going back through the whole album, I find myself gravitating to songs like “Bully Fight” and “And I Am Nervous.”  The tones of the guitar is right up the alley of my personal tastes. Not to mention both tracks alternate between the soft/loud dynamic, with really warm melodies; these are the kind of moments in your listening experience that will reveal themselves to be ultimately rewarding, even if you notice a few moments that seem off-key.

Of course, you can’t take a listen to Shy Boys seriously unless you dive head first into the hi-hat propelled gem that is “Postcard.”  It’s the apex of the record, which unfortunately means that the latter half of the record drags just a slight bit. The songs definitely have a draw in the way they’re constructed around the melody, but they’re definitely a look into the softer side of the group.  Listening through, I don’t mind these tracks at all, and in fact, really enjoy “Trim” as a closer, but there’s definitely a noticeable change in the closing energy.

Despite whatever faults lurk in the hidden folds of this self-titled release, it’s clear that Shy Boys do have a knack for songwriting.  That should make this the jumping off point for what we all hope will be a nice career, as these tunes are just too good to simply ignore.  I have a sneaking suspicion that this one’s going to keep creeping into my own play lists as we go through the year, and if longevity works for me, I hope it works for them too.


Download: Shy Boys – Bully Fight [MP3]

Painted Palms – Forever


Rating: ★★★ · ·

When you’re given the personal stamp of approval from Kevin Barnes that becomes a pretty big deal, but it’s how one lives up to those expectations that really cements a group’s legacy.  Throughout the duration of Forever, you can hear what Barnes saw in Painted Palms; the record is brimming with melodies and hooks, making for a strong debut.

“Too High” opens up Forever, with this pulsating electronic beat before the playful vocals jump into the fold.  It’s a track that rests during the verses, then bursts forth exuberantly during the chorus.  It’s a pretty tried and true formula, and one that surely will find toes tapping and heads bobbing.  But, the record doesn’t jump too far off this beaten path for the first few tracks, though some of the pacing is alternated around the formula.  However, “Forever” definitely ups the ante from the moment you press play.  It’s got this weird vibe to it, relating to the realm between Of Montreal and early MGMT; you know you all love that.

For my ears, “Soft Hammer” is where I see Painted Palms excelling.  The track features one of the clearest vocal performances on the album, but it’s the structural building of the song that’s really compelling.  There’s more of a folk approach to begin the tune, yet it builds this increased tension for a time by piling an electronic instrumental wash atop it all, then reverting to where it all begin.  By controlling the melody throughout, and holding onto it until the end, I realized just how much of a grasp the duo has on perfecting harmonies; this is evidenced through the entirety of the effort.

While I felt like some of the songs suffered by the production, at least in regards to the sound of the vocals, there’s definitely more than a number of hits that are going to be pleasing for the ears. You can take some of the previously mentioned tracks or you could just jump in at “Spinning Signs,” which employs a pulsating bounce that drives the track home for the listener.  Or download “Empty Gun” and you’ll be rewarded again with gratuitous hooks and sugary melodies that have made the band such a staple in the Interwebs.

My experience with Forever ended up being varied.  There’s definitely a bunch of tracks I’ll be playing over and over again for some time, but there were also some disposable songs that might have molded my opinion of the album early on during my listening.  One thing’s for sure though, Painted Palms aren’t going anywhere, and this record is the perfect place to start making a name all on their own.

Boy & Bear – Harlequin Dream


Rating: ★★★½ ·

Harlequin Dream is the second LP from Australian folk-rock band Boy & Bear.  Like their 2011 debut, Moonfire, this is a great sounding, very well produced record with several memorable tunes.

Boy & Bear work within the same reverb-soaked modern folk-rock style of bands like Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses.  Vocally, it’s hard not to hear a major Fleet Foxes influence here.  Still, Boy & Bear have found their own sound, and their tunes are generally more driven and upbeat than their contemporaries.

Harlequin Dream feels more pop and less folk-influenced than Moonfire.  The first five songs are all fairly bright, high-energy tunes.  The album slows down for the first time and takes a slightly reflective turn with “A Moment’s Grace”, before picking back up with the folk-sounding “End of the Line”, which has enough banjo in it to feel like a Mumford and Sons piece.  The next song, “Back Down the Black”, feels very out of place here, maybe because its subject is so much more serious than anything else on the album.  The last two songs are my personal favorites, especially the mellow, meditative “Arrow”.

The vocals throughout Harlequin Dream are quite strong.  There are some really well done, smooth harmonies as well as some impressive displays of range.  The title track in particular is incredibly hard to sing along to, although it’s catchy enough to make you want to try and fail (I did).

Lyrically this feels like a fairly straightforward rock record, with many of the songs covering such inexhaustible subjects as desire and loss.  The mood stays lighthearted throughout the album, but there’s still room for some complex lyrical structures in songs like “Real Estate.”

I like how Harlequin Dream expands upon the Boy & Bear’s already solid sound.  I definitely think that this band is only going to get more popular, and I don’t really have any criticisms of this album other than the fact that the ridiculous cover makes my eyes hurt.

Bubblegum Lemonade – Some Like It Pop


Rating: ★★★★½

Some records come into your life without fanfare or expectations; they exist simply as a statement by an artist. Whether or not the band, Bubblegum Lemonade in this case, has received acclaim or accolades isn’t important, but what matters is the strength of said statement.  In the case of Some Like It Pop, I don’t care what anyone has to say, this album is brilliant from start to finish.

“This is the New Normal” winds its way carefully into the opening moments, with a bit of strings and a tinkering bit of bells.  Before you know it, you’re swept away in this gorgeous sensation of warm pop.  The melody stands out instantly, but the mood of the song is greatly affecting; Laz adds a nice “ba ba ba baaa” to the mix to really emphasize a musician at the top of his game. And hits just keep coming.  “It’s Got to Be Summer” again opens with a bit of  playful tinkering, but at the 18th second of the track, you won’t find a musical sensation more compelling. What’s striking to me about Some Like It Pop is the attention to detail at every turn.  Where the group went for straight indiepop on their last outing, this one is filled with touches and brushstrokes of genius songwriting that ultimately reward the listener, like when this tune trails off in its closing moments.

And things don’t always go as one would expect from Bubblegum Lemonade.  On “Don’t Hurry Baby,” there’s a lush arrangement, leaving you with this dreamy balladry that will leave a lasting impression.  There’s even a chugging guitar riff beneath the mix that adds a bit of rock n’ roll propulsion to the affair.  And it moves into the album’s standout, “Dead Poets Make Me Smile.”  The title of the song alone wins, but dammit if the song doesn’t win on every single level, rolling along with the back beat of the drums and the jangling guitar.   Other songs like “First Rule of Book Club” have this wry sense of humor, but they also seem to be timeless pieces of music; it’s not draped in nostalgia or boasting some new direction, it’s simply perfect.

The closing statement from Some Like It Pop, “Mr Dreaming’s Bland House,”  is the album’s longest tune, and also a final statement that serves as the perfect summation for the record.  Melodies swirl throughout. Drums are spot on with their emphatic punch, though never over-intrusive.  And the vocals have this perfect wash of fuzzy coating, including a nice dose of backing vocals.  It all fits together so well, that you almost immediately start the record over.  It’s understated in the perfect way, making the entirety so much more endearing.  You’re not going to find a better pop album out there; they just don’t exist, so follow my lead to the blissful land left to us all by Bubblegum Lemonade.


Download: Bubblegum Lemonade – Have You Seen Faith [MP3]



Illls – Hideout from the Feeders


Rating: ★★★½ ·

Occasionally you gravitate towards an album without much awareness, but something grabs you.  It squeezes you tight, holding you closely for the duration of your listening experience, and beyond (if it’s good).  This is precisely the case with my whole excursion into the world of Illls and their recent release, Hideout from the Feeders.

If I tried to explain this entire LP to you, I’d probably fail miserably, but there’s something incredibly important about the overall feel of the record.  It’s claustrophobic, in an endearing sense; the whole album has this filter on the vocals, as if you’re listening through glass or it’s being blasted from the speakers at the bottom of your swimming pool.  The first track that really hit this point home was “Colleen,” which is the third tune.  It’s present earlier, but the sound of the vocals stood out the most here due to the stark contrast to the pop sensation present in delivery of the vocals.  They hold onto to this smooth quality, working against the grainy darkness of the mood; it’s a striking effect, and one that succeeds time and time again on Hideout from the Feeders. 

Illls follow up that third track with what might just be one of my favorite tunes of the year, “Coma.”  The angular guitars are played through a kaleidoscope of dark post punk heritage, stepping in line with the deep tonal quality of the vocals.  Then you’ll hear a higher vocal break into the dense surroundings of the tune, accented by a wash of keyboards.  I keep coming back to this song again and again, so you’ll do well not to miss out on a few repeated listens throughout your day.  I love how there’s this overwhelming accessibility lurking beneath the surface; you’ll hear it again if you skip ahead to “In Gray.” This song takes on a more sprawling manner, similar to what you’d get if you spun a band like Blank Dogs through a whirlpool of blissful 80s underground pop. Capturing both dark and light, in both texture and mood, isn’t an easy feat, so those in search of such a dynamic will find solace in these types of tunes.

One thing that does tend to hurt Hideout from the Feeders, is that it’s not really able to step away from the structure of the style. While it’s successful on so many levels, the confines of the songs, and album, make it difficult to really stretch into a more dynamic sound…at least on this effort.  But, if I were you I’d put that aside immediately, as the record is pretty rewarding.  It’s clearly got doses of all things current, but I really appreciate how it’s able to stand out from the rest of what’s going on with such a refreshing approach.  You’ll do well not to skip out on Illls.


Widowspeak – The Swamps EP


Rating: ★★★ · ·

The Swamps isn’t nearly as gloomy as its cover and title might indicate.  Although the EP begins with a slow, somewhat melancholy introductory track, it soon gains momentum.  By the time the penultimate track, “True Believer” rolls around, the mood on this record could almost be called optimistic.

Musically, The Swamps is a bit more eclectic than Widowspeak’s first two albums.  At times, the band almost strays from the smooth, dream-pop sound of their previous work.  “Smoke and Mirrors” feels a bit like surf-rock, while “Calico” and “Brass Bed” are much lighter, folksier tunes.  Still, the band is instantly recognizable due to lead singer Molly Hamilton’s dragging, breathy vocals.  Hamilton has an effortless way of rising up into notes that reminds me strongly of Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval.

Lyrically, these songs combine the imagery of a swamp with both nostalgic and hopeful sentiments.  “Calico” and “Brass Bed” are about simple, domestic pleasures and reflect a lost sense of normalcy in a relationship, while “True Believer” is a more direct appeal for understanding.  “True Believer” contains a grand, sweeping chorus and is, for me, the best and most memorable song of the group.

I’m not the biggest dream-pop fan out there, and the songs on The Swamps might not be as strong as some of Widowspeak’s earlier tunes, but there’s something very compelling and soothing about the vocals throughout the record.  

Radioactivity – s/t


Rating: ★★★½ ·

While the Marked Men might be on some sort of hiatus due to the busy schedules of everyone involved, Radioactivity at least gives us a glimpse at the glory of old, with half the band represented on the band’s eponymous debut.  The project is filled with leftover tracks from Jeff Burke’s project, The Novice, and he called in good pal Mark Ryan to flesh things out, leaving us with a blistering record of punk rock hits.

“Sickness” opens with that stuttering guitar line that’s pretty prominent in the work of all those involved with Radioactivity, though there’s a soloing guitar line that seems to knife its way through the track.  The vocals push the boundary of raspiness that you get from classic punk rock, though for all intents and purposes, the group’s still leans a little bit towards the pop side of things.  You’ll get that image perfectly on the following two tracks, “Other Life” and “World of Pleasure.”  The latter is definitely one of the record’s standout tracks, pounding furiously in your ears, despite having a catchy delivery of the lyrics throughout.

And you get what you expected on the first half of the record, with the blistering pace of the tunes allowing for the band to demonstrate their songwriting capabilities, while still honing their pop sensibility; this is one of the things I’ve loved about Marked Men and all associated bands. Tracks like “Alright” are perfect for driving, partying or even running; they fit in every corner of your life.  But, what has impressed me about Radioactivity is that there’s a glimpse of what’s to come with the band’s next LP (rumored to be on its way in 2014) near the latter half of the album.

For example, “Alone” has this huge ringing guitar line, with the bass slowly working its way into the fold.  It opens up the space quite a bit, adding just the slightest differentiation to the band’s signature sound.  If you listen carefully, you can hear the guitars working against each other, almost fighting to define the band’s sound.  There’s also the power ballad that lurks at the end of the record via “Trusted You.”  The drums seem to want to escape into a heavier realm, though their steadiness really provides a good backbone for the rest of the song, which remains sort of a heartfelt ode to a lost friend or lover.  It’s actually great on its own, but it’s made even better for the fact that its fittingly unique in the grand scheme of the LP.

I’m a huge fan of the group, even if the songs sometimes seem to blend together after repeated listens.  And that’s the thing with Radioactivity, you’re going to get repeated listens. The songs are too good to ignore, and too catchy to dismiss.  It’s clear that the duo of Ryan and Burke still have tons of tricks up their sleeves to keep me coming back to buying their records.


Download: Radioactivity – Locked in My Head [MP3]

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