Jangle Pop is alive and well with Wellington, New Zealand's Pleasant Surprise on their album The Canopy Layer. There is a saying that, in Japan, the wild-and-wooly garage outfit Blue Cheer (responsible for the '60s garage anthem "Summertime Blues") were bigger than The Beatles. They use this as an explanation for the truly-far-out psych freakouts of bands like High Rise, Keiji Haino's Fusitsusha, and that tireless cosmic juggernaut Acid Mothers Temple.
Wellington, New Zealand's Pleasant Surprise reimagines a time, in the late '70s and early '80s, where the proggy art pop of The Kinks, the baroque beauty of The Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee" and the psychedelic insanity of The Teardrop Explodes laid the template for modern rock, rather than Abbey Road or Led Zeppelin's I.
New Zealand has long been an outlier for this particular brand of guitar rock. Legendary labels like Flying Nun and Xpressway focused on a particular clean, chiming, ringing guitar tone, as if Buddy Holly had survived and been given access to a full-blown basement 8-track studio. It's psychedelic, in its way, but also airy and experimental, focusing on the real, rather than the plastic confines of the post-production studio.
This sound would be carried into the future, and taken to its ultimate damaged conclusion, with the early works of Sonic Youth, who name-checked the sound in the classic track "Xpressway To Your Skull". Sonic Youth, as well as the original proponents of "The Dunedin Sound", are useful touchstones for the sound of Wellington's Pleasant Surprise.
Pleasant Surprise a clean, dry, organic brand of artful Indie guitar rock, which is then fleshed out with prodigious echoes and reverb, similar to the canned post-punk existentialist of modern day revisionists Sacred Bones Records. If someone from Sacred Bones happens to be reading this, you should really snatch up Pleasant Surprise, who are doing much to carry this damaged Indie Pop into the future, instead of relying on rosy-hued nostalgia.
Pleasant Surprise embody all that is great about artful Indie Pop. Melodic to the extreme, their guitar hooks and vocal barbs stick in your ear like saltwater taffy, but you'll not be rushing to the ER to remove this infection anytime soon! Things never get too dull or polished, however, with layers and layers of distorted grit in the distance, like a bank of stormclouds marring an otherwise idyllic beach day
Pleasant Surprise are exquisite songsmiths, in addition to having a great aesthetic sensibility. Listen to the gentle, climbing chords of "Gardens", perfectly simple, but giving a sense of urgency, of something happening. It's just three chords, sure, but strung together like heirloom Christmas lights on sterling silver wire. It's a slow, ebbing build, crackling with electricity and anticipation, which never fully breaks, as "Gardens" remains entirely instrumental. In this way, "Gardens" is a throwback to the other side of New Zealand noise rock, namely The Dead C camp of Bruce Russell and Michael Morley.
Here's to hoping Pleasant Surprise will encourage more listeners to delve into the fascinating history of Antipodean Rock. Or else, just get lost in these 10-tracks over and over, which will undoubtedly happen anyway. It's so great that digital music gives us access to formerly inaccessible sounds. Viva Pleasant Surprise!
Technology, like any tool, can be both a blessing and a curse. It can seperate us, keeping us locked inside glass fortresses of solitude, where we never really connect but constantly bump into one another. On the other hand, technology brings us together, offering us rare glimpses into who, what, and where we are. It offers us the opportunity to connect on a deep, Human level.
The band Mapkeeper have never met in person, despite making some of the most cohesive, compelling, emotive future bass pop this reviewer's heard in a hot minute. It's hard to believe Mapkeeper live 1000 miles away from one another, with Adam Rensch residing in Chicago and Michelle Pawlowsky dwelling in Montreal. The Dead Ends EP sounds like their knees were literally touching. You can practically feel the humidity in the air from their conjoined breath.
The Dead Ends EP is a tragically-short-but-oh-so-sweet gem of a future bass EP - 4 tracks of post-industrial grinding bass, trilling trap hats and ethereal electronic ambiance. The traditional grime template of sci-fi electronics and human vocals, courtesy of Pawlosky, is adorned with intricate arrangements - synth strings, digital reverb, backing vocals - preventing things from ever becoming dull or predictable.
It's impossible to pick one standout moment, out of the four. The entire EP is flawless, from start to finish. As in Beyonce, "I woke up like this,"-Flawless. One gets the feeling both Rensch and Pawlosky eat, breathe, and sweat music. It's easy to imagine them waking up, one morning, with a complete pop masterpiece on their bedside notepad. It's completely natural, totally organic, fresh and free and spontaneous.
That being said, the Dead Ends EP is not merely pbr&b - not merely bandwagoneering, but updating the sound to make something original and unique, as on "At Your Door", which takes Mapkeeper's futurist sound design and conjoins it with spectral, ghostly indie garage rock, like The Strokes being remixed by Burial. It's one of the most artful future beat/Indie crossovers I've heard in a minute, in a terribly exciting way. Most whitebred Indie Rock couldn't be less interesting, at the moment, sadly - while straight-up electronica runs the risk of losing the masses, who don't know how to find the beautiful intricacies in its pummeling repetition. That's what's so great about heavenly hybrids like Mapkeeper - they act as translators and gatekeepers, getting different communities talking and connecting.
The Dead Ends EP is made up of two originals, one guest lyricist, and a reworking of "Shake It Off" by the much-dreaded Taylor Swift. Mapkeeper are doing a public service, reclaiming Swift's infectious pop into something artful and authentic - something Swift seems to be incapable of.
It's hard to believe Mapkeeper met on Twitter. It's a clear rebuttal to the idea that one can't find real connection and kindred spirits on the 'net. You can find ANYTHING on the Internet, even lifelong friends and musical soulmates. Do not sleep. Buy this now, and buy a copy for all of your friends! Mapkeeper won't stay underground for very long, so get in on the ground floor and claim your bragging rights.
Within the past two years or so it seems as though psychedelic shoegaze inspired rock and pop bands have been oozing through the cracks and into the mainstream. Some of these bands have been around making this kind of music forever; I am thinking here of The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cure, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and The War on Drugs just to touch on some of the big ones.
But then there are bands like Canada’s Black Mountain and the short lived Liz Harris vehicle Helen, that have also released excellent work without being recognized for it. But alas there are building blocks and when one looks at a building they see an amalgamation of bricks but not all the bricks at once.
Another shoegaze brick in the wall so to speak is the ambient Arizona haze-rockers Dirt Friends. They formed back in the beginning of 2015 after a few other projects their members were working on went on hiatus. Their first record, the poetic Sunsets & Night Sweats, put out by Tucson indie label Commercial Appeal Records, dips its toes into the waters of shoegaze but keeps the hiss and fuzz to a bare minimum and instead lets poppy hooks and jangly guitars do most of the work here.
It’s hard not to take the bait on tunes like the sing-song-y “Easy,” a college rock radio hit if ever there was one. Or how about the well-crafted mix of guitar textures and “fuck all” friendly lyricism of “Dump 'Em Out.” Then there’s the lo-fi electricity on the shimmering “Shit Cologne” which plays like a slightly more reserved version of something out of the early Modest Mouse catalogue, though unlike Isaak Brock who unleashes his fury like Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk singer Nick Livak likes to hang back, seeming to let the words release themselves.
The closest he seems to come to anger is “Chili Dogs” which despite its silly title is a straight faced look at the shittier points of life, such as the heart blistering lines “there's a limit to how much you think that you should drink / and you never end up going home with the woman that you wanted it to be.” Then there’s this gem from the equally boozy “Night Cap” on which Livak laments “well the doctor says that i should stay off my feet / to take advice like that is impossible for me / ‘cause I’m always on the run.”
If anything Sunsets & Night Sweats merely winks in the direction of full on shoegaze, though it still bears a phosphorescent sheen that would have been impossible without those genres subtle influences. But Sunsets & Night Sweats is essentially an indie pop record, and a rather marvelous one at that.
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Originally formed as a garage rock & blues duo, Albino Rhino has been writing and recording music since before 2013. By 2016, the band had added two more members to the band lineup, released an EP, and both signed and left a record deal. In May of 2016, Albino Rhino finally completed and released their self-titled album Albino Rhino which they had started in 2013.
The album begins with a slow, groovy guitar riff in “Walk In Spheres” that gradually incorporates the rest of the band in a bluesy, carefree anthem. Punching guitar lines, swinging percussion, and piano all make their debut in the epic opener. A lengthy intro featuring a droning organ, warbling guitars, and classic rock n’ roll elements leads the listener into the steady, driving beat of “Color To Your Grey.”
An acoustic guitar accompanies the wistful vocals in “No More Daydream” before the song evolves into a country-infused jam with harmonica and various stringed instruments. This song contrasts with the more electronically-focused “Hair On Fire,” a danceable rock anthem built upon upbeat percussion, strong vocals and distorted guitars.
Albinö Rhino highlights its talent in the realm of funk in “Floor Funk,” a seven-minute fusion blend that combines horns, catchy vocal melodies and throbbing guitars in arguably the band’s most stylistically quintessential song on the album. The energy continues in “Movin’ On,” a bright piece that alternates between pop and blues styles seamlessly. Following, “Buck Up” sustains this soundscape and showcases Albino Rhino's lyrically creative songwriting style.
The record ends with “Rio,” a celebratory tune that builds dynamically right up to the song’s ending. As a record, Albino Rhino is an exciting listen from start to end, and the innumerable artistic moments within each song make for an extremely enjoyable musical experience. This album will undoubtedly propel Albino Rhino further along in their already-mesmerizing career.
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Sometimes you don’t need a professional recording to hear how good a song is. I think that is fair to say of The Missing Stuff by Cowboy Stoner Arkestra. This four-song EP has some quality songs that I hope one day are recorded in a professional studio. Suffice it to say I think the singer Owen Burgress has an enjoyable voice but I have to admit I would have loved to hear it better in the mix.
The songs themselves do have the cowboy-esque vibe and that what I was drawn to initially with these songs. I was reminded of sitting by a campfire with a handful of friends and a handle of whisky.
The EP starts with a highlight entitled “Where the Cowboys Go.” I just liked the overall vibe and feel of this song. It’s slightly upbeat, hopeful and nostalgic at the same time. That’s a killer combo if you ask me. Truth be told I couldn't make out the lyrics by listening to the song but I was able to read the lyrics. The lyrics do in fact have to do with cowboys. He sings, “I’m going where the cowboys go / Out past Laredo / Out where the wind still blows.
“Because of You” is a lot more mellow. The army style snare is surrounded by guitar and harmonica. The song on top of being mellow is more melancholy. My only complaint is with the production. The snare work masks the vocal. On “Because of You” the lyrics complement the mood. He sings, “The world was desolate full of sorrow / Strangers had no hearts or hands.
Up next is “I Used to Live in Texas” which is in fact all about Texas. Burgess talks about being raised and how he thought he was going to die there. Thy close with the melancholy “I'm Blue” which reinforced the unique western cowboy-esque vibe the band has.
I’m drawn to this band’s sound. I don’t hear this type of sound often which feels like it could be used in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Hopefully this band will get in the studio some time soon because it deserves a professional recording.
Stetson Straw is a duo consisting of Tyler Dryden (vocals/lyrics/guitar/other instruments) and Patrick Kwan (guitar/other instruments) are more Simon and Garfunkel than The White Stripes. It’s about damn time. Do you know how many duos out there still sound like The White Stripes?
The songs on I’ll Walk From Here are lo-fi, mostly revolving around guitar and vocals. They aren’t doing too fancy in terms of technical work or production but everyone’s got to start somewhere. They are some inspired moments on some of these tunes. Mostly in the way of melancholy and vocal harmonies.
They start with “En Route” which isn’t much of anything besides white noise, reverb tails and guitar. Typical nostalgic, stare into the abyss of nothingness type stuff. The next track “Second Impressions” starts with a poorly recorded lo-fi guitar that brings you out of the void and transports you into the living room, bedroom or bathroom of where this was recorded. It’s a nice song and I enjoyed the harmonies. That being said it desperately needed a change in rhythm or sound.
“Catch My Drift” contains some harmonica and loose ideas. The vocals are again the highlight and I liked the lyrics that I was able to make out. Not bad fellas. “Blasphemy” is arguably the highlight. The vocals are top notch on this song. As good as it was it would have benefited from a more significant shift in tone.
As the album progresses the songs are hit and miss with some inspiration in between. “Cosmic Mafia” was a highlight. The duo have potential but still have a ways to go. There are good ideas here but they need to be more fleshed out and not overly used. Overall, they fall into a case of wait and see.
Michael Kuwabara (guitar/vocals), Max Graham (drums/vocals) and Brayden Poole (bass) are Out of the Nowhere. The band first formed in 2013 and since then released a six-song EP entitled EP. They play pretty straightforward rock without many bells and whistles. The songs are lyrically heavy and some veer into melodramatic territory that turn metaphysical and philosophical. Sometimes the straightforward rock didn’t mesh with the contemplative subject matter.
The band opens with “Back to the Start.” I liked the vibe on this song. It reminded me of the pop sensibility of a band like The Cars. Right away the lyrics delve in existential territory using metaphors to explain the absurdities of life while hinting at topics like reincarnation. He sings, “Turn the page another word it all seems so absurd, / Does a story really end or just a new chapter begin, / Am I jaded cause I can't face it I’d rather live these dreams that I sleep, / In the end the credits roll but I'll take it right back to the start.”
Up next is “Two Years” in which he sings how fast time is going by. True. It even goes by faster when you're older. I feel like I was 34 a couple of weeks ago but it's in fact been a couple of months. Freaky. The band does some decent rocking out on “Glasshouse” while filling your head with nihilistic thoughts for the weekend. As the song come to a close the phrase “Is there anything at all” is repeated and repeated.
“Heavy Song” is melodic during the verse with heavy rocking during the chorus. The lyrics again question the universe and everything encompassing it and has a hard in fitting the vibe of the music. They close with a highlight entitled “Take My Soul.” The vocal harmonies are solid and the song is anthemic.
Out of Nowhere has some talent. I think they might take themselves a little too seriously sometimes for a couple of young dudes that play straightforward rock songs. Maybe throw in a song about how one of their buddies got really drunk on a road trip to Utah and puked out the window. Food for thought.
The Good Knife aka David Cook is a musician from Massachusetts who recently released an eight-song album entitled Wooden Music. First things first. I feel like I have to address the album cover. It’s kind of odd and I am still wondering if there is any meaning behind this picture.
The perplexing nature of the album cover dissipated from my mind once I start listening to these gorgeously sparse songs. Nine times out of ten I feel like musicians that go at it with a guitar and vocals need additional instrumentation. This is one of those times where nothing else is needed. Cook adds some effects like reverb which is also implemented tastefully and not overused.
This album works for a number of reasons. It's certifiably lo-fi but fits the mood and vibe. The guitars sound as if there was little if any attention to the sound other than putting up a mic. Cook’s vocals do seem to have a little more attention to detail. His vocals sounds intimate, raw and heartfelt in a very good way. Ultimately it’s his vocals that make this album such a treat.
The music often lands somewhere between folk artist The Tallest Man on Earth and to a lesser extent Donovan. That being said the essence of Cook surely shines on these songs. The album opens with “Last Sleep” which as far as a minimal album goes has some of the most elaborate production. He implements swells and reverbs that expand the song like a balloon at times. I even think there is a female vocalist in there somewhere. It’s a formidable opener.
As much as I liked the opener I think “Igloo” has it beat. The song has a classic folk feel and has a fantastic vocal melody. There is a serene stillness in the air while listening to this song. It’s melancholy without feeling over dramatic but most of all has subtle warmth that surrounds you.
He has more success with “Don't Want To Let You Down” although the song might have been a little more effective at around four to five minutes while “Lullaby For A Hangover” is just about perfect. The instrumental “New Pastoral” has a hard time competing with the other tracks. The lo-fi vibe doesn't work as well with only guitars. He closes out the album strong with the three remaining tracks. The highlight being “All Tomorrow's Bodies.”
Wooden Music only has minor mishaps amongst some gems. Recommended.
City life today is a fast paced game. Packages can arrive at our doors within an hour of purchase, emails are sent and received within seconds of each other and the expectation of what should be accomplished in one day’s time seems to mount daily. These new features of city life come with hints of fear and unease. Is this natural? Are we meant to move this fast? Cue the calls for a “simpler life” and getting more “down to earth.”
On the album, Odd Apple Radio, recorded, produced and mixed by John Charles Lippi a.k.a. “Juano,” none of this is mentioned. However, modernity and the questions that accompany it ooze from the psychedelic, existential music. For a producer that transitions between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, it doesn’t seem too far fetched.
Odd Apple Radio, a delicious free styled jazz and electronic experience, showers us with sounds that encapsulate modern life and the unease that creeps up beneath the cracks. Although distinctly contemporary and fresh, it carries notes of the ’20’s jazz age, as well as the ’70’s. Fears of modernity and increasingly fast-paced lives were noticeably present at those times as well.
Although not a hip-hop artist, Juano Lippi’s patchwork use of sound and experimental jazz vibe aligns closely with J Dilla, especially on an album like Donuts. At times, Lippi could also be compared to Beck, Ween, the summer vibe of Santana, or even the vocals of Sublime. Lippi’s sounds seem to be plucked from everywhere sound is created; radio waves, the ocean floor or a subway station.
Juano Lippi’s music is above all mysterious. It’s James Bond meets villainous alley cat blues. On the track “Playground Blues” for instance, Lippi repeatedly asks “Do you wanna play?” The music is sinister, but also terribly inviting. Sounds akin to a vintage video game rumble in the background. Lippi repeats this question on a later track, “Do You Want To Play?” twisting the knife on an already ominous album that admittedly puts me on edge (in the best way possible).
Odd Apple Radio maintains a sense of liquidity and flow between tracks. However, no cohesive message or story reveals itself. I made up my own story. Of course, there are many other interpretations that could be argued for. This mystery represents an accomplishment for Lippi, not a failure. The peculiar, enticing music that remains throughout the album holds it together. Stories don’t always need to be known.
The Swansea, Wales folk pop duo TangleJack are a busy lot. The pair of musicians, John-Paul Davies (lead vocals/rhythm guitar/harmonica/percussion) and Duncan Leigh (lead guitar/ backing vocals) released their first record, Eden, online back in June and have plans to release a hard copy on disc next month at The Garage Live Music Venue in Swansea. The pair have also played a plethora of other festivals in and around their home and even have some airtime lined up with local television and radio spots.
If one were to try to explain what makes TangleJack and Eden so popular it is that their songs are unobtrusive to say the least. They don’t come at you, as so many songs can, battering you over the head with obtuse lyrics. They don’t make an attempt to gain your sympathy or you empathy but rather they simply flow out like water and allow you to make of them what you will.
Eden opens with the bright and melodious “Sunny Day” with its rich peals of acoustic guitar and uplifting lyrics, and offers up a very welcoming feeling. It also begins to showcase how well Davies and Leigh both harmonize as well as play together. There is a naturalness to it which one hears next on the upbeat “That's What I Call Love” especially on the uplifting chorus.
But not everything on Eden is fanciful and uplifting. There is the impending gloom on the dark yet melodious dirge “Hey Ho,” and the quiet and haunting “This Lonesome Night.” But TangleJack isn’t just about writing happy hopeful songs or sad songs about lost love. They also prove they can compose traditionalist political folk ballads and they do so greatly on “Fatherland” which, with its fast-paced Spanish styled guitar and storytelling lyrics reminded me of Dylan’s long acoustic folk ballads which he became famous for. TangleJack also shows their cheeky side on the wonderful Kinks-like “Just Go You Bastard.”
In the end I realize that what makes TangleJack’s Eden so great is that it has depth and structure and just the right amount of experimentation. Each song, though based in the folk tradition, sounds different, and lends its own unique contribution to the whole of the record.
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