Tag Archives: indie

The Verge: Secret Cities

Secret Cities‘ band name suggests forgotten locales, overrun by flora and fauna, eroded by the passage of time. Their music, while not as dire, toys with all things nostalgic and exotic that their name suggests.

Secret Cities was formed by friends – and singers/multi-instrumentalists – Charlie Gokey and Marie “MJ” Parker when they were 15. Growing up at opposite ends of North Dakota, the two traded four-track tape recordings before recruiting drummer Alex Abnos to round out the band, then called the White Foliage. A move to Fargo, a few minor releases and a name change later, the White Foliage became Secret Cities.

Their first record, Pink Graffiti, was released in 2010. It is less folky and more immediate than their work as the White Foliage, stringing together elements from baroque pop and indie rock. Gokey and Parker exchange time on the mic; the male/female vocal dynamic provides a familiar, comforting aspect to the music. Pink Graffiti alternates between the dreamy gaze of tracks like “Aw, Rats” and the hook-driven, xylophone-and-handclap jam “Color.”

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/sc_awrats.mp3″ text=”Secret Cities – Aw, Rats” dl=0]

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/sc_color.mp3″ text=”Secret Cities – Color” dl=0]

After touring to support Pink Graffiti, the band hunkered down in the basement of an abandoned Kansas City bank to record its follow-up, Strange Hearts. The record is more airy and lo-fi than Pink Graffiti, yet warmer and more approachable. It is 30 minutes of 60s-styled pop hooks, from the opener, the sunny, Afrobeat rocker “Always Friends,” to the closer, the bouncy “Portland” (which sounds like Matt and Kim-lite). As comforting as that can be, Secret Cities is at their best playing with the formula a bit, like on “The Park.” A piano ballad in the style of Carole King by-way-of Feist, “The Park” lets Parker truly shine.

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/sc_thepark.mp3″ text=”Secret Cities – The Park” dl=0]

The video for “Always Friends” uses a split-screen, double-sided narrative of high school romance to capture the essence of the song, and that of the album: a full spectrum of emotions, with the warm tinge of nostalgia.

Catch Secret Cities at Comet Ping Pong on Monday, June 13, with Mercies and Paperhaus.

Album Review: Planningtorock – W

Planningtorock is the alter ego of Janine Rostron, a British-born musician and visual artist who has lived in Berlin for ten years. Her new album, W (on DFA Records), is reminiscent of the avant-but-accessible work of TV on the Radio. The album reveals layers of influence as the chameleonic Planningtorock recreates herself on every song.

Album opener “Doorway” steadily builds, pumping with a kick drum heartbeat and distorted vocals (practically turning Rostron’s voice male). Each pass is an opportunity to add a new sound to the mix, whether horns, synth stabs, or spaghetti western guitar licks, a pattern repeated elsewhere on W. The video for “Doorway” finds Rostron physically altered, just like her voice.

“Going Wrong” is haunted by mischievous strings right out of a Clint Mansell soundtrack, with layers of weeping sirens, animalistic mewing, and foreboding pleadings of “Am I holding on / to someone going wrong?.” The last notes of “Going Wrong” barely fade before the steady rumbling and Baba O’Reilly arpeggios of “Im Yr Man” kick in. “Im Yr Man’s” insistent lyrics are both self-affirming and a statement of devotion: “I don’t need a microphone / to me what I’m real feeling for you / that deep down feeling you know / I left things out so I could pull them back in.”

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/im_yr_man.mp3″ text=”Planningtorock – Im Yr Man” dl=0]

Rostron’s vocals are manipulated like another instrument on W. On “The One,” her baroque vocals complement orchestral strings, matching the song’s melancholia. “The Breaks” surges with the measured precision of darkwave, full of evocative lyrics like “don’t be surprised / if I’m ripping out my eyes / I’m on fire.” “Jam” has the same feel, with more exotic percussion, drawing out lyrics into almost childlike taunts. Repeating the lyrical themes of “The Breaks” on the synth pop “Living It Out” (“My head’s on fire“), Rostron’s vocals contort to fit the mood, from the almost spoken word chorus to the breathy verses.

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/living_it_out.mp3″ text=”Planningtorock – Living It Out” dl=0]

Logging 12 songs and just under an hour, W is not without flaws. PTR gets meditative – and indulgent – on the wandering “Black Thumber.” Her cover of Arthur Russell’s “Janine” features a hypnotic bass riff and her most Antony-like vocals, but fails to develop. W finishes strong, however, on “#9,” which like “I’m Yr Man,” has a melody out of a different era, filtered through PTR’s collage of influences. With W, Planningtorock makes an intriguing addition to the DFA roster.

Album Review: Bosco Delrey – Everybody Wah

On his debut record, Everybody Wah, Bosco Delrey builds upon the timewarped sounds of his initial singles. The album is full of jangly rockabilly and rambunctious garage rock, loaded with hooks and a slicked-back swagger.

In the lull since last year’s releases, it was clear that Delrey’s biggest hurdle would be meeting the immediacy of songs like “Evil Lives” or “Space Junkie.” On Everybody Wah, the rumbling, electric organ jam “Glow Go The Bones” and catchy album opener “Baby’s Got a Blue Flame” are up to the challenge.

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/01-Babys-Got-A-Blue-Flame.mp3″ text=”Bosco Delrey – Baby’s Got A Blue Flame” dl=0]

Everybody Wah presents a modern take on classic rock and roll without aping it note-for-note. The songs mix an old school songwriting approach with diverve new school influences, the kind of formula that led Diplo to call Delrey a “garbage can Elvis.” “Get Outta Dodge” swirls under a psychedelic fuzz; the electro-tinged “Archebold Ivy” has the weirdness of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd; “Afterlife” grooves with a mellow dancehall beat. In all cases, Delrey serves up patchwork, not pastiche.

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/09-Afterlife.mp3″ text=”Bosco Delrey – Afterlife” dl=0]

The flip-side to sock hop rock songs is the doo-wop / country western ballad, which Delrey also handles with aplomb. “Expelled Spelled Expelled,” “Down We Go,” and “Insta Love” are updates of the classic style, with gentle arpeggios and even gentler melodies.

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/10-Down-We-Go.mp3″ text=”Bosco Delrey – Down We Go” dl=0]

The album closes with the spacey, galloping electronics of “20 Flight Dub.” The song is a bit of an outlier, but it serves as a fine digestif after an impossibly catchy full length. The song’s unofficial video pairs it with the surrealistic touchstone Un Chien Andalou. For an album of unexpected twists and turns, it’s a fitting choice.

Everybody Wah comes out tomorrow, April 26, on Mad Decent.

Film Review: "New Garage Explosion"

“Keep it simple stupid.”

That’s the advice Joe Bradley of the Black Lips offers early on in New Garage Explosion: In Love With These Times, a documentary by Aaron Brown and Joseph Patel about the last decade’s garage rock scene (Ed. note: quote originally incorrectly attributed to Cole Alexander). Those four words manage to sum up the scene (and film) better than I could, but I’ll give it a shot.

The garage rock profiled in New Garage Explosion harks back to punk’s origins, not the hardcore punk of blackshirt mosh pits. It’s punk filtered through 50s rock’n’roll, 60s bubblegum pop, and 70s psychedelia. It’s also very much a regional movement: cities like San Francisco, Brooklyn, Memphis, Detroit, and Atlanta have their own scenes, bands, and sounds, but are all united by a brash, punk attitude and a DIY spirit.

New Garage Explosion documents the pillars of garage: the influences, the lo-fi recording process, the financial realities and the lifestyle. The film is interspersed with performances, rarely showing too many talking heads before getting back to its core: the visceral live performance of garage rock. Missing is the narrative of great documentaries: the audience is following one band’s experience, but rather the entire experience. It’s a cut-and-paste, film-as-zine approach that suits the topic.

Fans of any of the bands shown (Black Lips, Magic Kids, Vivian Girls, Smith Westerns, Davila 666, to name a few), will probably discover a new band, classic record, or groundbreaking record label from watching New Garage Explosion. Like the characters in High Fidelity, the interviewees relish the chance to list favorite obscurities. There is a record-store-nerd current throughout the film that anyone who has spent time in a cultural/musical underground will appreciate.

Sadly, the specter of Jay Reatard looms over the film. The film’s first case study died after an accidental overdose at just 29. On stage and off, Reatard was antagonistic and self destructive, but with a self-awareness evident in his interviews. Chillingly, he remembers punk rock records made by “dudes that kinda did make it… and then they fucking threw it all away and made these amazing albums on their downward spirals.” As he trails off, he references his prophetically titled Watch Me Fall. Unfortunately, understanding history did not prevent Reatard from repeating it.

New Garage Explosion is a brief (only 75 minutes long) introduction to a scene that is very much alive. The film features a brief section on the cycle of buzz band hype, asking “What does it take for a band to have lasting power?” Maybe that means taking Joe Bradley’s advice.

Stream “New Garage Explosion” below or at VBS.TV

The Verge: Grimes

Increasingly, there is a strand of darkly chilling music that turns the notion of pop music on its head. Practitioners include Bat for Lashes, Esben and the Witch, and Zola Jesus: artists who combine ostensibly pop melodies with darkly experimental touches. From the shoegazey to the baroque, this “nightmare pop” (as Esben and the Witch call it) is haunting and evocative.

The newest addition to this cast is Grimes, the stage name of Montreal’s Claire Boucher. Without any musical instruction, or even a passing knowledge until the age of 18, Grimes crafts twisted little pop songs from a patchwork of influences: dance, folk, and industrial music, among others. Tying everything together is her child-like, strangely beautiful singing voice.

“Vanessa,” the lead single off of Darkbloom (a split with fellow Montrealer d’Eon), has caught the attention across the blogosphere. A strong percussive current runs through the song for an entirely different type of witch house. The kaleidoscopic video is just as lush as the song.

While this may be the first time we’re hearing (and seeing) Grimes, the newcomer has been relatively productive during the last year, releasing a mixtape (Geidi Primes, available below) and an album (Halfaxa, on Arbutus). Geidi Primes is a bedroom-pop sound collage that revels in dichotomies: natural and artificial, East and West, old and new, comforting and abrasive. The sinewy “Rosa” could be a Smith’s tune, and strings collide on the sweeping “Sardaukar Levenbrech.”

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/rosa.mp3″ text=”Grimes – Rosa” dl=0]

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/sardaukar.mp3″ text=”Grimes – Sardaukar Levenbrech” dl=0]

Halfaxa has a more sinister undercurrent than Geidi Primes, mixing out-of-tune interludes with fuller-formed darkwave songs. Synths and electronic instruments are sharper, while the low end resembles the woozy bass of drag. The greatest contrast on Halfaxa is between Boucher’s dreamy, breathy vocals and the unrelenting instrumentation. “Sagrad” starts as a gently-strummed ballad before layers of vocals, harp, and a synth pop beat join the proceedings. Drag influences are heavy on the appropriately-titled “My Sister Says the Saddest Things.”

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/sagrad.mp3″ text=”Grimes – Sagrad” dl=0]

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/sister.mp3″ text=”Grimes – My Sister Says the Saddest Things” dl=0]

Add Grimes to the list of female artists ready and able to challenge the notion of women in pop music as party time sex dolls. Not everyone wants to be Madonna: plenty of people want to be Siouxsie Sioux.

Download: Grimes – Geidi Primes

Album Review: TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light

TV on the Radio returns from a brief hiatus with Nine Types of Light. From one of the most mesmerizing and challenging bands of the last decade, the major-keyed album doesn’t quite meet the high standard they’ve set. The band is still unmatched in melding their influences into a cohesive sound, but Nine Types of Light is missing the “Eureka” moments, surprise turns and breakout songs of previous records.

The bouncy, sun-soaked “Second Song” opens the album with an uncharacteristic tone that permeates the proceedings. Horns are more prevalent than ever, and the vocals (provided, as always, by Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone) tend towards uplifting rather than darkly exotic. Typical of the album is “You,” driven by a simple Eastern guitar riff and crunchy boom box drums.

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/you.mp3″ text=”TV on the Radio – You” dl=0]

“Killer Crane” is the band at their most stripped down and vulnerable. Thick piano chords do the heavy lifting, but the song isn’t as poignant as something like “Family Tree.” The lead single, “Will Do,” is a love song in in the purest sense. It features a surging low end and one of the band’s surest melodies yet. As the chorus holds, “no choice of words will break me from this groove.”

As waves of guitars, synths and horns are added to the mix, the album begins to feel more like TV on the Radio. “Keep Your Heart” is the upbeat cousin to Dear Science‘s “Stork and Owl.” The darkness starts to creep in on “No Future Shock,” which urges the listener “do the ‘no future'” before layers of instrumentation pull it apart at the seams. The sexy “New Cannonball Blues” would fit on any of their albums; Adebimpe’s slinking vocal lines and Malone’s blasts of falsetto keep it grounded in familiar terrain.

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/new_cannonball_blues.mp3″ text=”TV on the Radio – New Cannonball Blues” dl=0]

TV on the Radio are gifted chameleons, altering their color while staying true to their sound. To paraphrase Potter Stewart about obscenity, you know a TVOTR song when you hear it: the juxtaposition of diverse styles, the distinct vocal harmonies between Adebimpe and Malone. On each successive release, the art rock provocateurs have scrubbed away some of their trademark grime to focus on melody and songcraft. But can’t you have both?

Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes was a revelation; Return to Cookie Monster the rare sophomore sensation. In the band’s oeuvre, Nine Types of Light is closer to Dear Science in that regard. But while Dear Science was a surprising departure, the album was a grower and far more immediate than this one. Nine Types of Light is a just a little too meditative for my tastes; it’s as if some of the band’s light has been extinguished.

Album Review: Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

The titles of Lykke Li’s two albums have been instructive. 2008’s Youth Novel played out like a 22-year old’s first attempt at capturing life, love and loss on the page; as she beckoned on “Melodies & Desires,” “Come a little closer / Take a look at me / This light is so obvious / I want you to see.” Her sophomore effort, Wounded Rhymes, is informed by the last three years, years that have an out-sized effect on development, both personally and artistically. She admitted as much to Pitchfork:

“I dove into the craziness and did things that maybe I would think twice about when I get older. And I’m a really restless person; I’m tired of the way I sounded or looked yesterday. So it’s hard to hang onto this image of me as this young Swedish female in this world.”

Wounded Rhymes confronts that uncertainty and restlessness head on. It is more vibrant and less reserved than the bedroom pop of Youth Novel. If Youth Novel was winter, Wounded Rhymes is spring.

The urgency of the album is immediate, as the grimy, sneering “Youth Knows No Pain” kicks off the album. “Get Some” combines bouncy “Lust for Life” drums and the electroshock hum of a guitar, as Li drops lyrics that stoke the flames of a gender war: “Like the shotgun / needs an outcome / I’m your prostitute / you gon’ get some.”

“I Follow Rivers” and “Love Out Lust” are complementary, with the latter a more romantic take on the theme of free-spirited devotion. “Love Out of Lust” is a sweeping love song: “we can cross rivers with our will / we can do better than I can.” On the other hand, “I Follow Rivers” is richly layered and powerful, with hints of electric piano, horns, and exotic instruments reminiscent of those on Youth Novel.

While most of the album is more overwhelming than anything on Youth Novel, Li also tinkers with restrained, country-western ballads, in the style of the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison. “Sadness is a Blessing” and “Unrequited Love” recall “My” and “Hanging High” off her previous record, with their airy melodies and familiar sounds.

For Lykke Li, much has changed in the last three years. She deals with the fame and notoriety on “Rich Kid Blues,” sauntering through the lyrics like Grace Slick over some Jefferson Airplanesque psychedelics. Throughout the album, the lyrics aren’t as precious as before, and her voice is more self-assured. It’s a welcome change for detractors who found Youth Novel too twee. But despite changes in the formula, Lykke Li maintains her sound, not getting lost in denser productions (a charge easily leveled at contemporary Adele). At this pace, no one knows what Lykke Li will sound like in three years, including Lykke Li herself. And that’s a good thing.

The Verge: Esben and the Witch

Esben and the Witch takes its name from a Danish fairy tale. In the story, Esben is the runt of twelve brothers that set out to seek their fortunes. Though neglected and abused, Esben manages to outsmart a witch and a king, saving his brothers’ lives; he becomes a hero in the process. Like most pre-Disney fairy tales, there is a darkness that taints the seemingly innocent children’s story. In the case of Esben and the Witch, there is enough throat-slitting, child-roasting, and king-hanging to keep kids up at night.

Fittingly, the style of the Brighton three-piece, which draws from post-punk and shoegaze, has been described as “nightmare pop.” Esben and the Witch give a Gothic feel to the nuanced pop stylings of contemporaries The XX; the band’s aesthetic and two-guys-and-a-girl composition will no doubt lead to comparisons, as well. On the strength of their 33 EP and single “Lucia, At The Precipice,” (along with early love from the UK music media) the band landed a deal with indie powerhouse Matador Records.

“Lucia, At The Precipe” is a harbinger of the music on their Matador debut, Violet Cries. Rachel Davies’ breathy vocals are the focal point, as Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher build walls of shadows with their creepy instrumentals (Davies also contributes, on bass and percussion).

Many songs on the album follow the same pattern: Davies’ restrained singing over an ethereal soundscape of swirling piano and guitar, before cascading drums crash overhead. Songs like “Swans,” “Marine Fields Glow” and “Eumenides” are more ambient and spaced-out than the electronic-tinged “Hexagon IV,” “Chorea,” and “Warpath.” Standout track “Light Streams” sounds like a lo-fi, down-tempo song by Florence and the Machine. But whether pensive or chaotic, the band nails their sound tighter than a lid on a coffin.

A simple, repetitive drum beat is the engine that drives “Marching Song,” the lead single on Violet Cries. The lyrics are like a Gothic take on the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” and the video capitalizes on the brutal, visceral imagery contained within.

Grave rave looks to be the sound of 2011, as Verge featurees like Creep and True Womanhood flirt with darkness. The nightmare pop of Esben and the Witch is a welcome addition to the genre at-large.

Esben and the Witch, Wise Blood, and Last Tide play DC’s Red Palace next Thursday, March 3.

Album Review: Radiohead – The King of Limbs

Commentary about Radiohead’s unique distribution model has surpassed discussion of their music for some time now. After the pay-what-you-want (followed by pay-a-lot-for-extras) model they utilized on 2007’s In Rainbows, the band again surprised the music world by going from announcement to release in just five days on their their newest record, The King of Limbs. Today, it debuted digitally (a day early), while the physical and deluxe “newspaper album” versions will follow in March and May, respectively. But enough about that.

The King of Limbs builds on the atmospheric ambiance of Kid A and In Rainbows, putting the band’s early grunge sound even further in the rear view. There’s not even anything approaching the rough-edged rock of In Rainbow’s “Bodysnatchers.” Instead, Radiohead embraces Thom Yorke’s solo work and collaboration with beatmaker Flying Lotus, crafting an album that is sober and melancholy. It’s their most cerebral work yet.

Like a flower in spring, the album opens with “Bloom.” The cascading garage beat gives way to a jazz feel: muted bass, echoing guitar and orchestral strings that swell as if they’re an extension of Yorke’s voice. After “Bloom,” the album reveals a trifecta of twitchy, cacophonous bliss. On “Morning Mr Magpie,” Yorke coos “you’ve got some nerve / coming here / you stole it all / give it back” as the instrumental loops double back on themselves. The title of “Little By Little” describes how it progresses, as the electronic sharpness of programmed drums juxtaposes Yorke’s falsetto: “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt.” “Feral” is the most experimental of the three, surging but never quite breaking through.

The first single, “Lotus Flower,” harks back to the immediacy of “Reckoner.” The lyrics seem to describe the mood of the album and the band’s own subversive approach to music: “I will sneak myself into your pocket… We will sink and be quiet as mice / While the cat is away and do what we want.” Once again, Yorke’s lilting falsetto provides a romantic edge to an otherwise cold tune. In a new turn, the video features him doing an impression of Marcel Marceau during a seizure.

Except for a heartbeat bass drum, “Codex” is exceedingly simple, driven only by piano chords and vocals, until mournful horns enter, dueting with Yorke. The lyrics focus on innocence, while the line “jump off the edge / into a clear lake” make this the 21st century version of the band’s suicide-anthem “Creep.” “Give up the ghost” is an adjoiner to both “Bloom” and “Codex,” with it’s nature’s symphony sound effects and hollow-body acoustic guitar.

The album closes with “Separator,” which features Phil Selway’s punchiest drum line and guitar trills and fills right out of the Zeppelin song book. Its “wake me up” refrain is an appropriate close for a dreamy album that never gets out of bed. On The King of Limbs, Radiohead retreats under the covers and into half-dream, half-real world. Won’t you join them?

The Verge: True Womanhood

DC’s True Womanhood is a three-piece band that makes experimental, avant pop. While their sound owes much to touchstones like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen, it’s not just a post-punk pastiche. The band, comprised of Thomas Redmond (vocals, guitar) Melissa Beattie (bass) and Noam Elsner (drums, electronics), is unafraid to reach for contemporary sounds, spending more time looking forward than back.

On last year’s Basement Membranes EP, True Womanhood demonstrated their mastery of their favorite genres. “The Monk” opens the EP and sets the tone: macabre and brooding. “Dignitas” is either about the Roman concept of dignity or the assisted suicide organization of the same name. The down tempo jam, with it’s vertigo-inducing “don’t look down / or you’ll fall” lyric, builds and swells to a breakdown that is funky in the same way that Nine Inch Nails’ “into the void” is funky. Other standouts are “Rubber Buoys,” which would fit in on OK Computer, and “Magic Child,” which emerges from a foreboding haze before breaking out the “punk” in post punk.

“Dream Cargoes,” off their forthcoming record, builds on the sounds of Basement Membranes. A delay-heavy guitar riff plays off a goth disco beat, along with the band’s characteristically gloomy, nostalgia-heavy lyrics: “You’re a big boy / you’re a preteen / but you’re no man.”

True Womanhood – Dream Cargoes

True Womanhood continues to experiment, incorporating new sounds into their established aesthetic. “The Grey Man” is unnerving and spooky, utilizing a rudimentary industrial beat and muted chords, with filtered vocals. The moombahton-influenced “Minajah” actually sounds more like witch house to me, with the skittering synths of Salem. But in keeping with their DIY, lo-fi stylings, they crafted the song with reel-to-reel tape and analog effects.

After a successful 2010, True Womanhood is poised to breakout in 2011. The band has a few East Coast dates lined up that shouldn’t be missed.

Mar 11 – The Rock Shop – Brooklyn, NY
Mar 12 – Kungfu Necktie – Philadelphia, PA
Mar 13 – The Red Palace – Washington, DC