April 30, 2009
Outer South is the first official release from Nebraska based singer/songwriter Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band (Nik Freitas, Taylor Hollingsworth, Jason Boesel and Macey Taylor). It’s a true collaboration, as six of the sixteen tracks were written by Oberst’s bandmates, with one song, “Worldwide,” written by Oberst for Taylor to sing. Oberst and the band sound pretty great together, and at their most inspired moments, they recall great bands like Neil Young and Crazy Horse or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I imagine that they will make a terrific live band. So the music making certainly isn’t an issue on Outer South; what is an issue, however, is that the superb musicianship on display here is in the service of an album that is frequently meandering and unfocused. The record as a whole never really finds a tone, and instead jumps from song to song, which works fine for a while, but then starts to sound a bit haphazard over its 70 minute length. Lyrically, it’s a bit haphazard, too, Oberst’s material as well as that of his band mates. The lighter material (i.e. “Air Mattress,” “Nikorette”) often seems to work the best, as the weighty material gets bogged down somehow or just falls flat. All that said, as uneven and flawed as Outer South is, there are enough high points to merit a listen, as the good tracks are very good, and it’s fun to hear how well they have clicked as a band. It may not be a great album, but it has enough moments of promise to make me look forward to what they come up with the next time out. Standout cuts: “Slowly (Oh So Slowly),” “To All The Lights In The Windows,” “Air Mattress,” and “Nikorette.”
March 26, 2009
The fourth album from Toronto based band Great Lake Swimmers is almost evenly split between ethereal folk ballads and spirited folk rockers, though it’s the former set of songs that dominated my first impression of the album. For a few days, I thought of Lost Channels as an entire cycle of songs along the lines of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.” This isn’t actually the case, as one of the folk rockers, “Palmistry,” is the opener, and the other rockers are spread fairly evenly and effectively throughout the rest of the record. The strongest material on the album are the slower numbers, however, and they are for the most part gorgeously rendered, with echoes of Neil Young, Nick Drake as well as the aforementioned duo. I don’t know where I’d rank it amongst their previous work, but suffice to say that whereas Lost Channels was an album that took some getting into to fully appreciate, the effort was very much worth it. Standout cuts: “Palmistry,” “Pulling On A Line,” “Concrete Heart” and “Still.”
February 26, 2009
Singer/songwriter Andy Cabic’s band Vetiver makes the kind of sudden leap forward that Okkervil River made with their dual release, The Stage Names and The Stand Ins: From the opening notes of the gorgeous opener, “Rolling Sea,” to the moody closer, “To The Forest Edge,” their fourth album Tight Knit is so focused, assured and just plain inspired that it has the makings of a future classic. The ten songs are a seamless mix of folk, country, psychedelic rock, blues with a bit of soul thrown in, with echoes of Bob Dylan, the Band, the Grateful Dead and contemporaries Son Volt and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, among other influences. Though easygoing folk rock takes up most of the album, there are a couple of nicely timed rock numbers, “Everyday” and “More Of This,” and one slow burning blues funk influenced number, “Another Reason To Go,” to change things up a bit. An early highlight of 2009, Tight Knit is a career best for Vetiver, and it’s definitely recommended listening. Standout cuts: “Rolling Sea,” “Everyday,” “More Of This” and “Strictly Rule.”
February 26, 2009
Upon listening to On The Ground, the new album from Peasant (Damien DeRose), comparisons can be made to artists like Neil Young, Elliott Smith, the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, which are apt, but still fall a bit short of properly conveying what the 13 tracks contained here really sound like. There’s a lot of folk rock, to be sure, with influences from both the 60’s American folk scene and the English folk scene of the 70’s. Peasant proceeds to layer some strings on top of that, along with some Americana and a bit of an early 70’s pop feel as well. Many of the tracks are relaxed, easy going affairs, but On The Ground nevertheless keeps the pace fast, as Peasant’s songs are often compact pieces, many of them two to three minutes tops. It must be difficult to stand out in a folk rock scene that’s becoming increasingly crowded, but Peasant manages it with a knack for a catchy melody, a soothing vocal style and lyrics that are simple, direct and unpretentious. On The Ground is very much recommended, especially for folk and folk rock fans. Standout cuts: “We’re Good,” “Raise Today,” “Exposure” and “Birds.”
January 9, 2009
After a nearly four year break, Swedish band the Soundtrack Of Our Lives return in pretty spectacular fashion with Communion, an double album of 24 tracks, each representing an hour of the day. I’m not sure what song equals what hour, but the record in its entirety makes for a true rock epic (and fortunately doesn’t take 24 hours to listen to, as it’s just over 90 minutes). It’s an potent, inspired and frequently majestic combination of garage, psychedelic and acoustic folk rock with a heavy Who influence that amazingly never runs out of juice. Surprisingly, the one track that I didn’t really go for, “Thrill Me,” happens to be the single, but tracks like “Babel,” “Mensa’s Marauders,” “The Ego Delusion” and “Utopia” more than make up for it. At various times during its history, people have proclaimed rock to be dead, but bands like the Soundtrack Of Our Lives and albums like Communion are proof rock can still kick a lot of booty, be it dead or alive.
December 21, 2008
In advance of a long overdue follow-up to her 2001 debut album, The Herethereafter, Los Angeles based singer/songwriter Miranda Lee Richards has released a very promising four track EP called Early November. Richards has described the music on her forthcoming album, Light Of X, as “Psychedelic Chamber Folk Rock,” which is actually a pretty tidy summation of the various influences you’ll find in her music. Her singing is lovely and evocative, and her music is buoyed by warm, compassionate and intelligent lyrics. All the songs are top drawer, with the title track and “Life Boat” being particular highlights, with the spoken word final track, “Oddity,” displaying a more experimental bent. This is good stuff, and should tide over Richards fans and Richards fans-to-be until the February 2009 release of the LP.
August 12, 2008
Entertaining, lovely debut for UK based singer/songwriter Laura Marling, who meshes British folk by way of Richard and Linda Thompson and American folk reminiscent of early Suzanne Vega with rock and pop elements. Alas I Cannot Swim also benefits from some savvy production by Charlie Fink, spare when it needs to be, as well as from eclectic arrangements done by the band Noah and the Whale. Marling is also a charming, intelligent and often witty lyricist, her gifts all the more impressive for her being just 18 years old, recalling another musical prodigy, Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera, who was 16 when he began releasing singles. Alas I Cannot Swim is hopefully the beginning of a long and fruitful career for Marling. Standout cuts: “Ghosts,” “Cross Your Fingers,” “My Manic And I” and “The Captain And The Hourglass.”
May 21, 2008
One of my favorite releases of the past decade was UK based band South’s 2002’s debut, From Here On In, a potent mix of moody electronica and folk rock. Their follow up, 2003’s With The Tides, which moved their sound in a more rock-oriented and ornate Britpop direction, was something of a disappointment, though. With their new album, You Are Here, South successfully strikes a sort of middle ground between those two sounds, resulting in an immensely satisfying set of songs, highlighted by “Wasted,” current single “Better Things,” “The Pain and “Every Light Has Blown.” It’s the right mix of electronica, folk, pop and hard edged rock, and puts them back on track again.