Sunday, August 30, 2009

Arctic Monkeys - Humbug

In 2008 Arctic Monkeys' frontman Alex Turner got together with The Rascals' Miles Kane and the Simian Mobile Discos' James Ford to form an awesome side-project called The Last Shadow Puppets. Haven't heard of them? Go download their album The Age of the Understatement. No seriously, if you haven't heard the album you can't read the rest of the review. It's Ok, I'll wait...

Heard it? Loved it? Ok, then we can move on. The album went straight to number one in the UK album charts with the help of Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy, the band not the video game) who was brought in to arrange strings, brass and percussion for the album. You may be thinking to yourself "Why do I care about the Last Shadow Puppets or this Final Fantasy guy?", well smart guy its because this side project ends up being very important to the evolution to the Arctic Monkeys sound.

I'll be honest, when the Arctic Monkeys first exploded onto the scene I didn't really understand what all the fuss was about. Sure they had some catchy songs but they were nothing extraordinary, just an extension of the cookie cutter alt-rock sound that was all the rage. To a degree the Monkeys started to drown in the deep waters already flooded with more distinctive bands such as Franz Ferdinand. They really didn't catch my attention till the release of their second album, Favourite Worst Nightmare, where they started to experiment with a slightly harder edge to their song writing.

With the release of their new album, Humbug, the Monkeys sound has matured into something more experimental, with a darker sound and bleaker subject matter. Produced by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, Humbug is an ambitious album that borrows more from The Last Shadow Puppets and Queens of the Stone Age than their previous albums. The album opener "My Propeller" has Hommes' fingerprint all over it and would be perfectly at home on the Queens last album along side "Turning the Screw".

There are some great tracks on the new album, pay close attention to the sleazy bass lines and fuzzy guitars of "Secret Door" and "Fire and the Thud," the second of which has backing vocals from sultry Alison Mosshart (The Kills/Dead Weather). Both tracks sound right at home with the new blues/indie rock sound spreading with such bands as Band of Skulls and IO Echo. Mosshart and Turner, who are both signed to Domino, have worked together before when she performed with The Last Shadow Puppets on "Paris Summer" for their EP My Mistakes Were Made for You.

The album ends with "The Jeweler's Hands," a slow burning song that echos with Turner's more orchestral sound found in Last Shadow Puppets albums. Arctic Monkey fans may be disappointed at the lack of radio friendly songs on Humbug, with "Potion Approaching" and maybe "Pretty Visitors" being the closest to the old albums sound. However in many ways Humbug is a stronger album than their previous efforts, delivering a richer and more complex music experience. Turner has evolved as a singer while Jamie Cook (guitar), Matt Helders (drums) and Nick O'Malley (bass) all give solid performances. It's obvious that maturity has spread through the band, taking them to new and darker places that get better with repeated plays.

And in case you still don't know who The Last Shadow Puppets or Alison Mosshart are...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Band of Skulls @ Fubar 8/24/09

Arriving hours before the concert began, my friend Matt and I pulled up next to Fubar around 7pm on a Monday night to find all three members of Band of Skulls standing on the sidewalk not more than fifteen feet from where we parked the car. They had a couple guitars and were about to head down to a nearby restaurant for a quick bite before the show. We waited the appropriate non-stalker-ish time before we followed. At that point neither I nor my friend Matt had the courage to attempt contact, so we sat a few tables over from the band and had a drink. After a short time we walked back down the street to Fubar where the show was later going to take place.

Walking inside was a bit of a shock to the system due to the fact that there was hardly anybody there. A few people were tuning some instruments as we walked past the stage to the back of the room where the '21 and over' section started. After inquiring at the bar I discovered that the Skulls would be playing around 10pm, meaning we were very very early. Deciding the time should be used wisely I threw away my earlier plan of staying sober and decided to get another drink. This is the point where I was introduced to Sol, quite possibly the best Mexican beer I have ever had. Best described as a better tasting Corona with a hint of vanilla, Sol is now one of my favorite beers.

We listened to an acoustic one-man outfit serenade the total of 5 people in the room for awhile before deciding to go wandering. After getting our hands stamped we walked outside to an empty street and noticed that the members of Band of Skulls were now relaxing in a booth at the front of the empty bar. At this point I was hit with the honest truth, no one was coming to this show. We had left Springfield early and flew down the highway to St. Louis expecting a packed and maybe even sold out show. Instead we stumbled onto a rare opportunity, to see a great band in a very intimate, low key setting before the rest of the world caught on to how good they really were.

After a short adventure around the historic district of St. Louis in search of a sharpie we returned to Fubar. I took in the last few songs of a band Matt described as "Modest Mouse meets Fallout Boy," before deciding to go make contact with the members of Band of Skulls. I picked up an LP of Baby Darling Doll Face Honey for $15 at the merch table and walked over to the bass player for Band of Skulls, Emma Richardson, still sitting with her band mates in their booth. The best way to describe her reaction to my autograph inquiry would be... exhilarated amazement. With an excited "Of course!" she ripped the album out of my hands and started tearing the plastic wrapping off. She pulled a folded poster out of the sleeve that I hadn't even known was there and asked my name before signing it.

The poster was a large reproduction of one of Emma Richardsons' paintings. As she handed the album to guitarist Russell Marsden I asked her about the painting and the album cover. It was indeed from her gallery "Meat Me At The Butchers," but as she informed me, had been cut in half and mirrored for the cover which she wasn't too happy about. Matt showed up shortly with his own purchased LP to be signed, which Emma again tore the plastic off in search of the poster. After all three members had signed our LPs we talked a little about their tour so far and the fact that we had drove two hours to see them. "We wanted to catch you before you get so big that we'll have to pay $80 for a ticket to a stadium show," I told them. "That would be great," Russell replied,"not that you have to pay $80 but that we would have lots of people come to see us." He continued to tell about how they had played an early set at Lallapalooza and mentioned how few people had showed up. I wanted to bring up the alarming lack of people at the current show but didn't have the courage.

Band of Skulls played a powerhouse of a set to a not so packed crowd of 23 fans. It was pure rock n' roll with driving guitar riffs and deep bass grooves. Many small venues suffer acoustically from their design, but Fubar sounded very good with the small exception of the low volume of Emmas' mic. They played most of the songs from their new album including "Light Of the morning," "Fires," "Blood," and my favorite "Cold Fame." They ended the show with the song "Impossible" and walked off the stage while the sound system replayed the last few fuzzy guitar cords over and over. A great ending to an amazing show.

After the show we went back over to the other bar where the band was meeting with all the fans who had come to see them play. They signed albums and posters and listened to fans profess their love for the new album. I was able to overhear a middle aged man tell his story to Emma about how he was there to get a autograph for his son who was a giant fan but couldn't be there because it was a school night. We were able to talk to Emma a little about their show and the importance of artist having sharpies at shows, after which I gave her the one we had quested for earlier. The 70s band Heart came up in our conversation and I was amazed to learn that she had never heard of them. Later I mentioned this fact to their drummer Matthew Hayward. He laughed and scolded Emma, "What!? You've never heard of Heart!" after which two girls at the table started to sing "Magic Man."

As a joke Emma and Matthew both signed a small poster with personal messages for one of my co-workers, Beth, who loves Heart. Emmas' message was about how she didn't know who Heart was but was sure they rocked. Matthews' message was "Beth!! You like Heart!? I like Heart! Lets get together!" (It is also funny to note that when I gave Beth the poster the next day she was listening to Heart in her office.) We left St. Louis near 1am to begin our long trip back to Springfield, the car ride spent listening to Band of Skulls and talking about the show.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Band of Skulls - BDDFH

First off, no Band of Skulls is not a black metal band. They are in fact a solid alt-rock trio from Britain who just released their first album, Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, which is a great album considering it was recorded only months after the band was formed. Seriously there really isn't a bad song in the 16 tracks of fuzzed-out guitar riffs, rock duets and smokey lyrics. Its also interesting to note that the album was recorded at Courtyard Studios in Oxfordshire, the same studio where Radiohead recorded some of their early albums. That doesn't really have a bearing on the quality of the music on BDDFH but for a giant Radiohead fan like myself its a nice piece of trivia.

The UK trio consist of Russell Marsden (vocals/guitar), Emma Richardson (vocals/bass) and Matthew Hayward (drums). All of which are contributing writers for the band which is why BDDFH feels like a mixed bag at times. Influences are all over the map including southern-rock, blues-folk and acoustic-pop. Listening to this album is almost like a crash corse in music history with hints of Zeppelin and Heart to more modern bands like Kings of Leon and Dead Weather. In fact sometimes if your not paying close attention it's easy to confuse Band of Skulls with one of Jack Whites side projects. Marsden seems to be doing his best at times to emulate White in both his vocals and his southern/bluesy guitar playing on songs like "Death By Diamonds And Pearls."

Richardson ends up being the standout member of Band of Skulls with her emotion and vocal talent on tracks such as "Blood" and "Patterns." The sensitive, acoustic guitar ballad "Honest" is one of the best songs on the album. Her beautiful and soothing voice echos that of Alison Mosshart (The Kills/Dead Weather) and is only enhanced when joined by the vocals of Marsden on "Fires." On top of being an amazing singer and bass player, Richardson is also a very talented painter. Two paintings from her recent exhibition "Meat Me At The Butchers" have been used as covers for the digital and CD releases of BDDFH. Her paintings are abstract works that she says could be human innards or muscle.

The album closes with the elegant "Cold Fame," a melancholy indie-rock ballad featuring Marsden on vocals. A very emotional song with standout lyrics:

What's the point of fame if it's been abused?
What's a kid like me even got to lose?
Here I am on your bed again,
it's too big for the room it's in.
Wash your face and mouth just a little bit,
Everybody knows that you're good at it.
Nothing hurts like an answer phone,
drinking some, waking up alone.
Maybe if I try just a little more,
I can take myself from this dirty floor.
Walk through buildings of elegance,
just like you are intelligent.
But still I fall from grace with this microphone,
How'd you find yourself if you never roam?
Certainly I'm indebted baby, certainly, certainly...

Already receiving rave reviews from their show at Lollapalooza and joining the ranks of bands like Muse and Radiohead on the 'New Moon' soundtrack, Band of Skulls is set to explode in the coming months. They are now touring the U.S. and Canada for the second time with a stop at Fubar in St. Louis August 24th, which is just close enough that I might try to pop over and catch them. Because lets face it good music is worth loosing sleep over.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Blindfold - Faking Dreams

Blindfold is a London based 4-piece indie rock band created by the Icelandic composer Biggi Hilmarsson, also the creator of the amazing band Ampop. Although comparisons to bands such as Radiohead and Sigur Ros are unavoidable the best way to describe Blindfolds' sound is epic, ambient rock. Building up songs with slowly-progressing guitars and Tom York-esc vocals they create beautiful, haunting music.

Their new album, Faking Dreams, is already winning praise in the UK press but is having trouble finding a foothold with American audiences. It's hard to understand why when you listen to the fantastic tracks "Faking Dreams" or "Don't Think It's A Sin". The instrumental track "Wait", which begins slow and builds up to an array of guitar-plucking ambiance, is a great indicator of the immense talent this band contains.

If Faking Dreams sounds like your kind of drug I would highly recommend Hilmarssons' other music project Ampop. The name of the band is a fusion of ambient and pop which perfectly describes the sound of this Icelandic three man group. Their last album, Sail to the moon, came out way back in 2006 but has only improved with age as far as I'm concerned.

While their earlier music leaned toward an electronic/systhesiser sound, the piano plays a important role in their later albums and the tracks tend to have more of a classical feel. Keep an ear out for the songs "Two Directions" and "Spring", both are great examples of this bands ability to blend rich orchestrations with finely-crafted pop numbers. My personal favorite song is "Youth", on the album My Delusions, which is just as good as anything I've heard from their Icelandic neighbors Sigur Ros.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer

Easily one of the busiest people in indie rock, Spencer Krug gives other great singer/songwriters such as Jack White (White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather) and Damon Albarn (Blur/Gorillaz/The Good The Bad and The Queen) a run for their money when it comes to the sheer multitude of bands and side projects he is attached to. From Swan Lake to Wolf Parade, Frog Eyes to Fifths of Seven, I honestly don't know where he gets the energy. In June Krug released Dragonslayer, the new album from his other indie rock side-project, Sunset Rubdown.

A collection of lush piano tones, distorted vocals and psychedelic sounds, Dragonslayer is a big improvement over Sunset Rubdowns' previous release, Random Spirit Lover, which was a dense mix of squealing guitar and dark electronica harps and keyboard. I don't mean to say that isn't a good thing sometimes, but Dragonslayer is more approachable to the average listener and is likely to be compared to the likes indie rock favorites The New Pornographers or Arcade Fire.

Dragonslayer focuses on mixing piano and keyboard melodies with Krugs' melancholy vocals. Songs such as "You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)" and "Silver Moons" are hauntingly beautiful and will stick with you long after your ipod is turned off. At the same time songs like "Idiot Heart" amp the album up a little with echos of The Killers glueing you to your headphones. Back-up vocals are handled by another Canadian indie rocker, Camilla Wynne Ingr (formerly of Pony Up), who creates a great balance between her lively, confident voice and Krugs' weighty, emotional lyrics. The rest of the band is filled out nicely by Michael Doerkson (Bass, guitar, synthesizer, drums), Marc Nicol (bass, kalimba, drums) and Jordan Robson-Cramer (drums, guitar).

Despite containing only eight tracks, Dragonslayer still feels substantial when you take into account the album ends with the ten minute "Dragon's Lair", a slow-moving epic with some of the most head scratching lyrics I've heard in quite awhile. "I got confetti in my eyes, I was held up at yesterday's parties, I was needed on the congo line..." Either these are words of a crazy man or a genius, I'll let you be the judge of that.

At the end of the day it must be said that Sunset Rubdown is making some of the most interesting music out there today. Combined with all the other great Canadian bands gaining strength in the U.S. (Metric, Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Final Fantasy, Feist) it makes you wonder what they put in the water in Toronto.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

IO Echo - Self-titled EP

You may not recognize the name but odds are you have heard at least one song by newcomers IO Echo. Their song "Doorway" was featured in the new Palm Pre commercial that has been all over television screens for the past few months, not to mention being shown in theaters before several summer blockbusters such as Star Trek and Harry Potter.

When I tell most people about a new band the first response I hear is "Who do they sound like?". First off, I hate this question. New music should be evaluated on its own merit and not on the random comparison to another band you may or may not like/love/hate. Second, it's really hard to answer... how do you label a band like IO Echo? Indie rock? Goth rock? Experimental Rock? In the end all you have to know is that they are an amazing blend of catchy guitar riffs and thumping bass lines.

The driving force behind the music is the bands vocalist, IO (a.k.a. Joanna Gikas), who composed the majority of the songs that make up the bands self-titled EP released back in May. The bands name is derived from the Greek translation of her name, Joanna, combined with the word Echo. It's hard not to make comparisons to Alison Mosshart (from the Kills) or Siouxie (from Siouxsie and the Banshees) when you listen to the lyrics of songs such as "Addicted" or my personal favorite the cover of the Beatles "I Want You(She's So Heavy". In addition to singing, IO also plays rhythm guitar and keyboards. The rest of IO Echo is comprised of Leopold Ross on lead guitar, Paul Rinis on drums and Salvatore Romano on tambourine and keyboards.

Originally from Washington, D.C., IO came to Los Angeles to form IO Echo. While they are still unsigned the band has been gaining momentum collaborating with The Von Bondies and She Wants Revenge as well as touring with OK Go and opening for Nine Inch Nails.

According to a interview on IO Echo describe their sound like:
"being in a motel room at 4am and the people in the room to your left are having loud sex while the people in the room on your right are listening to songs of praise on a transistor radio"

Anyone who knows me well will tell you that the one thing that gets my attention is a smart, sassy indie rock female singer/songwriter. One thing is for sure IO will have my attention for the foreseeable future.