Husky’s “Punchbuzz” an Uplifting, Intelligent Collection of Indie Pop-Rock

19 Apr

Melbourne, Australia’s indie pop-rock duo, Husky, is back with their third full-length release, Punchbuzz.

Husky Gawenda, who sings lead vocals and plays guitar, founded the group in 2008 along with Gideon Preiss, who plays keyboards and contributes to the rich vocals. Starting as primarily an indie folk act, Husky continues to build on their folky beginnings by incorporating synthesizers and a variety of electronic sounds and effects into this solid 10-song set.

Punchbuzz was released in mid-2017 and Husky focuses most of their support for their music on the Australian market — so the album is relatively unknown in the States. But this is a cohesive collection of songs that’s well worth your time to get to know — reminding me of bands such as Fleet Foxes, Crosby, Stills & Nash at their most harmonious, the ethereal feeling of The War on Drugs, and even a dash of homage to psyche bands of the 1960s at times.

Track highlights: “Ghost” is the warm and welcoming opener — shimmering synth-pop that features soothing, mellow lead vocals throughout, with catchy choruses.

“Shark Fin” follows that up with its frenetic, Flashdance-like electronic drumbeats under jangly guitar riffs. Lots of cool harmonies in the lead break.

Another highlight on Punchbuzz is “Late Night Store,” a tune that’s light and crisp — with great changes of pace and plenty of hooks. The synths are taut and chirpy over a stop-n-go rhythm.

When “Walking in your Sleep” starts, you’d swear that Husky borrowed the guitarist from Fleetwood Mac. The guitar riffs sound so familiar. Once again, Gawenda’s vocal style is light and breezy, with bell-like keys and a 1970s feeling overall.

The closer for the 10-song set is perhaps the most fascinating track on the album. It’s experimental and ethereal, with warped synths rising, falling and swirling over a vaguely Caribbean rhythm. The lyrics are moody about lovers on a beach — with plenty of references to ghosts — ultimately tying this closer to the album opener.

There are other lyrical references such as “splinters in the fire” that carry over from one song to another as well, connecting central themes — making Husky’s Punchbuzz a tight, intelligent set of indie pop-rock that I think you just may love.

 

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Anton Barbeau’s Jangly “Natural Causes” Is Easy on the Ears

11 Apr

Sacramento-born and now based in Berlin, Anton Barbeau is an exceptionally creative and prolific artist who explores the boundaries of musical inventiveness. Natural Causes is his latest album — officially released this Friday, April 13th — a shimmering collection of intelligent psyche-pop, art rock and general quirkiness.

The 15 songs (including four short tracks of less than 30 seconds that provide an intro, outro or bridge for the collection) offer a nice mix of jangle rock, throwback psychedelic rock and progressive rock — featuring a rich 12-string guitar, Mellotron and analog synthesizers.

As has been true on many of Barbeau’s 23 — yes, 23! — records, he has made good use of many talented guest artists in recording Natural Causes. These musicians include Robbie McIntosh (Pretenders, Paul McCartney), Nick Saloman and Ade Shaw of the Bevis Frond, Michael Urbano (Todd Rundgren, Neil Finn), Andy Metcalfe (Robyn Hitchcock), and local favorites, Karla Kane and Khoi Huynh from the Corner Laughers.

The result is a thoroughly enjoyable album that will grow on you as you play it over and over again and discover new musical riffs and lyrics that appeal to your various tastes and senses.

Track highlights: After a short preamble with an introduction of Anton Barbeau over a heavenly chorus, “Magazine Street” gets the album off to a rollicking start. The tune is big, bright, energetic, and strummy. Interestingly, it’s actually a fresh take on a song that Barbeau originally wrote and recorded for his first album.

Skipping ahead to track 7, “Magic Sandwiches” transports us back to 1967 for a tune that’s eerily reminiscent of “I Am the Walrus” from the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. A great psychedelic rock anthem.

The second half of the album has many of my favorites on Natural Causes. Track 9, “Just Passing By,” is bigger rock with a soaring, fuzzy guitar solo. “Neck Pillow” is illustrative of how Barbeau can write about anything — in this case, a favored neck pillow. That’s Karla Kane of the Corner Laughers singing the harmonies.

Track 11, “Creepy Tray,” is a swaying, synth-based tune with a jangly 12-string guitar and a great bass line.

The final full-length track on the album is my personal favorite, “Down Around the Radio.” It’s a fun, catchy art-rock number with circular construction featuring piano and again, a 12-string guitar. A nice tribute to the power of radio in our lives.

Overall, Natural Causes is a fine album to add to your collection from a Northern California indie rock artist.

 

Belle and Sebastian Serve a Sumptuous Feast of Indie Pop-Rock on “How to Solve our Human Problems”

22 Mar

For an indie band, Belle and Sebastian has enjoyed tremendous popularity with critics and a loyal legion of fans. The group formed in Glasgow, Scotland in the mid-1990s and ahs long been known for its catchy, melodic indie pop, leaning toward folk-rock and chamber pop.

In 2015, Belle and Sebastian surprised its fans with Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, a collection that ranged from jittery European techno-pop to its more traditional folk-rock sound. The album and corresponding tour were very successful and took the band across Europe and the U.S. including a stop right up the road at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. It was one of the best shows I’ve seen.

Now, Belle and Sebastian are back with their follow-up, How to Solve our Human Problems, a truly eclectic collection of tunes even more diverse than what was served up on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.

The tracks were released over a period of three months (Dec. 2017 – Feb. 2018) on three separate five-song EPs. These songs have now been brought together into a massive 70-minute set of “witty, tuneful indie pop” as Rolling Stone describes it — with tracks ranging from disco-inspired dance-y synth-pop to baroque-pop and everything in between.

Some critics have quietly wondered whether it might have been better to whittle away a few of the less desirable tracks and release a tighter 10 – 12 track album. But true to their indie tradition, Belle and Sebastian treat us to a sumptuous feast of new music to enjoy in 2018.

Track highlights: There are so many outstanding songs on this album that it’s impossible to narrow them down to the usual three or four.

“Sweet Dew Lee” is a breezy, dance-y synth-pop number with jangly guitar that opens the 15-song set. “We Were Beautiful” is next, and it’s one of the album’s standouts. The song features urgent, slightly edgy synth-pop with a skittering trip-hop beat, a touch of pedal steel guitar and anthemic choruses.

Track 4, “The Girl Doesn’t Get It,” is also synth-pop in a Brian Eno style or something that closely resembles the music on the New Pornographers’ most recent album.

By track 8, the oboe that opens “I’ll Be your Pilot” signals a turn toward chamber pop. This is a heartfelt, sentimental ballad dedicated to lead singer-songwriter, Stuart Murdoch’s young son.

Track 10, the last on the second of the originally issued five-song EPs is “A Plague on All Other Boys,” a stately baroque-pop ode to Belle and Sebastian’s early years. Murdoch’s always highly literate lyrics parse the topic of first love.

There are three highlights among the final five tracks. “Everything Is Now (Part Two)” is a fuller, more complete and highly intriguing version of the fifth track, “Everything Is Now.” The title of both versions is eerily similar to Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” — interesting that the two indie bands are on such a similar wavelength.

“There Is an Everlasting Love” is a strummy, uplifting folk-rock number with optimistic lyrics about the harsh realities life sometimes brings. The closing number, “Best Friend,” is the only song not sung by Murdoch or his bandmate, Sarah Martin. This is a catchy, soulful 1960s-style tune featuring Glasgow’s Carla J. Easton as guest vocalist.

As I said, How to Solve our Human Problems, is a fun, highly enjoyable collection of music that new and old fans alike will want to have. I’ll dip into the album on the next two Fridays on my Friday morning show on KZSU.

 

David Byrne’s New Album Asks Listeners to Imagine an “American Utopia”

14 Mar

“I dance like this/Because it feels so damn good/If I could dance better/Well, you know that I would.”

“The chicken imagines a heaven/Full of roosters and plenty of corn.”

“The mind is a soft-boiled potato.”

“Now a dog cannot imagine/What it is to drive a car/And we, in turn, are limited/By what it is we are.”

“The bullet went into him/His skin did part in two/Skin that women had touched/The bullet passed on through.”

These are among the random things that David Byrne, formerly the lead singer-songwriter of the influential New Wave band, the Talking Heads, has been pondering recently. We know this because he sings about this and more in the ten songs that comprise his intriguing new album, American Utopia.

At age 66 (in May), most artists are slowing down. One couldn’t blame Byrne for making an album that sentimentally looks back on his heyday with the Talking Heads, and gives his legions of fans the opportunity to buy some new music that reminds them of the old music they love.

But this is David Byrne we’re talking about. And even at his, eh hem, advanced age — he still thinks and acts much younger and more creatively than many artists in their 20s and 30s.

While this is technically his first solo album since 2004, Byrne has made two other exceptional albums in recent years — one a collaboration with Brian Eno and the other with St. Vincent. This follows in the paths of those innovative undertakings.

American Utopia features indie pop-rock that’s at once melodic and, in many ways, experimental. Built on drum tracks originally supplied by Eno, the songs make use of a number of collaborators and feature a variety of rhythms, electronic effects and noise within the arrangements. Meanwhile, the lyrics are typical Byrne — intelligent, full of wonder and disarmingly original — telling life stories from unexpected perspectives.

In many ways, it seems like Byrne is still trying to figure out ”How did I get here?”

Track highlights: The best song in the set is one you may have already heard, “Everybody’s Coming to my House.” Driven by a jittery, syncopated beat and busy bass line, the catchy tune finds Byrne reaching his highest register in the vocals.

The first track on the album, “I Dance Like This,” starts out as a lo-fi piano ballad — but breaks into Devo-like robotic dance moments several times through the song.

Track 2, “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets,” sets up a nice, bouncy groove with a consistent bass line and skittering drum track.

“It’s Not Dark Up Here” is another song that’s reminiscent of early Talking Heads — but with a funky feeling over an exotic rhythm and Byrne singing, “Hey! It’s not dark up here!”

Finally, don’t overlook, “Doing the Right Thing,” an avant-garde lounge tune that transitions into a synth-powered progressive anthem in the lead break.

To support American Utopia, David Byrne will be on tour throughout much of 2018, including stops in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose in August.

Local Band Sky Faction Releases Fun New EP

8 Mar

Sky Faction is a five-piece indie pop band out of Oakland and San Francisco. The band says that it draws its inspiration from anime, twee, shoegaze, and mom and dad’s old vinyl record collection. And I guess that nicely sums up Sky Faction’s vibe.

The group’s current self-titled EP has a nice energy to it — featuring jangly guitars and bright vocals from lead singer and keyboardist, Lillian Yee, and rhythm guitarist/synth player, Sally Jati. Other band members include: Rex Padayhag on bass and backing vocals; lead guitarist, Roberto Burgos; and drummer, Rob Uytingco. By the way, Jati also does the art on the EP cover.

Formed in April of 2016, the band demonstrates a lot of potential on this EP. I’m looking forward to a full album in the future.

Track highlights: “No One Else” is a strummy, up-tempo love song that opens the EP. Female vocals are often doubled and harmonized, with piano accompaniment, clean guitar work and bells. Great pop song.

“Mar” takes us into a significant downshift, with a deliberate beat, toy piano-like keyboard and airy, dream-pop vocals. Very nice.

My other favorite on the five-song Sky Faction EP is “Feathers.” The tune gets off to a flying start with a great bass line and drum track. Once again, bells and crisp guitar work underscore the excellent lead vocals and backing harmonies.

Check out this EP on Sky Faction’s Bandcamp page — and you may be able to catch them at a live show in the Bay Area. The next one is coming up on April 5th at Bar Fluxus in San Francisco.

 

Buffalo Tom’s “Quiet and Peace” Shows a Band Coming to Terms with the Passage of Time

26 Feb

Buffalo Tom is a Boston-based alt rock/power pop trio that rose to prominence in the mid-1980s and stayed there throughout much of the 1990s. Guitarist-lead vocalist and main songwriter, Bill Janovitz; bassist-vocalist and sometimes songwriter, Chris Colbourn; and drummer (and band namesake), Tom Maginnis, had several Top 20 albums in the 1990s. Big Red Letter Day peaked at #8 on one chart in 1993 and Sleepy Eyed reached #4 in 1995. Some songs even were heard from time to time in trendy television programs of the day. Then, life happened and the band took a well-deserved ten-year hiatus.

Buffalo Tom’s newest album, Quiet and Peace, is its third since returning to the music scene in 2007 — and it’s one of the best. The 11-song set draws upon the band’s rich alt-rock heritage and even foundational rock pioneered by 1960s bands such as the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield (the inspiration for the other half of the band’s name) — while updating it with modern melodic elements. Ranging from alt rock and even punk to Americana, Quiet and Peace is an extremely satisfying collection that finds the band examining how the passage of time affects everyone’s lives and relationships.

Track highlights: The album gets off to a searing start with guitar rocker, “All Be Gone.” The lead vocals sound almost Springsteen-like as they soar throughout, backed by rich harmonies. The lyrics examine the album’s theme about the passage of time. “Now my time behind is greater than my time ahead/Save up the minutes like flowers before they’re all dead.”

Track 3, “Roman Cars,” written and sung by bassist, Colbourn, is the first single on the album — and it’s a really good one: melodic folk-rock with guitar and Hammond organ. Buffalo Springfield would be proud!

“Freckles” is a fun and energetic song — an Americana-style toe-tapper that builds around piano, acoustic guitar and drum rim shots keeping time — until it reaches its jammy conclusion.

Track 6, “Lonely Fast and Deep,” is punky and shows off the great guitar work that the band can bring to its songs.

But I’ve got to admit, I think my personal favorite on the album might be the closer, a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” It seems sad, lonely and hopeful all at the same time — and the band’s ability to hand off lead vocals between Janovitz and Colbourn, backed by a fabulous chorus of voices, is exceptional. Plus, the lead character in the song is “Tom,” which makes it a perfect cover for the band.

Whether you know Buffalo Tom from its time in the 1990s or this is the first you’ve heard of them, Quiet and Peace is an album you should check out.

 

The Wooden Sky’s “Swimming in Strange Waters” Captures 2017’s Angst

31 Jan

The Wooden Sky is a Canadian indie rock band from Toronto. The group’s music is a mix of alt-rock and folk-rock, with a psychedelic edge to their music and just a hint of Americana at times. Don’t be expecting banjo and pedal steel guitar, however — the sound is truly guitar-driven rock.

The title of the latest release, Wooden Sky’s fifth full-length album, is Swimming in Strange Waters. It’s adapted from a line from Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic novel, Dune. “Survival is the ability to swim in strange waters.”

For many people, 2017 was that kind of year. It saw us thrown into the deep end without a rope or life preserver. U.S. politics turned upside down. In Canada, the citizenry has dealt with a number of crises from oil pipelines to an influx of refugees. Frontman and lead vocalist, Gavin Gardiner, also was facing a number of personal issues in his own life.

This resulted in an album that’s full of energy and angst. There are a lot of big guitars, organ, other keyboards, distortion, and noise. Gardiner has a distinctive vocal style with a notable Southern drawl and a rawness that works well with the band’s almost live, big stadium sound.

Track highlights: “Swimming in Strange Waters” is shimmering and atmospheric with growling and ringing guitars and alternating keyboard layers including a distinctive high-pitched organ. Gardiner’s vocals are similarly growled, reminiscent of Jim James of My Morning Jacket or Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs.

The third track starts off with a drum riff and bass line that’s almost identical to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” The song evolves into an easy-going stroll with a warm folk-rock feeling and some noise layered in.

Next up is “Deadhorse Creek.” This tune is the closest thing to Americana in the set, with Gardiner’s vocals straining until they distort. Harmonized vocals in the chorus take some of the edge off.

On the fifth song, we get to hear Wooden Sky at its most naked, honest and vulnerable in “Born to Die.” Gardiner sings, “Life is just these questions/And we’re never certain why/We were born to die.”

The second-to-last song on Swimming in Strange Waters is “Matter of Time.” This track veers almost to alt-country, with a swingy, relaxed feeling until building to a bigger rock sound toward the end.

If you like bands and artists such as Phosphorescent, Kurt Vile, My Morning Jacket, and The War on Drugs, you definitely need to check out Wooden Sky’s Swimming in Strange Waters.