The Best Indie Rock Album of 2017 by a Band You Haven’t Heard Of — Yet

23 Nov

I can almost guarantee that you haven’t heard of a band named Circus of the West. An indie rock group from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Circus of the West is a four-piece led by Edwin Caldie (vocals, keys), Joel Leviton (guitars), Ben Court (lead guitar), Jason Kapel (bass, keys), and Alan Einisman (drums).

The band describes itself as song-driven, and that’s quite an apt description. The songs on their debut full-length album, We’ll See Ourselves Out, are built around strong, hook-y melodies with lyrics about life, love and making your way in the world.

For me, the sound spans several generations. There’s a clear 90s influence — with an alt-rock edge that’s something like the Barenaked Ladies. But in addition, the roots of the sound actually go back to the mid-1970s, when pop began to be infused with progressive rock tendencies — moving it away from the traditional cookie-cutter formulaic approach. Examples of some of these 70s crossover artists range from Todd Rundgren or Leon Russell to Harry Chapin.

Track highlights: “Birdhand” is a rousing rock opener on We’ll See Ourselves Out. There’s a definite similarity to an up-tempo Barenaked Ladies song with searing guitar, driving drums and nice use of organ from time to time.

“Nothing Special” slows the tempo. The piano ballad showcases Caldie’s range and ability to bring drama to the vocals, like Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater.

“Valentine Eyes” is another mellow ballad, mixing acoustic guitar and synth with Caldie’s bittersweet vocals and some jangly guitar in the lead breaks.

One of my favorite tracks on the 11-song collection is “Asma.” This is a bouncy indie rock number that has the most similarity to some of the classic rock arrangements from the 1970s. Great guitar licks and terrific backing vocals. If this isn’t one of the singles from We’ll See Ourselves Out, it should be.

The last song before an epilogue, “More,” is a mid-tempo, melodic piano-based number. There’s a nice swing to it and again, solid vocals — with a bit of pedal steel guitar in the lead break.

So…if you haven’t heard We’ll See Ourselves Out — and I know you haven’t — do yourself a favor and give it a listen. You’re going to love it!


Yusuf/Cat Stevens Returns With a New Album That Stands the Test of Time

7 Nov

English folk-rock singer, Cat Stevens, has been writing and recording music for more than a half century. His debut, Matthew and Son, was released in 1967 — although the first single, “I Love My Dog,” was actually distributed the previous year. The album rose to #7 on the UK charts and established Stevens as an artist of note.

By the early 1970s, Stevens had become a force on both sides of the Atlantic. 1970’s Tea for the Tillerman was certified gold with more than 500,000 copies sold and “Wild World” was a major hit. That was followed by Teaser and the Firecat, which earned gold status within three weeks and contained the hits “Moonshadow,” “Peace Train” and “Morning Has Broken.”

In 1976, Stevens reportedly nearly drowned while swimming off the coast of Southern California. This proved to be a decisive moment in a journey he’d been on for some time to find meaning in his life. After learning about a number of the world’s religions, he converted to the Muslim faith and took the name Yusuf Islam.

For nearly three decades, he left his musical career behind. But over the past ten years or so, he has returned to making music. And this fall, he released his latest album, The Laughing Apple, under the name Yusuf/Cat Stevens.

The Laughing Apple represents a completion of the circle for Yusuf/Stevens. The album is a collection of both earlier compositions — some of which made it no further than the demo stage — with a few newer compositions. The album is particularly satisfying because Yusuf’s introspective vocals and sensitive lyrics now also convey a wisdom based on a lifetime of experience that simply wasn’t possible in his teens and twenties. The result is a contemporary folk-rock record that would be a great addition to any collection — whether you’re discovering Yusuf/Stevens for the first time or rediscovering an old friend from your distant past.

Track highlights: The album opens with “Blackness of the Night,” an uplifting song that tells a story about the journey we’re all on. Yusuf’s vocals are minstrel-like, with strumming guitar, simple percussion and a bit of organ or synth.

“See What Love Did to Me” is more up-tempo and bouncy. There’s a Middle Eastern influence in the lead break.

“Mary and the Little Lamb” starts with a few lines from the familiar nursery rhyme and then evolves into a simple lesson about persistence and learning how to love in a world that seems to try harder to discourage it every day.

The second-to-last track on the album, “Don’t Blame Them,” is a peaceful melody that’s sweet and lovely — with its electric piano or synth and Yusuf’s world-weary vocals — while warning us to not blame our misfortune on others — because we’ll just be blamed in return.

The Laughing Apple is accompanied by Yusuf/Cat Stevens’ original art — again similar to the illustrations he created for his earliest albums in the 1960s and 1970s.


Fox Grin Offers Fun Rock and Dream Pop on “Dawn” EP

2 Nov

Fox Grin describes itself as an art rock/dream pop band. They’re originally from Atlanta, Georgia, but currently reside in Nashville, Tennessee. The band is primarily a duo consisting of Thom Chapman on lead vocals, guitars and keys, with David Bean on bass and backing vocals.

The four songs on Fox Grin’s latest EP, Dawn, deliver accessible rock with full arrangements and an occasional throwback feeling to an earlier era. The music is not nearly as artsy — read “challenging” — as some art-rock bands are known for, while remaining highly creative and captivating.

Dawn is the band’s second EP since Fox Grin’s debut in 2012, and they have one full-length album, Animals, released in 2013.

Track highlights: The first track on Dawn is “Fall into You.” It’s got a driving rock groove and features a full arrangement with guitar, bass, piano and tumbling drums. Dynamic changes in tempo add to the interest.

“All Alright” is mid-tempo rock with a Christian rock theme. The vocals are back in a mix that features strummed electric guitar with effects added in the chorus. The lyrics say, “Jesus, you saved my life/Now that it’s all alright.”

My personal favorite on this short four-track EP is “Jack Quick.” It’s slower pop-rock with a nice hook to the melody. To me, this has a throwback feeling similar to some of the album-oriented pop-rock that was on the radio in the 1970s — with cascading piano, strings, and synths the choruses. Overall, this is a nice effort from a very promising indie band.


Stockton & Post — The Indie Band, Not the Street

26 Oct

Stockton & Post are a brother and sister duo, originally from Northern California, who make fun, quirky indie pop-rock. Raised in Marin County, Jake Schroth still lives here in Berkeley, while Justina has adopted Austin, Texas, as her new hometown at least for now.

Jake is a multi-instrumentalist who plays the ukulele and other string instruments, piano and even wind instruments, while Justina was credited with vocals, as a co-songwriter and for contributing “random sounds.” Living several thousand miles apart has not created much of an obstacle for the musical siblings.

They started early — learning from parents who both have musical backgrounds — and have been in and out of a number of bands in their youth. Their current EP is called Bank Robber, and has but three tracks that are definitely cool.

Track highlights: The title track starts off the Bank Robber EP. It’s got a great backbeat behind strummed ukulele, with Justina on lead vocals and Jake’s horns added in places. Jake also handles some of the vocals and the piano in the bridges. The song reminds me of early Bishop Allen (a band I really like).

“Beautiful” evolves from a crystalline piano ballad into a mid-tempo tune with drums to provide energy. Jake and Justina share the lead vocals on this one. Strings and bells add polish to the tune.

The final track of the three-song EP is “Chicken Bones.” It’s a bit of a silly sing-along, swinging along in 3/4 time. Swelling strings, brass and plucked violin (or a synthesized version of it) add dimension to the song.

I’m not sure how many places you can find Stockton & Post’s Bank Robber, but if you’re interested CD Baby seems to have it.



Oakland’s Tambo Rays Ready to “Recharge” Your Batteries

28 Sep

San Francisco has long been known for its music, going back to the time of Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead. The East Bay developed its own sound — with early acts ranging from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Tower of Power and the Pointer Sisters.

So it’s not surprising that the trend continues today. One of the latest releases from a band that’s part of the Oakland music scene is from the Tambo Rays. The synth pop-rock group is led by Brian and Sara DaMert, siblings who have deep Bay Area ties going back to their youth in Marin County.

Sara’s interests include two of my favorite passions as well — soccer and music. She was a high school soccer star — winning all-league honors for three consecutive years. That earned her the opportunity to keeping playing in college for UC Santa Cruz. But recognizing that there was no future in professional soccer for women, she turned to her other love — music.

She has played with a number of local groups, but on the Tambo Rays’ current EP, Recharge, Sara’s emerged as its lead singer in addition to a keyboardist.

The five tracks feature catchy melodies, strong vocals, snappy rhythms and lush arrangements — with lyrics that examine life’s trials and tribulations. The DaMert’s father died in 2015, so in some sense, the EP was one aspect of how Brian and Sara dealt with the pain.

Despite that, Recharge has a very positive feeling to it — with lots of good energy.

Track highlights: “Yes and No” opens the album with sunny synth pop-rock that has a punky, girl-band attitude. Bob Jakubs’ drumming is crisp and there’s a late 70s, early 80s vibe to the melody.

The third, track, “Wrong Turn,” is a mid-tempo tune that’s smooth and slinky. The song features a big arrangement with many layers of keyboards and a busy bass line by Greg Sellin, and it builds in the choruses to an anthem feeling.

My favorite song on the EP is the fourth track, “Nothing to Lose.” This is a punky pop-rock number that explodes with intricate interplay between sharp guitars and sparkling synths. There are rich backing vocals as well. The electronic drum track is a bit reminiscent of Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.”

Overall, this is a fun album to listen and dance to — a fine effort from the young Oakland band. And if Sara ever pursues her third love, cooking, by opening her dream restaurant — I just may have to sample that as well.


The War on Drugs’ “A Deeper Understanding” a Cinematic Triumph

21 Sep

A Deeper Understanding is an especially apt title for The War on Drugs’ latest album. The work of singer-songwriter, Adam Granduciel, is so sweeping and cinematic that it conveys an enormous depth of field — a lens where we can look into Granduciel’s soul and become lost in the many layers of lyrical meaning and sculpted sound consisting of swirling synths, strumming acoustic and soaring electric guitars, steady bass lines and an ever-present heartbeat.

There’s depth, too, in the sheer length of this album and of the individual tracks. First single, “Thinking of a Place,” is 11:11. Only one of the ten songs is as short as four minutes; most are in the five- to seven-minute range — with the album clocking in at a luxurious hour and six minutes.

So, while this is a follow-up to Granduciel’s acclaimed Lost in the Dream, you could easily find yourself lost in A Deeper Understanding of the man and his music.

The War on Drugs conjures up images of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and possibly Neil Young on some of their releases from the 1980s. But the music is not derivative in any way. It’s a precisely crafted sound that Granduciel owns. Noted music industry guru, Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M Records, once declared in a Billboard interview that The War on Drugs should be “gigantic.” With the arrival of A Deeper Understanding, it’s certainly hard to argue the point.

Track highlights: At more than 11 minutes, “Thinking of a Place” is certainly an unusual choice for the first single. Yet, it’s an inspired selection. The dreamy music flows over you like a river, with Granduciel’s vocals and guitar solos expressing a powerful yearning to connect through love.

Track 2 is “Pain,” a song filled with shimmering guitar work and several soaring, searing guitar solos — particularly at the end of the song.

The next song, “Holding On,” shifts gears into a galloping, high-energy number that conjures images of Bruce Springsteen. The many layers of sound play off one another in a thoroughly effective manner, and Granduciel adds just a dash of glockenspiel to season the mix. Brilliant!

“Strangest Thing” pulls back on the reins for a slow, sad ballad about living “between the beauty and the pain.” Piano and synth work together to carry the melody, while a simple beat sets the tempo. Synth strings fill the choruses. If this were a portrait, it would depict a landscape full of grandeur, such as the Grand Canyon or the Amazon rain forest.

There are many more worthy tracks on the album, and with its epic length, it’s one you’ll spend hours absorbing. By the way, if you’d like to see The War on Drugs in person, they’ll be appearing at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley on Friday, October 6th at 8 p.m.


Rebecca Schiffman’s Self-titled Album a Simple Pleasure Worth Discovering

13 Sep

Rebecca Schiffman is a true artist. She’s a painter, a jewelry designer and an indie musician — someone who makes music that’s at once personal and universal. Her songs are about the kinds of everyday troubles and turmoil that we all must deal with and learn from as we go through life.

Her latest album, the self-titled Rebecca Schiffman, comes at a time of big changes in her life. In the seven years between albums, Schiffman has had her songs used in the soundtrack for Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture.” Her jewelry has been worn by a number of celebrities. And she’s moved from the East to West Coast — leaving her beloved Manhattan for Southern California’s La La Land.

Oh, and she got married to a successful TV comedy writer. They met when he cast her as an extra in a music video he was directing, and their first date was earned due to a contribution he made to a Kickstarter campaign for a jewelry collection she was designing. But that whole dizzying romance thing is a separate — if well worth reading — story.

As for Schiffman’s music: it’s relatively unassuming and often slightly off-kilter. There’s a wry humor to a lot of her lyrics. The quiet acceptance of saying, “Surely, there are worse ways to die,” in her captivating “Tips for Conquering Fear of Flying.” Her self-assurance as she sings “I don’t care, I’m maniacally happy/There’s no place I’d rather be alone in New York City” in “Walking to the Subway.” The keen observation of detail in “Nico,” as she spends a night in the bedroom of a childhood friend who has left for school.

Her understated approach can make her music easy to overlook at first. But the more time you spend with Rebecca Schiffman, the more you’ll realize this is an album worth your attention.

Track highlights: “Nico” opens the short, nine-song set. Its shuffling pace, simple piano and strummed guitar perfectly balance with Schiffman’s whimsical vocal reminiscing.

“Walking to the Subway” is a confident stroll — with Schiffman’s playful lyrics complemented by organ and lap steel guitar played by Mike Bloom (Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis), who’s one of many talented guest artists on the album.

“Laura,” is the third video from the album — with Schiffman putting herself in the shoes (and in the video, the clothes) of a man bidding for Laura’s favors. I’m sure there’s a story here, but I don’t know what it is.

The highlight of the album for me is “Tips for Conquering Fear of Flying,” apparently one of Schiffman’s personal phobias. The track becomes more driving than the others with intercutting between piano-inspired playfulness and tension-filled moments marked by tumbling drums and noisy, airplane-engine guitar created by Nels Cline (Wilco). If you haven’t seen this video yet, you really must catch it.

The album closes with “I’m Only You.” Although the song was written and originally performed by Robyn Hitchcock, the lyrics are a perfect fit with Schiffman’s elegantly disarming poetry throughout the album. On this track, she departs from Hitchcock’s grungy, jangly take on it by singing the lyrics with a sense of mystery and expectation over a repetitive guitar note. Chaotic brass is added near the end of the song.

Rebecca Schiffman has been out since last summer, although we only received it at KZSU a few months ago. In any case, it’s not too late. If you missed it the first time around, you really must give it a listen and consider adding it to your collection.