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.

 

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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,” a track that shows off Schiffman’s extraordinary gifts with poetry, simply sung 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.

 

Fun of the Pier’s Debut “14:42” a Fun Listen — with Some Insights As Well

5 Sep

Fun of the Pier is a refreshingly different indie band from Nottingham in the U.K. The trio features Helen Luker on lead vocals, keyboards and guitar; Mark Luker on bass guitar, bass ukulele and wry observations; and Richard Snow Hattersley on guitar, vocal harmonies and all things technical.

Fun of the Pier’s debut album, 14:42, can best be described as jangle pop or Brit pop, with a leaning toward clean, crisp acoustic arrangements.

The songs’ subjects range from a musician’s lament (echoed by many music fans, myself included) about why people pay to go to a show — only to chit-chat and laugh with their friends through the entire set…..to esoteric observations about the time-space continuum, built around a comment that Mark once made, “In the past, it would have been the future, because it’s now.”

The point is: while your first impression of these tunes might be that they’re nice little musical ditties to nod your head to — there’s a depth of content for your brain to ponder as well. It’s jangle pop for thoughtful listeners — a lot like the music of local Bay Area band, The Corner Laughers, from which Karla Kane and Khoi Huynh provided guest vocals and ukulele accompaniment on one of 14:42’s tunes. In fact, Helen, Mark, Karla and Khoi are touring Northern California together for the next several weeks — catch them if you can! — and will play a number of shows in the UK and Germany next month.

Track highlights: 14:42 starts with “Inconsiderate,” a jangly Brit pop number with a 1960s British invasion vibe and a bouncy tempo. It’s such a happy tune that it’s easy to miss the biting commentary about certain elements of the club crowd. “Why do you do it?/What is the point?/Talk all through it/And roll your joint/Why don’t you go home?/Take your mates with you/And leave the rest of us/To enjoy a better view.”

“Lost and Lazy” is a gentle acoustic folk song with sweet lead vocals about the need for good friends in life. “Cavern Song” is bright and up-tempo with an energetic bass line, guitar and tambourine taps and shakes for rhythm. It’s short and fun with more wry observations about doing live shows.

“Stumble” is also happy and strummy, with a toe-tapping beat. “Summer Song” is one of my favorites — with a noisy start that leads into a dynamic arrangement that to me had a Moody Blues sensibility with rich harmonies, tambourine shakes and a keyboard part that sounds like a flute. There’s also a cool synthesizer lead break.

14:42 ends with a pensive closer, “I Love This Life (She Said).” It features a strummed guitar, shimmering synths and bells, plus delicate vocals about trying to find one’s way in life.

By the way, the 14:42 title Fun of the Pier chose for the album was due to the clock in the attic where they recorded always being stuck on 14:42.

Now you can impress your friends — not only with how you discovered this little-known, but excellent UK band, but also where the title of the album came from!

 

The Bye Bye Blackbirds Deliver Another Shot of Pure Rock ‘n’ Roll Pleasure

16 Aug

The Bye Bye Blackbirds are a rock ‘n’ roll band that harkens back to an earlier era when bands got together not to “release product” or “extend their social footprint” but for the pure pleasure of making and performing music.

Based in Oakland, California, the Blackbirds specialize in guitar-driven rock and power pop-rock with big harmonies and just the slightest nod toward the country genre at times. The band is led by vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, Bradley Skaught, who’s surrounded by an exceptionally talented group of band members and guest artists including contributing vocalists. On this album, that group includes three of the four members of Redwood City’s The Corner Laughers, two former members of SF folkies Or, the Whale, and Washington D.C. musician, Olivia Mancini.

The new album, Take Out the Poison, covers all the bases from straight-ahead rock, to Byrds-like country-rock, power pop, and even brassy glam rock.

Track highlights: Take Out the Poison begins with “Earl Grey Kisses,” a rock ‘n’ roll romp reminiscent of Tom Petty — marked by tumbling drums, crunchy guitars, a cool, intricate bass line, and Skaught’s distinctive, crooning vocals.

My favorite song on the album is the third track, “Duet.” It’s a bouncy and playful heart-tugger with handclaps and a hint of Americana. Lindsay Paige Garfield (Or, the Whale) co-wrote the song with Skaught and contributes sterling harmonies and lead vocals when it’s her turn. There’s also an electric guitar in the lead break that does an incredible imitation of a fiddle that would otherwise be there.

“Let Your Hair Fall Down” is a solid example of classic glam rock. “Alfred Starr Hamilton” represents power pop at its best, with ringing and crunchy guitars.

The title track, “Poison Love” — the second-to-last track on the album right before right before a closing reprise of “Earl Grey Kisses” — is an up-tempo, high-energy country-rock standout with a killer player piano. It’s the kind of song you’ll want to turn up when you’re traveling on one of the Bay Area’s back roads.

There are many other fine performances on the album as well. In short, Take Out the Poison is a great showcase of Bay Area musicianship that you’ll want to add to your collection. And make a note to catch The Bye Bye Blackbirds the next time they make one of their frequent appearances at a local venue.

 

 

Karla Kane’s First Solo Album Is a Wonderful, Whimsical,Yet Thought-Provoking, Collection

2 Aug

Karla Kane is the lead singer-songwriter for The Corner Laughers, a sunshine indie pop band from the Bay Area’s mid-peninsula with connections to Stanford University. I’ve written about the past several albums the band has released, and also one the band released under its alter ego, Agony Aunts.

Now Kane has taken the big step of producing her first solo album, King’s Daughters Home for Incurables, and it’s another wonderful, whimsical collection of enchanting, sometimes melancholy acoustic folk for thinking music lovers.

The 11 songs on the album lead listeners into an otherworldly landscape that transports them to distant (and not-so-distant) places and times — from medieval England to California’s golden, tree-studded foothills. At the same time, Kane’s feet are firmly planted on the ground as she addresses many of the topics of the day including feminism and our thirst for hope and respect in a too-often dark world.

The disarmingly simple arrangements on King’s Daughters Home for Incurables are precisely produced, populated with an intriguing mix of instruments and sound effects — from Kane’s signature ukulele to Richard Youell’s nature recordings (birds, bees and rainstorms) and even announcements from a U.K. train station.

While this is ostensibly a solo album, Kane makes good use of her fellow members of The Corner Laughers, as well as guests such as Mark and Helen Luker (U.K.’s Fun of the Pier), Martin Newell, Anton Barbeau, and others.

Track highlights: The title track has a lilting, medieval feeling — offering a quick trip of imagination back to olde England. Kane’s rich vocals and strummed ukulele are at their best here.

Next comes “Wishing Tree,” a bouncy, skipping, happy tune on which Martin Newell (Cleaners from Venus), contributes additional vocals and his distinctive poetry. Track 3, “Skylarks of Britain,” is a stately tune that starts in cathedral-like reverie and builds into rich harmonies and a Beatles-like arrangement.

The first single on King’s Daughters Home for Incurables is “The Lilac Line.” This is an upbeat, strummy celebration inspired by travels through Nottingham on the Lilac bus line.

“All Aboard,” Track 10, presents a soulful commentary on the uncertain age we live in. A train-like vibe is created by Kane’s piano.

Really, all of the songs on King’s Daughters Home for Incurables are excellent — full of wry observations about daily life and the occasional literary reference — so it’s hard to choose which ones to include in a review. But this is definitely an album you’ll want to add to your collection.

I’m planning to see if Karla and friends can stop by KZSU for a chat and some live performances — hopefully on September 1st — so I’ll feature the album that day or the following Friday. The official release date is October 6th.

If you’re interested, the album can be preordered at: http://cornerlaughers.com/album/kings-daughters-home-for-incurables.

 

Beach Fossils’ New “Somersault” a Must for your Summer Soundtrack

25 Jul

Beach Fossils is an indie rock trio out of Brooklyn, New York, led by frontman, Dustin Payseur. Formed in early 2009 and known initially for a lo-fi, hazy vibe, Beach Fossils has embraced more of a jangle-rock sound in its current album, Somersault, the first new release from the band in four years.

The album incorporates a number of instruments that Beach Fossils hasn’t used much (or at all), including harpsichord, piano and even flute — plus ample servings of strings. The additional creativity in composing and arranging has paid immediate dividends with Somersault earning largely excellent reviews.

Pitchfork described the album as containing “Dustin Payseur’s most nuanced songs to date.” Paste said, “Thanks to a rich sonic palette and more dynamic songwriting, (Beach Fossils) has turned in their best collection of jangly indie rock songs so far.”

If you enjoy bands such as New Jersey’s Real Estate, I promise you’ll like the latest from Beach Fossils.

Track highlights: Somersault opens with a glistening example of jangle-pop that’s every bit the equal of anything Real Estate has done — with all due respect to Real Estate’s excellent releases. “This Year” moves with pace and energy created by Payseur’s bouncy bass line, topped with the welcome jangle of Tommy Davidson’s guitar. It’s the album’s lead single, and a good one.

The second track transitions to a bit of a breezy, jazzy feeling. “Tangerine” features vocals from Rachel Goswell, guesting from the band, Slowdive. The strings give the song a polish and timelessness that recall sunny afternoons spent on distant beaches.

“St. Ivy” evolves beyond the usual jangle-rock into mid-tempo dream pop that sounds like it came out of the late 1970s a la Hall & Oates. There’s jazz flute in the lead break and then the song flows into the Valley of the Beatles, with rich strings and a George Harrison-like lead guitar part. This represents a new level of sophistication for the band.

Track four offers another crystalline jangle-rock standard called “May 1st.” The album continues with one delight after another and more than enough variety to avoid repetition, including its share of more serious lyrical messages and even some rap.

The second-to-last song is yet another highlight, a jangle-rock epic recalling Fleet Foxes’ influence called “Be Nothing.” The track builds to a big jam that shows the range Beach Fossils has as the band continues to mature. Somersault is clearly worth your notice.

 

Mac DeMarco Delivers His Best Work Yet on “This Old Dog”

13 Jul

Mac DeMarco is a Canadian singer-songwriter who has lived in a number of different cities including Alberta, Vancouver and Montreal — the latter in which he began his career as a solo artist. He released his first album, 2, in 2012, and followed that with Salad Days before his current release, This Old Dog.

His music has been called “slacker rock,” a pretty decent description of his usual laid-back, breezy style with self-aware and frequently personal lyrics.

However, DeMarco is anything but a slacker. This Old Dog is a 13-song set on which DeMarco wrote and arranged the songs, played every instrument, sang the vocals, produced, and engineered every track. Musically, there’s a lot of strummed guitar and simple rhythms that are created with anything from a bongo or woodblock to an electronic drum kit.

Known for his outrageous sense of humor in his shows and interviews, in This Old Dog DeMarco has delivered a very professional, compelling album.

Track highlights: The album opens with “My Old Man,” a catchy, yet disarming, tune featuring a strummy guitar over a gentle drum machine track. The lyrics are intimate, commenting on how much DeMarco increasingly sees his father (whom he doesn’t have the greatest relationship with) in himself.

“Baby You’re Out,” is a bouncy and sunny folk number with a hint of Matt Nathanson.

The fifth track, “One Another,” is jangly with an easy skipping rhythm and a breezy chorus. On the lengthy “Moonlight on the River,” DeMarco transitions from a laid-back airy melody into jarring psychedelic effects after reflecting, “I’m home, with moonlight on the river/Saying my goodbyes/I’m home, there’s moonlight on the river/Everybody dies.”

On the final track, “Watching Him Fade Away,” DeMarco deftly sings a measured ballad a la Paul McCartney over a muted, processed keyboard of some sort.

Overall, This Old Dog is a very creative, intriguing album from a solid young talent.