Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers Surprise the Indie World with New Album

21 Mar

In another illustration of how there are apparently no more good names left for new bands or projects, Better Oblivion Community Center has arrived on the indie music scene. That’s the name the unlikely pairing of Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers came up with for their surprise album that’s just been released.

And it’s excellent. Oberst and Bridgers are both extraordinary lyricists and singer-songwriters — coming to this project from completely different generations.

Oberst, 39, has been an acclaimed indie artist for nearly two decades — the man behind Bright Eyes and a number of solo albums under his own name.

Bridgers, 24, is a young prodigy whose recognition is skyrocketing due to her critically well-received solo album, Stranger In The Alps, from 2017 — and this year’s work with Julia Holter and Lucy Dacus as the band, Boygenius.  (Again, a questionable name, with no boys in sight!)

But I digress. Better Oblivion Community Center is a marvelous musical experience. Oberst and Bridgers met when Oberst sang backup vocals on one track on her StrangersLP. They began working together under the radar, writing songs and then assembling a talented group of musicians from bands such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Dawes and Autolux to complete the project. When the album was released late last month, it caught most of the industry by surprise.

The lyrics are outstanding: smart and insightful. And Oberst’s and Bridgers’ voices work extremely well together.

Track highlights: “Didn’t Know What I Was In For” starts off the ten-song set with a quiet, acoustic ballad that Bridgers leads, with Oberst on the harmonies. An ebow whines mournfully in the distance.

“Dylan Thomas” is the first single — a catchy up-tempo, melodic tune, with the two artists singing a true duet. Great lyrics, of course, and tasty guitar riffs in the lead breaks.

“Service Road” is another gentle, strummy folk-rock tune, with Oberst on the lead. A big, booming bass drum and prominent rhythm track reminded me of something from Simon and Garfunkel.

If you’re noticing a pattern, it’s true. “Chesapeake” is another crystalline folk-rock tune, featuring an emotive duet — with strummed guitars over a fragile synth landscape. Beautiful!

“Forest Lawn” is a rolling acoustic ballad in 3/4 time, with Oberst on the wistful lead vocals. But not all tunes on the album are soft and soothing. “Big Black Heart” is more of a percussive rocker with chugging guitars and bass — and big distorted guitar solos.

Overall, I would rate Better Oblivion Community Center as one of the best indie albums of 2019 to-date.

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Phosphorescent’s Latest “C’est La Vie” Well Worth the Wait

6 Mar

There are a number of indie singer-songwriters that perform under a stage name. Sam Beam as Iron & Wine. Josh Tillman as Father John Misty. Annie Clark as St. Vincent. New Zealand’s James Milne as Lawrence Arabia. Sweden’s Kristian Matsson as the Tallest Man on Earth. It’s clearly a global phenomenon.

Matthew Houck has been performing as Phosphorescent since he released his first album in 2003. Five more studio albums followed, including Phosphorescent’s acclaimed Muchacho in 2013. But other than a live album in 2015, Houck had remained radio silent since then. That is, until the release of studio album #7, C’est La Vie, in late 2018.

Muchacho truly put Phosphorescent on the map. The album reportedly sold more than 100,000 copies — impressive for an indie folk-rock artist — with the single, “Song for Zula,” reaching more than 50 million streams. Houck, who used to play to small crowds — I recall seeing him from the front row of a nearly empty Bing Concert Hall in September 2013 — has now moved on to bigger venues, well-deservedly playing to sellouts.

But as exceptional as Muchacho was, C’est La Vie finds Houck reaching new levels of maturity, confidence and perhaps grounding — happy with his present life and his art. In the five-plus years since Muchacho, he’s married, become a father and moved from Brooklyn to Nashville — where his relaxed, Americana-flavored folk-rock and quavering vocals seem a perfect fit.

The result is an album that’s thoroughly enjoyable, reminiscent of some Paul Simon’s best work in the early to mid 1970s.

Track highlights: Track 2, “C’est La Vie No. 2,” gets the album started in triumphant fashion with a pulsing, swelling synth-pop anthem filled with sharp-witted lyrics. “’C’est la vie,’ she says/But I don’t know what that means,” he says, as a character trying to find his way.

That’s followed by one of the best, bounciest singles in recent memory. “New Birth In New England” is built on a skittering rhythm with a seamless synth bed, overlain with marvelous pedal steel riffs, angelic backing vocals and Houck’s storytelling lead vocals.

“Christmas Down Under” is a slower, more introspective journey, again marked by Houck’s storytelling vocals and the moans of a steel guitar adding to the melancholy. The tune was perhaps inspired by a past holiday visit to Australia where his wife, Jo Schornikow — an artist and multi-instrumentalist — was born.

The final track I want to highlight is “My Beautiful Boy,” the seventh of nine songs in the set. This is a slow ramble with Houck apparently singing a love song to his son — a la John Lennon’s ode to Sean in “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).” Just another way in which Houck’s discovery of a place to call home in Nashville has contributed to another outstanding addition to his discography.

Austin-Based Go Fever Releases Hot New EP “Daydream Hawker”

27 Feb

Go Fever is an Austin-based indie pop-rock band. They play with a confidence and attitude that likely comes from their current home in Texas, as well as the Australian upbringing of lead singer-songwriter, Acey Monaro. Following their self-titled debut in 2017, the band is back with a new five-song EP called Daydream Hawker.

Go Fever’s sound has none of the twang that sometimes is associated with other Austin bands. Instead, prepare yourself for accomplished guitar work, toe-tapping melodies and big vocals, with smart lyrics that pull no punches and offer wry observations in looking at life and relationships. The band has also incorporated more keyboards into this EP, and it really works.

I had the privilege of reviewing Go Fever’s first release two years ago, and I have to say, I think this packs almost as much power into half the number of tracks. It’s consistently excellent throughout — no wonder Daydream Hawker is quickly moving up the college charts!

Track highlights: Right off the top, “Olivia” is a fantastic track. The upbeat, jangly pop-rock is bright, melodic and memorable — one of the highlights of the set.

Track 2 actually edges a bit toward New Wave. (I told you that Go Fever isn’t your typical Austin band.) This is essentially the title track, with a reference to “a main street girl, a daydream hawker.” The palm-muted guitar, keyboards and edgy guitar solos make for a great sound.

Jumping ahead to the fourth song, “Say the Word” is smooth and satisfying synth pop-rock, with guitar trappings and a tumbling drum line.

The album closes with another standout, “KOTRA” — which is an acronym in this case for King of the Roadside Attractions. It’s straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, with a perfect mix of guitars and synth, and great piano playing reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis — giving the track a hint of a throwback sound to the early to mid 60s (while remaining fresh for today).

Overall, another great release from a really strong, upcoming band. Don’t miss Go Fever’s Daydream Hawker.”

 

Steve Mason Delivers Another Great Album of Catchy Brit-Pop Tunes

19 Feb

Steve Mason is a singer-songwriter who was co-founder of the Beta Band, a Scottish folktronica group that achieved something approaching cult status in the UK during the time the band was active from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.

After the band split up, Mason released new music as part of several solo projects including King Biscuit Time and Black Affair. In 2010, he produced Boys Outside, his first solo album under his own name. He’s followed that with Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time(2013),Meet The Humans(2016), and now comes his latest, About The Light.

While he was writing Meet The Humans, Mason moved from the lonely far reaches of Scotland to Brighton, England, and has since settled into a long-term relationship and become a dad. This sense of finding his place has resulted in Mason’s most exuberant and uplifting work of his career.

About The Light is an outstanding collection of 1990s-flavored Brit pop-rock, — ranging from folk-oriented tunes to 60s-era throwbacks such as “Walking Away From Love,” one of the standouts of the 10-song set.

Track highlights:The album opens with “America Is Your Boyfriend,” a big, up-tempo, brass-embellished pop-rock standard with rollicking guitar and cowbell. Mason shares his wry commentary on British-American relations when he sings, “This is the lie. This is the smile. America is your boyfriend.”

Track 2, “Rocket,” is a leisurely stroll through a catchy guitar-driven melody with a trip-hop beat. Mason’s bright vocals are in a high register, supported with warm harmonies, melodica and a touch of brass. I find it reminiscent of a Van Morrison ballad.

The title track, “About The Light” veers into soulful blues rock, with piano, tasty blues guitar and gospel singers harmonizing.

One of the album’s singles, “Stars Around My Heart,” is a strutting, march-like tune with sharp guitar riffs, piano and a touch of brass as well.

The other notable single on About The Lightis the previously mentioned, “Walking Away From Love.” This hoppin’ rock ‘n’ roll tune has 60s-era, Bo Diddley-esque rock sensibilities, buttressed by rich harmonies and a melodic piano-driven lead break. There’s great guitar work throughout.

About The Light is a good choice for anyone who likes melodic indie rock with intelligent lyrics and accomplished musicianship.

 

Sharon Van Etten’s “Remind Me Tomorrow” an Early Candidate for 2019’s Best

29 Jan

It’s still only January, but there’s already an indie album that critics are praising as in the running for one of 2019’s best. It’s Sharon Van Etten’s latest, Remind Me Tomorrow.

The fifth studio album from the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter features synth-flavored alt-rock that’s more driving, dark and, at times, experimental than her previous work.

Remind Me Tomorrow is extraordinary both from a musical and lyrical perspective. Tracks are often introspective and highly personal. Most of the tracks were written during a time of big changes in Van Etten’s life — including her first pregnancy, going back to school to earn a degree in counseling (partly to understand the fixation many of her fans have with her music), and her emergence as a successful actress in the Netflix drama, “The OA.”

Yes, there are many sides to Van Etten — and there are many reasons to seek out her fine release of Remind Me Tomorrow.

Track highlights:The first track on the album is one of the most intimate songs Van Etten has ever written. “I Told You Everything” is slow and dramatic, with big, halting piano chords as Van Etten reveals a memory. “Sitting at the bar I told you everything/You said holy sh-t./You almost died.” We’re never told what secrets were shared, but tears were shed in this cathartic moment, which Van Etten has chosen to unveil to listeners on this album.

The first single from Remind Me Tomorrow is “Comeback Kid,” a driving synth pop-rock tune with sustained organ and a thumping beat. Van Etten revels in her newfound power.

Track 5 is “Jupiter 4.” The otherworldly-sounding tune with a haunting astral soundscape and vocals isn’t named for the planet, but for the 1970s-era analog synthesizer she used to write many of the songs on the album.

“Seventeen” is another single, a self-assured anthem with a confident Van Etten looking back at her teenage self to offer time-worn advice to today’s teens that find themselves in a similar spot.

“You Shadow” is a swing-y pop-rock tune, with distorted, splattering synths and church-like organ. There’s a bit of a throwback feeling to the tune.

Remind Me Tomorrowis indeed a great indie album for this early in the year that certainly will compete for a spot high up in my countdown of the top indie albums of 2019 come next January.

 

The Errant Hair’s “Journey Of The Lonely Child” a Welcome Trip Back in Time

21 Jan

A little-known, local singer-songwriter from the Monterey area has created an alt-rock album that’s like a wonderful time warp. Calling himself The Errant Hair, his debut album, The Journey Of The Lonely Child, transports us back into the 1970s, when progressive rock and trippy folk-rock ruled the airwaves. There are also a few forays into more Americana-flavored folk-rock and some psych-rock touches among the nine tracks.

The Errant Hair’s songs are really well done, musically and lyrically, with epic anthems that soar into the atmosphere or recall the keyboards of artists such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Several tracks are reminiscent of vintage King Crimson and other prog-rock acts, the Moody Blues, and even Harry Chapin at his finest.

If you never had the chance to experience the late 1960s and 1970s, The Journey Of The Lonely Child provides a convenient portal to that time and place.

Track highlights:The second track on the album, “In The Darkness,” brings together Emerson, Lake & Palmer-like keyboards with Moody Blues-sounding vocals. Like many of the tracks on the CD, this features a long, satisfying instrumental trail-out.

“Bounty” is a slow-tempo chamber-pop ballad, with lead vocals and a sensibility similar to a classic Who ballad. “How Can Life” is an introspective, organ-based, proggy folk-rock song with a lilting melody — and lyrics that examine the mysteries of life’s passage.

“Dark and Restless Night” is epic, Americana-flavored folk-rock that recalls the Harry Chapin of “Taxi” fame. With its strummed guitar, piano and accordion (or synth version of that), it will have you humming the tune long after it’s over.

The eighth track on the album, “Rescue,” starts with a deliberate medieval-sounding, steel-string guitar, but soon transitions to an up-tempo tune with tight riffs. Very catchy!

The closing track on The Journey Of The Lonely Childis a true anthem. At nearly 9 1/2 minutes, it’s a brilliant example of progressive rock — with flowing synths and trippy squiggles, plus a long, cool atmospheric play-out of more than five minutes.

I haven’t been able to find much information about the artist behind The Errant Hair, but The Journey Of The Lonely Child is a great album for any prog-rock fan.

 

Portland’s Eyelids Are Back with a Half-Studio, Half-Live Follow-up to “Or”

18 Dec

Portland alt-rock band, Eyelids, is something of an indie super group — bringing together current and former members of the Decemberists, Guided By Voices, Malkmus/Jinks, and more. Throw in Peter Buck of R.E.M. as producer, and it’s hard to believe that they’ve been able to fly under the radar for so long.

The band’s latest release, Maybe More,is an album that’s half studio, half live. The first five tracks are new (including a cover of The Gun Club’s “Sex Beat”), while the last six songs are from a November 2017 live performance at WFMU, a New Jersey-based freeform radio station.

Track highlights:The album kicks off with a great opener, which could have been recorded by the Byrds in the late 1960s or Beatles’ discovery, Badfinger, in the early 1970s. “Maybe More” is melodic rock with big strummy guitars and rich harmonies over a steady beat.

“Cannon and Dee” is simple and lilting baroque pop-rock, clearly with a Decemberists influence. It’s got a medieval feeling, with woodwinds and precise orchestration wrapped around the tune.

Moving on to the third of the five new songs, “Masterpiece (Wanna Die)” has a big jangly rock sound. This one is very reminiscent of R.E.M. (or the Byrds once again) with great guitar riffs and strong lead vocals.

“Scarcity For The Fox” is interesting and experimental, with a halting, haunting melody. Unfortunately, the punky “Sex Beat” can’t be played on the radio without an appropriate edit.

The live songs from the WFMU performance include “23 (Years),” “Camelot” and “Slow It Goes” from Or, and “Seagulls Into Submission” and “Psych #1” from 854.

Overall, Maybe Moreis a nice — if short — follow-up to the Eyelids’ 2017 release, Or.