Elvis Costello Is Back With His Latest, the Sumptuous Chamber Pop of “Look Now”

5 Dec

Elvis Costello has been recording for more than 40 years, with his debut, My Aim Is True, released in 1977. Following 2010’s National Ransom, he seemed to suggest that his recording days might be behind him.

But Elvis Costello is back in 2018 with a sumptuous and ambitious collection of chamber pop-rock. Look Now is a 12-song set that includes songwriting collaborations with the likes of Burt Bacharach and Carole King.

The songs on Look Nowfeature some compositions that Costello (real name: Declan Patrick MacManus) has been working on for many years. Consequence of Sound described his work as “swanky and sophisticated,” and that’s an apt description for the work — which not only showcases Costello’s crooning vocals, but also has incredible performances from his long-time backup band, the Imposters.

Track highlights:The album opener is big, bold and brilliant — a true epic. “Under Lime” has a classic Elvis Costello sound that could have been recorded at any time throughout his decades-long career. The song features luxurious chamber-rock, with a big chorus and Beatles-like hooks when Costello sings “…and the band starts to play.”

“Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter” is a song that Costello co-wrote with Hall of Fame songwriter and gold record recording artist, Carole King. The track is jazzy and artsy, with many of the traits of King’s hits that she penned in the Brill Building in NYC in the 1960s.

The fourth song on the album, “Stripping Paper,” is something that Costello could only have written after a long and fulfilling life. In the piano ballad, he sings about the simple act of stripping old wallpaper and reliving some of the most important moments of his lifetime.

“Unwanted Number” has a throwback feeling to the soulful hits of the 1960s. The subject matter is about a teenager dealing with an unwanted pregnancy.

Track 7, “Mr. and Mrs. Hush,” is a prancing promenade that’s funky and soulful. It’s reminiscent of some of the things that Bowie recorded in his heyday, with brass accents and female backup singers.

Overall, Look Now is a very enjoyable Elvis Costello experience — glad he’s decided to keep recording new music!

 

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The Latest from Australia’s Paper Kites Is Sprawling, Cinematic 80s Rock

28 Nov

The synthesizer first came into general use in music in the late 1960s, pioneered by R.A. Moog (the Moog Synthesizer). By the 1980s, the introduction of relatively inexpensive digital synthesizers from Yamaha and others ushered in a new musical era — one that saw pop-rock make heavy use of the versatile “instrument.”

For a while, it sometimes seemed that other instruments were largely abandoned in favor of the synthesizer — to the point of excess. Now, in the 2010s, a band from Melbourne, Australia, called the Paper Kites has revisited the synthesized 1980s, but with a greater sense of discipline and purpose than in those early years.

On the Paper Kites’ latest album, On The Corner Where You Live, the band delivers a brilliant set of nostalgic 80s rock — with a hint of folk-rock on a few tunes — relying on a blend of reverbed guitar and synth. The sound is sprawling and cinematic — evoking a feeling of late nights spent under a star-filled sky. Lead singer-songwriter, Sam Bentley, paints vivid pictures with his lyrics, telling stories of life and love and effortlessly handling the lead vocals on most of the songs.

Track highlights:The album opens with two songs meant to be played back to back. “A Gathering On 57th” starts with the sound of a distant train, then serves up a melodic table-setter featuring piano and saxophone for the ten songs to follow. It segues directly into “Give Me Your Fire, Give Me Your Rain,” a slow-rolling, nostalgic soft-rocker with a big chimey guitar, syncopated rhythm and soaring vocals.

Track 3, “Deep Burn Blue,” was the first single the band released from On The Corner Where You Live.Again, a continuously chiming guitar serves as the lead element, played over a pulsing bass and swelling synth bed. The vocals are sung in rich harmonies, with lyrics about a girl who’s afraid to leave her apartment except in the anonymity of darkness.

Female vocalist, Christina Lacy, wrote one of the songs on the album and sings lead on it. “Mess We Made” showcases her exquisite voice and talents.

The eighth track, “Midtown Waitress,” harkens back to the Paper Kites’ debut full-length album, States,with its folk-rock sound. The song explores the story of a waitress trying to make it in a big city. Wistful vocals float over strummed and chimey guitars to the steady tap of a drum stick.

On The Corner Where You Live ends with the romantic and hopeful, “Don’t Keep Driving.” This is another masterfully handled tune full of nostalgia with a great 80s vibe.

The Paper Kites has been touring in the U.S. in support of their new album, but they’ve already completed their West Coast swing. I had the chance to see them when they came to San Francisco a couple of years ago and they’re fabulous live. If you’re in Philadelphia, New York or Washington, D.C., you can still catch them this week. Or maybe, wait until February, make a vacation out of it and catch them in Europe. But check those dates because many are already sold out!

 

Bay Area’s Thunderegg Delivers Heavenly Assortment of Indie Rock in “Cosmos”

13 Nov

“Space bar rock.” That’s one of the terms San Francisco-based Thunderegg uses to describe its music on the group’s Bandcamp page. I’m not sure whether that refers to the computer key I’m tapping between words as I write this, or whether it relates to someplace you’d go for a drink on a journey across the universe — like that cantina on the planet, Tatooine, in the original Star Wars.

I prefer the latter, envisioning a wild and wooly space bar filled with all sorts of creatures rocking out, so that’s what I’m going with. Which makes “Planetarium, Pts. 1 & 2” — the opening number on Thunderegg’s latest release, Cosmos — particularly appropriate.

The heavenly, 7-minute track is celestial and dreamlike, featuring jangly guitars, swelling synth strings and a harmonium, plus a rich mix of harmonized vocals reminiscent of the lofty sounds of the Moody Blues in their heyday. It’s an epic tune, one of a number of standouts on the album.

Thunderegg traces its origins to the East Coast in the mid-1990s, with an early connection to Yale University. This is perhaps reflected in the intelligent, insightful lyrics of the songs. For a number of years, founder and lead singer-songwriter, Will Georgantas, produced mostly lo-fi recordings on a four-track cassette recorder. However, Cosmos is anything but lo-fi. It’s a well arranged and produced album with a highly appealing collection of 11 songs that show just how much the band has grown and matured over the years.

Track highlights: I’ve already told you about the fabulous opener, “Planetarium, Pts. 1 & 2.” Track 3, “I Turn Automatic,” is easy-going, guitar-driven rock — jangly with a simple beat and almost spoken vocals.

“Pleasant Hill’ shifts to folk-rock with liquid guitar, harmonium, mellow vocals, and lots of Bay Area references. Track 6, “Stupid Town,” tackles the problem of being different, which often leads to bullying and a miserable existence in a “stupid town,” until the subject of the song realizes that “out there glistening is someplace new.”

“Where Are The Cars” features a deliberate beat, chugging guitars and bass — building into a rock anthem. “I Almost Cry” is jangly, 60s-style Brit-pop. And track 10, “Lucky So-And-So,” is another throwback, baroque-pop/folk-rock tune that could have been recorded in the 1960s by Simon & Garfunkel or Peter, Paul & Mary.

In short, Cosmos is an amazingly varied, exceptionally enjoyable album that’s excellent from start to finish. I didn’t know about Thunderegg before Georgantas reached out to me. But I’m very glad that he did!

 

Karla Kane’s “Goodguy Sun” Takes a Wistful Look Back at Summer

8 Nov

Singer-songwriter, Karla Kane, who had her solo debut late last summer with King’s Daughters Home For Incurables, is back with a fresh single that feels perfect for the autumn of 2018.

“Goodguy Sun,” was written by legendary English songwriter, poet and author, Martin Newell, associated with the UK band, Cleaners from Venus.

Performed together with Corner Laughers bandmates, KC Bowman and Khoi Huynh — as well as guitarist, Bradley Skaught, from Oakland’s Bye Bye Blackbirds and Gina Sperinde, “Goodguy Sun” offers up wistful, slightly melancholy, sunshiny pop — with a longing look back at the warm, wonderfully long and leisurely days of the summer just past.

Kane’s mellow vocals — accompanied by Sperinde’s rich harmonies, Huynh’s melodic piano, Kane’s ukulele, Bowman’s bass and melodica, and a snappy snare drum rhythm track courtesy of Skaught — create a very appealing throwback sound for this standout tune.

Flip “Goodguy Sun” over (does anyone ever turn singles over anymore?) and you’ll find the b-side, or in this case, the bee-side. “Sisters of the Pollen” is a song that Kane wrote and produced along with Huynh to call attention to the critical plight facing honeybees and other pollinators.

Sung almost in a round with sweet harmonies and handclaps, this song is catchy like a bug in your ear. Buzz buzz.

Kane notes that “Sisters of the Pollen” was, of course, written in the key of B. In the trail-out, you can hear Richard Youell’s field recording of three queen bees piping. This is a queen bee’s way of communicating her intentions to others in the hive. You’ll have to trust me on this.

Kane’s new “Goodguy Sun/Sisters of the Pollen” is the first in a series of singles that will be coming this fall from Big Stir Records. The tunes are available at the Corner Laughers web page.

 

New Zealand’s The Beths Deliver Punky, Poppy, Guitar-Driven Brilliance

2 Nov

The Beths are an energetic, guitar-driven alt-rock band from Auckland, New Zealand that delivers songs ranging from melodic power pop to punky on their debut album, Future Me Hates Me.

The four-piece group is fronted by singer-songwriter-guitarist, Elizabeth Stokes (the only Beth in the band) — with support from Jonathan Pearce on guitar and vocals, Benjamin Sinclair on bass and vocals, and Ivan Luketina-Johnston on drums and vocals.

The ten tracks on Future Me Hates Me focus on twenty-somethings striving to find their places in life and love, unsure of what paths to take and what the ultimate destinations might be. But don’t give this record a spin expecting heavy pontification and angsty yearning. Stokes has just the right light touch with the lyrics — never taking herself too seriously and often demonstrating a wry sense of self-deprecating humor along the way.

In the meantime, the Beths can really play — with a range that does justice to each song — whether it’s on lighter tracks or on one of a number of driving rockers on the album. Stokes’ vocals are consistently catchy and accomplished throughout.

Track highlights:The second song on Future Me Hates Me is the title track. It gets off to a roaring start with fuzzy guitars, contrasted with Stokes’ vocals that alternate between laid back and somewhat sweet. Stokes laments, “Sometimes I think I’m doing fine/I think I’m pretty smart.” But, she laments, “Then, the walls become thin/And somebody gets in/I’m defenseless/But it won’t happen again,” before adding, “It probably won’t happen again.”

“You Wouldn’t Like Me” features everything from handclaps to rapid, palm-muted guitar chords, intercut with full power-pop guitars — in a song that has a distinctly punky feeling.

Track 7, “Happy Unhappy,” is an up-tempo bouncy pop-rock tune that builds into a guitar-driven finish with nice backing vocals.

Although not the closer, the ninth track, “Whatever,” could serve as an anthem for dealing with life’s heartbreaks and disappointments — with a dash of acceptance blended with indifference.

Overall, Future Me Hates Me is an album that I think you’ll really like.

 

Archers of Loaf’s Eric Bachmann Returns With a Strong Solo Folk-Rock Release

17 Oct

Archers of Loaf is a 90s guitar rock band from North Carolina. According to a 1995 story in the Stanford Daily, the name was inspired by a neighbor of one of the band members who had a longbow and would shoot at targets in his backyard.

One day, the band member watched his neighbor shooting a loaf of bread at a target. The effort was futile because the loaf would “just hit the ground about 10 feet away, and (the archer) would go pick it up.” But apparently, it sparked the creative process for the band that would become Archers of Loaf.

While the band broke up in 1998 (although it has done some reunion tours in recent years), lead singer-songwriter, Eric Bachmann, has gone on to have a successful solo career — in addition to recording with the band, Crooked Fingers.

Bachmann is back with his latest solo release, No Recover, in which he’s accompanied by ex-Archer and long-time friend, guitarist Eric Johnson. The atmospheric folk-rock blends acoustic and electric guitar with subtle synths and rhythms — plus lots of rich harmonies. There’s a sense of sadness and weariness throughout, but an underlying hopefulness as well.

Overall, No Recoveris a very nice collection of songs in the easy folk-rock genre.

Track highlights:Opener, “Jaded Lover, Shady Drifter,” is an obvious standout. A rapid tapping rhythm underlies a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, with Bachmann’s majestic vocals soaring high above. A few synth trimmings and rich harmonies in the chorus add to the layers of sound.

Next up is “Daylight,” an uplifting ballad with an intricate, repeating, bell-like synth track and whimsical vocals. There’s a throwback feeling to this one, like something out of the 1970s when FM radio crossovers began to make it onto the top hit charts.

“Waylaid” is brighter and more upbeat — with fingerpicked guitar and a bouncier, rhythmic feeling. There’s a ringing electric guitar in the lead break. And the lyrics offer a nice sentiment — “There’s no lesson to be learned from our mistake/Just a chance you have to take.”

Track 8 of the 9-song set, “Wild Azalea,” offers some incredible guitar fingerpicking in a song that almost has a chamber-folk feeling. Chimey, with slightly Americana feeling vocals — it definitely hints at Bachmann’s North Carolina heritage.

If you’re looking for something folk-centric to enjoy on a leisurely Sunday morning or on a rainy day this winter, No Recoverwill off you a very pleasant 35 minutes.

 

New Spell’s “Of Time – Part II” Casts a Spell with Its Intricate, Dark Dream-Pop

2 Oct

New Spell is a San Francisco-based duo known for dark, dynamic, cerebral dream-pop. The pair’s music is intricately layered, with multifaceted textures from synth-centered soundscapes to complex rhythms and crystalline vocals.

Singer-songwriter and keyboardist, Leanne Kelly, serves as the unifying force behind the duo’s sound. Jacob Frautschi handles the drumming and producer, Max Savage, also contributed to the latest release with additional synths, guitar, piano, ukulele, and glockenspiel as needed on the tracks. Other guest artists contributed performances to the EP as well.

Of Time – Part II is the follow-up to New Spell’s Of Time – Part I, released in 2017. Both collections demonstrate Kelly’s skill in creating vivid worlds and telling stories through her music and lyrics — with soaring vocals and powerful keyboards. This is not your typical synth-pop — it washes over you — immersing you in the experience, while touching you with lyrics that examine what it means to be human.

Track highlights:The first song on the EP is stunning. “You Win” explores the role of honesty in a relationship, with the repeated phrase, “And so, lies, you win.” Kelly’s voice over the swirling, swelling keyboards is strong and piercing, buoyed by Frautschi’s urgent, tumbling drumming.

Track 2, “Like Water,” is more pensive and moody — with reassuring synth strings and Kelly’s doubled vocals. The brief lead break is intriguing, almost jazzy, mixing synth arpeggios with crisp drumming.

The last of the four songs on the EP is the title track. “Of Time” is set in 3/4 time, dancing and floating along with the help of a toy piano, strummed guitar, brushes on drums, and Kelly’s wistful vocals. It’s fragile and uplifting as it examines our relationship with the passage of time.

Kelly has also included acoustic versions of two of the compositions, “Of Time” and “Like Water,” on the EP. This is another strong release from a Bay Area band that you may not be familiar with.