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.


Destroyer’s “ken” Is One of Dan Bejar’s Best Albums in Many Years

17 Jan

Dan Bejar has been recording and performing as Destroyer for more than 20 years. The Canadian artist has been prolific, with 12 full-length albums to his credit — not counting his work with the popular New Pornographers, of which he is a founding member.

But as familiar as his distinctive, slightly dry and somewhat quirky, narrative vocal style can be — with nods to artists such as David Bowie and even Leonard Cohen — his lyrics are consistently designed to take you out of your comfort zone and challenge your thought process.

Bejar’s latest, ken, is no exception. The title is borrowed from the working title for Suede’s ballad, “Wild Ones,” from 1994. Bejar has been quoted as saying he was thinking about the last years of Margaret Thatcher’s 11-plus-year reign as prime minister of the U.K., from 1979 through 1990. Assuming that’s the case, it’s interesting that Bejar has incorporated some tasty synth-pop and delicious brass flourishes, which make it seem like ken could have been one of Bowie’s artsy masterpieces from the 1980s.

Destroyer’s work isn’t meant to be easy to consume, although this album has several extremely catchy, melodic tracks such as the first single release, “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood.” But Bejar’s work — especially on this album — slowly gets under your skin until it’s affecting you in profound ways.

Track highlights: The second song, “In the Morning,” is a march-like, anthemic rock number with searing guitars and oblique references to the “Death Star in bloom.”

“Tinseltown Swimming in Blood” is as big a “hit” as Bejar has had in many years. It integrates a mesmerizing synth bass line, synth strings, an out-of-sync beat, and smooth vocals with just a touch of trumpet (or synthesized trumpet).

“Cover from the Sun” is next with a bit more than two minutes of wide-open, uplifting, jangly, fun rock ‘n’ roll that takes Destroyer in a very different direction from what we’re used to.

Track 9, “Ivory Coast” features a big pulsing synth with leisurely liquid guitar chords in the choruses. The album closes with “La Regle” Du Jeu,” with jittery keyboards overlaid with swelling synth strings and an 80s pop melody confidently sung by Bejar.

Critically acclaimed by most of the online music publications, Destroyer’s ken is an outstanding addition to indie rock’s solid 2017 portfolio.


St. Vincent’s “Masseduction” Is One of 2017’s Very Best

2 Jan

Annie Clark is an enigma. Her career as a rock ‘n’ roll artist and guitar goddess who records as St. Vincent has always been intriguingly mysterious, unpredictable and difficult to easily categorize — earning her an art-pop label and favorable comparisons to the legendary artistry of David Bowie.

St. Vincent debuted in 2007 with the album Marry Me when she was recording and touring with the Polyphonic Spree and opening for acts such as Sufjan Stevens. (Interestingly, she claims that she doesn’t even have a copy of this album.) She followed Marry Me with Strange Mercy and then the critically acclaimed, self-titled St. Vincent (the #1 album of 2014 on many indie tabulations), as well as an excellent collaboration in 2012 with David Byrne (formerly of the Talking Heads).

Now comes 2017’s Masseduction, an album that takes fans on another unexpected journey as Clark experiments with new melodies, a new producer (pop powerhouse, Jack Antonoff) and different instrumentation — incorporating much more synthesizer to compliment her virtuoso guitar work.

In the run-up to its release, Masseduction was billed as a significant departure for Clark. And it is that, and much more. True, it’s musically distinct from her past albums — with plenty of approachable pop numbers interspersed with some of her trademark guitar shredding. But it also reveals continued maturity in her songwriting abilities — with lyrics that are at times highly personal and revealing, taking both Clark and us as listeners out of our comfort zone.

The album is so consistently excellent that’s it difficult to choose which tracks to feature, but here goes:

Track highlights: After an intriguing beat-driven opener, the second track, “Pills,” is a mesmerizing pop tune that make wry observations about the role prescription medicines play in our culture today. The catchy sing-song chorus (sung by Clark’s ex Cara Delevingne) is intercut with some outstanding guitar riffs from Clark.

The title track, “Masseduction” also integrates jittery synth and beats with Clark’s edgy guitar.

“Los Ageless” is a synth-driven electro-pop standard with biting commentary about the dog-eat-dog crucible of Los Angeles. This title is often misspelled on the web as “Los Angeles,” with the title of the album also misspelled as “Masseducation.”

“Happy Birthday, Johnny” is both a beautiful and sad number about a young man that Clark had some sort of personal relationship with. The song is gentle, polished and highly person — with Clark even referring to herself as “Annie.”

The eighth track is an ode to her homebase of “New York City.” It relies on piano and strings, and Clark’s vocals are brittle and emotional.

Masseduction ends with another introspective tune. It’s got one of the best verses on the album, “Sometimes I feel like an inland ocean/Too big to be a lake/Too small to be an attraction/And when you wander in and start to flail a bit/I let it happen, let it happen, let it happen.” Clark sings the song in the lowest parts of her register with a world weariness that reaches to the core of your soul.

In short, Masseduction is precisely what St. Vincent strives for with every project — an album that leaves people a little wiser and better off than before they heard it.


Nick Heyward’s “Woodland Echoes” Is Catchy, Melodic Britpop in a McCartney Style

27 Dec

Nick Heyward is a UK-based singer-songwriter, guitarist and pianist who made his debut with the New Wave band, Haircut 100, in 1982. While Haircut 100 was only active for a handful of years and a couple of albums, Heyward’s career would last for decades and include many solo albums including his latest — Woodland Echoes.

This is his 7th solo release and first new album in more than ten years. The 12-song set features melodic pop-rock (and one excellent Americana track) that sounds amazingly like Paul McCartney when he was with the Beatles and in the early years of his solo career.

Heyward has a gift for writing catchy melodies with lyrics about love and life. While his music is certainly a throwback to an earlier era, the album does not sound dated. This is a strong indie pop-rock album that works as well today as it would have in the mid 60s or early 70s.

Track highlights: Woodland Echoes opens with “Love Is the Key by the Sea.” The song starts with a clock ticking like a metronome, which sets the tempo for a lilting tune that features strummed guitar and playful piano. The rich harmonies surrounding Heyward’s lead vocals are reminiscent of the Beatles during their Rubber Soul period.

Track 2 is “Mountaintop,” a rollicking Americana number with fiddle and jaw harp that while standing alone on the album, nevertheless fits perfectly. Don’t forget that the Beatles had a habit of adding a country-flavored tune to several of their albums — such as Ringo’s cover of the Buck Owens song “Act Naturally” on Yesterday and Today.

“Baby Blue Sky” was the first single release from Woodland Echoes, and it’s a big guitar-driven pop-rock arrangement with a definite Beatles shine to it. Track 9, “Perfect Sunday Sun,” is another Britpop guitar rocker that’s a strong follow-up single.

The second-to-last track, “I Got a Lot,” perfectly reflects Heyward’s talent as a songwriter and pop crooner. It’s a mellow tune featuring a harmonious, uplifting melody marked by confident lead vocals with some call-and-response backing vocals. You’ll find yourself humming this tune long after you’ve put the CD away.

Heyward may not be a household name these days, but it’s great to have him back after such a long absence with such a solid Britpop entry as Woodland Echoes.


Marika Hackman’s “I’m Not Your Man” an Unexpected Departure and Delight

20 Dec

Marika Hackman is a promising young multi-instrumentalist and vocalist from the U.K. Just 25, she released a couple of EPs in 2013 and 2014, before completing her first full-length album in 2015, We Slept at Last. That album received generally favorable reviews — with The Guardian calling it “…superbly understated and atmospheric electro folk.” The publication went on to say, “her music’s unsettling quality and old-as-the-hills delivery makes her different. Full of shadows and animalistic imagery, her songs are like journeys through haunted forests or darker crevices of her mind.”

Well, The Guardian clearly hit on something because Hackman’s sophomore release — I’m Not your Man — is breathtakingly unexpected. Moving away from the crystalline and introspective style of her first album, Hackman offers bold and bracing Britpop with just a tinge of grunge. The lyrics explore life lived large — impulsively, erotically and with a wicked sense of humor.

Hackman is backed on the album by Big Moon, a popular four-piece all-female band out of London that can really rock.

Track highlights: The lead single and first track from I’m Not your Man is a perfect example of the offerings that await. It’s a story about easily luring a man’s girlfriend away because “No one takes us seriously just because I wear a dress.” With a wink, she sings “A woman really needs a man to make her scream.”

Track 5 “Violet” is another sensuous song. The sultry guitar-based melody moves at a luxurious pace as Hackman sings, “With violet eyes, I’ll make you succumb to my mind/And through it all/I’ll keep you blind and close my mouth.” The music builds to a louder, grungier conclusion.

“Apple Tree” is pensive and hesitant, with a subtle rhythm. It veers more toward the haunted folk sound Hackman captured on her first album — perhaps with a hint of a chamber sound.

“Eastbound Train” is a mover that makes good use of Big Moon’s rich instrumentation. The melody is memorable and Hackman’s voice is light and lovely — which is always the case, even in the grungiest parts of her songs. It makes for an interesting interplay between a feeling of aggression and innocence.

There are a number of other standouts on I’m Not your Man,” but unfortunately, they can’t be played on the radio without an edit or two. I like “My Lover Cindy,” “Time’s Been Reckless” and “Cigarette” as outstanding songs that you can’t get out of your head. So, if you’re okay with explicit language, this is an exceptional album, top to bottom.

After the widely divergent styles of Hackman’s first two releases, it will be interesting to see what she does for her third in a few years.