Tag Archives: Indie pop-rock

Humboldt County’s Rachel Beccaria Is a True Songbird

8 May

As a DJ on KZSU Stanford, I get the opportunity to play a wide variety of fresh new releases from indie artists across the country, and in fact, around the world. Many of these artists are from well-known hotbeds of music: from the San Francisco Bay Area to Austin, Texas or Athens, Georgia — and from London, England to Melbourne, Australia.

But the best part of being a DJ and writing this blog is when I’m introduced to a truly gifted artist who is virtually unknown and from an area so small that you probably couldn’t find it on a map.

Such is the case with Rachel Beccaria, a Songbird from Freshwater, California — nestled deep in Humboldt County’s redwood forests on California’s rugged Northcoast.

The backstory on this young lady is that she has had little formal musical training, but has been writing poetry in a personal journal for years. Beccaria discovered her singing voice in her twenties and began writing songs that express the emotions in her poetry.

In 2016, she made contacts with a number of local musicians including Zach Zwerdling (a guitarist and lawyer, who graduated from Stanford in 1973). Zwerdling was toying with the idea of starting his own small label, Mercury Sky Records. After two years of writing and recording — using other local musicians and a local recording studio — Beccaria’s EP Songbird became Mercury Sky’s first release.

The album is a revelation — primarily downhome folk-pop, with a hint of alt country and one pop-rocker. The arrangements are clean and crisp and the musical talent is first-rate throughout. The six songs included on the EP offer a thoroughly enjoyable — if too short — listen.

Track highlights: After a short and inspirational a cappella hymn, “The Strength Within,” to open the EP, the second track, “Do Anything,” is a mid-tempo, bouncy folk-pop tune with a nice bass line and just a hint of country in the vocals. It’s the first single from the EP. Co-writer, Dominic Romano, joins Beccaria on the vocals.

Track 4, “Used Again,” illustrates Beccaria’s breadth. This one is a melodic pop-rocker, with smoldering resentment evident in the storytelling vocals. There’s some edgy guitar work and a bit of synth as well.

“Unexpected” shifts back to a confessional ballad, with strummed and fingerpicked guitar — and a shimmering synth track.

The closing number is another highlight of the Songbird EP. “Better With You” is an upbeat, toe-tapping duet with Scott William Perry, who’s from the Medford area in southern Oregon. This is a song you’ll want to turn all the way up on a road trip with the windows down this summer.

Beccaria’s Songbird EP was released at a sold-out show in Eureka’s Historic Eagle House on May 4th. It’s available on iTunes, Amazon Music and Bandcamp — as well as through the leading streaming services. Congrats to Mercury Sky Records for shining a light on this wonderful new artist.

 

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“Sloan 12” Is Solid Indie Rock from a Canadian Band with a 27-Year History

2 May

Sloan 12 is the twelfth album from the Canadian power-pop band, Sloan.

Coincidentally, this is a 12-song set of indie rock that showcases the distinct songwriting talents of all four band members. Guitarists Patrick Pentland and Jay Ferguson, bassist Chris Murphy, and drummer Andrew Scott each contributed three songs to the new release.

The musical mix on Sloan 12 ranges from big, guitar-driven anthems to 1970s-style progressive pop and even some folky pop-rock that’s reminiscent of the Byrds or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSN&Y).

After 27 years, the four original band members are still part of the band. The only change is that Sloan has added Gregory Macdonald to play keyboards when they record or tour. Murphy and Pentland sing most of the lead vocals, but when the band is performing one of drummer Scott’s songs, he not only sings the lead vocals, but also steps out front on guitar — with Ferguson and Murphy switching to the bass and drums, respectively.

With that kind of songwriting and multi-instrumental talent, you might assume that you’re in for a treat. And Sloan 12 does not disappoint.

Track highlights: The album opens with “Spin our Wheels.” With its searing guitars, driving drums, and big ‘classic rock’ backing vocals, this is a great anthemic power-pop single.

“Right to Roam” is reminiscent of one of those catchy progressive pop songs that became a hit with the rise of FM radio in the 1970s.

“The Day Will Be Mine” is another catchy song that offers potential as a single — with its crunchy guitar and soaring lead vocals.

“Essential Services” is really nice piano-based pop with sweet harmonies and a lightly skipping melody, enhanced by Beatles-like harmonies.

Finally, my review wouldn’t be complete without writing about “44 Teenagers,” the closing song in the set. It’s a more pensive rock tune that starts like the rich folk-rock of the 1960s, but shifts to a heavier sound in the middle. Lyrics reference the death of Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie from brain cancer.

Sloan 12 reflects the maturity of more than a quarter of a century writing, performing and playing together. It’s a solid indie rock album from this veteran Canadian foursome.

Husky’s “Punchbuzz” an Uplifting, Intelligent Collection of Indie Pop-Rock

19 Apr

Melbourne, Australia’s indie pop-rock duo, Husky, is back with their third full-length release, Punchbuzz.

Husky Gawenda, who sings lead vocals and plays guitar, founded the group in 2008 along with Gideon Preiss, who plays keyboards and contributes to the rich vocals. Starting as primarily an indie folk act, Husky continues to build on their folky beginnings by incorporating synthesizers and a variety of electronic sounds and effects into this solid 10-song set.

Punchbuzz was released in mid-2017 and Husky focuses most of their support for their music on the Australian market — so the album is relatively unknown in the States. But this is a cohesive collection of songs that’s well worth your time to get to know — reminding me of bands such as Fleet Foxes, Crosby, Stills & Nash at their most harmonious, the ethereal feeling of The War on Drugs, and even a dash of homage to psyche bands of the 1960s at times.

Track highlights: “Ghost” is the warm and welcoming opener — shimmering synth-pop that features soothing, mellow lead vocals throughout, with catchy choruses.

“Shark Fin” follows that up with its frenetic, Flashdance-like electronic drumbeats under jangly guitar riffs. Lots of cool harmonies in the lead break.

Another highlight on Punchbuzz is “Late Night Store,” a tune that’s light and crisp — with great changes of pace and plenty of hooks. The synths are taut and chirpy over a stop-n-go rhythm.

When “Walking in your Sleep” starts, you’d swear that Husky borrowed the guitarist from Fleetwood Mac. The guitar riffs sound so familiar. Once again, Gawenda’s vocal style is light and breezy, with bell-like keys and a 1970s feeling overall.

The closer for the 10-song set is perhaps the most fascinating track on the album. It’s experimental and ethereal, with warped synths rising, falling and swirling over a vaguely Caribbean rhythm. The lyrics are moody about lovers on a beach — with plenty of references to ghosts — ultimately tying this closer to the album opener.

There are other lyrical references such as “splinters in the fire” that carry over from one song to another as well, connecting central themes — making Husky’s Punchbuzz a tight, intelligent set of indie pop-rock that I think you just may love.

 

Belle and Sebastian Serve a Sumptuous Feast of Indie Pop-Rock on “How to Solve our Human Problems”

22 Mar

For an indie band, Belle and Sebastian has enjoyed tremendous popularity with critics and a loyal legion of fans. The group formed in Glasgow, Scotland in the mid-1990s and ahs long been known for its catchy, melodic indie pop, leaning toward folk-rock and chamber pop.

In 2015, Belle and Sebastian surprised its fans with Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, a collection that ranged from jittery European techno-pop to its more traditional folk-rock sound. The album and corresponding tour were very successful and took the band across Europe and the U.S. including a stop right up the road at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. It was one of the best shows I’ve seen.

Now, Belle and Sebastian are back with their follow-up, How to Solve our Human Problems, a truly eclectic collection of tunes even more diverse than what was served up on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.

The tracks were released over a period of three months (Dec. 2017 – Feb. 2018) on three separate five-song EPs. These songs have now been brought together into a massive 70-minute set of “witty, tuneful indie pop” as Rolling Stone describes it — with tracks ranging from disco-inspired dance-y synth-pop to baroque-pop and everything in between.

Some critics have quietly wondered whether it might have been better to whittle away a few of the less desirable tracks and release a tighter 10 – 12 track album. But true to their indie tradition, Belle and Sebastian treat us to a sumptuous feast of new music to enjoy in 2018.

Track highlights: There are so many outstanding songs on this album that it’s impossible to narrow them down to the usual three or four.

“Sweet Dew Lee” is a breezy, dance-y synth-pop number with jangly guitar that opens the 15-song set. “We Were Beautiful” is next, and it’s one of the album’s standouts. The song features urgent, slightly edgy synth-pop with a skittering trip-hop beat, a touch of pedal steel guitar and anthemic choruses.

Track 4, “The Girl Doesn’t Get It,” is also synth-pop in a Brian Eno style or something that closely resembles the music on the New Pornographers’ most recent album.

By track 8, the oboe that opens “I’ll Be your Pilot” signals a turn toward chamber pop. This is a heartfelt, sentimental ballad dedicated to lead singer-songwriter, Stuart Murdoch’s young son.

Track 10, the last on the second of the originally issued five-song EPs is “A Plague on All Other Boys,” a stately baroque-pop ode to Belle and Sebastian’s early years. Murdoch’s always highly literate lyrics parse the topic of first love.

There are three highlights among the final five tracks. “Everything Is Now (Part Two)” is a fuller, more complete and highly intriguing version of the fifth track, “Everything Is Now.” The title of both versions is eerily similar to Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” — interesting that the two indie bands are on such a similar wavelength.

“There Is an Everlasting Love” is a strummy, uplifting folk-rock number with optimistic lyrics about the harsh realities life sometimes brings. The closing number, “Best Friend,” is the only song not sung by Murdoch or his bandmate, Sarah Martin. This is a catchy, soulful 1960s-style tune featuring Glasgow’s Carla J. Easton as guest vocalist.

As I said, How to Solve our Human Problems, is a fun, highly enjoyable collection of music that new and old fans alike will want to have. I’ll dip into the album on the next two Fridays on my Friday morning show on KZSU.

 

David Byrne’s New Album Asks Listeners to Imagine an “American Utopia”

14 Mar

“I dance like this/Because it feels so damn good/If I could dance better/Well, you know that I would.”

“The chicken imagines a heaven/Full of roosters and plenty of corn.”

“The mind is a soft-boiled potato.”

“Now a dog cannot imagine/What it is to drive a car/And we, in turn, are limited/By what it is we are.”

“The bullet went into him/His skin did part in two/Skin that women had touched/The bullet passed on through.”

These are among the random things that David Byrne, formerly the lead singer-songwriter of the influential New Wave band, the Talking Heads, has been pondering recently. We know this because he sings about this and more in the ten songs that comprise his intriguing new album, American Utopia.

At age 66 (in May), most artists are slowing down. One couldn’t blame Byrne for making an album that sentimentally looks back on his heyday with the Talking Heads, and gives his legions of fans the opportunity to buy some new music that reminds them of the old music they love.

But this is David Byrne we’re talking about. And even at his, eh hem, advanced age — he still thinks and acts much younger and more creatively than many artists in their 20s and 30s.

While this is technically his first solo album since 2004, Byrne has made two other exceptional albums in recent years — one a collaboration with Brian Eno and the other with St. Vincent. This follows in the paths of those innovative undertakings.

American Utopia features indie pop-rock that’s at once melodic and, in many ways, experimental. Built on drum tracks originally supplied by Eno, the songs make use of a number of collaborators and feature a variety of rhythms, electronic effects and noise within the arrangements. Meanwhile, the lyrics are typical Byrne — intelligent, full of wonder and disarmingly original — telling life stories from unexpected perspectives.

In many ways, it seems like Byrne is still trying to figure out ”How did I get here?”

Track highlights: The best song in the set is one you may have already heard, “Everybody’s Coming to my House.” Driven by a jittery, syncopated beat and busy bass line, the catchy tune finds Byrne reaching his highest register in the vocals.

The first track on the album, “I Dance Like This,” starts out as a lo-fi piano ballad — but breaks into Devo-like robotic dance moments several times through the song.

Track 2, “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets,” sets up a nice, bouncy groove with a consistent bass line and skittering drum track.

“It’s Not Dark Up Here” is another song that’s reminiscent of early Talking Heads — but with a funky feeling over an exotic rhythm and Byrne singing, “Hey! It’s not dark up here!”

Finally, don’t overlook, “Doing the Right Thing,” an avant-garde lounge tune that transitions into a synth-powered progressive anthem in the lead break.

To support American Utopia, David Byrne will be on tour throughout much of 2018, including stops in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose in August.

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.