Tag Archives: indie pop

Anton Barbeau’s Jangly “Natural Causes” Is Easy on the Ears

11 Apr

Sacramento-born and now based in Berlin, Anton Barbeau is an exceptionally creative and prolific artist who explores the boundaries of musical inventiveness. Natural Causes is his latest album — officially released this Friday, April 13th — a shimmering collection of intelligent psyche-pop, art rock and general quirkiness.

The 15 songs (including four short tracks of less than 30 seconds that provide an intro, outro or bridge for the collection) offer a nice mix of jangle rock, throwback psychedelic rock and progressive rock — featuring a rich 12-string guitar, Mellotron and analog synthesizers.

As has been true on many of Barbeau’s 23 — yes, 23! — records, he has made good use of many talented guest artists in recording Natural Causes. These musicians include Robbie McIntosh (Pretenders, Paul McCartney), Nick Saloman and Ade Shaw of the Bevis Frond, Michael Urbano (Todd Rundgren, Neil Finn), Andy Metcalfe (Robyn Hitchcock), and local favorites, Karla Kane and Khoi Huynh from the Corner Laughers.

The result is a thoroughly enjoyable album that will grow on you as you play it over and over again and discover new musical riffs and lyrics that appeal to your various tastes and senses.

Track highlights: After a short preamble with an introduction of Anton Barbeau over a heavenly chorus, “Magazine Street” gets the album off to a rollicking start. The tune is big, bright, energetic, and strummy. Interestingly, it’s actually a fresh take on a song that Barbeau originally wrote and recorded for his first album.

Skipping ahead to track 7, “Magic Sandwiches” transports us back to 1967 for a tune that’s eerily reminiscent of “I Am the Walrus” from the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. A great psychedelic rock anthem.

The second half of the album has many of my favorites on Natural Causes. Track 9, “Just Passing By,” is bigger rock with a soaring, fuzzy guitar solo. “Neck Pillow” is illustrative of how Barbeau can write about anything — in this case, a favored neck pillow. That’s Karla Kane of the Corner Laughers singing the harmonies.

Track 11, “Creepy Tray,” is a swaying, synth-based tune with a jangly 12-string guitar and a great bass line.

The final full-length track on the album is my personal favorite, “Down Around the Radio.” It’s a fun, catchy art-rock number with circular construction featuring piano and again, a 12-string guitar. A nice tribute to the power of radio in our lives.

Overall, Natural Causes is a fine album to add to your collection from a Northern California indie rock artist.



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.


Stockton & Post — The Indie Band, Not the Street

26 Oct

Stockton & Post are a brother and sister duo, originally from Northern California, who make fun, quirky indie pop-rock. Raised in Marin County, Jake Schroth still lives here in Berkeley, while Justina has adopted Austin, Texas, as her new hometown at least for now.

Jake is a multi-instrumentalist who plays the ukulele and other string instruments, piano and even wind instruments, while Justina was credited with vocals, as a co-songwriter and for contributing “random sounds.” Living several thousand miles apart has not created much of an obstacle for the musical siblings.

They started early — learning from parents who both have musical backgrounds — and have been in and out of a number of bands in their youth. Their current EP is called Bank Robber, and has but three tracks that are definitely cool.

Track highlights: The title track starts off the Bank Robber EP. It’s got a great backbeat behind strummed ukulele, with Justina on lead vocals and Jake’s horns added in places. Jake also handles some of the vocals and the piano in the bridges. The song reminds me of early Bishop Allen (a band I really like).

“Beautiful” evolves from a crystalline piano ballad into a mid-tempo tune with drums to provide energy. Jake and Justina share the lead vocals on this one. Strings and bells add polish to the tune.

The final track of the three-song EP is “Chicken Bones.” It’s a bit of a silly sing-along, swinging along in 3/4 time. Swelling strings, brass and plucked violin (or a synthesized version of it) add dimension to the song.

I’m not sure how many places you can find Stockton & Post’s Bank Robber, but if you’re interested CD Baby seems to have it.



Oakland’s Tambo Rays Ready to “Recharge” Your Batteries

28 Sep

San Francisco has long been known for its music, going back to the time of Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead. The East Bay developed its own sound — with early acts ranging from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Tower of Power and the Pointer Sisters.

So it’s not surprising that the trend continues today. One of the latest releases from a band that’s part of the Oakland music scene is from the Tambo Rays. The synth pop-rock group is led by Brian and Sara DaMert, siblings who have deep Bay Area ties going back to their youth in Marin County.

Sara’s interests include two of my favorite passions as well — soccer and music. She was a high school soccer star — winning all-league honors for three consecutive years. That earned her the opportunity to keeping playing in college for UC Santa Cruz. But recognizing that there was no future in professional soccer for women, she turned to her other love — music.

She has played with a number of local groups, but on the Tambo Rays’ current EP, Recharge, Sara’s emerged as its lead singer in addition to a keyboardist.

The five tracks feature catchy melodies, strong vocals, snappy rhythms and lush arrangements — with lyrics that examine life’s trials and tribulations. The DaMert’s father died in 2015, so in some sense, the EP was one aspect of how Brian and Sara dealt with the pain.

Despite that, Recharge has a very positive feeling to it — with lots of good energy.

Track highlights: “Yes and No” opens the album with sunny synth pop-rock that has a punky, girl-band attitude. Bob Jakubs’ drumming is crisp and there’s a late 70s, early 80s vibe to the melody.

The third, track, “Wrong Turn,” is a mid-tempo tune that’s smooth and slinky. The song features a big arrangement with many layers of keyboards and a busy bass line by Greg Sellin, and it builds in the choruses to an anthem feeling.

My favorite song on the EP is the fourth track, “Nothing to Lose.” This is a punky pop-rock number that explodes with intricate interplay between sharp guitars and sparkling synths. There are rich backing vocals as well. The electronic drum track is a bit reminiscent of Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.”

Overall, this is a fun album to listen and dance to — a fine effort from the young Oakland band. And if Sara ever pursues her third love, cooking, by opening her dream restaurant — I just may have to sample that as well.


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.” Although the song was written and originally performed by Robyn Hitchcock, the lyrics are a perfect fit with Schiffman’s elegantly disarming poetry throughout the album. On this track, she departs from Hitchcock’s grungy, jangly take on it by singing the lyrics with a sense of mystery and expectation 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.


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.