Tag Archives: indie rock

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.


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.



The Best Indie Rock Album of 2017 by a Band You Haven’t Heard Of — Yet

23 Nov

I can almost guarantee that you haven’t heard of a band named Circus of the West. An indie rock group from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Circus of the West is a four-piece led by Edwin Caldie (vocals, keys), Joel Leviton (guitars), Ben Court (lead guitar), Jason Kapel (bass, keys), and Alan Einisman (drums).

The band describes itself as song-driven, and that’s quite an apt description. The songs on their debut full-length album, We’ll See Ourselves Out, are built around strong, hook-y melodies with lyrics about life, love and making your way in the world.

For me, the sound spans several generations. There’s a clear 90s influence — with an alt-rock edge that’s something like the Barenaked Ladies. But in addition, the roots of the sound actually go back to the mid-1970s, when pop began to be infused with progressive rock tendencies — moving it away from the traditional cookie-cutter formulaic approach. Examples of some of these 70s crossover artists range from Todd Rundgren or Leon Russell to Harry Chapin.

Track highlights: “Birdhand” is a rousing rock opener on We’ll See Ourselves Out. There’s a definite similarity to an up-tempo Barenaked Ladies song with searing guitar, driving drums and nice use of organ from time to time.

“Nothing Special” slows the tempo. The piano ballad showcases Caldie’s range and ability to bring drama to the vocals, like Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater.

“Valentine Eyes” is another mellow ballad, mixing acoustic guitar and synth with Caldie’s bittersweet vocals and some jangly guitar in the lead breaks.

One of my favorite tracks on the 11-song collection is “Asma.” This is a bouncy indie rock number that has the most similarity to some of the classic rock arrangements from the 1970s. Great guitar licks and terrific backing vocals. If this isn’t one of the singles from We’ll See Ourselves Out, it should be.

The last song before an epilogue, “More,” is a mid-tempo, melodic piano-based number. There’s a nice swing to it and again, solid vocals — with a bit of pedal steel guitar in the lead break.

So…if you haven’t heard We’ll See Ourselves Out — and I know you haven’t — do yourself a favor and give it a listen. You’re going to love it!

Fox Grin Offers Fun Rock and Dream Pop on “Dawn” EP

2 Nov

Fox Grin describes itself as an art rock/dream pop band. They’re originally from Atlanta, Georgia, but currently reside in Nashville, Tennessee. The band is primarily a duo consisting of Thom Chapman on lead vocals, guitars and keys, with David Bean on bass and backing vocals.

The four songs on Fox Grin’s latest EP, Dawn, deliver accessible rock with full arrangements and an occasional throwback feeling to an earlier era. The music is not nearly as artsy — read “challenging” — as some art-rock bands are known for, while remaining highly creative and captivating.

Dawn is the band’s second EP since Fox Grin’s debut in 2012, and they have one full-length album, Animals, released in 2013.

Track highlights: The first track on Dawn is “Fall into You.” It’s got a driving rock groove and features a full arrangement with guitar, bass, piano and tumbling drums. Dynamic changes in tempo add to the interest.

“All Alright” is mid-tempo rock with a Christian rock theme. The vocals are back in a mix that features strummed electric guitar with effects added in the chorus. The lyrics say, “Jesus, you saved my life/Now that it’s all alright.”

My personal favorite on this short four-track EP is “Jack Quick.” It’s slower pop-rock with a nice hook to the melody. To me, this has a throwback feeling similar to some of the album-oriented pop-rock that was on the radio in the 1970s — with cascading piano, strings, and synths the choruses. Overall, this is a nice effort from a very promising indie band.


The War on Drugs’ “A Deeper Understanding” a Cinematic Triumph

21 Sep

A Deeper Understanding is an especially apt title for The War on Drugs’ latest album. The work of singer-songwriter, Adam Granduciel, is so sweeping and cinematic that it conveys an enormous depth of field — a lens where we can look into Granduciel’s soul and become lost in the many layers of lyrical meaning and sculpted sound consisting of swirling synths, strumming acoustic and soaring electric guitars, steady bass lines and an ever-present heartbeat.

There’s depth, too, in the sheer length of this album and of the individual tracks. First single, “Thinking of a Place,” is 11:11. Only one of the ten songs is as short as four minutes; most are in the five- to seven-minute range — with the album clocking in at a luxurious hour and six minutes.

So, while this is a follow-up to Granduciel’s acclaimed Lost in the Dream, you could easily find yourself lost in A Deeper Understanding of the man and his music.

The War on Drugs conjures up images of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and possibly Neil Young on some of their releases from the 1980s. But the music is not derivative in any way. It’s a precisely crafted sound that Granduciel owns. Noted music industry guru, Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M Records, once declared in a Billboard interview that The War on Drugs should be “gigantic.” With the arrival of A Deeper Understanding, it’s certainly hard to argue the point.

Track highlights: At more than 11 minutes, “Thinking of a Place” is certainly an unusual choice for the first single. Yet, it’s an inspired selection. The dreamy music flows over you like a river, with Granduciel’s vocals and guitar solos expressing a powerful yearning to connect through love.

Track 2 is “Pain,” a song filled with shimmering guitar work and several soaring, searing guitar solos — particularly at the end of the song.

The next song, “Holding On,” shifts gears into a galloping, high-energy number that conjures images of Bruce Springsteen. The many layers of sound play off one another in a thoroughly effective manner, and Granduciel adds just a dash of glockenspiel to season the mix. Brilliant!

“Strangest Thing” pulls back on the reins for a slow, sad ballad about living “between the beauty and the pain.” Piano and synth work together to carry the melody, while a simple beat sets the tempo. Synth strings fill the choruses. If this were a portrait, it would depict a landscape full of grandeur, such as the Grand Canyon or the Amazon rain forest.

There are many more worthy tracks on the album, and with its epic length, it’s one you’ll spend hours absorbing. By the way, if you’d like to see The War on Drugs in person, they’ll be appearing at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley on Friday, October 6th at 8 p.m.


The Bye Bye Blackbirds Deliver Another Shot of Pure Rock ‘n’ Roll Pleasure

16 Aug

The Bye Bye Blackbirds are a rock ‘n’ roll band that harkens back to an earlier era when bands got together not to “release product” or “extend their social footprint” but for the pure pleasure of making and performing music.

Based in Oakland, California, the Blackbirds specialize in guitar-driven rock and power pop-rock with big harmonies and just the slightest nod toward the country genre at times. The band is led by vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, Bradley Skaught, who’s surrounded by an exceptionally talented group of band members and guest artists including contributing vocalists. On this album, that group includes three of the four members of Redwood City’s The Corner Laughers, two former members of SF folkies Or, the Whale, and Washington D.C. musician, Olivia Mancini.

The new album, Take Out the Poison, covers all the bases from straight-ahead rock, to Byrds-like country-rock, power pop, and even brassy glam rock.

Track highlights: Take Out the Poison begins with “Earl Grey Kisses,” a rock ‘n’ roll romp reminiscent of Tom Petty — marked by tumbling drums, crunchy guitars, a cool, intricate bass line, and Skaught’s distinctive, crooning vocals.

My favorite song on the album is the third track, “Duet.” It’s a bouncy and playful heart-tugger with handclaps and a hint of Americana. Lindsay Paige Garfield (Or, the Whale) co-wrote the song with Skaught and contributes sterling harmonies and lead vocals when it’s her turn. There’s also an electric guitar in the lead break that does an incredible imitation of a fiddle that would otherwise be there.

“Let Your Hair Fall Down” is a solid example of classic glam rock. “Alfred Starr Hamilton” represents power pop at its best, with ringing and crunchy guitars.

The title track, “Poison Love” — the second-to-last track on the album right before right before a closing reprise of “Earl Grey Kisses” — is an up-tempo, high-energy country-rock standout with a killer player piano. It’s the kind of song you’ll want to turn up when you’re traveling on one of the Bay Area’s back roads.

There are many other fine performances on the album as well. In short, Take Out the Poison is a great showcase of Bay Area musicianship that you’ll want to add to your collection. And make a note to catch The Bye Bye Blackbirds the next time they make one of their frequent appearances at a local venue.