Tag Archives: Synth pop-rock

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.


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.


The New Pornographers Release Confident New “Whiteout Conditions”

3 May

The New Pornographers debuted in 2000 as something of a Canadian super-group, bringing together three accomplished lead singers — A.C. “Carl” Newman, Dan Bejar and Neko Case — every few years for a new album and a tour. It should be noted that while Case is often identified as Canadian due to her lengthy association with the New Pornographers, she’s American. She was born in Virginia and considers Tacoma, Washington to be her hometown.

On the New Pornographers’ most recent album, Brill Bruisers,” the band incorporated generous helpings of synthesizer into its set-list with the help of something called an arpeggiator — a hardware- or software-based gizmo that takes the notes of a synth chord and effortlessly transforms them into an arpeggio.

Whiteout Conditions, the band’s seventh studio album, again makes liberal use of the arpeggiator. And while this album doesn’t have quite as many hits packed into it as Brill Bruisers (which was, after all, about the hit songwriting factories of New York City in the 1960s), it’s still a dynamic, high-energy indie musical feast.

The album features propulsive, synth-driven pop-rock, with fabulous vocals and mesmerizing harmonies from singer-songwriter Newman, Case, and Canadian keyboardist, Kathryn Calder. Newman’s tightly packed, crisp lyrics are meaningful and thought-provoking.

By the way, absent from this New Pornographers album is co-founder, Bejar, who was busy with his other band, Destroyer, at the time this was recorded.

Track highlights: The album explodes out of the starting gate with “Play Money,” with its rapid-fire rhythm, multiple layers of sweet and fuzzy synths and Case’s lead vocals effortlessly rising and falling.

On the title track, Newman takes the lead, backed by strong harmonies from Case and Calder. It’s anthemic, with the arpeggiator creating a jittery, skittering landscape.

On to track 3, the biggest hit of this collection. “High Ticket Attractions” features Newman and Calder on call-and-response vocals, with rich harmonies and big synth chords in the chorus.

Track 10, “Clockwise,” starts with angelic backing vocals and builds into a driving road song with wonderful imagery painted by Newman’s lyric, “In the valley of the lead singers.”

The album closes with a throwback 70s feeling on “Avalanche Alley.”

While the album is weighed down a bit by some sameness from one track to the next, you’ll find Whiteout Conditions to be a great addition to your pop-rock portfolio.


Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s “The Tourist” One of the Best of 2017 So Far

13 Apr

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is a pioneering art-rock band from Philadelphia. When it debuted in 2005, the band was one of the first to more or less bypass the traditional system of distribution through an established record label — selling albums by word of mouth generated through music blogs and smaller shows.

Today, four of the five founding members have gone their own way, leaving only singer-songwriter and lead vocalist, Alec Ounsworth. Question: does this mean that the band’s name should now be Yeah! (with Clap, Your, Hands and Say all gone?) Just wondering…

Anyway, the good news is that, if anything, the disassembling of the original quintet into just Alec and miscellaneous friends has resulted in even more creativity and cohesiveness, leading to what may be the band’s best album to-date.

The arrangements in The Tourist are sharp and crisp — with keyboards, guitars and prominent rhythms working in perfect harmony. Tracks range from guitar-driven to synth-rock, with one folk-rocker (“Loose Ends”) — all featuring Ounsworth’s unique vocals.

Track highlights: The third track, “Down (Is Where I Want to Be),” starts with a funky, off-kilter beat with pinging synths, before transforming into a guitar-driven rocker.

Tune 5, “Better Off,” features snappy, up-tempo rock, layered synths and some jangly guitar. Rich Beatles-like harmonies emerge near the end of the track.

The best song on The Tourist is “Fireproof,” a fabulous, rhythm-driven track that incorporates a muted percussive guitar, thumping bass drum, cool bass line, and shakers — with psychedelic synths and vocals that vary between frenetic and soothing.

The second to the last track in the ten-song set is “Ambulance Chaser.” There are swirling, swelling synths over strummed guitar and rapidly sung, breathless vocals. Ounsworth cynically declares, “I’ll take my medicine and you’ll just hope for the worst.”

The Tourist was created at a time of “intense soul-searching” for Ounsworth, and this has certainly served as inspiration for a true masterpiece.


Another Top Indie Album for 2014

3 Dec

TV on the Radio is a four-piece indie rock band out of Brooklyn, NY. The band formed in 2001 and has released four previous studio albums, plus a number of EPs. In mid-November, the band debuted its fifth studio album, Seeds. The album showcases everything from melodious, pop-rock anthems with a hint of 1980s bands such as Depeche Mode to really nice jangle rock and even high-energy punk. Together, this makes Seeds another outstanding album in a year that’s been full of them.

TV on the Radio was founded by David Sitek, who has also worked with bands such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, Celebration, Little Dragon, and Beady Eye; and Babatunde Omoroga “Tunde” Adebimpe, whose distinctive, warm tenor gives TV on the Radio’s vocals their unique quality.

The first single from the album was “Happy Idiot,” a jittery electro-pop number that could be the soundtrack accompanying one of those high-speed films that depict 24 hours of life in two minutes.

Another video that the band has released is for “Careful You,” a song that really harkens back to the synth-driven rock of the 1980s. The lyrics switch back and forth between “careful you” and “care for you” in this song of yearning for lost love.

“Ride” is an amazing indie-rock anthem that starts with an extended (more than two minute) piano-and-synthesized strings, ballad-type play-in — then shifts into a great rock and rock “ride,” with a strong backbeat and interesting keyboards.

“Lazerray” is the all-out punk number I referenced above, and the band does it really well. In lesser hands, this shift from 80s synth-rock to punk would feel forced, with a “Hey – we’re an 80s synth band trying to be punk rockers” vibe. But “Lazerray” is simply great, honest punk, worthy of some of the best punk purveyors.

Looking for jangle rock? Try “Could You” or “Trouble.” Both have well-written lyrics, again beautifully sung by Adebimpe.

The album ends with the title track, “Seeds.” The song is on the softer side, but with an ominous fuzz-bass synth that casts a shadow over the track, which focuses on trying to make a relationship work. Intricate layers are added as the song builds, making it a satisfying conclusion to the album.

Give Seeds a listen. Despite the quirky name, TV on the Radio is a fabulous indie band whose music has stood the test of time…with a new album that will make many year-end “best-of” lists.