Jack Wilson splits his time between the comfy, southern warmth of Austin and the cooler, sopping city that is Seattle. While he’s in Seattle, he’s backed by the Wife Stealers, and elsewhere, it’s pretty much just him. On his latest self-titled, Wilson zig-zags between full-on Americana rock, and solemn, poetic lullabies about places and people of timeless impact. He opens his album with the sound of footfalls on loose gravel — a sound that is immediately evocative of distance and mindful wandering — a more than appropriate prelude to an album that looks to transport the listener to the image of Americana locked away in Wilson’s head.
Things get dark and heavy on the Gary’s second EP, El Camino. With these six songs, recorded by Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in mid 2010, it sounds like the weight of the world is pressing down on the band. Coming hot on the heals of their criminally overlooked debut full length, Logan, El Camino burns slowly with most songs feeling more like “Hurricane Sunrise” than “QSB” (both Logan standouts). And make no mistake; sounding like the product of a long haul Austin-to-Chicago roadtrip is not a bad thing. The Gary have consistently excelled at making songs for the darkest hour of the night, when the last drops of beer have run dry and it’s time to go home and face our realities. El Camino is no exception.
On their sophomore LP, Candi and The Strangers jives out powdery synth-pop blended with muted disco and causes one to beg, “More Moog.” 10th of Always purveys movement through space, and its done remarkably well through fleshly synthetic melodies and vibrantly blurred rhythms. Because of all the dripping fuzz and boomeranging reverb on 10th of Always it’s hard to know whether Samantha Constant is saying ‘glide’ or ‘dive.’ But somehow it doesn’t matter. Part of the fun of the album is the ambience, and part of the ambience is traveling on a space ship or Milky Way vessel, as the Strangers beckon, “welcome to my dream, relax and float downstream.” The album is true mood music — much like Al Green or Radiohead — it changes the tone of a room. After succumbing to it, the listener buys into a new world of possibility. At times the album is uncannily reflective of shoegaze greats while simultaneously referencing pop culture icons like Nico and Candy Darling. These retro-familiar elements paired with a coded musical and vocal rhetoric craft an album that is otherworldly but altogether mellow mosh crowd ready.
“Matrimony rock.” Hmmm. As a music critic, I’m down with all sorts of genre hybridizing (i.e. chamber-pop, glam-pop, jazz-rock, etc.). It’s part of our job to make up those descriptors to give music some sort of mass understanding, so I’ve seen a lot of bogus combinations, but the first time I came across the term “matrimony rock” was on the Long Tangles’ Myspace page. It seems to me that the word “matrimony” would contain certain connotations that act against the word “rock”, thus neutralizing the whole ordeal. The same way your best friend becomes a kitschy version of his former badass self after taking the plunge, the Long Tangles sound soft and comfortable on their debut LP, Silver City.
Nineteen, Frank Smith’s eighth overall album, is less boot-scooting music and more-boots-on-the-bar music. For a lot of their new album, the band doesn’t seem like it’s quite in the mood to do much other than drown their memories, so dancing seems a bit much to expect. Originally hailing from Boston – and not Nashville or Austin as one might surmise upon first spin – the foursome released a series of folky country-rock albums before relocating to Austin in 2007 and subsequently dropping 2009’s Big Strike in Silver City. On Nineteen’s ten songs, Frank Smith – not a solitary man, but a quartet featuring Aaron Sinclair, Kevin Bybee, Kyle Robarge, Steve Malone – half shuffle, half drunkenly shamble through their tuneful tales sounding like old students of the dusty bar band circuit. And, for the most part, it works.
There is some baggage tucked into Oh No Oh My’s body of work. The console is full of a slew of television commercials; the glove compartment, a contest for a Mr. Gatti’s jingle; and in the trunk, the band’s own take on their latest album. People Problems is a causeway of sophisticated indie-pop awash with ever-unfolding beauty, struggle, and tension, yet in interviews with the band, the songs on the album are simply about “slitting a girl’s throat” or “going crazy”. Here Oh No Oh My faces the near-impossible task of crafting something commercial out of material that is inherently challenging, like finding one’s place in the world or death or relationships - topics that abound within People Problems’ palette. Problems shoves the band into a new era. Though the quartet resorts to its characteristic shock-factor appeal at times, Oh No Oh My fails to undermine the complexity of its music. On their second full-length, lyricists and multi-instramentalists Greg Barkley and Daniel Hoxmeier, drummer Joel Calvin, and keyboardist Tim Regan stand unflinching and People Problems finds the band sufficient in and of its music. The album, mixed at Spoon’s recording house Public Hi-Fi, is full of impressive guest appearances including Scott Brackett’s (Okkervil River) lovely trumpet and Miranda Brown of Crooked Fingers. Even still, it’s the band’s carefully constructed rises and falls — its core of opposing traffic — that gives Problems life.
For all of the early allusions to literary figures made by the countless reviewers about The Dark Water Hymnal’s releases, one would think that the subtle and nuanced quintet would be overwrought with expert lyrical tumbling — but they’re not. Collapse the Structure is surprisingly easy to listen to and, at moments, revels in great moments of song-craft and instrumental build without flowing over, like an Arcade Fire album with the reins pulled in.
Chris Brecht and Dead Flowers second album and follow-up to 2008’s
The Great Ride, leads the listener through a musty corridor with a flashlight, opens a door and flips a switch to reveal stained floral curtains and yellowing lampshades. Slowly, with every listen, the curtains swish and the lampshades crack revealing the deliberate and delicate lace-like arrangements of the room: the Wurlitzer’s exacting pulse, the pedal steel’s reckless extension, the vocals’ penetrating reverberations. The assumption of what one thinks Motel is shrivels and falls off, and a song called “Living Twice as Hard” isn’t just a cliché for the grief and befalls of reckless living. Dead Flower Motel betters with each listen, revealing unseen turns and crevices. But like all motels, it is embedded with a sense of impermanence and the moments of revelation are constantly fleeting too fast.
My favorite part of Blue Water White Death’s self-titled debut album is definitely – without a doubt – exactly three minutes and fourteen seconds into “Song For The Greater Jihad”. At that moment, in a song that features some gentle acoustic guitar work, some slightly off kilter crooning, and a few well placed bombs of noise, there is such a weird howl that I rewound (or the equivalent in this digital era) back fourteen times just to hear it again and again – before I then finished listening to the song. It’s like if those creatures in The Descent (an awful movie starring girls being killed and chased in a cave) screamed for a split second in the darkness. Like a perfect guitar solo, this jarring noise made the hair on my neck stand up with excitement. For some reason unexplainable by me, that sound defines the entire album: a juxtaposition of gentle and terrifying; or perhaps meticulous and primal.
Marathon opens with the sound of a passing train, the shuffle of wind and brakes and steel on steel as the whistle cedes to a plaintive piano. What stands out in that opening sound is just how completely ordinary the train recording in – there is nothing contrived in it, no whistle fading off in the distance or steel guitar accenting the screech to a halt. It comes across as just a simple field recording - mundane even - as we stand witness to its movement, consumed in the inevitable effort of projecting onto it our own meanings, and whatever dynamic inertia that the train may represent becomes oppressed under a static contemplation. And that seems to be where Darden Smith finds himself with Marathon, overwhelmed and maybe even lost in that west Texas expanse. As he declares in “75 Miles of Nothing”, “The Truth is a one night stand blowing like a grain of sand, make whatever you want it to be, when you’re staring at 75 Miles of nothin’, there’s nothing to do, when you’re staring at 75 miles of nothin’, nothin’ but you.”