Thursday, August 21, 2014

Christopher Bell -- Fire

If the music posted in the last few days feels peppy and light, it's because this is all music I listened to in June. At the end of the school year. And now I'm getting ready to head back. That should tell you how far behind I've been on reviews, considering I've been posting two a day all summer. So even though this is early summer music, I submit that Christopher Bell is a songwriter for all seasons.

As much as I love country, if I was being truly honest the cello is my favorite instrument (pedal steel runs a very close second.) Bell plays the cello -- and nothing but -- on the album. OK. Now listen to some of the music.

Bell uses pedals to layer samples of his electric cello -- live -- in order to create his unique sound. On top of that, he's a damn fine songwriter to boot. Check out this selection from "Connect the Dots":

I'm a sucker for layered shirts
sci fi movies and any dessert
you're the only one to crack my shell
but tape it up and never tell

its easy to forget the nature of things
that we're both pimples, scars and pains
losing keys, forgetting dates
forget alarm, sleep in late. 

I also find "Am I What I Think" particularly poignant. I'm sure it's a quandary that only becomes deeper when I'll get older, but I think Bell perfectly captures the agonies of a young person questioning him or herself and his/her legacy.

Fire is certainly a standout album and one well worth your time.

Christopher Bell -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Repeat After Me -- Mapmaker

Jam bands and power pop aren't two genres that seem like they would go together, but Repeat After Me Manages to pull it off. Repeat After Me is signed to Russian Winter Records, which has done an excellent job of building a stable of artists of brands whose music you can space out to, but it's never spacy enough to be off-putting. (PS, Russian Winter Records and I made a benefit compilation album that you should buy.)

But to get back to Repeat After Me, let's talk about their aesthetics for a second. You can purchase a digital copy of this album (recommended) for $5, but for $18 you can purchase a vinyl that includes a free set of crayons for you to color in the cover. For crayons, 20 minutes of fun, and a chance to exercise your own creativity, I'd say that's a pretty clutch deal. You know what else is clutch? Mapmaker.

This is a beautifully constructed album -- plain and simple. You're eased in to what seems like a glittering pop confection with "Mapmaker," before being whisked into more contemplative territory with songs like "I'm Going Back" and "Carve Out a Name." The standout track for me is "San Francisco" -- maybe it's a little silly, but sometimes you need a silly song to leaven Mapmaker's ultimate achievement: building intelligent but crafty music.

Repeat After Me -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Vintage Blue -- No Going Back

I posted a video by Chicago pop(s) band Vintage Blue a few months ago. Upon further reflection, Vintage Blue reminds me of vintage Fighting Gravity. I know that's an extremely cryptic reference -- you probably only know Fighting Gravity if you went to college in the Southeast or saw them tour with Cowboy Mouth a couple of times. They started out as a ska band and followed the various pop trends. I encountered them when they were following the Dave Matthews/Carbon Leaf jam band thing, except they did it better. The fact is, it's hard to get higher praise from me. Fighting Gravity was technically the first rock band I'd ever seen live and I've been in love with rock'n'roll ever since.

But that was the past. Let's talk about the present. The reason Vintage Blue brings Fighting Gravity is the band's poignant lyricism and warmth. (Also the horn section and harmonizing.) This is the kind of music that's pleasant to listen to...but when you actually listen to it, you realize there's a lot more depth than just a fun pop song. My personal favorite is "No Going Back" -- I guess I'm just a sucker for marching beats.

Vintage Blue -- Official, Facebook, Listen on Spotify, Purchase No Going Back on iTunes

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cory Branan -- The No Hit Wonder

This is a Cory Branan album.

Cory Branan --  Official Site, Facebook, Spotify, Buy The No-Hit Wonder

Alright, I guess I should write a review but let's be honest -- this album, as do all Cory Branan's albums, speak for themselves. I am a late a convert to Cory, but seeing him live was enough. There's something about his songs -- both here and on this album -- that make you feel as if you've heard them somewhere before. Take a minute to think about's not because his music is generic, or because he's not afraid to highlight is influences from the past. What you're feeling is resonance. Cory can take the truth and squeeze it into 4/4 (and especially 3/4) time.

As for the songs on here, each one is a homerun. "The Only You" shattered my heart when I heard it live -- the quick tempo in the album keeps it from being utterly devastating this time around. Songs like "C'mon Shadow" and "My Daddy Was a Skywriter" illustrate Branan's warmth and capacity for storytelling, while "The No-Hit Wonder" is the kind of rough-and-tumble song we adore around these parts.

Though "The No-Hit Wonder" details Cory's troubadour adventures, the album has already received plenty of attention from mainstream outlets like The AV Club, Paste, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and Rolling Stone. Welcome to the fold, folks. Branan also gets assists from a number of his friends like Jason Isbell, Craig Finn and Steve Selvidge of The Hold steady -- already well-known -- and folks who are more familiar around these parts like Austin Lucas (whose last album got a nod in The New York Times) and Caitlin Rose (who has contributed a number of songs to Nashville.) If Cory makes it big, perhaps his rising tide will lift other boats. I guess our community of no-hit wonders will finally get the recognition they justly deserve. But I'll sure miss saying hi to them after the shows.

Cory Branan --  Official Site, Facebook, Spotify, Buy The No-Hit Wonder

Cory Branan --  Official Site, Facebook, Spotify, Buy The No-Hit Wonder

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ed Tang -- Goodbye, Zen5, Sushi Diner

A couple of months ago I reviewed Ed Tang's most recent EP, an exuberant push into alt-country. I mentioned that there was...something...missing. When I went back and listened to Goodbye... I realized what it was. The EP feels a lot like someone took a paint-by-numbers outline and mixed their own paints. It has it's points of originality, but the form has been studiously followed. It seems like Ed really wanted his second release to feel a certain way and may have stifled some of its own energy in the process.

Goodbye... does not have that problem. It's about clinging to the ideals of youth. The album kicks off with the tale of a life-altering South American road trip. The album can pretty much be summarized with this line:

You can’t go back, its full speed forward to some midlife heart attack. 
But the ropes of St. Christopher you placed around my neck,
Baby, they brought me back to you. 

It's more effective with the music, to be sure, but it betrays a sort of cheerful nihilism -- let's have fun now before we have to go home and be boring for the rest of our lives...or at least do our best to fight it. Musically, the album has more in common with the Gaslight Anthem than Tang's country heroes, but I'll never complain about that. This is a fantastic album. You can name your price for it on Bandcamp, so there's no reason not to snag it. Here's to Tang's next release. I hope it captures the urgency in Goodbye, Zen5, Sushi Diner

Ed Tang -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, Amazon, CDBaby, iTunes

Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards -- Distance

Did you know that Teen Wolf is a thing? Apparently it, people watch it. And I assume people listen to it, because Dan Michaelson's newest album is already sold out, even though it only goes on sale today. Dan's previous releases have been celebrated on Pitchfork and, more prestigiously, was interviewed here on Adobe & Teardrops on Friday.

Distance is the first album of Michaelson's that I've listened to -- not that I need Pitchfork's endorsement -- but I can say that it lives up to his fan's expectations. This album feels intensely personal, not least because Michaelson's distinctive, brooding voice is justly featured front and center. Michaelson has a singular vision that you may not like, but you'd have to at least respect. These songs feel more like spoken word with musical accompaniment than what you'd expect from a rock album. Certainly, this is in keeping with the way Michaelson described his process in the previous interview -- he uses a phrase as a starting point to build the music around. As a result, these songs end up having a literary quality that is truly worth a deep listen.

(EDIT: The DELUXE version of the album is sold out. You can still get your own copy at the link below.)

Dan Michaelson -- Official, Facebook, Purchase Distance

Friday, August 15, 2014

INTERVIEW: Dan Michaelson

London-based artist Dan Michaelson will release his somber, deeply-layered album Distance on Monday (the 18th.) The single, "Breaking Falls," was featured in MTV's Teen Wolf -- but that aside, it's a beautiful song. Dan took the time to answer some of my questions about his approach to songwriters.

Your music is richly textured and -- from a pop writing perspective -- nonlinear. Could you describe your creative process?
I usually have a line or a string of words that feel true to me or seem to suggest a descriptive framework around my mood. I let that sink in for as long as it takes then build a narrative around it. Take a grain of truth and build a story around it. With that a melody naturally comes to hold it all together.. then I just try to make it sound as much like a song as i can.
I hear a lot of influence from the National in your music. Who else do you draw from for inspiration? 
The early inspirations will be familiar to most people.. Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed were the earliest, the people who knew you didn't need to be the greatest technical singer, that an individual voice with something to say can be more important. After that i found Lee Hazelwood, another strange and wonderful voice. Eventually I fell for the soul music of Etta James, Carla Thomas, Darondo and such.. All the Chess artists, The Supremes.. a long list that also readdressed the balance in terms of a female voice. Like most people, I'm the product of a thousand influences seen through fresh eyes, I hope.
Do you prefer recording your music or performing it live? 
They seem so different to me, its impossible to choose. One is a very private experience, the other an "outing" of all those moments. I find recording to be a more natural instinct than standing in front of a room of people. But one insists upon the other, I'd be unlikely to build a house and refuse the opportunity to live in it.
Your music feels rather dark and introspective. Do you find the writing process cathartic?
 I do, its like shedding a skin and feeling fresh and waking up with a clear outlook.. but the dust settles again quite quickly so theres always more to do.
Dan Michaelson --  Official, Facebook