erasing clouds

18 Music Reviews

Click on the link to go directly to a particular review below: The Black Swans, Brrr, Carl Henry Brueggen, Allen Clapp, DoF, Down to Grease on Holiday, Dragon Turtle/Strand of Oaks, Edison Woods, Freeheat, Ed Gray, Robin Guthrie, Hezekiah Jones, Nire, Grant-Lee Phillips, Sprites, Those Transatlantics, Vlor, Vulturines

The Black Swans, Sex Brain (Bwatue)

On their Sex Brain EP, the distinctive Columbus, Ohio-based quintet the Black Swans do have sex on their brains – or at least on that of lead singer/songwriter Jerry DeCicca, who's singing in some way about sex on every song. But of course sex is never just about sex, and lurking behind the sex talk here is heartbreak ("Your Hands"), anxiety ("I.D.W.2.F." – i.e. "I don't want to fuck," though of course he really does), and escape from loneliness ("Friends," which uses sex as a metaphor but is mostly about drinking your pain away). It's erotica, but also philosophy, humor, nihilism. "Are we understanding each other / or understanding death?", DeCicca sings at one point. He sings those words, like them all, in his distinct talk-sing, one part Leonard Cohen one part Nick Cave, while strings and guitar swoon behind him, as they often do. The Black Swans' style of dark, rustic music is consistently haunting and intriguing. They take old folk-song forms and make them sound like a strange dream – no more so here than on the slow crawl "Dark Plums," which starts out like a bizarre version of a Townes Van Zandt song and gets creepier and more intoxicating with each passing second. – dave heaton

Brrr, self-titled 7" (Roklok)

The Pennsylvania-based group Brrr's self-titled 7" starts off with a song named after one of the band members, Jesse Todd, and featuring a lovely trumpet solo from him, along with some lovely violin, and guitars and percussion and just plain all around loveliness: that is, it's early morning, a gorgeous sun is rising, and everything just feels right. There's a Belle & Sebastian-ish pastoralness (or at least, echoes of those moments when Belle & Sebastian sound pastoral) to the song, and the lyrics, sung shyly by lead singer Herbie Shellenberger, are sweet: "clouds are in the sky / we're open to the day / and it makes us go / oooh." The next song sports more forceful group singalong vocals, fitting for a song titled "Row Row Your Boat," even if it's not the one you think. Instead it (written by the one-man band Widower) is a bare-bones sort of love letter. The flip side "Beauty and the Beast" is a still-pretty, more dour song with some great raucous energy at times, plus an overriding feeling of longing, fitting for what's ultimately a love song, with the punchline: "you're the only one who makes me quake." An excellent single all around: pretty textures and nice melodies, sung and played with heart. – dave heaton

Carl Henry Brueggen, Let's Talk About Hi-Fi (self-released)

Let's Talk About Hi-Fi is similar to the other EPs Carl Henry Brueggen released a few years back, and at least as good. The atmosphere he's going for is an absolute tropical, exotic vaction vibe: lush, gorgeous, romantic. The cover sports an alluring photo of bikini-clad women, and the music itself is just as provocative. Brueggen plays guitar – sharp surf leads on one track, more delicate, jazzy tropicalia on the other two – at the front of an around 20-member band. Or should they be called an orchestra, even, when there's this much going on? Marimba, vibes, pedal steel, flute, violin, flugal horn, accordion, percussion galore, and more. Brugeen's compositions themselves are evocative, and memorably melodic, but the musicians fill them out into something big and bright and beautiful. – dave heaton

Allen Clapp, Something Strange Happens (Bus Stop)

Allen Clapp might not be famous, but there's certainly some who place him on a pedestal, based on his truly unique grasp on pop melody. He's created perfectly catchy tunes galore over the years, currently as the leader of the Orange Peels. Something Strange Happens is a looking-back of sorts, an act of gathering that bears the subtitle Four-Track Forecasts by Allen Clapp 1990-2000. The title "Something Strange Happens" is that of the acknowledged classic here, a truly brilliant expression of infatuation-at-first-sight that bears an unmatchable chorus. But that's not the only treasure here, as this CD is filled with beautifully crafted, sensitively sung, home-recorded guitar-pop songs that bear a touch of magic. Originally released on 7" singles and compilation albums throughout the '90s, these songs are special indeed; there's a lightness to Clapp's touch that makes his songs soar in a romantic way, yet they also often carry with them hurt and sadness and all the other real-life feelings that a good collection of songs will express. – dave heaton

DoF, Sun, Strength and Shield (Abandon Building)

Sun, Strength and Shield is mostly sun, in terms of atmosphere. "Last Night Static," the first track on this instrumental CD starts with melodies lightly played on piano and acoustic guitar, tunes overlapping and instruments entwining as the music gently lifts upward. It's very pretty, and feels like its own world, where the sun's always shining. The next 11 tracks proceed in a similar manner – not always as optimistic in tone, but still light, airy and gentle. Electronic beats propel the music much of the time, giving tracks like "Sunday" an eventual funky-future feeling. Yet at others the focus is on the guitar, whether it's played with lowkey contemplation or brightness. The tracks all run together a bit; it's mood that makes an impression here more than songs. But that's OK, when the mood is as enjoyable and distinct as this one is. – dave heaton

Down to Grease on Holiday (Filthy Little Angels)

There's something fun as hell about a covers album that takes on music that's completely ubiquitous, that everyone knows even if they never sought it out. That's certainly the case with the soundtrack to the movie Grease, the focus of the 24-track covers party Down to Grease on Holiday. 24 bands (with MySpace pages, all of them) each take on a Grease staple, with homemade production values and a caviler attitude. None of the covers is anything groundbreaking, and some are pretty obnoxious, but they're not trying for anything other than fun, as far as I can tell. There's no sensitive we're-turning-camp-into-something-serious ballads, and thank god for that. It's all silly and playful and campy, and mostly fun – especially Sarah & the Johnsonauts' impromptu-sounding beach singalong of "Summer Nights," Captain Polaroid's electro-mad instrumental cut-up of "Blue Moon," a bunch of kids (Shisho) gleefully singing "Rock N Roll Is Here to Stay," and The Sweaters' sweet indie-pop version of "Freddy My Love." There's some noise attacks too, another kind of fun: the ripping up and tearing down kind. But mostly the mood is celebratory and the outcome is fun. – dave heaton

Dragon Turtle/Strand of Oaks, "Light the Lamps"/"Today" split 7" (La Societe Expeditionnaire)

This excellent first release from the Delaware Gap, Pennsylvania-based label La Societe Expeditionnaire is a split 7" featuring Dragon Turtle and Strand of Oaks. It's two sides of rustic country-folk music of an exploratory bent. Look at that cover image of a galaxy swirling into a cross-section of a tree trunk and you'll get the idea. Dragon Turtle's "Light the Lamps" sets the mood right with a gorgeous ghost of a song, the duo's voices floating and overlapping over some pretty piano, acoustic guitar, and steel guitar. It's a page of a nature journal tucked into a philosopher's diary and set adrift, over unfettered voices and instruments: "I want to burn / like leaves in the rain." The Strand of Oaks song, "Today," is more grounded but no less beautiful, and no less powerful. Its power's more rooted in the pain of everyday life, of aging and unrequited desire. Timothy Showalter sings his story slowly, patiently, letting his words hit but also letting the music take over, letting piano and guitar tantalize and cast their own spell. – dave heaton

Edison Woods, Nest of Machines (Habit of Creation)

Edison Woods' third album follows their path of making absorbing, atmospheric pop music that brings you into a feeling, a scene, in an extremely vivid way. Their 2003 album Seven Principles of Leave No Trace had a lightness about it; Nest of Machines feels much darker, heavier – not necessarily the lyrics as much as the overall tone. It opens with a entrancing instrumental theme, "Letter to the Garden," that with alto sax, violin, and cello sets the scene for what's to come: it's slow and sad, yet at the same time peaceful. It offers a feeling of mourning maybe, but also hope. That it's hard to pin that feeling down to one particular word is an essential part of Nest of Machines, and of Edison Woods. There's an ambiguity to their music that makes it all the more powerful. The album starts out seeming rather direct: the instrumental preface is followed by "Baby Doll," which has an overt sense of goodbye to it, like lovers are departing, as lead singer Julia Frodahl sings, "what's gone is gone / at least we had it then," and sings of rain and fire washing away the past. The fairytale nightclub-noir ballad (Tom Waits-ish in my mind) that follows, "The Con Man's Lament", too has a feeling of loss and sadness to it, though also a beguiling wink. And as the album proceeds, with beautiful tune after beautiful tune -- each wrapping Frodah's spellbinding voice in an equally spellbinding, careful arrangement of strings, piano, and other instruments -- the mood gets murkier and the stories even more so, like we're stepping slowly into the fog of a dream. It's no mistake that the last two songs make reference to waking up. With Nest of Machines Edison Woods has cast a mysterious spell over us, and taken us off to their own personal dreamland. – dave heaton

Freeheat, Back on the Water (Planting Seeds)

Jim Reid's post-Jesus and Mary Chain band Freeheat is in the general vein of late-period JAMC – but they're drawing less from that band's classic sense of pop melody, more from the general '90s "alternative rock" sound. Freeheat is a guitar-centered rock band, with songs built around fairly simple ideas and hooks, from the opening "Keep On Truckin'" through much of the rest of the CD. There's some great Stoned and Dethroned-ish melancholic contemplation in several of the songs (like the excellent title track), and several others are more straightahead rockers. There's a bluesiness to a lot of the songs, and the lyrical outlook is often that of the guy at the end of the bar who's seen a lot in his time, and has the attitude to show it (in other words, a bit of wisdom, a bit of cynicism, but a bit of a rebellious pose as well). But Back on the Water, with over half of its tracks recorded live at The Paradiso in Amsterdam, also has an immediacy to it, a vibrancy that makes it unique. It doesn't bear the careful sonic arrangements that the JAMC albums had, even when the impression they were going for was loud and carefree. It feels very of-the-moment, very impromptu and fresh. That's nice to here, as is Reid's voice, instantly pleasing to the ear for any JAMC fan. On the whole it's an enjoyable album in the general mold of Reid's previous band, if much simpler at times. – dave heaton

Ed Gray, Fresh Coat on the Powder Keg 7" (Unread/Sober Cannibal)

Ed Gray's got the powder keg prepared, and he's ready to set it ablaze. That is, through his blistering country-rock songs – sort of like a rougher Silver Jews – he's on the attack against his enemies. His voice wails and spits with hurt and rage. On the first song, "Surving You Never," he's setting forth the tone: "hello you dumb motherfuckers…" Later, in a completely pleasant, peaceful tone he sings, "You are a hurricane / and you'll be the death of me." Yet it's not all anger poetry from a singer and his guitar alone, though the mood is always dark; Gray's songs get sonic depth from Tiffany Kowalski on violin and Jonathan Crawford on forceful drums, kitchen-sink percussion, and organ. The violin doesn't so much soothe his pain as make it prettier to listen to, rounding out the package. – dave heaton

Robin Guthrie, Everlasting EP (Darla)

The companion piece to Robin Guthrie's multidimensional instrumental album Continental is this EP, which is 17 minutes of absolute bliss. Four songs that each transcend expectations, and transcend any feeling that we're attached to this earth or that there's limits to what's possible. "Bordertown" opens Everlasting in a smashing way, with guitars building as intensely as in any rock song, but in service of a synthesizer-driven feeling of lift-off, of hope. "A Sigh Across the Ocean" and "Fountain" take a moodier approach, but are filled with subtle and depth, the latter song lifting up with anticipation as it moves forward. "Everlasting" closes the EP out on a note of grace, layers of sound moving peacefully together in a dreamlike state, building to an excess of beauty at the end. Each song is compact, with every note and sound in service of a particular mood, yet each song also opens up like the sky, revealing so much. – dave heaton

Hezekiah Jones, Hezekiah Says You're A-OK (Yer Bird)

What is it about a solitary guitar and one singer's voice that can so easily conjure up a vivid feeling, tangible and moving? Or at least it can when the singer/songwriter in question has a true knack for such things, as Raphael Cutrufello, singer/songwriter for Hezekiah Jones clearly does. "Agnes of the World," the first song on Hezekiah Says You're A-OK is one such solitary jewel, his singing and playing immediately time-stopping. At first his lyrics seem oblique, but then it hits that he's pondering where someone from his past ended up: Agnes of the world / where have you landed?" Other songs throughout the album are even more delicate and lovely-sounding, while just as good at containing a particular emotion, scene, or story….and doing so in a not-so-ordinary way, more subtle and less simplistic than many of his peers. "Albert Hash" tells a common tale (working man turns to drink due to life's hardness) in an uncommon way, almost resembling a bedtime story in some way. "Postpone" is a beautiful folk ode to a departed lover. "Nothing's Bound" matches that same description, actually, though it has its own distinct feeling about it. Which is the general charm of this album, I suppose, that every song makes its mark on you, in its own way, even as they all hang together stylistically under one enchanting mood. Every time I listen another lyric stands out for the first time, yet every time I listen Cutrufello's voice and the overall atmosphere – sad yet sweet – is also instantly comforting. – dave heaton

Nire, My Father's Record Player (OIC)

Nire's My Father's Record Player EP was recorded in winter and spring 2006, but its demeanor recalls winter more than spring…or, that is, it's solitary, spare setting makes me imagine the duo holed up in an attic somewhere in the middle of winter, singing songs to create warmth, or at least a "Static Glow", as one song is titled. Nire is Erin Morgan, on piano and casiotone, and Josh Hinton, on acoustic guitar. Both sing, and sing nicely together; the minimalist setup fits these songs, which are generally quiet and introspective. "Slow This Down," the first song is titled, and that's the tone of all 5 songs: "I just want to slow this down / I just want to make this feeling stay / forever." Each resembles a whisper, and a careful one at that. It's music that pulls you into the speakers and offers you a blanket. It's warm and inviting. – dave heaton

Grant-Lee Phillips, Nineteeneighties (Zoe)

Nineteeneighties is an album of covers featuring some memorable college rock favorites from The Pixies, The Church, R.E.M., and The Smiths. Grant Lee Phillips (former lead singer for Grant Lee Buffalo) does not desecrate these holiest of holy indie hymns; instead he tweaks the songs just a bit with a warm voice and a carefree acoustic style. "Wave of Mutilation" opens the album, and it is nothing like the U.K. Surf version because Phillips has given the track a country flavor with some steel guitar. From there, Philips successfully tackles New Order and Joy Division with "Age of Consent" and "The Eternal." Echo and the Bunnymen’s ‘The Killing Moon’ and The Church’s ‘Under the Milky Way’ are featured and Phillips really shines on these two covers, but the best track on the album is Phillips take on R.E.M.’s ‘So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)’, which is absolutely beautiful. Other bands covered includeThe Cure, The Smiths, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Robyn Hitchcock, and Psychedelic Furs. Nineteeneighties is an impressive effort by Phillips, because every song is given a slight makeover yet he stays true to the music and does not do anything in an overindulgent manner. Cover albums can be hit or miss, but Nineteeneighties by Grant-Lee Phillips is a must-own for those looking for a college radio flashback. – tony doug wright

Sprites, Modern Gameplay (Darla)

Modern-day video games just aren't as fun as the old days of playing Atari with an awkward joystick or Intellivision with its weird controller: that's the central premise of the title track to Sprites' new album Modern Gameplay, which takes pop-culture concerns, the so-called 'minor' moments of everyday life and turns them into super-catchy and bittersweet pop songs, as lovable as can be. There's an '80s electronic tone to the album, with synths blending in with the guitars, not unlike that of Sprites' singer/songwriter Jason Korzen's previous band Barcelona. It's that "future" sound that really indicates nostalgia, or unrestrained imagination (or nostalgia for a time when it was OK to express unrestrained imagination). The album kicks off with "Bionic Hands," taking a sci-fi conceit and making it the basis for a love song. What follows includes a ridiculously infectious Dawn of the Dead riff ("George Romero"), a funny, very timely song with the great title "I Started a Blog Nobody Read," a Magnetic Fields-ish cover of the Outfield's "Mystery Man" (a song I had completely forgotten about, wow), a snazzy tribute to friends ("A Good Friend Sticks to You") and more. It sometimes seems like Kozen is albe to take any random thought he has (about artificial life, about computer lingo, about someone who hasn't returned his calls) and turn it into a remarkable song. Modern Gameplay is basically 17 fun and catchy pop songs, with energy, wit, and feeling. A good time, all around. – dave heaton

Those Transatlantics, Knocked Out (Suburban Sprawl)

Those Transatlantics' debut album Knocked Out won me over right from the first song, "Boys and Children, Sing for Summer." It's an infectious pop/rock song that contains inside it, as an emotional core, countless childhood memories. Singer Kathleen Bracken at first sings wisps of melody over a slowly building, quite pretty backdrop of guitar and whatnot, but then the pace picks up and it turns into more of a driven number, reminiscent of great female-fronted '90s college-radio bands like Velocity Girl and Magnapop (bands they probably don't listen to, but still). But then it shifts again, in the most pleasant of ways, into a back and forth sung conversation between Bracken and Chris Hatfield that carries with it both sadness and bubblegum-pop tunefulness, and then the guitars explode and it all gets rocked up a few dozen notches for a couple minutes. And that's just the first song! What I love about Knocked Out is that every song impresses me, but each in its own way. Much of it has that '90s 'alternative' sound I was thinking about – and that's not a criticism, as what it's reminding me of are great bands, bands with a big, dreamy sound that also rocked tightly and had catchy-as-hell melodies. But Those Transatlantics also get quite psychedelic in places, and even more importantly they seem quite aware of instrument placement and song composition. They consistently impress with the variety of instruments they incorporate into their sound, and with how they'll take a melody in a different direction than you'd expect. It's clear they've listened to plenty of music in their time, and paid close attention to what Phil Spector and Joe Meek and others where doing with sound. Yet at the same time, there's an especially direct emotional power to songs like "The Other Cheek," "I Had an Idea, But I Left It At Home," and the closing "Love Is/Was." Absolutely everything you'd want in an album is here – sheer emotion, depth of sound, melodies you can sing for days, and a sense of surprise. – dave heaton

Vlor, A Fire Is Meant for Burning (Silber)

In this incarnation Vlor is a drone supergroup of sorts: Brian John Mitchell (Remora) created skeletons of songs and got friends like Jon DeRosa (Aarktica), Mike Van Portfleet (Lycia), Nathan Admundson (Rivulets), Jessica Bailiff, Jesse Edwards (Red Morning Chorus) and Paolo Messere (6 P.M.) to help complete them. The concept is friends making music together, and the music itself is exploratory and ofen quite exciting. It opens with the sound of a lone guitar, as the project did; the first track "Trust in Weapons" is a contemplative guitar piece built around a melody and some spacey guitar sounds. It sounds peaceful yet engaged with the unknown. The next track "Wires" is instantly heavier and creepier, crunching forward with a big, layered sound that resembles both a giant metal machine and some kind of film-soundtrack orchestra. There's shimmering noises and grinding noises at once. A Fire Is Meant for Burning is seldom as dramatic as that particular track, yet it's often filled with sounds that reek of mystery in a similar way. The music overall is quite beautiful, yet seldom just beautiful for its own sake – often dark and forboding and filled with some raw energy. It's generally instrumental, but then there's a brief lovely, ghostly ballad sung by Bailiff. You get the sense that talented friends, working together, can take their music any direction they can collectively conjure up. – dave heaton

Vuturines, Fowl Language (Grey Dawn)

The voice of Jennifer Saez, the main singer for Vulturines, has an everyday quality to it that I find irresistible. It's soft and shy, and often seems like she's getting used to singing as she does it. There's something very K Records, proud-to-be-amateur about her voice, and about the lyrics, which are compelling for how direct and open-hearted they can be, but also are unconventional, starting right up with the first track "Desert," which sets up an imaginary dialogue between twins to explore feelings of sadness about the world. Isolate her vocals and these songs come off as personal, intimate, heartfelt. Even with the music they come off that way, but the music offers such a wild adventure that it's the first thing you'll notice about Fowl Language. The four-member band is tightly focused, and rocks ever forward in an exploratory way, dancing their way through a host of folk traditions and jazz-ish styles – of a particularly European bent sometimes, and other times seeming very Wild West – along with the fantastic pop melodies. They're from Portland, Oregon, yet there's a world of music inside them. Their sort of stylistic musical stew is ambitiuous and attractive; combine it with the more sensitive-pop aspects of their music, and the result is absolutely stunning and exciting. Bedroom pop that emulates the sound of someone who's traveled the world many times over; curious yet thoughtful. And then the whole affair ends with another turn entirely, with guitarist/keyboardist Corbin Supak taking over vocals for a dance-party of a pop-rock song that's unbelievably catchy, and a ghost story to boot. – dave heaton

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