Friday, April 12, 2013

The Black Angels - Indigo Meadow (2013)

Contrary to what many believe about modern psychedelic music, the genre isn't all about peace, love, and dancing hippies. From the very beginning, The Black Angels have challenged these notions with a darker, more sinister edge. Since 2008, I've seen the band play a number of times and each show has been a memorable experience. One year, during a performance at SXSW, the crowd broke into a violent mosh pit. While at the CD release show for their 2nd album, there was an incredible light show and strange film footage displayed while the band played. For a moment, the visual effects mixed with their trance-like rhythms made me feel as though someone had slipped me some acid. And at a third concert, I was almost certain that they played a Joy Division cover, only to discover it was an original called "Manipulation". With that being said, The Black Angels are not your typical flower power psych-rock band. Their sound walks a blurry line between retro and otherworldly; steeped in blues, yet drenched in reverb and studio experimentation, with simple yet extremely effective tribal rhythms that send you into orbit.

Indigo Meadow marks the band's fourth studio album of their career and the first new record in 2 and 1/2 years. Despite the wait, the band stayed busy with a hefty amount of touring, and various side projects. (Guitarist - Christian Bland formed another psych-rock band with The Revelators. While lead singer - Alex Maas, did some recording with the lead singer of the Heartless Bastards - Erika Wennerstrom, in a group called Sweet Tea.) Also notable is that The Black Angels recorded Indigo Meadow as a four piece rather than a 5-6 piece band for the first time in their career. In 2012, original member/guitarist/bassist - Nate Ryan quit to pursue other projects.

Writing for Indigo Meadow took place in Austin between January and June of 2012. In that time, thirty songs were written in total. According to interviews with both Alex Maas and Christian Bland, this was the first album that they actually sat down and "crafted" the songs together before going into the studio. Whereas before, most of their new material was developed from jamming at soundchecks, and in the studio. As a result, the songs on Indigo Meadow are much more concise than on past efforts. Following the writing of the album, the band went to Sonic Ranch Studios in the West Texas border town of Tornilla. There, they geared their time more towards experimenting and getting the weirdest sounds possible out of their instruments. The sessions ended in three weeks, resulting in 16 finished songs.

Like every Black Angels album, Indigo Meadow sounds best when played LOUD! It features a fair amount of the groovy buzz-saw guitar riffage, thunderous bass lines, ghostly vocals, and tribal 4/4 drum patterns that fans have come to know and love; as well as a monstrous mixed bag of noises that often left me scratching my head at times. Backwards tape loops, multi-layered vocals - processed to sound like organs, and a ton of sounds that just left me clueless as to how they were made, were just a few of the minor details that I started noticing after several listens. There is no question that this is an album that gets more interesting with repeat listens, and that the band are obviously progressing musically. But often these added textures mixed with the concise 60's influenced songwriting come off sounding cluttered, and as though there is too much happening at once. As a result some of the better songs ("Twisted Light") suffer for it, while other not-so-great songs ("The Day") seem to hide behind the shield of unnecessary noise.

Still there is a solid chunk of songs you'll probably love on this album. The aptly titled - "Evil Things" and the last two minutes of closing song "Black is Black" feature explosions of fuzzy guitar lines, banshee howls, and deep bassy groove that recall their first album - Passover. On other numbers like the creepy and hypnotic - "Holland"; the haunting first single - "Don't Play with Guns", and "I Hear Colors" (which ranks as one of their most "psychedelic" songs to date); the band seems to have stuck their head into a whole new realm musically. Similar to their last album - Phosphene Dream, The Black Angels have continued to draw from 60's garage rock, early Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, The Zombies, The Doors, and of course The 13th Floor Elevators. Prime examples include "You're Mine" (a catchy little cannibalistic love song set to a time-travel palette of rhythm) and "Love Me Forever" (which features ringing Rickenbacker guitars and an interesting break that sounds like something that could have been on Pet Sounds).

Indigo Meadow, although currently my least favorite album by The Black Angels, is still an interesting listen with several must hear songs. This could end up being an album that reveals itself more and more over the coming years, the way that their 2nd album Directions to See a Ghost did for me. Still, it'll be interesting to see where the band goes from here. And as always their amazing live shows are a must see!

 out of 5

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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Wilco Saved My Life One Night.

I was a little late getting into the music of Wilco. It wasn't until 2002 and the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that I slowly began to take notice. In the following year, I ended up buying and obsessing over the rest of the group's catalogue - Summerteeth, Being There, and their first album - the sadly underlooked alt-country classic - A.M. Around this time I considered myself a serious songwriter, spending hours each day preparing for gigs, and working on new material to try out with the band I was playing in. A.M. was on constant rotation and a huge inspiration to my writing at this time. But little did I know, A.M. (notably "Passenger Side") may have also saved my life one night.

While living in Boston, I'd occasionally travel home to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to visit my family. Depending on traffic, the trip took anywhere from 7 to 13 hours. So to save time, I'd usually leave at midnight on a Thursday or Friday and arrive in the early morning hours of the following day. Some thought I was a little nuts to do these drives on my own, but I really enjoyed them. It gave me a chance to clear my head, and catch up on a ton of new music. One early morning, I started drifting off at the wheel and heading straight into a steep ditch. As I was hitting the grass, I woke up to the sound of Jeff Tweedy singing the opening lines to "Passenger Side, making it back on the highway just in time.

Hey wake up!/ Your eyes weren't open wide
For the last couple of miles/ You've been swerving from side to side
You're gonna make me spill my beer if you don't learn how to steer

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

David Bowie - The Next Day (2013)

A couple years ago, The Flaming Lips released a single begging the question - "Is David Bowie Dying?". Despite plenty of reports and photos proving otherwise, you couldn't help but wonder just what had happened to the Thin White Duke. One of the all-time forces in music for the last 40+ years  hadn't released a new studio album since 2003's Reality, and hadn't toured since collapsing onstage around the same time. Was David Bowie really dying? A closer look showed that he was still very active and a man about town in New York City, but that Flaming Lips song title kept popping up in my brain.

Then, just when I thought 2013's list of new music releases couldn't get any better, David Bowie made the announcement that fans had been waiting for. On his 66th birthday (January 8th), he posted a new music video, and the first single from his upcoming album - The Next Day. Life was good again!

Recording the album as though it were a top secret mission, David Bowie had everyone involved sign non-disclosure agreements, stating that - not a word would be mentioned to anyone regarding what was going on in the studio (including their own children!). Co-producer - Tony Visconti (who produced The Next Day as well as several of Bowie's finest albums), said that recording started with a week long session in late 2010, resulting in a dozen instrumental backing tracks. Bowie would then take the songs with him and spend a few months at home laboring over melodies and lyrics, and then reconvene sessions with the band. These 2-3 week recording spurts went on for about two years. 

So what does the 27th studio album from David Bowie sound like?

Like everything you've ever loved about his music (minus his techno and metal phases) all rolled up into one compact 14 song collection. Where his last batch of albums were a hodge-podge mixed with tired sounding arrangements that screamed "skip to the next track"; along with a small batch of memorable tunes per album; The Next Day is full of tighly-wound pop hookery and experimentation that remains a memorable listen from start to finish.

On The Next Day, Bowie is joined by a host of familiar faces whom he has worked with in the past - including guitarist - Earl Slick, drummer - Sterling Campbell, bassist - Gail Ann Dorsey, guitarist - Gerry Leonard, and most notably multi-instrumentalist and producer - Tony Visconti. Visconti has always been a master of capturing that mixture of dirtied-up glam rock with a sexy swagger; and he manages to bring these elements out remarkably well on The Next Day. The entire album sounds surprisingly fresh, yet every now and then, you catch a whiff of different periods of David Bowie's career. From the Ziggy Stardust glam rock era, just listen to Earl Slick's Mick Ronson-like, scuzzy guitar solos on the blistering rocker "Set the World on Fire"; while on "Dancing Out in Space" the band transforms into The Spiders from Mars as they sing androgynous doo-wop background vocals. You can go even further back to the 60's with the catchiest song on the album -"Valentines Day"-  a track that could have easily been stripped down to sound like something off of Bowie's bubblegum-pop debut.

And finally there is the influence of Heroes, the classic 70's album from the beloved Berlin trilogy, that combined epic balladry and freewheeling experimentation. Besides featuring an altered cover from the album, a few numbers from The Next Day wouldn't sound out of place on Heroes. The complex and frenzied "If You Can See Me" sides with the more experimental side A of Heroes, and showcases these ace musicians constantly jumping time signatures and keys in perfect unity. The result is almost panic-attack inducing! Perhaps the strongest song on the album is the tear jerking melancholy first single - "Where Are We Now?". On the ballad, Bowie sings of a "man lost in time", and name drops several of the places where he would hang out in Berlin . (see music video below)

There are plenty of other highlights on the album. Bowie's voice sounds as strong as ever on the continuously building epic - "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" and the trippy "I'd Rather Be High"; in which he sings from the perspective of a soldier in World War II. The Next Day closes with the progressive-rock leanings of "Heat", which manages to walk a tightrope between claustrophobic and an ocean of bliss.

This is without question David Bowie's best album since 1995's Outside, and possibly his best since  Let's Dance from 1983. Still, I wouldn't call The Next Day a classic Bowie album, but it's definitely among his stronger releases - a rewarding piece of pop excellence that only gets better with repeated listens.

Side Notes:
According to Tony Visconti, it may not be too long before another album is released. In one interview, he stated that the band recorded 29 songs for The Next Day, and there are tentative plans to start working again later this year........... Also, make sure to get the deluxe version of The Next Day! The bonus tracks are essential, most notably the driving rocker - "I'll Take You There", which could have been a single.

 out of 5