Monday, February 2, 2009

Candle - Maybe Goodbye

San Luis Obispo's Candle has been shaped by constant arrivals and departures over the course of its existence. After three releases, three tours, and regular lineup changes, nearly all of the current musicians involved with Real Love Records (and then some) have come together for an new and expansive 7-person lineup of Candle. With the departure of Jon Wilson and Rachel Spotten, the three core members of Candle recruited labelmates Patrick Patton (bass), Andrea Patton (keyboard), George Major (violin, cello), and newcomer Mark Iseman (lap steel/slide). With most of the members busy with school, work, and etc. over much of 2008, their new EP release Maybe Goodbye feels like a refreshing return of musical focus for the group, and it can't hurt that the music itself is excellent.

Right off the bat, opener "Blue Dress" sounds fresh and live in the studio. It immediately becomes apparent that lead singer/songwriter Kevin Coons seems to have refined his lyrical ability; while some lyrics contained within their last release "Miles and Miles and Miles" seemed too obvious and predictable at times, Coons' new batch of lyrics is rewarding and requires quite a few listens to soak everything in. The instrumentation is lush without ever being cluttered, and the production quality has seen a dramatic improvement from their somewhat compressed and flat-sounding last release.

"Moonstone Beach" takes an interesting turn for the group's sound; a handclap/piano led intro soon gives way to a shuffling, organ-swelled pop sound. While the chorus doesn't quite soar like it should, the song is a quite passable tune that grew on me with time. Immediately following is "Barstow Trainyard Blues", which unfortunately suffers from poor production in some aspects, especially the strange backwards-reverb effect applied to Coons' voice. The song mostly succeeds, yet the mixing of the tracks could definitely have been improved to complement its overall mood.

Fortunately, everything following "Barstow" is nothing short of excellent. The perfect "Little Cloud" features stunning cello work from George Major, a beautifully introspective mood, and a Candle first - a vocal solo from another member - in this case, keyboardist Andrea Patton. "Foreign Land" is absolutely incredible in every way; every member is at peak form and sharing a vocal, with a wicked assortment of instruments hurtling full-speed toward the song's climax. It may be the greatest moment the band has had in its recorded history.

This collection of songs is the sound of a well-broken-in lineup of friends and musicians happy with where it is in its history, acknowledging its place in its environment, and never lacking in creative juices or succumbing to passivity in its sound. The only problem I had with this record is that it wasn't a full length. Overflowing with stellar songcraft, boundless energy, and modern translations of classic influences and ageless themes, Maybe Goodbye is a triumph.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Existential Hero - The New Zealand Hangover E.P.

After release after spotty release, after countless hit-and-miss experiments and baffling instrumental usage, Isla Vista-area (anti-)folkie Existential Hero (Steven Ray Morris) has finally gotten it completely right.

Meant as an epilogue to the hilariously self-indulgent and charming "New Zealand Trilogy", the Hangover EP trims away most of the refuse from Morris' technique. What is presented here is a collection of tight, memorable, and stripped-down ukulele-pop songs. Culling the best sounds from his trilogy of albums and armed with a ukulele and Garageband, Morris has quietly created a someday-will-be-classic DIY document.

To go track-by-track into this album wouldn't really do it any justice. The release in whole flows gracefully while not dipping into any listener-challenging sonic experiments; a shrewd move by the standards of some of his more obscure-sounding releases. His use of autotune has been trimmed down to sparing use, creating a subtle nuance to songs such as the title track. Tasteful use of guest vocalists (Linguistic Banter and Wonder For All, among others) keeps things fresh and exciting to listen to.

Best song: "I Want To Be In A Relationship So I Can Be Anti-Social". While it's not as good as the greatest Existential Hero song (the staggeringly perfect "I Don't Care About Love"), it comes incredibly close. Like this song, the album is pure pop bliss. The New Zealand Hangover EP makes up for any and all mediocre albums Existential Hero has released in recent memory (I'm looking at you, "Be Yourself/Be Others"!), and the best part is that this isn't the last we'll hear from him, by a long shot.

Download it for free!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Jon Crocker - The Dust Will Settle

Gosh, I love hooks. Don't you? In fact, where would music be without good hooks? I like hooks with vowel alliteration, like "Two timin' me, nickel and dimin' me". OH! and "What have you been sellin', tall tales are the only kind of truth that you've been tellin'". Hooks, man. Hooks. Those little subtleties. inflections, and instrumental/visual hook-line-and-sinker mechanisms that just send the song through the roof. They separate the Neil Youngs from the Nickelbacks, the Sex Pistols from the Fall Out Boys. Hooks, folks. Look 'em up and tell yr neighbors, because maybe we can cleanse the FM airwaves that way, and maybe even rock 'n' roll in general, and...okay, enough of that.

That nonsense aside, one of my favorite things about Jon Crocker's new(er) album The Dust Will Settle (besides its hooks...) is that it really has the ability to appeal to a wide audience despite its strictly rustic folk sound. Under the acoustic guitars and banjos, it's not hard to spot the Beatlesque melodies, Tom Waitsian storytelling, and Beach Boys-style knack for pretty songcraft. It plays out like a total classic; opener "Skipping Stones" wastes no time
with bridge or reprise or aolo, just a wonderfully satisfying, ultra-catchy verse/chorus format, the musical equivalent of three scoops of ice cream. Coupled with the utterly perfect "Tall Tales", it took a few weeks to even begin to explore the rest of the album. I just played and replayed those two songs.

But can things get even better?! Kinda. As with any album, there are a few tracks floating around that you won't play over and over again; yet it's not that you'll find a necessarily "poor" song here-- Crocker's sound is too familiar-sounding to come across that way. But there's no denying the simplistic beauty of tracks like "All That I Have Left", "Don't Wait Up For Me" and "6 Day Sinner's Son". The whole thing is enhanced with tasteful production, and although my common complaint of barely any variation used in the basic instruments still holds, the album proves itself as totally mesmerizing and strangely hypnotic in its appeal.

Nothing really beats a solid alt-folk album, and Crocker has delivered yet again. He's currently on tour with Adam Faucett and William Blackart, be sure catch his show in a town near you. The greatest and most simple compliment I or any music reviewer could give tends to apply; "The Dust Will Settle" is just really great music.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Top Grossing Films Of 1984 and Existential Hero - Be Yourself/Be Others

Let's get this out of the way, I love lo-fi and DIY music. I have infinite respect for artists such as Kimya Dawson, Daniel Johnston, Jad Fair, Moldy Peaches, and Beat Happening. However, I believe there is a point where a song decides to quit being enjoyable and tuneful and is crushed under the weight of its own forced DIY-ness, rendering it unlistenable. While this 2008 split between Illinois' The Top Grossing Films of 1984 and California's Existential Hero doesn't completely cross that line, it veers very, very dangerously towards it.

"Be Yourself/Be Others" is not only a split between two artists, it is also divided between covers and originals (and confusingly, at one point, Existential Hero guests on the other artist's side.) But on to the music - Top Grossing Films leads off the first side of the album, and all four of his contributions feel like complete throwaways. This is very frustrating considering the artist's potential and ability as a songwriter -- it feels like he just isn't trying much. "Cat Song" makes an attempt at carrying an actual tune, and has a tiny gleam of lyrical charm. However, anything enjoyable about the song is lost in the forced off-key clangor. Sadly, the contributions end here with much to be desired. I desperately wanted to understand these songs, but I could not bring myself to play them more than once or twice. While I have enjoyed a lot of this artist's past work, this offering left me cold.

. Existential Hero takes the helm for the next half of the album and things get a bit better, or at least more listenable. His interpretation of Neutral Milk Hotel's "The King of Carrot Flowers pt. 1" is weak, but passable. Perhaps the most interesting attempt is his revamping of A Drum And An Open Window's "Summer Camp Pop Song". Although the stripped down, cheerful pop of the original is stripped away to a slow, repetitive R&B beat with a bizarre overuse of vocal autotune, it still stands out among the weaker tracks of the album. The entire CD finds its best track in Existential Hero's cover of Daniel Johnston's "Broken Dream" - Johnston's mood is channeled very nicely into a crudely strummed nylon string guitar and a whole lot of honesty. It's a great song that fits Steven Ray Morris's interpretation well. R&B attempt number two "Leave The Door Open" is strange, funny, and oddly stellar.

I'm starting to think my appraisal of the album, especially The Top Grossing Films of 1984's side, is unfair. Maybe I simply don't understand where the motive for this stuff comes from, and maybe I should give these guys credit on the fact that they're just making music to have fun. However, I have no choice to say that my critical opinion stands. Although "Be Yourself/Be Others" is bursting with creative and experimental talent from both sides of the field, and I desperately pleaded...PLEADED with myself to actually like the music and to muster up the necessary strength of will to overstuff this review with ego-stroking praise, I'd be fooling myself if I didn't call it a letdown.


Friday, October 31, 2008

Jon Crocker - Edison-Free Sediment Vol. III

Ventura, CA vagabond, roustabout, scalawag, and etc. Jon Crocker is quite a piece of mythmaking. It's really a daunting task to write a review on one of his albums with an objective stance - rather, his countless and fascinating tours, explorations, and adventures have seemed to be his main claim to fame, with the actual music kind of an afterthought. Or maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. Yeah.

2006 release Edison-Free Sediment Vol. III (how I wish I could effortlessly write a trilogy of albums) is a highly enjoyable collection of rootsy folk tunes about break-ups and famous inventors and map making and German cars and all that fun stuff. I was a bit nervous when I heard this was advertised as being recorded without the aid of guitar, bass, or drums. However, the album is consistently catchy, clever, and enjoyable, something I don't find in too many albums these days, much less obscure underground folk albums such as this.

No track really overstays its welcome and while, admittedly, the sounds are a bit samey throughout (most songs are mandolin-based), there is a real emphasis on melody here. My favorite song "Lucky" sounds like an early Beatles track (yes, I am aware of the reference I just made) set to a jaunty mandolin/banjo combo and Southern gospel-fried backup harmonies. The song is really an indelible experience, and there are quite a few more similarly great tunes - "On Being A Cartographer", "Long Distance Song #3", and "1998", among others.

For all its lo-fi and "tossed off" qualities, this has some top-notch storytelling (On Being An Archaeologist) and clever satire (Cars That Come From Germany), with incredibly memorable melodies throughout. After listening to it, I simply pressed "play" on my CD player and played the whole thing all over again. Nope, no constructive criticism here. "Edison-Free Sediment Vol. III", for what it is and what it claims to be, is flawless. No pretense, just good stuff throughout. And isn't that what's really needed in music these days?

"Oh let's say no thanks to Thomas Edison, if he were dying in my arms I wouldn't give him medicine!"

Candle/Iamb - Come Back Home 7"

(Yeah yeah, I know this came out last year. But it's still worth reviewing so sshhh!)

Before San Luis Obispo's Candle released their (so far) defining statement with early 2008's Miles and Miles and Miles, along came this 2007 split single with Iamb, a past musical project of Candle guitarist Ross Major. While very short (three songs), it serves as a nice, succinct demo of what both projects have to offer.

The record kicks off with Iamb's "Three Years" -- part lovestruck drama and surrealist fantasy, driven by a chiming mandolin and wailing slide guitar. Definitely Jeff Mangum-inspired, yet it sheds its more obvious influences to hold together as a great song. The follow-up piece "One Afternoon" is a nice little piece of dreary ambiance, but I almost wish something would be put here with the single-like quality of "Three Years". Nevertheless, it's definitely not terrible and Major resigns quickly enough for the next side of the record.

Candle's "With My Heart" is a powerful testament to what's to come. Shedding the drowsiness of the last Candle release (Birds Were Meant To Fly), singer Kevin Coons pens a perfectly simple, inspired, and earnest lyric married to a very bombastic and sloppily wonderful sing-along melody. This is incredibly satisfying songcraft, and "With My Heart" is a track you will return to again and again.

"Come Back Home" is really meant to be a demo for Miles and Miles and Miles -- a listen to both will gain much understanding of both releases. Many elements here are set in stone for future musical adventures, and it's a true pleasure to follow these guys and to wonder just what they'll be up to next.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Candle - Miles and Miles and Miles

San Luis Obispo's Candle has come a long way in a short while. In 2005, singer/guitarist Kevin Coons and drummer Paul Frankel (under the Candle name) released "Birds Were Meant To Fly", an album of sleepy experimentation. Come '08, Candle has expanded to a self-contained full band (with bassist Jon Wilson, guitarist Ross Major, and keyboardist Rachel Spotten) with a new musical calling of roots-based rock and country, a la early Wilco and Harvest-era Neil Young. Their newest effort, "Miles and Miles and Miles" is their most confident, album-oriented, and straightforward release yet.

Gorgeous opener "Pennies in a Well" pulls out all the stops - Coons' earnest songwriting is surrounded by an instrumental tapestry - mandolin, piano, harmonica, fiddle, piano, and vocal harmonies, to name a few. Effortlessly, it segues into the excellent "Let Me Love You" (one of the strongest tracks on the album), and everything seems to be going right.

"Pretty Please" is a bright, Technicolor-painted pop song - a bit out of place on the album, perhaps, but it grew on me. The momentum of the album is quickly redeemed by the one-two punch of "Hotel Eyes" and "8th and Pine" - the former a hard-driving and very memorable track, the latter a simple, cheery folk song that brings to mind Hank Williams or the Carter Family.

After all the effortlessness of nearly the first half of the album, we hit a few bumps in the road. The ponderous "So It Goes" feels like a downer - there is kind of a forced "darkness" to the song (note the half baked "apocalyptic" lyrics) which didn't convince me too much. "The Lonesome Wind" could have been a fun, upbeat number, yet it is tarnished by sloppy instrumentation - as the fastest track on the album, it should be tight and forcefully just doesn't sound right. Though it features some stunning fiddle work from guest Zach Angles, everything sounds like it's all over the place and Coons' jarring shout-fest at the end didn't really make things better for me.

Fortunately, the rest of the album keeps a more consistent pace. "Say Goodnight" follows as a relief - featuring a perfect, subtle array of instruments and beautiful vocal harmonies, it's the best song on the album. The strutting, minor-key "Keepin' My Feet On The Ground" keeps the momentum fresh while "Santa Cruz" and "Prisoner's Song" end the album with a bit of melancholy yet a sense of hope. The latter is the musical equivalent of waking up late and wondering how much of the day you've missed. And dig that choir at the end!

Candle really put a lot of work into this album, and it shows - surprisingly fresh, always melodic, it's a solid, self-assured release that holds together just as well as any Harvest or Blood on the Tracks. For its (minor) shortcomings, it's just a really satisfying album to listen to. Good work, Candle.