Thursday, February 25, 2010

Music Review: Alejandro Escovedo - Real Animal

The latest offering from Alejandro Escovedo is a powerful musical diary entry. It is a quirky and catchy and completely pleasant album that is nicely polished – produced by old Escovedo friend Tony Visconti - and unique.

This is Escovedo’s 10th solo album and he continues to write charming, sharp, witty, touching songs each and every time. He is a master songwriter and touches souls in a way that never goes wrong, similar to Damien Jurado or Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon.

His sound is a mix of Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, and Jurado. His background was in punk bands and he still rocks out, but the beauty of his songs is the musical texture, and the ebbs and flows.

Real Animal is a 13-track effort put out on Back Porch/Manhattan Records and is Escovedo at his finest. He is brash and beautiful on the album, plaintive and playful, alt-country, punk rocker, and troubadour. He always writes and sings in a straightforward way and the lyrics are personal stories from a private notebook. On “Sister Lost Soul” Escovedo sings about the sadness of losing loved ones “Nobody left here unbroken/Nobody left her unscarred/Nobody here is talking/That’s just the way things are/ You had to go without me/You wandered off alone/And all the neon light reflecting off the sidewalk/Only reminds me you’re not coming home.”

The song “Chelsea Hotel ‘78” tells the story of a man living in a rock 'n' roll hotel “And it makes no sense/And it makes perfect sense.” A couple songs just have feel good lyrics about friendship and goodwill “People (We’re only gonna live so long)” and “Always a Friend,” and “Swallows of San Juan,” and “Slow Down” are downbeat ballads. Every song is infused with Escovedo’s unique viewpoints, heartache, and joy.
The album feels so real because it covers the gamut of emotions and lets the listener in. It is easy to identify with Escovedo. His voice is sturdy but gloomy, then excited and then hopeful and he weaves all of it together nicely on Real Animal.

Escovedo’s band – David Pulkingham on guitar and keyboards, Chuck Prophet on guitar, Josh Gravelin on bass and keyboards, Hector Munoz on drums, Susan Voelz on violin, Brian Standler on cello - is a perfect unit. The drums and bass always keep the songs steady, the violin adds a wonderful layer of sadness but also a spastic layer, and the guitars guide the mood, staying low key sometimes and ratcheting it up on other songs. There are also some organs, and saxophones added in on the album the help it function on additional levels and brings out even more emotions.

This album is a lovely effort. It is paced nicely, has a good mixture of rockers and dusty lullabies and the track order keeps things very upbeat and interesting. “Real as an Animal” is a rocker and so is “Chelsea Hotel ‘78” and they are probably the most powerful songs on the album, along with the bouncy “Smoke.” Escovedo’s punk rock background keeps things pounding and joyful, the slow ballads keep things thoughtful and touching and, in the end, Real Animal keeps Escovedo firmly in place as one of the most wonderful songwriters of this era.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Music Review: Envy - Abyssal

Envy is a beast. A five-piece dynamic, hardcore band from Japan that deals screaming guitars, pummeling drums, and guttural screams straight to your chest. The band has been around for a while and continues to grow into an epic, rib cage vibrating, jolt of momentum.

In 2006 Envy released their most accomplished, surprising, beautiful, and intense album, Insomniac Doze on Temporary Residence. Abyssal is a 30-minute, 4-song EP that has flashes of some of the terrible beauty that was Insomniac Doze. It is an album that approaches quietly, then pounces on you and rides you up a mountain, down the other side and through a valley into a lush green meadow, that quickly turns to an empty field of burnt and smoldering dreams. However, Abyssal is a less focused album, although it still features some wonderfully accomplished atmospheric metal songs.

The 4 songs – "Road of Winds that Water Builds," "All That’s Left has Gone to Sleep," "Thousand Scars," and "Fading Vision" all share a driving and intense drumbeat from drummer Dairoku Seki and textured guitars from Nobukata Kawai and Masahiro Tobita. The two guitar players mash sounds together quiet well and they never seem to leave any empty space, or maybe they leave the perfect amount of empty space.

Envy has songs that are structured more like symphonies, with cues for when the drums should rise, the bass should dance, and the screaming should obliterate everything. The lyrics are all in Japanese, there is translation in the note sheet, although understanding the lyrics isn’t that important. It is the emotion forced out of lead singer Tetsuya Fukagawa that is.

Unfortunately the emotions can get old. Out of 30 minutes there are only about 6 or 7 minutes that are unique, undeniable, must-listen moments. The rest of the ep kinda blends together.

The tunes on Abyssal run from 4 minutes to 10 minutes long and it’s length is one of it’s downfalls, with more time Envy might have compiled another outstanding tour de force CD, but this effort feels abbreviated. Like there were only 10 or 15 minutes of polished material, but they had to stretch it out to put together this EP.

It’s still a good effort, but not their most memorable and it doesn’t seem like they had to rush this release out. They should have taken their time and put together a proper full-length album, which they will hopefully do next time.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Music Review: Minus the Bear - They Make Beer Commercials Like This

hey Make Beer Commercials Like This is a remastered and enhanced version – with one song added - of a 2004 EP from this Seattle-based happy rock band, released here on Suicide Squeeze Records.

Featuring members of Botch and Sharks Keep Moving, among others, Minus The Bear is a fantastically catchy, indie-pop quintet that has always had the ability to get a listener’s attention with dance rhythms and powerful guitar work. The guitar is the basis of the band. It is neat and wildly expansive, it twists and turns, lays low and paints a beautiful unnoticed picture and then taps you on the shoulder to offer you a beer, before going back to work.

The band is more rockin version of Joan of Arc or a slightly laid back version of Radiohead.

“Hey, Is That A Ninja Up There,” the fifth of seven tracks on They Make Beer Commercials Like This is a perfect example of the grace and power of the band. The drumbeats are strong and never timid, riling things up at just the right time. The bass is a pleasant smokey scent in the background and the guitar is the great conductor – going from quiet to full force to gentle space monster and back again.

Most of the songs from Minus The Bear are this way. They are a spectacular band, and they have a great sense of humor – with song titles like “I’m Totally Not Down With Rob’s Alien” and “Houston, We Have Uh-Oh” – and tremendously fun vibe. Jake Snider’s lyrics are always half thoughtful and half fun and that is how life should be, I think.

A track from Minus the Bear never stops; it is constantly moving forward and dancing you around a gargantuan planetarium.

The only fault I can find with Minus The Bear, if it is a fault, is that all their songs are similar, similar pacing, similar lyrics, timing, and elements. They don’t spend a tremendous amount of time experimenting. They have 9 or 10 releases out now and they all follow the same formula. But, a lot of artists and bands – from The Grateful Dead to Ani Difranco – have made careers off releasing the same album over and over again, and Minus The Bear does it well. Since they formed in 2001 they have grown their fan base and they even hit late night TV – Jimmy Kimmel – in July of this year. They constantly put out quality releases and I guess that is the goal of any band.