Sunday, April 18, 2010

Music Review: Damien Jurado - Caught in the Trees

Singer/songwriter Damien Jurado has released about a dozen records in his career; all of them powerful, intimate, and intelligent efforts. He plays guitar and tells cryptic and touching stories. Most of his songs inhabit a sparse, quiet area - similar to the songs of Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and occasionally Neil Young or more recently Peter Bjorn and John. A few of his CDs have shown that he can write more rocking songs, but he still is most comfortable as a guy with his acoustic guitar, quietly singing lyrics scribbled on the back of a napkin.

Caught in the Trees – released on the Secretly Canadian website - is an effort of mostly gentle lullabies, but it does rock at a few points. The 13-track effort is a solid effort that flows nicely, and Jurado’s lyrics are straightforward and touching. The album feels like a section from a melancholy autobiography that is translated to music. Jurado’s slightly screechy voice is confident as he sings about the ins and outs of humanity, his favorite, and best, topic. He is supported wonderfully by sharp, muted, drumming, strings, pianos and female backing vocals.

Jurado’s songs are always set to his own point of view, and often start or stop in unexpected places, or changes at random points. The musicianship is pleasant and the storytelling is vivid on Caught in the Trees. With lyrics like “You’ll be happy to know the situation is worse,” “You look like you could use a rest. You look like you’d be better off dead,” “I’m no lie detector. He’s no bullshit talker,” “Are you alright? You’re making me nervous with how much you’re leaving me here,” and “Another jealous husband to be killed,” overtop of downtempo, full guitar chords, restrained drumming and sprinkles of strings and pianos, Caught in the Trees is Damien Jurado’s murky heartbeat. It kicks up a couple times, but stays mostly somber, but is always intense and interesting.

Caught in the Trees is a CD that could be played over and over again in the background of your activities. It is a gentle effort, not demanding attention, not screaming at you, but is nicely rhythmic and overall a lovely, subdued effort - similar to most of Jurado’s other efforts. Since they are all beautifully simple and smart, that is a good thing.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Music Review: One Day As A Lion

One Day As A Lion is a duo, made up of former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha and former Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore. Zack sings/raps and plays keyboards and Jon drums and they produce a fuzzy rock sound with Zack’s traditional bare-knuckled poetry. It is a perfect setup for the street poet, Zack, to spit his open mic poetry jam overtop a dirty little beat that won’t let you go.

The band says they take their name from a 1970 photograph taken of a graffiti message: “It’s better to live one day as a lion, than a thousand years as a lamb.” Although this is only the band's first release and not a full-length CD, it does have the feel of a duo that is bearing their big, strong, air-filled chest of a lion and pouncing on the music. These songs feel a bit like they were rushed, hasty, and sloppy, but they also feel intimate and intense and like they are begging to get to your brain.

What strikes the ear first are the thick sounds of the ep. It is a 5-song effort – released on Anti Records - that feels very meaty. These songs don’t feel as sparse as they really are, with just the 2 instruments. The homemade noise aspect of One Day As A Lion fills the room, throbbing and scratching the chalkboard, and Zack’s lyrics are apparently personal but also readily expand to open up some interesting thoughts.

The ep opens up with “Wild International” a short fuzzy keyboard hook ontop of some jazzy high-hat rhythms and Zack lays out a tale of homogeneous radio and a god who doesn’t care. “Ocean View” is the second track and Zack says “You can have the mic or the heater, but you can’t have both” in the world of rap and violence, and an ocean of tears. The third track, “Last Letter,” is the strongest on the EP. Zack again hits on themes of god and pain and negligence and disregard spouting the lines “Your god is a homeless assassin/ who roams the world to save/ he’s digging for buried treasure/ leaving nothing but fields of graves.” The track is the most dynamic on the EP, with Jon’s rolling, powerful drumming and Zack’s hard-hitting lyrics and vocal style are both displayed beautifully.

Zack lays out some more street wisdom in track 4, “If You Fear Dying.” The ‘mic and the heater’ are mentioned again as Zack embodies a plethora of possible dangers, but says “If you fear dying, then you’re already dead.” The closing song is a bit more high-pitched and thumping and Zack again touches the dangers of life, with some simple and powerful lines and says it may be time to live “One Day As A Lion.” Maybe it is today.