Friday, July 26, 2013

The Love Language - Ruby Red (Merge)

Sure, expectations for the Love Language’s new album, Ruby Red were high.  Their last release, Libraries, is a bit of a masterpiece that would be hard to match.  Still, I’m a little surprised at some of the reviews I’ve read thus far:  it lacks the “immediacy” and “lo-fi” elements of their first two, is full of unfinished ideas, buried under instrumentation, etc.  Well of course it lacks immediacy.  It’s their third record!  I remember reading some of the exact same things about Pavement’s third record, now widely considered an alt-rock classic, when it was released. 

Truth be told, if you were to ask most reviewers what they would think if this were the first record by an unknown local band (and they were being honest with themselves), they would admit it was at least one of the best local releases in a very long time.  So enough of that.

It took some time to make Ruby Red.  Also typical of third albums, especially with heightened expectations.  Yes, songwriter and frontman Stuart McLamb has had a knack for trading band members like baseball cards.  And maybe he’s a perfectionist, or isn’t the easiest person to work with.  I don’t know.  But what I do know from his first two albums is that he‘s a voracious student of pop music from the past century, and he knows how to parlay his lessons into crafting pop songs for the next.  McLamb is a guy who’s clearly spent a LOT of time sitting in a corner, on the floor, headphones on, in front of a record player.  He’s undeniably schooled in pop history -- great songwriters, singers, producers, and songs.  He has the knowledge, and now that he has toys, he wants to play with them.  I say let him. 

The results, while definitely different in sound from Libraries (and even moreso from the sparse, self-titled debut), are nonetheless exceptional.  Ruby Red begins with the driving, summertime rocker Calm Down, a song that speaks to mania and a simple desire to chill. Pounding rhythms are accompanied by clean keys in the chorus, and you could surf this bassline clear to Bermuda.  Midway through, it devolves into a hypnotically numbing clash of guitar-bass-drums that, in the cacophony, is in its own way calming.

Next comes Kids, a pretty straight-ahead rock number, if a bit more generic.  While it started as my least favorite in the bunch, it’s growing on me with each listen.  But with Hi Life, Ruby Red really hits its stride.  It’s a throwback to late 60s/early 70s pop that is perhaps McLamb’s forte.  The melody is simply heavenly, and the mix really shines with strings, horns, and glockenspiel.  Hi Life would be right at home on a playlist with The Walker Brothers & Dusty Springfield.

First Shot is another straight-ahead rocker, a shot across the bow of Spoon’s Got Nuffin, and is also growing on me as I listen.  Golden Age provides an unexpected detour into 80s synth-pop, one of the few eras of pop music that McLamb’s songwriting had thus far avoided.  Turns out he’s pretty good at it, and it’s a nice mid-CD refresher.

Then we arrive at another true gem, For Izzy.  It kicks in with a whistle (via Raleigh native and national whistling champion Tony Woodard), and evokes images of riding the open range, before stopping in at the saloon to cool off with jaunty piano and harmonies.  Izzy is perhaps the most personal of the tunes on Ruby Red, and the one which most harkens back to old school Love Language.  Faithbreaker keeps us in the rootsy vibe but from a different angle, with an alt-country intro and some twangy guitar. 

On Our Heels is an even 80s-er, synthi-er, number than Age (New Order, Depeche Mode, even?), which merges into the band’s more typical harmonies and (on this record at least) guitar noise.  Knots also conjures early Love Language, in the spare vocals, before opening up and moving into territory occupied by labelmates Arcade Fire.  Flourishes of strings, horns, glock, more whistling, and a big beat fill in what starts as a very minimal number. 

But on the closer, Pilot Light, the Love Language make full use of the players and instrumentation available.  It is, quite simply, a work of art, opulent yet intimate.  Not only is it a great song – structurally and melodically -- but it’s written to take advantage of every single note, string, key, whistle, and blare in it.  And it does.  Along with High Life, Pilot Light gives us two songs here that could be bonafide standards in a few decades. 

While Ruby Red might not focus on McLamb’s voice, and some of the cozier elements of earlier records are kind of lost in the flood of instrumentation and overdub, I think that was the point.  He’s already played the minimalist.  The voice is not supposed to be the focus of this album (and truth-be-told, it probably was in the first album only out of sheer necessity).  The focus here is song structure, and on composition.   McLamb is a composer of pop music, and you could tell with Libraries that he was itching to get his hands on all the tools to really flesh out his compositions. 

In Pilot Light, McLamb sings of an artist struggling with self-doubt, one who “heard the famous melody” that became their “favorite lie”.  But towards the end, he tells us he’s “finally seeing the light” and “all the notes collide and ring on the last line, just in time to see it all end.”  Music and lyrics are always open to interpretation, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess he’s paying homage to a fallen idol (say, Etta James, who passed while this album was being made).  But in the process, I think McLamb is coming to terms with his own musical place and abilities, and maybe exorcising some demons of his own.  I’m not sure if he’s succeeded, but the Love Language is definitely growing and finding its place.  And while the notes all do collide and ring, if Ruby Red is an indicator, this is a beginning, not an end.  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

GHOSTTE BLLONDE & Djingis (The Cave, 7/20/13)

So I finally got around to seeing GHOSTTE BLLONDE.  I had heard murmurs about this band, and that they had some connection with Iggy from Lollipops.  What I never knew was that it was the new band of Marc James Kuzio from Coastal Vision, a group that broke up before I ever got the chance to see them live, but who's EP I have since enjoyed many times over.

I feel like I missed something in Coastal Vision, so when GHOSTTE BLLONDE released an album a couple of weeks ago, I snatched it up with some anticipation... anticipation that was well-deserved.  It's a great collection of 60s/beachy-influenced tunes that are alternately brooding and ebullient.  Kuzio holds forth as though Brian Wilson were doing his best Elvis impersonation, earnestly crooning with the teen-angst emotion that he can still barely claim the right to, but with a songwriting skill well beyond his years.  The CD is called TrashPop//DoomWop, and the name perfectly captures their sound.  I'll have to give it a full review when I have time, but suffice it to say that the live show lived up to what I had hoped from the CD.

They were the opener for a 4-band lineup of which I only saw the first half, but the second act was another local I hadn't seen, Djingis.  They surprised me for a band I hadn't even heard of yet... very tight and a lotta noise for a trio.  Good jazzy interplay between bass and drums... maybe equal parts Archers of Loaf and Social Distortion?  Anyway, I had things to do the next morning, but I'm glad I stayed after GHOSTTE BLLONDE to catch Djingis.


Monday, July 22, 2013

And the River Rolls On - Essence Fest 2013

I was visiting my hometown, New Orleans, July 4th week, and figured I'd check out some music while in town.  While I did see a great band at the wonderful Spotted Cat in the Marigny, the musical highlight of the week turned out to be more of a family affair.

Essence Fest, for those who don't know, is the largest event celebrating African-American culture and music in the US; sort of a SXSW for the R&B crowd.  To give you an idea, Beyonce headlined at the Superdome this year.  The main concerts are at the 'Dome, but events are held all around town during the week.  Not being too big into R&B, a little into jazz, it was somewhat of a surprise that I'd be watching my nephew, Eliot Guerin, take the stage at Essence Fest.  It was even more of a surprise that he'd be trading keys with a celebrity.

Now, he didn't play the Superdome, of course.  But on July 4th, the festival held a large outdoor "Family Reunion Day" which took up all of Woldenburg Park on the riverfront, and featured its own music:  Biz Markie and Doug E. Fresh among others on the bigger stages.  But there was a smaller stage set up, at which my nephew and some friends had arranged a gig for an impromptu jazz combo they had set up.

I already knew my nephew was a damn good piano player. He studies jazz at NOCCA (New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts), and he gets better every time I see him play.  He's already at least comparable to a young kid named Harry Connick, Jr., whom I saw play at my company's Christmas dinner when he was about Eliot's age (17).  But his bandmates, most current or recent products of the NOCCA jazz department, were each accomplished in their own right - drummer Darryl Staves (18) is going to Berklee College of Music, LaTasha Bundy on trumpet studies jazz at Tulane, Noah Albright (17) was on bass, Jeffery Miller (17) on trombone, and Morgan Guerin (16) on sax.  Morgan is the son of noted NOLA bassist Roland Guerin, who is - as far as I know - no relation to my dad of the exact same name (or Eliot, or me)... but hey, it was Family Reunion Day!  

So listening to great music by a bunch of young jazz cats on the riverfront in NOLA was good enough for me on this steamy July 4th.  But then Davell Crawford showed up. Crawford is known as the Piano Prince of New Orleans, "the embodiment of every New Orleans music legend that has ever lived, from Jelly Roll Morton to Dr. John, from Mahalia and Satchmo, to James Booker and Professor Longhair, all rolled up into one musical ball of fire"

This kind of thing happens in New Orleans, you understand.  Just the other night (a couple of nights before he played an ampitheater here in the Triangle), Robert Plant showed up and did an impromptu set at BJ's, a local dive in the Big Easy.

So Crawford shows up, chillin' with blonde mohawk and stars & striped shorts, befitting the day.  He watches the kids for awhile, and then asks to sit in.  The fun begins.  He works the crowd, sings along, and starts trading keys with my nephew!  They take turns, Eliot takes it in, and shows a little of his own stuff.  Davell gives each member a chance to solo and shine.  He's a big benefactor of music education, and has made appearances at various jazz camps around town.  But this was no humdrum school exercise.  It was an on-the-fly jam session, as no doubt Davell often took part in with his elders -- his family -- when he was coming up.  He talked about how this was what jazz was all about, a bunch of people who didn't even know each other, some very young, some older, gettin' together and makin' it happen... just jamming.  

Then, it got really good.  Crawford called out: "Might-aaayy cooty fiyo!"  The opening chant to the Mardi Gras Indian classic Indian Red.  After a mixed response, he called again:

"Might-aaayy cooty fiyo!!"

To which some in the crowd responded (not sure if I'm getting this right, as there are many variations):

"Hey la hey, hey la hey!"

And Crawford continued:

"Here come the Big Chief, Big Chief, 
Big Chief of the Nation
Wild, wild creation

He won't bow down, down to the ground
Oh how I LOVE to hear him call Indian red!"

After the chant, he challenged the band, saying "everybody from NOLA should know how to play this song", then slipped behind the keyboard and dove into the classic, Iko Iko

Oh, you know that song.  Even if you're NOT from New Orleans.  

But see, Davell Crawford KNOWS that song.  His grandfather was James "Sugar Boy" Crawford, who was responsible for the classic Jock-A-Mo (aka Iko Iko) in 1954.  So when I say this was an impromptu jam/lesson just like the lessons Crawford probably had growing up, I mean EXACTLY like the lessons he had growing up:  same song, same place, same damned bloodline...  but with new blood.    

And this band of young artists clearly DID knew how to play this song (and everything else they played that day), trading rhythms and solos with a New Orleans jazz great, giving as good as they got.  Davell even gave up his seat to Eliot, letting him close it out on keys!  (video below)

So what I'd expected was a little outing to see family and take in the Quarter on my last day in town.  What I got instead was an improvised melding of old and new, modern and traditional, by a group of very talented musicians doing their thing along the shores of the Mighty Mississippi, among a sea of families, food, culture, and in the sweltering heat.  

Pretty much what's been going on in New Orleans for centuries.  

Tradition continues, right before our eyes, and moves forward.  The vibes and the heart and the soul pass on.  The lifeblood of a nation, generations old, picks up and mixes with the flotsam and jetsam of new generations.  And the river flows downstream.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

VIDEO: T0W3RS - Bounty

From the show blogged about below (Local 506, 6/28/13).  Forgive the subpar sound quality...

Never Say Goodbye - T0W3RS and Lilac Shadows Send Off a Friend (Local 506, 6/28/13)

A couple of weeks back, two of the better local bands, T0W3RS and Lilac Shadows, preformed a farewell show for (and with) one of their 3 shared members, Karen Blanco.  Karen has tickled the keys for both bands for a couple of years now, in a more psychedelic, atmospheric way for Lilac and a jumpier, more experimental way for T0W3RS (as befitting each of those bands' styles).  Her presence will be missed, but she's off to Europe and points beyond.

It was a great send-off.  Zack Mexico came from way out in Kill Devil Hills to open up.  It was only my second time seeing them, and i loved the first.  I was trying to think of a way to define their sound before the show, and the best I could come up with was... well... weird.  I know, very creative.  They have a song called "Weird Reef".  They're sorta surfy, sorta jammy, sorta indie, but they're not really any of the above.  So I asked singer John Saturley how HE would define their sound, and he replied "Weird."  Guess I pegged it.  Surf music can get boring.  Jam bands are definitely boring.  But when Zack Mexico get into a long, droney, surfy jam that goes on and on, you don't want it to stop.  Definitely NOT boring.

Zack Mexico...

As for T0W3RS and Lilac Shadows, I've written about them plenty in the past here, so I'll let a few photos do the talking.  Suffice it to say Lilac is moving in a more straight-ahead rock direction, while T0W3RS is moving perhaps in a more electronic, dancey direction.  Good moves for both... for truly sucky is the band that stands still (I think it was Confucius that said that).  But I hope Derek keeps the twangy edge going... that edge in contrast with the various influences he pulls from are one of the things that makes T0W3RS such a great band.

Lilac Shadows...


Good luck, Karen!  I'm sure you'll pop up moonlighting in a techno/cabaret/shoegaze act in Prague (or perhaps wrangling goats in Hamburg).