Thursday, November 6, 2014

T0W3RS - TL;DR (Phuzz Records)

When Derek Torres decided to strike out on his own and make T0W3RS a solo project, I was somewhat dubious, and I expressed as much on this blog.  I always support an artist being open to change; to me, stagnation can render even my favorite music boring.  But T0W3RS were possibly my favorite local band.  If All We Have Is Time was a great album.  Don’t mess with yer sound, man!  Keep the guitar, the twanginess!

Thank goodness he didn’t listen to me.  TL;DR takes T0W3RS’ into a decidedly more synth-pop direction, and reactions (mine included) to the many live solo shows over the past year have proven T0W3RS 2.0 to be a wise upgrade.  But you know what?  It’s not really THAT different.  T0W3RS is a good band because of Torres’ songwriting, and that hasn’t changed.  Besides, most of the earlier T0W3RS recordings were made solo, and the very first couple did have a more electronic edge.  What is different now is the showmanship these songs allow him to impart to his music, whether solo or with a backing band (people are still talking about what many called the best set at Hopscotch 2014).  Derek’s always been a maniac onstage… never still for a second, guitar and hair swinging all around the place.  He really gets into the music.  But now, it’s more controlled… practiced moves a la Michael Jackson or Usher.  This was part of what he’s told me he’s aiming for with his new music and performances:  to give people a genuine show, an experience, some FUN! 

But the music… the music more than backs up the flash.  To go along with the metamorphosis, TL;DR (internet slang for “too long; didn’t read”), on Winston-Salem's Phuzz Records, is drenched in themes of openness, change, and acceptance.  Cups begins with soothing, fading, electronic echoes, before driving drums and organ kick in.  The lyrics preach “A cup of curiosity will fill you up / So take a drink, and pass it to me.”   Apropos, I’d say.  Cups is followed by the second should-be hit, The Situation, which has as great a hook as can be made with two simple, repeated synth notes.  This song is a zen anthem disguised as a slow party-groove.  “You can hate me when I’m gone / Away from all the fakeness and the scenes to come undone / This is just a part of everything that comes along.”  He’s just doing his thing, hanging with his friends, and everyone’s welcome to join (haters included).  I’m pretty familiar with this material live, but on the record, you hear a lot of little flairs and touches -- bells & xylophones, nice backing vocals (particularly on Situation), and great percussion -- that aren’t as discernable live.

After a pretty bubbly start, the album takes a shadowy turn with Raise the Gate.  Although the first two songs may be more upbeat, this is still one of the more danceable cuts -- in a strobe-lit dark room kinda way -- thanks in no small part to the input of local compadres Body Games.  Clipped hyper-pitched and uber-deep samples spar with Torres' own vocals, and there’s this ominous edge that’s always lingered in the background of much of T0W3RS’ music.  P.S. I’m Sorry continues at a similar tempo... maybe less dark, a little sad.  It’s a cover (billed as a “re-work”) of another local band, Motor Skills, stemming from an earlier project in which several artists interpreted songs by that band.  Nice sax (yes, sax), too… there’s more than a bit of ‘80s influence at work here.  But it never sounds derivative.  Let Me In (written by Human Eyes' Thomas Costello) then picks it back up with the themes of change, the slow-groove dance vibe, and little bird-like sounds flittering in the background of Torres’ (yes, slight drawl/twang of a) voice.  Instillation picks up the pace with maybe the most “rock’n’roll” cut on TL;DR.  While it keeps the dusky feel of this mid-record detour, it’s nevertheless one rollicking number.  It has this manic, almost disturbing guitar lick breaking in over ELO-from-Hell keys and drums.

Silk Hope lightens the mood again, and really, it’s pure disco.  Donna Summer is jamming to this song somewhere.  If we’re talking dance, this one is the most dance-y track on the record, complete with wakka-wakka guitar (maybe done w/ synth) and really nice percussion (courtesy Ryan Van Fleet).  The latter gives it a great Afro-Caribbean/Brazilian feel.  Then, as when performed live, Silk Hope segues right into the equally infectious M.P.D.B., which has Torres dwelling perhaps on his changing sound:  “I went back to a quiet mountain to find some things to sell / But I know it’s not my sound.”   Nice tweaking/squeaking/warbling guitars and keys likewise puzzle over what to do, but they get there.  Elasticity starts by going back into the guitar base, but really turns into another jumpy party-tune, with its rhythm, keys, and repeating “Ooh la las” leading the way.  It’s another dance-floor anthem of sorts, a good bookend to The Situation in both theme and sound. 

The record closes with the quiet, contemplative To Be Woke.  Torres again mulls ideas of change as he seems to lie in bed, frozen with uncertainty, and here, accompanied by actual birds (recorded from outside his window).  He sings “Have I been here too long?  Is it wrong to be open?”  I’m pretty sure this song was recorded (or at least released online) before much of the rest of TL;DR.  Fortunately, T0W3RS came up with the correct answer.  No.  No it’s not wrong to be open... to change, to trying something different, to relaxing and having fun.  TL;DR does just that.  With the stylistic sea change exhibited between T0W3RS's first two LPs -- both excellent at what they do -- I can't imagine (or wait) to see what Torres will come up with next. 
TL;DR will be officially released November 11th, and T0W3RS will be celebrating with a few record-release shows.  First, there's one in Winston-Salem at the Garage on Saturday, Nov 15th.  Then, here in the Triangle, there are back-to-back nights, at the Cat's Cradle Backroom in Carrboro on Friday, Nov. 21st and at Kings Barcade in Raleigh on Saturday, Nov 22nd.  If you missed the afore-mentioned Hopscotch set, the two Triangle shows are your chance to experience something similar, as Torres is bringing the full band again for those two shows!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Henbrain - Slim's (Raleigh, NC, 10/17/14)

As many good local bands as there are around here, it's impossible to keep up.  I see a fair number of shows, but I had yet to get around to seeing Henbrain.  I had the impression they were, well... off-beat?  Weird?  All good things in my book.  But there were mentions of prog-rock, post-metal, gongs (yes, gongs).  All fine and good, just not usually the first things go for in live music.  Then there was the two-bass (no guitar) setup.  Can be kinda limiting.  So I maybe expected something likewise limited, a little retro and heavy, maybe with a novelty element. 

Nope.  Nope.  Nope.  While retro-influenced, and a bit prog, these guys are definitely forward-leaning.  Maybe, like, outer space forward?  "Weird" and "off-beat" are apropos, but not "limited".  I'd place this band in the same local grouping with Whatever Brains and Waumiss, in approach and mindset if not musical style. 

First, the basses (bassi?).  "Jazz" bassist (as they called him) Zach Hargett keeps it heavy with the more typical prog-rock groove.  But "Other" bassist Michelle Sontheimer takes her bass guitar into strange territory, basically playing lead guitar.  A very creative, warped lead guitar.  Then with added keys (Evan Ashworth) and great driving drums (Keith Cannon), you have something that, rather than being limited, pushes limits. 

Oh yeah, then there's singer Erika Libero.  She has a very strong voice, and fronts the band with a vengeance.  She belts it out, running all around the stage (and crawling all over the floor, etc.).  Her vocals remind me of New Town Drunks singer Diane Koistinen... they're both operatic, with Erika's being a little more melodramatic.   And I remember Koistinen's voice... it stuck with me for a couple of decades since I used to play her Houston band De Schmog's CD all the time on college radio in Baton Rouge (and then, upon settling up here, was pleasantly surprised to recognize that same voice fronting a local band).  Erika's voice is similarly memorable, and is about the only kind of voice that could front such a bombastic sound. 

Bombasitc, yes.  That's a good word for Henbrain.  And unapologetically so.  Henbrain plays a record release show for their new 7", Hang Glider, at the Cat's Cradle Backroom this Thursday (Nov. 6th).  It was recorded with Mitch Easter at his Fidelitorium Studio in Kernersville, NC.  It's some sexy looking red vinyl, so go and pick up a copy!  Here's some photos of the bombast.
Yes, there was a gong.  And yes, it was banged.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Whatever Brains / Alex G / Silent Lunch - Kosher Hut, Raleigh (10/3/14)

In July, I wrote here that at the last Mattress Fort show in Raleigh, "Someone asked me if I thought this could happen again, if someone else would start up a good 'unofficial' music venue.  Of course they will.  They always do.  It’s irrepressible."

Well, Raleigh proved me right... in about 2 months no less.  The Kosher Hut is a little house venue on the edges of NC State, and if their second show was any indication, they may already be outgrowing their rather impressive quarters.  Hint:  don't book Pitchfork buzz bands too often.

The show was set to be Raleigh's Whatever Brains and Durham's Silent Lunch... an older band I've only seen once and have been dying to see again, and a newer band I'd only seen at their first show and wanted to see how they're coming along.  Already two great local bands, and then Alex G got added (sometimes referred to as SANDY Alex G to avoid confusion with this Alex G).

The room is a great one... spacious and colorful, probably someone's "man cave" in another time, now co-opted for more creative uses.  It's decorated with wonderful, visually colorful, emotionally dark paintings.  There's tons of space for bands and audience.  Here's a couple of shots before the crowd filled in (and boy, did they fill in).
Silent Lunch kicked in first with their three-piece old school punk.  Singer Emily O'Sullivan's aggressive warble is arresting, and you're a little afraid of her as she screams "You're DEAD MEAT" in the revenge tune from their debut EP, Late To Bloom.  But while they definitely harbor an affinity to SST/K Records punk/indie catalog, there are little melancholy melodies buried in the noise, and some nice surfy guitar and harmonies (of course, there were with those bands, too).  I'd say Silent Lunch is coming along quite nicely.

Silent Lunch...
Now, Alex G, I hadn't yet listened to.  But hearing how he was this up-and-coming wunderkind, I checked out his new album, DSU, on bandcamp.  I really, really like the sound of this Alex Giannascoli from Philly.  He writes a great song, and while I haven't listened a whole lot yet, I know I'll be doing so in the future.  I've got as lot of catching up to do... he's already put out 6 albums and he's barely out of his teens.  I love the down-beat, off-kilter melodies.  I hear some Big Star, Built to Spill, Brian Wilson... all the good "B" stuff.  A little Elliott Smith, too.  What sounds on the surface like pretty stripped down instrumentation is layered with all kinds of unexpected twists from piano, banjo, bells, strings, and other assorted tools.  See this band next time they pass through.

Alex G...
Maybe it was the 100% humidity imparted by the pouring rain outside that, I'm sure, most of us were unaware of.  Maybe it was the sardine can-like environs.  Maybe it was the punk juice flowing from everybody's pores. But it got darker and foggier as the night wore on (okay, maybe Whatever Brains brought a fog machine, but that didn't start 'til their set).  You could track the weather with one look at the mirrored stage backdrop...
Now, it's hard to describe the sound of Whatever Brains... intense, punk, electronic, techno-on-steroids.  Scary, as the Facebook page for this show had earlier described their sound.  They're truly unique, but I always think of probably the best band out of little Pensacola, Florida, when I used to publish a zine there:  Neutronic.  They had the hammering, punk guitars complemented by screaming vocals and heavy electronics. But Whatever Brains can't be derivative of them; nobody's ever heard of them.  I'm just glad someone has taken up a similar style and taken it beyond, because it's great!  This, my ashamedly only second time seeing them, completely lived up to my expectations from  their Hopscotch set a couple of years back.

Whatever Brains...
Look on the Facebook page soon for more Whatever Brains photos from this show.  I took way too many of them to post here.  To me, with the light show and fog and darkness, they look like... I don't know... ghosts.  Filled with lightning.

"Ghosts filled with lightning."  Now I think THAT's a pretty good description of what Whatever Brains sounds like.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hopscotch Saturday Night (9/6/14)

After a full night and day at this year's Hopscotch Music Festival, I wasn't sure if it could get any better (or how much more I could take :)).  I planned ahead and got a room for the night to chill a bit between day and night shows Saturday, and to have a place close by to crash after it all.  So my take on the City Plaza shows for the evening was, well... nice stage set up, lot of thudding volume. 

Death (at City Plaza)
Mastodon (at City Plaza)
Actually, I did get down to City Plaza before Mastodon finished up.  Great metal, but not really my thing.  The surf was up, 6-foot swells.  I probably should have caught some of Death, though.  Their debut album, ...For the Whole World to See, was punk before punk was punk. 
More Mastodon

Thus far this isn't much of a Hopscotch report.  But I wasn't really planning on hitting the big City Plaza shows this night.  I was, however, planning on starting my night with locals See Gulls.  So I headed over to Deep South for their 9:00 set, the first club time-slot of the evening.  Turns out, the buzz was louder than I thought (but not undeserved) for this band, and I ended up in line with about a hundred others waiting to be let in.  Deep South definitely had it's share of the Hopscotch crowd for this and other shows.
See Gulls... well, the line for them, anyway (Deep South)
Okay, actual band coverage starts... Since I waited in line until See Gulls finished a short set (hell, I'd seen them play earlier in the day; and last weekend, and a couple of weeks before that, etc, etc.), I figured I'd stick around to see Coke Weed.  I don't know, I'd just felt the need to see a band from Bar Harbor, Maine.  Seriously, I'd heard good things about them and really did want to check out their set.  Their more rocking take on Mazzy Star was an at once an intense and pleasant experience.  Dreamy, but still heavy.  Vocalist Nina Donghia was a standout.
Coke Weed (at Deep South)

Headed to the next show, I was going to try to see the quirky indie-pop of Krill at Kings on the way to the Pour House (see later).  But again, lines.  It was ridiculous.  Hopscotch may be growing too big for its britches.  Nah, not really.  You just have to plan carefully, and not expect to see quite as many shows if you want to one particular show. 

Besides lines at clubs.  Hopscotch was spilling out into the streets in other ways.  Music was everywhere, from unexpected big-stage day parties, to random set-ups in alcoves. 
The "one particular show" I was planning on seeing this night was the much-anticipated full-band set by local heroes T0W3RS.  So I made sure I was at the Pour House plenty early, and caught the tail end of local DJ Holygrailers.  I'm not very informed about the whole DJ/dance/producer thing.  But having been a fan of Bollywood and Arabic music for years, I appreciated the mix of South Asian samples (at least in the song or two I heard) into Nikhil Shah's jazzy, down-tempo beats.

Holygrailers (at the Pour House)
There wasn't a long line at the Pour House yet as I had thought there would be... but it's a big place, and I arrived early.  Still, as Holygrailers' set continued, the crowd and the excitement grew.  He was a good choice in style and temperament to set the stage for the set to come, which would prove to be the best set of Hopscotch. 
I've written about T0W3RS many times here before, and Derek Torres' sets have always been great; whether in the original 5-piece "rock" band format, or in the more recent, "dancier", solo incarnation he's since adopted.  But Saturday at Hopscotch was to be a coming out of sorts.  In anticipation of the forthcoming album, TL;DR (Phuzz Records), Derek rounded up a band consisting of members of Chapel Hill's Virgin Family Band and others, along with a team of acrobats to complement his own acrobatic dance moves.  This was T0W3RS' new, more electronic/dance-y sound (and songs) with his older, more rock'n'roll, set-up (and then some).
It started with three from the older material, including the hypnotizing Scout/ from If All We Have Is Time, the keyboards and repeating beats of which perhaps gave us an early hint of where Derek would be taking his music.  Two silver-clad acrobats joined him onstage (including another Torres, his sister Kaci), creating a slow, shimmering backdrop for the song.  Then, members of the band gradually trickled onto the stage as he moved into his later material.  First were Mobius and Bounty from the Wyatt EP, the last proper T0W3RS collection, released at Hopscotch 2012 (by cleverly hiding tapes of the songs around downtown during the fest).  Then came the newer numbers which, never having heard with a full band (usually performed with pre-recorded music and some guitar and synth), sounded GREAT.  Shoulda figured, since they're great songs.   
Silk Hope/MPDB, Elasticity, Instillation, and a few more of the newer songs were interspersed with the great older ditty, Eee!, and even a little Don Henley! (yes, there was a singalong about some boys and the season)  Philip Pledger from Estrangers and Phuzz Records joined the band onstage for MPBD.  Josh Moore and Josh Kimbrough were also up there.  They closed with what's become a crowd favorite, The Situation.  I mention "the old stuff" a lot up above.  But really, since T0W3RS went solo and shifted gears, I haven't liked the music any less.  Torres is just a great songwriter and performer who is (hopefully) positioned to break way beyond the Triangle with the upcoming release of TL; DR. 
T0W3RS (at the Pour House)
Okay, it's a lot of photos.  But hey, it was a spectacle.  Towards the end, the acrobats even took to the rafters...
Here's a still from a video posted earlier, Derek enjoying his dual drummers...
...who jammed and drove the whole set.
Advantage of being close to the stage?   A free pick with every beer!
T0W3RS' set took what remaining energy there was at Hopscotch, blew it up, and scattered it all back into the crowd in a flurry of baloons, bubbles, and dancing.  We were all spent and satisfied.  But I wanted to keep my brass band-closer tradition going (2012:  No BS! Brass Band, 2013:  Slavic Soul Party!), and time was running out to get over to Kings Barcade for that.  However, the wonderful Eternal Summers was hitting the Pour House stage (once the T0W3RS army broke everything down), so I had to hang around for at least a song or two. 
Plus, I had to keep my indie quota up. 
Eternal Summers (at the Pour House)
Okay, barely made it to Kings for a song or two (thankfully, no more line).  Apparently, I missed the part where What Cheer? Brigade had worked the joint into a frenzied mass of maniacal bouncing bodies... so that was going on.  Not the New Orleans kinda bounce, but the kind that could very well have brought us all down two floors into Neptunes.  BTW, what is it with brass band names and errant exclamations? NOLA brass bands don't do that!  "Rebirth! Brass Band" "Soul? Rebels!"  Nah, doesn't sound right.  But these horns sounded right.  Punkier and jumpier, and with a lot more percussion than their New Orleans cousins.  But every bit as much fun.  And, as befitting any proper brass band, they took their set out to the street to close with an impromptu parade or sorts. 

What Cheer? Brigade... Oh, and of course, Hopscotchbunny (at King's Barcade)
By the time the band jumped on the bar, it was just to crazy for me to focus. 
Here's a sampling of the controlled chaos What Cheer? Brigade brought to the stage at Hopscotch.
And here's a bit of the parade's result... cops didn't like the ruckus spilling out onto the street (especially when somebody threw a drink at them). 
Ferguson-style chants aside, it all dissipated pretty quickly.  In the end, a good time was had by all (except maybe the girl who threw the drink).  Hopscotch needs to make a point of booking a brass band at the end of every Saturday... I think one of the previous years was on an earlier night.  Maybe make next year's a New Orleans one?  But What Cheer? Brigade were great; and from Rhode Island, no less!  They epitomized the variety of what was probably the most diverse Hopscotch to date. 
I was feeling somewhat burned out on music the week before Hopscotch (it's a periodic malady; I'm getting treatment), and worried I just wasn't gonna be up for it this year.  I had just caught most of Merge 25, which would be hard to beat, and seen maybe one too many great local shows lately.  But after the first few minutes of St. Vincent's Friday show, that feeling dissipated, and by the end, I found myself already anticipating next year. 
How Strange It Is... Hopscotch 2014 Summary
Best Set:
1) T0W3RS (Pour House)
2) Tie - St. Vincent (City Plaza) & Zack Mexico (Deep South),
3) Free Clinic (the Hive, day party)
Best Day Party (okay, the only 3 I saw, but there was a reason):
1) Phuzz Sounds 3rd Annual Day Party (the Hive)
2) Spazzscotch III (Slim's)
2) Negative Fun, Self Aware, and Cherub records Let Feedback Ring! Day Party (Legends)
Honorable mention)  Potluck's 2nd Annual Rock'n'Roll Pizza Party Thursday (couldn't make it, but the lineup alone merited at least this)
Best Hopscotch Venue:
1) Slim's
2) The Hive
3) Deep South
Biggest regret... Nah, no regrets.... show I most wish I had caught:
Dent May (Deep South)
This guy's Brian Wilson-in-a-dance-club bedroom/chamber pop is on my constant playlist these days.  Hopefully, he comes back next year, or sooner.