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.