Friday, June 29, 2007

Knocked Up


Knocked Up

What is interesting about the summer movie season is that movie studios think that they are doing their best work by spending hundreds of millions on the most spectacular explosions you’ve ever seen. The problem is, mushrooming clouds of fire after a while start to look the same, and we just end up board. But in between the mega million dollar adventures that sometimes end up rushed and poorly acted (gee, they never considered that part of the movie) a few films get released that actually have heart. And, surprise! They end up better than the blockbuster and at a third of the price or less.

If you are looking for an aside to the CGI- heavy summer movies this summer but don’t want to sacrifice the entertainment, Knocked Up may just be perfect for you. Judd Apatow delivers a bundle of joy, beaming with painfully realistic humor that hardly ever lets you stop laughing. And in between the gross sexual humor beats a heart, something often lacking in most R- rated comedies. Those two elements combine to make Knocked Up a guy flick and a chick flick all wrapped up into one.

Seth Rogan is in rare form. He is best known for his foul- mouthed characters, most notably of which being Steve Carrell’s buddy in The 40 Year Old Virgin. But his character in Knocked Up goes dirtier and more mature than in Virgin. Similarly the movie mimics Rogan’s character by delving deeper into the guy side of sex, but takes the human side of the situation to a pleasant, though at times overly heart grabbing point.

The title pretty much spells out the clincher of the story. Kathryn Heigle’s character has a one night stand with Rogan’s character, ending up pregnant with what appears to be the bastard child of a pot smoking, jobless loser. But, as in life, the baby’s impendence changes the two characters’ lives completely. It is this realism, which Apatow often uses in his comedies, that make them poignant and touching.

Knocked Up is hilarious, and that is partly because of how tangible the storyline is to so many of us. Most people have at least known someone who has been in a knocked up situation, or have been in it themselves; so to see it play out in a believable scenario, makes the whole snafu hit close to home. I found myself laughing in relief that it wasn’t happening to me.

Besides for maybe Heigle, there aren’t any real big names in the movie. Rogan is an unlikely movie star, though he holds his own as a leading man. It works because he plays the charming loser very well, and you, in turn, connect with him. Perhaps it is the movie’s lower budget and lesser known (but very talented) actors that make the film even more accessible.

Plainly put, the film is honest, and painfully so. But its genuine quality leaves you with something as you are strolling out of the theatre. Instead of a “wow that really looked cool” coming out of your buttery popcorn tasting mouth, you’ll feel a workout in your abs from the laughter and a smile from the story’s end. And maybe the butter popcorn taste too.

-Mark Wingerter

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank


Modest Mouse
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
Epic 2007

Any music fan knows that the scene is constantly changing. If you are a musician with at least some shred of real talent, you know that you are the product of every artist that came before you, and if you don’t realize that, then you are ignorant. The original music created today is in direct relation to every change made over the past history of music. Without going into a detailed history of the changes or the origins of rock, it can be accepted that new music is inevitably going to be created; and right now someone is banging out their first strum on a G chord that will lead them to become the next Johnny Cash or Prince or Slash or combination of the three.

As a band progresses in its career, the members often feels compelled to follow their own certain pattern of evolution whether it be for label pressure, monetary gain, or by an honest development of their talent. Some of their fans, however, get left behind lamenting, and inevitably say to others “Their old stuff is better.”

Case in point: Modest Mouse, who have returned this year with a follow up to their multi platinum explosion Good News for People Who Love Bad News. That album, even with their signature indie rock attitude, was met with disappointment from some fans claiming it to be a more pop-oriented album. They were right.

I read a quote from lead singer Isaac Brock regarding Good News, in which he expressed satisfaction with the record’s closer to pop sound. He mentioned that he’d set out to write a pop album with each album he’d ever written.

So, who’s to judge?

The new release We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, is a great album. It plays well from end to end, and each song, separate of the others, is masterfully crafted, catchy, and very listenable. It goes past what Good News did for the band, and makes them much more approachable for new listeners. Yet, the old fans are torn. They are the ones to judge, perhaps because they remember the band for a different sound. And that is okay. But if we look at the album as a whole, it is wrong to say that it is bad because it is a departure for the band. If it were bad, I think it would certainly be panned. But there is a reason it is garnering so much attention.

The first single “Dashboard” starts off with the main guitar riff bouncing on top of a steady bass kick, and you feel ready to dance with the rest of the song. As Brock sings the line “The dashboard melted but we still had the radio,” the beat kicks in and the song is off, pulling its listeners into a happy melody reminiscent of “Float On,” the band’s most well known hit from Good News.

“Now, here we go!” Brock repeats throughout the track.

What follows is no doubt a more poppy album than the band has ever produced. But throughout the album, the band displays elements of what has made many a great popular rock song. From the British invasion of the sixties, to classic guitar of the seventies, to modern ambient rock, Modest Mouse incorporates essential elements to making a good record.

What is missing from the album, and what ultimately hurts the album’s character a good deal, is the use of non-conventional instruments that the band has often put to the forefront of their career. There are some more electronic elements to the sound this time around, but I noticed the absence of horn oriented songs, banjo riffs, and maybe the occasional Glockenspiel.

You will be caught singing at least one song in your head later. The catchiest song on the album, and perhaps catchiest melody in years is found in the song “Steam Engenius.” If you’re looking to dig into the album beyond the singles, try that one and I dare you not to get it stuck bouncing around in your brain.

Long time fans, you will no doubt be disappointed by the overall “new” sound. But consider the title, perhaps it is referring to your quick judgment. Hop onto the sinking ship, it is bound to pull you under with it.

-Mark Wingerter

Shannon Wright - Let in the Light


Shannon Wright
Let In The Light

Touch and Go/Quarterstick Records


Shannon Wright is not pop. She’s not rock, or indie, and she’s certainly not folk. So…where does that leave us? Shannon Wright just IS. Her music is honest, heavy, sombre, emotive, and heartfelt. It takes you to places that are dark, forgotten, and maybe even places that you’ve never thought existed. This could be a bold statement, but nevertheless, it’s a true one.

For fans of her earlier work, you might have never thought that she would release an album like her most recent and 5th release Let In The Light. In fact, if the title itself doesn’t surprise you, just wait until you give it a spin. Some reviewers might compare her to the likes of Fiona Apple, Tori Amos and PJ Harvey. I’ll tell you now, you can leave these comparisons at the door. Lose the preconceived notions that women are classified by their sex and what they play and stop disillusioning yourself. The fact that she plays piano and a mean guitar is about the only similarity. Oh, and she doesn’t have a penis.

Immediately into the opening track "Defy This Love" it sounds almost whimsical, and you wonder where this is going to go. You envision French boudoirs and for some strange reason, the color red. The piano moves alongside her voice, giving the song such melodic ease. The fuzzy sound of the guitar sweeps in and out and gives it an edge. It has remnants of her 2004 collaboration with composer Yann Tiersen (of the Amelie soundtrack fame). Kyle Crabtree of Shipping News’ style of drumming is the perfect accompaniment to her music. It’s minimalistic without being sparse. It’s rich and full without being too overbearing. Think Low minus the valium.

Already, this album is a lot less weighted than her previous work, and it’s hard to tell what’s coming next. Then "St Pete" kicks in, and you know. This is Shannon in full force. She howls lines like"I wish God would make things clear, cause there’s no fight left in me!" as the guitar crunches through a churning riff. It’s loud and it’s got balls. This is definitely one of the album’s tracks that steal the spotlight with raw power.

After this, things take a sweeter turn with "You Baffle Me", which may very well be a love song, but I would never assume anything lyrically when it comes to Shannon Wright. Her lyrics remain slightly ambiguous, and open for the listener’s interpretation. It creates an image. A picture of back yards with the sun setting low. It features nothing but vocals, sparse drums and strings, and a piano. This is the formula for most of the album, in fact. There are moments where you almost feel a bit cheated, especially during the track ‘Idle Hands’. It feels a bit short, cutting off after the second chorus. However, even during these moments, there is still a fully realized song.

With her marriage, and the birth of her son, her temperament seems to have shifted, into something a little more soft. It is definitely a lot easier to swallow than her 2004 release Over The Sun. That record continues to take me to a darker place. I find it difficult to listen to, because it feels incredibly heavy and full. It sounds as if she recorded that album alone in the dark, and forgot to let anyone in.

You get the impression that with all of the changes in her life over the last couple of years, that her approach to song writing may have changed. This album feels more open than anything else that she’s done. It takes you in, and swallows you whole but it allows the listener room to breathe.

There are plenty of songs on Let In The Light that really shine, like the slow and unwinding "In The Morning" which feels as if your insides are hollow and replaced with bass. It’s brooding, and creeps up on you. "Don’t You Doubt Me" sounds almost rude, and "Steadfast And True" shows just how musically skilled she is, gradually progressing into a swirl of sound and overlapping vocals. This song is, to be quite frank, beautiful.

The real surprise though is the Beatles-esque pop masterpiece “Everybody’s Got Their Own Part To Play” which closes out the record. This is the kind of song that you would you never expect to be on a Shannon Wright album, yet there it is, in full glory. Apparently, it was husband Chris Lopez, (of Rock*a*Teens fame), that convinced her to include it on the album and let me be the first to say, that I’m glad she took his advice….because it’s bloody brilliant.

This album is lush, and epic, even though it clocks in at just over half an hour long. Her voice sounds more developed, and the songs implant themselves into your brain.

If you are a stranger to her previous albums, this is definitely the one you should start with. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’ve always been a bit terrified of her music, then you should definitely give this album a listen. It’s soft around the edges, without being boring. It’s moving, innovative, and it’s going to be a classic.

Listen to "Defy This Love" and "St Pete" here: www.myspace.com/shannonwrightmusic

-Tiffany Fosberry

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Ironlight River - "Life of Rooms" Video

Check out the beatifully shot new video "Life of Rooms" from a Reactor Media favorite, and UK based, Ironlight River (http://www.myspace.com/ironlightrivermusic).

It is good. Actually, it is damn good.

Thomas Rumbold - "Skeletons" from Skeletons


Thomas Rumbold
"Skeletons" from Skeletons

2007


It is such a refreshing thing this day in age to find a singer-songwriter that sounds uniquely different and new, and not simply an Iron and Wine, Sufjan Stevens or worse, Dave Matthews rip off (or whatever is currently trendy and hip to sound like). Granted, these guys are terrific but no one can ever sound as good as they do. When they try to, they simply sound like a hack. But then again, it really is hard to be different and blaze your own trail. It is easy to fall back on a sound that you know is currently working in the marketplace.

The UK-bred and now Germany based Thomas Rumbold presents that refreshing change for singer-songwriters (in my eyes). He takes a giant leap into the stratosphere of uniqueness with his breathy yet passionate vocals on his song "Skeletons" from his album Skeletons.

His style is very confessional in nature and mature (I use the later term because Rumbold is only 19) but on songs like "Skeletons" Rumbold is caught scribing such poignant musical prose as: "I am no religious man. I am not a saint," and the thing is, in Rumbold's songs, you believe such statements and that the place that they equate to his life, are ultimately true.

The song itself is simple, Rumbold's whispered and refined vocals drift through his on spot acoustic guitar work, as a single electric guitar upholds the melody. The song concludes with two expertly executed harmonized stanzas that make for an ultimately satisfying ending.

All the while, Rumbold let's it be known that his work isn't faux or the replicated style of someone else. It is all his. You feel his passion seeping through the speakers and his literate, insightful lyrics draw you into this musical catharsis of a song.

Though honestly, my words simply can't say enough. Take a listen to "Skeletons" on Tom Rumbold's MySpace page: (www.myspace.com/thomasplaysacoustic). It's something new, and that is something truly worth celebrating.

-Mark Dougherty

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The White Stripes - Icky Thump


The White Stripes
Icky Thump
Warner/Third Man 2007

It was 7am, and I decided to listen to Icky Thump for the first time. Let me stress to all: this is not an album to listen to while your neighbours are still asleep! Maybe this is true for all of The White Stripes albums. Maybe it’s Meg’s persistent drumming, or Jack’s electrically charged guitar solos. Whatever it is, your stereo needs to be turned up. And loud!

As a whole, this is a great record with several songs that grab you by the throat. The title track, for example, is definitely one of them. Then, it goes into what I can only compare with something that could be featured in a film from the 70’s staring Burt Reynolds. (This could also be my overly active imagination here, so bare with me!)

After the visions of bad sideburns and aviator shades wears off, the album goes into full blown rock mode. Tracks like ‘300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues’, ‘Conquest’, ‘Bone Broke’ and ‘Catch Hell Blues’ really stand out and get stuck in your head the way that ‘Seven Nation Army’ did from their 2003 release Elephant. For the most part, this pace and energy are carried out, though there are things about the record that I found a bit hard to digest at first. I wasn’t too sure that bagpipes could work on a rock album (at least not since House of Pain did it, surely…?), but somehow, ‘Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn’ seems to work perfectly. Since Jack quit smoking, his vocal range has improved. Meg’s drumming is still exactly the same. This isn’t to say that’s a bad thing necessarily. It’s part of their charm. It’s loud and to the point, and that’s what works. ‘A Martyr For My Love For You’ is slightly different from the other tracks, and almost feels a little bit sweet. There are quiet acoustic moments, and dare I say … crooning.

The album sits nicely on my musical pallet, and I have very few complaints. It’s refreshing to hear a new album from the pair after their two year break. Nobody does it like The White Stripes, and to be honest, I don’t think that anybody ever will. They’re gritty, dirty, sexy, raw and they make my heart beat a little bit faster. Their music makes me wish I was watching them play in a grungy garage in the middle of a forgotten city, sweating it out with the best of them.

This is definitely an album that would be a good place to start, if you’ve never listened to The White Stripes. It’s a fully developed album that encompasses everything from acoustic, stripped down songs, loud, heavy rock songs, and even a little bit of mariachi thrown into the mix. Just take my simple advice: do not listen to this until the sun’s been up for at least a few hours!

-Tiffany Fosberry

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Filthybird - "Second Wind" from Southern Skies


Filthybird
"Second Wind" from Southern Skies
Red Strings Records 2007

"Second Wind" is the kind of song that you dream about writing when you are a song writer.

It is beautiful and stunning. It is haunting. And it's classic yet modern at the same time.

Greensboro, North Carolina based Filthybird have built the foundations for what hopes to be a wonderful career with their newly released Red Strings Records (http://www.redstringsrecords.com/) album Southern Skies. The album itself ranges from guitar heavy indie rock tracks to textually lush numbers. But for me, the true winners on this album are the vocally driven songs penned by lead singer Renee Mendoza.

Her voice is a true instrument and an absolute joy to listen to and behold. Embedded with stark passion; it stylistically reminds me of the Daniel Lanois era Emmy-Lou Harris work (see the track: "Where will I Be") and that can not be more true as heard on Filthybird's luscious track "Second Wind."

A soft repetitive organ bed with feedback driven guitars perfectly build the bed for Medoza's powerful voice. It's a passionate ballad, one that I feel mixes well with the elements sea, as it hypnotically resonates in soft undulating waves of bliss. True mastery.

It is a wonderful thing when a local band creates a masterpiece, and "Second Wind" is just that. A full fledged masterpiece.

Please take a listen to this track at Filthybird's MySpace page (www.myspace.com/filthybird) or better yet, buy the bands full length at the previously mentioned Red Strings Records web site. I highly encourage you to do so.

-Mark Dougherty

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lewis & Clarke - "Be the Air we Breathe" from Blasts of Holy Birth


Lewis & Clarke
"Be the Air we Breathe" from Blasts of Holy Birth

La Societe 2007

At Lewis & Clarke's MySpace page (www.myspace.com/lewisclarke) one of the words that they used to describe their music as was "healing." This word speaks degrees to me, and insinuates that ability that something has to improve you or to make you feel whole once again. Moreover, to make you feel better and willing to embrace life.

I honestly, could never in my lifetime, find a better word to describe Lewis and Clarke's song "Be the Air we Breathe," from their newly released album Blasts of Holy Birth. The song itself is majestic and pastoral. It's enchanting. But most of all, it is healing.

On first listen of this subtle yet epic song, I envisioned myself flying over serene Irish meadows. This was easy to do with a backdrop of their gentle classical guitar, soft keys and elegant harp work.

Soon enough, I found myself soaring over craggy cliffs (with the aid of the rising tension provided by the drum track). And then once past the cliffs, I was over the sea, as guided by the delicate vocals on the track and its monumental instrumental end.

And I did not want to come back from this vision — I wanted this moment to last forever.

But then I came to and remembered again, that this is healing music and whatever healing I needed at this point in my life, Lewis and Clarke on "Be The Air we Breathe" so calmly and so refreshingly provided.

You can listen to four tracks from Lewis and Clarke's new album Blasts of Holy Light at the aforementioned MySpace page, or purchase it through their homepage (www.lewisandclarke.com), I just did and I can't wait to experience it again.

-Mark Dougherty

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Strugglers - "On the Main Drag" from The Latest Rights


The Strugglers
"On the Main Drag" from The Latest Rights

2007


I have been a fervent fan of the B.R. Bickford, (A.K.A. The Strugglers) for over two years now. Steeped in classic rock elements, a gritty self-evaluating voice, and expansive musicianship; it astounds me that The Strugglers are not a household name these days.

But, as is the issue with most great music today, it is next to impossible to hear or even become aware of. If you are not a hot-bodied teeny bopper with pro tools shaped vocals and a sexy dance routine; well you just are going to have a really tough time being successful in the industry.

So, to hear music like Bickfords is a true, true pleasure and joy. And a promising moment that musical greatness is still at hand and continues to be made.

On his single, "On the Main Drag," from his soon to be released album The Latest Rights (Bickford is shopping for the right label to produce it), Bickford takes a wonderfully satisfying step from his other such brilliant "musically building" songs like: "The Cascade Range" and "The Rejection Letter."

What I love about Bickford's lyricism and most notably on "On the Main Drag" is that they are "inner stories," as if Bickford has these deep stories within himself. At times, they are cathartic, at times they are simply a slice of the moments he has currently embraced in his life (at least as a listener, that is what I hear). And in that lyricism you are drawn completely in. But what's more is the musical bed that occupies these lyrics is just as compelling: slight acoustic guitars that lead to a solitary rhythmic electric and cymbal heavy drums. This style rests so perfectly with Bickford's inner lyrical journeys.

"On the Main Drag" can be listened to at: www.myspace.com/thestrugglers or you can visit their homepage at: www.thestrugglers.org. And please, give this music the attention it deserves and demands. We need more of it today.

-Mark Dougherty

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Circa Survive - On Letting Go


Circa Survive
On Letting Go
Equal Vision Records 2007

Do me a favor. If you are going to make music, tread carefully the waters of labeling yourself. Others are sure to label your sound, and they’ll most likely put you in a box. That’s how the music industry works, and there is no getting past the question “so what do you sound like?” The answer should be chosen carefully; otherwise your listener might have an experience like I have had with the new Circa Survive album, On Letting Go.

I had not heard the first note played by Circa Survive until I started to do this review. I had heard of the new release, and a friend told me to check it out. I headed to the band’s Myspace page not knowing what I was to uncover. My eyes first found their new album cover, a decent little piece of art with a hot air balloon being lifted by a man with a burning head. I then scrolled down to just under the band name to find their label. There I read three words separated by slashes attempting to provide a short description of the band’s sound.

The first word was “Other,” so no help there. The last word was “indie,” and one must ask in the days of Myspace and iTunes where bands have great success by self promotion, who isn’t “indie” inherently?

The middle word was what I had to go on. “Experimental” is what it read. Before I clicked the first song I was thinking something along the lines of Sigur Ros, or The Mars Volta. After all, an experimental sound should be nothing short of a completely new approach to music in the hopes that it will at least work well, if not change the face of music all together. As you can well imagine, this is not what I heard.

This is not to say the music is bad, or that it isn’t original. But Circa Survive are simply a bit of fresh air in the world of power emo rock. They are a very talented crew, and know how to craft lasting songs that stay in your head and make you sway with the mental playback. Their use of ambient guitar parts blend nicely with their steady rock grooves. The vocals are pretty, for lack of a better term, and are high- borderline Coheed and Cambria range but considerably less annoying. But to continue with the comparison, Circa still doesn’t quite hit the “experimental” elements that Coheed does well.

The song at the forefront of the new album is “The Difference Between Medicine and Poison is in the Dose.” It is a very good showcase of all the band’s elements. The song starts with a solid drum beat and hits in with powerful ambience as the rest of the band joins and instantly creates the mood of the song. The melody is quite satisfying as well and the chorus is the type of upbeat melancholy you can’t help but connect with and keep singing over and over.

The lyrics are a bit vague, but with it’s possible that their ambiguity is exactly the point. The song speaks of time being temporary, the singer is relieved to have lived as long as he has and yet wishes he were somebody else. Perhaps not a new concept for a song, but the catchy chorus delivers the message effectively.

Other songs on the album are just as deserving of a listen as the rest, they are mostly bright and compared with some of their Warped Tour brethren are much more mature. The problem lies in their self-prescribed diagnosis of experimentation, which they do little of. I doubt there is a correct three word description for any one band, whether they are good or terrible. Circa Survive are definitely original in their own right. They are good at what they do, and play with a fervor that is lost on some flavor of the month bands. Maybe their three words should be: Accomplished/ Passionate/ Rock. I doubt, however, Myspace carries the two former terms as possibilities.

One line on the album reads, “Accomplishments are transient.” Experimentation is often uncomfortable, typically off the beaten path from what’s heard in the mainstream. It often heeds much resistance, but if successful, it can last through time. On Letting Go makes a decent attempt to endure. But if Circa Survive want to accomplish something more than “indie” status, and not just be as bland as “other,” they need to take listeners like me past the ambient emo pop rock of today and give me something I’ll remember a few decades from now, not just transient melodies.

-Mark Wingerter

Friday, June 15, 2007

Matthew and the Arrogant Sea - "Spellbound" from Spider Sunday


Matthew and the Arrogant Sea
“Spellbound” from Spider Sunday
Pop Matters 2007

Of all the musicians from the Pop Matters (www.myspace.com/popmatters) and Now Hereness recording collective, I think Matthew and the Arrogant Sea (www.myspace.com/matthewandthearrogantsea) is perhaps the most talented and gifted. Actually, I am quite sure of it. That said, he is also the artist with the most room to grow musically.

First and foremost, Matthew has a voice that can cause one to stop and pause and sit back in sheer awe of its utter beauty. His exploratory range rates equivalent (and sounds a lot like) the heavily exploratory and drug-laden years of Brian Wilson (see: Pet Sounds and Smile) or even, more similarly, to the modern day rockers — with a Beach Boys bent — My Morning Jacket.

On his track “Spellbound” from his upcoming release Spider Sunday, we are introduced to Matthew’s exploratory vocal vision: different tracks weaving in and out with one another, at times cascading together while others work in separate keys of unique harmony. This wonderment of using the vocals as the primary instrument is something I am growing more and more akin to these days: and his spooky and at times haunting vocal delivery make Matthew and The Arrogant Sea all the more appealing.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, Matthew is hands down, a gifted musician, but he has room to grow in the studio. The one down side to “Spellbound” and other such recordings is that they are almost too reverb heavy (like listening to him singing in a distant, distant hallway). I sadly, have a hard time making out the lyrics to the songs. The fact that Matthew’s artistry still shines through this studio issue is truly a testament to his ability.

I am reminded of what Nigel Godrich said to Thom Yorke on his Eraser album; that he was putting his foot down to recording his vocals with any reverb at all. Yorke complained and tried his best to add it in. But Godrich insisted, as he wanted the presence of Yorke’s vocals to be immediate and never distant. And it paid of remarkably. I think to myself, how equally remarkable Matthew and the Arrogant Sea would be with that slight change in studio work. With a voice as stunning as his, it is a shame to ever hide that with any studio trickery, and it is best to keep it as raw, emotional and close to the heart as possible.

-Mark Dougherty

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bryce Isbell - "The Necromancer" from Halloween


Bryce Isbell
“The Necromancer” from Halloween
Pop Monster 2007


Bryce Isbell must be one of the hardest working musicians out there. Case in point, Isbell is releasing three EPs this year alone (Halloween, I,2,3,4, and I Ride Horses) the latter of which was released yesterday through Pop Monster Records (www.myspace.com/popmonster).

Now, I have to be honest, I am somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to artists releasing multiple albums in the span of a year (see Ryan Adams in the year 2005). There can be a point when proficiency is too much to bare and it takes a toll on the artist's music, leaving it thin and the listener hoping that the musician took just a little more time to make something great, instead of a lot of something that is mediocre. This, however, is not the case with Bryce Isbell.

I get the sense from Isbell that each of his works on his MySpace page (www.myspace.com/bryceisbell) is a different meditation on his spirit. Almost a personal soul-searching cleansing. Joseph Arthur once called this kind of personal writing in himself as “someone recovering through music.” This would best describe Isbell’s music.

In his brilliantly simple, and vulnerable song “The Necromancer”, from his upcoming EP Halloween, we begin with a soft, yet haunting choral chant, repeated throughout the entirety of the song, creating a fragile yet pensive bed for Isbell’s vocals. The lilting chorus fully embraces the listener. And then, slicing through this softness is the lone, delicate cry of Isbell. His voice is captivatingly unstructured, wavering between keys with unorthodox control. The song as a whole is like experiencing a lone cry in the deep wilderness, a cry that pierces your soul directly and never loses its grip.

"The Necromancer” is a stunningly gorgeous song and on occasion pays homage to artists like The Decembrists and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The thing is with Isbell; it is not far fetched to say that his music is equally good if not better than these modern day pioneers. I truly urge you to listen to Bryce Isbell, and take notice of an artist who is unafraid to lay his soul bare though music.

-Mark Dougherty

Monday, June 11, 2007

Verulf - "Seven Children"


Verulf
“Seven Children” from Six Swans
Magilum Records 2007

I am finding myself more and more astounded with the work that is coming from The Magilum Records Collective: Verulf, J.Gray, and am eagerly awaiting their upcoming releases.

Enter Magilum Records’ Verulf; similar in style to the dream/trance like soundscapes and sonic textures of J.Gray and Bryce Isbell, Verulf manages to take this sound one step further on his track “Seven Children” from his upcoming EP Six Swans. What strikes me about Verulf’s music and most clearly on “Seven Children” is that this music escapes such traditional structures — verse chorus verse — but rather takes on the aesthetics of artwork. In “Seven Children” it is as if we find ourselves lost in painting, the brushwork being a rattle, or a drone of voices, washed over with a reverb heavy keyboard and guitar, all in all, mixed and meshed together to create a wonderfully psychedelic universe.

I’d like to say Verulf is a bit like Animal Collective or the early forefather of experimental art music, Harry Partch. But it is different, and alive in its own world. And very much new. There are bits an pieces in his songs that you find with every listen, new discoveries and meanings and affirmations. True artistry. And Verulf is indeed music as art and they have found themselves at home, perfectly in that blissful world.

-Mark Dougherty

Sunday, June 10, 2007

J. Gray - "Faunus" and "Blue Moon"


J. Gray
“Faunus” and “Blue Moon”
2007


J. Gray is one of those brilliant MySpace discoveries (that you truly wish you had more of, instead of those ominous bands that befriend you and sound like everyone else). J. Gray is truly a special talent and demands a listen, or in my case about 20.

On first listen of his gorgeously painted song “Faunus” I was immediately pulled in. As a listener, and a musician myself, I always long for that moment when you run across or write a song that enables you to completely lose yourself, where you can take a step back from the day to day business of life and enter a solitary moment of pure bliss. I had a friend call this musical rapture as an “Escape Exit.” A lot of musicians try for this, but some just have it naturally. J. Gray, in his track “Faunus” gave me that escape exit.

What separates “Faunus” from most is that it is not about the instruments being played (while starkly beautiful and simplistic in nature) but how the Gray’s vocals are being used as the primary instrument. And that leaves a haunting almost dream-like effect. It reminds me of the David Crosby song, “If I could only Remember My Name,” which was equally vocal driven; or the more modern work of Panda Bear. This is a track worth hearing again and again.

“Faunus” aside, what makes J.Gray such a unique talent is that his songs are so entirely different. Enter “Blue Moon,” a reverb laden folk dirge that would fit nicely in any Tarrantino epic. It has that dark luster that helps it to stand out from the traditional guitar/vocal driven folk song, much in the same sense that Leonard Cohen presented his work on Songs of Love and Hate.

I highly encourage you to listen to J.Gray and spread the word about the very different and provoking music. Check out his work at: www.myspace.com/jgraymusic. Add him to your friend list, put him on your top 8 and spread the word.

-Mark Dougherty

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Marilyn Manson - Eat Me, Drink Me


Marilyn Manson
Eat Me, Drink Me
Interscope 2007



Ever since Marilyn Manson has been around, I have never been a fan. This is due to the stigma that surrounds him. That stigma being: Goth scene king, nihilism, his unashamed grotesque art, and self label “antichrist superstar.” It is a reputation he mostly plays into, evident on the covers of his albums like Mechanical Animals, where he appears much like a naked mannequin with a female shaped body. With the success of this type of presentation, he was primarily responsible for bringing the macabre into the mainstream music scene. While I have respected him as an artist, I never picked up an album, and never listened to him more than what was paraded all over MTV. His music occupied my ears occasionally, never on purpose.

But Manson, real name Brian Warner, did always interest me as a person. Being one for character driven stories, I often wondered what he was like underneath the black clothing, pasty make up, and ever changing contact lenses. Yet, his music never went inward. Each album was like a piece of his outfit; one his eyeliner, another, his tattoos. They were about what he represented, his ideology, what he chose to inform people he believed in or disagreed with. They hovered on his surface.

Recently, bored on my lunch break at work, I picked up SPIN magazine, in which Manson dominated the cover. He had been absent from the forefront for sometime. ‘He’s back again,’ I thought. ‘What is it now?’ Still, I read the article, and was surprised. On those pages was Manson, or more so, Brian Warner. Honest and brokenhearted. Of course the author of the article was talking about his new album Eat Me, Drink Me, but the article centered on Manson as a person. Reading further, it was evident that this was due to the album itself being a departure for Manson- it was an album about him.

He went on to describe in the article that he had been hurt deeply by his now ex wife and in the midst of it had gone into a depression and come back from it with the help of a new love interest and his friends around him. And through the advice of his guitar player, he wrote songs about the experience that he says changed him and his perspective on his life.

For the first time in his entire career, I was actually interested in his music, even without having heard it. I was surprised by what I saw on the pages as I read. Something I had never associated with Marilyn Manson: hope.

My lunch break was over, but when I got home after work I listened to the album, posted in its entirety on MySpace during the week of its release.

The first track is probably the best work he’s ever done. Titled “If I Was Your Vampire” it speaks of loving someone so much you’d die for them. Within his dark, droning vocals and the minimalist guitar riff in the verses, the hope Manson seems to have found shines through. The song is epic, a calling out from within him to this love to say ‘you are all I need.’ The image: two lovers, vampires, embraced in the moonlight awaiting their certain death by the oncoming sun, accepting it as he sings “instead of killing time, we’ll have each other until the sun.”

The music moves like a rollercoaster, subtle in parts, driving in the choruses which are heavier versions of the verses just an octave higher. It reflects the mood of the two lovers as if they are playing it themselves.

The track ends prophetic of the love they share stating “this is where it starts; this is where it will end. Here comes to moon again.”

The rest of the album mostly stays inward, focused on the newness of love with tracks like “Heart Shaped Glasses (When the Heart Guides the Hand).” It’s also biting at the pain born from former love in tracks like “Putting Holes in Happiness” in which he says “I should have picked the photograph, it lasted longer than you.”

Manson still stays bleak throughout, however, and doesn’t lose all of his nihilistic approach to life. Several times on the album, I departed from it. Perhaps his most honest form is his best, but I will admit he has had unparalleled success by turning a critical eye to the world and screaming hatred toward it.

What is found on Eat Me, Drink Me, though, is pieces of his humanity. By looking at Marilyn Manson only on the outside it is easy to accept him as one form, a stereotype we create in our heads. It can be very easy to put him in a box. But this album makes it harder, and I found myself relating to the pain he felt. I never thought that was something I’d ever do. But as he proves on all his albums, he knows music, and it pours out of him naturally. At times on the album he becomes universal by simply being honest, and through it he proves the power that music has to connect, relate, and heal.

-Mark Wingerter

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Dan Deacon - "The Crystal Cat" from Spiderman of the Rings



Dan Deacon
"The Crystal Cat" from Spiderman of the Rings
Carpark 2007


Reactor Rating: 3.5 out of 10

I am going to be absolutely honest here, but I don't buy into this Dan Deacon hype at all. And quite frankly, I find it baffling. On first listen of his most demanded iTunes track: "The Crystal Cat" I thought perhaps I had accidentally downloaded the wrong song. Certainly, it was not the same key track from the album getting rave reviews from Pitchfork and the like. Was it? Couldn't be. In fact, when this blur of a song started, I was immediately confused: was I listening to the white noise from my television set or the dish washer? Or was it a chorus of the Lolly Pop Guild and say, Alvin and the Chipmunks? No lie. Imagine all these elements commingled and you have "The Crystal Cat."

Maybe, what I missed in the studio version of "The Crystal Cat" is the energy and oddity that Deacon could bring to his live performances (which he is said to give a great, highly energetic show) and I certainly wont take from that. Yet, I still can't get past the fact that I feel Deacon is just novelty act, where being odd outshines the need to make something truly great. Is Deacon then the Weird Al for modern times? I hope not, as at the end of the day, being weird only goes so far. And listening to an album of this madness would be sheer madness.

-Mark Dougherty

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Bastard Fairies - Memento Mori


The Bastard Fairies
Memento Mori
The Bastard Fairies 2007


Reactor Rating: 8.5 out of 10

I have a great deal of respect for any artist that produces their own music - for better or worse. I have even more respect for an artist that then gives away their work, especially if the work is listenable or better.

The Bastard Fairies have done both.

Formed by Yellow Thunder Woman and Robin Davey because "there wasn't any music out there that they liked listening too", Momento Mori has to be one of the best albums released during the first half of this year.

Momento weaves in and out of spaces once occupied by the likes of Blondie and The Talking Heads, as well as sharing the same neighborhood of modern acts such as Kiss Me Deadly and The Raveonettes.

The album starts with "The Greatest Love Song" and an introduction to Yellow Thunder Woman's very personal writing style. With lyrics such as "I'll have a hysterectomy / And we'll live our lives problem-free" and a chorus that sounds as if her daughter is covering back-up vocal duties, you get the feeling right out of the gate that this is not a woman trying to hide a whole lot from the world.

Musically, the album is a tapestry of sounds that weave together perfectly. A toy piano, an old acoustic guitar, drum machines, to name a few all gel together powerfully to create the perfect room for the vocals to rest in. Robin Davey thoroughly understands the concept of knowing when to play and when not to play his instruments, keeping things uncluttered and simple, yet interesting throughout.

Standout tracks include "Habitual Intimate", the R-rated children's song "We're All Going to Hell", a bouncy/Blondie-ish "A Venomous Tale", and the intimate "Guns and Dolls".

The album does falter a bit when they push some noisy breaks and interludes in the middle of songs, but these spots are rare.

As of this writing, you can still listen to and download the original twelve tracks that were released on their website (http://www.thebastardfairies.com/), as well as watch a few videos of the band performing. They have since released a CD and DVD set that contains five unreleased tracks as well as video performances not available online. Usually when bands roll out the same album with a few "bonus" tracks, you can be assured that it is not a worthwhile investment. With The Bastard Fairies, the normal rules do not seem to apply.

-Curt Meinhold

Ironlight River - Earthlights through a Wind Coloured Glass


Ironlight River
Earthlights through a Wind Colored Glass
MTOR Records/Lost Cat Records 2007


Andy Fosberry plays under the pseudonym Ironlight River, and has the smooth and moody sensibilities of Mark Kozelek’s Red House Painters; see: Ocean Beach, Songs From Colorful Hill, etc. Like Kozelek, on Earthlights through a Wind Colored Glass, Fosberry’s music begins with gorgeous yet solitary guitar work, which most times leads into a sonic eruption of sound; at times an elusive guitar solo finds its way into his expansive songs, or a cello to create a pensive bed, or just an interesting yet unexpected shift in melody.

I have always been a fan of the slow/sad core genre, and Ironlight River does not fall short in that respect, at all; which makes for an extremely promising future for this fresh musical act.

Check out Ironlight Rivers new E.P. at: www.myspace.com/madetoorderrecords, or download his work at iTunes.

-Mark Dougherty

Ocean's Thirteen


Ocean’s Thirteen

I’ve heard the question asked many times. “What happened to the golden age of cinema?” Typically the poser of the question is referring to the good ol’ days of Hollywood. A time where there was no need for a ratings system because it was an era where cursing on screen was minimal, and kisses between Hollywood co stars were kept to a three second time limit by the MPAA. Of course, depending on your generation, though, “the golden age” of cinema can represent different periods, but I believe at the core of that title is the time when there was a mystery to cinema; and a movie star was clearly defined by a face, and not by whose daddy has the most money.

Today is a different time and perhaps a more vivid time for film. If you are going to go see a movie this summer, chances are you want to see a blockbuster, a big budget spectacle with monumental explosions and brilliant CGI, almost guaranteed to keep you enthralled, laughing, or on the edge of your seat. Most of them will deliver the goods, so you won’t be left begging for more.

But in the summer of sequels, Ocean’s Thirteen sticks out with class. It is one that will deliver the pace and one-liners like the best of them, but will leave you with a taste of the old school days.

What it does well is bring back the essence of the original movie by bringing all the original members back together and back to Vegas. While Ocean’s Twelve was a bit of a misfire- scattered and complicated, this movie is one big set up from the very beginning with a somewhat sly but satisfying payoff.

The heart of the original eleven, Rueben, gets double crossed as he attempts to partner with the heartless Willie Bank, played cunningly by Al Pacino, adding to the already stunning cast. The boys set out for revenge, and it turns out to be way more complicated to obtain than one could imagine.

The chemistry of the eleven is effortless, perhaps a little too effortless as most of the veteran actors probably phoned in their roles. But, it works, because even though George Clooney stands around for many parts of the film’s climax, Clooney just standing is a better performance than most I’ve seen so far this summer. It’s the swagger he brings. He brings back a certain “golden age” cool akin to the likes of Cary Grant, or the man who originally played Danny Ocean — the immortal Frank Sinatra. The other cast members hold their own as well, and the movie comes off very funny and genuine.

There are some blunders to the movie. The caper itself is a vast and extremely intricate set up, the success of which is highly unlikely. There is a security system in the Bank hotel, top of the line and unbreakable. But of course they break it. And the details go as far as infiltrating the manufacturing plant where the dice of the Bank Casino are made. Keeping up with the pace proves difficult sometimes as the dialogue is delivered lightning-fast in parts, and is in the quirky coded language which is signature to the series. It’s a far-fetched scheme, yes, but when pulled off by these guys it’s fun and thoroughly enjoyable.

Then there is the fact that the movie is definitely a sequel. If you haven’t seen Twelve then you’ll definitely miss out on some inside jokes, and characters from both previous movies show up scattered about. It might be confusing for an Ocean’s first-timer.

But the pace never lets up. The film may benefit from a second viewing for the full effect of the plot; but the suave is ultra-cool, the jokes are nicely timed, and there’s just something about a movie in Vegas. I’ve seen so many movies from that “golden age” and couldn’t help but picture the Rat Pack cruisin’ down the streets in the city of lights like they own the town. Brad Pitt and Clooney gel as smooth as Dean Martin and Sinatra. We may no longer be in the 40’s, but the luster of Vegas and the aura of the old days of Hollywood still has an effect on cinema today.

-Mark Wingerter

The National - Boxer


The National
Boxer
Beggar's Banquet 2007


Reactor Rating: 9.5 out of 10

The National is a once in a lifetime kind of band. In my estimation at least. And Boxer just might be close to one of my favorite CD's in the past five years. It is really that good.

Broody and melancholy, lyrical and expansive, personal and yet filled with angst-ridden observations of alienation, The National manages to summon the ghost of the late Ian Curtis (and I might say better at times; see: "Fake Empire"), and also achieved the dark harmonium of sound that I had so hoped Interpol would have embraced following their Turn on The Bright Lights (see: "Mistaken for Strangers").

Boxer is an album that must not be missed, it is a masterpiece from a band close to touching greatness — on second thought, they already have.

-Mark Dougherty

Wilco - Sky Blue Sky


Wilco
Sky Blue Sky
Nonesuch 2007


Reactor Rating: 7.2 out of 10

Sky Blue Sky is Classic Rock. No question about it.

As the painfully rabid Wilco fan that I am, I awaited eagerly the release of Sky Blue Sky. And to be quite honest, when I first downloaded it in entirety from iTunes, I did not like it that much. Actually, not much at all.

Sure, it had it's peaks with the gentle simplicity of it's opener "Either Way" and in the Television infused guitar work between Nels Cline and Jeff Tweedy on "Impossible Germany." But truth be told, as a whole I did not understand the album. I thought the lyrics were benign and trite (I feared that Wilco had fallen trap to the late career dulness of songs with hokey lessons and moral tales). I wanted more of the same experimental sound that became so vital on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or the chaotic guitar work on A Ghost is Born. As much as I wanted to, I did not like Sky Blue Sky.

But then it hit me on about the fourth listen through; Sky Blue Sky may just be one of Wilco's finest. It's a modern day classic rock masterpiece; with the aforementioned quality of Television's Marquee Moon, mixed with Steely Dan, Lynyrd Skynard and The Grateful Dead; it is a bedrock of classic rock. It's Wilco saying goodbye to the need to sound-scape and texturize and just be; fully confident in their song-writing abilities. Fully confident in being simple and direct. And maybe, just maybe what I realized is that it is not just a nod to the greats, but a recognition that this is a timelessly classic album too.

-Mark Dougherty