Quick Review: Puro Instinct 12″EP by Puro Instinct

s/t Cover ArtPuro Instinct was known as Pearl Harbor until only a few months ago, and under that name they released an excellent 4-songer, Something About The Chaparrals, in 2009. After hearing that release, I was pretty excited for further output from these gals, but this offering misses the mark. It sounds a lot like the current flavor of the day in indie – hazy vocals, echoing lazy day guitars, and mechanical drums – and there is nothing wrong with that whatsoever. The big problem is that the songs just aren’t up to par; the tracks sound like the toss-offs from the Chaparrals session. Hopefully this is an attempt to clear the decks for a new set of songs and a full-length, but sadly there isn’t much to be recommended here.

Rating: C.

FFO: Real Estate, Best Coast, Still Corners.

Pitchfork track review
Hear the EP
Band’s Myspace site

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Quick Review: Pope Killdragon LP by Strand of Oaks

Pope-Killdragon-Cover I was an instant fan of Strand of Oaks after hearing “Bonfire” a few months back. Timothy Showalter has an approach that might best be described as creepy campfire folk, evoking all kinds of dark season imagery through melancholy vocals (a la Robin Pecknold), acoustic guitar, and eerie, lush synth. “West River” opens things in instrumental fashion, invoking the spirits of the other songs like any good overture should. “Bonfire” remains the obvious standout, but I really dug “Daniel’s Blues” for raising the early SNL players to archetypal glory. I don’t know that this is quite achieves what “Bonfire” set my expectations to, as some of the songs blend into a monotonous drone (an easy thing for this type of music), but it is a solid effort nevertheless, and I recommend checking it out. “Bonfire” is simply a must-hear. Rating: B. RiYL: Fleet Foxes, The National, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Songs:Ohia, Red House Painters.

Listen Here (Myspace site)
Pitchfork Review
Hearya Session
Daytrotter Session

A.C. Newman: Get Guilty (2009)

Album Cover via eMusic

A.C. Newman
Get Guilty; 2009
Matador Records

My Rating: 74/100

Power-Pop Hitman Guilty As Sin

I have a guilty pleasure I need to admit: I am a huge fan of pop superstar Phil Collins, especially his mid-80’s heyday. I am such a fan that I recently created a mix CD entitled “Phil Collins Galore.” Something about that man’s music simply butters my bread. Still, whenever I ponder the career of (the original) Dr. Phil, I often scratch my head about the ping-ponging he did between his solo career and Genesis, because when it all comes down to it, for the longest time I couldn’t differentiate between the two. In fact, at this given moment, I couldn’t tell you whether “Sussudio” is a Genesis or a Phil track. And that’s the way I feel about A.C. Newman’s solo work. Unlike the other two major indie artists working in the New Pornographers (Dan Bejar of Destroyer & Neko Case), Newman’s eponymous output  bears little immediate difference from the NP-sound. It can lead one to cynicism about the whole affair: “Why even bother?” However, a few careful listens to Newman’s second full-length shine a spotlight on the specific and dissimilar merits contained therein. For starters, there’s a rhythmic angularity and experimentalism that is, for the most part, absent from the hyperactive power pop of New Pornographers (“Like A Hitman, Like A Dancer”, “Elemental”), in large part thanks to the unorthodox drumming of Superchunk’s John Wurster. Second, while the songs are hooky and immediately accessible (“Young Atlantis”, “Prophets”), they are also deeply mysterious and entirely unyielding. These are tracks you can dwell in for a good while, discovering additional layers here and there to relish. Third, because he isn’t forced to share the spotlight with anyone else, we get to focus on Newman’s greatest strenghth: his penchant for writing memorable and distinguishable pop songs. Overall, Newman is at his best when he builds the song around a mind-blowing hook and lets it breath. His esoteric/enigmatic lyrics don’t distract so much then, but instead become the alternate universe into which we are initiated by a hummable, repeatable motif.  Get Guilty provides clear indication that Newman’s solo career is not merely a vanity affair. The record is an impeccably-crafted album of left-field baroque pop gems, as satisfying as any of the New Pornographers’ long-players, and ultimately the work of a master craftsman. Highly recommended.

Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4/5)

Tracks:

1. There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve (4/5)
2. The Heartbreak Rides (5/5)
3. Like A Hitman, Like A Dancer (4/5)
4. Prophets (5/5)
5. Submarines Of Stockholm (5/5)
6. Thunderbolts (3.5/5)
7. The Palace At 4AM (4/5)
8. The Changeling (Get Guilty) (3.5/5)
9. Elemental (4/5)
10. Young Atlantis (5/5)
11. The Collected Works (4/5)
12. All Of My Days And All Of My Days Off (5/5)

What do you think of A.C. Newman’s Get Guilty?

Tracks of the Decade: “One Big Holiday” by My Morning Jacket

“One Big Holiday”
by My Morning Jacket
from IT STILL MOVES (2003)

What a decade it was for My Morning Jacket. At the outset, Jim James was a college dropout with a vision, a guitar, and an eccentric fascination with reverb. At the close, he was the iconic, internationally-recognized frontman for one of the biggest rock bands of the post-rock age. “One Big Holiday”, the band’s fantastical auto-biography in song, has remained its official anthem throughout. It was the track they played on Conan, their first performance on (American) national television. It’s the track that you can expect them to play whenever you see them live. Simply put, it’s a ragged, un-polished, knuckle-headed piece of Americana hard rock, one of the best in recent memory. There’s no semblance of restraint to be found, no indication of anything but sheer intention to be the greatest rock and roll band since Led Zeppelin. Additionally, there’s the indelible mark of James’ musical persona, from the opening declaration (“…good and lee-em-buh!!!”) to the final line (“all the leather kids were loud!!!”). Has there been a better rock and roll track about escaping your hometown and making it big since “Born to Run?” None come to the mind of this music obsessive. Back in 2001 & 2002, everyone talked about this or that band saving rock and roll. So much for that. It never needed “saving”, but it always needs someone to find its heart. My Morning Jacket, above all others, has managed to do just that.

Career In Brief: Mark Knopfler

CAREER IN BRIEF: MARK KNOPFLER

Mark Knopfler is the wildly accomplished guitar afficionado who fronted the pub-prog stadium act Dire Straits. His “sound” is easily distinguishable from that of other guitarists because of his finger-picking style, a sort of languid-staccato if you will. While the artistic output of the Dire Straits years was more focused on his fabulous guitar chops, Knopfler’s solo work has been more along the lines of singer-songwriter work, although his guitar-playing still figures prominently.

In my opinion, Knopfler is the epitome of how a rock and roll artist should mature, probably oweing something to the fact that he is a prodigious talent. Although he’s not normally put on the same pedestal as the great guitar players of rock and roll, such as Hendrix, Clapton, Van Halen, or Page, there is no doubt that Knopfler is in the same categories as these guitar heroes. The difference, I would say, is in Knopfler’s influences. Traditionally, the guitar gods have been rooted in the blues, but Knopfler’s style owes more to jazz (Django Reinhart) and Opryland country (Chet Atkins) influences.

Although his career as a solo artist proper really came post-Dire Straits, he did plenty of notable soundtrack work in the 80’s and early 90’s. Those interested in his scores should check out Local Hero and, of course, his iconic work for Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. Otherwise, I’m going to jump right into his solo records, one of the most under-celebrated album catalogs of the last twenty years.

One other note: while some artists may write sad songs that don’t sound so sad and happy songs that sound the same as the sad ones, Knopfler, though under-stated, wears his songwriting soul masterfully on his sleeve. His music is devoid of irony, unless he intends to convey it. In our age of hyper-hipsterism, it’s rewarding to find an artist who doesn’t need to be hip to win our hearts.

MAJOR RELEASES:

Golden Heart [1996] (A): Come on, isn’t this really just the latest Dire Straits album? Knopfler downplays the prog grandiosity and instead takes aim at rootsy chamber folk. For a guy who spent the 80’s blowing out stadiums around the world, he proves himself adept at turning down the volume and turning up the celtic and cajun influences. It’s a true masterpiece. (R:  “I’m The Fool”, “Done With Bonaparte”)

Sailing to Philadelphia [2000] (B)
: Knopfler always had a knack for “storytelling” via song, but the way his lyrics unfold before you like a film on “What It Is”, you’ll feel like you are right there on Charlotte Street. A sprawling meditation on America’s wide open spaces, it features many wonderful moments, but ultimately loses itself somewhere around the “Sands of Nevada.” Features a great duet with Van Morrison on “The Last Laugh.”  (R: “What It Is”, “Silvertown Blues”)
The Ragpicker’s Dream [2002] (A+): As homey and comforting a record as you will ever find anywhere, what makes The Ragpicker’s Dream is Knopfler’s ability to seamlessly shift from a peppy novelty like “Devil Baby” to a sadly mortal meditation like “A Place We Used To Live” without skipping a beat. The title track may be the best Christmas carol to emerge from the British Isles since “Fairytale of NYC.” One of my all-time favorite records. (R: “Why Aye Man”, “The Ragpicker’s Dream”)

Shangri-La [2004] (A): Fourteen tracks about all the ways we try to find heaven on earth, lead single “Boom Like That” is the best satirical piece Knopfler has written since “Money For Nothing.” It’s also highly informative and educational. Elsewhere, “All That Matters” gets all sweet on us, and “Back To Tupelo” is some beautiful Elvis-perspective blues.
(R: “Back to Tupelo”, “Donegan’s Gone”)

All The Roadrunning [2006] (A): This isn’t properly a Mark Knopfler record, since he shares the spotlight with Emmylou Harris, but in all reality, he wrote 10 of the 12 songs, and it all sounds more like his work than hers. They go together well, and this is a great travelling record. Really, truly wonderful. (R: “Right Now”, “Rollin’ On”)


Kill To Get Crimson [2007] (A-)
: At this point in his career, MK isn’t really turning over any new stones, but when you know what you do better than anyone else in the world, why do anything else? At this point, Knopfler demonstrates his greatness in the sheer fact that he can churn out 12 tracks of such astounding quality every 2 years at the age of 58. Shouldn’t somebody name this guy the godfather of something??? (R: “Heart Full Of Holes”, “Secondary Waltz”)

Get Lucky [2009] (B+): Well, it is all starting to run together a little bit at this point, but for the most part, I stand by what I said about Kill To Get Crimson and apply it to this one. Knopfler has nothing left to prove – Lord knows he doesn’t need money. Knopfler is the type of guy who can just sit back and be artistic with his life for the rest of us. And tracks like “Cleaning My Gun” prove that he still has a few powerful turns of phrase left in him. (R: “Border Reiver”, “Cleaning My Gun”)

OTHER KEY TRACKS:

“Long Highway”
“Let’s See You”

What do love about Mark Knopfler?

5 Things: “Luv Goon” by Pearl Harbor

5 things I love about “Luv Goon” by Pearl Harbor…

1) That guitar – it’s the best of Peter Buck, The Edge, and Johnny Marr all rolled into one.
2) The blinding brightness of the song.
3) The siren song vocals – gorgeous, though I can’t understand a word…
4) Except the chorus: “Anything you want me to/I’m your love goon”
5) Gotta say I love that guitar again. Just fabulous!

What about you?

Real Estate: s/t LP (2009)

Real Estate
Real Estate
Woodsist; 2009

My Rating: 95/100

As a kid, I never stepped foot on a beach north of Cumberland Island, Georgia. I was a complete southern surf snob, and to this day I find myself cringing at the thought of putting my bare feet onto oceanside territory north of Myrtle Beach. Jersey shores? I would have said a big “no way” even a year ago, but having had the opportunity to bask in the warm, slow sunrise of Jersey’s own Real Estate for the last few months, I might just learn to see the Garden State’s beaches in a different light. Real Estate is neck and neck with The Low Anthem for my favorite breakthrough act of 2009, and the more time I spend with their eponymous debut, the more these beach kings seem fit to ascend. At first, Real Estate rubs off like any given garage act recorded on a ceiling-suspended vocal mic, with a few gobs of vaseline slathered on for maximum haze. But for all the amateurism apparent in the recording quality, this record achieves the same lo-fi grandeur that Pavement achieved with Slanted & Enchanted, resulting in a magical, misty band-next-door aura shot through with melody and wit. The album wins because the songs themselves are gorgeous and perfect. The chattery, twin guitar interplay of Mathew Mondanile and Martin Courtney dwells on the winsome side of the Marquee Moon, and Etienne Duguay’s understated percussion shepherds the tracks into dreamland. It’s hard to identify standouts because this is an incredibly consistent record, but I’d to say my top three are “Beach Comber”, “Green River”, and “Suburban Beverage.” Overall, this is a record brimming with nostalgia and good vibrations, as true to the beach life as you can get. It also might be the last classic debut LP of the decade now past, but for what its worth, I think it makes the case that Real Estate’s best days lay ahead of us.

Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (5/5)

Tracks:

1. Beach Comber (5/5)
2. Pool Swimmers (5/5)
3. Suburban Dogs (5/5)
4. Black Lake (5/5)
5. Atlantic City (5/5)
6. Fake Blues (5/5)
7. Green River (5/5)
8. Suburban Beverage (5/5)
9. Let’s Rock the Beach (5/5)
10. Snow Day (5/5)

Big Star: #1 Record (1972)

Big Star
#1 Record
Ardent/Stax; 1972

My Rating: 100/100

Just what can be said about this record that hasn’t already been said, especially in the last few weeks? It’s brilliant, no doubt. And while it was legendarily ignored upon its initial release, it has since become the universally recognized stepping off point for all things power pop. You don’t need me to tell you any of that. All I can really say is that for every year that my youth fades into the rearview mirror, this record gets a little sadder and a little sweeter, all at the same time. With the record’s two chief songwriters having since departed for Indias all their own, even the sunny, powerhouse optimism of lines like “You give me life/And that’s right” come off as bittersweet at best. Over the years, I’ve come to love the song “When My Baby’s Beside Me” most of all, but there is no denying the overpowering nostalgia of “Thirteen”, a song so fragrant and pacifying you’ll feel like you’re slowly slipping into a Downy commercial. God, can any other song make a grown man cry? Whenever I hear it, I visualize all of my childhood friends, bridging the gap between innocence and experience, naive and childish, without a clue and all the better for it. Who wouldn’t want to capture that era forever? Chilton did it in that single song, but the full set of twelve manages to grab all the other angles as well. As I close this review, I’m struck by my utter inability to communicate all that this album means to me. I’d rather just let it speak for itself…

Once I walked a lonely road
Had no one to share my love
But then you came and showed the way
And now I hope you’re here to stay...”

Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (5/5)

Tracks:

1. Feel (5/5)
2. The Ballad of El Goodo (5/5)
3. In the Street (5/5)
4. Thirteen (5/5)
5. Don’t Lie to Me (5/5)
6. The India Song (5/5)
7. When My Baby’s Beside Me (5/5)
8. My Life Is Right (5/5)
9. Give Me Another Chance (5/5)
10. Try Again (5/5)
11. Watch the Sunrise (5/5)
12. ST 100/6 (5/5)

Tracks of the Decade: “First Breath After Coma” by Explosions in the Sky

“First Breath After Coma”
by Explosions in the Sky
from THE EARTH IS NOT A COLD DEAD PLACE (2003)

Instrumental post-rock was nothing new when Explosions in the Sky hit the scene in the last years of the 20th Century. Bands like Tortoise and Tarentel were only two acts in a sea of literary-minded illiterate indies, and Midland, Texas was not the hub of the scene by any means. Yet somehow, through what could perhaps be termed a series of fortunate events, Explosions found themselves the forerunners of the post-rock movement with the release of their third full-length in 2003, especially after they helmed the soundtrack to the masterful film adaption of H.G. Bissiner’s Friday Night Lights. “First Breath After Coma” finds the band at their most anthemic and narrative, building layer upon layer from a steady, chiming guitar into a furious wall of sound. The listener only need close his eyes in order to visualize a slow awakening to consciousness, culminating in a full-on adrenaline surge right around 3:30. And while we may commonly associate the bands’ music with football at this point, the stark and wide-swinging melodicism of the track’s first four minutes evokes artillery shells falling on heroic soldiers rather than pigskins falling into the arms of over-padded high school kids. Musically, the tri-guitar attack leaves nothing to be desired, but it’s Chris Hrasky’s steady beat that martials the song’s elegaic emotion and masterfully choreographs the rhythmic fireworks. All in all, “First Breath After Coma” was a clear indication of the band taking their game to the next level, and to this day it still ranks as their crowning achievement. As the enormous wall of distorted guitar feedback slowly advances over the last minute of the track, you’ll find yourself marvelling at the 9 minute instrumental POP song you’ve just heard. Did they really just pull that off?

Second Story Man: Screaming Secrets (2010)

Second Story Man
Screaming Secrets
Noise Pollution; 2010

My Rating: 69/100

Tragically under-recognized Louisville band delivers a solid third full-length…

Having grown up in Louisville, I’m astonished to say that while I have known of Second Story Man for years now, their third long player SCREAMING SECRETS is my first full length exposure to the band. I’m not really sure why. As a 90’s scene kid, I was a fan of the members’ work in bands like Itch House and The Flats, but for whatever reason, Second Story Man have managed to hover just below the national radar for 12 years now. While they have toured occasionally with the likes of Shipping News and Sebadoh, they have otherwise contented themselves with churning out apparently masterful noise pop records whenever the mood strikes them. So unfortunately, I can’t really speak to Second Story Man’s growth as a band, but I can attest to the fact that this is a marvelous record that will most likely go tragically under-recognized. SECRETS succeeds by finding a Beatles-esque middle way between the ultra-dynamic river city indie of hometown greats like Slint and Rodan and the scrappy indie pop of early 90’s Chapel Hill bands like Superchunk and Polvo. While opener “The Want Within the Need” and A-side closer “Traffic Jams” attest that the band can rock at full-power, I find myself continually drawn to the lilting and lush “Quietly” and the pastoral acousti-pop of “Suicide Dream.” Elsewhere, the dissonance of “Flies” recalls Murray Street-era Sonic Youth, and “The Mav” best exemplifies the band’s powerful dual vocal approach. Given the overall quality of SCREAMING SECRETS, I’ll definitely search out the band’s back catalog. Having grown into this record over the last few months, I can entusiastically say that it’s high time the world get to know Second Story Man.

Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4/5)


Tracks:

1. The Want Within the Need (4.5/5)
2. Clocks (4.5/5)
3. OompaLoompa (4/5)
4. Quietly (5/5)
5. Traffic Jams (4/5)
6. Flies (3.5/5)
7. The Mav (4/5)
8. Floor Falls Out (3/5)
9. Suicide Dream (4.5/5)
10. Bottom Line (3.5/5)

START WITH: Quietly, The Mav, The Want Within the Need