Category Archives: FEATURES

Bombay Bicycle Club: Wheels Within Wheels

BBC

Ignoring trends and fads, London’s Bombay Bicycle Club goes global on its fourth album.

English-born 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge was the sort of artist every medium seems to produce now and then, one whose vision and technique lands so far outside standard practices that it changes the direction of the art form. Using unwieldy mechanics and frequently putting himself in physical danger to get the images he was after, Muybridge captured several now-classic landscape shots of the American West in which humans appeared like small toys, afterthoughts of creation dwarfed by the craggy vastness of the wild countryside. But today, as he was in his lifetime, Muybridge is best known for his innovative experiments in representing locomotion photographically, multiple series of still images recording human and animal movement designed to be viewed in the “zoopraxiscope,” a forerunner of the film projector, invented by Muybridge himself.

Muybridge’s famous multi-image projects The Horse In Motion and Boys Playing Leapfrog—in addition to anticipating the technical processes of motion-picture projection—also advanced the science of human perception. His pieces offer some of the earliest manipulated illustrations of the phi phenomenon, the optical effect by which related images perceived in a sequence create the illusion of continuous movement. Muybridge fortuitously appeared at just the right moment to exploit a public and scientific craving for the study of movement: The “phenakistoscope,” a handheld device developed in the 1840s that created strobic motion effects with a disc, upon which was printed a sequence of still images, was especially well-suited to his work in early stop-motion technology.

But one piece in particular, entitled “A Couple Waltzing,” offers a slight variation on the photographer’s usual single-figure or landscape studies. Here, in a simply but elegantly drawn pairing, are a well-dressed man and woman locked happily in a light embrace, forever dancing, as the wheel spins around and around—as indeed it must, for the illusion of movement to carry over and to bring us back, always, to where we began. In a career marked by brainy experimentation, it’s a singularly human—and endearingly romantic—entry in Muybridge’s catalog.

All of which may seem a very roundabout way to come to the point, which is—in case you’ve been wondering—Bombay Bicycle Club’s new album, So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vagrant). But the heart of the LP is just this—this cycle, the wheels that spin and carry us through time, through the world, through love, loss and love again, and set us back on top. It’s a big-sounding, wildly ambitious record, and one that will likely emerge, if we can hazard a prediction, as one of 2014’s most rewarding releases.

The cover art is our firstF clue to content: a Muybridge-esque illustration by U.K. postmodern art-deco designers La Boca, depicting a man and a woman walking in opposite directions under a diurnal cycle of sun and moon. Following their own paths, they separate, but at the top and bottom of the sequence, they meet up again. And again, we assume. And again … and that is, as we’ve said, the heart of it: the separation and return.

On paper, it looks like a lofty concept for a pop group. But Bombay Bicycle Club is a very unique—and uniquely complex—pop group. A series of three albums over as many years, supplemented by a handful of singles and EPs, brought BBC a slow rumble of appreciation in its native England. But each one seemed the work of a band uninterested in developing a consistent aesthetic: 2009’s buzz-heavy I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose was a mostly straight-ahead indie-rock affair; follow-up Flaws was a surprisingly reserved, but gorgeous acoustic album; A Different Kind Of Fix, to date its best-received album popularly and critically, added beats and electronic rhythms to the guitar-led punch of its debut.

By rights, the band’s fourth album ought to be the one that brings BBC the recognition that’s so far eluded it in the U.S., because So Long, See You Tomorrow is, even on first listen, an album that announces a sea change in a group’s approach, in the vein of Revolver or Pet Sounds.

That’s high praise, but So Long is, among other things, the most sonically complex of all the band’s records, pulling in looped beats, Eastern melodic forms, processed sound and other materials that coalesce—gradually, and almost before you’ve realized it—into delicate pop structures. “I think that’s a fair way of putting it,” says frontman Jack Steadman, who composes and arranges the bulk of BBC’s work. “You want the consistency of the song format. But how you get there doesn’t matter.”

And it’s the “how” that really marks So Long as a step in a most ambitious direction. Over a series of weeks traveling in Turkey, India, Tokyo and continental Europe, Steadman collected sounds: rhythms, melodies, public music, film music, all the diverse soundtracks of popular culture in the spaces through which he rambled. When it came time to assemble the album, that motley collection of sounds became the loop-and-sample basis not only for individual songs, but the structure and sequence of the record from start to finish.

“I’m glad that comes through,” he says, warming to a topic he’ll talk about in depth. “I think when people hear (world) music, they often dismiss it. Like, let’s say, Bollywood soundtracks: A lot of people hear it and think, ‘Oh, that’s cheesy, it’s awful.’ But to me, some of that stuff is absolute genius. I’m always kind of on the search for those elements. It could be Bollywood, it could be Turkish music—could be anything, really. I’m always trying to find aspects of those pieces of music I can take something from.”

So, here we have a young band that made its bones with cerebral indie rock, then stripped its music down to acoustic bones, now pulling in forms and models from world music in order to replenish the seed of its songwriting. Though it might sound like culture-mining, Steadman’s accretive approach to sampling and restructuring global music for this record actually makes it sound more a pastiche of forms than an appropriation of outside elements.

The sound, in other words, remains the band’s own, only now using flourishes and formal experiments that expand the melodic range far beyond what it’s done previously. The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin is a fair comparison point both structurally and sonically, opening up as it did Wayne Coyne and Co.’s punk and experimental aesthetic to much more spacious and melodic forms, and changing the group’s character in the process. It’s a gamble—perhaps less so in the case of BBC, which hasn’t really stuck with one aesthetic for its previous releases and has less to lose as a result; but still, it’s a risk that might or might not pay off in the final product.

“It’s tricky,” says Steadman. “You want to take what’s there, in the samples, and make it work differently, make it sound a bit cooler. Some of the samples are great, but, of course, some of them have a tendency to sound like something a band would play on a cruise ship, or something. The best of it, though, it’s like the people who made that music didn’t care about it sounding clean or perfect. They just wanted it to sound alive.”

Beginning with the sparsest sets of lyrics, melodies and bass lines, BBC slowly built up the music on So Long by adding samples and loops early enough in the process that the international character of the music was woven into the songs as they took shape. Instead of either element—pop form or sample—predominating, as on so much so-called “global” music, the resulting record sounds organically built, very much the product of careful construction.

Assembled and recorded over a year and a half, in fact, So Long is the Bombay Bicycle Club album that took the longest to produce. Part of that length is due to the LP’s structural intricacy, but much of that deliberate approach grew from the fact that this is the first BBC album to be produced by the band members themselves, with Steadman at the boards for much of the process.

“We definitely took our time with it,” he says. “You couldn’t force it. And we knew, whatever the result was, there was going to be no one to blame but us. It’s weird, but working with other producers, I’ve always had a tendency to hang back. I can almost get complacent in that situation; I think, ‘Well, this guy’s a great producer, and he knows what he’s doing. I can just sort of turn it over to him.’ We were 100 percent responsible for this album.”

BBC’s most complicated record, in other words, is also the first record to be created and presented solely by the band proper. Guitarist Jamie MacColl (grandson of English folk legend Ewan MacColl and American folk singer Peggy Seeger) observes that, in a strange way, this album is thus “probably the one that sounds most like Bombay Bicycle Club.”

So Long, See You Tomorrow establishes its m.o. early, with the slow fade-in of “Overdone” establishing the melodic pattern, then pulling in a wash of reeds, strings, percussion and commanding chords quickly behind it. Steadman’s processed vocals and harmonics, forward in the mix, add a psychedelic flair to the lightly Eastern resonance of the instrumentation. As the songs swell, recede and crescendo into each other, you get the sense that So Long was mixed as a song suite; and though the album occasionally slows to a stately pace (as on the icy piano-driven “Eyes Off You”), most of the rhythm is mid-tempo-to-upbeat, resulting in a record that moves seamlessly and joyfully from cut to cut.

What you won’t hear much of, interestingly, are the guitars BBC has relied on up to now to drive the music. For a band previously so steeped in guitars—and especially one with the live-show following BBC enjoys in England—that’s probably the riskiest move of all.

“That was a little unnerving,” says MacColl. “I had to really let go of my ego a bit for that one. Most of what I’ve done in the band has been contributing the guitar lines, but for this one, we ended up basing the music around much different instrumentation.”

“There was definitely a bit of panic when we first started putting the record together,” says Steadman. “It became pretty clear that (the music) was never going to sound like the record. So, eventually we had to decide that that was OK, that we didn’t have to be completely faithful to the record. I think when people come to see live shows, anyway, they want to hear something different. So much of what we’ve been doing, when we’ve been playing these songs live, is reworking some of them, trying to approach some of the sounds using guitar effects.”

It’s fitting, in a way, that the group should be taking up guitars to move the songs onto the road, as it’s been doing for several weeks now. The theme of the album is cyclical, after all, and the idea of return is shot through it. When Steadman’s conversation traces back to the cover art, in fact, he makes that point quite forthrightly: “They split, the man and the woman, at the top of the record, and then they meet up again. It’s like any relationship, or any vice you might have: There are moments when you think, ‘All right, that’s it, that’s the end of it, no more.’ And then you find yourself coming back to where you’ve been.”

Around the world and back is where Bombay Bicycle Club went to get the sound of So Long, See You Tomorrow. If the world—the wider world—takes notice of it, the band might find its own circles expanding. And that would be fine symmetry indeed.

—Eric Waggoner

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Lost In The Trees: Still Reborn

LostInTheTrees

Recovering from emotional catharsis, Ari Picker reinvents Lost In The Trees

Ari Picker felt exhausted and burned out by Lost In The Trees’ A Church That Fits Our Needs. The 2012 album memorialized Picker’s mother, artist Karen Shelton who committed suicide in 2008, and it tested his composition skills, since he wanted to stretch the orchestral elements that had been part of the band’s previous album, All Alone In An Empty House, and include much of what he learned while earning his Berklee degree in film scoring and composition. The project was deeply personal and deeply ambitious.

“I was just thinking about it so hard,” says Picker, “and trying to include all these different techniques that I had learned, but not making it sound forced; wanting it to have these jagged moments, but still for it to be beautiful. And then, you know, the whole narrative of the thing—it was exhausting. It’s a miracle that it got done.”

But it did get done. It made many critics’ 2012 top-10 lists (including the top spot for the Wall Street Journal), and it led the North Carolina band to appear at New York’s Lincoln Center for the American Songbook Series. But the tour that preceded that show was fraught with challenges: Rock clubs weren’t the ideal venues for the band’s delicate dynamics and string arrangements for cellos and violins. After all that, Picker questioned his desire to make another album.

But he has made another. Past Life (Anti-) jettisons many of Church’s identifying markers: It’s abstract and impressionistic rather than overtly personal, and it’s minimalist rather than maximalist. It relies more on electric guitars and synthesizers than on string sections, and when the strings are attached, they come more often in isolated lines than in elaborate counterpoint and harmonies. And, aside from vocalist and keyboard player Emma Nadeau and bassist Mark Daumen, it’s a new band, with the three string players replaced by drummer Kyle Keegan and electric guitarist Joah Tunnell. It’s a step away from Church’s elaborate classical orchestrations.

“I had taken that sound as far as I could with the last record,” says Picker. “It had evolved and then peaked with the last record. I needed to do something a little more simple and spontaneous, and just something not quite as heavy as the last two records had been. The heaviness of the whole project kind of wiped me out. I kind of rebounded from that by shaking up the rules or what my process was. Instead of writing a whole bunch of counterpoint and orchestral arrangements, I decided to play a synthesizer and see what happens. That’s kind of where it came from.”

His new process began with creating little loops on a synthesizer and then working with fragments of lyrics and melodies to build a song. He calls the method liberating. “Those restrictions and those spaces allowed me to surprise myself a lot,” he says. “The process let me reach out and grab ideas, rather than chasing some feeling that I had inside me.”

The album ranges from choral opener “Excos” and the earthy electric guitar riffs of the title track to the shifting orchestration of the beautiful “Glass Harp” and the piano loops of “Wake” and the ghostly “Lady In White.”

“Because there is less of it, then the things that are there can be bigger,” says Picker. “This music is more informed by going on tour and seeing other bands and listening to a little bit more current music, where the other albums are more isolated as far as their influences; or I was in a bubble, so to speak, either in music school or listening to a lot of ancient music, classical music or something like that. I listen to all sorts of different kinds of music, and I never meant Lost In The Trees to be one thing or the other; it just so happens that the last few records have had a sound, and now we’re shifting to another. I admire a lot of artists who kind of reinvent themselves as they go on. It’s boring to do the same thing over and over.”

To that end, the new band road-tested the songs before recording them, and Picker brought in an outside producer for the first time for a Lost In The Trees album. Nicolas Vernhes, who has worked with Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective and Deerhunter, helped strip away elements (“Glass Harp,” one of the album’s most orchestrated songs, was even more so in earlier incarnations). Picker also wanted to step away from the center of the lyrics. Past Life avoids an overarching narrative, especially one fraught with autobiographical elements, although themes and motifs unify the album.

“It’s definitely a romantic record—I wanted it to have some love in it,” he says. “It seems to me—and I discovered this as I was writing it—that the narrative became about two different souls or entities or things that were shaping each other through different lives in this adventurous, romantic way. It didn’t become much more concrete than that.”

Picker hasn’t abandoned the interest in orchestral arrangements that he’s had since falling in love with Pet Sounds and Smile as a youth. But for now he wants to keep that separate from Lost In The Trees. He’s writing a symphony and a chamber piece for a concert-hall performance.

“It’s much different than showing up for band practice,” he says. “You’re thinking about harmony and voice leading and orchestration and the timbre and voices of different instruments. It’s like putting something under the microscope.”

Still, fans of A Church That Fits Our Needs need not be wary of Past Life, unless they were just in it for the strings. The album still contains the subtle emotions and thoughtful atmosphere of past Lost In The Trees LPs, with Picker’s delicate tenor voice at the emotional center. But it allows for more space, clarity and immediacy. The changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, as Picker, somewhat reluctantly, admits.

“It is funny,” he says. “You think you’re doing something really drastic and different, and you step back and it’s still me, I guess. It’s not as much of a change as I thought it was going to be.”

—Steve Klinge

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Hard Working Americans: Proletariat Rock

HWA

Hard Working Americans bust out the jams for the blue-collar set

Say this about Todd Snider: You may have to wait around for the guy, but once you have him cornered, he rarely disappoints. “It’s not like I’m a politician or something,” says Snider, punching in late to a conference call from his Nashville home after 15 minutes of struggling with the access code. “I can just be a minor pinprick in the ass of some jerks. I’m kind of a pothead—I never wrote the whole thing down.”

It’s a feasible summation of Snider’s shoes-optional, gonzo troubadour career to date, whether he’s working up a contrarian lather with his own tunes, doing a job on early champion Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” (from his 1994 debut, Songs For The Daily Planet) or probing the darkly emotive sweet spot in Gillian Welch’s “Wrecking Ball” on Hard Working Americans (Melvin/Thirty Tigers).

Snider is the de facto leader of Hard Working Americans, a band that evolved out of his friendship with Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools. “Man, I hate labels,” says Schools, debunking the jam-band stigma that’s been dogging Panic for more than 25 years. “When you label something, it limits its ability to evolve.”

Quickly shifting the focus back to Hard Working Americans, Schools admits that his integral role in the collective rarely felt like work at all. “I was the guy that had to keep the kittens herded, as it were,” says Schools, who helped Snider recruit guitarist Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood), keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi) and drummer Duane Trucks (of the famed Trucks lineage) to fill out the band. “It was definitely the most fun I’ve had producing a record, for sure.”

HWA began as a collection of Snider’s favorite songs, many from past tourmates like country traditionalist Kieran Kane (“The Mountain Song”) and the Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman (“Welfare Music”). Two of the album’s most memorable tracks (“Another Train” and “I Don’t Have A Gun”) are credited to Will Kimbrough, who played in Snider’s ’90s backup band, the Nervous Wrecks. “Every one of my friends seems to have a song that hits me really hard,” says Snider. “So, it was really tunes that I’d memorized the words to on the first listen.”

And while an adamant blue-collar attitude holds it all together, the level of interpretation varies. There are few-frills renderings of Randy Newman’s “Mr. President Have Pity On The Working Man” and Texas singer/songwriter Hayes Carll’s “Stomp And Holler,” the latter a tune that can really only be delivered one way—saucy and straight-up. Others take serious liberties with the arrangements while still embracing the downtrodden spirit of the originals. HWA’s bluesy, disquieting take on Kevn Kinney’s “Straight To Hell” is a prime example. “He was there when we mixed it,” says Snider. “He loved it. He teared up, I think.”

Apparently, Kinney wasn’t the only one blubbering. “We met in the hall weeping,” says Schools of a particularly moving lead vocal from Snider on “Wrecking Ball.” “Man, it really hit home when he did that take.”

“I didn’t even know that,” says Snider, slightly aghast over this revelation. “Shit, now I want to see the video.”

—Hobart Rowland

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Laura Cantrell: Forward Progress

LauraCantrell

Alt-country standout Laura Cantrell refuses to tremble at taking ownership of her career

Laura Cantrell was born and raised in Nashville, and even though she was surrounded by country music, she never thought about being a singer or songwriter when she was young.

“My dad was from West Tennessee,” she says, “and every Saturday night his family would gather around the radio to listen to The Grand Ole Opry. (The show has been on WSM for 88 years, and features A-list performers from the world of country, bluegrass, folk and gospel music.) It was The Sopranos of his time. Everybody talked about it the next day. He exposed me to George Jones, the Louvin Brothers, and country from the ’30s and ’40s. My mom liked Joan Baez, James Taylor and Johnny Cash, more modern country. I used to see bluegrass bands playing on the street on the way to concerts by the Pretenders and R.E.M. I had Sunday school piano lessons for eight years, but not conservatory-style. I’d play once a year at the church basement recital.”

Cantrell relocated to New York to attend Columbia University before the performing bug bit her. “I was a college-dorm strummer and doing acoustic gigs, mostly covers, before I started writing. I just loved playing. Then I saw Emmylou (Harris). She was a strong singer, not a songwriter, with an incredible band. She was the most popular female in the country for a while and made a big impression. I didn’t think I was an innately great musician, but I saw how she took songs and made them her own. She led me to Lucinda Williams, Guy Clark and other heavyweight writers. I realized I could find things I can sing that would hang together with my originals to make good records. She lit a fire under me and gave me the incentive to write better songs.”

After graduation, Cantrell worked full-time at a bank, hosted a country radio show on WFMU in Jersey City, put together a band, kept writing songs and started making records. She used traditional country songs as a template for compositions of her own that stretched the boundaries of the music and won her a legion of loyal fans. BBC DJ John Peel called Not The Tremblin’ Kind, her 2000 debut, “my favorite record of the last 10 years, possibly my life.” Cantrell made two more albums in the 2000s, balancing well-chosen covers with her original material, but on her new album, No Way There From Here, she presents 11 originals with only one cover.

“While I was promoting Humming By The Flowered Vine in 2005, I got pregnant with my daughter,” she says. “I knew it was going to take time before I could make another album. I did record Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs Of The Queen Of Country Music in the interim, but that was just for fun and almost effortless. I cut old songs I used to sing in my first bar gigs, when I was learning how to play in a band. I made it quickly in Nashville, with a bunch of session players. That got me thinking about the material I’d stockpiled over the past few years while I was raising my daughter. What if I went to Nashville and brought in some pros and let them help flesh out the skeletons of the songs I had?”

No Way There From Here was co-produced with Mark Nevers, who helmed Kitty Wells Dresses. “I got on the phone and talked with Mark about how we’d approach each tune,” says Cantrell. “The songs were a lot more ambitious than the things I’d written before, and I told him I was open to a lot of exploration. His studio is a comfortable, creative place to work. It’s in an old house with wood floors and plaster walls, and has a lovely, live sound, and he knows a lot of great musicians. We dabbled with different keyboard sounds and brought in some woodwinds and brass. Since he’s an engineer, he has a knack for turning the instrumental parts into real voices. It’s his specialty: finding ways to string disparate parts into satisfying arrangements.”

Cantrell had full-band demos she’d made; with Nevers’ help, she used them as a roadmap for creating music that wandered through the world of pop and rock, while staying rooted in country. “The songs may not sound explicitly country to people who don’t listen to country music, but those elements are there,” she says. “We just let ourselves make it up as we went along. If we thought it would be cool to have a horn part, Mark picked up the phone, and half an hour later, we had a great horn player in the studio. It’s one of the best things about recording in Nashville. You can be spontaneous, and it allowed me to be more adventurous than I’d ever been before.”

No Way There is out via Cantrell’s Thrift Shop imprint. “I have a ‘part-time’ job to help pay for my music career that actually takes up 50 hours a week,” she says. “I’m also raising my daughter and touring and promoting myself. I’m really stretched, but you can’t achieve anything if you don’t take risks. I’m optimistic and realistic. I’m not at the age where I can be the next Adele, but I think this is the best album I’ve ever made, and it’s exciting to be in control of the process.

—j. poet

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Toxic Holocaust: Chemistry Conversions

ToxicHolocaust

Toxic Holocaust leader Joel Grind straddles the divide between thrash, punk and heavy metal

“Lots of Samhain, Misfits, lots of Black Flag’s Damaged, Venom, Welcome To Hell. All those kind of records—when I had my first car, those were in the tape deck.”

Toxic Holocaust frontman Joel Grind is proving our theory that metal kids might just be the best kids. Or at least the friendliest. Despite a downright gnarly public persona—the cover of the new Chemistry Of Consciousness (Relapse) has a rather unsettling cobra-and-disembodied-eyeball motif, and the band’s videos are fire and leather—Grind is one of the most affable artists we’ve interviewed in ages. There’s an energy to his voice that belies his career as a thrash-metal malcontent, as the purveyor of decidedly non-bubbly records like An Overdose Of Death… and Evil Never Dies. After ingesting five albums of Toxic Holocaust, talking to Grind is like getting lifted off the floor of the pit by the kid who knocked you on your ass in the first place.

“I don’t have any brothers or sisters,” says Grind, “but I had a friend with an older brother, and we used to all skateboard and stuff. And he made me a few mixtapes, and one of the first he made me was like D.R.I.’s 4 Of A Kind and Nuclear Assault, I think. From then on, I was like, ‘All right, this is really cool.’ I was bit by the bug after that and then it became my life, you know?”

Grind’s laughter underlines the nuttiness of a life laid out on 120-minute Maxell tapes, but his back story isn’t uncommon—in fact, for a generation of metalheads, it was pretty much standard. Grind’s taste for the classic sounds of crossover is impeccable, an affection that wasn’t always fashionable and, frankly, never needed to be. The bludgeoning drums bonded by blood to fist-in-the-air choruses are the sorts of things that never go out of style. Or into style, for that matter. This is outsider music that resists trends—even within the underground—blasting forth like spiky-haired hellspawn. But the sophistication in Toxic Holocaust’s songwriting, the razor-sharp social commentary and ultimate listenability doesn’t come from a calcified moment in musical history—the astuteness of songcraft comes from an ever-evolving ear.

“When we finally had wheels, we would go and record-shop on our own,” says Grind. “We would go to Philly—I grew up in the Maryland area—and buy records on South Street and stuff. That’s when I discovered punk. I did some research and just picked out some records that looked cool to me, not knowing if they were punk or metal, but they just looked cool. That’s kind of my motto ever since: I never really draw a dividing line between those two. I draw influence from both. I’m just a music fan in general. I’m always digging for all kinds of music even outside of metal and punk. I’m always listening to all kinds of stuff. Especially on tour, when you’re touring with three other metal bands or punk bands, the last thing you want to do when you get in the van after a show is listen to another heavy record.”

And while Grind’s dalliances with other genres remain the provenance of his bedroom and hard drives (“I’ve done a lot of records that are sort of soundtrack-y, and I’ve done a lot that are almost psychedelic”), their influence can be felt. Chemistry Of Consciousness is not thrash-by-numbers—the dynamics in tracks like “Acid Fuzz” and “Rat Eater” are deeper than your average two-dimensional nostalgia peddler. Grind’s attention to melody amidst the volleys exploding from his armada of intensity is what makes the album so worthy of repeat spins. From the out-of-phase string-slides that beckon the verse of “Salvation Is Waiting” to the Lemmy-with-a-fistful-of-Black-Bettys assault of “International Conspiracy,” there’s a lot to keep going back for. Not unlike, say the classics in Grind’s first car.

“On the last one, I was trying to push the boundaries with the metal side of things, and this time I’m trying to push the boundaries on the punk side of things,” says Grind. “With Toxic, I’ve always walked the line in between both of those worlds. So, this time I almost wanted to go back to the (2008) Overdose Of Death era without remaking that record, if that makes sense. There was some backlash over the last record (TH’s fourth, Conjure And Command) for the dumbest reasons. For the way it looks, because it’s black and white and has a different logo—no one was talking about the music much, and I was really proud of that record and still am.”

With Chemistry Of Consciousness, Grind expands the TH sound, explodes it with color and textures that seem more vibrant than the none-more-blackness of Conjure. The speed and righteous indignation of artists like Discharge and G.B.H. combine with the massive mixdown and mastering by heavy-music maven and Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, creating a juggernaut of an album, a record that fires on all cylinders all the time. “Awaken The Serpent,” “Mkultra” and “Out Of The Fire” smack the listener upside the head like the wayward boot of an especially surly crowd surfer.

“I just sort of wanted to do something where the songs were really short (and) really simple,” says Grind, “but pretty catchy and right to the point.”

The thrill is not in watching the melee from the sidelines, but getting right up in the fray, allowing Chemistry to spin-kick you right in the brain, letting it drop-kick you in the chest. Grind writes songs that leave no room for wallowing in misery, no room for self-indulgence, no room for anything but pushing back at society even if that society is an underground music scene. And especially if that music scene is the type to get its collective panties in a wad over something as silly as whether a band has a new logo or opts something other that the four-color cover.

More than anything, Grind is pushing back against himself, pushing the limits of his band beyond the arbitrary lines drawn by music critics, the chattering classes and the comment-section peanut galleries. However those folks felt about Conjure And Command, they aren’t going to be able to rehash whatever horseshit they trotted out last—Chemistry Of Consciousness connects with all of the moments in the TH back catalog that have made the band into the cult figure it is today without ever feeling rehashed, reworked or warmed over. Chemistry is not just a tribute to the thrash canon, but a record that’s worthy of inclusion.

“I never want to make the exact same record over and over again,” says Grind. “I’ve been telling people that this doesn’t mean I don’t want to be throwing a ton of curveballs at people either, but I don’t want to make the exact same record.”

—Sean L. Maloney

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Dead Meadow: Womb Raiders

DeadMeadow

Dead Meadow revels in the technical ecstasy behind its latest psych/rock odyssey

On new album Warble Womb (Xemu), Dead Meadow continues going its own way with a thick, dense sound that includes traces of folk, metal, ’60s rock, swampy blues and murky psychedelia. Hints of Howlin’ Wolf and Neil Young also go drifting through the mix from time to time.

“We get lumped into a bunch of different genres that don’t necessarily describe what we do,” says guitarist Jason Simon. “When we first came out of D.C. in ’99, we got described as the lighter side of stoner rock. Nowadays, they say we’re the heavier side of psychedelia, but we’ve taken a long, hard road to carve out our own niche. Our fans understand the band for what it is: not stoner, or heavy metal, or psychedelic—just Dead Meadow.”

The long hours the band puts into its music is evident on every track of Warble Womb, an album that took three years to put together. The songs were shaped in Dead Meadow’s home studio and involved experiments with new sounds and recording techniques. The group also recently welcomed back original drummer Mark Laughlin, who added his jazzy feel to the proceedings.

“Mark was a lawyer in New York, but he said he’d had enough of that for the time being,” says Simon. “He moved out to L.A. and rejoined the band a few years ago. He has a great swing to the way he plays, even on the heaviest songs.”

Dead Meadow always starts the recording process by cutting the songs live. “Before you do any layering, it has to feel like a band playing a song together,” says Simon. “After that, we take our time overdubbing different sounds. We want to get a distinct vibe on every track. Since we weren’t in a hurry to get the record out, we had time to go back and spend a few years messing with things, for better or worse—usually for better. Sometimes (a song) doesn’t need anything else; sometimes there’s all kind of things you can do. Every time we put an album out, it opens more doors, so I’m able to go back and look at the old music and see how we’ve progressed. This time, I was aiming for a new vocal sound and more texture. My main guitar is still the Telecaster I’ve been playing since I was 14, but lately I’ve been digging into the Harmony Rocket guitar I just got and a new Tele with a Bigsby (vibrato tailpiece). It’s like a super whammy bar.”

The album has a huge guitar sound, with lots of shadowy textures. Simon created them all, even the most startling ones, by running his guitars through his two favorite amps at top volume. “I’m definitely in favor of turning up loud and saturating the tubes and overrunning the amps,” he says. “The sound is way cooler than using a pedal. I’ve always used a Fender (amp), because it has such clear highs and lows, as well as an Orange (amp) that makes the sound a lot bigger with its dark mid-range. The sitar sound on ‘I’m Cured’ is a solo I recorded on a four-track tape machine. I just flipped the tape over and played it backwards and it fit perfectly. The ‘piano’ on ‘Mr. Chesty’ is just my guitar with a lot of effects on it. I’m a big fan of dub reggae. Some of the studio tricks they use—layers of delay and reverb—find their way into Dead Meadow songs. We’re not going to play a reggae song, but I like their (production) approach. I want to see how far out I can get the songs to sound.

“There is a bit of Farfisa on some of the tracks, too, but it’s hard to hear, almost subliminal,” he says. “I’m going for a sound that your brain can’t really identify. It keeps your mind active and makes you wonder what the hell is going on. I love music with mysterious elements.”

The band’s secretive presentation also applies to Simon’s vocals. “I’m not a big fan of lead vocals,” he says. “I spend time with every aspect of a song and like the words to be an element of the song, not sitting up front. Sometimes they’re way back in the mix, sometimes right in the middle. I try to bring out something unique in every arrangement. The goal is to make records that take you on a journey throughout the whole album. The older bands we listened to growing up, Led Zep and Sabbath, made albums that way.”

Does the cryptic title of the album have any deeper significance? “We just liked the way Warble Womb rolls off the tongue,” says Simon. “We were hanging out and laughing and thinking about album titles, and almost went with Wiggle Room until we came up with this idea. I think it aptly describes the record and what we try to do in general. We want to create an environment that’s dark and inviting, a warm space full of cool vibrations and whatnot. We wanted a name that would catch your attention and have a bit of a weird feel to it.”

Like the last few albums, Warble Womb was produced by bassist Steve Kille, with additional input from Simon and Laughlin. “Everything we do is cooperative, but Steve is the most knowledgeable in terms of recording,” says Simon. “He knows how to set up the mics to get a good drum track. He records other bands as well, so he has a lot of skills in that area. I don’t have his patience. I like to record as fast as I can.”

When Dead Meadow goes on tour to support the new album, the band won’t be attempting to duplicate its sound. “When we play live, we don’t think about the recorded versions,” says Simon. “They’re two separate things. We leave room for experimenting and changing things up. We want to keep the music interesting for ourselves and, hopefully, the audience, too.”

—j. poet

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Midlake: Trials And Reconfigurations

Midlake

Down one singer/songwriter, the revamped version of Midlake forges ahead beautifully. By Steve Klinge

Spoiler alert! The new Midlake record is not from the band that you grew to love with The Trials Of Van Occupanther. With each successive album, the members of Midlake transformed, foregrounding a different favorite section of their record collections. Their first LP, 2004’s Bamnan And Slivercork, was built on the experimentalism of Grandaddy and the Elephant 6 bands. 2006’s much-loved The Trials Of Van Occupanther turned to soft rock, with traces of Fleetwood Mac (of the Bob Welch era) and Neil Young (of the Harvest era). 2010’s The Courage Of Others shifted yet again, this time looking to the British folk of artists such as Pentangle and Fairport Convention for inspiration. All the while, the Denton, Texas, band favored dense, dark, detailed arrangements: emotional but restrained, brooding but inviting.

Now comes Antiphon (ATO), which announces itself with an opening title track that rocks harder and more insistently than anything in the group’s prior catalog. Midlake again sounds like a new band.

And, this time it is: It’s Midlake’s first since the departure of principal singer/songwriter Tim Smith, its first with guitarist Eric Pulido stepping into those lead roles, its first with former touring members Jesse Chandler (keyboards, flute) and Joey McClellan (guitars) officially joining drummer Mackenzie Smith, multi-instrumentalist Paul Alexander and guitarist Eric Nichelson.

As for an antiphon, it’s a call-and-response hymn in which two groups alternate, and Antiphon is Midlake 2.0, the response to Smith’s departure.

After touring for The Courage Of Others and Queen Of Denmark (the band’s acclaimed collaboration with the Czars’ John Grant that also came out in 2010), Midlake returned to the studio. The results, the group felt, weren’t up to par. Courage had taken nearly two years to record, so Midlake was used to committing to a slow process, but this time, the frustrations and tensions increased. The band tried returning to the studio in Buffalo, Texas, where it had worked on Courage but, according to Pulido, “It didn’t work this time; it didn’t go as well, and we didn’t achieve what we had in the past.” Then Midlake went to L.A., to labelmate Jonathan Wilson’s studio, but the album still refused to come together.

“We still didn’t get that ‘magic’ that we wanted,” says Pulido. “It was through no fault of the studio; it was just that the songs had been beaten up a lot, and they’d become a little bit watered-down. The life had been lost out of some, and you try to resuscitate it, or you write some new songs. It was just this merry-go-round, like, ‘Here we go again.’ Courage Of Others had a little bit of that as well, but we barely got out of the water and had a record. This one seemed like we took a step forward and two steps back. Right when you see a light it was, ‘Nope, that’s not a light.’ Or, ‘It’s not sunlight, it’s a headlight or a train.’”

Although Midlake repeatedly generated new material, the band kept ending up dissatisfied. The perfectionist tendencies that served the group well in the past worked against it.

“It just kept getting longer and longer with each album, in some ways too microscopic,” says Pulido. “I felt that the record we were making had a lot of potential, but we were squandering that potential by the month. We had a whole album and a half of material, but not enough of that was satisfying to Tim or to all of us. There were probably different levels of acceptance of different songs or material or whatnot. At that time, there was a lot of frustration from everybody. But if you would have asked me, ‘Is Tim going to leave?’ I would have said, ‘No, he’s not going to do that, he’s not going to bail. He’s going to stick through, and we’ll at least make this record.’”

But then, in November 2012, Smith quit the band. For Pulido, in some ways it was a shock; in other ways, in retrospect, it wasn’t.

“From the beginning, we were just going to forge ahead,” he stresses. “But at that point, for him, that was lost, there was no more. He didn’t have the desire or the strength anymore. Did I ever see this coming? Yeah, of course. He’s always been a little bit withdrawn or malcontent about where things are at. But he’d usually channel that—and we all did—into, ‘OK, we’re going to work twice as hard and twice as many hours.’”

Pulido’s role in the band had changed over the years, too. Since Smith wasn’t a fan of touring, Pulido had been “doing all the talking” from the stage. He’d also been singing more, sometimes doubling Smith’s lead vocals. The changes were gradual and not deliberate, but they now seem like signs to Pulido. Still, Smith’s sudden resignation was unexpected, and the band was forced to, literally, regroup.

“When he left—I can only speak for myself—it wasn’t what I wanted; it wasn’t the ideal situation,” says Pulido. “And there was a bit of a transition for a second there: What are we going to do? Who’s going to sing? Are we still Midlake? Are we able to use the material we’ve been working on? Do we want to? All these questions were rolling for a 24- or 48-hour period where we felt like we need to figure this out. But it was never a question of would we not keep going. After he left, we got together and went to the studio and got a game plan.”

The split was an amicable divorce, and initially the band negotiated with Smith about expectations and possibilities for the future. Smith wasn’t averse to the band keeping the name (“We felt like at the heart of it, we were and are still that band,” says Pulido), and he agreed to let them use some of the material they had worked on together, but he wanted to protect or separate some of it, too. Ultimately, the remaining members chose to start from scratch, although “Vale,” an instrumental track from the earlier sessions that Smith was not on, became part of Antiphon. Its work backing John Grant and Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle served as unwitting preparation for realigning the band.

“In some ways, we always felt like this workingman’s band because we just love to play,” says Pulido. “Obviously our main thing was and always is Midlake, but it was cool to be able to play in different styles for different artists. Unbeknownst to us at the time, it was kind of a blessing in disguise that we had done that so much.”

Soon after Smith’s departure, the new Midlake got back to work writing and recording, and the band surprised itself at how quickly (at least in Midlake’s terms) everything gelled. Ultimately, the group finished Antiphon in six months. Collectively, Midlake felt confident in the new material and directions, and the process was more truly collaborative than in the past. While the group was working on the record, it was reassured by the response from its longtime label, the London-based Bella Union.

“You lose a little bit of objectivity when you’re trying write and record a record in such a short period of time—six months for us is like overnight, considering we spent two years on a record that never saw the light of day,” says Pulido. “It was sort of fast and furious, but it was great because I think we got closer. It was a great communal effort that had been lost in some ways in the past. I think Tim would agree with that. When Tim left and we started this next one, I felt very passionate about everybody stepping up to the plate. We needed everybody’s heart and soul in this. I didn’t want it to be my record; I wanted it to be our record. Even though I know a large part of the onus was on me for singing and writing the material, everybody’s voice and personality and style is in this record. We’d been playing music together for a long time, and just because it isn’t exactly the same doesn’t mean it isn’t real and honest and something we feel passionate and good about—and ultimately that is still Midlake.”

And since Midlake had always changed gears from album to album, the fact that Antiphon differs from the others is, paradoxically, within the Midlake tradition. Some of that newness is a carry-over from the record it was making with Smith—the swirling, powerful “Vale” suggests that—but Pulido says the band took things like the psychedelic atmosphere, the broader dynamic shifts and the upbeat melodies further. The songs still have carefully orchestrated arrangements, and they ebb and flow, shifting from electric-guitar leads to quieter, flute-driven passages, as in the past. But they are often grander and given to moments of abstraction and dissonances that comes from the band’s love of early Pink Floyd and Genesis (coincidentally, two bands that also regrouped after shifts in leadership).

Pulido’s vocals at times recall Smith’s: They can be thickened with reverb, and he’s fond of long, sustained lines and occasional archaic or biblical phrasing that lend songs a timeless quality. “Onward forth unto a land unknown/Swords were drawn upon their own,” he sings on “Provider.”

“Obviously, Tim had an influence on me, and hopefully we did on him,” says Pulido. “He used a lot of imagery that was very classic, so it didn’t really have a time period.”

Although the war imagery on “Antiphon” and the divorce references on “Aurora Gone” could have double meanings, “Provider” is the only song Pulido wrote overtly in response to the band’s experiences.

“It’s basically, in a loving way, how I describe Tim: as the provider,” says Pulido. “He was The Guy. I was saying, ‘Carry on, far from the golden age.’ It was like this romantic thing that we wanted, and in some ways we had. But at the same time, I love you and respect you and will even defend you. ‘Follow me down a foxhole in the ground.’ Even though I don’t agree, I’ll still defend you, still support you, I love what you’re doing, I’ll always buy your records, and I wish you the best, basically.”

Smith, who has started a project called Harp, feels similarly. “They’re all great guys, and it was sad to lose the closeness we had, but musically we didn’t see things the same way,” he says. “I think my leaving has helped both them and myself. It probably should have been done years ago.”

After exiting the band, Smith moved to Kerrville, Texas, and he’s been steadily working on a new album. For now, it’s a solo work.

“It’s a very slow process,” he says. “My musical standards far exceed my abilities, but the hope is eventually I’ll have enough songs that I’m proud of to release something. I’m not sure when that will be or if it’s meant to be. Some of the material I’m working on I feel is quite strong, and I’m positive that if I can finish, it’ll be a very good album. The sound will, of course, be a continuation of the ‘old’ Midlake sound because that’s inherent with me. The transition into this was fairly smooth because I’m essentially doing what I was doing with Midlake, though trying out ideas alone takes much longer than with an entire band.”

Of course, Antiphon is also a continuation of the old Midlake sound, although fans hoping simply for The Trials Of Van Occupanther, Part II may need to adjust their expectations. That is part of the burden of changing, growing and developing after having created an album that meant so much to some people. Pulido knows that that record became a deep part of some listener’s lives.

“That moves us to no end, and any record that we’ve done that captures that for somebody, we’re grateful for,” he says. “The reality is, that album has afforded us ears to even hear what we’re doing now. If they like ‘Young Bride’ or ‘Roscoe’ or ‘Head Home,’ and they hear that we’re doing a new record, well, then you might get a chance for them to hear the new stuff. They might like it, they might not, but I could never knock the fact that a record that we made together has allowed us to shape a career that we have been able to grow and to expand on.”

Through the growth and expansion—and subtraction—Midlake has retained a sense of serious purpose and thoughtful exploration. Given the personnel changes, Antiphon is its most dramatic shift. But it’s not a total break with the past.

“Hopefully there’s likenesses in any of our past discography,” says Pulido. “It’s the same people, so there’s a common thread there. We just wanted—like we always do—to be honest and be inspired, and create the voice of Midlake.”

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Red Fang: Have A Bite

RedFang

Red Fang’s latest stoner opus, Whales And Leeches, neither sinks nor sucks

“We’re a pretty dark band—I don’t see this record getting a lot of radio play.”

There’s a warmth in the voice of Bryan Giles, guitarist for Portland, Ore., band Red Fang, that belies his group’s darkness. The band is on the precipice of releasing its third album, Whales And Leeches (Relapse), after a summer raging across the festivals and rock clubs of Europe. Through a series of hilarious viral videos and years of intensely cathartic, energetic shows, the group has earned a reputation as one of heavy music’s premier party bands—whether it wants that title or not.

“I think our videos make us seem like party guys—and I guess this is subjective, but I think we’re on a pretty dark bend,” says Giles. “It’s not depressing, but we mine some pretty dark feelings. If people react by partying, that’s great. [Laughs] I want people to react somehow.”

And react they have. It may be due to the fact that, regardless of Giles’ claims, the band is equal parts fun and dark. While inherently heavy and sonically adventurous, at the heart of every Red Fang album, there are massive hooks and fist-in-the-air choruses that are among the most accessible—and unshakable—in the underground. In a scene fractured into infinite subgenres, each testing the realms of listenability in their own way, Red Fang stakes its territory on universality. It doesn’t matter how “kvlt” you are; if you’ve ever loved heavy music, you’ll get it.

“I don’t describe us as heavy metal,” says Giles. “I try not to describe us at all—we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band … in high school that was the clique, and if you didn’t know all about heavy metal, you weren’t invited, you know what I mean? Just freaking out over something that was so angry—I think that’s a personality type that reacts that way, and they’re our people, these folks going out, throwing beer everywhere. I can relate.”

The darkness and anger of Whales And Leeches is very human, very adult, very real, and it stands in stark contrast to the cartoonish, petulant temper-tantrums of the band’s more extreme peers. Coupled with the sophisticated grooves and domineering riffs on tracks like “Voices Of The Dead,” “Dawn Rising” and “Blood Like Cream,” these grim vibes make for that most rare of beasts: the album that is as mature as it is invigorating, as deep as it is visceral.

“We were all in these real complicated bands for years and years,” says Giles, “and it was fun to play, but I don’t think anybody liked it. [Laughs] And so that’s always been our goal: Write songs that are entertaining as a musician, but write songs that are listenable, that hopefully are songs you want to listen to more than once. I don’t dig through my record collection for things that I can’t remember anymore, you know what I mean? I go back and listen to the stuff that really stuck in my head. Albums like Suicidal Tendencies, their first record. It’s crazy—I won’t listen to that record for years, and I’ll put it on and know every freaking lyric. And it surprises me; I’m like, ‘Where the hell did I store this information?’ I thought I was busy killing brain cells, and yet that’s still floating around in there. That’s the sign of a good record, and that’s the kind of record we want to make.”

But being Red Fang isn’t just about crushing beers and recalling classic hardcore records. As the band’s reputation has grown, so have expectations. Unlike previous efforts, Red Fang now has a large international following and a record label footing the bill, with the Decemberists’ Chris Funk sitting in the producer’s chair and Grammy winner Vance Powell behind the mixing board. The band managed to reunite the team that crafted Red Fang’s breakthrough, but it only had three months in between tours to write and record Whales And Leeches—a challenge after the leisurely pacing of earlier records.

“None of us have ever written a record under pressure before,” says Giles. “Even (sophomore album) Murder The Mountains, we took our time. We had a one-record deal with Sargent House (for the self-titled debut), so there was no one breathing down our necks to put something out. And we recorded that one on our own dime, so there were no time constraints. This time, definitely, everyone was kind of freaking out, myself included. But I tried not to voice my concerns, because what’s the good in that? It’ll just make everyone else more freaked out.”

Red Fang’s writing technique, however, provides a degree of consistency—a degree of confidence—that doesn’t always happen when a band starts from scratch with each new record, allowing for a natural progression and evolution. The group is very self-referential, mining rehearsal tapes for moments that may have not worked in the past—“some of those riffs, like ‘Hank Is Dead’ were completed at least four years before it was recorded,” Giles notes—but make sense now. It creates a sense of continuity that underscores the band’s commitment to quality.

“Some of the songs off that new record, I thought, ‘Well, this is not going to make the record,’ and, ‘I like it, but it’s just too weird,’” says Giles. “Like ‘Voices Of The Dead’—that riff is pretty bizarre. It’s not crazy or anything, it just gets weird; so the structure of the song is a little, uh, different. But that didn’t surprise me, you know—we’re very collaborative, and if someone gets stumped, someone else picks it up and runs. I think it’s important for us to maintain the vibe.”

And in that, Whales And Leeches is a monumental success—a clear line from Red Fang’s earliest recordings to its latest, but it also displays a band that has grown and progressed. Fans who signed on with 2008’s “Prehistoric Dog” are going to find themselves right at home with tracks like the soaring “Crows In Swine,” and new fans drawn in by the hypnotic grooves of “Every Little Twist” and the unmitigated onslaught of “1516” are lucky enough to have two albums to satisfy their inevitable need for another Fang fix. Whether the band revisits its viral successes and conquers the internet a third time remains to be seen, but that’s a secondary concern for artists and label alike.

“It was scary, but as far as hits go, it’s Relapse Records—they go for some of the craziest shit in the world,” says Giles. “I don’t think they would have been bummed if we put out something very esoteric, but that’s not where our heads are.”

—Sean L. Maloney

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Light Heat: Brighter Days Ahead

LightHeat

Star-crossed Quentin Stoltzfus launches Light Heat with a little help from the Walkmen

In 2006, Quentin Stoltzfus was forced to retire Mazarin, the dreamy, strummy Philadelphia-based project he debuted in 1999, due to threats from a litigious Long Island classic-rock band of the same name.

“That destroyed my career, absolutely,” says Stoltzfus. “I lost my name, and I lost my record deal as a result. It basically imploded all the forward momentum that I had going at that point.”

If not for that, the new Light Heat album would be a Mazarin album, and could have come out years ago. After the end of Mazarin, Stoltzfus took some time to recoup and reset (and carefully choose a new band name). He worked for a moving company; he built his own studio and helped others, such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth, build theirs; he produced and engineered records for several Philly bands. But he was always writing songs and making demos. “I am perpetually making a record,” he says.

The catalyst for Light Heat’s debut came from Stoltzfus’ friends and former tourmates the Walkmen. The Walkmen had covered Mazarin’s “Another One Goes By” on 2006’s A Hundred Miles Off, and three of the guys—Paul Maroon, Pete Bauer and Matt Barrick—lived in Philly.

“Paul had been prodding for me years to get off my ass and get in a studio and start working out stuff with them,” says Stoltzfus. “I was into it, but I was like, ‘Well, I’m still making demos, blah blah blah, still doing this, still doing that,’ making excuses. Finally, he said, ‘I’m moving to New Orleans in a month, this window is closing, so let’s do this.’ That kind of put an expiration date on the possibilities.”

The Walkmen, including Walter Martin but minus singer Hamilton Leithauser, back Stoltzfus on the album, although Light Heat itself, like Mazarin, is essentially Stoltzfus and whomever he plays with. They recorded the basic tracks in a few summer days in 2010, and Stoltzfus and Bauer worked on them afterward. The album was finished and mastered by the end of 2011, but then it sat in limbo while Ribbon Music, the Domino Records imprint of Mazarin’s former manager, Morgan Lebus—whose roster also includes Laura Marling, Django Django and Thao & The Get Down Stay Down—readied its release.

“It’s taken a long time,” says Stoltzfus, understating the case. “I would have these moments of frustration, but after it happened, everything seemed very logical, and if I sat down and thought about it, it was something that made sense to me after awhile.”

Light Heat is a clear extension of what Stoltzfus did in Mazarin. It opens with “Dance The Cosmos Light,” a track whose pounding, repetitive chords would bring to mind the Velvet Underground even if “Light Heat” didn’t itself allude to VU’s second album. “Are We Ever Satisfied” and “LIES” build on dark drones, with swirls of electronics and vocals that drift in and out of the mix, whereas “Brain To Recorder” and “A Loyal Subject To The Status Quo” are compact, propulsive guitar rock songs that recall Mazarin favorites such as “Wheats” (and the work of Stoltzfus’ pal Kurt Heasley of the Lilys). “Elevation” and “And The Birds…” will please fans listening for the shimmering guitars and intricately woven keyboards of the Walkmen, too.

Stoltzfus says he has a lot of other music in the queue: songs that “don’t fit the Light Heat mold”; material for a “weird John Fahey-like folk record”; some “strange electronic experiments,” as well.

“I hope to have another Light Heat album out within the next couple years,” he says. “I’ve already been working on it in earnest, really trying to put it together. I’m always, in my mind, making a record, whether real or imaginary.”

—Steve Klinge

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Basia Bulat: Loud As Folk

BasiaBulat

Toronto folk singer Basia Bulat raises the ante, and the dynamics, on her third album

From London, where she’s been doing promotion for Tall Tall Shadow (Secret City), Basia Bulat sounds the kind of nervous that’s mostly the result of unexpected good fortune. “The response has been kind of overwhelming,” she says a handful of times, as if she’s not quite accustomed to it yet, as if it’s come as kind of a shock.

The reaction to the album, Bulat’s third full-length, has indeed been exceedingly positive, a happy circumstance for a performer who made her thus-far moderate fame on the folk singer/songwriter circuit and is now looking to switch things up. Bulat’s first two albums, adept enough affairs, traded mostly in the light arrangements and soft dynamics of contemporary folk music. If her talents extend beyond many of her peers (notably her staggering facility on a wide range of stringed instruments from the dulcimer to the charango), her aesthetic palette as presented on her first two albums was largely traditional.

Tall Tall Shadow, by contrast, opens with the stomping, gradual crescendo of the title track, an immediate announcement of increasing speed and volume that sustains for the rest of the record. It’s a sonic gamble for Bulat, who for the first time finds herself pushing her aesthetics into more energetic territory. Still, the song structures and modes are of a piece with her previous releases, making Tall Tall Shadow a furtherance rather than a divergence from her previous work.

“I do think (the new album is) a development, as opposed to coming straight out of left field,” she says. “The thing is, now, I wish I’d gone even louder. I was playing around with sounds I’d been a little apprehensive about before, but at a certain point I thought, ‘What am I afraid of?’”

Good question—particularly in the context of the folk-music scene, which can be notoriously unforgiving of volume and speed. For this album, Bulat found herself pushing her comfort zone lyrically as well, writing songs that were much less narratively straightforward than those on her previous two full-lengths. It was an approach that threw her into a writing style that was less cozy, but ultimately more challenging and interesting for her.

“I think you can’t really help when things hit you, and it begins to feel like something’s chasing you down,” she says. “Where you can’t help getting it down on paper or canvas or tape. I used to hear people say about their own writing, ‘I don’t know what that song is about.’ And I’d think, ‘Oh, that’s crazy.’ But I’ve realized that’s actually a very honest admission. Personal songwriting is all I really know how to do right now—that’s what I’m drawn to. And I guess singer/songwriting has always been associated with the personal. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I thought of these songs more like the roman à clef, that kind of approach, where you don’t always know the difference between what’s made up and what’s the truth. And as I went a little more inward lyrically, it seemed like a good idea to go outward, sonically.”

It’s that blend—the increasingly lyrical, sometimes ornate narrative approach and the new directions in arrangement and performance—that makes Tall Tall Shadow a step out of the box for Bulat. It’s less a folk album, even a folk/rock album, than an LP on which folk and rock are the starting points for odd directions and developments.

And when talk turns to her sequencing and arrangement choices, Bulat brings in some surprising but, in retrospect, clearly audible reference points: “You can’t help but be influenced by the things you love,” she says. “And the stuff that I love, the music I listened to when I was a kid, is stuff that frequently showed that kind of attention to sequencing. I love those albums, like those old Bruce Springsteen records, the ones that have those power starts and power finishes, but move around dynamically in the middle.”

To consider the softer side of things, take “It Can’t Be You,” which falls a little short of midway through the record. A skittery, spidery fingerpluck run on the charango propels the song, while the lyrics circle endlessly around an abstract, first-person account of love and betrayal (“I never dreamed that you would be the one/To shoot me down so sweet/No no, no no/It can’t be you/It can’t be you”) without ever coming to a revelation of the specifics, returning again and again to a chorus that’s simply Bulat vocalizing on the closing vowel, so that the “you” morphs into a high lonesome wail skating the string melody. (“It’s a song with a single sound for the chorus,” she says self-deprecatingly. And she’s right, but it’s also chilling, haunting in the best possible way.)

This is the connection the strongest songs on Tall Tall Shadow have with the folk tradition—the belief that the power of a story inheres not in its cold facts, but in the voicing of powerful emotion, even if the words seem cryptic set down in cold type. The words are only the beginning of the story; the moan, the joyful shout, the delivery take us the rest of the way.

What we’re talking about is really a non-quantifiable element, the result of a decision to approach the music in a way that ensures something beyond a simple document of the right notes in the right order. Though there are many paths to that destination, for Bulat the key was immediate collaboration. At one point in the conversation, she recalls watching footage of the recording sessions for Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and being struck by how the musicians gathered in a single space, sometimes around a single microphone, to make that expansive sound happen. It’s an approach she used often on Tall Tall Shadow, notably on “It Can’t Be You,” whose cold, wide echo isn’t a produced effect, but the result of a single instrument playing in a cavernous studio space.

“I’m still drawn to that element—that ‘live’ element,” she says. “I used to listen to a lot of oldies growing up. So much of that stuff was recorded that way, all of the players together. It’s still present when you listen to those songs today. I mean, there has to be a reason people still love Motown, those Stax Studios records, field recordings. You feel like you’re in the room with those people. You feel that urgency.”

Bulat’s journey is one on which she’s kept a lot of friends close—her brother Bobby plays drums on the album (as he did on 2010’s Heart Of My Own), and part of her time in London will be devoted to planning the filming of the title video for Tall Tall Shadow with visual artist Stephanie Comilang, with whom Bulat collaborated on an installation piece for the Art Gallery of Toronto in January. Even the cover art of Bulat’s new album, which cheekily references Joni Mitchell’s Blue (but also, as she rightly points out, Nico’s Chelsea Girls and even Elton John’s self-titled 1970 album) suggests the tradition she’s trying to work in, a long history of artists whose careers have drawn from traditional forms, even as they’ve pushed against the confines of them. And like many of those artists, she’s begun to find that leaving the established territory behind has pushed her into less well-charted, but perhaps more productive terrain.

“I think the reasons for making the record, the reasons I was writing these songs, seemed to reflect a state of mind that changed for me throughout the day,” she says. “I’d find myself powering through things, then needing to stand still for a while. I spent a lot of time sequencing this album—even in lyrical terms, I wanted it to make sense from start to finish. But the things that I really want to say, I can’t really ever say them properly. Maybe there aren’t really many words to say anyway. That’s the funny thing: What you hear in music usually depends on what you’re listening for. Sometimes it’s the only place where I really feel like myself.”

—Eric Waggoner

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