Stories in Books
Sometimes it’s OK to judge a record by its cover. Especially if that cover is a hand-sewn sleeve of vintage cloth. This is one of two formats in which the physical version of Bear Grass’ Stories in Books is available. The other is an actual limited-edition story booklet.
More than anything, this should give you an idea for the attention to detail and craft-savvy approach Katie Hammon brings to her project. But don’t let the wholesome DIY thing color your perception of the music. This isn’t a rough-hewn folk record exploring sepia-toned acoustic whimsy. Produced by bassist Mitch Masterson at SwordPaw HQ in Troy and then mastered by knob-twiddler extraordinaire Frank Moscowitz, Stories in Books treats Hammon’s compositions with the full palette of the recording studio, resulting in a sound that can legitimately name-drop folk and trip-hop in the same breath.
The record opens with a phasing ping-pong effect of delay-laced percussion before chiming electric guitars and noticeably tasty bass parts urge Hammon’s voice forward. B3nson Records, with whom Bear Grass are affiliated, have a history of writing paeans to the region, but “Albany” may be the truest ode yet. Any young person who’s tried to make a go of it here in the past couple decades can probably relate to Hammon’s hopeful sentiment, even while she watches friends leave for other more fully realized destinations.
Hammon’s voice is studied and bell-clear, but she often draws on a breathy whisper to great effect. Masterson isn’t afraid to buoy choruses and bridges with ethereal production touches, as on “Lion,” and even doubles Hammon in places, seeming to take a page from the Kamikaze Hearts playbook. In other places, like the playful “Heart of Romaine,” the influence seems to fall somewhere between the Decemberists and Neko Case. With strong lead vocals, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that this is truly a full-band record, not just treatment for a singer-songwriter. Supportive guitar work from former Attic Baron Steve Stanley and drumming from Ian White make this one a hard-cover tome, not just notebook sketches.
Spanning the Gap
The Chronicles do not sleep. Less than 365 days after releasing their self-titled debut, they released their follow-up a few weeks ago, Spanning the Gap, and saved the month of October from its funkless self. Produced and mixed by Alan Evans—drummer for Soulive and Alan Evans Trio—at White Lake Music & Post in Albany, Spanning the Gap is a giant step forward stylistically and compositionally.
The Chronicles mine a particularly soulful era of music from the mid ’70s. On tracks like “Bad Bad Bad,” keyboardist and vocalist Tyrone Hartsog evokes Stevie Wonder and Funkadelic, and complements it with a growling Hammond organ. The song is front-loaded with heavy soul punches courtesy of Daniel Lawson’s rubber-band bass lines and Andre Surgick’s high-hat hits. Evans (aka Crushed Velvet, according to the liner notes) is credited simply with “Magic” on “Bad Bad Bad.” In the song’s silky bridge, the ghostly bubbles of affected vocals float up and surround Jeff Nania’s serpentine saxophone line.
Vocalists are carefully selected and perfectly spaced on Spanning the Gap. Tara Merrit of MIRK lends shimmer to a bed of harp, muted horns, and violin on the R&B slow jam “Way Back Home.” Nania spits a spoken-word poem to the album’s title track, which invites the audience to peruse the band’s record collection and name-checks everyone from Maceo Parker to “Dexter Gordon on the West Coast (baby!).”
All of the soloists on the record make bold statements and tear into their bars with ferocious attack and chops, like Bryan Brundige’s trombone growl and Justin Hendricks’ hot guitar licks on opener “Village Livin.” The album ends with “Reprise,” which freezes the tempo and chord changes from the second track, “Interzone.” The band ride a sizzling coda into the fade like a cigar smoldering in an ashtray and leave a plume of smoke in the room. That most of the album was recorded live as a band in the studio comes as no surprise. The fluidity of sound achieved by their chemistry and Evans’ hot hands is another giant step for one of the most promising acts in the area.
Black Out Days EP
What to say about Phantogram? Well, every day of this past month, their official Facebook page has been optimized for constant reminders to buy their new EP to “tide me over” until the full-length gets released. Annoying? Yes. Necessary to make it as a rising commercial act in the present industry? Probably.
So I won’t begrudge the self-promotion, especially when the music just keeps getting better. The duo have graduated out of the phase where you have to list their collaborations to demonstrate their legitimacy (Flaming Lips, Big Boi, Gillette and Canon commercials—oops, I just did it). But rather than getting complacent about the market value of their music, they keep pushing. The title track here is simply a banger, and Sarah Barthel has never sounded more sultry. Barthel has always taken lead on the duo’s big singles, but this hasn’t kept guitarist Josh Carter away from the microphone. “Never Going Home” finds him digging for his inner Phil Collins and finding the counterpoint they need to hold their own with duo acts like Sleigh Bells and Purity Ring.
Underneath it all, the band’s production remains the biggest star, underpinning the urbane Lynchian dread and disorientation of their lyricism with crystalline guitar, fuzzy keyboard basslines and straight-dope MPC beats. Watch your Facebook feed: Voices is due out any time now.
The Last Conspirators
A Celebration of Fury
A red, shadowy mob shrouds the cover of A Celebration of Fury, the third album from Capital Region old-school punk rockers the Last Conspirators—but the figures on the cover look more like casual spectators surrounding a bonfire or staring into the distance at the radioactive halo from a nuclear detonation. The seven songs of ferocious protest punk on the album are far from passive, though; they’re more like a call-to-arms from a pitchfork-wielding yet morally righteous gang. “Radio Warfare” is a dark, rumbling anti-corporate warning shot fired from the underground, while the rollicking, pub-rocking “Somewhere Tonight in America” has a more ironic take on disenfranchisement in the U.S.A. “No Time for Egos” is a rallying call for scene unity, and title track “A Celebration of Fury” comes at the very end, wrapping up the potent album with a slogan-fueled anthem of empowerment for the rock and roll revolution.
Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned/The Parlor
The Apres Garde EP
The Apres Garde is the 10th of 12 scheduled EPs released by Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned this year. So it’s hard to review this chapter without the full context it deserves. The album art is literally 1/12 of a fold-out poster that the entire set will combine to create the band’s logo. By itself, the piece is lovely but abstract.
Similarly, the listener is thrown into the middle (near the climax?) of a saga that trumpet player Louis Apicello has been narrating as an intro to each installation. The band have, in the past, countenanced sci-fi themes with their almost steam-punk brand of horn-driven folk rock, namely on The Space Age and While Waiting for the Space Age. Here, Apicello’s character leads a company of explorers into uncharted (extraterrestrial?) terrain, where his men encounter Sgt. Dunbar of the Apres Garde, “the rear flank of the future.” Voiced by Jen O’Connor, whose group the Parlor rejoined the Hobo Banned for the project, the effect is coolly psychedelic, like the Aquarian futurism of Erykah Badu or Janelle Monae. “We, the apres garde, are charged with picking up the pieces left behind by the advancing present,” she explains. “The avant garde, the forward flank, forges new; the apres garde makes meaning from the discarded.”
It’s the clearest aesthetic mission statement the B3nson collective have ever offered. This EP, like the bulk of both Dunbar and the Parlor’s catalog, doesn’t concern itself with innovation per se. Its folk rock wears its usual influences on its tattered sleeve: the Band, Neutral Milk Hotel, Beirut. They could clean it up but they don’t. Slightly detuned horn arrangements pile on slightly staggered group vocals, which at times are gobbled by the swelling pallete of blown-out bass and drums below. It’s post-apocalyptic Americana where 20th-century materials are lashed together to form a kind of sci-faux rocket ship, its course charted for the here and now.
“Self reliance is the victim and a lost art waitin’ to come back out when we’re left here all alone to our hands and our legs and brains in our heads and our mouths have betrayed that our feathers are lead,” they sing on the strongest track, the telling “We Don’t Care.” Food, water and rest from the elements are what Sgt. Dunbar promises the wayward travelers in the intro, but only if they can commit themselves fully to the cause. The listener must choose accordingly: Hunt with the avant or scavenge with the apres?
Snare Drum Solos and Etudes
It is amazing the amount of melody Pete Sweeney is able to get out of a single snare drum. Actually, Sweeney plays four different snare drums over the course of his newest album—three different sizes of maple snare drums, and one drum made of hand-hammered brass.The cover of the album makes it perfectly clear what this album is about: snare drum perfectly upright, front-and-center.
Sweeney is a well-known drummer in the area who plays with all manner of groups. You may have seen him at Albany Riverfront Jazz Fest with Sensemaya, or you may remember him from his days with the Joey Thomas Big Band. But what many people don’t realize about Sweeney is that he is also a renowned educator who has published more than 20 books with Alfred Publishing.
As such, it is only fitting that this album takes you through a few of the gems of snare drum pedagogy, including “Douze Etudes 1-12,” four of the “French-American Rudimental Solos,” as well as “Three Dances.” And then there is Sweeney’s take on Frank Zappa’s “The Black Page,” which he opens the album with. Frank Zappa on solo snare drum? It helps if you know the tune before you hear this because obviously there are no “notes” involved, but the rhythm is definitely there, and you can hear the melody in your head as Sweeney spirits through it. Just in case that doesn’t push your imagination far enough, Sweeney also ends the album by playing the entirety of “The Black Page” in reverse.
While this album is more likely to appeal to musicians, and percussionists in particular, it also serves to remind us that it is rhythm more than pitch that makes music interesting. There are only so many combinations of 12 notes (all the notes of the chromatic scale in Western music), but rhythmic variation is infinite.
The Charlie Watts Riots
A Break in the Weather
It has been said that ’90s nostalgia is the fuel on which the Internet is currently powered. Maybe it’s a longing for Clinton-era economic boomtimes or the mourning of a kind of innocence lost after 9/11. Or maybe this generation simply has neon Hammer pants and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme stitched into our DNA.
For the Charlie Watts Riots, the ’90s never really went away, as they’ve spent their career since the late aughts hammering away at the kind of guitar-based power-trio rock that was once labeled alternative. Think Foo Fighters, Alice in Chains, Superdrag. Now think harder about that last one and the name Nick Raskulinecz might come to mind. The Tennessee-based producer was behind the boards for a number of alt-rock’s biggest records, not the least of which being Superdrag’s In the Valley of Dying Stars, a formative record for the Riots’ singer-guitarist-songwriter Seth Powell. As the story goes, Powell randomly contacted Raskulinecz to mix A Break in the Weather, accidentally sparking a vital creative collaboration. As a result, Break plays like a relic of the late ’90s: overdriven guitars run through squeaky-clean compressors, Gen-X disaffection packed into concise, radio-friendly lyrics, and even a touch of that Pacific Coast Everclear vibe.
This is rock & roll from an era when guitars still ruled and three-minute rockers—album single “Bottom”—could feel like both a diary entry and an unironic TV intro segment (Polaris’ “Hey Sandy” from Pete and Pete for some reason comes to mind here). At any rate, A Break in the Weather is a much better bet than either of those rival ’90s tours (Sugar Ray vs. Matchbox 20) that came around this summer.
Charlie Button got a minor shout out last fall from Pitchfork writer Jonah Bromwich in a review of Stones Throw drummer/producer Karriem Riggins’ Alone Together. His pseudonym Eb7#9 was mentioned parenthetically along with Thundercat and Knxwledge as one of a wave of artists who have started combining progressive jazz tendencies with the rigidity of hip-hop production.
It’s the former for which Button may be best known in this area, as guitarist for local fusion group Doctor Magnum, a band who have transcended their jam-band billing with compelling covers of Frank Ocean, Michael Jackson and Ace of Base. Since 2011, Button has released five records under the handle Eb7#9: some fucked remixes, some oddball experiments and a lot of tasty beats. Pilot feels like a marginally more earnest effort, in part because he’s sacrificed the handle for his legal name and the cover art features a pastel rendering of his likeness. Stones Throw and Brainfeeder-style beats are only the foundation this time around for bedroom-pop style vocal confessions. The whole thing is still pretty weird, like Bill and Ted brought Captain Beefheart back to 2013 with a magic Roland SP-404. But here’s hoping it’s an effort that outgrows its side-project status.