Preview: Ben Harper and Relentless7 @ Pier Six Pavilion (2010.04.20)

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MP3: Ben Harper and Relentless7 – Under Pressure (Queen cover) from Live from the Montreal International Jazz Festival (2010)

How this so-called “Campus Consciousness” Tour, featuring Ben Harper and Relentless7 and opener Alberta Cross wound up at Pier Six Pavilion on the biggest stoner holiday…well, the only stoner holiday of the year…is beyond me. I mean, who wants to “Burn One Down” in the Inner Harbor?

The last time you may have seen the Relentless7 (of which there are four) was when they were awkwardly backing up Ringo Starr on the Daily Show. Their performance was admittedly not awe-inspiring, probably because they were playing the songs of Ringo Starr (inexplicably a frequent guest of the band). But Ben Harper and Relentless7 will definitely be an exciting act live, which is especially impressive because Harper often plays seated.

Relentless7 is a more rock-oriented group than previous bands Harper has toured with, and their album White Lies for Dark Times thankfully takes more chances than Harper’s adult-contemporary hits from the early part of the 00s. You’ll hear lots of intriguing guitar meandering, some shifting drum patterns, and Harper’s typically incidental lyrics. No, they aren’t a band I listen to all the time. But the best songwriters on record aren’t necessarily the best performers. Take Arctic Monkeys, who I love to listen to on record, but I was a bit disappointed with their unilateral approach live. Ben Harper and Relentless7 are a band that thrives on their live shows, on the flux and unpredictability of real-time performance. Harper is a singularly joyous and charming showman. His concerts are fantastic specifically because they branch out into so many different styles from their blues-rock origins, from funk to hard rock, to pop, to folk, by turns imbued with the spirits of Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Blues Traveler, Parliament, or (perhaps needless-to-say) Lenny Kravitz.

Alberta Cross is the opener, and for some reason they always remind me of the Verve when I hear them. The songs have the same wandering, spacey, barely held together quality, but Petter Stakee is a far quirkier singer than Richard Ashcroft. His voice occasionally takes on a Cedric Bixler-Zavala-like timbre. The songs share some of the Mars Volta’s unhinged volatility while lacking their diamond-cut production and dadaist lyricism. I hadn’t listened to them before, but they are a band playing well beyond their years at the moment. With an opening spot for Ben Harper, they probably stand to increase their cachet. Their imagination on record is admirable and they deserve more than a passing listen.

Live Review: Arctic Monkeys, Sleepy Sun @ Rams Head Live (2010.04.07)

Looking back, Arctic Monkey‘s rise to prominence with their 2006 fastest-selling debut makes a lot more sense than Susan Boyle’s similar honors. People had just gotten used to finding out about music from the Internet. The Arctic Monkeys were young, irreverent, and most importantly, British. What’s more, the band was enjoyable to people you wouldn’t normally see together at a concert: pop-punkers and indie kids, aging hipsters and tweens, mods and rockers. All in all, 2006 was a pretty great year for them.

The boys from Sheffield have maintained their swagger for the ensuing three, churning out consistently high-quality albums and a slew of exciting EPs in between. Last year’s Humbug was supposedly a bottom-heavy, Americana influenced deviation from the course, although the most apparent difference was in Alex Turner’s longer hair than in any shift in songwriting. They’ve rocked tighter and better than most of their indie-major contemporaries, and although Wednesday was the first time I’d seen them live before, I had heard that their style translated into a fantastic stage show. Read the rest…

Album Review: Title Tracks – It Was Easy (Ernest Jennings)

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Title Tracks – Every Little Bit Hurts

To start, Title Tracks sound nothing like Q and Not U, whose raucous clatter compelled DC post-punkers to dance in the early part of the last decade. Neither does Title Tracks remind you of the energetic indie pop of Georgie James, John Davis’ first post-Q and Not U band. Instead, Title Tracks produces mid-tempo power pop with all the requisite influences, {insert The Jam/Big Star reference here}. And they follow this formula quite well, crafting some tight and exciting songs in the process.

That’s the good news — if you enjoy that sound and feel, you’re probably gonna eat this up the way I ate up Abe Vigoda (who?) a year and a half ago. But frankly the formula is weary, old, and been done before, many thousands of times over. If you’ve decided to step into this arena you have to face the fact that there are a thousand other guys out there playing the same chords and singing the same “la-la”s. So what’s there to distinguish you from them? Usually the answer lies in strong vocals and melodies, and on both counts Davis is fine. In a world where ex-post punkers are embarassing themselves at an alarming rate, give the guy props because he certainly succeeds more often than he fails, but I wish he would take enough chances to do either on a large scale.

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Interview: James Husband & of Montreal (w/ Jamey Huggins)

In between rehearsals for James Husband and of Montreal, we caught up with Jamey Huggins before both bands began a short eastern tour. Huggins, who has played drums, bass and keyboards (that I know of) for of Montreal since 1998, has just released his solo effort, A Parallax I. We spoke about being in two bands at once, being influenced by Guided by Voices and what the future may hold for of Montreal.

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Aural States Fest II: Spotlights – Pontiak, Caleb Stine, NARC

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MP3: Pontiak – Life and Coral from Sea Voids (2009)

The prolific Pontiak released two stellar albums in 2009: Maker and Sea Voids, and look to have a new release this Spring. Both albums have garnered considerable critical praise, and they’ve ridden a steadily rising wave of internet popularity. Their live show is captivating and loud…catch them close out Sonar’s Club stage at Aural States Fest II on January 30th.

AS: Before releasing Sea Voids you moved back to the Shenandoah Mountains and (from what I’ve heard) lost your beards. Was this a conscious shift? Identity crisis?

Lain Carney: We all moved back to VA from Baltimore at roughly the same time, about three years ago. The beards? Those come and go pretty frequently and without much thought. The move was definitely a conscious shift but more for personal reasons than anything else.

AS: The band gets tagged as stoner metal a lot but the new album explores a wide array of song styles, from the acoustic “Life and Coral” to the more traditional indie fare of “World Wide Prince.” Did you deliberately think “let’s mix it up a bit”…is this your “experimental” album or is there more to come?

LC: We never thought of Sea Voids as our experimental album. I feel as though its as varied as our other albums.

AS: This isn’t a question, but Sea Voids seems a lot more melodically dissonant as well–especially say, the lead on the title track juxtaposed with the brighter, more shimmering distortion is pretty brilliant.

LC: Thanks Man!

AS: The first couple times I listened to “Suzerain” I thought my internet connection was failing (which I suppose is the modern equivalent of your CD skipping). What’s the story on that intro? You also played with the tape on the intro to “Laywayed” I believe.

LC: When I was mixing “Suzerain” I just had the idea to cut up the beginning. As soon as I started doing it, it immediately started to sound cool so I went with it. After I finished I said to Van and Jennings, “people are going to think the song is fucked up, not unlike ‘Laywayed’”.

AS: You must be downtuning your guitars to get them so rumbly. What do you tune them to, what gear do you use to achieve that signature pontiak growl?

LC: Yes, the guitars are tuned down to B. The sound we get is a direct result of one very key practice: turn the amps up. Once an amp is turned up, they all sound different and add their own color. Van always plays through at least two amps at once. That really helps to give the guitar a full sound.

AS: The press for Sea Voids that I’m looking at says you recorded the album in three weeks. Is that the most time you’ve spent in the studio? Some folks have suggested Maker was a one-take cut-and-run kind of recording session.

LC: We definitely try to not overwrite songs, and once we have an idea we try to record it while it’s fresh and loose. With Maker, as with our other records, we usually just did one or two takes for each song. It feels good to do one take and not become so concerned with “nailing it.” When I was younger I used to be really concerned with that stuff, but it’s way too micro.

Sea Voids was similar in that way. Just one take, maybe two. We wrote AND recorded it in three weeks which is the quickest we’ve ever done an album. It takes us about two weeks to record an album but the writing behind it can go back months, depending on how much we’ve been touring and things like that.

AS: You just had a European tour. How was the band received in Europe?

LC: Really well. We got tons of love in Europe and are about to head back actually in March. Can’t wait!

AS: Say I’ve never been to a Pontiak show…how’s it going to be different from your studio recordings? What can i expect?

LC: Our shows are usually pretty high energy. I’d say that it probably sounds like that album but louder.

AS: Tell us about your 2010 plans

LC: We’ll be in Europe in March, a new album in early spring and US shows in May. Summer and winter are going to be busy but things aren’t in stone yet. I’d like to have a new record by late summer.


Caleb Stine is the soul of Baltimore music. His straightforward, honest, storytelling is what Baltimore is at its core – hardworking, genuine, and unafraid to tell it like it is. As Baltimore’s music scene has taken on a larger national profile, much of it for noise driven noise-rock such as Animal Collective, Beach House, and Dan Deacon, it is Stine who always seems to best reflect the people of the city. His timeless style and deeply personal songwriting evokes images of a classic generation of outlaw-country songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, and Willie Nelson. His power comes not from overwhelming volume or violent guitars, but from simple strums and carefully measured words that together carry an army of unmatched strength.

Stine who has recently returned from a short tour with Andy Friedman, is energized from his time on the road. A time he spent discovering new music with Friedman as they drove from show to show, “Now I’m pulsing with great music in my veins and can’t put the guitar down.”

Saturday night, those simple strums and mighty words that he delivers his songs with will be given even more power and more life, as Stine has recruited an all-star band of local Baltimore musicians (Dave Hadley and Nick Sjostrom (the Brakemen), Andy Stack (Wye Oak), Jason Butcher (Among Wolves), Tiffany DeFoe (The Bellevedeers), MC Saleem (Saleem and the Music Lovers), Jordan Leitner (Mad Sweet Pangs) and Sam Guthridge (Chester River Runoff), to play with him. The combination of Stine’s music and his roster of all-stars will serve to deliver a set of unparalleled emotion that at the same time will be a reflection of his hometown. As Stine simply says, “Its gonna be a special set.”


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MP3: NARC – Cuped (demo)

I’ll be frank: I was never fully on-board with the teen sampler and noisenik duo of Engine. But since their split, NO Smith has followed a frequency that resonates with me much more in the form of his one-man guitar & electronics act NARC.

He presents something more curious and soaring, while not forsaking his noisier roots. According to Smith, “there will probably be an EP in the nearish future, maybe spring/summer, and hopefully a full-length called SLY by the end of the year.” NARC opens the Talking Head Stage on Saturday.

Album Review: Mopar Mountain Daredevils – Mopar Bloody Mopar (El Suprimo)


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MP3: Mopar Mountain Daredevils – Yeti Stomp

A 70s throwback with the sideburns to prove it, Mopar Mountain Daredevils create a swirling thicket of heavy psychedelia that has more to do with stoner metal than any current psychedelic rock trends. But where loud bands with less songwriting talent or imagination settle down with the almighty riff, Mopar Bloody Mopar remains unhinged throughout, careening from one passage to the next, never looking back.

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Album Review: Max Tundra – Parallax Error Beheads You (Domino)

Max Tundra Parallax

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MP3: Max Tundra – Which Song

Max Tundra plays at the Metro Gallery tonight with Deastro, the Water, and Comeback Ranch.

Max Tundra (aka Ben Jacobs) is a one-man electronic orchestra from England. His pieces have multiple personalities, movements that hop without forewarning from one intricate synth part and drum loop to another, topped off with falsetto vocals and a surprisingly human (and modern) lyricality. Max doesn’t really use any touring musicians, which means that on stage he is allegedly a bit of a whirlwind, putting on what could be the most energetic show you’re likely to see in some time. I haven’t been part of the event, and unfortunatelty won’t be able to see him tonight, but it promises to be fascintating.

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Album Review: Lonnie Walker – These Times, Old Times (Terpsikhore)

lonnie walker these times old times

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01. MP3: Lonnie Walker – Compass Comforts
02. MP3: Lonnie Walker – Summertime

As compelling as any album released this year, and possibly one with a chance to stand the test of time, Lonnie Walker’s These Times Old Times is easily one of the best albums I’ve been introduced to since I started reviewing music.   Read the rest…

Album Review: Built to Spill – There Is No Enemy (Warner Bros.)

There_is_No_EnemyIf you’ve seen Built to Spill live in the last few years, you probably got a preview of a few of the tracks on There is No Enemy. “Good Ol’ Boredom,” “Life’s A Dream,” and “Done” are the kind of drawn out songs that originally had me suspecting the new album would follow in the vein of You In Reverse.  However, while those are some jammier tracks that probably needed road-testing, the band has largely reined in the more free-form, improvisation-based structures that carried the day on their 2006 release.  Instead, they have returned to the mastery of the sometimes overlooked process of recording and editing.  That same process set them apart from the alternative slacker icons who ruled the scene when they started (and have since become relics of the past).

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Album Reviews: Modest Mouse – No One’s First, and You’re Next | Sonic Youth – The Eternal | Son Volt – American Central Dust | Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs | Dinosaur Jr. – Farm

A few big names released albums while I’ve been away the last couple months so here’s a brief recap:

Modest Mouse No Ones FirstModest Mouse – No One’s First, and You’re Next

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MP3: Modest Mouse – The Whale Song

Any time a band as huge as Modest Mouse drops a new album there’s usually plenty of fanfare and press to go around, but this EP came out to relatively little attention.  But I suppose it’s easy to be dwarfed by new singles by Radiohead and Jay-Z and Kanye West, and the news of the Beatles remasters to be released on the 40th anniversary of their break-up. No One’s First and You’re Next is definitely worth checking out if you were a fan of the last two productions.  Although the EP is made up of songs that didn’t fit on those albums thematically, the sound is consistent and it’s generally easy to see which songs came from which session.

There’s nothing bad on here, in fact the quality of songwriting is very high, with none of the self-indulgent repetition that afflicted this band’s outtakes and studio sessions in their early years. It’s not cohesive from one song to the next, but you shouldn’t expect it to be since it wasn’t recorded with a theme in mind. This eclecticism goes a long way to making the record feel more lightweight than the slightly overwrought Modest Mouse that appeared on the last two albums. It’ll be fun to see whether they can grow without heavy guitars in the same way The Flaming Lips did in their second decade.

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