Posts Tagged ‘stereo embers’

High Violets at Stereo Embers

Sometimes the problem with being local heroes is eventually you get taken for granted, washed over by the ceaseless tide of the new. Ironically, this is especially true, it seems, when you’re as consistently excellent as the High Violets have been.

Jump-started back in 1998 by Clint Sargent and Luke Strahota following the collapse of also popular Portland band Bella Low, the Violets present their fourth studio album Heroes and Haloes amid a long-established, constant – and constantly high – level of expectation and of course it’s an exemplary forty minutes of shoedream gazepop, sculpting away at all those loftily-erected contours as usual, but by all means don’t let that predictability preclude your curiosity. That would be unwise, that would border on the tragically negligent. Not toward the band but toward yourself, as you’d miss the instant career-defining dynamism of “How I Love (everything about you)” as it blasts off from two sharp, treated snare slaps into a jetstream of roilingly ecstatic romanticism, singer Kaitlyn ni Donovan presiding with supernal calm over a ringing roar full of bright burbling synths, a passing ghost chorus of background vox and the guitar riff of the year, a simple two-toned slide pattern that bestows upon the track instant classic status and that’s just the first cut.

You’d also miss “Dum Dum”‘s sweet but heavy pop sway as it deftly layers Donovan’s damning lilt of a vocal over Sargent’s dark shards of guitar, the smoothly pulsing “Longitude” the melody of which attaches itself unshakably to that hook-craving part of your brain that insists on humming it back to itself without end, the shimmering assault of poignant loveliness that is the title track, sweeping over you in shudders and pounding waves, its sound a thing you succumb to and more-than-willingly. You’d miss all that and more and we are quite very sure indeed you do not want to do that.

Matured yet as fuel-injected as ever (check out the tumultuous beauty of “Comfort in Light), as capable of bewitching mystery as ever (the shoegazey gauze of “Ease On”), as imperishably groove-melodic as ever (“Break A Heart” is St Etienne fronted by Dusty Springfield only with a John Squire guitar break), on Heroes and Haloes (available April 1st on Saint Marie) the High Violets return full force as the band again reach effortless crests that all the new(er)comers would be wise to aspire to.


Witching Waves at Stereo Embers

These being the days they are, where every man woman child and mother in the indie world are clambering onto a bandwagon laden with carelessly spangled neo-lysergic tropes of every dredged-up variety, its understandable that one could hear the band name ‘Witching Waves’ and be immediately beset by mis-impression, ie assume them to be some sort of, I dunno, wiccan psych or whatever the hell. With great concision of purpose Crystal Cafe, at least as much if not more forcefully as did their 2014 debut Fear of Falling Down, answer any such presumptuous errancy with three simple words: Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

A mercilessly basic trio – Emma Wigham, Mark Jasper, Ed Shellard – punching their way out of London, theirs are not the type waves that roll in pacific and pretty but more the pounding crashing kind. Now you might want to think – and I nearly wrote these words without qualification – that WW have seemingly jumped out of a Nuggets (UK-style) garage and landed in the second decade of the new millennium but, accurate as that may be in some respects – the drive, the unconcern for studio trickery or effects of any kind, just their overall ‘tude – it too lazily overlooks the raging modernity at the heart of this album. Sure, there’s some amp-scarring buzz, there’s some frayed and righteous fuzz, more than a little tumble and roar, and I’ve little doubt the band themselves would mind being thus categorized, but the fact is Crystal Cafe is steeped in 21st C. seethe.

“Seeing Double,” kicking at the pricks of its own youthful frustrations, unsettled, anxious, emerges from a pinched-nerve wince of feedback to tear its anxieties to shreds amidst a kind of guitar-led charge of the dark brigade, its innate paranoia met with a petulant unflinchingness and I think we can call that a draw. “Pitiless,” while attacking (or so it appears) the zombified slicksters that now roam our streets in heartless droves, gentrifying everything that falls under their gaze, does so with a savagely melodic charm, its hook relentless like power pop gone feral, still tightly coiled and all but abrasive in all the right places. Needless to say it’s not a love song. Nor, big surprise, is “The Threat,” which at times suggests to your swooning correspondent a touch of that Opposite Sex album from a few years back (see also the quirkier poppier “Make It Up” and opener “Twister”), boasting that same kind of breathlessly hurtling-forward rhythm and zestful, pop-tinged incorrigibility though here, of course, we’re redder of claw and fiercer of heart. Nor is “Receiver,” another buzz-sawing rama-lama stab at dissecting that universal twenty-something stew of doubt and yearning, ennui and isolation, choosing as its weapons of expression the fusillade rhythm of the Undertones (at their rawest earliest) and the snarled energy of the Stooges.

In short, what I’m sorta saying here, folks – and not to put too fine an edge on it – is that this is punk rock crucially hooked inside the careening corpus of a rock’n’roll sensibility. Jasper’s riffage is healthy, the customary structures are in place – these are all very well-built songs – Shellard’s bass is most often a rumbling menace in its own pocket, but regardless the venom inside the vulnerability is unmistakable. When Emma’s on the mic her tone tends to fall between ‘composure kept’ and a pissed-off panache, sounding certain of herself in an uncertain world, or to put it another way, more Damned Damned Girls than Dum Dum Girls (“Pitiless” even reminds in its racing finish ofArctic Flowers), while Mark’s vocal takes hew toward a sense of desperation, there’s an impatient persuasion straining inside his voice as it crackles with the absurdities of life and a simmering disbelief that said absurdity isn’t obvious to everyone with a couple of brain cells to rub together. So, yeah, don’t get psyched out over their band name. This is, I repeat, punk rock, not by design but because it can’t help but be. Anger (or hurt, or alienation, or…) is an energy, and Crystal Cafe brims with it.



deardarkhead at Stereo Embers

Spooky. Liminal. Wrapped in gleaming smoke while twisting mirrors into ribbons. Vast of inference, flocked with spires of melody, circling you like a sonic Möbius strip, the noise Deardarkhead make invites more mystery than it solves which is almost certainly the point but what’s that matter when they sound as beguilingly gorgeous as this? History is arguably irrelevant when you have timelessness pouring out of the headphones in real time but the band in fact have one, stretching back to their inception in the post-postpunk year of our shoegazing lord 1988. Back then they had a singer. They don’t now. He left in 2009 and rather than find a replacement they instead found a new strength in his absence, continuing on their not-so-humble mission of seeking transcendence via bass drums guitar (handled respectively by Kevin McCauley, Robert Weiss, and Kevin Harrington), a phalanx of pedals and a shared intuition that burns at every turn.

Just six tracks because any more – based on the too-much-of-a-good-thing model – might cause the listener psychic damage, Strange Weather is a whirlwind of intensity, density, space, and melody. “Falling Upward” looms up out of some metallic mist and immediately seats itself in your solar plexus as a humming thrumming bass and a bright trance of guitar do this hypnotic Kevin-to-Kevin contrapuntal thing that disarms with utterly charming force, “Sunshine Through the Rain” glistens immediately with its title’s promise, a kind of vernal energy made electric, drums pounding like life itself, “Juxta Mare” has a skipping light heaviness to it as if Ride were the Stranglers or vice versa, “Ice Age” is what every post-punk instrumental both retrospectively and henceforth should be mandated to sound like, its basic bass groove and sky-spiking guitar lines suggesting an actually joyous Joy Division and which I nominate for track-of-the-month if not -year. That leaves two I haven’t mentioned and indeed I leave those for your own discovery since I strongly suspect that what’s been said here thus far will have you looking for your own copy of Strange Weather (try here starting 25 March 16) before you’re even done reading this sentence.

Not a word spoken on this album from pillar to post but in the end they are profoundly unneeded. This music moves in paragraphs of its own language anyway and in truth I’ve never, in a rock context, missed words less. Highly recommended.


Eureka California at Stereo Embers

All punk bands – or bands with punk’s energy however else they’re categorized – have to grow up whether they want to or not. Resistance, no matter how vigorously applied, is futile. Now, I don’t know if they realize it or not, but the unstoppable force of nature that is Eureka California – Jake Ward and Marie A. Uhler, who are from nowhere near Eureka (Athens, GA, actually) and make a noise so uninhibitively boisterous that White Stripes could band back together, join up with the Black Keys and play devil’s tag with a 17-megaton A-bomb and still not come close – show signs of doing just that on third album Versus.

While no small responsibility for this evolutionary jump may primarily be due to recording in a real studio for the first time (Suburban Home in Leeds, UK, overseen by Hookworms’ MJ), I tend to reckon that the years of grinding and polishing their craft while simultaneously – through both touring and, yes, aging – becoming more (gasp!) worldly takes the raging lion’s share of credit. None of which is to say that the fuzz-ripped hurtling verve with which they’ve made their reputation has diminished a single jot, it’s simply been given greater layers of (again, gasp!) refinement. The results are sublime in a mostly explosive sort of way.

Where an articulate and literate lyrical wit has always counted as one of the band’s bonus assets, on Versus (pun intended, one’s sure), it’s clearly been administered some kind of booster shot. Indeed, a jaundiced eye has seldom been known to see so astutely, as Eureka California – for the most part (the exception being exceptional and soon discussed) – hard charge down the tracklist drag racing their petulant intelligence across your cerebrum.

From the start, already careening toward the guardrail at reckless speed before swerving wildly back to safety just in time, “Eureka California’s Night In” is something of a Billy Childish roar contained inside the power punk economy of the Adverts. Next up, “Sign My Name With An X,” though sparse of lyric, emerges as a quick monster lesson on how to turn two minutes into a Mothra-sized riff-fest before ceding to “Another Song About TV” whose punchy tube sock rhythm and poppy vocal melody not only gives an impression that the TV screen in question is a flickering B&W with a 70’s chassis but also claims a lineage with such legendary indie labels as Ace of Hearts and Beserkley, that same jaded innocence, that snotty youthful zest that belies the often tender admissions hidden within (sample lyric, clearly discernable as always inside the garagey bluster, another hallmark of that vintage sound: You wanna know why I don’t go out, I’ll tell you why / when I turn on the TV it makes me feel like someone’s home). Sure, these Eureka kids are a mite more amped up about it but by and large that comparison marks the default (if wholly uncontrived) setting here and it serves Versus extraordinarily well.

“Sober Sister” launches with a sweet clean Kiwi pop-like guitar line atop a tripletted frenzy (Ms Uhler ain’t playin’ games behind that kit) before submitting to the submarine fuzz. “Cobwebs in the Wind” answers any curiosity you might have had as to what it would have been like had Hüsker Dü and the Replacements done a deal at the beginning of the game and traded lead singers, “Ghosts” has a fine, almost beer hall lurch to it, melancholy and adrenaline knocking back a few, while the brief “Caffeine” spends its first third in a dreamy decaf lament, some electric strumming in the morning sunlight before the flip gets switched to all-out hauling mania a la Dinosaur Jr minus the stoner’s drawl. Two of the last three seem to seek the ‘epic and monumental’ and shock no one at this point by finding it. “Realizing Your Actuality” clocks in at 4:03, uses some punctuating reverb and Ward’s rawest, most beseeching yowl of a vocal to convey the song’s teetering catharsis and is the band at their most emotionally feral and effecting best. Final track “I Will Write Mine Over Potomac” stretches to 5:20 and earns that finality via a tired but defiant, undyingly vibrant vulnerability, rich with an aching, Everyman perspective that Protomartyr’s Joe Casey would be proud to lay claim to. It’s poetry written in thunder and corrugated regret, it shudders with poignancy and it’s not even the record’s crowning triumph.

“Fear and Loathing in the Classic City,” smack in the middle of the tracklisting – it ends side one of the LP – is, for one, just Ward with an acoustic, miked close enough to hear his fingers scraping over the frets. Secondly, given that level of intimacy, it’s Eureka California at their barest, most exposed, almost unthinkably so (far more so than on”Actuality..” or “I Will Write..”), Ward laying out a soliloquy of doubt and wonder, the words as he addresses some hidden conflicted version of himself in an alternate mirrored universe amounting to a delicate existential despair made all the more immortally bittersweet by that very delicacy. And here’s the funny thing, an aside of sorts, neither here nor there, as they say: that Beserkley mention above? As I was first hearing this track the other morning, rather marveling at its stark right-there-ness unprotected by noise or bash, a mental note was made along the lines of ‘Jonathan Richman in his own long dark night of the soul, abandoned by naiveté,’ that sort of thing when just then Ward sang “Oh I’ve been wasting away / to the sounds of the Modern Lovers.” And here I thought I couldn’t fall more in love with this record.

In any case, hearing “Fear and Loathing in the Classic City” is the moment you realize with an epiphanic jolt that Eureka California have crossed over from a jarringly good punk-injected indie band to what we might justifiably call a major presence. Conceptually, aesthetically, they’ve arrived. Or, yeah, if one prefers, they’ve grown up.

And there’s just this one last thing I’ll say: Eureka California are now one of my favorite bands.



Great Lakes at Stereo Embers

Perhaps the greatest crime of many perpetuated by such splashy celebrations of glossy mediocrity like the recent Grammys broadcast (the astonishing Kendrick Lamar appearance and a handful of others – the Hamilton bit, the heartfelt BB King tribute – notwithstanding) is the leveling – nay, dulling – impact it tends to have on the sharpness of our greater culture’s receptivity to not only what’s possible in music but what’s actually happening out there in the vast provinces while the assembled glitterati and the millions watching risk shoulder injury patting themselves on the back over baubles and spangly tripe. Not sure how it works but somehow being blinded by celebrity and the attendant narcissism has the residual effect of a kind of clotted-ear deafness as well. A shame on a nation-sized scale, really, as the volume of what’s-being-missed, all of it deeply deeply woven into the American fabric, is, shall we say, off the charts. As an example, let’s start here, with Great Lakes’ fifth album Wild Vision, just released in January on Loose Trucks.

Strong as those inferences may be to these ears, they’re nonetheless nothing more than twinges, innate suggestions, nuantial reference points to make you the reader perk up your ears. I hear all kinds of records coming at me from all corners and it’s not exactly frequent that a collection of songs lands on my stereo that flows with such effortless, mastery-bordering facility that one could easily imagine a modern-day songwriters-in-the-round in some sunny backyard (with storm clouds bunching on the horizon, of course), your Justin Vernons, Sam Beams whatever, all going respectfully quiet, which is to say struck enviously dumb, as this guy Crum unloads gem after gem, their multiplicity of facets only outdone by the cast of canonized familiarity that shines within them. Songwriting-wise, Ben Crum has been heading for this apogee for some while, and on Wild Vision it would seem he’s reached it, a mere twenty years down the road. The mantle of being one of this country’s finest now firmly rests upon his shoulders. As proven here, he can handle it, and certainly deserves it.


Thee Koukouvaya, Mind Brains at Stereo Embers

Thee Koukouvaya

An absolute mind-fuck of seductive electronic imagination, nothing much prepared us for this release in August on Saint Marie Records. Plumbing the depths of time while skimming along on the visceral edge of the modern, this Greek band came out of a kind of cosmic left field and left us flattened and exhilarated. “Consider Eno and Roedelius basking in a programmed, sundialed heat, their lizard tongues darting, lolling, darting some more” we said about one of the tracks (“Prismatic Sun”) and that’s but a fraction of the exotic-yet-musically-grounded work that was perfected half a world away on the island of Crete. Consider us mesmerized, ecstatic, and chilled out down to our very marrow. This record left us breathless in the very best way.

Mind Brains

A simply unbelievable stroke of avant/guerilla art-rock, it was this record as much as any that made us just give up being surprised by the unparalleled pop experimentalism issuing out of that never-ending hotspot Athens, GA. Another Hannah Jones joint (as we had fun saying), she of The New Sound of Numbers among any number of other gooseflesh-raising outfits on the excited fringe of what we might call the ‘American Down Under,’ this release wound our clocks in every imaginable direction. Full of dense but adroit surprises at every turn, what choice did we have but to marvel. So far under the radar of most music outlets as to pass by without so much as leaving a shadow, we here at SEM were lucky enough to catch a mythical glimpse, and the DNA of our musical horizons were likely changed forever, and amen to that.


SPC ECO, Thee Koukouvaya at Stereo Embers

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SPC ECO at Stereo Embers

Released one week from today via Saint Marie Records on November 20th, Stereo Embers is beyond excited to present the new album from former Curve guru Dean Garcia’s current project SPC ECO, another (arguably more) startling duo this time blessed by the commanding vocal presence of Rose Berlin. As stated in our review a couple weeks ago, “this is music that stalks you, at the same time emanating a powerfully lingering sexuality that pulls with the always irresistible frisson of danger,” and likely it would be folly to try to further embroider that description. At once shadowy and grounded, SPC ECO brings all the twitching allure you would expect from a band imbued with the Curved heritage as expressed in the modern surveillance state consciousness. Both paranoid and sexy as hell, allow yourself forty-seven minutes of unspeakably dark bliss, courtesy the aptly abbreviated SPC ECO.


Antlered Aunt Lord at Stereo Embers

Remember this Tunabunny review from 2014? If not, take a quick scan then come back (we’ll wait for you). Intrigued? Well, yes, so were we when offered this latest single from that band’s enigmatic, prolific, uncontainable mad genius of a drummer Antlered Aunt Lord (his mother named him ‘Jesse’) – and cohorts – from his/their upcoming album Ostensibly Formerly Stunted (and on fire), released Nov. 20th on Athens GA imprint Happy Happy Birthday To Me. Frankly, we found that Tunabunny record to be more refreshingly adventurous and confident than almost anything released last year, a real left-field stunner that refused to leave us alone and haunted us playfully deep into the night. The same might be said here, as the shouty-yet-tightly-coiled track builds, stops, starts again like nothin’ happened and just generally leaves us giddily eager for the full-length. Driving crazed prog-pop extraordinaire, there’s something of a Devo feel to it if they’d tried to sound like James Brown doing an impression of Polyrock. Check it out. It’s nothing – and we mean nothing – like you’ve heard this year or pretty much any other. On par with his parent band, there would seem to be nothing less than a bottomless well of inventive go-for-it skewed rock’n’pop’n’roll happening down ’round Athens way. In a very real sense, we’re jealous.


Knowlton Bourne at Stereo Embers

What would a train sound like if it could express the loneliness it feels speeding through a dark deserted night? If I were forced to guess it would sound eerily similar to the sigh and echoed dual harmonicas announcing the lazy swoon of a groove that opening track “Summer Sun” luxuriously occupies on newcomer Knowlton Bourne’s debutSongs from Motel 43. Dusted by what you might call a languid brashness and the drawl of some hot afternoon blues, the song, as a calling card, is resplendently astute, all the way down to the bubbling space synth outro that pulls that train down some cleverly unexpected tracks. As made immediately clear thenceforth as first single “Hangin’ Around” kicks off with the ‘slow funk jam’ setting on a bedroom Casio before sliding into its laconic Vilesque mojo, Bourne is not your standard trooper in the Gram Parsons Memorial Marching Band. Though country touches sparkle everywhere – the young man reps his roots with an inescapable down home authenticity – Knowlton’s version of Cosmic American Music© eschews the Nudie suit baubles and the homagistic motifs that come with it (whereas pedal steel is present here and there, you won’t hear a single lap steel crying anywhere on this record) for something more akin to denim-clad ameritronica. In many instances – the bucolic gallop of “Greyhound,” the soulful, ennui-laden sway of “I Can’t Tell/Run” – the sprawl sprawls until just the moment it needs hauling in, when Bourne slips the reins on and does it like it’s no big deal, does it with the swift immortal reflexes of the precocious 23-year-old he is.

Essentially, then, the gentle strum that hides the anxious, slightly askew heart, equal parts willowy and angsty,Songs from Motel 43 – and its author – belies its range of influences while embracing them with a warm Southern hug. The scrapes on the acoustic’s fretboard during “Done Movin’ On,” while inescapably iconic, are mic’ed up so high they pierce the piece’s simple beauty with the sense of a jabbing sharp pain, making it seem like this fresh-faced, barely-begun-shaving kid’s possessed down to his marrow by Bukka White or somebody. “Motel 43″‘s country clop could’ve been programmed by Conny Plank, the pedal steel haunting like a Louisiana synth and yet the track still rises and drifts all misty and fine, its cantoring existentialism both homespun and world-weary before its author’s time, while “The River (For Nels)” – one assumes Cline? – bristles with the quiet restlessness of a young man weighing young man options, the song heavy with all the ruminative equivocation suggested by Bourne’s doubled up guitars – a heartfelt acoustic strummed and picked with a lifer’s surety, an electric picking out an incidental lead that’s as country sweet as it is awash in a tossed-off rockist nonchalance – bringing it all back home where it inevitably belongs, the baptismal flow of the titular waterway still well intact.

The pick, though, may well be “Glow,” as luminous as its title and almost searing with its deliberative emotive tone, closing out the album in a kind of majestic humility that, once again, and for absolute certain, establishes Bourne as a (ahem) born standard-bearer of the transcendent singer-songwriter class. He may not exhibit the bedizened leitmotifs of the sainted GP but Songs from Motel 43, at the very least, suggests that a copy of the record should be sent to Keith Richards and pronto. A fellow traveler has arrived.