Broken Boy Soldiers
Even before hearing "Steady As She Goes," I knew the Raconteurs were a fantastic idea. The equation seemed foolproof: Jack White's visionary musical faculties + Brendan Benson's knack for songcraft = every indie rocker's wet dream. Then came doubt: Sure, "Steady" was a bitchin' single, but what if the rest of the album sucked? What if White, post-Grammy, proved too much of a diva to share the spotlight?
Broken Boy Soldiers allays those fears, proving this supergroup is bigger than the sum of its parts. Solo, Benson is king of the tidy, three-minute pop song that's as catchy as it is forgettable. But with White in the sandbox, Benson gets some much-needed dirt under his fingernails, while White's rebellious soul finds an awesome complement in Benson's sweet harmonies and traditional song structure. The result is a handful of tracks that, like "Steady," strike the right mix of melody and riffage backed by the capable, beefy rhythm section (courtesy of Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler) lacking on the last six Stripes records.
It's fun trying to pick out the Benson tracks from the White tracks. With psychedelic vocal lines, a "Theme from Taxi"–style Rhodes and Elton John–inspired melodies, "Hands," "Intimate Secretary," and "Together" carry Benson's unmistakable stamp, while the rawking "Level," "Store Bought Bones," and the smoky, Motown-flavored "Blue Veins" have White's fingerprints all over 'em. I could be wrong, though—this collabo is so natural, sometimes it's hard to tell where the seams are.
"Steady" may still be the best song on the record, but the title track, with White's possessed-sounding caterwaul, is damned compelling, too, and most of the others start sounding like familiar favorites after just a few spins. Indie kids, it's time to change the metaphorical bed sheets. MAYA KROTH
It's nice to finally hear Ethan Miller's voice. The vocalist in freak-out faves Comets on Fire always has had oscillators and a studio's worth of effects pedals disguising whatever he's singing about... if he is indeed singing at all. With Howlin' Rain, Miller's vocals are upfront and crystal clear, nothing providing his voice the luxury of hiding or taking it easy.
That being said, he kinda sings like Kid Rock.
This is not a bad thing. The Kid takes his main rock inspiration from Lynyrd Skynyrd, who in turn owed heaps to the Allman Brothers and all their other ancestors in the long line of respectable Southern Rock lineage.
Along with Miller's ringing, freedom-rock pipes, he adds a sick fuzz-guitar attack that borders on excessive. At the same time, the whole over-the-top factor of the guitar (see especially the solo in "Calling Lightning with a Scythe") is so out of left field and unexpected, you realize it truly is fresh and original, at least in the listening confines of your dusty pickup truck, and that it actually works.
Most of the songs hold up to a "down-home" ideal, recalling the better bits of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or Creedence Clearwater Revival, bands that, like Howlin' Rain, emerged from nowhere near the American South, but still managed to nail the vibe of the land. While Howlin' Rain's music is considered "new" in that it was released this year, it already feels familiar and classic. BEN BLACKWELL
With the release of her debut album, Sera Cahoone should be able to permanently shake off any drummer jokes that might be lobbed in her direction. The former drummer for Carissa's Wierd and Patrick Park has delivered a breathtaking collection of sad and dusky songs that reveal an artist of remarkable depth as well as a truly stunning voice.
Cahoone is that rare vocalist who can convey an almost uncanny profundity of emotion in a single note. Her voice is like caramel, reminiscent of Patsy Cline, Cat Power's Chan Marshall, Jesse Sykes, and even Sinéad O'Connor at her most vulnerable. When she lets out the line, "If we don't talk, I won't mind, it's the only way to get along sometimes," you can feel the full spectrum of emotion behind it: a mingling of sorrow, resignation, anger, love, and disappointment.
The songs aren't happy, but they are beautiful—and beautifully recorded. Banjo, Dobro, violin, lap and pedal steel bring just the right touches of twangst and melancholy to the mix. While the prevailing mood is one of longing and regret, the album is far from monochromatic or melodramatic. "Last Time" is a rollicking number, "What a Shame" might be the most upbeat-sounding song of loneliness around, and "I've Been Wrong" sounds like it could be a long-lost Cline tune.
But "Long Highway" is the highlight, with Cahoone entreating, "Don't tell me lies, for once tell me what's on your mind." Spare and pure, it's the most haunting moment on a genuinely knock-out debut. BARBARA MITCHELL
Be honest—many practitioners of the so-called New Folk movement are just a pair of tights and a wineskin away from a Renaissance Faire summer job. So what makes the second full-length from Philadelphia sextet Espers particularly remarkable is the manner in which they craft tracks that sound like they could have been played in the court of an ancient Celtic king just as comfortably as in any Capitol Hill cafe. If there were a Sonic Boom on Summerisle, the creepy setting of the 1973 British thriller The Wicker Man, this disc would be a top seller.
Over seven long tracks, textures waft in and out, sometimes quite subtlety, and in others—as when the drums and psychedelic guitar FX kick in halfway through "Widow's Weed"—very suddenly. Long passages of stark simplicity (the repeated melodic gestures that anchor the opening "Dead Queen") contrast vividly with flights of borderline prog-rock excess. Hazy female vocals recall the polychromatic baby talk of Cocteau Twins' Liz Frazer, yet also the bracing clarity of Fairport Convention alumna Sandy Denny. The featured instrumentation spans a gamut of eras and cultures, incorporating items as basic as Martin six-string acoustic guitars and Fender jazz bass, to less rock-centric ones such as cello, flute, and various vintage electronics, to frankly exotic offerings like singing bowls and the doumbek and dholak (percussion instruments from Egypt and India, respectively). The current vogue for outré folk and chamber pop may be helping Espers make new fans, but their mesmerizing music transcends mere faddishness. KURT B. REIGHLEY
To Find Me Gone
I discovered Vetiver during the Great Cello Depression of 2004, when I refused to listen to anything that didn't meet my quota for minor chords and strings melancholy enough to open a vein by. At the time, the San Francisco folk collective's debut was totally up my alley, even though the record wasn't sad, per se; it just had a way of inviting introspection and dredging up some heavy feelings. Two years later, To Find Me Gone is a little sunnier, but still fosters its share of mind wandering. Many of the album's 11 tracks are not "songs" as much as ephemeral strains of rhythm and melody, stumbled upon as if by accident. With primitive, gently propulsive percussion, tracks like "You May Be Blue" sound like you've just wandered into a forest clearing and discovered a band of bearded natives enacting an arcane bonfire ritual. Songs plod along hypnotically (and, some might say, too repetitively) before crescendoing into head-bobbing, tongue-in-groove jams.
Vetiver's music has been described as Americana, but principal songwriter Andy Cabic pulls in musical quotes from all over the place—Paul Simon-esque phrases mix with Euro-style tempos (waltzes), and instrumentation (strings, accordion) and melodies reminiscent of Slavic folk songs. The music ranges from lazy barroom honky-tonk ("I Know No Pardon") to jammy indie rock à la Built to Spill ("Red Lantern Girls"), while Cabic's whisper-soft lyrics touch on themes of arrival and departure, presence and absence. ("You come back home/to the USA/and your lips look new/they have things to say that I've never heard," he sings on "No One Word.")
Rare is the record that chills you out as much as it makes you think, but this breezy, summer-day album ably achieves both. MAYA KROTH
Sur la Mer Samp-le-mer
5 Rue Christine, hatched eight years ago as an experimental imprint for the Kill Rock Stars label, has become one of the best bastions for challenging new music in the Northwest. Admirably adhering to their "weirder = better" manifesto, 5RC has one-upped the antiestablishment leanings of its big-sister label by championing underdogs, savants, and deconstructionists many would avoid like the plague. If the purpose of a label sampler is to paint a broad picture of the label's roster and gospel, then the Sur la Mer Samp-le-mer release succeeds—in all its uneven glory.
Most compilations start with a wallop, but here, label honcho Slim Moon opts for a slow burn, as electro-acoustic ruminations gradually flame up into blown-out post-punk shakedowns. The musique concrète croonings of opening track, "Lynching Luncheon" by the Robot Ate Me perfectly set the mood for what's to come. Other standouts include a knotty sojourn by No-Neck Blues Band that comes off like the Grateful Dead on a whippet binge, a fuzzy Appalachian gem by Amps for Christ, and two offerings by the prolific Deerhoof.
Interestingly, it's some of the more gripping tracks like the Advantage's heavy fusion take on Nintendo's "Castlevania 3" theme and the autistic knife fights of the sadly defunct the Planet The that disrupt the flow here, like amped-up party crashers at a slow-dance social. Still, 5RC has always been about taking chances, not consistency, and we wouldn't have it any other way. JOSH BLANCHARD
(I and Ear)
ZACH HILL AND MICK BARR
Ocrilim's Anoint plays as if guitarist Mick Barr collected the crests of metal's greatest solos and arranged these fragments until he composed a masterpiece comprised entirely of climaxes. Whereas, say, the resounding squeal near the end of Megadeth's "Hangar 18" offers cathartic release after a song-long buildup, every note here detonates immediately. Barr creates spatial illusions with sound, so the intervals between eruptions appear to exist as separate yet simultaneous songs, like one of those woman-or-vase brainteasers. He multitracks three guitars for the lead riffs and two more for the bass, unleashing dense, devastatingly potent harmonic noise. Anoint is an intimidatingly virtuosic album, the type that might prompt audiophiles to purchase expensive, more deserving equipment, but it's melodically accessible enough that anyone who has ever lofted a lighter during an arena-show solo can appreciate its merits.
Barr teams with Zach Hill (Hella, Team Sleep) on Shred Earthship, a record that shares Anoint's technical excellence, but lacks its entry points. Hill pummels his kit with inspired violence, drumming past even death metal's speed threshold. Barr, accustomed to the duo dynamic from his work with Orthrelm, matches Hill's unrelenting attack, playing ultrafast passages that blur into initially inscrutable sonic squiggles. During the rare times when Barr finds a repetitive groove, Hill breaks the spell with his chaotic pounding: It takes repeated listens to establish their musical partnership as congruous rather than competitive. Shred Earthship is like James Joyce's Ulysses: profoundly challenging yet rewarding for those able to invest the intellectual effort. Anoint is more like the Old Testament, demanding unequivocal worship. ANDREW MILLER
While that peculiar subgenre of Finnish freak-folk had a breakthrough in 2005 due to strong albums from the likes of Lau Nau, Paavoharju, and Kemialliset Ystävät—as well as a brief though captivating stateside tour—there is a glass ceiling to the music. Simply put, it's difficult to pronounce the band names, much less grasp the lyrical concerns in their native tongue. Leave it to Kiila's Sami Sanpakkila to pick up the Finnish-English dictionary for his first stateside release, Heartcore.
When not running the highly-regarded Fonal imprint or making a racket as either Es or Niko-Matti Ahti, Sami's Kiila outfit concerns itself more with pop song structures and small improvised doses of noise. So what if Sanpakkila—singing reticently in English—pronounces both words of "Holy Melancholy" as rhyming? As long as this bizarre mantra teeters and loops like an oblong Residents ditty, it works. "Contemporaries," with its woozy bed of shuffling toy cymbals and shortwave static, offsets the trite lines just enough, but the flat and off-key mumbles of "Set the Storm Aside" make you pine for Finnish gibberish.
Thankfully, Kiila also knows when to bring forth some unfettered peals, these minute-long interludes unsettling the mood, with the title track an excellent expansion of feedback and squalls that coalesce into a brief rock vamp. Over the sounds of rainfall, singing saw, and a guitar twanging from out near Twin Peaks comes "She's Too Good." It's topped off with an eerie croak that barely registers as any particular language. ANDY BETA