Warning: This album might make kids want to form a band… or Hinds – Leave Me Alone

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It doesn’t hurt to have hi profile friends (Black Keys, Libertines, the Strokes, Black Lips) and to be opening for some very popular bands. Then to get major label distribution (Sony) so that your music gets promoted and is easily available once the word is out is even better. However, the only thing that will really result in lasting appeal are a great bunch of songs. You either write them, have them written for you, or have things crafted so densely under production that singing the dictionary sounds like a hit ready for the mini-pops to cover. The later is usually what you see when youth get major label money and the results are generally fan bases popular amongst the pre-teen kids waiting for the next single by Selena Gomez or Cody Simpson.

It isn’t often that you see the exact opposite play out, but ‘holy crap’ it has and the effort has produced an outstanding record. Riding out of a sunrise with a sound that crosses the lo-fi glory of Sebadoh with the energy of the 5.6.7.8’s and the dreamscape of Best Coast, Hinds have created an LP that can relate as much to early rock ‘n’ roll as it does to modern alternative/indie sounds. All that and they’re still on an indie (with major distribution).

What is most appealing with Leave Me Alone are the moments that have the dual vocals of Carlotta Cosials and Ana Garcia Perrote playing off one another in a playful case of a mutual admiration society. The album opens with “Garden” which has them teaming up with vocals that are not the usual ‘call and answer’ or traded lines found in duets as much as a ‘sing-a-long’ jam with friends just having a great time. Live you often see bands have these moments but capturing it in a studio environment is rare. Which makes it all the more remarkable that they pull it off on a full albums worth of material.

Hinds do have a few tunes that capture the whole ‘dark and brooding’ thing, but their overall enthusiasm seems to jangle right past despair with a good nod and a wink. Thing is, it’s really hard to be in a negative mood listening to Hines… like a good friend they show up when you’re down and say nothing more than “get off your ass and let me buy you a drink” and everything feels better.

Great rock ‘n’ roll records don’t have to be complicated affairs. They don’t need to have producers with a track record, a billion dollar studio, or a video directed by a Hollywood ‘A list-er’. Leave Me Alone is a reminder that great music can come from kids with nothing more than the standard guitar, bass and drum mixed with a few crappy amps and a willingness to let the songs speak for themselves. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a few kids will hear this record and start bands of their own, and that would be about the highest compliment any band can get.

It Is What It Is! or Silversun Pickups – Better Nature

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For better or worse, every band / artist and their music is a giant work in progress (except maybe AC DC – but that’s another story altogether). With age and aspiration they evolve and some fans grow with a band and some go in other directions. Better Nature is not its predecessors. Gone is “early 90’s alternative” atmosphere that fans loved on earlier releases Carnavas and Swoon and in its place is the synth/guitar mix being used by many of today’s popular ‘indie-rock’ artists. The result is something more slick and expansive, ‘shoegaze with synth support’ if you will, rather than the passion driven two minute wonders found in their mid 2000’s releases (ie. Carnavas’ “Lazy Eye”).

That isn’t to say Better Nature isn’t a really good record – because, well, it is… but…

Silversun Pickups are at their best when the pedal is down and caution is thrown to the wind, and Better Nature is all about structure… which leads us into a little bit of a contradiction.  It seems producer Jacknife Lee is trying to turn Silversun Pickups into Adore era Smashing Pumpkins, and believe me, that isn’t a compliment. It’s great for artists to experiment with sounds, but only when the songs really call for it. In this case, production and layering has taken the place of rocking out.

Lead single “Nightlights” is a good case in point. It starts with a great riff as a song that one can blast loud, but then, it changes course and does all these slow down and layered guitar things that bog down the last minute. Rather than keeping urgency with the heavy guitar, it becomes an act of ‘listen to these cool sounds over here!’ In other words, it becomes a little too indulgent to carry the momentum of song through to its conclusion.

There is a lot to like here as the songs on Better Nature all have pretty cool grooves at their core; however they tend to get lost underneath their own sonic waves. Perhaps their evolution is still in between two places, or maybe, as a fan, they’ve just gone in a direction where I can’t follow, but Silversun Pickups have created a good record that might have been great.

The Sheepdogs – Future Nostalgia or Everything Old Is New Again…

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As the album title suggests, The Sheepdogs are a band lost in time. With absolutely no pretense to suggest anything else, they are what they are, and you can accept it or move along. The choice is yours.

So here is Future Nostalgia, an album that sounds like it was recorded at Muscle Shoals during the studios glory days. Opening track “I’m Gonna Be Myself” is instant proof as you get the Skynyrd riffs and Boz Scaggs vocal styles that were so recognized from the legendary southern studio.

Of course, if you are going to play with the sounds of the classic rock era, you might as well be as expansive as possible. “Downtown” throws in some Eagles harmonies and references them again on “Bad Lieutenant.” The swampy Bernie Leadon like guitar lead is reminiscent of the 1972 classic “Witchy Woman.” From there you get another Eagles guitarist, Joe Walsh, being reflected in The Sheepdogs “Take A Trip.” If you add the easy listening, Michael McDonald era Doobie Brothers sound, coming off “Jim Gordon”, and add in riffs that could come from rock stalwarts like Spirit, Free, Rick Derringer, James Gang and even Canada’s own Lighthouse, you have a pretty insane package.

The thing about the Sheepdogs is they’re not so much influenced by “classic rock” as actually sounding as if they stepped off a time machine from the era direct. If most any other band on the planet tried this, I’d be tossing out tired accusations of being poseurs. However, the songs are just too damn catchy for me to get a hate on for them. Yes you could slip them into a 70’s rock mix and someone could confuse it as a deep cut from an unknown, yet awesome, band from back in the day; but rock ‘n’ roll is nothing if not one giant recycling project.

So, how does that saying go? “Everything old is new again!” It’s kinda hard to argue with that when Future Nostalgia is spinning.

City & Colour – If I Should Go Before You: A Transformative Work

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Dallas Green may have started City and Colour as a means to introduce his ‘rootsy’ brand of song craft, but those days are now more of an ‘origin story’ than the reality of where he is. Much like Wilco, who turned from alt-country to sonic experimenters, Green took his acoustic-based leanings and is now creating expansive tunes that, at times, owe more to blues, soul and even psychedelia than the modern ‘folk rock’ he was labeled with on earlier City and Colour records.

Signs of this transformation began on the last album The Hurry And The Harm, with a more conventional, harder edge brought in with the addition of electric guitars and organs. If I Should Go Before You not only expands on this addition, but takes on some new influences.

Opening the record is a nine minute blues epic “Woman” which mixes Muddy Waters with Pink Floyd and throws in a 60’s San Francisco twist. The result is a ‘listen with headphones’ dreamscape that shows his bands’ ability to improvise around their material. “Northern Blues” has subtle R&B underpinnings keeping a sonic improvisation steady as Green’s falsetto soars above.

Musically, this ‘Memphis soul base’ is played out on what would seem to be perfect for the two sides of a vinyl record. “If I Should Go Before You”, “Killing Time”, and the frickin’ amazing single “Wasted Love” finish off the R&B influenced ‘Side A.’ Even the sudden stop of “Wasted Love” on the songs’ conclusion gives definition to a change in direction. In a manner of speaking, it is the point when you flip the record.

‘Side B’ takes on tones that have their foundation in roots-rock, starting with “Runaway”, a song that recalls Blue Rodeo’s “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” with its majestic pedal steel guitar. From there, you move onto “Lover Come Back” with its blend of piano and organ which creates an atmosphere reminiscent of The Band.

The most appealing thing about If I Should Go Before You is that all the influences are merely reference points. Like most great, or even classic records, the listener finds a connection that resonates with a familiar sound, and then the music branches off into new and exciting places.

If I Should Go Before You isn’t just another City and Colour record… it’s a transformative work; the album when all potential and expectations are realized and then exceeded.

 

If I Should Go Before You hits stores on Oct 9.

Oh Beautiful Desolation! or Elliott Smith – Eponymous

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Some albums just seem timeless by their very nature, and such is the case with Elliott Smith and his eponymous record. What made Smith unique was his ability to be a singer/songwriter playing music in a way reminiscent of Nick Drake but with a sensibility that came from his own life and the darker era of the 1990’s. Call it grunge without a Fender Jaguar to scream emotions in your face. Instead he used light strumming on an acoustic guitar mixed with a thin voice that always seemed like it was on the cusp of breaking. He was heartbreaking and mesmerizing in the same breath. He was better off without the bombast of the era as is proven in his earlier band Heatmiser, which often times seemed like just another band trying to be the ‘flavour of the month,’ because, as hindsight has shown us, he was so much more.

So last night I’m sitting down at the computer to do some writing and I throw Elliott Smith onto Spotify… and I stop before “Needle In the Hay” is even half way finished. I shut down the computer and put the vinyl version on… everything opens up. Streaming just doesn’t capture the depth of low notes and emotional resonance; which is important with Smith or you miss out on the actual desolation being presented in the most beautiful of ways.

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My advice, get a physical copy on CD or preferably vinyl, and let the music take you somewhere. The thing is you have quite a few choices. Since its original release in 1995 Kill Rock Stars in the US and Domino in the UK have released nine separate versions of this record. Early copies were on standard vinyl, but starting in starting in 2005 it has been released more in audiophile vinyl with two pressings in 180 Gram.

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The first is standard black and is widely available at your local record retailers, while the second is a limited (1000) blue vinyl edition that can be ordered from Newbury Comics.

There is also an orange copy floating around out there but I couldn’t find a vinyl weight or release date for it.

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Anyway, get a copy, listen, enjoy!