Category Archives: review

Bry Webb – Provider

The status of Constantines is, unfortunately, something of a mystery right now.  Though there’s been no official break up (that I’m aware of anyway), the Canadian indie-rock heroes are certainly on some sort of indefinite hiatus, having not released any new material since 2008’s Kensington Heights.  They are sorely missed, especially considering the way so much current independent music is shifting aware from loud electric guitars and singers who sound like they mean it.  Not that there’s anything wrong with the current state of independent music.  Synth-pop and gauzy beach jams are fine, but it’s just that the world can always use a bunch of dudes who know how to bring some clattering, glorious rock & roll.  Nah’mean? 

Despite his main band’s current dormancy, the recent release of Bry Webb’s solo debut, Provider, has flown almost completely under the radar.  This somber, reflective collection of songs deserves more than that – it’s a true grower of a record and the fruition  of the blue collar, everyman themes that have run through some of the Constantines’ best recent material (“Soon Enough”, “Our Age”, “Do What You Can Do”).   Downplaying his typically savage growl, Webb’s gruff vocals really shine here as he sings songs about familial responsibility over acoustic guitars, pedal steel, and muted horns.  There’s not a weak track on Provider, but some of the best seem to be directed at specific loved ones – “Ada” (his son), “Persistent Spirit” (his wife), and “Undertaker” (his grandmother).  Consider this ex-punk all grown up and making some of the most quietly intense music of his career.

MP3  ::  Rivers of Gold

(from Provider. Buy here)

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Centro-matic – Candidate Waltz

I’m finally finding myself catching up with Centro-matic’s Candidate Waltz after a few months of, for some strange reason, not giving it nearly the attention it deserves.  Released over the summer with little fanfare, the Denton, TX band’s 9th studio record (I might be off on that exact number, with all the side projects and what not) stands up admirably to their long and impressive run of albums over the past 15 years.  Candidate Waltz is a bit more stripped down and rhythmic than previous efforts, with some songs even approaching a Spoon-like degree of air-tight minimalism.  Fear not though fans of Love You Just the Same or Distance + Clime – the feedback and electric guitars still erupt and Will Johnson’s growl is as distinct and effective as ever.  The highlight for me is “Only in My Double Mind”, arguably the most immediate song ever penned by Johnson and an instant classic.  The colorful video finds him painting the cover art with pizza, wine, and chickens flying pretty much all over the place.  Not sure how he gets it done in 4 minutes with so many distractions, but he does. 

MP3  ::  Only in My Double Mind

(from Candidate Waltz. Buy here)

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Forest Fire – Staring at the X

One of the records I’ve been spinning a lot lately is the new one from Brooklyn’s Forest Fire.  Staring at the X continues the band’s warped take on folk music that began so promisingly on 2008 debut Survival.  In case you missed it, one of the songs – the VU-inspired fuzz/folk of “Slow Motion” – was a favorite of mine that year.  These new songs stretch into all sorts of strange and impressive directions; it’s one of the more expansive sounding 34-minute records you’re likely to come across and a great leap forward for the band.  The production is fleshed out considerably over the debut, giving the new album a sense of being a modern, albeit skewed, update on folk styles instead of a batch of campfire jams.  Songs like “The News”, “Future Shadows”, and lead single “Mtns Are Mtns” go so far as to exude some pop elements – echoing keyboards, background vocals, and choruses you want to shout along with.  On the album’s back half the songs take on a bit more of a dark vibe –  highlight “Blank Appeal” sounds like a buzzing folk death march in, er, slow motion.  There aren’t many bands out there that sound much like Forest Fire, but I think a good frame of reference might be Pink Mountaintops’ excellent Outside Love, which combined folk-based songs with elements of psyche-rock and layers of warm fuzz.  Regardless, Staring at the X sounds pretty singular in the current indie-rock world – its weird, wonderful songs just waiting to be discovered and explored.

MP3  ::  Mtns Are Mtns

(from Staring at the X. Buy here)

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Wilco – The Whole Love

 Though Wilco has been my favorite band since Summerteeth, my in-print relationship with the band has been somewhat rocky since starting this blog back in 2007.  I not only declared Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the best album of the decade a few years back, but my favorite album, period.  Before that though I self-righteously (read: boneheadedly) “Re-ImaginedA Ghost Is Born as a completely different entity, though it’s as well written a record as there is in the Tweedy back catalog, save YHF.  As for their past two less adored studio releases, there’s no denying Sky Blue Sky has its soft rock charms.  The title track is a gorgeous reimagining of “Far Far Away”, Nels & Jeff conjure alternate guitar-universes on “Impossible Germany”, and “What Light” makes a Guthrie-esque mission statement of where Tweedy’s head was at as a songwriter at the time.  But it was the first time a Wilco album contained songs that I routinely skipped.  I still have no idea how “Shake It Off” ends, or if it even does.  The remarkably forgettable Wilco (the Album) followed and contained even fewer redeemable moments – in fact I just perused the tracklist and I have no recollection whatsoever of a song called “Solitaire”.  As a Tweedy fan since late-period Uncle Tupelo, I’ve been waiting (rather impatiently) for a record I could call a return to form for a long time.

The excellent The Whole Love, though just short of being in the league of their best work, is just that.  From beginning to end the new record sounds amazing.  The production is pristine (props to Pat Sansone for taking a much larger role in that department, and to Tweedy for allowing him to), and the band plays as democratically as any 6-piece ensemble working today.  There are subtly breathtaking string sections used liberally throughout, and the arrangements, not unlike classic-era Wilco, often take unexpected and exciting detours. Like Wilco (The Album) before it, much of The Whole Love acts as an encapsulation of Wilco’s entire career, and as such it is an infinitely more successful career-overview than its predecessor.  Dense pop songs like “Dawned on Me” and “I Might” echo Summerteeth’s bright, swirling arrangements, while “Open Mind” sounds like a long lost treasure from the Being There sessions, if not Harvest-era Neil Young.  And one of the true highlights is the winding, 12+ minute closer “One Sunday Morning”, which, with its lyrical depth and straightforward folk arrangement, could easily pass for a Mermaid Avenue track. 

But that’s not to say there aren’t new tricks to be had among The Whole Love’s near one-hour run time.  The acoustic “Rising Red Lung” is so hushed that it borders on lo-fi, while “Standing O” is a big dumb/fun rocker with plenty of arena-rock gloss.  The title track is a spry, seasick little pop song with Tweedy’s finest vocal performance on the record.  However, none of the surprises on The Whole Love come close to accomplishing what the stunning album opener “Art of Almost” does.  A multi-part electro-rock epic, the song is a staggering art-punk manifesto.  It’s hard to believe that the same band that led off their last two records with the pleasant but slight “Either Way” and something as goofily self-referential as “Wilco (The Song)” is still capable of such an awe-inspiring 7 minutes.  As a lead off track, “Art of Almost” is a worthy successor to “Misunderstood”, “Can’t Stand It”, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, and “At Least that’s What You Said”. 

And as for the “return to form”, let’s be honest – Jeff Tweedy is well aware of the potential legacy his band is forging, as well as the critical backlash that has accompanied his last two records.  Refocused in every way, The Whole Love is the most inspired set of songs Wilco has yielded in 7 years.  Though the middle of the album isn’t quite as sharp as the start or finish, The Whole Love is still strong enough to be considered among the year’s best releases, and places Wilco right back in any conversation concerning America’s best bands.  It’s just great to have them back creating vibrant, exciting, and unpredictable songs once again. 

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Chris Kiehne – A Widower’s Kind

After already dropping one of the year’s finest folk albums with Pray for Daylight (hushed acoustics, gorgeous harmonies, subtle zombie theme, the usual stuff), Chris Kiehne has recently made available (for free download!) another excellent 10 song collection.  In his own words, A Widower’s Kind is a collection of slightly-to-significantly modified Hank Williams’ songs.  Some of his most morbid songs, and some of my favorite.  It’s scrappy and sad and dusty, like Hank himself, and I’m pretty happy with it

Now I’m no Hank Williams expert per se, but I do know quite a few of the country legend’s most famous songs.  In fact, I’m sure I could dig up a dusty CD compilation in my attic with 20 or so of his biggest hits now that I think about it.  I even wrote about one once upon a time.  But A Widower’s Kind foregoes the typical Williams’ covers – there’s no “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, or “Hey Good Lookin’” to be found here – as Kiehne goes deep into the Williams’ catalog.  Check out the achingly pretty “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around” and a completely rebuilt “I Can’t Get You Off of My Mind” for starters.  Then download and share the whole thing. 

MP3  ::  My Sweet Love Ain’t Around

MP3  ::  I Can’t Get You Off of My Mind

(from A Widower’s Kind. Download here)

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Adam Chandler – Spider Sleep

It’s been four long years since Icon T-Shirt, the DIY folk-punk blast that signaled nothing but promise from NYC/VA songwriter Adam Chandler.  That album, along with the best tracks from 2005’s Vacation, features little more than Chandler and his bruised guitar swaggering through his songs as if he were backed by The Jam.  For his latest, Chandler decided to explore “the darker, more psychological side of my work and do it with a lot of varying textures and depth of tone.  I set out to create a sort of cinematic and more cohesive overall album this time than on my other two previous musical ventures.”  Spider Sleep uses layers of backing tracks to flesh out the sound while maintaining a minimal, stripped-down approach.  The result is clearly a darker and less overtly melodic collection of songs, but one that broadens Chandler’s skill at crafting memorable hooks and melodies.  Check out the brooding “Outsider Heart” and the album’s staggering centerpiece “Woe Is Me” below.  You can pick up Spider Sleep by emailing Chandler directly at spidersleeprecord@gmail.com and check out some of Chandler’s homemade music videos here

MP3  ::  Woe Is Me

MP3  ::  Outsider Heart

(from Spider Sleep. Buy here)

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Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo

It’s taken me a few weeks, but I’m finally catching up with Kurt Vile’s insular new record Smoke Ring for My Halo.  Honestly, at first I wasn’t sure I understood why it was receiving the glowing reviews – I mean, I liked it, but it just seemed so monochromatic compared to his earlier work.  But like a few of my other favorites of the year so far (Kaputt, Let England Shake, Common Era), the charms of Smoke Ring have revealed themselves to me in a bit more of a gradual manner.  It’s as if Vile has created his own fascinating little idiosyncratic world on this record that you’ve been invited to explore, and that journey doesn’t just take 1 or 2 listens.  The whole album has a sustained narcotic mood, sounding like it was intimately recorded in a dark dressing room well after hours.  And then there’s Vile, whose lyrics come closer to inner monologues and intoxicated ramblings than traditional rock lyrics – he has a charmingly unique songwriting style that sets him apart from just about everyone else out there.  All together it adds up to a great album from an artist with a singular (and singularly weird) vision.

MP3  ::  Jesus Fever

MP3  ::  In My Time

(from Smoke Ring for My Halo. Buy here)

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