Jake Slater - Humble Digs Volume 2
No genre is perhaps more critically maligned, despite its rampant popularity as jam bands. There's just something in the intersection of rock n’ roll, jazz, extended improvisation and snippets of other styles - like indie and electronica - that people just love to hate.
This is despite the fact that many Phish- and Deadheads also fawn over early indie/college rock weirdoes like Pavement and Ween, not to mention classics like Steely Dan, Miles Davis and Motown. Perhaps the prejudice comes from the worn-out influence of punk rock with its inherent mistrust of people who know how to play their instruments, write songs or deliver their material in a bright, shiny pop bow.
These days, however, perhaps the most punk thing you can do is to have your songs heard by the many, in whatever way you can. It's no longer enough to be weird and abrasive for the sake of being "experimental" or "edgy." We've heard it all. We're no longer easily shocked or stunned.
Humble Digs Volume 2 by Middleboro, MA's Jake Slater, compensates for the bloated prog crimes of many jam-indebted bands, particularly on record, by swathing the instruments in a mellow cocoon of reverb, painting the guitars and vocals in an impressionistic blur that is a welcome respite from the often harsh, dry digital production style that many prog-style bands tend to favor.
Humble Digs Volume 2 is built around the gentle, swaying strum of Slater's jazz guitar and gentle vocals. The bare skeleton is then cloaked in a flesh of vintage keyboards and saxophone bringing the old school soul jazz and retro electronica vibes, making Humble Digs Volume 2 somewhere between Booker T & The MGs and "Boogie On Reggae Woman." Instrumental virtuosity is on display here in short bursts of flying guitar solos. Slater keeps it minimal and restrained, however, never succumbing to self-indulgence.
Me, personally, I'm an unashamed Phish and Deadhead, so it's a pleasure to hear jazz-influenced improvisatory rock delivered in an appealing way. Slater possesses the unique combination of knowing what he's trying to say, knowing how to say it eloquently and knowing what his audience wants to hear. This equilibrium will serve Slater well, and any jam band attempting to make a record would do well to take some production notes.
It is tempting to analyze all art in a societal context. We can lament the death of the androgynous '70s with all the progress they made, as the '80s returned the glammy, escapist, misogynistic hedonism of hair metal and stadium rock. We can wax poetic about working class rage, the capitalist grind and gender equality, but the fact of the matter is, music exists, first and foremost, as music. Musicians write riffs, bass lines and drum patterns because they feel good and they like the way they sound. Or they should, anyway.
Butt-Ugly Noodle did things the old-fashioned way - just a group of friends from The Netherlands who liked to jam. Starting off with a core of guitar and vocals, Butt-Ugly Noodle quickly gathered a rhythm section and they became a real band.
The Second Floor starts right off with a mission statement and battle cry in the form of "Feeling Alright" with a chorus that repeats those two words, over and over. This is music for enjoyment, for fun - for forgetting life's problems for a while, as melodic guitar hooks snare your eardrums like bottom-feeding carpe and won't let go.
Butt-Ugly Noodle features shouted/sung lead female vocals that land somewhere between the caustically saccharine PJ Harvey and the no-nonsense rock fury of Joan Jett. These vocals tell stories of regret, of abandonment, of demons and darkness, and having a good time in spite of it all.
The recording is pretty rough and ready like a good quality demo, which serves the raw realness of Butt-Ugly Noodle. This band isn't trying to pretend to be what they are not - not trying to present themselves as the shiniest, bestest new thing. This is a band that loves to play, that wants to ROCK and have a good time while doing so. You're bound to have a good time, while you listen. It's infectious.
There is no doubt that a two-piece band has to be on point. It’s even harder when that two-piece band is instrumental. In the case of Blood Party comprised of Paul Wilson (drums/electronic drums/noise) and Ben Humphrey (bass/keys/noise) they bring a barrage of noise, mayhem and destruction so that there is no need for extra players or instruments. Over the course of nine songs on their album Why Won't You Hold Me Computer? the band doesn't waste any time or space. Every moment is filled with distorted white noise, hard-hitting percussion or swampy bass residue. It’s not pretty but it’s not supposed to be.
Why Won't You Hold Me Computer? will attract fans of bands like Tools, Lighting Bolt and Isis. Out of those three Lighting Bolt bears the most comparison not only because both bands have two members but the levels of intensity both groups possess. That being said, Blood Party implements more electronic elements and also have an industrial feel that Lightning Bolt does not possess.
The band kicks things off with “Sable” which has the most technically impressive bass work on the album. They play in the pocket and the song gets more distorted and heavy as it progresses. By the end the drummer is going off on his tom drums and alien like noises are coming from his bass.
“Gratrunka” is a hell of a song. The drummer gets into some double kick drum action while the bass sounds like a digital swamp of distortion. It goes into a couple of unexpected but worthwhile directions and they implement electronic sounding percussion at points.
The centerpiece of the album is the sprawling “Kittens.” It’s an intense, hypnotic, heart pounding song that plays into the band's strengths. Another highlight is the slightly experimental “Gordon Shumway.” It has an almost Burial type vibe and I enjoyed the disparate elements.
Why Won't You Hold Me Computer? is a good album that will resonate with fans who can get down with drone infused instrumental metal and that aren’t scared of the dark. Recommended.
Atlantic Riff - My Happy Place
Back at the turn of this century the group Postal Service became popular and if you paid attention to their story you would know that their name came from how they shared music. Back then sharing files over the Internet was possible but took a lot of time so the group would exchange files through good old-fashioned mail. Times have changed and creating music over vast distances has never been easier.
Rob Mason (UK) and Chris Barnett (US) met over Soundcloud and after some discussion formed Atlantic Riff. Yes, the name is a play on words about how they met. Their recent effort My Happy Place is their release, which they made over vast geographic differences.
The EP is primarily straightforward rock but flirts with other styles as well. It feels scattered at times and the recording itself could use a number of improvements (way too many ear piercing high frequencies) but occasionally it shows inspired moments.
The first track “One and the Same” is high-energy rock but it doesn’t have many defining qualities. It sounds like a hybrid of different bands. The song is decently written and is visceral but something about it feels so familiar it becomes forgettable right after you hear it.
“Running” is arguably the highlight but was a departure in feel and style from the first song. It’s slightly funky and soulful and I thought the vocals sounded good here. “Tightrope” sounds like an inspirational song you would hear in the ‘80s. There is a Richard Marx type vibe here in the delivery and lyrics. I couldn’t turn up the song very loud because there were so many piercing frequencies on this song. The last two songs “My Happy Place” and “Stand” are non-threatening pop/rock songs that contain surface level lyrics that don’t require much scrutiny.
I’m not sure what the end game is for Atlantic Riff but they still got their work cut out for them if they want to compete with today's heavyweights. This EP is a decent start with a mixed bag of songs. There is something here but I have a feeling their best work is still ahead of them.
The Nevergrin - At Last Alone
New York's The Nevergrin delivers the feel bad hit of the late spring with At Last Alone.
The springtime can be a bit overwhelming. While the warm weather thaw comes as welcome respite from pummeling blizzards and oppressive gray skies, the sudden explosion of life energy that comes along with it can be a bit intense. Suddenly, it seems that every square inch of air is filled with the twittering of baby birds and mewling kittens, while the distractions of the flesh are every which way you turn.
Sometimes, if even for a moment, it can be tempting to want to turn back the clock, to the cold, when everything seemed quieter, more peaceful and contemplative, when you could go for an evening walk without being surrounded by the din of crowds, the squall of humanity. At Last Alone is your chance to do so - a headphone wormhole to a foggy alternate dimension, like the distant, dreamy photograph of a tree against a minimalist white backdrop that graces the cover.
The Nevergrin is a stripped down post-metal duo made up mostly of pulsing bass and thundering drums with occasional ominous whispered vocals and slight synth embellishments. The Nevergrin cite bands like Neurosis and Agalloch as influences, so you know At Last Alone contains the wild, beating, primal, feral howl of an ecstatic bloodletting ritual, as well as bands like Tool, so you know they're not afraid to get epic.
Thankfully, the duo never succumbs to bombastic or stadium rock tropes. At Last Alone is a somber, introspective and experimental release - poetic, disturbing and moving. At Last Alone was recorded at a variety of independent studios across NY and NJ, which The Nevergrin then tweaked and finessed endlessly to get the levels just so. What we are left with is either a very high quality demo or a raw and atmospheric record. The murky, somewhat lo-fi feel adds to the feeling, however. For me, personally, I'm tired of shiny plastic metal records trying to sound brutal and hardcore. Most of what passes for mainstream metal these days sounds to me like bloated prog rock (not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just not what I go for, in metal records).
The lo-fi sound quality; the sparse and skeletal arrangements; the dearth of vocals; elements of noise and black metal; all sum up to make an engaging and immersive sonic experience. While we may not want the winter back in its entirety, here's your chance for some stillness for an hour at a time.
Anna Spackman - House On the Sea
Thus far in her musical career singer-songwriter Anna Spackman seems to be on the right path towards commercial stardom. Her acoustic melodies and soft and precise vocals seem destined to find a home in the hearts of millions. Her lyrics and sweet vocal harmonies speak out to a mass audience of fans, albeit young women, who have ever found themselves at that familiar crossroads of love and life when one is reflecting on the path taken that ended in bitter heartbreak. Spackman is not one to look back on these times with bitterness though, instead she chooses to reflect on those times, singing them out and wondering how she could have done things differently and what the outcomes of these different turns may have led to.
This bittersweet outlook on life may have come from her humble upbringing in a small Pennsylvania town. It was here that she began to perform at open mics at the tender age of seventeen. A move across the country to the singer-songwriter capital of the world, Portland Oregon, likely helped Spackman to hone her songwriting skills. These skills are noticeably sharp on her third solo record House on the Sea. There are echoes of the Portland music scene on House on the Sea, however Spackman recorded the double LP with her brother Donnie when she returned back to the east coast.
House on the Sea is sixteen acoustic guitar driven songs long, each containing Spackman’s signature light and airy vocals. The songs unfold like a flower in time-lapse photography, telling its tale with just the right amount of metaphor. But Spackman’s lyrics oftentimes possess that vagueness which is a commonplace problem amongst the bourgeoning singer-songwriters who often dance around the point instead of telling the story directly. This is precisely what marks the novice as the novice and what hinders House on the Sea from being anything more than a novice album.
Though that is not to say that there are not any gems embedded in House on the Sea for there are. What I longed to hear more of didn’t come until late in the album beginning with the song “Sky.” Here Spackman reveals something personal to the listener in a way that the previous songs hadn’t. “Sky” marks the descent from the rubber stamp coffee house stage performer. This feeling continues on into the beautiful “How to Run” and runs throughout the remainder of House on the Sea.
House on the Sea is a late bloomer of an album with its most brilliant tracks being saved for the latter half of the record. They are worth skipping forward for. But moreover, they represent what in my estimation will be a bright future for Anna Spackman.
Willis - Chips & Salsa EP
The cover art for the Chips & Salsa EP by Willis is silly. It’s giggle worthy perhaps due to the fact that it just seems absurd. Further inquiry on the band's Facebook page one would surmise that the band is young. They might still be in high school for I know. From the cover art, to the title of the EP, to the pictures it’s obvious that the band is all about having fun and not taking the music too seriously. It’s a good attitude because it’s predominantly the way kids around that age act.
The most endearing aspect of Chips & Salsa is the band never gets in over their head. They are singing about sitting on their best friend’s couch or getting rejecting by the girl you have a crush on. The themes work because if you're older the music is nostalgic yet not contrived and if you’re in the same age range you can relate.
The first song “Chips and Salsa” is the highlight of the EP. It contains inventive fun guitar work during the verse that is ear candy. The vocals are expressive and dynamic when the vocalist sings, “The Border Patrol confiscated my Visa / Show me the way to chips and salsa / Hurry up and chop down my balsa / Sorry honey, I'm not looking to hug ya.” Once the chorus comes the band relies on punk inspired vocal harmonies and chord progressions. It works.
On “Better In My Dreams” the band deviates from the style we are introduced to on the first song. It’s more or less a ballad that revolves around clean guitars and a slower pace. The lyrics are well written and avoid a lot of the clichés you would expect from a band this young.
The band returns to an upbeat and festive punk style with “Two Shoes Blues” while “Julianne” explores rejection and fascination in a way that has you rooting that the guy gets the girl. The closer “Speed Dial 9” revolves around an acoustic guitar and vocals. Another solid song.
Chips & Salsa EP is far from perfect and the band has a way to go before they can compete with the best music today has to offer but the band is in a good place. They have some talent and Chips & Salsa builds a very solid foundation for them to build off of.
When one hears the phrase “the west” the idea that comes to mind is often of the old west, of Texas, and in the context of music, country and western music often comes to mind. However “the west” is really a big place and a small part of that big place happens to be Ashland, Oregon and Ashland, Oregon happens to be the hometown of Black Bears Fire, the moniker by which multi-instrumentalist and recording artist Nic Mcnamara goes by.
Mcnamara’s sophomore release under Black Bears Fire The Bottomless Blue is a mixture of roots-y folk rock with essences of blues, rock and hints of old school country combined with pop hooks and indie rock sensibilities with a sound that is firmly rooted in the north western landscape.
What becomes clear over the course of The Bottomless Blue are the characters that live in each of the songs. Mcnamara’s west is populated by lonely and fractured people who are often trying to find something which will make them whole again. Mcnamara is sympathetic towards his characters as he relays their stories with a sharp eye, though he doesn’t let them off easy, and many times as the song comes to a close they seem to be no better off than when they started.
On the opening track “Way Down” Mcnamara laments, “you'll fight me weighed down by the thing you're fighting for” which is an indirect way of saying “you’ll never win.” And not even the pretty melodies and jangly acoustic guitars on “Bite The Hook” can soften the blows of lines like “I left you with something you can't hold on to/ you can fight or bite the hook/ but don't look back on what you can't undo.”
However this tactic can only go so far. By the time one comes around to “My Best Friends Are Dead” a mortal skepticism has crept in and it lingers like a festering wound for the duration of The Bottomless Blue. Certain songwriters are able to get away with writing songs about hopelessness and hopeless people, but the truly gifted ones are far and few between. Mcnamara hasn’t yet achieved this level of songwriting mastery yet, and so eight roughly depressing songs begin to lose their luster after repeated listens. The frustration here lies in the fact that Mcnamara definitely has musical talent, but why he insists on believing that every song written in his chosen genre must be a verbose tale of sadness is quite beyond me.
The Dirty Jerks recent release three-song EP Dirty in the Streets is actually kind of dirty. At least the first song they play “Electrical Lybia” is. It has that bluesy distortion that can be described as dirty or gritty. The first song also happens to be the best sounding song from an aesthetic perspective.
It’s just mixed better than the other two songs on the EP. The singer’s vocals sit in a good place and the song has separation that the other songs don’t posses. For whatever reason the song is also a couple of DB’s louder.
Production aside the song is solid if a bit predictable. The band changes timing, which was effective and I thought the lead singer had a great rock voice. His vocals are definitely an asset the band will have to take advantage of on their further releases. He sounds good when he strains his voice which is not a quality that all singers posses.
The band throws out the blues/rock and goes for a more late ‘60s classic rock band type vibe. It’s another solid tune and the singer delivers arguably the best vocal performance here. The band gets slightly psychedelic by pouring on a copious amount of reverb on the guitars at points.
The last track “Base Mints” is another deviation for the band. It’s a bass lead song that treats the guitars as atmospheric. At times it reminded me of some of the less slap happy material Primus would play. I would have liked to hear the lead vocals more but what are you going to do.
I’m not sure when The Dirty Jerks formed but if I was a betting man I would say they are a relatively newly formed band. The band still seems to be working out what style fits and ultimately what makes them unique. Dirty in the Streets has a couple of inspired moments but the band still has their work cut out for them. This is a case of wait and see.
Every week we mention a couple of artists that are worth your time to check out that were not featured in our weekly reviews.
Artist Album Rating
Choo Choo Bandits Sugar Time 3.4
What's Left to Right Templum Auratus 3.0
The Dead Letters Flesh Like Flowers 3.3
meet me in montauk where the grass meets the pavement 3.7
Andrew Power Olivia 3.2
The Post Age Shapeshifter 3.3
Erin & The Project The Window 3.5
Okapi Midwives to Metamorphosis 3.9
Womb Catacomb Womb Catacomb 3.2
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