Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best Bay Area Albums of 2010

  1. The Audiophiles - Fairytales & Other Tales EP. If they’d lasted a bit longer, The Audiophiles could have been the best band ever. The unlikely supergroup, featuring Lil’ Billies/Juvenile Dukes guitarist Greg Fleischut, Guitarfish drummer Nathan Pastor, and folk singer/songwriter Jeremy Lyon (and the great unsung hero, bassist Zak Mandel-Romann), made exactly the type of music you’d expect from such a combo. Light-hearted lyrics, chill-garage vocals, smoky guitars, and clattering drums combine to create a sonic brew that sounds like every band in the world and no band you’ve heard before at the same time. It’s a nearly immaculate blend, and on the group’s second EP, Fairytales & Other Tales, it’s put to fine use as the backdrop for excellently crafted songs.
  2. Girls - Broken Dreams Club. I might be the only person in the world who doesn’t like Girls’ aptly named debut Album. But Broken Dreams Club, Girls’ second release, is a perfect little mini-album--six songs, thirty minutes, great songs, heavy on ballads but anything but boring. It’s also one of those rare albums that can truly be said to be absolutely timeless. Its modernity is easy to distinguish (no pre-punk band could get away with a singer like Chris Owens), but any of these songs could have been written any time in the last 35 years. And “Carolina” is just one of the best songs ever. Just saying.
  3. The Morning Benders - Big Echo. Alright, they’re in New York now instead of Berkeley, but this is Bay Area music all around--kids in the Bay Area love them some Morning Benders, and just about anything Fogtown kids are likely to be doing on a Saturday afternoon could easily be soundtracked by at least one song off this album. Half rock n’ roll anthemizing, half ambient mood music, Big Echo somehow manages to take these two halves and combine them into something not only coherent but enjoyable.
  4. Grass Widow - Past Time. Sloppy and rambling yet lean and cohesive, avant-garde yet accessible and streamlined, Past Time comes across as the kind of album that must have been a lot of fun to make. It’s also a lot of fun to listen to--if you can get past any Donnas-induced phobias you may have of all-chick garage bands, this is a great listen for anyone.
  5. Westwood & Willow - Doorways, Vehicles, & Markets. The Sullivan Brothers’ second release under their Westwood & Willow art-folk guise is a fine offering, and despite the candy-and-wine mix of darkness and goofiness, the album does not sound schizophrenic. In fact, it is a remarkably cohesive album--Kevin Sullivan’s lonely guitar and sad vocals blend well with his brother Sean’s subtle arrangements, and they provide the album’s backbone. This is an excellent choice for anyone looking for folk music that is witty and charming but not saccharine, intellectual and thought-provoking but not relentlessly depressing.
  6. Girl Named T - Hey Liebe. As far as the art of the album goes, Bay Area scene veteran Theresa “T” Sawi has it down. Hey Liebe, her long-awaited full-length debut under the Girl Named T moniker, is almost perfect in terms of the form of the album, and it plays almost like an early Beatles album--concise, two-and-a-half-minute pop-rock ditties about love and loneliness that shoot out of your headphones one after the other like machine gun bullets.
  7. Royal Baths - Litanies. Royal Baths have one or two guitar sounds and about a hundred ways of scaring the crap out of their audience. Less influenced by garage rock and psychedelia than by the Velvet Underground at their most experimental, Royal Baths are a true example of a band turning to the omnipresent fog rather than the sparse sunshine of their home. Litanies’ frequent repetitiveness is made up by excellent moodscaping and some truly brilliant musical ideas.
  8. Man In Space - Man In Space EP. With their entirely self-produced, self-managed debut, this Dizzy Balloon side-project has succeeded in creating a sound with the free-form bizarreness of an experimental indie band and the accessibility of a major-label pop band. Few bands since the Flaming Lips have come this close to creating the perfect balance between accessibility and impenetrability. What’s next for Man In Space is anybody’s guess, but any producers or major-label execs better stay the hell away from them.
  9. Fever Charm - Fever Charm EP. Fever Charm and Finish Ticket, two of the most engaging live acts in the Bay Area, released their respective EPs this year. While Finish Ticket’s Shake A Symphony captured but a fraction of the band’s live energy, Fever Charm’s self-titled EP is as tight, funky, and edgy as anything the band’s done, live or offstage. Opening with the acidic “You Won’t See Me Tonight” and finding equilibrium in slower, more anthemic songs, Fever Charm is as close to a perfect studio sampler as we’re likely to get from a live act of Fever Charm’s caliber.
©Daniel Bromfield, SF Rebirth 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

Three Ways To Spend Xmas

For a moody Christmas:


“Parched Dry”

* * * *

The blues has been hard to get right since the birth of rock. Latter-day artists working in the style either lean towards amplified crunch or old-timey cornfield charm. And as woefully inaccurate it would be to pigeonhole “Parched Dry” as Handshake’s attempt at a blues song, the foundation of this new jam is firmly rooted in prewar sharecropper blues. The moody acoustic guitars, Devin Clary’s dusty drawl, and some of the best non-emo handclaps I’ve heard in a long time definitely give it that wheezy old cottage feel. But at the same time it’s packed with curious little touches that give it an almost unearthly and ghostly--hard-edged rhythm guitars, horns (which Clary described to me as a “little surprise :D”), ominous bells, and other oddities rattle around in the background like ghosts in a haunted shack. The most striking thing of all, however, is Clary’s edgy but vulnerable vocals--especially the wounded vocalizations at the end, which leave the listener ambiguous to whether he is stretching his hands out to an unseen hope or simply giving out. Not a Christmas single.

For a nostalgic Christmas:

AB & THE SEA (feat. THE SHE’S)

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home”

* *

AB & the Sea, the Bay Area’s indie heartthrobs supreme, collaborating with the SHE’s on one of the most beloved holiday rock songs of all time--what could be better? Well, maybe not the Stormtroopers Of Death version, but as far as covers of this tune go, this one does not rank among the better versions. AB & the Sea are unremarkable--they sound strangely unmotivated, and a lackluster organ solo and a strained vocal delivery affect their performance heavily. But the SHE’s shine brightest on this tune, delivering hot-cocoa girl-group vocals on the chorus.

For a jolly Christmas:

RATHERBRIGHT (feat. Takumi Nakagawa)

“It Never Snows In San Francisco”

* * *

Even TNAK, the ironic angry-suburban-kid MC at the mike of Hundred Grand Brand, can get into the spirit sometimes. Here, he joins his HGB-mate James Wenzel on one of the best non-weed-oriented SF-themed carols of the season. If “It Never Snows In San Francisco” sounds like something off a Target compilation, it’s deliberate--this is supposed to be a fun and enjoyable Christmas tune, and it is. And yes, it sounds a lot like “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Daniel's List: Best Bay Area Singles Of 2010

1. “Carolina” - Girls. Your average really amazing pop song has about 2 or 3 moments of absolute musical genius--a chord progression, a lyric, a use of an odd instrument--that just hit you and blow your mind wide open. “Carolina,” on the other hand, has about twenty. Among them: the creeping, two-minute intro, the gradual entrance of the vocals, the yelping breakdown, the devastating train-whistle transition into the outro, the staccato ending, those cartoonish doo-wop vocals that only heighten the intensity of the song in context. In addition, this song simply burns with white-hot emotion--Christopher Owens’ vocals, resigned and hopeful at the same time, carry along his tale of the perfect escape. Maybe there is no Carolina, and if there is one, who knows if it’s all Owens makes it out to be. All he knows is he’s going to take his girl in his arms, never let her go, and forget about everyone and everything. Godspeed.

2. “Young Lust” - Adolescent Friction. Now presumed defunct, Adolescent Friction only released a handful of singles during their lifetime, the best of which is the scorching “Young Lust.” This brief, what-the-hell-just-hit me tune packs the primal impulse of early garage-rock with the angst and energy of vintage pre-Blink pop punks like the Undertones and the Vibrators into two minutes of music with barely any lyrics. It’s a shame we never knew Adolescent Friction better--given some exposure, this song could be the one of the great Bay Area teen anthems, a "Louie Louie" for the Glow crowd.

3. “Cadalac Shack” - The Piers. This demo single by San Francisco lo-fi quartet the Piers is a blast of pure bliss. OK, maybe Tobi Hirano isn’t a shredding god, and the amp noise could piss off hardcore audiophiles. But there’s no denying the raw emotion in singer Jack Frank’s choked voice, or the quiet storm generated by that fuzz-drenched bassline. Everything in the song seems to convey the message “stay awake, don’t close your eyes,” like Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins. It’s everything we love about the night wrapped up in a Hissho Sushi Rock n’ Roll and taken to go from a 24-hour market.

4. “We’ll Be OK” - Finish Ticket. “Life is so much more than our hearts becoming sore,” sings Brendan Hoye in a voice that has matured finely from the fairly restrained croon he displayed on their debut EP Life Underwater to a soaring soulman holler. The band follows their frontman's new voice: the keyboards have never sounded more beautiful and dramatic, and Brendan’s brother Michael shows off some jaw-dropping bass heroics that somehow manage to sound melancholic and super-funky at the same time. Emo kids, put down your razors and listen to Uncle Brendan 'cuz he knows what he's talking about!

5. “Night Of Electric Orchids” - Handshake. This is the sound of a bunch of crazy hipster vandals having an insane party in an organic grocery store at two in the morning. Bodies intertwine, artichokes fly. Unearthly music emanates from some shadowed corner that could be the spice aisle. I don’t know how many of you have ever had an experience like that, but if you do, bring along a little Handshake.

6. “Indoor Winter” - Local Hero. Fleet Foxes harmonies, skanking reggae rhythms, steely quiet-storm soundscapes, and skittering drums merge together to create something innocent and lighthearted yet strangely seductive and sensual. The soundscaping, production, and arrangements range from striking to impeccable, especially considering how bizarre the musical mix on this song is. And it's a pleasure to listen to, even if it leaves you with the weird sensation of not knowing whether to relax or shake your booty.

7. “Shine On” - DEA. One of two singles released by the extremely short-lived duo DEA, this acoustic ballad sounds like it was cut late at night and quietly enough to avoid waking up the dragon. But the most striking thing about the song is the sense of apocalyptic urgency. Singer Shane Bannon sings of looking up at the sky and points out how it will be the only thing remaining when the world ends (and who knows if it'll stay blue). With all the panic concerning global warming and the Gulf oil spill, it's a song for our times--yet it still seems timeless.

8. “(510)” - The SHE’s. For all their lo-fi cool and indie cred (opening for Girls and Candy Claws, getting Harlem to perform at a birthday celebration for two band members), the SHE’s have always been a pop band at heart. Nobody ever argued, and on this new slice of cowbell-flavored Rousseau-rock, they set out to make sure nobody does. This song isn’t chocolate, but it isn’t candy either. It’s a bit like one of those little sticky sesame squares--maybe a bit sweet for a lot of people, but still honest, earthy, and natural.

9. “I Am Not The King Of Anything” - Picture Atlantic. Aren’t you sick of jerks like Elvis and Michael Jackson and Nathan Williams who always have to be the “king” of something? Nik Bartunek wants you to feel confident in knowing he is no ruler--on this raging new single, the Picture Atlantic frontman alternately lows and squeals his everyman blues. The haunted keyboards and dark guitars suggest the group may be studying the black-clad bummerscapes of Interpol and the National--and although listeners may not be used to this side of the band, it suits them surprisingly well.

10. “You Won’t See Me Tonight” - Fever Charm. While Fever Charm are a live act above all else, they released a solid EP over the summer of 2010, and this funk-rock stomper is a highlight. Ari Berl’s furious yelp and Theo Quayle’s punk guitars drive the song along, but it’s the production--hardly polished, but not really lo-fi either--that give the song its edge.

11. “Colours” - Westwood & Willow. Westwood & Willow’s music has always been a curious mix of folky sadness and oddball humor--listening to the group’s music is an experience not unlike drinking lemonade on a sunny day while looking at rather strange contemporary paintings at an outdoor fair. There’s not too much happy-go-lucky charm on “Colours,” a melancholy ode to childhood innocence. And if it’s unnerving to hear these happy-go-lucky guys sing about the unstoppable passage of merciless time, it’s great to hear Kevin Sullivan set the unpredictability knob to 11 with his hilariously sprawling lyrics.

12. “Carbon Copy” - Hundred Grand Brand. These suburban pale kids know it’s wrong to make rap music, but they do it anyway. How? By pouring bucket after bucket of venomous irony on the whole thing. “Carbon Copy” stings like a hornet’s nest over the head, but it’s nice to laugh as you drown in a pool of corrosive acid.

13. “Tear It Down” - Zachary Shpizner. What would happen if Jason Mraz was sleepwalking, randomly picked up a guitar, and began singing BJ Snowden? As opposed to the catchy space-pop of his Captain Navy project, Zach Shpizner's first single under his own name sounds like he cut it at four in the morning in a linen closet after a few dozen shots of god knows what. Yet this is what makes it strangely beautiful--the rudimentary recording quality and off-key yelping give it a vibe not unlike that of an ancient outsider record unearthed by a musical historian in the basement of some country house.

14. “Fill The Lens” - Maniac. Let’s put hella shrimp on that barbie! The world’s best Australian-Bay Arean rock group are also arguably the world’s only “New Bromantic” band--these boys like their dresses long, their coifs high, and their music drunk and party-friendly. This mind-numbingly repetitive but body-numbingly fun tune epitomizes their philosophy, especially when you’re at one of their concerts and are struggling to escape from a one-size-fits-all “invisibility cloak.”

Friday, December 10, 2010

Cypher Boys Get Crunk


We Kinda Nice - EP

* * * 1/2

In the play/film Six Degrees of Separation, a wealthy New York couple is deceived by a mysterious con man named Paul, an ex-street kid who makes his way into their house by pretending to be an impeccably mannered upper-crust college kid, the son of a movie star, and a friend of the couple’s kids from Harvard. The couple grows to like him so much they continue to have a relationship with him after the con has been unveiled. Well... this is Paul’s album. Hundred Grand Brand’s minimal crunk&B has its origins on the streets, sure, but the group’s artsy image and random classical samples give the whole affair a facade that suggests an intelligence far beyond what is actually displayed in the music. And, of course, the whole thing’s unapologetically and lovably phony. These are two suburban kids making hip hop, and they use this predicament to their advantage.

This could be their way of justifying their output, but to be honest, their output isn’t that terrible. A number of guest appearances add spice to the album--the machine-gun rhymes of Izzard the Wizard, space rocker Dakota Lillie’s art-house beat on “Hello, My Name Is...,” and a guest keytar lick from Wenzel’s Ratherbright collaborator Brendy Hale on the muddy indie-pop/rap fusion “Stay Gold.” But the core duo stand well on their own--the musician half of the group, James Wenzel of Ratherbright, has considerable skill with analog beats, and the rapper half, the lovably ironic TNAK, is actually pretty damn good. This is not an album for hip-hop fans or indie hipster types--in fact, this is music with no discernable target audience--but it’s a witty, entertaining, and often flat-out funny listen.


“Turn It Up Loud (V1)”

* * * 1/2

“Is this the counsellor’s office?”

“Yes. Please sit down.

“I’m very concerned about Dakota. He used to be such a sweet little boy! Now he’s turned into a sex god!”

“A sex god?”

“Yes! He used to make this really nice pop music about existentialism, and now all of a sudden he’s singing about ‘sex appeal!’ He even has a hot-girl spoken word section and a guitar solo just like the one in ‘Little Red Corvette!’”

“‘Little Red Corvette?’ That’s serious. I’m afraid Dakota has a case of what’s known as ‘hot guy fever.’”

“Is it curable?”

“No,there is no cure for hot guy fever. And frankly ma’am, even if there were a cure, I wouldn’t give it to him.”

Friday, December 3, 2010

From A Few Months Ago: Meeting Handshake

Evan Greenwald is a great storyteller.

Not only in song, but in person. His band, Handshake, had just played an acoustic set at a benefit concert for LGBT rights at the Vanguard Properties headquarters in the Mission District of San Francisco. Right in the middle of the set by a young singer-songwriter who had gone up immediately after Handshake, Greenwald randomly begins telling me about the dude who discovered Cat Stevens, whom he apparently knows. “He lives in L.A.,” he begins. “He has this dog called Little Guy who never stops barking. I’ve been at his place for seven hours and the dog just keeps barking and barking at me...” He continues with a very vivid description of the man’s house and some of his other experiences being there.

“Want a sandwich?” his bandmate, Devin Clary, says, gesturing to a plate of several small sandwiches and rolls he had obtained from the nearby snack bar. I decline, noticing everything has cheese on it. (I have always heavily disliked cheese, mainly due to its smell and texture.) “This one doesn’t have any cheese,” Greenwald says, popping some sort of turkey wrap into his mouth. I detect a layer of Swiss, but I simply say I’m not hungry.

Handshake was formed by Greenwald and Clary in the summer of 2009, in the small town of Novato (about 45 minutes north of San Francisco). Clary, whose post-hardcore outfit Ash’s Fall had just broken up, had been working on a song which Greenwald calls “Creeper” (“even though nobody else in the group likes that name,” he adds). He enlisted his old Ash’s Fall bandmate Tyler English to help out, and after collaborating on the song for a while, they decided to form a group. Greenwald recruited his middle school friend A.J. Campbell for the new band, which would eventually become Handshake. (The name was chosen because of a number of handshake-related references in songs the band members enjoyed, including Wilco’s “Handshake Drugs” and Radiohead’s “No Surprises.” Also, Clary apparently believes handshakes are more intimate than hugs.)

The group started out in typically modest fashion, mainly playing Radiohead covers and occasionally noodling around with new ideas. The band became more serious in their pursuits after they began writing “Broken, Broken,” now their best-known song. “Evan had a riff, and we all liked it, so we put together the song,” English says. The band members began prodigiously suggesting their new band page to friends on Facebook, and both friends and strangers picked up on their music. They were soon playing major gigs at Bay Area venues like Slim’s, and within a year they had racked up nearly 1,500 fans on Facebook solely through word of mouth and local gigging. (English suggests “Broken” is the main reason for their local success.)

Handshake’s style is usually described as art rock with strong folk/country influences, such as the heavy use of instruments such as mandolins and banjos. Their list of influences, as expected, is very diverse. “Grizzly Bear and Radiohead are the most obvious, just in terms of their willingness to go beyond the limits of what’s considered ‘normal,’” Greenwald says. Other influences include Elliott Smith, the National, Dirty Projectors, jazz music (especially in Clary’s case) and funk music (“because Tyler smells kinda funky,” Greenwald adds, to which English retorts, “Everything about me is funky.”)

None of the members of Handshake have any designated instruments. At least three out of every four members are equally proficient at either vocals, guitar, banjo, bass, or percussion. At their Project I Am show, Campbell played banjo and percussion; Greenwald sang and played guitar and mandolin; English played guitar; and Clary sang, played guitar, and did percussion on a single ride cymbal. All write songs, which can be a mixed blessing for the band. “The main thing we struggle with as a band is that we have three singers and four songwriters,” Clary says. (All members sing except English.) “Unifying all the different songs we write, plus with four different interpretations of those songs, and trying to get our music to sound like one uniform idea is the main thing we struggle with.” Greenwald mentions bands such as Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene who have been known to have as many as nineteen members in their various lineups--”It’s bad enough with four, imagine being in a band with eighteen other people. I mean, they get results, but it’s got to be hell.”

After I’ve finished the basic interview with the band members, we head back inside just in time to see an all-female synth-punk band consisting of a bassist, a drummer, and a truly frightening keyboardist/vocalist with pink eyelash extensions resembling the antennae of some sort of moth. The members of Handshake move in and out of the seating area frequently. Just as the performing band’s set ends, Handshake’s ride arrives to pick them up.

They all head outside and load all their equipment in the cargo space of a small and comically unimpressive car. We talk a bit more before saying our goodbyes. There is a moment during our conversation where I am standing on the curb with Campbell and the other three members are in the street below, loading up the last of their equipment. I suddenly realize that this entire time, I have been conversing with these great musicians just as if they were fellow regular human beings, which, despite their talent and success, they are. I have not been nervous in their presence at all. I have been chatting away with these people that, in a less connected community, I may have regarded as a world away and thus impossible to communicate or socialize with.

The band members load the last of their equipment into the back of the vehicle and wave goodbye as I head off in the other direction, my head filled with new information and my stomach soon to be filled with tacos.

Monday, November 29, 2010

I know these have been around for a while but...


XoXmas (Reissue)

* * * *

Christmas music is one of the most explicitly commercial and fickle genres of pop, and most attempts by pop artists to stick a toe in the genre end up as nothing more than steaming heaps of reindeer shit. (Look no further than Billy Idol’s Happy Holidays.) On the other hand, it seems like a completely natural move for the Sullivan Brothers, the lovably goofy/eclectic duo behind Westwood & Willow and SullyZ, to make a Christmas album. And the result sounds natural as well. The contents are as varied and eclectic yet fun and exciting as the contents of a Christmas stocking. Among the little gifts: a stark, melancholy “Silent Night,” an echo-guitar arrangement of “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Bay Bells,” a bizarre hip-hop paean to baking cookies and oneself on the same day. Being Jewish, I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I have many relatives and friends who do--and I remember the Christmas experience being a lot like listening to XoXmas. Hell, it already feels like the season when I listen to this album.


Give It Up

* * * 1/2

Maniac is, for the most part, two guys--American Shawn Harris, of seminal Bay Area band The Matches, and Australian Jake Grigg of Something With Numbers. Both are big-haired, big-voiced frontmen who would be difficult to describe without using the tired and obsolete phrase “rock stars.” And these four songs show it--“restraint” and “modesty” are out of the dictionary, only huge voices and crashing backbeats. But at its root, the whole affair is basically a barroom sing-along album. The songs are surprisingly minimalist on close investigation, especially “Hey Love” (no connection to the Girl Named T tune), a slightly mind-numbing chant I could imagine the dudes in that weird pub down the block from where I used to live howling. But the most notable thing about this album is how well the live energy of a Maniac show is transferred to record. Even if you have to catch them live to see what they’re all about, you can get a pretty good impression from these tracks.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The latest from T and Picture Atlantic


Hey Liebe

* * * *

As far as the art of the album goes, Bay Area scene veteran Theresa “T” Sawi has it down. Hey Liebe, her long-awaited full-length debut under the Girl Named T moniker, is almost perfect in terms of the form of the album, and it plays almost like an early Beatles album--concise, two-and-a-half-minute pop-rock ditties about love and loneliness that shoot out of your headphones one after the other like machine gun bullets.

T has obvious songwriting skills--what she lacks in subject range (there is not a single song on this album that isn’t about love and/or beauty) she makes up for with evocative lyrics that are tight and well-written but seem almost stream-of-consciousness at the same time. This is also one of those rare albums that cover vast expanses of stylistic ground but flow excellently and keep a consistent sound. From the smooth jazz of “Hey Love” to the scorching new-wave “Model In The Media,” Hey Liebe is an album that bends and shifts its central backbone into all sorts of fascinating and graceful contortions. There is no sense of schizophrenia or stylistic confusion here--everything matches up, and while the songs have many different shapes and colors, they fit together like puzzle pieces into one mosaic. And this is not easy to do for any artist--even T’s band, Please Do Not Fight, had a bit of trouble with this on their recent Move EP.

It’s also difficult to ignore the gloss on this album. The production is clean as a whistle, and T does sound a lot like a Nashville studio-pop singer. Many lo-fi snobs will find this reason alone to stay away from this album. Personally, I’m not picky about my production, and while there is no question about this being a pop album, it’s a pop album in the best sense--a well-crafted collection of honest, unpretentious songs that whoosh by but stick in your head.


When Everything Is Numbers - EP

* * *

Picture Atlantic didn’t fool anybody. Their recent single “I Am Not The King Of Anything” displayed some *gasp* modesty, pairing Nik Bartunek’s schizophrenic vocals with moody guitars and gothic organs and displaying little to none of their characteristic bombast. But even a simple look at the song titles on When Everything Is Numbers (“Joust,” “What Men Live By”) will tell you Bartunek and company are back to their old alt-mythology-rock hijinks. However, this is not to say this EP is devoid of sonic experimentation. The most interesting things happen when the group steps outside its characteristic sound--the highlights of this EP are the almost Robyn-ish synth-rocker “With One Clipped Wing” and the Finish Ticket-goes-Into The Great Wide Open rocker “What Men Live By.” While the rest of the album is archetypal Picture Atlantic, it’s great to hear the group experiment in this way, and let’s hope they keep up the tinkering for future releases.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Girls Broken Dreams Club Review

Broken Dreams Club

* * * *

I was never a huge fan of Girls’ debut album, the appropriately titled Album--it had some amazing songs on it, but I wasn’t thrilled with their overall sound, and I certainly didn’t think they were any near as incredible as Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Spin, and just about every other critic and music publication in the world claimed they were. A rather boring live show I witnessed at the Fillmore did little to change this opinion. And I still think they’re a bit overrated, to be honest. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think Broken Dreams Club was an excellent little record, an unpretentious 30-minute look into the heart of a downtrodden rock n’ roll everyman.

With the possible exception of the Chris Isaak-y “Alright,” all the songs on Broken Dreams Club are ballads. These songs are definitely rootsy, but not in the old-bastard-makes-bluegrass-album way. It is simply rock music that looks back to its origins in blues, folk, and country music. Steel guitars and horns bound about the album like jackrabbits, and the gentle hum of a lonely, Benmont Tench-style organ weaves in and out of many of the songs. These songs could have easily been written any time in the past 40 years.

However, upon listening, it’s easy to identify the modernity of these songs. In the pre-punk era, no band could have gotten away with a singer like Chris Owens, whose quirky voice has more in common with that of Elvis Costello than, say, John Mellencamp. Or the cartoonish but powerful and soulful “da-doo-ron-rons” on the epic closer “Carolina.” In other words, these songs are more than mere throwbacks to an older sound--they are simply timeless, universal rock songs recorded in a medium that will never go out of fashion.

Indeed, it is this timelessness that contributes to this band’s appeal. On Album, they cursed and referenced pizza but at the same time applied a bare-bones rock n’ roll aesthetic that has existed perhaps since before rock n’ roll itself. And if Album may not have been the most enjoyable listen for some (myself included), Broken Dreams Club is a thrill to listen to, whether you want to relax, dance, or just hear some good old-fashioned all-American rock.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

5 Random Things: November 17, 2010

1. Picture Atlantic have lost two of their most beloved members, Patrick Chu and Rico Rodriguez. (Chu left to pursue environmental studies, and Rodriguez quit for "personal reasons.") Stepping in to replace the lost members are Ash Maynor (of dark-cabaret collective Ghost & the City), Aaron Hellam (a former member), and James Leste (ex-drummer for the recently defunct Audrye Sessions). The band is also working on yet another album.

2. Fever Charm, one of the best live acts in the Bay Area, are returning to Blake's for a "Black Friday" bonanza on November 26. If you're wondering why you should go... well, (

3. Oakland space-funk collective Man In Space will be performing with Shawn Harris' post-Matches project Maniac at the Great American Music Hall, November 27. Expect much ass-shaking and head-scratching.

4. Young the Giant have just launched a tour with Neon Trees (the guys who did that horrible "oh oh, I want some more" song you hear every other hour in Live 105). They will be traveling through the Midwest and South.

5. Girls' new single "Carolina" has received the coveted Best New Music tag from Pitchfork. We can only wait and see if their upcoming EP receives this honor as well. (UPDATE: It has. 8.7/10 BNM)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bands To Keep An Eye On: November 9, 2010

1. The fantastically named KEVIN AND THE BEARCAT is a loose collective of musicians, mainly students at San Francisco's International High School. They recently released two songs and are believed to be working on an EP.

2. Berkeley post-punk revivalists LOCAL HERO have returned from an extremely brief hiatus.

3. Unbelievably fantastic chill-garage rockers ADOLESCENT FRICTION are once again active, with new drummer Daniel Rechtstaffen taking the place of Asher Groh (who is now working with Kevin and the Bearcat as well as UE).

4. FINISH TICKET will return to San Francisco for some gigs in the winter.

5. PICTURE ATLANTIC will likely release more new material and play more new gigs in the coming weeks leading up to the release of their EP.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Predictions Of Winter

"Indoor Winter"
* * * *

After announcing a hiatus a few months ago, Berkeley post-punks Local Hero have returned to the studio and emerged with their best new jam yet. The song is aptly named--imagine a bunch of rudeboys getting together at a Lake Tahoe cabin for hot cocoa and passionate sex and you'll have an idea of this song. Fleet Foxes harmonies, skanking reggae rhythms, steely quiet-storm soundscapes, and skittering drums merge together to create something innocent and lighthearted yet strangely seductive and sensual. The soundscaping, production, and arrangements range from striking to impeccable, especially considering how bizarre the musical mix on this song is. And it's a pleasure to listen to, even if it leaves you with the weird sensation of not knowing whether to relax or shake your booty.

"San Francisco Winter"
* *

As nonexistent as it may be, winter's still coming. Over minimal drums and haunting guitars, SF chill-garage rockers Seize the Sound bring prophecies of a fairly... uninteresting winter. While the steady riff is chilling enough, the lyrics seem forced and awkward, as if they were frantically looking for inspiration and noticed a calendar in the corner.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Meet Ratherbright

Bittersweet - EP
* * *

Most people associate "bedroom pop" with hazy, avant-garde pop produced by twenty-somethings with nothing but their four-tracks and their instruments. Ratherbright's James Wenzel could be considered a bedroom artist, but he seems less interested in letting his imagination run wild as he is in producing concise, minimal songs. His poor-me lyrics and lengthy song titles ("Getting With Her Means Getting At You," "I Like My Songs Like I Like My Coffee [Dark and Bitter]") may cause some to pigeonhole Ratherbright as yet another one-man emo-electro-pop project. But unlike many artists of his ilk, Wenzel has the chops and the taste for weirdness to stand out from the rest of the pack.

* * *

If "I Am Not The King Of Anything" was fairly chill by PA standards, consider this a return to their old indie-bombast hijinks--war chants and impending-doom guitars merge with harmonicas, barroom pianos, and Bartunek's keening yelp to create what sounds like the entire Civil War rolled up into one song. Bartunek may not be the king of anything, but on "Guerrilla," he sounds ready to change that.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

5 Random Things: Giants Day 2010

1. THE GIANTS WON THE WORLD SERIES. SWEET VICTORY. Long live our little team, long live our little town, long live the Rebirth, God Bless America and the City By The Bay.

2. In sadder news, Piedmont pop-rockers Dizzy Balloon will be playing their final show at the Rickshaw Stop on December 30 with AB & the Sea and another act that has yet to be revealed. Unlike Audrye Sessions' final show, this will be all ages.

3. DFR have decided to fire singer Kennedy Applefield, marking yet another of the seemingly perpetual lineup changes plaguing this band.

4. Ratherbright recently released his Bittersweet EP on Bandcamp. Girls will release their Broken Dreams Club EP on November 22, and Picture Atlantic will release their When Everything Is Numbers EP on December 16.

5. If you can't wait for Picture Atlantic's new EP, their new war-chant-y new single "Guerrilla" can be heard on their Myspace and Facebook pages.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

SF Rebirth/20,000 Leagues presents Rock N' Roll Calendar

The Rock N' Roll Calendar is a new, Facebook-based feature presented by SF Rebirth/20,000 Leagues. A rotating staff of seven musicians, journalists, and people from the Bay Area music scene pick songs for each day of the year and post them on this page.

Our current staff is as follows:

SUNDAYS: Evan Greenwald (journalist, Handshake member)
MONDAYS: Rena Simon-Igra (visual artist, guitarist)
TUESDAYS: Sam Crocker (Madders vocalist/guitarist, journalist)
WEDNESDAYS: Daniel Bromfield (yours truly)
THURSDAYS: Angel DeSousa (journalist, insider)
FRIDAYS: Nick Perloff (musician, solo and with Adolescent Friction)
SATURDAYS: Mitchell Mankin (composer, saxophonist)

5 Random Things: October 27, 2010 (50th post!)

1. In non-musical news, the Giants are going to the World Series.

2. Lou Lou & the Guitarfish have lost charismatic drummer Nathan "Master" Pastor to college. Guitarist George Rosenthal has switched to drums, and Jimmy Niven has stepped up to take the lead.

3. Young The Giant's self-titled debut is #51 on iTunes. While this band is actually from Orange County, their ties to the Bay Area Rebirth scene (the South Bay contingent in particular) are so strong they are part of our regular coverage.

4. Speaking of lineup changes and the South Bay contingent, Please Do Not Fight have suffered the losses of two longtime members--multi-instrumentalist Erin Keely and drummer Kubes. They recently played their final show with both members at the Rickshaw Stop.

5. Unbelievably fantastic garage-rock band Adolescent Friction are changing their name and drummer (new name and replacement unknown as of yet).

Saturday, October 23, 2010

SoCal gulf n' rollers evoke Nico, clear waters

Young the Giant
* * *

Young the Giant (formerly the Jakes) is a SoCal band that writes reverb-drenched songs with a beachy, distinctly Californian vibe. I know what you’re probably thinking--yet another lo-fi, surf-influenced hipster group, along the lines of Beach Fossils or Best Coast. Actually, Young the Giant represent quite a different side of the beach-pop spectrum--they’re light on Ventures guitars and bored-teen lyrics, choosing instead to evoke the more relaxed and carefree side of the coast.

Maybe when they were young, they were the beach kids who played in the water with inflatable balls while Sublime smoked by the outhouses and Nathan Williams tossed his twentieth joint into the bonfire, sick of everyone else. While their streetwise buddies used what they heard blasting from clubs and low riders on the street as the points of reference for their music, the YTG guys likely studied the annals of rock history, listening to Chelsea Girls and Here’s Little Richard between their studies and their hours of carefree fun. Sameer Gadhia, the group’s lead singer, was probably a Velvet Underground fan, and his speech-app vocal delivery bears more than a passing similarity to that of Nico.

This doesn’t mean the group is not in tune with their native land. The polyrhythms suggest Latin music at times, and flashes of L.A. rave and San Diego noise pop up in their songs sometimes. But we must remember that this band is not from Los Angeles--they’re from Newport Beach, an Orange County town that stands as one of the wealthiest communities in the United States. Young the Giant is primarily interested in evoking images of margaritas and clear waters rather than blunts and libertines. This actually serves the group well, as there is no sense of whiny pretention in their music. And they have the intelligence and chops to sufficiently steer clear of Jimmy Buffett territory.

And while this is all good and fine, Young the Giant’s self-titled is certainly not a remarkable album. There are, in fact, a number of great songs (“My Body" and "Cough Syrup" are the best), but for the most part, the tunes here are rather forgettable and melt into each other to create what is not cohesion but rather a drab blur. These boys, it seems, need to have a good night on the town once in a while--go to a party, have some drinks, get some pizza at 1 AM, and maybe even scream vengeance on humanity once in a great while.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The SHE's, Holy Shit, Girls @ The Fillmore

The SHE's capped off a week most teenage bands could only dream of (release of a new EP, shout outs from Best Coast and the Morning Benders) by opening for Girls at the Fillmore. The power-pop quartet brought the house down with songs from their new
Surfer Boys EP, as well as some old favorites and new, as-of-yet unrecorded tunes. Although the youngest band there by at least ten years, the group proved themselves more than a match for the twenty-thirty-something big boys.

Holy Shit, one of the few well-known non-Canadian indie rock bands with an expletive in their name, came next with a set filled with extended, slightly chillwaved jams with long solos and instrumental sections. Flamboyant singer Matt Fishbeck's high, echo-affected voice bounced off the walls of the Fillmore like tennis balls over howling guitars and loungey synths. Girls frontman Chris Owens and unbelievably amazing DIY-popper Ariel Pink--both original Holy Shit members--were sadly nowhere to be found.

San Francisco's favorite indie-roots-rock crew Girls (named one of the best bands of 2009 by Rolling Stone, SPIN, and Pitchfork) came out with bouquets on their microphones and on their minds as they played through a set heavy on slow, organ-heavy ballads, augmented by a horn section and more rhythm guitarists than you could shake a lily at. The light show was particularly dramatic during their set, switching between roving spotlights and deep colors. The set's finale found Owens bellowing over a wall of smoke and vividly flashing strobe lights--a veritable thunderstorm.

5 Random SHE's-Related Things

1. The SHE's played their biggest show yet on October 15, 2010, opening for Girls at the Fillmore along with Holy Shit.

2. The SHE's' live cover of "When I'm With You," by SoCal alt-surf-girl group-rockers Best Coast, has appeared on the latter band's official Facebook page, which is nearing 10,000 members as of the time of this writing. Alas, the cover was not well-received by Best Coast fans.

3. The SHE's were featured on Bay Bridged October 12, with Girls frontman Chris Owens adding his opinion on the group.

4. The SHE's have finally beaten the Psychotherapists in terms of FB fan count. The SHE's have 487 fans as of now; the Psychos, 455.

5. The SHE's have had a fucking amazing week.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

5 Random Things: October 12, 2010

1. South Bay coffee-rockers Please Do Not Fight recently saw the departure of longtime keyboardist/vocalist Erin Keely. After an October 24 show at the Rickshaw Stop with Bird By Bird, the Girlfriend Season, and Happy Body Slow Brain, drummer Kubes will also be departing. In a blog entry on the Please Do Not Fight website, bandleader Zen Zenith assures the band will continue, although they may take a hiatus for a while.

2. The SHE's have released their second EP, Surfer Boys, consisting of the three singles they released earlier in the year.

3. Foolish Ways will no longer be playing with BrokeNCYDE/Millionaires, but the band was recently on MTV.

4. Young the Giant's first post-Jakes album will drop October 25, 2010.

5. I know it's old but...

Sunday, October 3, 2010

This October's Top Breakthroughs

1. Screamo-disco duo Foolish Ways will be playing with BrokeNCYDE and Millionaires at the Modesto Virtual next month. More details later.

2. While the members of Alameda alt-pop ensemble Finish Ticket are off at college, Live 105 has been playing their single "We'll Be Okay" in regular circulation (including on a SoundCheck with Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig as a guest), and their album is now sitting happily in the station's archives.

3. As you all know by now, The SHE's will be opening for Girls at the Fillmore.

4. Handshake's Evan Greenwald boldly decided to toss a demo onstage during Arcade Fire's recent stop in San Francisco. Singer/multi-instrumentalist Regine Chassagne looked more than happy to see it, and chances are the band will give it a good listen.

5. Local freakscene favorites Maus Haus and the Mumlers will be playing Treasure Island Music Festival.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Please Do Not Fight - Up Up Up from Please Do Not Fight on Vimeo.

Please Do Not Fight are definitely not on drugs. They’re just a bunch of very happy people. No sarcasm. Seriously.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

New Singles Reviews

“Surfer Boys”/”Wonder Band”
* * * 1/2 / * * *

The extremely anticipated new singles by the SHE’s, “Surfer Boys” and “Wonder Band,” both focus on the same theme--boys. I mean, seeing as their first album was all about those ever-present queen bees, it’s good they’re getting more positive. This band is really good at talking about boys. And I love boys--I never keep that a secret. On their new songs, the boys surf and play music, respectively. And the SHE’s just want to do the same thing and have fun with them.
On their new singles, the group abandons the muddy lo-fi sound of their self-titled debut EP in favor of a much cleaner sound. “Surfer Boys” seems to be a tribute to the lo-fi-girl-group-surf-pop bands so beloved by the indieverse the SHE’s have been (reluctantly or not) assimilated into over the past few months. Singer Hannah Valente murmurs her longing to surf with the boys in a tone so ridiculously matter-of-fact I’ve heard other music critics try to sing it to themselves and become frustrated at how they just don’t sound matter-of-fact enough.
“Wonder Band” is thematically similar, the crush-target being those ever-so-sexy musicians your buddies always seem to be playing a show with. While the lyrics are great in their teenage naivete, the background music sounds underwhelming, as if the song has the potential to be a full, heavy rocker but instead loses its full power potential in a haze of mandolins and bubbly Adolescent Friction guitars. It’s not a bad song though, and both are fine pop songs that indicate a new, more expansive, and more accessible direction for the group.

“I Am Not The King Of Anything”
* * * *

Aren’t you sick of jerks like Elvis and Michael Jackson and Nathan Williams who always have to be the “king” of something? Nik Bartunek wants you to feel confident in knowing he is no ruler--on this raging new single, the Picture Atlantic frontman alternately lows and squeals his everyman blues. The haunted keyboards and dark guitars suggest the group may be studying the black-clad bummerscapes of Interpol and the National--and although listeners may not be used to this side of the band, it suits them surprisingly well. Remember, there’s fog in the South Bay sometimes.

“Goin’ Steady”
* *

Cut the Riff Raff is a barely anonymous duo of musicians from Martinez’s burgeoning post-hardcore scene. (I will not mention their true identities, but they go by Ricky Q. and Blaze). Their first single, “Goin’ Steady,” has a striking resemblance to the music of Blaze’s old band in the pairing of pop-punk vocals and suave ‘80s synthfunk groovitude. It’s a simple, fun, goofy song, and there’s really not a whole lot to say about it--it’s not a high-quality pop masterwork, and it’s a cool kind of guilty-pleasure song. But if these guys really cared about being anonymous so much, they wouldn’t sound so much like, um... Blaze’s old band (not to mention having their true identities on their Facebook page for about two weeks). Points also docked for making this review so damn hard to write.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Battle of the Bands @ DNA Lounge

THE SOOTHING SOUND OF FLIGHT was the first band I caught. While their name may sound like one of Adam Young's countless muzak projects, these guys were anything but light. Hailing from Santa Clara, this group mixed aggressive deathcore with elements of post-rock, often breaking down into soaring instrumentals and using screams for background texture rather than putting them front and center.

Next up were AMERICAN ROYALTY, a Vallejo-based hard rock quartet. Their set was filled with tight songs and duets between the group's male and female frontpeople. After a finale that alternated between fairly nondescript power-pop and full-out death-metal freakout, the band members all simultaneously collapsed onstage and headed off to mingle with the crowd.

DOWN FOR THE COUNT claimed to be bringing back "real punk" and not that "Blink-182 shit." Messianic or not, Down For The Count played almost exactly the sort of blindingly fast hardcore Emilio Estevez used to steal cars to. Appropriately enough, the group ended the set with semi-recognizable covers of songs by Johnny Cash and John Fogerty, two of the truest punks who ever lived. Long live rock n' roll.

Clean, well-dressed, and full of hard-rock machismo, the three dudes in THE FIRE SAIL seemed deathly serious about their music and played with chops and precision. Handshake's Devin Clary claimed to be terrified of them, in part by their skill and in part by their normalcy. And while these guys played a solid set on the basis of their prowess and sharp hooks, they were one of the less musically distinctive bands that played.

THY WINTER SHADOW came across as a bunch of dudes having fun with extreme metal and letting the audience figure out how serious they really are. Through songs like "Death By Shark," portly singer Brian Oafo (yes, that's what he calls himself) screamed like a schoolgirl getting stabbed as the band ground mercilessly in the background. Halfway through the show, Oafo decided to toss a T-shirt into the audience, which ended up getting stuck on a stagelight and had to be pried loose by a bouncer with a very long stick.

HANDSHAKE, the headliners, took to the stage in suits and well-polished shoes, looking more like a '50s doo-wop group than a modern rock band. They didn't give any bombastic shout-outs, they kept their shirts on, and they didn't even ask the audience to participate. Handshake won the crowd over solely on the merit of their pastoral art-rock and the suave harmonies of frontmen Devin Clary and Evan Greenwald, both of whom employed equally remarkable, tasteful, and (at times) seductive vocals. The band seemed to be a huge hit with the girls, who shrieked their heads off after every song ended. By the time the band left the stage, there was little doubt they would end up in the top three, although who the others were nobody could say for sure yet.

The Fire Sail
Thy Winter Shadow

Thy Winter's Shadow

After the members of those bands had gotten their congratulatory hugs (in Handshake's case) and noggin-bumps (in TWS's case), the DJ fired up some old Fifties dance tunes, and everybody danced in circles. It was just like back in '58, when I took Laura Lynn to see Eddie Cochran at the old Pavilion... but that's a story for another time.