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.