Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Tracks & Singles Of 2011

1. Girls - “Alex.” Only a band with such a love of classic rock as Girls could make “Alex” as effective as it is. Girls (a second-time topper of the Best Singles list) know how to harness the feelings that the best classic rock songs are famous for, and “Alex” epitomizes this by turning the emotional power up to 11 and plugging it in. Even more beautiful than the forlorn, howling guitar fills during the song’s second half is the instrumental breakdown, which begins with an almost homey guitar pattern before ever-so-briefly speeding up and concluding in an impossibly perfect drum fill. But that is not to say the song is without subtlety--above the turbulent background, Christopher Owens’ voice remains as sad, soft, and smooth as tear tracks down a mud-caked face.

2. tUnE-yArDs - “Bizness.” Merrill Garbus means bizness. Less experimental than the songs on bIrD-bRaInS, but miles ahead of anything she’s done before, “Bizness” is an exhilarating blast of rave-up Afro-soul--over African drums, oily bass, and a digitally manipulated scat vocal arpeggio, Garbus roars in a voice that’s half Odetta, half Hugh Masekela, and all wild beast. The background is extremely well-crafted, but it seems to devolve into manic wildness as soon as Garbus lets her voice loose. Organized chaos has never felt this good.

3. Girls - “Vomit.” “Vomit” sounds unmistakably like a Girls song, but at the same time, it sounds like nothing we’ve heard from them. This six-and-a-half-minute, classic-rock-inspired epic starts out as a tender acoustic ballad before exploding into a harmony-driven chorus and climaxing with an organ solo and a full gospel choir--all to satisfyingly un-ironic effect. Though there’s plenty of grandeur to get lost in on this song, the central focus is Chris Owens’ wounded croon, which traverses the wash of sound like a lonely loser wandering the streets of Shibuya at night.

4. Tycho - “Hours.” A thrilling intro segues into a rainstorm of droplet synths that drop out, come back in, and are a bit different each time. The power of “Hours” and its aquatic atmosphere lies in the way it crashes against you rather than enveloping you, carrying you, or setting you afloat. The song never does regain the power of its intro, but that only enhances the song--its atmosphere is about making the listener comfortable, even as it rushes by, and all one needs to do to feel that surge of power again is hit the replay button.

5. DaVinci - “D.R.E.A.M.” 2011 has seen the growth of a new, left-field form of hip-hop, and some of the best new rappers hail from the Bay Area. Though less well-known than Lil B or Main Attrakionz, DaVinci carries in his music a sensitivity that is not uncommon in contemporary hip-hop but is rarely so upfront. On “D.R.E.A.M.,” a reworking of Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.,” DaVinci tells a tragic tale of life in the ghetto that manages to be touching without losing any of its grit or razor-sharp edge.

6. tUnE-yArDs - “My Country.” I don’t know if Merrill Garbus actually participated in the mayhem that was Occupy Oakland, but there’s enough riot and political chaos in her music to smash the windows of every building in the country. “My Country,” a highlight of her excellent W H O K I L L album, is a furious protest song that almost predicts Occupy, especially with lines like “We cannot have it/Well then why is there juice dripping under your chin/When they have nothing, why do you have something?”

7. Handshake - “Other Eye (Right).” I admit this one, a radical reworking of an earlier tune, took some time to grow on me, but I can’t deny it’s one of the best songs of the year. The original’s slow build and fancy-restaurant vibe have been replaced with idiosyncratic funk rhythms, swelling guitars, and a riff that stretches out across the surface of the song rather than driving it along. Yet the song’s greatest moment is a truly epic guitar solo which almost seems like a collection of hooks strung together--at least one lick from the solo will stick in your head after the tune is finished.

8. Hunx & His Punx - “If You’re Not Here.” It’s upbeat, it’s silly, it’s goofy, it’s danceable, it’s romantic--it’s a Hunx & his Punx song. “If You’re Not Here” is a swinging highlight of the East Bay bubblegum-punks’ latest album, Too Young To Be In Love, that has everything the best rock songs have--sexual energy, lyrics you can sing along to, a catchy call-and-response chorus, and above all, great guitars.

9. Andrew Campbell - “You Can Count On It.” While Handshake were busy primping their long-awaited debut, former member Andrew Campbell was cranking out solo work at a prodigious rate. He’s slowed down since, but of his singles, “You Can Count On It” is a standout--a slow, jazzy tune as crisp and nostalgic as a walk down an old pier.

10. Sonny & the Sunsets - “Reflections on Youth.” Though Sonny Smith is a veteran of the San Francisco music scene, his music manages to sound more youthful than that of the garage-rocking contemporaries (The Fresh & Onlys, Thee Oh Sees) with whom he is often associated. “Reflections on Youth,” with its upbeat chord progression and affable-stoner vibe, could have easily been written by a teenage garage band. This is the closest the new wave of San Francisco garage rock has gone to capturing being a teen in the grooviest city on Earth.

11. The SHE’s - “Fabian.” With its surf-pop rhythm, flawless vocal harmonies, and lovesick lyrics, “Fabian” is, to date, the ultimate distillation of what the SHE’s do best. Though they certainly sound better than they did when they released their first EP, primarily due to the upgrade in production values and the band members’ technical skills, they still sound as youthful as ever on “Fabian,” and despite having chops that rival those of bands twice their age, they still sound 16 and happy to be so.

12. Eyes Like Oceans - “For What It’s Worth.” Miles Atkins spent the better part of 2011 releasing copious amounts of lo-fi emo that ranged from regrettable to sublime. “For What It’s Worth,” a highlight from his full-length June, is an example of the latter. Atkins pours out his soul to a girl with the same mix of confidence and hesitance as one who has resolved to take a leap of faith. After the second chorus, we hear that gorgeous riff ride onwards into the sunset and wonder how Atkins will resolve the situation. Finally, he drops the question: “Your place or mine?”

13. Sam C. Rocker - “Untitled (Inspired By True Events).” This modest solo demo from former Madders singer Sam Crocker demonstrates the power of simplicity. The lyrics are minimal to the point of being blunt, as is the playing, but Crocker’s voice, a tough yet tender croon with more than a trace of punk awkwardness, gives the lyrics a striking depth. A minute-and-a-half in, an unexpected spasm of echo interrupts Crocker’s voice, like a sob being held back, before the release comes in the form of a painfully beautiful electric-guitar solo.

14. Romance of Thieves - “Closer.” Though his recent work has taken a considerably more pop angle, Nick Martin released quite a bit of quality left-field R&B early in his Romance of Thieves career. “Closer,” his best song, is raw and sensual quiet-storm soul powered by dream-pop organs, creeping drum machines, and a three-pronged vocal attack; a disembodied robot mantra, Martin’s own vocals, and rapper Ea$way. Like the best R&B, it’s steamy, sexy, moody, a bit dark, and infinitely listenable.

15. The Heretics - “Perfect In The End.” “Perfect In The End,” a tune by relatively unknown teenage band The Heretics, is a refreshing throwback to the short-lived wave of laid-back, melancholy garage rock that every teen band in the Bay Area seemed to be making in late 2009 and early 2010. With its major-seven chords, (mostly) steady backbeat, and lo-fi production, “Perfect In The End” is like a romantic stroll through a scrapyard.

16. Comodo Complex - “Night Light/Rain Dance.” One of the stranger recent additions to George Rosenthal’s Complex camp, Comodo Complex can boast to be San Francisco’s only psybient rock band. “Night Light/Rain Dance” could be their definitive track, an ambient, blissed-out tune that makes great background listening but is also hooky enough to stay with you.

17. Tumbleweed Wanderers - “Take It Back.” An update of a solo track by Tumbleweed Wanderer Jeremy Lyon, “Take It Back” finds the Oakland duo drawing on Motown soul and early-‘70s Dead for inspiration, mixing the former’s drive and abundance of hooks and the latter’s laid-back folkiness--while still manage to sound as fresh and modern as anything out there.

18. Rin Tin Tiger - “Ghost Door.” While all the tunes on Rin Tin Tiger’s self-titled debut EP are excellent, “Ghost Door” stands out the most. All the tracks on the EP are reworks of tunes the band’s Sullivan brothers recorded as Westwood & Willow, and “Ghost Door” is the best rework, keeping the original’s folky charm while adding just enough extra spice to make the song sound fresh and exciting.

19. Handshake - “Lemon.” How do these well-dressed Marin kids, who play quietish art rock and never take their shirts off onstage, win battles of the bands? Because while they play emotional music, their songs also satisfying for the listener--not necessarily in a cathartic way so much as on the basis of Handshake and their songs just being really awesome. (Oh yeah, and their voices can probably cure sterility.)

20. Kreayshawn - “Gucci Gucci.” How could we forget “Gucci Gucci?” We heard it everywhere this year--school dances, shops, bar mitzvahs, our own headphones. If you’re from the Bay Area, you felt a sense of pride every time you heard the song, no matter how much you hated it, for the first few months it came out. All that fog in San Francisco? It’s all from Kreayshawn’s swisher blunts.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Last "Real" Post Of 2011


“Lady Wisconsin”

* * * 1/2

“Lady Wisconsin,” the first Local Hero tune to feature their new four-piece lineup (multi-instrumentalist Maya Laner has been added; Max Hirtz-Wolf of Rikoché has stepped in on bass), is an unlikely choice for a single. It’s incredibly simple, consisting of little more than some clacking percussion, gentle piano, a sparse guitar arrangement, and the dual voices of Laner and singer-guitarist Alex MacKay. While much of the appeal of their previous singles came from how the evocative lyrics and the complex musical textures never threatened to overwhelm one another, “Lady Wisconsin” is all about the lyrics--which are, thankfully, more than up to scratch. It’s a neat little love story--boy meets girl, girl isn’t that interesting, boy meets another girl--delivered in uncharacteristically blunt but effective language (“I kissed her once, but it wasn’t that great”). MacKay’s singer-songwriter persona seems capable enough, but by stripping the Local Hero sound down, much of what made the band’s earlier recordings (particularly on their Aldgate EP) so great is also absent. The layers of Afropop guitars, the faint psychedelic tang to their lyrics, their seamless blending of disparate influences--these elements are nowhere to be found on “Lady Wisconsin.” If this is an indication of a new direction for Local Hero, it might take me some time to get used to it, but this is as good a start as any.


Carrion Crawler/The Dream

* * * 1/2

Thee Oh Sees’ previous album, Castlemania, was fun as a avant-rock novelty, but Carrion Crawler/The Dream, the veteran SF garage-rockers’ second album of 2011, is nothing more or less than Thee Oh Sees at the height of their powers. As opposed to his largely solo work Castlemania, John Dwyer has assembled a killer backup band to help realize his songs. This is a great group capable of keeping a solid groove up for however long or at whatever tempo or volume suits Dwyer for maximum yelping-and-shouting potential. However, many the songs on side one of Carrion Crawler are basically really, really long garage-rock songs that remind the listener that most rock actually played in garages does not come in the form of 2-minute pop tunes but rather aimless jams from which effective musical ideas are later cherrypicked. However, this particular garage band is ridiculously skilled and willing to stray outside set grooves and vamps, and were this particular incarnation of Thee Oh Sees any less skilled, Carrion Crawler would be far less effective an album.


“White” (feat. Watsky)

* * 1/2

It was destiny that Frak and Watsky would eventually come together and record a song about why God should allow middle-class white people anywhere near a microphone. While there are more skillful or experienced rappers than either of these two, they make a fairly convincing argument with lines like “I love words, I love music, so why the hell can’t I combine ‘em?” or “Maybe I don’t understand Wolf Gang or Wu-Tang/But the spirit of the lyrics made my mood change.” How do they pull this off? Well, “White” is hardly a serious song, rattling off the punchlines one after another and thus falling into the truth-disguised-by-joke category of rap of which Watsky is a proven master. And as a rap song, it’s nothing remarkable--neither really bothers to flow, preferring to focus on the stereotypically “white” voices in which they deliver their verses. Still, one has to give credit to Frak and Watsky for writing what could be a definitive white-privileged-rapper manifesto without tripping over the sociopolitical pitfalls that come with any discussion of the issue. (Oh, and the beat is awesome.)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

DaVinci, Handshake, Tycho


Feast or Famine EP

* * * * 1/2


Feast Or Famine, the new EP from Fillmore District rapper John “DaVinci” DeVore, is a sentimental album. Not sentimental in the mushy, namby-pamby way, but sentimental in that it is driven by nothing if not feeling, and almost fearlessly emotional without losing any of its edge for a millisecond. Opening cut “D.R.E.A.M.,” a reworking of Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” and one of the best Bay Area songs of the year in any genre, is a sympathetic depiction of life in the ghetto that finds DaVinci reflecting on the tragic outcomes of his neighbors’ desperation. “Nothing Like Home” is an ode to the Fillmore that extends beyond mindless “repping” and is actually a touching tribute to his home. DaVinci’s raps are permeated with his sheer love of the art form, and even on tracks with names like “Where My Dough At” and “Beer, Bitches, & Bullshit,” he sounds like he’s rapping primarily out of love for doing so. DaVinci’s style is as gritty as the Fillmore itself, but just as the Fillmore claims to be the “Heart and Soul of San Francisco,” DaVinci has more heart and soul than just about any other rapper out there.


“Other Eye (Right)”

* * * *

Handshake’s first single proper from their upcoming album, a remake of an older tune, may come as a shock to longtime Handshake fans who are familiar with the original and its distinctive, classic-film-invoking acapella intro. The original’s slow build and fancy-restaurant vibe have been replaced with idiosyncratic funk rhythms, swelling guitars, and a spidery riff that stretches out across the surface of the song rather than driving it along. Devin Clary’s syllabic yet soulful vocals neither flow with the song nor cut through it, instead merely traversing it like an airplane in turbulent skies. Yet the song’s greatest moment is a truly epic guitar solo from Tyler English, which almost seems like a collection of hooks strung together--at least one lick from the solo will stick in your head after the tune is finished. The only reason “Other Eye” has been denied a Best In The West tag is because the song is a grower, and I enjoy it more every time I hear it.



* * * *

Tycho is Scott Hansen, a graphic designer who makes accessible, upbeat, aquatic electronic music on the side. His music is not terribly original--the synth presets and smooth hip-hop beats often suggest Boards of Canada, and the tunes on which he pairs synthesizers and acoustic guitars are even reminiscent of Adam Young’s pre-Owl City work as Port Blue. What’s remarkable about his latest album, Dive, is how well everything fits together--Hansen knows when to deploy certain rhythms and presets, and the sequencing of the album allows the tracks to flow together. The music is ambient, but it is neither underwhelming nor overwhelming, and it is suitable for either background ambiance or a focused listen. However, Hansen’s tendency to extend his pieces until they are up to two times too long makes the album generally more suitable for the former.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Holidays Are Here Again


Local Icicles: A Special Rock Hop Holiday Release

* * 1/2

It’s that time of year when the “nice” contingent of Bay Area musicians comes out with holiday albums (good luck getting Ty Segall to put out Goodbye Gingerbread). So here’s arguably the movement’s four most famous members doing a holiday EP. These musicians clearly understand what makes good holiday music, and there are few moments here that dip into typical holiday-turkey territory. Finish Ticket’s version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has Brendan Hoye slurring as if drunk off a bit too much eggnog (or love?) over a background that could have been penned by AB & the Sea; Please Do Not Fight’s “It Never Snows In San Francisco” features some fine guitarwork but some less-than-convincing exhortations of holiday cheer from Zen Zenith; Rin Tin Tiger keep it simple with a 94-second “Let It Snow”; and Picture Atlantic throw a curveball with a cover of one of Nick Drake’s saddest and most beautiful songs, “Place To Be,” which somehow leads into “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” The main flaw here is that this is not a very cheerful album. Strangely, Zen Zenith does not make the best Santa, and why Picture Atlantic decided to cover “Place To Be” is beyond me. “Let It Snow” is by far the most satisfying moment here, as expected from a band who released one of the best holiday albums I’ve ever heard as the Sullivan Brothers a few years--it’s warm, comfortable, catchy, and cozy, everything holiday music should be.


A Kinder Winter EP

* * *

Here’s another member of the contingent. Brooke D.’s third EP of the year, the three-track A Kinder Winter, is mostly acapella with light percussion. “Hibernating” is a bit too heavy on the sleigh bells, but the vocals balance it out; the title track is almost a jazz ballad; “New Year’s Blues” is one of Brooke’s best tracks yet, a warm bath of lush self-harmonies that is ultimately more tribal chant than blues. If the songs here are “wintery,” they do not evoke the meteorological aspects of the weather so much as the feeling of returning to a warm, quiet, and cozy home after being stuck out in the cold.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The SHE's, Lil B


Then It Starts To Feel like Summer

* * * *


It’s been over two years since the SHE’s released their self-titled debut EP, and unlike the vast majority of seemingly even more promising teenage bands I covered during SF Rebirth’s early years, they’ve remained together long enough for their sound to grow. Their debut full-length, Then It Starts To Feel Like Summer, has all the attributes of their early recordings--unabashed poppiness, garagey but fuzz-free guitars, simple lyrics that are at least a third nonsense vowel sounds, and, of course, those harmonies. Their production values have skyrocketed, and their chops have improved immensely as well, but they have not exactly “matured”--these songs could have easily been written for either of their previous two EPs, but they sound so much better, and there isn’t a bad song in the set either. The band’s best pre-Summer song, “Kids Of Rock,” finds its place here; live favorite “Hey Boy” is finally recorded; and there is a little tune called “Fabian” that is the perfect distillation of everything great about the SHE’s--lovesick lyrics, rolling guitars, beach references that manage not to bring to mind last year’s slightly annoying surf-pop trend, and awesome vocal harmonies. With this combination of influences from girl-group music, beach pop (both classic and contemporary), and garage punk, Summer should be so trendy as to be irritating. But the SHE’s are not an “indie rock” band but a pop band, and the best kind of pop band as well--one that writes timeless songs to go with timeless hooks.


BasedGod Velli/The Silent President

* * * 1/2 / * *

Well, Lil B has released yet another new mixtape, and it’s called, um, BasedGod Velli. The title says pretty much everything about Lil B--not that the new mixtape has anything to do with Makaveli or even Flockaveli, just that it willfully makes absolutely no sense and doesn’t even bother to flow. BasedGod Velli falls into the category of “serious positive” Lil B, much as his unexpectedly brilliant I’m Gay mixtape did (I refuse to refer to it as I’m Gay [I’m Happy], much as I refuse to refer to the Sears Tower as the Willis Tower). It has the half-coherent yet surprisingly powerful rants (the civil rights meditation “King Cotton”), a soon-to-be-controversial anchor track (“I Got Aids”), the why-is-this-so-beautiful piano ballad (“Let Shit Slide”) and a bunch of really good beats. While “King Cotton” certainly achieves the level of outsider-rap glory that made I’m Gay one of the year’s most interesting and bizarre listens, the rest of the album works primarily on the strength of its production, and “I Got Aids” fails nobly but hilariously. The Silent President is nothing special, containing a song called “Beat the Cancer” that’s almost as ridiculous as “I Got Aids” but otherwise containing pedestrian beats and unremarkable ranting.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tumbleweed Wanderers, the SHE's, Xiu Xiu


Tumbleweed Wanderers EP

* * * 1/2

Remember that time when the Audiophiles were one of the best bands in the Bay Area? Us too, in part because it’s still more or less ongoing. Tumbleweed Wanderers, the band formed by ex-Audiophiles Jeremy Lyon and Zak Mandel-Romann after that group’s split, are fairly similar in their love of late-sixties/early-seventies Bay Area music, but the main difference between the two bands is that Tumbleweed Wanderers are by no means “alternative” or “indie.” The most noticeable manifestation of this is perhaps in the vocals--while Audiophile Greg Fleischut’s nasal vocals were more John Darnielle than John Fogerty, Lyon’s voice belongs distinctly to the “rock n’ roll” tradition. Their self-titled debut EP is just over fifteen minutes of quality neo-Fillmore West rock that at times recalls Sly (“Roll With The Times”), American Beauty-era Dead (“I Went Away”), or something quite new but with a distinctly vintage sheen (“Take It Back,” which Lyon released as a single about six months or so ago). Hooks and melodies are the Wanderers’ greatest strength, and each song is custom-built with a highly effective earworm. They may not offer the freshest or most musically interesting update on the vintage Bay Area sound, but the Wanderers are not trying by any means to be revolutionary or groundbreaking. They just want to choogle, and who’s to stop you from chooglin’ along?



* * * 1/2

Sami Perez is the SHE’s’ secret weapon. Though she is hard to notice on many of the band’s recordings, her bass is a formidable force live, and of the band members, she is the most willing to show off her chops. The first single from the San Francisco quartet’s upcoming debut full-length, Then It Starts To Feel Like Summer, is driven by a growling bassline that is nothing short of vicious. The remarkable thing is the way in which it is used--it is not so much joyfully aggressive as aggressively joyful. Like the SHE’s’ best material, “Jimmy” is sweet enough to flirt with the saccharine but manages to deftly avoid it, resulting in a tune with just enough sugar content to be stick to your brain and your teeth without hugging either one tight enough to compress it. When I finally find a boyfriend, this will be song I play while I change my relationship status.


“Daphny” / “Only Girl (In The World)”

* * / * * *

Another indie band covering a Top 40 hit? Well, here’s San Jose avant-rock crew Xiu Xiu doing Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In The World)," whether you like it or not, and the result is not only effective but completely logical. The song opens brilliantly, with warped, shrieking disco strings that seem to signal something wicked coming your way, before frontman Jamie Stewart commences moaning and gasping the song’s vaguely sadomasochistic lyrics. It’s interesting, but the chilling intro is the high point of the song, and it’s more rewarding to play the first minute and a half on repeat a few times than listen to the whole thing. “Daphny,” the A-side, is less musically interesting but does not even have the benefit of decent lyrics--Xiu Xiu is best known for their often disturbing candidness, and that song’s rape-oriented, pig carcass-referencing lyrics sound more like something Marilyn Manson would write than Xiu Xiu’s erotic-grotesque classics of yore.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Complex Is More Or Less Back By This Point

Complex Compilation, Vol. 1

* * * 1/2

George Rosenthal has recorded some of the Bay Area’s best bands at his Complex studio over the last few years, and the best of those recordings are finally together in one place at last. The selection, as expected, is extremely diverse, ranging from ska (King Kraken’s “Elastic Girl”) to punk (Fever Scene’s “Nothin’,” Moloch+Kids’ “Moloch”) to ambient psych (Comodo Complex’s “Night Light/Rain Dance”) to country (Mark Nelsen’s “A Clown’s Response”). Much of the appeal of the album is how well Rosenthal changes up his production to suit the style of the band that seeks him out--the punk songs are as lo-fi as needed to bring out their aggression, while Girl Named T’s radio-friendly “Raven Fly” sounds like it could have been recorded in a Nashville studio at a cost of tens of thousands. And let’s not look over the simple fact that Rosenthal has recorded some of the best songs made by any Bay Area artist in recent years. Rosenthal’s own crew Lou Lou & the Guitarfish delivers a killer slab of Beatlesque psych-pop in “I May Never Grow Up,” and Adolescent Friction’s “Young Lust” (which SF Rebirth named the second best track of 2010) is a firecracker blast of hormonal garage-rock energy. Complex Compilation is worth checking out for those two tracks alone, but there are plenty of other great tunes here that make this compilation worth seeking out.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Complex Returns


* * * *


The Yellow Dress make happy music. This is the kind of band that names their second full-length album Humblebees, hates writing about themselves in the third person, and will send you a personal letter of thanks, including a drawing of a cat, if you pre-order their cassette. And they’ve never sounded happier than they do on Humblebees. George Rosenthal’s production lifts the band out of the lo-fi territory of their earlier releases and into a realm of mid-budget production that gives the band as big a sound as they likely always wanted (and needed)--it now sounds like the band is hugging the entire world rather than merely the listener. The amazing thing is how much emotion they can pack into music as relentlessly positive as this. There are sad songs, but they are neither depressing nor sugar-coated--you can merely listen to them and feel good at the same time. “Won’t Go Back” is basically the closest equivalent twee-pop has so far to David Bowie’s “Heroes” in terms of a cathartic rock n’ roll anthem. And when you get to any of the three ends of “Heavy Beekeeping,” you feel like you’ve had as much fun in the last 45 minutes as the band must have making the album.


Images EP

* * 1/2

Space Among Many is the union of Tano Brock (vocals, production) and Jack Gorlin (vocals, guitar), two teenage San Francisco musicians who have both released some excellent home recordings in the last year. Another way of looking at this is that Space Among Many are a couple of guys in a room, and none of these recordings sound like the work of more than two people (except maybe the one where they booked a cello player). The two work with what they have--presumably a few instruments and a computer with Logic Pro--and leave Brock to fill out the space, with mixed results. The tinny virtual piano that is the EP’s dominant sound grates on the ear after a while, and Brock’s digital horns and organs sound rudimentary, as if they are little more than placeholders for what would eventually become live instruments. The group often feels restrained by their lack of resources, much like tUnE-yArDs on her debut album. But with the exception of “Images,” an embarrassing attempt at heavy-handed power-balladry, these are all well-crafted alt-pop songs that, if refined, could potentially crash alternative radio. Standout tracks include the disco anthem “What I Want” and the dubby “I Won’t Forget You.”


Comodo Complex EP

* * *

Another recent addition to George Rosenthal’s Complex contingent, Comodo Complex are basically a psybient rock band. Their copious use of graphics that wouldn’t be out of place on an Earthdance poster says it all--the San Francisco quartet is much more interested in creating psychedelic good-trip textures than anything particularly catchy or memorable. There’s honestly not too much to say about this album, as it’s not easy to give it a comprehensive listen--these are songs that fade to the back of the mind rather than penetrate its center. But these are attractive sounds, and the aesthetic, subtle beauty of these songs (and the concept of a rock band playing ambient trip music) is enough to make this album a worthwhile listen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Latest from Please Do Not Fight and 8th Grader


pastpresentfuture, pt. 1

* * * 1/2

It’s been just over two years since South Bay collective Please Do Not Fight released their MOVE EP, and after a long period of no new music, near-perpetual lineup changes, and what seems like a nonstop parade of 21+ shows, they seem to be back. pastpresentfuture, pt.1 is slated as the first in a trilogy of EPs, and it’s a promising start. The songs on this EP have less in common with the upbeat power-pop of MOVE as the wistful ballads on their 2007 debut Leave It All Behind--its sound is defined by drifting female vocals, evocative lyrics, and echoing guitar leads. “Take It Back” and “Silence My Skin” are midtempo rockers tempered with uncertainty, the musical equivalent of that guy who alternates between dancing and text-messaging at a concert; “Something Here” takes a party-rock synth hook that could have been penned by MGMT or Foster the People and repurposes it as a ghostly memory of the narrator’s salad days; the epic “Blink” is a late-night-driving jam as lonely and strangely fulfilling as a stop for coffee during a drive down Interstate 5. Though the band won’t say, it is very likely this is the “Past” installment of the pastpresentfuture trilogy, and that the others will be “Present” and “Future.” Whether this is true or not, this is a promising introduction to the future of Please Do Not Fight that also looks back to the band's history.

“Heavy Without You”

* * *

Why Music for Animals’ Jayson Martinovich decided to call himself 8th Grader on his synth-R&B solo project is beyond me. As far as I know, he isn’t an actual 8th grader (unless he got his hands on some platform shoes and an industrial-strength vat of Rogaine)--in fact, he’s the furthest thing from an 8th grader I’ve ever heard. “Heavy Without You,” Martinovich’s latest single under the name, brings to mind someone whose epic love-making sessions are long behind him (and probably not in seventh grade... okay I’ll stop with the name jokes now). Yet this is not lonely music--the backing track is pure baby-making music, from the plush, multi-tracked vocals to the cat’s-purr synthesizers, and it’s hard not to feel an aura of body warmth emanating from this music. The division between the intimate music and the lovelorn lyrics creates somewhat of a conflict of interest, and it’s disappointing to hear the song putter out into nothing. Yet at the end of the day, it’s those smooth R&B textures that win the listener over and make the song.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jack Frank - A Lesson Learned review


A Lesson Learned - EP

* * * * *


For a few months in late 2009 and early 2010, the Piers were arguably the best teenage garage band in the Bay Area, releasing a string of excellent, melancholy lo-fi singles that took almost no inspiration from any Bay Area musical tradition. Rather, the band’s main songwriter, Jack Frank, looked to the Big Apple, particularly the early-‘00s scene that spawned bands such as the Strokes. Frank is now a full-time New York resident, and before he left, he gave us a brilliant, lonely EP, a collection of six higher-fi garage-rock songs clocking in at just under a half hour. A Lesson Learned finds Frank fully embracing the New York tradition, assimilating influences from NY-era John Lennon, contemporary indie pop, Lou Reed, Broadway, and even Eighties No Wave. It also sees Frank fully realizing the potential of his style for emotional expression.

Frank is one of those songwriters gifted with the ability to make seemingly trivial details or feelings seem deeper than they appear on the surface. Frank’s lyric sheets are likely multiple pages per song, but he throws in enough details to drive the story along at a comfortable pace. The brilliant “Oh Shit” starts out with a promising “this is how the story goes” before Frank launches into a mental-decline harangue that climaxes with a very Plastic Ono Band scream. “All In A Single Night” finds Frank asserting his lack of rich-white-boy guilt only slightly more convincingly and infinitely less annoyingly than Kreayshawn. Theatrical highlight “It’s Not Funny Anymore” somehow manages to make lyrics like “Why did the chicken cross the road/Cuz people always try to eat their toes, oh no/Why would anyone want to know” sound both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Aside from Frank’s voice and lyrics, the other dominant instrument here is the guitar. Whether adding gentle Beach House flourishes on “Down With The City,” country twang on “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” or aggressive dissonance on “All In A Single Night,” the guitar is responsible for the most of the musical beauty on this album. (His work on the latter is particularly impressive, switching up from gorgeous echoes to a furious Thurston Moore buzz at the song’s climax.) This only serves to accentuate the lost-in-the-city feel that permeates the entire record, with Frank surrounded by myriad sounds that come together to represent a bustling, alien place. The solos even seem to bounce between the skyscrapers and reflect off the thousands of surfaces of the New York skyline.

This the sort of rock album that stands up to repeated plays in part because of its vastness and in part because of the sheer catchiness of its hooks and melodies--it is the rare album that manages to be emotionally and lyrically complex without sacrificing any memorability or anything that makes it essentially pop music. As far as Bay Area albums I have reviewed so far this year go, A Lesson Learned has certainly been the most rewarding, and there will likely be something on this album for everyone.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Girls, Sonny & the Sunsets, Carletta Sue Kay 10/9/11

Loud, proud, and fearlessly San Francisco, Carletta Sue Kay were the first act to take the stage. Frontman Randy Walker, dressed in a black wig and green dress with no makeup or foundation whatsoever, belted out blunt, incredibly affecting vaudeville-soul songs in an androgynous, operatic voice. Holding Walker’s histrionics in place was an extremely skilled backing band consisting entirely of men dressed exactly like men or women dressed like women. Their energetic performance of “Just Another Beautiful Boy” was one of the highlights of the entire night, and even the most stone-faced hipsters couldn’t help but clap along to its rolling beat.

Sonny & the Sunsets were the second band on. Bandleader Sonny Smith, who was either completely stoned out of his mind or very good at pretending to be, drawled his way through fast-paced, upbeat garage-rock songs that were miles away stylistically from the artier, reverbier sound of contemporaries such as the Fresh & Onlys. Their set was filled with humorous moments, including some maraca showmanship and a bizarre back-and-forth between the somnambulistic Smith and a peppy female singer. Were the music any less energetic or Smith any more conscious-seeming, the overall effect would have been considerably reduced, but the contrast made the music all the more interesting and exciting.

Finally, Girls. Though my previous experience seeing Girls live was underwhelming, this was one of the best performances I have ever seen by a Bay Area band. The songs collectively combined nearly every experience one could have at a rock show--lighters in the air during “Forgiveness,” headbanging during “Die,” spiritual connection during the massive gospel anthem “Vomit,” and even some tears shed during the unbelievably beautiful “Alex” (a strong candidate for the best song of the year so far by a Bay Area artist). The duo of Chris Owens and JR White recruited a massive backing band for the show, including a three-woman gospel choir who looked like they were having the time of their lives. While many chose to admire the band from a distance as if they were art, others chose to dance, and the divide made for some uncomfortable situations towards the front. In the end, everyone was left nearly speechless--but still enough voice left to demand an encore, which came in the form of the ballad “Broken Dreams Club.”

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Best Bay Area Albums Of All Time: #1 & #1


No band epitomizes the Bay Area spirit like Sly & the Family Stone. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the co-ed, multi-racial band could have been the single greatest American band, offering some of the best live shows in the history of music and two of the best albums. However, these two albums could not have been more different. 1969's Stand! was a vibrant, political, psychedelic, and insanely funky record that captured the head-in-the-clouds vibe of the 1960s in San Francisco while keeping its feet firmly in the real world. There's A Riot Goin' On eschewed the bright, psychedelic, and distinctly Bay Area sound they had become known for in favor of a dark, lo-fi, and relentlessly chilling funk sound which had never been replicated but can be heard nowadays in the music of everyone from Bibio to George Clinton.

Ray Wilcox, DJ/musician/promoter, says: “Stand! is essentially a young Bay Area band taking full advantage of the groundbreaking open-minded experimentation and freedom of expression that the late 60's had to offer. Most of the tracks were all over the radio, but read between the lines for some subversive and challenging pop music curveballs that challenge anything you've ever heard on a record. This record oozes energy and heartfelt soul, lyrically both uplifting with almost idealized optimism, ironically countered with paranoid, slap-in-the-face social commentary. The beats are SLAMMING, some of the most sampled in hip hop, and the songs are all sublime.”

Daniel Bromfield of SF Rebirth says: “There’s A Riot Goin’ On had an effect on me no other album has ever had, and I believe it is an effect it has had on many listeners. When I first heard it, I would have liked to have thought it was extremely boring. The instruments were off and barely audible; Sly sounded as if he was slumbering in the depths of indica and waking up only from time to time; and I felt no real forward motion in the music. Yet at the same time it had a certain stranglehold on me, as if I could not draw my attention away from the mood it was creating. I felt as if I was staring down an enemy who was standing so still and motionless I thought it must be a ploy to lunge when I least expect it. But there are no sudden surprises on There’s A Riot Goin’ On--just that mood, an aura of fear and paranoia, but with a light prevalent throughout and perpetually battling the terror with the pure power of love. No album has ever come even close to balancing light and dark as effectively as this one."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Best Bay Area Albums Of All Time: #2

The legendary live band’s finest moment in the studio, 1970’s American Beauty found the band diving deeper into the rootsy textures they had explored on Workingman’s Dead, released less than six months prior. Though its sound may stray away from the Bay Area, the San Francisco spirit is still there in abundance.

Ed Maxwell, admin of the Local Bay Area Music Facebook page, says: "It has often been stated that the Grateful Dead were only at their best when playing live shows. While there is some truth in that statement, this does not mean they did not release any excellent studio albums. American Beauty finds the band at its creative peak in the studio. American Beauty stands as one of the greatest country rock/folk rock records of all time, with gems such as ‘Truckin’, ‘Friend of the Devil’, ‘Sugar Magnolia’ and ‘Ripple’ still receiving airplay on classic rock stations."

Monday, September 26, 2011

Best Bay Area Albums Of All Time: #3

After the release of the massively influential and successful Surrealistic Pillow, the members of Jefferson Airplane complained the record did not represent their “true sound.” While their live shows were marked by far more experimentation, both with music and drugs, Surrealistic Pillow manages to distill the band’s vivid psych-rock style (and the entire Sixties counterculture) into the three-to-four-minute pop songs that sent this album rocketing into the Top 10. However, it’s more than just a historical artifact--these are some of the prettiest, trippiest, and most rockin’ songs ever recorded.

Best Bay Area Albums Of All Time: #4

The only thing that embodies the spirit of San Francisco in the late ‘60s more than the album cover to Big Brother and the Holding Company’s 1968 classic, Cheap Thrills, is the music itself. Driven by some of the hottest musicians in the Bay Area (not to mention the legendary Janis Joplin), these mock-live recordings are reportedly the closest equivalent to actually being in Sixties San Francisco found on vinyl.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Best Bay Area Albums Of All Time: #5

Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables stands as one of the essential punk albums, Bay Area or otherwise. The album cover, depicting the riots following the Milk/Moscone assassinations in San Francisco, sums up the album’s content perfectly--this is an album that viciously attacks nearly every political issue in late-Seventies/early-Eighties California with fury, musical brutality, and, above all, a sharp sense of humor.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Local Hero EP


The Aldgate EP

* * * * 1/2


After numerous amazing tentative titles (including Gangbang Amadeus Mozart and Throw Some Swag On That Swag), East Bay trio Local Hero finally decided to name their debut EP after a British pub in Tokyo and slap a vintage-looking image of a bunch of boats on the cover. If your first thought was Picture Atlantic, British Sea Power or other similarly maritime-enamored post-punk revivalists, we’re in the same boat here (pun semi-intended). The ship and title are nonetheless appropriate to the music here. Local Hero carry with them a certain globetrotting chic that is as highbrow as that of Vampire Weekend but considerably more whimsical and extroverted, as if the boys in the band actually spent some time traveling across the world rather than having it channeled to them through history classes and King Sunny Ade records. They sing about Barcelona daydreams, the great Northwest, and the Champs-Elysees, and there is something too big and bold about their sound to suggest that their worldly musings are the product of any sort of ennui or fantasy.

Yet this is hardly “world music.” The band’s influences come directly from the Anglophone indieverse—there are elements of Fleet Foxes’ reverb-drenched harmony folk, Destroyer’s obtuse, psychedelic lyrics, Girls’ repurposing of classic pop motifs, and the Afro-pop glory of Local Natives and Vampire Weekend. Yet all these different styles meet in the middle, firmly in pop territory with no pretentious avant-gardism or Pitchfork aspirations. In fact, it’s a ridiculously upbeat record. Mackay’s raspy, slurred voice sounds intoxicated from life rather than weed or alcohol, and his idiosyncratic, evocative lyrics glisten atop the major-key background like a sauce drizzled artfully on some fancy dish at a Parisian restaurant. Everything boils down to a summertime pop mélange that is sometimes sexy, often quirky, and always fun. It is a shame that The Aldgate was released at the very tail end of summer, as this would be the perfect album for a summer in the Bay Area—or anywhere else for that matter.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Kids Are Happy, Even Though School Started Again



* * * 1/2

Nick Martin could pass as a superhero. If you met Martin on the street, you might never guess he was one of the Bay Area’s most brilliant young R&B artists--yet as soon as he steps into the shoes of his Romance alter ego, he transforms into a smooth yet tough and high-energy character with a prominent dark streak. There’s not much darkness to “Superhuman,” the latest single by Martin’s megaband Romance of Thieves, but there’s smoothness, toughness, and a whole lot of energy. Over a beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Janelle Monae song, rapper De’Andre delivers a killer verse that references Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” while Martin, like a DJ scrolling through his iTunes library, references nearly every song Katy Perry has ever sung. While the production is bogged down by a rather irritating horn loop courtesy of Martin’s old St. Valentinez bandmate Will Randolph V, the song, as a whole, is an R&B blast that’s heavy on the rhythm and light on the blues.


“This Could Be Anything”

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I mean, come on! These guys have a picture of two guys in knitted caps camping in their living room for their album cover! “This Could Be Anything,” the latest single from The Yellow Dress, is so twee it doesn’t hurt, even though it tickles a bit. There’s handclaps, a major key signature, glockenspiel, subtly out-of-key horns, a girl-group chord progression, and boy-girl duetting. All of it is held together by the bustling production of George Rosenthal, which complements the music considerably better than the lo-fi production of the group’s earlier releases. To top it all off, it basically sounds like Ghost and the City on Prozac. Honestly, what more could you want out of upbeat indie pop?


“What I Want”

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Though they’re not as well-known as some other teenage Bay Area rockers, Tano Brock and Jack Gorlin have both produced some quality bedroom pop in the last few years. Brock produced a string of brilliant lo-fi singles last year (most of which are no longer public), and Gorlin’s classic rock covers are worth giving a listen. Put the two together in the same room, and you get... a free-bitch disco anthem? It’s surprising, but it works. On the second official single by their collaboration under the moniker Space Among Many, the duo’s chemistry is obvious. Brock’s piano-driven production is consistently interesting and danceable, with Gorlin’s filtered vocals driving the song along rather than merely floating on top. In addition, the vocal harmonies between the two are seamless. Brock has stated that the goal of Space Among Many is to experiment with as many genres as possible while maintaining a distinctive sound. While “What I Want” is far more effective than their previous single, the dark synth-pop “Not Alone,” it will be interesting to see what these two cook up.