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.”