Saturday, January 21, 2012

New Fever Charm, Frak & Nicky C


Sail Away

* * * *

Fever Charm apparently snuck into a recording studio and used roughly 20,000 dollars worth of equipment to record their new release Sail Away (says the band: it’s a compilation, not an EP). If this is true, this is an impressive show of devotion to the hi-fi sound--Guided by Voices these guys ain’t. As Sail Away is one of the best-produced, best-sounding Bay Area rock records this side of Girls’ Father, Son, Holy Ghost I’ve heard recently, it’s safe to say their chutzpah paid off. Theo Quayle’s power chords roar with as much clarity as aggression; Yianni AP’s bass is as grimy and metallic yet shiny-sounding as a stick against a chain-link fence; and everything sounds raw yet whistle-clean. As such, it would be inaccurate to classify this as a “garage rock” record, but the way Fever Charm flaunts their pop chops without compromising their edge has something in common with not only contemporary garage-rockers like the White Stripes or the Strokes but also vintage ‘60s garage bands (check out that “Wild Thing” riff on “Youth.”) Labels aside, Sail Away is one of the pop-savviest, most energetic, um, compilations of songs I’ve heard in a long time, delivering on the promise Fever Charm displayed on their earlier singles and EPs and demonstrating how studio sparkle can be just as powerful as lo-fi grime.


Real Talk

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Real Talk, the debut by teen rap duo Frak & Nicky C, is a fucking paradox (no it’s not). Frak has one of the worst voices for rapping I’ve ever heard, but his lyrics are consistently inspired and his flow is as joyful as those of the best rappers (remarkably, his voice is extremely easy to get used to). The whole album sounds like two guys fucking around, but Nicky C’s beats are so well-crafted and well-arranged that there is no way this thing couldn’t be serious. And, of course, the duo is unapologetic about being white and middle-class and going to a private school in San Francisco. What I know for sure is that it’s a supremely well-made album, balancing introspective and personal raps with third-person storytelling and a fair share of clever boasts (my favorite is “I got genius bars like an Apple store”). It also dodges stigmas around well-off white rappers without sounding racist or understating that particular elephant in the room, as demonstrated on “White.” Why should Frak rap? Quoth he: “I love words, I love music, so why the hell can’t I combine ‘em?” The answer is, of course, that he can--and by all means should continue to do so.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The latest from the Handshake camp


Sleeping, Snarling

* * * * 1/2


Let’s just get it out of the way: Sleeping, Snarling is a fucking awful name for an album, violating the law that no album should have a name that describes what its detractors might do while listening to it. But Handshake have never been about surface. They win battles of the bands without taking their shirts off or making douchey shout-outs; they joke about their awkwardness awkwardly enough that you might believe it; and even their panty-melting vocal harmonies sound a little goofy in the “oh wow, that actually sounded really good” sense. Their most evocative and poetic lyrics still sound like they’re being sung by down-to-earth guys who have girl problems and buy cat food. That is but one of the many traits that make Handshake so likable--their music is the sound of the subconscious poetry in the head of that guy who fell asleep next to you on the N Judah the other day.

Sleeping, Snarling, their full-length debut, embodies this aesthetic, in addition to delivering on every iota of promise the group has shown through three years of gigs and demo singles. Despite these songs’ elaborate arrangements and displays of technical skill, they feel warm and mammalian--nothing is robotic, everything is organic, and the production is soft but does not dull the band’s syncopated, funk-inspired grooves. This is essentially a funk record, in the same way an early James Blake EP might be considered a dance record: it’s not always easy to free your ass to, but it packs a lot of the same thrills of good funk music, from its steady grooves and slow builds to its unforced sexiness. The latter is a key part of Handshake’s appeal, and most of these songs are about love or sex. The vocal interplay between Evan Greenwald’s earthy rasp and Devin Clary’s syllabic cry fuels this, with Greenwald handling the come-ons and leaving Clary to sing the blues after the breakup.

One of the most remarkable things about Sleeping, Snarling is how many good songs it has. The album is completely devoid of filler, and every song, aside from the short instrumental “Solemn,” could be a listener’s favorite with equal probability. Standout “Other Eye,” which the band selected out of seven viable candidates to be the lead single, would probably get the most votes as favorite (including mine, if I absolutely had to choose one)--it has a great riff, a memorable hook, and one the best guitar solos by anyone not named Annie Clark I’ve heard in the last year. It’s also the first track, and it does its duty to set the mood. But then there’s the dusty, blues-flavored “Parched Dry”; the delightfully sleazy “Time” (originally called “Pussy Whip”); the subtle dissonance of “Lemon,” the soaring “Siamese”; and the ending duo of “Phone Company” and “Red Balloon,” which are among the weaker tracks on the album but end the album on a modest note.

Good songs, good riffs, great melodies, awesome guitar solos, tasty grooves, attractive harmonies--Sleeping, Snarling covers all the bases of a great album, and in that, it’s refreshing. This is an album that can only be listened to in its own right, free of any trivia or concept or affiliation with a current trend. But if anything, Sleeping, Snarling is a fine example of how an abundance of great melodic ideas and well-crafted songs can be just as effective as high concepts and dark twisted fantasies in the creation of an outstanding record.


An Infinity Of Furs EP

* * * 1/2

This collection of lo-fi recordings was made by Handshake member Evan Greenwald in his dorm room at Sarah Lawrence College. Recorded primarily on GarageBand, An Infinity Of Furs consists of noise-pop songs are built for their noise, much like the best Nineties lo-fi rock and unlike many bands that sacrifice noise for pop or vice-versa. Built around grimy MIDI drums and guitars that jump into the red zone but are not earsplitting, the music on An Infinity Of Furs could only be described as modest. Greenwald’s lyrics are the reverse, employing joyfully odd metaphors like “my hands are garbage disposal blades,” and while these surreal poetics and the album’s unpretentious background are both great, they don’t always blend together seamlessly.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Best Bay Area Albums Of 2011

1. tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L. Merrill Garbus’s second album as tUnE-yArDs is exciting, vibrant, multicultural, and dangerous as the streets of her hometown of Oakland. Though her debut, 2009’s bIrD-bRaInS, was limited by her low recording and instrumental budget, higher-fi production and more musicians at her disposal allow Garbus to realize her wildest musical fantasies--which are very wild. Afropop horns squawk like tropical birds, Merrill Garbus howls like classic Janis, and booming scrapyard drums drive the whole thing along. W H O K I L L is a fun yet avant-garde record that seems ahead of its time both musically and politically--songs like “My Country” and “Doorstep” practically predict the riotous Occupy Oakland that would come later in the year, as do the chaotic arrangements that accompany them.

2. Jack Frank - A Lesson Learned. As frontman of the Piers, Jack Frank rejected San Francisco musical traditions to immerse himself in New York’s underground rock heritage, from the Velvet Underground to the Strokes. On his new, half-hour A Lesson Learned EP, Frank (now a full-time New Yorker) mixes edgy, punky street-rock with complex lyrics and plenty of memorable hooks. This the sort of rock album that stands up to repeated plays in part because of its complexity 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.

3. Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Girls love classic rock and all its implications--massive arrangements, epic guitar solos, lighters-in-the-air power ballads, polished three-minute singles, and above all, great, timeless songs. On their third album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, every song, from the surf-rock rave-up “Honey Bunny” to the soulful “Love Like A River,” could be a listener’s favorite with equal probability (my personal pick is “Alex,” which contains the only drum fill that has ever made me burst into tears). While there are better beginning-to-end listens than this album, perhaps no album this year has as many individual great songs.

4. DaVinci - Feast or Famine EP. Feast Or Famine, the latest EP from San Francisco 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. 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 District he represents, 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.

5. Local Hero - The Aldgate EP. Despite Local Hero’s globetrotting image, this teenage East Bay group’s influences come directly from the Anglophone indieverse--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 on their Aldgate EP, all these different styles meet in the middle, firmly in pop territory with no pretentious avant-gardism or Pitchfork aspirations. 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.

6. Hunx & His Punx - Too Young To Be In Love. Of course Hunx and his Punx are going to be pegged as a novelty act--a skinny young leatherino who stuffs beer cans in his crotch, backed up by a probably-lesbian all-girl backing band and playing trashy, semi-parody, ‘60s-style bubblegum ditties. The thing is, they’re only part novelty, and the rest of them is pure bad-ass rock n’ roll garage band. This is a fantastic pop album from beginning to end, with agreeable melodies, great two-minute songs, and lyrics anyone can associate with whether gay, straight, or bi. And if the whole queercore thing turns you off, remember Bogart’s only flaunting his gayness as much as Elvis used to flaunt his straightness.

7. The SHE’s - Then It Starts To Feel Like Summer. Unlike the vast majority of promising teenage bands I covered during SF Rebirth’s early years, the SHE’s 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. With their 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.

8. Rin Tin Tiger - Rin Tin Tiger EP. The highly anticipated debut EP from Rin Tin Tiger, the new incarnation of the Sullivan Brothers’ Westwood & Willow project, consists of six reworked versions of Westwood & Willow tunes, mostly from last year’s excellent Doorways, Vehicles, & Markets album. While some of the songs merely sound like re-arrangements of Westwood songs with drums (“Ghost Door”), others are drastically improved, with the thickened guitar textures and high-energy drumbeats increasing the emotional power of Kevin Sullivan’s vocals. “Red Pony” is particularly impressive, taking one of the band’s lesser-known songs and fleshing out its full power. Also notable is the addition of ghostly backing vocals and subtly dissonant harmonies on “Sweetest Fruit,” adding tension to the song and making you feel as if Kevin’s pulse truly is beating out of rhythm.

9. Lil B - I’m Gay. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth once said people go to concerts to watch other people believe in themselves, and nobody has created a greater cult of personality based on unstoppable confidence, or swag, than Lil B. No, the Based God still can’t rap very well, but he’s full of stamina, and he sounds more genuinely happy, or gay, than any musician I’ve heard on record in the past year. This is a man with the freedom not only to say he’s gay but to genuinely be gay and make others feel that way as well (including myself). In addition to how flat-out fierce Lil B sounds, the production is of superior quality, using their esoteric sample sources to create a strange and unique environment. So fierce. So swaggin’.

10. Sonny & the Sunsets - Hit After Hit. Of the countless Bay Area garage-pop bands that have emerged in the last few years, Sonny & the Sunsets are probably the most fun. 38-year-old frontman Sonny Smith (also known for his 100 Records project, in which he created a hundred aliases and made mini-albums for each of them) is not a bitter, cynical philosopher but rather a grown-up stoner with a great sense of humor. If they’re preoccupied with creating high art and pleasing the critics, it doesn’t show--Hit After Hit is nothing but a good time. This a band that delivers lines like “I’m in love with you baby, I’m dumb and so are you” with a chuckle and a grin.