Monday, April 30, 2012

GenSF Battle of the Bands Coverage 2012

 Ernest Hemingway once said: “There are only four sports: bullfighting, motor racing, mountaineering, and battles of the bands; all the rest are merely games.”  Well, maybe he didn’t actually say that last part, but perhaps he would have had he attended even one of GenSF’s Battles of the Bands at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.  This event is one of the best places to see young Bay Area talent in action, but it is probably better known as a battlefield.  2010’s Battle of the Bands was known for its backstage arguments; 2011’s saw former St. Valentinez singer Nick Martin and his Romance of Thieves ensemble battling his old band following a less-than-amicable split.  This sort of juicy teenage drama is a blogger’s dream, and I came to 2012’s Battle of the Bands expecting to capitalize on it as I did on last year’s.  Though this did not happen, I was in for a treat: this was possibly the tightest Battle of the Bands I have ever attended, one in which the competition was as vital as the talent.
* * *
 Freshman-age classic-rock cover band Marshall Deadwood opened the set with a competent cover of Etta James’ “Something’s Got A Hold On Me.”  Though their performance wasn’t terrible, it’s tough ground for cover bands in the competitive world of band-battling, and Marshall Deadwood did not make it past the first round.
 Parallax, a two-guitar, one-drummer trio, would have benefitted tremendously from a bassist to anchor their meandering psychedelic jams.  Though their performance would likely have been greatly augmented by this addition, they were easily outshined by the similar but tighter and far more interesting Comodo Complex.
 Though the Feds didn’t win, they had the right stuff to--this was a band that knew how to please a crowd.  The San Carlos quartet found they had already delighted the audience with their ‘90s-style power-pop in the first round, and their win was no surprise.  In a truly brilliant decision, the second round found the band’s drummer busting a massive solo--an almost inevitable crowd-pleaser.  However, the Feds must not have impressed the judges as much as they did the audience, and they did not make it to the final round.
THE INQ (winners)
 In the underdog success story of the year so far, this unassuming quartet took to the stage between two bands of similar age and not entirely different sound and rocked their way to the 500-dollar grand prize.  The Inq were not the tightest band of the night, nor were they the most technically proficient (both of these awards would have to go to the St. Valentinez), but they were certainly the most unusual and unique, playing jammy rock so straightforward yet so unclassifiable it was difficult to pigeonhole with any label more specific than, say, “garage rock” or (God help us) “indie rock.”  The first round saw the audience moderately engaged, more so than during the first two bands’ sets but less so than during the Feds’, but during the second and third rounds, the Inq got the audience on their feet almost as effectively as the Valentinez and even managed to start a reasonably large mosh pit.
 Comodo Complex were the first of two bands that had previously competed, the others being last years’ winners the St. Valentinez.  Their music was notably tighter than at last year’s set, and despite playing two great tunes, they did not impress the judges as much as the Inq did.  
 “Why y’all sitting?,” went the first words from St. Valentinez frontman Will Randolph’s mouth, and as the audience members slowly lifted themselves from the floor, I got the feeling the battle was over.  The undoubted favorites to win, the St. Valentinez had clearly rehearsed for this performance for months, and it showed in every aspect of the set from their songs to their immaculate dress.  The musicians’ technical skills well surpassed those of most bands twice their age, and the sound coming from the speakers and amps was so smooth and well-mixed a member of the other bands suggested the Valentinez must have tipped the sound guy.  As seamless as the Valentinez’ set was, there was a part of me that didn’t want them to win--if they did, it would be about as much a surprise as Bon Iver topping Pitchfork’s Albums of 2011 list.  Though they made it to the finals along with the Inq, their mashup of “All of the Lights” by Kanye West and “Niggas in Paris” by Kanye and Jay-Z did not win them the prize.  

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dylan Marx, Reid Saw A Ghost

Sod’s Collection of Bitter Songs
* * * *
There are better songwriters and many better singers than Dylan Marx, but I have heard few better arrangers among current Bay Area artists.  The UC Santa Cruz-based artist’s debut release, the perhaps-too-modestly-named 6-track collection Sod’s Collection of Bitter Songs, showcases his skill at deceptively simple arrangements, which can sound grand but never once overpower the album’s backbone of stark, introspective folk.  The first minute of “Blue” could have been culled from the repertoire of any anti-folk singer-songwriter from New York, but its subtle elevation by melancholy woodwinds and cello brings it into post-For Emma Bon Iver territory while maintaining its alone-in-a-room hush.  “Stuck” is stuck (sorry) halfway between the country and the carnival, beginning with innocent banjo and spiraling into a slightly menacing, circus-ish outro.  Most simply and most effectively, “The Woods” turns a humble harmonica into a distant industrial siren.  Marx himself does not provide many particularly brilliant or quotable lines on this album, but this is not a detriment to the album--Sod’s Collection of Bitter Songs is a singer-songwriter album that feels like a full, immersive experience.
Mad Scary
* * * *

On their immensely promising debut EP, Fremont band Reid Saw A Ghost offer seven bite-sized songs that showcase their Epic Meal Time approach to punk rock, which chiefly entails throwing as much stuff as possible on top of a foundation of strutting punkaboogie.  Xylophones, synthesizers, organs--nothing is left on the kitchen counter in the brewing of this bizarre concoction.  Most bands of this sort intend to either make some sort of conceptual avant-garde statement or just have fun, and while Reid Saw A Ghost are clearly the latter even from a casual listen, their songs are too well-crafted and catchy, not to mention plain listenable, to be the product of simple tomfuckery.  This is pop music played with the gleeful, anything-goes madness of a free-for-all jam session, ultimately sounding less like party music than the musical equivalent of an actual party--people are making complete asses of themselves, everything is out of order, but the chaos screams nothing but good vibes.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

10 Bay Area Artists To Watch

1. Lil B. He’s probably releasing a mixtape as you read this. (Update: he did.  Trapped in BasedWorld out now.)

2. Girls.
Certainly the most acclaimed band on this list as well as the one with the most great songs. The top 10: “Lust for Life,” “Laura,” “Hellhole Ratrace,” “Heartbreaker,” “Carolina” (SF Rebirth’s Song of 2010), “Honey Bunny,” “Alex” (SF Rebirth’s Song of 2011), “Vomit,” “Forgiveness,” “Love Like a River.” All that over 2 and a half albums over 3 years. And, by all indications, more to come.

3. The Inq. Recent winners of GenSF’s Battle of the Bands thanks to their danceable garage jams, which narrowly beat the omnipresent St. Valentinez’ impeccable arrangements. Without a doubt the most promising young band in San Francisco.

4. Carletta Sue Kay. Randy Walker and his lovably goofy yet heart-breakingly sincere songs have been around for a while, but his profile is increasing steadily--and will likely skyrocket with the release of Incongruent, his upcoming album as/with his persona/band Carletta Sue Kay.

5. Comodo Complex. The Inq’s weirder, druggier, George Rosenthal-produced buddies released a promising debut EP last year and have debuted even better, stranger new material live.

6. tUnE-yArDs. Even if Merrill Garbus never again tops last year’s fantastic W H O K I L L (an extremely likely possibility given how unique and brilliant that album was), we can expect more killer live shows and unpredictable yet strangely fitting musical turns (she very recently scored a silent Buster Keaton film live at the Castro Theater).

7. Local Hero. Following the fantastic Aldgate EP, possibly the best release by any teen Bay Area band last year, the East Bay indie-poppers have expanded their lineup from three to four with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Maya Laner. They are currently working on their full-length debut.

8. Reid Saw A Ghost. Though relatively unknown west of the Bay Bridge, this wacky Fremont band’s ridiculously fun Mad Scary EP may bring their kitchen-sink punk rock to the fore of the Bay Area teen music consciousness.

9. Eager Eyes. Formerly In The Attic, these Alameda dance-rockers and Finish Ticket allies are the only band on this list who might not be around in a few months, as its members are drifting increasingly close to college age. Catch ‘em while you still can, but if not, they have a great self-titled EP on BandCamp.

10. Tumbleweed Wanderers. The Tumbleweed Wanderers project is now a year old, so we can officially stop mentioning the Audiophiles in discussions of their music. (...Oops.) Their first year on earth has seen them make more quality, distinctly Bay Area rock n’ roll than many bands have in a lifetime.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Eyes Like Oceans has a new single


“From Russia With Love”


Seriously, what? “From Russia With Love” begins not unlike many other Eyes Like Oceans songs, with basic acoustic guitar, Miles Atkins’ overpronounced vocals, and a Garage Band drum loop, before the MIDI strings kick in and bring the song to what seems like its musical and emotional climax. Then, all of a sudden, the guitars shift from acoustic to electric, and there’s a fucking metalcore breakdown--and like a ray of sunlight, that surprisingly beautiful MIDI string section kicks in again. Metalcore/deathcore is one of those genres I’m not too familiar with, but it’s safe to say this isn’t a particularly well-executed breakdown--and it comes right after one of the most beautiful moments in any Eyes Like Oceans songs. So why does it work? Am I just used to Atkins’ idiosyncrasies? Is that cheesy grin on my face because I like it or because it’s so laughably bad? And would the song work as well without it or does it somehow, inexplicably, against all odds, make the tune? Or maybe it works after all and I’m just not expecting it?

The one thing I can infallibly give Atkins credit for on this song is having the balls to not only do this (this could have gone bad soooo easily) but sound earnest while not sounding as if he’s trying too hard. It doesn’t come across as tongue-in-cheek, but it’s too sincere to be nothing more than parody. I am reminded of “Beth/Rest,” Bon Iver’s experiment in unabashed ‘80s cheese-pop which actually ended up being one of the most beautiful songs ever written, but at least it didn’t have the WTF element present here. And at the same time, the placement of the breakdown right after the most emotional and powerful part of the song seems to inexplicably work.

In summation, I like this song. You won’t.

Note: the - rating can be interpreted as either a zero or as a testament to how some music just can't be evaluated with a few stupid stars.

Monday, April 9, 2012

New Ty Segall/White Fence, oOoOO


“I Am Not A Game”

* * * *


The first single from Hair, Ty Segall’s upcoming collaboration with Tim Presley’s White Fence, is the sort of almost novelty-like tribute to ‘60s garage-psych that every Bay Area band seems to be doing and that I have quite honestly become sick of. But don’t let that tacky little organ fool you: “I Am Not A Game” is a reminder of just why the world became so interested in San Francisco garage-rock in the first place. The duo uses lo-fi production squarely to their advantage, shrink-wrapping the vocals in piercing distortion to emphasize the eerie beauty of the background vocals, and their nostalgic touches (save the organ) are hardly tacky--just check out that epic, Woodstock-worthy guitar solo at the end. It also has that certain drive that was lacking on Segall’s most recent album, 2011’s Goodbye Bread. The chorus first comes in before you expect it to, then long after, and both times it is unbelievably satisfying when it hits. And then that guitar solo unwinds for miles and miles.



* * *

Last week, SF Rebirth reviewed EELED, Inq frontman Dillon Lee’s solo debut as Tailed Ghost, which Lee has since expanded and combined with material for a planned second EP titled Dream Gurls to form a full album. The Dream Gurls material is significantly more sophisticated and developed than that which was previously featured on EELED, especially “Suzi,” which mixes electronics with Lee’s vocals and guitarwork as effectively as EELED standout “Pairadox.” However, both EPs come across as series of electronic sketches Lee made more for himself rather than the music-listening universe. But let us not write off Tailed Ghost; the project seems to be developing rapidly, and my eye is trained on it as well as on Lee’s even more promising main project.


Our Love Is Hurting Us EP

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San Francisco’s Christopher Dexter Greenspan was one of the original proponents of the much-maligned “witch house” genre when it surfaced about two years ago. It’s safe to say the genre’s staying power has been nonexistent, and the genre’s more open-minded adherents have moved on to better things (Balam Acab and... um... well, I guess just Balam Acab), but Greenspan, a.k.a. oOoOO, still stubbornly clings to the mutant goth-R&B formula he patented on earlier EPs (oOoOO has no full-length albums). Even despite help from Berlin producer Butterclock, the songs on oOoOO’s Our Love Is Hurting Us EP are unremarkable at best, sounding like tired reiterations of his earlier work that go nowhere both on a small and a large scale. Though sticking to what one does best isn’t always a bad thing, one must also remind their listeners it is what they do best, and I think Greenspan could certainly do better, even in such an anachronistic context.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

New music from Eager Eyes, Tailed Ghost, Broken Cities


Eager Eyes EP

* * * 1/2

Ladies and gentlemen: the other teen rock n’ roll band from Alameda! While their inevitably arena-bound buddies Finish Ticket like their music as big as their ambitions, Eager Eyes (formerly In The Attic) play lean, modest pop rock with a post-punk bent. Tasteful is the word to describe Eager Eyes; their arrangements are neither dense nor sparse, filled with subtle textural touches (the electric piano on “First Impressions,” the ballpark organ that closes standout “Alarms”), and these songs are brief and unpretentious. Their pop appeal is cemented by Chris Maier’s warm, instantly likeable voice, which finds a nice middle ground between ennui-laced indie drawl and sexy teen-pop croon. However, every three-minute pop single needs a memorable hook, and earworms are not Eager Eyes’ strength--these tunes flow into your ears very pleasantly but never quite stick.



* * *

Dillon Lee of teen garage-and-ganja-rock outfit The Inq has stepped out on his own with a mini-album of eclectic avant-electro experiments. His most effective tracks are the ones that combine his vocals and guitar with electronics, particularly the opener “Pairadox” and the Deerhunter-ish closing ballad “Slow Tides.” The rest are mostly simple electronic tracks that sound like rudimentary hip-hop beats or, at best, something Xiu Xiu might construct (I would love to hear “Eye Mist” with a Jamie Stewart vocal). “Pairadox” is by far the best moment here, a warped electro-pop jam that recalls chillwave pioneer Neon Indian’s recent experiments with video-game bleeps.


* * 1/2

The songs on Oakland post-rockers Broken Cities’ second release, the three-song, twenty-minute mini-album Parable, are the definition of slow-burners. Each song begins with an ominous, moody dirge and, over five to eleven minutes, builds up to a massive, crashing climax worthy of the giant, building-consuming flames on the album’s sleeve. Pulling off this sort of large-scale drama is difficult, and while Broken Cities have the potential to do so quite effectively, the album’s production often counteracts the intended effect. While the instruments blended together quite effectively on the band’s more lo-fi debut, 2010‘s Flux, Parable’s production brings out the loud, dramatic climaxes while simultaneously muting them, making what could have been fantastic post-rock bombast seem like little more than disjunct dynamic switches.