Monday, March 29, 2010

The Invisible Rays Deserve More Visibility

During a break from the mixing of Miskatonic's second release, our producer, Rafi Sofer, played us what he called a "rough mix" of a song off his band's upcoming album. He said they weren't happy with it yet. We were blown away (and briefly considered abandoning our musical pursuits in favor of indoor gardening).

Rafi's band, The Invisible Rays, were working on their sophomore release, Salute The American Popular Song (2009), an epic work that took three years to complete. If I had to choose one word to describe the Boston-based Rays it would be cinematic. Their songs are cinematic in scope: their vast soundscapes take advantage of decades of technology, from Mellotrons and Roland Drum Machines to Fender Deluxes and Symphonic Bass. Their influences are cinematic: the band uses spoken word samples (from sci-fi b-movies, old radio shows, news broadcasts, presidential speeches, etc.) in place of traditional vocals. And they are cinematic in performance: The Rays have created high quality, entertaining videos for nearly all of the songs on Salute, and their live shows are a visual extravaganza. (I was lucky enough to be at the CD release party for Salute. The band projected the videos behind them as they played in perfect time to them.)

Although The Invisible Rays are a traditional four-piece band: guitar (Rafi), bass (Eric Kreuter), keyboards (Brendan Haley), and drums and samples (Ned Armsby), they sound nothing like it. Constantly experimenting with technology, the band layers and manipulates parts and instruments until they no longer sound like their sources. Ambitious and innovative, their songs are painstakingly crafted in a variety of tempos and time signatures, layering and juxtaposing sounds to create something fresh and powerful. Yet for all the artful science behind it, the songs often maintain a punk rock sensibility. Influences can be heard -- the B-52s, Throbbing Gristle, the Ventures, Sonic Youth -- but the overall effect is unique. The Rays can be humorous, creepy, melancholy, or uplifting, but they are always engaging.

The band is currently working on finishing the final two videos for Salute. (I'm hoping they release a DVD.) They're also experimenting with new sounds and sculpting them into new songs.

Below is the video for "DK Ray/Interference." You can view all the Salute videos on their youtube channel.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

My Band Shares Favorite Songs Over Pizza & Beer

Last Friday night several members of my band, Miskatonic (left), got together at our drummer Mark's house for pizza and beer - and to each share a few songs that inspire us and might be relevant to our '80s-influenced alt-pop sound. These weren't necessarily our favorite three songs ... just ones we liked and wanted other band members to hear. (Unfortunately, Tim, our guitarist, was out of town.)

Between beer, pizza, and playing Beatles Rock Band, here's what we listened to. What would you choose?

Mark (Drums)
  • Secret Meeting - The National
  • To Be Broadcast - The Butchies
  • Uncontrollable Urge - Devo
Paul (Guitar, Keyboards)
  • You Gave Your Love to me Softly (Unreleased) - Weezer
  • Violent Life - Blonde Redhead
  • Lucky Guy - The Muffs (I've been playing this song obsessively since being reminded of it.)
Liz (Vocals)
  • Kiss, Kiss - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  • You'll Find a Way - Santogold
  • Wolf Like Me - TV on the Radio
Steve (Bass)
  • The Pace is the Trick - Interpol
  • I Only Said - My Bloody Valentine
  • I Want the One I Can't Have - The Smiths

Here's the video for "Wolf Like Me" by TV on the Radio from their performance on Letterman.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dali's Car: A Brilliant Disaster

Dali's Car was a disaster by almost any measurement. The band recorded one album in 1984 with just seven songs on it. That album, The Waking Hour, cost twice their recording budget of $30,000 and was a commercial failure. Most of the tracks on the album were recorded separately by each musician, who sent tapes back and forth. When the two primary personalities behind the band, Peter Murphy (former Bauhaus vocalist) and Mick Karn (former Japan bassist/multi-instrumentalist) finally were in the same room together, they clashed and decided they could not continue working together. While a tour had been in discussion, this squashed any hopes of it ever happening.

Great art is full of tension, and perhaps it was the tension between Murphy and Karn that produced an album unlike anything heard before or since. Karn's quirky, virtuoso fretless bass is the lead instrument, accented by Asian- and Middle Eastern-influenced keyboards, minimalistic guitar riffs, and the jagged and constantly changing percussion programming of Vincent Lawford, the third member of the group. Murphy somehow finds a way to phrase his vocals powerfully over this strange conglomeration of sounds - and the effect is otherworldly. While some elements of the production and the electronic percussion date the album as '80s material, there is something so fresh about the composition and instrumentation that it still holds its magic today.

The below video is a live version of "His Box" for the U.K. television show, The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sneak Preview: New Unbunny, Common Loon & Painted Hills

When I wrote about Unbunny a few weeks ago, I mentioned that they weren't big on self promotion. Things seem to have changed. Immediately after I tweeted about my Unbunny post, their label, Parasol Records, contacted me and asked if I wanted to hear their new, unreleased album. I did.

The 10-song album, Moon Food (upper left), is due out in May. I had wondered if Unbunny would develop a more heavily produced sound as they evolved. The good news is they have evolved without relying on studio technique. The approach is typically minimalistic and the production is high-quality lo-fi. Driven by folky acoustic guitar, the songs are stripped down to their essential instrumentation. Moon Food highlights Unbunny's country/folk influence as much as anything they've previously released. Yet there is still enough diversity among songs to give the album a nice flow. "Young Men Are Easy Prey" might be off Neil Young's first release, while "Straw on a Camel's Back" comes as close to rap as we might ever hope Unbunny will get (although it is one of my favorite songs on the album). As always, the quality of Jarid's voice and vocal harmonies shine through as he sings self-deprecating lyrics that can be in turn melancholy and funny. Unbunny fans won't be disappointed in this release, but will it win them a larger audience? We'll have to wait to see ...

Included with Moon Food in Parasol's package to me were unreleased debuts from two bands I had never heard of: Common Loon's The Long Dream of Birds (April 6) and Painted Hills self-titled release (April 20). I'm rather particular about music. I don't like much of the new music I hear and there are many technically great bands that never made a strong impression on me. So I was surprised to find myself happily listening to both of these albums repeatedly. While the two bands are heavily influenced by 60s-era psychedelic rock, their sounds are clearly distinct.

Hailing from Sierra Madre, CA and led by former Beachwood Sparks guitarist, Josh Schwartz, Painted Hills has a lush dream pop sound, accentuated by guitar riffs whose influences range from Middle-Eastern to country to 70s rock. The band's press sheet suggests we "think sun-baked, pastoral psych-pop and starry-eyed Cosmic Americana influenced by the Laurel Canyon scene of the 70s and the 80s Paisley Underground in Los Angeles." I understand only a bit of this, but it somehow seems reasonable. I hear traces of the Beatles' psychedelic era combined with the full, lingering guitar sound of The Doves, among other influences.

Common Loon, a duo from Champaign, Illinois, is more dynamic in their approach, contrasting moments of thick vocal harmonies over noisy guitars with sparse, spacey instrumentation and vocals. They have a knack for creating strong musical moments with dramatic changes between parts or in instrumentation. Common Loon's press sheet describes them as trafficking in "dreamy, dayglo rock, blending classic West Coast harmonies with some classic shoegazing guitar-lushness." They are now touring with dates available here.

Returning to Unbunny for a moment: Parasol has recently release Unbunny's New England tour schedule:
Apr 18 @ Death By Audio - Brooklyn
Apr 19 @ Green Line Cafe - Philly PA
Apr 21 @ Garfield Artworks - Pittsburgh PA
Apr 25 @ Pa's Lounge - Somerville MA
Apr 26 @ Red Door - Portsmouth NH
More dates coming...

While we're waiting for these releases and shows, I'll leave you with Unbunny's Casarole video, off their Snow Tires album.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Sheila Divine: Boston and (just a little) Beyond

Ever since I started this blog (a couple of weeks ago), my wife has been after me to write a post about The Sheila Divine. She can't understand how such a great band never made it beyond Boston. Well, it turns out they did; they were also big in Buffalo and Belgium. That's right ... their following was even referred to as "the three Bs." But even so, they seemed destined for so much more.

Formed in 1997 and influenced by the early 80s post-punk movement, The Sheila Divine played guitar-driven music that often took the loud/soft/loud song structure to a new level, creating intense dynamics within vocal phrases. The band was also defined by melodic bass lines and singer/songwriter Aarron Perrino's booming voice, which he also varied to extremes: pretty falsettos followed by spine-tingling screams. Perhaps most notable among the band's four releases is their 1999 full-length debut, New Parade, which received praise from local critics and included the college hit, "Hum." The first four songs on it are as powerful a start as any album gets.

After releasing the follow-up full-length, Where Have My Countrymen Gone in 2001 and the EP, Secret Society in 2002, they embarked on a massive world tour. The merciless schedule proved to be the undoing of the band. Near the end of the tour, during a concert in the U.S., an altercation with bassist Jim Gibert led to Aaron throwing his guitar down and telling the audience that the band was breaking up. The Sheila Divine officially broke up a year later when Aaron formed his current band, Dear Leader, who also enjoys popularity in "the three Bs."

The below clip is a live version of "Hum" off New Parade.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lost Album of the '80s: Prefab Sprout's "Swoon"

It's not unlikely that you missed one of the best albums of the 80s - and it would be hard to fault you. In 1984, Prefab Sprout released their debut album, Swoon. And while it rose to the top 20 in their native England, it drew little attention in the U.S. The rest of their career followed suit, as eight of their albums reached the top 40 in the UK Albums Charts, while only one of their albums, Steve McQueen, made it into Billboard's top 200. This despite the superlative adjectives heaped upon Paddy McAloon, whose songwriting abilities have compared to Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney and even Cole Porter. One important fan the band did win over with Swoon was Thomas Dolby, who went on to produce several Prefab albums, sometimes being referred to as "the fifth Sprout."

Even after 26 years, I'm hard-pressed to find an album that compares to Swoon. It's a highly original work that meshes genres to create a sophisticated sound by using jazz chord progressions and complex song structures that take unexpected turns. McAloon makes the most of his strong voice with unusual phrasing complemented by Wendy Smith's breathy background vocals. His lyrics are smart and often poetic ("words are trains / for moving past what really has no name"). Each song complements the next; there are no weak links. It is an album to be listened to as a whole, preferably in the late evening. While I was drawn into Swoon the first time I heard it, I know many people who had to give it a number of listens before appreciating it. It's well worth the effort.

Prefab Sprout went on to release many more fine albums, but none has equaled their debut in originality or complexity. Sadly, in recent years McAloon has suffered from serious health issues: a degenerative eye condition has impaired his sight, and tinnitus causes him painful aural sensations. Nevertheless, he has continued to write and record, even though he hasn't released much of his recent work. Perhaps we have something to look forward to.

Here is "Cue Fanfare" from Swoon. (Static video).