Art Rock

REVIEW: Palm - Rock Island

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Phillipe Roberts

In the race to classify the formidable sounds devised by Philadelphia-via-Hudson quartet Palm, genres are constantly tossed in and out of the running. Owing to their use of odd-metered melodies, math rock is most common, but universally rejected by the band themselves. Art rock comes in close second, a solid attempt at capturing the constant friction between the barbed abstractions etching their way across the songs. On past releases like last year’s Shadow Expert EP, where those jagged edges were a little more pronounced, that might’ve done the trick.

Less than a year later, sitting atop the treasure trove of marvelous tunes that is Rock Island, the problem presents itself again. Allow me to suggest a solution: Rock Island is Palm’s dream pop record. But beyond the typical sense of reverb-soaked vocals and extensive reliance on atmosphere, Palm returns with songs that speak the erratic language of dreams. Far from the disorienting structures that dominated their earlier work, the world of Rock Island is almost instantly familiar. Give your ears a few bars to adjust to the surroundings and each track begins to operate on an inviting and singular internal logic that only peels apart as its component parts fade into memory.

Question how those guitars are dancing impossible steps around the drums, how the dimensions of the songs shrink and expand so freely, or why steel drums of all things are just about everywhere, and you’ll scratch your head all day long. Sink into it, let it sweep you away, take in the hazy tropical scenery. The more you surrender, the more vibrant and addicting it becomes. Spend a day on Rock Island and you might end up pleasantly marooned.

In contrast to previous efforts, there’s an invigorating sense of conceptual wholeness to the proceedings this time around. Even as dual vocalist/guitarists Eve Alpert and Kasra Kurt develop further into their own unique styles, the grab-bag approach of yesteryear falls by the wayside. It’s almost a shame that Palm have moved in the direction of prominent vocals; the twin instrumental tracks “Theme From Rock Island,” a sprightly bossa nova jam, and “20664,” a taste of subterranean footwork, would make phenomenal soundtrack pieces if they weren’t busy populating Rock Island with strange flora and fauna.

But it's not much of a shame, as the vocal work on this record is razor sharp, with clearer presentation and direction than ever. “Dog Milk” is far and away the poppiest cut Palm has produced, with Kasra taking point on a rollercoaster of sunny Beach Boys harmonies surrounded by a glittering panorama of MIDI steel drums that’ll have you grinning ear to ear, and his turn on the lumbering 8-bit sunbather “Swimmer” adds a dreary touch to the Cluster-attempts-reggae backing. Eve Alpert is no slouch, outdoing her beautiful work on Shadow Expert’s title track with a few R&B vocal slides on prog-pop opener “Pearly” and taking lead on shoegaze fantasy closer “Didn’t What You Want Happen,” bookending the record with two takes on surrealist crooning. Drummer Hugo Stanley and bassist Gerasimos Livitsanos round out the band with locked-in, yet highly embellished grooves that propel a constantly undulating wall of sound through arrangements that, despite massive sonic shifts, never feel too busy or haphazard.

Rock Island is the first record where Palm truly settles into a consensus of sound, owning their position at the vanguard of a psychedelic renaissance, tapping into the subconscious for a futuristic vision that dwells on the boundary between inner and outer space. Catch a glimpse before they dissolve it entirely.

REVIEW: Dove Lady - F

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Phillipe Roberts

Tossing out one last release only hours before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, Dove Lady slide into home plate with three records under their belts for 2017. For most acts, a breakneck pace like that would suggest a “golden year” burst of creativity, a flash-in-the-pan outlier. But with 20 EPs to go in their crusade to drop one for each letter of the alphabet, Dove Lady seem to be revving up, trying to take the rest of their marathon at full steam. Even if they maintain that three-a-year pace and drop any detours like last year’s numerical swerve One, the DC duo are looking at at least 6 more years of charging towards that finish line.

But the thrill of the band’s evolution, the thumping, oxygen-flooded heart of those heady ambitions, comes down to pure mystery: what kind of band will Dove Lady be at the end of all this? Song by song, Andrew Thawley and Jeremy Ray are engaged in a game of musical pointillism, brushing a few new dots onto a canvas that, as of EP F, we’re still seeing up close. Years from now, when we stand back at the close of EP Z, what sort of cohesive image will (or could) emerge from the expanding cacophony of genres spilling out of these two?

And yet, like all of their previous works thus far, F is an album obsessed with moments, cohesion be damned. Dove Lady sinks their teeth into melodies with a uniquely rabid dedication to impulsive leaps in songwriting logic. No idea is safe or sacred. No song too pretty or catchy to escape a little bit of mutilation. At its furthest extreme, this philosophy coughs up a real head-turner on “Education Soul Connection.” Chopped up, spidery funk-rock riffing rides down the scales into a blend of gooey, yearning psych-rock reminiscent of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, before growing a pair of legs and hoofing it off into oblivion with a passage that pairs a Cash-style western drum shuffle with an explosively jagged math-rock lead guitar line. By the time the dust settles in your ears, you’re halfway through noise anthem “Volleyball, Volleyball Star Captain,” shaking it to a sweaty, palm-muted riff and the titular chant for the cartoon superhero you never knew you needed.

For all the muscular shredding and complex time signature noodling to be had on F, the EP is not without its quieter, more meditative moments. Opener “You Are All My People” is their most convincing attempt at lo-fi ambience so far. Looped piano, field recordings, and scrapped, Gamelan-style guitars squash, bend, and reverse into an immersive digitized swamp, saturated with humid texture à la Deerhunter. And the back half of “Let It Shine,” where the band quickly trades in the more anthemic opening for a slinky doo-wop waltz, soothes even as it theorizes that “acceptance is a sore thing.”

But on that slippery final track, “Occupation,” Dove Lady gel into their finest moment, peppering spoken-word monologuing about the wave of nationalist fear-mongering spreading across the country over synth chops and a diseased-sounding, moaning chorus, mocking the new-wave schmaltz of U2’s “With Or Without You” with both a wry grin and a heavy heart. It’s pop gone awry for a country lost at sea. Dove Lady are leading us somewhere, the map held tightly to their chests. Breadcrumb by breadcrumb, dot by dot, they challenge us to enjoy the pit stops, to see one color at a time. And so far, it’s working.

PREMIERE: Tag Cloud - Big Room

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Will Shenton

Tag Cloud's latest single, "Big Room," begins somewhat innocuously. The penultimate track on his forthcoming LP, Gnarly, it opens with Justin Mayfield's languid croon ambling across bossa nova instrumentals. But in less than a minute, that straightforward riff begins a transformation into something that defies categorization.

Perhaps better known for his membership in Brooklyn four-piece Sheen Marina, Mayfield's solo work reflects his comfort with genre-bending composition. "Big Room" is a song that seems to deconstruct itself, beginning with a low-entropy groove that gradually spins off its various components into minimalist reprises. That bossa nova opener soon becomes a collection of angular, staccato guitars and drums; shortly after, the bass (by Rance Mohammed), synths, and vocals work their way back into the picture, this time unadorned and somehow intangibly ominous.

The track winds down and eventually closes with an almost absentminded guitar melody, accompanied first by Mayfield's distant vocals and then, at the end, a wistful muted trumpet performed by Kai Sandoval. With this final farewell, "Big Room" asserts itself not just as an eclectic piece, but as one that skirts the borders between genres. Rather than picking and choosing disparate elements in some kind of collage, Mayfield has found the points of unity between sounds as diverse as jazz and bedroom indie rock.

Tag Cloud is a project that's willing to experiment, but Mayfield does so with the sophistication of an experienced artist. Gnarly promises to be an album that's as cerebral as it is irresistibly groovy.

REVIEW: Dove Lady - E

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Phillipe Roberts

Pause any song on Dove Lady’s excellent new EP E, fast forward 30 seconds or so, and try to guess where you’ll end up. Press play and listen for the sound of your expectations shattering. Five releases into a 26-EP project, Dove Lady only seem further away from solidifying their sound, and even less inclined to drop an outline around the white-hot plasma of punk, noise, ambient, and prog fueling their remarkable chemistry.

Barring the closing noise improvisation of “Eye Against Eye,” each song on E is a breathless sprint across genres. Opener “DZ Theme” comes slithering in on a mournful reversed guitar loop, grows a skeleton to the tune of martial drum triplets, and promptly implodes into fuzz-fried punk ferocity. Dove Lady have the attention span of the “SCAN” function on your radio. Songs unfold like a series of brief, dramatic love affairs. They might swoon over delicate, folky falsetto at the beginning of “Slapback,” but they’ll leave you in the lurch if you catch feelings while they flirt with hip-hop breakbeats and a smooth, surf-inspired interlude, only to leave the scene with a titanic, crashing alt-rock outro.

Given how recklessly catchy they remain throughout, it’s hard not to get attached to any one of these sections. Each suggests a track that would be tremendous on its own; as far as I’m concerned, the spectral R&B groove on “Can’t Be Sad” could go on forever. However, the beauty of E is that it constantly works to subvert that false sense of security while keeping you thoroughly entertained. If you love the chase, open your heart and give it a spin.

ARTIST PROFILE: Guerilla Toss

Laura Kerry

Revisiting Guerilla Toss’s body of work presents no easy task. First, there’s the problem of tracking everything down—the singles, EPs, LPs, live albums, and split albums; the different labels, including Digitalis Limited, Tzadik, Feeding Tube, NNA Tapes, and the latest, DFA Records, among others; and the CDs, vinyl releases, and tapes. Since their first release in 2010 (or 2012, depending on who you ask), the band in its various incarnations has put out a nearly untraceable amount of music, earning a name for themselves in native Boston’s DIY scene and beyond, in experimental/freak/punk arenas.

Then there’s the problem of spending an excessive amount of time immersed in their sound. In those many releases—particularly the earlier ones—Guerilla Toss is, well, abrasive. In Jeffrey Johnson (2012), GTOSS (2013), and Kicked Back Into the Crypt (2013), singer Kassie Carlson shouts her way through a cacophony of roaring guitars, unpredictable drums, and anxious synths, legible in no other realm of meaning than that of pure energy. Of course, all of that egregiously oversimplifies the complex layers that comprise Guerilla Toss’ hard-to-penetrate noise, but the point is this: Their music is feral and electrifying, and it’s not for the faint of heart.

Guerilla Toss lets you in in their own way, though. With the savage-yet-virtuosic percussion of Peter Negroponte, Arian Shafiee’s screeching and rumbling guitar, and a surprisingly graspable and groovy bass played by an ever-changing list of bassists (currently in the adept hands of Greg Albert), the band plays music that, against your better judgment, gets you to move. Absurd tales of their live shows bear that out. In their early days, at Boston’s Gay Gardens and other DIY hubs (most now sadly defunct), they earned a reputation for their broken guitars, occasional nudity, and ability to incite a crowd to violent moshing with just the four numbers of a count off. Oberlin College once banned them from playing a show on campus. Since then, by their own account, they have settled down. The aggressive jostling has transformed into more civil form of bouncing and booty shaking or, as Negroponte calls it in a recent Impose Magazine interview, the “hippie mosh,” which involves bumping around as one collective audience unit.

That kind of punk-meets-hippie talk is surprisingly representative of a band that falls between many strange intersections. At the surface, their work strikes with the fuck-everything abandon of punk, but it explores with the all-embracing curiosity of jam band music, floating and meandering through trippy landscapes. Sometimes their lyrics match the fiery simplicity of punk politics (“Desire / Try it / Go on and buy it,” from “Multibeast TV” on 2016’s Eraser Stargazer), while others contain the wandering surrealism of the psychedelic genre (seemingly much of 2013’s Gay Disco, if the words were more decipherable). Guerilla Toss plays their instruments and screams like punks, but they talk like slacker hippies, citing old drug habits and occasional continued experimentation as factors in their music. But the band works way too hard, knows their instruments way too well, and creates songs that are way too weird and complicated for the titles “slackers” or “punks” to suffice; they also require the controlled experimentation implied by art rock or one of its many subcategories.

At the start, Guerilla Toss may have shied away from such a label. They treated their skills, along with the music-school training that developed them, as some kind of secret, masking them under noisy music and evasive interviews. But their latest album, Eraser Stargazer, marks the culmination of progress against that impulse. Less noisy and more rigid, it more clearly reveals its distinct parts—weaving synths, intricate beats that remain steady through shifting time signatures, and bass lines that bounce and pop with hooks. Carlson’s voice also comes further into the forefront, mastering a more nuanced spectrum of shouts that includes the prophetic chant of a cave-dwelling oracle on “Perfume,” Betty Boop in a rage on “Diamond Girls,” and your worst nightmare on “Big Brick.” The Guerilla Toss of 2016 remains harsh and a bit wicked (Boston sense of the word included), but with more space for the hardcore averse.

As they tell it, that musical development is a natural result of aging and maturing, a process that has also resulted in a move to New York, the shedding of band members who could not commit enough time, and the reduction of drug use to once-in-a-while experimental trips. The grown-up Guerilla Toss takes itself seriously, but without compromising the deranged humor that has characterized the band throughout their career. It’s just that now, as Carlson’s voice rises into a sharp, twisted “ha ha ha” in “Diamond Girls” and other places, more people will laugh, shake, and gently—lovingly—mosh along with her.

Catch Guerilla Toss at the Summer's End Music Festival in Brooklyn