album review

REVIEW: Anna St. Louis - First Songs

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Laura Kerry

Anna St. Louis grew up in Kansas city, studied art in Philadelphia, and moved to Los Angeles to pursue music. The singer-songwriter incorporates each leg of the journey into her understatedly lush debut, First Songs, filtering a solid foundation of folk and country through the lens of Philly weirdness and LA cool.

For an album that essentially spans an entire country, though, First Songs is surprisingly pared down. Armed with a guitar (sometimes electric and sometimes acoustic), an expressively warm voice, and the sparing support of bass, percussion, and a few other instruments, St. Louis does a lot with a little. Emerging from recordings done in the bedroom where she also taught herself guitar, the songs on this album reflect the intimacy of their origin. But they also radiate with a sense of openness, not only revealing the four walls of St. Louis’ room but also the California sunshine that glows off of them and, perhaps, the exciting possibilities that it can inspire.

Not that First Songs is bright-eyed in the inexperienced sense; in fact, many of the songs borrow the feeling of world-weariness common in folk and country. In “Wind-Up,” the opener, a simple song that builds around bluesy repetitions, she sings, “I wanted to find the secret of this place / But I’m sitting here and it’s getting late.” In “Mercy,” a subdued track with psychedelic guitar lines that swirl over a low guitar drone, she poses a relationship as the sharing of troubles, singing, “I have burden / I’d like to lay / At your pillow / Could I stay?” In “Fire,” the gorgeous closer with a Nick Drake-like fingerpicking pattern, St. Louis croons a series of wishes that signal both a time of trouble and a glimmer of hope: “Honey, let your fire be okay.” Even the song called “Sun,” with its bright acoustic guitar and pretty vocal harmonies, contains its share of sadness.

Though many of the songs on the album hint at these kinds of stories, they tend to deal more in feelings than narratives. St. Louis’ lyrics, often snapshots of images or emotions, are equal measures evocative and mysterious (perhaps it’s a holdover from her days singing in punk bands). The result is an album that, despite being straightforward in its compositions, also feels slightly eerie and off-kilter, like there’s something hiding under the surface. A hard sensation to achieve with songs so sparse, that feeling—along with the sheer beauty of the music—deserves some dedicated listening time and a reminder to look out for where St. Louis ends up next.

REVIEW: Twain - Rare Feeling

Phillipe Roberts

Blessed with a honeyed voice that overpowers even the bitterest sorrows, twain singer Mt. Davidson probably gives one hell of pep talk. Rare Feeling, the latest offering from the alt-country outfit, gets under your skin with an unflinching optimism that, if it didn’t feel so hard-won or well intentioned, might come off as forced. But like a best friend poking at your ribs until you see the brighter side, or an angel on your shoulder pointing you towards the high road, Davidson and co. deliver a rambling, feel-good sermon of a record. As the seasons turn towards introspection, twain make a golden case for turning your heart outwards.

Tucked away in the middle of the record, the central thesis of Rare Feeling rings out like a glass-half-full plea for hope: “Life won’t last long / For those who hate it / For those who love it / It lingers on like a dream.” The song in question is “Freed From Doubt,” a rose-tinted reverie of a solitary smoke break given over to Zen-like brooding. It's the album’s shortest track but nevertheless serves as a kind of mission statement, pulling the overarching lyrical themes of gratitude and acceptance to the fore. Front to back, Davidson sings like a man reborn from the ashes, alternating between yearning for spiritual guidance (“Rare feeling / Visit me and set my mind at ease” on the title track) and celebrating the wondrous now (“Lay down with / The beauties of this earthly world / I think they want to lay down with you” on "Solar Pilgrim"). Combined with a voice that can smoothly shift gears from delicate cooing into commanding operatics on a dime, it's quite a potent formula.

As for arrangements, “Freed From Doubt” provides further illumination. A lovely guitar figure, reminiscent of the work of electronic folk maestro Bibio, plods along, knitting itself around Davidson’s charming melody like warm thread. Sparse but jaunty drums bumble around underneath, buoyed by a bass that snuggles up close to the guitars and doesn’t let go. The majority of the record takes a similar form. On "Black Chair," a piano occasionally creeps in to heighten the tense drama of romantic loss, while on “Good Old Friend (For Charlie)," flutes breeze by to serve the song’s majestic beauty, but overall, the band tends to hang back, happy to let Davidson lead the proceedings. When they leap out to the front on the slow-churning confessional “Rare Feelings v. 2,” the piled-on distortion achieves a stunning effect.  You can practically see the sweat dripping down Davidson’s face as the church walls melt down around him.

Wearing these gospel influences like a badge of honor, Rare Feeling finds its surest footing when submerged in the hymnal qualities that elevate its country blues to the level of soul-breaking catharsis. As the lights dim on the shuffling chant of “I’m never going down / Even if they all pass me by” on closer “Good Old Friend,” it seems like the track could and should go on forever. Davidson's voice dissipates into the ether but the chant snowballs into a defiant, angelic chorus. It's exactly the kind of moment of muted thunder that keeps you coming back for a shoulder to lean on.

PREMIERE: Max Wareham - Good News

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Laura Kerry

Max Wareham’s website bio perfectly encapsulates his music: “He cut his teeth studying jazz at conservatory,” it says, “but now polishes them digging holes on a horse farm.”

He's best known as the bassist in Sun Parade, and has also released music with the studio collective Cousin Moon, but in his first solo studio record, the Northampton-based Wareham leaves behind lively experimentation for quieter, more acoustic pastures. Good News is a folk album that summons its abundant warmth from the glow of acoustic guitar and the beautiful hum of the artist’s voice.

Reminiscent of traditional folk music spanning from England to the Appalachians, 1920s country, and more contemporary indie folk, Wareham’s debut has few frills and no pretensions. Paired with the finger-picked compositions, the lyrics on Good News sometimes come off almost like remixes of old Irish ballads, but the artist makes them sound personal. Often hushed yet charged with feeling, his singing evokes a sense of intimacy as he croons old-timey lines such as, “Twenty years ago I left my old home / Set off to ramble around” (“Laurel Groves”); “If she comes lookin’ / Tell her where I've gone” (“If She Comes Lookin’”); and “Thinkin’ about that pretty little girl / Who broke this heart of mine” (“Roving on a Winter's Night”).

Good News excels at living in the present. On “Talking to My Sister,” he paints a more concrete picture over a picking pattern with sad undertones, singing, “Talking to my sister after the funeral / Stirring black coffee with an old dinner roll.” In “Much Too Much,” he combines past and present in lyrics like, “Fare thee well / Coffee cups / Old hotel,” also venturing into stranger narrative territories such as outer space traveling. Here and elsewhere, Wareham also explores unexpected sonic terrain. In "Much Too Much," he builds his verses around a subdued yet chaotic buzz combining a vocal call-and-response, guitars, and strings before switching to a jaunty horn composition in the chorus fit for an entrance to a royal ball.

Throughout the album, Wareham draws more subtly from this same palette, quietly backing up his singing and guitar playing with an orchestra of fiddles, cellos, bassoons, organs, and other instruments. His jazz roots are apparent in his ability to seamlessly weave together disparate parts and achieve a range of dynamics in a muted swath. The album contains the kinds of intricacies that you feel rather than analyze. With Wareham’s tender voice and skillful, understatedly thoughtful songwriting leading the way, Good News is a touch of warmth as temperatures drop.

REVIEW: Birthing Hips - Urge to Merge

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Phillipe Roberts

Leave it to Birthing Hips—a band that’s spent its brief but brilliant lifespan aggressively hacking away at their instruments in search of the latest channel for their absurdist wit—to announce their new record and their demise on the same day. Heartbreaking as it is, it’s somehow fitting that their two-year run would end on such a bittersweet juxtaposition. Their songs are thrilling, violent collisions between contradictory forces, the musical equivalent of a crash test (minus the airbags and seatbelts, of course). Even on stage, you could sense the giddiness radiating off of them as they sent the heads of their devoted audiences flying. For those lucky enough to have witnessed Birthing Hips’ rare, comet-like journey through the universe, as well as those who might have missed the memo, their NNA Tapes debut, Urge to Merge, is as close to a perfect parting gift as they come. Theatrical, uncompromising, frighteningly technical, and majestic, it documents the fierce, innovative spirit of the Boston quartet at the very height of their prowess.

By the time their first, self-released tape came into being, Birthing Hips had long-since planted themselves in bold territory. The aptly titled No Sorry was an unapologetic noise-pop rampage, alternating between winking bubblegum hooks and blocky, dissonant breakdowns. But the newer tracks in their live repertoire had a tempered directness, compacting their ferocious capacity for rocking out into tightly coordinated passages while showcasing an expanded theatricality, courtesy of vocalist Carrie Furniss. Urge to Merge features renditions of these tracks that shimmer with a meticulous, well-deserved clarity that highlights both their technical skills and their easy accessibility.

“I Want This Place Impeccable” magnifies the daily drama between a messy roommate (deadpanned to excellent comedic effect by guitarist/vocalist Wendy Eisenberg) and her clean-freak counterpart (played by Furniss with just the right amount of screechy mortification) into a multi-part epic. Funnier and funkier than ever, it’s sure to bust your gut as much from the campy exchanges (“Why don’t I just roll you across the floor and drag your schlubby ass across the dust?”) as from the bone-shattering fills between them from drummer Owen Liza, who strikes a crisp compromise between Brian Chippendale’s frantic sticking and John Bonham’s classic rock stomp.

Make no mistake, the Hips are still firmly locked into noise-rock mode here; these songs tend towards the frayed and frenetic, like on “Shut Up and Leave Me Alone,” where Furniss reclaims her righteous anger “even though I am Midwestern” alongside a jazzy, aquatic groove. “Internet,” meanwhile, features Furniss freaking out in stuttered vocalizations of “You’re ruining, ruining, ruining, ruining, ruining my life!” over titanic riffs that sound like a partially melted Led Zeppelin record. Even when they do drift into calmer waters, the other, heavier shoe is never far from dropping. Closing track “A Wish” is probably the quietest Birthing Hips piece yet, but for all of its '50s pop trappings, they can’t resist a skyward climb into a shrieking post-rock meltdown.

At their very best, Birthing Hips danced with glee on the knife edge between madness and inspired tunefulness, and Urge to Merge delivers both in spades. But even with the coda to their hysterical surrealism in our hands, making peace with and sense of the fractured “defective pop” brilliance that they created is a long time coming.

REVIEW: Snow Roller - XXL

Kelly Kirwan

Snow Roller are a reincarnation of moody, '90s alternative rock. Their music buzzes with fuzzy guitar feedback the same way an overhead power line buzzes with high-voltage electricity. And it's exactly this kind of suburban imagery and malaise that the band convey not only through nostalgia or genre but also through lyrical concepts. This is the music of growing pains—or, more broadly, of growth itself—and it’s a theme evenly diffused across the Portland-based trio’s sophomore album, XXL

As noted by one of their labels (the band has ties to both Near Mint and Making New Enemies), Snow Roller consciously chose which stories to include on this follow-up venture, and sought to offer closure on some of the chapters from their first album, What's The Score?. To quote Near Mint’s own assessment of the band’s latest 10-track compilation, “Herein lies the spectrum that this Portland three-piece volleys between: slouching and standing up for their own future foibles.” 

Indeed, XXL straddles the line between insightful and indolent. Their vocals are evenly delivered, with a slightly nasal pitch, offering observations that could be interpreted as either deft poeticisms on everyday life, or the verbal equivalent of a shoulder shrug. The album's opening track, "Movie Night," begins with a thrash of a few guitar strums and a line of reverb curving languidly in the background. The drums keep a steady pace as singer Colin Kritz takes us through a night in with someone, watching Die Another Day. The lyrics reflect an inner monologue that skips from unsure and insecure to bored and absentminded: "Feel the tension deep down inside my bones / I miss my Connecticut home and bike paths I spent time on." The song effectively evokes a feeling of estrangement, from both people and places that hold a certain sentimentality.

Then there’s "Bury the Lede," which sees that sentimentality turn into resentment. Kritz begins by speaking of someone in third person ("She ate cheese for dinner again") but quickly turns the narrative into a direct address ("It was a let down, seeing you before you left"). Kritz's anger grows over the course of the song, depicting a significant other who moved away and moved on. It's a quick-footed tune, featuring bright gleams of guitar and crinkling chords along with thumping drums that suit the bitter but defiant tone. It ends with a cutting jab: "When can I begin to pass the time that you gave up?"

XXL plays out like this for much of the album—uncertainty surrounding our place in a relationship, or even our ultimate desires, but delivered with a confidence that almost seems contradictory. It’s not as naive as a coming of age, but falls into a similar category: seeing the world clearly and still feeling confused. Can’t we all relate?