Morning Parade’s New EP, Alienation

Confession: I associate Essex’s Morning Parade with all things awesome because they were the second support band the first time I saw The Wombats. Based on their great performance that night (think low-key but polished), I bought their eponymous debut release. That album has a cool mid-90s alt flavor to it, but it also had some tunes that bordered on ballad and seemed kind of overwrought.

Alienation, MP's just released 4-track EP

Alienation, MP’s just released 4-track EP

With their new EP Alienation, the boys open up a lot harder. “Shake the Cage” has lots of distorted and driving guitars and omnipresent synth. The quintet sounds much more like a rock band here, with the synths adding that futuristic flare. I can’t wait to shout along with the “Shake the cage” chorus when I see these guys in February; that part’s irresistible and easy to memorize.

“Alienation,” the title track here, continues to give the synths and keys a prominent role. It also reminds me most of the material on Morning’s Last album, but it resists getting too earnest. That said, it’s probably my least favorite because it’s the most ballad-y and I know how fun these guys are when they’re more uptempo and irreverent.

The third offering, “Reality Dream,” has a great beat throughout and could easily be remixed for the dance floor. I’m curious to see how this translates live, as the production sounds pretty involved. There’s either a cool vocal effect going on there, or the band’s really stepped up on their backing vocal game. Cool U2ish guitar solo around 2:30 too; it’s not overdone, and that’s a big requirement with me and guitar solos.

The biggest winner for me, despite its odd lyrics and off-putting title, is “Culture Vulture.” The phrasing is extremely catchy with rhymes and breaks in all the right places. Upon listening, you’re waiting for the song to get somewhere–because it certainly sounds like it’s building–but it keeps you waiting for a crescendo that doesn’t really arrive until 2:45. Shortly thereafter, the song ends quite abruptly, but it’s fitting and leave you going, “huh!”

As mentioned, I’d very excited to see these guys again when they come to town in February. They’re a band worth watching but they’re painfully under-apprecitated here in the U.S.

Morning Parade’s SoundCloud page

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Smallpools: Upbeat Synthy Stuff is Awesome

Early last month, I saw WALK THE MOON for the 3rd time and showed up early to catch the opening acts. Showing up early is sometimes a matter of necessity (if we’re talking about a relatively big and flat GA venue like The Palladium) and sometimes a matter of obsession (if we’re talking about bands I love enough to insist on being in the sweat spray zone). In any case, I was glad I showed up early to that show at the Palladium because I was able to enjoy an all-too-brief set from Smallpools.

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Here’s Smallpools in London, photo credit Caro Ramos

This L.A. based band has an upbeat synthy sound. After enjoying them at The Palladium, I went home and promptly purchased their only offering available from iTunes at the moment, a 4-track eponymous EP. This was a very good purchase.

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Intriguingly odd cover art, reminiscent of The Vaccines’ Come of Age.

The EP opens with “Dreaming,” which you may have heard on the radio. It’s got easy rhymes, catchy little guitar licks, and SYNTHESIZERS. Did you all know that I’m more than a little okay with the use of synthesizers? Sean Scanlon’s vocals are on the higher end but not strained or artificial sounding. He makes his range sound very natural and almost conversational. “Dreaming” is a great summery tune with a happy sound, even though the lyrics speak of exasperation/disappointment.

Next up is “Mason Jar.” Though the title makes me recoil at the thought of hipsters drinking from said jars, the tune is lovely. It’s got a much more prominent role for percussion. The drums are subtle and playful, clearly contributing to the cadence of the lyrical phrasing. Guess what? More completely acceptable synthesizers here and almost Celtic-sounding backing vocal chant and guitar/synth accompaniment. While not as bouncy as “Dreaming,” “Mason Jar” is more sonically complex and unique.

Third we get “Over and Over,” which stands out for me as the most guitar-influenced track. Guitars in the context of this band are minimalist but omnipresent. While not quite as distinctive as Sam Haliday’s effects-laden singing guitar of Two Door Cinema Club, Mike Kamerman of Smallpools nonetheless employs a shimmery and poppy sound. “Over and Over” is probably the most optimistic song on the EP, but it also sounds entirely conventional and almost forgettable, except that you’ll probably remember it in concert just in time for singing along.

Finally (although it doesn’t feel like finally because it’s only been about ten minutes since the EP began) we have my favorite offering, “No Story Time.” Lots of synths, catchy guitar part, vocal playfulness, and a great retro sound that’s not trying too hard to be retro. To me, this and “Mason Jar” are the songs most emblematic of what makes Smallpools a compelling young act. “No Story Time” employs some tone and compositional shifts, showing some fun creativity that gives the ear a little variety.

More importantly, these guys seem to be having a good time, with no songs taking themselves too seriously and no lyrics that demand much closer inspection. Not all music needs to bore to the depths of our souls. We need music that is fun. We need synthesizers used responsibly to augment guitars. But we also need more than a 13-minute offering to get a true read on Smallpools. In their brief set at The Palladium, they played a laudable cover of New Radicals’ 1998 hit “You Get What You Give,” and it occurred to me that there is both sonic and thematic similarity between the bands. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard anything about New Radicals since “You Get What You Give” faded from the airwaves, and Smallpools certainly don’t have an earworm of that magnitude out there yet.

Consensus: these kids need to put in some work. Supporting WALK THE MOON earlier this fall and touring with the amazing twenty one pilots now were good moves. I’m going to try to see Smallpools at The Troubador on December 13th, but the sold out tickets are not dropping to an acceptable level on StubHub just yet. They’re worth a little over face value, but I’m not sure how much yet.

Visit Smallpools’ SoundCloud page to listen to the songs I’ve discussed and more:

http://https://soundcloud.com/smallpools

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U2’s New Tune for the Mandela Biopic: Ordinary Love

Please excuse my absence! I’ve just finished my second year of National Novel Writing Month and my wordiness was required elsewhere (NaNoWriMo).

Look! They gave me this cool picture to use for my Facebook and Twitter profiles!

Look! They gave me this cool picture to use for my Facebook and Twitter profiles!

To preface the patience of my U2 superfandom, I’ll make a parallel to the red hot A Song of Fire and Ice book series by George R.R. Martin that has spawned HBO’s Game of Thrones TV series. When I first began reading the books about a year and a half ago, a longtime fan and friend told me, “Don’t rush through them! He [George R.R. Martin] takes forever to write the next book!” I rushed through the five books anyway. I read them in two months. And my response to that longtime fan and friend was:

“I can handle waiting. I’m a U2 fan.”

These guys aren't in any hurry.

These guys aren’t in any hurry.

The wait for new material mercilessly ended last week with the lyric video debut of “Ordinary Love,” which is featured on the soundtrack of the forthcoming Nelson Mandela biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Limited edition vinyl copies of the single and a re-working of “Breathe” (from U2’s last album, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon) will be on sale for Record Store Day (November 29th). Otherwise, fans can get the song by buying the movie soundtrack.

For better or worse, “Ordinary Love” sounds like what I’ve come to expect from U2 since 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The song is not challenging and discordant like the dance and techno inspired tunes of Pop (1997), nor is it simultaneously soulful and electro like the ballads of Zooropa (1993), and of course it lacks the shock and awe(some) of Achtung Baby (1991), but therein lies the problem of being a massivly successful rock band with a big back catalog: comparisons can easily be made against previous iterations of yourself! As a fan whose fascination really took off in 1997 with Pop, I missed experiencing most of the 80s and 90s material that fuels the love of today’s diehard U2 fans. As a result, I think I’m more accepting of U2’s post-2000 sound than some.

If you need a primer on this type of U2 song, here goes: piano throughout, distinctly U2 guitar effects used sparingly (and what else would we expect from Mr. The Edge?), earnest lyrics, falsetto (though used much more effectively than in “I Know I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”). Like many other U2 tunes, it’s catchy and extremely listenable. It’s the kind of song you’d turn up loud when it’s time to roll the windows down on your drive home from work on Friday. I’m not saying it’s a “feel good” song, but it’s got that U2 gravitas about it that can imbue it with deep importance if you so choose to feel it that way. Given that it was written for the Mandela biopic, it very well may deserve that gravitas. In any case, this lyric video is lovely:

U2 fans already know that the band’s forever manager is out, Madonna’s manager is in, and that there’s going to be some kind of U2 announcement/reveal associated with the Super Bowl. In short, you can expect more U2 posts from me in the coming months.

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Two Door Cinema Club at the Greek Theatre

The last band on my bucket list these days was Two Door Cinema Club. Not to worry fellow concert fans; I’ve not even made a dent in my bucket list of bands to see a millions times! 

Last Saturday, I made my first trip up to the beautiful Greek Theatre in Los Angeles to see the Northern Irish trio. In a word, TDCC is listenable. You can spin through those records in a flash without feeling aggrieved or challenged in any way–and I mean this in a nice way.

How was the show? For starters, we had the indie electro project St. Lucia. The music was inoffensive but not particularly memorable. Perhaps their opening-opening gig sound equipment just wasn’t up to snuff.

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Our seats were far away, but the view was still great. 

Next up was Capital Cities, whose big hit Safe and Sound represents not only the pinnacle of their lyrical achievement but also their most compelling tune–and I don’t mean that in a nice way. I get what these guys are doing; it’s a sort of retro-funk sound that’s got crossover appeal with your alt rockers, your ravers, your trancers, and perhaps their parents. While it’s fun enough to listen to, the whole experience just smacks of those cover bands we have every summer at the park across the street from our house. Those bands are fun enough to listen to as well, but you don’t really pay attention because there’s not much there if you look too hard.

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It’s better if you just think of Capital Cities as a bunch of blobs.

TDCC took the stage right on schedule. The light show and fog effects were pretty, especially in this fall al fresco setting. I liked that every member of the trio talks to the audience at some point, with lead singer Alex Trimble commanding the most attention with his sing-along instructions and many expressions of gratitude. They had a comfortable and low key stage presence, not big on dancing or strutting on any catwalks, but that may have been a function of the rather conventional stage setup (were there any catwalks? I don’t even know). 

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From this distance, we couldn’t be irked by lead singer Alex Trimble’s unabashed gingerness.

The boys said ours was their largest headlining show ever, so that was exciting. As for the tunes, they poured through 80% of their discography in about ninety minutes. It’s fair to say that their songs are short and a formulaic, but they incorporate interesting guitar tones and effects. New single “Changing of the Seasons” sounds fantastic live and inspired me to take another listen to the EP from whence it comes. It was a fun and very palatable show–no slower moments or under-appreciated rarities in sight.

Although I was thrilled to see them and thought The Greek Theatre was a fantastically well-designed venue, when I catch these guys again I want it to be indoors and smaller. As much as the spectacle of a big show is great, the connection is always better in a sweaty little room somewhere. 

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On the Rise: Atlas Genius at HOB Anaheim

On Friday we saw Atlas Genius at the House of Blues in Anaheim. It was my first time at an HOB venue, and as my plantar fasciitis was killing me and I’d already been front and center at an AG concert when I bought the tickets, I opted for seats in the loge section. It is truly a sign of my old age that I get more excited about concerts with seats than about those where I must fight the GA mob. Our seats were on the short side of the rectangularly shaped venue, so the left side of the stage was obstructed. That was a bummer. Next time I know to ask for a seat facing the stage, but it’s disappointing because the (very nice) woman on the phone when I ordered the tickets told me they were the best seats in the house.

First on the bill was Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. of Detriot. They were a four piece of which the two principal members showed off multi-instrumental talents from bass and guitar to synths and saxophone. Their songs were a little unconventional for my taste, with liberal use of a backing falsetto that subtracted instead of adding and electronic flourishes that distracted rather than enhanced.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Next up was Family of the Year, whom we saw open for WALK THE MOON at about this time last year. I’m sorry to say I didn’t enjoy this folksy outfit as much this time. Their set lacked the spunk, spark, and crowd participation that marked their performance last year. Their stage banter was somehow both excessive and lethargic.

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Family of the Year, featuring my obstructed view of the stage (there’s a lead guitarist you can’t even see here)

Atlas Genius was a delight. I have previously seen them at a small promotional concert at the Bear Mountain Ski Resort. That show last St. Patrick’s day left me both giddy and sunburned. I was close enough to chat with lead singer Keith Jefferey between songs and got good handshakes and a set list at the end of the show. In concert, I was impressed with Keith’s guitar skills and brother Michael’s seemingly single-minded drum devotion. Their show at the HOB took everything I enjoyed about them from the smaller show and made it bigger. The set was longer, the jams were more numerous, and the lighting effects were fun.

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Leader singer and guitarist Keith Jefferey wandered into the crowd early during the set.

I did notice that the role of the synthesizer in AG’s live show seems diminished, quite a feat considering several of their tunes (Through the Glass, Electric) make liberal use of the keys on record. This makes me suspect that when these Australians re-emerge with new material, it’ll be more traditional guitar-based indie goodness. In any case, Keith openly promised to meet and greet any and all fans at the merch both after the show, and judging by the line, he was in for a long night. I hope these guys keep their small time openness and kindness as they march toward the big time.

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Fun fact: Atlas Genius is officially only two members, brothers Keith and Michael Jefferey. They have a touring bassist/backing vocalist and another man on the keys/synths.

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Crowd Comparison: LA versus Vancouver

I had the good fortune of seeing Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls twice within a week. As I previously posted, I caught the Monday the 14th show in LA at The Fonda and the Sunday the 20th show in Vancouver at the Commodore Ballroom. This gave me the unique opportunity to see how the crowds in two different cities responded to the same acts. Let’s do a play-by-play!

1) Koo Koo Kangaroo

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Here’s a very blurry edition of me with Neil from Koo Koo Kangaroo

I’d love to be a fly on the wall at any show Koo Koo Kangaroo plays for adults. They bill themselves as a kids’ party dance duo for adults too. The description fits, and I found myself singing, dancing, and chanting along at both shows. That’s great, but then I’m a really good sport so of course I’m going to give the artists they crowd participation they want. Fortunately, the crowds in both LA and Vancouver were okay with being a little silly and playing along. The Vancouver audience was more enthusiastic and energetic, but the Angelinos didn’t leave these guys hanging either. I had a great time during this act at both shows. 

2) The Smith Street Band

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Here are some gents from The Smith Street Band having a lovely time.

 

For me, these guys were much better on a second listen than they were on the first. Perhaps their sound set up was better in Vancouver, because I found it much easier to understand and enjoy their music. In Vancouver, I was surrounded by two superfans, which is cool because I think hardly anyone knew this band in LA. While I loved the added enthusiasm for these decidedly deserving performers, it was actually kind of annoying to have two extremely loud people jumping and singing right next to me. I didn’t want to rain on their parades, so of course I just put up with it.

3) Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls

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I was much closer to Frank Turner this time. 

I’ll start by saying that Vancouver wins this one handily. Fans in LA made that horrible circle pit when Frank played his last song, “Four Simple Words,” and that was a really sour way to end the show. Fans in Vancouver pushed rowdily and got really excited during their time with “Four Simple Words,” but there was no moshing, no running in a violent circle, and no indiscriminate punching. Even with the circle pit however, the LA audience was definitely better about giving people space throughout the show; there was hardly any pushing and no annoying people trying to get in the front of me at The Fonda. In Vancouver, I was closer to the front and had to deal with a constant crush of shoving.  That made Vancouver more tiring than LA, but I’m okay with a lack of personal space if it means I don’t have to worry about drunk idiots crashing into me during their moshing adventures.

My take away from these experiences is that it was an odd crowd at The Fonda that night in LA. I’ve not had severe issues with any other concertgoers in LA and in fact, I usually end up meeting cool people. I’ll not denounce my home region concert crowd, but I think I’ll be looking over my shoulder for quite a while thanks to that first circle pit experience. 

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WALK THE MOON: Lots of smiling and dancing

It was a big night for Ohio’s amiable WALK THE MOON. Last Friday’s gig at the Hollywood Palladium was their biggest ever, and guess what? It was sold out!

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Good job, fellas!

We first discovered this quartet when they opened for Young the Giant in February of 2012. That happened to be the day of Whitney Houston’s death, but things were alive and well even in the early minutes of that concert thanks to WTM. They are energetic, positive, and lovable in all ways. But let me start from the beginning of their big show last Friday…

First on the bill was Smallpools, a trio from LA who plays upbeat synth pop/alt rock tunes. You probably know their song “Dreaming” which was all over the radio throughout the summer. On the strength of their set, I downloaded their eponymous EP. Though I haven’t given it a good listen yet, I recognize the titles of some songs I enjoyed in concert. I’ll keep my eye on these guys.

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Can you see Smallpools? Me neither. They could totally be hot, and this would make them all the more appealing…but we’ll never know.

Next up was The Mowgli’s. This is a band that’s been on my radar for a while, and though I’ve enjoyed a couple of their songs, they’re generally a little too folky or folksy for my taste. They had a fairly long set (at least 45 minutes) and poured heart and soul into every note. Considering that their band boasts 8 members, that was a lot of heart and soul pouring into the very receptive audience. They were enjoyable and definitely fit the enthusiastic tone of the night, but I didn’t leave feeling as eager to hear more of them as I did of Smallpools.

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Can you see The Mowgli’s? Me neither, but I know they had a lot of hair.

WTM finally took the stage at 11 (I guess that comment betrays my age). I was pleased that their set included 2 tracks from the EP they released in January, 2 brand new songs, and 1 rarity that I didn’t know before the show. This means they found a way to spice up their 10-song repertoire and expand their live show. Thank goodness for this, because my only complaint of their first headlining tour was that it was too short. The room was all smiles and dancing for the hour and twenty minutes or so that they played, and singer Nicholas Petricca includes just the right amount of stage banter. All in all, it was great to see these guys again and I can’t wait for their new album!

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Can you see WALK THE MOON? I could, but it took a little shoving.

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