Friday, August 24, 2007

POPFEST Highlights, Part 6: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Laminated Cat

#11 The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

It figured that the first time that I had to walk out on a band, wilfully missing a portion of POPFEST, when I came back I was stepping into the middle of another band's set that I fucking loved. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, from Brooklyn, bear a passing resemblance to My Favorite, a band (recently split up) whose two albums have been permanently stuck in my CD wallet for a couple years now. Both, at least, seem to have an affinity for British New Wave, while reworking their idols into the landscape of modern pop. TPOBPAH, as I shall smoothly call them, have just released a too-brief EP, five songs with killer hooks. They already seem primed for bigger things. Here's their theme song (every band ought to have one):

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

#12 Laminated Cat

Laminated Cat
proudly live up to their name, though not in any disturbing way, but by being imaginative and trippy. Their vibe is of the early 70's, when psych- and folk-rock began to touch upon the ambitions of prog rock, but they manage to keep on the sane side of overindulgence. Their songs do have a tendency to stretch their arms a bit, fully exploring the musical possibilities without completely devolving into aimless jam. Laminated Cat has a certain relaxed grandeur, ascending into outer space from the comfort of a beer-stained sofa. Listen to "Sweet Sixteen" and you might have an idea of what I mean. Also, I should say that to the band's credit, they were omnipresent at POPFEST, enthusiastically checking out all the bands--they were Athens fans, psyched to be present and playing.

Laminated Cat - Sweet Sixteen

Thursday, August 23, 2007

POPFEST Highlights, Part 5: Fishboy and Gemini Cricket

#9 Fishboy

Eric Michener of Fishboy looks like he ought to be the lead in Wes Anderson's new movie, but instead he's writing epic concept albums about, in his words: "how myself, the band and the ghost of Buddy Holly attempt to save Texas by going on a tour/crime spree in order to perform all 8030 of the songs I've written in my sleep since I was in the womb. It's appropriately titled: Albatross: How We Failed To Save The Lone Star State With The Power Of Rock And Roll." Judging by the extended suite he played from the album at POPFEST, it's a collection of extremely addictive pop songs with some rousing horn and epic drumming. Although I swear the title was a lot longer when he recited it live. Anyway, it's due soon on HHBTM, and I can't wait. Fishboy's extremely complex storytelling lyrics are funny as hell too. Here's a sample from the new album courtesy his website.

Parachute (Using the Ghost of Buddy Holly As A)

#10 Gemini Cricket

Those lucky enough to be in at the POPFEST preview party, or whatever you'd call it, at the Transmet on Tuesday night will have caught an extremely memorable performance by a little band called Gemini Cricket. Think early low-fi, fuzzy cassette recordings by Mates of State. Or the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. In fact, they will be releasing a low-fi, fuzzy cassette recording, on Popgun Records, plus a split 7" with the French Toasts, who also helped fill out the band during their POPFEST performance. The two singers of Gemini Cricket, Blake and Sara, are actually former camp counselors who would put together low-fi, fuzzy cassette recordings in their spare time. This all might seem a little too cute for your taste, but when they started playing--wearing antenna and fake mustaches--the joint was hopping and madly grinning. They were the first act I saw at POPFEST, and remain one of my favorites. Here's an exclusive track (and thanks to Father Cricket for providing it):

Gemini Cricket - One's We Make

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

POPFEST Highlights, Part 4: Yellow Fever and Smokedog

#7 Yellow Fever

I was part of a carpool traveling from Wisconsin to Georgia for POPFEST, and as we all piled into the car to take the excruciatingly long trip home, preparing to sort through our newly-purchased CDs for some driving music, it was pretty amusing to discover that we all now owned Yellow Fever's EP, Cats and Rats. Hailing from Austin, the band suggests what Stereolab might have sounded like if they were a mid-60's garage band. Lead singer Jennifer Moore's voice manages to turn every lyric into a cool, confident stare-down. The band's 5-song EP, which they sell on their MySpace page, is obviously far too short to completely satisfy, but that seems oddly appropriate, since each of their songs is something of a smirking tease.

Yellow Fever - Cats and Rats

#8 Smokedog

Smokedog grows on you. Halfway through their opening night set at the Transmet, a friend said to me, "I heard one of these bands is actually just a this the one?" Well, sort of. As the third act of POPFEST, Smokedog actually set out to completely undermine the premise of the festival--never mind that the drummer is Happy Happy Birthday to Me's publicist, Jason Jones--by delivering not pop but sweaty, extremely loud guitar rock. Twee they're not. Oh, and Thom Strickland's vocals are completely, deliberately incoherent. Nevertheless, their cover of "Proud Mary" was one of POPFEST's most perverse highlights (almost as perverse as watching twee kings Tullycraft deliver shots onstage to Bunnygrunt). Here's a rare recording from this most mysterious Athens band--thanks to Jason for providing it.

Smokedog - This is the Kit

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

POPFEST Highlights, Part 3: Special 80's Edition

[Incidentally, the number before each band is not a ranking. I realize that might be confusing. Consider the numbers more like the numbers on the backs of collector's cards. Maybe at the end of this series I'll rank the top bands of the festival, but for the moment I'm trying to highlight lesser-known acts worth checking out.]

#5 Black Kids

One of the most buzzed-about bands post-POPFEST was one that hardly anyone had heard of going in. Black Kids, from Jacksonville, managed the mean feat of getting everyone at Little Kings to dance when they were only the first act of the day, playing in the early afternoon. Lead singer Reggie Youngblood looks a little like Jimi Hendrix, but the soul of his music is firmly rooted in 80's New Wave, in particular The Cure and the Pet Shop Boys. Tullycraft immediately declared them the best band of POPFEST on their blog. They were certainly one of the most unexpectedly fucking awesome. And extra kudos to the band for handing out free CDs to everyone who wanted one...which seemed to be everyone.

Black Kids - I'm Not Going to Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You

#6 How I Became the Bomb

Is the 80's the new 60's? Jon Burr, lead singer of How I Became the Bomb, may as well be channeling Devo or New Order or whatever other 80's pop band you want to name-check. Their music is dramatically serious on topics such as fat girls talking about cardio and, um, kneeling before some guy named Zod (does this have anything to do with that movie Zardoz?); the best new song I heard at the fest, "Robo," is, yes, about a robot. But the guitar licks are furious, and on stage they're as completely alive as Black Kids, teaching all the jaded hipsters how to cut loose. It seems inevitable they'll be breaking out of obscurity soon, judging by the strength of their debut EP, Let's Go!, which you can order from the band at their website.

How I Became the Bomb - Robo

Monday, August 20, 2007

POPFEST Highlights, Part 2: Oh Sanders and Venice is Sinking

#3 Oh Sanders

Gainesville's Oh Sanders, led by Stella Leung, is another one of those bands which people were still talking about days into the festival, as though trying to mentally create a bookmark--this is one we shouldn't forget. Which is always nice to see; this was a festival where people were talking more about the discoveries than the headliners (well, OK, a lot of people were talking about Daniel Johnston, but you see my point). Oh Sanders specializes in addictive tunes and observant songwriting--listen to "Pirate Ship," on their MySpace page, for as complete a portrait of narcissism as you'll ever hear, but one you might almost tune out if you start dancing to the dazzling melody. Imagine the Cranberries fronted by Chrissie Hynde. "The State of Disorder," which you can hear below (thanks Stella), is the band at its best, a strident, gorgeous march that happily sticks in your skull.

Oh Sanders - The State of Disorder

#4 Venice is Sinking

I'd heard a lot about rising Athens stars Venice is Sinking, but never really sat down with their music until I saw them live at POPFEST, and was immediately hypnotized. I found myself accidentally front row and center, and counted myself lucky when I realized what a great band it was. VIS--Daniel Lawson (vocals, guitar), Karolyn Troupe (violin), Lucas Jensen (drums), and Alex Thibadoux (keyboard)--have crafted delicate songs which land with a crashing emotional weight. They're also stunningly beautiful pieces, which (here's the real surprise) sound as good live as they do on record. That record, Sorry About the Flowers, was released last year on One Percent Press. Seek it out immediately. They're perfect ballads for disappearing cities.

Venice is Sinking - Pulaski Heights

Sunday, August 19, 2007

POPFEST Highlights, Part 1: Paper Tanks & Violet Vector and the Lovely Lovelies

I spent the second week of August in Athens, Georgia, attending POPFEST, sponsored by the estimable Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records. You know a music festival is worthwhile when you come home with an enormous stack of CDs, which I came to affectionately call "the brick." There were a ton of great bands I'd never heard of before, and I can say that there were only about two or three that I disliked; out of a roster of 50, that's a damn good hit ratio. I've already written up a general summary of the festival at my Optical Atlas website, but since that's an Elephant 6-oriented blog, I'd like to spend the next week or so going a little more in-depth here at Electric Sailor, taking a closer look at some of the bands who surprised me. The theme here is great new music that deserves wider exposure.

#1 Paper Tanks

This band's a bit difficult to write about, since I know nothing about them. They opened the first full day of POPFEST, playing an afternoon set at Little Kings, and kicking the festival off to a fine start with some compellingly unusual rock. Native to Athens, they're relatively new to the scene, having so far only self-released a CD-R EP called Paper Floats. It's always a good sign when you struggle to come up with a comparison for a band, though Pavement and Captain Beefheart alternately came to mind as I listened to their music. "Better Really No," with its intentionally dreary "la-la-la-la-la" backing vocals--like drunken pirates taunting over your shoulder after a lover's quarrel--is emotionally agonizing, but also chugs forward like a relentless steam-powered machine. The band definitely has a dreamy, psychedelic quality which appeals to us electric sailors--do check out the 6:39 unreleased song, "Almost From Golden Books," which the band has graciously provided below along with "Better Really No."

Paper Tanks - Better Really No
Paper Tanks - Almost From Golden Books

#2 Violet Vector and the Lovely Lovelies

At another extremity of the musical spectrum, Violet Vector and the Lovely Lovelies (you'll get used to it) calls back to one-hit-wonder 60's girl groups with just a trace of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Throughout the festival you could easily spot the Lovely Lovelies in the audience, because they were always the most smartly fashionable. Their music is just as polished, and lives up to the quiet buzz which had been building in the days prior to their performance. Hailing from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and fronted by Amanda Brooks, whose stage presence is formidable, they specialize in three-minute pop songs, albeit of a more chaste variety than their chief competitors of the moment, The Pipettes. Think Kindercore and early Dressy Bessy. Essential pop replete with handclaps, "woo-hoo-hoos," and organ!

Violet Vector and the Lovely Lovelies - Can You Dig It

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Joe Butler's Lovin' Spoonful

For years the Lovin' Spoonful was a hit factory, and as led by John Sebastian they turned out 60's pop classics such as "Do You Believe in Magic?", "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?", "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice," "Summer in the City," and "Younger Generation." At heart, though, they were just a classy little jug band, as evidenced by a perusal of deeper album cuts: "Fishin' Blues," "Sportin' Life," "Jug Band Music," "Bald Headed Lena," "Darlin' Companion," and "4 Eyes" all showcase a bluesy rock 'n' roll that indicates they had no interest in being anything like the Beach Boys (with whom they were frequently compared). I have great admiration for Brian Wilson, Pet Sounds, and Smile, but I'll admit that I've always been a bigger Lovin' Spoonful fan--ever since seeing Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily?, for which the Spoonful provided the addictive soundtrack (the song "Pow!" is one of the band's most enjoyable). But these hit factories can't last. The Spoonful were undone by a slow accumulation of disasters and changes. In 1966, as the band was at the height of their popularity, Canadian guitarist Zal Yanovsky and bassist Steve Boone were busted for marijuana possession. The search was illegal, but the pair were sufficiently intimidated--Zal was threatened with deportation--and so they ratted out their supplier. The reaction among the hippie elite was swift and brutal, and the Spoonful quickly became the unhippest band on the planet, excommunicated from the burgeoning psychedelic scene. Zal, a virtuoso contributor to the band, eventually left the group. In 1968 the band released their weakest album, Everything Playing; weak, because Sebastian bowed to the pressure of his cohorts and democratically surrendered the spotlight to them, leaving an album without a consistent voice (literally) and without any particular direction or goal. "Priscilla Millionaira" is an OK rock song, written by Sebastian, but Steve Boone's vocal work is execrable--and it's inexplicably given prime placement as the second track on the album! Still, the experiment in un-Sebastianness may have been worth it to give a little more elbow room to Joe Butler, a talented songwriter with a voice that's gorgeous (if more conventional than Sebastian's). His track, "Old Folks," is one of the highlights of the album.

Expectedly, Sebastian split to pursue a very erratic solo career. His high point would come right away, with an appearance at Woodstock: the rest of his career would be greeted with wide indifference, with the exception of his hit "Welcome Back." (A shame, as some of his solo albums, recently reissued by Rhino Handmade in a limited edition 3-CD set, are pretty good.) The most widely overlooked aspect of the Lovin' Spoonful's legacy is its last album, made without Sebastian. Revelation: Revolution '69 was a hasty attempt to rejuvenate the band and reestablish its presence as fronted by Butler (the cover of the album features his name, lest there be any confusion from the consumers). The ten tracks in the album continue the spirit of his "Old Folks," and featured one single, the Nashville ode "Never Going Back." Despite the appealingly psychedelic album art (featuring Joe and an unnamed, nipple-free woman running naked beside a lion) and its title, the album is more country and less Haight-Ashbury. The pastoral feeling, which calls to mind the Byrds, relents only for "War Games," a seven-minute epic clearly inspired by "Revolution 9." Over a thumping heart beat, we hear a baby squealing, followed by the sounds and broadcasts of the Vietnam War and some ironically delivered patriotic music. It's a pretty fascinating misstep in an otherwise solid album of pop songs. And it hasn't even received a CD release, to my knowledge, despite the fact that the other Spoonful albums have in recent years been released in deluxe editions by BMG. (Two tracks did appear on Rhino's excellent 1990 best-of, Anthology.) It deserves another look. [Incidentally, my copy of the vinyl has an alternate title, Till I Run With You, printed on the actual record. Since this jives with the theme of the album artwork, one assumes the title change was done at the last second in an attempt to belatedly cash in on the hippie craze.]

The Lovin' Spoonful - Revelation: Revolution '69 (zipped file w/MP3s)

1. Amazing Air
2. Never Going Back
3. The Prophet
4. Only Yesterday
5. War Games
6. (Till I) Run With You
7. Jug of Wine
8. Revelation: Revolution '69
9. Me About You
10. Words

Lineup in a Faraway Town

Sometimes I wish I lived elsewhere. Madison's a great town, and there's always plenty going on, but a recent trip to Athens, Georgia, for example, convinced me that I was living in the wrong place. But last Thursday I wish I'd been in Denton, Texas, at Rubber Gloves, for an evening with The Ladybug Transistor, Papercuts, and Brooke Opie. I'm sure there are plenty of other reasons to live in Denton, but this is the one that occurred to me last Thursday. (Incidentally, I'm not saying this kind of wishfulness is healthy in any way; certainly on any given Friday I'd rather be, glamorously, in New York or L.A. or London, but usually I'm stuck in Madison looking to see what movies are opening at the Sundance Theater.) The lineup at the Rubber Gloves has a kind of cosmic perfection: for a certain kind of music fan, all the stars were aligned for a perfect evening of folk-flavored pop music.

At my other blog, I've long gushed over The Ladybug Transistor as one of my all-time favorite bands, and I think I've been pretty consistent with that. Formed in the mid-90's by trumpeting virtuoso Gary Olson, their first two albums betray a strong Pavement influence, and don't distinguish themselves too strongly from other indie rock albums of the period, despite some interesting diversions into twee or 60's-styled songwriting. This latter development was emphasized more strongly on their breakthrough album, 1999's The Albemarle Sound, for which the band was fleshed out by members of Vermont's Guppyboy (later The Essex Green). On that album the band showed its hand with tracks like "The Swimmer," an ode to the Burt Lancaster film that would be a perfect fit for its soundtrack, or the instrumental "Cienfuegos," which sounds, deliberately, like an Ennio Morricone piece for a Sergio Leone movie. The album also contains two of the best pop songs you'll ever hear, "Meadowport Arch" and "Today Knows," delivered with Olson's impeccable baritone, which calls to mind a less out-of-tune Lou Reed. The band has delivered a live album, a single, three studio albums, and an EP since then, growing in critical acclaim even as the band's lineup has changed. Most recently a major creative collaborator in the band, Sasha Bell, left the band to concentrate her efforts on the equally praised Essex Green; as a result, their latest album, Can't Wait Another Day (Merge Records), might seem lacking at first to longtime fans. But it rewards with repeated listens, an album of remarkably consistent quality with a touch of acid in its lyrics that Olson embraces as an additional instrument. (The Ladybug Transistor, bitterly sarcastic? Who'd have thought.)

The Ladybug Transistor - Always on the Telephone

Papercuts, hailing from San Francisco, I first heard playing in our local Cinematheque here in Madison, where foreign, independent, and classic films are shown free of charge to we film buffs. Tom Yoshikami, the former curator of the theater (just resigned, sadly), had a habit of playing eerily appropriate music while the audience waited for the film to begin--French pop before a Godard film, for example, or A Hawk and a Hacksaw before an Hungarian film. I can't remember why he was playing the new album by the Papercuts, but I remember thinking, "How can this be an album by The Velvet Underground that I've never heard before?" I then became slowly convinced that it must be some spectacular, obscure band from the early 70's whose music was aging very well. When I learned it was a new band hailing from San Francisco, I was furious that I'd never heard of them before. (There are too many great bands out there to know them all, but it's always tiring to learn there's yet another one you'd love which has been making music behind your back.) I finally picked up the band's latest album, whose title, Can't Go Back, connects with the new Ladybugs' only out of coincidence. No, you can't go back, and this isn't retro rock, but a spellbinding, near-perfect collection of songs which could be equally appreciated by an audience in 1967 or 2007. The songs show a Donovan and Bob Dylan influence (it's easy to imagine Dylan covering "Take the 227th Exit," the only song which genuinely seems to belong outside of this decade), but there's also a feeling that the album's ravishing qualities couldn't exist without the current tidal wave of bedroom pop that's been gathering cultural momentum over the last year or two--it's an end product of a sudden, unexpected surge of good taste in popular music. I've yet to see the band live, but by all reports singer/songwriter Jason Robert Quever puts on a good show.

Papercuts - Poor and Free

If you were watching this set in Denton, the opening act would be Brooke Opie, a folk singer with an unapologetic love for many of the same influences that have set the Ladybugs and Papercuts on their current path. She's been bouncing around the Denton scene, playing in small, local acts like Archeopterix (rush judgment: good) and Mustachio (rush judgment: delightful), but has been gradually putting together a band to support her own acoustic songwriting. Her lyrics are clever without sacrificing emotion, delivered with a gorgeous voice and a natural sense of melody. The standout on her self-released CD of scratchy little demos is "Paper Skin," which opens up her sound into an atmospheric realm that, one hopes, is further explored on her next recordings. It's spooky stuff.

Brooke Opie - Paper Skin