Sunday, December 16, 2007

Two from Little Pocket Records

Little Pocket Records is a Toledo, Ohio-based microlabel managed by The Hat Company, a lo-fi pop band that's also behind the city's local indie Popfest. The Hat Company has produced a marvelous full-length, (ironically) titled Fair Weathered Friends, with ten tracks of brief, tightly-constructed songs. You will want to check any cyncism at the door; "When I said I was cynical, you know that was just one big joke," Kyle Bliss sings on "A Cloud in Minor," ooh-ing backing vocals backing up his sentiments. Often his intentionally listless vocals drag against the tempo and pull each song into a dreamier terrain. Standouts include "Cutest Couple on Campus" and "Tide," a lovely ode to a detergent that gets all the stain out. ("That stain is totally out of sight.") Very good twee for those who keep the twee flame burning.

Labelmates The Homeville Circle are move overtly ambitious, deliberately evoking America in the early-20th century with tales of immigrants and disasters big and small. Midwestern Shambling is a concept album based on an antique postcard, following John and Sadie as they struggle to survive in the Midwest of the 1920's. You've got to love a band that works the great stock market crash into their lyrics. But those lyrics are smart and eloquent, and the sound, by sharp contrast, is full-blooded rock and roll. The effect is like an absinthe-fuelled fever dream, manic, pitched to a nervous breakdown. The limited-edition release of Midwestern Shambling has only 100 copies, each decorated with an antique photograph pasted to a yellow square envelope.

MP3: The Hat Company - Tide

MP3: The Homeville Circle - Bloodmoon

Jack Ohly

All the possibility of the low-bowed upright bass are explored by Jack Ohly on his first album, Now Down. It evokes a subterranean world, or a rotting junkyard, or an empty urban alley, but most of all an encompassing loneliness. Everything thrums and clatters in Ohly's music, or smacks as sharply as the rain; his sounds are lush and endless. In addition to the upright bass, he also plays the piano, viola, and cavaquinho, even an Asian zither, and I suppose you're meant to listen with headphones, because the sounds corner you like a motley mob. But his primary instrument is his voice, which evokes Tom Waits, and seems ancient. He has Waits' storytelling knack, too--the songs feel like folk tales, though he's not as wordy as that might suggest. There is quiet menace and strangeness on the opening tracks: "Describe (so loud)," and the epic, shapeshifting melodies of "High Rise." "The Same Light" is an absolutely gorgeous Leonard Cohen-esque love song, so delicate it might break. Similar muted emotion seeps through his cover of the Brazilian folk song "Sereno de Madrugada," in which he's accompanied by Tanya Nagahawatte on vocals. The nocturnal blues of "Milk of the Moon" have a demonic sparkle, as rich as anything on the album. A beautiful release from Royal Rhino Flying Records; Cloud Records also offers limited edition hand-painted copies.

MP3: Jack Ohly - Milk of the Moon

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Lavender Diamond Vs. John Waters

I drove from Madison down to Milwaukee last night to catch something called "A John Waters Christmas," John Waters of course being the cult film director best known for Pink Flamingos and the original Hairspray. Every year Waters gives a touring monologue which is, essentially, just his extremely esoteric and/or blasphemous and/or pornographic Christmas list, with plenty of digressions to stories of Christmases past, such as breaking into homes with obese cross-dresser Divine and opening all the presents they find. (This year the highlight of the monologue was his story of recently visiting the Vatican gift shop; when told that he couldn't have a receipt for a postcard, he had to be restrained as he lunged at the clerk: "What, are you channeling your aggression against gays?!") I arrived at the venue a bit dizzy and confused; I couldn't locate the Turner Hall Ballroom from the street, so I paid $20 for parking at the nearest garage I could find to the address, competing for spaces with people attending some Bradley Center event and "High School Musical: The Musical," or whatever that was. Luckily we were wrangled by some people in thick winter coats asking "John Waters? John Waters?" and pushing us into a line to an elevator, which took us to the third floor of an old brick building, with a small, undecorated dome in the ceiling, high windows with purple velvet curtains, and walls that had been scorched black by multiple fires. (Waters later commented that it looked like a Church of Satan.) I wasn't too surprised that it was a music venue, with a bar in the back and a merch stand (and folding chairs arranged in rows), but I was surprised to see a band selling its shirts and CDs. "Is there an opening band?" I asked the girl sitting next to me. She shrugged: "Maybe he just has a backing band." No one seemed aware that accompanying Waters on this mini-tour was Lavender Diamond, the irony-leaning hippies from L.A., just recently signed to Matador Records.

When lead chanteuse Becky Stark crept onto the stage in a white dress with a golden-colored belt that looked like it might belong to Wonder Woman, the audience seemed skeptical, aloof. Mind you, the audience was a bizarre mixture of urbanites and suburbanites, college kids and dropout punks, straight and gay, cross-dressers and the transgendered, drunks, a spiky-haired man who wondered aloud if he was almost to the age when he shouldn't be playing in a heavy metal band, and one Santa Claus. It was a tough audience. Stark said, "We're Lavender Diamond--we haven't met," while grinning nervously. She made anxious small talk about the mic stand that was too short, and on a whim sat on the stage to meet its height. A good portion of the crowd was wondering just what this was. Ironic comedy? Camp? Then she swung into the lilting "Garden Rose":

I'll never stop a bullet, but a bullet might stop me/

Some laughter issued from segments of the menagerie that thought they had her figured out, and Becky smiled back at them uncertainly, because at least they were listening:

I'll never drink the ocean, but the ocean might drink me/
And I'll never raise a portrait to a gentleman in blue/
And I'll never sing a love song for a love that isn't true.

And then it dawns on portions of the audience that this is more Patsy Cline than an obscure wonder from the John Waters Christmas album. It's a gorgeous, sincere song; Becky Stark is funny, but she is always sincere. The rest of the band's set proceeded like this: giddy dialogue with the audience delivered like an indie rock Gracie Allen, and then a song like a sucker punch, with a voice escaping her body that seems to belong to a different being entirely. When she reached "Open Your Heart," her eminently likable pop single, she proceeded to dance about the stage, oblivious to an audience that remained seated or, criminally, lurked by the bar talking loudly. It was an unexpected complement to John Waters' ethos: an outsider dancing to her own tune as much for her sake as those few who were on the same wavelength--those that whistled appreciatively when she was done.

Lavender Diamond's debut album, Imagine Our Love, was released this year by Matador to positive notices, and they've already toured with bands such as the Decemberists. Their keyboardist is a comic book artist whom Stark has also enlisted to draw comic strips for their website, where she also blogs about peace and love in a meandering, endearing way, letting you know she's aware you think it's a joke, and also letting you know that it isn't.

Lavender Diamond - Open Your Heart