CD REVIEW: Thee Oh Sees “Drop” (East Bay Express 4/23/2014)

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CD Review:
Thee Oh Sees Drop
by Adam Perry for the East Bay Express, 4/23/2014

Thee Oh Sees’ influences are obvious, but it’s how the psych-rock outfit creatively combines those elements — the meandering psychedelia of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the distorted-guitar dirges of Black Sabbath, and the fuzzy, rollicking bombast of garage rock — that makes it continually interesting. “Penetrating Eye,” the first track on Drop, the band’s new album, recalls Iron Butterfly’s jubilant (and somewhat psychotic) acid-drenched rock ‘n’ roll. “Encrypted Bounce” harks back to Pink Floyd’s manic “Lucifer Sam” but adds a bit of wry California hipness, while the jagged “Savage Victory” burns like sweet words whispered to someone suffering a bad trip.

Like Neil Young, who’s known for recording just about everything that comes to him, Oh Sees frontman John Dwyer is incredibly prolific. And it’s clear that the songwriter, who recently moved to Los Angeles, is willing to execute his musical vision by any means necessary — i.e., by using lots of instruments and employing a rotating lineup of musicians. But this tactic has its downsides, too. “The King’s Noise” and “The Lens” are monotonous in stretches, while “Transparent World” drags on a little too long. But for those willing to wade through the psychedelic swamp, Drop contains several mushroom-shaped gems. And if you’re hankering for more, chances are Dwyer and co. will release more music shortly.

CD REVIEW: Timber Timbre “Hot Dreams” (East Bay Express, 4/8/2014)

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CD REVIEW
Timber Timbre Hot Dreams
by Adam Perry for the East Bay Express, 4/8/2014

On “Demon Host” — a track on Timber Timbre‘s 2009 self-titled breakthrough album — singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Taylor Kirk proved his love of both Randy Newman and Glenn Danzig as he crooned about death and hellfire over an acoustic guitar melody. That impressive track has proven to be an effective blueprint for the Canadian trio’s slow, funereal — though oddly pleasant — music. The band’s just-released fifth album, Hot Dreams, however, adds a hefty dose of weird and sexy to its haunting and whimsical sound.

The twisted instrumental “Resurrection Drive Part II” is a leftover track Kirk wrote for the 2013 movie The Last Exorcism Part II. (His score, which was rejected, will reportedly be released in its entirety soon.) The rest of Hot Dreams is dirge-y, with alternately surrealist and sensual lyrics (e.g., my two hands landed like two spiders on your knee) and a hazy, velvety synth that makes the whole album sound like the soundtrack to a spacey, slow-motion porno filmed at a funhouse in the Wild West.

Timber Timbre’s records have always sounded profoundly cinematic and melancholic, but Hot Dreams is a startling left turn for the band — luxurious and hypnotic but at times absolutely terrifying. This is surely Timber Timbre’s most impactful album to date.

 

 

CD REVIEW: Band of Skulls “Himalayan” (East Bay Express 4/2/2014)

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CD REVIEW:
Band of Skulls Himalayan
by Adam Perry for the East Bay Express, 4/2/2014

On “Asleep at the Wheel” — which opens Himalayan, Band of Skulls‘ third LP — the English trio does its best impression of the Black Keys’ trademark mid-tempo thump, with singer-guitarist Russell Marsden‘s nasal croon sounding like that of eccentric Fruit Bats frontman Eric D. Johnson, if he was a member of a fairly mainstream hard-rock band. On Himalayan‘s title track, Band of Skulls resembles a saccharine version of Foals, urging listeners, over slow-burning electro-funk, to kick off your heels and dance to the beat. And on the T. Rex-ish “Hoochie Coochie,” the band is essentially an unabashedly pop version of The Warlocks, promising to trust you to be trippin’ out.

The group’s white-boy blues notwithstanding, Band of Skulls thoroughly, successfully rocks. But that doesn’t excuse it from sounding a little too much like Def Leppard on “Brothers and Sisters,” or from writing ridiculous lyrics such as If I die tomorrow / would you be upset? Half of Himalayan is just plain smarmy; the other half fits right into what one would want to play on Guitar Hero or hear on a Twilight movie soundtrack — the sort of venues where Band of Skulls’ tunes have rightly been placed in the past and will no doubt continue to be found.

CD Review: Johnny Cash “Out Among the Stars” (East Bay Express, 3/26/2014)

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CD REVIEW:

Johnny Cash Out Among the Stars
by Adam Perry for the East Bay Express, 3/26/2014

Listening to previously unreleased music by Johnny Cash in 2014 feels a little eerie at first. But Out Among the Stars is positively startling: a diverse and mostly impressive collection of “lost” recordings Cash did in the early 1980s with “countrypolitan” producer Billy Sherrill, who was known for polishing gritty artists and bringing them mainstream success.

Cash’s glossy version of the popular country song “She Used to Love Me a Lot” has received the most media attention, but the real highlights are “Out Among the Stars,” which contains the brutally beautiful lyrics when they’re shootin’ at this loser/they’ll be aimin’ at the demons in their lives, and the Cash original “Call Your Mother,” in which he sings please call your mother/gently break the news that you don’t love me. Especially powerful are Cash’s duets with his late wife June Carter Cash and the late Waylon Jennings. The latter, “I’m Movin’ On,” is upbeat, outlaw country at its finest, and includes a few sly bars of the now-legendary half-time “Waylon beat.”

Perhaps most notable, however, is the fact that Sherrill’s countrypolitan production — which didn’t work with Cash’s “outlaw” persona and arguably contributed to Columbia Records’ decision to drop him — couldn’t tarnish “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time,” Cash’s duet with his wife. Try listening to Johnny and June sing Let’s gather up our scattered words of love/and make them rhyme without getting gooey. 

ROOTS OF CHICHA (Boulder Weekly, 3/20/2014)

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ROOTS OF CHICHA
Boulder Guitarist Brings Latin Inspiration to Colorado
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly, 3/20/14

Though guitarist Mike Lee —  who founded the Boulder band Chicha — was a late bloomer in terms of performing, his deep love of music dates back to his childhood in the Bay Area.

“My first real exposure to music was driving around with my brother,” Lee says. “When he first started driving, he had tons of cassettes. He played a lot of Chicago. I also loved transistor radios and remember being in bed [with] the radio under my pillow.”

Then he heard Santana.

“I was blown away,” he recalls. “It was so cool, so exotic, like this other world. It was something different.”

Lee fondly remembers camping outside Oakland Coliseum at age 15 to see Santana at one of the late Bill Graham’s Day on the Green concerts, which Lee talks about with hushed tones in hindsight.

With Santana, Ritchie Blackmore (Rainbow, Deep Purple) and Terry Kath (Chicago) as his idols, Lee “dicked around on guitar” in high school and college (University of California, Santa Barbara) but, for whatever reason, didn’t start to get serious in the United States about guitar” until entering his 40s, playing rhythm in such Colorado surfrock bands as the Mahi Men and the Beloved Invaders, whose breakup led to the forming of a Grateful Dead cover band that failed (thank God) before it “got out of the practice space.”

In 2012, Lee found his groove in Chicha, a big, talent-filled Latin band that’s essentially his dream come true: playing lead electric guitar in a group that’s heavily inspired by the “something different” that turned Lee on to Santana as a kid, but more focused on toying with the native Latin rhythms and musical sensibilities that’ve fascinated Lee the last couple years.

“I really wanted to start playing out  again after the Dead thing didn’t work  out,” Lee explains. “As a guitar player  around [Boulder] it’s mostly jambands, and I didn’t wanna play that stuff.  [Latin-influenced music] was the first the  thing that really grabbed me, but electric  guitar is really not featured in Latin  music outside Santana. So I thought ‘I’d  really love to play Latin music but there’s  really no [electric] guitar in there.’”  It was then, as if by providence, that  Lee discovered his band’s namesake: chicha, a genre that’s relatively unknown “ and creatively adds electric guitar-tinged psychedelia to native Amazonian music.

“It just blew me away,” says Lee, who happened upon chicha by “rummaging around on iTunes.

“It started in the ’60s with the natives living along the Amazon in Peru. They started listening on the radio to British rock and American rock, psychedelia and surf rock. They originally adapted their native music, which is called huayno — native Andean music and music from along the Amazon; then they started adding guitars and Farfisa organs and created this new genre.”

It’s tough to characterize chicha, which has spread, in part, because of two Roots of Chicha compilations put out by Brooklyn’s Barbés Records, that are just plain mind-blowing. Describing chicha, according to Lee, is like describing rock ’n’ roll. It’s not a set of parameters so much as a spirit, though the essential idea is “ethnic folk music on rock instruments.”

Lee grew up in Menlo Park, which is famously where the Grateful Dead got its start along with Ken Kesey’s trailblazing love affair with LSD. So the genesis of chicha music — Amazonian musicians’ passion for both American psychedelic rock and ayahuasca, a powerful natural psychedelic that’s been used for centuries by Amazonian shamans — makes almost as much sense to Lee as the genesis of Bruce Springsteen’s music might make to a native of Asbury Park.

However, all this is not to say that Chicha — which mostly gigs around Boulder but is hoping to expand its audience soon — plays only chicha music, though Lee says the plan is to work in more. The seven-piece outfit (drums, percussion, guitar, bass, keys and two vocalists) draws from a wide range of Latin music and even does a Latin version of “I Will Survive.”

“It took forever to get the band together, mostly with Craigslist,” says Lee, who calls Chicha’s repertoire “modern Latin” and explains that the act tries to keep things “danceable” but really enjoys stretching tunes out to showcase its impressive musicians. Even bassist Dave Lyons takes solos.

“It’s a team concept,” Lee says.

Lee’s team opens for Latin-rock stalwart Los Lobos — a band that’s rightfully enjoyed worldwide acclaim since the mid-’80s but was memorably “tomatoed” when Lee saw the nowlegendary L.A. group open for the Clash on one of the English punkers’ final tours.

“I don’t know why people would even bring tomatoes!” Lee recalls hilariously.

No worries for Chicha on the 29th — the emerging Boulder septet is a more sensical pairing with Los Lobos than the Clash, to say the least.

Bicycle Music: A Conversation with Johnnyrandom (East Bay Express 3/12/2014)

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CAPTURING THE MUSIC OF A BICYCLE
by Adam Perry for the East Bay Express, 3/12/2014

The first time I heard bicycle music was during my first extended cycling adventure — a four-day, 300-mile ride from Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh along the quiet, idyllic C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage. Early on day two of the trip, after I set out from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, the sounds of my Kona mountain bike’s wheels, crankset, and rolling chain meshed with the sounds from the environment — the wind, the birds, even my breath — to create an atmospheric symphony not unlike a mid-Seventies Brian Eno album.

As a young Frank Zappa famously showed America when he “played” a bicycle on a 1963 episode of The Steve Allen Show (plucking the spokes like a harp and even blowing into the handlebars), the sounds of a bike are surprisingly musical. Recently, Emeryville musician and composer Johnnyrandom took this concept and created something far more ambitious and imaginative.

“Bespoken” is a mesmerizing song composed solely of sounds made by a bicycle — derailleur cables, spokes, brakes, tires, and other parts. On the surface, it sounds like pleasantly addictive techno-pop, but Johnnyrandom (whose real name is Flip Baber) spent seven months recording and arranging the track. NPR, Wired, Boing Boing, Huffington Post, and other media outlets reported on the impressive composition, an excerpt of which is featured in a video Baber made — the full track is available on iTunes — when it was released in January.

 

According to Baber, the inspiration for “Bespoken” began in childhood. “As a little kid, I was a bit of a recluse, spending most of my time learning through my ears,” he said. “What I heard in music and what I heard in my immediate surroundings overlapped from the start. The desire to manipulate a bike germinated then.” Baber said he was about four when he started messing around with the spokes of his Huffy. “I was largely left to my own devices, for which I am immensely grateful,” he continued. “It enabled my curiosity to develop unhindered.”

Baber later studied music at CalArts and Berklee College of Music and began doing sound design and composing experimental music for high-profile advertising clients such as Adidas and Doritos. In 2006, he used bike parts to recreate “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker for the bike company Specialized. He said he’ll soon “explore the potential of kitchen objects in ways you might not expect.”

“Bespoken” essentially takes the concept that Zappa playfully showcased onThe Steve Allen Show — he’d apparently only been “playing the bicycle” for two weeks — and turns it into a brilliant journey of experimental pop that took seven month to create, even if it only lasts just three and a half minutes. The track begins with the sound of rapidly turning spokes that evokes a craps wheel, then develops into a haunting, bouncy techno beat that wouldn’t seem out of place on Radiohead’s Kid A. Then something magical happens — the sounds coalesce into a fully fleshed-out song.

“I’m certainly not a purist,” Baber said. “I wanted to produce this composition in a manner which put the music first, without self-imposed limitations. That said, it is probably less enhanced than most modern music being produced today.”

It’s true: While Baber created “Bespoken” using, in his words, “100-percent played-and-recorded bike sounds,” he did not limit the “playing” to his hands and the bike parts. “I did use a hands-only approach on some recordings,” he said, but “leaned more towards using picks, mallets, bows, et cetera, because they sounded so much better.” For the “kick drum” sound that effectively transforms “Bespoken” from an intriguing garage experiment into something that makes listeners want to bob their heads, Night at the Roxbury-style, Random used a tire from his Specialized Stumpjumper mountain bike.

According to Baber, just a small fraction of what was recorded made its way onto “Bespoken.” That’s understandable considering the amount of experimentation, refinement, and mixing it took to put together the track’s lush, sonic exploration. “Probably the most beautiful and difficult sound to capture was the spokes,” he said. “For each note, I would tune all of the spokes in a wheel to the same exact pitch to avoid unwanted overtones via sympathetic vibration. Tuned in unison, they sound gorgeous. It had to be a wheel with straight spokes, too, with no crossovers. The first time I tried this, it took an hour to capture just one note.

“After everything was recorded I had to sift through thousands of sounds to figure out which ones had the best potential musically,” he continued. “Processing was kept to a minimum because I didn’t want to lose the intrinsic quality of these sounds, especially the most recognizable ones. The majority are completely dry or have a touch of reverb.”

On that note, what’s most impressive about “Bespoken” is how easy it is for the listener to get lost in it and completely forget that the music comes solely from a bicycle. The melody and rhythm are tasteful and harmonious instead of — as Baber laments about the music of some of his favorite avant-garde composers — “noisy, atonal, [and] arrhythmic.”

Baber — who cites as influences Sigur Rós, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, along with more obscure composers — said accumulating the technical skills needed to score for film and TV led to the confidence and patience he needed to record and mix “Bespoken.” However, the “crux of the biscuit,” as fellow bicycle musician Zappa would say, was the cycling-crazy Bay Area.

“Bike culture is very popular in the Bay Area, so ‘Bespoken’ was certainly influenced by that,” said Baber, who said he isn’t exactly a hard-core biker but he enjoys cycling as “the most efficient way to get out into nature, which is the best way to prepare my mind for creative sessions.”

“I also love the close proximity to valleys full of redwoods to escape into. I suppose I could do what I do from almost anywhere in the world, but anytime I’ve ever moved away, I always end up back here.”

COMRADES IN AXES: An Interview with Dr. Dog (Boulder Weekly 2/27/2014)

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COMRADES IN AXES
DR. DOG’S LONGEVITY OWES TO THE BOND BETWEEN BAND MEMBERS
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
2/27/2014

It’s been a long ride for Dr. DogThe band got its start about 15 years ago playing parties in Philadelphia before becoming the beloved underground band that rock stars (including Jim James) longed to be in, and then a national touring phenomenon, after the Abbey Road-esque 2008 breakthrough Fate. But what’s struck me, continually, about Dr. Dog — which, at its best, brilliantly juxtaposes The Band and The Beatles with a smidgen of indie irreverence — is the clear, strong friendship that comes through, even on the biggest stages.

At Red Rocks two years ago, opening for Wilco, Dr. Dog’s co-frontmen Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman rollicked around the wide stage — with the sun setting over Denver in the background — like teenagers who’d just started a band in their garage and were getting the chance to prove themselves by smiling and hollering until their allotted time ran out.

The subject of Dr. Dog’s famous camaraderie — reminiscent of how Neil Young & Crazy Horse always seem to huddle together during performances even on the kind of giant stages that seem to separate most arena-rock acts and their comparably giant egos — came up in a recent conversation with keyboardist (and founding member) Zach Miller recently.

“I think we are all pretty laid-back people and ultimately put the band ahead of our own ambitions,” Miller replies when asked how Dr. Dog has always seemingly kept drama to a minimum and maintained an extremely high energy level in concert, whether at Red Rocks or the tiny inside stage at Santa Fe Brewing, where I saw the band in 2010.

McMicken and Leaman had been playing together since junior high before starting Dr. Dog in 1999, and that bond — enhanced by a vow to never play covers — no doubt carried over.

“It was exciting to be introduced to their world, where everyone was in a great band and really good friends together,” Miller says. “We are there to serve the band. We love the songs, and I think that comes through on stage.”

Dr. Dog’s songwriting — according to most fans — peaked on its lighthearted, lo-fi first few albums (notably Easy Beat and We All Belong, both on Park the Van) and the flawless Fate (-Anti), which saw the group’s popularity skyrocket. With all the band members singing either lead or harmonies and most songs impressively fitting together like a puzzle, those three long-plays dazzled critics and music geeks alike, whereas the three Dr. Dog albums that’ve followed are enjoyable but at times sound like caricatures of classic Dr. Dog tracks like “The Old Days.”

That can’t, however, be said for “Humble Passenger,” the extended story-song that concludes the band’s latest album, 2013’s B-Room. Somewhere between Jeffrey Lewis’ comical hipster-rock and Phish’s “Gamehendge” saga, “Humble Passenger” takes listeners through the caverns of McMicken’s subconscious, where, among other things, his seventh-grade bus turns into a whale.

The hypnotic corresponding music is about as symphonic as a tasteful rock band can get without stumbling into Yes territory, and “Humble Passenger” has even been made into a comic book that’s for sale online.

“The comic came after the song,” Miller explains. “It seemed like an obvious move after we realized what the song had become. [‘Humble Passenger’] was based on an actual dream of Scott’s, which he had turned into a basic ‘I-IV-V’ folk demo. From that, [guitarist] Frank [McElroy] did an incredible arrangement to reflect the musical journey of the lyrics. We all recorded our parts in separate sessions from a scratch take of Frank’s arrangement. I was so pleased with the way it all came together, especially for such an ambitious recording undertaken in such a disjointed way.”

With such an extensive catalog — since 2002, Dr. Dog has released seven albums and a slew of hard-to-find EPs and other rarities — it must be hard to please longtime fans who are screaming for old-school gems such as “Oh No” and “California.”

“Definitely,” Miller says. “It’s always tough to get a good mix of things in the set, but we have to skew more to the newer stuff; that’s the whole point of what we’re doing. Ideally, we try to get in something from each album … but that doesn’t always happen.”

With a headlining set at the Boulder Theater, Miller and the rest of Dr. Dog should have ample time to please even their most hardcore fans.