MUSIC REVIEWS: The Thermals, Mirah, Anni Rossi, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, Dark Was the Night
Now We Can See, by the Thermals is a slightly garage, slightly alternative punk album that erupts with a whole lot of kinetic and explosive energy. With Hutch Harris’s exuberant and charming emotively spirited vocals, a very punk, fast thumping indie bassist in Kathy Foster and squeaky tight super speedy drums by Westin Glass, The Thermals radiate frenzy-licious rock power. Using a catchy unpretentious combination of power chords and amped up decibel high vocals, they maintain enough of a trashy indie attack that makes each song a powerhouse of sound teetering on the likelihood of explosion. Coming together in 2002 and hailing from Portland, Oregon, at times their songs can be compared to earlier albums by the Breeders, especially the lead song, “Now We Can See.” Their standout power is the righteous flow of big sonic energy, managing to possess all good things that make great records, melody, entertaining hooks and tangible lyrics, with contemplated topics on self-righteousness, love, love lost, remorse, and surviving. “When I Was Afraid” is a foot-tapping catchy hook of a tune, where the band’s sound collides in a shoulder shrugging assault against Hutch’s declaratory vocals. Break out the skinny jeans, busted up corduroys, Rocawear Construct jeans or Banana Republic cotton crop pants, the ferociousness of The Thermals will most likely make them your new favorite.
Although I didn’t know of Mirah before listening to her new release (A)spera, (translated loosely from Latin to mean “adversities”) I’m glad I’m getting into this at the beginning of springtime, with all its strings and ethereality. At the beginning of the album, I picture myself on a side porch, gazing out at a garden, or better yet, walking through it. What I like most about this album are the small things: the sound of the guitar strings on songs like “The World Is Falling,” the subdued undercurrent, the bells, the overall organic nature. I’m so used to hearing overproduced songs that this one was a breath of fresh air for me. Mirah’s voice is delicate and feminine, and the music sounds like a tiny, intimate orchestra. Harp strings envelope the song, “Shells,” and then the tempo picks up in “Country of the Future” with drums akin to a military parade and castanets. She seems to be combining all of my favorite instruments on this album, and they blend together in such an unexpectedly great way. The album continues to carry a slightly stronger force beyond these two songs, with “Gone Are All the Days,” where hand drums and upright bass circle in a jazzlike dance. What results is an album that both soothes and challenges the mind.
Anni Rossi’s debut album Rockwell features ten short songs that highlight the artist’s classically trained abilities with the viola. The 23-year old alt-folk singer songwriter from Minnesota also plays the keyboard on several tracks like “Ecology.” The album was produced by Steve Albini, whose resume includes work with Nirvana, the Stooges, the Pixies, and Joanna Newsome, with whom Rossi is sometimes compared. She has toured with The Tings Tings and Electrelane through Europe, and just completed an appearance at SXSW. Overall, the album provides some interesting tracks but somewhat disappoints in its entirety. Whether it’s the soft and simple production, the use of minimal instruments on each song, or Anni’s voice fluctuating up every fifth note, the album eventually begins to drag. Rather, the songwriting is good, but Anni’s voice seems way too naked in most of the songs and her voice just isn’t good enough by itself to carry the music. Songs to note are Rossi’s remake of the Ace of Base song, “Living in Danger,” the pulsating “Wheelpusher,” and “The West Coast” a song that truly highlights Rossi’s mastery with the viola. One or two acoustical songs might have been nice but not an entire acoustical album.
I had the fortune of catching Austin based Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears live at this past SXSW, and it was an amazing, electric show that had the entire crowd clapping and dancing! Black Joe Lewis is among this group of new singers that are bringing back the old school, vintage blues, and soul. All of these singers: a sober Amy Winehouse (whom I also saw live in what was a rare US performance at SXSW several years ago) and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, have a gift for the live performance, but only Amy Winehouse has truly transcended performing live with a pop quality CD (and again, I stress a sober Winehouse live). I really hoped the same would be true for Black Joe Lewis and his debut CD, Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is, but after several listens, only a few songs stand out, and really none appear to have “hit” potential. “Sugarfoot” is probably their best song, followed by “Big Booty Woman” or “Boogie,” but overall, most songs on the album are too derivative of that 60’s genre, and lack necessary components of evolved song writing. At times, you’d swear Black Joe was James Brown, and the interplay between the many musicians in the band is unfortunately something that can only truly be appreciated live. But if you’re hoping for an Amy Winehouse quality CD (which may be unfair), you’ll be disappointed.
Dark Was The Night is the new compilation from the Red Hot Organization. Some of you may remember the Red Hot + Blue and No Alternative albums (among others) from the early 90s. As those efforts showcased the era’s top talent, this collection does the same. Released to raise money for HIV and AIDS, it weighs-in at two discs and 31 tracks—consisting of a mixture of covers and new songs from artists such as, Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Sufjan Stevens, Spoon, Bon Iver, Yeasayer, etc, etc; and it nicely captures the collective aesthetic of the current independent (I use that term lightly) music scene. As with most great records, each listen tends to digest the album more thoroughly.
However, upon first listen the song that struck me immediately was “Train Song,” a Ben Gibbard + Feist cover of 70’s English songstress Vashti Bunyan. It’s a basic acoustic driven melody, but Feist’s falsetto injects a ghostly howl that resonates at the end of each chorus that’s pretty badass—intoning the railroad echo of the Delta blues singers. Also, David Byrne and The Dirty Projectors’ “Knotty Pine” is a spastic pop-tart of a track that is just fun and dancy. Upon further listens, though, “Tightrope” by Yeasayer and Grizzly Bear’s “Deep Blue Sea” have been the songs that have stuck with me the most, but I assume it’s a temporal thing that will only lead to some future new faves. That seems to be how this record works.
Essentially, the Red Hot Organization has again brought together a collection of contemporary music’s top talents to produce a charity album full of great songs for a pressing, worthwhile cause. And again, they succeeded. Thumbs up.