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Ground Control’s Holiday Gift Guide 003

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Tuesday, 21 December 2010

We're not getting any further away from the big day folks,

So have you started doing your shopping yet? Got your eye on a couple of prize items that you'd like to pick up for that special someone, but haven't made it to the store yet? Are you totally clueless? It's totally cool if you are, you're certainly not alone. Four days before Chritmas? LOTS of folks haven't finished shopping yet, and some are still looking for that perfect thing. I found a few, and I've included them here to help you out if you're a little stymied. What you'll find in this installment of Ground Control's Holiday Gift Guide are the titles which (for the most part) are a little off the beaten track. They're not the first ones people always look at, but giving them just shows that special someone that you were paying attention when they were talking about this new band they'd heard about, but hadn't heard YET. So peruse this list, and pick up something unique compared with the regular flow of greatest hits comps; there are some real winners here, and your special someone with certainly say thank you.

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Stornoway
Beachcomber's Windowsill
(4AD)

While some albums were never really intended to suit the holiday season, somehow they just seem to lend themselves perfectly to it. Stornoway's newest album, Beachcomber's Windowsill, is precisely that sort of record; originally released on May 24, 2010, it's unlikely that the band's intention was to play to the holiday season but, in listening to the album's eleven tracks, it's hard to imagine the music not playing incidentally at a grand and festive holiday dinner or somewhere in the background of a warm and happy holiday party. How does the emotional center of the record seem to shift with the seasons? In the case of Beachcomber's Windowsill, much of the record's timeliness for the Christmas season is perceptual; singer Brian Briggs' delicate tenor and the rich backing vocals supplied by keyboardist Jonathan Ouin, Oliver Steadman and Rich Steadman simply produce a hymnal quality in songs like “Zorbing,” “Fuel Up,” “Boats And Trains” and “Here Comes The Blackout…!” that feels warm, festive and implies a feeling of togetherness; it just feels right, even if the lyrical matter isn't necessarily topical to the holiday season. That said, buy this record for the one on your list who loves troubadors like The Decemberists, Belle and Sebastian or Neutral Milk Hotel – they'll thank you profusely.

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Baby Eagle
Dog Weather
(You've Changed Records)

Ever been present and able to recognize when you're witnessing an exceptional moment? It's not always easy to do because, nine times out of ten, you're usually doing nine other things at the same time so you're only able to catch it peripherally but, when it happens in plain view, the sensation can be elating; it's as if everything fell into place in an almost charmed way and the resulting experience is both mesmerizing and fantastic. Such is exactly the sort of sensation that comes over listeners the moment “Day of our Departing” opens Dog Weather, Baby Eagle's third album. Prior to this point, Baby Eagle had basically been the private project of Constantines guitarist Steven Lambke and he'd used it to make small, simple songs (for the most part) all on his own – but that isn't the case here. For Dog Weather, the guitarist comes backed by a full band that includes Attack In Black singer/guitarist (and You've Changed Records co-founder) Daniel Romano, Shotgun Jimmie, David Trnaman and Colleen Collins (of Construction And Deconstruction) and the difference in sound and style between Dog Weather and both of the Baby Eagle records that preceded it is akin to the difference between night and day. Where previous Baby Eagle records felt like very private affairs in their meek and modest late-night vibes, Dog Weather is very obviously a very public outing as the rockist intentions of the album shine through, unmistakably.



From the very beginning of “Day of our Departing,” Baby Eagle hits the guitar rock nail squarely on the head as, with rock solid electric guitars, loose arrangements and a relaxed air to the performance, Dog Weather recalls the glory of Neil Young and Crazy Horse or a post-Velvets Lou Reed in their respective prime and just lets it all rip rather than hesitating pulling a punch. Here, while Lambke still isn't projecting his vocals as much as he could, there is a confidence and just a bit of swagger to the singer's methodology as he half-speaks lines line, “You said we could begin again/that only children play with stones” and lets listeners fill in the heroics themselves as he tosses off one of the scruffiest anti-solos since Neil Young told audiences which note was for them. The same kind of warmth and lived in feeling is intoxicating and nerves will loosen as the song goes, it's almost guaranteed. Read more.

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Ratatat
LP4
(XL Recordings)

Remember a few years ago when, with the introduction of ProTools, recordings began getting wildly adventurous as different bands utilized the software to begin capturing and manipulating every sound they thought might be sort of interesting? In the case of electronic music particularly, bands began sampling hordes of found sounds and assembling them into beats; everything from sandpaper to a cash register to a jackhammer to a city street to a billiard table and beyond was exposed as having a unique rhythm all its' own and could be exhilarating in the right context. Now, things have balanced out a bit since the fervor of the cool new ProTools toy has faded and its' use has become pretty commonplace but, as Ratatat's newest album proves, the assemblage of found sounds into objects integral passages of popular song can still be exciting and very, very interesting.

The corner shop seems to explode back to life again as the sounds of money and cash registers add color to “Bilar” but, rather than seem like a trip back to the dawn of ProTools, those sounds only provide color, and the focus remains on the real-time instrumentation provided by guitarist Mike Stroud and bassist/keyboardist Evan Mast. Those instruments are the drive and dominant flavor of “Bilar” and any/all additional sounds are simply off-shoots from that backbone; the non-essential components that make LP4 really cool and unique and attention-grabbing, but that is their sole purpose. Those extraneous sounds may be non-essential, but that doesn't mean they're inconsequential though; the synthetic melancholia that opens “Drugs” is shattered with almost brutal force by heavily-treated guitars and will set any listener's heart into shock (just as a good rush will), while there's an early morning light, warmth and calm in “Maholo” that really does call the tranquility of the Hawaiian islands to mind. All of these sensations may be a bit of a reach in any language, but somehow they also suit as one listens, and make perfect sense.

Does that mean LP4 is easy to qualify? Certainly not. In fact, what a listener gets out of the album will be primarily dictated to the experiences he/she had previously and which of those get transposed on top of the music provided; that said, LP4 is the definition of 'mood music' in that, depending upon what one allows themselves to hear in the album, so shall it offer that representation back, just as the listener hoped.

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Franz Nicolay
Luck And Courage
(Team Science)

After Franz Nicolay left The Hold Steady and released the fairly odd St. Sebastian of the Short Stage EP on his own earlier this year, more than a few ears perked up to try and decode what was going on. Prior to that point, Nicolay had been an important but underrated part of The Hold Steady's sound, but the keyboardist was still regarded as a sideman; that meant he had creative input of course, but no one really considered what he might do on his own. Because of that, the EP was a jarring wake-up call to listeners reminding them not to pigeonhole Franz Nicolay just yet. With the release of Luck And Courage though, eyes are on and people are paying attention now; so what's this album to be all about?

Without meaning to sound coy, the ten songs that comprise Luck And Courage sound quite unlike anything one could have expected from Franz Nicolay but, from the opening blow of “Felix & Adelita,” listeners of all stripes – both existing fans and the uninitiated – will be locked in for the duration of the album's run-time because it's just so instantly attractive. Using a modicum of the sort of dramatic presence that Colin Meloy and The Decemberists employed to become indie rock darlings, Nicolay presents himself as an offbeat Beat poetry throwback ready to use any sound at his disposal (from New Orleans-esque horns to backwoods banjos) to flesh out and really make listeners feel where he's coming from as he rambles through the fantastic scenes presented by “This Is Not A Pipe” (prize poetically contrasting line: “Not a spoon, not dirty dishes, not a knife/I have not been unhappy my whole life.”) and “My Criminal Uncle.” Better still, Nicolay never seems to skip a beat each time he switches sounds; each transition on Luck And Courage is seamless and smooth, and seems to flow like a running monologue as a result – no matter how far out into left field he goes. That ability to not only hook listeners, but fluidly pull them through myriad different (but fully fleshed-out and vibrant) landscapes and moods and make sure that every turn is an adventure is a most captivating experience on Luck And Courage. On his new long-player, Franz Nicolay proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that, rather than lending them to someone else's vision, his talents and time would be well-spent concentrating on his own work. This purest vision is best.

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Bars Of Gold
“Of Gold”
(Friction Records)

Now, so many years after the dawn of punk and with so many staple structures erected and regarded as essential to the genre, the notion of thinking outside the box doesn't sound like it should work anymore. Too many bands do things exactly the same way in punk and cling desperately to that orthodoxy but on this blaze orange plate of vinyl stands the proof that the music can ignore the guideline and still be great.



The first side of the LP rushes on hard and fast with all the anthemia of Mission Of Burma, The Constantines, Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire compressed and rolled into one as the band sets its' precedents with “Boss Level.” Even though it's not particularly ravaging or visceral, listeners will feel their pulses start to race as the spiraling and desperate sounding crash of Brandon Moss' drums are divided from Paffi's vocals as well as the guitars supplied by Scotty Iulianelli and Ben Audette, Nick Jones' bass by a monumental wedge of synthesizers. The synths function as something of a sonic splinter that all of the organic instruments in “Boss Level” attack and repel from. Each of those instruments and Paffi's battlefield bark seem to want to destroy the foreign matter, and that internal aggression is what will hook the interest of listeners; it's very, very attractive. That tension does not end with the first song either; while the synths do not take up as much of the foreground in “Heaven Has A Heater” or “Birds,” the infectious stomp of “Boss Level” endures through those tracks, and eventually creates enough friction to make each song seem as if it might explode into flame at any moment but the real money shot comes on “The Hustle,” at the end of side one.



In “The Hustle,” Bars Of Gold's obviously rockist instrumentation suddenly parts and waits in the wings to let a monolithic banjo call the shots. Listeners will do a double-take as that banjo takes command of the song and single-handedly blows every mind which which it comes into contact. Prior to this point, the instrument has never expressed strength of this magnitude (not even in the hands of virtuoso Bela Fleck) but, here, it is the variable that pushes the song to a completely different level of classicism. “The Hustle” is like post-punk's answer to “When The Levee Breaks” – it is just that breathtaking.



Sounds incredible doesn't it? Incredibly, “The Hustle” is only the end of side one – there is another. Read more.

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Band From TV
Hoggin' All The Covers Unleashed! (CD/DVD)
(Generosity Records)

Remember a few years ago (2007 – 2008) when a writer strike ground Hollywood to a standstill? It sucked; TV stagnated and re-runs flourished because nothing new was being produced and, if you were stuck indoors (which I usually am), you were left at a loss for what to do with yourself during your off-hours. It was a lousy time for the public, but think about it – how much better could it have possibly been for the actors? They were stuck at home too. Ever wonder what they did to entertain themselves during all that downtime? A couple of them valiantly elected to put their creative juices to work, and started this band and do some select dates (casino ballrooms and similar sized venues were the norm) and just keep active.

Comprised of Hugh Laurie (House), James Denton (Desperate Housewives), Bonnie Somerville (The Ugly Truth), Greg Grunberg (Heroes), Bob Guiney (The Bachelor) and with several other names occasionally chipping in when schedules permit (Teri Hatcher has been known to offer her voice on occasion), Band From TV makes a startlingly solid noise and, while their debut album isn't what anyone would call musical genius (Hoggin' All The Covers is just that – a collection of cover songs), it will be of interest to fans of those aforementioned television shows.

It might not be genius, but the band deserves credit for the quality of their performances. From the opening of “Piece Of My Heart,” The band genuinely sings for its' supper on Hoggin' All The Covers and pours itself into their versions of “You Really Got Me,” “Feelin' Alright” and “Hard To Handle” that also appear here. In each of those cases, the band works hard and seems to genuinely be having a lot of fun with their collective step out; reveling in the fact that, not only is the dubious creative gamble working, but the audience seems to be honestly enjoying the performance and cheering the quality of the show – not the fact that there are “a bunch of stars! On stage! And they can play music too!”

As a demystifying agent, while the performances of all the stars (particularly Greg Grunberg, who holds down drumming duties) are strong, it's not as if the band of actors is doing everything themselves here. As the DVD included with Hoggin' All The Covers handily points out, Band From TV also utilizes a fairly large assortment of professional musicians to help fill out their sound and beef it up for large rooms. That said, because there are so many players involved, it could never be upheld that Band From TV is the vehicle for any one performer; it has simply come together in the name of fun with everyone involved bowing to two common goals: to entertain and to have fun. Hoggin' All The Covers exemplifies that; it is fun and entertaining.

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The Creepshow
We All Fall Down
(Hellcat/Stomp)

Was it nervous tension that kept The Creepshow clinging to the undead trappings of their sound, even when rigor mortis was beginning to set in? Maybe, but on They All Fall Down, the band almost spontaneously seems to show new signs of life as they elect to leave the zombies in the box this time but give listeners eleven new reasons to revel in eternal damnation.

After organist Kristian “Reverend McGuinty” Rowles delivers his obligatory sermon to open the We All Fall Down, bassist Sean “Sickboy” McNab, drummer Matt “Pomade” Gee and Blackwood launch headlong into “Get What's Coming” and don't pull a single punch; Gee's drums snap meanly at the heels of McNab's bass and and the pair aggravate each other until they've built up a rabid froth. It's an imposing, exciting front for sure, but it is dwarfed by Sin's presence. When the singer enters the fray, she arrives as an altered beast from the singer who appeared on Run For Your Life; where before she produced a sweet and almost poppy foil for her darker rhythm section, everyone has reached an even keel here – the singer presents an attitude of Joan Jett proportions while the boys speed up to keep from being blown away by her presence. And they do keep up. And the whole thing surges with a power that's fluid, infectious and incredibly potent.



The band doesn't stop for breath after their stage is set through songs including “Someday,” the title track, “Sleep Tight” and “Dusk 'Til Dawn” but what becomes increasingly evident as the band powers through is that the ghouls aren't the only things that the band left at home; while there are still some borrowed trinkets retained from the band's first two albums (once in a while, a few cliches from the 1950s like the teen heartthrob vocals in “Sleep Tight” and the wild surf guitar in the title track) the dominant vibe set across these eleven songs is definitely more 'punk' than 'greaser,' and the pure punk of tracks like “Hellbound” and “Road To Nowhere” remove all doubt of where the band will likely be headed in the future – and that future gets brighter again with each passing minute of They All Fall Down. Read more .

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Summer Camp
Young EP
(Moshi Moshi)

To quote one of the better skits on Saturday Night Live in the mid-to-late Nineties, “Hey – remember the Eighties?” Summer Camp certainly does. On their new EP, Young, the band is clearly seeking to (and successfully does) capture every iota of the sound, style and presence of the best synth pop bands that the Reagan era had to offer on radio waves – from the brief but sweeping Casiotone vamps to the fairly monotone and syncopated vocal melodies that won bands like Flock Of Seagulls, Human League and (at least part of the time) Duran Duran a lot of fans – and condense it down into one 'in and out' EP. More than a few readers will probably take offense to this, but the band does what it does pretty well too; in songs like “Round The Moon,” “Veronica Sawyer” and “Why Don't You Stay,” Summer Camp perfectly captures a sort of high school dance vibe from the Eighties, and plays to that with an enthusiasm that's actually believable. There's obviously a market for this sound and there's no arguing that Summer Camp does it well here so, for those that crave the poppy, synthetic strains of the Eighties recast anew, the Young EP would be the ideal gift.

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El Guincho
Pop Negro
(Young Turks/XL Recordings)

Ever listen to an album that instantly transports you to a different place? Somehow, the sounds hit a memory trigger and a listener can easily recall and mentally return to a moment or place where the strains of the music would serve as the perfect soundtrack, and the nostalgia a listener might have for that moment causes them to recall all of the sensory perceptions that go with the memory. Whether intentional or not, listening to El Guincho's newest offering, Pop Negro, has that ability; the combination of the slick worldbeat sounds, the exotic presentation and only slightly hazy production of the album will find a listener recalling a moment when those sensations were real – in this writer's case, listening to the album calls to mind memories of sipping drinks on a summer day in Kensington Market and soaking up the atmosphere of the place; the gentle hum of at least five different types of music (reggae, Cuban jazz, Latin pop, dub, blues and more) converging on the street and mixed with light vibes and laughter. It's a beautiful place – and definitely where this music resides for this listener. Buy Pop Negro for yourself, or buy it for the one you know who most regularly wrestles with seasonal depression – it will prove to be their warm place in the sun this winter.

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Bad Religion
The Dissent Of Man
(Epitaph)
Having celebrated its' thirtieth anniversary in operation this year, the members of Bad Religion must have begun to take stock of where they were in their careers right now, where they'd been and where they might be headed. Who wouldn't? Thirty years is a milestone that most bands don't achieve. Something about the fact that they've not only outlasted but outlived many of their peers must have been on the bandmembers' collective mind when the writing and recording of The Dissent Of Man began, because two things are plainly apparent as “The Day That The Earth Stalled” slams the doors of the record open: here, the band looks back a bit to its' roots and beginnings, but the potency of that attack is tempered by a maturity which reflects the band's years. Simply said, The Dissent Of Man isn't an exorcism of some mid-life crisis for Bad Religion, it's simply an album that reflects where the band is now with all the steps that got them here included.

 Read more.

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