Review: Typhoon – White Lighter

“White Lighter,” the new LP from Typhoon, is less an album and more a book written in song. The majority of the songs don’t follow the standard Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus/Outro and instead have more of a narrative structure; bits and pieces of one song appear in another, furthering the seamless transitions between movements. This  makes sense, as “White Lighter,” according to frontman Kyle Morton is  “a collection of seminal life moments, in more or less chronological order, glimpsed backwards in the pale light of certain death…” the seminal life moments are in fact Morton’s, whose bout with Lyme disease earlier in life caused several of his organs to fail, leaving him to face death before he’d barely lived. “Mine was a puberty with a vengeance,” Morton writes.

From these words, one would expect this album to be dreadfully dreary, spartan save for an acoustic guitar forever strumming minor chords and a voice that doesn’t so much sing as it does melodically mope. Yet “White Lighter” is anything but spartan or dreary; quite the opposite, it’s sweeping, lifting, a reflection on health and sickness, life and death that is, ultimately, life-affirming.

Approximately twelve musicians comprise Typhoon, playing everything from strings (violin and cello) to horns (trumpet and trombone) to drums (they have two drummers) to piano to guitars and bass. On past albums, such as 2010’s “Hunger and Thirst” and the 2011 EP “A New Kind of House,” these instruments complemented one another, but never quite worked in concert. “White Lighter” fully realizes the promise proposed by these previous albums, and then some. The orchestration is terrific, with all instruments blending perfectly, now ingredients of a single dish rather than several items on a plate.

At the center of this swirling, tornadic symphony is Morton’s pained, gripping voice. From his loudest bellow to his softest whisper, Morton always seems to be on the precipice of bursting forth, his voice a dam straining, barely containing the feelings and memories piled behind it. Voices, beyond just Morton’s, have always been a signature of Typhoon’s music, and their latest effort is no exception. On several songs, one of the female members sings parts of the song, acting as a counterpoint to Morton, while on others, the entire band lends their own voices to Morton, essentially playing the part of a Greek chorus. It’s these additional voices that further the story structure of “White Lighter.”

What’s more, “White Lighter” is new. Not just in the sense that it’s recently released, but that it, and thereby Typhoon, is wholly original musically; it resists typical genre classification. It has obvious hints of folk, but there’s also undeniable oriental influences in more than a few songs. It invokes Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, The Antlers, Neutral Milk Hotel, but also Beck, and even a bit of David Bowie. It’s personal, yet accessible, enormous but intimate.

And, it’s a triumph, one of the best complete albums to come out in some time. Typhoon gradually garnered a significant amount of hype for this album with every release of a single — first Common Sentiments, then Dreams of Cannibalism, and finally Young Fathers — and they’ve more than justified it. Expect “White Lighter” to escalate Typhoon into the next stratosphere of success, one which they’ve deserved for quite a while.

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Concert Review – Ruston Kelly – The Lone Bellow – Marcus Foster

Last Tuesday, I drove the hour and a half to Oklahoma City to see Ruston Kelly, The Lone Bellow, and Marcus Foster perform at a venue called the Conservatory (a misnomer if there ever was one). Here is the review.

Ruston Kelly

I’d listened to a few of Kelly’s songs the morning before the concert. Though I liked them, I didn’t find any of them to be truly remarkable. I figured his performance would likely be the same.

How lovely it is to be surprised.

Kelly took to the small, cramped stage, a few shades past sober, jacket open, with a blue, red-rimmed hat carefully placed atop his head, tilted just slightly to the right. A few practice strums, a slight tweaking of the D string knob, and off he went. No introduction no addressing the crowd, just the opening chords to his first song.

There are musicians who figure out their live sound before their recorded sound, and other musicians who figure out the inverse. Kelly belongs in the former category. His performance was charismatic and confident, mirroring his personality. His voice, a somewhat smoother version of Kristian Matsson’s, rang out among the sparse crowd, causing more than a few in the audience to actually turn and listen. The songs were straightforward acoustic Americana/folk in the vein of the aforementioned Tallest Man on Earth. Highlights included the melancholy Cardboard Crown, much more powerful live than recorded, and a rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues.” Kelly ended the set with a duet featuring concert headliner Marcus Foster, his coarser voice the perfect complement to Kelly’s.

Keep an ear and eye out for Ruston Kelly in the future.

The Lone Bellow

Marcus Foster may have been the headliner in name, but at least for this night, the majority of the crowd was there to see The Lone Bellow. And for good reason.

Leading off with “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To,” the trio from Brooklyn captured most of the audience’s attention and instantly amplifying the energy level of the ramshackle venue. I say “most of the audience” because, inevitably, there was a crowd of about 10-12 people who decided their conversations and jokes were much more entertaining that the music the audience had actually come to see, and thus spoke at a volume that ensured they could be heard over the band. It took the shouting of a good samaritan to silence them. Had I seen the man, I would have bought him several beers.

One of the hardest emotions for a musician to convey in a recorded song is joy. Not the joy caused by the subject of the song, but the joy of merely playing. Usually, it takes seeing that artist live to truly realize how much they love they have for their music, and how much pleasure they get from playing it for people. The Lone Bellow was no different. They hollered, stomped, danced, crooned and sweated throughout their set, feeding off the crowd’s energy.

Their harmonies were gorgeous and their joy authentic. “You Never Need Nobody” was, for me, the pinnacle of their performance. A shiver slithered up my spine when they got to the bridge, Zach Williams’ aching and pleading voice all but arresting the crowd.

It was absolutely one of the best, if not most energetic, performances I’ve had the pleasure to witness. By the time the set ended, a wave of exhaustion crashed over the crowd, and more than a third emptied the building before Marcus Foster took the stage.

Marcus Foster

Unfortunately, Marcus Foster had two elements working against him this night. First, the crowd, what was left at least, was stuffed. It was as if Ruston Kelly was the delicious appetizer, The Lone Bellow was the too-filling entrée, and Marcus Foster was the desert that you ordered when it seemed like a good idea, but now that it was in front of you, you could hardly muster up the strength to eat it. It wasn’t so much that the crowd was apathetic towards Foster, more that the Lone Bellow had sucked all of the energy out of the room.

Further hampering Foster’s performance that night was Foster himself. He was, to put it bluntly, drunk, and well past the “comfortable” drunk of other musicians. His bandmates, particularly his keyboardist, was visibly irritated at this. On stage, Foster happily admitted to his state of inebriation, though the second the set ended, he apologized profusely to both his band and those who went to shake hands with him afterwards, as he called it the worst performance of his career.

What was impressive about Foster’s performance, despite his state, was how effortless everything was for him. He didn’t ever have to strain to hit the right notes or suck in voluminous amounts of air before sustaining a particular lyric. It was, for the most part, an enjoyable set, as he played several new songs to go along with his more well known array of “I Was Broken,” “Shadows Of The City,” and his closer, “The Old Birch Tree.” In fact, his rendition of “I Was Broken” was terrific, as he substituted the normally melancholy piano for his electric guitar, making the song a bit more upbeat and less repetitive. It may not have been Foster’s best performance, but it was still highly enjoyable, and, because of the maybe forty people who were smart enough to stay after, it felt all the more intimate.

 

Grey Reverend

I’ve been trying for weeks now to do a proper write up of Grey Reverend, yet nothing I write seems to be an adequate description or expression of his music. This is a problem often encountered in music journalism, whether it’s Steve Hyden, one of the best in the business, or a rank amateur (hi there). We can talk about music, describe the pitch, tone, timbre, tempo, harmonies, instruments and lyrics, but words can only go so far.

The best I come up with are mere snippets of what I want to say: how L.D. Brown’s voice is hollow yet soulful, at times bright but also haunting. It doesn’t seduce or overpower you, it envelops you, surrounding you completely until there’s nothing left except you and his music. His debut album, Of The Days, was recorded in his living room, and thus gives an air of intimacy, as if you’re sitting next to him as he strums and sings his song. The instrumentation is minimal, but it still manages to fill the music to the point where any additional instrument would make the music feel too packed.

That may seem like a lot, but to me, it’s not enough. However, rather than force a description, I’ll let the music speak for itself.

Of The Days is available now, with a new album out sometime this year.

 

Brownbird Rudy Relic

The first thing you’ll notice about Brownbird Rudy Relic is his voice. It’s impossible not to. Put simply, it’s powerful. If someone told you he swallowed an amplifier at a young age, you’d think twice before calling them on that statement.

Perhaps one reason for the overwhelming force of Relic’s vocals is that he honed his voice not in a studio, but rather on the streets. He was originally a street busker, traveling around the United States before eventually settling in New York. It’s not hard to imagine that power and natural vibrato ringing throughout the various corridors of New York’s subway system.

Aside from his booming voice and steel resonator, there’s one other signature aspect of Relic’s music: the kazoo. The kazoo is not a beautiful instrument. In most cases, it’s downright annoying. In the hands (or mouth, rather) of Brownbird Rudy Relic, it’s a perfect complement to his old-time sound, becoming less of a glorified duck call and more of an extension of his voice. To put it another way, he makes the kazoo sing.

The self-proclaimed originator of “holler blues,” Relic blends pre-war country blues with other blues sub-genres such as hokum, ragtime, doo-wop, and even sprinkles in a pinch of Mexican romantic ballads and corridos. It’s an old sound, yet also entirely new.

Relic extends that old sound into his recording methods as well. For example, he recorded his debut, “Anti-Stereo Acoustic Holler Blues” using an Ampex 1-track home recorder from the late 1940’s, splitting the one track to two Model 55 Shure Unidynes from the 30’s, resulting in a record that sounds as if it was produced around the same time as Charley Patton or Son House.

Don’t mistake an old sound for a lack of energy, however. If anything, Relic is bursting at the seams with energy. You can hear as much in his music, but that boiling energy is increased tenfold at his live shows. Relic doesn’t just play his music, he performs it with theatric flair, dancing, jumping, twisting and turning while he plays.

Brownbird Rudy Relic currently has three records available on Reltone records: the aforementioned “Anti-Stereo Acoustic Holler Blues,” “I am the Juke!” and his latest, “Chicano Dynamite.” He eschews the old recording equipment on the later two albums, allowing for a clearer sound, though not diminishing the quality.

 

Years & Years – I Wish I Knew

“Never judge a book by its cover” is one of the first lessons we’re taught.It’s a saying that, while terribly cliché and not always applicable in the literal sense (if I see a book plastered with a half-naked Fabio clone and a woman staring daggers of lust into his eyes, chance are, I’m not going to like that book), is nonetheless important to be mindful of. Especially in music.

The lead singer of Years & Years, with his disheveled semi-afro and rail-thin frame, certainly doesn’t look like he’ll blow you away with his voice. And yet, that same slight, almost meek frame belies a booming, bright tenor which does exactly that. On “I Wish I Knew,” he harnesses it into a soulful croon that is nothing less than a delight. The song itself is a fun, bouncy affair, blending indie-rock and electronic to complement the singer’s serenade, with a simple but catchy guitar riff that carries throughout the song.

A five-man outfit from across the pond, Years & Years describes their sound as “a combination of synth and electronica with drums and guitars to provide a soundscape for achingly tender vocals to dance over.” Their EP is on iTunes and Spotify, and it’s well worth a listen.

 

Listener – Wooden Heart

The period in which a song enters our lives can be just as crucial as the the music itself. Maybe the song carries a message we needed to hear, or the lyrics so perfectly capture what we’re feeling at the instant, feelings we couldn’t previously put into words. The right song, at the right moment, can move us in ways no other power can. “Listener,” by Wooden Heart, moved me to tears the first time I heard it.

Talk music, a combination of rock, punk, and spoken poetry, isn’t typically a genre in which I indulge, but the fierce, raw power in Dan Smith’s voice is instantly gripping. The instrumental portion of the song, drums and an electric guitar, is simple musically, but further enhances the lyrics, giving them a cadence and rhythm. It’s not what one would consider conventionally beautiful, but as the band has said in interviews, they try not to pay attention to musical convention, but rather what’s in their hearts. Smith says “Wooden Heart” was born from a daydream about a coastline town that wanted to build a church. However, the town didn’t have any lumber, so they salvaged wood from wrecked ships to build it. While that dream may have been the inspiration for the song, the lyrics rarely reflect it, save for one line: ” because our church is made out of shipwrecks from every hull these rocks have claimed.” Yet even then, the line is more metaphorical than literal, as the lyrics continue with “but we pick ourselves up, and try and grow better through the change.”

Fear “but my fear is this prison… that I keep locked below the main deck / I keep a key under my pillow, it’s quiet and it’s hidden” quickly mingles with a nearly snuffed out glimmer of hope, “and my hopes are weapons that I’m still learning how to use right.” Destruction doubles as renewal “we all have the same holes in our hearts / everything falls apart at the exact same time that it all comes together perfectly for the next step.”  Pain, anguish, joy, yearning, all burst forth from Smith’s coarse voice with a passion and soul that surprises, if not overwhelms, and never more so than when he barks “so come on let’s wash each other with tears of joy and tears of grief / and fold our lives like crashing waves and run up on this beach / come on and sew us together, tattered rags stained forever / we only have what we remember.” It’s pleading, demanding; anthemic of hope and change.

There’s a scene in Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys” in which Hector, the teacher, is discussing Thomas Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge” with his student Posner. He says, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” That power of movement, of defining precisely what we are feeling, also dwells within music, and it dwells within “Listener.”

The Oh Hello’s – Through The Deep, Dark Valley

Rare is the album that stuns fron the first note of the opening song to the waning seconds of the finale. Rarer still is a concept album that achieves this feat. And yet, here we are with “Through The Deep, Dark Valley,” the full-length debut from the Oh Hello’s. Hailing from Texas, the Oh Hello’s are siblings Tyler and Maggie Heath, and cite Los Campesinos, Sufjan Stevens, The Lumineers, The Middle East and Mumford and Sons among their many influences. Though that last name may cause an averse reaction to some, it shouldn’t. Mumford and Sons arrangements, though often raucous and rambunctious, frequently have a cookie cutter feel (not to mention their exhaustive use of the word “heart” in several of those dynamic bridges and choruses). The yelling, the harmonies, the crescendos are far too predictable and sound almost fake, or at the very least, unimaginative. A little more “Fauxk” than folk. “Through The Deep, Dark Valley” is better and more sophisticated musically and lyrically than anything produced by Mumford and Sons.

The album opens with “The Valley,” a drum-thumping, guitar-strumming overture that sets the tone for the rest of the album. It informs the listener that there will be strings aplenty, there will be swooping crescendos and decrescendos, there will be soaring highs and cavernous lows, and gorgeous harmonies. Really, enough can not be said about the harmonizing of the Heaths. Perhaps it’s born from a natural, sibling chemistry, or the more common, if not more boring, product of years of practicing together (likely a combination of the two). What ever the cause, their voices blend with and complement each other flawlessly. From there, we are taken to “Like the Dawn,” which carries on the musical promise of the opener,  though not as immediately “in your face” instrumentally.

“Eat You Alive” is the first song in which Tyler Heath takes charge on lead vocals. Some have hailed it as the best song on the album, if not one of the best songs of the year. It’s short, clocking in at 1:37, but powerful nonetheless.  “The Ballad of Eustace Scrubb,” another song featuring Tyler on the lead, harkens back to traditional Irish folk music, while “I Have Made Mistakes” is one of the more minimal tracks on the album, in terms of instrumentation.

There is no weak song on the album, not even a song that can be classified as merely OK. They are all at least very good, some great. Still, there is one song that stands above the others, the epitome of what makes this album special: “Wishing Well.” It starts off as a simple fingerpicking pattern on two guitars, with a banjo joining shortly after. Maggie’s voice feathers in at around the twenty second mark, and the song builds from there, adding layers of strings and voices that coalesce in the final thirty seconds into a mesmerizing exercise in the idyllic.

Listen to this album. It’s one of the most original releases of 2012, and well worth whatever price you want to pay for it. The band suggests listening to the albumin order, in one sitting to get the full effect, but one listen to any of the eleven songs will be enough to hook you on this extraordinary effort.

Wolf Larsen

Often, the story behind the music can amplify the music’s power. Such is the case with Wolf Larsen’s debut, “Quiet at the Kitchen Door.” Following a surgical accident in 2003, Larsen, (known to the outside world as Sarah Ramey), found herself locked in battle with a debilitating and undiagnosable disease. Despite an exhaustive search for a cure and alternative treatments, the disease continued to plague Larsen.

As many have in the face of hardship, Larsen turned to music for therapy and escape. It started with Larsen teaching herself the songs of Leonard Cohen, then performing at open mic nights in San Francisco. Finally, she began writing her own music, taking her despair, her illness and her bevy of emotions and molding it into the gorgeous catharsis that is “Quiet at the Kitchen Door.”

Larsen’s debut is many things; seductive, slow, hauntingly personal, sorrowful yet also hopeful. It’s deliberate in its pacing. No song is really noticeably faster than another, save perhaps for “Wild Things,” which is really only faster by comparison. And yet, the listener is never bored by the tempo. The album never feels as if it’s droning along from one song to the next. It, in a way, makes the songs feel more like movements, all of which are carried by Larsen’s alluring vocals.

Backed by an acoustic guitar, in addition to a string and horn section, Larsen’s voice is slightly husky and wintry, not to mention completely arresting. Truly, it’s a voice that would stun a raucous audience into attentive silence. In some songs, such as the opener “Kitchen Door” and “No One’s To Blame,” her voice even sounds fragile, as if the weight of the emotions and the experiences entrenched in the lyrics threaten to break her vocal chords. That delicacy is heard not just in her voice, but in the instrumentation as well. Larsen plucks her guitar strings gently, softly, while the horns, rather than announce royalty, whisper, for fear of ruining the melodious trance.

Yet even a light bulb, easily shattered, can prove resilient. On “Jedi,” Larsen sings:

The hero she is sleeping

A Jedi Princess Keeping

A sword inside a song

She is the grimmest reaper reaping

These songs are Larsen’s weapons, her way of not only expressing, but fighting that which she doesn’t even fully understand. In her fight to survive and understand her own battle, Larsen is also fighting the battles of others. 15% of the album’s proceeds goes to The Girl Effect, and other organizations that invest in the education of girls worldwide.

“Quiet at the Kitchen Door” is a journey through unimaginable emotional and physical pain, but also the hope that persists despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

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