Saturday, December 9, 2017

Beyond Desire


Dead Leaf Echo
Beyond.Desire
(Moon Sounds Records)

Here’s a NYC band that I have known of and read about for most of their ten plus years of recording history, yet somehow, until last weekend, I never actually heard their music.  This second full-length album was released a couple of months ago, so this review comes a little late, but music is music and the best of it is timeless. 

I love the name of this album.  Beyond Desire.  What does this actually mean?  I’m not sure.  Maybe it’s one of those ‘giving a 110%’ things, but the implication is that this gang are striving for a higher level of engagement than what is even possible – way past the basic human needs and wants – and that all seems like something really good to strive for.

This album contains a musical thread that pops up at the beginning intro instrumental (“Desire”) into the title track opening side two and as the closing portion of the epic finale “It’s Starting to Happen.”  This unifying theme gives this collection an added weight that harkens back to the days when people had the patience to listen to their albums over and over again, because it wasn’t so easy to access music at any moment and those rare and possibly adventurous purchases were treasured (okay, old man, shut up!).  Similarly, I had always heard Dead Leaf Echo referred to as a modern “shoegazing” band, but what I hear goes back further in its lineage.  Beyond.Desire strikingly reminds me of those luxurious goth-tinged 4AD bands of the mid-80s (the sleeve design is by 4AD’s Timothy O’Donnell), or some of the Projekt bands that came along later (especially the amazing Mira), or all-time favorites The Autumns.  I drift in and out of this style, but when it’s done right, as the aforementioned artists, and on this album, it can be captivating and invigorating.  What sets this band apart is the busy and distinct rhythm section of Kevin Kahawai and Steve Schwadron and the really strong vocal harmonies between guitarists LG Galleon and Ana Breton.

I just downplayed DLE’s “shoegazing” influence, but it sure comes out in spades in the cranking “Temple,” which explodes out of the dreamy opening intro to become one of the highlights of this collection.  This song immediately captured my attention with its dramatic live feel, impassioned vocals and stratospheric guitar washes.  Plus there’s the pre-LP single “Strawberry.Skin,” also a catchy straight-ahead pop song that will get one’s head bopping around.  The echo chamber reverb of all the best dream pop splashes the bittersweet “Lemonheart,” as well as the tragedy of The Cure-like downward spiral of the downbeat “Drifting.Inside.” 

My favorite two songs come back to back and speak to the breadth this band has at it’s disposable.  Both songs are quite different, but sound great paired together three quarters of the way in the album.  First is the spacious “Cloudancing,” which absolutely dances and sways as it glides along the buoyant bassline and sparkling guitar fills.  Second comes The Sundays and The Ocean Blue inspired nugget “Sunlessoul,” which is easily a rainy day comfort song worthy of both of those excellent bands.

Don’t overlook Dead Leaf Echo, as I have for so many years, they are worth being heard.






 Dead Leaf Echo "Beyond.Desire"





Monday, September 11, 2017

This Wreckage


Recently, I finished reading Mark Baumgarten’s 2012 profile of Olympia, Washington’s venerable K Records Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music (Sasquatch) and Mike White’s 2015 book about Bristol England’s Popkiss: The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records (Bloomsbury) and they got me to thinking.  Not only did they both bring back a lot of memories of my nascent explorations and discoveries of the so-called indie music scenes around the US and UK in the late 80s.  I was still young and exploring my tastes in music, books, movies, and culture in general, but what encountering these two labels, learning about the early punk and post-punk histories of the burgeoning “college rock” bands I already loved by then, as well as San Francisco punk labels and mail-order services such as Shredder, Tupelo, Communion, Allied and Blacklist did for me is teach me about independence and the spirit of doing things for one’s own.  Sure, this idea is old-hat now.  There’s even a TV channel named D.I.Y. that’s been around forever, but it’s not the D.I.Y. part that intrigues me as much anymore, because these days it’s all so much easier.  As Calvin Johnson, founder of K Records and that guy from Beat Happening with the deep voice, is quoted as saying in Baumgarten’s book: “(People) don’t need the record store or a record label.  They can just do their song on their laptop or their ukulele, and then it’s available instantly, all around the world.  It’s really the most basic form of punk rock revolution.”  It is really more the sense of community and connection that these labels (and others), bands, and zines created.  There was a true feeling of involvement by being engaged as a fan – one that feels oddly absent now that worldwide connection is just a device tap away with the omnipresence of social media.  And I’m not exactly sure what it is that’s missing.

 

When I first started ordering records from small labels and distributors directly via mail in the late 80s and early 90s, I began to not only receive the great music, but personal notes and correspondence.  Usually, it would be a “Thanks for the order” note on the back of a release schedule inserted into the record sleeve, but sometimes it would be more in depth and personal, like the now famous letters from Sarah Records founders Matt Haynes and Claire Wadd.  I remember directly ordering the very first SpinART Records 1992 compilation release “…one last kiss” and soon after even started to get occasional postcards in the mail from Lancaster, PA band Suddenly, Tammy! who had the second song on that compilation (indie version of sharing mailing lists?).  Or there’s the time I ordered PoPuP’s CD combining Magnetic Fields’ first two albums and received the disc along with a letter from Claudia Gonson wondering how I learned about the band.  Who would’ve ever thought I’d be carrying on casual correspondence with the artists from all over that had become my personal tastemakers.  I guess what I’m saying is that these direct contacts with bands and labels and zines tore down walls that went far beyond what I had ever understood before.  These people were doing stuff that was cool and that I admired, but they were clearly and tangibly real people.



As long as I can remember, I’ve always been the type of person, good or bad, who gets so fired up about the stuff that excites me – the stuff that gets me going – that I’ve always searched for ways to share those things with anyone and everyone.  Of course, with me, it’s pretty much always been music.  I was that guy who made mix tapes for friends (still do an annual summer mix!), wore concert shirts, left random lyrics on my school locker, created a fake radio station with its own music charts, did music for a handful of school dances, and finally a zine and this thing.  I’ve shared this before, but my friend Wil and I were inspired to start a zine named This Wreckage.  Like so many of them before, we wanted to revolutionize, if not the world, our little town.  We wanted to create an open forum for people to make something that is normally done by professional writers and visual artists.  It was meant to be freeform, and then, of course, at the end I would add a few poorly worded music reviews.  What we found is that most people don’t care.  Most people don’t read.  Most people couldn’t be bothered to actually take part, because they have their own lives and interests.  However, when people did decide to engage, we found it could be really powerful.  We received cool music from new bands that I still love to this day (and new music almost always spawns more discoveries), we had a few fun adventures, and believe it or not, met some really great people – one of which is a dear friend to this day.  Though we were small and misunderstood and really didn’t put forth a massive effort, and didn’t last very long, we still managed to reach a few people out there who tripped over the scrap paper littering the ground that were moved enough to say hello. 


I’m not 100% sure where I am going with this, but even though we now have unlimited access to pretty much all things we think are cool at any time we want, maybe it’s just me, but that personal engagement doesn’t feel as strong.  Even though it goes against so much what I have always believed about how everyone should have a forum to express themselves, perhaps things were better when there were more curators sifting through everything in order to present us with the cream of the crop.  Maybe it’s because I’m old, but for me, it’s too much.  It’s all too much.  Everyone’s social media account is like a mini zine based on their likes.  In a random five minute perusal of my Facebook feed I am presented with vacation and food photos (lots and lots of photos), news of a friend’s recent misfortune, two new bands I should check out, an old music video, some political statement followed by a lot of agreements and a few dissenters with little actual reasoned debate.  What I often get is overwhelmed and frustrated and I’ve become one of those people mentioned above: no longer engaged with anything beyond the tip of my nose.  I don’t want to be like that!  I don’t want to be the one who tells people to not freely express themselves in any way to see fit.  If I get involved with social media I want to feel connected and interested and inspired, but instead I simply feel exhausted.




It brings me to this position, where I feel like I either need to re-engage and try to connect again and push for a This Wreckage-type revival, in order to regain that feeling of community, in addition to the amazing music, that once was such a lifeline, or to simply withdraw like I’ve done the past year and not continue to muddy the waters with yet another voice (this blog) that no one needs to read, really wants to read, or frankly won’t spend the few moments to read anyway.  That’s when I remember the frustration and feeling of futility that Wil and I felt when trying to find an audience for This Wreckage twenty plus years ago, which was a big reason we gave it up.  We lost the fun.  That’s what I miss most: the fun.  This all feels like the complete life re-assessment and makeover that I’ve been mumbling about for several years now, but never seem to make happen.  It has to happen before I completely lose myself in the dreaded “life on repeat” – working a miserable job just to stay alive (only to hold onto health insurance), something I addressed here, sadly, over three years ago.  In that piece, Apathy and Exhaustion, I concluded that “This (turning around the downward spiral) feels an insurmountable task.”  It still does.

This Wreckage art by Arlon Gilliland


Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Color Blue



Honeyrude
The Color Blue
(Shifting Sounds)

Last December, when I first happened upon the song/video “Roger McClain” by Honeyrude, I had the sudden feeling that I hadn’t felt since the early songs from The Joy Formidable.  The song has an energy, spark, and call to action that transported me to another place, reminding me why I love music so much.  Each song they’ve sneaked out over the past several months has had the same effect on me.  Their music sounds so effortless and perfect, as if the alternately stinging and dreamy guitar-leads (Ian Lund) interlocking with the flawless rhythm section (Billy Kunath – bass, Paul Goetz – drums) have always been out there in the atmosphere awaiting for some brilliant musicians to collect this amazing bounty for our ears to feast.  Then you add Jess Leadbetter’s wonderfully chameleon-like vocals and open-ended, thought provoking lyrics and things just get better!

The last time I wrote about an album on this blog thing dates back to June 5th last year, when I wrote about Kristin Welchez’s complete discard of the amazing Dum Dum Girls legacy in favor of an embrace of top 40 dance pop with Kristin Kontrol.  I kind of felt like that was the last review I would ever write (here).  Somehow, it pointed out to me how criticism of any art is truly insignificant and a waste of time (though what I have historically done is not criticism as much as recommend), not just because I really have never found an audience, but because all art should be allowed to find its way, and all artists need to be to do what feels true to them.  Yet, here I am again, at the least momentarily, because I cannot hide away my love of this debut album!  I have to shout it from the mountaintops!

Like fellow Austin, Texas band, Magnet School (whose Brandon Tucker had a hand in mixing this), Honeyrude take the more aggressive approach of the so-called “shoegaze” music from the early 90s, so much so, that I hesitate to mention the dreaded shoegaze term (twice now, dammit!).  Songs like the closing “Falling Backwards” and pounding “Sorry I’m Late” don’t evoke that era at all.  While the aforementioned “Roger McClain” is a straight forward pop song (whose message all of us trapped in some sort of purgatory of our own making need to listen to and act upon) with Johnny Marr-ish light to the touch guitar layers that get gradually more loud and intense as the song progresses before breaking out into a brief, blistering solo.  Meanwhile, the opening “Something About Milwaukee” evokes the chiming majesty of early Adorable crossed with last two album Pale Saints, as does the spectacular and yearning “Flowers,” as Leadbetter sings of a perfect love with the tinged realization that it’s not possible.  The opening explosions of “Ring Ring Ring” melt into sparse, reflective verses, calling to mind some of the bands of the mid-80s L.A. neo-psychedelic scene, before closing with an exciting instrumental flourish.  Speaking of which, the title track contains a wonderful dreamscape, much like a Slowdive epic, but once the drums go double time, the song contains a jam session that feels like it should go on forever and never be quite loud enough.  To me “Lover in Denial” calls to mind Chrome-era Catherine Wheel and first album Concrete Blonde (“Dance Along the Edge”).

I use a lot of these comparisons freely, but in fact, these are simply touchstones.  Honeyrude, sound wholly themselves.  This debut is simply excellent.  They sound like seasoned veterans at the height of their creative powers and cannot recommend this record enough.  They have lifted my spirits and helped provide me with a dose of fire that came along at a much needed time.  What more can one ask for?




Honeyrude "Roger McClain"




Monday, September 4, 2017

Ruined in a Day


Late afternoon, during the first round of the Cambia Portland Classic, I found myself completely out of gas.  I was worried, because this was just the first of four long days (Besides the two days of Pro-Am caddying I managed to get through).  Even the golfer I had decided to cheer on, Amy Yang, her first trip to Portland, seemed to be lacking focus.  All round, she couldn’t make a damn putt.  On the beautiful 13th hole – par 3 over water – she hit a shot that reminded me of how I play, when I’ve completely given up and am about to give my golf ball to Ken to throw down the fairway in lieu of actually swinging a club anymore.  Meanwhile, I was thirsty, hot, and sore.  My feet were covered in blisters and I was worried that my normal fiery run of inspiration from the annual LPGA visit was going to be cut short.  I sent text messages out pleading for someone to drive out onto the course, drag my lifeless body into their car and dump me in the parking field near my car.  No one was willing me help.  As Amy (ranked 11th best in the world!) missed putt after putt and proceeded to build a score of three over par, I had to crawl my way on my hands and knees towards the 17th hole where the beer tent generally resides to at least enjoy a cold one before expiring – only to find that it was gone!  As panic set in, I began to wonder if this was how it would all end.  Not from a botched surgery, or from all the strong medications I take or from cancer or a failed transplanted kidney, but from sheer exhaustion out on a golf course watching the LPGA.  If that were to be the case, then I would be more than okay with that.  It’s not very often that I feel like I make a decision throughout a day, where I can say: “This is exactly what I want to be doing,” but when I am out in the sunshine, on a beautiful golf course, watching talented professional golfers, I am doing exactly what I want to be doing.



Every year when I go through this, I ponder why I do the things I do.  I think about why I like the things I like.  I begin to question everything.  What is it about attending this golfing event that is so much of a thrill for me?  I never feel like I really find any answers, except my extreme dislike of my current employment becomes more focused and intense, and that I do not do enough of the things that bring me happiness (I’m sure most can relate).  Even though I get so much out of this event, I am fully aware that a huge percentage of people out there do not understand.  Every time I find myself informing people about the event and my excitement for it, I can see the mystified or the completely disinterested expressions sweep across their faces.  At best, I’ll get a sympathetic pat on the back as they try to understand the ramblings of someone on the verge of a mental breakdown (which is not far off the mark).  Yet, every time I am involved with this LPGA event, I meet fellow volunteers who have been at it for years, expressing the same kind of excitement (many of whom are not golfers), as well as meeting new volunteers with huge smiles on their faces, who find out how great this event is.  During the tournament, I overhear comments from first-timers like “This is way better than I thought it would be” over and over again.

I do love golf and have since I was a little kid.  I used to be a dedicated seasonal player.  Going out a couple of times a week from around May till October.  I have always watched golf on TV, which I realize to most people is akin to watching paint dry, but it’s the internal drama that I thrive on.  Golf is so individual and so mental, that is much different than most competitive activities.  I understand this as a hacker, who has had many dark moments cracking up from the internal pressure of trying to be good at the game and not pulling it off even for a moment.  I’ve been attending the Portland LPGA event now for seven years and I have barely put together 27 holes of playing golf in the last 4 and none in over two years.  Instead I’ve been living golf vicariously through these up close stretches of seeing how talented people manage.  It’s not just the competitive story-line of trying to win the tournament, but it’s the stories of each player trying to achieve different levels of success.  A young player trying to earn their first check as a pro, or an older player still trying to eke out a living as long as they can, it can even be as simple as trying to be better than the day prior. 

For me, the joy of watching these women play golf is that I can see their amazing skills up close, but also that I can see how they cope.  You get to know them through their body language, their reactions, and what they do during the moments while they are waiting for their playing partner to hit a shot.  Golf is so humanizing.  The game is played so much inside the head.  This year I chose Amy Yang to support, because over the last few years, I have seen her play really well on TV in major tournaments like the US Open, but she has never pulled through with a win.  I’m one of those people who often feels sympathy for those who fall just short.  I seem to have an appreciation of the underdog.  It’s clearly present with the music I love.  I have always been more inclined to sit at the empty or near empty table in the lunchroom, than to sit with the popular crowd.  Of course, there are stages of this, so I try to fill out my golf spectating by seeking out lesser known players to follow, players who could break out at any moment, and of course, the players at the top of the tourney competing for the big prize.  One of the things I love about golf is that any of these levels of players can win any week.  Anyway, back on track, Amy, for reasons likely only apparent to me, reminds me of my cousin Laura.  It’s something that I see in the expressions and mannerisms they share.  I made the decision to root for Yang, because I need a main rooting interest to maximize my own experience out there. With golf it’s unique in that you want everyone to do well - just your favorite a little better.  I don’t dislike players, as with other sports where, for example, I can hate the Seattle Sounders with an intense passion – so much so, that I get more satisfaction from seeing them lose than to see the Portland Timbers win.  And as usual, she won me over, like these players generally do. 



For this year’s tournament, Stacy Lewis, a multiple winning (but not for a few years), perennially Top 10 player won.  It was a great story, because she has had a long run of Top 10 finishes and runner-ups, but has not closed the deal since 2014 (she placed second in 2016’s Portland Classic).  And before the tournament began, she pledged that any money she earned, this Houston native would donate directly to Hurricane Harvey relief.  Sadly, for me, Amy Yang struggled both in the first round and the final round.  However, the ride she went on was dramatic as can be.  She began the second round tied for 122nd and four shots over the weekend cut line (after two rounds the field gets “cut” approximately in half – the players who do not make the cut, do not earn money) and with 5 holes to play was still two shots above the cut line.  I began mumbling goals to myself for her to reach (“She’s gotta get at least 3 birdies over the last 4 holes) and that’s exactly what she did!  The slumped shoulders and forlorn looks to the sky after yet another just-missed putt from Thursday were now bright smiles and energized fist bumps with her caddy.  Then on Saturday, after a slow start, Amy made a clutch long putt for par on the 4th hole after driving behind the big pesky tree down the left side of the fairway.  Then she birdied 5, eagled 7, and nearly aced the par 3 eighth hole (made birdie).  She then made birdie on the 10th hole.  So in 24 hours she went from tied for 122nd to a tie for 10th!  I was practically floating on air.  The fireworks stopped from then on as she played one over par the rest of the way.




The final round, unfortunately, was bleak from the get go.  She bogeyed the first hole from the middle of the fairway and from then on struggled with every facet of her game, especially her chipping.  She just couldn’t put anything positive together.  The smiles and purposeful stride from the day before, became stern expressions.  Amy began walking far apart from her caddy muttering to herself with a stern lecture.  Pure frustration had set in.  And I was with her in spirit the entire way, but there’s nothing I could do.  Sometimes I joke that my presence curses the players I encounter and in times like these, it begins to feel real.  Despite myself, I let her go after 13 holes in favor of that final group with the crowds and popular kids.  I still feel guilty and sad about that decision, but I can’t wait to be out there to make up for it next year.