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Saturday, June 25, 2005

Humming So Dearly

It's hard to believe that the release date for Laura Cantrell's third album, Humming By The Flowered Vine, has come and gone without a peep from me. Laura is a personal favorite of mine; I've been in love with her music since the first time I heard her version of "When The Roses Bloom Again", which I posted here not so long ago. The reason I haven't been able to hype Humming, Laura's Matador debut, is because I've not even heard the album yet. I'm currently hastily preparing for a trip overseas, to Euroland, and haven't had any spare time for luxuries like listening to newly released albums, anticipated as they may be.

All the same, a new album from Ms. Cantrell is certainly worth commemorating, which is why I'd like to direct your attention to Matador's generous free download of Humming's first single:

Laura Cantrell - "14th Street"

Not bad eh? This song is pop-ier than anything on her first two albums, but that voice is as fine as ever.

Visit Laura's website to download an interesting New York City subway map, which also streams the album. There's also tour dates: Laura recently began a short tour of the East Coast, and she'll be heading out West in early July (including stops in Seattle!) before heading to the United Kingdom to open for Lucinda Williams.

Friday, June 24, 2005

A Pair Of Brunettes

Shows, that is. The Brunettes is the name of my latest flame, and over the course of the last two months I've been fortunate enough to see this young New Zealand band twice. The first time was in Portland at the dreaded Crystal Ballroom on May 15, where they were opening for The Shins. Unlike basically every other person in attendance, I went to see The Brunettes, having become enamored with them off the strength of their 2004 full-length Mars Loves Venus. Don't get me wrong, I also quite enjoy The Shins, but I wouldn't have made it to this show if it weren't for The Brunettes opening. And The Brunettes did not disappoint. I would describe their style as 60s bubblegum-pop meets Motown grooves; it's very derivative, true, but that does little to diminish its appeal.

I saw The Brunettes for a second time opening for Feist and Rilo Kiley exactly one month later at the Showbox in Seattle, a show that has the distinction of being the hottest (temp-wise) I've ever been to. For the first time in my concert-going experiences I understood why people pass out. The Brunettes, however, were once again remarkable. Though they played fewer songs that I'm partial to, they seemed to be much more in a performing frame of mind and worked this American audience much better than the one just a month before.

A long, long time ago I had intended to do concert reviews of each of those shows, pointing out that The Shins really are our modern Simon & Garfunkel, commenting on how simply awful Feist was live (which I say despite the fact that I love Let It Die) and going into detail about Rilo Kiley's set, but time is running out for me so I've decided just to write about The Brunettes. I'm sure you won't mind.

Here are my two favorite songs from the aforementioned Mars Loves Venus:

The Brunettes - "The Record Store"

My favorite Brunettes song thus far, possibly because, having worked in record stores for years, I can relate to the lyrics. It starts with a great lick, probably stolen, but it's Jonathan Bree's convincing vocal that seals the deal. Elsewhere, Bree severely damages several songs with his "rock voice" posturing, but that's not a problem here. It's just a great song.

The Brunettes - "Best Friend Envy"

This song is a great rave-up, sung by frontwoman Heather Mansfield. Here the lyrics prove the 60s pop connection: it harkens back to girl-group songs like Lesley Gore's "It's My Party" where something as simple as best friend envy can be elevated to such monumentally worrying heights. All in all it's a brilliant update of that style, especially considering that very few vocalists could pull off this kind of melodrama nowadays without being annoying. Which leads me to my next point: by far, The Brunettes steer clear of the many pitfalls awaiting a band with such a derivative palette. I find them endearing and playful where others would strike me as simply unnecessarily retreading already well-worn ground.

Be sure to head over to The Brunettes' website where you can stream-in-full every song from their two full-lengths, Mars Loves Venus and 2002's Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks. In fact, it's imperative that you sample some of those songs because neither of the two I posted feature The Brunettes' knack for the bubblegum-duet. Many of their songs, like "Talk To Jesus" and "These Things Take Time", have lyrics that sound like dialogue from old beach movies and such. Some of the songs on Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks, for instance, wouldn't feel out of place on the Grease soundtrack. Bree has some great lyrics (favorite line: "it's no secret that when I sing I like to sound American" from "The Moon And June Stuff"), Heather's a dynamic vocalist (listen to "Loopy Loopy Love"), and the other Brunettes do a great job of re-imagining those old sounds. Treat their Listen page like a box of chocolates and listen to whatever looks appealing at first sight. Just be sure to brush your teeth afterwards.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Sit Down Honey, Let's Kill Some Time

Alright, let's see if I can remember how this works. I keep telling myself to take it slow, start off with a short post about how God awful the new White Stripes song is or something, but there's really only one thing I want to write about right now: Sleater-Kinney. Last Wednesday I pointed the car south and drove to Portland to see them play the Crystal Ballroom. How was it? Not so fast, first you have to hear about the openers.

Swan Island kicked things off, to my surprise. I was not aware that there were going to be two openers, so at first I thought Mary Timony had subjected herself to some really fucked up plastic surgery. Then four other ladies joined Swan Island's lead singer (aka Brisa Marie Gonzalez of the Jungle) and I realized this wasn't a guitar and drums duo but an 80s rehash from hell. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think they were that bad; they just didn't make much of an impression either way. The thing that stands out in my mind about their set was Brisa's dancing, which looked like she was using her body to create swan shapes...human origami, I believe it's called. I couldn't tell you what she sang about though because her voice was entirely inaudible over the band's crashing and thrashing. They had a few fun moments where they locked into a tight groove, thanks to guitarist Aubree and Bob on bass. For the most part though, they just struck me as a young band without much to distinguish them that somehow landed what I would consider a dream-gig, that is opening for the mighty S-K.

I don't have any tunes by them since they've only released one 3" CD, but google says they've got a couple up on their Myspace page, if you do that. Otherwise, if you're feeling particularly adventurous (or, more perversely, you think that my taste and yours are so antithetical that my so-so for them means they'll make you crazy), you could head over to 16 Records and pick up the aforementioned mini disc. If you do that, let me know if they come off any better on record.

Up next was Mary Timony, she of kickass guitar, along with her drummer (and man-toy, or so I hear) Devin Ocampo. I was excited however long ago it was that I found out Mary would be opening for S-K, especially because I've been enjoying her album from earlier this year, Ex Hex, so much. That album is consistently good, but I've narrowed it down to two of my favorites for your consideration:

Mary Timony - "Return To Pirates"

Mary Timony - "Hard Times Are Hard!"

Most of the songs on Ex Hex felt much heavier live, whereas on the record there's more subtlety and variation in mood and tone. Mary and Devin are what might genuinely be called a dynamic duo, their guitar and drums interplay a lot more interesting than several more high-profile duos I could name. The amazing thing to me about Mary's playing is how it manages to sparkle (in the girly sense of the word) one minute and be ultra-raw (in the rawk sense of the word) the next. Likewise, her melodies veer from tender to tough and back again, often in the space of one line. I think "Return To Pirates" is a great example of that. Devin was the first drummer I've seen in awhile who I thought deserved to be playing on the same stage as Janet Weiss, though Janet remains the best drummer I've ever seen. Definitely a show I'd recommend, especially since they tend to tour with similarly kickass bands like Ted Leo & The Pharmacists and, of course, Sleater-Kinney. Visit Mary Timony's website for information on those tour dates and stuff.

I realize that lately this blog is in danger of becoming entirely about Sleater-Kinney. I promise that after this post it'll be awhile before I make another S-K post, unless something really unexpected happens. And anyway, can you really fault me? They've just released a new album that extends their great album streak to six and, as I'm about to explain to you, they're just getting better and better live.

Wednesday's show was a contender for the best Sleater-Kinney concert I've ever seen, and I've seen a few. You could chalk it up to the fact that it was my first time seeing them since the release of The Woods, but I think it's more complicated than that. It was seeing them in their hometown of Portland, it was them being rested and off the road for awhile, it was them and us being excited to play/hear The Woods' songs live, it was the fucking amazing setlist (we got "Was It A Lie?" (finally!) and "Sympathy" in the same set) and it was them feeding off the energy of the crowd, and probably other things as well. It was possibily the loudest, most passionate, most energetic and, quite simply, the most fun rock show I've ever showed up for. Up in the second row, surrounded by kids that were really into it, everything just came together. For once the audience was up to the level that S-K deserve: Carrie and Corin broke into smiles several times throughout the night, obviously enjoying the enthusiasm of the crowd. I've never danced or jumped so much in my life. My ears rang for two days after the show, but it was well worth it. Sleater-Kinney are on fire right now. They've never cooled down, but right now they're burning up. In other words, catch this tour!

Here's The Woods song that has vaulted to the head of the pack in my world:

Sleater-Kinney - "What's Mine Is Yours"

The Woods happens to contain two of S-K's all-time greatest grooves, this song and "Steep Air". "What's Mine Is Yours" is the better of the two; in fact, it's just behind Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" as best groove of the millennium. Throw in yet another stunning, soulful vocal from the chords of Corin Tucker and a chorus that expresses love in the most simple (and, therefore, most profound) way imaginable and you've got what I currently consider to be the best song of the year. Yes, that good!

As a bonus, here's a Real Audio recording of the Sleater-Kinney show at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, B.C., earlier this year (February 26 to be exact). It's a show that I was at and, while not quite up to the level of Wednesday night, can verify rocks, rolls, rumbles and roars.

If any of you head out to see S-K on this tour, please share about your experience in the comments section. Visit the band's website for information on those tour dates and such.

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