Friday, March 31, 2006

The Never: eclectic, dramatic pop-rock

The Never: "Cavity"
"Summer Girl"
(from Antarctica 2006. Buy.)

"Bigger than Jared"
"I Heart U x 3"
(from The Never 2004. Buy.)

Sometimes the way a band describes its sound can be puzzling or misleading, but I actually thing that Chapel Hill's The Never have it about right when they say, "Imagine if Brian Wilson teamed up with Pink Floyd and battled Danny Elfman and Queen." Their music features strong multipart harmonies, widely varied song styles, a fine ear for a pop hook, and a well-developed sense of drama.

I realized when I sat down to write this that one of my favorite terms of praise is "ambitious." There's no question that applies to the Never -- I don't think anything says "ambition" more than a concept album. The Never's latest, Antarctica, is not only a thematic song cycle about "t
he journey of a country boy on his way to return a nuclear bomb to the city", it also features a 50-page booklet of color paintings. I admit I haven't heard it in its entirety, so I can't comment on how it hangs together as a whole, but the individual songs I've heard are strong. "Cavity" is a crunchy pop song, while "Summer Girl" is moody and dark. You can stream a few other songs at the band's MySpace site -- "Chase Music" is an instrumental that does some interesting things with strings and electronics.

Their earlier self-titled album seems similarly eclectic, if not as thematically unified. You can download many of the songs from the Never's site, but I've picked a couple that I particularly like. Here, I find myself fonder of their poppier moments, like the peppy power pop "I Heart U x 3" and the punk-pop "Bigger than Jared" -- the slower, more acoustic songs don't really grab me as strongly, at least not at first.

The release show for Antarctica was last Sunday at the Carrboro ArtsCenter -- they did the whole album with strings, which must have been something! They'll be touring all around the East Coast in April (dates here), including a performance at the Shakori Hills Festival, so keep a look out!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Reworking the North Carolina Jukebox

Two Dollar Pistols: "Driveway to Driveway"
Southern Culture on the Skids: "Everybody Wants My Baby"
(from Songs for Sixty Five Roses 2006. Buy or download.)
Superchunk: "Driveway to Driveway"
(from Foolish 1994. Buy or download.)
The Moaners: "Everybody Wants My Baby"
(from Bandwidth: Celebrating 10 Years of Internet Radio on WXYC-Chapel Hill 2004. Download here; other Moaners stuff to buy or download.)

Songs for Sixty Five Roses is a stellar compliation of Triangle talent that features a host of local artists covering classic and obscure tracks by songwriters with current or former local ties. So you've got Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers (ex-Archers of Loaf) covering an old Let's Active tune, Portastatic reworking Ryan Adams' "Oh My Sweet Carolina", Nikki Meets the Hibachi covering a Des_ark song, and so on. The artists comment on their choices here. I'm certainly not the first blogger to mention this album, but there's no way to keep something like this off the Oak Room.

It's a pretty great compliation on the musical merits, but it's also a fundraiser for a very worthy cause. "Sixty five roses" is a child's pronunciation of cystic fibrosis, and the proceeds from this album go to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The impetus for this project was local producer/engineer/mixer John Plymale, whose daughter Allie was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis in 2004. He's had a hand in a lot of great local music, and the artists rushed to his support -- apparently this album was pulled together in a month or so. (An interesting background article is here.) Whether or not you buy this album (but do!), think about supporting CFF directly.

You can hear samples of the whole thing here and stream some tracks here. I decided to post a couple of tracks that have had more radical reworkings and let you hear the originals as well. Two Dollar Pistols give a great honky-tonk spin to Superchunk's classic "Driveway to Driveway", and Southern Culture on the Skids do their inimitable rockabilly thing with the Moaners' bluesy "Everybody Wants My Baby".

There's a benefit show at the Cat's Cradle next Friday (3/31), featuring at least 12 of these bands, so it'd be well worth checking that out too.

Friday, March 17, 2006


Annuals: "Ida, My"
(from Lay Down Dry, 2005. Buy from the band.)

Just a quick post today about Annuals, a band I found poking around the SXSW listing of NC bands. (They played last night at the Velvet Spade.) Judging from these two songs, their MO seems to be a delicate, acoustic intro that makes you think they're somewhat akin to Sweater Weather (previously), exploding into a grandiose rock song, with perhaps some debt to U2. (I'm not one of those who thinks a U2 comparison is a bad thing...) I also like their willingness to explore with studio trickery -- I love the glitchy electronic percussion that kicks in about a minute and a half into "Ida, My". (The songs on the band's MySpace page suggest that they may also have some jam band tendencies.)

These guys are young, but they've been playing since they were 13/14. Annuals was actually an offshoot of a band called Sedona. Sedona still seems to be a going concern, but Annuals has taken the forefront, with an album, Lay Down Dry, released last year. It sounds like they've been working on a followup this year. I don't know when they're playing in the Triangle next, but they look like a fun show (esp if they wear the cat suit!), so I'll keep an eye open.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Well, that's embarassing...

Truth is, I only have a handful of Hazeldine and Glory Fountain songs in my collection, and it turns out that one of them is by a different band! As I have been notified in comments, that song in my previous post isn't by Hazeldine -- eMusic has the artist attributions all screwed up on that Bloodshot compliation. Please be assured that my quality control staff is giving the fact-checking team a good working-over this afternoon.

So, having consulted other references and picking out what I think is the Hazeldine song on that comp, it really makes sense -- much more of a sound that's in line with Tres Chicas. By way of apology, here 'tis:
Hazeldine: "Unforgiven"
(from Down to the Promised Land: 5 Years of Bloodshot Records, 2000. Buy or download. Buy other stuff here.)

And if I'm wrong about this too, let's just move on...

Since I'm revisiting this, I thought I'd comment further on the new Chicas album, having listened a bit more over the weekend. It's not that the tone of the whole album is different from Sweetwater -- there are some really nice songs on the new one, including "Man of the People" and the somewhat Celtish "Red". It's just a handful of songs that have a (to me) less-distinctive, Norah-Jonesy vibe, including "Stone Love Song" and "Sway", and even those have those marvellous harmonies that make them enjoyable. So, still perhaps not quite as much of a favorite for me as Sweetwater, but probably a bit better than my initial review on Friday.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Tres Chicas and before

Tres Chicas: "Drop Me Down"
"Shade Trees In Bloom"
(from Bloom, Red, and the Ordinary Girl, 2006. Buy or download.)
Hazeldine: "Turn the Lights Down Low" Apparently that's not Hazeldine!
(from Down to the Promised Land: 5 Years of Bloodshot Records, 2000. Buy or download. Buy other stuff here.)
Glory Fountain: "Faith"
(from Blame Love, 1997. Buy stuff here.)

One of the first groups I profiled (back here) was Tres Chicas, whose 2004 release, Sweetwater, is a gorgeous folk/rock/country hybrid that showcases three formidable vocal talents. This week, their follow-up, Bloom, Red, and the Ordinary Girl was released, and it moves the group in a slightly different direction. Decamping to London to record and write, and leaving Triangle uber-producer Chris Stamey behind, Caitlin Cary, Lynn Blakey, and Tonya Lamm have worked more jazz and soul into the mix. The result perhaps bears some vague resemblance to Cat Power's recent The Greatest (or, to be honest, Nora Jones -- listen to the electric piano and brushed drums on some of these songs!). Here's a great article describing the making of the album.

Most folks are saying that this is a better record than Sweetwater, and it's certainly it's equal in terms of the vocal performances. It's probably more cohesive as an album, which makes sense since it was written and recorded in a pretty short span of time. Personally, I'm still digesting the changes to the sound, and my first impression is that I miss some of the rootsier touches -- but it's still a very satisfying and beautiful record. There are certainly songs that still maintain the folky style, like the opening track, "Drop Me Down." I've selected "Shade Trees in Bloom" to reflect the more jazzy side of this album -- the harmonies and trading vocals on the chorus are something else.

All tres of the chicas have pretty impressive resumes, and I've included a couple of songs to give you a taste of where they're coming from. I figure most folks with any interest in this kind of music have already heard Caitlin Cary's old band, Whiskeytown, so nothing from them. (Although there are some unreleased tracks available at An Aquarium Drunkard.) Lynn Blakey's Glory Fountain was a solid alt-country band, and "Faith" rocks a lot harder than Tres Chicas ever have. (Which is to say, moderately.) Tonya Lamm's Hazeldine was a lot folkier. "Turn the Lights Down Low" is a back porch raveup from a great Bloodshot Records compilation.

Tres Chicas are playing at SXSW on March 16, but the have a CD release show tonight at The Pour House in Raleigh.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Sweater Weather: ambitious folk-pop

Sweater Weather: "Every Eye Will See"
"The Pains of Relocation"
(from 2005 demo)

This is the music that was the specific motivation for me to crank up the blog again. The excitement of coming across something as new and lovely as this is what I really enjoy about writing the Oak Room.

The very name of the band sets the tone well for Sweater Weather's music: there's something very comfortable and warm about their acoustic folk-pop. It's pastoral and gentle, but moves beyond being merely pleasant through expansive arrangments and song forms. The presence of cello, djembe, and melodica in the lineup is another unusual dimension of their music. There is something akin to Sufjan Stevens in that aspect of Sweater Weather -- folkish forms deployed in the service of something more ambitious.

"Every Eye Will See" is a real standout -- a beautiful song that takes a thrilling left turn into an unsusal coda about four and a half minutes in. "The Pains of Relocation" is a bit more straightforward, but builds its melancholy tone from a quiet beginning to a strong climax before retreating back to a meditative conclusion.

This is a young band, and I'm looking forward to hearing more from them. Their next show is March 25 at the Wetlands in Chapel Hill with a long-standing Oak Room favorite, North Elementary.