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Erin Frank's Photo I'm a volunteer KDHX music writer based in St. Louis.

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Album review: Thao & the Get Down Stay Down reconvene over unconventional ground on ‘We the Common’

“We the Common”
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down
Ribbon Music

Thao Nguyen formed the basis of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down around 2004 with drummer Willis Thompson in Falls Church, Va., later picking up (and, since then, dropping) musicians Adam Thompson and Frank Stewart and relocating the duo’s efforts to San Francisco.

Nguyen has cited Lilith Fair as an influence on her early career, and that folksy, singer-songwriter character — simple chords, baby-soft voices cooing Oberlin-ish poetical lyrics such as “baffle a skeleton dry” — is most detectable on songs like “We the Common (for Valerie Bolden)” and “Kindness Be Conceived,” featuring Joanna Newsom.

Since releasing her first album, 2008′s “We Brave Bee Stings and All,” Nguyen has given herself over to the thrill of experimentation. She’s still an admirer of uncomplicated chords and moody tones, but presents them in an unorthodox way that’s less of a precise arrangement than it is a messy assemblage. This is neo-tribal indie folk, I guess the Internet is calling it, and it’s only been expanded from 2011′s partnership with Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn (“Thao and Mirah”).

“We the Common” is an unpredictable, dangerously catchy album that’s caused me to wake up with one song or another in my head for more than a week now. It swings, it dives, it scratches all of these funny little itches that come out of nowhere. I truly cannot get these songs out of my mind, which is understandable on one hand because I’m the one reviewing it, but also they’re really good songs.

Wily and brazen, they careen all over the map (if one was written in the first place), and Thao & the Get Down Stay Down employ barrages of horns, chimes, and backing tracks that sometimes do little but breathe into vintage microphones. “City” starts off like an early Red Hot Chili Peppers B-side, and the psychedelic guitar screech in “Move” leads the ear in one direction while it’s follow-up, “Clouds For Brains,” is an unsettling dirge as seductive as the witch beckoning you into her candy house.

I’m particularly hooked on “The Feeling Kind,” a getting-ready-for-a-night-out kind of track that, with its thumping beat and jazzy horns, sounds like a New Orleans funeral march up Sesame Street. “Human Heart” is another sax-heavy track with retro influences that tip just so into “Age of Ice,” a closer with a blues guitar riff lazing behind the verse.

The vocals do sometimes over rely on the flattened distortion that’s steadily becoming the Auto-Tune of the indie-music world. This effect paired with atonal yelps and untuned strings brings to mind (accurately or not) the cringe-worthy trope of a video populated by bokeh-obscured white girls wearing feathered headdresses. However, more of “We the Common” resists this unwelcome image than not, and the album is best when it gets out of its head and back to a libertine disregard for convention.

Anyone can tell you that being cool is all about not caring whether or not you are, and when Thao & The Get Down Stay Down keeps their approach to their material cavalier, the result is a devastating left hook wrapped in a velvet glove; injuries forgiven, the memory lingering, and something to tell your friends about.

Book review: ‘Fargo Rock City,’ A book report on a neo-classic and why heavy metal matters

Chuck Klosterman
began writing “Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta” in 1998 while working for a newspaper in Akron, Ohio. In a 2011 interview with the Nervous Breakdown, Klosterman claimed that his intent was to write “Fargo Rock City” from an academic standpoint to legitimize the subject matter, because at the time, there was no “I Love the ’80s” marathons on VH1, no reality TV shows attempting to defibrillate the careers of aging rock stars and not all that many people who even admitted to liking heavy metal in the first place:

“…Nowadays, Mötley Crüe puts an oral history out and it’s a huge seller, greeted with all this love and nostalgia. In ’98 no one felt that way. I knew all these people who listened to Guns N’ Roses and Kiss and Bon Jovi and lied about it. They said they listened to the Cure. People would actually lie about their past.”

The burning out and fading away of ’80s heavy metal was complete when Klosterman sat down to write “Fargo Rock City,” and in a way, this barren landscape allowed Klosterman to emerge as a voice of authority.

“Fargo Rock City” is about growing up loving rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s also about loving it before the Internet or immediate access to Circus or Kerrang! to tell you what you were supposed to think. This book is a combination of memoir and encyclopedia, informed by both an adolescence-worth of cassette tapes and the kind of career that allows a person complete access to important moments in rock history, from Vince Neil’s involuntary manslaughter of Razzle Dingley to the midnight release of “Use Your Illusion.”

A warning: “Fargo Rock City” is not a book about heavy metal for people who are really into heavy metal. Klosterman is witty and inclusive but for reasons we’ll get to later, purposefully un-thorough. If you want to know about the sociological implications of Scandinavian death rock or the (possibly?) complicated substrata of industrial grindcore, then I’m sorry. My Netflix queue reveals that “Until the Light Takes Us” is still available for streaming, so maybe start there. This is not your kind of heavy metal. This is not the book for you.

Klosterman chooses to illuminate what heavy metal was to the kind of person he was when he first discovered it on a tape his older brother brought home from college. This is the meat of “Fargo Rock City,” which, as I mentioned earlier, is as much about the music as it is this person who loved it. To Klosterman, heavy metal expressed most — if not all — of the following characteristics:


Klosterman begins “Fargo Rock City” by touching on what he means when he says “heavy metal.” For him, heavy metal was mainly about hair. By “for him,” I mean that the type of heavy metal Klosterman loved as an adolescent and had the kind of Top 40/record store/MTV exposure necessary to get the material to a farm kid in Wyndmere, North Dakota. And for this type of metal, hair was important.

The topic of hair is apparently a touchy one for many of metal’s onetime stars, several of whom are quoted in “Fargo Rock City” and are offended that critics were (or still are) obsessed with their hair. But really, try to have a discussion about heavy metal without mentioning hair. Try to picture heavy metal without those teased-out, feathered-over, fried-up halos of virility perched atop a flowy scarf, ripped t-shirt, and studded Italian leather pants. It was the perfect storm of high fashion and low concept, which, come to think of it, today’s hipster bands are achieving with each $70 pair of Tom’s. Mainstream music is ultimately a product, and with few exceptions, ’80s metal just happened to be a genre that embraced this. That’s the point, as Klosterman explains: “Arguing for the aesthetics of hair metal probably seems like an impossible task…There is no high road.”

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Album Review: The Zolas’ subtle, addictive ‘Ancient Mars’

The Zolas
“Ancient Mars”
Light Organ Records

Oh, Canada.

I’ve always thought that Canada and St. Louis have a lot in common. Both experience frigid winters, both are relegated in popular conscience as being backwaters of significant size and both carry an inferiority complex about their place in that conscience, because both know that they’re capable of so much more than anyone gives them credit for producing.

In addition to screwball comedy and jokes about moose, Canada excels at producing prog rock, the latest example being the Zolas’ “Ancient Mars,” released in October on Light Organ Records. I don’t normally recommend this approach – I like my gratification like I like my oatmeal, instant – but “Ancient Mars” demands a gradual approach. Listen twice, more if you can.

On first listen, “Ancient Mars” is pleasant, a solid release bolstered by a few singles that I’d probably put on a mixtape a couple of times. On second listen, the album opens up with track after track hiding subtle-yet-addictive hooks, the non-singles just as elaborate and intriguing as the rest. It’s a conspiratorial rather than provocative tactic, as if the Zolas are sitting nearby to gently nudge your elbow and mutter “Did you catch that?”

Vocalist/guitarist Zachary Gray and pianist Tom Dobrzanski broke from Lotus Child in 2008 to take a break and record 2009′s “Tic Toc Tic” as the Zolas. This debut was a departure from the heavy pop orientation of Lotus Child, but still retained the verve and infectiousness of a rotatable release. “Ancient Mars” is a touch more subdued, showcasing melodies layered over shuffling rhythms, which, dare I say, sounds a little bit Britpop to me.

The Zolas and “Ancient Mars” seem just as influenced by The Shins as by Sloan. It’s a rock release assembled by musical geeks, surprising the listener with complex choices of vocabulary (“let in the cold / we defenestrate the past” from “In Heaven”) and echoey lamentation (“I’ve painted you a hundred times but I still can’t sign my name” from “Local Swan”) packed into a thoughtfully short length that tricks the ear into thinking it’s minimalist even when it isn’t.

This album is not completely sharp-edged; there is some restrained fuzz on the single “Knot In My Heart,” a track that’s perhaps the most tolerably mathematical song I’ve ever heard. “Strange Girl” is its fraternal twin, coolly upbeat with a crunching riff pairing off against chiming strings and an organ so quietly insistent that you could easily miss it on first listen. The tone and lyrical content of another track, “Cold Moon,” sounds like a previously unreleased Jeff Buckley song recorded in the time of Internet stalking, and “Observatory” includes a delightful meter manipulation to fit the title into the chorus.

While I listen to all of the albums I review several times, I’m on what is perhaps my seventh session with “Ancient Mars” and still finding treasures buried in its bedrock. It’s a rare album that grants the listener with an assumed ear and appetite, giving them so much more credit than most artists are willing to acknowledge. “Ancient Mars” whispers even when it blusters, and I’d like to nudge the Zolas right back to say “I heard everything.”

Album review: Band of Horses gets back to the country on ‘Mirage Rock’

Band of Horses
“Mirage Rock”

Prior to recording 2007′s “Cease to Begin,” Band of Horses vocalist Ben Bridwell relocated the band from Seattle to his home state of South Carolina.

Bridwell claimed to want to be closer to family during breaks from touring, but Band of Horses has always hinted at country and folk influences, so stylistically, it didn’t seem to be too much of a stretch. It took several years and three albums, but with “Mirage Rock,” released last week on Columbia, Band of Horses has finally shed the ghosts of sophistication and achieved in recording their most bare bones album to date.

They’ve abandoned the shoegazy layers and melodically-dense choruses for a slowed, loose interpretation of folk rock. The problem with this is that previously Band of Horses had such a refined indie-pop sense. The band was able to strike to the marrow of gorgeous-sounding songs emanating from their neo-Americana background, creating a style that didn’t borrow too heavily from the decades of artists who came before them.

Their recent loss of pop aspect causes “Mirage Rock” to suffer; instead of standing as a definitive Band of Horses release, most of the tracks on this album could have been made by anyone in the past 40 years who really dug “Déjà Vu.”

“Mirage Rock” opens strong with “Knock Knock,” the album’s lead single and the track that sounds most like it was made by an actual rock band. The urgent guitar riff and swooning pitch of the vocals are pulled taut over a susurrus of claps and a catchy chorus, proving that making a decent single is alchemical, and that substance does not equate to frills. The follow-up to “Knock Knock” is “How to Live,” another standout that effectively bridges the gap between Band of Horses’ languorous, down-home influences and their proven track record of the last few albums.

After these tracks, there’s a long and long-winded stretch of what anyone capable of turning to classic-rock radio has heard before. The predecessor to “Mirage Rock” was 2010′s “Infinite Arms,” a lush and bewitching effort that seems to have been made by an entirely different band. It’s not that “Mirage Rock” isn’t any good; it’s pleasant and lyrically well-written, but it’s overwhelmingly uninteresting, or, it was far more interesting when it was made by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

“Heartbreak on the 101″ closes the album, and while it’s probably too somber to be a single, it’s a plaintive ballad that, while not very complex, retains a low, heartbreaking thrum that can be felt straight through the ribcage. If simplicity is what they were after, then this is the kind of simplicity that Band of Horses should have been aiming for on the rest of the album, but I suppose that a fitting farewell is better than nothing.

Concert review: Dan Deacon (with Alan Resnick, Chester Gwazda and Height With Friends) anoints the Firebird with exuberant sounds, Sunday, September 2

The remnants of Hurricane Isaac may have rained out most Labor Day weekend barbecues in St. Louis, but Dan Deacon‘s show at the Firebird turned his brand of orchestral and electro noise into a steamy, collaborative party.

Things started out slow with Alan Resnick, not a musician or comedian, really, but more of a presenter of facial animation technology with a supposedly interactive avatar that looked like an especially uncomfortable Sims character. Resnick’s set was odd and plagued by connectivity issues, which were thankfully resolved by the next set, featuring Dan Deacon ensemble member Chester Gwazda on guitar accompanied by thumping bass and recorded beats.

Height With Friends was equal parts Har Mar Superstar and the Beastie Boys, an energetic ensemble piece fashioned out of scraps of garage hip hop and basement karaoke machine parties. Led by Dan Keech, the Baltimore-based group amped the already bouncing crowd and raised the room’s humidity by a few more degrees.

Dan Deacon’s set opened with a crowd-wide apology to sound guy Alan, who, with his glasses and beard, had apparently been mistaken for Deacon several times that evening. The young crowd was perhaps still new enough to shows to be excited about catching a glimpse of the headliner offstage. According to Deacon, Alan was in far better physical shape, but could probably still benefit from a buddy visit to a gym to get “jacked as fuck, dog.”

During songs, it was easy to categorize Dan Deacon as relentless; the rhythm and speed of each track designed for dancing, and if you can’t keep up with the frenetic pace and adrenaline rush, then please step aside to allow others to enter the left side vs. right side dance contest instigated by Deacon from the stage.

Between songs, though, Deacon was relaxed and funny, chatting with the crowd and Alan, interacting with his fans in a loose, unscripted manner. Deacon may have expressed surprise in playing at a “proper rock club,” as he called the Firebird, but he still performed as if for a small house party.

Deacon’s tracks exploded with energy and cinematic swells, and his between-song references ran from “Jurassic Park” to “Terminator 2″ to P90X. “Jubilant” is the right word for the experience, and Deacon presided over the festivities like a more musically-sophisticated but less Twitter-famous Andrew WK.

“America” is an adventurous cross-country road trip of an album, bubbling up past the limitations of all-electronic computer music and expanding into manipulated instrumentals, furtive atmospherics and dance beats. Songs like “Guilford Avenue Bridge” and “Lots” as well as Deacon’s exuberance are honest attempts to bring some visceral emotion into the world of electro-pop, especially to a generation raised on the genre but not quite attached to it in any visible way. Perhaps someday, the floppy, Sharpie-X’ed upraised hands of the crowd will turn into ecstatically pumping fists, and the studied appreciative nods at bass drops will become enthusiastic dancing throughout each song.

And maybe, with the help of Deacon and his pop lust, these kids will eventually remove the earplugs they keep bringing to shows, and experience the kind of ear ringing the rest of us had so much fun earning.

Album review: Cat Power smolders and finds the sweet ‘Sun’ spot

Cat Power

Chan Marshall has a reputation for being an unpredictable performer, and paying to see a Cat Power show is a little bit like hedging your bets in favor of Guns N’ Roses or Van Halen.

On the one hand, it could be a transcendental experience that blows your head wide open with the kind of stuff you’ve loved since you were a kid or wish you had the brain capacity to create; but on the other, it could be a sloppy, poorly-orchestrated mess that, when repeated enough times, becomes the kind of legend that an artist never seems to outrun.

The complication about Cat Power is that it all seems at least a little bit drunk, and this is what makes it so good. Marshall’s drowsy, soul-inspired vocals amble across comely melodies, her breathy (and sometimes breathless) delivery skirting the edge between Stevie Nicks and Dusty Springfield, a tableau of expensive French cigarettes and hard water-stained wineglasses. Even when making cover albums — like 2000′s “The Covers Record” or 2008′s spectacular “Jukebox” — Marshall doesn’t just sing, she compels.

The challenge, then, is to retain an amount of focus. Marshall is no good to anybody when she loses her way, that blushing vulnerability turned to clumsy aimlessness. She nailed her strengths on 2003′s “You Are Free” and “Jukebox,” but a scant few of her tracks and just enough of those legendary live performances lack definition. On “Sun,” to be released by Matador on September 4, Marshall is agile and in control, expanding her lyrical talents and arranging the tempo and tone of her track listing like a sestina.

“Cherokee” and “Sun” are both atmospheric trips through a mellow electro lounge, the energy of this album not ratcheting up until the snappy piano intro of the third track, titled “Ruin.” “Ruin” was the first single released from “Sun,” mostly danceable with a chilling mezzo-soprano to cut the tension.

Marshall samples a portion of the chorus from Shirley Ellis’ “The Clapping Song” for “3,6,9,” the familiar rhythm quelled by her layered backing vocals and a stuttering guitar. Because Cat Power is Marshall herself, all vocals are hers and expertly mixed to create a careful dissonance. For example, Marshall’s narration on “Always On My Own” is flinty compared to her aching singing voice, and neither detracts from the full effect.

Most of Marshall’s youth was spent in the South and she has recorded there, so her voice and the themes of her songs are imbued with a Southern Gothic sensibility. Even on tracks like “Manhattan,” the easygoing pace and hidden country rhythm speak to this and elevate the effort above one style or another. “Silent Machine,” another track on “Sun,” begins with a roadhouse guitar whine and a shaky, snaky tambourine — with that panted line about how “Charlie is a sinner,” it’s the steamiest selection on this album.

“Sun” closes with “Peace and Love,” a Laurel Canyon-esque jam that holds the most potential for one of those either/or Cat Power shows. If delivered as flawlessly as recorded on this album, though, Marshall is one stride closer to outrunning her reputation.

Album review: The Gaslight Anthem burns on with ‘Handwritten’

The Gaslight Anthem

“Handwritten” is the Gaslight Anthem’s first release with Mercury Records after leaving SideOneDummy last year. Recorded in Nashville, “Handwritten” is stylistically closer to “The ’59 Sound” than its more recent, largely midtempo release “American Slang,” and a few times derivative of their 2008 debut “Sink or Swim.”

“Sink or Swim” and sometimes “The ’59 Sound” tend to get called punk because they’re speedy, guitar-driven songs filled with uncomplicated chord changes and the kind of punch that can hit you square in the gut. The thing is, the Gaslight Anthem has just as much ability to bypass the gut and go straight for the feelies, and this, at least to me, is more pop than punk, although I readily admit to deferring to the Supreme Court’s method of definition: I can’t define punk, but I know it when I hear it. With that said, the Gaslight Anthem is not punk. But then, at least in today’s context, neither are the Ramones.

The Gaslight Anthem is an American rock ‘n’ roll band, one whose songs are true to form and country. It’s a band equally comfortable as bombastic headliners and balladeers. It’s also a songwriter’s band, and Brian Fallon — lead vocalist, also guitar — writes as tribute to the essential components of the style.

Fallon knows well that place is evocative, and he writes with a strong sense of it. In addition to “Mullholland Drive” and “Biloxi Parish” on “Handwritten” are the career-long references to Fallon’s home state of New Jersey, a place that exports primarily chemicals and musicians and informs the latter so well in terms of lyrics.

While we’re on the subject, what is it about Jersey boys and their cars, that regional peculiarity that causes them to sexualize the lines, surfaces and anthropomorphic qualities of engines? It’s a disposition the Gaslight Anthem shares in older songs like “Old White Lincoln” and “The Backseat” as well as “Here Comes My Man” on “Handwritten,” and makes their albums so unplaceable as any other country’s sons. There’s such devotion there that it makes me wonder if these lyrics, Alex Rosamilia’s guitar, and the solid, on-the-floor drums of Benny Horowitz are conscious Americana or just an unbridled case of Id.

Anyone raised on the worship of American rock ‘n’ roll can be forgiven the occasional ounce of cheese, which is why Fallon should be allowed to spread it on a little thick at times. This red-blooded pathos is heavy on songs like “Mae,” wherein Fallon addresses a girl as “with your Bette Davis eyes and your mama’s party dress” and describes himself as “with my faded jeans and faraway eyes.” There’s a difference between pandering and romanticism, though, and Fallon at least seems sincere. Even the most dreamboat lyrics and addictive choral hooks (“oh sha la la, oh sha la la / listen honey here comes my man” in “Here Comes My Man”) are performed genuinely, and most importantly, the man can write the hell out of an earworm.

“Handwritten” doesn’t quite escape being overwrought, though. “Keepsake” probably soothes some psychological wounds, and I’m probably a cynical bastard, but the attempt to come to terms with a mostly absentee father is out of place on this album. Likewise, “Too Much Blood” is a misstep, the churning bass riff and Fallon’s gurgling vocals in the verses sounding less like the Gaslight Anthem and more like the Gaslight Anthem momentarily possessed by a hair metal band.

Full of anthems and sentiment, why “Handwritten” wasn’t released on the 4th of July is beyond me, but at least the month is right, and if you’re interested in doing yourself a Jersey-sized favor, you’ll keep it on deck for an end-of-the-summer road trip.

Concert review and set list: Dirty Projectors (with Wye Oak) illuminate lush and layered rock at the Pageant, Tuesday, July 17

Dirty Projectors at the Pageant in St. Louis. July 17, 2012.

Dirty Projectors at the Pageant. Photo by Louis Kwok.

Last night at the Pageant, Wye Oak and Dirty Projectors unfurled a melodically-intense evening of wildly different but still complimentary musical styles. 

At first major single, Wye Oak seems like yet another one of those neo-pastoral indie acts (the Head and the Heart, the Civil Wars, Bowerbirds) that seem to be everywhere you can find beards, feathers or buffalo plaid these days, except Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack are from Baltimore, a city I associate more with “The Wire” than I do with low-key modern folk. Live, though, and especially considering their newer material, Wye Oak is more psych-gaze rock infused with the occasional burst of ’80s synth fluttering beneath waves of reverb.

In addition to “Holy Holy” from 2011′s “Civilian,” the bluesy breakup letter “That I Do,” and a distorted, insistent version of “Plains,” Wye Oak’s tight nine-song set included the brand new “Spiral,” written during a break at home in Baltimore. The band closed with “Civilian,” the title track from the previously-named album and a gorgeous spine chiller featured in season two of “The Walking Dead.” 

Dirty Projectors led with “Swing Lo Magellan,” the second title track of the evening, this from the album released exactly one week before the show. This song and most of the album play like lounge pop, a product I conjecture to be inspired by Burt Bacharach, doo-wop and soul. “Swing Lo Magellan” is more of a songwriter’s album than all of Dirty Projectors’ previous releases. “Swing Lo Magellan” relies less on the profligate sprawl of sound featured on 2009′s “Bitte Orca,” trimming this back to allow the bones of the song to uphold the vocal aspect, which unfolds in lush density.

In contrast to this quality was the set design, three panels of white so simply and boldly lit with amber lamps that the entire stage could have appeared on the set of the Ed Sullivan Show before the designers got cheeky and installed a bunch of doors behind Jim Morrison. This ambience ideally framed songs like “Offspring Are Blank” and “Just From Chevron,” although it did seem jarring when the blue lights came up for “Beautiful Mother,” an intensely freaky track from “Mount Wittenberg Orca,” a collaboration between Dirty Projectors and Björk.

Dave Longstreth officially founded Dirty Projectors in 2003, and since then, his primary talent has been in composition. Longstreth and his band are known for the layering of chamber instrumentals, electronic samples and unconventional vocal harmonies to create a lovely discord, an almost tactile experience for the listener. I cringe at my own use of the word “experimentation” because that sounds almost amateur, and Longstreth’s expertise seems to border on the obsessive. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was German, or at least Scandinavian. He was all limbs and precision last night, a skinny aesthete that brought to mind a shaggy-haired David Byrne.

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