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.”

Concert review and set list: Regina Spektor (with Only Son) impress a devoted, sold-out crowd at the Pageant, Thursday, November 8

Regina Spektor at the Pageant. Photo by Colin Suchland.

Regina Spektor‘s husband, Jack Dishel, known musically as Only Son, opened the evening, standing alone on stage playing over pre-recorded backing tracks.

Only Son’s performance at the Pageant induced a nagging bit of cognitive dissonance. Bombastic drum parts, backing vocals, bass, and more, all blared from the speakers as Only Son strummed and sang “It’s a Boy” from 2011′s “Searchlight.” Although the song featured a nice lilt, Dishel’s backing track, with its ghostly harmony parts, drowned out both singer and guitar.

“Magic” sounded like a Death Cab for Cutie B-side. On “Long Live the Future.” Dishel’s backing track of blips and beeps washed out his vocals, and so the audience chattered over his set, missing the connection for which Dishel pushed so hard on stage. I blame the wonky use of backing tracks. Where was his band? Only Son closed his set with “Stamp Your Name on It,” but its electric guitar and propulsive vibe didn’t seem to belong.

After a set break, Regina Spektor appeared in a flowing blue dress singing “Ain’t No Cover.” The song remained solely vocal with the addition of Spektor tapping out a beat on the microphone. The crowd roared when Spektor sat down at the piano toward the song’s conclusion. “The Calculation,” from 2009′s “Far,” was vibrant with drums, ebullient piano and Spektor’s soaring vocals. “On the Radio” was more somber, yet playful with kick drum-heartbeats and lower octave piano accents. “Small Town Moon,” from 2012′s “What We Saw From the Cheap Seats,” stood sultry with distorted guitar, the audience offering up the song’s hand-clapped parts.

“Ode to Divorce” was introspective with cello and scaling piano. The song subdued the audience; I heard no extra chatter, just silence and Spektor’s gorgeous work. “Patron Saint” brought the tone up again with bouncy drums. At the song’s end, Spektor held a long note that pushed the audience into near frenzy. “How,” “All the Rowboats” and “Blue Lips” were solid, each full of emotion-based tonal moves, light humor and playful piano work. Spektor played with a certain nuanced calculation that ushered the audience into her emotive sphere.

While Spektor achieved a strong connection with the audience, I found that the songstress’ sound was not hitting as hard as I would have liked. Even when Spektor was playing with her band, the sound felt weak and under-driven. I realize Spektor’s show is intimate and often quiet, which is her modality, but at shows I like to feel more of an audio punch. Maybe I’m going deaf.

“Eet” got the audience singing with Spektor’s ornate chorus. The song’s verse built like a pre-ordained radio-hit. Only Son reappeared on “Call Them Brothers,” ballad-like with dual male and female vocals, Dishnel adding a light Beatles feel to the texture. I loved “The Prayer of Francois Villon,” a cover song, which Spektor sang in Russian. Even though I didn’t understand the words, Spektor’s body language and timbre infused the moment with emotional sense.

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Concert review and set list: Milo Greene and Bahamas beguile the Firebird, Wednesday, November 7

Milo Greene at the Firebird. Photo by Jarred Gastreich.

First impressions are important. Both Milo Greene and Bahamas made excellent ones down at the Firebird on Wednesday night during their first stops ever through St. Louis.

Bahamas didn’t formally introduce themselves until somewhere after the seventh song, the band’s presence was felt by all from the first hit of the hi-hat. The Canadian group brought a drummer, a guitarist and two supporting side singers. I won’t call them “back-ups” because they weren’t really behind anyone and the term does injustice to the beauty presented by the female singers on every song. Guitarist and lead singer Afie Jurvanen sounded like what might come about if the Black Keys and M. Ward hung out and did an album together.

His songs of love lost were set to tender, soul-filled guitar and swelling angelic harmonies that encouraged a sway and a smile. Each track was accompanied by drums done in a style reminiscent of an Al Green record and driven by Jurvanen’s ability to play rhythm guitar, lead and a bass line — all at once. An instant ear-opener, “Lost in the Light” was presented in a smooth and simple manner and the two side singers became a gospel choir with heavenly hums.

Another stand-out, “Hockey Teeth,” was written about “a really good-looking girl” that Jurvanen used to go with and lock lips with on a frequent basis. Although Bahamas’ music was a different style than Milo Greene’s, the band surpassed the requirements of a solid opener.

Despite never appearing in St. Louis and having only one album to its name, Milo Greene drew St. Louisians to the Firebird in healthy numbers and in even healthier spirit. And to be honest, prior to the Los Angelenos’ opening song, I had never heard any of their songs before, but I left a fan. Their emotional intensity and obvious talent made it was to dig their sound. Sporadically throughout the show influences of Local Natives, Explosions in the Sky and bits of an ’80s sound could be heard.

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Concert review: At the Pageant, Grouplove (with Alt-J) proves bigger isn’t always better, Monday, October 8

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When you see a band for the fourth time, you start to notice weaknesses. On Monday I saw Grouplove for the fourth time in half that many years. Some of the band’s flaws became more than apparent.

The night started off spectacularly, with Mercury Prize nominees Alt-J playing a 40-minute set that featured all the songs you would know if you knew Alt-J. Standing side by side in a row at the front of the stage, the quartet turned in a mesmerizing set.

To start, the band played its “Intro” before guitarist and vocalist Joe Newman paired with keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton for a stunning a cappella melody that led into a ferocious rendition of recent single “Tessellate.” The band carried on with “Fitzpleasure” and “Breezeblocks,” as well as a cover of Kylie Minogue’s “Slow” that they said they were playing live for just the second time. They played “Taro” to close, dedicating it to the group of girls in the front row that had been requesting it since the start of the show.

What made Alt-J’s set at the Pageant so stunning was the complexity of the sound, all done live. Bongos, tambourines, a xylophone and a castanet recreated the complicated, tropical sounds of the band’s debut release, “An Awesome Wave.” The songs sounded straight off the album, but only because they were so perfectly executed.

During the set change, the crowd nearly doubled in size. Still, the mix of twenty-something-year-olds drinking beer and 16-year-old-girls on their iPhones far from filled the venue, leaving the entire upper balcony completely empty.

Grouplove started at around 9:15 p.m., running and jumping onto the stage as Kanye West’s “Monster” blasted from the speakers. Floral lamps and furniture decorated the stage, almost as if to suggest the show could be taking place in your grandmother’s living room. On the back curtain were rows of balloons and a pattern of big glass circles splattered in white paint that for some reason reminded me of the giant hair dryers you see at salons. Guitarist Christian Zucconi sported a mop of newly platinum blonde hair and a red bathrobe over an inside out T-shirt. Frontwoman Hannah Hopper wore a black and white lace dress and ripped tights.

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Concert review: Tomorrow’s sounds of Cherokee Street today with Demonlover, TOPS, Magic City and CaveofswordS at Mushmaus, Tuesday, October 2

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Catching a show on the artistically fertile but sometimes shadowy Cherokee Street is always an unpredictable experience. A new gallery or venue seems to pop up every couple of months, replacing the empty carcass of a similarly creative but now defunct loft space.

That being said, scores of people in the Cherokee district are laying the groundwork for one of the most exciting music communities in the Midwest. Mushmaus, one of the newest spots on the strip, sported a common sight in the area: an empty, dusty storefront for an entrance. The second floor served as a venue. It’s a giant room with a kitchen on one end (with beer I was told I was welcomed to in the fridge) and nothing else but an empty expanse divided by movable, white gallery walls.

Local electronic duo CaveofswordS (Sunyatta and Kevin McDermott) were first up, playing in front of projected images of skulls and Windows 95-era screensaver optical illusions. Complemented finely by the visual overload, CaveofswordS delivered brooding, synth-driven pop. The duo ran the gamut of electronic influences, recalling traces of Suicide up to Zola Jesus. Gloomy and haunting, CaveofswordS would be my pick for a soundtrack to an evening gazing through the Hubble telescope. The invigorating, accessible chemistry between Sunyatta’s vocals and Kevin’s guitar made the music feel incredibly close, while maintaining an astronomical hugeness and density in the dark, electronic sound waves.

Set up on the opposite side of the room, Magic City performed uninhibited rock ‘n’ roll. Churning with organ and inclined towards psychedelic rock, the quintet chorused sweaty licks and lines with unabashed honesty. Watching Magic City is like watching a skeleton reanimate: pieces of flesh from each member’s instrument — from JJ Hamon’s effects-laden shredding to Larry Bulawsky’s vocal shuddering — fly off as the crowd looks on with terrified but rapt attention. The natural reverb from the room worked in favor of the band, echoing and filling each space with a ghoulish presence. The unfinished interior and walls of Mushmaus also helped give the entire night a feeling of closeness, regardless of how much open space existed between bands and the crowd.

Swinging through town on its way down south, Montreal band TOPS swirled together glittering, subdued dance numbers. The band appeared and sounded like kids from the ’90s that should have come up in the British music scene of the ’80s. The cops had shown up right before their set to shut the show down, but TOPS insisted they would perform at a lower level. This meant a toned-down volume from the drum kit and guitars, but it definitely didn’t mean less of an experience. Beautiful and contemplative, TOPS elicited an almost cult-like fascination. It was hard not to admire every little guitar hook or the seamless execution. The band sounded like a heavy cloud pushing down from above, keeping my limbs moving but helplessly looking starry-eyed out beyond the stage and honing in on the forlorn pop sound.

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Concert review: The Raveonettes hold capacity crowd spellbound at the Firebird, Friday, September 28

The Raveonettes at the Firebird. Photo by Nate Burrell.

If the Raveonettes were an insect, they would be a spindly black widow spider in a cloudy forest.

You would be so mesmerized by the spider’s delicately spun web that you would not notice as it wound around and around you, wrapping your body in layers of sticky mesh until, dazed as if waking from a strange dream, you would find yourself ensnared and about to be consumed whole.

Through a haze of machine-generated fog so thick you could choke on it, the eerie duo (plus a touring drummer) piled on the dark, the inky-black and the gloom, punctuated at times by jangly, Cramps-esque rockabilly riffs and drum line beats. On Friday night the Firebird was coated in distortion, and the two touring drummers squared off to deliver a thick wall of sound that you could almost swallow.

The band’s set was heavy on material from its two most recent records, “Observator” and the aptly-titled “Raven in the Grave” — two releases that have chronicled guitarist Sune Rose Wagner’s life with a major depressive disorder. While the Raveonettes have always made music fit for a teen vampire soap opera, the mood and lyrical content of most of their new material is especially riddled with angst.

“Recharge and Revolt,” the set opener, saw the duo fully embracing the inner Cure that all self-respecting bands who dress mostly in black surely possess. “I don’t wanna be young and cold,” Wagner sang plaintively during the (also) aptly-titled “Young and Cold.” There was one “from the vaults” as Sharin Foo introduced it: “Attack of the Ghost Riders,” which generated near hysteria.

However, much of the night felt like a comedown, although the amplifiers were none the worse for wear — less of a gentle descent and more like a blistering hangover, with enough strobe lights to induce a seizure.

“Dead Sound” proved an exception, a love song for people wearing thick eyeliner, as was the be-boppy “Aly, Walk with Me” (delivered during the encore). The band kept banter to a minimum, one or two polite “thank you”s and the occasional side consultation in Danish. “Secret Danish language,” Foo explained. (Foo is Christina Aguilera’s counterpart on Denmark’s version of the TV show “The Voice,” by the way, proving once again that Denmark’s version of everything is way cooler than ours.)

An inter-generational crowd, some there to see opening act Melody’s Echo Chamber and others old enough to have purchased a Jesus and Mary Chain record when records didn’t come with an MP3 download, chattered and swilled during the set, but were completely mesmerized by “Dead Sound” and exultant over “Love in a Trashcan.”

For continuing to evolve through a fog of personal difficulties and after basically establishing the imitable fuzzed-out girl group sonic zeitgeist of recent years, the Raveonettes get five pentagram-shaped stars.

Concert review: Bug Chaser, Volcanoes, Ou Où and Jack Buck go crazy (folks!) at Bad Dog Bar and Grill, Friday, September 28

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I was pretty stoked to see that Jack Buck, the mathy hardcore locals named after the late sportscaster, would be opening up the insanely solid lineup at Bad Dog Bar and Grill on Friday night.

To use a couple phrases lifted from the Buck’s Wikipedia page: “I don’t believe what I just saw!” “Go crazy folks, go crazy!” and “Pardon me while I stand up to applaud.”

Jack Buck gnarled out riff-heavy, technically meandering licks in the vein of Converge or Dillinger Escape Plan. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a band of this particular leaning, and it reminded me why I was ever into the sound at all. More musically intelligent than primal hardcore and metal bands but still maintaining that intensity underneath their shells, the band broke out viscerally searing jam after jam. Breakdowns were performed with a get-in-get-out mentality — none of that tough-guy-posing, ridiculously-drawn-out shit a lot of the more mainstream metal kids are playing these days. Plus, the band totes a pretty sick wood-carved case for its first 7″ record on the merch table.

Fresh off a show with Moon Duo at the Firebird the night before, Ou Où brought the emphasis on song structure down while bringing the eeriness level way up. I’ve had the chance to catch them live before, but this night the duo invited a burlesque-esque dancer on stage — clearly for the purpose of tripping me out. The dancer bizarrely wandered about, getting lost in staring at the lights, just as the crowd was similarly getting lost in the hypnotic layers of the sound. Patrick Weston twisted and twirled knobs behind his two-tiered equipment stand as Travis Bursik punched and pulsed samples and beats from his wooden electronic pulpit.

Both members shared looping duties with a vast arsenal of electronic goods, weaving a continuous tune. Watching Weston and Bursik reminded of 1950s footage of scientists pulling and patching chords in those huge, room-size IBM computers. Alternatively abrasive and gloomy, Ou Où fit right in with the overall heaviness of the night — despite being the only electronic act.

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

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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.

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