Pop out of the summer doldrums

Back from a two-week vacation and a bit dismayed to find I haven’t really missed all that much musically. Most bands are slogging through the summer festival earnings season, and the latest releases from stalwarts LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene sound uninspired. I was beginning to panic about ever finding another album worth writing about when I decided to listen to Emperor X’s Oversleepers International, which I downloaded a while back. This is the first time I’ve heard this guy’s stuff, and it comes as a much-needed breath of fresh air amid the recently steamy Tokyo weather.

My initial describe-an-artist-as-a-combo-of-other-artists reaction is a mix of Ben Gibbard and Doug Martsch (in all of their associated projects). But further listens reveal a depth of influences and ideas. The Wiki profile says the Emperor’s alter-ego Chad Matheny quit pursuing a graduate degree in physics in order to dedicate himself to music. But despite the erudite lyrical content (science, politics, philosophy) these songs aren’t math rock puzzles, they’re intimate pop anthems.

The opener “Wasted on the Senate Floor” has all the power and bombast of The Hold Steady. The polished “€30,000” recalls those 3 weeks in the mid-90s when I thought Ben Folds was really great. There are also some notable departures from the basic indie pop palette into dance music (“Warmth Perimeter”) and loopy trance (the 8-minute outro at the end of the last song).

The production is more deliberately homemade than lo-fi. More like an Etsy ornament or public access TV show than a GBV or Sebadoh classic. There’s beautiful acoustic guitar and piano work throughout Oversleepers which gives it a nice warm “live” sound. Overall it’s a strong album start to finish. Thanks for restoring my faith in music Emperor.

Spring cleaning

Seems to have been a dearth of interesting new releases in the past couple weeks. The timing’s been good given our recent overseas visitors and some late spring colds. Perhaps also a bit of fatigue and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” mentality setting in with the blog entering its third month. But at last this sweet little EP from Stutter Steps has come along to sweep out all the cobwebs and whip me back into shape. The group is led by Ben Harrison, who’s day job is performing arts curator at the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh. Harrison channels Drella musically not so much with a direct Velvet Underground reference, but something more in line with their latter-day standard bearers. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette likens Stutter Steps to Luna, the Go-Betweens and the Feelies. Not bad comparisons but somehow I’m getting more Beat Happening. Rhythmic, slightly fuzzy guitars with clear lead riffs, simple drumming and baritoney vocals. Nice record to pick yourself up with.

So Many Wizards

No clever title for this post. A band name that great doesn’t need any dressing up by me. Some great tunes on their new album Heavy Vision, all along the spectrum from garage rock to dream pop (if there is such a thing). These guys were part of the scene at L.A.’s The Smell, which I never really delved into that much. On their Facebook page, the band say they like Deerhunter, The Feelies, Marine Girls and Jay Reatard, which is a pretty awesome combination and not a bad description of their music at all. I also hear shades of War on Drugs and Real Estate. After “Modern Way”, check out “Sic Boys” and “Before She Runs”.

Keep. It. Simple. Stupid.

Ah minimalism. Moon Duo are the perfect antidote for my burnt out ears after the maximalist avant garde noodling featured in my post on Greg Saunnier’s extracurricular activities. The Duo just dropped Occult Architecture Vol. 2, a companion to Vol. 1 released earlier this year. The new set is much brighter in focus, featuring song titles like “Lost in Light” and “New Dawn”. I guess the group needed some cheering up after the heaviness of Vol. 1‘s “Death Set” and “Will of the Devil”. Both feature the unflinching drum machine supporting simple fuzzed/phased chord progressions. I guess the repetition might be torture for those who like more complex fare, but to me it’s quite soothing. While I definitely prefer the dark to the light, I like the concept of the the two records, beautifully illustrated in these videos.

Rays

Nice album by Rays here, not a duff track on it. Featuring at least three different singers (I think), Rays are a sort of supergroup born from the same scene that produced Thee Oh Sees. And they do sound like a band of blissed-out San Francisco punks … albeit one trying to be the Velvet Underground in a kiwi garage. Or like a less-dreary West Coast version of the Crystal Stilts. Too difficult to pick one track so click here to listen to the whole album, it’s delightfully short at 26 minutes. Sweet and fuzzy!