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Lucero gets compared most often to Bruce Springsteen for their street minded stories. But Tom Petty might be a better parallel, both for sound and subject. Like Petty, they have a talent for southern tinged guitar pop. And like Petty, Lucero is less concerned with social issues and the economy and more caught up in chasing women and the heartbreak fallout. Because sometimes, that’s all that matters.

Ben Nichols has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in indie rock. It’s a combination of sand and whiskey and smoke, but he never sounds menacing or dangerous. He’s consistently warm, charismatic, the lovable down-on-his-luck charming hero. With that voice and his storytelling, he evaporates cynicism and makes you care about those sad faced drunks and love struck losers that populate his songs. Country music works because it’s storytelling of the simplest order: small words, concise images, ordinary subjects. Fellow alt-country stars like Sixteen Horsepower might be more arty, and Drive-By Truckers might be more raucous and Son Volt might be more literate, but Lucero is the most personal and heartfelt.

‘Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers’ is a step toward full on rock and roll. The songs are denser, with multiple layers of instruments, bringing in accordion and pianos, and a stronger guitar attack. But Nichols isn’t changing his persona for anyone. This is still a southern country rooted affair, which Nichols defiantly announces on the first song ‘What Else Would You Have Me Be?’ The band picks up the pace on cuts like ‘I Don’t Wanna Be The One’ and ‘I Can Get Us Out of Here’, which turns a clumsy drunken pickup into a joyous street anthem.

Something does get lost in the transition though. Gone is the straight melancholy and somber introspection of earlier albums like ‘Tennessee’. ‘Rebels’ settles on ballsy rock and roll to get its point across. It works on some songs like ‘The Mountain’, which opens with the brilliant line “Her daddy lost most everything/on horses, whiskey, and wedding rings” and then swings into the most fist pumping guitar solo they’ve yet recorded. But others like ‘Sing Me No Hymns’ and ‘Cass’ never quite take off and make you wish they’d dial it back down and do another heartbreaker about pretty girls that are too young for them.

Despite the misses, ‘Rebels’ holds up with it’s consistent sound and that undying charm that Nichols brings. Newcomers to the band might do well to check classics like ‘Nobody’s Darlings’, but fans will be satisfied that Lucero can adapt their sound for a larger audience and still maintain their character and emotional clarity.

Play Television’s masterpiece debut ‘Marquee Moon’ to your friends. “Who’s this?” they’ll ask before inquiring if it’s a new release. Enjoy the shock on their faces when you tell them, “Actually, it was recored in 1977.” Thirty-three years later, ‘Marquee Moon’ still sounds just as revolutionary and fresh as anything Radiohead has produced in the last decade. It’s a punk record with intricate extended jams. It’s a new wave record with garage rock power chords. Mostly it’s an astonishing virtuoso guitar rock album. Television never got much commercial recognition, but after a single listen, it’s easy to hear the profound influence they had on the American underground rock scene of the 80’s. From The Pixies to Pavement, anyone who picked up a guitar owed a little to Television.

Television in turn are indebted to the punk-meets-blues noise experiments of The Velvet Underground. Although Television stripped out the blues and white noise freakouts and went for arty guitar rock, the connection can be traced like DNA. Without the blues rhythms, it’s difficult to dance to anything on this album. Mostly, you’ll just want to sit back and listen to the interplay between the two guitarists, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. They take center stage for every song, not so much trading licks as interlocking their rhythms and melodies into a fascinating and gorgeous sonic architecture.

The opening ‘See No Evil’ is a high energy first track that demonstrates that interplay perfectly, with Verlaine and Lloyd laying down grooves and veering off in jazz like flourishes as they explore around the melody. There’s even a blazing tight solo in the middle that has hooks enough for a whole album. Later on the album ‘Guiding Light’ slows things down with a gentle anthem and one of the prettiest outros this side of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. The undisputed finest track is the eponymous ‘Marquee Moon’, a masterpiece of experiment, virtuosity and beauty. Rolling over ten minutes, it’s chock full of extended jamming concluding with one of the greatest guitar solos in history.

‘Marquee Moon’ has never lacked for accolades. Rolling Stone, Uncut, NME, Pitchfork, VH1 and Q Magazine have all placed the album high in various all-time lists. It only lacks a wide audience. It’s true the band never turned in a three chord pop song, but it’s a must listen for anyone who is a fan of heartfelt rock and roll.

Amplifier is a rarity: a prog rock band with no synths. Instead of spacey interludes and jazz departures, Amplifier finds kinship in the underground metal scene. That they have toured with both Opeth and Porcupine Tree ought to tell you where this is going. With nothing but a stripped down trio of guitar, bass and drums, Amplifier constructs thick, deceptively dense walls of sound with effects pedals, sampling loops and enough feedback to vibrate the roof down. But they never lose sight of the melody, and even in their most aggressive attacks, there is a serenity and controlled elegance to the cacophony.

Hailing from Manchester, Amplifier originally signed with small British label Music for Nations and released their eponymous first album. When Sony soon bought the label, they let Amplifier, a band with no name recognition or industry pull, fall into limbo. Thus their album was never distributed in the US and is still extremely difficult to find. For those that can acquire this bit of sunken treasure, the rewards might change how you listen to British rock.

Dealing with familiar topics like science fiction, flying and LSD, prog rock fans can easily appreciate the themes floating through the album. If there is a weak point of the album, the lyrics aren’t terribly original. But the approach is uniquely buoyant, with the band bringing their sense of grandeur to the phenomena of electricity and industrialism, singing about the power of rock and roll to move mountains.

The real draw is in those thick, pulsating waves of sound. Guitars haven’t sounded this big since Zeppelin took us to Kashmir and Amplifier ought to be played on nothing but the best sound systems, turned up to eleven, to reveal all the complexities. It’s wondrous to hear lead singer/guitarist Sel Balamir loop himself, sometimes building up impossibly massive rumbles of power chords. On tracks like ‘Airbourne’, the band builds to a roaring climax of angular, conflicting rhythms, a scream that subsides only long enough to fool you into thinking the song might be fading out. Within the blink of an eye, the song turns 180 and everything falls into a lock step for the real finale, an outro that sounds like what Tool might do if they just relaxed and riffed for a minute between tracks.

‘One Great Summer’ sounds big enough to fill arenas and combines powerful confidence with nostalgic fantasy, a lovely contradiction, like hippies playing power metal. ‘Panzer’ toys with time signatures and and accented syncopation. It even has a brief couple measures in the middle where it sounds like the band is somehow playing the music backwards, rewinding and restarting the song. While most of the album goes by at a stately pace, ‘The Consultancy’ opens up with a blaze and paranoid apocalyptic fears.

The album concludes with the singular triumph ‘UFOs’, a song so heroic, so expressive, so majestic, it justifies the difficulty of finding the album. Opening with a gentle low register hum and lightly meandering guitars, it slowly coalesces into a gorgeous floating melody. Not a single note is wasted, it’s all perfectly paced and timed to pull you along as it builds up, sometimes without you even noticing that a new layer or effect has been added. Moving through several moods, it’s a lyrical highpoint of reflection on the album, starting with foreboding warnings of aliens and then delivering some fresh irony to the usually straight-faced seriousness ”And I know better than you know/I’d kill you cause you drive to slow/Aggressive instincts will do us in/Just give us the chance for us to prove it ourselves”. It unfolds in the end into a radiant shower of fireworks as the band pulls out every stop and goes soaring for the ‘vapour trails/Through cotton skies’. It’s the sound of a tiny band, absolutely convinced that rock and roll will change the world and making the biggest noise as they can about it. Their final line in the song (and the album) reveals their unshakable confidence in their message: “We’ll all be waiting for you here… “

John Hughes, may he rest in peace, must be flattered. M83’s ‘Saturdays=Youth’ doesn’t just owe him a debt of gratitude, it’s practicially a sequel to his movie canon, picking up the day after Claire fell for Bender in ‘The Breakfast Club’. Even the cover of the album looks like a family portrait of Hughes characters, wistful, disaffected teens, neatly arranged in a sunny field. The 80’s permeate every glossy song on the album so it’s both an irony free re-creation and a modern nostalgic update.

Every sound has been run through the synthesizers and fuzzed out or sharpened up. Each instrument is layered and layered under a heavy atmosphere of production so there’s a constant comforting hum to the songs. The opening ‘You, Appearing’ gently washes up, serving as the traditional mood setting track one. ‘Kim & Jessie’, the first single, breaks the calm by opening with a echoey drum snap before floating away under towering synths. It’s dinstinctly goth, but the pretty sort of goth like The Cure or The Cocteau Twins.

The smoulderingly sexy ‘Skin of the Night’ sounds like it would be equally at home in ‘Twin Peaks’ or ‘Miami Vice’, with it’s languid high register vocals punctuated by thunderous drum beats. ‘Graveyard Girl’ threatens to cross over into laughable teenage angst, but is saved by the shear exhileration of the rushing melodies and anthematic energy and a Molly Ringwald namedrop that will make you smile. If you aren’t immediatly won over, then it’s possible you don’t remember the feeling of growing up.

But after the the hot instrumental dance club track ‘Couleurs’, the album loses its pace. Because it’s frontloaded with the singles, there is some slow down to the last half the of the album. With the exception of the dramatic anticpation of ‘We Own the Sky’, the snyths keep building, and the delicate white noise pulsates, but the songs lack the hooks and can’t stand up to the brilliant opening four tracks. The album concludes with the pretty, but slightly confusing ‘Midnight Souls Still Remain’, an 11+ minute ambient experiment that consists entirely of two lazily alternating notes.

‘Saturdays=Youth’ is gorgeously cinematic, honest music about an ironic time. It might be inconsistently paced, but the love, attention and craft on each song ends up counting for a lot. In it’s effort to transport you back to the 80’s, it succeds on nearly every level. If you have fond memories of John Hughes and synthetic shoegazing soundscapes, you’ll love every moment of this nostalgic album.

New wave throwbacks Metric have recorded the heaviest, most propulsive, slickest 80’s record that was never recorded in the 80’s. ‘Fantasies’ moves from hook to hook, tossing off ultra catchy melodies and sing-alongs as if it were as effortless as just picking up a guitar. Metric have done their share of genre hopping in the past, previously emphasizing electronic dance beats, synth pop and alternative. Here, they’re in full stadium anthem mode. And it’s stadium rock like it should sound: majestically huge, slyly fun but not completely devoid of intelligence.

It’s hard to pick out single highlights in a set this consistently exciting. The opening ‘Help I’m Alive’ starts out with a nervous kick and paranoid lyrics. Under an upward spiraling build of crashing beats, it’s quick to deliver one of the most immediately catchy lines on the album: “Help I’m alive/My heart keeps beating like a hammer”. It’s the kind of epic, yet emotionally direct line that made The Smashing Pumpkins so accessible through their waves of distorted noise and the kind of line that shows up in nearly every song on this album. On ‘Satellite Mind’, singer Emily Haines quips “Coming home cause I want to/Hang out with a starlet/Stare up at the ceiling/Preview of a screening/Flashback of a feeling/Sixth sense of a calling/I heard you fuck through the wall/I heard you fuck”. She delivers each line with a sneer and a tone so biting, she could scare away Billy Corgan. But her voice is still always velvet lined, high pitched and doll like. Part of the fun is that you can never quite believe such a cute girl would be singing about such dark subjects.

There are a few pauses for breath, on the delicately pleading ‘Twilight Galaxy’ and the spacey melodies of ‘Collect Call’. But they’re each followed up by rousing rockers like the double timed ‘Gold Guns Girls’ which threatens to trip over itself as it hurdles along. One of the huge successes of the album is that even the anthems stay personal and have compelling stories. The defiant chant that culminates ‘Blindness’ is a perfect example. The song begins as a moody, low register piece that half way through suddenly unfolds into a full blown foot stomper with Haines repeating over and over “What it is and where it stops nobody knows/You gave me a life I never chose/I wanna leave but the world won’t let me go/I wanna leave but the world won’t let me go”. Stadium rock at its best.

Appropriate then that the final track on the album, ‘Stadium Love’ is a song as bombastic as anything Muse is putting out. All it’s missing is the orchestral flourishes. Metric keeps things rooted in a simple rock structure, all guitar heavy and soaring vocals with whip sharp drumming and driving bass lines layered and layered until they’re as big as their ambitions. It’s a brilliant achievement that reminds you that there’s still room for fun in the bleak world of alternative rock and roll.

Viva Voce, composed of husband and wife Kevin and Anita Robinson, has been rocking the Portland indie scene for nearly a decade. Word is they got restless being a two piece and brought in talented musicians from other indie bands like The Decemberists and Norfolk and Western and formed Blue Giant. Where Viva Voce was sweet, intimate and occasionally rocked, Blue Giant is a combination of psychedelic foot stompers and country ballads. Their debut album is a scatter-shot recording, the result of a well intentioned venture, but has enough gems to make it worth a listen.

The opening ‘Clean the Clock’ has a bright start and a certain majesty when the chorus hits. But it’s a false promise since the rest of the album falls short. The biggest issue is that the band feels inconsistent. Perhaps it’s the result of a band drawing on too many rotating members, or trying to find just what sound they actually want to play with. It’s not a issue that they enjoy an eclectic sound, it’s that some songs come off flat and lacking the energy or intimacy that characterized their earlier solid work.

But when the band hits, they hit hard. ‘Blue Sunshine’ is the kind of instantly catchy folk-pop candy that makes you want to drive fast and live a montage of summer delirium. The fact that the band never manages to reach the same high feels frustrating because ‘Blue Sunshine’ sounds so effortless, like the band is cutting loose and having fun.

There’s touches of Neil Young hard rocking psychedelia on ‘The Game’, which finally puts Anita to full use on the guitar, giving a blistering feedback drenched solo. ‘Target Heart’ is an adorable country ballad coated in slide and whiskey. But the rest of the album soon gets skipped on repeat listens. It’s a crime that Anita, the best guitar player in Portland (there, I said it) is so underused. The band has potential, that’s easy enough to hear, but their first album feels more like an experiment than a fully realized effort.

If you miss the days when The Beastie Boys brazenly sampled rock and roll and threw monster party beats on top of their frequently humorous rhymes, you’ll appreciate where emcee Macklemore and DJ Ryan Lewis take their collaboration ‘The VS EP’. Lewis openly pillages popular indie rock for the hooks, which he picks apart and then adds layers of production, strings, horns and thunderous beats. Macklemore, a proud Irishman (as you’ll hear about on ‘Irish Celebration’), will make you forget you ever heard of House of Pain. His raps are introspective, empowering and frequently beautiful without becoming trite or self congratulatory. And yes, he can make you smile with a well placed humorous wink.

Some listeners will be put off by the popular, easily recognized samples. But even if you don’t care for the smirking glam of The Killers, you’ll find yourself captivated by the slow boil of ‘Life is Cinema’ which borrows ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’. The song suddenly sounds dangerous in Lewis’ hands, and Macklemore’s sharp delivery conveys his intense will to change, to fix mistakes..

Transformation, change, awakening run central to the album’s themes, most dramatically on ‘Otherside’ which chronicles Macklemore’s experiences with drug use, first observing tragedies around him and then turning the light inward as he reveals his own battles and the humbling realization that he is as vulnerable to addiction as anyone.

Macklemore’s delivery is always clear, elegant and well measured. He’s less concerned with verbal acrobatics and more with clear, rhythmic story telling. Every track has a unique feel and narrative and it would be hard to cut any one of these seven songs. A giddy highlight comes near the end with ‘Irish Celebration’, as good hearted a drinking song as you’ve ever heard.

Even if you’re not into hip hop and can’t be bothered to seek out the underground artists that make it worth attention, ‘The Vs EP’ is worth notice. This is a cross genre experiment that shaggy indie rockers will enjoy just as much as the hippies and the skaters. You’ll hear instantly recognizable riffs from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Antony and the Johnsons, Beirut and Arcade Fire (who sound even MORE epic in this format). And through it all is Macklemore’s simple, engaging storytelling and Lewis’ exuberant productions.

And if that’s not enough to get you to listen, consider this: Macklemore and Lewis have made it available for a free download. You can get it right here:

http://ryanlewisproductions.com/extra/TheVS.EP.zip

Barely noticed outside their native UK, nonexistent in charts anywhere, released on the tiniest of record labels (Black Bell Records has only released one album, this one), The Joy Formidable don’t seem to care. They’re putting as much energy as they can into crafting giddy, swirling dream rock that will wake you out of your indie-pop daze. You’ve rarely heard a three piece churn out quite this much beautiful, rollicking noise.

Sporting cover art that could have been a page from the Voynich manuscript, the lyrics are equally and willfully mysterious. Sung by Ritzy Bryan in a thick Welsh accent and drowned by cascading waterfalls of guitar, you’ll find yourself looking for a logic course to unravel lines like “I can see he says what he means/I can’t say what he means when he says that/I’ll pretend a pretty pretend/When all I wanna see is the end of this” from the song ‘Cradle’. But by the end, you won’t care as you shout along “My vicious tongue/Cradles just one” over and over again and the band pummels through another catchy minimalistic riff.

The goth, shoegazer aesthetic is all over the album, with hints of The Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine prominently on display, but it’s happy, seriously uptempo goth like you’ve never heard. Check out ‘Austere’ a three minute single with a finale that lasts just over a full minute. It’s a delirious droning riff that sounds like Bauhaus sped up to triple time. ‘Whirring’ could be a hit, with it’s soft/loud dynamic and pretty feedback effects. If you’re not already enthralled by the one minute mark, then The Joy Formidable is just not your thing.

The album is not without its missteps. The songs seem divided between the catchy pop tunes that blaze by all too quickly and the introspective slower tunes that reach for deeper emotional chords but plod along. If the band finds a way to combine these approaches, they could get some serious attention. At under 30 minutes, its also far too short. You have to respect the band for not padding the album with songs they don’t feel confidant enough to release, but you also worry that they’ve already exhausted what they wanted to say. Personally, I’m hoping ‘A Balloon Called Moaning’ is just the introduction to an exciting new band.

When ‘Terrible Love’ opens The National’s newest album ‘High Violet’, you might catch yourself checking your speakers to make sure there are no loose wires. The first 15 seconds are pure lo-fi fuzz, an airy ode to My Bloody Valentine. But then Matt Berninger starts his instantly identifiable drone, which pierces the static like a sheet of water. What began as a gentle wake up slowly builds until the the reverb fills the room and Berninger repeats over and over “It takes an ocean not to break” and the band hits a layered, uplifting crescendo that would make Arcade Fire smile. It’s a powerful track one, and it’s only a teaser of what is already the best album of the year.

It still sounds like The National, but they’ve never sounded this awake. Berninger, always understated, sometimes monotone, delivers soulful, literate, stream of consciousness thoughts in a delicate baritone that sounds like he might splinter apart if pushed too far. But he keeps pushing this time out, finding a range to match his soaring emotions. Sometimes it’s an awkward stutter like on ‘Afraid of Everyone’ where he sounds like a record jumping grooves ‘Your voice is swallowing my soul-soul-soul’. It turns to pure silk on ‘Sorrow’ where the band plays a sparkling angelic driving beat as he half whispers, as if he might be ashamed to admit it, that ‘I don’t want to get over you’. And on ‘England’ it becomes an operatic, layered projecting chorus. Even if you can’t fully decipher the words or the meaning behind the lyrics (’cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams/leave the silver city/to all the silver girls/everything means everything/I was afraid I’d eat your brains /Cause I’m evil’ on ‘Conversation 16’) you can gather connotation from how he sings. Like The Cocteau Twins or The Talking Heads, the meaning of these songs does not come through a concrete narrative, but through a texture of words, sounds and inflection.

The band displays a similar broadening range, moving between the gentle chamber indie-folk of ‘Runaway’ to the slow burning storm of ‘England’ to the towering anthem of ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’. Everything sounds thickly layered, with horns and strings washing through and choruses of backing vocals adding further depth. It’s a wall of sound, but it never sounds muddy. Even the lo-fi fuzz on tracks like ‘Terrible Love’ comes gently and feels comforting. Indie rock likes to sound pretty, but it rarely hits the highs that ‘High Violet’ reaches on every other track.

‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ deserves special mention. The first single from the album, it’s also the first song by The National that actually deserves to be released as such. For a band that willfully kept their heads down and played to the critics, ‘Bloodbuzz’ sounds like a wake up call. The drum beats burst out of the gate, hurtling the song into a lush, spiraling wall of sound and the best use of piano in rock and roll since Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’. It’s an epic road trip of a song, one that will raise hairs on your arms and make your chest hurt with the staggering beauty of it all. As it climaxes in a final rush of insistent pounding tides of sound, you’ll find yourself looking for the repeat button. ‘Bloodbuzz’ is easily one of the best songs of the decade.

Jellyfish!!!

It’s not a secret that I unabashedly love Floater.  They won’t top any critics top 1o lists or appeal to the Portland hipster crowd that dotes on the Decemberists and The Shins, but Floater is doing something right. Over 17 years, they’ve never signed a major record deal, never received significant radio play, been the subject of frequent ridicule in local publications, had minimal promotional abilities  and they can still pack the Northwest’s largest dedicated music venues. Their secret lies in the live show, combining metal, psychedelia, and old fashioned rock and roll.  It’s exhausting, cathartic and the crowds feel like family gatherings of misfits and seekers. You don’t go to a Floater show to forget your troubles, you go to dispel them.

Their newest album ‘Wake’ is their attempt to capture that live energy in the studio. ‘Wake’ is concise, clocking in at about 45 minutes, so there’s scarcely a wasted moment. It maintains a fast pace throughout, packing in 12 tracks that rip by at an exhausting rate. The band has stated that this album is meant for road trips, and they’re right, it sounds best in the car, with a couple friends singing along. And sing along they will, since Floater has a surprise: they’ve gone pop. And therein is the strength and weakness of ‘Wake’.

Pop music is easily accessible. You’ll find yourself shouting the choruses on ‘Concentrate’ and ‘Let It Go’ before the song has finished playing for the first time. But pop music is also simple and frequently shallow, and so songs like ‘Wondering’ and ‘You Taught Me’ lack the emotional depth that I’ve come to associate with the piercing, sometimes devastating songs in their catalog. The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pattern happens far too often and so many songs blend together.

Things open with a bang on ‘Concentrate’, a crystal clear ethereal guitar that sounds like you just stumbled on a late era Pink Floyd b-side. But in trademark Floater fashion, the song quickly shifts and veers into a  U2 War-era anthem, with guitarist Dave delivering a glorious outro solo and singer Rob’s impassioned whoa-oh-ohs. It’s a perfect first track that announces: turn it up, and get moving.

But things bog down over the next few songs, as the pop sound gives in to simple riffs and trite lyrics. You can’t fault the band for trying, since the energy never flags for a moment, only the quality of songwriting. ‘Wondering’ is barely over 2 minutes, and hits a low (or  high) point of pop accessibility.

Midway through the album is ‘The Simplest Way of Life’, the crowning track of ‘Wake’. It’s heavy, ominous sounding and the lyrics are sharp and delivered in a low rumble of a whisper giving way to the stunning chorus. It’s a masterful, mercurially shifting track and also marks as one of the sexiest songs they’ve ever recorded. Seriously, try dancing with your significant other to this one. It’s HOT.

‘White Dress’ radically shifts the tone, as the album pauses for a slow burn. For a moment, Floater drops the pop aspirations and returns to the heartbreaking, sometimes shocking songwriting of the past. “She looked so still/ When she quietly said/ ‘Please take my life'” will send shivers up your spine.

The rest of album sticks to the formula. ‘Enough’ brings back some grinding psychedelia and ‘Killing Time’ ends with a mosh pit frenzy. The album closes on another high point with ‘Let It Go’. The pop aspirations finally synthesize perfectly as the Floaterized soaring rock and roll melds into something giddy and upbeat, with guitar solos and sing along refrain matching the tone of the song.

Your opinion of ‘Wake’ will probably depend on your opinion of Floater in general. If you like their recent trend toward 80’s anthemic rock and roll, ‘Wake’ is a natural progression. If your love for Floater stopped with the grinding snarl of  ‘Cinema’, then ‘Wake’ will seem like a desperate ploy to sellout. If you’re new to Floater, then give it a listen. It’s exhilarating and proves that after 17 years, they’ve maintained a commitment to expanding their sound and keeping the crowd surging.

To hear tracks from ‘Wake’, go to http://floater.com/. The first 3 songs in the music player that pops up are all from the new album.