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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.

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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

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.