Sunday, September 15, 2013

Heavy Times - I'm Single 7inch

I've always appreciated the raw, straight forward approach of HoZac Records.  Their releases could easily be mistaken for a first-time self-release by some junior high school punks, and maybe they are.  But then there is always an edge of professionalism and a sense of collection that makes you realize there is more than just the fearless attitude; HoZac is on top of their game.

This 2012 release by Heavy Times is nonetheless politic.  Featuring "I'm Single" as the lead on side-a, followed by "Unsolved Mysteries," then "Bath Salts" on side-b, Heavy Times delivery a quick 7inch worth heavy rotation.  It's the ol' 'get in, get out, leave them wanting more' approach that HoZac Records is so good at.

The packing is simple, yet fitting.  A v-fold cover with titles only, no credits, because it is all about the music.  Black vinyl with a large cut hole, because this isn't a fucking art project (people), its rock and roll.  Drink up.

"Unsolved Mysteries" bears great melody with some added production, and delivers that 'everybody gather together and sing along' feeling at the beginning of each verse that would make Kevin Seconds proud.  Continuing the trend of stellar b-side tracks, "Balt Salts," digs into Heavy Times' dour side.  With fetching guitar leads, and curious vocals, I can't help but reset the needle on this one again and again.


Alright, we apologize for our delay, but we have finally settled in our new home of North Carolina.  The record player is set up, vinyl are on the shelves, and we are ready to get back at it with reviewing vinyl records for you!  Stay tuned, and send us anything you would like us to check out.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Naïm Amor - Dansons

Naïm Amor is simply one of the most under appreciated artists, as well as guitarists, of our time. He is possibly the most stylish Frenchman living in the desert of Arizona playing live performances on any given night in a number of various dining establishments with an equally talented posse. I've been a fan of his music for years, and appreciated all of his recordings, but it wasn't until his release of 'Dansons' with Vacilando '68 Recordings that Amor marked his place in history. 'Dansons' is a timeless treasure.

Vacilando '68 Recordings really put their best foot forward with this release. With a stunning botanical cover image, and complimentary / properly delivered handwritten fonts (I really hate when people use a computer for this; thank you Naïm) that resemble the pistil of the lily-like flowers, you can anticipate the romantic qualities Amor naturally exudes, and appreciate his sensitive transmission.

The vinyl itself is a silky, buttermilk cream complexion that is quite possibly more smooth that Naïm Amor's own blend of traditional classic jazz with the most underground of indie rock; breaking and blending sonic barriers between genres decades apart. Naïm Amor is the J Mascis version of Joao Gilberto, whom inspired Martin Denny, only he's of this generation.

Thøger Lund and Mr. Howe Gelb himself from Giant Sand, as well as John Convertino of Calexico, are featured players on Naïm Amor's 'Dansons' album. Jim Waters at Waterworks, known for his work with Sonic Youth on their 'Goo' masterpiece, recorded and mixed the pièce de résistance of Amor's career.

Choice cuts are the tropically inspired "The Day After," which will have you reaching for a pitcher of Mai Tai and your Ray-Bans, "On Se Tient" and "The Other Step," appropriate for any Sunday breakfast at Tiffany's, and certainly "Sparkling Guitar," Amor's English journey into the Space Age Bachelor Pad realm.

Order Naïm Amor's 'Dansons' direct from Vacilando '68 Recordings today!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Mike Adams At His Honest Weight - Oscillate Wisely

There is something about handmade silkscreened record artwork that gets me good every time. It often accompanies music released on a more local level and/or limited run basis, and it always demonstrates a level of passion and dedication hardly ever revealed through manufactured artwork.

I can't help but relate this admiration to a foody's obsession with locally grown organic ingredients. Corporate owned restaurant chains continue to fill the bellies of the masses in the same way larger record companies thoughtlessly use the same formulas over and over for what should be creative designs. When you can simply look at carrots and see their unique flavor profile, or open a carton of multicolored eggs and know the vibrant yokes inside are going to ooze richness... that's when I can wait to drop the needle on the record to hear what awaits. It's not going to be Radiohead or Justin Timberlake, and no its not going to be that McRib sandwich that stirs up memories of youthful trips to the beach, but I can promise you it's going to push some envelopes that were left on the table that should have been opened in the first place.

This is definitely the case with Mike Adams At His Honest Weight's album 'Oscillate Wisely.' But Mike Adams has a lot more going for him than thought provoking packaging; he's a brilliant song writer, and has a handsome Mike Love (Beach Boys) -like voice (maybe not quite as high but just as silky-sweet) - best presented on "I'm Not Worried."

The cover art appears to be a picture of Mr. Adams himself, although I've opted not to GTS to confirm. St. Ives and Flannelgraph Records (split release) had a standard white record jacket (spray?) painted with silver ink on the front, and then the artwork was silkscreened with blue ink on top, with the emblem-inspired imagery.

The back cover is much more raw; as if there was a little dirt left on the carrots. Mike Adams did the handwriting and additional illustration. The record is hand-numbered, limited to 500 copies, and does come with liner notes that further explain the teamwork and responsibilities involved with crafting this prize release.

"Don't You Blanket (When That Happens)" launches side-b like the best of any Starflyer 59 album, while "It's All Been Done (You Said)" highlights Adams' understanding of vocal melodies in a way that reminiscent of Alan Sparhawk (Low); pulling from the best-of-the-best of influences.

I can't get enough of this bona fide indie rock record and Mike Adams' graceful vocals, as well as his respect of ambience. Originally released January 25, 2011... Check out 'Oscillate Wisely' over at Flannelgraph's Bandcamp.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Kingsbury Manx - Bronze Age

If someone were to ask me if I liked high-gloss coating for record jackets, I immediately would say "No." But every time I hold one in my hands with that übershiny finish, like Papa M's "Live From A Shark Cage," I'm always in aw over how radiant they are. Odessa Records really delivers a spectacular packaging for The Kingsbury Manx's sixth full-length release, with the high-gloss and all (and there is a lot of 'all').

The imagery used for The Kingsbury Manx's album 'Bronze Age,' from the cover to the back to the inside liner notes, is paintings from M. Scott Myers (a former band member). Most of the paintings are of landscapes resembling the tundra, including some with bodies of neighboring waters. The piece on the back cover showcases the nautical theme, while there is one painting inside the gatefold that is quite opposite of its arctic counterparts. This odd print reminds me of walking through the backwoods of Florida, following a wandering man-made path elevated above the marsh, protecting its guests from the local reptiles below.

While I am utterly attracted to the artwork from Myers that The Kingsbury Manx selected for this record, I haven't been able to tie the album's title, 'Bronze Age,' to Myers' paintings or any other elements of the packaging; only a lyric in the song, "Glass Eye." None the less, Myers' work makes for stunning album artwork and lives quite nicely in this 12inch x 12inch format protected by the under utilized shellac-like coating.

I'm often intrigued when a record company choses to use a gatefold jacket when there is only one vinyl record inside. Gatefolds are mostly used for albums that contain two vinyl records, placing one on each side of the folded jacket. When a gatefold is employed to carry just one vinyl record, I can't help but feel its for the admiration of the artwork; basically declaring, "This artwork is so amazing, every piece must be displayed on the outer jacket!" Odessa Records could have used a printed inner sleeve, rather than a plain white paper sleeve, to protect the vinyl record itself. This would have given them an alternative place to put the text and paintings that are on the inside of the gatefold (I'd be curious to know what the cost difference of this would be). However, the gatefold is much more impressive and engages you (the listener) as the needle dances across the record and you unveil the centerfold and mystique of the album.

Another well noted feature of The Kingsbury Manx's packaging for 'Bronze Age' is the spine of the jacket; its 1/4" thick, and again, that's for only one vinyl record. I love when attention is given to the spine of a vinyl jacket; most artists don't. As much as I'm not a fan of The Magnetic Fields, as I sit here in our Danish lounge chair a mere twenty feet away from our own record collection, my wife's Magnetic Fields albums, in their standard (thin) jackets, take the cake with having well designed, noticeable spines that stand out from the crowd. I have yet to file this Kingsbury Manx record, but I am sure once I do, it is going to boast loud and proud due to the grand size alone.

Without a doubt, I was looking forward to taking in this album. Obviously, Odessa Records had me at the artwork and packing, but I had also heard quite a bit about The Kingsbury Manx over the past decade, and yet to acquire any of their recordings. This collection of songs provides a lil' something for all types of indie pop fanatics. 'Folk Pop' seems to be the preferred term used to describe The Kingsbury Manx overall. Personally, I would suggest that if Belle & Sebastian grew up exploring the Appalachian Trail, their sound would be The Kingsbury Manx. I could easily see these kids from North Carolina on a bill with The Ladybug Transistor, The American Analog Set, or even Bonnie Prince Billy.

Some of my favorite tracks from this album are "Future Hunter" (I'm a sucker for synths; bought my very first one on Raleigh NC back in 1996), "Handspring" (you can't go wrong with trumpets; such an enjoyable, tastefully added touch), and "Custer's Last" (again with the synths, but this time with a captivating beat that gets you out of your seat singing along to the gods above during for their epic Pink Floyd-esque finale). Multiple listens may be required to fully understand where The Kingsbury Manx are going, but they are okay with that, and besides... M. Scott Myers and Odessa Records provide some gorgeous artwork to study during the ride.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Schooner || Wesley Wolfe - Split 12inch

EP (extended play) releases are a great way for a band to really showcase the best of the best. Traditionally, EPs can vary from four to about seven songs; typically just shy of what would be considered an album / LP (long play). So when you get two bands that join together to create one EP release, it's almost guaranteed they are going to cut the crap and deliver nothing short of a solid record; at least that's the case with North Carolina's Schooner and Wesley Wolfe.

Let's get it on record now that North Carolina has been and always will be the home to the best American Indie Rock. From the days of Superchunk, Seam and Polvo, to Mercury Birds and The Raymond Brake, to today's Rosebuds and The Love Language; North Carolina continues to define Indie Rock, and Schooner and Wesley Wolfe are a shining example that others will only try to replicate.

Schooner opens the 12inch clear vinyl lathe with the haunting "oo's" of "Terrorized Mind." Reid Johnson's reflective vocal delivery and story-telling guitar rhythm pause life for a moment until his fuzzy lead takes over as the whiskey settles in. Maria Albani bears the voice for their second track, "Locked In," which is actually a Wesley Wolfe cover. Backed by a much more bouncy indie pop beat and a whammied-out guitar rift, Wesley has Maria wishing good things for an ex-lover as she locks away her (his) memories. There is an irresistible lo-fi nature to Schooner's recordings that's without purpose, yet produces their tracks to perfection.

As soon as the ambience settles, Wesley Wolfe comes busting through the door with his overdriven, piercing guitar and breathy, bass heavy beat for "Crying Laughing." This track made me a die hard Wolfe-Head within seconds and had me searching for my ol' Edsel and Polara 7inches to drop on the table after I've exhausted playing these four gems. Mr. Wolfe's cover of Schooner's "Indian Sunburn" is simply incredible. I could easily see indie-rockers taking a break from posting on Facebook via their iPhones about Wesley Wolfe 'killing it' at the club while he was playing this tune and actually dancing to the music for a rare moment in time.

Lathe cut records are different than pressed vinyl records; you can learn more about them directly from Tangible Formats. This particular record is noticeably extraordinary, not only because of the clear vinyl used, but the fact that Schooner and Wesley Wolfe employed Steve Oliva at Kitchen Island Show Print in Durham NC to print via silk screen in reverse the cover art image directly on side-b of the record so it shows through correctly when playing the four songs on side-a; a brilliant design feature that will have your mouth mocking a Venus flytrap.

Co-released by PotLuck Foundation and Tangible Formats, they show great respect for this lathe cut record by including a 'rice-paper' inner sleeve (my favorite) for housing. From what I can tell, this release has since sold out, but if you ever run across a copy at a garage sale or your local worm and bait shop, grab it. Otherwise, keep an eye out for other releases by Schooner and Wesley Wolfe, and remember... if iTunes gives a genre of "Indie Rock" to something that ain't from North Carolina, its probably post-Steve Jobs (RIP, sir).

Friday, March 8, 2013

Razor Blazers - I'm Sick 7inch

I gotta tell ya... I was into this record the minute I pulled it out of the yellow envelope it was delivered in. But then when I began reading the insert card, which led me to do a lil' www-research, I really got into to this record, and I hadn't even put the needle to the wax. Which by the way, when I went to do that, and I pulled the 7inch from the white inner sleeve, I grew to love this record even more as the Arizona sun came beaming through the crystal clear translucent blue vinyl; stunning (I'm a sucker for blue vinyl). Again, I had yet to hear a lick of music and I was already trying to find my ol' Friendster login so I can tell my peeps back home about this one.

Razor Blazers commissioned 50 different artists to make 10 unique covers each for this record; 50 x 10 = 500 individual jackets. Apparently, the cover I received was the 10th one that Rob Ziemanis created. There is a card inside the record that lists each of the 50 artists involved in this project, as well as informs you which cover you have in the series.

This project was completely funded by Kickstarter, and (if it wasn't cool enough already) all of the money raised from selling Razor Blazers' 7inch record goes to Kusi Kawsay, an elementary school in the Peruvian Andes which offers children from economically challenged backgrounds an affirming and holistic education. I know I haven't even begun to tell you how great the music is, and yet you want to go buy this record now, right? You can, right over here at their Bandcamp page.

For his 10th jacket, Rob Ziemanis chose to work with a natural brown cardboard record jacket. It appears that he drew a flower-like image with the use of a compass, and then hand painted the petals with different autumn inspired colors. For the typography, Ziemanis opted to stamp letters for the front, and use a stenciled font for the back. Often with hand created artwork, you don't get a barcode or record label information; everything is very simple and innocent (which is what had me in the beginning). I'm actually very happy this is the cover I received with my Razor Blazers 7inch; I hope everyone else likes theirs.

I was immediate attracted to the dissonant guitars on "I'm Sick," side-a. They are very New York City, and reminded me quite a bit of the guitar rift from Blonde Redhead's b-side delight, "Kasuality," from their 1997 "Symphony of Treble" single. The song starts with a familiar beat that takes you back to when you first understood what made indie rock rock. The singers voice itself has a round, shoegaze-like, deeper tone; always a favorite ingredient (for me) with female fronted bands.

The easy driving pace of "Linear Rerun" goes on like an instrumental track out of the 1990's, backing one of the many reality television shows featuring our youth finding themselves as they explore our world. Once again, the soothing vocals ease in as another instrument, finding their place comfortably between the guitars.

Below is a video featuring "Linear Rerun" and a photo slide show from Razor Blazers' record release party, where they displayed all 500 of the various record covers for their "I'm Sick" 7inch. Whether you are into the music or not, this release presents an awesome opportunity to show your support for a greater cause. And if charity is not your thing, perhaps for the artistic value alone, hopefully you find it worth it to order a copy of this record with it's one-of-a-kind cover art. Any which way you cut it, don't miss out on this very special release.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Fumaça Preta - Vou-me Libertar

Ready to make it's home in a ol' Wurly jukebox beside some classic funk, Fumaça Preta deliver a stellar no-need-for-artwork 7inch single with "Vou-me Libertar" on lado-a and "Eu Era Um Cão" on lado-b. This is a dead-on example of my favorite kind of single: (again) no artwork (needed), standard record company center labels, large cut hole for a jukebox, black wax, and bad ass music that makes you get up off your tush to keep flipping lado-a to lado-b, back to lado-a, and so on.

I remember being quite intrigued by receiving an envelope from Portugal; I just started this blog, so news must have traveled far, and fast. There was no literature for the release included to learn about what was pressed, and other than obviously being able read the record label's name, Music With Soul, the fact that it was easy to translate "lado" to "side," "Fumaça Preta" being printed on both sides in a way suggesting it may be the bands name, and "Alex Figueira" being credited as the (I am guessing) producer, (breathe, we're almost there) ...I really knew nothing about this record (seriously, that's it - what I just wrote). But I loved it; I couldn't help but play it over and over again (hell, I might have even danced ...I cannot confirm or deny). I didn't care what language the credits were written in or what language the enthusiastic vocalist was singing in, Fumaça Preta was (is) delivering the goods, and those goods were doing me just that.

Their report is absolute vintage. Fumaça Preta is not that horrid funk group made up of some old dudes from that lame 70's high school band that won 3rd place in the town battle of the bands only because the bass player was dating the captain of the cheerleading squad and now owns the used car lot where your uncle Harry picked up his sweet El Camino with original rims he drove you in to go see his old friends from high school get their 'funkadelic review' back together because they were really going through a mid-life-crisis; no, Fumaça Preta is the real McCoy. I honestly did not want to know anything more about these guys, I just wanted to keep playing their record more and more. It wasn't until I began writing this review and needed to check a couple of facts that I ran across Music With Soul's own website and was able to learn a little more about Fumaça Preta and this 7inch. Pretty interesting stuff; in fact, I'm not going to re-write / re-post anything that was already said, but I do encourage you to go to their site and read more for yourself.

These songs are packed with spicy hot Hammond organs dancing around the night club in a way that makes you proud to say this is your hood, wah-wah pedals pumping blood to the pulse of the ever-infectious-non-stop beat the DJ keeps drumming, lead guitars as sharp and sexy as the CFM heels your lady stepped out of the limo with and intends to wear all night long (all, night, long), fuzzy-ass bass lines that you can curl up with as the night grows on and everything begins to feel aaaalllrright, and explosive keyboards that light up the sky while we all celebrate yet another year. As the host of the party welcomes you with open arms, he introduces you to all his friends and immediately makes you feel comfortable (even in another language that is still unclear to me); there are no wallflowers on this record / this is the kind of record that makes a white boy (me) dance. This is also the kind of record that makes me say "To hell with grammatical rules!" and write a lot of (more than normal) run-on sentences to express my excitement. "Here-here!" to freedom of speech (and grammar)! "Chin-Chin!" to Fumaça Preta and Music With Soul!

Concrete Blonde - Rosalee + I See the Ghost 7inch

The last I had heard of or thought about Concrete Blonde, I was sixteen-years-old, had just joined the employed population, and my newly befriended co-worker was proudly boasting about his own personally-titled theme song that was all the rave on MTV and the radio airwaves. Out of (great) respect for Concrete Blonde and the (possible) reality that every piece written about them since 1990 has desperately mentioned the one widely known fact about their existence, I'll refrain from disclosing my friend's identity, and instead focus on what impressed me with this little piece of white wax that randomly showed up in the mail from Conqueroo.

The black paper record sleeve, which for the sake of (what I am assuming is) the promotional copy that was sent to my attention, framed in the center labels for this 7inch, making them take the lead on this project and stand at attention as the proper cover art. Basic information is provide on one side of the record, accompanied by a pixelated starry illustration presented in monotone, seen on both sides. The UK center hole cut into the 45 is only symbolic of the many reasons why one may not recognize that this alternative band's punk heritage is in fact LA-based.

"Rosalee" is the soundtrack to remembrance. As the night grows bitter and you move in closer to the fire, "Rosalee" is the blanket that warms you. Johnette Napolitano's raw, yet compassionate, delivery is fitting for this story. With only a lightly-crunched electric guitar and drums embraced by mallets, this side to the 7inch serves as a great re-introduction (at least for me) to Concrete Blonde.

Neither side is labeled as "Side-A," which (by industry standards, and the fact that the accompanying paperwork said so) makes this a "double-sided" 7inch, meaning that both songs are being promoted as 'the hits,' and rightfully so. "I See the Ghost" could not be more opposite from "Rosalee," which proves to be great for the Gemini-like format. Similar to its subdued partner, "I See the Ghost" is very simplistic in design, yet not only puts the pedal to the metal, it burns rubber as it immediately turns a 180 and yells "Screw you, pigs!" to the policemen coming out of the local bakery downtown on Main Street. The speed of this track is so damn fast, I honestly shifted my turntable down to 33rpm until the vocals kicked in and I suddenly knew Concrete Blonde had greased up the ol' V8 and was taking this baby on a ride truly meant for 45-sweet-rpm. Only an established band with a deserving confidence could pull off such a brilliantly anxious punk treasure that (I could swear) is made up of two (not three, but two) root notes... for the entire song... including the chorus. ((Brilliant!))

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Red Jacket Mine - Someone Else's Cake

I remember being quite impressed simply by the 100x100 pixel JPEG image that presented itself within the promotional email I received for Red Jacket Mine's new album, 'Someone Else's Cake.' Immediately it brought to mind the cut-n-paste artwork often found with Guided By Voices or Pavement records. I couldn't wait to hold the 12inch version of this meticulously involved collage.

This was my first experience with Fin Records, a name I can now tell you is significantly associated with quality. To start, the record bags they use are not your standard polyethylene bags that most companies use. I could be wrong, but I believe Fin Records might be using a museum grade archival polyester / mylar record bag. Whatever it is, the minute you grab their records, you know someone cares dearly for the contents within and they want to ensure their records are past on from generation to generation.

Another standard that quickly impressed me with Fin Records was their embossed logo you always find within the packaging. It's a stamp of approval confirming that they ensure you won't be disappointed, and you won't.

The inner sleeve for 'Someone Else's Cake' resembles Space Age Bachelor Pad musicians like Esquivel and labels like Command Records (one of our absolute favorites of all time for design and packaging); vibrant in color and geometric design. The exquisitely pressed stark white vinyl pulls it all together. Shawn Wolfe, who regularly breaks the barrier of the x-axis, is credited for the design. He is also responsible for Red Jacket Mine's two like composed 7inches singles from this album, "Listen Up (If the World is Going to Hell)" and "Bellar & Bawl." Wolfe's style visually expands Red Jacket Mine's sound in the same way producer Johnny Sangster does in the studio.

The album starts off strong with "Amy," but I'd be lying if I didn't tell you I wasn't taken aback by singer / songwriter, Lincoln Barr's, Ted-Leo-doing-an-impression-of-Jon-Bon-Jovi-like vocal style, predominantly with this track. The mature nature of "Nickel & Dime" and "Ron Nasty" instantly satisfied my pallet, loaded with thought provoking lyrics, pop hooks and harmonies at every corner reminiscent of classics spanning the past fifty years, then topped by Red Jacket Mine's studio performance of sheer perfection. By the way, don't take that Ted Leo / Jon Bon Jovi comment as a diss; it's meant to describe Barr's tasty vocal tone and texture.

"Engineer," packed with fuzzy guitar leads and a ballsy (again with the balls) brass section, showcases Barr's blues influence from St. Louis, MO, where he attended college. But it wasn't until "Skint City" that a limelight clearly illuminated Red Jacket Mine's vision of soul fusion. It was only a hint of what was to come, as I was forced to get up from my chair to flip the record over and settle in for a very enjoyable ride through side-b.

I know this is going to sound crazy, but "Listen Up (If the World is Going to Hell)" sounds like Steely Dan doing a cover of a Curtis Mayfield song, and I love it (FYI: I am a freak Steely and Curtis fan). Everything about this track: the guitar tones, the chord changes, the organ drones, the crescendos, the fills, ...I just love this track. Followed by "Novelty's Gone," with Andrew Salzman's confident and enthralling drumming, side-b really begins to define the power behind Red Jacket Mine. Barr's use of back up singers on this chorus, along with the commanding delivery of his words, are as refreshing as Neil Halstead's similar deliverance with Mojave 3's sophomore surprise, 'Out of Tune.'

The title track is pure, solid, fun, well executed rock and roll, separating Red Jacket Mine from being just any bar band and putting them in a class of Elvis Costello, Young Mothers, and (again) Ted Leo (continuing with that Jon Bon Jovi twang). Speaking of twang, Barr throws us a curve ball just before he wraps up this collection of first-rate ditties. "Have You Got a Permit to Preach on This Corner?" is Red Jacket Mine's nod-to-Nashville, and somewhat of a protest song; or perhaps a song to protest against protests. The boys wrap things up back at the local watering hole with their second single, "Bellar & Bawl." Matthew Cunningham's urging bass lines grab a hold of Salzman's beats and never look back, while guest pianist, Ty Bailie, twinkles the ivories with enthusiasm. Barr's compelling address enthralls the drunken blokes for a brief moment while they sing along, just as the band closes out 'last call,' and the men fall victim to the feminine touch he warned them about.

Red Jacket Mine, Fin Records, Johnny Sangster, and Shawn Wolfe really hit a grand slam with 'Someone Else's Cake.' They are playing in a league of their own, unlike anything you would expect from Seattle, WA. They are the local band that done good for themselves. Their music is classic, timeless, and alive. Learn more about Red Jacket Mine via Fin Records.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Zookeepers - True To These Times / Signals - ...And Those Times, Too

This split 12inch release between The Zookeepers and Signals, brought to us by Cellar Hits Records, exemplifies what I love about indie rock music: youthful, fearless, boisterous, divergent. I had high hopes from the minute I held this minimally designed record, and The Zookeepers and Signals certainly delivered.

The record jacket itself is a standard plain white cardboard sleeve, similar to one you might buy for that naked John Coltrane 12inch you found at the thrift store last Sunday. There is no actual printing on the white jacket, but a 6" paper square with the cover art has been glued onto the cardboard in the top right corner. There is nothing on the backside, and there is no spine with title information either to help you find this gem once you've filed it in between your Neil Young and ZS, or Tracy Shedd and Silk Flowers records; depending on which side you chose to file by.

Inside the jacket you will find a standard 8.5"x11" sheet of 20lb. white paper with liner notes and lyrics for each band, printed in black photocopier ink. Additionally, there is photocopied sheet music with what appears to be hand-drawn Sharpie-marker artwork, and photocopied receipt-tickets with the message "We designed this for you. All the mistakes were on purpose." repeated. There is a math worksheet, seven pages torn out from a book, information about a 6.8 magnitude earthquake that took place in California in 1994, a random piece of foil, a Pocket Monsters game card, and my favorite... photocopied miniature US currency totaling $22.00. The actual vinyl record appears to be the randomly selected mixed colored vinyl that manufacturing plants often offer at a discounted rate, cheaper than even your standard black vinyl.

Somehow between the medley of propaganda and lack of commonly expected features most consumers and collectors would be seduced by, I could sense The Zookeepers and Signals put a lot of heart behind this release. It's so obvious when someone puts a lot of money behind a record, by gusto is only visible when you close your eyes and open your mind.

This record, and the fact that it was pressed on vinyl (the fact that someone chose to invest the money that it takes to press it on vinyl), demonstrates one of the many shining examples as to why music should truly only exist on vinyl: vinyl records separate the men from the boys. Bands that are serious about their music want it on vinyl, understand what vinyl represents, and will do whatever it takes to make their music available on vinyl, even if that means releasing it with a generic white sleeve and glueing a 6" square on one side to provide you with some satisfaction of having artwork to find the record in your collection. Bands that only release their music via digital outlets, and even worse: online for free, simply have no balls. Bands that work with CDs might at least have a left nut, since a CD is a physical medium and the audio quality does somewhat resemble the actual sounds from the instruments. But when a band releases their music on a vinyl record, and its obvious that it was a financial struggle just to get the music on wax, on top of having to be creative to keep you visually entertained with packaging, it speaks highly about their character, dedication to their craft, and pursuit of artistic expression.

It's like a kid with a lemonade stand who is competing against the aggressively marketed Coca-Cola brand that is hyped through illustrious, trendy adverts. The average Joe would rather purchase an accessibly fashionable beverage at one of many places immediately nearby than drive 25-mph through some adolescent-infested neighborhood where baseballs, bicycles, and bb-guns are threatening their newly purchase used IROC-Z to support that 9-year old kid that picked lemons in the blazing sun the day before from his side-yard and made fresh lemonade with his 98-year old Great-Grandmother to sell today from a table made of a cardboard box. Those kids peddling their homemade lemonade never let me down when the needle hit their records, and neither has The Zookeepers, Signals or Cellar Hits Records with this release.

CDs, digital music, and the internet made it so easy for anyone to compete with the Coca-Cola caliber of musicians; promoting what appears to be an equal product, but not. These outlets have allowed people (not necessarily musicians or even artists) to over saturated the music industry. Vinyl records hold the (financial) bar high enough to keep the riff-raff out. In the past twenty-five years of collecting vinyl records, I've found that when a band is barely paying the entry fee to having their music pressed on wax, its always worth checking out. Bands that strive for this medium, no matter what the cost or sacrifice, always have a lot more to say than those that settle for the bargain-bin way.

This is not to say that all music on vinyl, and especially all music released with low-fi packaging, is going to be ground breaking. But in the case of The Zookeepers and Signals, ...from the hair-raising scream that opens the first track, "Welcome Nancy," on The Zookeepers side, to "Mommy Issues" and "Monster Party 2," with their sickly infectious beats delivered by Jacob Cooper (AKA: Jacob Safari of Wavves, The Mae Shi, Bark Bark Bark), that concludes Signals' side, this split 12inch is full of fresh lemonade made from local, organic, sustainable, GMO free, carbon free, gluten free, grass fed (and whatever else) lemons, and I'm going back for seconds.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Friends of Cesar Romero - Red Headed Strangler 7inch

7inch records serve a purpose as a quick way for record labels and bands to get two songs out to their audience. In Jamaica, bands use this snappy (pun intended) method to get their music to DJs at the dancehalls and radio, while the wax is later recycled once the song has finished receiving airplay (so much for collecting). For these promptly produced petite platters, record labels often skip the step of custom artwork for the band and use standard issued sleeves that show off their company pride. Bands without this representation might choose to simply utilize a white paper sleeve, commonly used as the inner sleeve with a standard jacket.

I simply love it when record labels like Friends of Cesar Romero's label, Snappy Little Numbers, or Trouble In Mind, or the almighty Sub Pop Records use these company sleeves for their 7inch singles. It's almost as if they are saying, "Trust us, these songs are so freaking amazing, screw the artwork; all you need is the music!" What ends up happening is the label itself develops a style (a look), which becomes part of the visual charm for all of the bands they represent.

In the case of Snappy Little Numbers, there is an innocent throw back to their design that is reminiscent of Jukebox Diners, Greasers and Socs, and dance styles such as the stroll, the bunny hop, the boogie-woogie and the hully-gully. Somehow, this put me in the mood for some good ol' fashioned garage rock, which I was happy to hear when the needle hit the marbled grey wax. Friends of Cesar Romero could easily join the rosters of craggy combo craving cartels like Trouble In Mind, HoZac, or Burger Records. Snappy Little Numbers looks to be feeding the same frenzy of gritty adolescent pop, and Friends of Cesar Romero are welcomed to the party.

Both tracks, "Red Headed Strangler" and "Tammys of Tomorrow," are crammed with zing and zest; I can't tell the a-side from the b-side. The hooks keep you flipping the vinyl back and forth. Both tracks are exciting; they are electric. Records like this are what give b-side tracks their a-side reputation, and bands like Friends of Cesar Romero are what keep the party going all night long. Clearly focused without any compromise, Friends of Cesar Romero and Snappy Little Numbers deliver a solid, classic 7inch single worth seeking out.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Cars & Trains - We Are All Fire

The third full length release from Circle Into Square label owner, Tom Filepp, 'We Are All Fire' (originally released September 18, 2012) came to my attention at the right time of year. Chocked full of chill beats and reassuring vocals, Cars & Trains' co-released album between Filepp's own label and Fake Four Inc. brings genre's of coolness together like family during the holidays; a family diverse in age, life experiences, and wisdom. Acoustic and electric guitars, bleeps and blips, percussive instruments and traditional drums, horns and synthesizers - you name it, it's here, but tastefully subtle.

The title track, "We Are All Fire," is repeated three times in three varieties: as the broken instrumental "intro," the proper song itself (final track of side-a) that sees a slight moment of hip-hop (I believe), and as the grandiose "outro." At times, songs like "Asking" and "Nations" remind me of bands such as Neutral Milk Hotel or Emperor X, as Filepp takes his comforting, Beck-like voice and strives for higher, unexplored notes (Mike Doughty comes to mind as another reference meant compliment). "Slow Song" accurately wraps up all of the efforts of this album; you'll find yourself bouncing your head to this downbeat-indie-pop-gem as if it was the latest jam by Prefuse 73.

The packaging for 'We Are All Fire' is what initially caught my eye. The fire-like illustration and overall theme are very warming like the fire that's been burning for the past week as I've been taking in this album. At first glance, I would have pegged this to be a summertime album. But after having listened to it continuously fireside, the night-loving wintertide nature of 'We Are All Fire' is more evident and welcomed.

I'll have to say, the only strike against this album is that someone had the idea of putting a sticker with the band's name and title of the album on the actual record jacket. I'm hoping this was a mistake at the manufacturing plant and it was supposed to go on the outside of the plastic wrapper instead, because otherwise it makes no sense; its simply not needed.

What I do like is that there is no digital download card inside the record; that's got balls. If you are releasing music on vinyl, you obviously understand and appreciate the many benefits and finality of vinyl. It's so easy for record labels and bands to include a digital download card, and trust me... I'd be a hypocrite to say I didn't appreciate it when they do. But recently, as a consumer of music solely on the vinyl medium, and one that does utilize the digital download cards to put the music on an iPhone for mobility, I've begun to respect those labels and artist that choose not to provide this digital fix for their listeners. Everyone knows that the music quality is diminished when it is converted to an MP3 file; this is a fact. So when a record is release on vinyl without providing a digital download card, you are forced as the listener by the label or artist to take in that album through one fashion only... the physical vinyl record that you're holding in your hands. And being that it was most likely your choice to pay money for that record, you obviously already support the analog side to the digital argument ...which is what brought me to the realization that it is a badass-ballsy move (that I like more and more) when a record label or a band such as Fake Four Inc., Circle Into Square, or Cars & Trains release their vinyl records without a digital download card. It demonstrates their own level of respect for the music and commitment to quality. Nice job guys; my hat goes off to you (again, balls).

The packaging itself is very simplistic and well thought out, like Cars & Trains' music. The congruence between each element is spot on, not exaggerated. The translucent gold vinyl is classic and exactly what it should be. There is very little text, and no liner notes; again, a brave move that not every band has the kahonas to pull off. The album (music + artwork) speaks for itself, and I like it what its saying.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Wild Nothing - Nowhere 7inch

It may be nearly a year old, but Wild Nothing's "Nowhere" 7inch is still a very significant recording for understanding Jack Tatum. Featuring Andrea Estella (Twin Sister) as a guest vocalist, Jeff Curtin on drums (Small Black, Vampire Weekend), and what sounds to be an accordion on side-a, Tatum's "Nowhere" 7inch is the result of Wild Nothing's success with their debut album 'Gemini' (Captured Tracks) and Tatum stepping out of the bedroom, onto the stage with a full band. This single, also released by Captured Tracks, presents Wild Nothing's first traditional studio recordings.

There is a freshness with both "Nowhere" and the short-but-oh-so-sweet b-side "Wait," presenting Michael Skattum's on drums; both Curtin and Skattum continued their roles with 'Gemini''s successor, 'Nocturne' (Captured Tracks). These two songs provide growth and collaboration for Tatum, foreshadowing how Wild Nothing would prosper, yet ghostly guitar tones on "Wait" satisfy the blood-thirsty shoegazing connoisseurs that have already devoured Wild Nothing's back catalog.

The cover art, while subtly suggesting a future trajectory for the band, additionally provides a surprising and refreshing pinch: a humanly sketched handwritten font (repeat, robots will never replace humans), breaking the tradition of Wild Nothing's italicized fonts, which they immediately revert back to. The pattern of the printed border reminds me of something Mark Robinson (Unrest, Air Miami, Flin Flon) would have designed for Teen-Beat; its mathematical, yet random, perhaps giving further examples for the band's name, "Wild Nothing" (contrast, as defined by Tatum). Ryan McCardle continues to break tradition for Wild Nothing's designs by utilizing the uncoated side of the paper stock, a favorite choice of mine that I always find poetic. Finally, the milky white vinyl itself is thick and proud, and offers a great platform for this transition.

For those you just discovering Wild Nothing, this one is worth stopping by Captured Tracks' online store to pick up a copy while it is still available. Tatum tells us a lot with these two tracks that sit so well between 'Gemini' and 'Nocturne.'

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sunbears! - You Will Live Forever

January 1, 2013: While most everyone in America is watching college football, or like the rest of the world, either dealing with a hangover, making New Year's resolutions (possibly because of that hangover), or packing up their holiday decorations, I'm left stumped that more people did not list Sunbears!' album 'You Will Live Forever' on the 'End of Year' posts we've all been reading for the past few weeks. Okay, okay, technically, 'You Will Live Forever' was a 2011 release, via New Granada Records (Tampa FL), digitally and on CD. Synconation Records (Jacksonville FL) did not actually have their sophomore release, the vinyl edition of Sunbears' simply stunning third album, 'You Will Live Forever,' until 2012. Point is, regardless of its proper release date, this album deserves being mentioned again and again, so here we are making sure you haven't forgotten those lil' Bears down in Florida.

As much as it is this site's intention to highlight and give praise to records that go above and beyond with their packaging designs, truthfully my favorite records are always the ones that do not require this added value. Above that, bands that express a confidence with their records by excluding their name and title from the cover art have a special place in my heart for their bravery. It's not to say that records with this lack of information are going to be amazing by default, but when a record is as phenomenal as Sunbears!' 'You Will Live Forever,' they don't need an introduction, and I love that Sunbears! knew this from the conception of this project. Furthermore, there are no liner notes included either, which is perfect; no distractions or explanations / not necessary.

Jonathan Berlin's (vocals, keys, bass, guitar, programming) wife, Maria, is the artist behind the bionic cover art. Like a good pair of weathered jeans, Sunbears! have provided a worn-in look to their packaging, anticipating that 'you will live forever' and provide a lil' wear-n-tear yourself. The iconic simplicity is a perfect compliment to the honest affirmations Sunbears! make with this album, demonstrated with the title of their second track, "Give Love A Try."

Berlin is a preacher, and Jared Chase's (drums) beat is the pulpit from which 'The Word of The Bears!' can be witnessed. It's Chase's sparse and often well-thought-out absence of drums that demonstrates his profound talent, making him a necessary pairing to Berlin's musical sermons. This vigorously dynamic duo provides us with precise instructions on how to make this a better world. Berlin's voice is addictive; full of life, compassion, wisdom. For every angelic falsetto high providing hope, there is a solid gut-wrenching blow of truth to follow that is reminiscent of your father teaching you right from wrong.

While the title track "You Will Live Forever" is an ambient foreword, and the imperative track "Give Love A Try" is in fact the opening 'song' (verse-chorus-verse, etc.), "Together Forever" (track-4) is really where I begin to believe. I'm not sure if its Chase's Ringo-like kick-snare foundation, or Berlin's "Hotel California"-like (kickass) guitar solo, but there is an undeniable presumption that takes over and drives right through the next three tracks, shutting out life around you.

Sunbears! leave you 'strung out, on your own,' 'dying alone, without yourself' by the time you get to the end of side-a. Literally speaking, that may sound horrible and not the "better place" promised before, but is a momentous murk preceding the devine conclusion of "Dying Alone, Without Yourself"... what I declare as one of the most emotionally captivating musical arrangements ever conducted.

Side-b continues to explore epic pop achievements back-to-back with "They Think They're Soooo Philosophical," "It's Hard! Be Content Where You Are!," and "The Uncertainty Paradigm." Then, once again, Sunbears! manifest your journey through song titles and your 'stumbling into twilight' as the mission of their third album becomes evident: 'we're alive,' 'live, don't stop trying.'

Sunbears! are a family affair, and 'You Will Live Forever' is the blueprint. It is a magnificently put together album, sonically, physically, and spiritually, and will leave you compelled to understand their word. Expect to see this record on 'Best Albums of the Last Decade (2011-2020)' posts in 2021.

Rachel's - Music for Egon Schiele

The last record we listened to for 2012...