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...