Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Best Of 2017: Violets Are Wet, Hellbirds, No Honeymoon, The Veldt, HNRY FLWR, Teen Vice, Ora Cogan, Diane & The Gentlemen, The Fluids, herMajesty, Giftshop, Dead Leaf Echo, Honey

2017 was filled with a steady flow of new music, from both long-time faves and previously unheard artists. In compiling this annual year-end “Best Of” feature, an eclectic collection of musicians earned inclusion.  Some appear for the very first time, while others get a second look via re-posts from earlier features on this site as well as pieces first published at The Deli Mag.  Compiled in no particular order, all share equal billing here, having made music that deserves to be heard.

It's always a special moment to discover brand new bands in their earliest formative stage.  Attending shows for a familiar favorite often creates opportunities to check out someone you haven't heard.  In the case of New York City quartet Violets Are Wet, I found myself in attendance at their very first ever live show on September 2 at lower east side venue Pianos.  Despite their relative newness, that live show exhibited a level of creativity that has now made it's way onto their first official recording and newly released single “Cloud.”

The bright, slightly abrasive four chord electric guitar intro is soon met by a world-weary voice that begins “oh can you tell me.”  While vocalist/guitarist Anthony Magana may be channeling Lou Reed's half-spoken/half-sung storytelling style, his actual tonal quality and diction leans closer to Julian Casablancas deeper baritone.  Classical pianist Habiba Warren's playing tinkles throughout the song, transforming the basic guitar, bass (Helen Huang) and drums (Matthew Schupack) progression, adding a richness and touch of pathos.  With the song's title referencing those atmospheric forms suspended above us, the lyrics “It's no wonder how – we go up to come down. Because madness is an ocean. Our life is a cloud” bring it all much closer to home, and our ever fluctuating mental and emotional condition.

The song's midpoint delivers a particularly tasty guitar lick driven instrumental break.  While Anthony plays melodies over top, the rhythm section of Helen and Matthew provide forceful counterpoint accents.  The overall effect (and sound quality to the instruments) is closer to the electrified Americana of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, than The Velvet Underground's experimental chaos. “Walk towards me – backward” Anthony croons - “down the one-way street. Life can move so much faster – when there's nothing left to see.”

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Back on July 21 of this year, Hellbirds released their long awaited debut full length album 12 Songs On Film. The following night marked two milestone events at Brooklyn's Alphaville as the band played their Record Release Show in conjunction with The Special Without Brett Davis 100th Episode Celebration.

DaveCromwellWrites was on hand to witness that high energy show and provide a track-by-track review of each album cut.   That review in it's entirety can be found here.

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It had been two years since Brooklyn dreamgaze collective No Honeymoon released their excellent sophomore EP “Together Alone” (featured on this sites 2015 Best Of list).  The long wait for new material was satisfied with the release of their latest EP “It’s Whatever.”

Recent single release “Were Doing Fine” shows the band stepping back from heavier gaze-guitar sound they’d previously employed, opting instead for a cleaner sound that underscores its heart-tugging melody and emotive vocal performance.  Follow-up cut “Don’t Want To” brings that weightier force back, while introducing what sounds like an organ behind the verses.  Guitarist and band vocalist Cait Smith sings with a tone and vocal inflection reminiscent of The CranberriesDolores O’Riordan at times.  The unexpected tempo shift occurring a third of the way through slows things down to a more deliberate, buzzy and distorted resolution.

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The recent release of soulful dream-rockers The Veldt’s latest EP Thanks to the Moth and Areanna Rose delivers seven new tracks that undoubtedly connect with their long-time followers, while potentially appealing to a new generation only recently discovering this sound.

“The Color of Love is Blue” with its descending chord progression and tightly-coiled, clipped-chime guitar work evokes peak-period Robin Guthrie and The Cocteau Twins.  That influence is further suggested via falsetto vocals, Liz Fraser-style phrasing while adding in a level of American soul inflections.  Percussive elements solidify the homage, reflecting the boldly struck accents so prevalent on classic albums “Heaven Or Las Vegas” and “Four Calendar CafĂ©.”

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Brooklyn musician David Van Witt records and plays live (with a band) under the name HNRY FLWR.  The initial cap abbreviation of the name Henry Flower comes from the alias Leopold Bloom uses as the protagonist and hero of James Joyce's Ulysses.  Having spent the last two years playing live shows and releasing the occasional single and video, the debut EP was released this year via Paper Garden Records.

Opening track “Stranger” moves from somber beginnings into a bright keyboard driven anthem. Nuanced layers emerge throughout it’s near six minute length, with cascading background vocals and buzzing synths.   “As Above, So Below” slithers along like a soundtrack to some middle-eastern mystery quest film.  Van Witt’s vocal tone and delivery share similarities with the moody baritone of Peter Murphy.  Ballad “Little Brother” explores the cycle of violent abuse, ultimately concluding that “now I’ve become those bruises on your arms.”  “Down In Carolina” is propelled along by a deliberate bass-line under bright synthesizer enhancements.  There’s a muted, distant quality to the vocals that add an air of mystery to it all.  Closing track “Context (Trans-Pecos, On A Full Moon, On A Monday)” sounds pretty much as the title suggests.  That this acoustic guitar only live track was recorded at that celebrated venue on the day and lunar moment described.  An odd inclusion on this otherwise lushly produced EP, but perhaps the intent is to show the humanity behind the machinery of recording music.

Check out their latest video release for the song "Little Brother"

There is also a clever (and quite entertaining) Indiegogo campaign where you can become more involved in the inner workings of the bands climb to stardom.  The Blaze Boylan videos are highly recommended.  Check all that out here.

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Emerging from their own previously established bands, Brooklyn’s Teen Vice released their debut EP “Saddest Summer” this past July on the Commission Music label.  Lead vocals and guitar are provided by Tammy Hart, who initially made a name for herself in the bands Winning Looks, Making Friendz and MEN.  Bassist/vocalist Joshua Ackley and drummer Derek Pippin had long been the core of punk band The Dead Betties, whom I previously wrote a feature about on The Deli here.

Guitarist May Dantas rounds out the quartet, whose sound attempts to meld Fleetwood Mac style melodies with the punk aggression of Hole.  On featured track “Kiss It Goodbye”clean, jangly guitar chords establish the three chord rhythm before thrashing drums, fuzzy electric guitar and bass throb crash through.  Things get momentarily quiet as Tammy’s vocals provide a softer touch on lyrics like “swear I didn’t mean it – really didn’t mean it.” The chorus explodes, however with Joshua joining in on title line lyrics “so kiss it na, na, na, na, na – goodbye” with aggressive slashing guitars over the roughhouse rhythm.

Listen to that track and the rest of the EP via their soundcloud

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Ora Cogan plays a unique blend of psychedelic folk, dark wave ambient and experimental dream pop. Her new album Crickets was released last month, and presents eight full tracks recorded during this past year.

Title track “Crickets” presents a circular time signature via cascading guitar figure and bell chime percussion.  Ms. Cogan’s vocals emerge unexpectedly and float above the defined rhythm, adhering to a much looser structure.   A variety of keyboard synths are employed, creating pulsating textures underneath changing segments.  There are elements of Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny and Renaissance’s Annie Haslam in the sweetly powerful vocal phrasing and loose psych-folk performance.  Second track “The Light” builds off of a tambourine and snare percussion pattern with syncopated counter strikes.  Ora’s vocals feel more intimate here, leaning closer to the ethereal charm of Kate Bush.

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Having a song included in Little Steven's Underground Garage "Coolest Song in the World" poll is one of those “honor just to be nominated” moments.  Diane and The Gentle Men’s single “Motorcycle” earned a place among that weekly group with 51 other artists last year, ranging from local stars to very big international names.

The song and video pay a playful homage to the late 50’s/early 60’s ideal of a youthful desire for rock n’ roll kicks.   While clean-cut teenagers watch bad boy motorcycle movies on TV, Diane sings about “riding on the back with her ray bans and leather jacket” in a sultry Chrissie Hynde-esqe cadence and tone, over a chugging rock rhythm.  Soon the kids are up dancing as the chorus hooks with lyrics “blame it on summer heat, when the moon is high, and the air is clear, and the sky is wide.”  The track stands out with numerous unexpected sonic asides like a slightly askew descending keyboard line in the second verse and momentum shifting percussive breaks throughout.   There’s a country-western warmth to the chorus, with its chord structure, big impassioned lead vocal and sweet background harmonies.

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Brooklyn post-punk rockers The Fluids celebrated the release of their debut album “No Kidding!” this past October.

Initial singles “Creatures” and “Sign N’ Drive” provided early insight into the bands evolving sound, which were fully realized with the complete full length recording.  Utilizing an extended keyboard intro and siren-like effect, “Just Like Me” ultimately bursts out as a full-on guitar, bass and drums stomper.  While the vocal inflections have accurately drawn comparisons to Berlin-era Bowie, the heavier rock style presented place this particular track closer to early aughts post-punk revivalists Interpol.  That era took their cue from bands like Joy Division, whose sonic lineage is also reflected within this track.

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As previously stated, attending shows for bands you already know and love frequently leads to new discoveries.  Catching mystical rockers herMajesty live last month has led to further investigation into their recorded works.

While the predominant motivating force behind this sound comes by way of frontman JP (songwriter, vocalist, guitars and samples), a complete band is presented with David Leatherwood (bass, lead guitars), Joan Chew (bass), and Konrad Meissner (drums).  The recordings also showcase contributions from a number of celebrated guest musicians at times.  Recently released single “I Saw The Dog” is an example of that, and is impressive on a number of levels.

On the surface, a multi-colored vinyl release makes for an attractive collectors item.

Coming in to possession of the purple version allows for a three dimensional inspection of this impressively sturdy (and weighty) sculptured audio format. Here in the present day digital age, it's nice to occasionally add something like this to one's home library.

The song itself is a mid-tempo chugger that benefits from ambient keyboards, multiple layers of guitars, complete with a feedback intro, brightly strummed acoustic and extended-note electric guitars. “I built a bonfire just for you” is how the introductory line goes.  “I waited through the winter months for you. I sold my time, my shirt, my shoes for you. It was a bitter year – I saw the dog.” Although the lyrics are said to have been formed via the “cut-up technique” (popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by writer William S. Burroughs) a more studied and cohesive storyline is revealed.

Photo by April Orr

With a sweeping chorus that goes “Dance my little libertine - dance my little pretty thing- let your nucleus spread it's wings,” the central emotional peak is reached.  A spacious, ambient, post-chorus break just past the songs midway point provides a welcome sonic reprieve between more dramatic moments.  The noteworthy additions of guest musicians Henry Hay (keyboards) add Chris McQueen (guitars) combined with Nic Hard's production elevate the recording to the highest professional level. That all three are veteran David Bowie collaborators brings home herMajesty's own appreciation for Mr. Bowie's contributions.
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herMajesty will be playing a number of upcoming shows in the New Year, with a stop at Berlin in NYC (along side the wonderful Like Herding Cats) on January 25.

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Another band recently finding their way onto the CromwellWrites radar are the punky pop female fronted quintet Giftshop.  Accurately describing their style as “CBGB's style punk mixed with 21st century pop hooks,” they've recently released their third EP “Blue Monster.”

Leadoff cut “Despicable” makes clever use of quick strummed high-pitched guitar strokes before plunging into the bass heavy, forward charging rhythm.   Vocalist (and songwriter) Meghan Taylor declares “hey there – can you hear it? It's the sound of you being a hypocrite!”  The clear message of vitriol aimed at those who phony their way through life is apparent.  Much of the rhythms come tightly wound as guitar, bass and drums lock together with Ramones-esque precision.  However the songs very un-punk-rock-like length of three minutes and forty seconds allows for additional segments of those “pop hooks” and instrumental breaks.  For instance a descending progression where Meghan repeats the phrase “why – why don't – why don't you” (we don't get the payoff until the final pass through - “why don't you lie again!”) is embellished with poppy background vocal enhancements.  A subsequent chunky guitar and drum fill break leads into a third section of hand-clap fueled chanting where Meghan states that “I don't want you to apologize to me, I just want you to know that I told you so.”  That's followed by brightly-toned guitar break that echoes and expands on the songs initial opening notes.

Clocking in at just over two minutes, “Cill the Choreographer” (a clever recall of the Eddie Murphy SNL poem?) bops and bounces along like a Joan Jett/Blondie hybrid.  “Dangerous” spells out a cautionary tale on the perils of vice, wrapped in an 80's homage rhythmic style.  Recent live at Sofar Sounds video release “Doncha Know” features a retro keyboard sound (courtesy of Nichole Onopiak) within its spacious arrangement.   Harmony vocals between Meghan and guitarist Matt Santoro add a sweetness to this song of love and devotion.  “Red Letter Day” brings back the punk rock throttle, but makes sure to including poppy “uh oh oh” background vocals.   The amusingly titled “Spooky Halloween Christmas” throttles along via Damian Eckstein's rubbery bass pattern, Jordan Kramer's rockabilly drums and Matt's Stray Cats-style guitar bursts.  It's like The Cramps, The Waitresses and Blondie all rolled into one.  The record closes out with a lovely cover of the wonderful Martha Davis and The Motels song “Only The Lonely.”

More colorful 7” singles can be had from the bands record label Tarbeach Records here.

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Friday, October 13 saw the release of Dead Leaf Echo's long-awaited follow-up full length record "Beyond.Desire."

Once again DaveCromwellWrites attended that celebrated record release show and wrote about a number of this albums deeper, previously unreleased tracks.  Read about the show and this Best of 2017 album “Beyond.Desire” here.

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With this years release of their sophomore album “New Moody Judy,” Brooklyn post punk rockers Honey deliver an aggressive collection of wah wah guitar fueled songs.

Opener “Wage Agreement” centers power trio jamming alongside a bending guitar figure and half pleading/half shouting vocals reminiscent of early Richard Hell.  Follow-up “Dream Come Now” amps the groove up to punk rock levels with a nod towards the Ramones.  The album’s title track leans on a heavy psych guitar riff and Iggy Pop Detroit city drawl.  Deeper cuts like “Hungry,” “Bagman” and “Power” go for the high-speed velocity of an accelerated hyper-blues.   Album closer “Peggy Ray” rides fuzzy bass, slashing guitars and smack-down drumming for nearly eight full minutes.

Pick up a copy of this excellent album on their label Wharf Cat Records

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