Super Desserts: “Banjo Forever”(!)

This is the closest I came to getting everyone in one shot
photo by me (click to see more)

I’m not really sure when it happened, but at some point in the last 10 months, I forgot what it was like to hear Super Desserts for the first time. I’ve been to several of their shows and listened to Barefoot in the Disenchanted Forest countless times in the last year and at no point has my love for them faltered.  But somewhere along the way, the drop-jawed astonishment–that “how is it possible that something like this actually exists?” sentiment–of the initial experience dissipated. And I’d had no idea I’d lost it until Sunday afternoon.

Soaked through from walking ten blocks in persistent rainfall and packed into a small independent record store with 75 other local music enthusiasts, I was treated to an unexpected reawakening. It was the release party for Super Desserts’ newest album Banjo Forever, a collection of soon-to-be classics and a handful of new versions of the songs I fell in love with. If you are familiar with the last album, you will recognize “Funeral” and “Jump Out of the Way” , as well as four others. Everything else here is new. New and wonderful.

“Gotta Lotta Sun” is vintage Super Desserts with prominent string accompaniment, a fun singable refrain, and a whistle chorus outro while “Falling Out of Fashion” (surprisingly) calls to mind a late 1990s Belle & Sebastian sing-along with handclaps and cantus firmus-like chordal accompaniment supporting jangly guitar strumming.

Then there is “Yr Heart” which, in one sense, is unlike many of the other songs on this album. Featuring the distinctive vocals of Eve Searls, it is more reminiscent, I think, of her work with Bird and Flower (just replace the handclaps with a drum machine, and there it is). As it stands, the track has that distinctive updated 60s sound that I (and really anyone with taste) can’t help but love.

For me, though, the highlight of Banjo Forever is “I Only Love You Because You Can Play Guitar”. And it ought to be required listening for every boy who has ever been a freshman in college. (And don’t even pretend you have no idea what I mean. I know you sat beneath a tree outside the girls’ dorm with your guitar, strumming the three chords you knew [G, C, D] and singing a sappy love song, probably John Mayer. We all did it.) With clever lyrics, a charming melody, and vocals of an unforced (almost naive) sweetness, it is equally reminiscent of She & Him and Pink Martini and has been stuck in my head for the last 48 hours.

I’m sure I would have loved Banjo Forever had it just appeared as a .zip file in my inbox one afternoon, but there is an added appreciation that has come along with my first experiencing two thirds of these songs (or all of them, if you include my first Super Desserts show) in a live setting, yet it is an experiential dimension I may have missed out on had it not been for the guy standing next to me Sunday afternoon. (Though I’ve forgotten his name since then,–it was John or Luke or something like that–I think it is safe to just call him Confetti Guy.) From what I gather, Confetti Guy knew some of the band members, but had never actually heard their music. I assume he had come to the show to be supportive of his friends, but it was easy to see (in fact, it would have been difficult not to see) that, with each subsequent song, he was growing increasingly enamored with Super Desserts’ unmistakable brand of folksy indie pop (or, perhaps more appropriately, “twee as folk”). And, in listening to his enthusiastic (an understatement) response to every song, I couldn’t help being transported back to a small bar with a maple tree growing out of the floor and through the ceiling (no, really), to a show I almost didn’t attend. It was then that I remembered what only the stunned look on my face could have conveyed that night in March 2009: that Super Desserts are a revelation not to be missed at any cost.*

If you are in Chicago and you want to experience Super Desserts firsthand, which you do (see above), they will be playing The Hideout on Thursday (28 January) and Cole’s (in the Logan Square area) on Saturday (30 January). In between, they will be somewhere up in Madison, WI. See their Facebook page for details.

*unless you or someone you know is/are a) dying or b) giving birth

Look, mp3s! Legal ones!

I have mentioned Super Desserts before (way back when no one was reading this blog), but several months ago, I promised them a full review of their album. Barefoot in the Disenchanted Forest really isn’t like any album you’ve seen/heard before. Then again, super Desserts aren’t like any band you’ve ever seen/heard before. For instance, when was the last time you paid $5 for 21 songs with titles like “Under the Guise of Darkness, Clara’s Hands Look Like Ninja Fighting Stars (We Won’t Talk About Her Nose)” on a CD with a 26 page photocopied collage booklet packaged in a 7-inch vinyl record sleeve? For that matter, how many bands have you seen that use glockenspiel, ukulele, banjo, and sitar along with strings simultaneously, all the while reveling in the melodic capabilities of the bass clarinet? Are you starting to get the picture?

“Ghost Song” mp3

“Fran’s Song” mp3

Clearly, I cannot address every song, so we’ll just stick with a few of the highlights. “Four Seasons” (yes, each track has an alternate, simpler title) is a great opener, if only because, within 20 seconds, you have a clear sense of how intricate Super Desserts’ instrumental textures really are. (It is, however, a great song in its own right.) The track opens with ukulele, shaker, and glockenspiel for a few measures before adding banjo, harpsichord, and bass clarinet and, finally, choral, sing-along-style vocals. (And that’s the thing about this band, every song is like listening to a group of friends gathered in a pub or someone’s living room or round a campfire with whatever instruments they have on hand, singing and playing for the love of music. And that is just what every Super Desserts show is like. It’s the kind of genuineness that Fleet Foxes might have been capable of were they not from the self-obsessed Pacific Northwest.)

Eight tracks in is the clever two-minute gem, “Ghost Song” (written by Justin Riley). Who could not love a song with lyrics like “And if you are ever feeling lonely / Have a little séance and I’ll talk to you,” or “Maybe I can join a band of angels. / I may not have a body, but I’ve still got soul”. Late in the album falls “Jump Out of the Way”, one of Eve’s. The second half of this song is particularly stellar as the whole band joins the fray in a manner similar to the second half of Nickel Creek’s “Helena”, but in a somewhat stripped down (in volume only) sense. There are several other great tracks worth mentioning, like “Funeral” (“I once made out with my cousin from Cleveland / I thought she was beautiful / When my sister caught us (Oh no! Oh no!) / We were so embarrassed.”) or “Peckin’” (based on a poem by Shel Silverstein and a melody by some local fifth graders) which returns as an instrumental in a blues rock jam at the end of the Southern gospel revival style “Hammock”.

I want close out this review with one last song, my favorite, “Fran’s Song”. Despite an altogether uninteresting title (even the longer version is somewhat ordinary: “Clara is Sitting on a Sofa Next to Her Half-Brother and is Having a Completely Normal Conversation with Him”), it is the standout for me. This is as close as Super Desserts get to a normal song and the only time piano/glockenspiel-ist Fran Litterski (who also wrote it) takes center-stage. And I think it’s that ordinariness that most resonates with me. Her voice is sweet and pleasant to listen to, which further elucidates some of the prettiest, purest lyrics on this record (“I find it beautiful when I see older people holding hands. / I see that and I want it so bad, / but I know that there’s a life to live right here before that comes / I just want to know that it is something that I’ll have.”) Even a “hardened critic” like myself feels that way sometimes (read: constantly) and cannot help but melt upon hearing them here. (I had better stop listening to this song soon, or my nascent crush on Ms. Litterski is just going to get worse, and we all know how badly those things work out for me.)

Anyway, I’ve talked a lot and you’re probably bored, but I like Super Desserts. A lot. So, check out the MySpace and the website and the mp3s (above and below) and the Facebook and our Facebook and I’ll leave you alone now.

“Ghost Song” mp3

“Fran’s Song” mp3

A Song That Has Its Own Soul

When I first heard the name Musée Mécanique, I couldn’t help but wonder what to expect.  Are we talking Edgard Varèse here?  Because I am not particularly in the mood for good ole Edgard today.  The band shares, though, that they’ve named themselves after the museum in lovely San Francisco–they “love to make a song that has its own soul, just like the machines they have over there at the museum.”  Now that’s something I’m always in the mood for.

Hampton Roads is an interesting place because we have very few good venues, but the venues we have are pretty cool.  (Then again, it could be like those guys in your college classes who aren’t really that cute, but you are tricked into thinking they are because everyone else in the class is so unattractive.)  So,  I was going through the list today deciding what shows are going on my calendar for the summer, and if you’re local (to me, not to Eric), you’ll be glad to know that Musée Mécanique will be playing with Laura Gibson and The Muckrakes at the Boot on June 18th!  And now I will convince you why you should be there with me.

Musée Mécanique is an indie folk band, but they are not your average indie folk band.  They’ve incorporated some awesome instruments, not just as fun showstopping gimmicks, but as a convincing contribution to the whole.  You’ll hear minimalist influence in tracks like “Under Glass” (how ironic) as violin, oboe, cello, and others are added to the repeating guitar, building to the point of catharsis.  Accordion underbelly on tracks like “Like Home” and “Sleeping In Our Clothes” make their sound incredibly distinct, and although glockenspiel has become an indie staple, when you combine it with melodica, real strings, and real wind instruments…well, it’s pretty different, right?  Micah and Sean’s soft vocals fit comfortably into the ensemble, and I think this is getting to what is most impressive about the lovely Musée–every lyric, every instrument, every solo, every harmony, and every stop and start has its place.  Nothing is random; nothing sounds unintentional.  The result is something that I can only think to describe as whole.  How often do you find music that moves you, and how often are you looking for it?

By the way, since I know all of you can’t be at the Boot w/me… they’re in Chicago on June 6th, Columbus on June 9th, DC on June 15th, and Portland on July 3rd (to name a few).  Find the rest of their tour dates + details on their myspace.

Catching up with Ce-ci-ci-cilia

First, do me a favor and try out these links and tell me if they work: theindiehandbook.co.uk and theindiehandbook.net. You should automatically be redirected to this page, but it has only worked on half of the machines I have tried so far. (If anyone can explain this to me, please do.)

So, anyway, where was I….Oh, yeah!

I love Sweden! It’s gorgeous (as are the people), they design some of the sexiest furniture I have ever seen, and once, in Göteborg, I found dark chocolate infused with Earl Grey tea. Now, I’m not quite prepared to live there (no offense, but walking around at 21h45 in broad daylight kinda freaks me out) but the unbelievable music is almost enough to make me change my mind. (Third largest exporter of pop music in the world, Sweden is, after the US and the UK.) They have provided us with a lot of great music over the years (the Cardigans; Peter, Bjorn, and John; ok, fine, ABBA, too), but I don’t think any has struck me the way Hari and Aino have.

Hari and Aino came up on my last.fm playlist about a months ago and I liked it. Then, last week, I heard “On my usual catch up with Cecilia” and I am telling you all, I have not been this excited about a band since I first heard The School three weeks ago (if you listen to them both, you should have no trouble telling which direction my tastes are trending these days). I loved it so much that, after listening to their MySpace on repeat for two hours (and “Cecilia” at least a dozen times), I bought their self-titled CD which doesn’t even have “Cecilia” on it (you can download the track by clicking here: \”On my usual catch up with Cecilia\”, however, and several other tracks are available for free on MySpace and last.fm).

“Cecilia” (from the digital compilation put out by eardrumsmusic.com called Birdsongs,Beesongs–volume A available here for free) is admittedly a wee bit bouncier than the other tracks (I believe the technical term is “twee as f*ck”), but they will all make you smile. And they all feature Andrea Dahlkild’s stunning vocals (a cross between the color of Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer and the laid back delivery of Linnea Jönsson from Those Dancing Days, though Andrea’s phrasing is far more relaxed and natural), nice, clean, pseudo C86 guitar, and, wait for it, GLOCKENSPIEL!!! (actually, it could be a xylophone, it is definitely a mallet struck idiophone; I’ll let the band correct me if I’m wrong).

Ladies and gentlemen, listen to this. Listen to it now. This is Friday music, folks. And today is FRIDAY! I guarantee, you will be hooked from the moment you hear Andrea linger on the name “Ce-ci-ci-ciliaaa”. What more could you want?

Also, word around the Twitterverse is that Hari and Aino would like to make a trip out to the States to play some shows. If you love what you hear (and you will), go to MySpace or Twitter or Facebook or wherever and tell them how much you want them to come here. If you don’t love it, just tell them how much I want them to play here.

And download the Birdsongs, Beesongs compilation. It also includes another favorite band of mine, Mockingbird, Wish Me Luck. Also, did I mention it’s free?

We are the future folk.

I have been waiting for this day for some time now. I am not talking about the fact that Venus Hum are finally back to work on their looong overdue third album. No. Today, you and I finally get to hear the first demo from Ali M Forbes. You know him (or you ought to know him) from Envy & Other Sins (and if you don’t, you should get to know them both). A few months ago, in the very first installment of The Indie Handbook, I went on the record as saying that Envy & Other Sins’ debut LP, We Leave at Dawn, was the best album of 2008. And while I was assured that my review was stupid, that cannot discount the top tier quality of the album.

Last I heard, the band were taking some time off from gigging to work on some new songs, which include glockenspiel. Meanwhile, Ali has been working on some tracks and a few gigs of his own. There is only one track posted on his MySpace (and a demo at that) at the moment, but it is a nice taste and enough to leave me wanting more. The track, “Under Her Sails”, features that gift for melody and modal shift that made We Leave at Dawn such a delight. Add to that lots of layering, electronics, synths, strings, handclaps, and, yes, glockenspiel (!) and you have the concoction Forbes himself (on his facebook page) describes as “future folk”. I think I like future folk (hey, Ali, do you want to record a track for our Christmas album?). It’s all too bad I don’t really live anywhere near anywhere he ever performs.

I also though I should take this opportunity to encourage you to keep up with The Indie Handbook this coming week. Let’s just say, if you thought Dutch Week was fun, just wait until you experience:

MALTA MAYHEM!

It’s going to be epic.

Death to Los Campesinos!

Imagine that Belle & Sebastian and Tilly & the Wall got together and one thing led to another, which led to septuplets; and imagine that those children grew up with no friends, only a Sugarcubes record and a glockenspiel. If you can get past the absurdly crowded delivery room, you may begin to have some idea what to expect from Los Campesinos!(MySpace) debut LP Hold On Now, Youngster. And, really, there is no way this should work. But somehow it does.

Perhaps a few examples are in order. First: glockenspiels have never been rock ‘n’ roll (though, now that Envy & Other Sins have apparently included one in their upcoming album, I may have to rethink that). For that matter, neither has the melodica. Apparently, no one told Los Campesinos! this, because even when doubling the lead guitar on tracks like the frantic opener “Death To Los Campesinos!”, the thing manages to hold its own. Second: 43 minutes of lyrics like “This is how you spell ‘HAHAHA, we destroyed the hopes and dreams of a generation of faux-romantics.’ And I’m pleased” (and yes, that is also the title of the song) should not leave me with a ridiculous smile on my face. It is a juxtaposition of cheery pop (sort of) and cynicism worthy of the best of the early Cardigans.

And thought Gareth’s lyrics can be a bit, shall we say, abstract, e.g. “If you catch me with my hands in the till/I promise you that I wasn’t trying to steal/I’m just swimming in copper to smell and pretend like a robot.” (from “Death To Los Campesinos!”), they read more like Charles Bukowski with an attention span than what passes for lyrics among the more radio-friendly set these days. Add to that a lead guitarist whose repertoire extends beyond the realm of power chords and the result is really is something special—a nice change from much of the new stuff I’ve been encountering lately. Yes, two tracks did appear on the EP Sticking Fingers Into Sockets (“Don’t Tell Me To Do the Math(s)” and “You! Me! Dancing!”), a good 30 seconds have been added to the latter and the other nine songs (ok, 10 counting the bonus track) are well worth the investment.

Track List:

  1. “Death to Los Campesinos!” – 2:52
  2. “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats” – 3:35
  3. Don’t Tell Me to Do the Math(s)” – 3:22
  4. “Drop it Doe Eyes” – 2:44
  5. My Year In Lists” – 1:51
  6. “Knee Deep at ATP” – 2:49
  7. “This Is How You Spell “HAHAHA, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics”” – 4:20
  8. “We Are All Accelerated Readers” – 2:54
  9. “You! Me! Dancing!” – 6:48
  10. “…And We Exhale and Roll Our Eyes in Unison” – 2:50
  11. “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks” – 4:31
  12. “2007: The Year Punk Broke (My Heart)” [unlisted bonus track] – 4:44