Getting Cultured

The only photo with more than one discernible band member

There’s not a whole lot of indiepop in Columbus, Ohio. Sure, Super Desserts had the local twee market cornered for a couple of years, but with banjo player Tyler Evans now a New Yorker, it could be a while yet before we hear from them again. Now, maybe I’ve just been going to the wrong gigs, but I can’t recall hearing anything around here with solid connections to C86. But one would think a city this size with monthly club nights dedicated to The Smiths and to 60s garage/soul could sustain its share of indiepop acts. We do, however, get the occasional brush with Madchester’s progeny when they roll through town on tour, as Bay Area shoegazers Young Prisms did in March. And it was in this guise, just this past weekend, that I caught a brief glimpse of a local scene I didn’t even know existed.

On tour was 28 Degrees Taurus, a seasoned pop-oriented shoegaze act from Boston making their first Columbus appearance in five years. Their performance was slick and high energy and they sure make a heck of a lot of noise for three people (I love to see a guitarist unleash on his instrument the way Jinsen Liu does). But the surprise of the night came in the form of local quintet, Love Culture.

You know how it is. There are bands who long to break out of the small rooms and into stadiums. And if you’ve ever seen one of these bands play (as I did not long ago) you know how difficult it can be to watch. (And, no, I won’t tell you who they were, mostly because I can’t remember their name.) Conversely, there are those bands who make those small rooms feel like stadiums. Love Culture are one of those bands—and that’s not just the fog machine and lasers talking. They may not be the most shining example of textbook shoegaze (while their sound owes a lot to My Bloody Valentine, there are also healthy doses of Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, and other mid-90s icons in there), but Love Culture have that swirling epic haziness down, all the way to the extensive pedal boards and androgynous lead vocals.

Yes, while the fog machine and laser light show may be a bit eccentric, but they are all part of the ethos of Love Culture. To hear the opening strains of a song like “Karolyne”, for instance, emerge from a set of laser-lit silhouettes, especially at a distance of a mere seven or eight feet, lends an already strong track an otherworldly eeriness that makes a lasting impression. So, maybe Love Culture aren’t the second coming of Talulah Gosh that I’ve been hoping for, I’m still glad to know—latecomer though I may be—that there is strong shoegaze in Columbus.

Love Culture’s recent Aquamarine EP can be had for free from Bandcamp, where you’ll also find their earlier EP. You can also find them on Facebook and probably other places, too. Love Culture’s next Columbus show is May 26 at Rumba.

Introducing: The Happy Maladies

You know how it is. Sometimes, you hear a band and you just can’t bear to keep it a secret. (Yes, hipsters, I know this doesn’t exactly apply to you.) The Happy Maladies are one of those bands. I shot a couple videos of them at a house show last night and only managed to make it about 14 hours before posting them on YouTube (and it would have been closer to 12 hours had my piddly internet connection not choked on the Homeric scope of their closing number).

Sorry to say, I could have had a chance to bring you The Happy Maladies about two months ago (the last time they played here), but I was busy hosting this. And I realise that two months lag isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things (and certainly not my worst by any stretch of the imagination) but the fact of the matter is that avant garde chamber folk waits for no man. And music like this deserves to be heard, so, here they are.

The Happy Maladies are, like so many bands I love, nearly impossible to categorise. I guess it would be easiest to just call them chamber pop, but there’s a whole lot more to it than that. The instrumentation would, I suppose, most closely resemble a bluegrass ensemble, but musically, it’s about as bluegrass as the Punch Brothers. In fact, Punch Brothers are probably a good launching point for any discussion of The Happy Maladies. Throughout their set last night, the same thought kept popping into my head: ‘Why hasn’t Chris Thile snapped these guys up and whisked them off on an extended world tour?’.

Listen, and I think you’ll see what I mean. The folk elements are there, certainly, but distilled through a aleatoric filter of free jazz, late 50s classical modernism. And, if you ask me, I’d say I can hear bits of Penderecki popping up here and there as well. This certainly isn’t music for passive listening. I’d say, the shortest song from last night’s show was something like seven minutes long with the three-part closing epic clocking in somewhat closer to a quarter of an hour. But if you can manage it (and you should manage it), the journey is supremely rewarding. And, whatever you do, be sure to see The Happy Maladies in person.

MusicNOW part 1

So, here we are, it’s June and festival season is in high gear. I’ve been to three and I’ve already got my sights set on Airwaves, trying to work out just how I can swing a week in Reykjavik come mid-October. One of my UK counterparts recently told me about a dream she’d had in which I had scored media passes to The Great Escape and was texting her updates as her jealously and disappointment mounted. This was pure fantasy, of course. (I only do that sort of thing to people who have treated me horribly in the past and I bear no such ill will towards her.) Moreover, and more importantly, come the weekend of The Great Escape, I was thousands of miles away at another, much smaller festival, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Now, I call MusicNOW a “small” festival. And in terms of seating capacity and the shear number of bands slated to perform, it is. But one look at the lineup curated this (and every) year by Bryce Dessner of The National, it’s a wonder that MusicNOW—this year including The National, Owen Pallett, Sharon Van Etten, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), and Megafaun among others—isn’t at the top of everyone’s list. My only regret being that I could only attend the opening night of the festival, but, in the immortal words of Frankie Valli: oh, what a night!

It looks straightforward enough on the surface. Three bands on the bill: Sounds of the South, Shara Worden, and yMusic. (I’m going to take them out of order, if it’s alright with you.) But it’s not so simple as that.

MusicNOW bills itself as a “festival of contemporary music” and is, in every sense, the embodiment of that ideal (opening night featured, almost exclusively, unrecorded music). It’s a festival about more than a string of bands taking the stage to play the hits. From the moment that yMusic took the stage, it was clear (as I’ve heard from so many people) that MusicNOW is a special festival. I first met yMusic (well, half of them, anyway) at String Theory Festival in Minneapolis in April. Now being a New York native, I had never seen them before, though I’d long heard tell of their impeccable performances. And it’s all true.

My first impression of yMusic was one of complete astonishment—like the shock of recovering the memory of something I never knew I’d forgotten. And with every subsequent performance (four in the last two months), I’ve come away thinking the same thing: that this is why I ever studied music in the first place. And MusicNOW was no different. From the opening moments of Judd Greenstein’s Clearing, Dawn, Dance (which you can download here) through the premiere of a new work by Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire) and their set with Shara Worden it is, as always, abundantly clear that yMusic are one of the brightest lights in whatever the hell we’ve decided to call the current state of music.

Now, a word about the Parry premiere: one of the main focal points of each MusicNOW festival is the commissioning of a new piece of music. Past contributors have included Tyondai Braxton (Battles) and Annie Clark (St. Vincent). This year, the honor fell to Richard Reed Parry (or, as he was introduced by Bryce Dessner, “my friend from a band that no one has ever heard of who recently won a Grammy”.) For the piece, half of yMusic, seated at the piano with stethoscopes bound tightly to them, played to the tempo of their respective heartbeats while their three counterparts played in what might be called “the traditional manner”. The resulting pseudo-aleatory—always out of step, never out of phase—produces a beautiful haunting effect and will likely serve as a useful metaphor about stylistic diversity in future posts. It’s musica humana in its truest form.

And while yMusic may have played, quite literally, to their hearts’ content, the evening’s headliner, Sounds of the South took their organic cues from another source entirely. The performance, commissioned by Duke Performances finds its origins in the field recordings of Alan Lomax, appropriately enough, from the collection entitled Sound of the South. Through a series of new arrangements, reinterpretations, and reimaginings, the members of Megafaun and Fight the Big Bull breathe new life into Lomax’s legendary field recordings at once removing them from their native context to a whole new setting (the concert hall) and redefining the sound of concert music. All while enlisting the help of some very special friends along the way.

If you had told me two months ago that I would spend an evening listening to Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Sharon Van Etten singing blues backed by full New Orleans style jazz band, I would have—well, you probably wouldn’t have told me that, so this is a useless metaphor, but the point is, I did. And it was incredible. With intricate (and occasionally cerebral) jam sessions the rule for the night and a constantly rotating cast of singers to keep things interesting, Sounds of the South also highlights the transcendent nature of the source material (and folk music in general) – more than just songs, they are a launching point for a flurry of ideas and ingenuity. And as midnight approached 90 minutes into the performance, the only conceivable downside was that it would eventually have to end.

The Babblers, live in Columbus

The Babblers at Rumba Cafe
The Babblers (photo by Eric Robertson, a.k.a. me)

It’s difficult to photograph a band in lamplight. Then again, it’s impossible to conceive of The Babblers without it. Eschewing traditional lighting and triumphal entry, the band embarked upon their set the way they arrived in Columbus: slinking on stage in near-darkness without introduction, content to let the music bring the house to its feet and burn it to the ground.

It was something of a surprise show from one of the latest acts to spark some buzz among the musically gregarious (mostly intermingling murmurs: ‘what just happened?’ and ‘who are they?’). We all knew Will Oldham would be there. But now, after witnessing The Babblers first hand, it is embarrassing to admit that his was the name which enticed me out into the frozen December night—so embarrassing, in fact, that I will no longer mention the names of any of the six Babblers.

From the moment they lit the first floor lamp, to the extinguishing of the final fairy light, it was clear that The Babblers were about the experience: that experience being the performance of Kevin Coyne and Dagmar Krause’s 1979 album Babble, in its entirety. The album, already constructed with drama in mind, is only enhanced by the interpretation of half-a-dozen top notch musicians fully capable of (and committed to) extracting each bit of intensity from the male and female traded vocals, sudden operatic dynamic changes, and every filthy groove in one hour’s time. And the final result is something that inhabits the magical dreamworld that lies between Patsy Cline and The Sugarcubes.

And there, among the lamplit mess of urban-camo hooded footie pajamas and oversized dark sunglasses, I, too, was left with the same ruminations folks of my ilk have been entertaining all over the Eastern half of the United States for a fortnight now. What had I witnessed? I’ll admit, given the time of year, the weather outside, and the trellis bedecked in fairy lights standing center-stage, there is a certain temptation for the Romantic enthusiast in me to declare it some sort of Christmas miracle. But, for better or worse, millennial cynicism has cut us off from tasteful hyperbole and I’d hate to cheapen the experience. The details I had going into the show were fuzzy to begin with. Witnessing The Babblers in person only confuses the matter. And I think it’s better that way.

Jane Aire and the Belvederes – “Yankee Wheels”

My active engagement of the world of music is typically cyclical (well, maybe ‘cyclical’ isn’t quite the right word for it—’fickle’ is probably more appropriate). Questions of word choice aside, however, it’s safe to say that I am in discovery mode at the moment. Of course, in my adoption of a now nearly universal disillusionment with MySpace, discovery, for me, is now just as likely to occur whilst rummaging through boxes of forgotten 7-inches as it is through indiscriminate internet referrals. And it was in one of these bins where I accidentally stumbled upon Jane Aire and the Belvederes’ 1978 single ‘Yankee Wheels’ b/w ‘Nasty…Nice’ (hey, I never said everything on this blog would be new—besides, it’s new to me).

Born Jane Ashley, Jane Aire was discovered in Akron, Ohio (reportedly whilst singing karaoke) by talent scout and songwriter Liam Sternberg (‘Walk Like an Egyptian’) who included two Jane Aire songs on the Akron compilation he prepared for London’s Stiff Records. Shortly after, Aire left Akron for London to record for Stiff Records. Leaving Ohio to pursue the British music scene…remind you of anyone? (No, I still live here. I am, of course, referring to The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, another Akron native.)

Backed by the Belvederes (aka ‘The Edge’—a real band in their own right including Lu Edmonds and Jon Moss, both former Damned, one future Culture Club), Jane Aire released ‘Yankee Wheels’ in 1978, her first single for Stiff, penned by Sternberg. With it’s half-spoken verses, strutting rhythms, and meandering melodies, ‘Yankee Wheels’ is evocative of the more experimental side of New Wave. Paired with B-side ‘Nasty…Nice’ and it’s post-garage riffs reminiscent of early Kinks, the single comes across as a prelude to a promising new record.

Or, at least it did—that is until the band defected to Virgin. Whereas there is no telling what a Jane Aire LP on the eclectic and iconoclastic Stiff Records (also home to Elvis Costello, The Damned, and Wreckless Eric, among others) would have sounded like, the Virgin version, by most accounts (and from the handful of tracks I’ve heard), manifests as a sort of neutered rendition of the ‘Yankee Wheels’ aesthetic, tending toward a more marketable pop sound. Neither track from the single appears on the LP.

Though her LP garnered something of a cult following, Jane Aire experienced very little conventional success with her Virgin releases. After a few years of silence, she did return to Stiff with one last single, a cover of Dusty Springfield’s ‘I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten’ b/w ‘Heat of the City’, in 1982. Of her complete discography—some  one and a half dozen—only one, ‘Yankee Wheels’ has ever appeared on CD, a Stiff Records compilation of some sort.

She has, at some point in the last 30 years, returned to the States and is now, apparently, living somewhere around Baltimore and performing with R&B cover band The Majestics. I think.

Listen to ‘Yankee Wheels’ below and, if you want to track down Jane Aire’s other stuff, this guy has actually heard all of it, so check out what he has to say.

Columbus loves independent musicians (and I’ve got the scars to prove it)

The Compressions (more on them later)

My calves, it appears, have gone on strike. I can’t say I blame them. I’ve subjected them to a great deal of work and odd photography stances the past two weekends, all in the name of local music. But with the combination of last week’s Pabst Blue Rendezvous and Independents’ Day this past weekend producing a combined 35 hours of the best independent music Columbus, OH has to offer, it punishment I am more than willingly to endure (so long as I am fit in time for Belle & Sebastian next month).

Super Desserts, as I’m sure you’ve come to expect, played two well-executed sets, one at each fest. Always the consummate professionals, the so-introduced “cutest band in America”, managed to woo the Independents’ Day crowd out of their pocket money despite a bit of questionable mixing from the sound booth and a noticeably thinner texture (banjo-ist Tyler Evans is currently on tour with The Black Swans).

Obviouslies at Pabst Blue Rendezvous

A week earlier, at Pabst Blue Rendezvous, Indie Handbook favourites Obviouslies played an adventurous and somewhat unorthodox set (1 guitar, 2 drumkits, 2 basses, 3 songs, 4 Obviouslies). I won’t go so far as to call their 30 minutes on stage a rampaging success, but I think I enjoyed it a little more than Columbus Alive’s Chris DeVille (more on him later). Obviouslies, never content to traipse about playing rock band, are always keen to try new things to varying degrees of brilliance. And such a laid-back event as the PBR fest with a beer-soaked audience of Columbus indie scene regulars willing to stand around in an abandoned parking lot through intermittent rainfall is the perfect place to experiment with an epic 10-minute number ending with three Obviouslies beating the drums and confirming, among other rumors, that guitarist Nick Schuld is a really good drummer.

Which reminds me, Obviouslies have added two new tracks to their Facebook page this week, including an absolutely brilliant recording of “Instead of Waiting” which I’ve been absolutely obsessed with since the moment it was posted. Listen to it. Relentlessly.

Pomegranates (bonus points for the Danelectro)

Other highlights from Pabst Blue Rendezvous included a great set from the Pomegranates from Cincinnati, who I had somehow not heard despite the fact that they’ve apparently made a bit of a splash with several of my friends, both in Ohio and at SXSW. It would be a great injustice if I did not also mention the brilliant Queen cover band Mr. Fahrenheit and the Loverboys. Of course, I had an appreciation for Queen before hearing MFL, but there is something about hearing the songs performed live by a solid group of musicians that injects a whole new vitality to the classics you grew up with.

Wonder Twin Powers (I suspect they don't always play with cars parked onstage)

Perhaps the most pleasant discovery of PBR day was local soul-pop duo Wonder Twin Powers who I encountered playing in the alley next to Mikey’s Late Nite Slice. Despite the fact that I had been on my feet for eight hours at that point and was comically exhausted, I managed to spend the rest of the evening standing in another parking lot listening to the sexiest band I saw all day (sorry, Loverboys). The lot filled quickly with passersby as Jenny Flory’s guitar case did with cash. I’d hoped to grab a copy of their CD to review for you, but those disappeared faster than I could crack open my wallet. Maybe they’ll send one my way if they read this. (If the internet is to be believed, Super Desserts cellist Alyssa Capps appears as part of the hip-hop orchestra on one track).

Unfortunately, road construction made me late for Independents’ Day, which meant I arrived just as the hotly tipped yet elusive (to me, at least) Lydia Loveless left the stage. Rumor has it that she is one of the most promising young talents in Columbus. Much to my dismay, I cannot confirm that from personal experience, but one of these days, I will catch up with Ms. Loveless and let you know whether or not the people in this town have any idea what they’re talking about.

Unfortunately, awesome is difficult to photograph
Flotation Walls

Speaking of “not to be missed” I did finally see Flotation Walls, who I’ve seen leaving several gigs (they’re hard to miss) though never managed to catch in flagrante delicto. They perform with even more energy and enthusiasm than their screaming-yellow stage attire suggests. The half-set that I witnessed was easily the most impassioned of the day and left the drenched in awesome. Hopefully, they record as well as they perform. Which reminds me: Compressions.

I had heard nothing of Compressions before last Saturday. I only stayed for their set because some friends were going. I had no idea what I was in for or that the girls clad in white and gold who I’d seen earlier would be on stage or that Chris DeVille (remember him from earlier?) would be up there, too. The band, I gather, have been around for a year or so. At the time of the last Independents’ Day, they had yet to play a gig. This time round, they took advantage of the event to launch their debut album. I was immediately sucked in—by the songs, the look, the energy, the crowd—by everything. In the end, they performed what proved to be the most memorable, electrifying show of the day in support of what’s proved to be a pretty good album. They’re certainly an act who put on a show not to be missed and your next opportunity to do so, as I recall, will be at Carabar on October 9.

As I’m sure you understand, there was a lot to take in and this post is by no means exhaustive. Head over to the Facebook page to see more photos from these events.

Justin Riley: action hero

That’s “Obviouslies”, as in more than one obviously

Ryan Lydon took this photo

I’ll be honest with you; I’ve been trying to write this post for about two weeks now. That’s because, two weeks ago, I caught Obviouslies opening for Adult Fiction (or Dead Indians or whatever they’re calling themselves these days) and have been in the throes of a minor obsession. And over the course of the last fortnight, I have probably sketched about a dozen drafts only to abandon them all for one reason or another.

I don’t know what it is about Obviouslies that makes me so reticent to commit my thoughts to html. It’s almost as if I’m afraid that, if I phrase it wrong, I might break something. It’s a ridiculous notion, really. Obviouslies are a new band comprised of veteran musicians. And even though they can be a pain to classify, they know what they’re doing, and it shows.

While on record they may at one point sound like straight up shoegaze only to channel a sound more reminiscent of Letters to Cleo than My Bloody Valentine a few tracks later, it is live where the true genius of Obviouslies becomes—well—obvious. On stage, the sound is much more cohesive, as if Jack White had embarked on a noise-pop side project with Gareth Campesinos! and ex-Pipettes Rosay and RiotBecki. But even a description that convoluted falls short because there is also an otherworldly Sacred Harp quality to tracks like “A Couple Honest Years” and “Only Lives” (especially “Only Lives” version 2). In this case, you’re really just going to have to listen for yourself.

The band have an LP in the works. For now, you will have to content yourself with the “Wish for You”/ “A Couple Honest Years” 7-inch from Datapanik records (which does a good job of capturing the band’s live sound, though is sadly lacking in the onstage antics of vocalists Ianna and Jamie or guitarist Nick Schuld’s Comfest unitard). You can download the single free of charge, but it would be even cooler if you emailed the band and bought one (ohobviouslies@gmail.com). It might also be worth contacting the band via Facebook or MySpace. But, if you’re in Columbus, it would be well worth the effort to catch them live.

I wish I had an mp3 or a half-decent video to offer you. I don’t. So, go listen, either on Facebook or MySpace. Also, here is the best video I could find. (And if you are listening/watching and you think to yourself “Golly, that girl looks/sounds a lot like that one girl from Super Desserts”, that’s because it is.)

I fell in love in a wicker chair – Super Desserts are Twee As Folk

Twee As FolkSome time in the last 20 minutes, warm and sunny Columbus has become Galveston circa 1900. As I glanced out the window a few moments ago, the sight of horizontal rain and trees bent nearly in half* came as quite a surprise. Though, I daresay, if those turn of the century Texans had been spinning the latest Super Desserts album, Twee As Folk, on their phonographs as I have been, they wouldn’t have noticed the approaching storm either.

Attached as I am to the title Twee As Folk, it is (I think) a touch ironic that it be applied to this particular album (the second in five months) as the term “twee” is less applicable to this one than it was to either Barefoot in the Disenchanted Forest or Banjo Forever. That is not to say that Twee As Folk is any less clever (or just plain fun) than the previous releases—see the rollicking “Wicker Chair” or “Missy Madame” (a cover of Columbus locals The Curiosities/Maza Blaska) to allay any concerns—but that it is a more mature album, expanding on the musical ideas hinted at in previous albums.

For one thing, the band make more effective use of the myriad instruments they cram onstage, evolving from band to indiepop-chamber-folk ripieno orchestra (“Give Your Mom a Call” and “Turn Up the Sunlight”). Likewise, several tracks on Twee As Folk put more emphasis on rhythm, even incorporating a northern soul-tinged groove beneath folk instrumentation on tracks like “Winter Is Here” or the laid-back, summery shuffle of “Crush On You”. Then there are the long phrases and willingness to toy with dissonance, evident on several tracks, but especially “Margaret Yang” (dig the background vocals…).

Of particular note on Twee As Folk, however, are the vocals, with more than half of the band taking lead duties at one point or another—and all of them good performances. Even those who habitually took lead roles on previous records are sounding particularly good on this one. But, by far, the most pleasing discovery for me has been newish band member Ianna. Until now, I’d never heard her sing lead on anything, but the effortless clarity of her voice—think a richer, silvery version of Catherine Ireton from God Help the Girl—has left me wanting  much (much) more. For now, I’ll have to be content to listen to “Vector of Affection” and “Fall Down” on endless repeat.

With an album like Twee As Folk, it is difficult for me to pick favorites—I have listened to nothing else for three days now—but if pressed, I would point out that “Everybody Loves To Be Loved”, “Fall Down”, and “Wicker Chair” have the highest playcounts, respectively. And then there is the fact that it hasn’t even been six months since Super Desserts released Banjo Forever. Under normal circumstances, most reviewers (myself included) would be skeptical of a band that can turn out an album in a matter of months, which makes the current album all the more remarkable.

Now, I suppose an indie-folk chamber orchestra with about half a dozen songwriters can afford to be prolific, but with Twee As Folk, it’s not as if Super Desserts have simply produced their second decent album of 2010, but a legitimate contender for Album of the Year.

So, download the two tracks I’ve posted below and, if you’re lucky enough to be a Columbus local, head over to Wholly Craft at 7:00 Friday night (June 4) for the FREE(!) release show and pick up a copy for yourself. For the rest of you, the album should be streaming in full on the Super Desserts bandcamp page some time in the next day or two.

*It turns out there were also tornado sirens sounding. I was too distracted to notice those, as well.

**The narrative-style subtitle from Barefoot In the Disenchanted Forest also make a return appearance on this album. The subtext: “We need a bass clarinetist. Also, we miss Steve”.

Download – “Wicker Chair” mp3

Download – “Winter Is Here” mp3

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

With apologies to Eve

I interviewed Eve Searls about her debut album under the name Bird and Flower about a month ago. I had intended to publish the article before the release party later that week. Oops.

A cool, rainy July day: seated in my favorite coffee shop in the oldest part of Columbus, I can think of no better conditions than these under which to sit and talk music with a songwriter I respect. The day is shaping up nicely and things look promising (and I rarely feel this way). But, while the cappuccino at Cup O’ Joe in German Village is as good as any you will find in the city, the tables are also unsteady. One misjudged foot placement, and my lap is soaked through with coffee, the table draped with napkins to ward off future spills, and I am considerably less cool than I was ten minutes ago (ah, normalcy…). And yet, Eve Searls of Bird and Flower is still willing to meet with me. Wow.

But this should come as no surprise. Here We Cease Our Motion, Bird and Flower’s debut LP, is not about the manufactured image. It’s about normal things – things like “being dumped, trying to be more independent, and trying to be happy even when you’re feeling bleak and hopeless”. And the frankness of the record is even more poignant when you consider that Eve, who has been writing songs for ten years, has only recently found the confidence to play them in front of people.

“I got a guitar for Christmas when I was seventeen and I just started writing songs for myself. I couldn’t play them for anyone, not even my family. I was terrified of playing in front of anyone else. So I got a four track a year later and I started recording. Just basic folksy, singer-songwriter stuff,” she assures me, taking a sip of unsweetened iced tea.

So what happened? Among other things, Garage Band.

“[Garage Band] had samples on it. And that’s how I started writing dance songs. “That’s the Ticket” is the first song I did on Garage Band. And I just used three samples, a bird tweeting, a beat, and a banjo and the song just came from there.”

Which is not to say that her folksy side has been left in the past. Far from it: “I feel like I’ve split into two people where I really like fun dance music and I like sad, earth-shattering folk music”. And that swirling atmosphere is clear throughout the record, not only in the disparate styles represented, but even in the seemingly conflicting lyrical and musical sentiments depicted within the context of even a single song.

“Even the fun sounding songs are kind of dark and sad underneath. They’re about really simple things like rejection. Hot Boots has some abandonment issues. And I don’t know if people notice, and they don’t really have to. As long as it’s fun, that’s fine with me. But there really is some darkness in the lyrics that kind of underlines the fun sample stuff.” This is, by no means, unheard of. The Cardigans pulled it off brilliantly with “Lovefool”, which remains one of the greatest works of songwriting dexterity I have ever heard. Here We Cease Our Motion may not quite reach such epic status in my book yet, but Bird and Flower are off to a good start.

Among the highlights for me are, of course, “Hot Boots”, and lead track “Dark Thoughts” (“Take it from me, there’s a possibility / that those you love don’t give a shit about you”….Like she said, it’s a bit dark). Then there’s “Jump Out of the Way”, which some will recognize from Super Desserts’ Barefoot in the Disenchanted Forest, even though this version is something entirely new, insomuch as it is the oldest incarnation of the song. But “The Healing Service”, the closing track has been the standout for me from the moment I first heard it. Essentially entirely a cappella, it could very easily have been lifted from the O’ Brother soundtrack and is instantly intoxicating. As the voices fade into the sound of rolling thunder and eventually silence, the listener is left to contemplate the lyrics: “I started my own religion, didn’t need to get a degree. / I made up my own religion through pain and sympathy / It involves a group of people who never drift apart / and though the pain they feel is their own, they feel it through one heart.”

The album is out now, but only on vinyl and download. I, for one, would encourage you to buy a hard copy, and I think Eve would agree. ”

I get really excited about the product, the object itself as a craft object. So when I make my CDs I hand print the covers of the CD and I like for people, if they actually buy something from me, that it be like a cool thing they can have. And I feel it’s the same way with vinyl. It’s huge; the art is a lot easier to look at; it sounds really good…” However, if you’re the kind of person who actually likes to know what they are buying before paying for it, you can still stream the entire thing here.