Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Two Shakes- Out of Line EP

Two Shakes
Out of Line EP

Released: 2014

Out of Line is the debut EP by Omaha four-piece Two Shakes. It opens on an awkward foot as "Steppin Stone" is a cover song that isn't a cover song. Now, I'm willing to admit that there are a limited number of human emotions, song ideas, words and phrasing out there, but when a song is called "Steppin Stone," you have to try a bit harder to differentiate yourself from the Monkees' 1967 "Steppin Stone." While TS's version has different lyrics, different chords and is a funky, southern-fried blues rocker as opposed to the Monkees psych-pop, the idea is the same: a woman is using this man as a stepping stone into a higher station in life. That is a minor quibble, though, and I just thought I'd point it out, not so much as a dig against this band, but as an idea about music as a whole, which is a subject for a whole other thing that I won't get into now. 

Tony Toszer has an expressive blues vocal, with hints of Anthony Kieidis' styling-- lot of elongated words next to half-spoken/half-sung takes. He has a great voice within his own comfort area, but the times he tries to stretch his vocals beyond a certain point, they can sound forced and strained. The rhythm section of Standford Swanson (bass) and Chas Ortman (drums) holds up the back end well enough, and even get their own chances to shine on "Steppin Stone" and "The Man" (both moments preceded by a "Break it down" by Tony). Jake Maneman has a great sludgy tone, and an ear for a riff or two, but his guitar can sound underpowered at times ("Bitter Pill" and "Renaissance Man" especially). Where he needs to sound huge and pummeling, he comes off like a kid kicking you in the shins. 

Still though, this is a rock album, and the main question here is: does it rock? The answer is yes, all six tracks are rowdy bar-burners. Hell, the intro to "Moral Code" is enough to burn down an entire city block. But, and I know this is a lot to be asking from an EP, there needs to be dynamics between songs: they can't all be balls-to-the-wall rock all the time. There needs to be a slow song, something to give the listener a moment to drink that beer that "The Man" taught them to fight for. I'm not saying it needs to be a string heavy power ballad, but something a little more contemplative or introspective. Again, this is all more of an LP complaint, and an six song EP can't be expected to have that much range between songs. Hopefully Two Shakes will have an LP someday, and hopefully they learn to shake things up a bit when they do. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mike Body- Selection Process (Single)

Mike Body
Selection Process ft. Devin

Released: May 24, 2014

Mike Body is a christian hip-hop artist hailing from Baltimore, Maryland. His voice has a definite Jay-Z feel to it, and his flow has the inflections-- complete with the occasional "AH" following a word. Mike's flow isn't as easy as Hov's, though, there is definite hesitation on some lines, like he isn't completely comfortable rapping, yet. 

Selection Process has a good, if cheesy, beat that is ruined completely by the chimes!. Heaven forbid a song about marital love be free from the auditory vomit that is chimes!. There is one point, about the 2:50 mark, where the song sounds like it is winding down, then chimes!, and we are up and running again for another 2 minutes. Devin doesn't add much to the track other than a half-hearted hook complete with unnecessary scatting. 

Body's christian influence runs deep in this song, and as with most christian music, it comes off being preachy and a little too earnest. Which will play well at a church, but won't do much in the secular music realm. Not that this song is bad, the idea at the center (you can't find a woman until you become a man) is a universal theme that many men, and women, forget. Unfortunately, that message gets buried underneath chimes! and a lackluster hook.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Yarayahu- Yashahop


Released: December 2013

Yarayahu is mad. He has an issue with the state of the world, and he is here to save us all. With the standard power entrance of "Sound Off," Yarayahu beats his chest to prove he is the greatest emcee in the game. He has the chops, and the beat is pretty great (as are most on the album), but there is a well-worn feeling to this type of song-- sort of like beginning credits to a movie. A standard credit sequence is perfectly acceptable, and it won't cause anyone any grief; an amazing opening credits is much more rare, but it isn't needed. 

But that is also the issue with most of the other songs on the album: he is perfectly acceptable. He is a good emcee, with a great ear for beats, but some of the songs sound like knock-offs of brand name rappers. MoneyChangers starts with a Tyler, The Creator style spoken word opener; Memory Lane is a laid-back southern Cali g-funk straight out of the Snoop Dogg play book; Flipmode's loopy flow, background noises, and jazzy-flute influenced chorus transforms Yarayahu into a less verbose Busdriver. These are just the most noticeable instances, and there are moments sprinkled here or there in each song (Kanye influenced up-pitched soul samples, anyone?). This is nothing new in hip-hop, or music in general, but sometimes waving your references around so flagrantly can become distracting and detract from the music. 

But, when Yarayahu comes through his influences, he can create some pretty arresting music. The aforementioned MoneyChangers, with its loose, minimal beat warns against the charlatans in the world that want nothing more than to steal your money. And then the three song suite about the past: Kings, The Past, Memory Lane, all about different views of the formative years. Kings and The Past are about overcoming your past. No matter what you did, who you hurt, or how you lived: you will be forgiven and you can become a better person-- which is an important lesson to learn in life, for anyone. Memory Lane is diametrically different than the previous two songs, though. It offers a more rose-colored view of the past, which Yarayahu just spent 8 minutes telling you was a personal hell to live through. But that is life, isn't it? You have to remember the good times, to keep you sane, and learn from the bad to keep you going.  

Yarayahu also has some thoughts on the community and state of hip-hop as well. Take It brings the heat onto other emcees for losing sight of what is real and becoming self-indulgent and ignorant to the plight of the streets they made millions off of. Reqiuem slashes and stomps its way through a jungle of weak emcees. Auction Block suggests that we are all slaves: to products, drugs, social pressures perpetuated by the hip hop culture, and society at large. Prodigal Son gives a first person view of the fast lifestyle lived by one who tried to play the game, but was able to be reclaimed by his faith. 

Which is where this album excels: the message. Yarayahu's faith seeps through every facet of this album, but it isn't necessarily a religious album. He talks of his god, and his faith in almost every song, but these aren't lessons that need a religion to understand: pain, hurt, struggle, regret, the longing for love and redemption-- these are things everyone has dealt with some way or another. His voice might get lost in his own influences at times, but the message always comes through, and that is the most important thing. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Radial Core- And the World Burns (Single)

Radial Core
And the World Burns (single)

Released: June 13th, 2014

Radial Core is a post-industrial outfit from the mind of Eroc Laidar that owes a large debt to Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. Not that this is a bad thing, but when your song bears so much resemblance to your influence it is hard to not draw comparisons. 

And the World Burns is a down-tempo, trip-hop ode to having your city bombed. With claustrophobic, warped instrumentals and vivid lyricism, Eroc paints a desolate picture of the moments just before and after the city is destroyed.  The production is slick, but shows just enough teeth to keep the menace fresh in your mind. But, here is where the comparisons come in: while Laidar has the mood and voice right, he lacks the urgency that Reznor captured on his best tracks. Trent Reznor's songs come in and shake you awake with violence; And the World Burns is more content to sit back and let the violence speak for itself. 

That trait can be detrimental at times-- especially as it ratchets down the tempo during the outro into a slow stagger, which causes the song to lose much of its original energy. But Eroc saves the song by riding that beat into some hypnotic rhythm that eventually wins you over. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Jack McLaughlin- From the Attic

Jack McLaughlin
From the Attic EP

Released: March 15, 2014

At only 14 years old, Jack McLaughlin has a lot going for him already: a good world-weary voice, wisdom beyond his years, and a backstory. Four years ago, Jack was fielding balls for a homerun derby when he was struck in the mouth. He was rushed to the ER with a broken jaw. A year later, he fell out of sports and found an interest in music. After playing in a variety of bands with his brother and various others, he decided to venture out as a solo artist. Here we are. 

From the Attic is a simple vocal/acoustic guitar combo that blends folk and gospel with some pretty impressive songwriting. Caretaker and You are both songs that could reflect Jack's Catholic upbringing as well as be about something more personal. Four Walls is a Springsteen-styled song about a failing relationship and the rumors surrounding it. Complete with under-utilized harmonica that appears only in the intro, and a faint Dylan-esque sneer he acquires in the third chorus, Four Walls gives the best picture for Jack's potential as a songwriter. 

Road Back Home is the only misfire on the EP. You know what this song sounds like before you even hear it, the type of song that was perfected by Ty Segall last year with The West, an upbeat rambling folk song about travelling, or getting away. The key here is to keep the momentum going, to keep the listener going, to sound like you are moving down the road, with only the sun at your back and your destination ahead. And Road Back Home gets it right out of the gate, but the momentum gets killed by the awkward palm-muted verses. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Stonebelly- Perspectives and Perceptions

Perspectives and Perceptions

Released: April 2014

Stonebelly, a power-trio hailing from Omaha, have created a whiplash inducing album. Each song draws from different aspects of blues, psychedelia, reggae, progressive, folk, and traditional 70's rock. The results can be a bit staggering upon first listen, but once the initial shock wears off, it becomes a key part of the album's strength. The weakness comes from whenever the songs don't pull the rug out from underneath you. 

Perspectives and Perceptions starts off with Rising-- an upbeat rocker propelled by the tribally elastic drumming of Kevin Korus, and the rubbery bass of Scott Dowark.  It starts off pretty straight forward, with Mike Hollon's instantly memorable voice raging against an unfair world, until the bridge hits with this weird bossanova/surfer riff and drum work that eventually blends itself back into the straight rock. This is a concoction that throws the listener through a loop, but keeps it all together in the end. Contrast that to Back in Time or New Revolution

Back in Time is a classic rock throwback to the hazy, sun-dappled days of driving big cars, hitting the highway, grabbing a girl, and not caring what happens next. The thing is, the songs goes out of its way to say those exact things. It's a nostalgic song for a time that even the songs of that period of "America" was nostalgic for when they were living it. That was hard to express... essentially it is a song about nothing new. Which is the main problem for New Revolution, as well. It lists all the current problems of today as if Mike were reading a bunch of newspaper headlines. This wouldn't be an issue, if this all hadn't been beat to death by nearly every news outlet, politically leaning band, soccer mom, or friend who reads Huffington Post. The only truly insightful thought is the strange line, "Humans use a language we can only understand/ We speak for the air, rivers, and land." Which is kind of mind bending in a way. The true crime of these songs are that they don't allow any of the members to play loose. No one can get crazy, unpredictable, or have a bit of fun with the structure. 

When these guys do have some fun in the studio, you get the brain melting cacophony of Right Back Where We Start. Like, where do we start on this song? The first thing is drums, classic booming, tribal drums. Next is a playful, bouncy bass line, then blasting horns? That came out of no where. Hollon takes on the role of band leader to this twisted swinging/Doors-esque/big beat band and commands it to be the weirdest two and a half minutes on the album. 

Other shake ups include the Alice in Chains meditation on good and evil of Devil's Mind. Complete with sparse, rolling drum lines that signal dark, ominous things are about to happen, a lurching bass that promises those things will happen, and scorched guitar noise that promises those things will happen to you-- and only you-- the one thing missing is Layne Staley's cracked baritone screaming out over the desolation. It all gets pulled out again by a sparse bridge section, leading into a nervous guitar line and stuttering drum that might be the fallout from that something horrible. 

No Escape is a woozy, swaggering reggae song (more Clash than Sublime) about being put down, and fighting back. Darkheart is a moody, layered song about being closed off and cold, because you've been hurt too many times, and that only the right person can shine a light on your heart. This Time? is a classic 70's FM throwback song that gets it right: not too self serious, doesn't get caught up in some forced nostalgia. It is just an upbeat song with a hummable melody and swing that will make you smile as you walk down the street. 

The flipside to that is The Groove, a song about... really nothing other than being really good at dancing? Or just having what Kramer refers to as "Kavorka." It has a decent groove and instrumentals, but the whole thing feels meandering and rather pointless-- proving that there is a fine balance at play here, and that when Stonebelly find it, they are as exciting and unpredictable as any band out there. But, when they can't find it, they sound lost within their own groove. 

Final Verdict:
Worth a Listen

Right Back Where We Start
Devil's Mind
This Time?

Low Points:
New Revolution
Back in Time

Monday, June 9, 2014

Pflames- Smoke and Fuck (Single)

Smoke and Fuck

Released: May, 2014

Smoke and Fuck is a single from the upcoming album by Omaha rapper/producer Pflames. It has a woozy, off-kilter stomp snap beat that will make a good radio play, but won't necessarily alienate hardcore hip hop heads. His voice has a raspy, hefty quality reminiscent of Biggie Smalls, and just as much domination. When he takes the mic, you take notice. The guest verse on the song by Y-Milo is the perfect contrast to Pflames, a rapid fire, quick witted erratic flow that is owed to another east coast legend: Imani the Great. 

The verses come quick, and don't over stay their welcome with straight to the point lyrics about, well, smoking and fucking.  What it lacks in subtlety is made up for in vivid imagery and wordplay, "Imma motherfuckin Rockstar/you could be my Paris/Take you to Hilton/Night vigil and film it." "She got her legs in the sky/ I'm inbetween her pyramid/ She keep her pussy shaved, I call it a Sphinx." The only downside to that bluntness, is the lackluster chorus. It is pretty simple, and nothing you would really hum later on after the party has ended, but it doesn't fall trap to the autotune monster like most other rap music-- so it deserves some props for that.