Old 97’s – The Grand Theatre Vol. 2

When reviewing an established, quality band, it can be hard to not gush about how great the band is and how the new album is just another in a long string of successes.

This isn’t one of those times.

“The Grand Theatre Vol. 2” is made up of the 13 songs that were picked during the Sons of Herman Hall sessions last year, where Rhett Miller and the rest of the Old 97’s hashed out material for the 2010 release “The Grand Theatre Vol. 1.” And the reason these songs didn’t make the first cut is obvious after the first listen through the album. Each song seems to just miss the mark. Miller’s lyrical work isn’t up to par and is paired with instrumental work that feels forced. The entire album seems to be trying to capture style of a live performance of Old 97’s on a studio album.

There are a few gems on the album, most notably Murry Hammond’s “White Port.” The song fits in perfectly with Hammond’s style and shows the growth in his lyrical and vocal work that has been expected from album to album.

But a good song from Hammond can’t make up for the glaring lack of a single on the album. Though Miller has only really found true mainstream success with his over used, but still wonderful, song “Question,” he has managed to include at least one or two tracks on each album that were quickly adopted as crowd sing-a-longs. There just isn’t a song on this album that stands out, and it leaves the entire album feeling like a flat set of B-sides.

The most distressing moment comes mid-album during “Ivy,” which is intended to feature lead guitarist Ken Bethea’s tremendous guitar work. The problem is, every lick and even the solo, sound like they were ripped directly from the band’s albums from the late 90’s. While I am all for bands returning to their roots, it just sounds lazy to repeat guitar work, especially when it is as recognizable as Bethea’s.

Overall the album isn’t bad. It just isn’t Old 97’s good. One of the problems about being a band for almost 18 years with 15 releases is that there is an almost impossible expectation for the quality of each album. The album has to be viewed the same way the recent re-release of the band’s work from their days on Bloodshot Records, “Wreck Your Life and Then Some: The Complete Bloodshot Recordings;” as an interesting view into the growth of the band.

“The Grand Theatre Vol. 2” is worth picking up to complete your collection of the Old 97’s, but it shouldn’t be the first introduction to the band that sets the standard for alt-country. For that introduction, go back a few years and check out “Fight Songs,” “Satellite Rides” and the first half of the Sons of Herman Hall sessions “The Grand Theatre Vol. 1.”

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Touché Amore – Parting The Sea Between Brightness and Me

There isn’t much better publicity for a band than having Geoff Rickly dedicate a song to said band during a show. Especially when said band isn’t even on the same tour. Though seemingly random, Rickly has a good reason to randomly promote Touché Amore; it’s a pretty awesome band.

The band’s second full-length, “Parting The Sea Between Brightness and Me” is 20-plus minutes of live-recorded hardcore that puts the “punk” back in hardcore punk.

The entire album was recorded, mixed and mastered in five days, the first two of which were dedicated to recording the band playing the songs live. While most (and by most I mean almost all bands that aren’t recording in their parents basements) track each instrument separately while the musician listen to a digital metronome, the guys of Touché Amore recorded the band playing together, so what is on the album is, for the most part, exactly what the band would ideally sound like during a live show. And while the idea isn’t exactly unique, it did create a cohesive, and more stripped down sound that features the actual band instead of a computer’s manipulation of the band’s sound. In today’s industry accolades are certainly necessary for a band that moves away from digital manipulation

In the grand scheme of things there isn’t anything exceptionally groundbreaking about the album. But in the context of hardcore in the past three or four years, this album represents an excellent step back towards the roots of the genre and shows dedication to musical integrity. When a band is willing to emulate the work of hardcore’s forefathers, without ripping them off, it is worth notice.

The standout element in this album is without question the vocal work from Jeremy Bolm. He avoids the tired guttural growling that has become so popular in hardcore and opts for basic, yet emotional yelling. Not only does it make the lyrics more discernible than those of most hardcore vocalists, but it pays homage to the bands before him, specifically Marc Paffi of Bear vs Shark. The vocal work is intense and exhausting conjuring images of Bolm falling over himself on stage as he puts every bit of energy in his body into the song.

The 13-track album clocks in at just under 21 minutes. Each song flies by and save for a minute and 48 second piano based track called  “Condolences,” it is an up tempo onslaught that leaves the listener on the edge of exhaustion.

The L.A. based band first found a home on No Sleep Records and has now moved on to the multifaceted Deathwish Inc where they fit in well with label mates Converge, 108 and United Nations

“Parting The Sea Between Brightness and Me” is a good hardcore album that gives hints as a great live band. The album is certainly worth the few bucks to make sure these guys stay on the road and continue to perform high quality hardcore.

* I also just found out that there will soon be a vinyl pressing of this album. Get it.

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The Felix Culpa – “Sever Your Roots”

              

When “Sever Your Roots” was first released in 2010 it seemed like a swan song for The Felix Culap. Five years after their debut album, “Commitment,” was released on Common Cloud records, the guys had failed to find a new label, weren’t playing many shows and each member seemed to be settling into life outside of the music industry. But instead of just riding off into the sunset, the guys put out another album. Without any label support, “Sever Your Roots” was released in an oversized, card-stock folio by the band and distributed via hand addressed media mail packages.

Even with the intriguing back-story and the almost six year wait between full –length releases it was the music itself that caught the ears of music lovers. Building on the sound they established during “Commitment,” the midwestern quartet put out over an hour of a flowing post-hardcore that breaks every rule in the book, transcends the idea of genre and acts as a major step forward for the band from their days as a trio.

Dustin Currier joined the band in 2007 to supplement Marky Hladish’s guitar work as wells as to add keyboards, trumpets and “random sounds.” The addition of Currier is distinguishing factor between The Culpa’s first and second full-length effort. The second guitar adds a layer of depth to the recording that was missing from “Commitment” and allows the complexity of the lyrics and vocal work to be matched in complexity by the instrumental work.

Like their earlier work, many of the tracks on “Sever Your Roots” clock in well four minutes, with three tracks over seven minutes and two more over six. But the trick that The Felix Culpa has mastered is preventing a seven-minute track from feeling like a seven-minute track. The long songs are not forced, but flow from theme to theme gracefully. It never feels like a track should be split into two pieces, or that The Culpas were trying to create an epic.

Beyond the improved audio quality and the maturity that comes with time, rejection and families, “Sever Your Roots” is a major step forward for The Felix Culpa. “Commitment” was and remains a great album, but it had cracks. “Sever Your Roots” fills this cracks and builds on the excellent foundation that was built by “Commitment.” From improved song structure to better understanding of how long a songs needs to be, “Commitment features a band that understands both their limitations and their strengths.

Luckily I wasn’t the only person enamored with “Sever Your Roots.” Southern California label No Sleep Records swooped in and offered the band an offer they couldn’t refuse; an opportunity to re-release the album in early 2011 with three new tracks and a new home on one of the fastest growing indie labels. With the support of No Sleep, The Culpas has jumped back into touring and have revived what many believed was a slowly flat-lining band.

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A Nine Year Retrospective: Taking Back Sunday – Tell All Your Friends

Original Art Work for "Tell All Your Friends"

Last month I had the pleasure of seeing Thursday and Taking Back Sunday perform in Portland, Oregon at the Roseland Theater. Thursday was (and is) touring in support of their April 2011 release “No Devolución,” and Taking Back Sunday (TBS) was promoting the June 28th release of their new self-titled album. But more important than the new TBS album, the tour was the first time since 2003 that the “original line-up,” the line-up that recorded the band’s first full-length album, “Tell All Your Friends,” toured the U.S. since 2003.

The show, which featured Adam Lazzara and John Nolan interacting not only as band mates but reunited friends, also featured more material off the band’s debut album than any other recording. The five songs (Bike Scene, Great Romances of the 20st Century, Ghost Man on Third, Timberwolves at New Jersey and You’re So Last Summer) threw the 21+ side of the venue, filled with twenty-something former emo kids squeezing their beer-bellies into undersized, ten year-old band t-shirts, into an almost dangerous pandemonium and left the all-ages side confused about whether they were hearing old or new songs. But it left me wondering, how that the original album, almost nine years after I first heard “Great Romances of the 20th Century,” hold up in the grand scheme of music.

Right off the bat, it’s easy to say that “Tell All Your Friends” remains a well-produced album. Sal Villanueva produced some of the great albums of the early 2000’s and while the fact that he was working with some great bands cannot be discounted, Villanueva work made “Tell All Your Friends,” among other albums, sound more like major label productions than the small label, debut albums that many of the albums he worked on, were.

The first noticeable issue with the album is continuity. While tracks eight through 10 feel like they belong together, tracks one and two, “You Know How I Do” and “Bike Scene,” respectively, feel like a departure from the rest of the album. And to make matters worse, track one, despite having one of the best album introductions in pop-punk, never really gets off the ground, seeming to need to force the intensity and emotion of the rest of the album. Lucky, after a stumble out of the gate, and a second track that, while a great song, doesn’t fit the rest of the album, the rest of the album finds it’s footing and surges forward.

From the opening, simple chord progression and out-of-breath opening two-liner from lead-singer Lazzara in the album’s third track “Cute Without the ‘E” (Cut From the Team)” to the vocal pile-up at the end of “Head Club” to finish the album, “Tell All Your Friends” rests only long enough to allow the listener to catch his or her breath.

Throughout the album, the band builds chaotic bridges that result in breakdown-esque resolutions, a seeming nod to the strong hardcore scene on Long Island and keep the album from falling into the rut of overused chords simple song structures that would be the only memorable characteristic of many post- “Tell All Your Friends” TBS records.

The entire album is fast paced and gets under the skin of the listener. Even the brooding, slow “Ghost Man on Third” has a strong downbeat that pulls the listener in and seems to live in the listener’s chest. The song also provides the foundation for the second half of the album that surges ahead a breakneck speed, reminiscent of driving on the New Jersey Turnpike.

“Tell All Your Friends” is an albums that flows together without forcing the issue with seemless tracks. Each track stands as it’s own strong piece of work, but together the entire album, and particularly the final 8 tracks stands as some of the best 33-minutes of music produced under during the emo/pop-punk era.

 

 

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Troubled Coast – “Letters”

After the heyday of early 2000’s, hardcore and post-hardcore bands comfortably fell in line on the well-worn paths blazed by the great bands before them. Hardcore bands became carbon copies of each other with the same tired breakdowns, the same old guitar solos and the same indecipherable vocals. But even that was better than the remaining post-hardcore outfits that ran from the genre, either becoming a carbon copy hardcore bands or hipster-electronica (I’m looking at you Deerhunter). Few bands held on to the innovative styles developed by the likes of The Beloved(us), The Beautiful Mistake and Bear vs Shark. The further from the 2002 release of The Beautiful Mistake’s “Light a Match, for I Deserve to Burn” the less likely it seemed that another innovate post-hardcore group would emerge from the black hole that can be the west coast scene.

But lo and behold, out of the musical wasteland of hyphy and “ghost ride the whip,” the Troubled Coast grew. And while the band’s musical style is undeniably similar to that of The Beautiful Mistake, Troubled Coast is a far cry from a carbon copy of anybody.

“Letters,” the second full-length from the San Francisco Bay area post-hardcore outfit flows almost seamlessly for 38 minutes, providing the listener with a melodically intense experience the explores the and pushes the boundaries of post-hardcore in second decade of the 21st century.

Much of the album takes advantage of seamless digital playback, making it all but impossible to identify individual songs mid-album until the middle of each song as the intensity mounts or ebbs.

Vocalist Mike Scornaienchi blends classic post-hardcore vocal styles from the past decade throughout the album. And it is Scornaienchi’s vocals that push, what would be a quality, but uninspiring instrumental work, toward that of a high quality album.

The vocal styles that Scornaienchi implements are not unique. He distinctly pulls from familiar, yet aging, vocalist styles, including the gruff speak/scream of Bear vs Shark’s Marc Paffi, the soft signing paired with throat screaming that made Josh Hagquist of The Beautiful Mistake so recognizable and the atonal poetic speaking of Aaron Weiss of MewithoutYou. The blend of styles allows the album to seamlessly move between the highly emotional themes that the record explores.

For every great moment of vocal and or instrumental work, there are flaws. The recording quality is lower than would be ideal, which buries the dynamic backing vocals. But the most jarring issue comes from a thirty-second clip toward the end of the album.

Borrowing from Brand New’s “Dasiy,” Troubled Coast’s tenth track “Me and My Shadow” uses a clip from a music recording from the early 1900’s as a transition to the eleventh, and spectacular, track “A Shallow Place.” The use of an early 1900’s clip was interesting when Brand New did it because it lulled the listener into a false sense of security before the intensity of Jesse Lacey’s screaming on “Vices.” The Troubled Coast failed to use the clip effectively, and it sits as the jarring moment in the otherwise flowing album.

This is a band that has a great sound, and the talent to improve and produce a great album. The challenge will be finding an audience for what is a niche sound.

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30 Albums, 30 Day

Welcome to my new project, “30 Albums, 30 Days.” Over the next 30 days, I promise to deliver, at least, a long-form review of a different album, every day. Along with reviews, I will do my best to publish discussions with bands, my views on the current state of the music industry, show reviews and pressing information (and who knows, maybe some of my old photography blogs will pop up as well) but at the very least a new review will come out every day.

These will not always be reviews of new bands or new albums. But every release that I discuss will have had, be having or will have an impact on music. While many of the bands I discuss will be small independent acts, don’t be surprised to see mainstream bands make appearance as well. This blog will be as diverse as my personal tastes.

So over the next month, look for reviews of albums from bands ranging from the relatively unknown Troubled Coast to pop-punk mainstays Taking Back Sunday, and watch out special treats like a retrospective review of Thursday’s “Full Collapse” and discussions of the effects of listen to music on vinyl, on CD and digitally.

Once again welcome and I hope this project is as fun to read, as it will be to write.

-Scott

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Justin Scarred

It’s time for another (or second) story behind a photo. Sometimes these stories are going to be background on the subject, the event or what inspired the photo. Other times I’m going to use to space to talk about some of the technical aspects of the photos, some of the challenges of shooting the photo, my choices in editing the photo and why I like the photo.

Justin Scarred, The Scarred, The Championship PA

I took this photo at the July 15th, 2010 performance of the LA based street punk band The Scarred at The ChampionSHIP in Lemoyne, Pennsylvania. The subject is Justin Scarred, the lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist and band leader (and only original member who was with the band at the time of the show). Scarred is a member of a dying breed of punk musicians struggling in the tiny LA scene. But, despite the challenges of the scene, he has built a name for himself and his band across the country.

The ChampionSHIP is one of the few surviving DIY venues. No stage barriers, no security, no grips and nobody directing traffic. Bands take care of themselves and the audience gets up close and personal to the bands. It also means there is no professional lighting staff. Unless a band has a lighting program or requests certain gels, the band gets white(ish) light.This makes “Champ” one of the best places to for young photographers to cut their teeth with low-light and flash photograph and for experienced photographer to play with different styles and to challenge themselves.

This particular show I was working with my Cannon EOS 1000D (Rebel xs) the stock 18-55mm IS lens and a 75-300mm telephoto lens. I had challenged myself on this particular evening to not use an external flash but to work with the low light, or make the horseshoe flash work.

Here is the metadata for this shot.
1/80 sec
f/5.0
18mm
ISO1600
No Flash

Because of the low light and my lack of flash use I was forced into ISO 1600. By no stretch of the imagination do I normally want to be shooting that high, but it’s possible to make it work and the EOS 1000D can just handle the high ISO well enough to produce smaller (11×17 or smaller) prints. But with the high ISO I was able to push the exposure up slightly to 1/80th of a second, up significantly from the 1/30th (or so) that the image stabilization lens allows hand hold the camera at.

One of the great things about low light shooting is the ability to freeze parts of the subject while capturing motion within his or her body. One of the reasons I like shooting live musicians so much is that they will often freeze their torso and legs while moving their arms and head providing a interesting effect organically.

The stage at Champ is set at about two feet which allowed me to get down slightly and get a strong up angle shot of Scarred as he struck his pose during the middle of the set.  I was also lucky that the show was sparsely attended and I was able to get down on the ground without risking my equipment or safety.

One of the surprising things about shooting bands is that the quality of the music is often directly proportional to the quality of subjects. Bands that are struggling with their music rarely are able to move around or screw around on stage and create stagnant photos. Also, when I am more into the music, I’m more likely to work to make the band look good. Is that fair? Probably not, but when I’m shooting for myself, I’m allowed to make those distinctions. The challenge comes when I’m hired to make a weaker band look good.

I love shooting in low light, but it takes practice, and forcing yourself to work without an external flash will improve your overall skills, and especially improve your skills when it comes time to work with an external flash.

-Scott

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