Jupe Jupe – Crooked Kisses

On the surface, Jupe Jupe’s Crooked Kisses feels very familiar.  Broken down into its individual elements, songs like “Pieces of You” draws from sounds pioneered, re-hashed, or otherwise reminiscent of Franz Ferdinand, The Cure, and others in that vein.  The vocals, however, don’t sound as though they’re trying to affect Robert Smith, Dave Gahan, or David Bowie – not specifically.  The vocals have their own unique, understated personality.  They breathe out solid spans of simple melody, encouraging the both the frenetic energy of the guitars and drums – and the gradual, looming flow of a synth pad.

“Never Ask Why” begins with a pleasant distorted synth pattern ringing out through a light reverb and to one side of a plucked guitar.  The production has a clean, open feel – every instrument perfectly defined.  The sound is not, however, injected with the meaty, neon massiveness of The Crying Spell.  From an arrangement standpoint, this makes sense.  As the song progresses, you hear a recurring string-machine melody – very retro, indeed – gliding gently over the raucous start-and-stop rhythm of the song.  This record teeters between the soft touch and a hard brilliance from beginning to end.

The third track, “Love to Watch You Fall,” also begins with a minimal synth sequence – foreshadowing a future melody.  However, almost immediately you get a far less stern vibe from this song with its straight-rock beat and sixteenth note synth patterns.  From there it heads into a strange and perhaps tongue-in-cheek pre-chorus sung with monotone aloofness.  The chorus is even more colorful, with a playful, popping synth following the vocal melody.  It wasn’t so catchy on the first listen, but the song ultimately grew on me.  As we progress closer to the end, the addition of a squelchy synth to the left and double-time hi-hats gives the outro the perfect boost.

“Whispers Kill” starts off with what at first seems the perfect lead-in to a hard-hitting electro-dance-rock track… but the song is nothing of the sort.  A panning synth shifts from center to right, delivering an insistent low-note over a ghostly, distant shadow of a synth pad.  The drums cut in along with a low guitar, setting the stage for a “late-50’s-early-60’s-esque” pop aesthetic – replete with (synth) chimes, mellotronish flute and strings, and straight, no-frills guitar playing lock-step to the drums.  They are recreating something of that “American Graffiti” feeling here, by way of David Lynch and a little John Barry.  The tremolo guitar is the perfect addition, cementing a very carefully thought-out mood.  It’s strange and satisfying at the same time, and when the chorus arrives you really get the total vibe of groovy, Soviet-era romanticism; a love song between spies.  It’s playful, imaginative, and impeccably arranged.

By the fifth track, it’s clear that each song is a different entity, and not given over to a single formula or template.  Hit-or-miss, each track has a unique identity that rarely tips its hat towards the others.  “All The Things We Made” is articulate and dynamic, building from low verses to a marching, illuminated chorus.  Here and there I detect what I think is a timpani or large tom, thundering beneath the outro of the song.  It’s a wonderfully effective addition to the sound, giving the song a slightly cinematic feel.  Without getting insanely loud, the band manages to create the sensation of an intense swell before leaving on a warbly, over-driven note.

“Autumn October,” lush and dreamy, feels like a salve after the hidden darkness of the previous track.  This song, as with all of the songs, represents a specific relationship between quiet and loud; they all play with sonic density in a particular way.  As I listen through the album, the mix and mastering impresses me more and more.  I feel like my ears aren’t being inundated with noise in order to get across “toughness” or “intensity.”  All of that work is done in the arrangement.  There’s an aesthetic fidelity to the mix that allows the music to naturally form its own rising and falling action.

Returning to the post-punk dance floor, “Vicariously” is driving, leaning on a strained guitar line that steps down and back up – very minimal, reminding me of the Pixies for some reason.  The chorus is all 80’s synth pop, though, throwing-in claps and massive, synths.  The synth work, overall, is spectacular.  All of the synth parts standout on the record, holding up entire sonic ideas on their own and not merely complimenting the guitars.  This song in particular is one of the most energetic tracks on Crooked Kisses, and it’s placed at the right point on the album just before “Darkness.”

The eighth track divides its time between a David Bowie-type verse and disco-rock chorus that seems to split the difference between The Killers and Franz Ferdinand.  Although not my favorite song, there’s an undeniable, dance-inducing quality to it.  This song grows on me with repeated listens, and it may at some point become my favorite.  For now, though, I feel that this is the first instance where we aren’t exploring anything new on the record.  I have a feeling that when I return to this record in a few months time, I’ll be hearing it in an entirely different way – a testament to Crooked Kisses’ rich sonic fabric.

“Hollow” begins with a toy-like atmosphere – driven by the choice in synth patches and the bouncy drums.  Even so, the song empties out onto a gentle beach, vocals echoing over the horizon.  As though rolling on waves, we rise up into the chorus with its marching insistence.  I don’t know why I get this seafaring imagery from the song, but it does evoke that sensation of cruising over blue water, the sun glinting off waves in the distance.  The song is very catchy, and by the end I was humming along to the melody.  There’s something plain and honest about it, and enjoyable in that way.

The album ends with “New Stars in the Sky,” a song caught between the slow, moody vocals and the insistent sixteenth-note pattern.  There’s a little funk in there, England in the late-70’s.  The song is gloomy and sexy; something James Bond might have on his iPod.  It’s definitely one of my favorites, full of stylized heartbreak and classic cool.  It’s also a great song to end the record with, showing something a little different before departing.  “New Stars in the Sky” made me want to listen to the album over again.

Crooked Kisses is a mostly sleek and colorful record, full of surprises and variation.  I feel as though there are plenty of bands that tread the same territory, but few with the same imagination and personality.  The vocals never go wild with emotion, but they are not robotic and lifeless, either.  As a band, Jupe Jupe have created a lovely, sometimes dark, and open sound that stayed with me and didn’t wear out my ears.  No complaints here.


Jayce Nall – I Make Noise

I Make Noise, the album from solo artist Jayce Nall, is eight tracks of jubilant, infectious modern synth-infused alternative pop.  Right off the bat, “All We Need” launches full force into a four-to-the-floor beat, 80’s synth pads, gesticulating arps, and a clean, proficient lead vocal.  It draws on of New Order’s appeal and Duran Duran’s confidence while sounding like neither.  There is something else at play, though, and you don’t hear until you dive further into the record.

The second song, “Magic,” is far funkier and laid back than “All We Need,” grooving to a walking bass line and offbeat guitar strums.  There’s far more of a Daft Punk influence here, and yet Jayce Nall’s vocals and production style keep it within the same ballpark of the rest of the record.  Rather than appearing as though he can’t decide on a sound, the impression I get is that he is competently exploring a number of different ideas. 

The main synth lead on “Where I Leave” seams to pay not-so-subtle homage to M83’s “Midnight City,” whereas the rest of the song sounds like a careful examination and variation on the nerdy earnestness of The Postal Service, especially with regards to the vocal delivery. 

However, the full-bodied guitar solo at two minutes-thirty nine breaks out of any comparison.  It’s fairly unique, from tone to melody, and sufficient in providing this song with a distinctive soul beyond that of a clever homage.  Being the most potentially “derivative” song, it is still great fun to listen to, and in some ways exceeds my enjoyment of “Midnight City.”

“Red Lights,” on the other hand, has a totally different feel than most anything in its class.  The guitars aren’t overly complicated, the beat is simple enough to follow, and the song’s overall structure is fairly conventional.  That being said, Nall takes full advantage of the flow he’s created and, somehow, it snuck its way to being my favorite track.  

This song, more than anything, convinced me that Nall is creating smart pop music: calculated, efficient, and spotless.  He can sing his own melodies; he doesn’t reach too far.  As a producer, he’s covering himself from top-to-bottom with a solid mix, catchy hooks, solid arrangements, and capable performances.  There are no bum notes or skipped beats, but it doesn’t sound totally machine-made, either – even on a danceable, saccharine-sweet song like “Glow.”

“Gun” made me realize that there was one other important comparison to make other than those I’ve already mentioned.  Abandoned Pools, and its principle member Tommy Walker, released a criminally over-looked album in 2001 called “Humanistic.”   In it, he successfully married Smashing Pumpkins-style rock with an electronic infused pop sensibility, maneuvering deftly between many styles and feelings in a way very similar to Jayce Nall’s “I Make Noise.”  I believe that while Nall may never have heard of Abandoned Pools or that record, he represents an evolution of that same concept – and a worthy one, at that. 

That may not sound fair to Nall’s deserved sense-of-self and unique identity, but the history of music, in my opinion, relies on progress.  What pleases me about Nall’s music is that while I can pick out similarities wherever I please, I’m only able to do that because I’m enjoying what I hear and it brings back fond memories.  For Nall, it’s probably most important that he is able to express himself and create the things he wants to hear.  For me, it’s most important that I am able to identify with the music and understand where it falls in the pantheon of pop: is this progress, or are we slipping backward?

“A Face I’d Like To Punch” has a wonderful drive to it; you can’t help but move while you listen.  Again, the mix is clean and balanced, impeccably sculpted to accommodate each element in the mix and each change in the arrangement.  Melodies, harmonies, and rhythms are expertly chosen.  I keep looking for missteps, but I get caught up with enjoying the song too much to find anything.  Overall, the record has a fun and free-spirited aura about it, effectively neutralizing negative feelings that may be in the vicinity.

Even the standard-operating-procedure gentle closing track, “Lift My Eyes” – with its typical, folksy guitar strums and lyrical romanticism – is quite beautiful and convincing.  Nall is an attentive student of the album arch, of pop music in general, of song structure, and apparently recording and mixing (you can do a lot worse with a laptop recording setup.)  I wanted to complain that the mastering of the album was, overall, a little quiet… but I don’t feel that way on the second listen. 

Frankly, I’m a bit jealous.  I can see what Nall is doing, how he’s doing it, and why – but he actually did it and he didn’t screw it up.  He made a fun, danceable record with heart and brains using minimal gear and maximal grasp of modern pop music convention.  I can’t wait to hear what he does next.

Western Haunts – Western Haunts

Having seen Western Haunts perform live in the cavernous space of the Vera Project, I can personally attest to the authenticity of Western Haunt’s sound – its vastness, its emotion, and its sheer sonic power have been translated in the recording with amazing fidelity.  From the first song, “The Green Room,” the listener is led along a shimmering, electric, tree-canopied river towards a distant virtual mountain vista.

A descending vocal loops in repeat, washing over itself, descending into the rich, floating environment behind the rolling drums and into a soft explosion of guitars, bass and synth.  The sound triumphantly conveys the listener across the threshold into the first appearance of the vocals at two minutes-fifty one seconds.  The burst of an upward piano arpeggio – countered by descending chords – is ripe with beauty and vitality.  But there’s no time to stay longer.

We plummet immediately into “Magazines.”  An annex leads us into a long tunnel system; a forlorn and derelict megastructure of immense scale.  Magic, spritely particles of light follow, swirling around our heads.  At one minute-thirty five, a low, subtle descending chorale synth provides the right amount of the mysterious amid the fantastic.  The overall sound is captivating; it washes over you with its equal parts of familiarity and strangeness, swelling with richly textured beauty and strain.

Ghostly backing vocals chase the pleasant, youthful-sounding lead singer.  Like the young apprentice hero of a Joseph Campbell-brand myth – this lonesome voice echoes it’s frail, gentle humanity throughout the massive, unrelenting musical environs this record is comprised of.  The guitars are arrangement slaves, nothing showy or obscene.  These are arrangements, not a series of ridiculous compromises between egomaniacal session players.  The drums are spare and open, reliable and strong – a modest vampire feeding off the emotional energy of the band – but only taking what he needs and giving more in return.  The bass competently holds down the primary melodic posturing of a given arrangement: upright (figuratively), honest, and clean.

The production itself isn’t so complicated: steady, mature arrangements, clean recording, meticulous mixing, choice reverbs and compression effects.  However, it comes down to which reverbs and where, the precise brilliance of the guitar tone, the preservation of the bass guitar, and stereo positioning of each drum element.  The specificity with which these things were done is exactly why this record excites the imagination and has the effect of firing on all cylinders, even when it takes a chance.

“Come Around” draws more from the alt-country heritage of the band, until it blindsides you with a throwback surfer chorus – which somehow totally works.  It’s assertiveness marks a departure from the placid, smooth nature of the first two songs.  The feeling of the song I can only describe as walking along a beach in the blistering heat of the late afternoon.  The sun fries everything; it bleaches stone and bakes the sand.  Sweat dries to your face as fine salt when the wind passes over the water and inland.  Flawless blue skies above, and yet everything has a golden suggestion to it, like a memory.

“When The Lights Dull” goes even further away from the start of the record with it’s near-somnambulant quality.  The synth work on this record is understated, but the opening sound here is pertinent to the establishment of the song’s mood.  It starts to take shape slowly, but not near as gradually as “The Green Room.”  Within the first minute, a tambourine shakes out a rhythm over harmonized vocal stabs and crashing cymbals, bearing the phrase “The lights… dull.”  It is quite effective and expertly executed – and most importantly, it sounds awesome.  The guitar interlude at three minutes-thirteen is again basic, but exceedingly complementary.  Also, that’s an outro to kill for.

“Novocaine” might be the most challenging song on the record, with an odd, broken melody coupled with start and stop passages.  And while I may not be able to pinpoint its feeling or that place in my mind where I can picture it, the song doesn’t suffer for lack of performance or imagination.  “A Memo” follows, a minute-long segue of reverb-soaked tunnel noise which morphs into a blaring, unsettling cacophony.

“Sirens Den” is a standout track, with a pseudo-reggae vibe buried deep inside the chest of Western Haunt’s other borrowed genres.  It has a classic rock feel to it, bringing Pink Floyd and The Wailers to mind in near-equal measure between the distant, shimmering organ and the backing harmonized vocals.  I love the vocals on this record.  I just do.  The mix, compression, microphone, preamp, and voice itself: they all combined to create a unique identity for the lead vocals, but they also impeccably incorporate backing vocals in a tasteful way.

“TV Glow” introduces a little more hand percussion into vibed-out surf rock – which, I suppose, always leaned on certain western music elements (specifically, mega-spacey guitars.)  The vocal melody has a slightly “spiritual” sensibility, as though indirectly descended from blues and gospel.  Sprinklings of synthesizer help maintain a fantastical element to the music, and that sort of approach kind of reminds me of Fleetwood Mac to a degree.

“It’s Not Enough” ends the record on a lighter, sweeter note.  Listening to it, I realized that when I describe a record as cavernous, that could be taken to mean that it is empty somehow.  I don’t mean that in this instance at all.  All of these songs are “big,” or have some element of major a major scope incorporated into it – but that space is filled with intricate writing and finely-honed performances.  This is the Venus of records: a world so inundated with atmosphere that the surface of the planet remains enshrouded in exquisite mystery.

It might take nothing to compare Western Haunts and their self-titled record to certain aspects of Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco, AaRON, Pink Floyd, or other more recent dream-pop/alt-country/shoegaze/post-rock… but no one sounds quite like this.  Not exactly.  And that counts for something.  In order to distinguish themselves, Western Haunts took risks with – and ownership over –  their sound.  Nothing appears phoned-in or thoughtlessly stamped on the record.  It truly sounds like a group of unique individuals, all of them very talented, who then elected to trust each other in order to make a more perfect whole.  What they created, perfect or not, is an inspiring, jaw-dropping listening experience.

Paper Sailboat – Paper Sailboat

Some albums try to accomplish a ton in one go.  You almost have to, to a certain degree, credit the ambition of such records.  Whether or not they reached the stars almost matters less than whether or not they tried in the first place.  And as sonic ambitions go, Paper Sailboat exemplifies the truly ambitious.

The question is: does this record – a collection of electronic diversions and moods and rhythms – succeed?  Deeper still: what constitutes a success for a mass of so many ideas?  If Paper Sailboat, as a record, is intent on both exploring sound and evoking feeling then it does succeed.  However, in giving you a uniform sense of what the larger entity behind the record is capable of, it does fail.  While not altogether a bad thing (the album thrives on variation and terra infirma) it does detract from a sense of identity or cohesion.

So be it.  This record is your schizophrenic best friend.

So, let’s assume Paper Sailboat is predicated on the idea of mixing and matching music styles, ideas, and influences – sometimes between songs, sometimes right in the middle of one.  It certainly succeeds in doing all of that: measured transitions are shifting gears over the album’s “energy” arch; “beginnings, middles, and ends” have their own identities.  But in order to gauge the viability of that particular concept for a record – as a lesson in diversity – you have to make comparisons to records that may sound nothing like this one, but do share the trait of serving as a lesson in diversity.  Masterworks like DJ Shadow’s The Private Press spring to mind, and that’s a lot to live up to.  I’ll spare you my explicit comparisons, but that’s where my head is at.

Let’s be clear about the variation on this record: you only get one “General Electric” here, and that’s it.  Bright and vibrant, full of guitar-pop pep – when the song is over, there is no revisiting that feeling, much less revisiting the use of guitars.  It’s a fine song to open the record with: consistent and reassuring but not overly repetitive or strictly conventional… but it is misleading with regards to the rest of the album, to say the least.

“General Electric” also brought up an internal debate.  I began to wonder whether this song – to say nothing of the album as a whole – would benefit from vocals or not.  I’m not entirely convinced either way.  I can see an argument for a vocal melody or at least some sort of sample on the first track, but only because I could find room for it inside of the arrangement – in my mind.  I even started humming it.  But it wouldn’t really be necessary.  Whether the addition of vocals rounds out a listening experience for you or not, I think it’s safe to say that Paper Sailboats has still created a compelling and “human-sounding” record entirely devoid of any human singing.  (There are spoken samples in both “Claire De Lune” and “Peace.”)

As you delve deeper in Paper Sailboat, you’ll begin to notice the larger rhythm to the experiment emerge – and you’ll notice yourself begin to fall into it.  So, when you have traversed “General Electric” and it’s trustworthiness and “Ambieight” with its lush strangeness and then that fragmented, beat-injected rendition of “Claire de Lune” – you will be somewhat, but not entirely, prepared for the anachronistic “Retro Oblivion” and even the waltzing ¾ time signature towards the end of “Displacement.”  There are big and flashy moments, small and delicate moments, and a healthy survey of all terrain in between.

From a production standpoint, the album never becomes too infatuated with it’s own borrowed styles.  There’s an 8-bit aesthetic pervasive throughout the record, and it is especially pronounced on “Retro Oblivion” and “Eighty-Eighterer” – but it hasn’t engulfed the record entirely.  It’s woven into sampled drums, bells, textural samples, piano, and warm synth pads (and one guitar) – and entirely absent on songs like “Displacement.”

Speaking of: the progression of “Displacement” is dreamy, shifting, and ornate.  It may be my favorite song, using space and abrupt transitions to float in and out of a massive darkness, waltzing through the shadows.  The outro piano, dirty with the distant sound of someone else’s music faintly audible in the background, is still somehow deeply affecting.  “Atlas Telemon” was another standout track: a nearly eight minute odyssey, which chases down a pitchy tape sample over trance-inducing rhythms.  Layers begin to soar overhead like clouds forming in the sky.  The song is an elaborate and exhilarating effort.

Even while this record easily overwhelms with its scope and variation, it does so also with its heart and personality.  Whereas so much electronic music is built on dance-floor expectations or on the backs of yesteryear’s receding fads, Paper Sailboat is engineered around a specific set of tastes and preferences – even dreams – that jump the constraints of time or genre.  If you start digging hard, you might catch a glimpse of a little Flying Lotus here, or a little Orbital there, or for a split second you might have even heard some Jega or Underworld – but not for very long.   From 30,000 feet, the record is fairly unique and stands alone.

This album is electronic music that breathes with its creators; it reflects the individuals (and primary individual) involved with the shaping of the sound in a precise but human way.  That is the record’s real strength, and the way in which it succeeds as a body of work.  The machine reached the human.

Cat Family Portrait – The Winding Path To Water

I’ll be honest: I love this record, even though (or perhaps because) it thoroughly confuses me.  There are all of the hallmarks of normality present here: guitar, bass, drums.  It’s indie-rock, not occult magic.  None of the sounds on this record are particularly strange or out of the ordinary.  Rather, the confusion seems to spring from whether or not London singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Adam Khangura (A.K.A. Justaman) knows how to tune his guitar, much less play it.

I don’t mean this in a bad way, if that makes sense.  This is a deceptive premise for a review, I admit, but stay with me.  As I said, I love the record.  Despite the loose guitars and uncertain rhythms on the surface of each song – beneath them lie near-masterful arrangements that truly command the listener’s attention.  The quasi-deranged and broken feeling offered by The Winding Path To Water is relentless and captivating.  I have never heard a record with this much imagination and effort sounding, at first glance, like a mess.

There are, in my mind, some sonic parallels to Kevin McMahon and Prick  – another one-man-band and an album of comparable quirkiness and conviction.  The music itself is more reminiscent of Failure’s Fantastic Planet if the whole band guzzled a case of scotch.  There’s a psychological component to this sort of music, in that the songs are imbued with a sense of who the artist is inside.  It’s not just a collection of catchy indie-rock tunes (deep down, it is that too) – it’s someone’s mental interior made audible.

My own image of the record, ignoring the artist’s intentions, is that of a unique “day in the life,” a la Harmony Korine’s Gummo.  Our backdrop, however, is post-industrial urban decay.  We follow a man who is not altogether “there.”  He lives in a city that outpaces him.  He listens to standard indie-rock on his radio but he interprets and hears what we hear on this record – that is to say, something altered.  His world is slower and less coordinated than reality, but reality still shapes his life experience – only in ways he cannot fathom completely.  The dreariness and unfriendliness of life is not lessened by his fragmented mind; they are, perhaps, compounded by it instead.

Still, there’s a beautiful soul there, ringing through the noise.  The words are honest.  The vocals, listless and burdened, sound like a man singing to himself as he traverses one dark neighborhood after another on foot.  Streetlights pass overhead like distant, self-absorbed angels.  Taxis careen around the corner, roaring monsters in a hurry.  Drizzling rain his companion, catching the light in a billion tiny particles.  The world is unkind but curious; threatening but fantastic.

I have no idea what the songs are about.  I haven’t tried to discern the lyrics at all.  Right now, I’m okay with that.  However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious.  Even so, I like my experience of this record.  If I have it all wrong, which well may be the case, it almost doesn’t matter.  By the time you work your way from bustling downtown streets of “Muddy Diamonds” to the back alley groove of “Star Shine Bright” (my favorite song on the record) to the taped confessional “Matryoshka,” you will realize that the “mess” is an illusion.  Khangura has been in control the whole time.

Inconsistencies and wrinkles and slips and moments of dissonance begin to form the fundamental elements of a cohesive aural strategy.  Guitars are recorded with, it would seem, different microphones (or amplifiers) of differing quality, and then woven into the stereo mix the same way they are woven into the arrangement.  “Faulty” tuning drives the pure expression of any given chord down into the muck, but it’s on purpose here.  The sound of it, juxtaposed against certain elements played “properly” (the drums and drum programming on this record are excellent) sometimes unnerving and in some cases chilling, but altogether in a word: visceral.

I know how this music makes me feel.  Slightly paranoid, slightly lovesick, somewhat distant and maybe just a little hopeful.  Each song occupies a different space, but the overall impression is of being stuck in one particular universe.  That feeling, or impression – or whatever – reminds me of the Japanese phrase “mono no aware” (From Wikipedia: “物の哀れ, literally: ‘the pathos of things,’ and also translated as ‘an empathy toward things,’ or ‘a sensitivity to ephemera,’ and is also a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.”)

“Bones,” on the other hand, sounds a bit more optimistic than the rest of the record, and it’s timed well in the track order.  All the way up until the end, Cat Family Portrait is committed to the sound it has cultivated and the off-kilter energy it emits.

However, I felt somewhat let down by the hokey yarling vocals on the last track, “They Live.”  There, at the end, I expected things to slip completely and for something beyond the world of this record to to emerge – perhaps something more delicate and open.  As it is, “They Live” feels like a joke of sorts, and is offered in what seems like an apology for the record preceding it.  Then again, maybe I’m just no fun and other people would have less trouble switching gears like that.  But when I listen to The Winding Path To Water, I just play it up until “Tuesday Afternoon Lament” and call it good.  [Edit: “They Live” has since been removed from the album.]

This is a lovely, elegant, and inimitable record – and, as it turns out, pretty great for writing to as well.