Christmas Grab-bag, 2012

Will it fit?

Giving local music for the holidays

I always give local music for Christmas [this was 2012, back when people still had CD players and stuff. I don’t do this anymore, which sorta makes me sad, but all the music lovers I know just have spotify now, so what’s the point?]. It’s like giving twice: Once to the gift receiver, and once to the band who get a little revenue for the holidays. Sis used to be an underground hip-hop kid, so she generally gets something recent from the Milled Pavement catalog. The three musically inclined brothers-in-law get a hand-made CD-R out of Strange Maine, the latest Sidecar EP, and whatever Chris Moulton’s latest project is, respectively.

Hmmm, might have to get creative this year for those last two.

If you’re feeling like you need to get creative this year, I’ve pulled out a bunch of stocking stuffers that I didn’t get around to reviewing this past year, but which will likely be a great fit for your special someone:

For anyone who hit the Avett Brothers, Old Crow, and Mumford shows in the past year: You’ll definitely want to grab them North, the debut EP from the Ghost of Paul Revere. A talented group of acoustic pickers with old souls and a nice feel for multi-part harmony, this is a band that can get touchy-feely (“Kodiak”) right before they blast right through a barn-burner (“Wolves”), and the closing “Spirit” has a real thump to it before an a capella finish that will keep you guessing.

For your uncle, who recently showed up wearing a leather jacket and a sarong: Make sure to pick up Philip Carlo Paratore’s Bronx to Bali, a record for adventurers. Tracked over six years, it’s got big rock elements, Latin swing, Caribbean rhythm, Pacific Rim melodies, and a vocal delivery that’s somewhere between Zappa and Transylvania 6-5000. There can be a simple seductiveness to instrumentals like “Kembali,” and the waterfalls of chiming digital bells might be just right for the holidays.

For the cousin to whom you gave a William Gaddis novel last year: For dense, smart, lyrical songs that you can consume for days, give Post Provost’s Ancient Open Allegory Oratorio, album that uses 14 musicians to create 11 tracks. One of the best albums released locally this year, it’s full of beautiful surprises, like “The Walking Cadaver,” a jazzy tune full of brushed snare, a walking bass from Johnny Venom and a close-out that includes a dire piano from Michael McInnis.  “Tall and Strong” has a “Girl from Ipanema” thing going on that’s hard not to like a lot and “Ping Pong Dash” is a delicious gypsy polka.

For your little sister, who just started at UVM: Sure, you could get her that Bob Marley box set, but think how cool she’ll seem to the kids in the dorm when they get a load of Maine reggae, thanks to Royal Hammer’s My Bubble. Fronted by Michael Taylor and with local lions all over the place – David Noyes, Jerusha Robinson, Gary Gemiti, Tyler Quist, Lucas Desmond, Ryan Zoidis, Stu Mahan – these guys have been at it long enough now that they’re super tight and locked in on the easy vibe that makes for great reggae. Add in the closing track, where they put a reggae cover on Micah Blue Smaldone’s “Mule,” and this is probably the best-every locally released album of this ilk.

For your aunt, just up from Memphis: You gotta make a gal feel at home, right? Well, for decent blues in this town, turn first to Bob Rasero (of Renovators fame). His latest, Not Gonna Worry, sees him turning in his electric for a mean acoustic guitar that lets him get more breathy with the vocals and more subtle with his delivery. The recording, done down in Bronxville, N.Y., at the Loft, is mint – the solos are so crisp you can hear every hammer-on and slide and it feels like Rasero is right across the room from you. My favorite is “Who’s to Blame,” with a solo that spits right in your eye even as it fades out, but there’s plenty for everyone here, even a Christmas tune.

For your friends with kids: Maybe they’re not hip to Laurie Berkner and they’re playing Wiggles drivel? Hand them Rob Duquette’s Love Is Contagious, a charming EP of five songs targeted at a decidedly younger audience (although I think “Brush Everyday” is solid advice at any age). Unless you’ve got an aversion to xylophone, songs like “Friends Forever” and the title track are very listenable, which is pretty crucial for parents who enjoy their sanity.

For anyone who’s been around a little bit: An underappreciated album by a local supergroup that came and went awfully quickly, Army of Squirrels’ Pirates Vs. Temperature is a sneering, sarcastic, hard-driving rock album that pokes fun and revels in our local scene, from “Break up the Band” to the closing “The Skinny,” which sadly might not even resonate much with people nowadays. “Your Life is Like an Emo Song” is worth the cover charge, and contributions from Brian Chaloux, Nick Lamberto, Walt Craven, and Neil Collins are easy to hear. Great stuff.

As Fast As: Destroy the Plastique Man

Seek and Destroy

As Fast As pull out their Plastique

It’s an unpredictable world we live in. The Red Sox keep winning the World Series, a Canadian dollar is now worth more than our pathetic greenback [this originally ran in 2008, height of the financial crisis], and that hack from American Idol, Daughtry, is among the best-selling rock acts in the world. Now I find there isn’t a single giant pop-rock singalong on the new As Fast As album.

What is the world coming to?

Well, it turns out Spencer Albeee and company have traded in their standard McCartney-Wings pop for a ’70s style more informed by the Bay City Rollers, the Bee Gees, and Yes, in the process knocking out something of a concept album. Destroy the Plastique Man is the band’s first since parting ways with Octone/A&M Records, with which the band released only 2006’s Open Letter to the Damned, an update of the band’s local debut by the same name in 2004. However, combined with Albee projects the Popsicko (self-titled, 2001) and Rocktopus (I Love You! Good Morning!, 2002; Something Fierce, 2003), which featured pieces of the current AFA lineup, there is a five-album track record of big, singalong choruses, cheery piano parts, and loud guitars that might lead one to expect more of the same.

As Fast As prove here, though, that history is a poor predictor of future performance. Penned by Albee, the tunes here still largely conform to pop songwriting convention, with verse-chorus-bridge construction, but the chords are less than bright, virtually every instrument sports a digital buzz, and the time signatures aren’t always 4/4. Albee has shown an inclination for the dark before — this is, after all, the guy who wrote: “Maybe you love me/ Maybe I’m a monkey/ Maybe you’re just bored with a belly full of drinks, so you want to take me home and fuck me” — but he never before seemed so interested in making you uncomfortable, poking you in the ribs with contrapuntal notes instead of rubbing your belly with major-chord melody.

As for that concept, the album basically details the psychedelic wanderings of Albee alter-ego Aaron (it’s his middle name, and the middle name of guitarist Zach Jones and bassist Pat “Hache Horchatta” Hodgkins, as well), who wakes up to crickets and loons in the 30-second opener and seems to be the Plastique Man of the title track, wondering: “Can I finally learn to love myself?” You want to talk ’70s? The opening of that title track apes Frampton’s whole talking-through-the-guitar thing, but actually makes it a melodic and workable chorus, “I don’t know what the meaning of tomorrow is/ But I know what it is to take the fall,” juxtaposed with Albee’s normal-voiced narrative verses: “He’ll destroy the plastique man/ Then he’ll learn to love again.”

I’ll leave the psychoanalysis for you armchair types out there, but I’ll tell you the digital laser beams that shoot through the song, paired with chords that punch like a Brahms string section and the ghost of a violin, build tension here in all the right ways (guest spots here include Stu Mahan, John Maclaine, Dominic Lavoie, DJ Moore, Aren Sprinkle, Jay Villani, Holly Nunan, Angela Doxsey, Dave Noyes, Emily Dix Thomas, and Garry Bowcott — I’m not going to parse them all).

This is definitely a headphones album. A rocket launch races around the channels in “Homewrecker,” where Aaron “can be good/ I can be pure/ I can convince you if you’re not sure.” Then an electric guitar builds late over sampled shouts and yelling, before Albee upgrades the chorus with a yelled high harmony and some trumpet or trombone. This is Pet Sounds pop, with doubled and tripled vocals, but devoid of the syrup that infuses Smile.

Digital loops, sometimes seeming aimless, often pop up in the left channel without warning. Basses are always fuzzed and thrumming. Keyboard solos sometimes are so affected it’s hard to perceive the tone. Pair those with handclaps for percussion, lush vocal harmonies, and beautifully crafted rhyming verses, and it can be sometimes difficult to find your bearings, but Albee’s doing that on purpose and it’s a good thing.

“Sleighjacking” is a deliciously odd Christmas tune, with a Latin beat tied to a Kingston Trio delivery. “Your Lips to G-d’s Ears” is like a heavy rock tune without the guitars and a lyrical device where Albee repeats the last couple words of each line: “I got hot dripped juices on my chin, on my chin/ I see slap-shot pretty shaking in, shaking in/ I shake my head, cuz bitch trashed mommy, shakin in, shakin in.” And then the chorus is so sweetly delivered, “I know just what you’re going through,” a move from indifference to empathy.

“Somebody’s Fool” is where things run disco, full on glitter ball, like what you’d hear on the new Taylor McFerrin (yep, Bobby’s son) album.

Finally, there is the “single,” which is greatly matured and nuanced compared to “The Single,” that triumphantly graced the Popsicko album. “Dancing a Murderous Tango,” gracing the airwaves on WCYY, opens with scritchy fiddles, then a chugging guitar line paired with the bass. The “c’mon” that finishes each line of the verse recalls (Albee’s other band, maybe you’ve heard of it) Rustic Overtones’ “C’Mon” off Viva Nueva, and the back-and-forth in the verse perfectly mimics the lock-step of the tango: “You think it’s sad/ I think it’s funny … you say death/ I say destruction … You say purpose/ I say function.”

Then there’s the big, expansive chorus, where Albee lets loose with all his chords will give him: “We’re dancing a murderous tango/ I’ll take your word/ Take me for everything.” He’s opened himself up laid himself bare. Take it and do with it what you will.