Dec 082010
 

I swear this blog is not becoming exclusively about Denver music.  It’s just that the past few weeks have been a flurry of activity and new releases around here.

Oh, Starling doesn’t seem to be a constant entity; it comes around once  year, during the holidays.  Actually, Oh, Starling consists of indie artists Dan Craig (whose record was recently reviewed here) and  Jessica Sonner, who happens to be married to Dan.  Last year, they recorded an EP of re-worked Christmas music called Joy, under their special holiday moniker.  This year, they have released a follow-up holiday EP, Noel.

Far too many times, artists go over the top in re-arranging the holiday classics, to the point that they come off as cheesy or self-indulgent.  By contrast–I took a listen to the track below, “Hark”, which Oh, Starling is offering as a free download from their website for a limited time.  It took my breath away.  A completely different rendition, tasteful, passionate, and real. One of the best modern re-workings I’ve heard, and by indie artists to boot.

If you’re in Denver this upcoming weekend (December 10), you can catch Oh, Starling performing at a special free concert at The Meadowlark Bar.  The show starts at 9:00.

Oh, Starling: “Hark”

Dec 012010
 

As recent as last year, Denver pop/rock band Meese had a recording contract with a major label, had a nationwide release, was touring heavily with bands like Paramore and Switchfoot, and was widely expected to parallel the national success found by band pals The Fray.

Then, earlier this year, brother-founders Patrick and Nate Meese surprisingly announced they were disbanding Meese.  A few months later, they debuted as an indie band at Denver’s Underground Music Showcase under a new moniker, The Centennial–and with an entirely different sound.

Talk about starting from scratch.

Last weekend, The Centennial released a DIY project, an EP titled Second Spring, which is not currently for sale. You read that right–the EP is not for sale.  They are giving it away, at least for now.  You can download the entire six-song recording at their website.

Gone are the melodic, pop-rock hooks, replaced by a mellower, melencholy-laden sound almost completely driven by two-part harmony (covered by Patrick and wife Tiffany).  I’ve struggled to classify their sound ever since I first heard them play–words like ambient, minimalist and shoegaze come to mind, but only partly describe it.  Perhaps the best term to describe it is “post rock”.  An almost literal de-construction of a pop-rock sound, and an attempt to regather its various elements into something new.

The de-construction/re-construction of Meese into The Centennial was partly preceded by some circumstances outside of their control. Apparently, some serious personnel changes and internal stuff at the label coincided with the release of their record, ultimately halting their momentum and preventing the band from gaining traction. But for a band to change its entire direction, sound and identity, it takes more than just unfortunate business deals; you do that kind of thing for entirely different reasons. In various conversations with the Meese brothers over the past few months, I gather that in reality, they were bored with the pop-rock thing.  It would appear that the label mishaps just gave them the excuse they needed to try something new.

The shift from Meese to The Centennial has not been a smooth musical transition–not a magic act where one band disappears and from behind the curtain a new one shows up in its place. I’ve heard The Centennial play live three times, and each time their sound has been a little different.  I can hear within their music their struggle to experiment and reinvent, and I can hear it in the record as well.  This is a band that has ventured into uncharted waters and is still morphing, and for all we know they may sound completely different within a year. What I find intriguing, though, is that the Meeses aren’t engaging this process privately. Through their live performances and recent recording, they are letting it happen in the public venue, allowing us into their struggle, so to speak. I don’t know if this is what they intended, but it’s exactly what I like about them right now.

The (current) sound of The Centennial might not speak to everyone, but it definitely speaks to me on a soul level.  Maybe it’s because the story behind the sound speaks to me also.  Maybe it’s because I’ve lived their story in a different way–maybe it’s because I know what it is to start over from scratch, and I understand the struggles behind reinvention.  Whatever my personal connection to the band and their story, I like what I’m hearing, and I hope you will, too.  Take a listen for yourself, and if you like what you hear, go over to The Centennial’s website and download the record.

The Centennial: “Free Man”

The Centennial: “1988”

Nov 162010
 

Here’s yet another Denver indie artist who is making waves (see my blog tagline above).  Rachel James and her band Brighton Boulevard have been spreading their brand of pop-rock around Denver for awhile now. But those who are familiar with Rachel James’ past musical efforts will find a different tone on the new EP Landing, which officially drops this weekend.

With this set of songs, James takes a more reflective turn than on her previous releases–less driving rock, and more relaxed. After seeing her perform several times with her band around town, my personal take on it is that these new songs really sit better with the band’s current overall vibe right now–kind of like things are fitting into place.  I look forward to hearing these songs played live.

If you’re in the Denver area this weekend and you like what you hear below, you’ll have the chance to catch Rachel James and Brighton Boulevard for the official CD release party. They’re playing at the Soiled Dove Underground this Saturday, November 20, the official day that Landing, um, lands.  Show starts at 9:00 PM.

Rachel James: “We All”

Nov 092010
 

One cool thing about indie music is the diversity and creativity you find in it.  Two indie acts can easily sound like they are worlds apart.  The flip side, though, is that sometimes indie music can be so far on the creative margins that not many people can relate to it.  It takes a certain amount of skill to be both creative and accessible as an indie artist.

Listening to Dead Letters, the latest release from indie-pop/rock artist Joshua Novak, I’m finding that combination. This is a nine-song collection of original tunes, creatively arranged and well-executed, carrying just a hint of a retro vibe, all overlaid with Novak’s signature falsetto vocals. The cool thing about the songs is that musically, they don’t leave you scratching your head going, “What was that?” They are accessible and singable, and they play well both in the background or in the foreground.

The first sample I put below underscores probably the best part about this record.  It’s a simple arrangement–only vocal and guitar, with just a bit of percussion.  My point?  It’s a good song; it plays well without a lot of bells and whistles.  And that’s the nature of the songwriting on this record. There are a lot of creative arrangements, but the record doesn’t rely on those.  Good songs are the backbone of a good record.  And this one has a solid backbone.

Joshua Novak: “Tidal Wave”

Joshua Novak: “New Start”

Dead Letters - Joshua Novak

Nov 012010
 

Typically, when a band labels themselves “Americana”, there is a certain amount of expectation as to what it’s going to sound like.  So when Denver-based “Americana” band The Congress sent me their self-titled EP for review, I got a bit of a surprise.  T’weren’t at all what I expected.

Don’t get me wrong. This is Americana; they haven’t mis-labeled themselves.  It’s just that sometimes we forget that our roots aren’t just folky; there’s a bit of fried chicken and soul mixed in there, too.  This is the part of America that The Congress captures–the blues/jazz/rock part–and the result is that mmmm-hmmm satisfying kind of music, like soul food (blue-eyed soul, to be exact)–or like a really good back scratch.

This band is relatively new, but it’s apparent these guys aren’t novices.  This record has a foundation of rock-solid musicianship and equally-solid songwriting, overlaid by near-flawless vocals.  This is an indie band that isn’t striving to be edgy–just really good. And they are.

The only potential downfall I found with the record isn’t with the quality itself. There’s a smooth Hammond B3 throughout the record that really helps define the record’s sound; the only problem is, there is no organ player in the band.  That part was added by co-producer Daniel Clarke, who isn’t part of the band. Thus, while this is definitely a solid recording, one has to wonder whether it is true to the band’s actual sound.  Of course, seeing them play live (which I plan to do) could settle all those questions; just saying.

Anyhow, check out The Congress and see what you think.

The Congress: “Queen Mary”

If you like this band, buy their EP on iTunes.
The Congress - The Congress

Oct 202010
 

Here’s an indie band that’s been getting a lot of attention in their part of the world–which just happens to be New Jersey.  In fact, Bern & the Brights has been nominated locally for two Hoboken Music Awards, for Outstanding Band and Outstanding EP.

The EP for which they’ve been nominated, Swing Shift Maisies, was released back in July.  I’ve had a chance to listen to it, and I can see to some extent what the stir is about.  Bern & the Brights have a distinctive sound, with elements of roots, rock and progressive country, overlaid with lead singer Bernadette Malavarca’s eclectic vocal quality. Their sound sets them apart from the pack, and is definitely their strongest asset.

Perhaps the one weakness I found with Swing Shift Maisies is that although there are definitely catchy moments on the record, there was also some melodic “dead space”–times when their amazing sound actually didn’t seem to be going anywhere due to a bland melodic line. It wasn’t that I felt the band lacks potential–more like I felt there were places where the potential wasn’t fully reached.  Bern & the Brights is definitely a promising band; what they need to take them over the top, IMHO, is simply a few more strong songs in their arsenal to carry their distinct sound.

That said, this is a band well on their way.  Take a listen and see what you think.

Bern & the Brights:
Bernadette Malavarca – lead guitar/vocals/percussion
Catherine McGowan – acoustic guitar/vocals
Nicole Scorsone – violin
Shawn Fafara – bass
Jose Ulloa – drums

Bern & the Brights: “Sangria Peaches”

 Buy the EP on itunes:

Swing

Oct 082010
 

In case you’re new to this here blog (or to my other blog, The Developing Aritist)…you might be wondering about the occasional “LOCALS ON SHUFFLE” updates that appear in my Twitter feed on the sidebar.

Simply put, I’m a fan of local music.  When I get hold of a recording made by a band or artist from Denver or the surrounding area, I typically like to put it on my ipod.  Most of the time when I get the chance to listen to my ipod, it’s on shuffle–so when a local act comes up on my shuffle, I tweet about it.  And because all my stuff is linked together, those tweets show up on Twitter, on both blogs, and on my Facebook.  So basically, if you’re a local band or artist, and I get some of your music on my ipod, you get some free shout-outs across my local network.  Not bad, huh?

By the way, the same holds true if you’re an indie artist from somewhere besides Denver.  If I put your stuff on my ipod and it comes up on shuffle, I send out a similar Tweet: “INDIES ON MY IPOD”.

Of course, the way to get on this highly-coveted ipod shuffle rotation is to make sure I have your music.  It’s at my discretion–after all, it IS my ipod–but as I said, I’m a fan, so most of what I get eventually shows up on the shuffle. Instructions for music submissions, either by download link or by mail, can be found by clicking here or using the “Submissions” tab above.

Oct 052010
 
Laura Brehm

Singer/songwriter Laura Brehm. (Photo: Parker Rice)

For a young singer/songwriter barely 20 years old, Denver local artist Laura Brehm is already somewhat of a veteran in the indie music field.  With two full-length recordings already to her credit, Brehm has been playing the Denver local music scene for nearly four years now.  Growing up in a musical family, she says she knew by age six that she wanted to be a musician, but didn’t really “go public” until age 16 when some friends encouraged her to record some songs she’d written. Her latest CD, Dreams, came out this summer.

Besides playing at this summer’s Underground Music Showcase, a personal high point for Brehm came when she landed the opening slot for the Heart concert at Denver’s Paramount Theater in August. “I’m not exactly sure how that happened, but I’m glad it did,”  says Brehm, smiling.

Her booking agent tells her that he was approached with a request from Heart for an acoustic opening set by a local songwriter, and that Heart personally selected Brehm out of a number of artists whose demos the booking agent sent them.  Although Brehm’s acoustic pop style is dramatically different from Heart, she grabbed the attention of the crowd with the first song and quickly won them over.

With Brehm’s permission, I’ve included a couple of the songs from her latest release below.  Both her albums are available on iTunes. See what you think.

Laura Brehm: “Fall In Love”

Laura Brehm: “The Sunrise”

Dreams

Sep 222010
 

Just so you know…I’m not really intending to focus all my attention on just indie-folk or Americana  country projects.  It’s just that those are the titles that have been accumulating on my submissions list. :)

Anywho…I got a listen yesterday to Darden Smith’s latest project Marathon, due to be released in the states on September 28. Actually, “project” really is a good description for it; according to Smith’s website, Marathon is also a theatrical work in progress (which totally makes sense when you listen to the record), and soon to be a book/music project, as well.  The title is appropriate, as well–although named after a town in west Texas, Smith says the concept for Marathon has been around for a decade.

What I found most striking about the record is that it sounds more old “western” than most country/Americana efforts these days.  Really.  You can almost feel the dust in your eyes, or see the tumbleweeds rolling by–or perhaps imagine a couple of gunslingers facing each other down at high noon.  Definitely a concept record, the main tracks are punctuated by several instrumental breathers.  In fact, I must say that the instrumentals are the strongest parts of the record–every time I heard one, I was disappointed when it ended.  Additionally, props are due for the instrumentation throughout the project–very professional, very well done.

So that’s the good stuff.  In my view, the album’s weakness  is found in the songwriting–in particular, bland melody lines (something that seems to plague many indie projects).  Darden Smith’s raspy voice is memorable in itself (reminds me of the late Rich Mullins, if any CCM fans are reading this).  But with the exception of the ending track “No One Gets Out of Here,” I had a hard time identifying any strong melodies.  I found myself toiling through the regular songs, waiting for the amazing interludes in between them.  Just saying.

That said, Marathon is at the least a very respectable project, the product of a great deal of work and thought. To give you a sense for the record’s thematic feel, I’d recommend listening to the sample tracks below in order.

Local Denver folk will get the chance to hear Darden Smith soon–he’ll be making a stop at Swallow Hill on October 2.

Darden Smith: “Marathon”
Darden Smith: “Sierra Diablo”

Sep 182010
 

In my view, when you can arrest someone’s attention with a slow, soft, melencholy vibe, that’s saying something.  With the absolute absence of hype, bells and whistles, there has to be something deep within the music itself that grabs you in the gut, that makes you want to silence the surrounding noise in order to hear it.

That is exactly the effect the song below by Her Name is Calla had on me.  It was captivating and haunting all at once. I had to stop what I was doing, in fact, and blog about it.

Her Name is Calla is a six-piece indie band from the UK, and although you may not have heard of them, they’ve been around for several years, slowly gaining a following for their deep emotional vibe that breaks with convention in favor of heart. One blogger described their sound as melancholy without being depressing. I think that description fits.

The song below, “Thief”, is from their upcoming record The Quiet Lamb, to be released November 8.  As I listened to its slow, growing theme, all I could think of was what an amazing movie soundtrack it would make.   It reminded me of Samuel Barber’s classic “Adagio for Strings” (think the soundtrack from Platoon). Although it doesn’t actually sound like that piece, it sort of feels like it.  And that’s a good thing.

Do yourself a favor and listen to the whole song.  It starts slow and grows on you. See if it doesn’t capture your attention the way it did mine.

Thief by hernameiscalla