Bubbly Electronic Pop
Desperate Spirits – June 2, 2017
Big Fresh (and its leader, John Ferguson) are icons of Lexington music. They’ve released a handful of albums since their start in the late 90s – the most recent full album, Moneychasers, came out in 2011 (and was one of the first Lexington-made records I ever bought), they put out a couple songs in 2016, and now have plans to release a pair of EPs in 2017. The first of those, Fall Preview, is a five-song trip through the band’s style and musicality – each with its own personality and a different guest singing lead.
“Tongku” is fronted by Beijing’s Bianbian, opening with a trio of guitar, piano, and shakers that give the track the feel of a ticking clock. The vocals here are in Mandarin (Google Translate tells me that Tòngkǔ means ‘pain’ or ‘suffering’), but the song’s lovely vocal melody conveys a balanced mixture of joy and melancholy. Robert Schneider, Ferguson’s bandmate in The Apples in Stereo, sings on “Paralyzed,” the EP’s first single. The song is a fast-moving pop track, buoyant with whirring synthesizers and horn lines, covering Ferguson’s upbringing in rural, Christian Kentucky as Schneider sings “I used to sing of a heaven far way, where no one ever dies.”
Former Big Fresh singer, Kate Pope, takes the lead on “Yes Yes Yes,” which feels the most like songs from Moneychasers to me: it’s a funky track with pulsing synth bass and quick stabs from trombone and saxophone. ATTEMPT’s Trevor Tremaine takes us through “Rock ‘n’ Roll Beans,” a short, ridiculously fun track that name drops Bruce lee, Lee Iacocca, and the Ayatollah (among others). The EP ends with “Like Swayze,” sung by Lexington’s Michelle Hollis. It’s a smoky, piano-driven slow jam that crescendos through a heavy second chorus before descending into a disorienting haze.
Fall Preview covers a great range of sounds, thanks in larger part to its many guest singers, but it’s tough to imagine these songs without Ferguson and the other constant pieces in Big Fresh’s sound. The group continues its reputation as one with a knack for unusual (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) pop songs, but the musicality, fidelity, and colors on this EP elevate the music to a new level. Fall Preview is full of substance while remaining fresh and hugely fun – it’s a great EP, and Big Fresh is a listening experience I can’t recommend enough.
Tracks I Liked: Tongku!, Paralyzed!!, Yes Yes Yes!, Rock ‘n’ Roll Beans!, Like Swayze!!!
Ben Southworth – May 25, 2017 – Kenwick Place
Lo-Fi Chamber Folk
Gubbey Records – May 19, 2017
Dream Eye Color Wheel is a project based in Louisville // New Albany, Indiana made of many musicians and led by Ben Traughber. Their new album, False Omega opens with the plodding instrumental, “Slow Thundergeist,” a dark, richly orchestrated piece (featuring my favorite woodwind, the bass clarinet) that toes the line between feeling mechanical, even machine-like, but ultimately human and raw. “Saw Teeth” opens as a waltz, led by acoustic guitar before Traughber’s soft vocals enter, eventually giving way to a lovely organ-violin solo. Later is “Flying Erase Head,” a beautiful piece that feels transmitted from a long time ago – everything is whispered and washed-out, like it’s coming from a distant memory. “Gamma” rumbles into focus on a low synthesizer note before acoustic guitar and Traughber’s voice enter, him singing a repeated “gamma, gamma, gamma… rays.” Balanced somewhere between upbeat and psychedelic, “On Arrival” challenges what a bossa nova can be, throwing a noisy guitar solo on top of an already disorienting track. The album closes with “Goodbye (Listen Here),” which starts as an unsettling duet between rewound guitar and an angry voicemail (the caller eventually cools off). Dream Eye Color Wheel is a fascinating, refreshingly creative project of Ben Traugbher – False Omega is a strange, disorienting listen, but a beautiful and enjoyable one at that.
Tracks I Liked: Slow Thundergeist!, Saw Teeth!!, Flying Erase Head!!!, Gamma!, On Arrival!!
Ben Southworth – May 21, 2017 – Kenwick Place
Lo-Fi One-Man Punk
Twin Cousins Records – June 17, 2017
J. Marinelli is known well around Lexington for his quick songs and only-the-essentials stage-setup – a guitar on his lap and drums set up at his feet. Though songs on Stray Volts move by quickly, Marinelli doesn’t use this as an excuse to phone it in with his lyrics. “The Dead Don’t Need Us” is a laid-back, slow track that uses ideas of vanity and fixation-with-life-on-earth to set up the repeated “the dead don’t need us.” Following immediately is the sub-one-minute-track, “Humble-Brag Man” – the shortest and fastest-moving track on the album. Despite the rapid-fire delivery of the lyrics, Marinelli packs the song with a harsh critique of the ‘humble-brag man’ (we all know one), ending the bridge with “his false modesty is such a drag.” The delivery on “Cocaine Activist” is more pronounced and pointed, where J. describes a ‘pat-yourself-on-the-back’ kind of guy taking advantage of us, the bridge ending in “with rhetoric so desperate, intentions that they motivate are less than pure, they’ll always leave you sore.” At four-and-a-half minutes, “Creak and Sway” is nearly twice as long as any other song on the album – it’s a dark song full of pain, and with a lot of room to breathe, it serves as a nice break from the intensity of much of the rest of the album. Stray Volts is J. Marinelli at his finest – catchy, lo-fi rock with great melodies, clever lyrics, and nothing else that isn’t needed.
Tracks I Liked: Brand New Glasses!, Madison Girls!, The Dead Don’t Need Us!!, Humble-Brag Man!!!, Cocaine Activist!!, The Evil of Two Lessers!, Creak and Sway!
Ben Southworth – May 15, 2017 – Kenwick Place
Don’t Panic Records – May 5, 2017
Few better Kentucky releases have come out than Mirror, Mirror since its release in 2012 – Louisville’s Wax Fang followed that up in 2014 with their remarkable space-rock-opera, The Astronaut, and now with Victory Laps. The music here is, in many cases, denser and more concise than songs on either of those releases, fleshed out with a big group of additional personnel and collaborators. As always, though, Wax Fang maintains a massive, in-your-face, unapologetic feeling to their music, thanks in large part to Scott Carney’s recognizable voice and confident delivery.
Opener “Pusher” gets right to it: a quick, shuffling synth-and-drum-driven intro, and we’re into the verse – Carney slurs long strings of lyrics together before crashing into a chorus, where he asks “if it’s the end of everything, then what am I a fighting for?” Next is “The Things I Do For Fun,” an outrageously fun track with a hook sure to get stuck in your head. Carney’s voice is distorted, his delivery is fast and punchy as he assaults you with “come on everybody let’s get ready to go because we’re going downtown to a rock and roll show” – the setup to the third chorus is huge, and the wildest moment of the entire album. “Decathect” provides some aural relief from the intensity of the prior song – a simple piano-driven introduction provides foundation for sweet, falsetto vocals throughout the song.
The second half of the album opens with “…” – a very nice, acoustic guitar lead-in for the next track. “Serenity Now” begins with plodding bass and synth, positioning itself as an anxiety-ridden anthem highlighted by the line “have I lost my mind, or is this just a sign of the times?” that caps off the end of each chorus. The verses on “Mystery Girl” – with their low synth pulses and dance music samples – could nearly pass for a Jamaican Queens track. The chorus here is filled out with shuffling drums, warped guitar, and Carney’s sweet admiration of the song’s subject, “she’s got a stigma, she’s an enigma, she’s a mystery even to her.” The brief “Lonely Nights” is another highlight of the album – it’s a well-produced track where Carney feels most intimate as he stutters through the third verse, “d-d-d-do you, do you still think about me … did you delete me from your m-memory?” and with beautiful harmonies on each repetition of “lonely nights.” “Exit Strategy” provides a dark, spaced-out finale to the album, replete with lengthy wordless sections and a dense orchestration.
Victory Laps is a step in a busier direction for Wax Fang, but this thicker texture is carried out well, providing opportunities for the band to increase the range of their live shows, given their full catalogue. Though not described as a concept album, themes of anxiety – both internal and external – are explored frequently; there’s often also the presence of a certain someone in the subject of many of the songs. No matter your experience with Wax Fang, it’s great to have some new music from them – Victory Laps is a well-crafted, wild ride of an album.
Tracks I Liked: Pusher!, The Things I Do For Fun!!!, Decathect!, Serenity Now!, Mystery Girl!, Lonely Nights!!
Ben Southworth – May 7, 2017 – Kenwick Place
No Quarter – May 5, 2017
Louisville’s Joan Shelley is known for her quiet, soothing music and beautiful, clear voice – Joan Shelley is elegantly all of these things, and a quietening listening experience throughout. The album begins with the quiet track, “We’d Be Home,” featuring a pair of guitars churning softly beneath Joan’s voice as she repeats “if you were made for me, we’d be home.” On “Where I’ll Find You,” the space is filled with shuffling, brushed percussion and a light organ – the song’s highlight is Joan’s vocal duet in the chorus. My favorite of the album is “Even Though,” a brief, simply-orchestrated song of plodding, finger-picked guitar and voice that manages a beautiful, melancholic fullness in its sound. Piano is added to the texture on “Pull Me Up One More Time,” with electric guitars crying softly in the background – Joan addresses her sister, “have I lingered too long, sister?” before reaching out for a hand, “pull me up one more time, for I have fallen.” The album ends with a droning, dissonant acoustic guitar on “Isn’t that Enough,” where piano doubles Joan’s voice several octaves below during the verses; her final lyrics of the album ask, “isn’t that enough, that you were meant to be free?”
The talent of the album’s remarkable collaborating musicians James Elkington, Nathan Salsburg, and Jeff and Spencer Tweedy is in their subtlety and restraint, adding only what is essential to the texture of these songs. Joan Shelley is an utterly appropriate title for its namesake’s fourth LP – despite the album’s superstar collaborators, Joan’s signature voice and songwriting are the driving, dominant force behind this music. I’d recommend this album with headphones, so you can catch every beautiful, nuanced note beneath the surface.
Tracks I Liked: We’d Be Home!!, Where I’ll Find You!, Even Though!!!, Pull Me Up One More Time!!, Wild Indifference!, Isn’t That Enough!
Ben Southworth – May 1, 2017 – Kenwick Place