Culturespill » The Long Winters

Best Albums of 2011 Series: “One Thousand Pictures,” Pete & The Pirates

20th December

You might think you’ve got this Reading, UK quintet figured out from the start when “Can’t Fish,” the opening track on Pete & The Pirates’ sophomore LP One Thousand Pictures, showers you in its theatrical and soaring gush of guitar and percussion. Perhaps you think you hear Band of Horses or even The National somewhere off in the distance of the song, and maybe you do. But when the alternately menacing and supine second track “Cold Black Kitty” mingles the roaring chops of Bloc Party or Interpol with the tender-hearted pop balladry of Ray Davies, the record comes off as a distinctly schizophrenic experience, and the band as one wholly uninterested in settling into any particular mode.

It is only fitting that “Cold Black Kitty” thunders with its driving guitars and pulsing adrenaline. After all, front man Tommy Sanders has just gotten done singing of light bulbs exploding in the streets and people leaping out of their windows on the opening track. Elsewhere, as on standout track “United,” the houses on his block are ugly and “hold meetings in the night time” as they stare him down and laugh. Yes, the houses are laughing. Just go with it.

For a record so replete with hard-bitten themes like violence, suicide and heartbreak, you’d think these tracks are the work of a band that takes themselves entirely too seriously. But then Sanders cracks a joke like “You’re in my heart / you’re in my car as well”  or explores such existential quandaries as “Who needs a train when you’ve got a train track and a motorbike with a girl and the back,” and you find enough emotional wiggle room to laugh off the tough stuff and be glad you withstood it in the meantime.

The video for “Winter 1,” which sports the album’s most memorable beat, exudes the kind of low-budget, geeky greatness of those early-’80s new wave videos we took so seriously at the time but giggle at diffidently today. (Be on the look-out for the wholly ridiculous, glow-in-the-dark-orange ski cap around the 1:20 mark. Glorious.) Check it out above.

Gianmarc Manzione

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Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Buzzards,” Margot & The Nuclear So and Sos

14th December



“I’m never gonna break your heart, not unless I have to,” Richard Edwards howls over the booming guitars and drums of “New York City Hotel Blues,” one of Buzzards’ highest moments. Clearly Mr. Edwards and the rest of the Indianapolis gang he calls “Margot & The Nuclear So and Sos” has decided he has to, as many tracks throughout Buzzards will split your heart with the fine blade of their chamber pop hooks and blunt one-liners. Some of these songs will scratch your eyes out; others will cry them dry.

The second track, “Let’s Paint our Teeth Green,” sounds like The White Stripes banged heads with R.E.M. somewhere in the halls of the studio it was recorded in. It’s a bruising crunch of guitars and hissing percussion that drips with pop hooks. The whole gorgeous mess drives Edwards’s screeching vocals to the end of the song like a truck crash on an icy road at night, accompanied along the way by backup vocals that sound like a chorus of blackbirds.

It is only fitting that on the first line of the next track, the aforementioned “New York City Hotel Blues,” Edwards declares that it “seems like the only way out’s through the back.” By then you’re three songs deep in an album that’s dug its claws so deep into your imagination you might never get them out, and it does start to feel as if you just paid to enter a black light ballroom where the guy stamping hands at the door will only let you out for a drop of your blood. But what else would you expect of an album whose song titles span a range from hilarity to horror—“Let’s Paint out Teeth Green,” ‘Tiny Vampire Robot,” “Earth to Aliens: What Do You Want?”

An adrenaline that calls to mind Bloc Party or The Long Winters ignites the appropriately titled “Freak Flight Speed,” while “Tiny Vampire Robot” dims the lights with an ethereal little ballad that brings to mind something from a Mazzy Star album you haven’t thought about since you were15 and pissed at your parents for making you take that stud out of your tongue. Other tracks, like “Claws” or “Earth to Aliens” channel the raw and aching beauty of Magnolia Electric Co.’s finest moments (think Songs Ohia).

But the star of the baroque production that is Buzzards happens to be its quietest moment, a spare and harrowing track called “I Do” that brings the album to a close. The stripped-bare ballad offers no more than one man’s dusty vocals and his guitar drowned in the dark matter of the song and resembles Radiohead’s devastating “Exit Music (For a Film)” from OK Computer. Although Edwards’s anguished delivery comes closer to the fragile and lowdown vocals of Jeff Tweedy than it does to the demon that Thom Yorke tickles on “Exit Music.” (And no, Richard Edwards doesn’t hope that you choke.)

Margot and friends are striking while the iron is hot, already prepared to drop their next record,  an acoustic EP called Happy Hour at Sprigg’s, on January 14th.

Gianmarc Manzione

The Action Design: Never Say

23rd June

The Action Design

Alright, so it may be released on the rather less-than-tastefully named “Pop Smear Records,” but, thankfully, The Action Design’s debut LP conjures more visions of jubilant midsummer drives to the beach with your windows down and streaked hair blown into a frenzy on the highway than it does of pap smears–and that’s a good thing. In a way it’s unfortunate that Never Say is slated for a post-Labor Day release (Sept. 23) because, much like Ted Leo’s great Living with the Living last year, the album really has a “record of the summer” feel to it.

But their MySpace page features a generous helping of tracks from that upcoming record, a sample that’s fascinating to hear alongside older material like “The Scissor Game” from their 2007 EP Into A Sound; the comparatively self-conscious and staid production of that prior work showcases a band that’s undergone an extraordinary creative evolution since, you know, all the way back in, uh–last year (because a 12-month-old song might as well have been recorded in the Mesozoic period these days–to quote Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, “that’s like SO last season!”)

Much like the aforementioned Ted Leo, tracks like “Landmines” live up to their titles by exploding from the stereo with an anthemic fury that might be downright threatening to members of the Emo persuasion, a manic exultation that approximates the rapture of The Long Winters’ “Rich Wife” or The Golden Dogs’ “Birdsong.” By the time you get to tracks like “Ten Feet of Snow” or “The Crossing”–songs on which it sounds as if the band decided to forgo the usual amps and plug their guitars into a passing thunderstorm instead–you realize that this shit should come with a warning label–“if you have a heart condition or listen to Coldplay, consult your physician before purchasing.” Or perhaps one of those disclaimers some dude reads on the radio so fast it fries your eyelids: “this band is not responsible for any sudden tremors of the nervous system, fidgety eyeballs, or inexplicable rushes of rapture.”

The Action Design in Studio

In an industry that increasingly believes money is made by categorizing bands into corners like “hardcore” or “pop” (whatever the hell THAT means anymore–is “pop” the new “indie”?), it’s particularly delightful to hear a band that does both with equal skill and passion, a band that enjoys a synth riff as much as the meaty crunch of electric guitar. Emily Whitehurst’s full-throated wail–a voice reminiscent of that neo-Mama Cass, The Gossip’s Beth Ditto–dresses the new-wave leanings of “The Crossing” in a silvery whisper poised to sneak up on you at any given moment with an unanticipated roar.

If lyrics like “once I was yours and I will be yours again” don’t threaten the thrones of Leonard Cohen or Townes Van Zandt, that’s because this is an “indie” record that does not openly cater to the falafel-and-tofu-crunching crowd of Emo vegans for whom music is a means of statement rather than joy. It’s a record for people who don’t feel guilty about turning to music for fun. Never Say, judging from those of the album’s tracks available on their MySpace Page, is indeed an unashamedly joyous record–something we could use a lot more of in a musical climate that too often identifies “indie” as a synonym for “mopey.”

In a label-obsessed scene saturated by so many genres that entire web pages are devoted to defining them, The Action Design’s Never Say offers another one for the pundits to savor: Post-punk-indie-dance-pop. It might sound like something that should come with a bubble-gum center and hard candy shell, but if any album ought to be sold with a blow-pop attached, this is it. Check them out on tour this summer and see for yourself:

Jun 19 @ 7:00P Glasshouse Record Store CD RELEASE – Pomona, California

Jun 20 @ 10:00A Pomona Fairgrounds Warped Tour – Pomona, California

Jun 21 @ 10:00A Pier 30/32 Warped Tour – San Francisco, California

Jun 22 @ 10:00A Seaside Park Warped Tour – Ventura, California

Jun 23 @ 5:00P Jillians w/Alesana, Evergreen Terrace, The Bronx, 1997 – Las Vegas, Nevada

Jun 25 @ 10:00A Cricket Pavilion Warped Tour – Phoenix, Arizona

Jun 26 @ 10:00A N.M.S.U. Practice Field Warped Tour – Las Cruces, New Mexico

Jun 28 @ 10:00A SLC Warped Tour – Salt Lake City, Utah

Jul 13 @ 8:30P Bottom of the Hill w/ Girl in a Coma – San Francisco

Jul 19 @ 8:00P The Knitting Factory w/ Girl in a Coma – Los Angeles, California

Aug 13 @ 10:00A Save Mart Center Warped Tour – Fresno, California

Aug 14 @ 10:00A San Diego Warped Tour – San Diego, California

Aug 15 @ 10:00A Shoreline Amphitheatre Warped Tour – Mountain View, California

Aug 16 @ 10:00A Sleep Train Amphitheatre Warped Tour – Sacramento, California

Aug 17 @ 10:00A Home Depot Center Warped Tour – Los Angeles, California

Aug 30 @ 8:30P Bottom of the Hill – San Francisco

Sep 5 @ 8:00P Los Angeles, California – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 6 @ 8:00P San Diego, California – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 7 @ 8:00P Phoenix, Arizona – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 9 @ 8:00P El Paso, Texas – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 10 @ 8:00P Austin, Texas – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 11 @ 8:00P Houston, Texas – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 12 @ 8:00P New Orleans, Louisiana – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 13 @ 8:00P Birmingham, Alabama – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 14 @ 8:00P Atlanta, Georgia – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 16 @ 8:00P Charlotte, North Carolina – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 17 @ 8:00P Wash DC, Washington DC – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 18 @ 8:00P Philly, Pennsylvania – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 19 @ 8:00P New York, New York – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 20 @ 8:00P Boston, Massachusetts – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 21 @ 8:00P Cleveland, Ohio – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 23 @ 8:00P Chicago, Illinois – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 24 @ 8:00P St Louis, Missouri – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 25 @ 8:00P Kansas City, Missouri – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 26 @ 8:00P Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 28 @ 8:00P Denver, Colorado – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 29 @ 8:00P Salt Lake City, Utah – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Sep 30 @ 8:00P Boise, Idaho – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Oct 1 @ 8:00P Seattle, Washington – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Oct 2 @ 8:00P Portland, Oregon – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Oct 3 @ 8:00P Sacramento, California – Co-Headlining Tour with Killola

Low Water Rising

13th May

John on the Epiphone, Low Water

If skipping town in a cross-country skid from Brooklyn to San Fransisco with a mobile photo booth in tow doesn’t sound like fun to you, then you need to get out more. Specifically, you need to get out more with Low Water, the latest band to earn Culturespill’s distinction of “Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of.” Fresh off of filming the video for their new single, “Sister, Leave Me,” for which they dragged a photo booth across the country and implored the nearest bystander to step inside and sing on camera, they’re taking it to the streets with an upcoming third release called Twisting the Neck of the Swan; and judging from how effortlessly their music stands up to the hype, they just might bank with this one.

Continuing their breezy brand of simple and stripped down pop rock that marries Spoon and The Long Winters in a musical brew they can call their own, “Sister, Leave Me” plays like a reliable follow-through on the trio’s established glories, a back-to-basics rock ‘n roll that awakens you to just how desperate you’ve been for a band that’s not afraid to sound this real. Think Hot Hot Heat without the adolescent frenzy. Cowboy Junkies with balls. A long-overdue musical retort to Wilco’s 1995 debut, AM. In other words, think a really fucking good band you need to hear NOW.

We’re admittedly stretching the rules for these guys, though, because all sorts of people are hearing about them these days. The Pittsburgh Gazette: “Gritty post-Replacements rock with style and substance.” Amplifier Magazine: “Bridging modern Americana with rock ‘n roll out of the garage.” The Davis Enterprise: “Elevated above your average Emo rock . . . tasteful guitar playing, subtle humor, and masterful and clever wordplay.” Origivation Magazine: “Beautiful. Just beautiful.” Hell, they even got their own spot on NPR’s All Songs Considered recently. You don’t get much bigger than that. Er, OK, maybe you do–but they’ll get there too. And in a big damned hurry.

Low Water: “Strange New Element”

For a band that vows to “write . . . solid unpretentious songs that reflect where we’re from,” it’s no wonder some people find nothing more to say other than “beautiful, just beautiful” in futile attempts at putting into words the miracle this band puts to tape, reduced to the inarticulate wonder of a drooling infant (I’m raising my hand.) The flawless pop-rock gem “House in the City,” a tune you can check out on the band’s myspace page, opens with a meaty and irresistible crunch of guitar. By the time Johnny Leitera’s laid-back vocals transport the song to some Sunday afternoon on a backwoods porch with a fatty and a can of moonshine, the song locates an unlikely bridge between punk and alt-country under a hard rain of influence that never obscures the band’s vision. Collapsing into a lo-fidelity jam worthy of the Black Keys–though not quite that low-fi–a syrupy burst of synth sweetens the tune on its way to a sparkling and vaguely grungy close.

Yet no single flourish of the band’s deceptively nuanced sound clutches you by the throat to throng you in their desperate genius; they’re that rare young band that knows how to let the music speak for itself, delighting in an unassuming restraint they ride through every song with the unwavering confidence that drives a great Neil Young album (most of their material offers a composite of Comes A Time and Zuma.) As far as Johnny’s concerned, though, Low Water are “a rock band of the same mold as The Kinks.” While we’re always leery of bands with the balls to boast a resemblance to The Kinks, whom we at Culturespill believe is the greatest band to ever grace a rock ‘n roll stage, the comparison isn’t entirely hyperbolic.

They may not be producing work of such lyrical mastery as “Waterloo Sunset” or “Shangri-La,” but they do write songs of enough quality for one to suspect that these guys have read almost as much as they’ve played. In a musical climate dominated by teeny-bopping Emo-bots who swoon over a Ben Gibbard lyric only out of ignorance of the covering cherubs of songwriting that paved his path forty years ago, that’s a welcome change of pace. And Johnny’s homage to those aging angels of rock is clearly more substantive than boastful, as he acknowledges an ambition not just to return to the sound of The Kinks, but also to embody the literate ethos they brought to rock ‘n roll. “I wanted to convey the blue-collar, working class aspect of the band,” he says of their name, “Low Water is a slang term from the ’40s for not having any money. It’s amazing how that’s proven to be appropriate,” he elaborates. Amazing indeed–both in song and in spirit–how closely this band comes to encompassing the hard-nosed paradox of indifference and empathy that rock ‘n roll was founded on.