REVIEW: Founding Fathers “Rapid Transit”

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Founding Fathers, “Rapid Transit”
Snax, 2013

I’ve read a lot on the topic of increasingly non-geographical musical landscapes. Those days of 70’s, 80’s, or even 90’s scenes in cities across the country spawning great bands, venues, labels that shaped my own musical development have been replaced by an internet age where the concept of belonging to a geographic place of permanence is less necessary. Bands pack up and head to Brooklyn, Chicago, Portland, or Austin leaving behind hometown music scenes that may not exist as strongly anymore or they may have had little involvement in. One of Aquabear’s goals has always been to focus on that strong geographic permanence of the state of Ohio and the great music and art in produces. Now before I start getting all philosophical about my work with Aquabear Legion I will promise you that this introductory paragraph has something to do with this record review.

Founding Fathers new album Rapid Transit has an LP insert with an old promotional map of Northeast Ohio with the slogan “Rapid Transit is Rapid Growth!” across the top. Below the map are the following words: WRITTEN, RECORDED, MASTERED, CUT, PRINTED, AND PRESSED IN CLEVELAND, OHIO. The album’s name itself coming from city’s public transportation system of rail and bus, a photo of which graces the cover (by Rose Marancil and painted by Jake Kelly). This record is a great example of why the concept of geography plays an important role in the creative pursuits of musicians that reside in that community. Its songs take a journey around Cleveland’s musical past, present, and future not unlike the Rapid Transit system itself. Growing up in Lorain (west of Cleveland) I spent a lot of time listening to bands from the area during my formative years and there was also something about bands from Cleveland that I never could put a finger on. Founding Fathers are made up of some of Cleveland’s most talented folks: John Neely and Stanton Thatcher played together in Tokyo Storm Warning and Neely and fellow John (Kalman) worked at the Grog Shop for years and Kalman’s band Roue still remains of the city’s most missed projects. The three are joined on bass by Carol  Schumacher Yachanin (Tough & Lovely, Reigning Sound, Detroit Cobras) and together create a pretty amazing record from start to finish.

Rapid Transit sounds immediately familiar drawing on touchstones ranging from Archers of Loaf and Dinosaur Jr. but with a heavy dose of a certain sound that comes from the geographic influence mentioned earlier. A lot of that feeling also comes courtesy of Paul Maccarrone (formely of the legendary Zombie Proof Studios and currently of The Black Eye) who recorded and mixed this record (along a long list of other Cleveland essentials over the years). Opener “Flower Plower” storms out of the gate but its the second song “Sailing Stones” that is the standout for me, recalling for me mid 90’s Yo La Tengo with several moments of perfect harmonization that only come along once in a great while. Songs like “Latest American Hero”, “Secret Win”, and “Dancey Pants” are carried by riffs that switch back and forth, soaring and angling into each other drawing to mind other Cleveland bands of days past like Sun God, Machine Go Boom, The Franchise, and State of Ohio. “Chasing Shadows” is a fitting end to the record leaving the listener with just a few more melodies and progressions to hum along to the rest of the day.

There is always something great happening musically in Cleveland but lately it seems as if new music and new projects or coming out all the time. New bands with familiar friends (The Safeties, Classic Sand, Palaces, and more) are popping up and the Lottery League is readying itself again to mix up some of the city’s finest musicians into a whole new crop of bands. This city is full of some of the most talented people I have ever met and they all seem to be putting out some incredible stuff these days, with the potential of more and more to come. I highly recommend this album.

REVIEW: Connections “Private Airplane”

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Connections, “Private Airplane”
Anyway Records, 2013

Take a quick glance at the cover of Connections’ debut LP and you’ll surely notice a hot pink biplane soaring across an empty sky. It’s a seemingly calculated piece of iconography that links this record to Dayton, OH, the birthplace of aviation and the ancestral home of legendary Ohio rockers Guided By Voices. Located an hour east via I-70, in the relative metropolis of Columbus, this group of local music scene veterans have managed to channel the same sort of energy that Robert Pollard and company began tapping into almost 30 years ago.

For singer Kevin Elliot and guitarist Andy Hampel, the association is far from superficial. Four track recordings made by the pair’s high school band 84 Nash found their way into the hands of Pollard, resulting in the release of their debut full length on GBV’s own Rockathon Records in 1998. Drummer Adam Elliot’s group Times New Viking toured alongside the recently reunited ‘classic lineup.’ And if their previous musical output is any indication, guitarist Dave Capaldi (of El Jesus de Magico) and bassist Philip Kim (of Andrew Graham & Swarming Branch) have definitely listened to Bee Thousand.

Private Airplane possesses a sort of polished scruffiness, echoing the lo-fi roots of some of its key personnel without assaulting your ears with distorted blasts of tape hiss. The thrashing chords of “Miller’s Grove” and noisy hooks of “Casuals” sound as if they were written in beer can-strewn basements and hastily recorded using equipment identical to that which birthed albums like Under the Bushes Under the Stars. By the same token, short, divergent interludes like “Sister City” and “Capital of Strange Cravings” might have been fleshed out over the course of a few smoke breaks. And while Kevin Elliot may not have Uncle Bob’s vocal presence, the band’s unison delivery shares the consistent aspiration of treating a Thursday night bar crowd like a densely packed arena.

That’s not to say that Connections are entirely derivative of their most conspicuous influence. From the woozy chords of “Cindy” to the earnest sentimentality of “I Can Fix Memories,” the group consistently finds new ways to wrap their thoughts into succinct, pop-indebted rock songs. There’s a visceral feel to the half hour of music presented on the album, divided into bite-sized pieces that, while easily digestible on their own, are enhanced when placed in the context of the record itself. It’s a testament to Adam Smith’s production work which along with Adam Elliott’s understated rhythms, help unify the LP’s 15 varying tracks into a cohesive whole.

Amid all the muddy guitar tones and muffled cymbal crashes, there’s a palpable sense of midwestern nostalgia that finds the group’s romanticized small town recollections clashing with contemporary urban realities. It’s a source of inspiration that easily lends itself to uncovering universal truths, much like those exposed by their elders down the road in Dayton. Boarding their Private Airplanes, Connections achieve catharsis through a very specific strain of concise musical expression, giving a salty salute to their forbearers while proving that the club is still open.

You can find this record at your finest local record store.

RECORD REVIEW: The Black Swans – Don’t Blame the Stars

The Black Swans
Don’t Blame the Stars
Misra, 2011

Jerry DeCicca is one hell of a songwriter. He has quietly amassed a catalog of gems over the course of several stellar albums, an ep and a handful of equally stellar 7″ tracks that follow a solemn tradition, a niche of singer songwriters that defy categorization. Americana? Folk? Country? The songs on Don’t Blame the Stars possess elements of all these genres, but are hardly bound to them. These are dusty, lived in ruminations on faith, friendship and the power of music, delivered in DeCicca’s unmistakable baritone. He is accompanied by an incredibly sympathetic cast of talented musicians (including long-time band-mate Noel Sayre, who tragically passed mere months after the recording of this material), resulting in the fullest sounding, most accomplished set of songs the Black Swans have produced yet. The guitar playing of Chris Forbes shines throughout. Songs like “Joe Tex”, “Sunshine Street” and “I Forgot To Change The Windshield Wipers In My Mind” are some of the most upbeat songs in the Black Swans catalog, providing a perfect balance to the somber title track and the sparse “Little Things”. Don’t Blame The Stars is as excellent an album of Americana-tinged storytelling as you are likely to hear this year. Highly recommended.

-Andrew Lampela

REVIEW: Southeast Engine “Canary”

Canary is the album I have been waiting for Southeast Engine to make. It is really good. Seriously. I have always had a great deal of respect for this band and Adam Remnant’s songwriting, but they’ve never before grabbed my attention the way this record does. In my almost 10 years in Athens these guys have always been a huge part of the music community here, but this one hits me all the way through. As someone that has seen this band dozens of times and heard their recordings over their career, I can honestly say that with Canary, Southeast Engine finally finds what I think they’ve been looking for.

The tale told over Canary‘s 11 songs is one of America during the Great Depression, specifically the story of a miner in my own adopted home of Athens County who is struggling through a particularly rough patch of his existence. A story of poverty and hopelessness that really turns out to be one of searching and understanding. Rem’s songs follow through those themes of closed mines and mills and a beautiful and storied landscape and culture that have been stolen away. It is that underlying hope that frames Canary, strength found in love, family, and the importance of home and tradition. “Sure things could be better, at least we have each other.” A story steeped in history, but as contemporary as they come.

Canary‘s production is beautiful (thanks to Josh and the fine folks of 3 Elliott Studios here in town), but its the songs themselves that carry the record and the band. The songs are intense, musically and lyrically and lush instrumentation is added from peripheral instruments (banjos, fiddles, harmonicas) and from rollicking, fuzzy versions of their basic setup (Adam’s badass guitar solo on “1933 Great Depression” and Billy’s sweet organ on “At Least We Have Each Other”) for the more uptempo numbers. “The Curse of Canaanville”, “Mountain Child”, and the beautiful plea “Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains” showcase both the depth of Remnant’s songwriting and voice while showing the range of the band itself.

Another of my personal favorite Athens songwriters, Mike Elliott said today “Southeast Engine has begun the take over. review after review, blog after blog, I see things like this..” and then links to a review of a recent Chicago show with the headline “Southeast Engine’s show at Schuba’s almost too much to take”. I hope the reviews keep rolling in like that from the corners of this country, this album deserves it.

Visit:
southeastengine.com | misrarecords.com

RECORD REVIEW: Wheels on Fire – Cherry Bomb EP

This album seems like a demonstration of how deeply Wheels On Fire can worm four
songs of their greaser surf-rock into your skull. It’s a cleaner break from the straighter
rock sound of Get Famous!, and more in line with beach riffs of Liar Liar. (So much so
that there’s a different version of a song off Liar Liar.) Cherry Bomb’s lead off, “Black
Wave,” starts the dig in your head with a dark beach-party sound, its catchiness only
covered up by the second track (“Broken Up”) and its insistence on including a kind
of ‘keyboard cat’ riff. The title track demonstrates Wheels on Fire’s experimentation with doo-wop harmonies, and the final song of the set is a stripped-down revision of Liar Liar’s “Go Give Your Love Away”. These are all good songs, and the descriptions, admittedly, are simple bastardizations of how you’ll experience them, or what they actually are.
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RECORD REVIEW: Orchestraville – Poison Berries

Orchestraville were one of the premiere bands as I came of age in the dingy clubs of the early ’90s Athens music scene.  They stood out from crowd by infusing their music with quirky angularity and a much poppier feel than their contemporaries.  I had, at a young age, developed an affinity for XTC, and damned if these guys didn’t nail the sound.  It also didn’t hurt that Dave Pascoe was a complete badass on what was, up to that point, the only fretless bass I had ever seen.  I was hooked.  Two albums, a 7-inch and a few comp tracks later, however, that was that. The band fell into that hazy, excess-soaked gray matter not often called upon, dubbed “the ’90s.”

It was quite a shock this past fall, then, to hear tell of a new record.  I usually greet these types of reunions with a fair amount of trepidation.  Putting an album out after so many years usually goes the way of having a release show in the lobby of a Holiday Inn or, at best, being a pale imitation of the reasons you loved the band in the first place.  Orchestraville did neither of these things.  Instead, they decided to put out a 12 track collection of amazing pop songs. Pop in the long, almost-forgotten sense of a band playing intelligent, well written songs with great production that unfold over repeated listening.  Pop in the sense of attention to detail.  Pop with the sense of, well, not sucking.

Gone are the acute angularities and innate quirkiness of their earlier releases/incarnations.  Instead, Chris Forbes, Keith Hanlon, Dave Pascoe and new-to-me Parker Paul have crafted  a stellar set of thoughtful rock songs that, considering the influences,  sound like Orchestraville.  Sure, there are some distinctly British-feeling moments to some of these songs (particularly “Only A Song” and “You Wanna Be Like That”), but these are minor quibbles that tell me you’d rather reference things than listen to music.  There is an amazingly attentive eye on all of the arrangements, with layer upon layer of subtle instrumentation always benefiting the song.  “Phil Och’s Flag,” “The Bird Without Wings,” “Poison Berries,” and my personal favorite “I Could Stay Here All Night Long” nail the art of pop rock, marrying catchy rhythms and smart lyrics to toe-tapping perfection. I won’t lie—not all of these songs are winners for me.  Seriously, though, if the only thing wrong with a record is that I want to skip “I Take It Back” every once in a while…

Poison Berries is a fantastic collection of songs, by people that still give a shit about writing real songs.  I highly suggest you go to orchestraville.net and start figuring out how you’re going to get a copy.  Oh, if you were wondering—yes, Pascoe is still a badass.