Now Hear This: new albums reviewed — Megafaun, Dan Melchior, more!
NOW HEAR THIS
Megafaun — Megafaun (Hometapes)
Triangle-based experimental folk trio Megafaun were bold enough to name their fourth — and likely to be breakthrough — album after themselves. It’s a move that carries a ton of baggage. An eponymous title implies that the music captures the essence of the band. That’s a hard task for any outfit. But for Megafaun, a Rolling Stone “Band to Watch” on the brink of indie stardom, it creates an expectation that this record sums up the myriad achievements that have lead them to this precipice.
It’s a shame. Megafaun is a fine record, one that flaunts and even improves upon a few of the tricks that have turned these well-bearded gurus into unlikely scene leaders. But as good as it is, it’s not really the Megafaun fans of their first three records have come to know and love.
The band — brothers Phil and Brad Cook, and lifelong friend Joe Westerlund — built their reputation on a bold mix of rugged, almost old-timey folk, jazz-based improvs, and modernist noise built from field recordings and electronic manipulation. And while Megafaun keeps much from that approach, it largely rests on different foundations.
It’s a big, sprawling affair that covers a ton of ground, ranging from the gorgeous piano balladry of “Hope You Know” to the looping, rhythmic samples of lead single “These Words.” Still, it mostly moves like many of the classic double rock LPs from the 60s and 70s. Like those records, Megafaun is willing to mostly shroud its eccentricities — the band’s strong suit until now — in service of a sweeping experience that shifts from style to style with nary a bump (or risk) along the way.
This smoothness is the record’s greatest asset. The plodding backbeat and haunting reverb guitar lines of opener “Real Slow” cascade seamlessly into the recorded surf-splashes that begin “These Words.” A tumult of concussive drums, hypnotic chimes and textured field recordings, “These Words” is the best song here, but also the furthest outlier from the traditional folk and rock palette on display through most of the record. The arresting transition integrates the song flawlessly, mitigating any shock at its contrasting sounds.
The record is rife with such potent song pairings. The way the percolating noise of “Serene Return” diminishes into the strumming, horn-filled spiritual “You Are the Light” is particularly wowing. Still, it’s hard not to want more of the old ‘Faun from these songs. Experimental elements bubble up here and there, but this record is mostly an exercise in modernizing accepted rock forms. “Second Friend” co-opts string-bound Beatles pop into the trio’s druggy folk without a hitch, and “Scorned” is a fiery bit of backwoods blues that distorts harmonica into wrenching shrieks of agony.
But in the light of the band’s boundary-obliterating past, it’s hard to see the record’s achievements as revelatory. It’s an absorbing trek into bountiful territory for a trio of luminary talents, but it gets by on sounds you’ve likely heard a hundred times over. It’s a successful outing, but as a self-titled LP it fails. This is not the essence of Megafaun. —Jordan Lawrence
Dan Melchior Und Das Menace — Catbirds and Cardinals (Northern Spy)
Dan Melchior is not one to dwell on the past. He’s spent the past decade building a catalog that’s distanced himself further and further from past associations, incrementally increasing the divide with each release. That came to a head on this year’s Assemblage Blues — billed as a solo set and released by the respected Siltbreeze label. Even relative to Melchior’s other work, Assemblage Blues was a left-field excursion. Side A closes with “90s Man (Pt. 2)” and “January 1996,” a brilliant but particularly challenging pair. First Melchior chastises misplaced nostalgia over a hypnotically meandering guitar and whirring noise, then listeners are treated to a bleak and bitter noise-and-electronics spoken-word outing. Billy Childish wasn’t even on the same planet.
But now it seems as if Melchior might be ready to let down his guard. Catbirds and Cardinals, his second full-length of the year, reveals the British ex-pat’s underrated talent as a pop songwriter, even as he kicks and rips against the polish that honor suggests. “Poison Pete’s Holiday” turns a Kinks-worthy jaunt celebrating the titular asshole leaving town for a few days into something much bigger as an ocean swell of buzzing keys erupts beneath its distorted and delayed acoustic guitar. “Drama Queens on Prozac” is a similarly scathing and grin-inducing pop song that trades in both effervescent hooks and lo-fi scuzz. “English Shame” earns its role as lead single by punching its way through a dense arrangement of keyboard drones, insistent percussion and surging guitars. The draw here is Melchior’s writing. His homeland, he sings, is “like a parent or a fucked-up friend / You criticize them endlessly, but fight anyone who / Dares to join in.” On the one hand, there’s William Blake; on the other, there’s the pontificating Sting.
But in terms of songwriting, this isn’t uncharted territory for Melchior. He’s played the snarky popsmith before. Albums like 2002’s This Is Not The Medway Sound and 2005’s The Covert Stomp (a compilation of cuts recorded between 1993 and 2002) were crammed with indelible hooks and cunning punchlines.
But Catbirds is no return to form. Melchior is entirely in character here, taking the noise-blasted lessons of his deliberately challenging recent output to make his hooks bigger — and more fiercely barbed. In its wash of crackling static and buried, melancholy vocal, “Crow Radio #2” wouldn’t feel out of place among the fuzz-fried and free-form experiments of Assemblage Blues. Neither, for that matter, would “Catbird,” which subverts its straightforward pop structure with a busy and blown-out arrangement, multi-tracked vocals and omnipresent static prickles.
But at its best — which it most often is — Catbirds and Cardinals feels innovative not because it denies the past, but because it mines the past for old fragments for a new collage. —Bryan C. Reed
The Collection — The Collection (Self-released)
Built on a similar orchestral template, the banjo-keys-glock-strings-brass-woodwinds-timpani-boy/girl-vocals-etc. of David Wimbish’s Greensboro collective may at first recall the figurine-songs of Sufjan Stevens – but only until one of the 12-member band’s delirious crescendos erupts. Wimbish employs as many as 20 instruments per track, yet the arrangements are judicious when they need to be – fellow Carolinians’ Lost in the Trees would be another touchstone — and frenetic enough to hint at Neutral Milk Hotel’s controlled pandemonium when required. There’s a biblical thread to the narratives — Lazarus rises up early on — but The Collection is testimony enough that this a band to keep tabs on. (JS)
The Foreign Exchange — Dear Friends: An Evening with The Foreign Exchange (Foreign Exchange Music)
Truly satisfying live records are a rarity. The Foreign Exchange’s Dear Friends is one such gift. On their studio work, the duo of producer Nicolay and crooning ex-Little Brother Phonte Coleman cover sharp R&B with a late-night sheen of processed beats and synths. Here, in front of a studio audience in Durham, they deploy acoustic guitars, piano and simple — but silky — harmony courtesy of singers Sy Smith and Jeanne Jolly. “All Roads,” a sparkling build of spacey keys on last year’s Authenticity, becomes a stark, acoustic ballad that, like many songs here, showcases the emotional depth of Phonte’s voice. (JL)
John Howie, Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff — Leavin’ Yesterday (Hands Up!)
Trumping all the crap shat out by Music Row and even his fine Two Dollar Pistols catalog, John Howie Jr. and his George Jones/Ray Price-cured baritone lead a stellar new band through his finest set of songs yet: driving country rockers, honky tonk barn-burners, sad-bastard laments, and even some vintage countrypolitan (courtesy of the Lindsay Avenue Strings). Heartache is the narrative currency here, and Howie’s characters are filthy rich: Everybody’s leavin’ or gettin’ left, trust is in short supply, and the jilted multitudes find alcoholic solace from a “world of pain.” The interplay between guitarist Dustin Miller and pedal steel player Nathan Golub is an album-long highlight captured just-so by producer Brian Paulson, a man who knows his country-rock. These songs don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are, and the universal truths in them ring that much truer for it. Too bad Nashville’s forgotten that simple lesson. (JS)
Old Bricks — City Lights (Grip Tapes)
The sophomore release from the Carrboro band started by Stuart Edwards and Andy Holmes initially reads like a left-turn from the acoustic creak-and-creep of their 2010 debut, Farmers. But even newly swaddled in reverb glaze, framed in shadowy synths or organ washes, and powered by low-thrust percussion, City Lights’ forms a compatible bookend: urban bedroom studio counterparts to rural backporch fare. The unifying thread is the lonely late-night feel, relaxed tempos and Edwards’ warble now haunted by an undercurrent of pysch-rock paranoia rather than “What’s-lurking-in-the-woods?” foreboding. Whether casting shadows on empty city streets or in the flickering campfire-light, though, Old Bricks’ songs – forlorn but ultimately redemptive – exert hypnotic pull. (JS)
Shane Perlowin — Shaking the Phantom Limb (Open Letter)
Asheville’s Shane Perlowin is best known for adding impressive texture as the guitarist in far-flung rock outfit Ahleuchatistas. This solo outing proves he’s equally talented in the acoustic realm. Available as a free download, the album consists of eight intricate and engrossing solo guitar pieces. Perlowin tumbles through quick finger picking with amazing dexterity, fusing myriad styles into one. There’s folk twang in his technique, but his harmonics ring with classically inspired counterpoint and his slide passages have a strikingly Eastern feel. Impressively, Perlowin pulls all this off without a single effect – just the warm tones of an acoustic guitar. (JL)
Dex Romweber Duo — Is That You in the Blue? (Bloodshot)
There are three guest vocals on the Dex Romweber Duo’s debut LP, Ruins of Berlin, but they dominate the album. Cat Power, Neko Case and Exene Cervenka all duet with Romweber, overshadowing the former Flat Duo Jet’s raw rock & roll power. Is That You in the Blue? is a better showcase. Here, he does all the singing. Tenacious two-minute sprint “Jungle Drums” is ignited by Romweber’s snarling hook and rumbling guitar. “Nowhere” follows a lonely, simple blues riff as his booming pipes explore the pain of a man without a home. Guests be damned, Romweber’s better without the help. (JL)
Various Artists — Dick’s Picks 4006 (Self-released)
Dick’s Picks 4006 is just a compilation of bands Whatever Brains frontman Rich Ivey counts among his friends and favorites, meant to stock its contributors’ merch tables. It’s not the type of collection that sets out to document any particular time or place. Still, it does. Drawing mostly from North Carolina and Virginia, the tape plays like an ace regional comp. There’s not a dud in the bunch, but My Mind’s “Thank You, Master” is a resplendent power-pop tune, Shards’ “God’s A Cop” is loose and slurry hardcore at its finest, and Super Vacations turn in a particularly winning dream-punk jam in “Hexing.” (BR)
Various Artists — Future: YALL (Self-released)
The S.C. music scene is on the rise. For proof, see Future: YALL, a new, well-stocked compilation of experimental-leaning Palmetto State bands. Spearheaded by members of dub-y Columbia rock outfit Forces of the Street, the album spans an array of cerebral rock styles, and the vast majority succeed. Pan’s “The Highlands” is an energetic post-rock build that could satiate any Explosions in the Sky acolyte. The Seawolf Mutiny’s “Heavy to Hold” achieves what Coldplay’s Eno era hasn’t, piling lush reverb onto arena balladry that helps, not hinders, its emotional impact. Nation, take notice: South Carolina’s got talent. (JL)
Whatever Brains — Whatever Brains (Sorry State)
The 17 tracks comprising Whatever Brains’ debut LP range from “Gross Urge”’s cacophonous mutation of strident New-Wave to the acoustic guitar stagger of “Chivalry In The Dope Den;” from the budget hip-hop beats backing “I Know Where Graham Simpson Lives” to the spiky post-punk of “Shelves.” The Raleigh quintet wears a mischievous grin as it traipses through the legacies of rock eccentrics like The Fall and The Country Teasers, frontman Rich Ivey alternately inhabiting loathsome characters and wishing their worst anxieties upon them. For all the gleeful provocation, though, the divergent sounds of Whatever Brains’ skewed post-punk deliver more than enough. (BR)
SMALL PLATTERS by Bryan C. Reed
Polvo — “Heavy Detour” b/w “Anchoress” 7-inch (Merge)
Who are you, and what have you done with Polvo?! Sacrificing sudden lunges and ringing guitar flutters for blunted blockbuster rock, A-side “Heavy Detour” is kind of like that time Chris Cornell sang a Bond theme. “Anchoress” doesn’t fare much better on the flip, fumbling through shoegaze and cheese-prog synth-smears.
Coma Cinema — Abandoned Lands DL (Self-released)
Mat Cothran follows the moody pop of this year’s Blue Suicide LP with a fun-size collection that pulls the best parts of lo-fi scuzz, mopey goth-rock, and mid-aughts lap-pop. Coupled with his “All music should be free” mentality, this plays like a fuzz-fried John Maus.
Double Negative —Hardcore Confusion, Vols. 1 & 2 7-inches (Sorry State)
These first two entries of a four-part series find the Raleigh punk linchpins at their best and baddest. Vol. 1’s “Writhe” is a relative epic, stretching its exit into a razors-in-taffy treat, while Vol. 2’s “Face Jam” is one of DN’s burliest — and most dangerously catchy — entries. Vols. 3 and 4 have a lot to measure up to.
Horseback with Locrian — New Dominions one-sided 12-inch (Utech)
Horseback and Locrian are obvious complements, especially given the more noise-oriented direction Horseback’s most recent work has taken. As collaborators, they reach new depths of deliberately paced darkness, drawing from jazz percussion, drone and Om-like mantra-metal for a captivating, if occasionally unsettling, platter.
Matt Northrup — Word Is Bond CS (Full Spectrum)
Sounding something like Noveller in noonday sunlight, mellowed-out Ratatat, or a chopped-n-screwed Paul Simon instrumental, Northrup delivers a bright, chiming set via looped-and-layered guitar.
One Another — Keep Moving CDEP (Powerstance)
Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, Superchunk and the Bouncing Souls all cast long shadows on this Charlotte trio’s second EP, but One Another’s too earnest and excited for hollow nostalgia.
Reigning Sound/Last Year’s Men — split 7-inch (Scion A/V)
Reigning Sound’s rock & soul rarely disappoints, and doesn’t here. The rookies-of-the-year in Last Year’s Men give their idols a worthy complement, too. Almost makes you wanna buy a Scion. Almost.
Simple — “Runner” b/w “The Heart Is A Tissue” 7-inch (Factor IX)
It’s hard to imagine this platter not stirring the 90s-nostalgia indie rocker, what with all its ringing Comboland guitar, Pavement-y bass staggers and Barlow-worthy mumbles.
Young And In The Way/Torch Runner — split 7-inch (Headfirst)
Though both are feral hardcore bands unafraid of negative space or searing noise, Greensboro’s Torch Runner provides a blunt-force complement to the sharp shrapnel in Charlotte-based YAITW’s blackened blasts.