04 July 2010

Catching up with Villagers and White Apple Tree

Here are two bands that could not be any more different from one another: one Irish, the other American; one acoustic, the other essentially electronic. What I like about both of these acts is that they have produced debut albums that are not rehashing some distant past – this reveal period of music is apparently aiming to be longer than the original post-punk/new wave 80s. But as I have always said, there is a difference between learning from the past and simply rehashing it. Both of these acts have taken cues from the past (one more from the 90s, the other from the 80s), but both have a fresh, relevant, and urgent take on what they do, infusing their own style. Furthermore, these are not just two acts that capitalize on emotional/visceral effects; they are both quite intelligent and clever and full of universal truths. Check these two acts out: they may just surprise you.

Villagers: “Becoming a Jackal”

Hailing from Ireland and releasing their debut album, “Becoming a Jackal” (14 May 2010 in Ireland, 24 May 2010 in the rest of Europe, 8 June 2010 in the USA), Villagers is the brainchild of singer-guitarist Connor J. O’Brien after The Immediate broke up and have the honor of being the first act from Ireland to be signed to Domino Records (one of my very favorite labels). And like fellow label mates, Villagers do not play it safe – though there is an air of sophistication, the music still has this rough edge to it; though the music is tight and beautifully produced, there is a raw emotion behind the music. A highly personal album accented with its accessibility, “Becoming a Jackal” is one of the biggest surprises of the year.

Opening with strings and pianos, “I Saw the Dead” literally invites you into the album: “Have you got just a minute? Are you easily mad? Let me show you the back room where I saw the dead, dancing like children on a midsummer morn. And they asked me to join, but my body was stubborn, wouldn’t let me give in, so I offered a good deed in return for a sin.” From beginning to end, the song keeps a harrowing atmosphere, even when the beat finally drops, but it captures one of those universal truths: you know, those moments when we do not know whether to give up or go on, when our mind and soul just wants to give up, but that unexplainable impulse to continue just kicks in. And this is an amazing metaphor to employ on the opening of an album.

Later on the album, you encounter “The Meaning of the Ritual”; this is a slow, deeply harrowing track. And it is another universal truth, that love hurts and is selfish, something that serial monogamists know: “My love is selfish, and it cares not who it hurts. It will cut you out to satisfy its thirst for the meaning of a ritual so habitual.” Sung to a minimalist, visceral string arrangement and acoustic guitar, this may be one of the two shortest songs of the album, but is definitely one of the most powerful.

Rest assured, this album is not all gloomy while forcing you to peer into the looking glass, but it is always erudite. For instance, “The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever)” borders on being cute – “The angels are singing words written for you; trumpets are telling of your beauty and truth…” And the guitar work in “Set The Tigers Free” is some of the most beautiful you will hear this year. Then there is “Pieces,” which is a controlled cacophony, demonstrating a range of different musical references and styles in one song. Then the album comes to a close with “To Be Counted Among Men.” The most interesting thing about the song is that it is the antithesis of the opening in many ways – third person narration, sparse musical arrangements, and no harrowing atmosphere. A story about wanting to know your place in life, it is a poetic, almost epic, story that rushes you through youth to adulthood, from where you sit at the moment to Ancient Greece, ultimately to realize that everywhere and in every era, we all constantly question our place in life – is this a heaven or a hell?

“Becoming a Jackal” is a personal album that will make an amazing personal listen – though I am an advocate of blasting this one loud. Connor J. O'Brien joins the ranks of genius singer-songwriters, as Villagers is just a moniker for his work, and this son of Ireland brings an air of poetry and intelligence to a field of music that is either more intent on repackaging the past or only striving for visceral power. Get a hold of this album; turn down the lights, lay down on the coach, and hit play… listen to this thought- and emotion-inspiring album, you may start to agree with me that Connor J. O’Brien may just be the genius of the year.

Track Listing:
1. I Saw The Dead
2. Becoming A Jackal
3. Ship of Promises
4. The Meaning of the Ritual
5. Home
6. That Day
7. The Pact (I”ll Be Your Fever)
8. Set The Tigers Free
9. Twenty Seven Strangers
10. Pieces
11. To Be Counted Among Men

Keep up with Villagers at their homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

Here is a home session of “The Pact (I”ll Be Your Fever”) from the DominoRecords YouTube Channel.

White Apple Tree: “Velvet Mustache”

Hailing from California, USA, White Apple Tree sports out a distinct sound somewhere between modern post-punk and synth-rock, but never giving into the rehash mania. The band was founded by Ray Lawhon (vocals, guitars, and keyboards), and would later include his brother, Taylor Lawhon (keyboards and vocals), and Stefan Mac (drums and vocals). Together they oscillate between rocking bass lines, sensually driven music, and indie pop that has an edge to it. And by indie, I do not mean that code word for bands obsessed with playing in the festival circuit (though I would imagine that White Apple Tree would kick ass in Rock im Park, Lowlands, or Glastonbury); I literally mean on an independent label – 37 Records. Existing on the fringes of the mainstream, where real cutting edge pop gets created, White Apple Tree offers up pop that may not always be radio ready, but definitely have you sucked into its infectiousness.

“The Smell of Cigarettes” opens the album, and the best way to describe the song is thick; the song takes a swipe at the lethargy and inertia of youth: “Let’s take a trip on a road to nowhere, with a car your parents own. Lets make a stop at every Starbucks, let’s complain about how service is slow.” As brash musically as lyrically, the song captures the “waste of youth grandeur” that a generation is trapped in. This leads right into the synthy “Clarity,” and continues to speak of this trapped generation: “Life is all played out, watch and see...” but there is no agency, just covered eyes not to see “their shit fall apart.” And even though these two opening admonitions are harsh, you can’t help but feeling that you are ready to party after listening.

Then in comes “Broken Bones,” with one of the sexiest bass lines you will ever hear. And there are other musical gems on this album, including the mysterious “Rakehead” and the out of left field acoustic “Bombs.” Lyrically, there are as many other gems as well. For instance, the pop culture critique “As Seen On TV” (“With every swift director's take, I think we seen it all, I think we’ve been to far, and now or then we’re jaded…”) and the frustration of never really having the answers of “Perfect Reflection” (“The bomb is dropped, the truth unlocked, but no answers found in this fucking black box.”) But the one song that I cannot get out of my head is “Mr. Sanity.” Lyrically, this is more like the stream-of-consciousness of the early 80s post-punk artists; though fractured and not always following the typical cause-and-effect of a story, the words are enough to paint the picture, to emote the story, and deliver the meaning: “The yellow cab, your faithful hand, calming my uncertainties of idiotic policies. The southwest sun, the ocean breeze, should call for slightly shorter sleeves, a vibrant hue of sanity.” And if the words are not enough to instill the visceral, the music will do it. Simultaneously, the music is thriving and anxious (no easy feat to pull off!), making you want to dance while you have that pit in your stomach feeling. They may not be rehashing those early 80s artists, but they definitely know how to employ their tricks into their music. (Personally, I would love to see this band cover “Love Will Never Tear Us Apart” or “A Forest.”)

Lyrically clever and musically enterprising, “Velvet Mustache” is a solid debut album. Sure, like every electronic band in the world, they have their share of musical clichés, but what they do not do is allow those clichés to define their music. Instead, White Apple Tree approaches each song individually, breathing distinct life into each track. Catchy and infectious, this is a perfect summer time album that you should not allow to get by you. Get a hold of it, blast it loud while driving on a road to nowhere, and enjoy the experience.

Track Listing:
1. Youth
2. Clarity
3. Broken Bones
4. Rakehead
5. Mr. Sanity
6. Sleep
7. Break It To Me
8. Snowflakes
9. As Seen On TV
10. Perfection Reflection
11. Bombs
12. Outro

Keep up with White Apple Tree at their homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.

Here is their video for “Youth” from their YouTube Channel: WHITEAPPLETREEmusic.

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