Hot Coals Cold Souls by Smoke Season

Though Smoke Season (Gabrielle Wortman and Jason Rosen) formed officially just over a year and a half ago, they have a poise and scope that reflects the maturity of a seasoned group. Perhaps it is for this reason that the pair have garnered acclaim from fans and critics alike following the release of their debut EP Signals last year.

To say that Smoke Season is a mash-up of sorts is a bit of an understatement. Pop, rock, electronic, Americana, and folk elements collide in an inspired way. Things kick off with “Badlands”, which reminded me at times of Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Civil Wars, and a handful of other artists.

Still, despite the influences that are at work in the music of Smoke Season, there is a flavor that is distinctly theirs. “Badlands” is a track with a lot of weight, and Wortman and Rosen push a lot of elements into this five minute journey. At the heart of things, though, is the American Southwest.

The pair switches gears with “Simmer Down”, which feels more inspired by the forward movement than a reflection of the Americana past. Kind of Celtic, with a dose of the 80s, and a hint of Bjork maybe? Smoke Season is certainly advocating for the power of the melting pot with tunes like this.

“Opaque” follows in a similar vein. 80s sounds coupled with modern day production and elements make this one another chronologically diverse piece. Wortman and Rosen impart a bit more focus into this one, however, making it a more emotionally-driven track than the meandering “Simmer Down”. Not without its surprises and twists, though.

Things close with the hidden track “Fools Gold”, easily the most experimental and cinematic of these selections. A warm fuzz echoes throughout, but there is a cool breeze blowing. Though the Southwest is alive and well in much of Smoke Season’s music, this one feels like the desert. Simultaneously hot and cold. A nice trek into the atmospheric.

In all, the winner here for me is “Badlands”. Hands down. Of the three genre cocktails offered up by Wortman and Rosen, this is the most balanced and rewarding. Not to say that there aren’t some really rewarding points in “Simmer Down” and “Opaque”, but “Badlands” is on another level. Powerful and true to the spirit of what makes folk music what it is, I’d love to hear more from these two like this.

EPs are for experimenting, for testing the waters, and for prefacing what’s to come, and with Hot Coals Cold Souls, Smoke Season has done just that, leaving us with four tracks that give us a glimpse into the forward-thinking minds of Wortman and Rosen.




Ugly Heroes EP by Ugly Heroes

Another nice drop from the talented artists over at Mello Music Group. Ugly Heroes are Red Pill and Verbal Kent on the vocals and Apollo Brown on the production. Brown, a Michigan native, has built a sizable discography for himself over at Mello. Brown’s Thirty Eight that dropped earlier this year was just one more example of the seemingly limitless production skills this guy has.

Detroit native Red Pill makes up one half of the UH verbal assault, drawing heavily on the struggles and resilience that have made Detroit what it is today. On the other side of the coin, we’ve got Verbal Kent, who has been lyricizing about the many ups and downs of life for the better part of two decades. Kent’s out of Chicago, so this is a true Midwest package.

The first thing that Apollo fans will notice is that there is a pounding pulse to many of these tracks that is absent in other works. The soul-sampled vibe is here, but with a bit more punch. Definitely reminded me of Bink more than once or twice.

Kicking things off, “Legit Worthless” is a gritty look at the issues facing today’s youth. And when I say youth, I’m not talking about today’s teeny-boppers, but the youth of America that isn’t conforming to the standards and premises that have dictated what is to be expected of a “successful” American. The one word that stands out in the entire track — pressure — is exactly what this song is about. The pressure being exerted on an individual, the pressure that builds up inside of that individual, and the resulting release of that pressure.

“Good Things Die” trades the intimacy of “Legit” for something a bit more abstract. The themes are the same, but where “Legit” is experience-based and concrete, “Good Things Die” is all about analogy and the big picture. Though they lay down a lot of life lessons, these guys never sound preachy, which adds to their appeal.

Fellow Mello artist Oddisee contributes production work on “Low Seratonin”, a unique track that definitely switches the flow of this EP up about two thirds in. It’s kind of like eating candy, then eating something sour, then switching back to the sweets. Almost makes you appreciate both tastes just a little bit more than before.

“Me” is a favorite from this EP, with its minimal drum work and focus on lyrics. Really, this is a good analogy for this album as this track features a chorus that is poignant and easy to relate to and understand, and verses that are obviously relevant on a personal level to these guys. Plus, the chord progressions and instrument adsr is solid.

Overall, a quality addition to the Ugly Heroes discography. Between Apollo Brown’s pounding soul beats and the vivid pictures painted by Red Pill and Verbal Kent, almost every one of these tracks is a win. Oddisee’s feature doesn’t fit this puzzle, but manages to heighten the senses nonetheless. A very decent collab from a few of Mello’s hitlisters.



hibernation by Sleep Cycles

[quote]my artist name is sleep cycles and it is me and a guitar and a microphone held between my legs because i lost my stand and some electronics[/quote]

This is how I was introduced to this album. When you get as many e-mail submissions as we do, it takes a special something to make an e-mail stick out. Something like this.

At times, it’s easy to believe that this album is really just a guy sitting on a bed with a guitar and a microphone held between his legs. There’s a lot of lo-fi and simplicity — the kind of simplicity that comes from just siting there and strumming along in your bedroom.

At other times, though, it’s not so easy to believe. Underneath the layer of lackadaisical whimsy that is at the forefront of hibernation, there is a lot of production. Reminds me of Beck in a lot of ways, just not as gritty and beat driven.

“cafe waltz”, the opening track is reminiscent of some more recent Thom Yorke stuff, though a bit more direct and cognizant. The melodies oscillate between melancholy stretches and percolating pops. This track is ultimately more inviting than much of the rest of this EP, so its placement is appropriate.

While the beats aren’t what make these tracks, they are often the icing on the cake. “chump” is fueled by the cyclical acoustic picking, but the dirty drums and triangle are a perfect accomplice. “just a couple” is in a similar vein — the rat-a-tatting of the percussion is a subtle but driving force in this tune.

Earning honors as my personal favorite, “pollen pickers” has the most substance of these eight tracks. Rather than becoming an extension of a concept like many of the other songs on hibernation, “pollen pickers” is a journey. Things work together well, the reverb is subtle, the silences not deafening, the beat submissive. “cafe waltz” lures you in, but this is the one to listen for.

In all, a nice album from Sleep Cycles. hibernation’s intensity isn’t immediately apparent, but is there if you have the ear and patience to find it. This is the kind of intensity that comes from limitations and the nature of expression that they ultimately produce from an artist. Name your price over at Bandcamp.




Inbetween by Hold Fast For Now

Inbetween is a nice little follow-up EP for Adelaide-based duo Hold Fast For Now. We first heard from producers Darryl Bennett and David Rogers back in November of ’13 with their eponymous debut. There was a definite worldly energy streaming from the album, and with this five-tracker, Bennett and Rogers are back with more good, ambient vibes.

Things kick off with “Limbo”, which is punctuated throughout by the Morse Code-like tap of a soft synth. Parts are reminiscent of some old school downtempo, but what really makes this track is the cyclical feel of it all. Each instrument manages to loop around, either melodically or rhythmically, in a way that makes it really seem like a limbo of sorts. The track is simultaneously neither thematically bad or good, kind of just resting there, waiting. Nice execution by HFFN here.

“Amnesia” moves into a darker, less defined space. This is a bit more James Blake-esque (album link) than what these guys are used to, but it works for this track. The repetition is especially effective, given the song’s theme. Further, they make great use of silence and simplicity, really accentuating the stellar beat when it finally shines through.

The title track features multi-instrumentalist and singer Florence Lang (album link) on vocals, and is in many ways, the foil to “Amnesia”. What was repetitive is now an echo. What was dark is now lighter, though no less mysterious. “Amnesia” is a song about the past. “Inbetween” is a song about what is yet to come. Having these tracks back to back is really a nice move and, for me, the highlight of the album. Just a great juxtaposition.

The slightly genre-confused but still awesome “Trumps”, follows, deftly playing with tempos and timing en route to a very chill outro. And things close with “Cats and Dogs”, perhaps the most cryptic, staccato, and quirky of these five tracks. This one is laced with hip-hop and as a standalone is tops on this EP.

In short, more great stuff from these guys. And kudos to them for dropping this EP, which feels like it’s just the right length. Honestly, I’d love to see more in the vein of “Cats and Dogs”, but only Bennet and Rogers know where this train is headed. HFFN is graciously offering up Inbetween as a complimentary download over at their site. Get it while it’s hot.



French Exit by TV Girl

With summer rapidly approaching, the onslaught of “Summer Songs” is imminent. And although the spirit of the “Summer Song” is innocent enough, radio has made the listener’s hatred of these songs an inevitability. Gone are the days of tuning in and hoping to hear your favorite new song. Either your song is in the 90% Rotation (the 20 or so songs that make up 90% of the rotation) and you end up despising it, or it’s in the other 10% (the other billion songs that aren’t in the 90% rotation) and the odds of you hearing it are slightly less than winning the lottery.

Fortunately, outlets like Bandcamp exist, filling the void created by radio’s inability to actually spin records. And so we can still have our songs for summer, so long as tuning into an FM station isn’t a pre-requisite.

TV Girl is a project that originated in 2010, the brainchild of Brad Petering and Trung Ngo. The two wrote and played together, gigging a bit before Ngo left the project in 2013. Since, Jason Wyman and Wyatt Harmon have joined, and together with Petering, TV Girl has released their first true album — French Exit.

The album is a nice blend of pop and introspection, perfect for those lazy summer days. Remember the first time you heard “Steal My Sunshine” — and I really mean the first time, not the hundredth (or thousandth). That is the feeling I get when listening to this album. Delightfully catchy with more than a touch of bitter gravity.

“Birds Don’t Sing” is the obvious stand out, and begs for the radio play we all secretly hope it never gets. The SoCal influence is alive and well here, a perfect match for the almost hip hop beatwork at play. There is a lot of bossa nova and je ne se pas as well, two more influences that run rampant throughout French Exit.

But it’s dreamy songs like “Talk to Strangers” that make this album for me. The white noise gives this tune a windshield wipers kind of feel — like that summer rainstorm when it’s still sunny and you don’t know if it’s the humidity or the fact that it’s sunny and raining, but you’re kind of confused and happy.

But Petering and Co. don’t let things drag on too long, plowing right into “The Blonde”, borrowing heavily from the 80s and layering in a meandering, bubbly synth that is nothing short of hypnotic. If the idea of a hypnotic, meandering, bubbly synth isn’t your cup of tea, maybe you should move on.

You should stay, though. It’s okay to be confused. It’s okay to be overwhelmed. Obviously you wouldn’t be the only one.

This is an album that will grow on you. And right now, TV Girl is graciously offering a free digital download. So grab it, listen to it, love it, then go back and pick up a shirt or the vinyl.



Not Kings by Candy Says

Pinning down Candy Says isn’t easy. So, in taking the lazy-man’s route, I’m going to borrow the definition that they have secured for themselves in an effort to classify their style — ‘Lo-fi chic pop collective’.

Candy Says is a garage band project from Oxfordites Ben Walker & Juju Sophie. And even though Not Kings only saw the Bandcamp light-of-day a few days ago, the pair is already garnering praise from critics and fans alike. And deservedly so.

The title track’s claps are reminiscent of “Cups” but after the first two seconds, it’s immediately obvious that this isn’t your run of the mill pop song. The folksy claps roll into an intriguing blend of acoustic guitar, whistling sine synths, staccato percussion, and rolling, chorused vocals from Juju. The sixties are here, but so are modern influences like The Knife.

The beauty of this album really begins to make itself apparent on “C’est Pas Comme Ca”, which is perhaps the most exquisite of the first half of Not Kings. With all the swagger and power of a Tarentino flick, the tune still manages to roll (off Juju’s tongue) with the sophistication of metaphysical philosophies and single malt scotches. Not quite pretentious, but teetering precariously on the edge, this one succeeds.

Candy Says claims in their somewhat brief Manifesto that it is time to ‘Stop being ordinary, and start posing a threat’, and much of this ideology comes across in the music, though again, this can be a tough pill to swallow at times. Fortunately, the music is just so damn good that demanding ideological transparency from Walker and Sophie takes a back seat to the drama playing out in your ears.

“Hummingbird” is another example of ideas coming together in beautiful synchronicity. I can’t help but be reminded of The Cardigans and everything I loved about them back in the day (1996). And this time period isn’t absent in the following track, “Dreamers”. Candy Says jumps around quite a bit, but manages to maintain a semblance of their inner voice throughout, which seems to be saying: I’m here to bridge the gap between electropop and folk.

I enjoyed the entire album, but I loved “Understand The Night”. Take all of the things I’ve said about the album and Candy Says as a whole, roll it into one four and a half minute joint, and this is what you’ll end up with. Powerful, intelligent, and inspired, this is Juju and Ben at their best.

Candy Says borrows a lot from the artists that came before them, but their name itself is sort of a disclaimer to this notion. And really, this honesty is welcome. Rather than make the mistake that so many artists do (claiming no inspiration outside of their own personal bubble), these two are embracing their influences and injecting them with a personal story and touch that makes these songs their own.

An arresting album that is guaranteed to enthrall. Pick up Not Kings over at Bandcamp.