Monday, March 31, 2008

Spotlight On: The Idles

Forty-some odd years ago, Liverpool was at the center of a rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and people praised the British Invasion for bringing rock ‘n’ roll back to basics. Now, The Idles are hoping to put Liverpool at the forefront of another rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Are these guys a bunch of Merseybeat revivalists? Hell no. The Idles lay down the kind of raw, badass sound that you might find yourself rockin’ out to in a crowded pub on a Friday night; Dirty Rock ‘n’ Roll is the title of their four-song demo, and dirty rock ‘n’ roll it is. But like many great Liverpool bands of the past, The Idles grab hold of rock ‘n’ roll and whittle it back down to its basic essence. Driving guitars, rolling basslines, spastic drumming, hoarse vocals. Songs that say what they need to say in just a few short minutes—and with no tempo changes, complex chord sequences, or flowery lyrics. But don’t mistake The Idles for a band whose range of talent encompasses the mastery of three chords and the ability to scream like a banshee. These guys know how to play, how to sing, and how to write songs that draw upon their strengths. The crude sound of their demo might provoke some to label them a garage rock band, while their finger-in-the-air attitude (guess which finger) might cause others to call them punks. In reality, The Idles don’t fit into any category but rock ‘n’ roll, pure and simple. Each track on their demo has its own appeal, from the Idles-as-idols “Rock ‘n’ Roll Room Service” to the soulful, melancholy “Rescue Me” and the high-octane shout fest “Wasted.” But “I Don’t Really Think So” is the standout by far, its propulsive rhythm and instantly memorable refrains making it a hit waiting to happen. Or, more appropriately, dirty rock ‘n’ roll at its finest.

For more information and to hear The Idles:

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Album Review: Swimming Into Trees

“When she comes out, she causes accidents in the street…”

Whether you bake them into a pie, stir fry them, or serve them raw with a zesty salsa, eating your words is never easy. But when I found myself asking for a review copy of The Swimmers’ debut album Fighting Trees, deep down inside I suspected that I’d have to do just that: eat my words. After all, why would I have asked for a review copy unless I thought I’d like it? And yet, just a few weeks ago in my writeup of a MAD Dragon Records concert, I said that the Philadelphia-based indie pop quartet’s “energy on stage was incredible,” but “having heard a few recordings of theirs, I can say that the recordings don’t do the band justice.” Indeed, the highest compliment that I could bestow upon the band’s recordings was the phrase “smile-inducing ear candy.” Smile....inducing....ear....candy. So now I sit here at the dinner table, my napkin tucked into my collar, my words resting upon a bed of Basmati rice and drizzled in a spicy curry sauce. And the specters of guitarist/frontman Steve Yutzy-Burkey, his keyboard-playing wife Krista, bassist Rick Sieber, and drummer Scott French all staring me in the face saying, “Bon appetit, SJ.”

So how about this: The Swimmers sound different on record than they do in person. In person, you have all four of them playing and singing, sometimes switching between instruments during the course of one song, and they get happily caught up in each musical moment, singing with gusto and playing with (you guessed it) an incredible energy while still remaining tight and focused. The sound on the self-produced Fighting Trees is more calculated. The arrangements are complex and sophisticated, the productions multi-layered and carefully crafted. Scott focuses more on his amazing technical virtuosity than the livewire presence he maintains on stage, while Steve (who wrote and sings lead on all but one song) employs a breathy, even whispered vocal approach throughout. Since The Swimmers are a pop band, and a skilled one at that, they manage to make this restraint and precision work in their favor, giving the sound of these recordings a sense of purpose. In particular, the breathy vocal technique is very much in vogue in indie music these days, and thus it gives a decidedly contemporary personality to an album that contains numerous unabashedly retro elements: the crunchy power-pop guitars and lush sunshine pop harmonies heard on most of the album, the ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll triplets on “All The New Sounds,” the almost new-wavey arrangement of “St. Cecilia” (I said almost), the fab Beatlesque production of “Heaven,” the dirty cool Duane Eddy-styled guitar runs on “Pocket Full Of Gold,” and so on. Not content to simply do what’s already been done and not content to simply do what everyone else is currently doing, The Swimmers recall the past with today’s attitude, creating an intriguing sound in the process.

The lyrics are often mysterious and subject to much interpretation on the part of the listener, but one thing is certain: whether the songs are, as I interpret them, tongue-in-cheek (“It’s Time They Knew,” quoted at the top; “Goodbye”), wistful (“Heaven”), or philosophical (“We Love To Build”), they all end up bursting with good cheer thanks to the band’s spirited playing and vivid harmonies. Even “Home,” with such bleak lines as “I close my eyes, the ceiling drops/I fall asleep, my heart stops” brings a smile to this angry young man’s face. “Pocket Full Of Gold” is a true gem, its blue collar sentiments and dense sound conjuring up images of Springsteen as an indie kid. “St. Cecilia” is totally out of left field; written and sung by Scott, it pairs a downright unorthodox structure with off-the-wall lyrics and is highlighted by Krista’s atypically hyperactive keyboarding. It’s a divergence, but a welcome one. A more curious change of pace is the title track, a folky ballad which is not really suited to Steve’s voice, but hipsters will probably tell me that his fractured vocal brings a lot more pathos out of the song than a pristine performance would. Not having an ounce of hipster credibility, I’ll just take their word for it and enjoy the Beach Boys-influenced harmonies.

Fighting Trees is not a mind-blowing, earth-shattering album. Few pop albums are, and that’s part of the appeal of pop music: it’s fun, it’s easy to take, and it makes you feel good. Fighting Trees is an album for pop lovers who are looking for something a little outside of the mainstream to complement their spring and summer days or warm up their fall and winter nights. The Swimmers are currently touring behind the album’s national release, and if you have a chance to see them, please do. A good time is almost certainly guaranteed.

For music and more information:

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.