Reviews: The Portraits, Rags & Ribbons, The Lower 48

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Hello, all. In the midst of the usual craziness around here I’ve managed to actually wade through a couple piles of CDs. There are always lots of great records coming out as we approach the holiday season, and I’ve heard quite a few lately that may very well be making their way onto the best of 2011 list, which will be forthcoming very soon. I’ve included a variety here, with more to come before the end of the year. Thanks, as always, for reading. Enjoy.

Paul Brill – Breezy (Scarlet Shame)

Brooklyn’s Paul Brill is a versatile film and television composer, producer, re-mixer; he’s also collaborated with U2 and been Grammy-nominated, and here we have a glimpse into another side of him with his follow-up to the 2006 album, Harpooner. He has a 12-piece band, and there are twenty different players listed on this CD, some of whom have also played with Wilco, Radiohead and David Bowie. Brill has the scent of a seasoned vet; he’s a real pro’s pro, and it shows on virtually every song. “Sunny Guy” is a snappy opener with energy to spare. “The Royal Oui” is solid power-pop that could confuse lots of people as to its actual origins. “Debussy Roses” is catchy and quirky and introduces some horns into the mix (there’s trumpet, sax, flute and clarinet on the album). “Last W&T” is tight jangle-pop with above average vocals slightly resembling Ed Ackerson. After all that, the record loses its edge on the latter half. He even repeats “Sunny Guy” again at the end. Maybe he just ran out of steam. Not unlike this review.

The Lower 48 – Where All Maps End (Self-released)

This is an interesting semi-acoustic roots rock trio (not country rock, there is a difference) that doesn’t adhere to any directives. The album has an all-around homemade, lo-fi feel, and the songwriting is mostly right on point. Sarah Parson plays guitar and piano, Ben Braden plays guitar and bass and Nicholas Sadler plays drums and harmonica, and tonally they hover somewhere between early Iron & Wine and a partially unplugged Scrawl on some of their material. Sarah’s deep, earthy, echo-ey vocals on “Into The Woods” are spooky and transcendent. (Is that a digital delay they’re using on the vox?) Parson also has a natural hiccup in her throaty voice that gives some songs an added curve. On “Smoke Will Rise” she almost sounds like a cross between Ani Difranco and Toni Childs. “Traveling Tune” has an understated power, partnered with a sparsely plucked banjo, and “Come Awake” is delirious and detached. There’s a lot going on here, and this album bodes very well for the future of The Lower 48.

The Portraits – 1966-68 (Gem Music)

The Portraits were a pre-psychedelic Milwaukee-based outfit that relocated to Los Angeles, evolved through several incarnations (Cashmeres, Mojo Men) and did a yeoman’s job of taking in much of what was around them and filtering it for their own purposes. The demo of “Runaround Girl” invites several comparisons from the theme to the title, but none are direct rip-offs. The vocals are smooth and the arrangements are strong and, yes, there is an obvious nod to the Four Seasons and Jay & The Americans in the harmonies. Kind of hard to avoid, I suppose. They employ horns, Hammond organ and vibes and everything sounds, more or less, like they knew what they were doing. “Hiding From Myself” uses a skiffle-like beat and harmonica. “Devil’s Angels” is proto-hipster cool, and appeared on the soundtrack of the film, Devil’s Angels. And “Going Back to Nowhere” is not unlike Gary Puckett & The Union Gap. Also included is a Schaeffer Beer commercial from a Schaeffer-sponsored talent search. Lead vocalist Paul Stefan carried the material a step or two above itself, and combined with the guitar playing of John Rondell they were quite formidable in their day. It’s good that they’re not forgotten.

Rags & Ribbons – The Glass Masses (Self-released)

How to describe this? Exceptional quasi-orchestral, pop-ish, indie art-rock, that doesn’t overdo things, perhaps? Rags & Ribbons is Mr. Jonathan Hicks on vocals and keyboards, Mr. Ben Weyerhaeuser on vocals and guitar and Mr. Chris Neff on percussion, and they exist somewhere between the dramatic and dire most of the time, and they have some killer songs in them, a case in point being “Even Matter,” which kicks things off with a bang on this album. It’s a slam dunk right from the first chorus. On “Liar” they really take off as well, and Hicks sounds more than a little bit like Lizard from Earwig. And “Abacus Kids” is fucking awesome, with a crazy vocal hook that doesn’t let go once it gets a hold of you. More songs like that, please! I particularly appreciate the ringing sustain on the guitars. This is a far sight better than a giant icicle in your earhole, and a record that will be hanging around the stereo at our house for a while.

Thee American Revolution – Buddha Electrostorm (Fire)

This is the other band/persona of Apples In Stereo’s Robert Schneider, and this album originally came out on Garden Gate/Elephant 6, but Fire has re-issued it for the world to enjoy once again. The first few songs, “She’s Coming Down,” “Grit Magazine” and especially the noisy/trippy “Electric Flame” are sufficiently gruff and unkempt, and decidedly more fidgety and irritable that the vast majority of what Apples In Stereo did, although “Haircut” is kind of an extension of AIS, and Schneider’s distinctive nasally monotone is still fully present and accounted for. It’s a solid 60s-flavored, jangly-psych-pop extravaganza that dances on the edge between 90s revivalist authenticity and just plain (self-) mockery, and while it grows on you after a while I can’t help but think it could have been even more robust if it was just a little more salty and sour. The flange-y “Saturn Daze” tries to bring in more sonic funk, but it lacks a hook and doesn’t land as it should. It’s a pleasant diversion but it adds nothing new to the equation. Some of this comes across as cartoon psych-pop, and it feels kind of contrived. It would’ve been fun to hear them push this whole shebang over the edge into the abyss.