Friday, July 25, 2014

Album Review: "Hedonism Colosseum" by Astro Cowboy

Astro Cowboy released "Hedonism Colosseum" on
July 13, 2014. Listen to it on their Bandcamp.
One of my favorite parts of the North Carolina music scene has always been the reciprocal qualities of its musicians. When someone makes a wave within the culture the ripples are felt for years to come, we've seen it with acts like Lost in the Trees, The Love Language, Megafaun and plenty more. Someone latches onto an interesting musical idea and it inspires a wash of creativity in countless musicians in the area. Lately Wilmington has seen a resurgence in its own music scene despite the closing of their marquee venue The Soapbox, perhaps it's that laundro-lounge sized void that's lead these acts' heightened sense of focus or maybe it's just something in the water. Either way it seems like bands like Museum Mouth sit atop the crew of these new, young and invigorated bands that have been coming out of the eastern part of the state. One of these young acts obviously influenced by Museum Mouth's pop-leaning punk tunes is Astro Cowboy, a duo of fresh out of high-school teens that display an unparalleled sense of intensity and veracity.

Hedonism Colosseum is the band's first full-length effort, but if nobody told you that you'd probably never be able to tell. Hedonism Colosseum feels like the reflections of a road-worn individual that's pawning over the days of his youth rather than one stuck in the middle of the most awkward, confusing times of most of our lives. Filled with bouts of self-loathing, introspection and hardened cynicism, Hedonism Colosseum bounces along with a surprising sense of optimism despite the somber lyricism. The album kicks off with the barnburner, "White Shoes," a track that's filled with as much pessimism and realization as it is cheerful, bouncing vibes. "White Shoes," much like the rest of the album, chronicles the bitter end of relationships that have been long worn down. "Nothing's gonna be the same, believe me that I want to change," sings vocalist/songwriter Travis Harrington, "but this change will be all in vain, like always I'm way too late," he continues. Harrington powers through a palatable sense of frustration and disappointment while churning out infectious melodies and danceable rhythms.

Most of Hedonism Colosseum continues on this same trajectory, it's filled with angst-driven lyrics that propel the listener back to high-school journal entries of loves long lost and things that could have been. But at the same time, the album isn't a total sadsack marathon, there's bits of humor and refreshing metaphors tucked into these tightly packed tracks. "Suntan" compares relationship problems to pale-skinned woes while "Big Blue" finds Harrington comparing his own frustrations to a shaken soda bottle. There's enough frenetic grievances to keep nervous rockers placated while the lyrical rawness and aural depth will keep the rest of listeners bobbing and swaying along to the relatable, yet intensely personal subject matter. Whether Harrington is waxing rhapsodic over math class or yearning for days gone he does so with an earnest sense of passion that reminds me much of the first times I heard Marc Kuzio's nasally shout in early Ghostt Bllonde and Coastal Vision tracks.

It won't be long until Astro Cowboy has honed their craft and become the local titans that acts like Museum Mouth and Ghostt Bllonde are becoming. Travis Harrington and Kameron Vann clearly have a brilliant chemistry as musicians and it gets me downright giddy to see young musicians with such a clear vision as to the sounds they hope to create. Hedonism Colosseum is clearly just a brief taste of the brilliance to come from Astro Cowboy, and while the surf-rock/post-punk vibe may not be as polished and precise as it could be, it's most definitely real. There's a sense of intensity and urgency on these tracks that you can't craft over time, it's got to come from inside of a songwriter, and these two display that in bunches. I'm immensely excited to see where Astro Cowboy goes from here, but for now it's just as exhilarating to soak in the sounds of Hedonism Colosseum and fondly reminisce over the thoughts and feelings of young adult life.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Album Review: "Hidden Mothers EP" by Magpie Feast

Magpie Feast released "Hidden Mothers EP" on
July 13, 2014. Listen to it on their Bandcamp.
Nowadays if an artist is set to release a new recording there's usually quite a bit of pomp and fanfare. Album release shows, listening parties, you name it, basically any chance an artist gets to wedge their name in a new listener's ear is immediately pounced upon. That's what makes artists like Magpie Feast so refreshing, there's no self aggrandizing publicity that's filled with high praise from everyone and their mother. Magpie Feast relies solely on their music to do the talking for them, and dammit that music should be shouted from a mountaintop. Last year Magpie Feast's full-length Out of the Womb made its way to our Top 10 North Carolina albums list thanks to the band's rich storytelling, powerful instrumentation and blatantly awesome aura. Now the band has released a brand new EP Hidden Mothers rather unceremoniously. There was little more than a Facebook announcement to herald in the new release, but when you've got the deft songwriting skills that Matthew Southern and company do, you don't need a massive campaign to bring listener's to their knees begging for more.

Hidden Mothers EP isn't a grand departure from the act's previous work, but rather it finds the band digging deeper into the proverbial rabbit hole. There's much more orchestral string arrangements, but rather than adding grandiosity to these tracks they instead bring subtle layers of melody and harmony to the mix. The EP is bookended by two instrumental tracks, "Hidden Mothers Theme" builds tension and anticipation with a gradual build of acoustic guitar and rustic strings before slowly fading into the swaying sounds of "Moon Advises Crow." The three tracks that are nestled between these brief instrumental adventures are punctuated with sparse electric guitar and vibrant strings, yet driven by simplistic acoustic arrangements and Southern's quivering vocals.

"The Wolves Pt. 1" is arguably the track most indicative of Magpie Feast's prior sounds, it's filled with a myriad of compelling sounds that beckon the listener to dig deeper into the rather condensed arrangement. The banjo at the core of the song takes on an almost percussive element, it's harshly plucked and slowly drives the song along in addition to some distant percussive clatter and a particularly addictive wordless chorus.

By the time "The Mouse" rolls along we've yet to pass the ten-minute mark but it feels like the release has traversed a wide array of soundscapes, which makes the upbeat rhythms of the track feel all the more enjoyable. Vocal harmonies are much more pronounced and the track feels firmly rooted in traditional folk standards than the darker, somber tones of the rest of the EP. "The Mouse" transitions excellently into the equally upbeat, rambler "Goodnightshade,"a track that slowly unfurls with quaintly fingerpicked acoustic and ambient electric additions to end things on a dreamy, blissful note.

Hidden Mothers EP is a brief journey into the musical minds of Magpie Feast, clocking in under 15 minutes it's a nice teaser for the direction that the band may move forward with. There's plenty of new aesthetics that set this release apart from their previous work, but enough of their tried and true structure to placate fans expecting a riveting display of blues-folk goodness.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Shakori Hills announces Stars in the Round lineup

So Shakori Hills is basically one of my favorite parts of the North Carolina music scene. While Shakori is primarily best known for their bi-annual festivals that take place in April and October, the 75-acre farmlands have been gradually getting more and more events since the organizers made their long-awaited land purchase. Naturally this means that any chance folks can get to flock to their festival mecca should be one ridiculously excellent time. Last month Shakori Hills hosted a luau themed event on the farmlands, displaying the depth and diversity of their talent pool and further expanding their musical horizons. However, on August 23 the 5th annual Stars in the Round event will bring a handful of the region's talented songwriters to Shakori Hills for an evening of roots-driven folk, soul, country and Americana.

For the past five years Stars in the Round has been bringing together various songwriters to share their music in a rich communal environment. The evening's staple performances are based around a songwriters circle, hosted this year by Grammy Award-winning North Carolina artist, Jim Lauderdale. Lauderdale will be joined by Laurelyn Dossett, John Howie, Jr., Dan Smith, Nikki Talley, and Shannon Whitworth as they one-by-one pass the mic around to serenade the droves of Shakori supporters in attendance. Shakori staple Ironing Board Sam will be opening up the evening's performances with his captivating, soulful sounds.

Profits from the annual event all go back towards the Shakori Hills Community Arts Center, a way to make sure that fantastic events like these continue to grow and flourish in our local community. The funds will help the organization to improve upon the infrastructure at the farmlands, planned renovations include an indoor dance hall and improvements to the community gardens and nature trails. The Shakori Hills Pizza Shack will be open along with the Lil' Coffee Barn as well. Beer will be available from Carolina Brewery and snacks from Pittsboro's Phoenix Bakery will be on-site as well. Tickets for the Stars in the Round event are $15 in advance and $20 at the gate, with camping allowed for the evening as well at $15 per site (allowing 1 vehicle and 2 tents). More information on the event can be found at shakorihillsgrassroots.org

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Ears to the Ground: "Know My Love" by Weller

Weller, the new project of Nathan Toben (The Toddlers),
will release their debut album Weller, I on July 1, 2014
One of the downsides of having such an amazingly deep music scene is that some of the area's most talented songwriters may never get their due. Those that get picked up by larger labels will sell-out the Cradle, some will garner a dedicated, passionate local following, others may fade into obscurity. Most fall somewhere in between the spectrum, revered by droves but largely unmentioned when it comes to to powerhouse listings.

Take acts like The Toddlers for example, the band released their self-titled LP last October to little fanfare despite their powerful gothic dream-pop arrangements. Even with high-profile tours with acts like Lost in the Trees and the Love Language, the group largely remained in the shadow of our region's more prominent acts. Since last year's release the group has suffered the same fate as many of our local favorites and has moved on to new projects. But with every band's demise there must come more, the constant state of flux is what keeps this scene so damn thrilling.

While many still mourn the recent loss of The Toddlers, the group's songwriter, Nathan Toben, has already begun to craft new and engaging tunes. The songs found on Weller, I, Tobin's full-length debut as Weller, are deeply personal cuts that chronicle bouts of paranoia and perseverance through a shimmering and enchanting veil. The album careens through a wide array of emotions, everything from bright and lovestruck to somber introspections. Take the album's lead single "Know My Love" for example, it's a track that delves deeply into our own insecurities of moral standpoints and existential crises.

"Tell me what it is that makes you so certain man/Does it come from within?" Toben croons smoothly over grooving rhythms. The melody tumbles along gracefully, riding along with one of Toben's most danceable riffs, but the lyrical content doesn't falter one bit. "Do you trust the synthesis inside of your head/And all those books that you’ve read? he ponders, going on to question what it means to"be a good man." Toben's songwriting proves to brilliantly tow the line between infectious pop simplicity and heavy-hitting personality, making for a unique, mesmerizing output.

Weller, I is set to be released on July 1, the album was recorded at Timberlake Earth Sanctuary in Whitsett, NC with Wesley Wolfe producing. Toben has been gradually leaking more and more information about Weller through his website whatisweller.com, including tracks and an eventual full-album stream upon release. For now though we're phenomenally excited to share "Know My Love," the lead single from a very impressive debut effort from Weller.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Show Review: Drumstrong Rhythm & Arts Festival

Drumstrong's 24-Hour Drum Circle Kick-Off

It takes a lot for a music festival to come together, especially one of a multi-day magnitude. The lineup has to be just right, the pacing has to match the tone of the weekend, the promotion has to do its job, the festival grounds should be welcoming and easy on the eyes...you get the picture. It may seem to be as easy as throwing a stage and a handful of bands together, but it's far from that. Drumstrong knows that, they've held their day-long event for years on end now, but the 2014 installation marks the first expanded year of the event. From Friday to Sunday the Misty Meadows Farm was home to dozens of incredible acts from both locally and nationally acclaimed artists, fans gradually poured in throughout the weekend and by the end of the event it had evolved into a drum-fueled bonanza of brilliant music for an excellent cause. But the best laid plans don't always make for the best events, while Drumstrong boasted a mighty impressive lineup it seems like the festival is still getting its jitters out.

Junior Astronomers
It's hard to put a finger on what felt so out of place throughout the weekend, maybe it was the $900,000 homes across the street from the pseudo-hippy festival, maybe it was the stringent searches upon entry or perhaps it was the hard festival set limits that left acts like Marley Carroll cramming their tunes into a half-hour slot. Either way, something felt a bit off about the three-day event that persisted throughout the weekend. Upon arrival on Friday evening the farmlands seemed bare, with thirty or so people standing around haphazardly swaying to the music. However, once Junior Astronomers took the stage things gradually came to life. The boisterous post-punk crew played an even mix of newer tracks from their debut full-length Dead Nostalgia and a few from their previous EPs. Festivalgoers were somehow hooping along to the jaunty rhythms while others bounced along and shouted along to Terence Richard's throaty melodies. The night mostly followed fairly cohesive order as the more melodic but sonically similar Charlotte crew of HRVRD took the stage. Miami Dice served as a bridge between the rhythmic, melody-driven punk and the dance-based acts of the evening. Miami Dice came with stage dancers in tow, but at this point of the night it felt like the crowd had kind of clocked out. A handful of folks would rush to the barriers to grab the free PBR hats thrown out throughout the weekend, but most would swiftly retreat back to their lawn chairs or the beer garden near the stage after that. When I saw roughly twenty people slowly crowding in for the evening's headliner Marley Carroll, I questioned the vibe we'd have throughout the rest of the weekend. The sound guy got cranky and the set started around 20 minutes later than anticipated, resulting in a truncated set from the incredibly impressive Asheville-based producer. Regardless of time constraints or disappointing turnouts, Carroll was hamming it up as he remixed his dazzling productions.

Marley Carroll
Friday was an odd kick-off to say the least, and as I arrived to the farm late Saturday morning I wasn't feeling much more optimistic. A small crowd gathered near the stage for Bombadil while others were dispersed throughout the farmlands at picnic tables and community painted walls. However, as the day went on the crowd grew in numbers to the point where things finally started to get a bit more of a communal vibe. Triangle favorites like The Love Language and Lost in the Trees played sets filled with fan favorites for those that baked in the sun for their stunning sets. Halfway through the afternoon The Mantras took the stage and seemingly turned on the excitement for those in attendance. Jam-bands are frankly not my thing, but the Weddington crowd seemed enamored by the band. As a matter of fact more folks seemed to be at the festival just to see the evenings main draw Railroad Earth than any other act of the weekend. The afternoon took a rootsy turn as Futurebirds took the stage and the dusty vibes continued throughout local favorites American Aquarium and Chatham County Line. I knew Saturday would be the easy highlight of the weekend, and obviously the other attendees did as well. By the time Kopecky Family Band and The Felice Brothers took the stage, the crowd was packing in tight and gradually building in excitement. Things took a downward turn for those that don't dig the jam-vibes after the Felice Brothers though. Railroad Earth brought their contemporary twist on bluegrass with blend of expansive tunes that border between traditionalism and jam-based. Yo Moma's Big Fat Booty Band is where I drew the line though. While I love checking out new music, especially acts steeped in the funk, I'd had enough noodling for the evening and trekked back to the hotel for the evening.

The Felice Brothers
Sunday as a whole proved to be a nice low-key closing for this unique festival. Few acts on the lineup were of huge interest to me, so the crew trekked to IKEA to kill some time throughout the late morning hours. It was arguably the best and worst decision I made all weekend. However, acts like Elonzo, The New Familiars, Overmountain Men and Dom Flemons made the day all worthwhile. Sunday's bill was a bit indicative of the entire festival, there's some truly impressive acts peppered in with some that I could really do without seeing. Overall though the music throughout the weekend was pretty great, but to quote the great Kanye West..."the vibe is wrong." A three-day camping festival that's held in a city with the 3rd highest median income of North Carolina just feels odd. I literally had an event staff member tell me that "I looked out of place" as I came in amidst the sea of Range Rover driving teenagers and croakie-wearing attendees. Folks were double-taking at the VIP wristbands the press had, a few aggressively stopped and grabbed at us to make sure we were actually VIPs, and all in all the short set times made the flow of the festival feel a bit too disjointed.

But don't get me wrong, Drumstrong serves an excellent purpose and they brought a lot of excellent music to some folks that probably weren't familiar with them at all. It's an incredibly affordable festival that benefits cancer organizations, but it wasn't as warm and welcoming as the other festivals I've attended. There were no random festi-friends made, people weren't as outgoing and carefree as events like Shakori and the rules were rather extensive on the grounds. Regardless, the festival holds bukus of potential and I look forward to seeing where they go from here.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Artist Feature: Dom Flemons

Dom Flemons performs at Drumstrong Rhythm &
Arts Festival outside of Charlotte, N.C. on Sunday,
May 18.
In the past decade few North Carolina acts have risen to the level of fame that Carolina Chocolate Drops have. Formed in 2005, the trio popularized old traditional songs and brought forth a new era of the rootsy folk aesthetic for the North Carolina music scene. In 2010 the group won a Grammy for their stellar album Genuine Negro Jig, but shortly after their newfound fame one of their founding members, Justin Robinson left the group to pursue solo endeavors. In the years since the group's Grammy award-winning album, the lineup has shifted in various directions, but their sound has mostly remained fairly static. Perhaps thats why multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons has taken the Robinson route and left the group to release his own solo work as well. The split was announced late last year, and while founding member Rhiannon Giddens still remains in the group, a vast amount of attention is now pointed towards Flemons and his forthcoming solo debut Prospect Hill.

"Even though I founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops," Flemon says "there are parts of my musical personality that people have not seen because when you play in a group the group is always the main goal. It’s a team." Now that Flemons has struck out on his own though, fans can expect a marked departure from his work with the Chocolate Drops. Granted there will still be a heavy focus on traditionalism, but Prospect Hill finds Flemons trekking into new territory. "There's a little more jazz on this album," Flemons remarks. He goes on to add that he's even included a few of his own songs, something that fans never got the chance to see with his work in the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

"I always saw that the bigger cause for the group was to promote black string bands and show that piece of American history. In my own mind I never really wanted to write songs as much as let the history speak for itself because I personally find that to be a stronger artistic statement than anything I could just make up on my own." But now Flemons says he seeks to "find a balance" between interpretations on classic tunes and his own original material.

But when so much of your popularity comes from your roots driven debuts, that balance may be hard to find. However, Flemons seems to do so effortlessly. Throughout his nearly ten years in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Flemons and his cohorts were re-contextualizing these lost gems of American music while incorporating their own contemporary spin on the tunes. Flemons speaks fondly of his musical upbringing, although he was born and raised in Arizona he seems deeply connected to the music of the south. Flemons mentions coming across older musicians who had been playing blues "for two and sometimes three times [his] age." These run-ins coupled with countless fiddling conventions and a deep appreciation for the narratives found within traditional music pushed Flemons towards this timeless genre.

"Although I love traditional music I am not stuck in a time warp," Flemons says. "People get it confused. A lot of times they think that when you interpret old music that you have to be old to do it. But that’s just not true. I am 31 years old and I have a style that I like and I go with it." And thanks to Flemons "going with it," an entirely new generation of listeners have become privy to the rich culture that's buried within these old-timey songs. However, don't get too entrenched in the past, as the new tunes from Prospect Hill promise to be filled with just as much jangly goodness as his beloved interpretations. Flemons will release Prospect Hill on July 29, and now that he's re-located back to North Carolina fans can expect to see a whole lot more of this well renown multi-instrumentalist. So local folks better prep themselves for some spoon slappin', jug blowin', banjo pickin' bliss, because Flemons' music is as infectious as ever.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Show Preview: Angel Olsen w/ Promised Land Sound

Angel Olsen performs at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, N.C.
on Friday, May 16.
Angel Olsen simply can't be described as a folk singer-songwriter and she proved this with the release of her newest album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Previous to this album she released an album and an EP of mostly home recordings, though incredibly haunting and beautiful, did not actually put her on the radar with her cohorts. With Burn Your Fire For No Witness being released on Jagjaguwar Records, Olsen's voice has expanded to a far wider audience and has resulted in high praise from music critics of NPR and the like.

Olsen's new bigger sound doesn't limit her and she stays true to herself in her lyricism. Her lyrics read like poetry and are almost too real in terms of relateability. Burn Your Fire... may have songs that are more upbeat with a backing band like "Forgiven/Forgotten," but in between those songs lie moments of pure serenity and sadness. These two qualities dominated her previous songs and in a way made them more personal to the listener, however, with Burn Your Fire a sense of hope lurks in between the melancholy melodies. Triangle fans have shown a particular fixation with the vexing songs that Olsen produces, so expect a packed Cradle filled with adoring fans washed in emotions and amazement at Olsen's powerful presence.

Olsen will be preceded by Promised Land Sound, a young Nashville band of dudes who like to play country-tinged garage rock. The young group of roots-rockers have earned high acclaim from Jack White's Third Man Records, being billed as one of their "favorite local bands." Their debut full-length was released on Paradise of Bachelors and was followed by a 7" on Third Man. This vigorous young group has just begun its conquest through the music industry, but all it takes is a few listens to see that they're filled with limitless potential.

Friday night boasts a solid paring of bands and sounds, making this show a weekend highlight. Fans can soak in the rustic rock of Promised Land Sound before getting emotionally wrecked by the heartbreaking warbles of Angel Olsen. Tickets are available at catscradle.com and are $12 in advance and $14 at the door.