erasing clouds

4 Music Reviews

Josè Gonzàlez, Veneer (Hidden Agenda)

The promotional tagline "part Joao Gilberto, part Nick Drake" is a good starting place for Swedish-born musician Josè Gonzàlez's debut album Veneer. Think of the melancholy mood that those figures evoke, but more intense. Gonzalez is a skilled guitarist and an intuitive singer; he uses both to make music that's pretty, but also mysterious. At first it kind of floats over you, his words blurring together while the guitar quietly rushes the music past you like a passing gust of wind. The more you listen, though, the more you notice how stridently he sings, how determined he sounds. Gonzalez's songs are marked by both hope and pain. They feel both cynical and romantic at the same time; the epitome of bittersweet. "You left a lovestain on my heart / and you left a bloodstain on the ground / but blood comes off easily," he sings at one point, gently but with a bitter tone. Veneer is light in nature at times, with gentle finger-picked guitar and playful percussion, yet it leaves a weight behind. The music's uniqueness lies in how it feels breezy and relaxed in the moment, yet leaves a cloud of sadness hovering in the air. – dave heaton

Mile: A Hush Compilation (Hush)

Mile: A Hush Compilation is both a history lesson and a showcase for the current sound of Portland's Hush Records, one of the most exciting record labels around. The history lesson comes through label head Chad Crouch's detailed first-person account of "The Hush Story" in the CD booklet, and through the 36 bonus tracks encoded on the CD as MP3 files. Having those 36 tracks "hidden" on the CD, plus 14 newer tracks upfront, is an innovative way to celebrate the label's past while keeping the overt focus on the present and future. The MP3 tracks chronologically walk us through the label's history, and are mostly rare or unreleased. Some are rough compared to the label's current output, but they're overall quite fantastic, with contributions by all the key musicians associated with Hush: Crouch himself (solo and with Blanket Music), Jeff London, Kind of Like Spitting, Corrina Repp, Amy Annelle, Reclinerland, the Decemberists (via a early, Tarkio version of "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist"), and so on. Those MP3 tracks are a fun trip, yet the 14 tracks of the CD proper are themselves beyond compare. Hush's emphasis is on pop music that gains a timeless feeling by being both future-oriented (fresh, and often integrating electronics into the sound) and classic, with an emphasis on the song elements that never go out of style – melody, mood, feeling, honesty. Mile is an excellent showcase for the label's roster of unique talents. There's previously unreleased songs by all of the groups mentioned above, plus Esperanza Spalding, Norfolk & Western, Bobby Birdman, and Kaitlyn Ni Donovan. And it kicks off with a great track from Graves' newest album, released earlier this year. Highlights include Kind of Like Spitting's cover of Blanket Music's "Hips," the fantastic "Time Enough" by Jeff London (melancholy folk with a hint of cocktail-jazz), and The Places' extraordinary, moving NYC travelogue "The Damn Insane Asylum", which will appear in different form on their next album. But that's only the start. The Hush story is a grand, small-is-beautiful tale of some friends releasing great art to the world in a simple, affectionate way. Mile is a splendid overview of a label which hopefully will be around for a long time to come. – dave heaton

The Rosebuds, Birds Make Good Neighbors (Merge)

The Rosebuds' Birds Make Good Neighbors is like a pop-rock version of a Southern adventure tale like Undertow, Night of the Hunter, or Huckleberry Finn, but with star-crossed lovers as the main characters, escaping from abuse, pain, violence, and the ghosts of history, through the weeds and brambles. It opens with a passionate call to arms, a marching order for freedom, "Hold Hands and Fight." And it closes with a simple "4-Track Love Song", a declaration of love. These bookends reinforce the notion that love is a force of strength, that love is what'll stave off evil, what'll free us from domination and hurt. Somewhere in the album's middle section is a clever yet at the same time sincere plea to re-write history books to reflect the importance of love in people's actions; "were hearts not drawn on caveman walls?", Ivan Howard sings. That theme of love's power runs from song to beautiful song – each one filled with carefully descriptive, compassionately rendered stories and sentiments. That same care has been taken with the music itself, which relies on a broader palette than the Rosebuds previous albums, occasionally echoing pop and rock styles of decades past (the '50, '60s, '80s) within the group's distinctly melodic and emotionally resonant songwriting style. Sweet harmonies and sensitive guitar playing jibe nicely with the album's defense of love, but so do the more propulsive rock songs. There's a determination in the songs which reveals a real belief in what they're singing about. The album's mood is that of heightened drama, as if the words they're singing are a matter of life and death, as if evil is right around the corner. In the liner notes, they thank someone for "reminding us to sing bravely about love", and that's what they're doing throughout Birds Make Good Neighbors. It's rare to have a rock band that's so willing to wear their hearts right on their sleeves, to sing loudly about love and affection in the face of greed and brutality. – dave heaton

The Snow Fairies, Get Married (Total Gaylord/Chocolate Hearts)

"All I want to do is dance with you / if it's the last thing that I do," the Snow Fairies proclaimed on their last album, Feel You Up. And now, with their second album Get Married, they've created the perfect ammunition for that scene, a whole album that'll make you dance (or want to). Perfect melodies, sung gracefully by singer Rose Bochansky, abound on this album, as on the last, yet where that album's tempos varied from slow to fast and in between, this time most everything's faster, louder, and has a snappier beat, one that compels you to at least clap along in time, or maybe get on the floor and shake your booty all night long. Rock guitars ring out, and the drums keep things upbeat, yet the Snow Fairies are still expert pop songwriters – the songs are no less sensitive, sweet, sad, playful, and full of feeling than before. "Baja California" kicks off the album, rolling out with an organ and great beat front and center. From there, there's song after catchy song about crushes and melancholy moods and people and places and good and bad times. Get Married's already become a key part of the soundtrack to my day-to-day life, and I've only had a copy for a week or so. Real songs about real life, but with melodies pretty enough to float you off to dreamland. There's some local Philadelphia flavor in "Slow Death on the Schuykil" and the New Jersey-dissing "The Stone Pony". "First Sad Song" is the gorgeous slow dance number. "The Life of a Total Square" weds a wonderful "ba ba ba" vocal – sung with joyful force – to lyrics about not fitting in, and being OK with that. The Snow Fairies have definitely set themselves apart from the indie-pop crowd, both through sheer talent and by being both sweet and tough, gentle yet ready to kick your ass…onto the dance floor, at the very least. – dave heaton

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