5 Music Reviews
by dave heaton
The Album Leaf, Seal Beach EP (Acuarela)
The San Diego-based instrumental group Tristeza use rock instruments to cast a brilliant spell around listeners - weaving guitars and keyboards in and out of each other to create repeating, melodic circles that are gorgeous and entrancing. Tristeza guitarist Jimmy LaValle creates the same effect in a somewhat more electronic setting with his recordings as The Album Leaf. Keyboards and electronic beats are at the center, though there's still guitar and assorted other instruments. The Album Leaf is a solitary endeavor, but it doesn't come off like a more minimalist version of Tristeza...for that matter, it isn't merely a more electronic version of Tristeza either, but significant and spellbinding music that casts its own remarkable shadow. The new Album Leaf EP, Seal Beach, presents a uniquely textured atmosphere right from the opening track ("Malmo"), where scratchy phonograph sounds gently support a melancholy piano melody, as downtempo but funky beats slowly roll along underneath. Whether it's him gently strumming an acoustic guitar or playing a haunted tune on an organ, each instrument and sound is integrated perfectly into the song, making each of the 5 tracks capture an atmosphere perfectly, whether it's done with one instrument or many. Seal Beachis moody, pretty and loaded with real presence, pulling you right through your speakers and trapping you in the sonic setting.
Cabrini, self-titled (Best Kept Secret)
Cabrini's self titled debut is a cassette-only release of seven melodic pop songs that have a uniquely crisp and warm sound to them. The California-based duo of Austin Beam and Kory Ross, who also have released a full-length CD on Red Square (Show Offs Get Hurt), play songs that feel intimate, with the quiet force of the best pop singer-songwriters, but also have a certain distance that keeps them from seeming confessional or self-absorbed. A highlight is the stark "Second Motion", essentially one acoustic guitar supporting two gorgeous voices singing together in an oblique way about a turning point in someone's life. That combination of beauty and mystery (keeping us at arm's length in a way that keeps the songs a bit enigmatic) really works - it and perfect melodies are enough to keep these songs spinning through your head for a while.
Carte Blanche, Summer's End EP (Shmat)
"I'll take a chance with you," Richard Cranch and Dana Kruse sing to each other on the first track of their debut EP as Carte Blanche, the Summer's End EP. They sing it sweetly, in the context of a gentle, dreamy folk-pop tune, but they also sing in the most somber of tones, as if the chance they're taking with each other might be a journey towards eternal doom and despair. This is that start of love as a potential avenue to pain and hurt as much as, or maybe even more than, a possible road towards unending happiness. All 7 songs on the EP are beautiful, with captivating melodies sung in a hushed but passionate tone, and a sensuous mix of acoustic and electric guitars. They also share an overtone of darkness, a feeling of trepidation or at least uncertainty. Then again, maybe that mood isn't darkness as much as comfortable melancholy. On one of the prettiest songs, the ballad "Lucky," Cranch sings of waking up on a rainy day and feeling a sense of absolute contentment, like the dark rain clouds are more a protective armor than anything menacing. That line between feeling completely right and feeling uncertain about the days to come is at the center of the entire EP. Every beginning is an end too, the title track reminds us at the EP's end, and every change is scary even as it's exciting. That feeling is captured in the song's lyrics, but also in the entire EP's music, which treads a perfect line between fear and hopeful anticipation.
Cathari, self-titled (Isochromatic)
On their self-titled debut album, the Omaha-based group Cathari play music that is absolutely soaked in mood, whether they're journeying through an exploratory instrumental piece or crafting a more reined-in futuristic pop-soul song of the sort a critic might describe as trip-hop. Another word critics are likely to throw around with this sort of music is "cinematic," and what they mean is basically that it's music with a larger-than-life sense of atmosphere, where you feel overwhelmed by the sound. Cathari don't have the immediately striking presence of somebody like Portishead; they take a subtler approach that at times is just as effective, carefully building up tracks that have layer upon layer of ominous sounds. Underneath vocalist Morgan Solomon slyly crooning evocative (though often fairly meaningless upon inspection) lyrics you might have a voice stating "you can't throw things away when they're empty" or a far-off opera singer, not to mention layers of creeping beats and shimmering guitars. Sometimes Cathari fall too closely near the place where subtle turns into invisible or unremarkable, but mostly they carve out a unique musical home for themselves. Their songs are filled with eerie but calming ambient soundscapes and quietly surprising turns, and somewhere in the mix there might lie a great pop melody or a really stunning sequence of sounds.
Tempertwig/Air Formation, "Brat-pack film philosophy"/"Seethrustars" 7"(Solution B Records)
Nothing's better than a split single with a fantastic song on each side. Side A introduces the UK rock band Tempertwig with the explosive "Brat-pack film philosophy," where melodic and furious guitars surround a half-spoken, half-sung expression of frustration at days and nights spent on nothing much at all, where longings that have been simmering emerge as disgust at "another wasted summer." On the flip side is another intoxicating journey into space from Air Formation, who a couple years back released a perfect album called Ends in Light. "Seethrustars" is an intergalactic drift made of whispered wishes and rock instruments that cling together as one unstoppable force (a gentle one, but strong). What the two bands have in common is talent; both demand your attention.