Matthew Bryan's dedication to Radiohead's music is pretty impressive. Unfortunately it means the more you listen to his recordings the less original he seems. Bryan has gone so far as dividing himself between two distinct musical identities: one is solo vocals accompanied by guitar and sounds like early Radiohead with vocals indebted to Thom Yorke's solo stuff; the other is flat-out Eraser electronica with occasional guitar interjections that sound like recent vintage Greenwood. It's not easy to write songs in this style, with odd phrase lengths, unusual guitar and vocal harmonies, and subtle structure. "Grumped" might sound exactly like something from the How Am I Driving? EP but if it was a Radiohead song, it'd be a pretty good one. Otherwise the electronic songs are pretty lame; the beats aren't well-programmed and the rigidity enforced by the loops narrows what Bryan can do singing and on guitar. He overcompensates for the repetitive, blocky grooves with totally random breaks that don't seem at all related to the main sections. His solo guitar stuff is better, particularly "King of the Jungle," the first thing of his I listened to and I think the best thing he's done so far. When he slows things down and relies on his electric guitar playing, which is skilled and has a lot of separate bass and treble parts, his debt to Thom Yorke is less obvious. On his moodier pieces, his Yorke-like fondness for eerie falsetto ninths sounds more like his own style and less of a tribute. He's got an unbelievable voice, by the way, which is one reason I'm giving him so much space here -- "World War III Is Coming" sounds like "Motion Picture Soundtrack" sung by a resurrected Tim ("NOT JEFF") Buckley. Bryan slides up into pitch naturally and his little changes in intonation and emphasis are so good you forgive him for songs that sometimes last longer than need be. Amazing musician, but he needs to open himself up to a lot more influences. And play with some other people -- something tells me his ideal role is as the singer of a rock band with some electronic influences. Like you-know-who.
Josh Caldwell is a songwriter with a lot more stylistic range. He can dial up a new wave beat ("With You") or a nu-metal pastiche with proficient ease, and musically his tunes are well-arranged with good central hooks and active, varied lead guitar, piano, and drums. Lyrically he poses me with a bit of a problem. How do I write about Christian artists in this column? Do I cover them at all? I'm a rigid, humorless atheist -- I actively write songs trying to convince people not to believe in gods. I think it's not fair to Josh's abilities to write him off because I don't agree with his message. As a church worship leader, he's presented with the challenge of delivering a deeply personal message to an extremely varied audience. The way he switches genres with ease speaks to his preparedness for this job. But as far as his lyrics go, well, if you're going to write a religious song and expect my full endorsement, you better sell me pretty hard. I think the concept of an afterlife is demeaning to what we can accomplish in this one, but for the length of Death Cab for Cutie's "I Will Follow You into the Dark," Atheismo preserve me, I believe. That's how great a song it is. Caldwell's lyrics don't have any personal connection between writer and subject; they're just variations on the same tired memes that if you went to church every week as a kid (which I sure did) you've heard a million times before. You know the "South Park" episode with Cartman's Christian band, Faith Plus One? That's what I'm reminded of here, which is a shame because the music is excellent. I'm perfectly willing to give Christian artists the same objective hearing I would anybody else, but the lyrics better be up there with Slow Train Coming if you're really going to move me.
You don't have to be a phenomenal musician to be a good songwriter, but if you choose to present your music solo with just your own guitar accompaniment, you owe it to yourself not to suck at the guitar. Laura Imhoff has an unreal singing voice and an immediately recognizable talent for turning her personal observations into arresting, poetic lyrics, but her terrible, noisy acoustic guitar strangling destroys any effort at sustaining a mood. Oscillating at random between two half chords (or less: "Come My Child" is like six droning minutes of G#) limits what Imhoff can do vocally and all the random blue notes and dropped rhythms distract from her melodies and storytelling. Take some lessons, practice way more, or hire a real guitarist. In a different genre, but similarly limited by unskilled guitar playing is Ray PD. There's some feeling and some messages behind his songs, but the pounding, leaden strumming of block chords with little variation and no feel makes them physically unpleasant to listen to. The stops and starts and mistakes in Chris Edwards' songs could be interpreted as stylistic choices if he would stick to playing by himself, but his recordings feature banjo and percussion overdubs that don't even remotely move in rhythmic relation to the guitar and vocals. I wanted to like a folksinger whose MySpace page name alludes to Spinal Tap, but all I found was an amateur desperately in need of a metronome. Or a drummer, which are sometimes cheaper.
Dale Perry on the other hand can play. His live duo recordings with harmonica player Jimi Lee, all available in high-quality format at Perry's website, rip with distinctive and varied blues riffing. Perry has a loose, part improvised style, but rooted in songs that are well-written and original. It's hard to write a new blues song -- the chords are pretty much dictated by the style -- but Perry plays hybrid lead and rhythm parts on his instrument that are unique to each composition. What's more, the lyrics are recognizably in a traditional blues idiom, but they're not copied from old songs. Perry is taking his own experiences and communicating about them in a specific style. Really neat stuff, and the gruff, oil-soaked vocals drip with soul.
Sometimes to get the basic idea of a song across a songwriter has to use shortcuts like drum machines and samplers. Sometimes recordings of this nature are genius, but often I wonder if they wouldn't be better served working out a really distinctive single guitar or piano part. Bluesriff Brown's best tune is the simplest, "Far Away," and his singing voice is better than San Antonio's self-deprecating Brown gives himself credit for. When he starts messing with multitrack recordings, the basic shapes of the songs are either obscured or lost entirely in overly loud rhythm strumming or out-of-time drum machine. The overdubs ruin his natural feel playing alone, he probably would benefit from playing with others. I think his tune "The Mantle" has the wrong title; a "mantle" is a cape but Brown is singing about a "mantel," a kind of furniture. Larry Roszkowiak could be similarly dismissed for his songs' out-of-sync programmed backing, but even though they're not quite square to the beat the drum and bass patterns show the right musical knowledge. The main point here is the songs themselves, which show practiced wit in telling stories that build up to humorous choruses. Roszkowiak's specialty is funny tunes about male/female relationships. "Drive the Distance" is the standout, with a clever hook and main idea. The basic concept wears thin over two other similar but less good songs. Larry might want to try taking on some new topics, and adopting a pen name if he ever wishes to see his name in parenthesis on a record sleeve. Dreamland Days is a one-man band and not just a stockpile of demos, I think, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell. Jason Smith is adept at getting his programmed parts and his live instruments to line up properly, but he just doesn't have very many interesting ideas. He's a fine technician and producer, but although well-played his project utterly lacks for memorable guitar or vocal parts. His singing is pretty dull too -- not bad, just not distinctive or memorable in any specific way. Sometimes the lyrics are predictable and sometimes they're just bad ("Sugarlips").
I'm a traditionalist myself -- I would prefer not to even listen to music on my computer, let alone make it with one-- but it's hard to argue that the future of music is in hybrid electronic projects like De Rol Le'. Why do I say that? Well, I can listen to a rock band and pick apart how they do what they do -- those are drums, that's a piano, that's a bass. When it comes to ambient projects like this, there's really no dividing live performances from samples, patches, sequenced material, DJing... the important thing in this genre is the finished product, not the means of its creation. Raising challenging questions of what is and isn't an original creation is the task of all artists, musical or otherwise. The music of De Rol Le' is certainly atmospheric, but it's not unmusical -- there's an ear at work here for odd intersecting rhythms and overtones that is practiced. I like how the songs tend to be on the short side, staying just long enough to create a distinct impression and then ending before the repeating elements start becoming a point of themselves. Magic Hero vs Rock People, who are part proper band, part Negativland-style found sound installation, and part art project, are certainly doing their best to challenge expectations and engage conscious thought on the part of their listeners. However, musically their proper songs are kind of dull, with hazy production not obscuring songs that recycle lyrics too much, guitar progressions that are bland and obvious, and unimaginative keyboard riffs that move around the guitars in the same way every song. The sample-heavy stuff too seems to be an excuse to release unfocused jamming as completed songs. That said, the way their stuff is sewn together shows real thought and talent; even the kind of weak folk songs have weird intros and crossfades. I think I might enjoy them more over the course of an album where the parts suggest some larger whole rather than experiencing them piecemeal through online sound clips. The Drew Fish Band doesn't have the defense of being high-concept like Magic Hero, they're just another dime-a-dozen Austin Americana band where the acoustic guitarist blithely strums block chords and the fiddle player lazily saws the root note of all those chords simultaneously. Fish has a cool voice, but the songs and lyrics are blah.
Finally Richmond's Gospel Doll only has two songs up but they're both pretty excellent pep pills of coiled hardcore energy. They're a bass-drums duo but Tava Terroir puts a lot of guitar players to shame with lead lines on the bass that are melodic and rhythmically solid. Terroir and drummer Dan Hassay lose their place a few times on these early recordings, but more often than not they follow each other nicely with drums that take an active part in developing the songs with breakdowns and blastbeats. Love Terroir's unholy caterwauling, too. "Vice Squad Blues" has a really different-sounding intro and outro that show some excellent potential range for this minimalist pair. Long instrumental sections aren't really their strong suit, as they tend to kind of reveal the limitations inherent in the duo lineup, but they have more than enough ideas to fill in good songs. More recordings soon, it says on their page. I hope so.