Sunday, March 29, 2009

Swords We Swallow; an introduction.

Spring is finally almost here, which means that it seems like an appropriate time to introduce a new medium-blurring art-project from the Asbjorn Arts Collective. Fresh air brings fresh ideas, right?

Swords We Swallow is predominantly a musical project, but with a definite visual-art component, and very possibly some performance-art facets.... and probably eventually also an eclectic DJ tag-team, once we get our unorthodox rigs situated. You all know how much I love to play games of "which part is the art" with my projects.

This little start-up began when Sara Jane and I were working on material for the noisy, experimental electro-rock outfit Tipsy Cougar that the two of us comprise half of. We found ourselves writing song material that didn't exactly fit in with the mission-statement of that outfit, but we liked the songs, and still wanted to put them to use. The music itself has thus-far been less noisy, yet more abstract. There are still electronic elements, but also alot more folk-ish stuff, and quite a bit less in-your-face spasm-danciness and attitude. We plan to record a limited-press E.P. soon... right now we're thinking three songs, five or six tracks. We plan to release these in hand-numbered, one-of-a-kind packaging. Of course, this is all hypothetical right now; we're still in the writing stage. (on that note, if anyone with some simple recording equipment wants to help us to track the E.P. in the coming weeks, please be in touch... an extra ear and someone to man the faders would be fun.)

Anyone who's been reading this blog for a while probably remembers that I have a bit of an ongoing/ recurring project that involves transparency in the art-process; that the process can be art itself. With that intention in mind, I'll submit here a couple such specimens related to Swords We Swallow, in its formative stages.

Some of you may have seen a video that I posted to my Myspace and Facebook pages over the last couple days, billed as a sort of Swords We Swallow trailer. Yes, it's very odd. I like to think of this video as a bit of "spontaneous art," a facet of the art-process-as-art project. This video had initially neither intention nor concept. We were merely trying to figure out how to use a webcam device and accompanying software-program. As we tossed different clips into the clips, we would tweak it to fit into "hey, this looks like..." sort of after-thoughts. We thought that it was amusing, and somehow perversely relevant to the project that we were working on. So, we decided to share. With that said, enjoy the chaos.

In other transparency-related aspects of the project, some of you may have seen a web poll that was floating around recently to help us try to name the new act. We gave you three options, and although all three received scattered votes, Swords We Swallow won by a decent margin (which is good, since that's the one that both Sara and I were pulling for anyway by the time the poll ended.)

Over the course of the polling-process, I had said that the three finalists had been culled from a lengthy list... and a couple people asked to see the rest of the options. I replied to them that most of the others were eliminated for fairly obvious logistical reasons, but that I might post the list at some point just for fun anyway. I think I might get to that in my next entry... the list serves a little bit like a very odd piece of spontaneous poetry.

In other related news, Tipsy Cougar is almost finished recording and compiling our debut demo, "Immaculate Conceptions." We plan to record two more tracks, and then figure out how to get this noisy piece of grimy, throbbing mess into your hands in the most perverse way possible.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Pair of Past-Related Reviews; Part 4; "You and I... walk by the... sea"; Conclusion.

While reviewing the new records from Jason Hebert and Cameron Audet, and musing on my own musical projects over the past few years, I noticed some interesting parallels between the body of work that our front-stage trio has collectively produced post-Rusted Tricycle. Both the similarities and differences between all of our musical trajectories are somehow coincidental, or somehow a part of the structure that we grappled off of separately after gaining our footing together with that band. Who knows.

Post-Tricycle, all three of us played in rock bands at one point in time or another that had a certain degree of “commercial viability,” and arguably (these comparisons are inevitably a bit subjective) achieved more of that sort of success than we did during our time with the Trike. After that, we have all recorded and performed with an acoustic project, and have all at least dabbled in one form or another of electronic music. I suppose that, musical trends being what they are (as discussed a bit within each of the reviews posted prior), these latter two could be claimed about most of our musical peers from the emo/ pop-punk scene of that time. I don’t really know. Nevertheless, these similarities seem noteworthy to me, considering how stylistically far-removed both of those formats are from the genre that Rusted Tricycle played.

Looking at the acoustic and electronic music that the three of us have produced independently of one another, it’s all very different, and we seem to all arrive at our influences and reasons for gravitating toward those sorts of music from very different junctures. These differences, however, remind me of a running joke that we had while R.T. was around.

I remember that we used to tease each other a bit that the front-stage trio of the band was accidentally similar in structure to a boy-band, where each member has a different “character,” stereotype, and demographic. Jason was the “indie/ emo” guy, with a flair for more serious and dramatic emotional songwriting and stage-presence. Cam reflected the “pop-punk” schtick, sentimental, light-hearted, and endearingly goofy. I was the “punk-rocker,” appearing onstage with liberty-spikes, Misfits tees, and a more rambunctious performance-demeanor.

As we’ve grown up, both musically and personally, in the time since R.T., the differences between all of our projects in both the electronic and acoustic formats are almost startlingly predictable when compared to an evolving and maturing version of our Rusted Tricycle “boy-band” stereotypes. Jason’s music has been consistently emotionally complicated, multi-layered, and dramatic, with almost epic tendencies at times. Cam has honed his pop songwriting skills, playing soft, catchy music with “pantie-melting” tendencies. My own music has usually veered toward the abstract and avant-garde, conceptually chaotic and intentionally inaccessible to most audiences even remotely “mainstream.”

I don’t want to get into too much of a “nature vs. nurture” argument about how much of both these similarities and differences were derived from our experiences with Rusted Tricycle all that time ago, and how much was just aspects of our personalities that inevitably came to similar conclusions that would have been reached regardless of the time with the Trike. I merely thought that these “Where Are We Now” parallels were interesting, and I figured that I’d share.

The next time you see one of us playing out somewhere, yell for a Rusted Tricycle song. It will either get a laugh, or a scowl with a “damn you, Bernie” attached, which would be amusing either way. Who knows, maybe we’ll actually remember how to play one (I know that I heard a recording of Cam doing a version of “Seashells” not that long ago, and I’ve been known to occasionally bust out “Cherry Coke” when playing acoustic… my favorite was an impromptu version once with cello and synth). Hell, yell for “Slit.” That would be REALLY funny.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Pair of Past-Related Reviews; Part 3; Armor & Rage.

Cameron Audet has completed a new acoustic record, which will soon be available under the name “Armor & Rage.” According to Cam, this project also has a full backing-band based out of Boston, and records with expanded instrumentation might very well be coming soon. The current record is called “Pantie Melting Love Songs,” and I don’t have information yet about how and when a physical copy can be procured, but I’m guessing that, if you’re interested, bugging Cam through the project’s Myspace page might do the trick.

I’m not sure that there has ever been a record-title that has so blatantly announced that this reviewer is not in the intended demographic of the music contained therein as “Pantie Melting Love Songs.” I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the title, and I think it fits the music on the record pretty well. But… as you may have guessed (let’s not make assumptions), I don’t wear panties, so there’s not much “melting” to be done on that front (if I DID, for some reason, wear panties every once in a while [no one‘s judging here] I still really doubt that Cam would want any part in making them melt.). Basically, the title makes it pretty obvious from the get-go that this record was not intended for a 26-year-old male who prefers vague, complicated metaphors to honest, sentimental professions of emotion. And he’s got it right. This is a record that is very obviously, and very thoroughly, intended for girls. Since I’m definitely not a young girl, this is, quite predictably, not a record that I could listen to every day for my own personal enjoyment. However, knowing up-front what I’m getting into, I can definitely appreciate it for what it is. As a sentimental record intended for a young female audience, this is a pretty solid collection of songs, and he seems to capture his intentions dead-on.

While I was listening to these tracks and jotting down my thoughts, I was amazed that every time I put my headphones down to step out for a bit, I had the chorus-hook from one song or another stuck in my head. “Pantie Melting Love Songs” turned out, with each listen, to be a FAR more incessantly catchy album than my first listen would have suggested. I’m pretty sure that my girlfriend thought I was losing my mind as I kept singing “I’m wanting to see you… You’re easy on the eye…” as we walked down aisles in the grocery store.

I was initially trying to think of how to write this review by somehow bypassing the almost inanely obvious Dashboard Confessional comparisons. After hearing the songs, my initial thought was that even MENTIONING the similarity would be trite, redundant, and do no one involved much of a service. Lets face it, the post-alternative music market is GLUTTED with former members of indie and emo bands’ acoustic side-projects, the reviews for which always and inevitably (and almost always accurately) contain phrases such as “like Chris Carraba at his whiniest and most melodramatic” or “like Chris Carraba at his most heartfelt and honest.” The Dashboard fan doesn’t ever gain anything from such reviews, because they’re tired of being inundated with knock-offs, and the Dashboard loather doesn’t gain anything from such reviews (besides the red-flag not to buy the record), because they weren’t a fan the first time around.

What I realized the more that I listened, however, was that avoiding this comparison would be just as disingenuous. Unlike many of its ilk, this record, rather than trying to downplay the influence as most of this sort of acts tend to try to do (i.e. let’s throw in a verse that sounds like Conor Oberst; lets toss in some Jets To Brazil-isms or an Eliot Smith rip to show that we’re ’keepin’ it real,’ etc.), Armor & Rage seems to make a conscious decision to fly headlong into this comparison, which seems somehow more respectable. There’s a certain “Yeah, I like Dashboard. So what?” aspect of the songwriting here that’s almost refreshing compared with many similar-sounding acts.

The recording of the record is lush and skillfully produced, at the same time that it is incredibly (and almost startlingly) intimate. The reverb on the vocal-harmonies (all of which are Cameron’s own, and well- composed) is shimmering, without being overwrought or cheesy. At the same time, the degree of sonic detail allowed within the mix is tangibly real, complete with the sort of sounds of fingers on strings and popping of breath that conjure images of the musician performing in a completely empty room of an abandoned old third-story New England apartment (which reminds me a bit of early Ani Difranco… in production only).

Where Cameron does tend to deviate (thankfully) from such unabashed Carraba-isms is in the way that his guitar-parts are constructed. The power-chords-on-acoustic strategy of Dashboard and other such post-indie acoustic “pantie-melting” holdovers is almost completely absent from these songs, leaving in its place moments when the listener might almost start to think he’s listening to an actual FOLK (or at least indie-folk) record. There are even a couple moments when the guitar-work (which is admirably far more attentive at most moments to rhythm and groove than to notes and chord sequence) almost reminds me of certain Dar Williams tracks.

In the song “Take Your Aim,” there’s a moment when a tidal-wave of added backing-vocals break through the mix, at a spot that doesn’t exactly seem to be a climax. Sitting in my apartment alone with noise-cancelling headphones on, the change was so abrupt and forceful that I jumped (physically) out of my seat, and thought that someone was behind me. The most surprising thing was, this continued to happen EVERY time the song came on. I have to admit, part of me enjoys this unexpected moment. If you’re drifting off a bit listening to these songs (which is completely feasible, but not totally a flaw, as Cameron’s sound and songwriting is soothingly consistent throughout), this is a bit of the record that will wake you up and force you to pay attention. I’m definitely personally a fan of aspects like these, but it strikes me as a bit out of sync with the otherwise apparent aim of accessibility evident throughout the record, and thus I get the feeling that it wasn’t quite intentional.

Overall, the stated goal of “Pantie Melting” of the new Armor and Rage record is admirably achieved. This is a stirring set of soft emotional songs, skillfully performed and recorded; a laid-back, listener-friendly pop record, with a ton of commercial potential as such. Cam’s chosen title for the record boldly asserts his awareness of the general truth that it is impossible to make a record that’s equally well-suited to every listener, and, with that in mind, this is most definitely an excellent release for its intended demographic, even if it may not be up my own personal alley.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Pair of Past-Related Reviews; Part 2; Action and the Red Baron

In my last post, I had said that I planned to review Cameron Audet’s new record, and then Jason Hebert’s record with “Action and the Red Baron.” I am, however, going to switch the order, and review the Action record today, and presumably tackle the Audet record next, as information-gathering for one entry has taken a bit longer than the other.

Action and the Red Baron is a collaboration between Jason Hebert (“The Red Baron”- vocals, guitar, tambourine, shaker) and Dan Custer (“Action Dan”- piano, bass, turntables, beatbox, programming). As I said before, Jason has previously played with and fronted several bands, including Rusted Tricycle and Theory of Regret. Action Dan produces quite good electronic music under his own name. They recently released a record called “A Dream Awakening,” which is available through CDBaby, iTunes, and

It seems a requisite part of an indie-rock singer’s recording catalog at this juncture to team up with an electronics-guru at some point, to release a record of vaguely dancy/ vaguely atmospheric emotional techno tracks to cater to the rock-throwback song-structure-and-melody whims of the current electro-hipster crowd. While I have to admit a certain taste-based bias in favor of this format, I also have some critical reservations about the proficiency with which it is often executed, as with most flavor-of-the-minute recording whims that force us to call the motives of its perpetrators into question a bit. Although “A Dream Awakening,” in principle, fulfills many of these qualities, it proves to be a more concisely constructed, and at the same time more diverse, record than many other such experiments.

Throughout the record, one of the easiest things to note is how startlingly crisp the overall production is. I am amazed by how effortlessly the variety of sound-scapes used spin in, out, and around each other. The sonic depth of these songs is immense and cavernous, and the beats are well-varied, atmospheric, and unusually well-suited to the emotional contents of the songwriting.

Jason’s voice opens the track “Still Standing” in a solo tone that is organic enough for the emotional style of the delivery, yet appropriately processed enough to fit with the electronic format of the project (a balancing-act of production rarely achieved in electro-crossover projects). “I was standing at the top of the world when the news came in.” The melody sounds optimistic and downright poppy, until the beats kick in dramatically on the word “in,” proving immediately that Action’s instrumentation is not merely presented as backing-tracks for Jason’s voice, but as integral aspects of the way that the duo intends to convey the overall statement of the song, a theme that is evident throughout the record, and one of the elements that makes the album shine. As the “news” comes in, the mood is shifted on a dime from upbeat to darkly introspective. Even when a guitar part breaks into the mix that by itself sounds downright doom-esque and like it shouldn’t really work, because of the overall tonal coherency of the track, for one reason or another, it definitely does. Some of the vocal-breaks and refrain-repetitions verge closer to Chester Bennington terrain than I ever thought that I would hear Jason doing, but these work surprisingly well, even to those of us who aren’t exactly in Linkin Park’s stylistic demographic.

On the track “Talking Distant Variable,” Jason lets Action Dan take the foreground. With reverb-drenched piano-lines and textural beat-crescendos, there’s definitely a bit of an Air/ Thievery Corporation down tempo vibe going on. Things get a tad muddy when the vocals try to force harder-edged choruses from the depths of the over-arching chill-out-session, with the sudden addition of guitars that are well executed, but a bit over-played and over-stated in the mix.

Like most indie/electronic projects, this record is not lacking for a couple of dancier groove-based moments. The most thoroughly funky track, and the outfit’s most complete foray into indie-dance-electro, is “The Night is Alive,” which is driven by an infectious bass hook and googly-synth modulation, and features a refreshing tenderness that is not often tapped in this format. It reminds me a bit of something in between a more-organic Postal Service and a more-upbeat One AM Radio, with a melody hook that calls to mind the Folk Implosion’s “Natural One.”

“I Am Gone” sounds utterly lush and emotionally rich, in an extremely cinematic way, featuring string-pads that interplay well with piano tinkling and vocal harmonies adeptly manipulated to fade in and out of the bright, breezy (yet lonely) fields of orchestration. This is the track on which I can hear the most evident footprints of Portishead, the band that Action Dan cites first in his list of influences (a reference that I’m personally pleased with, as anyone who recalls related past reviews and fan-geekery I’ve posted may recall).

The record runs the mood-scape gamut. “Phase and Cancelled” features trippy sonic experimentation, and elements of Pink Floyd, Atari Teenage Riot, Collide, Ladytron, and Metropolis Records fodder all come to mind at various moments in the track. On the other end of the spectrum, “In the Distance“, begins with Jason playing a sentimental acoustic song over washes of nature-sounds, building into a solid groove with more of the lush orchestration and soothing vocal textures that these guys do so well, with a bit of a Death Cab For Cutie vibe.

Overall, I can see any of these songs working extremely well on a vast stylistic variety of film soundtracks, and in this regard the record reminds me a bit of Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine.” If for no other reason (as I can’t claim that it sounds terribly similar or bears the same sort of aesthetic) but that the songs off of that record fit in just as appropriately within the myriad of different sorts of films that employed them. As the cinematic nature of its overall sound would require, this record’s moody diversity manages to transcends the somewhat overplayed format that it otherwise might be perceived to fall within. “A Dream Awakening” reminds us of the original purpose of this collaborative trend; if indie-musicians and electro-wizards are doing really interesting things on their own, why wouldn’t a combination of the two prove interesting? On this record, it definitely does.