Conniption Fits – A Heaping Helping of Perspective

picture-12When it comes to trios, there’s power and finesse. “A Heaping Help of Perspective” marks the Conniption Fits’ first outing as a three-piece (guitarist Tuck Stocking left after 2006’s “Airplane Rides”), and fortunately, they opted for the latter.

For their second album, the Fairlee-based band eschew crushing chords for tasteful guitar figures and expert singing, while resisting the temptation to overproduce, trusting a well-oiled core unit do its work.

Don’t get me wrong – the record is not without punch and swagger.  You’d expect nothing less from a band that made their bones satiating bar patrons hungry for Foo Fighters and Gin Blossoms covers. Heck, guitarist Stevens Blanchard alone has been at it for half his life.

It just doesn’t need to beat listeners over the head to prove that it rocks.

Examples?  The roiling “Game of Grace,” which opens like a power pop version of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”  Or “Grit Your Teeth,” with a middle bridge evocative of “Synchronicity,” a runaway train of a song done by perhaps the finest finesse trio of them all, the Police.

The best moments come when guitarist Stevens Blanchard, drummer Seth Roya and bass player Erik Von Geldern blend modern angst with Big 80’s gusto.  This Weezer meets Def Leppard formula is evident on the perfectly executed “Get Off.”   The track features reggae-rock interludes mixed with lush three-part harmonies (all the band members sing, and there’s nary an overdub).

The record’s short – just 8 songs total, but it’s 30 minutes of real chemistry, self-produced with no sidemen.  For the most part, it has precision without sounding labored, spontaneity without feeling too loose.  The energy level never flags (there’s only one ballad, the dreamy, disc-ending “Time Remains”), and there’s a constant sense that these guys thoroughly enjoy playing together.

“Willing To Try Again” succeeds where the overly frenetic “(She Just Needs to Go) Away” fails, going from a whisper to a scream with poise and nuance.  Despite somewhat clumsy lyrics (“I need a crutch and one that’s not worn down” – huh?), this is also true on “Come Undone (Only Me to Blame)” – a close contender with “Get Off” for the record’s best track.

The song starts out teasing at being a ballad, then riffs a bit of rock and reggae (the album’s Police homage tendencies becomes clear with the liner notes, which thank Sting and Messrs. Copeland and Summers by name).  In between jazz-tinged drum runs and juicy guitar jangle, it soars into rock and roll heaven.

Whether consumed a la carte or by the whole disc, “A Heaping Helping of Perspective” is a delicious platter of music. The record is available on iTunes, CD Baby and the band’s web site, with select tracks streaming on MySpace.

Upcoming Conniption Fits appearances:

Jun 13 2009      The Woodstock Inn     Woodstock, NH
Jul 11 2009     The Woodstock Inn     Woodstock, NH
Jul 17 2009     Connecticut Valley Fair     Bradford, VT
Sep 4 2009     Derryfield Country Club     Manchester, NH
Oct 10 2009     Shenanigans         White River Junction, VT

Stonewall – What If? Worth The Wait

Over the last four-plus years, Stonewall’s live shows earned them a reputation as one of the hardest rocking outfits around.  They are quite literally the band to beat, as several “battle of the bands” contestants left in their musical dust can well attest.  But it’s taken until now for Stonewall to commit their energetic hybrid of metal and melody to disc.

Solid from start to finish, “What If?” was definitely worth the wait.  The fuzz-toned opener, “Blessing For Pearls,” rips a page from Zeppelin and blends it with post-millennial angst.  “Janitor Man” will invite Alice in Chains comparisons – deservedly so.  Lead guitarist and vocalist Josh Parker’s baritone hovers just above a growl.

“Vengeance” is a good example of Stonewall’s hard-edged melodic style.  The 8-minute track begins in a flurry of heavy metal bullets. It then crosses over a polyrhythmic structure featuring a few speedy guitar figures from Parker, before settling into a blistering boogie.

Make no mistake, while most of the record rocks, it’s never buried in sturm und drang.   This thematically dark “Masculincense” (Parker may have wrote it after a night of old Nine Inch Nails videos) churns and roils, then ends with a tasty blues progression.

“Comatoasted” is reminiscent of Primus, another 90’s power trio.  It’s a ride that starts slow and turns into a runaway train.  “Your Sweet Intents” achieves the same energy, showcasing Ryan Young’s staccato drumming and featuring one of Parker’s meatiest solos.

Young and six-string bassist Philip Chiu are a brawny rhythm section throughout, but the duo also bring a gentle touch to the record’s quieter moments.  These include the Stone Temple Pilots dead ringer “Grain,” with Parker majestically soloing at song’s end.  The snarky power ballad “Straight White Teeth,” a Stonewall live staple for about as long as they’ve been playing, makes the move from stage to studio with aplomb.

Speaking of Stonewall standards, it’s a mystery why the punched-up rocker “Hearing Loss” didn’t make it on to “What If?”  Maybe the band is saving it for a future EP.

If they’re reminiscent of anyone, it’s bands whose heyday came long before anyone in the band was born.  The James Gang, Mountain and Three Man Army – the youngsters in Stonewall may not know these relics by name, but be assured their spirit lives in their music.

It’s essential to note the production team that shepherded “What If?” through its’ nearly two year journey to completion.  Early on, Shamus Martin worked with the band at Exsubel Studios, mixing them and helping them find a polished studio sound without sacrificing their live edge.

The production credit, however, goes to the late Doug Bashaw. Committing a power trio to tape – or these days, digital bits – can be a delicate balancing act.  Bashaw added enough studio magic – guitar bags, phased vocals, SFX – to make the record more than simply a document of a great live band, but not at the expense of Stonewall’s essence.

Stonewall CD Release Party

All Ages Show
Saturday, October 4, 7 PM
Claremont Moose Lodge
Tickets $10

Featuring:

Stonewall
Gravity Response
Broken Mindz
Spectris
DJ Staxx

Aloud – Fan the Fury

The second album from Boston quartet Aloud gives fans of hard-edged harmony plenty to sink their teeth into. As the title suggests, it’s packed with twentysomething rage, but it also brims with flourishes and crescendos.

“Sometimes I Feel Like A Vampire” establishes the record’s mood early on. “I can’t smile with a straight face,” sings Henry Beguiristain, “let’s go on the offensive.” Beguiristain told an interviewer recently that with “Fan the Fury,” Aloud was aiming for something that people would either love or hate.

They succeeded.

There’s not much middle ground, and that’s a good thing. “Fan the Fury” is an election year record. “Nero” laments that “a witch hunt or inquisition can be disguised as patriotism” while the title cut is a hard-charging anthem that blends tart, bruised youth lyrics (“there’s a burning in my belly, in my wallet, and my head”) with wall of sound production from Chuck Brody (Northern State, Yoko Ono).

Even seemingly tender songs show their teeth. The two lovers of “Hard Up in the 2000’s” gaze into each other’s eyes because they’re too poor to do anything else. Beguiristain and Jen de la Oso, who’ve been writing together since high school, contributed all of the lyrics, with the music credited to the entire band. Sentimentality is for fools in this here and now, they seem to be saying. If anything, as one of the record’s more frenetic songs puts it, it’s the “Battle of Love.”

“Julie,” “The Last Time” and “Back to the Wall” are dominated by Beguiristain and de la Osa’s world-weary vocals, reminiscent of the John Doe/Exene Cervenka’s tandem in X. But for all the raw punk energy infusing the music, it’s really all about the hooks.

After all, you can’t start a revolution without a memorable chorus. You’ll find yourself singing along by the second verse of half the album’s songs. “You Got Me Wrong” borrows the syncopated hand clapping of the Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” but still manages to find its own bright, jangly soul. “Murder Will Out” is similarly infectious, both for the U2/Slash guitar sampling and de la Osa’s throaty singing.

Inventive tempo changes and quirky word play keep “Fan The Fury” from simply becoming another power pop record. The band plays with more purpose than it did on “Leave Your Light On,” their 2006 debut. Their energy more than matches their live shows, something area fans can witness for themselves when Aloud travels to the Upper Valley later this summer.

Kelly Clarkson – My December

clarkson.jpgFor all the controversy surrounding this record, you’d think Kelly Clarkson had released “Metal Machine Music.”  It does have a Seventies feel to it, but “My December” isn’t kin to Lou Reed’s notorious 45 minutes of droning feedback.  When it works, it’s a straight-up rocker Pat Benetar wouldn’t be ashamed of. 

Patty Larkin once said, “don’t’ piss off a songwriter,” and here’s a good example of why.  This is a seething work; aided by punk hero Mike Watt (Minutemen) and co-producer Jimmy Messer’s slashing guitar work, the music’s as edgy as the subject matter.  The jilted mistress of “Never Again” is the same one who later snarls, “I don’t’ want to hear about your wonderful life” in “How I Feel.” 
“Hole” spews more bile on this ex-boyfriend, who appears to be the record’s primary songwriting inspiration, while the bonus track “Dirty Little Secret” sounds lifted from the Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls.”

When she’s angry, this record’s a joy.  Though only an EP’s worth; “My December” is ultimately an erratic effort.  Clarkson should have stuck to rocking out, and avoided the indulgence of ballads like “Irvine” and “Sober” – though the latter is a worthy showcase for the “American Idol” winner’s ample vocal talents.

Jonatha Brooke – Careful What You Wish For

brookecd.jpgCD Review

Jonatha Brooke channels her inner Todd Rundgren in an effort that’s worlds removed from her folksinger roots, though her busker humor is always in evidence.

“I was so naïve,” she chuckles on the title track (and album opener), plucking out a distracted guitar progression, before shifting to dense, majestic pop. It’s a record that reveals more texture with each listen.

Brooke made the smart choice to call on producer Bob Clearmountain, who worked with her on “10 Cent Wings” and “Steady Pull.” Traces of the soundboard wizard’s work with Simple Minds and Aimee Mann are in evidence, particularly on “Forgiven,” which alternately crunches and caresses the listener.

“Keep The River on Your Right,” co-written with Nick Lachey, smolders with soul, while the wordplay-rich “Hearsay” (“there’s hearsay/then there’s hearing you say that she’s leaving”) is the record’s highlight.

Brooke hasn’t completely forsaken the calliope folk-pop she did with the Story. “Never Too Late For Love” and “After The Tears” are good examples. But with “I’ll Leave The Light On,” she only nibbles at the edges of that early sound; as with “”Baby Wait,” she wraps spare pieces in full-bodied rhythm.

When she sings with a sneer, “tell me the story again/the one where I find my way home in the end,” on “Prodigal Daughter,” it’s clear that while there may be echoes of the past, for Brooke there’s no looking back.

That’s a good thing; the buffed and muscular “Careful What You Wish For” is Jonatha Brooke’s “Something/Anything?” – and one of the year’s best.

 

“Children Running Through” – Patty Griffin’s Long Winter Journey

griffinsml.jpgTime, inexorably passing and gratefully savored, informs much of Patty Griffin’s latest effort, Children Running Through. Fittingly, it arrives amidst this season’s coldest days. Throughout the 12-song collection (13 when purchased through iTunes), it’s winter – for broken bodies and beaten souls. World-weary resignation courses through this, Griffin’s fifth and most fully realized record, and colors the chilly landscape of slow buses, empty fields and sinking vessels like flinty clouds.

Fans of every phase of Griffin’s 11-year recording career will find something to like here, from the raw acoustic folk of her earliest work to the lush arrangements on 2004’s Impossible Dream. Often, the elements come together in a single song. “No Bad News” opens with busker guitar and ends a Calypso romp, while the Dylanesque “Getting Ready” hints at the stark, percolating fury of Living With Ghosts, then shifts into a loose garage band sound familiar to anyone who’s heard a leaked Internet copy of Silver Bell, her unreleased masterpiece.

There are gentler moments, such as “You’ll Remember,” a sultry torch song that opens the disc, and the spare, nostalgic piano ballad, “Burgundy Shoes.” Griffin and producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon) again recruit Americana grand dame Emmylou Harris to sing backup to stunning effect. Framed by elegiac guitar, Harris’s brittle, beautiful voice perfectly complements “Trapeze,” the tale of an aging circus performer who has loved, lost and even taken a potion to harden her heart, yet still works without a net.

“Trapeze” is a perfect distillation of the storytelling magic heard in earlier works like “Making Pies” and “Top of the World.” It’s destined to be one she’s singing 20 years from now, and make no mistake – people will pay to experience Griffin’s timeless magic even then. For more than any songwriter, Patty Griffin crafts her music the way Shakers make chairs, seamlessly joined and breathtaking in their durable beauty.

Griffin’s songs are as lean as her frail physique, yet powerful as the train at the center of “Railroad Wings.” “There are things you don’t know you know,” observes Griffin over a lazy guitar cadence, coming to wisdom by song’s end: “as far as I can tell everything means nothing/except some things that mean everything.” Such small, beautiful jewels are everywhere on this record.

The “children running through” this disc would bury Griffin or worse, reduce her to irrelevancy. “I’m no kid/In a kid’s game,” she laments at one point, a moment later waiting to “send the ghosts on their way/tell them they’ve had their day” in “Someone Else’s Tomorrow.”

But Griffin echoes each funereal moment with one of fierce determination. On the gospel-fueled “Heavenly Day,” she sings, “tomorrow may rain with sorrow/here’s a little time we can borrow,” with the spirited abandon of a young Aretha Franklin. Throughout, she wrestles hope from her darkest moments. In “I Don’t Ever Give Up,” she states defiantly, “I’m not clean/but I’m not washed up.”

Hardly. This record probably won’t get much radio airplay, and may be completely ignored by a youth culture that consumes music like Pop-Tarts. But Children Running Through will be passed, hand-to-hand, among the gray believers who know that, as the final track (“Crying Over”) intones, “in all of this dreaming of silver and gold/is something to break this winter so cold.”