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Cex – Maryland Mansions

Maryland Mansions is an overly ambitious outing that makes for one painful listening experience.

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It is difficult to categorize Rjyan Kidwell’s music because of its ambiguous beats and burly vocals. It lives and thrives somewhere between the vast wastelands of rap-rock and the ways of industrial music. The last few years have brought Kidwell’s perplexing music mild popularity within the indie scene having shared tour dates with the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and The Roots. After numerous releases since 1998, he returns to the scene with Maryland Mansions.

Echoing waves of soft chords quickly followed by rich, driving mechanized beats are the sounds that open up Cex’s latest release. This is quite the unassuming beginning to an album filled with thick throbs and harsh vocals. The track “Drive Off A Mountain” has Kidwell’s voice sounding somewhat similar to Everlast, until of course, he starts screaming. The ambience and slow, soft natured vocals that the track begins with fades as thumping strikes and rabid screams capture the setting. The entire album can be summed up in this sudden transfer of intensity. While this shift is a welcomed release from the slow, overly repetitious beginning of the song, it still lacks substance; seemingly replacing it with distortion and screams. It’s sad to say that “Drive Off A Mountain” was the only track that evoked even the slightest bit of interest.

The second track, “Stop Eating”, begins with a beat that sounds as if it were born in the eighties but happened to find its way here. This backbone is the only good thing about “Stop Eating” and as soon as he begins to “rap” I was reminded of a Vanilla Ice/Linkin Park union and this is never a good thing. Think rap/rock by way of Fred Durst and Linkin Park as played against an industrial backdrop and you’re nearly there. The lyrics are insipid despite his obvious effort to create something personal and honest. “I want to make a record instead of taking drugs …” it simply reeks of somebody trying too hard to write something meaningful. The album just seems empty, the tracks are mostly forgettable, and the only thing I can think of when listening to this album is “Why is this considered good by many current artists?”

Maryland Mansions is an overly ambitious outing that makes for one painful listening experience. Maybe some can see through the dreadfully vapid lyrics and strained vocal delivery to somehow find something that defines worth, but I came up empty handed.

(Jade Tree Records)

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Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die

Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter

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At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.

Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.

The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.

The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.

Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.

(Wiretap Records)

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Fences – Failure Sculptures

Failure Sculptures is a steady outing

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Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.

“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.  

“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.

This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.

(GRNDVW)

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