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Shotstar – What the Hell is Rock N’ Roll?

Shotstar can take comfort in the notion that if they handed their CD over to a certain face painted, leather wearing, merchandise whoring, tongue wagging front man; he’d probably give it a “thumbs up”.

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Shotstar pose an interesting question; one that the throngs of highly paid A&R/label head/fat cat folks across the globe seem unable to answer. What the hell is rock n’ roll? Is it the gyrating hips of Elvis or the wagging tongue of Gene Simmons? Is it Angus Young’s too short shorts or that pretentious flair those wacky Swedes are famous for? Unfortunately I don’t have the answer to that and neither to do the lads of Shotstar; who are seemingly lost in their incursion into “hazardous-for-career” territory. But before you discount this as simply answered questions, take this out for another spin and it’s highly likely that there will be some hip gyrating and tongue wagging to be had.

It takes a few listens but those sweet Weezer “woah woah woahs” found during “Tied to the Tracks” and the chocky rhythmic lumps of “Deadline” are as infectious as a hapless drunk partygoer at Mardi Gras. Vocalist Andrew Taillole appears to be vehement about his savvy rock influences, vocally resulting in a freak mutation of Gene Simmons and a cargo load full of power pop singers. Listening to his monotone dithering and guitar heavy leanings in “Class of ‘74”, you are swashed with weird hallucinatory montages of the 70’s and black spandex pants (don’t ask).

One of the album’s alluring qualities is its welcomed tendency not to labor through the songs. While the tracks are lengthy enough (averaging about 3.20 each), they ooze a certain “understanding” – as if the band recognizes that they aren’t all that good, but they’re going to have fun anyway. Pop sensible melodies and happy-go-lucky-mop-top-Beatlesque playfulness aside, Shotstar boasts a certain modern characteristic; it results in a passable partnership when teamed with their “retro-fixation”. While their work is calculated and innocuous, it is overflowing with sharp kooky fun-filled ennui.

Yes, I understand the contradictory nature of the previous sentence, but take the track “Slowdriver” as a model: rock heavy guitar twanging, bittersweet vocal work, cushy hand clapping, meager lyrics (“Her flight comes in at nine / and I’ll make sure that I’m on time / [import] her to my town / cause I ain’t got plans to settle down”) and a distinct bordering of 70’s rock with modern melody – a routine that has been done more times than Pamela Des Barres – and you get an adequate dose of passé merriment.

Oh, it seems we may never know the answer to the question; our musical landscape will forever drudge through the piles of hackneyed trends who are briefly labeled as the flag bearers of rock n’ roll. But as we trudge through it with everyone else, musicians who exude model naiveté like Shotstar can take comfort in the notion that if they handed their CD over to a certain face painted, leather wearing, merchandise whoring, tongue wagging front man; he’d probably give it a “thumbs up”.

(Down Fall Records / Sunset Alliance)

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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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