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The Fiery Furnaces, Wheat, Drug Rug, Trevor Hall and Bad Boy Bill

By Brian Baker · July 28th, 2009 · I Shall Be Released

Whatever you think of their music, you have to give The Fiery Furnaces style points. Currently on a pace to release 10 albums by the band’s 10th anniversary next year (one of the band’s stated goals, in fact), primary Furnaces Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger are working diligently on Silent Record, a non-music music release, essentially a book of lyrics and notation detailing the band’s new songs. That’s the kind of wacknoodle spirit that has permeated every Fiery Furnaces release in varying degrees since the Friedberger siblings vaulted into the Indie consciousness with 2003‘s Gallowsbird’s Bark.

So the relative straightforward and simple arrangements and ideas on the Furnaces’ latest album, I’m Going Away, is slightly disconcerting for fans of the band’s more esoteric Indie Pop excursions. Of course, I’m Going Away is straightforward as concocted by the Friedbergers so there’s no danger of any of this showing up on an episode of One Tree Hill anytime soon.

The album’s frenetically twisted title cut opens the set, an almost traditional Blues tune envisioned as a swinging Pop number by a combination of the Violent Femmes and Captain Beefheart in his more whimsically commercial moments. “Drive to Dallas” blends an almost loungey Jazz/Pop melancholy with furiously hypercaffeinated breaks that further suggest the Femmes/Beefheart cacophony, while “The End Is Near” sports a ’70s vibe that sounds like Bob James doing his version of Brian Eno. “Even in the Rain” has the feel of Bryan Ferry’s Dylan tangents.

I’m Going Away swings and squirms in varying degrees of all of this, tied together by Eleanor Friedberger’s amazing non-sequiter lyrics (“Ray Bouvier made me shoot the shoe/He won the local lottery and took us out/We put a barricade down the middle of the bed/But that didn’t stop me from looking down the barrel”) and a sound that preserves The Fiery Furnaces’ absurdist sonic sense of humor while making slight inroads toward a greater accessibility.

[Note: The Fiery Furnaces play a free concert on Fountain Square Aug. 7 as part of the MidPoint Indie Summer series.]

Over the past dozen-plus years, Wheat has been one of the most consistently good Indie Pop bands on the scene. Its early work (1998’s Mederios, 1999’s Hope and Adams) showed the band to be sonically ambitious in a low-key frame of mind. Wheat’s major label foray, 2003’s Per Second, Per Second, Per Second ... Every Second, was an uncompromised extension of all that had come before it. Even the band’s last outing, the largely improvisational Every Day I Said a Prayer for Kathy and Made a One Inch Square was a wonderfully flawed version of Wheat’s aspirations and accomplishments.

With Wheat’s latest, White Ink, Black Ink, frontman Steve Levesque channels the emotion and grief of his father’s passing in 2008 into one of the finest albums of the band’s already excellent catalog. Just as eel’s Mark Everett turned his pain over his mother’s cancer diagnosis and his sister’s suicide into the exquisite melancholy pop of Electro-Shock Blues, Levesque and drummer Brendan Harney (all that remains of Wheat at this point) have crafted a beautifully poignant elegy that shimmers with tremulous Pop energy and quivers with melancholy reflection.

Levesque delivers his vocals with a passionate pain only hinted at on previous releases and Harney’s turns at the mic are tentative and slightly off kilter, but both are tapping into the same well of emotion with different but highly effective results. Musically, Levesque and Harney stew up a sonic gumbo that’s like a family’s handed down, unwritten recipe; a dash of Polyphonic Spree (“Living 2 Die, Dying 2 Live”), a pinch of Beach Boys (“If Everything Falls Together”), a sprinkle of Chuck Prophet (“Changes Is”), a bit of eels (“El Sincero”) and a hint of Beatles throughout.

Levesque’s guitar spirals and soars but it’s Harney that gives White Ink, Black Ink its fascinating atmosphere, providing beat-skipping syncopation behind the drums and a lilting presence behind the keyboards. Levesque and Harney do what they please and what pleases them, and past and present efforts provide equal evidence that no matter where the duo steps next, it will be a step in the Wheat direction.

Married couple/bandmates Tommy Allen and Sarah Cronin may have started Drug Rug in the intellectually formidable confines of Cambridge, Mass., but they’re California dreaming through a gauzy haze of muted Pop psychedelia and partly sunny harmonies that hint at the darker side of the ’60s/’70s surf and sand sound. Drug Rug taps into a broad range of the quirkier aspects of SoCal Pop and Roll — remember, the area that nurtured The Byrds and The Beach Boys also hatched mutant Rock spawn like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.

On Drug Rug’s sophomore album, Paint the Fence Invisible, Allen and Cronin (and intermittent bandmates Julian Cassanetti and Carter Tanton) envision a lilting Pop sound that melds the psychedelic campfire singalongs of Beachwood Sparks with the off-kilter Pop splendor of The Turtles, the propulsive Rock pulse of The New Pornographers, the Folk magnificence of Mamas and the Papas, and all of it directed by the oblique strategies of a beach-blanketed Brian Eno. “Haunting You” has the jaunty and ironic feel of a lost Timbuk 3 track translated by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, while “Don’t Be Frightened” sounds like an acid-washed mash-up of Shonen Knife, the New Porns and Spanky & Our Gang and “Coffee in the Morning” imagines John and Michelle Phillips Indie-fied in My Morning Jacket’s studio barn. At just over 32 minutes, Drug Rug’s only sin on Paint the Fence Invisible is omission. More, please and soon.

Trevor Hall’s eponymous major label debut would be an amazing accomplishment even if it was just your garden-variety first album by your standard 22-year-old. But there is absolutely nothing ordinary about Hall. The South Carolinian was playing and writing music early on; for his 15th birthday, Hall’s father gave him time in his friend’s recording studio, resulting in Hall’s first album. The following year, Hall attended L.A.’s Idyllwild School for the Arts, eventually leading him to relocate to California after graduation. Hall had already signed with Geffen by then, but the reorganizing label dropped him after releasing a four-song EP. Undaunted, Hall recorded This is Blue, an acoustic album with percussionist Chris Steele, and self-released it.

Clearly Hall’s Vanguard bow is fueled by his reverence for Bob Marley, but Reggae and its patron saint are just one component of Hall’s overall sonic pastiche. There are certainly moments when Hall is at one with the spirit of Marley, particularly on “Many Roads” and “Who You Gonna Turn To,” but Hall is never simply trying on fashionable genres to craft his sound of many colors. Instead, he stands as a masterful synthesis of Pop, Electronica, Folk and Soul with a rich vein of Reggae running straight through the center of it all.

At first blush, a number of cross currents swirl through Hall’s work; Nick Drake’s quietude in “Lime Tree,” Dave Matthews’ exuberance in “Internal Heights,” G. Love’s loose-limbed funk in “31 Flavors,” Coldplay’s ethereal Rock bombast in “Volume” and Ziggy Marley’s Pop spin on his father’s legacy in “Where’s the Love.” Regardless of who or what he ultimately considers influences, once Hall exerts his own powers of spirituality, positivity and joy on the material, you’re not just hearing an artist named Trevor Hall, you might just be hearing a genre that could bear the same name.

If you’re America’s favorite DJ, the co-founder of the Internet’s most visited site for dance music downloads and the mastermind behind the best selling Dance compilation series ever (five volumes of Bangin’ the Box), there’s really just one frontier left to conquer: Become the artist that all other DJs are spinning during their sets. If Bad Boy Bill’s golden touch follows him into the performing arena, it will just be another notch on his already intricately carved belt.

It would seem he’s well on his way. “Falling Anthem,” the first single from Bill’s debut as an artist, titled simply The Album, is already in the Top 10 of Billboard‘s Dance chart. Like a good deal of The Album, “Falling Anthem” features Bill’s patented Electronic pulse applied to an infectious R&B/Pop tune sung with husky Pink-tinged abandon by Alyssa Palmer. Palmer is an evocative presence on The Album in her quartet of winsome vocal appearances, particularly on Bill’s reimagined and adrenalized version of her own “If I Tell You” and the Dance-classic-in-waiting, “Do What U Like.”

Elsewhere, Bill turns Herbie Hancock’s landmark “Rockit” into a pure Electronic exercise in Dance/Funk, injects thumping beats into the driving guitar Pop of “Got That Feeling” (with vocals by Eric Jag) and the equally driven but slightly more soulful “Ishy” (sung by Palmer). Like his best club sets, Bill mixes atmosphere and pace on The Album; the spacey, Fergie-touched Rock Hop of “Headlock” with Johanna Phraze, the Electronic Hip Hop throb of “Bite It” featuring Ryan “Kid Infinity” Padeiro and the kitchen sink blast of the disc’s closer, the appropriately titled “Don’t Stop.” The Album confirms Bad Boy Bill’s formidable skills as an acclaimed spinner but signals his new role as a gifted Dance music artist in his own right.



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