An Interview with Safety First Records

Once upon a time, the term ‘indie’ described a philosophy rather than a genre and an indie label meant a way of doing things, not an identifiable sound. Xanthi Barker meets the people behind Safety First Records, a passionate attempt to live up to the ideals that come with independence

The night before Guy Fawkes’, as 2011 drew to a close, a hundred or so people gathered in a scaffold-built amphitheatre in a converted warehouse in Hackney Wick for the launch of Safety First Records. The obscure location, the cold, damp night, the autumn leaves scattered across the stage, all added up to something unusual, eery, spiritual. And the musicians did not disappoint. For two hours the audience sat in silence as each act wove another strand into a beautifully composed tapestry of authentic musical expression.

Born of the need for artistic independence and a feeling of being musical misfits, Safety First provides a base for artists who by essence may go undetected by major labels. Three of Safety First form the core members of Klak Tik, a band whose debut album Must We Find a Winner, was released on Safety First in 2010, to critical acclaim. Subsequently, they have released the five-star second album, Copenhagen from singer-songwriter Jack Cheshire, Swedish duo Polly Tones’, second EP The Toast, and the debut album, Ethereo by Danish group, Hanuman 5.

Currently, Safety First are nearing the end of their three-month residency at The Gladstone Arms in Borough. The final concert will be on Sunday 1st April, with Klak Tik and Felix Holt.

Felix Holt
Felix Holt

When and why did you start Safety First Records?

John Beyer: Safety First Records was started in early 2010. Søren, Matt and myself were at the tail end of the process of creating Klak Tik’s debut album and were starting to think a little about how it was going to be released. The album was made as independently as possible. The idea of recording when we wished, with no constraints from others, was an absolute must to create the album that we did. The idea of spending time searching for a label and trashing out a contract seemed so contradictory to the recording process that we decided to do that ourselves as well. Using the knowledge we’d gleaned releasing records for previous musical venues, the core members of Klak Tik took our first step into the unknown world of business and created Safety First Records. All in all, this first release was a success and just about a bearable workload.

Things then progressed very organically. We’d come to realise London isn’t the answer to all a musician’s dreams, and could be, in fact, a slight hindrance. There is no real sense of community and musicians fight for survival rather than help each other out. So we decided to turn Safety First Records into a platform for our friends and kindred musical spirits to release their work and hopefully all benefit from any success.

So is there a common thread running through all the acts you have signed?

Matt Mitchinson: In essence, it is just music that we love to listen to. Through playing in Klak Tik, we get to see and play alongside a lot of great artists, but every now and then you chance upon someone whose music is so good that it takes you to that place you almost stopped believing existed, and satisfies, elevates, or wounds you in a way that only music can. So far that’s how the relationships have started.

On top of that I think all of our artists have something in common stylistically. This probably has a lot to do with personal taste, but it’s also to do with their music not necessarily fitting precisely into any established ‘scene’. It’s part of our aim to build up a community and make sure we don’t just slip through the genre cracks.

You said that the artists take you to a place you almost stopped believing existed – does this imply that you are disillusioned with many successful (or unsuccessful) bands and artists that are around today?

Matt: To be honest, yes, although I’m always loath to say so as it can come across a bit negative, or worse, superior. The musical and commercial structures these days mean that to be a successful artist, or to be supported or promoted to a given level, you have to represent a calculable and pretty much guaranteed return on investment, which is never a good environment for artistic evolution. This idea is mirrored in the film industry with the fourteenth remake of Spiderman 8 or what have you.

The internet and the advent of social media does go a long way to diluting the power of major labels. It’s a much-touted axiom that these days someone’s music can be heard by anyone, anywhere, regardless of their budget or connections, and this is for the most part true. But this has also led to a saturation, and to people’s dependency on computers as a primary method of listening to and discovering music (myself included). Consequently, people’s attention spans have shortened and the internet has become a breeding ground for gimmicks. This is at a cost to music that requires a bit more effort on behalf of the listener, but also offers proportionate rewards.

In relation to being taken to that special place by the Safety First artists, that comes from a love of their music, not a disappointment with everything else. Even with an absolute abundance of great music around, there’s still room for those rare moments when you find something particularly special.

Do you think it is harder for artists who don’t fit into a specific genre?

Matt: It just makes it harder to locate your audience really – for instance with Klak Tik, we’ve found we’re not folk enough for most folk circles, but are definitely not appropriate for a loud indie night. So satisfying gigs, and I guess also publicity, are harder to come by.

Your artists could be described as folk/alternative folk, how do you think they fit into the current folk landscape in London (or not at all…)?

Matt: As above, I think all the artists share our dilemma, hence why we’re trying to establish something ourselves. I’m not sure whether this is an accurate observation, or it’s just my awareness that has increased, but it seems that the number and range of ‘folk’ promoters and gigs has been increasing, especially around East London, where we’re based. But again because the musical spectrum for that term is so large, you’re never quite sure what it entails. Whatever you label it though, I think music of a quieter nature is getting more of a showing these days, which is something we’re very keen to be involved in.

Can you tell me a bit about the artists you’ve signed?

Matt: I think listening to their music will offer the best insight into that. I fear my descriptions wouldn’t do them justice. On a personal level though they’re all, strangely, really lovely people, which I suppose is pretty important for the way things work.

Maybe you can tell me about their Safety First releases instead?

Matt: Our first release after our initial Klak Tik album was Jack Cheshire’s sophomore full-length Copenhagen. It’s an absolutely fantastic album. One of our first experiences of Jack’s music was when he opened for us at our Must We Find A Winner album launch and I can still remember the frustration at being stuck in the green room warming up whilst hearing these gorgeous songs wafting through. We feel honoured that we could be involved in releasing those songs to a wider audience. He has another album in the works right now, a few songs of which we heard at the Safety First label launch night, so we’re very, very excited to hear that in it’s entirety.

We released Polly Tones’ EP The Toast in November last year, as part of the label launch night, but they also have their debut album in the pipeline. Viktor and Mal are currently going through the puzzling and oft-times painful process of mixing the album themselves but we have heard one of the mastered tracks already and it sounds fucking great so I’m sure they, and anyone who gets to hear the result, will be duly rewarded.

A couple of weeks ago was our first release for Hanuman 5. The album is called Ethereo. It keeps getting better and better every time I listen to it, and I liked it a lot the first time! It has been described as ‘weirdfolk’ and ‘freakfolk’, but whatever the style it’s a really, really great record (if more than mildly alarming at times, on first listen, which I won’t spoil by explaining why).

As for Felix, we just can’t wait to release some of his music, and I think we’d collectively give up our firstborns to do so. A Felix Holt record is something my stereo and ears are eagerly anticipating and it looks like we might be getting closer with some of the recordings he’s just made.

We also have the much anticipated (by us and our mums at least) second Klak Tik album coming out, before summer hopefully. So far we’ve got about five of the tracks back from Mark, the poor man in charge of mixing the album, and after a long period of slight disillusionment with the process it is extremely exciting to hear the nearly finished product. We have (almost) settled on an album title now, which, although it took eight months and a few too many counselling sessions to decide on, helps to make everything that bit more concrete.

Jack Cheshire
Jack Cheshire

How does the actuality of starting a record label compare to how you imagined it would be?

Søren Bonke: Starting a record label is the easiest thing in the world – particularly whilst enjoying a nice, cold pint (and not the first one) in the company of good friends. Later it gets a bit more involved. If there is one thing we are constantly having to re-learn, it is that stuff doesn’t tend to get itself done. We meet roughly once a week and set tons of tasks, most of which get completed the next morning, some of which become glowing symbols that procrastination can be shared between people.

Most things involved in running a record label seem fairly straight forward, though I think we benefit hugely from the previous business experience each of us brings to the table.

Previous business experience is unusual amongst musicians, no? What kind of experience do you mean?

Søren: Previous business experience among musicians is probably not as unusual as you would think. It is, however, probably not something most musicians would want to stick on their band bios – ‘Søren Bonke: guitarist, singer, dentist’.

We all still work our day-jobs, and nothing suggests that this will change any time soon. John works for a live music organiser/promoter, which has its benefits for the label, although not as many as you would imagine. John is, disappointingly, very careful not to give us any unfair ‘advantages’. I say – the first rule of nepotism: just don’t mention the word nepotism. His cotton-coated heart will be sucked dry by the industry in time, oh yes.

Matthew works for Cancer Research UK and his righteous heart pounds tirelessly for good causes, even if he sometimes has to nip off early to come play a gig. That makes me feel bad, come to think of it.

I work as a music composer for film, TV and advertising and also as a film title designer and animator. I have good experience with general design, web and video things, which is helpful for the label and the band.

Do you think it is unwise to believe you can make a living as a musician?

Søren: I think it is good to believe you can make a living as a musician. We all need to do it to an extent. Expecting to make a living as a musician would be an altogether more frustrating experience for the majority of people.

Most of us are not going to make a living off music, but we should all aim to do so. I mean, you can’t really put in the kind of effort that it takes to push a band forward without the powerful petrol of faith. A belief that the next album will be the one that changed everything is essential, perhaps even for the song writing in some cases.

Conversely it is important to be happy with the stage you are at, as well. Sometimes the dreams of the US tour bus cruising down the All-American Road, or European summer festivals with mountains of chorizo on the rider, can make the bus journey on a packed 149 down to London Bridge a little sour. Then it is important to remember to focus on the music. The music is what will make you happy, not those other things. It is too hot in Spain anyway. And America – don’t even get me started.

Given the current financial black-hole we are in, do you think it is a difficult time to start up a label?

Søren: Yes. Arguably it is a terrible time to start up a label. Unless, like us, you choose to largely ignore the financial aspects and focus on the musical ones. Then it is a wonderful time. There is endless good music yet to be created and heard by the world. We would like to help.

At the risk of causing a minor earthquake when all the business-heads cringe their feet at the same time, I will say that our ‘philosophy’ of just plunging in head first, seeing what happens, worrying about the finance later, is just right for us.

Spot the artists making business. If I was a mayoral candidate I would campaign against me. Probably quite successfully, as well. I know a story or two.

What difficulties do artists face with record deals from major labels?

John: When an artist releases through a major record label they have to work within a major label framework. These systems are still a little old fashioned and rely, in part, on lots of money being thrown at an artist to help boost their chance of success. Alas, this means sales figures necessary to break even (let alone make money) tend to be massive. With record sales declining by fifty percent in the last ten years, hitting this level of sales can prove difficult. So this leads to a scenario where bands are signed up, then swiftly dropped if they don’t sell enough, or if it looks like they won’t sell enough. This is especially frustrating when we are talking about 10,000 sales being viewed as a failure.

Did you have any dealings with major labels for Klak Tik before the birth of Safety First?

John: We’ve not even had as much as a sniff from a major label with Klak Tik. In a previous band we did have some interest and it was an extremely frustrating situation. A&R love a long courtship and have a wonderful way of not being committal in any form whatsoever. I think it’s because many are actually too afraid to take a risk and sign somebody, so what else can they do with their time? To be fair I’ve never been past that stage of the game, it could get easier… but I doubt it.

How good a measure of artistic merit do you think commercial success actually is?

John: I don’t. Nowadays, commercial success is a good measure of clever marketing and efficient project management. Madonna, for example, keeps having to reinvent herself to stay “current” and maintain success. In my opinion, there is no artistic merit in that, just a lot of focus groups.

If it was a good measure, then the recording industry as it stands would be redundant and we could just enjoy making music without the need for all this nonsense.

How do bigger labels view the artists and releases of smaller labels? Do you think it can be a stepping stone? Or a completely different route?

John: Once upon a time (the ’80s) I’m sure major labels didn’t care about smaller labels. They had mountains of cocaine and Phil Collins to occupy them. However, when some of the record buying public turned their back on them in favour of independent music, the big boys began to take note. Major labels then started buying up or starting smaller labels as subsidiaries to release music through, to give artists that independent smell and hopefully to ‘fool’ some of the disgruntled listeners back into purchasing (such as Sony did with Creation Records). They are now fully aware of the importance of smaller labels and still will swoop in and pinch a little act that starts making medium-sized waves.

How do you think a start-up label compares to more established independent labels in terms of attracting attention and bringing the music to a wider audience?

John: We all begin small and grow up. A label in its infancy cannot usually offer the same level of attention as a more established one. I suppose that the internet has helped level the playing field when it comes to distribution of music. An independent artist can get their music up on all the major online music retailers easily. To an extent though, it’s also just a numbers game. The more money you can afford to spend on a release, the more ground you can cover, simple as that.

How much say do you have in what the artists release?

Søren: None. That’s the idea, anyway. We have ideas. If an artist is signed to us it means that we are into their music and so will always be able to offer an opinion if asked. Generally, we like to think of our label as a music collective, rather than a label label.

Where does the music you release get sold?

Søren: Safety First releases are mainly marketed and targeted to the UK, and are available digitally in most countries, but with myself being Danish, we also have strong ties to Denmark, where Klak Tik are signed to a Danish label. Having just signed our first non-UK act, the Danish group Hanuman 5, these ties should strengthen in the future.

Can I buy Safety First releases in the shops?

Søren: We focus on digital distribution, generally, although it depends on the release. Less and less physical CD’s are flung over the counter these days. The vinyl industry, on the other hand, seems to be thriving.

What are the differences between here and Denmark in terms of musical prospects?

Søren: Being a musician in Denmark is probably not too different in terms of prospects from the UK. And this is saying a lot about Scandinavia, as London has previously been the absolute Mecca for musicians. Copenhagen has an unusually thriving music scene with more Danish bands doing well internationally than ever before. A fact, I believe, that can be largely attributed to a very healthy community of musicians, where it is more common to play in two, three or even four bands, than just the one. This causes the lines of genres to be warped and merged, broken and reconstituted, with incredible results. I am genuinely excited about the Scandinavian music scene and am almost sad to say that most of my favourite bands are not from London, but from Copenhagen.

To return to your question, I think it is also a little easier to live off your music in Scandinavia, as government subsidies, and a perhaps more general appreciation of the craft of music, means you get paid (quite well) for every gig you play, no matter how small. In London the small bands music scene is so backward. It seems the bands are almost expected to pay for playing at a venue. Or at least bring four hundred of their thirstiest friends. This is a problem which is compounded by lazy ‘gig promoters’ who just don’t really seem to care about music (or know anything about it), and will put together foul tasting cocktails of genres on the same nights and charge people way too much money for the pleasure.

How much has the download culture made it harder for musicians to make a living?

John: Making a living as a musician has always been notoriously tough and with downloads having an adverse effect on sales it now looks even tougher. However all is not lost as independent musicians seem to be constantly coming up with new ways to adapt in this changing climate.

The real damage is in the changing way we listen to music. The download culture has generally stopped us from listening to albums as a whole and hence has an effect on our musical attention span. Being given access to music instantaneously takes a lot of the magic away from the discovery of new artists and therefore has led to a perceived devaluation of recorded music.

Klak Tik
Klak Tik

From listening to the Safety First musicians, it seems they are all artists that require focused attention in order to get the most from listening. Is this something you guys look for?

John: I don’t think we look for this intentionally. It must just be to do with our music tastes. I’ve always been into slightly more progressive styles of music, which has definitely shaped the way I listen to songs. However it could also be a complete coincidence.

Do you think people should work harder when listening to music? Do you think they’re able to?

John: People should work harder finding music. I am honestly sick to death with the way we are spoon fed new music. I have a family member who only discovers new music through the X-Factor. It’s shocking. I don’t mean that we should all become music super-geeks, but that people should try to scratch the surface a bit. Dig deeper and take a chance. If you put a little effort into finding something, you’ll probably put some more effort into listening to it.

I don’t really think you can combat people’s snap judgements. Some will give an album a few listens whilst others won’t. I have had classic albums that I abandoned after the first spin and then picked up again a year later and loved (Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde for example – seriously).

Another thing I noticed at the launch night was that everyone was sat down, focused, listening. Is it harder for artists who require this kind of attention in a musical landscape that often entails alcohol and shouted conversations?

John: It’s really hard, especially if you are trying to win a new audience over. Sometimes the stars align and everybody shuts up to listen but most of the time it just doesn’t happen. You cannot blame audiences for it. When mob mentality (plus booze) kicks in, all our IQs get dragged down to the level where we feel an overwhelming desire to talk about the newest episode of The Apprentice at the least opportune moments.

With our Safety First Records launch night we tried to gear the whole evening towards considerate listening and it worked really well. Maybe more venues and promoters should aim to achieve this.

Do you think people are getting tired of the alcohol and shouted conversations? Do you think this focused attention is something people are craving?

John: They are craving it but as yet don’t know it. By the time they do, we’ll probably be into shouting again.

Malin from Polly Tones with Jack Cheshire
Malin from Polly Tones with Jack Cheshire

Do you organise Safety First shows?

Matt: Shows, plural, is a bit generous so far, but we put on the inaugural Safety First label night in November last year at The Yard in Hackney Wick. In spite of entailing a lot of hard work and some unexpected obstacles, it turned out to be a magical night. It was a lovely venue and, in front of a full house of 120 or so attentive and appreciative listeners, everyone played amazingly. It felt good to provide an opportunity for the music to be heard in an environment it’s worthy of, and hopefully we’ll be able to do more of the same in the future. Though I have to say, London doesn’t exactly make it easy for such occasions to be regularly viable, at least for a small label like ours.

We’ve also just completed the second of three monthly shows at The Gladstone Arms in Borough. Each night has been Klak Tik joined by one of the other London-based Safety First artists. In February it was Polly Tones, in March, Jack Cheshire. The last will be with Felix Holt on Sunday April 1st.

Rory, who runs the nights there, understands exactly how our music should be given and received in a live setting, so the pub has a truly lovely atmosphere. Everyone has really enjoyed the experience and it’s inspired us to continue this kind of set-up, so hopefully there’ll be more to come.

Do you have any future plans for Safety First?

Søren: No, not really. We are no masters of visualisation. To us the future is an ocean size play-pit of multi-coloured balls that we are splashing through. We don’t really set goals or expect anything particularly, but we get huge enjoyment from seeing our project grow noticeably all the time – slower than Google but faster than a tree.

What is the biggest safety hazard of being a musician and what is your advice to counteract this?

John: Late nights. I like to operate a one-night-on/one-night-off philosophy. Remember an hour’s sleep before midnight is worth two after.

Matt: Empathy and Gout. Adopting a less regal lifestyle can decrease the chances of gout, but with empathy, once the first symptoms are there, it is probably already too late.

safetyfirstrecords.co.uk

Gauge: Hustler on the Move (Aqua Boogie Records)

Brian

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Texas rapper Gauge knows how to compact syllables, but that won’t separate anyone from the current pack, especially given all the dried-up roto-tom-filled beats on this docket, the worst of which is Beat It Up, an Usher-blingy makeout number with a feat. by Miss Myke. Chicago-house (and tenuously Tupac-connected) producer Mr. Lee handled this stuff, and he adds a few phoned-in lines to two tracks Slim Thug got roped into as well, but despite any ambivalence he made sure his name was all over Shake It (Make It Bounce), being that its rumbly EBM sound has the strongest pulse of anything here. Basically it’s what you’d expect from a hiphop assembly line, which has resulted in little more than Gauge having to explain away scumbaggish booty-bagger lines, things of that sort; if you live and die for this kind of stuff there’s no reason at all to stay away from it, but pardon my snoring. Lots of B-list guests – in the widest clash of speeds, fellow Houstonian Scarface adds his mouf-fulla-hamburgers drawl to Gauge’s full-auto flame-spitting for the ballroom-twinkletoe soul of Hot Love.

Grade: B

Kiyomi: Child in Me (self-released)

Kiyomi

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Interesting little vanity release here in that it stars a Japanese-American chick from New Yawk doing an unintentional Forrest Gump routine. I’d expected jazz, but this is straight piano pop, open-hearted, almost like something you’d hear during lovey-dovey scenes in an anime cartoon, ie, believe it or not, there’s a market for it. Her voice is like Aimee Mann after taking a few Pat Benatar lessons, unadorned, doing it for the heck of it. The melodies are church-social in their limited but adamant joy, and overall, as a songwriter, she’s not bad at all, really – she kicks Rebecca Black’s ass if that helps any.

Grade: B-

Reverse The Curse: Hither and Yon (Paper+Plastic Records)

Reverse the Curse

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Take a bunch of Cleveland-burb kids who wish they were in either Airborne Toxic Event, Unsane or Thursday, let them yell, holler and flog themselves in a studio and it’d sound like this. If I’m reading their blurb sheet right they’re moving away from the indie-punk that was their original formative glue and fumbling for their inner pop stars, and that approach works for the first song (Bell Book & Candle). But this maturity gets quickly lost, as they gradually and visibly become possessed by their favorite Seether videos, and by the sixth song it’s a contest to see how ragged the singer can sound – okay, whatever, “ragged and powerful simultaneously.” It’s an admirable attempt, really; I suppose if I were in the miserable position of being 21 again and trying to add a little hard-ass credibility to my emo-pop I’d be sold on this angle (To Dig A Hole is particularly cool). And there you’d have it, integrity maintained, rock-star dreams invariably crushed.

Grade: A-

Benji Kaplan: Meditacoes no Violao (Circo Mistico Productions)

Benji Kaplan

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

New York-bred Brazil-o-phile Kaplan provides a sort of life-travelogue here, soloing nonchalantly throughout the entire album on his nylon-stringed unplugged guitar. It’s so relaxed and unhurried that it can come off as improv, and reading some of the blurbage here I believe that’s the case with some of it. No matter, of course, if you’re lazing in a hammock trying to visualize your last time on an uncrowded beach or whatever; this record’s perfect for that, asking nothing of its listenership other than to put its brains on screensaver. Slow purposeful strumming ending in speedy fractal flourishes is the core formula, little deviation to be found aside from the bouncy up-and-down Baiao rhythm in Baiao For Gershwin, the title of which hints at what Kaplan would like to be thought of, a sort of oldschool-jazz-meister with advanced knowledge of world music, but it’s perhaps best viewed as an exotic form of baroque.

Grade: A

Abyssal Creatures: Social Awkwardness (Independent Records)

Abyssal Creatures

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

A vanity release in more than one sense. Colorado kid Ian Garrett Fellerman is a lonely geek with a score to settle with jocks, chicks who read Dostoevsky, pretty much everyone of his generation, so he’s attached his own Hoobastank emo bleating to his own Postal Service-like cheese, beat it with his own out-of-place stun-guitar lines and now hopes for the best, which would be me saying that I feel his pain but kindly either take out the whiny/cheesy guitars or fix their mix levels. Obviously a bedroom project, but that doesn’t mean anything negative nowadays with bands like Salem and whatnot around; we pause to honor Fellerman’s reckoning of his place in the world (there isn’t one, nor is there one for anybody else who blindly questions the world’s constant roiling tide of BS) and hope that next time he’ll replace the Flying V with more subtle ProTools or whatever he’s using to make his Atari-techno.

Grade: B-

The Chocolate Horse: Beasts (Stable Records)

The Chocolate Horse

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Specializing in the wispy, sparse and non-commital zen that defined 70s chill-folk-rock, this Cincy band makes elevator music for bongpackers old and young. They rarely deviate from a formula that nestles Blind Melon between Mountain and Belle & Sebastian – wait, I’m lying, there’s some Warlocks fuzz-rock in there too. What I’m trying to say, and failing miserably, is that the band is perfectly named: it’s strong and lithe, a little too sweet, blocky and chunky but simultaneously graceful. One thing you’ll walk away knowing for sure is that this is historically accurate acid folk-rock; there’s no way you won’t think things along the lines of “Jesus, did they have to chase the singer around with a butterfly net to get him to show up in the studio or what?” Reason for that is singer Jason Snell’s half-there-ness; it’s like early 70s Ozzy in ballad mode jamming with Canned Heat in endless variations on Going Up the Country, in other words about 70% of your basic Bonnaroo crowd would take to it like magpies to a roll of Reynolds Wrap.

Grade: B-

Regurgitator: SuperHappyFunTimesFriends (Valve Records)

Regurgitator

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Their seventh full-length finds these anti-Wiggles Aussie punks floating an endless supply of quite listenable joke tunes powered by (very appropriate) bones to pick. All Fake Everything is just awesome, singer Quan Yeomans taking aim at modern rap with a grenade launcher, the first half a poetic apology from an interchangeable Jay-Z sung over a cheese version of Whiter Shade of Pale, after which Yeomans’ character boasts his uselessness from the rooftop (“you’d be bored if you were me!”) over a guitar line that’s a thinly disguised (what else) 99 Problems. Punk Mum is straight-edger stuff about sandwiches and things, which is always important, let’s face it; Be Still My Noisy Mind puts Duran Duran in a leglock for a skewering of Rio. Like an aural Mad magazine with swears, the way you fricking kids are supposed to be doing it.

Grade: A

Lowe: Evolver (WTII Records)

Lowe

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

The rate at which Chicago indie WTII has been wailing on Metropolis Records in the fight for the goth dollar has been noticeable lately, and now it’s even happening in the 80s-pop sideshow that’s becoming more and more a part of the action. The third album from this Swedish band is short on volume but long on content, featuring some super-catchy ideas in the vein of Depeche Mode and New Order (the hypnotic, mission-critical bass lines are handled by the son of ABBA’s old bassplayer), the perfect amount of subterranean noise loopage – I dunno, it’s what I’d do if I were in band like this, thus your own mileage may vary. The one downside is that the sound itself is derivative, but that’s the least of people’s worries when they’re hunting for good neo-80s vampire music. But song-wise, where things are made or broken, it’s a flawless victory, most notably Adorable and Half the Double Speed, which allude to Sisters of Mercy without being at all clone-like.

Grade: A

Freddy V: Easier Than It Looks (Watersign Productions)

Freddy V

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Okay, okay, about four songs in I get where this is going, basic Weatherscan background jazz à la Kenny G, born from Freddy’s artistic turpitude developed during hack stints with Average White Band, Michael McDonald, need I say more. The ideas, though lovingly rendered by Freddy and co-producer Mo Pleasure (am I supposed to know who that is?) are budgeted for Vegas soul outings, like demos for Anita Baker’s backup band, that sort of thing. Klyde Jones’s singing on Let’s Go Round Again reads like a male Vonda Shepard – the squeaky-cleanliness is as devout as you’d ever want if this is your bag, up to and including the pensively amused glamor shots that fill the CD cover, the artist reposing in facial expressions that tell you someone just told him a polite joke they recently printed in Huffington Post or somesuch.

Grade: B-

Ghost Knife: Kill Shelter Yes (End Sounds)

Ghost Knife

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

There may be much unfortunate confusion when people buy this LP expecting “pop-punk,” one of the main categories into which this stuff’s been lumped. This stuff has nothing to do with the oversaturated emo market, as fans of Austin-based singer Mike Weibe (on leave from Riverboat Gamblers) would instinctively know. But the rest of us don’t, and so their sound – close to Redd Kross or half the bands that came out on the SST label in the 80s – may come as a letdown to people whose tastes are in their feet. It’s a lost art they’re indulging in here, echoes of Replacements/Thermals/Spits garage with hooks that are simultaneously upbeat and vaguely edgy, Clash guitars, reverb pegged up, no budget, you get the drift. It’s a seminal post-punk moment in Weibe’s career, speed reduced but not completely booted out of the picture; a good move that flies in the face of conventional indie-rock wisdom simply because it’s truly indie-sounding.

Grade: A-

Intensus: Intensus (Metal Blade Records)

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

IntensusJourneyman multi-instrumentalist Eli Litwin is from Philly, where he latched on to the extreme-metal scene at first before growing to dig math-metal and basically anything else that makes guitars sound utterly nuts. Even an eclectic snob like me can appreciate this project, which, simplistically enough, comprises a collection of off-the-cuff drum tracks Litwin made himself, which were then fortified with zoom-crash Dillinger Escape Plan ideas and state-of-the-art black-metal. Several guests are on here, so the vocal sound ranges from Cookie Monster to Toilet Monster to Quorthon to Animal, as in the drummer from the Muppets. Just calling it like I hear it, so walk it off, but meanwhile I’ll mention that when I first put this on – without knowing it was improvised noise – my honest-to-gawd first thought was “Maybe death-metal ain’t dead after all.”

Grade: A

Martin Moretto: Martin Moretto Quintet (self-released)

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Martin Moretto QuintetSometimes you’re just looking for a little dinner-jazz and lots of subtlety. Moretto, an Argentine jazz guitarist based in New York, explores the sublime in his debut LP as a leader, pulling off some barely-there genius (the runs toward the end of ‘Imagenes’ almost sound electronically altered). His agility in the more traditionally bop-centric ‘Iguazo’ is another standout, full of friendly melodic banter that sax player Bill McHenry enhances with some wispy runs of his own. As a whole, the record – entirely written by Moretto – more than serves its purpose as a most companionable ally in getting through the commute or just having a pleasant damn day for yourself.

Grade: A

Keb Mo: The Reflection (Yolabelle International Records)

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Keb Mo: The ReflectionVery few people have the right musical DNA to pull off bedroom-soul the way this guy does. Most attempts fall a little short, either too sexed-up, or not chill enough, though mostly it’s a problem with cartoonish vocals, not at issue here. ‘Unadorned’ is the most common adjective used to describe Mo’s voice, which, yes, sounds like someone’s dad with an disdain for throaty shtick and enough training to be dangerous. As a guitarist-singer, then, he’s BB King (who has covered Mo’s Grammy-winning stuff in the past) with a friendly baritone, and this time out he explores the depths of soul-chill, tabling a ‘What’s Love Got To Do with It’ vibe in the title track, harnessing gospel elsewhere (‘All the Way,’ the wah-wah-decorated ‘The Whole Enchilada’). Nothing wrong here, obviously.

Grade: A

Boba Flex: Hell in My Heart (Megaforce Records)

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Boba Flex: Hell in My HeartIn some-things-never-change news, Megaforce continues its domination over all uber-tight speed-metal bands with this one, which fits in perfectly with what Al Jourgensen and Ministry have been doing within the confines of the label. Like Ministry, the deal here is a southern-fried Texas Chainsaw death-punk approach, although these West Virginian guys (suuuure, they’re descendants of the original McCoys, as in Hatfields and the McCoys, absolutely, and I’m seriously considering buying a bridge in one of the New York boroughs) tack more toward nu-metal (‘Vampire’ is just basically Papa Roach’s ‘Getting Away With Murder’ in a fake moustache). But don’t take that as a reason to hate on these guys, as their change-ups are pretty hilarious, intentional or not (‘Playing Dead’ sounds like a zombie-fied Strawberry Alarm Clock, while ‘Empty Man’ could have been on any of the first three Kiss albums), and their real stock-in-trade is kick-assage that competes with and absolutely surpasses Staind et al in the areas of both personality and hardness.

Grade: A

The Devil Wears Prada: Dead Throne (Ferret Music)

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

The Devil Wears Prada: Dead ThroneThis Dayton-based six-some never sounded much like the Christian band they are, and now that they’ve decided they hate screamo (save for ‘My Questions’ here) they sound even more… what am I supposed to say, ferocious. They readily admit that their earlier stuff was kind of stupid, and they’re right; nothing new was coming out of these guys, that’s for sure. Same for now, but their intensified service in the name of the muscle-bound Jesus of the Book of Revelations will be duly appreciated by the young hillbillies who blare this in their buds while shooting up schools in Afghanistan or wherever, semper fi and all that. Just the basics here – Cookie Monster vs. a hoarse Sam Kinison; stubborn, thrumming low-end a la Meshuggah, other stuff that nine million other bands are doing.

Grade: B-

Evidence: Cats and Dogs (Rhymesayer Records)

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Evidence: Cats and DogsI can definitely sort-of recommend this with a hearty “Eh, this is, you know, OK.” A real-life graffiti artist who’s been around the block enough to be convincing, Evidence is pure LA hiphop, boasting whatever level of cred comes with being part of the Dilated Peoples collective. I’d hate to be a local LA hack trying to squeeze out superlatives about this thing, though; between Evidence’s ‘patented’ slow flow and a near-complete lack of beats that go anywhere, it can’t be said that this is essential listening for undergrounders with two brain cells to rub together. There’s sparkly ballroom bling here and there, added more as a culturally essential touchstone than anything else – yeah, yeah, we get it, Snoop Junior.

Grade: C

Jmaxx: Born To Be Famous (Jmaxx Records)

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Jmaxx: Born To Be FamousIt’s not just the self-release aspect of this annoying little bling-house record that screams vanity from the mountaintop. Judging by the lyrics, this Situation-lookalike is all about boning one Kardashian or the other, and matter of fact, if Kim put out something this disposable she might never live it down. It’s not the worst CD ever to land in this office by any means, no, but its intent – and epic album-title fail – pretty much relay to the Martians all they need to know about this ruined empire. It’s like this guy took a few online associate degree classes in 80s-ology: a gimpy, humble cover of A-ha’s ‘Take On Me’; enough George Michael to choke a men’s bath-house. And my fricking God already with the “you’re so sexy” platitudes all over the place, why not just Sharpie “I Have Genitalia” on your forehead.

Grade: C-

Uh Huh Her: Nocturnes (Plaid Records)

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Uh Huh Her: NocturnesI can’t imagine why anyone would have actually disliked this LA chick-electropop band’s first album Common Reaction. But by the same token, it almost seemed a second-thought vanity vehicle for Leisha Hailey, who’s been a little too flighty flipping between music and acting – the latter career’s most notable bullet her joining the cast of The L-Word. Common Reaction was mildly irritating owing to a bit too much, I don’t know, LA-ness; Camila Grey’s voice is and was too Faith Hill-like to gel with the She Wants Revenge-ish 80s-bar-rock rumble underfoot. This album, however, reveals the pair to be real contenders in the not-overly populated space between dream pop/shoegaze and mall-indie. Frankly, this more cathartic listenable-ness may have sprung from their (probably staged) outing as a lesbian couple, but whatever the case, it’s a huge sound with drop-dead hookage – you’re almost guaranteed to like this a lot if your taste swings somewhere between classic rock, Gwen Stefani, and (obviously) PJ Harvey.

Grade: A

Polar Bear Club: Clash Battle Guilt Pride (Bridge Nine Records)

Polar Bear Club: Clash Battle Guilt Pride

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Lots of start-stop goes on here, nullifying the adrenaline effect an all-out barnburner song might have accomplished, but that’s really the only negative, if you want to call it that. This Rochester punk-pop crew flirts with ’70s-arena ideas, their emo angst given a steroid boost from the vocals of Jimmy Stadt, who may – no kidding around – be the most balls-out new singer since Chris Cornell. It can get a little gimmicky, that voice, but it’s a raw, imperative monster, and quite original in its own way; not a death-metal thing, a real rock thing. The production is clean, airy, massive when it’s needed, which is often, really – these guys are to Good Charlotte what Mastodon is to Papa Roach, if you can feel that, next-gen punk with an eye toward much bigger things than the Warped Tour.

Grade: A

Neil Leonard: Marcel’s Window (self-released)

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Neil Leonard: Marcel’s WindowLeonard is a jazz sax player out of Philly, bragging a list of associated acts and commissions that numbers in the many dozens, including Boston Ballet and the BBC. He can afford to be generous to a fault with his quintet: after some dinner-patter formalities are out of the way (‘Uritorco’), the overriding standout slot here is the piano of Tom Lawton, who seems to fire wild darts at all 88 keys hitting the mark every time within these modal schematics, all of them written by Leonard with a mathematician’s eye for structure. Tempos and time-signatures drop down and out without warning, art imitating life, sometimes Mingus-like, sometimes (OK, rarely) boppy, and in the main, the spotlights remain on Markowitz and Leonard equally. Leonard’s work here ranges from skronky burn (‘Alex in the Atrium’) to genius-level gimmickry (French-café-accordion emulation on ‘Resounding Arc’).

Grade: A

Ponykiller: The Wilderness (Housecore Records)

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

PonykillerA for-dummies compaction of King Crimson, Doors and Amboy Dukes, oddly enough from New Orleans. What I mean by “for-dummies” is that the meandering experimentation has been largely removed from the prog aspects, a point that won’t set the world on fire. King Crimson was enough of a drag to listen to in the first place, but at least they thought they liked classical. No, what this ends up sounding like is the band Witch, whom you’ve never heard of either. So basically what I’m saying is laws should be passed preventing any further historical re-enactments of 60s acid-rock, unless some glitch or other tech is added to it, thereby rendering it relevant to this century. Come now, three billion Strawberry Alarm Clocks have surfaced in just the last five years, and the only ones who’ve made a (small) dent are guys like the Warlocks, who at least drown that crap in feedback skronk. OK, melodically these dudes are clued in, but jeez, who isn’t nowadays?

Grade: B-

Patrizio Buanne: Patrizio (Concord Jazz)

Patrizio Buanne: Patrizio

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

With millions of units sold, this Naples, Italy-born baritone is at a crossroads, crooning in English on his fifth album after relocating to LA in what would appear to be a logical career move. This release has been widely flogged, mostly for a perceived lack of passion that was inherent when he sang in his own language, but come on, there’s Passion with a capital P and passion as defined by Vegas, by your basic American Idol fourth runner-up. Yes, the busted accent is pronounced, betraying a very tentative grip on the language, but that’s made up for by precise tonality and, best of all, a generous lack of over-the-top orchestration, whether he’s cozying up with Bryan Adams’s shlocky ‘Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman’, calling out the Arthur Murray crowd (‘Mambo Italiano’) or exploding into a swing track fit for Brian Setzer (‘Americano’). Sure, there’s a generic sheen to all this stuff, but what were his fans expecting, some sort of god-like transformative experience?

Grade: B-

The Veda Rays: Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays (Alleged Records)

The Veda Rays: Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

It’s nice when your average everyday rock band doesn’t just patch together some influences but actually demonstrates shared ground between sounds. These Brooklynites, when not time-sharing between Hives and Kaiser Chiefs, are shoegazers with purpose and obvious deep reserves of listening experience – perhaps the proudest achievement here is when they intersect the essences of Donovan and New Order on opening track ‘All Your Pretty Fates’. As the references above suggest, though, there’s much straightforwardness going on here: guitars, drums, a polite amount of anger, like Gang of Four with too much reverb (and better songs, if I may). There’s an industrial tinge to it, also, a post-something-or-other that convinces you they’re not a bunch of upper-middle-class dicks with hair and varying levels of daddy envy (that’s a really important thing, if you’re not sure).

Grade: A

Pallers: The Sea of Memories (Labrador Records)

Pallers: The Sea of Memories

Reviewed by Eric Saeger

Johan Angergård may run Labrador Records, but this project, comprised of him as half of an electronica duo, isn’t a sloppy vanity release. I don’t know if I agree with other critics that this is all that “blissed out”, since after some shoegazey rinsing-down in opener ‘Another Heaven’, the pair settles into a series of sub-aquatic throbbings demarked by Pet Shop Boys style prettiness and prog-house chill. ‘Come Rain Come Sunshine’, for example, is precisely what PSB is doing these days, agreeable fractals underneath pie-in-the-sky twee baritone vocals. ‘Years Go Days Pass’ is similarly airy/lofty but swirled in a rainy, sad void, like what Sigur Ros might do, covered in glitch, some Ovation open strings, and tambourine syncopation. ‘The Kiss’ then proceeds to put the LP back on track nicely with yet more bedroom techno. All very euro, for sure, some grooves that M83, for example, could make real hay out of.

Grade: A