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Tarnation – Gentle Creatures

September 12, 2011 Leave a comment

4AD Records, 1995

I have to admit that I enjoy reviewing bands that I’ve actually heard of and will find relatively easy to write about.  It also helps that I wrote about Tarnation’s second album earlier, so I knew exactly what I was going to pick up.  However, it turns out this is the first record they released, so as great as their second album sounded the first could go in many directions.  It could be less polished and clunky or perhaps heavier on the rock ‘n roll.  You know, sometimes bands are still finding themselves and Paula Frazer does come from a punk background.  But hey, for a dollar I was just hoping for some of that fine Americana music to relax to whatever bumpiness may occur.

Amidst a decade knee deep in grunge and grunge knockoffs, Tarnation takes a calmer tack with its warm Americana and folk songs.  There is nothing on this record that will make your heart race, unless of course you’re swept up in the lyrics.  I found that the casual pace of the record actually serves as a relaxation pill to help get one’s feet kicked up.  It certainly helps that the band utilizes the lap steel guitar and a cello once in awhile, though anyone know what an optigan is?  I had to look it up to determine that it is an electronic keyboard that had a short run in the early seventies.  I guess it also assisted in these country feelings.

Now, as much as I like the sound of Tarnation and Frazer’s voice, I could completely understand if someone is turned off early on in the record.  This could be due to either the back-to-back six minutes songs of “The Well” and “Big O Motel” or easily the quiet, plodding pace of the band.  Not much changes during these songs, so if one does not enjoy the light strumming and slide guitar on “The Well” then the tune will be cumbersome.  The same goes for “Big O Motel”, which is ever lighter and more repetitive.  The rest of the album sticks to three minutes or so for the most part, so why these epics were fastened early on in the listening process is a little puzzling.

Lengthy songs aside, Tarnation is quite good in the shorter instances.  The opener “Game of Broken Hearts” sounds like a solo demo by Frazer, but it easily sets the tone (and example) for the rest of the record with its easy guitar and Frazer’s stirring vocals.  The title track’s brevity is a pity, for as the lone instrumental on the record it gives off the air of a track from an unknown western movie.  “Do You Fancy Me” is as slow as anything else, but something about using the word ‘fancy’ as well as Frazer taking the cloud-shooting voice down a bit makes the song a real nice, countrified listen.

Unlike the second album, where it was Frazer all the time, “Gentle Creatures” gives time to the other band members to sing lead vocals.  Matt Wendell Sullivan’s deeper voice sounds excellent on “Listen to the Wind” with Frazer echoing in the background.  As for the other band members, Lincoln Allen has a fine weathered voice on the traditionally country “Stranger in the Mirror” while Michelle Cernuto sings in echo on a Magnetic Fields-like “Burn Again”.  Though Frazer has the most captivating voice, the rest of the band succeed in carrying a few good tunes when given the chance to sing.

There still isn’t a lot on the web about Tarnation, but Paula Frazer’s MySpace page, the band’s Last.fm page, and a video from their second album may convince you to go check them out.

The group put out “Mirador” a few years later before taking a ten year hiatus, which essentially gave Paula Frazer time for her solo career.  The band did put out an album in recent years, so it remains to be seen whether or not Tarnation is back for real. I suppose I’m a fan of the group now with two straight, enjoyable records.  Some people may not warm to Frazer’s voice or the quiet country sound of the songs, so if a few tracks don’t turn you on then you likely won’t agree with my spin on the two albums.  For me, I suppose that if I need to hear something soothing with a vocalist that doesn’t grate on me I would choose something from Tarnation.

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A Band of Bees – Free the Bees

May 13, 2011 Leave a comment

4AD Records, 2005

Oh boy.  It’s one thing to pick a band up at random out of a bin and hoping for the best.  The mystery is part of the excitement of picking up dollar discs, for you could wind up with something that is spectacular or completely awful.  Unlike those situations, I already knew about A Band of Bees due to a previous review I’ve written of them on this blog.  Therefore, by buying this record I was willing to take the chance that they were actually better than what I had heard before.  Some bands you hear once and just need to stay away from, but A Band of Bees weren’t that bad, so I figured I’d cough up some more dough on them.

This Bees record wastes no time in redeeming itself from its predecessor with the absolutely catchy “These are the Ghosts”.  I think the layered vocals, combined with the consistently brash drumming, make the straight forward indie rock jam a fine introduction.  Thankfully it truly is a good case of foreshadowing regarding the quality of the rest of the record.

Since I was expecting another one of those mildly interesting, decent indie pop albums I thought my hour’s worth of listening was going to be tolerably standard.  However, “Chicken Payback” showed to me that A Band of Bees are not just going to lie around and deliver the usual.  It is such a dance number, this “Chicken Payback”, due to many factors.  First, the light rhythm guitar riff and drum rhythm sound like a 50s throwback rock setup.  The lead guitar also screams 50s if not surf, but it’s vocalist Paul Butler’s excited delivery of the nonsensical lyrics that add wonderfully to the song.  This song definitely was the watershed moment of thinking these guys were a little more than the typical output from a modern band.

Another impressively strong track is the slow doo wop sound of “I Love You”.  The pleading in Butler’s voice, the collective crooning from the rest of the band, and that distant trumpet during the chorus remind me a little of that melancholic Motown vibe.  Dudes who are reading this should thinking about finding this song to score some romance points.   Without gushing over too much else on this disc, (even if it’s quite good throughout), I’ll mention a few more great tunes.  “Go Karts” has a tone that reminds me of a quirky Beatles tune fronted by Paul McCartney, while “This is the Land” comes across as a flower-waving seventies pop jam.  “The Russian” is an excellent five minute instrumental with its mixture of jazz and funk. “This is the Land” is another song of many that reference a sixties sound, which when mixed with some modern styles of composition, sounds quite good.

A Band of Bees can be heard online in a few places, such as here, here and here.  They’re still around so a live show could be in order as well.

Unlike my review of their debut record, this one by A Band of Bees sounded absolutely great.  I think Butler’s voice has that quality that won’t drag on the ears from too much exposure.  In other words, it blends well with the music without trying to step in front of everything to make itself noticed.  The band also seems to be a lot more interesting in its variety of approach, making each song enjoyably unique.  I have to say that my opinion of the group has changed and I’ll be looking forward to hearing their subsequent records.  Here guys, have a Golden Dollar for this one.