The Music Ramble is the weekly sports blog of Erik Ritland. The St. Paul, Minnesota journalist and musician is the founder of Rambling On. Learn more about us on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, or our website.
Hello boys and girls, and welcome to our first monthly music ramble. We've been writing about music for years, of course, but now it'll be more regularly every month.
What's more, we'll be focusing on reviewing new music from an eclectic mix of genres, covering many shades of pop, rock, country, folk, blues, indie, and more.
This week it's the deep blues of James Leg, song-driven punk of the Wollen Men, and Fleetwood Mac/Maroon 5 inspired pop of Family of the Year.
Below the Belt (Alive Naturalsound 9/4/2015)
Essential tracks: "Dirty South," "Casa de Fuego," "Can't Stop Thinking About It," "What More?"
Although rooted in heavy, dirty blues ("Dirty South," "Glass Jaw," "Can't Stop Thinking About It"), James Leg proves that he is different from his deep blues counterparts on Below the Belt. He has a gospel spirit, a religious zeal, even if apart from a fairly straightforward reading of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head" the album deals with classic secular blues themes. As the genre has proven for over 100 years, the Spirit isn't solely consigned to the religious realm.
Gritty guitars, Leg's gravelly voice (think Howlin' Wolf), and layers of distorted keyboards are at the forefront of Below the Belt. It's a cohesive album in sound and spirit, even if he finds a way to squeeze in almost every imaginable blues form possible. "Up Above My Head" is pure gospel, "Casa de Fuego" an infectious* mariachi stomper, "Drink it Away" conjures Louis Armstrong, and "October 3rd" is tough soul with dizzying layers of keyboards.
In 2012 Leg teamed up with labelmates and fellow deep blues luminaries** Left Lane Cruiser for rowdy covers album Painkillers. Together on Below the Belt they absolutely tear through the Dirtbombs "Can't Stop Thinking About It" (the scathing skateboard slide guitar of LLC's Joe Bent needs to be heard to be believed). If you haven't heard Painkillers, or Left Lane Cruiser's new album Dirty Spliff Blues, you're missing out.
The last three songs on Belt are a bit more scaled back and emotive. Leg filters the Cure's "A Forest" through his dirty blues lens, soulful Motown influenced “Disappearing” could have fit on Neil Young’s Are You Passionate?, and darkly poppy album closer “What More” is atmospheric and melodic. Wholly different from the songs surrounding it, it is easily Leg’s most mature songwriting.
Perfectly balanced and contradictory, Below the Belt contains the multitudes of rock n' roll: it's sweet and rough, subtle and candid, traditional and modern, Saturday night and Sunday morning.
*Sorry to use such a banal music critic word
*'Luminaries' is another banal music critic word, but after a bunch of research the best possible synonym I could find was 'pooh-bah' which didn't seem to fit either. If you want, substitute 'luminaries' for 'pooh-bahs.'
Temporary Monument (Woodsist 9/4/2015)
Essential tracks: "Clean Dreams," "After the Flood," "Temporary Monument"
Portland trio The Wollen Men are part garage rock, part old school punk, and part indie. Although indebted to Oregon punk pioneers Dead Moon and the Wipers their music is a bit more raw and minimalistic.
Most of Temporary Monument is direct and punky. Energetic opening track and lead single "Clean Dreams" sets the table with its jangly melody, primitive and visceral clean tone guitars, and simple bass and drums. "Life in Hell," "Alien City," "The Desert," "Dissolving Man," and "The Wheel" are each reckless without quite falling off the tracks.
Although raw and mid-fi Monument is also memorable and melodic, especially "University" and "On Cowardice." The title track, which dips into the New Wave side of the Wipers, is surprisingly poppy and straightforward. The band branches out on brooding, emotive, organ heavy "After the Flood," the best song on the album.
Family of the Year
Family of the Year (Nettwerk 9/4/2015)
Essential tracks: "The Dance," "Make You Mine," "Facepaint."
The sunny, 70s-tinged pop of Family of the Year is sometimes reminiscent of Buckingham/Nicks era Fleetwood Mac. Unfortunately just as often they sound like a slightly less saccharine Maroon 5.
Opening “Make You Mine” sets the tone for the album. The production is warm and the chorus is big and memorable but it comes off as a bit workmanlike. It’s fun, though. “Facepaint” is more of the same, although some spacey synths give it a little more character.
Synths also add to “May I Miss You.” Its arrangement is interesting, with Lindsey Buckingham influenced acoustic fingerpicking giving way to a gutsier Mumford and Sons sort of thing. “Carry Me” is similar, only cheesier and with a catchier chorus. The coda is the best part but it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth getting there or not. I can’t make those sorts of decisions for you.
The rest of the album walks the thin line between well-crafted pop and plastic Maroon 5 cheesiness. “Blue Jean Girl” is a perfect example: the huge wall of sound production is interesting, the darkly melodic chorus is slightly edgy, but the verses are forced and have terrible lyrics (“she was born in the back of a pickup truck/hairspray queen with a ton of bad luck/we grew up then we grew apart/I guess I had to break her heart/we held each other in the dark”).
Although it’s still a bit show-y, lilting pop waltz “The Dance” is the unique high point of the album. Its ethereal feel sets it apart, even if the lyrics (“boys will be boys/girls will be girls/make me a part of your world”) are again a bit forced.
There’s no denying that Family of the Year is a great summer album. It’s filled with hooks, big choruses, and has a fun, breezy sound. It could just use a little more substance.