Some of San Diego’s Finest

Black Box (Vol. 1)

Apparently I’m reppin’ San Diego pretty hard these days, because here comes some more local love…

Back in October of 2007, Golden Hill’s own Black Box Recording Studios released their first compilation album, featuring tracks from various affiliated bands. Seventeen songs deep, the comp’s roster is pretty impressive… in fact, it seems a good portion of San Diego’s most exciting underground talent can be found on it (along with a couple more-established favorites). Black Box Volume 1 manages to span a wide spectrum of rock — from punk rock, to post-hardcore, to math rock and mathy tech-pop, to indie rock, to garage rock revival, to multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter. It even gives us a taste of something you might call sludge-metal-does-80s-pop with Rob Crow’s Goblin Cock project covering “Head Over Heels” by Tears for Fears. And yes, it delivers quite nicely… even if it’s decidedly less sludgey than most of their other recordings.

There’s plenty of other standouts on the comp, but I’d say my favorite track is easily Fever Sleeves‘ “Maximum Castles”. I may be friends with these guys, but you’ll just have to trust that even if I wasn’t I’d be just as excited about them. Take one listen and I think you’ll be convinced. The overall instrumental complexity of this song is immediately apparent; yet while the interplay of guitar, bass, and drums is intricate and technical, it also remains grounded by consistently strong melodies. And this track certainly showcases a myriad of them (some dissonant, some catchy, some dreamlike, some energetic — all awesome), as the Sleeves disregard “verse-chorus-verse” structure and churn through largely unique song segments in relentless progression. And, to top it all off, the vocal work is charismatic and as varied as the musical framework, with crooning falsetto, throaty screams and a few styles in between. How could you not like this? Plus, they easily have the best “about this song” paragraph in the album insert:

The first time we played this song was in the hourly room at Black Box. It was over 19 minutes long and entitled “Be My Boo Tonight”.

Say what you will about the album art, this is still a pretty bangin’ cross-section of the San Diego rock scene.

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Download: Fever Sleeves – Maximum Castles

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Download: Goblin Cock – Head Over Heels (Tears for Fears cover)

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Download: Transfer – You are the Wolf

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Download: Goodbye Blue Monday – Everyone is Satisfied
Buy: Black Box Volume 1 is available in digital or CD format on Amazon, but I’d recommend sending an e-mail to Black Box and ordering it directly from them.

Check out the full tracklist (with band links) after the jump.

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Stay Gold, Ponytail

I... COMMAND... THE UNDEAD!

Ponytail, the newest addition to Baltimore label We*Are*Free (who happened to put out one of my favorite albums last year — Yeasayer‘s All Hour Cymbals), is poised to release their sophomore full-length, Ice Cream Spiritual. These guys and gal are creating some joyous, noise-driven chaos in a surprisingly original way. Start trying to come up with fitting comparisons and you’ll realize that you can get pretty close, but even the bands that come the closest are a bit of a stretch. Maybe Kyoto’s Limited Express (Has Gone?) at their most chaotic? How about Deerhoof? At certain moments, perhaps. And I’d say they share some sensibilities with No Age… but, for the most part, Ponytail is out there on their own.

Though certainly an awesome album all together, the highlight of Ice Cream Spiritual is probably the epic “Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came from an Angel)”. As the most varied song on the record, it finds Ponytail teetering between staggered moments of calm or crescendo and full-on aural assault. Dual guitars forge some kind of sun-soaked noise-pop aggression, drums and cymbals respond in kind, and Molly Sigel’s vocal work remains largely sporadic and improvisational, at times more reminiscent of a wild animal than a human voice. Undoubtedly inspired by Yoko Ono, she primarily relies on wordless caterwauls and croons, yet comes off a little bit more merciful. A little bit. And you gotta love that this seven-minute clusterfuck is what they chose for their first single. I’d call it a bold choice, but honestly, for this record it’d be difficult to choose a song that wouldn’t be.

I’m not sure how you make such a cacophonous album so captivating, but I must have listened to this thing five times in a row when I first heard it. A band worth checking out, to say the least.

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Download: Ponytail – Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came from an Angel)
Buy: Pre-order Ice Cream Spiritual from Insound (due out June 17th).

Sex Death Cassette

Rafter

There’s been a whole lot of good music released in the first half of 2008 and because it’s been a little while since I’ve updated this blog with any semblance of regularity, I’ll probably be playing catch up with some of my upcoming posts. But, it’s only fair, because a number of these releases are not getting as much attention as they deserve. And that includes one of my favorite albums of the year so far, which comes from yet another prolific San Diego musician and songwriter, Rafter‘s Sex Death Cassette.

If this latest opus from current Asthmatic Kitty recording artist Rafter Roberts is anything, it’s appropriately titled. Perhaps most apparent in this 19-track patchwork of bedroom-pop is the distinctly lo-fi, collage-like quality that permeates the album. It really feels like Rafter just sat down with a 4-track, an eclectic handful of instruments and crafted a mixtape of sparse, fragile, sweet, and often short, pop gems… then dubbed a cassette especially for you. Whole segments of Sex Death Cassette seem like they were conceived in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, as if he was simply collecting his ideas in their rawest states and submitting them to us for our approval. Yes, the aesthetic is enjoyable, but also impressively effective at making the record very personal, like we’ve been given a private look into Rafter’s creative process. And yet, the notable presence of such simple ideas have led some to suggest that this element of his songcraft gives the album a bit of a “half-baked” feel. While they may be right to an extent, there’s also a real concept at work here… one that’s engaging and downright charming.

Made up of quirky, honest meditations on compassion, love, sex, frustration, loneliness, depression, and death, Sex Death Cassette runs a fair gamut, yet the title reflects the basic thematic poles it’s centered around… sex and death, the bookends of life, if you will. And though Rafter may spend more time on the darker side of things, he often does so in a light-hearted (even farcical) way to help balance out some of the more brooding tunes. Even better, on the standout track “No One Home Ever'” he manages to simultaneously touch upon both themes by recreating a conversation in which he’s asked about his perceptions on how his life began and will end:

She asks me ’bout how I think I was conceived
How my mom’s egg met up with dad’s seed
I tell her the truth, I’ve nothing to hide
They fought and made up and made out and made me alive
And that’s where I came from… I’m a reconciliation

She asks me ’bout how I think I’m gonna die
And gives me the choice to tell her or lie
I tell her the truth, I’ve nothing to hide
I know how I’ll die, I know how I’ll die
I’ll get shot in a robbery, I’ll get run over by a train
I’ll get lost at sea… die in a terrible way

Basically, this song is analogous to everything that’s great about Sex Death Cassette. Rafter’s narrative is personal and direct, relaying this intimate conversation to the listener as if we were another curious friend. He’s pensive, but he also makes you smile while he indulges in his melancholic contemplations; be it with a clever little phrase or his overly matter of fact way of stating some pretty depressing conclusions. And then he successfully frames it within a short, catchy pop song, using very simple instrumentation with a little distinctive flair (the woodwinds at the end are a nice touch).

The guy works hard: he’s put out three albums in about a year and a half and appears to have completed his “Song a Week” project with photographer and girlfriend Lizeth Santos. Spawned from a “one art project a day” personal challenge, this weekly endeavor spanned over 20 weeks on the Asthmatic Kitty website. On top of that, he’s already readying a new EP, titled Sweaty Magic, for release in September of this year! With “Tom Ze, Prince, Clipse, Zapp & Roger, Mr. Fingers, and D’Angelo” all mentioned in the press release, we should be in for quite a dancey treat. But, for now, make sure you check out Sex Death Cassette… you shan’t be disappointed.

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Download: Rafter – Zzzpenchant

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Download: Rafter – Chances

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Download: Rafter – No One Home Ever
Buy: Order Sex Death Cassette from Asthmatic Kitty (for $10!).