Pick Favorites – Ty Segall's Twins

Twins shows how Ty Segall can balance blistering 90’s alt rock guitar riffs & solos to his sneeringly sweet 60’s vocal melodies & harmonies.

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Ty Segall's Twins CoverI caught some buzz about Ty Segall (1987 – ) before his most recent release, Manipulator (2014), including a brief piece in GQ. When I saw Sleeper (2013) at the library, I listened to all his albums there and checked out the rest on Spotify. Segall has had a prolific musical catalog for only being 28. He has released seven solo studio albums and dozens of EPs and singles. Segall has also recorded with seven other bands, including his Ty Segall Band.

What sets Segall’s fifth solo album, Twins (2012) apart is the heavy guitars throughout – it’s much more rocking. Though it came at the same years as his Band’s album, the brutal SlaughterhouseTwins strikes an even balance between heavy and accessible. Segall’s music seems steeped in 60’s pop rock, but these songs have a 90’s alternative vibe with lots of grunge and even shoegazer moments. He speeds up folk and adds distortion; he slows down punk and adds vocal harmony.

The guitars sound straight out of the garage, with face-melting riffs and feedback. Almost every song has a simple chord-strumming structure that lets the effects and solos take the spotlight. Only “Handglams” has a picking pattern (followed by a walloping guitar riff), and only “Gold on the Shore” has an acoustic guitar. The rest have heavy guitar stacked on heavy guitar. Solos fly loose at pretty regular intervals — during the bridge, after choruses and sometimes at the beginning and end. Many songs contain multiple solos, sometimes even two at a time.

His vocals take the edge off the hard hitting rock, countering its abrasive noise. The melodies sound rooted in early rock and roll and folk. Frequent harmonies sweeten the deal — “The Hill” even has a pair of female backing vocals. Segall can reach some pretty high notes himself  in “Would You be My Love,” “They Told Me Too,” and “Love Fuzz.” His other albums maintain that vocal sensibility, but few match the guitar heroics.

Which Ty Segall album is your favorite?

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Pick Favorites – Engine Down's Engine Down

A potential shift toward a wider audience really serves as a swan song building on nearly a decade of rhythmic and impassioned rock

Engine Down Album CoverEngine Down (1996-2005) released their fourth and final album in 2004. The self-titled Engine Down has a driving rhythms and tugging harmonies that the band had honed over their previous albums.  While there are complex grooves and frequent rhythmic shifts, part of the ensemble keeps the flow going.  While the strings and piano offset the distorted yelling, neither is too extreme to appear out-of-place.

The songs sound like they developed from jam sessions — most begin with a rhythmic groove as opposed to an obvious melody.  The rhythm section forms the foundation for some tunes and often interject a chopping counterpoint.  The growling bass and driving drums are almost alway tightly tied, except a few syncopated parts.  Even when they get complex, there is at least one cymbal or drum keeping the song steady.

The flowing guitars and vocals keep the song steady as well. The twin guitars create a big sound from the simple repetitive patterns to pounding riffs.  The extra layers of guitars on the choruses make them huge, while the little touches of feedback, scratches, slide guitar, and other effects add to the songs’ intensity.  They use the spacey effects common in lots of post-hardcore, and harmonize with the vocals in the verses and with each other in soloing.

The drawn-out, emotive vocals help distinguish this album.  The singers lamentations extend over the fast-paced instruments, but don’t sound whiny.  Neither do they strain; the vocals gain strength from smoothly blended vocal harmonies and chorus.  There are some distant, distorted yells, but they serve as another layer in the song, not an overpowering exclamation point.

Finally, the production supports the music to make Engine Down rise above.  The piano and strings have a much fuller sound than past albums — all the instruments do.  The instrument effects offer a few interesting tweaks without sounding out-of-place, and the songs benefit from a consistent flow and pacing from song to song.

Which Engine Down album is your favorite?

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Pick Favorites – Arctic Monkeys' Humbug

Their Josh Homme-produced third album stands out for its dark and gritty mix of British pop punk with American West psychedelic despair.

Arctic Monkeys' HumbugArctic Monkeys have released five albums from 2006 to 2013.  Since I’ve had the titular line of the single “R U Mine?” stuck in my head and saw Alex Turner was in GQ, I thought I’d give them a listen. Luckily, all of Arctic Monkey’s albums are available at my local library.  After a thorough review, I pick Humbug as my favorite.  This album stands apart for Homme’s production.  It’s pop-punk soaked in stoner rock.   The songs still have an intense pulse, but it’s also got an eerie vibe provided by the dissonant harmonies and shrill accents. 

While the guitars  grind away in some of the songs, they do so more to support, not standing in the forefront.  This role change allows them to really pop in solos and other cool effects.  With the guitars backed off, the rhythm section shows off its tight chops; fuzzy bass punctuates the drum’s interesting grooves.

Another noticeable shift is in the vocals.  Vocal harmonies  that range from high falsetto and ominous low chanting sneak in throughout the album.  Turner remains verbose as ever on some songs, but he’s also got a lot of memorable lines.  He’s tempered his vocal snarl with an expanded range that croons softly and pronounces emphatically.

Lastly, the production is sweeping.  Shimmering guitars, punchy bass, and eerie background vocals, and ominous organs  meld a vast, reflective soundscape.  The rhythmic range shifts from brash punk to a swaggering swing and spooky grooves to grinding, sludgy breakdowns.  I thought the Josh Homme-produced album was just okay when it came out, but now I really dig it.

Which Arctic Monkeys album is your favorite?

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Pick Favorites – Portugal. The Man's Censored Colors

Attracted to the groove, pulled by the sparseness, blown away at the climaxes, and singing along to this dynamic, soulful psychedelic rock.

Portugal. The Man - Censored ColorsPortugal. The Man‘s live performance at First Avenue in the Fall of 2011 blew my mind!  After hearing Alberta Cross’s Broken Side of Time that summer, I was excited to see them open. I was much less excited by In the Mountain in the Cloud.  Afterwards, I changed my tune about the band and skimmed through their music to find songs that moved me like that concert.  With the recent release of their eight full-length album, Evil Friends, it seemed like a good time to go back in more depth and pick a favorite album.

2008’s Censored Colors stands above the rest for its soulful melodies, dramatic vocal harmonies, even-handed orchestration, and solid grasp of tension and release.  Their third album included keyboardist Ryan Neighbors and drummer Jason Sechrist as well as founders John Gourley and Zachary Carothers.  At least ten other musicians contributed vocals, strings, brass, and percussion to these songs.

The lyrics take on dark topics of death and dissatisfaction, but Gourley sings in such a tuneful melody that it seems possible to transcend them.  His soulful vocals slides all over, from whisper to snarl, often and smoothly.  His ringing falsetto provides a great counterpoint to the bleak subject.  What’s more, the vocal harmonies subtly add to the soft parts, rippling in moody flows, and punctuate crescendos with bursting vocalizations.  This choir rise up in dynamic choruses throughout the album — sometimes in supporting, other times overlapping or responding.

The music that supports the singing is great, too.  While this album gets quieter than others, it is incredibly intense.  The dynamic from song to song or even verse to chorus is dramatic — an excellent example of restraint and serving the song instead of   just indulging the musician.  Lonely, sparse instrumentation in parts give the singers room to breathe and move.  Elsewhere, walls of sound immerse the listener in the full power of the music, an intensity built up in the song or even over the course of the album.  Soft piano and acoustic guitars set of hard-hitting electric guitar and bass.  Psychedelic grooves and rocking breakdowns  meet ska off-beats and anthematic singalongs.

The music and rhythms are never boring or cliché.  The instruments and vocals are in constant flux, pushing and pulling on the harmonies in minor tension and major release.  The consonance and dissonance are most evident in the vocal slides, but are also more subtly present the strings that underly many of the songs.  They linger at the end just to pull on the ear a bit longer until the next song kicks in.  Every instrument adds to this tension, reusing melodies and patterns in different keys for an uneasy feeling that ultimately comes back together in a triumphant lift.

Which Portugal. The Man album is your favorite?

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