May 09, 2006

Label Spotlight: Kill Rock Stars

Olympia, Washington's Kill Rock Stars has long been a bastion of interesting, unique indie-rock, and 2006 is no exception. The label has released a handful of really good records so far this year, and we thought we'd round up a few of their new records with a few older releases, and give a glimpse of why we really love this record label. But just wait—there are some really great new records coming later this year, from such great artists as the pAper chAse, Harvey Danger, The Robot Ate Me, and Mary Timony! Also, you should totally check out their newest signing, Mika Miko!

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In the early 1990s (was it really that long ago?), Kill Rock Stars released three compilations that captured the sounds of independent rock--though it focused on the Northwest, they did include a few artists from across the rest of the country. Let's just say that If you don't have the "Kill Rock Stars" comps in your possession, then your life is seriously lacking. They've released a few more comps since then--most notably Fieldsand Streams and Tracks and Fields--but The Song The Hare Heard is easily the first KRS comp that's as brilliant and essential as those brilliant and essential "Kill Rock Stars" collections. The guiding philosophy of these songs is "folk," but this isn't your grandma's boring-ass folk-rock. Nope, this collection contains twenty-one different artists who do a pretty damn good job of breaking that boring-ass hippie folk stereotype. Each song is killer, each song is essential, and each song will provide enough motivation for you to further investigate these artists. Here are some highlights: "Best Friends Forever," a gorgeous, Carole King-style offering by Slumber Party's Alicia BB; the gorgeous harmonies of The Moore Brothers' "Waves of Wonder;" the catchy country-rock beat of Death Vessel's "Dancers All;" Laura Veirs's "Cast a Hook in Me" is also quite gorgeous, too. But my favorite track is "Feet Asleep," by the relatively unknown Thao Nguyen. Her voice is gorgeous and pretty and the song is downright addictive. Oh, there are other songs by Sufjan Stevens and Colin Meloy, but guess what? They're actually lesser numbers, which only shows that the big names aren't necessarily the best names. The Sound the Hare Heard is, quite simply, a rather wonderful snapshot of today's independent folk scene.

Listen To: Thao Nguyen "Feet Asleep"

Mecca Normal isn't just a band, it's a long-running musical institution. For the past twenty years, Jean Smith and David Lester have released some interesting, fascinating, stimulating, and often humorous albums, and The Observer is no exception. This record is a concept album, built around Jean Smith's experiences in the world of online dating. Smith's singing is raw, the music is minimalist, but somehow, these things work. It's not an easy listen; Smith puts her heart on the line, and sometimes, things don't work out right. But that's what a good artist does—they put their emotions and feelings out for the world to see, regardless of what might happen next. Mostly, though, Smith is an excellent story-teller; her narrative style is quite compelling, and songs like "Attraction is Ephemeral" and "The Fallen Skier" aren't so much songs as they are mini-movies, and they quickly capture your attention, as she sings of her exploits and her feelings. Though some of the things she has to say are quite challenging and rather winsome--especially the harsh reality of "I'll Call You" and the painfully self-aware title track--she still manages to add a bit of humor to her work; one can't help but smile when hearing the lines "In bed he tires to put the condom on. He curses. I try to see what he's doing, but I'm pinned under him. I hear him stretching the condom like he's making a balloon animal." Her observations are fascinating, and while it might not be the easiest listen for some people, The Observer is nevertheless a complex album by a duo who have never been anything but complex.

Listen To: "I'm Not Into Being the Woman You're With While You're Looking for the Woman You Want"

Imaad Wasif is a young man who has played with some pretty good bands, and is now the 'fourth yeah' in popular rock group Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He also played in the final incarnation of Lou Barlow's Folk Implosion, and this is important to note, because, well, you'll instantly hear a Barlow influence on Wasif's self-titled solo debut. It's a sometimes downbeat, sometimes low and sad affair, but it’s also quite a quiet, beautiful affair. Though there's nothing on Imaad Wasif that will make you want to dance around the room, that doesn't mean that his music is boring. He has a way with words and arrangements, making his sad songs even more emotionally wrenching. It doesn't hurt that he has a singing voice that's pure and beautiful; it's hard not to think of Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, and even Jeff Buckley—comparisons that might be a tad cliché for some folk-minded folk, but they're quite apt. The only drawback is that Wasif's style doesn't really change from song to song; the songs are soft and sad and mellow and hushed, and the lack of sonic variety can occasionally distract. But with beautiful songs like "Coil" and "Fade in Me" and "Static," it's really hard to complain that much about monotony.
A great debut record, this.

Listen To: "Out in the Black"

Dark yet danceable New Wave-pop is what makes Anna Oxygen's new record so wonderful. Ms. Oxygen sings with a husky voice reminiscent of Alison Moyet, and the music is moody, atmospheric, slightly ominous pop that's surprisingly quite catchy, and her style is quite similar to the German pop band Gina X Performance, with a hint of Yaz and early period Depeche Mode. If her intention is to make your feet move, then she's accomplished her mission quite well. Songs like "Psychic Rainbow" and "Fairy Quest" are full of groove—a groove that's somewhat haunting, thanks to Oxygen's somewhat operatic-style of singing. "This Is an Exercise" is a rather sexy, vocoder-laden song that's…an exercise number! Yeah, it could fit into any workout room's soundtrack, and no one would be the wiser. This Is An Exercise is a cool, hip treat, and a welcomed label debut. Look forward to hearing more from this really cool woman…

Listen To: "Psychic Rainbow"

A bit more complex is They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. This Vancouver-based collective suffers to some extent from obvious comparisons to the Danielson Famile. Sure, the sounds are similar--and that's certainly the description I heard in regards to them. But much like the "oh, Unwound is just ripping off Sonic Youth" debate from the 1990s, once you get past the obvious similarities to The Danielson Famile, you'll discover a pretty good, pretty fun record . Their debut for Kill Rock Stars, Boo Hoo Hoo Boo, is quirky, damaged art-rock fun, made with wonderfully offbeat singing voices, angular melodies, and a trumpet. Not at the same time, though. Though not every song is a winner--occasionally it seems like some songs are mere tangents of other tracks on the record--songs like "Hiccups," "Seeds," "Three," and "Big Dot" are quite charming, as the band goes off into various different tangents, reminiscent of label mates Need New Body and Deerhoof, though they don't sound a thing like them. Still, Boo Hoo Hoo Boo is a charming little record.

Listen To: "Hiccup"

Kill Rock Stars' newest signing is The Everyothers, and guess what? These guys rock. Their latest offering, Pink Sticky Lies, is a concise collection of five powerful, slick, radio-friendly glam-rock. Don't let the 'glam' tag fool you; The Everyothers aren’t mere imitators. No, they've got a definite sweet tooth for rock music; lead singer Owen McCarthy sings with that cocky, confident swagger that could be found in abundance in the music of Marc Bolan, Bryan Ferry, and David Bowie. These five songs could (and should) be rock radio staples, especially the excellent "Too Far," "A New Inebriation," and "Dive with You." The band's press treats the band like they're the saviors of rock and roll that rock and roll has been waiting for. Guess what? That's not just PR braggadocio. You were warned.

Listen To: "Dive with You"

1 comment:

Sean Padilla said...

The new Mecca Normal album is awesome. I'm shocked that Jean Smith's voice didn't get on my nerves by the end of it, though.

I get more of a Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 vibe from They Shoot Horses etc. I *love* TFUL282, but I wasn't able to get into TSHDT as much. :-(