Thursday, August 26, 2010

Album Reviews: Gasoline Stove, Vultures on the Mainframe & The Brand New Life, Brand New Life

Gasoline Stove will appear at the Station in Carrboro today, Thursday, August 26th.
The Brand New Life will celebrate their Chapel Hill release party at Jessee's in Carrboro Friday, September 3rd.

The first album from Gasoline Stove, songwriter Scott Morgan’s new acoustic outfit featuring the nucleus of his seminal country rock band Memphis, feels like the cool Sunday morning following the latter group’s hot Saturday night. And while you might therefore expect to find plenty of regret and sober reflection on Vultures on the Mainframe, Gasoline Stove also know that Sunday’s in the South are often days of celebration and hopeful rededication.

One of Morgan’s best attributes as a songwriter has always been the trust he places in the listener to stay with a song, even if it (gasp!) doesn’t dive into a hook within the first minute. On the album’s opener, “Streamline to Memphis,” for instance, Morgan and wife Shannon sing over an anxiously strummed guitar that continually threatens to break into a furious chorus but never quite does. The effect is one of increasing tension as the haggard voice of the narrator delves deep into his memory in attempt to connect past with present. The song is a suitable primer for the album as a whole. Whereas much of Memphis’ work was built around soaring instrumental jams, the pared down approach of Vultures allows Morgan to go long form with his lyrics. Songs like “Miss Purcell” and “Sunny Day Suicide” read more like lost character notes from a William Gay novel than the glib or scrubbed down image making you generally expect to find in this genre.

Of course, Vultures has a number of more polished radio ready tunes as well. The two songs at the thematic center of the album showcase Morgan’s songwriting talent in more conventional terms. The infectious, call’n’responder “Snakes!” features Morgan’s sly eastern philosophizing masquerading as a stomping spiritual, and the lovely, bittersweet “Love and Rockets” is both a love song and a prayer to be made whole.

Gasoline Stove introduces local musician Anthony Lener to provide upright bass and features Memphis alum Pete Lucey on piano, organ, and accordion. Lucey again figures as Morgan’s alter ego here, adding strokes of color and light to Morgan’s sometimes stark arrangements. As you might expect from a married couple, the Morgans’ intertwining vocals hint at secrets and unspoken understanding even as the songs themselves seem to lay bare so much shared wisdom about love, trust, and forgiveness.

A very different but no less welcome debut comes from the young guns in Greensboro’s free form funk septet the Brand New Life. Their self-titled release is big and lively, balancing balls out bluster and finely turned craft to create a sound that impresses immediately and deepens with repeated listens.

Musical collectives that excel at improvisation can sometimes feel small and cramped on record, but BNL does a fine job here of translating the energy and imagination of their live shows to wax. Most of the members of BNL developed their musical identities playing alongside one another in informal musical projects in Greensboro, so they’re generally able to make their complex arrangements feel like a seamless fit and create the necessary space for each other to shine.

The album begins with the tropicali yawp of “Ra!” before settling into a funky middle section that glides with the irrepressible cool of a 70s era stakeout film. The rhythm section – consisting of bassist Seth Barden and percussionists Daniel Yount and Evan Frierson -- is bold without ever being showy, while guitarist Ben Rayle’s sidewinder phrasing adds an otherworldly air that serves as an effective counterpoint to the horn sections’ muscular lyricism. Lovers of horn driven music will find much to enjoy about the dueling partnership of saxophonists Casey Cranford and Walter Francourt, who provide BNL with its essential voice. Vocalist and tuba player Jared Mankoff plays alternating roles as a devilish shaman who wrily unsettles the more structured works and as a boisterous ringmaster who conducts the raucous six-ring circus swirling behind him.

To call Brand New Life a promising debut album is to mistake the product for process. The young musicians here already possess the singular voice and sound of a seasoned band. Whatever transformations their musical expression continues to take on will owe more to creative exploration than a refining and polishing of talent. --Hidden Tiger

Post Script
Gasoline Stove will appear at the Station in Carrboro Thursday, August 26th.
The Brand New Life will celebrate their Chapel Hill release party at Jessee's in Carrboro Friday, September 3rd.

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