Reviews: Hella, Film School, Dan Mangan

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Hello, all. What’s shakin’? I’ve been burning the midnight oil to get through the last of the summer releases. This is the best of the lot. A little something here for almost everyone. I’ll be back soon with a few surprises. As always, thanks for reading. Out… AMH

Film School, Fission (Hi-Speed Soul)

On this album the atmospherics of San Francisco’s Film School (Greg Bertens/Lorelei Ployczyk/Jason Ruck/Dave Dupuis/James Smith) play like something from a smart indie film, evoking images of late nights, neon colors reflecting off shiny streets and headlights poking through the mist; calling up the distant sounds of the dark city. This is a contrast from previous efforts which had them sounding somewhat less luminous. They have a colorful history dating back to ’01, when Bertens released an album entitled, A Brilliant Career, which included members of Fuck and Pavement. Making his way through a couple EPs, one of them on Scott Kannberg’s label, he released a second album in ‘06 and another in ‘07. Much touring followed in ‘08. Now there is a solidified line-up and probably a more assured sense of identity. The under-annunciated interplay of the male/female vocals on “Heart Full of Pentagons” strikes you immediately and sounds vaguely familiar like something that has been done before, but it works alright here. As the rest of the album unfolds it reveals itself to be fine cosmopolitan dance-rock with insistent beats driving songs of the “new-millennium-urban-new-wave-for-adults-who-can’t-stand-the- crapola-on-the-adult-alternative-radio stations.” Comparisons to several bands on 4AD Records are not inappropriate. Their brand of electro-dream pop, as it has been called, has its moments, to be sure, and it rises above the drek out there. They could shake loose of their comfort zone now and then and get more rad, but I don’t wanna hate. There are plenty of people waiting for this band – they just don’t know it yet.

Hella,Tripper (Sargent House)

After four years, they’re back! And no matter how far afield they may wander away from this outfit when they do return one can’t really doubt their commitment to the brand. This is Hella's fifth album and they could do this in their sleep now. This record continues the trend of label hopping, and it sees them paring down from a five-piece back to a two-piece, with Zach Hill on drums and Spencer Seim on guitar, bass and keys. (It seems like Zach has played on about a hundred other records by every imaginable kind of artist in the last few years.) “Headless” is a controlled mind-spasm, complete with a rooster crow guitar break that acts as a nice warm-up for what’s ahead. “Self Checkout” is like Dub Trio. “Long Hair” gets squirmy and opens the door to more jazz-like components hidden underneath the din. This is partly rooted in the seminal noise-rock duo Godhead Silo, but Hella have always done their own dirty work and created their very own jagged edge. “On The Record” is a wicked-cool example of that. This is pissy, angry, ornery music, and this album is more direct (less convoluted) than some of their previous material. It might not burn like sulfuric acid, but it’ll sizzle your skin like bacon grease.

Knitting By Twilight, Weathering
I think this is recording number seven by this band, because it says Edition 7. Limited to 500, with an awkward, over-sized, three-panel cover, it includes eight instrumental tracks written by John Orsi, and recorded and mixed by John and Karen Orsi. Some of the words that come to mind to describe them would be ‘ambient’, ‘ethereal’, ‘spacious’, ‘open-air’ and ‘delirious’. There’s a definite twilight feel on songs like “Clouds and Stars.” Orsi play keyboards, roto-toms and something called Evelyn’s metals (pots, pans, whisks) and some very interesting sounds come out of that set-up . There’s a Brian Eno and Harold Budd vibe to a lot of this, and there’s even a song entitled, “Harold’s Budd,” oddly enough. “Heavy Water” is also very good; like a score from a long-lost horror-thriller film. Mike Marando joins them on guitar, e-bow guitar and some bass, to augment what Orsi does, and they honestly don’t need much else.

Dan Mangan, Oh Fortune (Arts & Crafts)
Vancouver folkie goes all out on this quizzical and multi-faceted album. Mangan’s previous album, Nice Nice Very Nice won iTunes Album of the Year in the singer/songwriter category, and he’s toured with the Walkmen and The Decemberists, but he’s far from a household name anywhere in the U.S. Oh Fortune should garner him some deserved exposure. The opener, “About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All” sets the ride in motion, and it gets my vote for song title of the year. “If I Am Dead” shows off another facet of his eccentric talents, but it is “Rows of Houses” that blows everything else out of the pool here. I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s one of the songs of the year. With the advent of a full band on this album, and some quasi-orchestration (with Eyvind Kang arranging), he tries to pull off a heady undertaking, with some rich, layered sounds, and that can be tricky in any context. Mostly, it proceeds without a hitch, proving his instincts are right on. Damned if there might not be a dose or two of Neutral Milk Hotel floating in there, as well. A dynamic production by Colin Stewart (Cave Singers, Black Mountain) helps. Impressive.

The Piney Gir Roadshow, Jesus Wept (Greyday)

The ever-eclectic Greyday hits a long ball again. Singer/accordionist Angela Penhaligon has recorded under the name Piney Gir for several years, but now she has finally put together a band built around that moniker. Along with mandolin, fiddle, pedal steel and banjo, the accordion establishes the country basis upon which everything else stands. It’s never straight-ahead, with songs turning on a dime. Just when you think something is going one direction they jerk the rug out and go a different way (“I Was Born In A Thunderstorm”). “Master/Mistress” shows off her great voice and demands to be turned up louder. Apparently, she was the product of a strict religious upbringing, hence the album’s title, and it comes out in fits and starts. Piney’s got some road left to travel before she can be fairly compared to Dolly Parton on any practical level, but some fans have gone on record saying that she’s akin to an “indie Dolly Parton.” We should just let her be Angela right now. When she stays away from the purposely campy she excels. That could be a lesson to her and her team for the future. They are so good they don’t need gimmicky songs. On “Fast Cryin’” she sounds a little like Texas singer Toni Price, a compliment of the highest order, and this album is a strong and clearly defined musical statement. Now, she needs some mainstream exposure to see how the masses will respond to her. Has she played Austin City Limits yet? How about opening for Toni Price and Cia Cherryholmes? Just sayin’.

Vanish Valley, Get Good (Hard Bark)

This band has an interesting backstory. After college Andrew McAllister made his way from Seattle to Austin to work in film, and while in Texas he began to embrace the music of Townes Van Zandt and Daniel Johnston. He returned to Seattle and formed a “sleepy-country” band called Conrad Ford. After two albums, he decided to bolt from Seattle, again and landed in L.A. He collected some thrift store instruments, wrote the first Vanish Valley album, built a studio and found a drummer. With the new drummer McAllister began recording songs that would become this album. He now lives in L.A. full- time and works as a film editor. Got all that? There is a strong Jeff Tweedy/Wilco-esque strain running through this album, though it’s not exactly what I would refer to as straight-up Americana. “Hazy Hills” could be a Tweedy song that originated with several of his records, but it has its own quirks too. “Slow Down” is another respectable, inoffensive song that falls right into that slot without much effort. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. It might be unavoidable given McAllister’s vocal similarities to Tweedy. The banjo/harmonica parts do move the pieces around the board a little more, and the general noise in the mix is a good thing. The second half is better, with “Stuck In L.A.” and “Country Flowers” providing something weightier in the aggregate, like buckwheat pancakes vs. the weak flapjacks you get from other bands. Jeff Tweedy should occasionally hang his head in shame over some of what his music has wrought, but this is a progeny he can be proud of.