Magic Central

Breathe Owl Breath // Magic Central

We’ve got two new discoveries this week that are blowing our mind.  Both albums have been out for a bit.  But you need to hear them.  Now.

First up comes Michigan’s Breathe Owl Breathe and their first album for Portland’s Home Tapes label.  (We’re not the only one playing catchup with this band now.) I’ve been to Michigan – it has surprisingly dense and rich forests, the perfect places for a band like this to hide out until the time is just right.  And the time is right.

Born on the breeze of the Yann Tiersen tour, this record came recommended by Michael over at Ear To The Sound.

Intimate vocals married to plaintive acoustic picking dominate the landscape, and this record would not sound out of place next to Mojave 3/Neil Halstead or Sun Kil Moon.  What really sets this band apart is  lead singer Micah Middaugh’s lyrics and delivery.  Earthly, yet obsessed with the otherworldly.  Immediate, and yet looking beyond.

“Look down – there’s a welcome mat over a trap door. Whats on the other side? The spirit world.”

For our next piece of evidence, we present from House Of Gold: “Paralyzed by beauty. Don’t leap from the balcony… oh yes, there are handclaps.”  And then handclaps kick in.  Its this irreverence that helps set this band apart.  The playfulness, the lack of pretension, the happy-go-lucky vibe… we’re smitten.

Dragon pretty much seals the deal on our new love affair. The fairy-tale introduction to the song is the most endearing and whimsical thing we’ve heard in ages.  And a playful introduction to the little worlds that Breathe Owl Breathe create.

Andrea Morena-Beals’ voice is the perfect contrast to Micah’s plaintive whisper, sounding like some combination of Feist and Julie Doiron.   Effortless arrangements and a refreshing lack of clutter help make Magic Central an outstanding and accomplished debut.

Catch Breathe Owl Breathe opening for Yann Tiersen at The WECC on Feb. 27.

(Skip the first 15 seconds of the video. The rest of the song is gold.)

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Laura Viers - July Flame
I remember the first time I heard Laura Veirs. I was listening to KCRW’s Brave New World With Tricia Halloran and on came “The Cloud Room” from Laura’s first record for Nonesuch, Carbon Glacier. So catchy, darkly humorous and such a pure voice. That proved to be one of the best releases of that year. The next record, A Year Of Meteors, while containing another batch of brilliant songs, seemed overproduced by comparison. 2007’s Saltbreakers was, perhaps, a step closer to Carbon Glacier.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I haven’t heard a Laura Veirs record I don’t love yet, but I’ve been waiting for an album that would impact me on the level that Carbon Glacier did. I’m happy to say that July Flame is that album.

When word came that she had re-signed with Bella Union, a great label run by Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde (and formerly Robin Guthrie), I had mixed feelings. Nonesuch seemed a perfect artistic home for her, yet Bella Union was the home of my favorite album of hers.  Was Laura Veirs about to make a noise pop record?! Alas, Laura Veirs simply has made a record that Laura Veirs would make. Very wisely, she has kept the same producer she’s had since Carbon Glacier, the brilliant Mr. Tucker Martine. His treatment of Veirs’ material is perfectly graceful, knowing when to dress up a joyful moment and strip a solemn one to a pure voice in an empty room.

The record begins with the sparse and beautiful I Can See Your Tracks, adorned with the echo-laden voice of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. It is followed by the record’s finest song and title track, July Flame. With driving bass and percussion pulsing below, Veirs’ voice soars in the chorus with the refrain “Can I Call You Mine?”. It’s the finest song I’ve heard in 2010 and it even bests “The Cloud Room” in her canon. One would be remiss without mentioning her beautiful tribute to session musician Carol Kaye, entitled, well, Carol Kaye. Smile if you know who she is.

This record is a quieter one for Veirs. There are flashes of 99.9F-era Suzanne Vega and Neko Case, but Laura Veirs walks a unique path of her own. Beautiful support is provided by James, Martine, Karl Blau, Steve Moore, seasoned string arranger Stephen Barber and John Zorn/Bill Frisell regular (and former Winnipegger) Eyvind Kang.

I used to tell people to start with Carbon Glacier. That has now changed.

Sometimes we get a little cynical.  Sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to give in to a new act we’ve never heard of.  Every now and then we get surprised.

A few weeks ago The Albertans rolled into town on their cross-Canada tour.  Now based in Brooklyn and Vancouver, with a couple members who have Edmonton roots.And I must say, the opening act (The Wheat Pool) left me without much hope for the rest of the night.  Cliche’d frat-rock.  Boring, illiterate and best served with a Coors Lite.  No thanks.

But from the first notes – The Albertans surprised.  With confidence, strong arrangements, and most importantly strong vocals (reminiscent of Stars’ Torquil in tone and delivery) – the band created an inviting and intimate ambience.So, I bought the album.The record lacks the polish that the songs demand.  Its mixed unevenly and fails to properly convey several songs – particularly later in the record as the momentum falters.  But there is no denying its appeal, or the quality of the songwriting, or the great vocals and smart lyrics.
The female backing vocals are sweet – too sweet sometimes – but create a pleasant bed for lead singer Joel Bravo’s intimate baritone.The package design and band name don’t match the band’s indie-dance-vibe.  And the Sam Marcos title doesn’t seem contextual… so we’re gonna just chalk it up to a young, inexperienced band.  But its a band we’re going to keep an eye on, as this debut is stronger than anticipated.