On his debut album, Predispositions, singer/songwriter Matt Douglas strays from his jazz roots to wander into the world of folky pop-rock, creating an album full of reflections and observations on hell, happiness and women. Douglas finds his voice, a warm and warbly alto, functioning as its own spiritual soothsayer, taking life lessons of failed relationships, unrequited love and the higher art of understanding God and turning them into open-ended lyrical sermons of inspiration.
But don't be fooled: Douglas is not a champion of romanticized hope. In fact, his songs carry a pragmatic philosophy, relying heavily on his reality and eschewing his illusions. On "Second Floor," Douglas comes to terms with naiveté in romance, singing "I can't be so starry-eyed/ When the stars are loving you" over a sweeping arrangement that, like his voice, flows directly from a tempered shuffle to an emphatic swell. Songs like "Subway Girl," "Pauline" and "Annie" find Douglas on his knees, sorting through the pieces of his broken heart, thinking about second chances and bad timing to acoustic guitars. The gospel-influenced "Your Secret" walks the fine line between a sinner and a saint, sorting out small-town deception and morality over running lines of organs and handclaps.
Douglas isn't overtly optimistic or pessimistic, but he moves with the ebb and flow of his emotion, highlighting the pain and the pleasure through his music. His expert band follows him through those changes like it's their natural bent.--Katherine Justice
Matt Douglas & The Proclivities play at The Pour House on Aug. 3 at 10 p.m. For more info, visit www.theproclivities.com.
Put the Hammer Down
No one knows the exact date, but at some point in the early '90s it officially became a cliché to refer to a song of a certain guitar-rock vintage, presented with a loose-jointed delivery threatening to go ramshackle, to be "the best Replacements' song in X number of years." I'm here to look that cliché in the eye and declare that "All Dressed Up" and "Never Give an Inch," both from the Yayhoos' new Put the Hammer Down, are the two best Replacements' songs in 15 years.
It's not a forced comparison, either. The four members of the Yayhoos go back as far as the 'mats and some probably even shared a stage with them at one time or another. Guitarist Dan Baird was in the Georgia Satellites with bassist Keith Christopher before launching a successful solo career. Local guy Terry Anderson, your rare drummer/songwriter/vocalist, co-starred in the Fabulous Knobs and the Woods before releasing solo records of his own and starting the Olympic Ass-Kickin' Team. Eric "Roscoe" Ambel has the longest résumé of the crew, with memberships in Joan Jett's original Blackhearts, the Del-Lords and Steve Earle's Dukes, and production credits for numerous roots rockers.
Together, they are a bar-band supergroup, wearing the front half of that tag like a badge of honor, dodging the back half with self-deprecation, and willing to laugh at the oxymoronity of such a description. In fact, a line from Baird's "Never Give an Inch" might pass for the band's credo: "Well, I may be stupid, but, thank God, I ain't bored." But they're really not stupid. In fact, Hammer showcases the guys' versatility. Ambel's "Hurtin' Thing" is a shimmying, shimmering rocker with a big soul song inside, just trying to get out. The Baird/Mary McBride co-written "Would It Kill You" is a tough blues-rocker, "Between You and Me" is a jangly pop tune, and the band roll call "Everything/Anything" is a hoot. Things wrap with "Over the Top," a Stonesy power ballad written and sung by Christopher.
Elsewhere, they find the inner Yayhoo song in both "Love Train" and the B-52's' "Roam," which means plenty of swapped vocals and last-call guitar joy as well as an infectious pull that'll have you itching to, well, roam around the world on a love train. The latter, especially, becomes an anthem for the ages, its irony apparent when Baird sings what sounds like "hip!" repeatedly.
These guys are not the least bit interested in being hip. But, thank God, they're never bored. Or boring. --Rick Cornell
The Yayhoos play Tuesday, Aug. 22 at The Pour House. For more info, see www.yayhoos.com.
(307 Knox Records)
Fashion Design's music has plenty to recommend it to fans of other serrated, new-wavy bands. It's dark, moody and seething, embodying the sense of romantic dread that bands like Echo & The Bunnymen perfected in the early '80s. Pressurized percussion and loping bass lines slice neatly through reverberating, streamlined guitars. The Durham quartet's debut, Model, has its moments, like "As Is," a circular guitar shape swept up through a rush of jittery cymbals.
But intriguing moments don't necessarily make for an intriguing album. Overbearing lead singer Megan Culton handles more than half of the vocals with a syrupy but crisp inflection, alluding to an enduring Kate Bush infatuation. She even has the chops to pull off those deliriously tumbling glissandos. But, welded onto propulsive rock instead of Bush's glacial synth-pop, the lack of subtlety is hard to swallow. The irony, though, is that while Culton's lead is technically superior, Luke Berchowitz's anomic Lou Reed drawl on songs like "The Flying Honda" is less stiff and fares better than its scenery-chewing counterpart.
But the drums and guitar help Fashion Design sound more energetic than their sometimes-listless songwriting merits, though more variation in arrangements could prevent these nice grooves from fading into anonymity in the absence of contrast. --Brian Howe
For more on Fashion Design, see www.fashiondesignband.com.
Lovehead and The Real
The Definition of Love
(Elbbub Recording Group)
Raleigh trio Lovehead and The Real are a Southern rock band in the best sense of that misunderstood phrase: They'll probably never draw a comparison to Skynyrd, and they'll likely never open for third-generation re-casters of that model like The Drive-By Truckers. But--in the same way that Superchunk's indie rock swallowed and breathed the humidity of its cradle, or Sam Cooke sang with the thick heat of the region that reared him--Lovehead and The Real captures the geographical intangibles of its roots, sans accent or artifice.
Just hear the six tracks on their solid debut EP, The Definition of Love: Verse-chorus-verse modern rock built on pounding drums and distortion-pedal guitars comes paired to an unorthodox soul swagger, manifested with curvaceous bass lines and wide melodies. It's a refined grunge syndicate fed through a sweaty Southern rock club, integration encouraged. When such a hybrid works, it's sweet taffy: Songs like the slinking wind-up anthem "Out There" and the faux roadhouse-blues of "Nothing to Blame" are irresistible, lighting the spark of early '90s popularity with a new flint. It's a U-turn through music history, doubling rock berthed from rhythm 'n' blues back into its past.
But walking the line between soul music and grunge is as dangerous as it sounds: Overstepping leads to nondescript moments like the blander-than-Buckcherry "Daddy's Little Girl" or the self-wallowing, Stapp-ian lament "Nickel." But this isn't monochromatic Nickelback, obsessed with formulaic success. Rather, Lovehead does it with the unexpected: Atonal anti-riffs lurk through "Out There," searching for meaning in loneliness, and "Prelude to Wallow" handles tough three-part harmonies with finesse. That, at least, is certainly more than one can say for the band's more popular counterparts.--Grayson Currin
For more, see www.loveheadandthereal.com.
The blend of indie rock and chamber pop on The Never's concept album Antarctica is always grand but never grandiose: Every note is deployed in the interest of making the melodies as unforgettable as possible. The concept involves a boy returning a bomb he finds in his back yard to the city, only to be beset by evil witches. The concept is more explicit in the illustrated storybook that accompanies the album, but it simply provides a subtle structural integrity to the music.
But while the narrative arc is obscure, its subtext--the tension between youth and adulthood's conflicting desires for change or stability--is writ large in these lyrics of ominously shifting seasons and outsized emotions. A year's worth of inflamed passions drift by in the first four tracks alone. On the brief overture "Summer Time," a verdant bed of Brian Wilson-influenced harmonies buoy up a swooning vocal melody: "I'm in love, love, love." Delicate chimes waft over a spitting drum machine on "On a Mountain," as weeping strings saw out a forlorn melody and mandolin runs flicker like candlelight. The tone is charming but elegiac, and on "Leaves Start to Fall," a twinkling indie rock ballad with swelling strings, trilling organs and deft shifts in intensity, "Summer's over/ It's ending / It's over." By "Summer Girl / Old Man Winter," a wonder of contrast with its dark choral interludes and bright acoustic guitars, the winter has come to "bury everyone."
The lyrics can be mawkish, and more cynical listeners will choke on lines like "Group of faceless people far far away/ I've heard they take more than they give." Nevertheless, The Never's whipsmart arrangements, luxurious production and pitch-perfect sensitive-boy vocals render the words nearly inconsequential. Sounding like a mix of The Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie, with an unnaturally smooth finish for such a young effort, Antarctica is in fierce competition with Roman Candle's latest to be the most nationally relevant and commercially viable Triangle release in recent memory. --Brian Howe
The Never plays Shakori Hills with Woodwork Roadshow on Friday, July 28 at 7:30 p.m. For more, see www.thenever.org.