Wednesday, June 16, 2010

UDD Bipolar: '1st' thoughts

First and foremost, I know Up Dharma Down is well-respected among several circles. I even came upon American hippies who were familiar with them on some internet forums, and left me thinking their music must know no boundaries after the fact. I casually listened to Fragmented for a bit and thought it was okay, never really seriously dug into it, then I pulled my pants up and moved on to other music. When Bipolar came out, some reviews were just going crazy over how 'good' it is. So here I am- trying to find out once and for all what the 'buzz' was all about.

My first listen was a week ago, and decided right then and there that I needed to give this one a few more spins.  Definitely not impressive at first, but I told myself it's one of those albums where some mandatory "ear-grinding" was necessary to actually make sense out of the tracks. 

So as of now, I think I'm done with my 6th or 7th run. I decided to listen to the album once more and pretended it was my first time- all while writing my observations spontaneously.

I call this my "Bipolar Experiment", and these were what my 'notes' looked like (unedited):

Blessed - Haunting bass.  Break.  I love the explosion into a Mogwai-esque rock number at the end.

Clockwork - I waited for something to happen.  There's the distorted bass break, but nothing special.  Still can't make out anything the singer says.

All Year Round - sweet downtempo track.  Singer sounds like she's suffering from stomach pains.  Still waiting for something to happen... track ends anyway.

Taya - finally the first song that actually sounds like a song.  'Kagabi' and 'Kakitiran' - the way she sings those words is really annoying.

Unspoken Definites - I have a feeling she's only jamming those words in just to say them.  Good song for night-driving in the city.  First song I can think of playing while doing something.  Track reminds me of Zero 7.

The Cold is Warmth - Thom Yorke-esque type of instrumental.  Tuned up the volume for this one.  Sounds good.  Ends without notice.  Filler.

Two - By this time I figured you need to turn up the volume to appreciate what the other band members are doing.  Of course, that would mean subjecting yourself to louder drunken singing, but she actually sounds a bit bearable in this song.  By the way, I have nothing against singing like you've just drank a whole bottle of Tanduay, but at least make an effort to let us understand what you're saying.  Song ends ubruptly- again.

Sana - sweet song.  I actually like this.  No surprises, straightforward track.  Finally.  The guitar plays the role of lead guitar with loud distortion.  Song ends after loud guitar. ? Okay, I like this.

Return, Saturn, Return- Intro sounds like Thom Yorke / Radiohead's Kid A yet again.  Nice guitar when the beat kicks in. Ends. Filler.

Every First Second - weird dynamic at play here.  I like its awkwardness.  The chorus finally rocks the open hihat.  I like the chorus.  Progresses into something else... breaks.  Back to chorus.
Note#2: Her sharp voice soars above the rest of the instruments, in such a way one can't help but notice.  And NOTICE I do. She minces words too much that they're barely recognizable.  I don't care if everyone calls it "artsy singing", it's just bad singing to me.

Furnace - Piano track.  I like it.  Reminds me of Olafur Arnalds.  OVer quickly.  Filler again.

Silid - Night-time electronic track.  Lonely track.  Changes tempo in the middle.  Okay, so it's a night-time DRIVING track.  Love the mood of this one.  ENDS???  too short, WTH. FILLER.
Note#3: It's becoming apparent this band likes ending songs without climaxing (pun!). Numerous times I waited for something to happen, and it just ends.

Sugarcoats and Heartbeats - stripped down track.  electronica again.  Bursts into drumming.  Well, what do you know?  A track that actually tells you that it will end any minute now!
Note#4: I feel this album only works when you're alone at nighttime, while driving your car or in your room perhaps, and perhaps best for people who have trouble sleeping (I meant that in a good and bad way).

Okay, I edited that a bit. I just added the note numbers.

The band is creative, no doubt about that. But my biggest gripe? Her singing. "It" seems completely independent from the songs. The songs change, the instrumentations change, but her singing remains the same. Not always annoying, but most of the time anyway. Her style is just, uhh, not my cup of tea.

Okay, imagine you're on a luxury tour around the world. The songs are the countries you go to, and her voice is like the annoying alcoholic grandma who tags along.

Good enough?  No? Okay, I'll shut up now.

(The album is looking grim, but I feel I still need to do more listening for my sake. Will let you know what I find.)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

13 Seconds to Love by Kjwan (2009) Album Review

I feel I'm not qualified to comment on Kjwan since I barely keep the band in my consciousness.  For one, I've only heard one or two songs from their 2nd album, 2StepMarv.  And having listened to Kjwan's self-titled debut, I can't accurately say anything about the change in sound evident in 13 Seconds to Love.  If anything, however, it was for the better.

The album's name is supposedly inspired by the words of some producer from Malaysia that "he can tell whether a song is going to be a hit within the first 13 seconds". A hit, of course, is a song that is palatable to (or has the potential of being devoured by) the masses.  I'll give that Malaysian dude the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe he can tell that a song's going to be a hit if it does backflips in the first 13 seconds.  But what does it say about Kjwan- the guys who made the 13-second thing a template for writing this album?  Hit-seekers, to put it accurately.  Not inherently a bad thing, but it is sort of limiting isn't it?

The band then chose love as the album's central theme, and there you have it- a supposedly clever album title that can easily be confused with 30 Seconds to Mars.  Anyway, true to its word, the album is indeed full of songs about love- not the stereotypical "love songs" per se, or anything as cheesy.  But that's to be expected from most of Kjwan's music.

I've always known them to be a band that unabashedly flaunts a dominant overdriven lead guitar, but this time around the guitars actually get comfy in the background, building up songs from the bottom up, at the same sonic level as the other instruments.  This "effort in restraint" actually pays off, resulting to stronger songs that remain focused on their individual 'feels', as opposed to employing a jack-in-the-box style of guitar playing to keep the listeners interested.  There is the exception in What About Us however, which showcases orgasmic and cacophonic guitar work as if to say they haven't forgotten their guitar chops.

An old picture of the band as a complete 5-piece. 
(L-R): J-Hoon Balbuena, Boogie Romero, 
Kelly Mangahas, Marc Abaya, Jorel Corpus
There's also a new dynamic of extending sections of a song, oftentimes into climactic crescendos, usually towards the end.  It's both good and bad. Good because it sometimes contributes to the overall feel of the song, occasionally saving it from mediocrity, and bad because it's all too common throughout the album, not to mention these prolonged sections sometimes go on for too long.  At some points, the drums comes to the rescue and spices up these prolonged sections to keep things interesting.  At others, it adds to the annoyance of repetition.  Nevertheless, J-Hoon Balbuena's drumming is good and experimental, oftentimes coasting near the edge of overdoing it.  However, the drums themselves sound too 'treble-ish' for my taste.

The lyrics are plain and simple, and I have nothing to say about it.  Vocal duties are now divided between Mr. Marc Abaya and Mr. Boogie Romero.

Marc Abaya hasn't changed, still singing in his signature hushed voice.  He tends to sing the last word of a line by 'sliding' his voice down though- which I find annoying (a thing I cannot accurately put into words but I'll just point you to the stanzas of Lifeline).

Boogie Romero on the other hand, is a surprise.  He's got a small singing voice, that of a little shy kid.  It would really help if he loosens up a bit, belting the words out without having to worry about letting too much saliva out (or phlegm).

Kelly Mangahas plays the bass in such a way that you'll remember the songs by its bass lines.  Really great performance from the guy that I might consider giving this album to him.

The album was recorded in Kerplunk Studios in Manila I heard, and so far this is one of the better rock productions in the Philippines I've heard these days in terms of sound quality. I can totally see recommending the studio to other bands, Urbandub most especially.

Overall, an enjoyable album.

My score:
6 out of 10

Friday, June 4, 2010

Franco (2010) Album Review

Where to begin?

It's hard to believe Franco Reyes' existence in Cebu's music scene goes a long way back, but I was never really that fond of his early releases with his then-band Frank!.  I do remember first seeing them performing covers- that day me and my brother decided to see a random concert, and with luck, caught one headlined by Frank.  They performed a complete set, what songs- I'm not sure, but if my memory serves me right, I think they played STP's Piece of Pie and a solo acoustic version of Plush.  I remember turning to my brother and saying, "this guy's got a really good voice".  Frank became permanently etched on my 'good band' radar after that gig, and they were just that- nothing to get excited over, really.

Within a span of several years, they had apparently released an album with little fanfare from me--- well, my feelings were the same for most (if not all) local musicians.  I never really 'drooled' over local music so to speak, not believing local acts would ever create any 'noteworthy' original tunes.  My expectations were low, and always only limited to good cover songs of the music that I do love, if I'm lucky.  Nothing more nothing less

Frank with Janjan Mendoza drumming for Czar Delos Santos.
(L-R): Ritze Arriba, Janjan Mendoza, Paul Cañada, Franco Reyes

That mindset would change after the release of Urbandub's Influence (also reviewed by this site).  By that time, Frank have since disbanded, only reuniting every once in awhile if Mr. Franco was in the country and available.  I would later hear that he moved to St. Petersburg (USA) around the mid 00's, continuing to write music and forming a new band in InYo- with Mike Sylvia (drums), Tommy Jamin (bass), and Anton Cortes (guitars).  In 2007 or 2008, I would hear these new songs, which Franco called 'demos', on his Myspace and Imeem page.  With the help of some nifty audio-ripping software, I was able to further drool over the tracks without having to be in front of a computer.

InYo (L-R): Anton Cortes, Franco Reyes, Tommy Jamin, Mike Sylvia

I believe it was in 2009 that Franco came home and started jamming with Gabby and Janjan of Urbandub, Buwi of Parokya ni Edgar, and 8 of Queso- and so started Franco.  They would ultimately re-record most of the 'Inyo tracks' with 3 new additions:   

Seasons, arguably one of the faster tracks on the record with obvious influences from 311 during the breaks, is a great opener.  It's convenient to consider it a love song- especially when taken out of context, but given its position in the album, it's an obvious invitation to the listener (...I'll wait for you to be a part of me and I of you...), and together "forever spin in love".

Last Waltz seems to suggest the momentary longing of good memories that lasted, a lost love perhaps, in a stupor (...will you hear my ailing words, will you be my everything?...) and the subsequent battle of the mind to quash the daydreams ('s clear as sober- to me you're just a fairytale...), only to long for it again (...count to three, you're stuck with me forever...).  The irony (and brilliance) of this song is that the 'waltz' never 'lasts'.

For My Dearly Departed is a solo acoustic track played over the sound of the gentle surf, left as they were from the last chants of "We Are" in This Gathering, closing the album with a hush, and singing the listener to sleep.

The album cover.

Despite the quality of the songs, there are a few things that need to be addressed.  The biggest problem in particular is the songs themselves which are basically just carbon copies of their original InYo versions (with the exception of the 3 songs mentioned above).  With the prior knowledge of InYo, it's almost impossible not to pit both releases against each other.  Both concerned parties may be in agreement with the recording of this album- but credit has to be given, and through the eyes of the listeners- through my eyes, it should be given to Franco Reyes and the rest of the members of InYo, not the members of Franco.  Seems they're conscious about their decisions seeing they named their band "Franco" in the first place.

But really, the whole picture takes on a new shape considering the 3 new songs.  They're just so good that they are somehow enough to give this album its own identity, not just some downgraded version of the original.

I would also have to say that the production values that went into the recording of InYo (US production) and Franco (PHILS production) vary greatly.  Though the tracks in the latter are more fleshed out and revitalized (since the band had ample time to further improve and tweak them), the audio quality still can't compare to the excellent production the InYo tracks got. Of course that would be the case. Recording studios in the Philippines have always had that major quality hiccup.

Franco (L-R): Gabby Alipe, 8 Toleran, Buwi Meneses
Janjan Mendoza, Franco Reyes

There's also the case of overdoing digital editing in some songs- most noticable in ones with quick "silent pauses" (Seasons- 1:04 to 1:16, A Mass...- 2:12 onwards).  Why bands opt to digitally clip these "silent pauses" instead of just doing it live/manually?  I don't know.  It only gives an awkward synthetic feel to a song, and damn them if they think they're fooling anybody into thinking it was all done "live".  Nevertheless, if they insisted on doing it, they should've made it so that it wasn't too obvious.

Lastly, one can also notice that the drumming is down a notch. Maybe it's directly related to the production woes or the fact that Janjan had to keep up with "already written" material, and it doesn't help he had to emulate someone who went to Berklee to learn his chops.

Despite these complaints, this album remains strong. At its core is great songwriting, and I'd go as far as recommending its quality from start to finish. It's about time the masses finally get a chance to hear one of the best Filipino rock singers to ever come out of the woodwork- who, by the way, not only sings with a convincing American tongue, but also sounds really good. It's safe to say Franco Reyes is definitely on a league of his own. You do not want to miss this album.

My score:
8 out of 10

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Influence by Urbandub (2003) Album Review

About two months ago, I attended a little concert dubbed Juan Tukar in a school here in Cebu (why it took me two months to write about it, I don't know). This band was “headlining” the concert (intentionally putting that in quotes since I believe bands that HEADLINE should play complete sets of 10 to 15 songs, whilst they only played a disappointing 5 songs). The show opened with 3-song performances from 5 or 6 bands that, as far as quality goes, were horrific (I'm talking about high school kids who sounded like they picked up their instruments yesterday). Tickets were free, so no big deal, thanks to my girlfriend. But it bothers me that people never really got their money's worth, only seeing a very short set from Urbandub, with an added bonus of painfully novice bands no one would ever pay to see.

 Urbandub (L-R): John Dinopol (guitars), Jerros Dolino (ex-drummer), Gabby
Alipe (vocals, guitar), Lalay Lim (bass).  Jerros Dolino played drums in the album.

Regardless, it was still a good night. The early parts were comedic, the last part- serious business. But this isn’t about the show per se. This story actually happened a few days before the show. Technically, I was a fan of the band, but after hearing their recent releases, I thought they had lost me. But, yes, I used to adore them. I even made a fansite which somehow grew and became their pseudo-official website for a brief period until I stopped updating (though I’ve recently delegated updating responsibilities to another person). I honestly did not “feel” their music anymore and eventually gave up on them.

Now, I cannot understand how I was able to “give up” on a band that immensely inspired and captivated me at some point. Most people would say that it is logical and often normal to “fall out of love” with a band because tastes are ever-changing, and I do believe that to a certain degree, but do tastes really change? Did my taste change? Maybe only when we are dishonest to begin with? Was I dishonest? With those questions in mind, I redownloaded their past albums, specifically Influence (2003), to see for myself. Did I change?

Naaah. And young as I was (maybe 7 to 8 years younger) I knew I was listening to a great record. Listening to it again makes me feel like it is probably the best OPM (Original Pinoy Music) album, and the guys at PULP magazine seem to agree, ranking it #4 in its “greatest local albums list” (link to follow). I still could not understand how quick I was to give up on this band!

Urbandub Influence
The cover art of Urbandub’s 2nd album, Influence.

I enjoyed Embrace (2005) a fair bit, making me feel unneeded angst at my age thanks to its more in-your-face brand of music, but the change in sound in Under Southern Lights (2007) put me off completely, though lately I’m slowly beginning to appreciate it. The new albums do have one thing in common- they seem desperate for attention, in a “look at me! look at me!” kind of way. And I believe that’s essentially what makes them sub par.

Influence is exactly the opposite.  This is an album for the underdogs, and much of its appeal stems from it. It was also appropriately produced during the years when the band was still itself an underdog. The song Versus accurately encapsulates the state of the band at the time (...standing on the back line but now I'm way ahead, couldn't believe it...).  That was when Manila was still figuring out if they should accept this little band from Cebu with open arms.  And open arms, they did.

Urbandub's current line-up (L-R): John Dinopol, Gabby Alipe, Janjan Mendoza, Lalay Lim

The album is not technically complicated compared to their later albums- which I think is largely due to the change of drummers.  Nevertheless, complexity is and was never a sure-fire guarantee to quality.  Only the best musicians get away with it.  But for most it's all a gimmick really - a chance to showcase and 'shine'. It's that lingering undisciplined feeding-of-the-ego that haunts all musicians, big and small, denying the people what could have been 'great music'. Most of Urbandub's later albums suffer from it, slightly at the least.  On the other hand, Influence feels content just being what it is, simple and not looking to impress, uncaring/nonchalant, and it emerges victorious without needing to perform.

My score:
9 out of 10