Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Saturday Night Out: The Big Cats

Poster used courtesy The Big Cats.

There are many holiday traditions you may look forward to: singing Christmas carols, candlelight services and potlucks, seeing family you haven’t seen since last Christmas. One tradition that I look forward to all year is The Big Cats’ annual holiday show at White Water Tavern.

Though The Big Cats have been a band for nearly 20 years, for the last decade or more its members have been scattered across the country, making the holidays, when they’re all back here to visit family and friends, the only time during the year they can play together. This year’s show is extra special, as it comes on the heels of the release of the band’s fourth album, The Ancient Art of Leaving, a 3-LP or 2-CD collection of 25 of the best power-pop songs I’ve heard this year.

Once again, they’re playing 2 sets: a 6 p.m. all-ages set, with pop-punk youngsters Bad Years opening up, and a 10 p.m. adults-only set with support from local treasure, Kevin Kerby. If you’ve not heard it yet, Kevin Kerby’s new CD, Apostle’s Tongues, is a thing of stubborn beauty.

You can hear music from The Big Cats at the band's BandCamp site.

Take a listen to "It's Not Needing What You Want, But Wanting What You Need," the single from Kevin Kerby's Apostle's Tongues.

Bad Years have just initiated their own BandCamp site with a recording of a recent live gig at Vino's.

Friday Night Out: Velvet Kente Winter Clothes Dance Party

Poster used courtesy of Velvet Kente.

After you’ve braved the crowds and the stores, after you’ve eaten the leftovers and watched all the football you can take, shake off your Black Friday Blues at Velvet Kente’s Winter Clothes Dance Party. If you’ve been to any of Velvet Kente’s previous Dance Parties, you already know that this is a show not to be missed.

The band asks that you bring an item of winter clothing to donate. All clothing donated will benefit Our House, a shelter in Little Rock that offers educational programs, daycare, job training, workforce preparedness training, financial assistance programs, emergency shelter, and more for the working homeless.

The setlist is all songs from “the African diaspora,” which, if the previous soul and Afro beat parties are any indication, will be seriously funky.

The show starts at 10 p.m. (with support from DJ Swet and DJ Prophet) at the White Water Tavern. The cover is $10 ($7 with an article of winter clothing).

If you're not convinced, here's a clip from last fall's Afro Soul Dance Party.

See more at Velvet Kente's tumblr site.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Friday and Saturday Night Out: Bear Colony "Soft Eyes" Release Shows.


Album cover courtesy Esperanza Plantation.
Bear Colony pulls off something rather spectacular with its new release, Soft Eyes, which is out this week on the Esperanza Plantation label. On its first album, We Came Here to Die, the group didn’t call itself a band, preferring instead to refer to itself as a “collective.” The descriptor made a lot of sense as the group played more in the studio than on the stage and featured a rotating stable of musicians. Listening to that album, it was obvious that Bear Colony was pulling from a deep pool of talent, but it could often sound like a different band from track to track.

Soft Eyes, by contrast, is tightly focused both in sound and concept, and expands in every way in its predecessor. Most tellingly, the sonic palette has grown from the acoustic guitar plus electronics “laptop pop” that characterized the debut release. The new release is awash with warm, hazy soundscapes, reminiscent of Jesus and Mary Chain or Sigur Rós, punctuated with ear-worming pop hooks. "Flask Retort," the album’s first single and video (posted below), is a great example of the gorgeous sonic textures constructed throughout this record, with its swimmy, distorted synthesizers and drum machine track that recalls everything good about pop music in the 80’s.

I have always thought guitar feedback is one of the most cathartic noises humans have ever learned to make. Catharsis is a frequent topic of Soft Eyes. The record was inspired by the failing health and death of lead singer Vincent Griffin’s mother, and his grief hovers over the album like an unresolved chord. The album opens and closes with the question, “After we’re dead and gone, what is left of our souls?” In between those repeated phrases, Griffin channels his anger, grief, passion, love, and even happiness into a work about loss that is as profound as it is ultimately affirming.

Bear Colony is playing two shows in the region to celebrate the release of Soft Eyes: on Friday, November 16, at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville, and on Saturday, November 17, 2012, at Revolution Music Room in Little Rock. 607, one of Little Rock’s most popular and prolific hip-hop artists, is also performing and releasing a new album, titled YIK3LIF3!, at the Little Rock show.

Full Disclosure: Bear Colony’s drummer and producer, Mattew Putman, is also in the band SnailhuntR that released an album (the utterly brilliant Origin of the Spiral) through my own record company, Bigwig Enterprises, in 2003. Brooks Tipton, who used to play keyboards for Bear Colony, was my neighbor from 2007 to 2010 or 2011. Also, I am a Facebook friend with lead singer Vincent Griffin. This review is completely biased by those relationships, but it does not change the truth that Soft Eyes is a beautifully rendered work of art, well-deserving of your patronage.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Big Cats "The Ancient Art of Leaving"

Once you’ve done your civic duty today, take your mind off all the campaigning red state vs. blue state madness and check out “The Ancient of Art of Leaving” by one of the best bands the great state of Arkansas has ever produced, The Big Cats.

Two years in the making, “The Ancient Art of Leaving” is a 25-song double album, the first half of which, “High and Low,” was released on CD and iTunes almost a year ago. The second half, “Two Parts,” is available on CD and online today. All 25 songs are available on a massive, limited edition 3-LP vinyl set.

The “Two Parts” volume is easily the best start-to-finish record The Big Cats have ever made. It’s almost a shame that it’s the second half of a double album. It is, I think, a better stand-alone record than “High and Low,” though not so much that it’s dragged down playing the entire collection through in one sitting. In that context, however, it’s the rare album that gains energy, momentum, and focus in its back half.

The songs, starting with the irrepressible “I Can See Land,” are all memorable and smart. In fact, nearly every song has a hook that sticks with you well after the song has ended (and makes it easy to sing along to, even if you’re hearing it for the first time). The album’s production polish sounds shiny and expensive, but still has the energy and abandon of a band that’s excited to play these songs together. And the band continues to expand its sound in new directions. The horn section that showed up on the “High and Low” track “King of Brief” makes another appearance on “Born Clean.” Burbling synthesizers and glockenspiel fill out the sound on other tracks, and guitarist Jason White takes over lead vocals on the haunting “High Up Over the Wall.”

Efforts by local and indie bands frequently succeed squarely on passion, love, and ambition, but falter due to lack of resources. It’s truly great to hear a group of DIY true believers that sound like a million bucks. I should like to find some way of tempering my enthusiasm for this record or run the risk ruining my credibility by sounding like a fan boy (an occupational hazard since I typically only write about things I like). But the fact remains I’ve not heard many other records this year so consistently listenable, so well-written, and well-crafted from beginning to end regardless of where the band came from or how well I knew the musicians personally.

The 3-LP vinyl (with better than CD digital download options) is available at Bandcamp.

The CD and links to iTunes are available at the Max Recordings web shop.