Ampeater Music

Welcome to Ampeater Music. You'll notice that we've totally stripped the design. We were getting tired of the old one, and the best way to force ourselves to fix it was to dive in head first. We've unpublished all our past posts, and we're starting at the beginning, revamping each entry one at a time. They'll all be back up on the site soon enough! In the meantime, we hope you'll take the opportunity to reacquaint yourself with our back catalog. We'll also be making incremental improvements to the look and functionality of our dear old Ampeater over the coming weeks and months. Please be patient, and stay tuned for some really cool stuff. It's coming, we promise.

AEM044 Lady Lamb the Beekeeper

AEM044 Lady Lamb the Beekeeper

There’s a line in a Boy Without God song that goes “And if you play an instrument, I’m probably a little bit in love with you.” I’m not sure whether there’s some sort of chip that they put in pubescent males when we’re not looking, but it’s almost universally accepted as fact by most young men of quality and standing that if you can play three chords on your older brother’s beat up acoustic, we like you. A lot. The best performers have a way of creating a bridge between stage and audience that makes every listener in the room think that he or she (and only he or she) is being sung to, and that each song was written explicity for his or her ears. This is the pinnacle of the coffeehouse experience, and it’s something that generally only transpires in documentaries about Greenwich Village in the 60s. And yet, I get the same feeling when Lady Lamb the Beekeeper pops up on iTunes.

Lady Lamb the Beekeeper (Aly Spaltro) is one of those rare individuals for whom musical expression is so natural, so inherently part of her being, that she’s able to produce truly moving art with a grace seldom seen at her age (or any age, for that matter). When her plans to travel to Guatamala between high school and college fell through and she was suddenly faced with a year of aimlessness, Spaltro made a conscious decision to begin making music. Under most normal circumstances, this seems like a logical step, but I neglected to mention that prior to making this decision Spaltro had no musical experience. So, she began to assemble her arsenal, beginning not with instruments, but with the means by which to capture her (at this point imaginary) songs–an 8 track tape recorder. That’s right, she bought the recording equipment first. Now that’s commitment.

But she had a clear and simple concept in mind: she wanted to layer instruments, to create songs with an emphasis on sonic texture. When most musicians say something like this, their music ends up sounding like an Animal Collective b-side, or some equally soupy collage of overlapping samples, but not so with Spaltro. Her songs have their origins in folk music and the more delicate side of modern indie pop. A certain innocence pervades them that’s maybe better described as conviction–there’s no sense that she’s “trying” to accomplish anything in particular, but rather creating exactly the songs that she needs to create in exactly the way that she needs to create them. There’s little to no artistic pretension in her music, just a quarter-inch cable from her brain to your stereo.

Spaltro immediately dove into her newfound passion, recording two solo demos in two months while simultaneously learning each instrument needed to tranfer her mental soundscape to tape. Heads up, this next part sounds a bit like the beginning of some rock and roll fairy tale (and let’s hope it is). She left 9 copies of her demo in a brown paper case on the counter of Bull Moose music in Brunswick, ME. 8 of these disappeared, their captors absconding into the ether never to be heard from again; 1 went to TJ Metcalfe, who teamed up with Spaltro and became Lady Lamb the Beekeeper’s all-purpose instrumental accompaniment. Together they recorded a number of new tracks, and culling the best of Spaltro’s early demos, a third album came into being: For Handsome Animals. Now available in a paper case at a record store near you! Or, you know, on iTunes.

The two songs on Lady Lamb the Beekeper’s Ampeater 7-inch straddle the full length of her budding career. Side A “Almond Colored Sheets” is her most recently recorded track, scheduled to see a limited CD release on an upcoming album of demos and rarities. Built on the trifecta of banjo, organ, and vocals, “Almond Colored Sheets” is nothing short of spectacular. I chalked up a double digit play count within an hour of this tune hitting my inbox. It opens with the poignantly redemptive, “I was running through a bad dream, but now I can make it out,” which situates the tune in whatever emotional state wavers between lucid dreaming, childhood nostalgia, and genuine longing. It’s as though Spaltro cast a net and captured those little thoughts that dart in and out of your head when you space out on long bus rides.

This tune has all the hooks, well, all the good ones anyways. The banjo provides a solid percussive base while the organ serves up a soothing harmonic drone and some brilliantly placed melodic figures. This foundation frees Spaltro’s voice to be optimally expressive as the song builds towards an inevitable climax. I like to think of Spaltro as a musical sponge, absorbing sounds for the first eighteen years of her life, just knowing that when she reached the appropriate saturation point she’d put all that stored knowledge to good use. She doesn’t disappoint. At about 2:24 in, there’s a dramatic break in the instrumentation as she finishes the verse, “I slipped out of the shower to discover that his mother had taken my towel, so I had to resort to using your old kindergarten t-shirt.” If hearing Spaltro sing the words “your old kindergarten t-shirt” doesn’t instantly recall some long lost flake of memory, please seek medical attention, as you’re officially immune to music.

Side B “Dinosaur Song” is one of Spaltro’s first complete recordings, completed during a time in which she was eager to put her thoughts down on tape even as she was still learning the rudiments of each instrument. The whole tune was written and recorded in less than an hour, and each part was completed in one take. Maybe it’s just Christmas breathing down my neck, but with its haunting vocal opening and sparse guitar, I feel like “Dinosaur Song” could be a bonus track on the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack. Like Jeff Mangum’s recordings as Neutral Milk Hotel, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper’s songs are miniature worlds in and of themselves; to listen is to step inside something truly special, so take your coat off and stay a while. She sings,

I want to fly my soul like a kite,
want to see you walk through that doorway
and into this room where i am waiting for you
you like the sea
and how the sea began with a drop of sweat
soaked into a cloud swiped across the brow of god
and how he rung it out into sharp teeth to scales
and how the carnivore was born

Listening to this song is like reading Catullus’s love poems in alternating lines with Bullfinch’s Mythology–I’m not sure whether I’m hearing love poetry or legend, but either way I like it. The recording can get a bit rough at points, but there’s greatness here. If those 8 mystery owners of the original demo had really listened to the music, if they’d fully stepped into the world of Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, they’d have kept the disc in a safe deposit box–who knows, it might pay for their retirement some day.

OK, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic, but there are big things on the horizon for Lady Lamb the Beekeper. On the heels of her Maine “world” tour (she hit only towns in her home state that share names with countries) this past summer, she began working with producer Alias to create something with a bit more sheen than her self-recorded demos. Truth be told, Spaltro could sing into a transister radio and I’d still buy the record. Having said that, I can’t wait to see her bust out a full band studio album–wonderful, magical things will happen. When I hear these songs, I hear St. Vincent, Karen O, and Feist; but somehow I get the feeling that the day is fast approaching when St. Vincent, Karen O, and Feist will get to hear Lady Lamb the Beekeeper.

AEM036 Benji Cossa

AEM036 Benji Cossa

Benji Cossa was once called “The King of Song” by Bjorn Copeland of the Black Dice. Other people that have been referred to as musical royalty include: Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash, not to mention Queens Aretha and Latifah, Ozzy the Prince of Darkness, and just plain old Prince–all popular artists that achieved massive radio success. Cossa heard his song played on the radio too. Once. He recalls, “They played ‘April’ on WFMU and I missed it. I didn’t know it would be on, but I turned on the radio and heard my name. It was exciting.”Benji Cossa, like many truly great songwriters, doesn’t “write” songs in an active sense of the word. They just seem to spill out by the dozens–on train rides, at work, all the time. It’s remarkable, and it’s genuine. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t work hard. He’s a craftsman, and he’s very serious about his work. The man’s prolific, but only a small cult of friends and fans can say that they’ve heard even one of his thousands of original compositions.

Cossa’s a complex and emotional individual, but there’s nevertheless a certain element of simplicity that pervades his music. Well, to call it simplicity is to sell it a bit short because what we’re really talking about here is innocence. There’s more than a little bit of Daniel Johnston in him, if it’s possible to draw the comparison without implying that Cossa’s an acid-casualty-crazy-person (he isn’t). That said, he’s been making music almost as long as I’ve been alive, and still refers to guitar chords by shape: “line” (A major), “triangle” (D major), “upside down triangle” (D7), “regular” (that’s “G major”), and my personal favorite, “the hard one” (meaning “C major”). His instruments are often a bit out of tune, and I’d wager that the whole concept of musicianship (you know, precision, sounding “good”) that so many songwriters embrace as a crutch is the furthest thing from his mind during the creative process. Actually, Benji Cossa doesn’t really have a creative process; his whole life is a creative process. He just does, and fortunately for us what he does is really phenomenal. Part of it’s the voice, that wonderful effortless voice. I once asked him whether a particular part happened to be sung in falsetto, to which he replied “What’s that?”. Seriously. He has no vocal break whatsoever, and makes use of more octaves than most pianists (Hyperbole, you say! Listen, I say).

Cossa’s songs are flexible shells, and translate well into a variety of formats. Whether it’s his home recordings (Benji Cossa’s Vault Vol. 2), acoustic pop (Between the Blue and the Green), or rollicking country rock (Benji Cossa & The Tightens), his melodic sense and complex world view shine through. His catalog is a veritable “choose your own adventure” album, which made constructing this 7-inch a blast. What we have here today are some recordings made at the turn of the millennium on 4-track tape and 8-track cassette machines. But don’t let the lo-fi aesthetic fool you, Cossa’s not trying to fall in with the likes of Iron & Wine or Devendra Banhart. His influences are more in the direction of ELO and the Doobie Brothers than anything deliberately DIY or folksy sounding. And for those who would draw the seemingly obvious Beatles parallel inspired by his soaring tenor, Cossa would respond with “Beatles? Not that great.” There’s no pretension to Cossa’s incidental appropriation of the lo-fi aesthetic–it’s merely a product of the tools that he had available to him at the time.

Benji Cossa has a knack for writing beautiful and catchy pop tunes about some seriously heavy themes. A-side “Superlow” is a hook-ridden walk through the guilty pastures of someone’s impulsive sexual exploits. It so effectively conjures the grit and depression of an adulterous encounter that I feel shitty just listening to it. But it pushes even further into the psyche, switching voices between some governing subconscious and the perpetrators themselves. The song opens in medias res, and the subconscious voice advises “If so, let yourself go,” to which the perpetrator responds with the rationalization, “We both need it, and why not? It’ll be our little secret.” The subconscious voice then returns with the provocation, “Go on, go, go, go go go go!” The perpetrator, now sexed, reflects, “We set our sights super low, we made our beds and now we’re lying, but it’s not cheating.” Literary critics would have a field day with this, as the ensuing cacophony brought on by the song’s multiple narrators allows it to possess a kind of intratextual discourse, and consequently assume layers of interactive meaning that would be otherwise impossible. In other words, this is some good shit.

“Superlow” was written in 2000, back when Cossa was living jobless in a spacious apartment in the now trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  After blowing through his savings, he took on a job for $6.50 an hour at Petland Discount and moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where he was promptly mugged at his front door. Finding more cockroaches than neighbors, he brought home a Tokay gecko named “Creepers” to rectify the situation. His room was barely large enough for a bed and a dresser. It was around this time that Cossa began his love affair with WCBS FM, the New York classic rock (50s-70s) radio station that played day in and day out at Petland. Most (if not all) of Cossa’s music has deep roots in WCBS FM’s top 40 lists. It’s with this mindset (shitty apartment, shitty job, classic rock) that we approach “Life Might Be In Vain.”

Now, from the above description you might assume that B-side “Life Might Be In Vain” is about “the artist” and his struggle to function within the bounds of a society that doesn’t fully appreciate his craft. But, this is where you’d be wrong. It’s actually about zombies. A friend happened to be making a film about a zombie invasion and asked Cossa to contribute to the soundtrack. The premise to “Life Might Be In Vain” is this: the main character’s girlfriend has abandoned him and he laments that without her love, he might as well get bitten and turn into a zombie. Cossa insists that most of his songs, even those with deeply personal themes, are merely his quirky take on humanity’s problems. Only a handful are directly relevant to his own struggles and triumphs. “Life Might Be In Vain” has a certain comfortable lilt and off-kilter vocal style that might seem oddly familiar to those of you who’ve heard Bob Dylan & The Band’s “Basement Tapes.” It’s Cossa on every instrument here, testing the waters in a style and groove that would resurface in a major way on his Benji Cossa & The Tightens record.

Not enough people listen to Benji Cossa’s music, period. We’re working damn hard, hand in hand with the folks at Serious Business Records to change this. So go on, go, go, go go, go listen to some Benji Cossa.

AEM029 Unsacred Hearts

AEM029 Unsacred Hearts
  • Location: New York, NY
  • Links: Record Label, Bandcamp
  • Personnel: Joe Willie (lyrics, vox), Dave Siegel (guitar), Andy Ross (bass), Andy Bean (bass), Travis Harrison (drums)

So I’m reading this Guided By Voices tell-all biography in an attempt to catch up on the last 20 years of their music. Being a child of the 2000s with respect to my artistic tastes, I seemed to have missed out on the lo-fi indie movement altogether, until people old enough to be my father kept mentioning bands like Guided By Voices and Pavement with a kind of religious reverence. And I have to say, my first impressions of the whole scene weren’t too great. I wasn’t immediately “struck” by the enormity of their talents. But here I am, reading a Guided By Voices biography in an attempt to “get” it, and I’m just starting to gain some perspective. In order to fully appreciate some music, it’s necessary to suspend one’s critical faculties and just dive straight in, to accept that the mind behind it is infallibly brilliant, and that any misgivings on one’s own part are nothing but critical paranoia. Once this happens, something clicks, and just like that a once scorned album turns into a perennial favorite. To paraphrase Scat records founder Robert Griffin on Guided By Voices’ notoriously abrasive Vampire on Titus, “Once you get inside, it’s a pretty big house in there.” This is the mindset with which to approach the Unsacred Hearts, so take my hand and let’s step inside the house.

The original Unsacred Hearts formula was a simple one: bang it out fast and loud, rely heavily on frequent references (both lyrical and musical) to the rock ‘n roll music that they worshipped, and drink as much beer as possible all the time. In striving to be equal parts Bruce Springsteen, Robert Pollard, and Lou Reed, the Unsacred Hearts succeeded in creating something that’s entirely their own, and a handful of listeners responded with appropriate enthusiasm. One critic once wrote, “They’re less of a band than they are UPS delivery-men, each song a neat little 3 minute package of tight catchy riffs and shout/sung lyrics, each song like getting a hallmark card from your Nana but instead of there being a ten dollar bill inside it just says ‘Fuck you.’” Another affirmed, “The Unsacred Hearts take their music wherever they damn well feel like, and they do it with a certainty and swagger that is becoming rare.” Over the years, the band’s evolved as the lineup’s changed (Andy Bean of the Two Man Gentlemen Band replaced original bassist Andy Ross when he left in 2005 to join OK Go) and its members have mellowed out a bit with age. The urgency of their early records has dissipated somewhat, and the interest on their ten dollar “fuck you” has accrued to a hundred dollar “I don’t really give a fuck.” And they don’t. Well, they do, but they don’t. These are musicians who care deeply about their music and how it’s presented, but if they happen to come across as a bit too abrasive on first listen, they’re not about to write a postcard asking for a second chance. It’s your loss, not theirs.

Ampeater is proud to premiere two new Unsacred Hearts songs on this 7-inch: A-side “Fake Kisses” and B-side “Sleepwalker”. The band generally divides their catalog into “rock” tunes (which are more post-punk than anything else) and “jazzy” tunes (meaning, anything other than “rock” tunes). Over time, the balance of “rock” tunes to “jazzy” tunes shifted from something like 90/10 to 30/70, and the band now regularly indulges in moments (and even whole songs) during which the testosterone oozing from their amplifiers has a chance to regroup and listen to something pretty. Even “Fake Kisses,” which is more or less perfectly representative of the Unsacred Hearts’ “rock” side, has an air of maturity about it that didn’t exist at all on their 2004 Unsacred Hearts EP and was only hinted at on 2006′s In Defense of Fort Useless. The tune opens with a groove-setting intro riff on the komuz, of all instruments. Guitar-master Dave Siegel brought this Kyrgyzstani influence into the mix (a little George Harrison, anyone?) and it’s a welcome addition to his brilliantly spastic guitar solo (a little Keith Richards, anyone?). Part of what makes the Unsacred Hearts more worthy of serious consideration than your average bar band is the sheer virtuosity of all its members. Drummer Travis Harrison is an absolute beast on the skins (tune in to the drum feature that starts around 2:30), and gentleman Andy Bean lays down a rock solid bass. And then there’s vocalist and lyricist Joe Willie. He doesn’t so much sing as he does yell, and I’m never sure whether he’s yelling at me or with me, but I suppose it’s at times one, at times the other, and most of the time a bit of both. A little passive-aggressive attitude goes a long way, and it’s an essential part of what makes the Unsacred Hearts a truly great band.

Side B “Sleepwalker” is scheduled for release on the Unsacred Hearts’ upcoming LP The Honor Bar (due out in 20something on Serious Business Records). This, in contrast to “Fake Kisses,” is a so-called “jazzy song,” and is a bit more representative of the band’s “new direction” (see: Tap, Spinal (n.) new direction). Not to belittle the instrumental content in the slightest, but this tune is really carried by Joe Willie’s lyrics. The struggle of the Unsacred Hearts has always been how to properly frame the lyrical content while maintaining a consistent instrumental aesthetic. If “Sleepwalker” is any indication, they’ve finally mastered this balance on The Honor Bar. Certain albums go best with a nice thick book of lyrics, and this is undoubtedly one of them. So, to save you the trouble of transcribing them yourself, there are the first two verses and the chorus:

I don’t wanna stay in my bed so farewell avenue with yr beauty monitor
Farewell Eveline with yer mother’s sick jokes I am here no more I am here no more
I felt my pulse in the dark the news was grim but I slept soundly then I rose at four
To gaze before the mirror in naked health it was dark I am invisible

I get caught sleepwalking in the moonlight
A riddle in the street in the middle of the night
I get caught sleepwalking in the moonlight
People think it’s strange I think it’s alright

It makes funny story but this turbulent situation is no more
Noon sun doldrums have settled like painkillers Einstein voted man of the century
He must be happy we must be happy for him and thank for his notions of time reverberating
From the cellar to the attic keeping me up at night keeping me up at night

I’ve never been one for poetry, or really even lyrics, so when a lyricist commands my attention in a musical context, it means that something truly spectacular is going on. Jeff Mangum does that for me, so does Adrian Orange, and so does Joe Willie. So do yourself a favor and listen, I mean really listen, to what these guys have to say. It may not hook you on first listen, it may not hook you on second listen, but a lot of great literature doesn’t exactly grab you by the collar and pull you in. It’s like reading Ulysses–it might be a little hard to get into, but you’ll be glad for the rest of your life that you made the effort and got through the sucker. It’ll change how you see the world, and if you’re lucky, how the world sees you back. So have a listen, and get into it.

AEM020 Jean-Rene Ella

AEM020 Jean-Rene Ella

I won’t do this too often, I promise, but I’d like to use the beginning of this review as an opportunity to climb up on my ethnomusicological soapbox and do some good ol’ fashioned preaching. I’ve had this idea for a couple years now that YouTube is the next evolution of musical transmission, in so much as it’s become a virtual substitute for the proverbial front porch banjo lesson. But, instead of sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor while your used-to-be-a-coal-miner-until-he-got-the-ol’-black-lung-don’t-ya-know Grandpa walks you through the rudiments of how to play “Darling Cora,” you get to sit in your boxers, eating Chinese leftovers, and work your way note by note through “StillJreming”‘s rendition of “Trouble in Mind.” You savvy readers already know this, but the internet has really done much more for music than merely piss off Lars Ulrich and encourage 1TB hard drive sales; it’s completely changed how music is passed down through generations. Teenage kids have just as much access to traditional blues and gospel tunes as they have to punk and rock, and this incredible confluence of influences is already leading to some wonderful things.  How else could an organic chemist in Indiana come to have 30,000 views on his YouTube video of ”Hard Time Killing Floor,” and inspire a listener comment like “There’s so much soul leaking from the guitar that you could harvest it, put it in mason jars then sell it for wholesale purchase with great bargains.” The great unveiling: StillJReming is Jean-Rene Ella, and though I’ve never met the man, he taught me how to play guitar.

Jean-Rene Ella is a citizen of the world in the truest sense. He grew up in Cameroon, Central Africa of a French-born mother and a father deeply moved by American blues and gospel. This alone is a recipe for musical success: African polyrhythm combined with the structure of traditional French folk tunes and the harmonic sense of the blues. Both parents were musical, and Ella began lessons on flute at the age of 4, moving first to piano and then finally guitar. For many years, his primary musical outlet was a small church gospel band, during which time he refined his musical sensibilities on the guitar, delving deeply into the tradition of the negro spiritual. In 1995 he moved to France and took up the role of singer and guitarist for a blues band called The Walkin’ Chairs, who can be heard on Side A of this 7-inch. The group toured the North East of France until Ella left to pursue a PhD in chemistry in the United States. This marked the end of his ensemble career, and Ella’s musical ventures have since been solo acts. For years he held a gig at a New Orleans establishment called ”The Neutral Ground Coffee House,” but despite his musical inclinations, his scientific mind drew him into academia. By happenstance, during a vacation in France in 2007 a friend introduced Ella to YouTube and joked, “Hey, you can play that song so much better and share it online like that.” They laughed, his friend flipped on a video camera, and Ella did exactly that. Two years later, more people have heard Ella play his guitar and sing than can fit in Giants Stadium.

When I contacted Jean-Rene Ella about doing an Ampeater 7-inch, I wasn’t too sure how he’d react. Was he a reclusive YouTube star like the renowned Fretkillr, or would he be gracious enough to lend his talents to our modest little website? Well, Ella turns out to be as magnanimous a human being as he is a musician, and here we are with two studio recordings from a true master of his craft.  Side A features Ella’s group The Walkin’ Chairs playing an original composition called “Human River,” and Side B is an Ella solo performance of the traditional spiritual “Wade in the Water.” ”Human River” is a slow build with a deep groove. It’s easy to talk about this tune like it’s a blues spiritual for a new era, but it’s not quite that. The Walkin’ Chairs aren’t mimicking or paying homage to a traditional genre. Instead, they’re actually part of it, they’re the real thing. There’s pain in this music, there’s introspection, and it belongs not to a single soul but to all of humanity. A solo guitar introduction gives way to a full band arrangement replete with string bass, drums, and one truly frenetic horn break. This tune might not grab some listeners–there’s no “hook.” The primary contrast is in Ella’s voice, constantly changing in dynamic and timbre, reaching clear highs and deep growls. I love it, but if you’re looking for something with a bit more apparent structure, then Side B is your thing.

You’ve probably heard this one before, performed by anyone from Marlena Shaw to Bob Dylan. Jean-Rene Ella gives us his own fingerpicked rendition of this classic. He serves up both lead and harmony vocals, creating an effect akin to call and response that gives the tune a brilliant fullness. I was once told that there isn’t 1, nor 2, nor 3, but 5 separate Michael Jackson vocal personas in ”Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” This might have had more to do with Quincy Jones’s enthusiastic production than with any sort of philosophical decision, but the idea is that each additional voice responds to the principle voice as a participant in the ongoing conversation of the song. “Wade in the Water” begins solo; a second voice enters in harmony on the refrain “God’s gonna trouble the water”; that same voice then departs and reacts to the chorus with subtle “ohoh”s. For the rest of the song it darts in and out, switching between harmony and counterpoint, leaving room for both Ellas to swim through the tune together, reacting and responding. Yeah, I know this is a little bit “out there” for a music review, but when I listen to Ella’s music, I sense something truly profound, something that asks me to listen just a bit more carefully than I otherwise might. There’s no dissonance here, no odd effects, no incredible production, nothing to really set your ears aflame with curiosity, but maybe the plain facade and candid disposition of traditional music frees us to listen a bit deeper into what we’re actually hearing and to grapple with it on a more fundamental level.

With that in mind, I leave you with some words from Ella himself: “I think that the original sound of work songs, negro spirituals and blues stayed with me because it felt so real. I’m not trying to sound cheesy or anything, but I could really feel the faith, or the pain or the joy in these songs, in that acoustic sound…something raw, unbiased, so I basically felt I had no choice. My heart and my mind wouldn’t let me play the Blues or the Gospel any other way.”

AEM011 Hotel St George

AEM011 Hotel St George
  • Location: San Diego, CA
  • Links: Bandcamp
  • Personnel: Matt Binder (guitar/vox), Erik Visnyak (guitar/bass), Brian Reilly (guitar), Brian Leader (drums)

If Gang of Four had met and reproduced with My Bloody Valentine, and if their super fucked-up kids had been raised on The Beatles and Guided By Voices and had managed to live long enough without killing themselves to make a record, the result might sound a lot like Hotel St. George. Their music is heavily guitar-based with nouveau punk vocals, slick instrumental production that pays homage to the 70s DIY sound without quite emulating it, and enough harmonic complexity to set up and execute some brilliant hooks. There’s really nothing to dislike here, and there’s a whole lot to merit repeat listens. But on first contact, Hotel St. George does little to grab and secure its listenership. I put it on, thought, “this is pretty good,” and went back to listening to Queensryche. City Boy Lemon, their latest LP release, is a grower not a show-er, and I’ve come back to it again and again over the past couple weeks with an eager ear to the melodic contour of their songs and the pure joy of dancing around in my underwear while Matt Binder sings “I always dream of sex, I always dream of death, it’s always on my mind, it’s always on my mind.” Cute stuff. In sum, I’ve decided that I really like this band, and I’d like to share them with you guys.

They came to be over Thanksgiving 2008, when bassist/guitarist Erik Visnyak sat down at singer/guitarist Matt Binder’s borrowed Wurlitzer piano and immediately proceeded to spill a glass of red wine on the poor creature. At this point, there were really only two things they could have done: fight to the death, or form a band. They chose the latter, bringing Brian Leader in on drums and Brian Reilly on guitar. In a mere two months their first EP Yippee!!! came to be, and its modestly penned punk ditties earned the band two nominations at the San Diego Music Awards. Hotel St. George’s second release, Hundreds & Thousands, primarily featured Binder’s more subtle and complex songwriting, which subsequently isolated their original fanbase of punk fans while garnering a new listenership amongst the indie crowd. Their next record, City Boy Lemon, split the difference between the two previous albums and offers sophistication without sacrificing an overarching punk aesthetic. Their next album promises to be a keyboard-based endeavor, which is no doubt an attempt to resolve some deep and pervasive tension regarding the Wurlitzer incident. I suppose making an album is, in fact, marginally cheaper than extended group therapy.

The two songs offered up on the 7-inch turntable today are “Apples & Pears” and “Island Man,” the first track hearkening back to the band’s roots in 70s punk and the second hinting at 2010′s pop keyboard epic Fun Shine Line. I love all my children equally, but if someone put a gun to my head and asked me to pick one song to use as the A-side on some imaginary “Best of Ampeater” 7-inch, “Apples & Pears” would immediately come to mind. It mellows out after the first 14 seconds or so, but those first 14 seconds, man, pure gold. Never underestimate the power of a repeated ascending guitar lick–this song doesn’t so much start as it does launch. Actually, that’s a great analogy for what the song actually does. Once the intro riff rockets cut out, the song settles in comfortable orbit around Matt Binder’s delicious (though at times borderline crooning) punk vocals. Every time I wonder whether the tune’s leveled out for good, that guitar riff comes back in and propels it to greater heights. Hotel St. George has mastered the manipulation of tension and delayed gratification that makes for a truly compelling song, and “Apples & Pears” is a perfect example.

If A-side “Apples & Pears” is a look back at the classic punk aesthetic that formed the basis of Hotel St. George’s music up until City Boy LemonB-side “Island Man” has a forward-looking indie vibe that hints at even greater things to come. That said, while their punk stylings are rock solid and ingeniously crafted, their indie chops are less perfectly developed. After a short vocal intro, the song lopes along for a couple seconds until it slams us with a pop chorus of “bop bop ba da, ba ba bada da”. This is a great maneuver, but the killer thing about “Island Man” is that it’s preciously short, clocking in at 2:30, and the “bops” only show up twice in the whole song. The solution? Loop that shit. You know that little repeat(1) button on your iPod? I use that a lot with this guy–usually 3 or 4 times does me good. “Island Man” gives us a peculiar marriage in a punk-length tune with pop features, and I feel like some of the melodic ideas could use a little bit more room to breathe and expand, or hell, just repeat a couple times. That’s not to say that the pop features are themselves lacking in some way (in fact that’s not at all the case, they’re brilliant), but I nevertheless can’t wait to hear how this sound evolves and matures on Fun Shine LineMatt Binder’s voice does something unique on these tunes–while his punk-oriented vocals are a nod to his predecessors, he shows some individual character in the pop tunes that’s apart from any immediate influence. This is where Binder as Binder shines through, and it’s a good indication of Hotel St. George’s potential for growth as we race towards 2010 and the “new” Hotel St. George. Godspeed boys.