THE BLOG
01/24/2017 03:50 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2018

On the Culture Front: Music from the Underground, Part 8

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Photo courtesy of Wicklow Atwater

Listening to Wicklow Atwater is a pure adrenaline rush, like having a chair smashed over your head during a bar fight. It's brash, hard-hitting and not the least bit subtle. None of these are criticisms though as it's a lot of fun to tap into so much pure Id. The seventeen tracks of "The Fallen Flame String Band" are a quick listen propelled by the momentum of furiously picked banjo and mandolin riffs. The most tuneful one is the backbone of "Sleeping Through", which is set to a relatively slower tempo and features a bit of self-examination. "Minimum Wage" is a more apt example of the group's blunt lyricism. "Your boss is a jerk. Your boss is a slob, but you're too scared to quit your job" is bellowed with breakneck pacing. The heart of the song though is the line "getting paid minimum wage is a system that we can't beat." Other songs like "Inside You" hit a crasser tone with lines like "I don't love you. I don't need you. I just want to be inside you...again." There's an irresistible honesty that courses throughout much like a whiskey fueled conversation between friends.

King Ropes' "Dirt" opens with moody riffs that contrast with Dave Hollier's delicate timbre. On the opening track, "Dogleg Boy", he hits a sweet sustained note as he croons "howl at the moon." There's just enough fuzz for garage rock cred but the melody is defined enough to shine through. "Long Lost Boy" is punctuated with talk through phrasing that seems to channel Hollier's inner Lou Reed while "Mandolins and Gasoline" begins like a scrappy DIY lullaby. The refrain "burns like gasoline" feels apt as the song builds with heavier guitar fills before falling back on Dylan Treleven's darkly seductive bass line. There are moments when the album lurches towards the bland, but there are enough dynamic and quirky edges on songs like "International Shortwave" to sustain the album and make me wonder what Hollier is going to do next.

The opening seconds of "Lieder" are jarringly intense. Finnish art rocker Von Konow's voice comes off too precious and dramatic, but as the album's rich soundscape unfolds, cohesion emerges. Somewhere between Bowie and Broadway with a New Wave sensibility, Von Konow has crafted a sound that is all his own. The album takes its name from the intimate German art songs of the romantic period and while these songs couldn't be more different in genre, they are intricately constructed bringing to mind Antony and the Johnsons. They are also not caged in by traditional expectations for pop music, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. Casual listening can prove frustrating while a deeper dive might only reward a select few. The mysticism and musical experimentation is reminiscent of Bowie's final album, "Blackstar," especially on "Hide and Seek." It's the strongest song on the album filled with lush instrumentation and an organic sense of wonder. The problem is Von Konow hasn't been in the listener's head for decades, making the point of entry quite narrow.

April Martin's "In the Blink of a Life" feels less like an album than a meditation on a forgotten form of soft optimistic folk music. Striking an inclusive chord a la Peter, Paul and Mary or Cat Stevens from the opening strums of the first track, "One Breath." The line, "one breath to come in, one breath to go out" feels like it could be the theme song for a yoga retreat. There's a palpable euphoria that can be felt throughout, but the problem is how shallow it feels. Martin's lyrics favor obvious rhymes and simple platitudes over the kind of richly nuanced songs of Harry Chapin or the tuneful wisdom of Cat Stevens.

Seneko's self-titled EP reverberates with a country twang encased in a pop structure. The brainchild of singer/songwriter Stan Olshefski, the five songs tend to bleed into each other both melodically and lyrically. One exception is the phrasing in the love plea, "Monica Lately" which cleverly links the singer's crush to when he's been thinking about her. It brings to mind the whimsy of the Gin Blossoms' "Hey Jealousy."