THE BLOG
12/02/2015 12:22 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2016

On the Culture Front: Music From the Underground, Part One

Father and son duo Richard and Harry Grace along with bandmate Dave Needham make up Tumbler, a trio that barrels through several musical genres on their debut album, "You Said." The album cover features teenage Harry catapulting himself off a cliff in Portugal, and in many ways, this collection of a dozen tracks feels like a jumping off point. The opening guitar riff on "Dead Man's Bones" begins with a nod to Chopin's Funeral March and only gets stranger. The lyrics are written from the perspective of a corpse during an autopsy while the music is reminiscent of a broad folk anthem in the vein of the late Pete Seeger. This contrast emphasizes the tension between the whimsical and morbid elements and ties the song together with the chorus: "Roll me over again. I've got nothing to loose, nothing to gain."

"Break or Fall" and "Bueller" have slick power riffs that bring to mind mainstream rock bands from the early aughts. Both songs are strongest in the chorus. "Bueller" opens with an acoustic guitar verse that feels a bit out of place with the song's central pop-driven riff. A few songs like "Businessman Blues" feel too generic. Tumbler is at their best with "London Girl," a simple folk ballad about two people who fall in love despite having nearly nothing in common. It feels like the lovechild of Elvis Costello and Amanda Palmer and is the most fully-realized song on the album.

I can't imagine that Space Apaches are going for cohesion. Their album, "Smokin' Voyages," begins with a sonic liftoff that bleeds into "Sunrise," a powerhouse blues/rock track that would feel more classic without the alien noises that are interspersed throughout. "In My Mind" is anchored by Aaron Price's organ riff. There are plenty of guitar solos and deep blues grooves as well. I couldn't help but think these guys would make a killer New Years Eve band with Sci-Fi graphics projected in the background and hopefully a spaceship entrance. As an album, the tracks can bleed into each other when the intensity dips. "Desert Life" is a particular sonic dry spell, though Price's keyboards breath a little life into it - kind of how Ray Manzarek did with The Doors' drearier tracks. There's no denying that these guys play like a well-oiled machine, but the song composition (credited to guitarist Andrew Reed) feels underdeveloped. The emotional high points, when the grooves bury themselves in your soul, happen around long and winding solos instead of recurring melodic lines.

Opium Denn's "Demarkation" is a slow-burning 37-minutes that ignores traditional melodic structures in favor of a more expansive sound that frames the album's concept of charting the cycle of life. These ideas don't come through as strongly as the elements of blues, rock, jazz and even a little metal that can be heard throughout. Denn's voice is similar to Eddie Vedder's deep guttural roar, but my favorite parts are the many instrumental non-sequiturs that feel like they emerged from a sonic wormhole. "I Am a Feeling," broken into three parts throughout the album, begins with an ethereal lead in that builds instrumentally for the first three minutes. These are some of the best moments of the album, exhilarating yet unpredictable. They also set up the cascading angelic piano riff of the second part. The final part ends the album with the title lyrical refrain that bleeds into an instrumental interlude that grows from a murmur into a full-bodied roar. Put together it's an epic piece, but some of the songs in-between feel like filler and lack the gravitas to fully realize the album's concept.

Nemo James' album is aptly named "The Minstrel." The genre-defying troubadour sounds like he was plucked from the Middle Ages and catapulted in a time machine to present day with a few stops in the '70s and '80s. It's easy to imagine a king beckoning him for sonic reassurance. Stylistically, "The Minstrel" is seriously all over the map and bizarre, but that's part of the fun. There are soprano sax solos that vacillate between Kenny G schmaltz and slightly more serious be-bop inspired licks. James has a soothing voice like Harry Chapin that makes you feel like he's seen a lot in his days and is here to reassure us that's it's going to be okay even if things fall apart and implode from time to time. "It's true your songs won't change the world, if only that they could," he utters during the title track as he breaks from singing to emphasize the weight of his words. "But they make our pain much easier to bear."

At first listen, Ajay Mathur's "9 to 3" is a straight-ahead homage to the greats of classic rock. When he sings "it's all right now" on "View from the Top," it's hard not to hear the Rolling Stones' "Jumping Jack Flash." The opening track "Sitting By Your Cradle" has the open Americana-inflected chords of Tom Petty with more country twang. It's a bit surprising to learn that Mathur hails from Switzerland by way of India until you listen a little deeper. Sitars dance around the edges of tracks while other bear strong jazz influences. Mathur's home in Lucerne is just a two-hour drive from Montreux, home to the world famous jazz festival that bears its name. "Latin Lover" has strong bossa nova roots while "Oh Angel" melds a sitar intro into a pop ballad with the instrument coming back for heartfelt interludes. Another track "Nothing Really Matters" is eerily similar in mood and structure to Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters" and one of the tightest songs on the album. There's no unifying theme in "9 to 3" but there are illustrations of the many styles in which this talented musician can hone his craft. It'll be interesting to see which sonic path he chooses.