Sareena Dominguez, Moonbeams
The acoustic guitar-wielding female singer-songwriter persona is a little worn out (thanks, Lisa Loeb), but some chanteuses continue to command attention by setting themselves apart from the crowd. Gilbert's Sareena Dominguez, who released her debut album, Moonbeams on River Jones Music Label earlier this year, is a prime example.
Moonbeams shares the typical tropes of a singer/songwriter's album: it's a personal and revealing glimpse into the artist's life and past relationships. But Dominguez stands out thanks to the sheer beauty of the album. Her wispy vocals are the perfect complement to the melodic guitar and violin and subdued drumbeats. The additional instrumentation is what propels Moonbeams; Dominguez isn't just the lead singer, she's a crucial part of the band.
"Fickle Forest" and "Fourteen" look back on the high school romances we may (or may not) remember fondly with a sense of warm and familiar nostalgia, but also the oh-so comforting sense of growing older and wiser. These themes are fitting for a debut album, which finds the singer mature for her age. Moonbeams shows promise for Sareena Dominguez's future career, which is sure to be full of more life experiences and above all else, beauty. -- Melissa Fossum
IAMWE, Run Wild
Over a year ago, Phoenix-based indie rockers IAMWE sent over a preview track of their upcoming single, "So They Say." At the time I was working on a feature about the guys, who somehow booked an opening gig for Neon Trees. Whether you like Neon Trees or not, they were a popular act at the time. The problem was that IAMWE had a scant resume for such a prominent booking. A YouTube video here and a track or two there, it was curious how these guys snagged the show.
Until I met them, that is. Physically, they looked like they were a well-established band, but I got the impression that there was something lying beneath the raw, and truthfully rough talent I initially heard online. "So They Say" just proved it. The track had a hint of Local Natives, a bit of British shoegaze and a whole lot of focus that I didn't hear from their previous work. Rife with tribal drumsbeats and a chorus of determined voices, the song made me excited to hear what IAMWE would do in the future.
Their debut full-length, She's a Solider, was initially due in late 2011, but was delayed as the band refined their focus. Be glad they did. The result is the cohesive, glammed out space rock extravaganza renamed Run Wild, featuring vocalist Tim Maiden's howl meshed with electronic elements that surprise and stun with each new track. In a year the band did what's often impossible for a young act -- they stepped back, assessed their weaknesses, worked with them, and churned a record that's solid by local or national standards. -- Christina Caldwell
Vial of Sound, VOS
If you ever meet me in person, don't be fooled by my stout exterior and lack of fashion sense -- I just wanna dance. I was never really good at it, but back in the day you could find me on the dance floor at parties, clubs, weddings, baptisms, quinceañeras; pretty much anywhere with low lighting and loud music. As I've gotten older my dancing excursions have become few-and-far-between, but just know that in the back of my head, that little ball of light manning all of the controls is constantly bobbing its head, just waiting for a beat.
That being said I can say, without hesitation, that the best local album of 2012 belongs to Tempe electronic group Vial of Sound with their debut EP, VOS. Released on June 24 as a five-track downloadable album on the band's Bandcamp site, VOS quickly made an impression on me with its expertly crafted synth sounds, retro beeps and bouncy dance beats. The release was produced, engineered, and mixed by Bob Hoag and recorded at Flying Blanket Recording in Mesa, where the staff knows a thing or two about vintage gear. "We wanted to go through [Hoag] because he records analog with vintage gear and tape, [and] tape sounds fatter than just recording digitally through a computer," Josh Gooday told New Times back in July. For a group that features an all-analog synth setup consisting of a Mini-Moog, Oberheim OB-8, and an Arp 2600, a fat sound is precisely what the instruments called for.
Clocking in at just under 22-minutes, VOS wastes no time in setting the tone, jumping off with a grooving beat and enough laser ray sounds to make Debbie Deb smile on the opening track, "Pop the Beat." The tempo picks up with some smartly-tracked drums and an all-out dance pace in the ensuing "Thumper." "Do You Want Me," comes out more aggressively and features prominent vocoder encased vocals, marking probably my favorite track of the release. In all it's just a creative and unique use of instruments that have been long retired. -- Anthony Sandoval
Bogan Via, Wait Up
One of the most common complaints you'll hear when trying to share an album with someone is that "All the songs sound the same." My kneejerk response has always been, "Well no shit. It's the same band members with the same instruments in the same studio. The difference is subtle, you mongoloid. Jeez." But that doesn't usually help my case.
That's not a problem with Bogan Via, the North Phoenix couple-slash-dream-pop-duo, that recently released their debut EP Wait Up on Common Wall Media. Mixed and recorded by Bob Hoag (also known for his work with Gospel Claws, The Ataris, and Black Carl), Bogan Via has the buoyant, cutesy indie polish down pat, but the ambiguous lyrics on tracks like "Copy and Paste" and the members' shyness to explain the meaning behind them suggest there's more to it.
For a six-song record, Wait Up shows surprising diversity, but most of all, it shows balance. The album goes in an on-off pattern, one song focused on acoustic guitar, the next track focused on synth. Bret Bender and Madeleine Miller also swap vocal duties; so on songs like "TES" or the titular opener, there's a mature equilibrium that keeps things from growing stale. It's that fine line between being sickly sweet and conceited and Bogan Via ride that groove perfectly, providing an album that is perfect for repeat listening. -- Troy Farah
Local Wizards, The Signal
Not only do I think The Signal by Local Wizards was the most interesting album to come out of Phoenix in 2012, but it also accurately conveyed a distinctly Arizonan experience: bored youth, deep heat, blurry nights, and vague dread. The second full-length solo venture of ASU student Kendall Hunter, The Signal cycles his effusive vocals through a series of hazy Deerhunter textures, heavily processed guitar, and empty freeway beats.
Opener "Sticks and Leaves" has the jangly tempo and languid guitar of fellow blithe suburban rockers Real Estate, but lines like "I'm facedown and floating in my swimming pool" flip the Jersey band's trademark nostalgia into early-twenties angst. The title track uses a deceptively funky handclap rhythm to offset the bone-dry heartbreak and loss of the lyrics. Even The Signal's more straightforward offerings have dark matter lurking underneath. "Thomas Kinkade" is the most blatant rock song of the bunch, a mid-tempo ripper built around a distorted keyboard motif, yet the lyrics narrate a Lynchian house party with women throwing works by the famed schlock artist into a fire while mixing drinks in a garbage disposal.
It's laptop-glow Ambien rock, it's QuikTrip Garagebandcore, and it couldn't have been made anywhere but the suburban desert. --Chase Kamp
Lauren Farrah, Great Expectations
Lauren Farrah was a rising force in 2012, and her debut EP, Great Expectations, ensures that her presence will only continue to be praised. The five tracks on the album display impressive passion and playful emotion, ranging from vulnerable and haunting to commanding and assertive.
It's an album that you can sip easily like a glass of Glenlivet, consuming mouthwatering swirl after swirl, growing warmer and cozier as the album moves on. Farrah's velvety alto vocals smolder, and her thoughtful songwriting and often-wondrous puzzlement is delightful. The songs have a type of nouveau-Americana style, accented with a poppy edge, sometimes gravitating towards soft rock ("Head vs. Heart"), sometimes towards country ("Great Expectations"), and sometimes towards whimsical blues ("I Was Wrong"). Which makes sense, since Farrah cites such influences as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and works side-by-side with many artists who are tinged with folksy rock and country.
Her lyrics search through her soul, giving a glimpse of how she has gone through her life, spending time as a CTI (cryptologic technician interpretive) in the Navy before signing to River Jones Music. Farrah isn't afraid to explore her disorders, but she retains a kind of reassuring faith. The beauty's not always in the destination; sometimes it's all about the journey. -- Lauren Wise
Gospel Claws, Put Your Sunshine Away
"Is there anything I can do? Oh anything I can do? To win, win back our love," Gospel Claws singer Joel Marquard sings on "Anything I Can Do," his voice drenched in reverb, pleading like a lovesick Walker Brother. When the band comes in, swelling like a forgotten bandstand unit, you can practically see the couples take the dance floor in flannel suits and patterned skirts.
It's a moment of pure retro escapism, but Gospel Claws second LP, Put Your Sunshine Away, doesn't live in the past so much as it retrofits it. Garage rock, Motown shuffles, doo-wop swoops, R&B grind -- each style is appropriated into the band's distinctive rock 'n' roll framework over the record's nine songs. "I Want It All" struts on a flailing groove; "Teenage Kicks" stutter steps with earnest romanticism (sounding nothing like the Undertones song it shares a title with); "Hambone" jitters with Latin-tinged percussion and a swooning chorus your grandparents might slow-dance to.
Put Your Sunshine Away isn't afraid to sound familiar, but in the best way. You feel like you've heard all these songs before, but you can't quite place the time and place. It's a record that shows off its dusty, crate-digging-stained fingerprints, a love letter to pop music at its purest. -- Jason P. Woodbury
When I first heard about Tom Filardo's (formerly of Asleep in the Sea) project, simply dubbed "Filardo," it was billed in a Facebook event page for a show as "Pop Music for the Future."
His first record under the name, Enter the Edit Suite was just that: Forward- thinking while still aware of pop traditions, it felt like a challenge to the notion that you can't make something on the scale of Pet Sounds with just modest means. Filardo's Slow EP in comparison, feels like pop music for a post-apocalyptic future. Minimalistic and restrained, this record has a lonely, solitary vibe; It's as if the pop music infrastructure of the last release collapsed, leaving Filardo to fend for himself and attempt to rebuild with what limited tools he has. Using mostly just his voice, a guitar, and a little bit of reverb, Filardo writes pop songs that, despite being slower and sparser in instrumentation, manage to sound just as grandiose as his previous work. The standout tracks for me are the bookends.
The tape opens with "Lost in You", which sounds like it could be a slower version of a song from Enter the Edit Suite and playfully indulges in so many pop lyrical clichés about desire and feeling blue without being off-putting. It ends with "Anonymous Me" a mellow number about losing lovers to the Bay Area, being broke, and hating work. In between is a string of introspective songs, some vague, some blunt in their meanings, but all capturing Filardo in a more intimate and isolated setting. This is a record that fans of slower, folky pop acts like Mark Kozelek and Mojave 3 should enjoy. It's still pop music for the future, if only a more lonely vision of it. -- Mike Bogumill
Zero Zero, Mayday
Experimenting with "synth-ier ideas," garage-rock guitars, swirling organs, minimalist drumming, electro-pop elements, hip-hop, float-y vocals, and whatever else seemed interesting, Love Me Nots singer Nicole Laurenne and guitarist/husband Michael Johnny Walker formed Zero Zero, bringing drummer Nick Ramirez into the mix. The result is Mayday, a debut album of "electro fuzz" that sounds modern, danceable -- occasionally unforgettable in that song-stuck-in-the-head way -- while drawing from a myriad of retro influences that play off each other in cat and mouse fashion.
Sounds are thick and lush, but also sparkly and poppy on top, though the rhythms feel mesmerizingly primitive. The lyrics are a little dark, personal, and occasionally biting. "Drug" offers a raw edge in a pop-infused melody over Laurenne's breathy femme fatale vocals, while "Tear It Up" is a starker, gritty experience of fuzz and fur and sinister undertone, like a soundtrack for a '60s cop show, but one where the cops take acid for mystical mind-tripping revelations.
"We basically poured our instincts onto the tracks and tried not to second-guess ourselves too much," Laurenne says. "You're getting a tiny taste of the musical chaos going on in our heads when you listen to this stuff."
While their heads may be filled with chaos, listeners will have something much more pleasurable taking place inside theirs with each successive spin of Mayday. --Glenn BurnSilver
In a way it's a pity that Colorstore's last album, Afire, may be the group's best work to date. The album, released four years after its predecessor, Bonefish: The Legend of Mahogany Cass, finds Colorstore at its prime. The biggest disappointment about this album is that it's Colorstore's final piece of work--the band will never play another show or record another song. The 36 minutes from "Afire" to "Ladies and Gentlemen" is it.
Fortunately, the album is a masterfully crafted collection of fuzzy songs that echo '60s nostalgia and warm, contemporary indie pop. The songwriting can be a bit muddled at times, especially under the layers upon layers of instrumentation and reverb, but with some explanation, it proves to be clever and well thought out.
"I spend a great deal of time doing such things with no great purpose and usually with a not-so-good outcome. So [it's] sort of that age-old 'Don't do what I've done' sort of speech a parent might give their child," said vocalist Mark Erickson to Jason P. Woodbury in an interview explaining "My Life As a Beaver," and how the song relates to Erickson's son and a feeling of losing personal purpose.
Erickson's untimely death in September adds an inevitable context to the album. Afire is not only nostalgic in its psychedelic tones. These songs can't help but honor Colorstore's memorable, visually resplendent shows and Erickson's sense of humor in the best way possible. -- Melissa Fossum
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