Teen-age dream

Imperial Teen sheds its skin (again) to reveal fresh genius on ‘Feel the Sound’

Imperial-Teen-Marina-Chavez2

IMPERIAL EFFORT | With two gay male members, Imperial Teen gets away with a lot of sassy lyrics without ghetto-izing itself as ‘queercore’ rock or Pride pop.

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

Spring comes early this year — at least it feels that way with Feel the Sound, the new CD from Imperial Teen. The disc dwells in a happy pop universe that is wonderfully tough to escape from. By the 11th track, Imperial Teen succeeds in conjuring up an aural place of magic that doesn’t skimp on deep lyrics.

Sound plays with the refreshing splash of a debut album, though it’s the band’s fifth. Optimism mixes with confidence and fun beats so brightly, it made me want to take the CD to everyone I knew to ask if they had heard of “this new band” … although the San Francisco quartet has been around for 15 years. But with each album, they seem to strip away a layer that brings up a newness that demands attention.

Imperial Teen’s 2007 album The Hair, The TV, The Baby and The Band had more hints of rocker attitude with a stronger emphasis on heavy guitars and acoustic ones amid a mod-pop landscape. Here, they haven’t lost their instrumentation, but the music shines without reliance on one over the other. They do love a stabbing beat, but the melodies rise up like a quilted blanket surrounding each member (all of whom sing vocals).

The opener “Runaway” plays like Mates of State with a rapid beat and falsetto-like harmonies. Nostalgia rings from the sound as if it might play over a Time/Life informercial for some ‘70s AM radio collection, but production is solid and it keeps a modern feel.

With two gay members (Roddy Bottum and Will Schwartz), there is a strong queer sensibility to the album without becoming distractingly Pride-crazy. Maybe it’s an unfair generalization, but really, who but a gay guy would write lyrics like Pumped up pecs and sticky skin / Floors unswept and walls are thin in the ridiculously enjoyable third track “Last to Know.”

Where the songs may sound simple and upbeat, the lyrics never falter in their hooks and every single track is a delightful listen. But the hand that feeds the bark / Affidavit after dark may not make sense in “Over His Head,” but they are interesting enough to keep you listening — that’s half the battle in any pop album.

For a band with strong alt-rock roots (Faith No More, The Dicks), Sound is a beautiful surprise. Their delivery goes from gentle in “All the Same” to sexy in “Out From Inside” surrounded by rich, up-tempo textures.

Imperial Teen somehow manages never to annoy, either. Usually, an album where song after song bleeds into each other seamlessly, the repetition can drown you. Here, the band tempers the breathing of its creation. Tracks ebb and flow with rapid-fire backdrops and easygoing grooves with variations on the same beat. They didn’t strive for the “album ballad” or “the dance song CD.” Rather, Feel the Sound succeeds magnificently as a strong idea that never veers from its intentions.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 27, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Disc men

Matt Zarley tackles relationships while Adam Tyler delivers smart pop on new releases

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

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2.5 out of 5 stars
CHANGE BEGINS WITH ME
Matt Zarley
Independent

Matt Zarley may be all scruff and muscle, but he has a sweet delicacy to his voice that’s properly displayed on his newest album, Change Begins With Me. He’s the product of Broadway, but it would seem his sights are on the music charts.

Back in May, Zarley previewed his album with “WTF,” a whimsical dance track that pitted an earnestly lovestruck singer against the man who done him wrong. The song is borderline silly, if fun, though the accompanying video was painful to watch.

For the most part, the tone of Change is adult contemporary but by a refreshingly new, gay (and far hunkier) version of, say, Michael Bolton or Phil Collins. Well-polished songs beautifully showcase Zarley’s vocal talents, on songs like “Perfect“ and “Forgive Me (For Not Forgiving You)” which evidence a tenderness that makes it almost hard not to swoon along.

Dance tracks, though, don’t do him justice nor add much to the album. His sexy talk in “Trust Me” is unconvincing. As the fifth song, Change, marks a small decline in making a bigger impression. The previous ballads, and even the album opener “WTF,” are engaging enough, but from “Trust” on, the songs almost disappear.

‘CHANGE’ IS GONNA COME | Matt Zarley is a whole lotta hunk, but surprises with an insightful album about his past relationships.

“Apology” and “I’ll Always Remember” display sweet emotion, but with ordinary skill. This is a shame; the album is well paced before it downshifts at this point. The fault though, is in the music. Lyrics resonate strongly and are probably my new go-to when I can’t find the words to appease an angry or hurt boyfriend.

The title track suffers from cheese factor, but it is less a self-help tune than an admission of bad love-life decisions. Zarley holds himself accountable for mistakes he made as a gay man — I’m not sure I’ve heard that message recorded before.  Sure, “Change” swells into a clichéd climactic chorus, but it’s a fascinating juxtaposition from the lead song.

I’m not a big fan of remixes, but the two bonus tracks of “WTF” surpass the original. The beats are a helluva lot of fun to groove to. Instead of reworking the song into an unrecognizable version, the remixes amp up the rhythm and scale back on some of the gimmickry of the original.

With bumps along the way, Zarley provides a collection of songs that start him in a bad situation and result in a brighter tomorrow … so much so that it may beg for an immediate second listen with some songs making more sense.
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3.5 out of 5 stars
SHATTERED ICE

Adam Tyler
Tiger Bay Records

Adam Tyler describes himself as a pop music geek and it shows on his debut release Shattered Ice. This is a good thing. He sidesteps a lot of easy traps to deliver 11 tracks of wow.
On first impression, Ice opens as any other dance album in the “dime a dozen” category, but quickly, the opening track, “Like a Drug,” moves into a techno-rock hybrid, hitting many correct notes. Tyler gives an onslaught of an opener that is held up by subsequent tracks.

The album leans more into electronica elements, but Tyler treats them with care, layering bass-lines and blippy flourishes into solid sounds. “Music Freak” could have easily been a pedestrian effort, but he saves it by not adding extraneous effects. Tyler has a gift for letting the song build itself rather than throwing everything against the wall to see what will stick.

Adam Tyler studies pop music enough to make some of his own with his debut album ‘Shattered Ice.’ With strong confidence, Tyler makes a stellar impression.

Tyler doesn’t have the vocal strength of Zarley, but he belts within reason and recalls some of the quality of Paul Lekakis. He has enough depth to go slower on the opening of “I Won’t Let You Go,” while offering a healthy set of lungs on the title track. There isn’t a lot of surprise in his vocal spectrum. This provides a particular comfort and even consistency, as his music should keep listeners on their toes.

The blemishes on this album are minimal and perhaps expected from a debut. “Forgive Me” is weak with middle school lyrics. “Touch” is a misguided track that begins with a keyboard track that sounds like a child trying to play ABBA’s “Lay All Your Love On Me.” Here, he makes the mistake of adding a little too much flair, and to a slower beat, it misses the bullseye.

The album recovers immediately with strong tracks like “Taking Back My Love” and “Let Me Breathe.”

Shattered Ice finishes with minimal versions of previous tracks that calm the robust energy down. “I Won’t Let You Go” on piano is a gorgeous ballad and “Forgive Me” fares far better as an acoustic tune than it did before in its electro incarnation. These add to Tyler’s versatility.

For a debut, Tyler seems to have set a goal and met it, which would explain the amount  of confidence in Ice. His songs don’t play as mere musical byproducts in search of superstardom. He has a true genuine sound that pulls you in and when it lets go, you almost wish it didn’t.
Thank goodness for the repeat button.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 26, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Backtracking

THE U WORD | Texan Camila Grey, left, teamed with ‘L Word’ star Leisha Hailey to form indie duo Uh Huh Her.

As they make their way to SXSW, queer duo Uh Huh Her scales back for sophomore release

The dream of most bands might be to find a label and release a well-produced debut album. Hustling to keep it afloat? Not so much. Job security is still a nice thing, even in the music industry.

Uh Huh Her sees things differently. You might even think they just took two steps back after a major leap forward.

“Yeah, we are weirdly going the other way,” laughs Camila Grey, half of the  indie duo. “Our success was immediate: We got picked up by a label right away and had this glossy pop album under our belts.” But despite that welcome mat, Grey and her music-making partner, Leisha Hailey, wanted to work for their success. So they did what any new band starting out would do. They dumped their label.

Uh Huh Her’s 2008 debut, Common Reaction, was a stellar disc of well-constructed songs that hinted at ’80s New Wave with alt-rock sensibilities. Recalling the likes of Ladytron and Le Tigre, UHH was poised to become the Next Big Indie Thing. They were far from hurt by the built-in audience brought in by Hailey, star of the lesbian drama The L Word.

“That was our core fan base because the audience did follow her,” Grey says. “That was also part of the immediate success. But we’ve been able to grow it from there. Now our audience is all over the place, from straight couples to gay kids. And it’s just widening.”

Having been off the radar for most of the past year, UHH is set to release their second full-length album, Nocturnes, later this spring. Grey promises a grittier, edgier, more personal sound.

“The beauty of this album is we did it all on our own,” she says. “I produced and we recorded it in our own studios. I think it’s bringing us back to our roots. We want to focus on this again and give it another go.”

With a liberated approach, Grey didn’t feel the pressures to sound a specific way as “encouraged” by her label.

“We have lives aside from the band and the realistic situation was knowing we can do this on our own terms,” she says.

Grey and Hailey produced an EP at breakneck speed and took it on the road. Six tracks made up Black and Blue, recorded and packaged in less than two weeks to use as a promotional tool for the tour. They have taken their musical destiny into their own hands.

“We work really well under pressure,” Grey laughs. “The whole thing has been labor of love and we put more care into these two things. There’s no pressure from The Man anymore.”

UHH is on the road now, and will play in Dallas after coming off gigs at Austin’s South By Southwest Festival, where they could easily be cited as the next It band if the right people see, blog and tweet them well. But Grey isn’t concerned about being that band; she’s a musician at heart and creating music is her primary goal.

UHH played SXSW two years ago, but Grey is throwing expectations out the window to just have fun. They have four days of gigs lined up before heading to Dallas, where she was born (she grew up in Austin). What surprises her most is the Dallas audience.

“Texas always gives us more love,” she says. “It’s so weird the markets that we’re popular in are more conservative ones. We’ve always had a packed audience with great energy in Dallas. Houston’s the same. You’d think that would be more so in a city like Austin.”

Guess Austin hasn’t cornered the market on knowing good music after all.

— Rich Lopez

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

Out musician Bradford Cox leads Deerhunter to the Granada tonight

Bradford Cox in a dress is always a possibility

Last November, Atlas Sound was scheduled for a show at Hailey’s and then canceled. Hopefully, this won’t happen twice. Atlas Sound, aka Bradford Cox, is the gay frontman for the psychedelia-gazing punk band Deerhunter. They’ve come off their self-imposed hiatus that began in 2008 to record their fourth album, Halcyon Digest, which dropped in September. OK, that’s more a break than hiatus.

They made a splash out of Atlanta with their 2005 debut album Turn It Up Faggot — which was “an insult that Cox claimed was often thrown at the band during their gigs,” according to AllMusic — and then released the brilliant Microcastle/Weird Era Continued album two years ago.

Cox has Marfan Syndrome, which elongates his limbs making for quite an impression. At 6 feet, 4 inches, his skinny arms and legs make him look larger than life in an awkward way (and in the occasional onstage frock or dress), but that’s far from the point of Cox or Deerhunter even. As musicians, they have created some challenging and trippy music and their live show reputation borders on amazing.

Check them out at their Loft concert a year ago in the video below.

DEETS: With Best Coast (yes!), Sonny and the Sunsets and Casino Vs. Japan at the Granada Theater, 3524 Greenville Ave . 8 p.m. $18. GranadaTheater.com.

—  Rich Lopez

Zayra performs midnight show at the Rose Room

Does she bang a gong?

Dance music newcomer Zayra stops at the Rose Room to perform songs from her debut album Baby Likes to Bang. You might have heard “Sexy Super Mini Skirt” or one of numerous mixes of “V.I.P.” on the dance floor, but now you get to experience it up close.

The Rose Room will also be giving away free albums and downloads. Get ‘em while you can. 18 and up.

DEETS: The Rose Room, 3911 Cedar Springs Road (inside Station 4). Midnight. Caven.com.

—  Rich Lopez

True blues

Cyndi Lauper still gives a damn about gays and the tint of her newest music venture

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer  lopez@dallasvoice.com

Cyndi Lauper
GOT RHYTHM | Lauper’s tour focuses on her new sound, yet she’ll still deliver her pop classics backed up by her blues band.

CYNDI LAUPER with David Rhodes.
House of Blues, 2200 N. Lamar St. Aug. 11 at 8 p.m.  $30–$55.
HouseOfBlues.com.

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Dallas’ summer music calendar has been hopping for LGBT audiences, from Lady Gaga and Melissa Etheridge to Adam Lambert on the horizon. Cyndi Lauper brings her tour here Wednesday. But while the others stick close to their musical genres, Lauper changes her game as often as her hair color. And this year, she’s got the blues.

Genre leaping can sometimes be the biggest misstep of a musician’s career (Garth was never the same after the Chris Gaines debacle), but Lauper has been doing it for years: Pop to dance to acoustic to standards, all without missing a beat. So she never considered her move into blues was a risk.

“I wanted to do Memphis Blues when I was still at Sony back in 2004,” she says. “As Muddy Waters quoted, ‘If blues gave birth to a child, that child would be rock and roll.’ The blues is the basis for all genres of popular music.”

Which is what Lauper’s back catalog consists of. This move shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Before her landmark debut album, she was working the scene with cover bands, doing a lot of Janis Joplin, Rolling Stones and Faces — bands heavily influenced by blues. With a little extracurricular research, Lauper discovered legends like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Big Maybelle and Ma Rainey.

“I was hooked,” she says.

Now she’s come full circle working with noted musicians on Blues such as veteran giants B.B. King, Allen Toussaint and legend-in-the-making Jonny Lang. For Lauper, this is the album she’s always wanted to do. She’s even confident that her gay fans will follow along even though blues may not be the most popular for LGBT listeners.

“It was a dream to work with each of them; like my own blues museum in one studio,” she says. “My fans seem to love all kinds of music and at different times in my career I have wanted to record certain genres of music that have been meaningful to me, or helped shape me as an artist and they have always come along for the ride. For that, I am grateful.”

That isn’t hard to see. Lauper has been a staunch advocate for LGBT equality and visibility. Her True Colors Tour celebrated queer and queer-friendly music and her recently launched Give a Damn has rallied celebrity support by the likes of Wanda Sykes and Oscar-winner Anna Paquin, who used the campaign to come out as bisexual. She also teamed up with Gaga for a MAC Viva Glam campaign that takes on HIV/AIDS prevention awareness for women.

“I want to continue the work of the True Colors Fund and our Give A Damn campaign to get straight people to stand up for the gay community so that all of us have civil rights and America can be the country it’s supposed to be where we are all treated the same,” she says.

She even expects to bring back the True Colors Tour despite big-ticket festivals and tours not doing so well this summer. But first, she’s giving her own music career some attention.

“It’s about the blues baby! This year I wanted to focus on Memphis Blues and bring it on the road,” she says. “To me, it’s uplifting and music is supposed to heal. The BP oil disaster in the Gulf, wars in the Middle East, the rise of HIV infections in women, global warming — the list is endless, so yeah I’m blue. The great thing is that it still uplifts and no matter how blue you get, there is always hope around the corner.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 6, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens