Every spring, more than 100 demo CDs, tapes and MP3 files pile up in CityBeat s mailbox and email inbox as we prepare for that great annual tradition: The Great Demo Review. Its developed a reputation as being a place where dreams die: This year, we actually received a few demos with notes attached that read, Do your worst or Let us have it!
We dont write these reviews because we want to insult anyone. We do this because we want to hear absolutely everything that San Diego musicians have to offer. And every year, we find lots of great new music that we might not have otherwise discovered. We dub the best of the best as EXTRASPECIALGOOD, and this year, youll find quite a few demos that really blew us away.
Of course, there are a few that we werent crazy about, but thats just how it shakes out. No matter what, we gave it our precious time and offered our feedback. Sometimes it has to be tough love, but we do it because we care.
1019 and J. Treel
Treel Tales of Number Running
When Parker and the Numberman's 1019 The Numberman and Day-Go Produce's J. Treel do the Wonder Twins thing on their latest collaboration, they activate a winner. Amid sharp production from DJ PNutz, the two MCs deftly navigate this five-song EP to its apex—the anthemic album closer "Who Want It." To get technical, the 43-second "Yes Indeed" actually closes the album, one of two interludes included. And that's the only knock here: This tale is over almost as quickly as it begins. treelnumbers.bandcamp.com
Every time Ocean Beach cranks out a decent band that isn't white-boy reggae, an angel gets its wings. AJ Froman is good enough that they're likely responsible for a few pairs. They're an amalgam of rock styles from psychedelic to the straight-up variety, and their not-so-secret weapon is singer Sarah Norwood. Backed by quality musicians, she belts it out with the power of Grace Slick and the cool of Inger Lorre in '91. ajfroman.com
The 808 beats and dreamy synthesizers that open the first track on American Smith's CD are pretty typical of cloud rap, and American Smith has a lazy flow that's a little bit like a more grown-up-sounding A$AP Rocky. But despite the blog-rap opener, Smith leaps all over the map stylistically on this one, incorporating heavy rock guitars one moment and throbbing industrial synth the next. While nothing here is outright awful, American Dreams seems to lack focus; it's a little too all over the place, and Smith doesn't leave much of an impression, too often playing second banana to his backup singers. The basic elements are strong, but the way they come together leaves something to be desired.
3 Song EP
This came with a handwritten note describing Amigo as "rock / stoner rock." You'd have to be high to think the guitar tone on this demo is OK. It sounds like it's on Prozac—no highs, no lows. Ditch the Boss Heavy metal pedal. The second song has a Swervedriver thing going, which I kind of dig. Nice vocals. facebook.com/amigomusicsd
The one-woman indie R&B project of Alex Capella is certainly the type of stuff that prickly, bespectacled music critics like myself love to proclaim as the next big thing. Songs like "Gravity" and "Happy Tears" made me think of recent ingenues like FKA Twigs, Jessie Ware and BANKS, but EP closer "Pity Party" spoils an otherwise sexy vibe when Capella starts to rap for no real reason. The other four songs are fantastic, but not everyone should channel their inner Iggy Azalea. bakkuda.com
Ball Turret Gunner
The opening track ("Sloppy for Seconds") sounds like The Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes singing over a warped vinyl copy of Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" and it's downhill from there. Fans of Ween and early Liars might be able to make some sense out of what's otherwise nonsensical gibberish ("Cooking Up Meat Suits"?), but all I hear is LOL DIY that makes me go FML.
Certain Illusions EP
This quartet has gotten some well-deserved local buzz lately for their thoroughly enjoyable mix of somnolent psychedelia and guitar-heavy indie-rock. Songs like "Paper Chains" and "Paramnesia" are equal parts eerie and elating, paranoid and parable, with singer Jennie Grunstad's seductive voice providing the perfect balance to Tom Kaiser's driving guitars. bangladeshband.com
High Roller Zydeco
Now 20 years in and still going strong, this San Diego institution keeps the party rolling with their latest studio release. Another great collection of Cajun-flavored tunes, and there's not really much else to say. No one in San Diego does Zydeco better. bayoubrothers.net
I have no idea what the term "Unmanifest Transcendent" is supposed to mean, but who gives a shit—heavy-metalers BhorelordE rip it with their doomsday riffs and gloomy piano interludes, and that's that. bhorelorde.bandcamp.com
Sydney Blake and the Misters
The Dream Chase
The kind of strummy, charming pop that Sydney Blake and the Misters make is sweet, inoffensive, engineered-for-meet-cute-comedies indie pop that sounds like Mumford and Sons playing Zooey Deschanel's wedding. Blake has a great voice that's really impressive when she shows off her range. The band is talented, for sure, but it's just too damn adorable to take for more than a few minutes at a time. If two doe-eyed 20-somethings lock eyes from across the room at one of their shows, then maybe it'll all be worth it. But this is just too sugary for my taste. I blame the overuse of ukulele. reverbnation.com/sydneyblakeandthemisters
Shadow of Death
The classic sound of traditional heavy metal has been making a comeback recently, thanks to bands like Skull Fist, High Spirits, White Wizzard and Lord Magus, who make no attempt to veil their love of the heavy '70s (and '80s). Add to that list Blood Dancer, whose second album, Shadow of Death , is a seamless fusion of chugging riffs, twin guitar solos, machine-gun drums, anthemic choruses and soaring falsettos. Add in the band's love of fantastical lyrics—good luck maintaining your metal scowl while listening to "The Great Khan"—and Shadow of Death , is a rousing listen. facebook.com/blooddancermusic
Singer / songwriter Bloojeanne (whose real name is Becca) offers simple lyrics over simple acoustic-guitar riffs. While Keith Jarrett won't be giving her any session work anytime soon, her honest approach shows promise. Her lovestruck lyrics (narrowly) avoid sap and evince genuine, often-understated passion. This is a decent descent into folk in its most budding stage. Keep working at your craft, Becca. I have high hopes. soundcloud.com/bloo-jeanne
—Joshua Emerson Smith
This one came from Temecula. I was secretly hoping it was East Coast gangsta rap about navigating the mean streets of wine country. It wasn't. Instead, the non-descript CD contained a pair of nicely produced, beat-oriented instrumentals. A bit cold and austere overall, it shows promise of finding a nice middle ground someday between the more mainstream cuts by Burial and Entroducing -era DJ Shadow.
Neil Young-style country tunes with an emphasis on storytelling. Pleasant enough, but so generically boring that I fell asleep on my keyboard. So my original review was "/erbggfewiewwelfew;/" and a little bit of drool. These guys owe me a new MacBook.
Memoirs of a Moor
Before moving to San Diego, BrovaBey (aka Obed H. Bey) grew up on hip-hop in Philadelphia. And as they say, you can take the MC out of the East Coast, but you can't take the East Coast out of the MC. Listening to Memoirs , there are shades of EPMD, The Beatnuts and Big Daddy Kane. And that's not a bad thing. bandmine.com/brovabey
Combining the ambition of Rush with the chops of a fourth-grade flutophone ensemble, Butler specialize in clumsily performed rock opuses. I can't imagine ever listening to these gents in my off hours. However, I admire their energy as well as their goofy name, and you can never go wrong with a song whose key lyric is "I chopped off my head and gave it to my boss!" facebook.com/butler.music
Chiefs play heavy-rock / sorta metal—the kind of music that's not really my thing. But this is the CD I was dealt. So, I outsourced to CityBeat music editor Jeff Terich. "Yeah, it's kinda fun. Stoner rock-y stuff. Not the most original thing in the world, but I can kinda dig it." reverbnation.com/wearechiefs
A collection of almost unlistenable anti-folk, easy listening and drivel-soaked rock that includes a song that I can only describe as an operatic tribute to the Peanuts comic strip. Now that I write that, it kinda sounds cool, but I assure you, this "music" could be used to frighten off rodents and feral cats.
The word "atmospheric" gets arbitrarily thrown around a lot these days when describing a certain kind of music. I can only speculate that the first arts critic to do this had a band like Chateau in mind. It's something that belongs in the sky—weightless and airy, it's expansive and formless form holding the promise of flight. Filled with soaring electronic textures and lush instrumentation, the six magnificently crafted and immediately accessible (read: they're also poppy as hell) songs on this EP hold that kind of promise. Frontwoman Laura Levenhagen's voice and lyrics offer just about everything you'd want in this kind of music. Strong but vulnerable, resolute but filled with heartbreak. The collection is loaded with these kinds of dualities. The EP's most sinister track, "The Bird, the Bee, the Owl," finds Levenhagen in full scorned-lover mode, sounding like Zola Jesus in full stalker mode. On the next track ("What's Left"), she comes to accept the dissolution of a relationship in the span of a little more than four minutes. "I will bury you in time," she coos over a restrained bass line in "Bury You," only to have multi-instrumentalists Erik Visnyak and Frank Green drop one sonic bomb after another on her until her voice sounds more like a plea than a promise. The song ends with a looped guitar diminuendo that fades out over what sounds like television static in the distance. There's a word for it: atmospheric.soundcloud.comchateausandiego
Some of this is confusing. "Sweet Lies" starts with a twinkly synth line, but then it goes into a generic club beat, and the whole time Cosio is singing through a tinny vocal filter that makes her sound like she has a cold. Uh, is this dance music? Experimental lo-fi? I'm not sure. Things improve when Cosio tries her hand at Gershwin's "Summertime," but she loses track of the melody with all her sultry melismata.
The grooves that Cosmoskii lay down are so smooth that it should be pronounced "smoove." The band layers plinking guitars and indie dance over a rhythm section that would not feel out of place in a '70s porno. Listening to it, it's easy to find your head bouncing and hips thrusting at the same rhythm, but for completely different reasons. At times, it can sound a little too reminiscent of Foals, and the repetitive guitars often get too much volume in the mix (c'mon guys, turn the drums up), but overall, Comoskii comes to get down.
Only Demo That Matters
I admire Cruz Radical's moxie. Calling your demo Only Demo That Matters takes some confidence, balls or, failing that, total snottiness. And maybe the title isn't 100-percent accurate, but this demo's actually really good. Cruz Radical play high-energy power-pop and punk-rock with simple but super-catchy melodies. They're a bit like The Ramones with a drum machine and lyrics en Español —a slight variation, but just enough of a change from a familiar formula to make it work. Did I mention how goddamn catchy these songs are? cruzradical.bandcamp.com
Spark up a doobie and get ready to free-fall into a magical land of distorted guitar riffs, crashing symbols and heavy bass. This sludgy, instrumental, doom-metal album is surprisingly refreshing, featuring a playful psychedelic flair. Had I listened to less Phish and more Black Sabbath as a kid, this nifty little EP (if it existed 20 years ago) could've have easily found its way into my regular teenage rotation. Even today, with my jaded adult sensibilities, I found myself listening to the entire 11 minutes and 34 seconds of the three-song album's longest track, "Woodstone." Clever stuff! crypticlanguages.bandcamp.com
—Joshua Emerson Smith
Army of Bones
As heavy metal has splintered into countless subgenres, pure thrash—the kind Metallica and Megadeth and Slayer made in the 1980s—came to feel quaint, almost outdated. But the thrash revival is here, and Dark Measure is well-positioned to ride it. The band's first full-length album is a bracing blast of meaty riffs, rumbling drums, squiddly-squiddly guitar solos and Jason Lenhard's positively Hetfieldian roar. Dark Measure does classic thrash the right way. Seek and destroy, dudes! darkmeasure.com
The Distinguishing Marks
Twenty songs, most of them less than a minute long, featuring bizarre, sometimes melodic, synth-and-drums tracks with phrases like "I'm single again," "Left of center, right of mark" and "This party's over but the next one has begun" repeated over and over and over. I think this is supposed to be a concept album, but the concept eludes me.
The Introductory Curse
This aptly named band presents a grungy rock style with the kind of spooky aesthetic you might expect to hear at a Halloween party. Their lo-fi sound is helmed by a female singer's sometimes off-kilter voice, which ranges from seductive to menacing. The highlight of this four-song collection is the moody "Turn the Page," in which vocals are on point over a simple beat. The low mark is a live version of a song called "Tug of War," which is all cymbal crashes and muted utterances. I'm a little bit torn on this one. draculasdaughter.bandcamp.com
—Jen Van Tieghem
Whats a Dre Cat?
Dre Cat's album cover features a cat holding a bong—so at least I know what I'm in for. Smoky extracurriculars aside, these songs are anything but lazy; each has solid beats layered with samples and Dre Cat's quick-flowing lines. He drops a bunch of enjoyable hometown shout-outs to everything from Trevor Hoffman to Ballast Point Brewing to the San Diego Clippers. One example of his clever, tongue-in-cheek lyrics comes in the intro track, "Who That Be," where DC raps, "Smoke more, drink less, since you've got two lungs, but just one liver." Can't argue with that logic. facebook.com/drecatmusic
—Jen Van Tieghem
Dre Trav hands a rap listener the right to have high expectations with its Outkast-inspired album and song titles. The similarities to the seminal Atlanta rap duo stop there because there are no contagious hooks or interplanetary-gangster lyrics. Instead, Dre Trav offers 14 tracks of staccato rap bars over cool jazz xylophones and horns with scattered pulsing drums. If Dr. Doom had a half-baked cousin living on the West Coast it would be Dre Trav. soundcloud.com/dretrav
I'm as much of a '90s music fan as the next guy, and I dig most of the angular, stoner riffs that are showing up in music lately—riffs that sound mined from Built to Spill or Pavement. However, I'm confused as to who, exactly, is into post-grunge-era mid-tempo aggro-rock (well, besides everyone who still listens to FM radio). Dropshot, for example, are not a bad band, just perhaps born in the wrong decade. They're tight, and their production is pretty great, but it's too easy to see them angrily circle-jerking to bands like Filter or Disturbed.
Sean Duncan is here to rock the fuck out. He's just one guy with one guitar (sometimes multi-tracked), but that doesn't stop him from going all-in on some burly, Mastodon-style metal. So, if you're down with that band's 2004 album Leviathan , imagine it without vocals, bass or drums, and this is more or less what you get. And it definitely sounds like it's missing something. A lot, really, but for one dude with one guitar, it's at least got some heft to it.
This demo arrived in a large stack of hip-hop CDs with similar-looking labels, but one of these things is clearly not like the others. Fear Forever's 2015 demo sounds a lot more like the painfully earnest faux-alternative pop that's clogging up the Billboard charts right now, with lots of stomping, clapping, "whoa-oh-oh" choruses and young, good-looking people who spend their spare time as extras in vodka commercials. Then there's an EDM cover of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" that makes it that much more obnoxious. This kind of music is an advertising agency's dream, but as far as actual listening goes, I think I'll stick to something that sounds a little less like it was made by a focus group.
The Fictitious Dishes
The Earthling Demos
The last couple of years have been tough on feminists. After the #gamergate goons, the Santa Barbara massacre targeting women and countless assaults on reproductive rights, it's increasingly clear that we're not an equal society. This is why riot grrl acts like The Fictitious Dishes are so essential. The all-women group has the bite of Bikini Kill and the humor of Bratmobile. This demo's atonal guitar sound is as assaultive and ear-catching as the message (a good thing). Sometimes the lyrics veer into Punk 101-territory, but that's easy to overlook. facebook.com/thefictitiousdishes
Pale Blue Dot
Slick, slippery, glassy and glossy, Tom Field—a guy named Tom? Not a guy named Tom? Who knows?—creates futuristic synthscapes that whoosh past your ears and curve toward the horizon, with no end in sight. There are elements of hip-hop, glitch-pop, downtempo and ambient music here, but for the most part, Tom Field's Pale Blue Dot is, in fact, an edgeless expanse of icy electronica perfect for a moody night of adventurous listening, extensive screen time and avoiding other humans.
Stealing the Mona Lisa
This project comprises dozens of tracks on SoundCloud, which draw on straight-ahead jazz, avant-garde poetry, electronic music, hip-hop and indie rock. While Flores plays with diverse genres, his compositions consistently feature melodic and complex textures. Against dreamy arrangements, he often uses soft-spoken hip-hop phrasing. However, the music falls flat when he uses rap clichés as punch lines to sappy lyrics about love and "keeping the beat knocking." The instrumental material and artful arrangements far exceed the poetry. soundcloud.com/stealing-the-mona-lisa
—Joshua Emerson Smith
This is a whopping five-minute-long single that sounds like a hair-metal relic from the Wayne's World basement. It has some pretty awesome guitar solos and heavy drums, but the lyrics are often muffled, so it's hard to understand the message. "Restless" dates itself before the song even finishes. reverbnation.com/fused
There's a refined audio alchemy throughout these three solid tracks by Golden Hill beat maker fz. It's difficult to discern more with so little to go on, but crisp production and creative remixing make it worth a listen.
G Burns Jug Band
G Burns Jug Band
It's awesome when anyone can faithfully and flawlessly tackle century-old styles and canvass the early roots of American music. Bandleader Clinton Davis leads his quality quintet through rousing instrumentals ("Cowboy Waltz," "Banjoreno") and standout vocal tracks ("Railroadin' Some," "The Train That Carried My Girl From Town") with equal vigor. This is the kind of band that could just as easily lead a shoulder-to-shoulder backwoods barn stomp into the midnight hour as take the helm in producing period music for Hollywood. gburnsjugband.com
Johnny G.'s Jingles Vol. I
Eighteen songs of goofy, occasionally funny home recordings by a guy I can only assume counts Jello Biafra, Wesley Willis and Brak from Space Ghost as his biggest musical influences. It's like that guy from Laugh-In used to say, " Veddy intedesting ." But also stupid.
Like Coco Chanel said, remove one accessory before you leave the recording studio. Or something like that. In this case, it's the demonic voice that leads off the first and second songs. This is otherwise intelligent hip-hop—Generik scored a recent opening slot for GZA—produced in a city that could use more hip-hop. facebook.com/GenerikLNC
Gram Parsons-style country and folk that's ideal for road trips and solo excursions to the bar. The musicianship is excellent, but Gindling's talk/sing style wears thin pretty quickly, and otherwise dark and dusty songs like "Marilee" and "She Walked Away" are bogged down by cheesy sax solos and superfluous harmonica noodling. dangindlingmusic.com
Desperate Love EP
This band calls itself dance-punk, although I'm not so sure about the "punk" part—and I mean that in a good way. Their catchy hooks and deep, dark bass lines are reminiscent of a more straightforward rock band like Band of Skulls. The vocals alternate between sounding like a brooding Nina Persson and an upbeat Deborah Harry. The trippy synth-romp "I Feel It" is a highlight of the EP, due in part to cowbell and woodblock percussion, and an equally colorful video to match. facebook.com/GlassSpells
—Jen Van Tieghem
This is a bit of an odd one. GMG Sessions is, essentially, Parker Edison of hip-hop duo Parker and the Numberman, and this demo comprises outtakes from Edison's The Couch Tapes . So, on one level, it's generally in the same vein as a lot of the music that Parker's released in the past. But most of these tracks feel half-finished or, in some cases, like the bonus material on a DVD. There's some sound recorded at the San Diego Music Awards, some audio recorded from a KPBS story involving Edison and various other found sounds. When you cut through that, the three songs here are decent-to-good hip-hop tracks, but there's a reason they're outtakes.
Danny Green Trio
After the Calm
Danny Green is a skilled pianist, and his trio is rounded out by bassist Justin Grinnell and drummer Julien Cantelm. But they really ought to pick a true band name, because these three guys fit together seamlessly. They play jazz, and while it's far from avant-garde, it is complex, sharply composed and full of surprises. But together, Green, Grinnell and Cantelm make it sound easy. Listening to After the Calm is like listening to all the parts of a clock working in perfect harmony. Part bop, part pop, it's always on time. dannygreen.net
Sahara Grim Quartet
I have a hard time getting into music without vocals, so, luckily, this is one jazz outfit that has them in spades. Singer Sahara Grim is a triple threat, equally skilled at guitar playing and songwriting. Lead guitarist Jake Nuffer wails on "Paper Heart" and other tunes, giving the music an interesting rock injection. Grim's vocals are mostly well-executed, but at times it sounds like she's singing lower than her natural register. Overall, it's a solid collection of tracks, and I'd be happy to catch the band live. reverbnation.com/saharagrimquartet
—Jen Van Tieghem
Because I typically keep my youthful obsession with hair bands (i.e. cock rock) to myself, it's hard for me to imagine someone bringing back the days when Mötley Crüe's "Home Sweet Home" ruled MTV's airwaves. But it might as well be these guys. The eight, nicely produced songs here might just have enough straight-faced sincerity, stadium-sized power chords and whiskey-soaked solos to rally head bangers into a revival. Plus, their website features a "Gunner Girls" section dedicated to photos of scantily clad girls with guitars. Will someone please get these guys some pyrotechnics? gunnergunner.com
I'll be the first to admit I wouldn't know good modern-day electronic music, even if it handed me some molly and slapped me upside the head with a glowstick. That said, Bob Haro's tunes are definitely less grating than some EDM I've been subjected to. At the very least, there's lyrical content. Songs like "Standing in the Rain" have an '80s influence I can get on board with (think Erasure and Pet Shop Boys). The robotic "It's Only Love," on the other hand, makes me reach for the "skip" button. bandmix.com/bob-haro
—Jen Van Tieghem
Hookers on Stilts!
Nobody is Listening But Me!
One-man blues-punk in the vein of folks like Bob Log III and Jon Spencer. The instrumental opening track sounded promising, but things quickly fell apart when the reverb-flooded singing started. The name of the album seems prophetically accurate. facebook.com/hookersonstilts
Inspired by a local Race for the Cure event, this sincere tribute was penned for a breast cancer survivor.
Hypocrite in a Hippie Crypt
Best band name (or worst—I can't decide) goes to North Park's Evan Winiger, the man behind this mouthful of a moniker. While my favorite thing about this 11-song album is the accompanying offer of a hand-drawn singing hot dog, these easy-going guitar confessionals are eminently listenable, and Winiger's unique voice switches from gravelly weirdness to falsetto oohs and ahs with surprising ease. Consistently well-written and enjoyably loose, Better Days is the perfect companion for lazy afternoons in a hammock or a last-call wind-down after a night of going hard. hypocriteinahippiecrypt.bandcamp.com
Not a Through Street
I'm not even sure this qualifies as music. It sounds like Lou Reed's corpse recording a sequel to Set the Twilight Reeling with a Phish cover band backing him up. The lyrics are train-of-thought gobbledygook, and, worse, the songs just go on and on and on. "Savage Beauty / Down to Kill" clocks in at more than 14 minutes, which is 14 minutes too long. ricks-studio.com
The Humble Crab
OK. I get it. It's Saturday night. You're at Bob's house. Y'all get shit-faced. Joe grabs Bob's guitar. And—look!—there's a harmonica in the junk drawer. Yee-haw, let's record an album and sing songs about whether Baby Jesus would like McDonald's and how San Diego smells like urine in the summer. I generally have a good sense of humor but this elicited little more than an eyeroll.
iD the Poet
Work Epic Ep1
A mixtape that actually comes on a cassette tape warms my sentimental heart. It certainly helps when the hip-hop contained therein recalls vintage Definitive Jux artists with beats to match (the short and sweet "Medicine Show" is grimier than a rest-stop bathroom). This guy remains one of the best-kept secrets in the local hip-hop scene. idthepoet.com
Assimilation of the Enslaved
This CD came with an illustration of a cow-skulled beast with six arms pulling the heart out of a woman in a Satanic ceremony, so there's no mistaking just how evil Imbalanced intend to portray themselves. The music itself is sufficiently evil, as well, a pummeling, grunting, growling and gruesome style of brutal death metal that takes a lot of technical skill to pull off, and also an ear for melody to actually make it interesting. There's enough going on to keep it from getting boring, but I'm guessing, based on the organ-ripping cartoon cover art, that their live shows are sausage fests. youtube.com/imbalancedtv
Is This Fake Blood
This four-song EP feels like a rough draft of something that could be really good. The note accompanying it says it was written and recorded by Aaron de la Fuente, and it's definitely got a solo-project / bedroom-recording sound. Reference points range from Primal Scream's "Higher than the Sun" to Panda Bear. There's some of The Verve here, a little Seefeel. I really wanted the songs to go somewhere— to build just a bit. Keep working at it, Aaron, and maybe I'll see you at the next demo review. twitter.com/isthisfakeblood
She Dyed it Red
"She Dyed it Red" is a twangy rock tune about a local woman who dumps her groom-to-be at the altar and then initiates a personal awakening by dying her wedding gown red. The Jackstones trick you into swallowing this completely illogical premise by delivering a smooth, proper performance, and then they seal the deal by getting Roger Hedgecock to make a cameo in their music video. Rock on, old dudes. thejackstones.com
Another Day in Paradise
One cassette, two sides, 30 minutes of instrumental hip-hop built out of soulful samples, twinkling keys, daydream vibes and bloodless boom-bap. Janko Wolf is no doubt a big Madlib fan, and the evidence covers this tape from end to end and comes at the ears with impressive persistence. Side A is a buffet of solid, homespun beats, and Side B thankfully delivers a few more quirks. Ultimately, Another Day in Paradise feels more like a genre exercise than a peek into someone's heart and soul. soundcloud.com/janko-wolf
In beat-head circles, the cool thing to do with instrumental jazz and R&B is whip up nasty psychedelic breaks and fusion freakouts for MCs to rap over. Well, Juice Box does nothing of the sort. Instead, the quartet opens up to the perpetual San Diego sunshine with clean guitar, winsome Rhodes and delicate grooves. Their sound skews towards sentimental, and I can already hear fans of Flying Lotus and BADBADNOTGOOD guffawing at the brisk melody of LP opener "Strut." But they also accomplish a lot with their subtle approach, and they really show their stuff on "Rebecca," a breathtaking tune that straddles the line between happy and sad. All in all, it's refreshing to hear a band embrace a sound and explore its facets, blissfully oblivious to the latest trends. juiceboxsd.bandcamp.com
Kaus and DJ Inform
Welcome to the World of...
In the first few seconds of this CD, a DJ scratches out a sample of a voice saying, "Wack rappers shut the fuck up." This should be a bolder statement than it is, but in 2015, it's pretty much par for the course to come barreling through the gates by putting shame in others' game. Kaus and Inform, however, make hip-hop strong enough to warrant the wack-shaming. Kaus has a voice that's deep but smooth, reminiscent of Guru in his prime, while Inform spins laid-back, jazzy beats that provide a chill bed for Kaus' rhymes. There's a lot of hip-hop that sounds kind of like this, so it's to Kaus and Inform's benefit that they're just that much better at it than most. soundcloud.com/kaus-and-inform
Kingdom of Lights
Kingdom of Lights are a band with lots of moving parts. There are multiple vocalists, jangling dream-pop guitars, high-minded ideals, the robotic pulse of dance music, some modest ambition and a sort of mystic Eastern vibe, all smashed together and given to the sky. It's like if Perry Farrell got his grubby little paws on the Cocteau Twins and sprung for a new wardrobe that would guarantee a spot on the second hour of Dave Kendall-era 120 Minutes . There are catchy pop songs here waiting to be set free. soundcloud.com/kingdomoflights
Left in Company
The first true album since 2009 for veteran hip-hop duo Generik and Aneken is filled to the brim with eclectic samples, buzzy bass and all manner of squiggles, sproings and whirs. At the center of this vibrant sonic swirl are two MCs who are not only lyrically thoughtful, but also skilled at using their voices in melodic, interesting and unconventional ways. "Arnold Schwarzenegger" is a representative cut; it sounds like Kool Keith and circa-2000 Eminem riding a homemade rocket through a nitrous cloud. As hip-hop's aesthetic stretches at warp speed thanks to weirdos like Young Thug and Rae Sremmurd, itís easy to see a path to a breakthrough for Left in Company. leftincompany.com
Lessons From Zeke
Looking to take a trip back to the '90s? This four-piece, self-described "modern rock" band is willing to be your guide. With two guitarists, a drummer and a bassist, Zeke sound practiced and comfortable on this five-track EP. While I can't give these guys points for originality, I'm willing to concede they've produced a radio-ready sound that refuses to offend anyone. "I wish you'd stay all summer long," croons frontman Mike Horvath, in lyrics typical of the band's sensitive sensibilities. lessonsfromzeke.com
—Joshua Emerson Smith
Love Playing the Blues
Jacob Levy's voice is a dead ringer for post-Zeppelin Robert Plant (there's even a "Stairway to Heaven" reference on the title track), but Levy just can't hit those high notes. His guitar playing is respectable, if standard blues-by-numbers riffage, while his lyrics are Prozac-infused cheeriness. I don't know, call me old-fashioned, but I like my blues, well, bluesy.
The Liquidmind brand themselves in the style of a psychedelic band, from the trippy, hand-drawn optical-illusion art on their demo CD to a name like The Liquidmind, which probably makes more sense after a brown-acid binge. But they're really just a punk band with some pretentious flourishes. The spoken-word intro to the second track, for instance, doesn't really add much to their ultra-short, high-energy blasts of noisy guitar and explosive drums. And the recordings are pretty lo-fi, which makes an already noisy band sound even more chaotic. But what ends up being The Liquidmind's greatest sin is their shaky, off-key vocals. The two singers in what otherwise sounds like a band with some talent just can't get their shit together. I'm not saying they need to hire Chris Cornell or anything, but finding someone who can emote melodically would be a good start.
Bending the local-music rules a little here, singer / guitarist Jeanna Fournier of this Venice Beach dream-pop band grew up in Encinitas and graduated from the Coronado School of the Arts. Sounding more like The Cranberries crossed with Temper Trap than the bands they claim to have been compared to (Bjork, Mazzy Star, Portishead), they still do pop pretty damn well. Too bad they didn't stay in San Diego. littlegalaxiesband.com
If I ever caught my kids listening to this, I would immediately blast several hours of Public Enemy into their impressionable ears. This band is a San Diego stereotype soup: one part alt-rock, one part heavy rock, a pinch of beach sand and a smattering of sexy sax. They have moments where I think, "OK, I can stand this," but then they inevitably dive headfirst right back into the American cheese. littleheroine.bandcamp.com
—Joshua Emerson Smith
Little White Teeth
Songs the Attic Sings
This album is so outstanding that I'm not sure a "demo" review is the right place to review it. I mean, for chrissakes, Rob Crow from Pinback produced this thing. A guy who once played drums in Modest Mouse is on one track. Name-drops aside, the beauty of this album stems from its homespun nature. These are atmospheric indie-folk songs, recorded in an attic and layered with banjo, keyboards and strings. Opener "Between Stations" gives me shivers with its gripping melody, while "1903" weaves a haunting tale of early-1900s elephant electrocution. Little White Teeth have always been a wonderful fixture of the San Diego scene, but here they've achieved a new level of sonic power. soundcloud.com/littlewhiteteeth
Two unnamed, poorly recorded songs submitted with a large tree diagram of the trio's first names and a zip code. I don't know, dudes. I just don't know. But I did like the diagram.
Now here's a band that hits all the right marks and still ends up missing the target. Lurid Memory play technical death-metal and are quite good at their instruments, but they don't have the same over-the-top prowess as outfits like Fallujah or Cephalic Carnage. With the exception of the funereal Spanish-guitar forays of "Pangea"—easily the EP's best song—most of this stuff is just generic showy riffage. reverbnation.com/luridmemory
The Lyrical Groove
Spoken Soul: Music for Life
Lyrical Groove, known for their mix of R&B, jazz and spoken word, are lucky to have "overdraft protection" (as noted in the "Uncertain Times" track), because there are a few setbacks on their full-length debut. To their credit, the musicians are ridiculously on-point, and vocalist Kendrick Dial finds a strong balance between singing and spoken word. What it's lacking are seamless duets between Brisa Lauren and Dial. You don't know who's leading and who's in the background. But one message is clear: The Lyrical Groove are serving up some positive messages through their neo-soul music. thelyricalgroove.com
The mysterious, ungoogleable band called MAG apparently includes some confident songwriters. They've got a solid command of electronics and guitars, a knack for good melody and even some attitude—as is clear in "Unusual Pleasures," in which they dish out sneering lyrics over lo-fi garage riffs. But they could use an extra spark because this stuff is still fairly pedestrian.
Martin and the Big Nativity Scene
Just Be Claus
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that a CD called Just Be Claus , by a band with "Nativity Scene" in its name, is the product of a band that exclusively plays Christmas songs. And most of the Christmas songs on the CD are, in fact, songs that have already existed for a pretty long time—"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," "Run Run Rudolph," etc. They're performed well, and it's all good fun, but I have to be honest here: In March, this is absolutely the last thing I want to hear. facebook/com/martinandthebignativityscene
The Montell Jordans
Meant to Bleed
I was hoping that The Montell Jordans were going to wow me with some smooth and danceable New Jack Swing hooks, but, sadly, that was not to be. The group is essentially an amalgamation of pop-punk sheen and heavy-metal guitar riffs, and as much as I want to like it, it just doesn't work. That said, I'm willing to let them attempt a cover of "This is How We Do It" before rendering my final judgment. facebook.com/themontelljordans
The Inevitable Adventure and Grand Demise of Dizzy Rapture
As a member of Anti-Citizens and producer extraordinaire for the likes of Orko Eloheim, Black Mikey and Parker and the Numberman, Mr. Ridley has established himself as someone who knows his way around a slick beat. This 15-song collection only strengthens that rep and adds to the proof that he excels whether with a mic in his hand or sitting behind the mixing board. Dizzy Rapture is solid from start to finish.
Murder by Techno
Music for Future Suicides
Four tracks, each between 10 and 12 minutes long, and named "10," "11," "12" and "13." Intriguing, yes. Interesting? In parts. "10" is like a treadmill of creepy, improvised industrial sounds set to a relentless, robotic beat. "11" clatters and throbs alongside a sinister drone. And so on. These experiments would probably have more impact if they were half as long and didn't sound like they were played in one room and recorded in another. Then again, the stubborn length and standoffishness is part of what makes Music for Future Suicides unnerving.
Considering that Nebula Drag invoke both outer space and smoking in their name, I pretty much heard their stoner-rock grooves coming from all the way across the Southern California desert. Not that I'm complaining; Nebula Drag do Kyuss-style riff monsters better than a lot of dude-bros currently worshipping at the altar of Orange amplifiers. Their chops are thick and meaty. Their melodies are simple and immediate, but their heavy-as-Thor's-hammer rhythms and noxious fuzz are ultimately what make Nebula Drag's rock 'n' roll what it is. And given that their singer actually kind of sounds like Ozzy Osbourne, it would appear they've been puffing on more than one kind of sweet leaf. nebuladrag.bandcamp.com
Upside Down single (reissue)
I'm not sure who exactly was clamoring for a vinyl reissue of the '80s power-punk band's cover of a Diana Ross song (as well as an original on the b-side), but it's nice enough to see it being submitted, albeit 30 years late. The song isn't very good, even by punk's already-low standards, but, hey, if you turn the speed down to 33 rpm, it sounds like a really dark '80s-metal cover of a Diana Ross song. neintheband.wordpress.com
Other Bodies is a side project of Taejon Romanik of Wild Wild Wets, but it's a project that sounds almost nothing like his other band, outside of the hazy vocal effects that he uses. These are much slower, much more dreamy dirges that carry a little bit of gothic ambiance and codeine-cocktail wooziness. Everything is a bit off here, but in a good way. The melodies are solid enough, and Romanik occasionally throws in some off-kilter guitar riffs that sound like they could have been plucked from early Modest Mouse records. It seems like he's working up to something, even if he's not quite there yet, but Other Bodies has a lot of promise. otherbodies.bandcamp.com
I really liked the first 15 seconds of this CD—some lovely finger-picked guitar joined at the nine-second mark by a rockabilly groove. The rest of the song's not bad—it's got a nice loungey feel. But the second song doesn't sound much different from the first and the third song doesn't sound much different from the second. It's like a meal of mashed potatoes, french fries and hashed browns—not bad on their own, but together it's a starch overload. Someone pass the hot sauce.
Savannah Philyaw ostensibly plays country-folk music—some acoustic guitar, a little pedal steel, some piano and more earnestness than I really know what to do with. Or maybe it's just mainstream folk-pop touched up with a little bit of modern studio magic—I'm not sure that really matters. But as I listen to the Hammond and fiddle hoedown of "Overflowing Town," I can't help but think that if Philyaw traded her acoustic guitar for a Marshall stack, this would basically be Hot Topic mall-emo. And this might be what's getting in the way of me liking it—that and the fact that its schmaltzy, Hallmark Channel ballads are unbelievably sappy, with lyrics like "I am the tree and you are my roots." It's produced well and, sound-wise, has a lot to offer, but as actual songs go, I'm not hearing anything spectacular here. savannahphilyaw.com
The prince charming of San Diego's twee scene, Adam Powell spends this collection ruminating on the wonders of childhood ("Laelia's Song"), plunging into the giddiness of true love ("A Pear and a Peach") and generally just being a really wonderful guy. He gets a little dark in "Downer, Dude," lamenting how we "decorate the spineless / commemorate the mindless," but even his disillusionment is leavened with bright vibraphone and swooning accordion.
There's something to be said about a band that can strike a balance between being dark and still sonically pleasurable enough that people would actually want to listen them. Lyrically and musically, this four-piece isn't doing anything that's particularly innovative. They're just trying to find that balance. And while I wasn't initially wowed by this balance, what struck me was that songs like das uber-synthy "Leipzig" and the arena-ready "Rebel" were buzzing around my head days after hearing them. "Phantom" sounds like one of those heartbeat-paced Nine Inch Nails remixes from the mid-'90s, complete with lyrics and a bass-drum beat that's just all lust and longing and libido. "Hourglass" unfolds like one of those playfully seductive Grimes songs, but then, just as you think the song is ending, a tin-like beat begins, the guitars and keyboard whirlpool around it and frontwoman Tza (no relation to Wu-Tang members, as far as I can tell) robotically chants "just come with me" over and over as if she were saying it to all of humanity. That song, much like the album overall, is eerie and seductive at the same time, like the world coming to an end, but at the hands of really hot robot overlords. And with a kick-ass soundtrack. prgrmmusic.com
Pussytrot the Cat
One of the tracks Pussytrot sent in is a 14-minute, multipart experimental-folk piece called "The Sun is at its Zenith and Antonius Block is Playing a Game of Chess with Death." There's an Ingmar Bergman reference in there, which is all well and good, b ut how about a memorable melody or a nice harmony or something—anything—to spice up this acoustic-guitar strummy lo-fi gruel? soundcloud.com/pussytrot-the-cat
The Familiar and the Other
The static-ridden beats that open this album-length set from Quali might lead you to believe they deal in bedroom-produced hip-hop or electronica. But then a shimmering guitar arpeggio takes over, and in rushes a hypnotic pop lullaby in the form of the song "Reach." From there, the group tackles Pinback-style indie-rock ("Choke"), dense and noisy shoegaze ("Bleed / Breathe") and pulsing, heroic epics ("Mirror"). It's a solid set of guitar-driven rock songs; Quali is definitely a band worth keeping an eye on. qualiband.bandcamp.com
I'm guessing the dudes in Quor listen to a lot of Tool. Their riffs are heavy but melodic. Their singer has a heroic voice that echoes the dramatic croon of Maynard James Keenan. And "Human Paradigm," their one-track entry into the Great Demo Review, just feels epic . It isn't really, though—at only three minutes long, it's much more compact than most Tool songs, which already makes me like it slightly more than the meandering nonsense of Lateralus . But, then again, Tool without the meandering nonsense is basically just A Perfect Circle, which isn't all that interesting. Quor is the kind of band that seems like it would be fun to watch live, but "Human Paradigm" isn't doing much for me. quorbackstage.com
Stand Your Ground EP
I was gonna make fun of these kids, but then I searched for them on Facebook and realized they're probably, like, 12 to 15 years old. Rockin' riffs, crashing drums, some wicked solos, lots of energy. It gets pretty cheesy, so maybe consult Led Zeppelin for inspiration. officialradioactiveband.com
The relative ease of recording at home and layering samples with easily accessible software has led to what seems like an over-saturation of bedroom producers. Not everybody is capable of making something on the level of DJ Shadow's ...Endtroducing , but that hasn't stopped thousands of Bandcamp beatmakers from giving it a shot. Recycled Dolphin, however, are much better at it than most. They blend ethereal, surrealist ambiance with buzzing and dirty bass lines, creating a yin-and-yang effect that makes for a much more interesting product than the typical laptopper. Their creations can be ominously sedate ("Starbucks Buddhism") or hyperactive and flashy ("Personal Brand Development"), and the closer one listens, the more the small but fun details begin to pop out. Not everyone can be the next Gold Panda or Andy Stott, but it's worth wading through the attempts to stumble upon a Recycled Dolphin. recycleddolphin.bandcamp.com
7 Song EP
Either these teenage pop-punks live hyper-average lives or they're holding out on us. They live in North County and sing about standard high-school stuff—facing up to a school bully, taking a girl to Disneyland, begging mom for a ride to the Warped Tour. But, hey, I was a high-school kid once. I know how interesting things can get. Where's the song about blacking out on Xanax or losing your virginity in the back seat of the family station wagon? Come on, boys. Cough it up. facebook.com/riboflavinmusic
Rosewood & Rye
Live at Lestats
This band sounds exactly like a band you'd imagine seeing at Lestat's. While their harmonies are solid, there isn't a lot of originality here. I am a fan of classical instruments mixed into mainstream genres, so Rosewood & Rye get extra points for straying from the standard boy-girl folk duo with the addition of a violinist. The strings are especially strong on their cover of Damien Rice's "Volcano," which is where I also find the best of both singers' voices. It and "Wynona Falls" are nice reprieves from cringe-worthy hip-hop scatting à la Jason Mraz on other tracks. Please stop that. rosewoodandrye.com
—Jen Van Tieghem
The Roxanne Wars
The Roxanne Wars seem like the type of band that's still nostalgic for the bedroom-produced, four-track, indie-pop of the late '90s. Each of the tracks on this four-song demo is a mixture of electronic beats, shoegazing guitars, soulful-if-nerdy vocals and beds of samples that put it somewhere between the Odelay chicanery of Beck and the hazy psychedelia of Ride. It's plenty enjoyable, even pleasant, to the point that you almost don't notice when the singer drops a line like "She don't want to be squeezed when she's bleeding to death." facebook.com/theroxannewars
This EP opens with a track dedicated to rapping about how much modern music (including rappers) suck. Rumblepack suggests the solution to the "simplistic" and "run-of-the-mill" is to "complexify." I'm assuming the guitar solo thrown into their hip-hop style is meant to do whatever that is and set them apart. It doesn't. The rest of the EP is more of the same low-rent 311 sound. An exceptional low point comes on the funk-infused "Coffee Mate," in which these MCs describe the "chicks at the coffee shop" who should "leave room for cream." Is this a joke? Ick. rumblepack.co
—Jen Van Tieghem
This 20-minute mix of experimental, instrumental hip-hop is sneaky dope. Warm horns, psychedelic guitars, burbling bass lines and subterranean beats are chopped up, pieced together and melted down into a syrupy soundtrack for heavy-lidded late-night excursions. Before you know it, time's up and you've spent the past 20 minutes on an upward trajectory of enjoyment, bobbing along and fake-scratching records on your desk like some sort of business-casual DJ. Or maybe that's just me. Oh, Sasquatch's music is sneaky dope? Probably should've seen that coming. sasquatch-tma.bandcamp.com
Shake Before Us
Radio Time Bomb
Garage-rock bands are more common in San Diego than Instagram sunsets, so I'm amazed it took me eight demos to finally get to something that sounds like Shake Before Us. Their style is rooted in the mod and soul sounds of the '60s rather than the Burger Records phenomenon that appears to be swallowing Southern California whole. It's a fun slice of Farfisa-heavy rock 'n' roll, with massive hooks, hip-shimmying rhythms and fuzz aplenty. Generally, I'm loath to invite more garage bands into my ears, but Shake Before Us do a better job than most at keeping an old sound interesting. soundcloud.com/shakebeforeus
Don't be overwhelmed by the 20-minute play time for each side, "A Bruuh" and "B Bruuh." Just think Pink Floyd and you might respect the ridiculous length of it all. Froderick is fancy; that's why he's Sir Froderick, but in a very playful, colorful Native Tongues-crew kind of way. Bruuh is one of those instrumental, long-play jazzy hip-hop albums you can play in the background for business or pleasure. You can even enjoy Froderick's zoom-zap-boom-onomatopoeia comic-book collage artwork when you need a little distraction. sirfroderick.bandcamp.com
Rise Up for Love
I could use all kinds of words to describe Rise Up for Love , like "rootsy" and "bluesy," "alluring" and "well-crafted," "organic" and "real" (whatever that means). But the first word that comes to mind when listening to this album is "warm," thanks not only to its analog recording methods but also frontwoman Sherri-Anne's natural charisma, which practically leaps from these songs. Her dusky alto is like an old friend, her melodies are unforced and memorable and the band that backs her is certainly capable of soulful folk-rock. They create a world that welcomes lingering. sisterspeakmusic.com
Meet the band where innovative alt-rock and head-scratching weirdness collide. Skeet's song "Simon" is probably their best, a keyboard-and-riffs power ballad with hints of both Weezer and The Flaming Lips. But they go totally off the rails on "Quakers Barilla," seesawing between Auto-Tuned verses and goofy, funk-rock choruses. And I'm not sure how I feel about the self-serious '90s confessionalism of "Bottledeep." But, hey, sometimes it takes a few failed experiments to hit on something new.
This is a 16-minute beat tape that's been dragged through the sonic gutter. There's a Morrissey sample covered in muck. A nasty hip-hop beat straight out of some psychedelic-banshee lair. Chillwave moods rendered nightmarish by reverb and distortion. Kinda messy, but dope as hell. skellyapexrealm.bandcamp.com
Sloat Dixon walks a risky musical line, smashing together grimy club beats, DayGlo disco-pop and rock 'n' roll attitude in an effort to make 1) butts move and 2) a name for himself. It almost works—some of these tracks are legit bangers built from unorthodox parts—but Dixon's brash, broken-glass bark is a nonstarter; it sounds lifted from a Chris Parnell sketch on Saturday Night Live . Dixon's beats might draw you to the dance floor, but his rapping may trigger your fight-or-flight response. sloatdixon.com
Smarter Than Robots
Whats Another 28? EP
This EP starts out with a Bolero-style guitar instrumental that sounds straight out of a Robert Rodriguez film and then does a complete 180 and launches into some prog-tinged thrash metal. Their ability to mix multiple styles of music is admirable, and while there's nothing particularly groundbreaking here, it's certainly metal as fuck. smarterthanrobots.bandcamp.com
Earth Energy EP
Vocalist / guitarist Megan Liscomb has a powerful, husky voice and a good ear for nasty guitar tone. Keyboardist Lex Pratt and drummer Jon Bonser lock in well, and the wicked groove of "Mountain" channels '60s trip-out bands like Silver Apples. But though the trio puts in a solid performance, it seems they're holding back too much with their blocky riffs. softlionsmusic.com
Sol Horse is Dylan Stallard, a guy with a bedroom, a recording rig, a guitar and some chord progressions. His songs are idiosyncratic little garage-pop nuggets that mostly sound not quite finished. But what he has is interesting: Think power-pop with a post-punk makeover. T. Rex meets Television. Fang running with Gang of Four (Gang of Fang! Fang of Four!). Pavement and Parquet Courts, slathered in cymbal crashes and lo-fi hiss. There are gems here; they just need to be dug up, dusted off and dialed in.
I highly recommend this album if you a) buy most of your music from bands that play at farmers markets, b) spend a good chunk of time on Reddit debating the artistic merits of the TV show Nashville , c) often sing Shania Twain records to your cats or d) all of the above, in which case you should probably just turn in your badge. sometimesjulie.com
Speaker in Reverse
Tropical-tinged indie-pop for a sunny Saturday afternoon. The band sets a fresh mood with intertwining guitar parts and organ harmonies, but the crucial ingredient is Itai Faierman's light, falsetto vocals, which act as a kind of sonic citrus infusion. soundcloud.com/speaker-in-reverse
First, anyone who names their band Spooky Cigarette is going to get mad props from this critic (can we all agree that we need to have more "spooky" things?). Better yet is when the band delivers on its name. Spooky Cigarette are a new-wave, synth-pop group who sound like they were produced in a haunted basement where the ghosts are friendly. Equal parts Future Islands and Digital Leather—with a little bit of Gary Wilson weirdness thrown in—it's a sound that's simultaneously catchy and unsettling.
I'm not sure what a Steinback is, but I sure hope it's not an unfortunate spelling of Steinbeck. Regardless, this duo's grunge-punk sound is very familiar and a bit bland. Several other local bands do this style in a much more interesting way (see: Gloomsday). Each of the three songs submitted sounds basically the same, and not in a good way. The female vocalist's style sounded better than the male's, so perhaps putting her in focus would have improved these mediocre tunes. It left me underwhelmed at best. soundcloud.com/brielle84
—Jen Van Tieghem
By far the worst one of my lot this year. I don't know if this is a band or a one-man rock project, but nothing is in sync here. All the instrumental parts sound like everyone is just playing together—and their instruments—for the very first time. Not to mention the singer sounds like a high-as-balls Marc Bolan doing shitty spoken word in Brian Jones' pool. The CD case brags "No Protools! No computers!" Seriously, guys, there's technology to make untalented people sound decent. Use it.
The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble
The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble
It would make sense that the farther one gets from Nigeria, the less likely it is that you're going to find authentic or, at the very least, decent Afrobeat. Yet, The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble—like Brooklyn's Antibalas or Canada's Souljazz Orchestra before them—make a highly compelling case for California Afrobeat on their self-titled, full-length release. The group's unique blend isn't a pure distillation of the heady grooves pioneered by Fela Kuti, but, rather, one that incorporates bits and pieces of fusion, Meters-style funk, Ethio-jazz and even David Axelrod's cinematic instrumentals of the late '60s. It's a stunning stew of influences, and the way the band translates them is vibrant and colorful, whether easing into a badass, dirty groove on "Strollin' Adams" or firing up a carefree boogaloo melody on "Funky River." With these 43 minutes of music, The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble are proving once and for all that San Diego truly is home to the funk. thesurefiresoulensemble.bandcamp.com
The Tarr Steps
Well, damn. From the opening note of The Tarr Steps' demo, the band unleashes a flood of neon-lit disco funk that carves out a groovy middle ground between Chic and Jamiroquai. The group layers on the synth textures pretty heavy, not to mention some amazingly cheesy saxophone in second track "Don't Ever Stop," but The Tarr Steps own it. There's no irony in their throwback jams; nor are they simply taking existing ideas and running with them. The songs are actually pretty strong. In the greater scheme, The Tarr Steps aren't really innovating so much as making something fresh out of sounds that have long since gone stale. But I'll let the first track on the demo, "Move Yourself," do the talking: "Move yourself for the good of your health." johnnytarr.com/the-tarr-steps
Three Chord Justice
One | Four | Five
When country music is bad, it's really bad—like the opposite of what they say about sex and pizza. But when it's good, it sounds something like Three Chord Justice. And the star of this show is the dueling precision of guitarists Jeff Houck and Tom Wolverton. Between Houck's discernable honky-tonk chops and Wolverton's expertise on steel, lap, dobro and mandolin, this is the real deal. Not to mention, frontwoman Liz Grace sings these dusty, deep-fried and well-written tales with lilting ease and genuine accessibility. threechordjustice.com
I'm surprised this band would subject itself to the often-harsh Great Demo Review after reaching their level of popularity, which afforded them a nomination and a performance at last year's San Diego Music Awards. The album they've submitted blends reggae, rock, hip-hop and an islander vibe, all of which are done well and are ideal for fans of these styles. Though I'm not one of them, I can attest to the power of their music, which inspired my boyfriend's mother and her best friend to dance in the aisles for the entirety of their SDMA performance (the gin and tonics probably didn't hurt). tribaltheorymusic.com
—Jen Van Tieghem
Two Eyes Meet Redux
Illusions and Tragedies
When listening to this album, be ready for lots of noise and pitchy vocals, and it can't be blamed on Garage Band. Two Eyes Meet Redux attempt the classic dark-goth sound from the '80s, but their over-filtered vocals and unkempt music layers cause them to miss the mark. "Young and Free (Are Dying)" almost qualifies—it needs a do-over with a new vocalist and mix because the totally emo songwriting isn't bad. twoeyesmeetredux.bandcamp.com
These guys are so amazingly uncool that they're actually cool. Their songs are scruffy and bizarre, balancing King Crimson-y prog structures and hilarious Dave Mustaine-like vocal flourishes with quotidian lyrics about higher education and sons-in-law. Also, their drummer apparently used to play in Michael McDonald's backing band—yeah, man, real-deal shit. The world needs more bands like Ugly Roomers.
This compilation is over-ambitious with its genre hopping, ill-matched lineup of artists. However, three songs did stand out and represent our border town well: Castillo's body-moving, rock en Espanol "Latina," along with the anti-establishment head-bobbing rap from San Diego Music Award-winning producer Scatterbrain and rapper Kaboose, "The 6th World of Conscienceness [sic]" and "The Killa is Shook." But the mystery remains: What or who is behind the acronym BHSP?
Based on this sole selection submitted by the band, I'm ready to call myself a fan. Singer Jenna Cotton brandishes her Deborah Harry vocals while otherworldly psychedelic elements dance in and out. Halfway through, the song's playful guitars mimic the sing-song of the vocals for a cool effect. It wraps up with more trippy alien and robot sounds. The song is catchy enough to be dance-friendly; I'd say it's electro-pop that doesn't overdo either the electro or the pop. I'll have an ear out for the The Verigolds in the future. soundcloud.com/theverigolds
—Jen Van Tieghem
The name of Vice Society's demo may or may not be Tuneage , but that's what was written on the CD-R, and that the disc was labeled with such charmingly uncool slang says a lot about the band. Vice Society are not cool—not even remotely. Their influences seem to be some combination of The Black Crowes, Gin Blossoms and The Beach Boys after Brian Wilson checked out, and most of their songs are about hot women and just feeling good, man . An actual lyric from one of their songs is "I feel alive when you're here by my side, so shine your soul on me." That should tell you a lot about Vice Society. And when I say they're not cool, that's not a knock against their musical abilities, necessarily. More often than not, they ease into a pretty melody or sweet riff. But cool? They don't even know the meaning of the word. soundcloud.com/vice-society/
Viva Apollo sound like a dangerous band. They sound like a band at the New Orleans bar into which you've stumbled during the wee hours of morning, lost and far away from your hotel. Taking cues from dark blues and rock bands like The Dead Weather, Viva Apollo not so much carve out their place in the music scene as press themselves into it like a branding iron; suffice it to say, the music sizzles. Lead singer Amanda Portela sings with a sultry croon that's at once menacing and haunting. vivaapollo.com
There are some cool details in this lo-fi trip-hop—like the squeaky bass of "The Other Side" and the dusty drum machine of "Pointless Game"—and I'm thinking they might explore these quirkier aspects of their sound further, because they're really not accomplishing much with their fatigued grooves and off-key vocals. voidlake.bandcamp.com
We Are Friends
Talking Loud EP
"Sometimes life is a little rough." So sing We Are Friends on their song "Life," which makes even the hard parts of growing up sound like the chillest time ever. No, you won't be hearing much tension on this EP, which drifts along on mild electronic / acoustic indie-pop arrangements and winsome Ben Gibbard-style poetics. It's music by nice people for nice people, and I think that's nice.
There's been a surge in recent years of blues-rock bands fronted by a guy with a big voice and tons of swagger. Many of these bands are terrible because they lack the muscle for the music, or the frontman's voice isn't as big as he thinks it is. Neither is a problem for Wicked Tongues, a quartet with nice chops and enough horsepower to stomp a hole in your skull and fill it with brawny fuzz. The bandís greatest asset, though, is singer Mason Betsch, whose jaw-dropping range and agility place Wild Tongues well ahead of the sea of Jack White wannabes. wickedtonguesband.com
Flowers EP / Until the Whole of My Heart is Yours
"If you're looking for a reason to rock... keep looking, pal," says Wilson's Bandcamp profile, and it's right. This is piano music, gently performed. Flowers was inspired by a trip to the Pacific Northwest, and, indeed, its tunes recall the pitter-patter of light rain on a windowsill. Until the Whole of My Heart is Yours is jazzier and just as sparse, making room for Wilson's smoky vocals. Neither release will change your life, but they do make for perfectly pleasant mood music, if you don't forget they're playing. normandiewilson.com
Nature plays a significant role in this EP from Ohio transplant Mike Wojniak, a skilled singer-songwriter with a penchant for grand productions. Each of these four tracks begins as unabashedly ambitious pop songs and then grows bigger as Wojniak layers on vocals and instruments until he's built a stately wall of sound. The EP opens with "Stone & the Sea," which starts off sounding like Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" before blooming into a reasonable facsimile of Coldplay. And it closes with its best song, "Oak Tree," a lush, jangly number with a soaring chorus. mikewojniak.com
Live Love Stay Up
E.N Young is basically the Joel Osteen of reggae. He takes a genre that's legitimately cool—rooted in a history of social justice and sonic exploration—and dumbs it down with his bland voice and easy-listening backing band. Then he spouts a bunch of bullshit self-help platitudes over the top, about inspiration and willpower and love and yadda yadda yadda. Sorry, dude, I don't buy it. facebook.com/E.Nyoung7