Rebel Son Rise – “Sunshine on Daemon Land”
This album is undoubtedly the most surprising and worthwhile collection of songs I’ve heard from a Maine artist in the past three months. It was not at all what I expected – though honestly, I don’t really know what I was expecting. Rebel Son Rise, aka. Justice McLaughlin of Lincoln, brother to songwriter Jacob Augustine, blends a distinctly Celtic-influenced sound with an arsenal of drums, percussion and atmospheric samples. Think Billy Bragg or the Pogues collaborating with Animal Collective or Yeasayer, with a little Depeche Mode thrown in for good measure. It’s spooky, heady stuff, clearly very personal, perfectly timed to be released in the autumn, and the fact that it was entirely written, performed and produced by McLaughlin is a testament to his unique vision. It had a broad appeal – Celtic and folk fans can find as much to love as can devoted indie rockers, from the syncopated, addictive beat of the title track to the driving Smiths-esque riff and vocals of “Better Tone It Down” to the shimmering acoustic guitars of “Baby I Love Ye.” I can’t remember the last time I was so impressed by a local artist. Do yourself a favor and listen to it.
Mike Billings – “Re:Connect”
Never let anyone say Mike Billings isn’t ambitious. This two-disc set from the Bangor-based guitarist, songwriter and vocalist is packed with Stevie Wonder-esque funk, soulful vocals and even a bit of hip-hop influence (think Cee-Lo, the Roots). But it’s Billings’ searing guitar work that takes this much-labored-over album up another level. He’s been a mainstay of the eastern Maine music scene for a long time, and his skills as a guitarist are unparalleled. Blending the virtuosity of his personal heroes – Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix – with his own unique flair, Billings shows off his considerable skill throughout “Re:Connect.” There’s a lot to listen to here, from the wobbly Rhodes keyboards and Auto-Tuned vocals of “Life on Marz” to the straight-up, strutting funk of the title track. Though it’s clear a lot of thought and effort went into the album, it nevertheless feels totally natural, even laid-back. A very worthy effort from an unsung hero of the Maine music scene.
Sparks the Rescue – “S/T EP”
The myriad changes this southern Maine pop-punk-screamo band have undergone – a split with Fearless Records, countless personnel switch-ups – could easily have spelled the end for a band that’s been together for nearly a decade. But no! Sparks the Rescue soldiered on, recruiting new members and launching a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to record this, a return to form. It’s as amped-up, anthemic and bracingly melodic as any of their previous stuff. It’s singalong, fist-pumping music, with some aggressive vocals and their trademark sarcastic lyrics, meant for the angry young man or woman inside everyone. It’ll certainly please their fan base (STR has a whopping 12,000-plus Facebook likes), and it’ll cement them further as a force to be reckoned with in Maine music.
This Way – “The Story of Simon Pure”
I get all excited when bands get ambitious. And This Way’s latest release, “The Story of Simon Pure,” is exactly that – a song cycle about a man named (of course) Simon Pure, whom lead singer and songwriter Jay Basiner has imagined as an Everyman stand-in for anyone who’s in a small town and has big dreams. This Way is nominally a bluegrass band, but the big, rambling drums, vocal harmonies with Anna Patterson and downright honky-tonkin’ fiddle of Andrew Martelle present on “Simon Pure” take them out of the string band realm and closer to a rootsy kind of alt-country – emphasis on the country. It’s awfully good stuff, especially the title track and the Dylan-fied harmonica jam “Old Mister Drifter.” The Mallett Brothers Band better watch out – they might have some competition brewing for Maine’s best alt-country band.
Jared Fairfield/Afraid – “EMF”
I’ve been following Jakob Battick – aka Afraid – and his musical trajectory since he was a student at Bangor High School. On this split LP, recorded over the course of a year with Maine singer-songwriter-experimentalist Jared Fairfield, Battick begins to coalesce a sound that has veered over the years from lo-fi garage pop to sparse, ghostly avant-garde folk music. Battick’s and Fairfield’s individual sounds complement each other incredibly well on “EMF.” A woozy, AutoTune-heavy kind of electronica is balanced by blasts of noise and heavier percussion, bringing to mind the contemporary British musician James Blake as well as noise pioneers the Swans and indie experimenters Deerhunter. It’s the sound of two musicians, each inclined toward a weird kind of sonic beauty, working together to create something very unique.
Boxes – “Out to Sea EP”
The debut EP from Portland indie-pop five-piece Boxes is as sincere and earnest as it is invitingly melodic. The impassioned, interlocked vocals of Charles Stanhope and Monica Cooper are right up front in the mix on all three songs, from the anthemic “Chrysanthemum” to the lyrical “Green.” But it’s Thomas Portlock’s piano lines that set this brief but satisfying collection apart from other bands – they bring to mind keyboard-driven ’80s rock, such as Squeeze or midperiod Elvis Costello, albeit with a vocal style more akin to Death Cab for Cutie or Bright Eyes. It’s tuneful, enjoyable stuff; here’s hoping Boxes can continue to grow as a band and as songwriters. There’s a lot of potential on display with “Out to Sea.”
Zach Jones – “Things Were Better”
This warm, retro-sound collection of songs from Portland-based singer and songwriter Zach Jones is a throwback, for sure. It’s got that tasty horn-drenched vibe that’s present on Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” on all of Al Green’s albums, and on latter-day neo-soul artists such as John Legend and Raphael Saadiq. It features a who’s who of Portland musicians, from horn players from the Fogcutters Big Band to songwriters Sara Hallie Richardson and Anna Lombard. If you’re in a really good mood on a sunny weekend morning, “Things Were Better” would be the perfect soundtrack.
Dark Hollow Bottling Company – “American Ghosts”
Dark Hollow Bottling Company is nominally a bluegrass band – mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitars, fiddle, played generally without drums. But the soul of the band belongs much more to indie and punk rock – it’s played with an awareness and open-mindedness that sets them apart from other string bands. “American Ghosts” is awfully pretty, with layers of strings underneath some raw, country-fied vocals. Songwriter Greg Klein tells stories with his songs, and the rest of the band fuses some rockabilly and classic rock rhythm into the 12 songs that make up the album.
Emily Burnham may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her blog at cultureshock.bangordailynews.com.