10. April Smith and the Great Picture Show
Album: Songs for a Sinking Ship
Band Members: April Smith (vocals, guitar), Elliot Jacobson (drums), Brandon Lowry (keyboards), Marty O'Kane (guitar), Stevens (bass)
For Fans Of: Amanda Palmer, Erin McKeown, The Andrews Sisters
Photo by Michelle McSwain
Judging from some tracks on her new album Songs for a Sinking Ship, Brooklyn singer/songwriter April Smith is quite the burlesque bad girl. Verbally smacking down the competition for her man's affections (“Dixie Boy”) and confessing to sins apparently too atrocious to mention (“Terrible Things”), Smith takes a ride into the annals of vintage Mason-Dixon pop, packing a sound full of sassy hooks and swinging rhythms.
When I meet her at a generic SoHo deli on an early December afternoon, it becomes clear that the real April Smith is far less confrontational than her music suggests. The first sign is when she whips out her camera to play a video of her border collie, Scout, hamming it up before a bath. And the enthusiasm with which she explains converting her band's old tour bus to run on alternative fuel confirms it. “You have to make sure the engine and injection pump are willing to run on vegetable oil,” Smith says over egg sandwiches before heading to a charity gig for an eco-friendly clothing line. “It's definitely a labor of love.”
A devout vegetarian with a contagious smile, she's definitely more Southern Comfort than Wild Turkey, but she revels in the melodramatic, TV-inspired whimsy she concocts with her four-piece band, The Great Picture Show. “Terrible Things,” for example, is actually an ode to Dexter, the Showtime series about a morally ambiguous serial killer. “I'm a huge TV addict—it's really bad, especially when it's cold out,” Smith says. “I'll only go outside to walk my dog, and the rest of the time, the TV's always on.” Law & Order, Californication (which recently licensed “Terrible Things” for its online promos) as well as shows and books about historical shipwrecks round out her suitably noir pop-cultural interests.
Smith's megaphone optimism remains front and center throughout the tumultuous old-timey jams on Songs for a Sinking Ship, recorded with the $13,000 she raised last year via website Kickstarter. “If you're going down, you may as well have a smile on your face,” she says. “If times are bad, at least we're having fun.”—Sean Edgar
9. Dum Dum Girls
Hometown: Los Angeles
Album: I Will Be
Band Members: Dee Dee (vocals, guitar), Bambi (bass), Jules (guitar, vocals), Frankie Rose (drums, vocals)
For Fans Of: Vivian Girls, The Raveonettes, The Angels
When Dee Dee (née Kristin Gundred) started posting songs to her MySpace page a couple years ago under the moniker Dum Dum Girls, she was just looking to share recordings with a few close friends and her husband Brandon Welchez, lead singer for the San Diego, Calif-based band Crocodiles. “My husband was touring a lot with his band, so I'd put a song up on MySpace and then send him an email like, 'Hey, I put a song up. Check it out.' Then, occasionally, I'd tell another friend to check it out,” says Dee Dee, who previously performed as the singer/drummer of San Diego trio Grand Ole Party under her real name. “Eventually, I decided to add a couple friends. It started out very modest with no real intention.”
Despite those unassuming beginnings, the songs—which filtered '60s girl-group harmonies and '90s shoegaze through a lo-fi wall of sound—found their way to the ears of Blank Dogs' Mike Sniper (who released the Yours Alone EP on his young Captured Tracks label) and Hozac Records head Todd Novak (who released the band's “Longhair” 7-inch). Even then, when Dum Dum Girls signed with Sub Pop last summer—and when it was announced that Dee Dee would produce her project's debut LP with Richard Gotteher, who co-wrote “My Boyfriend's Back” and has produced bands like Go-Gos and Blondie—it seemed something of a leap.
But as befits its Cartesian title, Dum Dum Girls' debut I Will Be (out today) is a full realization of Dee Dee's early sonic sketches. With Gotteher reworking her home recordings, the album is a beguiling pairing of classic production and modern sensibility, with tracks like “Jail La La” and “Blank Girl” (and a cover of Sonny & Cher's “Baby Don't Go”) draped in vintage reverb. Dee Dee has recruited similarly-surnameless friends Bambi, Jules and Frankie Rose (formerly of Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts) to round out the band for its upcoming live shows; they'll spend most of April and May on the road in the U.S. and Europe. And while interest in the band will probably only increase once the album is released, the once semi-anonymous artist wants to be judged solely by her music. “I just don't want to be anything,” Dee Dee says, “other than what the songs and the show put out there.”—Stephen Slaybaugh
8. Local Natives
Hometown: Los Angeles
Album: Gorilla Manor
Band Members: Kelcey Ayer (vocals, keyboard), Matt Frazier (drums), Ryan Hahn (vocals, guitar), Andy Hamm (bass), Taylor Rice (vocals, guitar)
For Fans Of: Andrew Bird, Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend
The band now known as Local Natives formed in Orange County, Calif. three years ago. The quintet has since relocated a few dozen miles north to Los Angeles, and its debut LP, Gorilla Manor is named after the old house they shared in Silver Lake, but they haven't yet built a reputation suited to their name—they keep getting yanked across the pond.
Local Natives' rich, CSNY-spun harmonies, churning folk-guitar lines and ebullient percussion first stirred the overseas press at last year's SXSW conference. This January, the guys found themselves devouring lamb burgers and guzzling hard cider in London during their third European visit in less than a year, still ecstatic about playing for more than 4,000 fans at the Brixton Academy in December, their biggest show to date. Success abroad is sweet, says guitarist and sometime lead singer Taylor Rice, though he admits it's frustrating that he can't pronounce the name of the French TV show—Ce Soir ou Jamais, translated as Tonight or Never—on which the band just gave yet another characteristically full-bodied performance. “What we need to do in the van,” he says, “is listen to Rosetta Stone between every single show and try to learn all of the languages.”
The taut song structures of Gorilla Manor, arising from self-inflicted jeers and slathered in the colorful muck of a fresh food fight, are the work of bandmates that spend 99 percent of their waking lives together. They'll bond on a stateside tour this spring (“Playing the U.S. is very important to us,” Rice notes), but compared to the day-devouring drives which will propel the band around the U.S., the two-hour van rides between European cities are heavenly. “Every musician's dream is to get to tour with your band all over the world,” Rice adds. “We're lucky enough that it's happening right now.”—Reed Fischer
7. Free Energy
Album: Stuck On Nothing
Band Members: Geoff Bucknum (guitar), Nicholas Shuminsky (drums), Paul Sprangers (vocals), Evan Wells (bass), Scott Wells (guitar)
For Fans Of: Tom Petty, Thin Lizzy, The Hold Steady
Free Energy's debut album, Stuck On Nothing, starts with a cowbell, but really gets going when the good-time electric guitars launch into an extended harmonized solo. “We're breaking out this time,” Paul Sprangers sings on the opening track. “Making out with the wind.”
Roll over, Leadbelly. Here comes America's new folk music. “I don't know what else is,” says Scott Wells, the quintet's guitarist. “I think our national folk music is different types of pop music and probably the most perennially successful [pop] music is classic rock. It's something everyone has in common. Even if you don't like the music, you know it.”
Wells and Sprangers hail from tiny Red Wing, Minn., on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. They cut their musical teeth in Minneapolis before moving to Philadelphia, where they formed the band. It's an appropriately blue-collar history for a group whose fist-pumping rock anthems induce visions of tie-dye and jean vests, beer in red plastic cups, and a general sense of some really memorable Friday night in suburban U.S.A. circa 1976. “We're trying to make dance music—fun party rock,” Wells says, “stuff that's unabashedly going for it, with a good beat, good groove and hopefully a catchy hook.”
It's true that dance music has evolved since the end of the Vietnam War. But if you play “Bang Pop,” with its primal, pounding drums, high-neck guitar interludes and “oh-oh” harmony breakdown, you just might be inclined to shake a flared denim-clad leg, too. Free Engery wears its influences like a low-cut V-neck—thus the cowbell that kicks off the record. “I think a cowbell in rock 'n' roll—it tells you right away it's time to party,” Wells says. “Hopefully.”—Richard Parks
Hometown: Oxford, U.K.
Album: Beachcomber's Windowsill
Band Members: Brian Briggs (vocals, guitar), Jon Ouin (vocals, guitar, cello,
keyboards), Oliver Steadman (vocals, guitar, bass), Robert Steadman (drums)
For Fans Of: Fanfarlo, Elbow, Belle & Sebastian
When British chamber-pop quartet Stornoway plays “Watching Birds,” from its debut LP Beachcomber's Windowsill, frontman Brian Briggs is singing about what he knows: He earned his Ph.D in Ornithology at Oxford University with a special focus on ducks. “It's kind of been a swap of what's the career and what's the hobby,” Briggs says. “I definitely still get out as often as I can, but [birdwatching has] had to take a backseat for now.”
His first week at Oxford, Briggs met a multi-instrumentalist named Jon Ouin, discovered they shared musical tastes and soon placed an ad for a rhythm section. The only person to respond was bassist Oliver Steadman, who brought his little brother Robert along to play drums. The band's big break came at a gig with two people in the audience; one of them was a local DJ, Tim Bearder, who wasn't put off by the small crowd. “He basically devoted this early breakfast show of his to Stornoway,” Briggs says. “... He basically locked himself in the studio, and got in trouble afterwards. He got suspended, but it's been worth it. He's ended up playing a big part in getting us to where we are.”
Beachcomber's Windowsill debuted at #14 in the U.K. back in May, and the jaunty single “Zorbing” has been in regular rotation on Radio One. The album was released in the U.S. in August, just after the band's first concerts in New York. Stornoway is taking off, but Briggs still puts his degree to work. “Pretty much all the songs have references to the outdoors, and some have references to birds,” he says, though he admits there's a limit to combining his interests. “It's difficult to write songs about ducks and sound romantic, but maybe I should give that a go.”—Josh Jackson