By Jay Cridlin • Times Pop Music/Culture Critic
The Tampa Bay music scene has borne plenty of quality albums during the first half of 2016, including a couple that made national waves: the Hip Abduction's vibrant, dance-poppy Gold Under the Glow and Polyenso's ambitious alt-rock collection Pure in the Plastic. Both are worth all the attention they've gotten (particularly Polyenso's exquisitely layered work, which helped them earn a gig at this year's Bonnaroo), but they're not alone. Now that we've hit the second half of 2016, here are a few of our favorite local albums and EPs so far this year.
Acme Jazz Garage, Acme Jazz Garage
Bold move, putting "jazz" in both your name and album title, then opening the party with a five-minute slab of sweating, sizzling Latin-tinged funk. But it does speak to Acme Jazz Garage's fusionist tendencies.
On their debut LP, the Tampa quartet (you'll often see them at Timpano in Hyde Park) is most comfortable in the sort of loping, jammy grooves one might associate with Phish; Medeski, Martin and Wood; or the Meters. (The horn- and Hammond-powered Mr. G.P. is actually a tribute to the Meters' George Porter Jr.)
To beef up this meaty sonic stew, bassist Philip Booth calls in a handful of friends to add horns, sax and drums, such as percussionist Gumbi Ortiz, whose congas set a Santana-like tone on opener Mongo Strut and closing companion piece Mongo Jam.
Booth's languid bass is front and center throughout the album, particularly on the loose, low Rubberman. But the album's star might be keyboardist Bryan Lewis, whose organ shimmies to life on the joyous Resonance and a faithfully bluesy take on America the Beautiful.
The album's dips into classical jazz (Sandprints, Zag) are sparse but rewarding, particularly lone vocal track Last Call, featuring the airy alto of Whitney James fluttering above a bed of trumpet and vibraphone. So yes, there is something here for your next dinner-party playlist.
But Acme Jazz Garage is more for those who like their jazz a little fluid, a little groovy — music made not for a lounge, but a garage.
Danielle DeCosmo, Heavy Is the Heart
St. Petersburg singer-songwriter Danielle DeCosmo has been performing since childhood, playing originals and covering artists ranging from Leonard Cohen to Aretha Franklin to Florence and the Machine in just about every bar, coffee shop or festival that'll have her. So it should come as no surprise that her first full album, Heavy Is the Heart, sounds so realized.
Like Joan Armatrading or K.D. Lang, DeCosmo floats between styles with ease, drifting from the spacey soul of Closer to the rumbling Southern rock of Don't Know What It Means to the hushed, intimate Funny Love. Her voice, soft and supple, is the spider's silk holding it together.
As you'd expect with a title like Heavy Is the Heart, DeCosmo sings of uncertainty and insecurity, of "wading in the waters of my own demise" (Washed Away) and feeling "so slow, like a weight dragging me down" (You Move). "It's funny how you try to occupy your mind, and I try so hard to uninhibit mine," she sings on Funny Love. "There's a weariness on my mind," she wails on the heartbreaking piano ballad Sometimes It Hurts.
Yet the album is rife with lively, winning touches — the spicy sax fueling DeCosmo's voice like kindling on the hand-clappy Gotta Go; the hypnotic backwards guitar snaking in the background on In Another Life; the splendid vocal harmonies of the sparse Take My Worries Away.
Even at its most intimate, Heavy Is the Heart sounds fresh and hopeful, with a light touch that might do your heart good.
Alexander and the Grapes, Hyper Self
Alexander Charos may have the bearded, cherubic bearing of a folk hero. But his band, Alexander and the Grapes, has always not-so-secretly rocked, even back in their early days as a North Pinellas indie folk troupe and on their 2012 debut Hemispheres.
But Hyper Self, well, there's no getting around it: This is a rock record. Wake Up kick-starts things with distorted vocals and guitars, a basic sonic toolkit that permeates the album. Charos' drowsy voice belies a crashing punk urgency on Major Meltdown and Old Soul. Actors and Despite It All pound and sway with migrainelike insistence.
Parts of the album get a little esoteric, in ways both good and bad. Wine I meanders through a fog of discordant tones and noise, but the dreamlike unease of Wine II recalls Radiohead. Closer Keep Trying, the album's longest track by nearly two minutes, is a shoegazy slow-burner that aspires for postrock grandeur, a la Explosions in the Sky, and comes close to getting there.
But all the fuzz can't obscure the Grapes' knack for pop hooks. Psychedelic keyboards and grungy guitars can't mask the British Invasion melody and progressions of Heavy Days and They All Have Plans. And there are even hints of the Grapes' old cosmic country roots on the narcotized ballad Waiting for the Sun.
The Grapes might sound a little heavier than they used to, but Hyper Self is proof there was a rocker inside Charos all along.
Like all jam bands, Displace is best experienced in concert — and you can do so on their Bandcamp.com site, which offers more than two dozen live sets for name-your-price download.
There, you'll also find the Tampa quartet's new album Undertow, which lays out new sonic canvasses for the band to color up live. Several are well within the band's wheelhouse of light funk and jazz — Friction is all about Vinny Svoboda's deeply distorted bass; Mantis infuses Soul Train disco with a hint of bluesy confidence; the breezy Float makes fine use of Chris Sgammato's silky tenor and lonesome saxophone.
That sax is one of the best things Displace has going for them — it puts listeners in a Dave Matthews state of mind for the jittery, jazzy The Flight of Admiral Archibald. But drummer Tucker Sody also shines here, providing a polyrhythmic backbeat on Two Words and Soup.
And the group pulls back from noodly jamouts for the occasional instrumental interlude. The new-agey opener Accidental Necessity (Part ii) is a good example, as are the punctuationally convoluted Ellipses., Ellipses.. and Ellipses..., a three-part cycle that's at turns hypnotic, enchanting, psychedelic and a bit funky.
After dropping Undertow, Displace set off on their first national tour. Maybe some bootlegs will find their way to Bandcamp soon. The new songs are bound to sound good live.
Samurai Shotgun, Riptide
Samurai Shotgun made a memorable exit at this year's Gasparilla Music Festival, with vocalist Mateo Henley scaling the stage scaffolding while screaming "Rise up!"
Fitting, since this is a band that loves to stir the pot. Parts of new album Riptide hew to the alt-rap-rock template laid down by Rage Against the Machine, but big portions borrow from angular posthardcore acts like At the Drive-In. That's a combustible mix, and indeed, Riptide is more intense, dense and chaotic than their 2013 self-titled debut.
Tyler Mulder's guitars are front and center this time around, screaming and squealing through Heavyarms and Philophobia, and dancing with Jovan Lecaro's muscular drums and Marquis "DJ Qeys" Blocker's turntabling on the rhythmically ambitious Sabretooth and Intrepid. It feels more like straightup prog-rock, albeit it with Henley rhyming forcefully atop the music.
Rarely does the band pull back and just deliver a fun, funky song for the heck of it, though the snappy Runnin' might get you moving. But they do serve up songs titled Pumpkin Spiced Hipster (surprisingly introspective) and Make That Booty Go (not-so-surprisingly stoner-ish), which is something Rage Against the Machine would never do.
Rap-rock isn't exactly in vogue these days, but Samurai Shotgun are doing their part to blur those genre lines in ways that feel fresh, especially in Tampa Bay.
Short but sweet
These five(ish) EPs aren't full albums, but they're still worth a listen.
Indefatigable St. Pete musician RedFeather (who drums in postmetal outfit Set and Setting and performs solo as Mountain Holler) dropped this mix of prog-rock and cosmic Americana in March. Think Wilco, the Flaming Lips or especially My Morning Jacket, particularly when those stellar harmonies envelop Mark Etherington's soaring pipes on Luna Rise and Welcome Home.
Kristopher James, Find Me
With song titles like Heart Shaped Grave, how can Bradenton's Kristopher James not rip your soul out? That aching, delicate duet with Sarasota's Sam Robertson is the devastating centerpiece of this five-song track, which mixes Americana (Find Me, I'm Not Quite Ready) with lived-in folk storytelling.
Formed in the ashes of St. Petersburg's late, lamented Zulu Wave, Dawns shows intriguing promise on their four-song self-titled debut, a mix of murky, slightly Gothic postpunk, shoegaze and straight-ahead rock. Michael Barrow's voice shines on the five-minute slobberknocker Stone.
Released back in January, Gritt's self-titled EP was laid down at the legendary Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. Not bad for four Tampa dudes who now call Gainesville home. Fame's influence is thick in their smoky, stompy Southern rock, particularly on growling buzzsaws Savannah and Better Off Dead.
Wolf-Face, Love Songs for the Lycanthropic
While technically an album's worth of music, this is really just a remastered version of Wolf-Face's self-titled 2011 EP plus a few demos and covers. Among them is the anthemic Real Human Being, a surprisingly straightforward take on College and Electric Youth's A Real Hero, from the Ryan Gosling film Drive. Love Songs is a good entry point for newbies to discovediscover this raucous St. Pete punk band, who all dress and perform in character as Michael J. Fox's werewolf character in Teen Wolf — a gimmick that after five wild years has yet to wear off.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.