Hip-Hop to Britpop: New releases from Kellee Maize, Mace Ballard, Summer-Winter and Black Crash

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A lot of artists freak out when their albums leak before the release date.

Pittsburgh rapper Kellee Maize leaked her latest album, "Integration," herself last week on Frostwire, a music site that delivered 135,000 downloads of her previous, second album.

"I like the idea that it's free and everybody has access to it and it doesn't require money to do it," she says. "At the same time, artists need to make money, and I think from a long-term perspective, the most important thing for me is to continue to build my fanbase so it is sustainable. And I believe I'll have a better chance of that if people get an opportunity to sample it without having to pay for it and they can have it in their car, have it in their iPod and it's not just something where they see a random YouTube video or stream."

Obviously, the record isn't worth anything if she isn't any good, but that's not the case with the Central Pennsylvania native who came here for college in 1998 and stayed. For starters, she goes against the norm with conscious rap that has a spiritual, political, feminist vibe while also being tough and aggressive sonically, sounding at times like Nicki Minaj. Beyond that, she has a pretty, sexy voice and a flair for hooks. The musical styles range from reggaeton to Indian to dubstep to electropop that's almost radio-friendly.

"I love to dance. So, I gravitate towards tracks and producers that have more upbeat tempos," she says. "It's more dance music as opposed to mainstream or pop. I know that my content is left of center and tends to fall more in the realm of indie hip-hop, and yeah, some of the songs have more of an underground feeling, but I definitely feel that this album has so many different types of songs. So, I'm interested to see what some people like."

The boldest track is "Mad Humans," which attacks the stereotypes of women in culture and calls for "putting the patriarchy to bed." It was inspired by a book called "Unplugging the Patriarchy" by Lucia Rene.

"I read it with a group of women at a book club and was deeply impacted by it," she says. "The beginning part of it is this woman being exposed to how the world actually works, the whole means of control, everything from the bludgeoning of the Third World to the Fed and how our monetary system is so corrupt. She delves into her spirituality and realizes she holds the patriarchy within her ... In the song, I resolve in the end that it's something we all have to take responsibility for."

You don't really have to be tapped into these issues to be one of her fans.

"When it comes down to it, I don't think a lot of people necessarily listen to the words in hip-hop. I would say the sound and the way I'm doing things and the beats can have more of a crossover, where it doesn't necessarily matter if you're into the content or not." She adds that with this album, "I'm trying to be more direct and bring my own personality into it, so it's more relatable. I'm a normal human that's been through all sorts of crazy stuff and a lot of these theories that you could call spiritual have been what helped me survive and thrive and learn the lessons we can learn."

The album is available at www. kelleemaize.com/integration, along with a ticket giveaway for Friday's release show at an undisclosed location.

Mace Ballard: New game plan

It's not easy for bands to market their stuff these days. Sure, there's the Internet, but everybody does that.

Mace Ballard bassist T.J. Angelo has a game plan that goes beyond Twitter and Bandcamp: "Skywriting our name over the Grand Canyon, tricking J.C. Penny underwear models to get the album artwork tattooed on their foreheads, taking out full page adds in AARP and Parade magazine, partner with elevator companies to get our spins on long trips to the 67th floor, Mace Ballard brand mustaches."

It's uncertain whether AARP and Parade readers will appreciate Mace Ballard, but there's little doubt they will acknowledge the energy. Mace is a classic pop-punk band in the Blink and Green Day mold with chunky guitars, driving rhythm sections and tight, catchy, clever songs from singer Chris Daley.

The band doesn't even need to be in the same room to do it.

"A lot of our songs start out as iPhone demos," says guitarist Brandon Lehman, "then we send them back and forth, jam on them, record garage band versions, send those back and forth, practice them. Record practice, then, change it up again. The challenge is to walk the fine line between taking a critical approach to your own music, but not overthinking or changing things for the sake of changing them, it can be easy to go overboard."

To get the sound to pop just the way it wanted, the band recorded its new album, "The Next Time You See Sky," with producer Kory Gable at Pin-Up Studios in Lancaster, often traveling there separately. "We traveled over 4,000 miles cumulatively," says frontman Chris Daley. "Totally worth it. Next time, I'm investing in an EZ pass."

The songs come with clever titles like "Words With Friends" and "South Side Department of Tourism," and sometimes skew topical, like "Fight at the Museum."

"[It's] one I love because it was such a collaboration by all of us as a band, everyone wrote lyrics on it, everyone sings some leads on it, it's heavy but also melodic. It touches on some social commentary themes that I dig too, kind of a musical smack in the face to all of the archaic hate that half of the country seems to have toward tolerance of diverse lifestyles and religions."

Show is 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Smiling Moose (Upstairs) with The Space Pimps, Koji and ON THE RUN. Admission is $6 (advance); $8 (door). www.ticketfly.com.

Black Crash: Atmospheric collision

Black Crash has a long history that goes back to singer-guitarists Dean Aloise and Ryan McElroy playing together in seventh grade at Bethel Park High School in the mid-'90s.

Now, Mr. McElroy says, "As we each grow older, we find ourselves in the peculiar position of being in a 'band' while taking on the challenges of adulthood -- careers, families, etc. Our lifelong friendships have helped, but it's also recognizing the uniqueness of being able to create music with three other talented people that keeps us coming back."

The early influences were Britrock bands like U2 and Joy Division, and those influences are intact on "Sometimes Dreams," an atmospheric new album with shimmering guitars and moody, melodic vocals. They've added some fresh elements as well.

"As music lovers, our tastes grow and change and that surely is reflected in our writing," he says. "I do think the new album blends sounds that are akin to, say, newer bands like M83 and Washed Out, along with long-lasting influences such as U2 or Radiohead. I'm not sure it's a conscious effort to connect to those bands so much as an effort to expand our sound with layers and textures."

While the influences are clearly British, Mr. McElroy doesn't think the Britpop label entirely fits.

"Shortcuts are easy but rarely do the subject justice. We're of course American. So, I don't sing with an English accent and our topics tend to be universal. So stylistically we probably straddle more genres than Britpop. But in a soundbite heavy world, it's much easier to throw out 'the Jesus and Mary Chain' or New Order or Travis than get into a lengthy description. It's shorthand for describing melodic, textured music with a foundation of guitars, drums and bass and a penchant for the cinematic."

The show is at 10:30 p.m. Friday at Club Cafe, South Side, with Corbu. Admission is $5.

Summer-Winter: Dream seasons

"Days ... pass ... so ... slow," Terry O'Hara sings on "Need It," a track on the second album by Summer-Winter.

The local singer-songwriter, who takes his cues from the likes of Grandaddy and Sparklehorse, certainly seems to reside in his own universe where everything seems to spin slow and hazy, letting the listener wallow in the beauty.

The album flows very much like the last one, "Alone Is Yes," but he says he's gotten feedback that "Bewildered" is more accessible to more people and maybe more hopeful.

"But I don't look at music in those terms. I think some of the themes are similar -- for example that we humans share this evolving and intimate language yet have so many problems understanding and communicating with one another. And also, how much of existence can be finding ourselves playing these drawn out parts."

He provides the languid vocals while playing keyboards, guitar, mellotron, banjo and flute, not all at the same time. He also has some great musicians behind him.

"We also had some of the same musicians play on this album and some new ones -- this can really affect the texture of the sound and atmosphere. Chris Belin is the same drummer -- he's a great musician and great listener. That's a lot of what I look for in other musicians. Megan Williams played some violin, as well as Gerry O'Hare, who had more of a fiddler's take on the songs. And Matt Sutton, from Brooklyn, played guitar. I contacted him after hearing him play on an NPR tiny desk concert -- his playing really blew me away."

O'Hara sent the first Summer-Winter album out with a wacky bio about working in a hen house in North Oregon and busking the streets of Portland and got some really good reviews, including Americana UK calling it "a record of mesmerizing depth, beauty and articulation."

"I was surprised in getting feedback from Europe, especially after the NPR and Americana UK reviews. I guess the ambiguous backstory and the melancholic feel of the music are dynamics that Europeans like."

The new bio, just as puzzling, states: "O'Hara, ever engrossed in banalities, was victimized in a brutal mugging while collaborating with unknown street artists in Baltimore, and given less than a month to live by ER physicians -- it was inaccurately reported in the local paper that he had died. His convalescence was spent reading Sherwood Anderson, disabling televisions, shaking anxiety, and experimenting with minor chord folk songs."

Of that episode, he says cryptically, "There is some truth to the fact that I can't refrain from being around unsavory characters."

The release show is at 8 tonight at Club Cafe with Kevin Finn and Truth in Advertising. Admission is $5.

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com ; 412-263-2576; Twitter: @scottmervis_pg; Blog: www.post-gazette.com/popnoise


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