- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

Speck Mountain’s music is the stuff of dreams, a narcotic blend of soul, pop and spacey rock ‘n’ roll textures. Touches of gospel merge with the band’s secular influences, creating a sense of sedate spirituality not unlike falling asleep in church.

Despite such heavy-lidded ambience, Speck Mountain’s members have always been clearheaded in their approach. The pull between lucidity and serenity started in 2005, when guitarist Karl Briedrick and vocalist Marie-Claire Balabanian held their earliest rehearsals in Brooklyn. Several rules were drawn up to help steer Speck Mountain’s songwriting, which took strength in Ms. Balabanian’s bluesy swoon and her band mate’s lush, understated guitar swells.

“We had a very specific reason for having rules like ‘no hi-hats’ on the first record,” Mr. Briedrick says of “Summer Above,” a nuanced album that introduced the group’s sound in 2006. “Most bands have a first record that is not quite representative of who they will become. Most of the time, it’s because they don’t have a fully formed identity and often don’t know how to utilize the studio yet. We took the attitude that we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do, but we knew what we didn’t want to do.”

He summarizes: “If we didn’t try things that we didn’t know how to control, we wouldn’t be embarrassed by them later.”

Several years after that album’s release, Speck Mountain has moved its operations to Chicago and adopted a looser set of rules. “Some Sweet Relief,” the band’s second release, incorporates everything from sturdy percussion to digital effects. Themes of sin, redemption and catharsis govern the record, adding a sense of emotional weight that was absent from “Summer Above.”

“It was a very cold winter when these songs were written, and it wasn’t the happiest moment in our lives,” Mr. Briedrick explains. “We were both struggling with this idea that we were adults and could no longer tell ourselves, ‘Oh, don’t worry about what you’ve just done; that’s just what kids do.’ Owning up to that [maturity] was really hard.”

Despite such wintry beginnings, “Some Sweet Relief” is a suitable soundtrack for summertime, an album that mixes the therapeutic promise of its title with throwbacks to vintage genres. Old-fashioned R&B finds its way into the rhythm section of “Angela,” while a synthesized horn section fuels “I Feel Eternal” with some Motown flair. Elsewhere, Ms. Balabanian channels the influence of the Staple Singers, waiting until key moments to unleash the full breadth of her voice.

“Some Sweet Relief” also owes a debt of gratitude to Bianca Brunner, a Swiss photographer whose work piqued Mr. Briedrick’s interest. The album’s cover art &— an image of a girl lying on a beach, her brightly lit figure contrasting with the shadowy surroundings — was taken from her catalog, and her photographs helped shape the music within.

“I spent a lot of time looking at her ‘Limbo’ series and would imagine the images as I was writing songs,” the guitarist says. “When it came time to choose the cover art, I knew it had to be something from that series. When I finally got in contact with her, I sent her the music, and she said it was beautiful and that she would license an image to us. She knew we were a small band and that we couldn’t afford to pay her much, but she was so nice about it that I sent her twice as much money. I felt as if the album wouldn’t have happened without those photographs, and I didn’t know how else to tell her that.”

• Speck Mountain will bring its sweet relief to the Velvet Lounge on Sunday. The Strangers Family Band will headline the show. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $7.

Mile dry

Like Rothbury, the Mile High Music Festival is a fairly young event, having launched its operations only one year ago. The two festivals even booked the same group, the Dave Matthews Band, to headline in 2008. Despite those analogous beginnings, however, the second annual Mile High Festival plans to distinguish itself with a mainstream lineup and a unique, elevated location.

Mile High isn’t a camping festival. Some visitors do pitch a tent at nearby campsites, but the bulk of the festival’s property is devoted to vendors and venue space, meaning concertgoers will have to secure local lodging and make daily trips to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo.

The upside? Rainy weather isn’t such a detriment to the entire weekend, and fans can enjoy the comforts of a warm hotel bed and shower. The downside? Mile High feels less like an event and more like a traditional concert, meaning the emphasis is on the bands instead of the total experience.

This year’s crop of bands packs a punch, however. Tool will headline the festival on Friday night, marking the band’s first performance since 2007. Riffs alums the Fray will headline the following evening, and sets by Widespread Panic, Incubus and Ben Harper make the $162.50 ticket price worthwhile.

The Mile High Music Festival launches on Saturday and concludes Sunday evening. For ticket information, visit the event’s Web site at www.milehighmusicfestival.com.

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