"Stall"/"Time After Time"
It's always cool to see a really good, deserving band start to get some attention -- and Sarge are one of the most deservingest bands around. "Stall," the A-side here, is a fairly "typical" Sarge song, a sad, midtempo punkish pop song about singer/guitarist Elizabeth Elmore's favorite topic, love gone wrong (I think; this is on their 2nd full-length, The Glass Intact, by the way). And no, I'm not knocking that at all -- it's a damn good song, really, as amazing as any they've done -- but the B-side, a cover of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," is the one I keep coming back to, really.
A friend of mine who happens to hold an unabashed love for Ms. Lauper gave a cyncical grimace when I played him this, afraid that Sarge were trying to make fun, but to be honest, I don't think they are. There's not a hint of a grin in there anywhere, from the delicate keyboard intro (I must admit, tho', that I like it better live, when Elizabeth plays it on her guitar) to the soaring harmony vocals. It's a pained, hopeful love song, unfairly overlooked as a cheesy pop song in its day, and I think it's truly cool that somebody finally gave it a second chance. (JH)
(Mud Records -- 905 South Lynn Street, Urbana, IL. 61801-5205)
Upon listening to this, I have to wonder why it is that one of the coolest, most beautiful pop bands in town had to burn out so damn quick -- at the time of this album's release, the band's been nonexistent for some time, with former members off doing their own various band-type things (like Ozone Park and The Drapes, for two). Thankfully, in the wake of this record's release, the folks formerly known as Schrasj have recently managed to put aside their differences and do a few reunion shows -- and hey, if we're lucky, those few shows will build up to bigger and better things.
Enough blathering about the band -- the album itself is a pretty little pop gem, with plenty of delicately-sung melodies, shimmery guitars, and songs about love & sleeping. Don't take that to mean that this is all twee harmonies and the like, though; when they get going, Schrasj rock like Velocity Girl at their best (as evidenced by the faster bits of "Unfinished"), or quietly rage right alongside folks like Mineral (take a listen to the furious ending of "Moneyshot"). Heck, some of this album is just plain funky -- "Winkle," in particular, which reminds me of nothing more than the dancier side of the Darling Buds. To top it off, the listed tracks end up with the out-of-place-but-still-cool track "Colder Than Water Ice," essentially a poem read by drummer Alexei over moody instrumental ambience (not "ambient" as in the style of music, mind you) -- and damned if it's not bad, at that.
Just so all you collector purist freaks out there know, this isn't all new stuff. Five or six of the twelve songs have appeared elsewhere, including three 7"s and a Cher Doll compilation. However, the old stuff here has been remastered, remixed, and generally prettied up, and I can definitely tell the difference, after listening to both the old and new versions. So, if there are old songs on here, well, they're still good songs, and at least they're not quite the same as the previously-released versions. In addition, there are a two extra "hidden" tracks tacked on the end ("Flips" and the Seam-meets-Simon & Garfunkel ballad "Flying"), recorded way back when with original guitarist Kyle, that've never been released anyplace before (and if they hadn't been stuck on here, they might've never seen the light of day). Put it all together, and man, this is one of the best damn indie-pop efforts I've ever heard. (JH)
(76.2% Records -- 2055 Westheimer, Suite #165, Box#30, Houston, TX. 77098; email@example.com; http://fly.to/76.2/)
The Secret Stars
Some albums I pick up and listen to, and they make me so damn jealous -- I really wish, sometimes, that I could write songs as heartfelt and beautiful as this. This album's not a "real" album, per se; as far as I can tell, it's more like a collection of B-sides and old, unused tracks, some of which were re-recorded to be used here. The surprise is that none of these are in any sense throwaways -- these are some of the most moving, amazing pop songs I've ever heard. Some, like the brilliant closer "Back In the Car" and the melancholy "The Four Senses", are minimal, just guitars-and-voice (along the lines of the Mountain Goats, actually), but other tracks are a little more on the experimental side, with odd, cool electronic distortions at the end of "N29, It's Alright", and the tape manipulation in "Trance Hall Storm". I'd like to go through the songs one by one and describe them all, but I doubt I could do them justice -- they're all very, very good, and each one's worth a whole page worth of praise. (JH)
(Shrimper Records -- P.O. Box 1837, Upland, CA. 91785)
Feeling Strangely Fine
It's a sad fact that just about all albums, movies, books, etc., are judged not on the basis of how good they are but how they stack up to previous efforts (e.g., Odelay gets tagged a work of genius mostly because we didn't think Beck had it in him). So it goes with Semisonic, only they get the short end of the stick this time. Their debut Great Divide was a perfect pop album of the highest order, filled with exciting words, melodies, performances and production that combined into one shimmering crystalline whole. Feeling Strangely Fine can't help but pale by comparison.
And it does. Good songs (the already overplayed "Closing Time," the sensuous foreplay of "Completely Pleased," the deliberate "Never You Mind") just sit there and lead nowhere. Toying with the formula of Divide was the big mistake: unlike Divide producer Paul Fox, Nick Launay doesn't seem to have an instinctive feel for the ups and downs of the band. Worse, singer/guitarist Dan Wilson relieves himself of some of his duties, handing off guitar chores to bassist John Munson or brother Matt and allowing his bandmates to write songs. A more egalitarian tack, sure, but it's also sloppy; with its sense of singular focus (missing here), Divide was totally unhinged but vice-grip tight.
If you're ignorant of Divide, you can safely forget all of the above and probably enjoy Feeling just fine. You can enjoy Munson and drummer Jake Slichter's creative rhythm section, appreciate the rather poetic and evocative lyrics and marvel in Dan Wilson's farming unabashed romanticism in a climate of too-too-ironic cynicism. But you will be missing out. (MH)
Shallow, North Dakota
This Apparatus Must Be Earthed
Man...I hope nobody confuses these three Canadian noisemakers with the British indie-rock band Shallow, 'cause if they do, they'll most likely be stunned into submission while the sound coming out of their headphones grinds their brain down to mush. This is powerful, metal-ish, power-chord-crunching aggro-rock, kind of like a cross between Clutch, Helmet, and ultra-low-end destroyers Earth; I can't tell a lot of the songs apart, honestly (although there are some cool variations in there, don't get me wrong -- I really like the drums & vocals break in "Speed King," particularly), and I can't make out much of the words, but that really doesn't matter, because the angry little metalhead in me enjoys the sheer sonic force of this all by itself. (Yes, I like to thrash around the room to Helmet when I'm pissed off, and I'm not ashamed of it, dammit.) I'm actually kind of worried that if I played this on my stereo at home, the speakers might get hurt (of course, I guess that depends on how loud I turn it up, but y'know). Put this on and destroy furniture -- or alternatively, crank it up, sit back and let the music do it for you. (JH)
(Sonic Unyon Records -- P.O. Box 57347, Jackson Station, Hamilton, ON, Canada L8P 4X2; firstname.lastname@example.org; 905-777-1223; http://www.sonicunyon.com/)
Battle of the Loons
Wasn't Shark Quest a video game? That's what the name makes me think of, for some reason... After hearing the last Karl Hendricks Trio CD and this album here (not to mention that bizarre Spanish salsa(?) 7" by Bio Ritmo), I'm starting to feel like an idiot for ever trying to peg down Merge Records "style" (and I think that's a good thing). No Superchunk-/Spent-ish indie-rock here; this album consists of nine instrumentals that call to mind Ennio Morricone far more than they do Mac MacCaughan. The songs on here all have that spaghetti-Western dust-on-the-horizon sound to them, updated so they bring to mind a more "modern" Western than your average Clint Eastwood movie -- picture them as the soundtrack for Lone Star, not The Outlaw Josey Wales. The salsa-ish "Baii" is utterly beautiful, as is the more majestic "Ellen's Theme" (which somehow reminds me of "Pachelbel's Canon"; dunno why); on the other side of things, "Lunch at Sara's" is dark and brooding, complimented by a cool cello, "Blake Carrington" sounds like a cross between a cheesy '80s TV theme and a Western, and "5 Dollars" is tense enough to be on the next James Bond film's soundtrack. I must admit that this works best as background music, but even still it creeps inside your brain -- after a few listens, I start noticing more and more how subtly all the different parts interweave throughout, and realize that each song quietly builds a different scene in my head, and...well, what else can I say? (JH)
(Merge Records -- P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC. 27514)
Even a Blind Chicken Finds a Kernel of Corn Now and Then
Why the hell am I reviewing so many damn re-releases? Well, 'cause they're fucking awesome, that's why. I nearly danced through the aisles of Soundwaves when I happened across this one, in particular -- since the first time I ever heard "Three Beatings" off Silkworm's self-made debut, L'ajre, I've been totally in love with this band. I nearly wore my badly-dubbed copy of that album out, the number of times I played it, and used to listen to it while out running late at night -- somehow, the tortured loud part of "St. Patrick's Day" always made me run as fast as I possibly could, no matter that it hurt like hell.
I hoped and prayed that someday the band would decide to re-release the whole thing; only a few hundred copies of it got made, originally, and you're about as likely to run across a copy as you are to find a mint-condition Faberge egg in the back seat of your Volkwagen Jetta. This is the good shit, folks. The album's a colossal two-disc set, including all of L'ajre, plus 2 versions of "Slipstream," their "emo"-ish cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," the classic Christmas tune "In the Bleak Midwinter" (which is my personal favorite Christmas song ever), their version of "Insider," off a Tom Petty tribute album, and a small pile of unreleased 4-track recordings. In short, this's a total goldmine of cool music, collected finally all in one place so all us unlucky cheap bastards can get our hands on it. Thanks, guys. (JH)
How the fuck can people continue to ignore Texas pop? I'd heard these Austin boys' more recent Crank 7" & thought it was cool, so I managed to obtain this one, and...well, "wow." The best damn pop tunes I've heard in a while, these songs succeed in being emotional without being cheesy or campy, and that's saying something. Side A, "Biting My Nails," is a nice little piece of sleeplessness (and a song that'd be brilliant on its own), but really, Side B is the true treasure -- the regretful melody of "Come Around" seriously gets to me, and then, when the band takes a right turn into howling, passionate, melodic rock for "Returning," I'm on the floor in awe. (JH)
(Peek-a-Boo Records -- 2502 San Antonio #1, Austin, TX. 78705)
Smart Went Crazy
You know you've got a good album on your hands when you take off the headphones and immediately want to listen to it all again, because you've got this nagging feeling that it all fit together perfectly somehow and you were almost able to see it, and that's how Smart Went Crazy's latest album left me after the first listen. I felt like I'd been blindsided by a truck carrying a pile of frozen dead aliens -- confused and in shock, but still wondering what the hell that was that hit me.
There's just a lot here to absorb, is all. I'd originally pegged the folks in SWC as members of the Edsel/Jawbox school of arty rock, but they're actually farther "out" than all that, taking strange steps most self-respecting rock bands would never take, and a lot of it's beyond me. I'm still at a loss to explain why the band would put two tracks with the same name right next to each other that have nothing in common beyond their names and dark, menacing moods ("D.C. Will Do That To You"). It's all over the place.
The mood stays the same, though, dark and dangerous-sounding throughout, even in the quiet, beautiful bits -- of which there are plenty, like the pretty, sparse duet "Now We're Even," which ends the album with 20 minutes of a recording of birds chirping. These beautiful, melodic lines get you going, bopping your head along in time, and then sneakily change mode (I think? I'm a music-theory moron, sorry) and become tense and foreboding. It's way cool. And then of course there's plenty of energetic, well-done, jaggedly off-center rock, around which most of this centers, that brings to mind art-pop-ish indie-rockers like Possum Dixon, Jawbox, The Grifters, and the Archers of Loaf...
The lyrics live up to the music, thankfully -- both "versions" of "D.C. Will Do That To You" paint stark pictures of life in our beautiful capitol, "A Brief Conversation Ending in Divorce" tells a chilling story about a man who murders his wife and stops to talk to a toll booth operator, "A Good Day" pokes fun at the Crips & the Bloods (no, really), and "Tijuana 3/28/96" hits a perfect end-of-relationship note with the line "I don't have the time to make you mix tapes anymore." There're a scant few albums out there that made me feel like a clueless idiot, but this one sure does -- it's gonna take a few more listens before I figure this out, but I can already tell I like it. (JH)
(Dischord Records -- 3819 Beecher St. N.W., Washington, DC. 24007)
The Man in the Shadow
I'm always on the lookout for good "car music," particularly stuff I can turn up really loud & just let myself get hypnotized by when I'm driving home in the dark down I-45, and I think this album's gotta be up there in the top two or three I've found so far. Snooze is the pseudonym of Dominique Dalcan, a lone Frenchman whose dreams must be seriously cinematic in nature -- because this entire album is basically a soundtrack to a film-noir flick that doesn't exist (yet?). I'm not talking current American "film noir," either -- this might fit The Usual Suspects, but it'd probably work a hell of a lot better with something dark, mysterious, classy, and, well, probably European.
The Man In The Shadow ranges impressively across 13 tracks, going from sharp-edged, dark, funky jams like "The Snooze Theme" and "Killer With A Gun" all the way to melancholy, somber pieces like "Tribute To Horace" (a tribute to superstar Horace Andy, with vocals liberally sampled from Massive Attack's "Hymn Of The Big Wheel") and "Pretty Good Privacy," both of which at times make me think of the non-jazzy parts of Angelo Badalamenti's soundtrack for Twin Peaks. There are also tracks that aim a bit more for the dance-electronica genre, like "Your Consciousness Goes Bip," "So Close & Yet So Far," and "The Chase," but even those stay well away from "conventional" electronica, opting instead to set a mood (although you can still dance to 'em, I'm sure). The music on this album evokes images of half-seen scuffles in dark alleys, secrets exchanged in smoky jazz-bars, and silenced gunshots in empty streets, and it's stunning. Somebody please give this man an actual movie to work with, quick. (JH)
(SSR Freezone/Crammed Discs -- 43 rue Général Patton, 1050 Brussels, BELGIUM; fax: +32-2-6488369; http://www.crammed.be/SSR)
Sea of Sarcasm
Just by looking at the cheery, colorful cover & goofy band pictures, you might be fooled into thinking this was another cheesy pop album -- and given that The Sperlings' first album pretty much was a cheesy pop album (I don't mean "cheesy" as a slam, by the way, just a description), that wouldn't be too hard to see. This time around, though, The Sperlings guys really wanna rawk -- they've turned up the guitars, snarled a bit more, and gotten a hell of a lot more cynical.
The pop influence is definitely still in evidence, and each song's full of catchy melodies, but there's an angry power lurking behind. Take a listen to the bitter tirade of "Poised For Inaction," or the anti-work anthem "Soul Crusher," and you'll see what I mean. Sharp guitars tear through all over the place (see "Shape Shifter" and "Never Like That Around Here"), and the dance-y "Allure" (which sounds close to an Elastica outtake) sound almost sinister. It's a little tough to reconcile the rough, ragged stuff on here with those four clean-and-shiny guys in the pictures, but what the hell...
The '80s-ish "Rock Cliché #57" provides a nice change of pace, as does the Too Much Joy-like "The Boy Who Could Fly" and the beautiful & sad "Afraid of This" (which is probably the best "quiet" song I've heard yet by these guys). The Sperlings proudly wear their influences on their sleeve throughout, with plenty of vintage power-pop hooks and Husker Du-ish guitars (lead guitarist Rob Smith's "Father Smokestack" really makes me think of Grant Hart, for some reason), and finally throwing in a fiery cover of George Harrison's "Art of Dying" to close out the album.
Despite the fact that The Sperlings are all damn fine musicians, I'll admit it: I wasn't overly thrilled with the last album. I thought the songwriting was a little off, and the vocals a bit untried, mostly -- and while there are still some awkward points on Sea of Sarcasm (I could really do without the Rush synths in "Barely Alive," for example -- heh), these guys have definitely taken a big step in the right direction, and are probably one of the best power-pop bands in town. (JH)
(Bronze Beagle Records -- 1136 East 7th Street, Houston, TX. 77009, 713-863-1274; http://www.sperlings.com/)
Five Weeks Ahead Of My Time
Strange as it sounds, sometimes getting older doesn't mean your musical tastes get quieter. I saw these guys a few years ago, back in college, and all I remember is an impenetrable wall of white noise and a lead singer who dressed kinda like a suit but looked angry enough to kill somebody -- and fun though that may sound, I wasn't real impressed.
In the intervening years, though, either I've gotten wilder in my old age, or these folks have gotten really good, because this CD never fails to get my head bopping and put a sneer on my face. Sugar Shack haven't changed their style, don't worry -- they're still full-on nitro-fueled garage-rock (admittedly, they do experiment a bit on this release, like the spy theme break in the title track), singing songs about getting dumped, getting drunk, and breaking shit. And at times, doesn't it feel like that's exactly what life's really about?
Finally, how could I possibly not like an album with an over-the-top Houston-proud "fuck you" like "Go! Space City"? "It's my town...it's where I live...well, it's my town/You keep -- your town!" I couldn't have said it better. (JH)
(Estrus Equipment -- P.O. Box 2125, Bellingham, WA. 98227)