Make Your Troubles Mine
Once, not that long ago, there was a time when women in the music world could be something other than rumpshakin' hip-hop queens, utterly bland teen pop stars, or vapid "divas." There was a time when it was okay for women to really, truly sing without trying their damnedest to be teenage boy fantasy-fodder, when women making intelligent, thoughtful, and yes, sometimes rocking music could actually sell CDs and get played on the radio. These days? Well...not so much.
Now, Ellery (which consists primarily of husband-and-wife duo Justin and Tasha Golden on guitars and vocals and piano, respectively) isn't quite going to drag the music business kicking and screaming back to the heady days of Lilith Fair with their debut EP, Make Your Troubles Mine, but it's a nice reminder nonetheless that music like this didn't die completely -- it just fell back off the mainstream radar. The music itself, sadly, isn't that much to write home about; it's primarily middle-of-the-road pop-rock, with a few high points like "You'll Get Through It," which throws off the slow Adult Alternative twinges that pop up elsewhere to roar gently up above the clouds, Slowdive-style.
What makes Make Your Troubles Mine worth listening to, then, is Tasha Golden's vocals. The first track, "Anna," is a good example -- it's an okay song, nothing special but nothing very offensive, but Ms. (Mrs.? Man, that feels odd to write in a review...) Golden grabs the song and drags it up from the ground. She's got a beautifully high yet understated voice, like Sarah McLachlan minus some of the drama or the Cranberries' Dolores O'Riordan without the Irish folk keening. My only problem with her, really, is that sometimes she's too quiet when it feels like she should really be giving it everything. Throughout the disc, it almost feels like she's holding back, and when she does occasionally let slip and put some power behind it...whoa. (See the end of the aforementioned "You'll Get Through It," where Golden cuts loose a bit and sounds like The Rocking Horse Winner's Jolie Lindholm.)
That said, the best song on the album would have to be "Be Like This," which is actually not a track that does a lot to showcase Ms. Golden's vocal talents. It starts off with a monotone-ish, Alanis Morissette-style line, but then builds quietly tensely to a nice crescendo of military drums, a minimal piano figure, jangly-yet-distorted guitars, and repeated sung-spoken lyrics that sound like the mutterings of an intensely shy, introverted loner in love; more than any other song on here, it pulls me along for the ride from start to end, and that ain't a bad thing. (JH)
(self-released; Ellery -- http://www.ellerymusic.com/)
Daybreak To Sunset
It sounds like the members of Endgames have reasonably cool taste in music, but all that means for Daybreak To Sunset is that the songs are interesting, when they manage to be interesting at all, only to the extent that they remind you of songs you like better. "Don't Let Your Love Change You" is a second-rate "Pumping On Your Stereo" if you want it to be and more or less a total ripoff of Matthew Sweet's "I Wanted To Tell You" even if you don't, and the "Like A Hurricane" intro of "Til We're Together" is just a stall before the song turns into wan power pop. "If You're A Believer" makes like Radio City-era Big Star but leaves out the electric production, while there's not one second of the Young Rascals-style opener "Daybreak" that doesn't sound like every other second. Elsewhere, "Who Is Doris Day?" makes like chipper and silly mid-'80s pop and "Somebody Knows" is a samba undergirded by an unhelpful wocka-wocka, as though somebody was playing ping-pong through a Leslie speaker in the background. If Endgames were throwing a party, I'd probably be psyched to hear whatever mix they came up with. But as soon as they put on their own CD, I'm out of there. (MH)
Epigene's latest album, Popular Dissent, is probably the most professionally produced CD I've had to review. Everything about this CD reeks of "Major Label" quality -- the artwork is tasteful and original, the packaging is adequate, the liner notes are readable. Oftentimes I'm frustrated when I buy a CD because the artwork is so non-conformist I can't seem to either A) read the liner notes or B) make a link between the visual presentation of the CD and the music. Epigene seems to have accomplished the blending of its artistic vision with its musical tastes quite well. Thomas Swanson (www.worldofshank.com), the artist credited with the cover art, melds traditional painting with clip art in a way that mimics the band's sound.
That is, Epigene sounds like so many different bands that it's hard to nail down which direction is its own. When listening to Popular Dissent you can hear 7 Seconds, jazz, Queens of the Stone Age, straight-up punk, power-pop, etc...and amazingly, the variety's in every song. It's almost as if, had you heard these guys ten years ago, you would have thought to yourself, "hey, these guys sound like [fill in the blank]." Listening to them now, however, ten years later, it sounds like all their influences have coagulated into a less obvious mix.
Jack Endino does a really good job with the overall sound, as all the instruments find their niche, and you can listen to anything within any given song separately or along with its accompaniment. More simply stated, if you like a particular part in a given song, you can easily pay attention to it with out too much of a struggle. These guys clearly are good musicians out to make good music. This is most apparant within the context of their arrangements, which traverse multiple time changes and melodic shifts in seamless fashion. Seriously, there are some interesting things going on deep within the power-pop and nostalgic punk paradigm the band offers. What's really impressive, though, is that they do all this without taking attention away from the songs' inner meanings. These guys seem to be all about playing a catchy tune without being boring and without relying on clichés, and yet they aren't willing to sacrifice continuity and listening ease in the process. In today's market, where you either end up with Britany Spears or Aphex Twin, it's nice to know that there are a select few artists that are satisfied working in the comfortable middle. On a scale of one to ten, I'd give this album a 7 (which is a big deal, considering that my 7 Seconds/power pop days are long behind me). (SR)
(self-released; Epigene -- http://www.epigenemusic.com/)
There're only a handful of ways a band can go, really, in terms of musical progression. It's an axiom of the music business that second albums are a bitch and third albums are even worse, and there's a good reason for that -- unless you're phenomenally lucky and/or a talented genius, you're screwed no matter which way you go. On the one hand, who wants to keep making the same damn album over and over again? No songwriter wants to write the same song twenty times over the course of three albums, and just playing the same album for the duration of a tour can get pretty dull. Besides, everybody gets older -- what was fun to play at age 20 isn't necessarily as cool at age 30. So, it's natural to want to move on, to make some kind of change in your sound, your songwriting, or whatever else.
At the same time, though, any attempt at change will likely be perceived as selling out. This is pretty much an industry-wide phenomenon, but it's especially dangerous in the punk/hardcore world, where any hint that you've gone "soft" can get you eaten alive (or worse yet, tagged as "emo"). Things're a little better these days than they used to be, thankfully, with bands more willing to take chances and risk alienating their audiences, but the fickleness of punk fans is legendary. Throw in some melody, turn down the guitars a bit, and try to actually sing, and you're liable to get some punk purists somewhere deriding you as a has-been poseur.
That's pretty much the boat erstwhile punk rockers The Explosion find themselves in with their third full-length, Black Tape. After two albums (the excellent Flash Flash Flash and 2003's Sick of Modern Art) and a handful of EPs full of politicized punk that alternated between '77-style punk/Oi! and hyperspeed hardcore, the Boston band's back on a major label, and they've traded the breakneck tempos and mindless slogans for big-time production, mid-speed rockers, sweet harmonies, and thoughtful, soul-searching lyrics. You can almost hear the gutter punks who loved the group's debut Jade Tree EP -- which earned a lot of comparisons to L.E.S. Stitches and U.S. Bombs -- cutting their throats with the broken shards of their vintage Business LPs. The cries of "Sellout!" are practically telegraphed from the album's first chords.
And you know what? Ignore 'em, because despite all the hoopla, Black Tape is a step forward, not evidence that the members of The Explosion have sold their souls to The Man. Yep, the guitars aren't as grungy as they used to be, there's nary a hint of vocalist Matt Hock's old throat-shredding scream (sorry, kids, but nobody can do that forever), and there're fewer chant-along lyrics, and good riddance -- this time out, the guitars burn cold and clean, the way Jawbreaker did in its best moments, Hock proves he's got a knack for actually singing a beautiful, triumphant vocal line, and (best of all, to my mind) the sloganeering's been replaced by lyrics that have some genuine insight. While Flash Flash Flash was a fine album, full of righteous anger and energy, it's always felt to me like a self-directed fury, like that of a teenage kid who's mad as hell but not sure what to do about it. The songs all ranted vaguely about "the scene" and politics in general, with seemingly no connection to actual reality.
On Black Tape, though, the anger's filtered down and directed, the product of a more mature mind and voice. Hock roars about greed, secrecy, growing up, materialism, corrupt cops, and the pointlessness of war, and this time he sounds like he not only means it, but that he's old enough to be talking from actual experience. Which makes sense, considering that the band's career pretty much began just as George W. Bush was taking office; if the anger on Flash felt undirected, it might've been because there was no clear target. Here opener "Deliver Us" takes on the near-constant barrage of death and carnage in the news that desensitizes us all, while "Atrocity" throws out a stirring condemnation of the current political climate, promising that "If you want a better world / Then I'll be right behind you." The most affecting track on the album, though, is "Mothers Cry," which sounds as if it's addressed to an old friend in "the scene" who's fallen back on self-destructive behavior, even after other friends have died along the way. Read between the lines, and it's obvious that the guys in the band have all done a lot of growing up between the first album and now.
Of course, since The Explosion's left its revivalist roots essentially behind (the lone throwback on here is "No Revolution," a remake of one of the better songs on Flash Flash Flash, and it almost feels like the band threw it in for the sake of comparison), what are these guys now? Are they even punk? Yeah...kinda. They're a far cry from the likes of U.S. Bombs, it's true, but the punk spirit's definitely still there -- and hell, if the Clash (and Joe Strummer) had survived 'til today, does anybody in their right mind think they'd still sound like they just recorded "London's Burning"? Of course not; they'd be innovating and adapting, changing their sound to grow with the times. The Explosion, for their part, are doing the same thing. Rather than continuing to mine the sounds of the past, they've taken it and melded it into a significantly more tuneful present.
The result is an album full of anthemic rock songs, ear-blisteringly loud but still clean and as sharp as a surgeon's scalpel. "Here I Am" (currently the album's "hit" single), "Deliver Us," "Atrocity," "Mothers Cry," and "Grace" all blaze with fiery guitars, soaring, almost heroic vocals, and a kind of urgency most punk bands can only hope to somehow inject into their songs. And it's all rock, even if it eschews some of the rules of "punk" rock (who knew punk was about rules, anyway?). There are some resemblances to the current crop of pop-punkers cluttering up the scene, but the closest parallel I can come up with is Richmond hardcore stalwarts Avail -- both bands blend the best elements of hardcore, punk, pop, and metal to make a whole that's better than its parts. Who cares if you can label it or not? (JH)
(Virgin Records -- 150 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. 10011; http://www.virginrecords.com/; The Explosion -- http://www.theexplosion.net/)