Various Means of Transportation
First off, a tidbit of information that may be useful to the reader: Kristi Rae is indeed female; it isn't some clever name for an all-male band or anything. So all of you folks out there that are now rolling your eyes and thinking "OMG, not another chick band" to yourselves can move along and find something more testosterone-filled. I think that female singers and female bands get a bad rap, and in the case of Kristi Rae, it's definitely unwarranted. Various Means of Transportation maybe a bit rough around the edges, but it's ethereal and stirring at the same time, like some of the landscapes in her home state of Texas.
Kristi's voice and supporting guitar make me think of time spent in front of campfires or afternoons lazing about underneath lush green trees; a beautiful soundtrack from happier times. It's ironic, really, considering that the general theme of this CD is the living of a life that hasn't been easy, a bumpy road that most people would never want to drive down. It gives you a certain innate sense of self, a quality that most people can't put their finger on but find themselves quite drawn to at the same time.
Instead of relying on a loud rhythm section or screaming, piercing vocals, Various Means of Transportation conveys the message of growth and strength through its words, through the underlying conviction in her vocals, and through its simplicity. It's hard to single out one song above any other, since the entire thing seems to stand as one piece. I'd liken it to trying to pick out just one chapter in your favorite book. It's meant to be taken as a whole -- one vision from start to finish -- and that's really the only way to experience it properly. Definitely folksy but never preachy or gimmicky, Kristi Rae sounds most like Poe (but acoustic and stripped down) to me, and that's definitely a good thing. (JR)
(self-released; Kristi Rae -- http://www.raedar.com/)
Okay, I'll admit that it's a little weird listening to the Redwalls' most recent full-length, De Nova. I still can't entirely get used to bands that do that whole "retro" thing, seemingly aping the past from the tone settings on their amps all the way to the ragged mops on their heads -- it often comes a little too close to "tribute band" idolatry, a la the Marky-Mark flick Rock Star, for comfort. A part of me wants to smack these kids in the head and tell 'em to get their skinny asses out of their hipster lofts, quit trampling on the laurels of the honest musicians who did all the hard work way back when, and actually create something new, for God's sake.
Luckily, going by De Nova, the Redwalls don't need my advice. They have created something new...kind of. While everything I've heard previously from the band has bored me to tears, causing me to groan and smack the right-arrow button on the iPod while muttering "not another goddamn Strokes..." under my breath, with De Nova they've managed to distance themselves from the pack of retro-wannabes and craft an album that's simultaneously new and old. This is "retro"-sounding, yeah, but it's not so much that it sounds like bands like the Beatles, the Creation, the Small Faces, and the Rolling Stones, but that it sounds like this band could have been one of those bands.
Which makes sense in a twisted way, seeing as bandmates Logan Baren (vocals/guitar), Justin Baren (bass), and Andrew Langer (guitar) actually got their start as a British Invasion cover band (their original drummer quit to go to college and was replaced in 2003 by Ben Greeno). They've had the classic-rock schtick down for quite a while now, so it only seems fitting that they took the step upwards to becoming a "real" band. Sure, there's still plenty of hero-worship lurking in the background, but with songs like these, who cares? The Redwalls have taken their emulation of sounds past to the point where they've made it their own.
They can roar and stomp like the Stones (the horn-filled, Black Crowes-esque "Robinson Crusoe"), rock like the Beatles did back in their Hamburg days (the bluesy, grimy "It's Alright"), and even blast off to space, Hendrix/Secret Machines-style (the swirling, fuzz-thick guitars of "Back Together"), and through it all, they sound like an honest-to-God band, not just some agglomeration of influences. They pump "Falling Down," an out-and-out jab at the FCC and so-called "obscenity" witch hunts, with so much vitriol that it balances out the sugary-sweet harmonies -- you can practically hear the sneer on Baren's lips -- and then kidnap and ably utilize the melody of "Brown Eyed Girl" for "Love Her," a nice throwback to the days when "rock" and "love song" weren't mutually exclusive. One of the album's absolute highlights, "Thank You," is an astoundingly sincere affirmation of love and trust so heartfelt it makes me blush and sends a goofy smile creeping across my face (it's also oddly reminiscent of Lenny Kravitz's "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over," but that may just be me). "Build A Bridge" is similarly warm, an organ-heavy bit of gospel-rock with handclaps and a cheery tent revival message of reconciliation.
Unfortunately, the album falters a bit in the middle. It's pretty front-loaded with good stuff, but when the band gets to the dreary prettiness of "Hung Up On The Way I'm Feeling," the momentum drains out of the sound and doesn't truly pick back up 'til "Back Together" soars in. At the same time, though, the "slow" section of the disc also includes "Front Page," probably the most complex, intricate track here -- it starts with ominous sirens, helicopter sounds, and news clips on Gaza, and mutates into a strange, spooky little anti-pop anthem with strings and sharp-edged Joe Strummer guitars, proof that the Redwalls boys do know more about their musical history than just the '50s and '60s. Then there's "Glory Of War," a Dylanesque, bitterly melancholy folk song about the marketing of the military machine, and the closer, "Rock & Roll," which serves both as a mission statement for the band and a reminder of where their heads are at, both right now and in the future.
Taken as a whole, De Nova's no poseur, copycat affair, but one of the few recent examples of a band fully digesting its heroes and coming back with something that owes those folks a debt of gratitude but can still stand on its own two feet. If only more of the Redwalls' compatriots could do the same. (JH)
(Capitol Records -- http://www.capitolrecords.com/; The Redwalls -- http://www.theredwalls.com/)
The Comfort of Home
Rufio are yet another punk-rock band from California -- that is, they sound more like hard-rock to me, but they probably think of themselves as a punk band. They engage us in the age-old debate revolving around technical ability vs. inspiration. Is a technically gifted voice more important than a well-written song? Is an inspired but rough performance better than a clichéd but well-executed performance?
Unfortunately, Rufio don't make much of a case for themselves. Their lead singer, regardless of what he's singing, sounds like he can't lower himself to actually emote during the songs. The band attempts to expand the punk-rock sound, but it results in bad '80s hard rock, instead. Their sound would go over really well at a drunken frat party where no one's actually listening.
Rufio seems to be writing songs according to the Hit Single Theory, which requires that certain characteristics exist in a song in order for it to be Good. As a result, the melodies are absolutely banal and lowest-common-denominator big-radio fluff; the harmonies shriek, "Meaning!"; and the instrumental bits sound like third-rate Eric Johnson (which ain't a selling point to begin with). They even include (and botch) the required Transition to Acoustic at the end of one song. They try to make their melodies "contemporary" by not just emulating Elliott Smith but borrowing him entirely. By all rights, these guys should be hung by their Ernie Ball extra-light super-slinky guitar strings. (HM)
(Nitro Records -- 7071 Warner Ave., Suite F736, Huntington Beach, CA. 92647; http://www.nitrorecords.com/; Rufio -- http://rufio.isaband.com/)