Well, well -- it's another dance/punk almost-but-not-quite electroclash band that's made it big. How big? O.C. big, which means everyone will be listening to their hot-on-the-heels of Bloc Party dance floor-swagger rock. Some tracks on their self titled debut, like "Terror Tongue in Cheek" are pretty solid dance tracks that aren't as meticulous as The Rapture, but others, like "Trust Me," turn into a sloppy Hot Hot Heat. Good to put on the background of a party, but really not all that fun or original. (KS)
(Revelation Records -- P.O. Box 5232, Huntington Beach, CA. 92615-5232; http://www.revelationrecords.com/; Temper Temper -- http://www.tempertemper.net/)
If Songs Could Be Held
There are only a few singers out there who possess voices that literally make me want to break down and cry; most, oddly, are guys, people like Mark Kozelek, Nick Drake, Eric Bachman, Tom Waits, or Will Sheff, who sound either so far gone or so deranged that I feel like I'm being pulled along with them down into the depths of their personal despair. In terms of female singers, the field's sparser, maybe because of the glut of "divas" currently ruling the airwaves with their tacky pink scepters and seemingly identical love of the melisma. Sorry, but Mariah Carey, Beyonce, or even non-diva Sarah McLachlan don't make me want to weep, not even at the peak of their dramatic emotive-ness. That honor goes to a humble (and often somewhat obscure) few, like Azure Ray's Orenda Fink, Corrina Repp, Portuguese fado singer Mariza, Sally Ellyson of Hem, Lisa Gerrard, and, yes, Rosie Thomas.
And on If Songs Could Be Held, Ms. Thomas demonstrates once again why she's firmly in that august company. Although the album's less folky than her previous stuff, it's still gorgeously melancholy, and Thomas still steals my heart every time she opens her mouth to sing. Take "Time Goes Away," for example -- it's an affecting, pained track, just Thomas and a piano playing in what sounds like a cathedral, and it's overwhelming in its stark majesty. She appropriates a page from the Tori Amos songbook, almost literally, for "Pretty Dress," which sounds like it could be an outtake from Little Earthquakes, and while that's not necessarily a good thing, she does well with it. Similarly, with "Loose Ends" she unfurls a nice little bluesy story-song that sounds like it could come from soul revivalist Joan Osborne, but Thomas surpasses even Osborne's considerable talent.
Then there's "It Don't Matter To The Sun," the absolute apogee of the album, a quiet-yet-soaring ballad of love lost that could almost be gospel...which makes sense, since the song was co-written by gospel singer Tommy Sims (and first performed, by the by, by Garth Brooks on his In the Life of Chris Gaines disc), and the B3 accompaniment makes things even more churchly (more on that later). This is what makes Songs worth hearing. Thomas sings the way jazz artists like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan did (as well as folk touchstones like Odetta or Joni Mitchell), like she actually means what she's singing about. (Sorry, Joss Stone, but there's really no comparison.)
The track is achingly beautiful and sad, the same kind of song that first drew me to Thomas's music in the first place. Her voice sounds a lot more powerful here than on anything else I've heard from her, to boot. Her previous albums all sounded fragile and delicate to me, where on If Songs Could Be Held she's in full control and confident of her abilities, yet simultaneously able to bare her soul and stay vulnerable. It's a little strange, by the way, trying to reconcile this side of Thomas's personality with her, um, side gig as a stand-up comedienne (go to the Sub Pop site and download the video of her performance at a label party as comedic alter-ego "Sheila"). But hey, if she can pull off both, more power to her.
Okay, now that I've doled out the praise, it's time for the "but". I love Rosie Thomas's voice, enjoy the heck out of her songwriting, and fully adore listening to her sing and wallowing in that sleepy, languid kind of melancholy...but taken all together, If Songs Could Be Held is almost too sweet. Listening to this disc, I've had this little nagging feeling at the back of my skull, and I think that's what it is. At points, Songs gets so sickly-sweet that I suspect that if I heard it on the radio without knowing who was singing, I'd swear that I'd accidentally tuned in to an Amy Grant marathon.
Not that Amy Grant's a bad singer or anything, mind you -- she's certainly good at what she does. It's just that she's patently inoffensive and unchallenging, just a shiny-clean person singing beautiful songs about beautiful things. Much as I hate to say it, that's what parts of this disc remind me of (particularly "Say What You Want" and, to a lesser extent, "Guess It May"): lightweight, super-cheery vocal pop, the kind you hear on non-rock Christian stations. And just so we're clear, that's not a label I like slapping onto this, but that's what connects in my head when I've got the headphones on.
So I'm torn on this one. When Thomas hits the mark, as with "It Don't Matter To The Sun," "Since You've Been Around," or "Time Goes Away," she does it amazingly well, but there are moments on Songs that just don't measure up; they're not bad, they're just...well, bland. I'm all for reinvention and musical growth in general, but I sincerely hope songs like "Say What You Want" aren't an indication of where Thomas is heading. (JH)
(Sub Pop Records -- P.O. Box 20367, Seattle, WA. 98102; http://www.subpop.com/; Rosie Thomas -- http://www.rosiethomas.com/)
With Blitzkrieg Pop, Berliner T.Raumschmiere (real name Marco Haas) delivers more high-energy abrasive dance music, positioning it as electronic punk rock. I can't speak to his live show, which is reportedly quite kinetic, but on record that project is a pathetic failure. It's been five years since Retconned, 15 since Pretty Hate Machine, 20 since Big Black, and nearly 30 since Suicide. Electronic punk rock has been done already, and far better than this. And why T.Raumschmiere named his album Blitzkrieg Pop, when it has nothing to do with the goddamn Ramones, I have no idea.
T.Raumschmiere's music might fare better with its meme inverted, as the punk rock of electronica -- a sort of anarchist Loki figure in the cold, dead halls of techno. Unfortunately for him, that role was already fulfilled by hip-hop before electronica even existed.
Blitzkrieg Pop is an excellent example of the prime limitation of electronic music -- namely, its stupefying adherence to danceability and commercialism, which unfailingly creates music that is safe, homogenous, and instantly forgettable. Electronica can only succeed artistically when it repudiates these goals (Squarepusher, DJ Food). As long as it fails to do so, it's hard for a critic to love or hate it, at least from an aesthetic standpoint. From an ideological standpoint, however, it's all fucking trash. (DM)
(novamute Records -- 429 Harrow Road, London, W10 4RE ENGLAND; http://www.novamute.com/; Shitkatapult -- http://www.shitkatapult.com/; T. Raumschmiere -- http://t.raumschmiere.com/)
Similar to the Stones of the '70s and the garage bands of late (Strokes, Sights, White Stripes), the 22-20s cross straight-up rock 'n' roll with classic blues while maintaining an Oasis-like swagger and modern appeal. Subject matter includes the typical rock star excesses: drugs ("Lord, it's so hard to keep your head / When you've got everything to lose," from "Baby Brings Bad News"); Satan ("Devil In Me"); guns ("Where'd you learn to shoot that gun so straight?," from "Shoot Your Gun"); and sex ("I wish I could dance with you / But girl, my feet don't move," from the melodic "The Things That Lovers Do"). Other songs showcase the band's influences; for example, "22 Days" could be a lost Zeppelin track -- its hard-edged rhythm and forced vocals recall "Good Times Bad Times" -- and the mostly acoustic "Friends" sounds like early Dylan ("Trying to find out where trouble ends / I've found out it's in your friends"). What makes the 22-20s different from their peers, however, is that their songs are more consistent and accessible -- if there wasn't such a backlash against garage bands at present, the 22-20s would undoubtedly hit it big. This is a great album. (DAC)
(Astralwerks Records -- 104 West 29th St., 4th Fl., New York, NY. 10001; http://www.astralwerks.com/; 22-20s -- http://www.22-20s.com/)