People like Chad VanGaalen piss me off. Why? Well, the Calgary-based singer/songwriter/
artist/animator/genius/whatever irks me for a couple of reasons, the first of which is that, well, he makes it sound so easy. As a whole, Infiniheart sounds effortless, the breezy creation of a single summer's afternoon spent in a bedroom studio (which makes sense, seeing as VanGaalen did in fact record it all in his bedroom). The music skips through the whole alphabet of styles, mining pretty much everything but heavy metal or rap -- although the latter comes close with the instrumental "J.C.'s Head on the Cross," where the heavy, distorted beats stay just this side of CEX or Techno Animal -- and yet it all hangs together, a cohesive unit. "Kill Me In My Sleep" sounds like Death Cab For Cutie with its low-key electronic-sounding drums and high-pitched falsetto, while "Clinically Dead" marries the guitar roar of Silver Scooter with the artiness of VanGaalen's fellow Canadians The Arcade Fire. Name a pop/rock band or musician and chances are good that there's a hint of their presence somewhere on here (particularly if they're kind of on the weird side of the spectrum).
In effect, it's VanGaalen's voice that holds it all together. He's got a gorgeous, warbly, plaintive croon, a kissing cousin to the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, Neil Young, or Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek, although he shares the most stylistic similarity to the latter, particularly on the strange, bodily-fluid fixated "Blood Machine," with comes off like Kozelek collaborating with Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. Heck, even when the music occasionally lapses, the vocals pull things through beautifully. There's a tender nakedness to it, very much like the music made by Coyne and Kozelek themselves, that makes it endearing as all hell. "After the Afterlife"'s a prime example; it's a gentle, shambling bit of countrified indie-pop, somewhat reminiscent of Okkervil River "side project" Shearwater or one of the Secretly Canadian stable of musicians, and VanGaalen's voice floats tremblingly over a soaring melody and a folky swing.
Going back to the point, though, part of what I love about Infiniheart is that unworried ease. It's like VanGaalen just threw it out there, not giving a damn what anybody thought or if anybody was even listening, and I can't help but love that -- I've got a lot more respect for somebody who does what they do just because it's what they do, no audience required, than I do for someone who's trying to please everybody every single time around. There's a kind of purity to genuinely not caring, and going by the interviews I've read with Mr. VanGaalen, it certainly sounds like he really doesn't give a damn. Apparently he's as surprised as anybody that his music's made it as far as it has, going from tapes he recorded in his bedroom between 2001 and 2003 (although the disc was just released; I have to wonder what he's got going on right now, if this is merely the "old" stuff) to being the new pop wunderkind on mega-indie Sub Pop. He's made the jump the way everybody wishes they could do it, pretty much by accident and sheer force of songwriting brilliance.
Unfortunately, the whole unplanned, unasked-for nature of this thing has another side, as well -- that's the second thing that bugs me about Infiniheart, and about VanGaalen in general. A lot of the songs don't have a clearly-defined end, but rather just sputter or stumble to a close, collapsing in on themselves. Take the aforementioned "Kill Me In My Sleep," for one -- rather than fade out gracefully after the vocals and eletronic-sounding drums dissipate, the song continues on, plinking aimlessly for another minute or two before ending long after it should've. On the other hand, "Blood Machine" very nearly staggers to a finish with a bunch of misplaced Tom Waits-ish noises. It sounds like VanGaalen just recorded as much as he felt like doing, and then when he felt like the song needed to end, he just stopped. Which isn't always bad, mind you, but after a while, it makes you question the motives of the musician in question. It's the Guided by Voices problem, essentially: where do you draw the line between slacker genius and plain old half-assed laziness? Brilliant though some of VanGaalen's songs certainly are -- the overloaded pop of "Echo Train" rocks my world, to name one -- some almost feel like the guy didn't give enough of a crap to finish them properly.
I know that sounds harsh, and the criticism should be tempered by a big caveat in blinking red neon, going back to the first part: Infiniheart is an excellent album. I dig the melodies, I dig the voice, I dig the quirky lyrics -- heck, I even dig VanGaalen's creepy/cute album art. Barring a few missteps, like the faux-country of "I Miss You Like I Miss You" and the horn-inflected, practically somnolent "1000 Pound Eyelids," the songs are pretty much classics, gems of pop-rock songwriting. When he's on, he's right on, like on the darkly rocking, Grifters-esque "Red Blood," the catchy weirdness of "The Warp Zone/Hidden Bridge," and the high plains dirge-blues of "Sunshine Snare Hits."
Oh, and then there's "Somewhere I Know There Is Nothing," which sounds like Nick Drake if he'd never taken those final fatal pills but had gone on to front a Scottish space-pop band -- it's drifting and spacey, seemingly detached, but still nicely urgent. "Chronograph #1," by contrast, drops straight back down to earth, with delicate guitar lines interplaying with VanGaalen's flat vocal delivery and gentle finger snaps, coming off surprisingly like the Beta Band (or maybe even Underworld), and album closer "Traffic" strums and stomps confidently along, a fine cautionary note about (I think) waking up one morning in traffic and realizing that your life's going nowhere.
My only hope is that now, with VanGaalen two years down the line from these recordings, Infiniheart is merely the shot across the bow of the music world, a prelude to the true magnum opus to come. Consider my fingers crossed. (JH)
(Sub Pop Records -- P.O. Box 20367, Seattle, WA. 98102; http://www.subpop.com/; Chad VanGaalen -- http://www.myspace.com/chadvangaalen)
Buzzin' Fly, Volume 2: Replenishing Music For The Modern Soul
Musician/DJ Ben Watt has been making music since the early eighties in the folk-turned-electro pop duo Everything But The Girl, but his more recent offerings are experiments in late-night club scenes. On this collection, the second in the Buzzin' Fly series, Watt shows that he has an ear and a knack for weaving together tunes that flow. In the liner notes, he says, "I wanted to get back to the meaning of house. The modern relentless pumping DJ set bores me." The problem with any DJ set, however, is that repetition -- and that's also this collection's biggest fault. There are plenty of times when an extended clip is welcome, for example, mostly late at night or very early in the morning, but never on an album. Thankfully, these shortcomings really do little to hamper the set, and it contains enough beats interspersed with chilled synths and subdued raps to have broad appeal. Watt's at his best with Tracey Thorn in EBTG, but this album shows his other talents well. (DAC)
(Astralwerks Records -- 104 West 29th St., 4th Fl., New York, NY. 10001; http://www.astralwerks.com/; Buzzin' Fly Records -- P.O. Box 3382, London, NW3 5FP, ENGLAND; http://www.buzzinfly.com/)
The Estrus Kamikaze Ass Chomp 'N' Stomp CD Sampler Vol. 4
This compilation features an assortment of bands that share a common affinity for pushing the boundaries of modern music. None of the 19 bands featured are very mainstream; Estrus, in fact, is known for its stable of well-respected, underground acts. The Dexateen's "Take Me To The Speedway" sounds like old-style, southern classic rock 'n' roll. Rather than completely rehashing garage and classic rock of the '70s, their raw guitars and a drawl like nothing you've heard this side of "My Name Is Mud" work in the track's favor. "New Arsenal," by Houston's very own Fatal Flying Guilloteens, along with The Makers' "The Jerome Green" and The Insomniacs' "Leave," are some of the best cuts on the compilation -- FFG, in particular, are adept at blowing past trends and creating their own style, and "New Arsenal" is no exception.
It's not all great, mind you -- DMBQ's "Taste" is a twisted metal mess that's too self-indulgent for this collection and throws off the otherwise solid pace of songs. Similarly, the lame punk of The Mummies' "I'm Gonna Kill My Baby Tonight" is one listeners will blow right by. Despite these missteps, the sampler proves that Estrus is a label intent on spreading the word about interesting, innovative bands that otherwise would probably never get much attention outside of their respective cities. It's definitely worth checking out. (DAC)
(Estrus Records -- P.O. Box 2125, Bellingham, WA. 98227; http://www.estrus.com/)
I Hate It Here, I Never Want To Leave
Damn, I feel old. I can remember a time when I'd scour the "Local" CD racks at Cactus and Soundwaves for H-town bands and comps, happily go see whoever was playing at Rudyard's, Mary Jane's, or The Oven on any given night, and shake my head in amazement at the wealth of unknown, unrecognized, don't-give-a-damn bands making their musical way through this city. These days, Cactus and Soundwaves are a long drive from the house, as are Rudz and the other Montrose/Washington hangouts, and having a little girl to take care of generally means I don't get out all that often after dark. The amazement, though, is still fully intact -- and it hit me again, full in the face, when I put on this comp of local noisemakers, Mustache Records' I Hate It Here, I Never Want To Leave. Which, incidentally, is a pretty perfect title for a comp of Houston bands; ask anybody who lives here, and they'll tell you they hate the noise, the pollution, the stupidity, and all the rest, but they somehow can't escape. We Houstonians live in the urban equivalent of a black hole, unable to break past the event horizon and get out to other, more hospitable locales.
The nice thing about being trapped in this tar pit of a city, though, is that it tends to breed camaraderie. We're all in the same sinking ship, right, so why fight? One of my favorite aspects of the Houston music scene has always been the community -- in general, there's not a whole lot of infighting or competition, and a whole heck of a lot more cooperation and friendship. The best part of playing in a band here, for me, had nothing to do with actually playing, I'll admit it -- that was cool and all, but it was also stressful as hell -- but just with watching other friends play and hanging out. Bands are friends, or at least acquaintances, and not rivals for bookings or major-label love -- 'cause really, what big-time label in their right mind ever looks to Houston as the home of the Next Big Thing, anyway?
Of course, it'd be more than a bit disingenuous for me to claim that any of the bands on I Hate It Here are really aiming for NBT status to begin with. Houston's gone through several "waves" of bands over the years -- there was the funk wave, the indie-pop wave, the ska wave, the emo wave, the garage-rock mini-wave, and probably a dozen others besides, all in the last decade or so. Each one comes and goes, with a flood of talented, dedicated bands doing their thing 'til they run out of steam and dissipate back into the humid Houston air, only to be recycled around and become the next flood of music-makers. While many of the folks represented on I Hate It Here have been around a while, it's true, the disc almost seems to represent a relatively recent "wave" of sorts -- the noise-rock wave, the experimenters, the more avant-garde bands of the bunch. There ain't no sweet, sappy singer-songwriters or cheery pop-punk bands here, kids.
Within that "noise-rock" framework, naturally, the music runs the gamut. First up are Estrus Records' own Fatal Flying Guilloteens, whose "Cobra Pills" is a nice slice of raw, ragged-edged rawk, although I should note that it's less "dirty" and more polished than what I'm used to from these guys (hell, it's probably the cleanest-sounding track on here). At the same time, though, it really shows how much more of an honest-to-Jeebus band they've become, and that's got to be a good thing. Then there's The Slurpees (now known as The Squishees, thanks to a 7-Eleven lawsuit; see the review of their CD elsewhere on this site) with "I, Evil Knievel," which really makes me wonder whether or not to take these guys seriously -- they're a bunch of pranksters, yeah, but they also do a good job of melding garage-y rock with smooth pop-song timing and even a little funk.
As for Bring Back The Guns, who contribute "The Family Name" to the mess, well, no matter how many songs he writes, BBTG ringleader Matt Brownlie just gets stranger and stranger, and thank God for that, 'cause it's always entertaining. You can never be sure what the heck they're going to do next, but it's generally off-kilter while still remaining pretty much pop at its core; this track's no exception, and it's damn fine. The Kants go a bit darker with "Scissors," a bit of noisy, urgent rock that brings to mind both the pre-Tortoise Chicago contingent of post-rockers like June Of 44 and old-school NYC noisemakers Cop Shoot Cop, and Sjolander turn in what's got to be the most out-and-out beautiful track here, "Divide & Conquer," a turbulent yet still somehow delicate instrumental that just kind of burns the house down slowly while you sleep.
I'd been meaning to catch UME for a while now, especially given the recent acclaim they've received elsewhere, so I was particularly curious to hear their contribution, "Hurricane" -- and luckily, I wasn't disappointed. It's quiet, creepy rock, with edge-of-a-knife female vocals from guitarist/singer Lauren Larson, and it reminds me somewhat of the A Frames or (yeah, I hate to say it, but here it comes) the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and damn, I need to go see this band live -- sadly, it appears that two-thirds of the band relocated to the Northeast earlier this year, but hopefully they'll be back to do some shows. After that, The Jonx throw in "These Days," a spastic, disjointed, kind of muscular-sounding piece of geek-rock (I dunno why, but the guys in the band always sound to me like they're wrestling with their instruments) that lapses occasionally into little bits of pretty melodicism. (I should also note here, by the way, that the comp was assembled by the ever-hardworking Daniel Mee, who drums for The Jonx, as well as DJing at KTRU and moonlighting for us here at SCR as a damn talented writer. He deserves his props for this one, yo.)
Unfortunately, "These Days" leads into the comp's two low points (relatively, at least): Satin Hooks' "Electric Room," which is messy and a little overblown, hard to get a handle on; and Dead Roses' "I Death You to Death," which is pretty much just an inside joke gone horribly awry. Sorry, guys, but while I like musical silliness as much as anybody, it doesn't work as well on CD as it does live, at least not for me.... Both tracks serve a purpose, though, in that they let the Swarm of Angels' "Hereafter" step in and show how it's done -- unlike "Electric Room," in particular, "Hereafter" manages to be dissonant and noisy and yet still hold tightly together, partly thanks to Nikki Texas's scratched, David Ouimet-sounding vocals. Torches of Fury then gallop in with "Medieval Jam," a rockin' mëtäl instrumental -- woo-hoo! (fists in the air) -- that's all dueling Judas Priest guitars, and I Hate It Here trudges slowly to a close with God's Temple of Family Deliverance doing "You Are the Shining Star of His Existence," a thick, grindingly slow, doom-laden sludge-rock almost-instrumental track where thundering drums and bassy guitars trade hits back and forth for nearly 16 minutes of Melvins-/Isis-style bliss. Hoo-ah.
Now, if you think that sounds like quite a mess, it is. And it's not always easy to listen to, that's for damn sure -- melodies and hooks are few and far between, and you'd be well-advised to keep the Advil handy for repeated listenings. As a musical representation of H-town, though, it's spot-on. Houston's one hell of a schizophrenic city -- part country-cowboy, part urban hippie; part Hummer, part Art Car; part River Oaks, part Montrose -- so it's logical that the music made here reflect that collision of ideas, lifestyles, and cultures. This sprawling metropolis is a big, sloppy, noisy, dirty mess, and so, on final analysis, is I Hate It Here, I Never Want To Leave...and it's an incredible document, for that. My one complaint? I want more. I want more bands like this on the disc, I want a bigger snapshot of the murky undercurrent that's flowing these days beneath the Houston streets. I want more compilations like this, so aging homebodies like my lame self can hear what we've been missing. (JH)
(Mustache Records -- 322 Aurora Street, Houston, TX. 77008)