Before The Revolution
This is not what I'd expected, I must admit, especially from trad-ska mainstay Moon Records. This isn't "straight" ska, by any means -- hell, a lot of it isn't ska at all. Two-thirds of the songs are funky, James Brown-/Percy Sledge-ish soul jams, straight out of Soul Bruthah Numbah One's personal bag, and the rest are jazzy ska/funk instrumentals. Those expecting full-on Two-Tone are gonna be left wanting, 'cause this is a lot more Sam & Dave than The Toasters. (For those who happen to be soul-ignorant, think The Commitments, okay?) The band openly admits it, too -- in the CD booklet, they claim to be a soul band, and say that "some of our soul is Jamaican."
And if you think about it, it makes sense, because ska itself came out of Jamaican players covering popular American soul songs and big-band instrumentals; go back and listen to some old Alton Ellis or Desmond Dekker, if you don't believe me. The stuff on here belongs in that same camp -- this is really well-done, and very cool, especially when it comes to the vocals. "Number Three," particularly, brings me to tears, as does "Pressure 24," and "Clare Short" may well be the finest ska instrumental I've ever heard, without exaggeration.
Also worth noting is the band's political agenda on songs like "Witness" and "None But Heaven," both of which have a serious, very real socialist slant (which is fine by me, I might add, because they're talking true socialism, not the evil cartoon version of socialism we're all fed by the media). And man, I dig that keyboard... Pay attention, ska fans, 'cause ska's come full circle. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Moon Ska Records -- P.O. Box 1412, New York, NY. 10276)
I've listened to this album three times now, and I can barely remember a damn thing about it. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but for an album to get away with it, it should sound pretty great while it's playing. The problem with Javelin Catcher is that I can barely remember what it sounds like when the damn thing is on.
If I had to come up with a quick-and-easy description of Alastor (wait, I do), I'd point out their resemblence to the Violent Femmes, with a personality-starved Aimee Mann (hang on, no, make that PJ Harvey going through pointless soft-blues exercises) as frontwoman. With no real bass player, just what looks to be a hired gun, Alastor blandly plugs away at a series of chorded drones with the bored vocals of Elizabeth Elkins (although I think it's supposed to be sarcastic). Silly touches like the Physical Graffiti-style chorus of "Indiana Mine" and the guttural mutterings that open and punctuate "D.U.I." break the monotony but don't do much more. When Elkins begs "Break a branch off a tree and beat me till I can't scream," she'd better watch herself. (MH/Fall 1999)
(Ear Muff Music)
Polyvinyl CD Single Series 001
Hmm...didn't somebody else do this a while back? Ah, who cares -- Polyvinyl, one of the oddest, most interesting labels around, recently started up their own CD singles club, featuring new stuff from folks like Braid, Calvin Krime, Paris, Texas, and Burning Airlines (and American Football, naturally). I think it's a very cool idea, especially for those of us who don't necessarily want to shell out $10 for a band we've never heard before - this way, you buy the single, and if you like it, hey, buy the album (well, if there is one, at any rate). And unlike other singles clubs, this one gives it to you on CD, as opposed to 7", so you don't have to dub a tape to listen to it in the car.
As for the CD itself, it's a nice surprise -- delicate, absolutely bright guitars play fluid, jazzy guitar lines over understated drums and sincere, boyish vocals. Don't pin any "emo" tags here, though; to my mind, "The One With The Tambourine" is far more reminiscent of R.E.M.'s earlier jangliness, taking the sound back into the underground and pairing it with odd, shifting rhythms and almost hypnotic patterns. "Letters and Packages" treads closer to Braid territory (not surprising, since one of the members of the band is in the Cap'n Jazz/Joan of Arc camp, and I figure those folks all hang out together, anyway), but doesn't ever pull the overdone "soft/loud" trick, preferring to remain melancholy and sweet throughout. And the instrumental "Five Silent Miles" eloquently matches its title, painting the picture with music alone. If these folks ever put together a full album, I'm all over it - singles club, mission accomplished. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Polyvinyl Record Co. -- P.O. Box 1885, Danville, IL. 61834-1885; http://www.polyvinylrecords.com)
The Appleseed Cast
The End of the Ring Wars
I had this album for a long time before I was able to write anything about it. I listened to it several times and still have next-to-no recollection of the lyrics to any of the songs. And yes, I know that sounds bad, but strange as it sounds, the music of the album has stuck with me, days and weeks later, filtered into my subconscious mind. I've caught myself humming a beautiful little melody, with no clue where it came from...until I listened to the CD again, and it suddenly appeared as the intro to "Marigold & Patchwork." This album IS a very beautiful album, just more subtle than a lot of others out there. The melodies are the sweetest I've heard this side of Spent's first album, the choruses are majestic and swaying, and the songs themselves are drawn-out and shimmering, almost enough to even forget there are lyrics to the songs. "Stars" is almost dreampop, more Spiritualized than "emo" (an easy tag, considering the Deep Elm label on the record), and even features a nice saxophone part. On the other side of the coin, the angry rejection song "The Last Ring" cranks up the noise, never losing the underlying sad beauty, and "16 Days" speeds along like a night-time drive on an empty highway. The End of the Ring Wars may not be the kind of CD you keep in the changer and listen to incessantly, but still, the music will remain with you and creep up on you when you're not even thinking about it. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Deep Elm Records -- P.O. Box 1965, New York, NY. 10156, 212-532-3337)
Asian Dub Foundation
In this "alternative" day and age, truly original-sounding music is difficult to find - a quick scan of the radio dial should tell you that. There are bands out there, though, like the Asian Dub Foundation, who've managed to create brand-new musical genres all their own. No matter how many times I listen to this disc, it always stuns me into awed amazement -- you might remember ADF from this past year's Beastie Boys tour; the night I saw them the crowd barely seemed to know what to do, but the other folks who stuck around looked as entranced as I myself was.
This isn't any kind of genre-hopping exercise, thankfully; the group's sound is a mishmash of a dozen different styles, but it's still consistent throughout. Reggae and dub are both heavy influences (especially dub's bubbling basslines), as is Indian music (unsurprising, since I think all the members of the band are of Indian descent, via England), jungle-style electronics, hip-hop and raggamuffin vocal stylings, melodic pop (listen to the chorus of "Buzzin" for proof), and even The Edge's delayed guitar noise. The Asian Dub Foundation have created a style all their own from these different sounds, and use it to get across a think-for-yourself political message.
The album's opener, "Naxalite," was inspired by a peasant revolt that took place in the '60s in West Bengal, the track "Operation Eagle Eye" is about keeping an eye on the police, and "Free Satpal Ram," the group's anthem, is a fierce demand for freedom for a man imprisoned for defending himself against racist thugs. Probably even more controversial is "Assassin," the story of a man named Udam Singh, who in 1939 avenged a 1919 massacre by killing the British officer who had been governor at the time. The consciousness behind the lyrics is distinctly Indian, but also British, and the lyrics speak more to the people at large to resist the government's attempts at takeover. Forget Rage Against The Machine or Chumbawumba -- cross your fingers that this album hits big, and then get ready for change to come. (JH/Fall 1999)
Over The James
I feel a little silly reviewing this, as it's been out a while now, but I only recently picked it up on a whim, so what the heck? And truthfully, this wasn't what I was expecting - from interviews I'd read, I had these guys pegged as full-on hardcore, and was mostly curious to see what hardcore these days sounds like, since it's not something I listen to much anymore. If this is the face of modern hardcore, though, I'm gonna have to take a second look...
The main adjective that hits me when I listen to Over The James is, well, "inspiring." I don't mean that in a trite, cheesy, "Wind Beneath My Wings" way, but that the songs here really are inspiring. They seem to deal a lot with self-reliance and figuring out where you're going, in spite of what everyone around tells you, and that, to me, is pretty damn deep. Just about every song on here has a surprisingly melodic yell-along chorus sure to get all those mosh-pit kids screaming in unison, and if you take a little time to actually listen to the words, the message is clear: Avail are growing up. This album's about direction, finding a home, being proud of who you are, and taking responsibility for your own life, for starters.
On top of that, this isn't straight NYC or SoCal hardcore, for which I'm very glad -- the guitars actually make me think of punk folksinger Billy Bragg, believe it or not; they've got that same jangling distortion, and one song I could swear keeps threatening to break into "Accident Waiting To Happen" ("Lombardy St."). Of course, that may all be me kinda wishfully linking two very fine songwriters -- either way, this entire album is well worth listening to. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Lookout! Records -- P.O. Box 11374, Berkeley, CA. 94712-2374; http://www.lookoutrecords.com/)