La Makita Soma
Right. This was not what I'd expected, especially from Abridged, a label run by a member of Houston's emo heroes Blueprint. No hummable pop songs here, but instead six tracks of impeccably-crafted instrumentals. The music varies quite a bit, from tracks like, "The Instigator" that consist almost entirely of electronics, to "The Chairman," which incorporates some really beautiful real trumpet parts. The self-titled debut(?) flows together like one long composition, partly because of the general "dark" feel each track seems to have. The first track goes from swaying, darkly-textured dub to weird, freeform funk and back again -- and that heavy dub influence continues throughout, as well, especially on "The Tresspasser," the last track on the CD. If there's a guitar anywhere on here, it's been processed and echoplexed until it's unrecognizable. Even "The Intern," which is probably the most upbeat composition on here (I feel weird calling these "songs"), with its cool vibes and scratchy synths, abruptly changes direction at mid-point, slamming in with a headphone-crushing assault of brutal, distorted noise. Track #4 ("The Contender") follows a similar track, as well, starting off more jazzy and funky but then transmuting into a smooth, sinister suspense-thriller theme as performed by Moby or the Orb. A strange CD, but definitely more than just intriguing, in the end. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Abridged Records -- P.O. Box 7951, Houston, TX. 77270; http://www.abridged.net/)
Mean Red Spiders
Places You Call Home
Mean Red Spiders seems to be pretty much deified on the Toronto music scene for their "large, textured sound." Frankly, I don't see it. All I hear on this disc are at best marginally interesting indie-rock songs that have all been done before and better by Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. Granted, Lisa Nighswander's voice is somewhat nicer than those of Kim and Bilinda, but it can't really save the rest of the band from basically boring the crap out of me. This is the kind of thing that gives indie-rock that pretentious "arte-roque" stigma. To their credit, MRS say that their live show and sound are somewhat different from their recorded sound, so maybe they rock live. You couldn't tell from this disc, though. (MHo/Fall 1999)
(Teenage USA Records -- P.O. Box 91, 689 Queen St., W. Toronto, ON, M6J 1E6, CANADA)
The Mendoza Line
Poems To A Pawnshop
Um. Wow. I'd meant to review this for a long while now, but kept putting it off and putting it off, and didn't even take a quick listen 'til today. And, well, wow. I've liked the other stuff I've heard on Kindercore, so I figured I'd probably enjoy this, but even still, I was surprised as hell. The Mendoza Line (which I think is more of a collection of musicians than a real "band") caught me off guard right from the first track, the quiet, beautiful pop of "I Behaved That Way," with that cool slide-guitar & country drums. The band does rock, too, especially on "The Seventh Round," "This Charm" (I totally love those "hoo-hoo" backing vocals), and possibly my all-around favorite, the overfuzzed "Dollars To Donuts."
Of the slower, quieter stuff, "The Beechwood Standard" is a heck of delicate, sweet love song, "If You Knew Her As I Know Her" could be a lost bit of Sparklehorse brilliance, and "Taking San Francisco" reminds me of nothing more than former Houston band The Wholesome Rollers, weirdly enough. It's the same kind of melancholy, jangly poppiness, and it's got that same countryish feel to it, as well as a similarly tremendous ear for lyrics. Actually, the lyrics are what caught me more than anything else, here -- it's sadly rare these days that I'm bowled over by what's actually being sung, and I cherish those few records (like this one) that can do it. These are some amazing songs, all about falling in love and falling back out, and can be summed up by "Dollars To Donuts"'s classic closing line: "'Cause her heart is not something you break/Her heart is something that breaks you." (JH/Fall 1999)
(Kindercore Records -- P.O. Box 461, Athens, GA. 30604)
Miss Murgatroid & Petra Haden
Miss Murgatroid has put out of three albums of accordion abuse, pumping her squeezeboxes through a wall of distortion pedals and throwing sporadic earthy vocals in the mix. Petra Haden played violin in That Dog, who I vaguely remember being poppy and cheerful, and has a solo album which I haven't heard. (Sorry, Petra!) The result, as you may not have guessed, is classically tinged regal dark accordion-violin duets with beautiful vocal passages. If you listen closely, you'll even hear some Tchaikovsky in the mix. I don't think they'd ever been to Houston, but it would be ideal music for Marfreless (or whatever the hell that bar under the River Oaks 3 is called, if it's still around [Ed. Note: It's still around, I believe, but it's not quite under the RO3, just one building over.]). A dark lounge, some good cocktails, deep couches and this CD would be such a staggering perfect aggregation that I'm jealous I can't experience it right now. Anyway, further proof that sum of previous work does not predict future work, and wonderfully so. (DD/Fall 1999)
(WIN Records -- Post Box 26811, Los Angeles, CA. 90026-0811; http://www.winrecords.com/)
Mix Master Mike
Reviewing this album is kind of like being asked to review the sound of somebody flipping channels on the radio -- assuming all the stations are cool, funky hip-hop-ing shit, that is. Anti-Theft Device is genuinely all over the place, left, right, up and down; any direction you can name. It's not really so much of a coherent album, per se, as it is a recording of Mike showing off his skills, more battle sounds than anything -- and believe me, he's got serious skills (whoops, sorry -- I think I'm supposed to spell that with a "z"...). Despite his stint with the Beasties this past year, this isn't a case of undeserved hype, but rather of somebody with a hell of a lot of talent getting pushed to the forefront. Mike was already making a name for himself in underground circles alongside his Invisibl Skratch Piklz crew -- the Beasties just helped him get his vision out there to the world at large, and this album is evidence of what an amazing vision it is.
Mike cut-and-pastes sound like a true artist, splicing beats, samples, random noise and some fine scratching into a seamless, sinister-sounding, funky-as-hell set. If anybody feels like disputing whether or not it takes artistry and skill to create music out of samples, listen carefully to this and then try to argue the point. I couldn't name a single track on here if I tried, but who the fuck cares? Put this on and you'll either feel your mind expanding or your booty shaking, and both options are quite nice. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Asphodel Records -- P.O. Box 51, Chelsea Station, NY. 10113-0051)
the dream is over
Some bands are just too fucking smart for their own good -- I mean that here positively, although sometimes it's also a bad thing. MK Ultra is on their third record, which appears to have been self-released on Artichoke Records, along with their last two (at least, I've never heard of Artichoke releasing anything else), which would seem to indicate that nobody else is rushing to put them out. Their first record was an up-tempo poppy record with happy songs about John Dean, the Zodiac killer, bombing post offices and so on. Any wise person would tell you the thing to do would be either to drop the killers and sing about teddy bears (thus co-opting the sugar-pop market) or keep the dark lyrics and put on face paint and play heavy-metal (the Marilyn Manson approach). Of course, being stubborn, MK Ultra did neither. With each record, their songs have gotten a little slower, more intricate, more arranged, and less straight forwardly sensationalist.
So, the dream is over brings us to a third installment, the serial killer songs are gone, as are the pop (and I use the word loosely; they were never Unrest or anything) anthems. There's some hooky choruses here and there ("Red Cross"), and some speedy tunes ("Fortune Cookies"), but if that's what you're in for this is the wrong record. But, if you're into literate and thought-provoking lyrics, and the sound of a band finding its own identity which is now unique enough to be distinguishable without being self-consciously novel, this is in fact a record for you. I wish there were a lot of you out there, but I fear there aren't. Too damn bad, if that's the case. (DD/Fall 1999)
(Artichoke Records -- http://www.mkultra.com)
I've been trying to determine the difference between "country" and "alternative country," and I've decided that it's ultimately as vague a distinction as between "alternative" and "mainstream" (a shocking discovery, I realize). The argument of "I know it when I hear it" doesn't cut it anymore; we need quantifiable attributes, dammit, or some of us are going to start assuming that all those rock journalists who've been bandying about terms like "No Depression" and (my favorite) "y'allternative" ever since Uncle Tupelo split up (funny how the movement didn't take off until its figureheads had split up) don't know what the hell they're talking about.
Which puts the Muses in an interesting spot, jockeying for position in a race that doesn't know what the qualifiers are. Their promotion pegs them as alt-country, but all I can figure that this means is that: 1) they're an actual band instead of a solo artist performing someone else's songs with a token acoustic guitar while a backup group does the real work, 2) their sound is closer to the warm airiness of indie rock than the sterile precision of the interchangeable studio work coming out of Nashville (and Los Angeles, for God's sake) nowadays and 3) they throw in an unlisted track at the end (Garth would never stoop so low). Point well taken, but any band who occasionally echoes the Allman Brothers and namechecks easy-listening fave Michael Franks in one song (even if it's not about the Michael Franks) is going to have a hard time proving their "alternativity," no matter how ironic they think they're being (and they don't, by the way).
Of course, the Muses themselves don't care one lick about marketing or labels and just play the damn music that they want to play. With production that makes it sound like it was recorded on a good day on the second stage of a state fair country music festival, Penny's 6 tracks are filled with awkward lyricism, flat singing (though the harmonies are right on the money), loose playing and generally good intentions. I chalk it up to being a band of four guys who don't stand around and say, "Hey, we're playing country!," they just tune up and go.
Ultimately, it's the right thing to do, even if the songs aren't going to change the landscape any and, in fact, tend to go nowhere. The strongest cut, "Hit The Hill," kicks things off right and leaves the rest to flounder a bit in its wake. The Muses may fail on a few levels ("Daddy's Gone" is a particularly unimpressive but apparently obligatory gun song), but they do it their way, which takes the bite out a bit. And even though it never quite falls together, I keep on listening, hoping that maybe this time it'll happen. So even if they'd rather open up for Fastball than Alan Jackson, I'm giving the Muses a break. They've got the right (i.e., no) attitude, which will keep them far from radio but might, with any luck, get them to start making much better records real soon. (MH/Fall 1999)
(Walking Records -- 1042 Palm St., Ste. 202-A, San Luis Obispo, CA. 93401; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.walkingrecords.com)