Upon listening to this, I have to wonder why it is that one of the coolest, most beautiful pop bands in town had to burn out so damn quick -- at the time of this album's release, the band's been nonexistent for some time, with former members off doing their own various band-type things (like Ozone Park and The Drapes, for two). Thankfully, in the wake of this record's release, the folks formerly known as Schrasj have recently managed to put aside their differences and do a few reunion shows -- and hey, if we're lucky, those few shows will build up to bigger and better things.
Enough blathering about the band -- the album itself is a pretty little pop gem, with plenty of delicately-sung melodies, shimmery guitars, and songs about love & sleeping. Don't take that to mean that this is all twee harmonies and the like, though; when they get going, Schrasj rock like Velocity Girl at their best (as evidenced by the faster bits of "Unfinished"), or quietly rage right alongside folks like Mineral (take a listen to the furious ending of "Moneyshot"). Heck, some of this album is just plain funky -- "Winkle," in particular, which reminds me of nothing more than the dancier side of the Darling Buds. To top it off, the listed tracks end up with the out-of-place-but-still-cool track "Colder Than Water Ice," essentially a poem read by drummer Alexei over moody instrumental ambience (not "ambient" as in the style of music, mind you) -- and damned if it's not bad, at that.
Just so all you collector purist freaks out there know, this isn't all new stuff. Five or six of the twelve songs have appeared elsewhere, including three 7"s and a Cher Doll compilation. However, the old stuff here has been remastered, remixed, and generally prettied up, and I can definitely tell the difference, after listening to both the old and new versions. So, if there are old songs on here, well, they're still good songs, and at least they're not quite the same as the previously-released versions. In addition, there are a two extra "hidden" tracks tacked on the end ("Flips" and the Seam-meets-Simon & Garfunkel ballad "Flying"), recorded way back when with original guitarist Kyle, that've never been released anyplace before (and if they hadn't been stuck on here, they might've never seen the light of day). Put it all together, and man, this is one of the best damn indie-pop efforts I've ever heard. (JH/Spring 1999)
(76.2% Records -- 2055 Westheimer, Suite #165, Box#30, Houston, TX. 77098; email@example.com; http://fly.to/76.2/)
Here's to reinvention, and everything it brings with it. Houstonians Secret Sunday were tagged as a "Britpop" band pretty much from the word go, and not entirely unfairly - the music on their first album showed off a lot of influence by them funny-talkin' folks across the water. And on their second album, Television, the band are still paying homage somewhat to British-y pop, but they've managed to turn away from a half-hearted attempt at blending indie-rock and Oasis and slow things down and make it more majestic-sounding. This is some surprisingly impressive arena-rock, especially from a band from star-starved Houston. I don't mean "arena-rock" as in Led Zeppelin or The Who, mind you, but more along the lines of folks like Radiohead and The Verve. Singer Chris Hungate, in particular, is at times a dead ringer for that guy from the Verve, Richard whathisname. The rock gets appropriately spacey and psychedelic, even bringing to mind Spiritualized's Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space.
So, what's changed, some folks might ask? So now they sound more like the Verve than Blur, so what? Well, it's hard to put a finger on, honestly. After all, the band did make some quasi-psychedelic sounds on their last album, and I could've very well done without that. It feels like the band has grown beyond their influences, this time around, and Television as a whole just feels more genuine, in a way. The music's impeccably catchy, the lyrics are an order above most, and best of all, the psychedelic-ness doesn't sound forced or artificial. "The Tristero," the track that kicks off the album, is telling (even though it's not quite representative of most of the pop songs on here) it's a spooky collage of guitar noise and whispered female voices, and draws the listener along perfectly, until the song ends with a plaintive whisper of "I really love you. I love you." And for my money, it beats anything the Verve's ever done. (JH/Fall 1999)
(No Great Loss Records -- P.O. Box 750491, Houston, TX. 77275; http://www.secretsunday.com/)
The Hot Rock
The Hot Rock is exactly what the Go-Go's would have sounded like if they'd formed in 1992 instead of 1978. That's meant as a compliment. At their best, Sleater-Kinney explore messed-up relationships with a heartbreaking wit and a singleminded determination. They also demonstrate what would have happened if Jane Wiedlin had steadfastly refused to play sidekick to Belinda Carlisle and sang her own melody lines simultaneously with the lead.
Notice that I didn't say that Sleater-Kinney sounds like the Go-Go's. Sure, Corin Tucker's a dead ringer for Carlisle straining her voice and the entire attitude and lyrical focus is on the same sort of romantic fatalism that permeated Beauty and the Beat and Talk Show, but Sleater-Kinney has different sonic touchstones. Digging from riot grrl and avant-punk sources, The Hot Rock veers from straightforward powerchorded pop songs and chooses instead to toy with rhythm and melody. Combined with the intertwining vocals and lyrics, the music is disorienting but still anchored, barely, to normalcy, a nice echo of the record's lyrical themes.
The best songs, like "Burn, Don't Freeze," "God Is A Number" and "Living in Exile," start with spiky, angular guitar lines and jerky drums and then move into choruses that damn near float. It's like feeling a bumpy ride suddenly kick into gear at high speed. When it happens at precisely the same instant that the lyrics fully announce their intentions, as when the protagonist of "Memorize Your Lines" asks "Won't you tell me what are we fighting for?/Do you want me here, do you know for sure?," the effect is heartbreaking and sends chills down my spine every time.
Unfortunately, the keepers are just about evenly matched by the tracks that never quite make it. The uniformly excellent lyrics can't keep a few songs, such as "Banned From The End Of The World" and "A Quarter To Three," from meandering along musically and squelching the momentum that the words should have provided. And so ultimately, after countless listenings, The Hot Rock has slowly revealed itself to be one of a type of album that always embarasses me to own up to: a good album whose few sterling tracks confuse me into thinking that it's a great one. I'm glad to have it, but it just barely misses permanent rotation. (MH/Fall 1999)
(Kill Rock Stars -- 120 NE State Ave. #418, Olympia, WA. 98501)
is out to save the world.
I'll be the first to admit I've got a ton of neurotic rules governing things I think are good, particularly when it comes to music: no stupid pop-culture references; no egos; and not too much preaching, for a start. And normally, I really dislike it when bands and other artists just come right out and TELL you what the songs mean -- I mean, c'mon, where's the fun in that? I firmly believe that even if a song means one specific thing to the person who wrote it, there's no reason it can't mean a dozen different things to other people, depending on who they happen to be. When you come out and say "this song is about my parents dying," or "this song is about moving to a new town and having no friends," it takes some of the personal connection with the audience out of it, and makes it more of a one-way street than it would if left ambiguous.
The funny thing is that all of the above is what I like the most about this album. In the CD sleeve, along with the lyrics to the songs and the usual thank-yous, the three members of Sore Loser go through what each song means to them, sometimes to an astoundingly intimate degree. I think that in an indie underground filled with pop-punk/rock/emo bands doing that "melodic rock with impassioned vocals" thing, the explanations behind the songs really set them apart.
The album starts with the anthemic "Save the World," addressing the problems of punk rock rhetoric vs. actual action, and moves on through touching songs about lost loved ones ("Doctor's Office," "In Dog Years"), family ("Food Stamps," "Digging His Own Grave"), religion ("Post-Catholic Funeral" and the bopping "Stacey's An Athiest"), and all kinds of other personal topics, the band playing their hearts out with brutal honesty. And actually, honesty is what these guys seem to be all about -- most artists bare their souls to some degree, but Sore Loser take it to an extreme, and really truly let you see inside their hearts. An impressive feat, believe me. (Oh yeah, and the music does rock pretty decently, as well.) (JH/Fall 1999)
(Act Your Age! Records -- 3244 Locke Lane, Houston, TX. 77019-6208)
Sweden was already pretty high on my "Favorite Europlaces list" for its advances in the fields of pocketknives and chocolate. Now Starmarket gives me another reason to want to defect. They take the best things about hardcore, indie rock, and emo, and infuse that with a pop sensibility and melodic prowess that brings to mind the best moments of Superchunk, Sugar, and The Promise Ring. Starmarket is dynamic, powerful, intense and lyrically incisive (consequently, all the lyrics are written and sung in English). The instrumentation on Calendar is so tight, you'd think that Flemming Rasmussen produced it. Emo bands have been known to use the two guitar dynamic to its maximum efficacy; Starmarket take it to a whole 'nother level. You'll be humming along and bopping your head to this one in no time, and Starmarket will no doubt soon be drawing huge crowds on this side of the ocean as well. (MHo/Fall 1999)
(Deep Elm Records -- P.O. Box 1965, New York, NY. 10156-1965, 212-532-3337; PopVinyl@aol.com; http://www.deepelm.com/)
Holy 1979, Batman! Stretford rocks like a horn-inflected Stiff Little Fingers on speed, and singer Carl Normal sneers like Pete Shelley in his prime -- rather than copycat, though, these Austinites have created their own peculiar brand of pop-punk that brings to mind a lot of their forerunners. "Vice" cruises along nicely at a Buzzcocks-esque clip, while "Valeri" sounds more like a Troggs song as done by The Doors (and it might be a cover, I dunno). And the second song on the B-side, "I Used To Know (Spanish Version)," is sung, well, entirely in Spanish. I have no idea what he's saying, but hey, that never stopped me from singing along with The Clash... (JH/Fall 1999)
(Framed! Records -- P.O. Box 49961, Austin, TX. 78765)
Shots Heard 'Round The World
This album fucking rocks. Drawing from the Clash, the Alarm, The Jam and other punk, reggae and mod legends, The Strike take them all and make a sound completely their own. The song structures are tight and catchy, there are plenty of anthemic singalongs (especially on "Communique," probably my favorite track on the disc), and the SLF-like male /female vocal interplay between vocalist/guitarist Chris Anderson and bassist/vocalist Kris Adams makes for some really kick-ass melodies. Many of the songs also feature Kris playing tenor sax, which makes those particular tracks even more groovy. I can't say enough good about these guys (and girl), and highly recommend this to anyone, even if you don't agree with The Strike's decidedly socialist, pro-union views. They may not make you change your system of beliefs, but they'll still rock your ass. (MHo/Fall 1999)
(Victory Records -- P.O. Box 146546, Chicago, IL. 60614; http://www.victoryrecords.com)
Okay, I guess I'd better admit my prejudices up front: by and large, Mac McCaughan & co. can do no wrong by me. Most of the time, they represent just about everything I love about rock in general, and I love 'em. So take my opinions here with a grain of salt (which you should probably do anyway, just as a rule). Now that that's out of the way: this is pretty good, even by Superchunk standards. They've always been a poppy band, but over the course of the last few albums, they've been moving more and more towards the pop side of things, and this is somewhat representative of that. The A-side is catchy and mid-tempo, and Mac sings rather than yelling -- and that's fine, because the song's a good one, as is "Reg," on the flip side, a more melancholy track that's very reminiscent of parts of Here's Where the Strings Come In. Not to be a fanboy, but more than a half-dozen albums down the road, Superchunk are still one of the best out there. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Merge Records -- P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC. 27514; http://www.mrg2000.com/merge/)