The Alkaline Trio
Maybe I'll Catch Fire
To paraphrase Henry Rollins: "Rock rock baby rock, yeah!" And rock is exactly what this is, yeah, but what kind? Indie-rock? Post-punk? Modern rock? Emo? Hell, I don't know, and more to the point, I don't care. Maybe I'll Catch Fire is just flat-out a great rock album. In fact, it rides the line between "alternative rock" and "indie-rock" so closely that it rubs it out completely. It wouldn't surprise me a bit to hear this sometime on the local "alternative" station -- and don't take that as a slam, because every song on here could kick the hell out of almost any Blink-182, Creed, or Bush song you can name. It's that sound, the roar of catchy, heartfelt pop songs gone distorted, pioneered by folks like Hüsker Dü back in the early days of pop-punk and left relatively unchanged since. "Tuck Me In" wouldn't have sounded too far off on Warehouse, and neither would the brilliantly blunt "Fuck You Aurora," "5-3-10-4," or a half-dozen other tracks on here.
So, now you've got the sound pegged; so what's the difference here? Taste is a subjective thing, it's true, so take this with a grain of salt: to my picky-ass ears, there's something truer about The Alkaline Trio than your average Buzz Band. How else can I explain it? I suppose it all boils down to better songwriting; the songs here are complex, well-written stories, carefully woven into melodies and played with intelligence, passion and a heck of a lot of loud guitars. I dare anybody to pick apart the lyrics to "Keep 'Em Coming," the first blast of full-speed poetry on here, or the quietly angry closer "Radio," and see how they stack up next to the latest Bush song -- the exercise will prove my point better than I ever could in words. (JH)
(Asian Man Records -- P.O. Box 35585, Monte Soreno, CA. 95030; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.asianmanrecords.com/)
I've known Thane Matcek, the main guy behind All Transistor, for a few years now, and he's a great guy, but every time I talk to him, I get the feeling that he's not quite there. It's not super-obvious -- he doesn't talk to invisible people or twitch or scream profanity or anything like that, but he's always got this manic gleam in his eye, and even though he's always intently trying to explain something to me, I sometimes can't understand what the heck he's talking about. My fault, maybe, but it feels more like he communicates with the world in a different way than I do; the experience is usually very strange, yet extremely entertaining. Parts is that way, too; it's a weird collection of scraps and pieces of music, sometimes coalescing into full-fledged "songs" and sometimes not, but all somewhere on the edge between really, really inspired and just plain freaky.
At their better moments, All Transistor are a fine indie-rock band, with plenty of hummable melodies, oblique lyrics, and full-on guitar, balanced by odd dissonance and general quirkiness -- see "Phil Hartman," "Take," "Money," "Dry Run Through," and "Aquarium" (one of my personal favorites) for four examples. All the best stuff on Parts blends Spoon-esque indie-rock strangeness with Wolfie's coolest pop melodies, and patches them together so loosely it all feels effortless. The lone exception to that formula is "Chickenhead," a beautiful, rough-voiced tune that Tom Waits would be proud to sing, and one that provides a nice glimpse at Matcek's less manic, more melancholy side.
On the other end of things, you've got "Byshardme," which sounds like the start of a promising rock song but cuts out just when it's getting good, the pseudo-joke country of "Steam Ahead" and "Kentucky" (the latter of which was apparently written pretty much on a dare), and the studio messing-around of "Bright, Quick Moving." Not to say those tracks are bad; there's a lot of cool stuff going on, but they just don't feel "done," like some of Guided By Voices' not-as-good songs. If these folks can stay focused and keep on the track they're riding, I think their next effort is going to be one absolutely amazing album. (JH)
(Ojet Records -- 2055 Westheimer #168, Houston, TX. 77098; http://www.ojet.com/)
Designing A Nervous Breakdown
Damn, I hate that. You ever hear a song and swear you've heard something very much like it before, but can't figure out where, even after ransacking your CD collection for those bands whose albums you heard only once? It's like the aural equivalent of deja vu, I suppose, and that's what's going on here, for me; The Anniversary sound so incredibly familiar, so catchy and powerful, that I'd swear I've heard the music before. Of course, pieces of Breakdown remind me of other folks -- the pseudo-tuneful shout-singing is Modest Mouse all the way, except that it's married to the skewed indie-rock-isms of Braid and the Chicago indie-crowd (the Poster Children, in particular) and heavily dosed with Rentals-/Stereolab-ish Moog embellishments. The end result is pretty near to incredible, the coolest rock this side of Superchunk's latest. From the teenage love anthem of "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" through to the dirge-y "Outro In No Minor," the songs all manage to be both defiant and fierce, and yet still melancholy and resigned, somehow. After the CD finishes, I feel like I just went on the last bizarre roadtrip of my college days, when I know it may be a very long time 'til we all meet again; we're all looking forward, but still trying to hold onto the memories we shared for one last glorious ride. (JH)
(Heroes & Villains/Vagrant Records -- PMB 361, 2118 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, CA. 90403; http://www.vagrant.net/)
When The Pawn Hits The Conflicts He Thinks Like A King What He Knows Throws The Blows When He Goes To The Fight And He'll Win The Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters The Ring There's No Body To Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand And Remember That Depth Is The Greatest Of Heights And If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where To Land And If You Fall It Won't Matter Cuz You'll Know That You're Right
The most remarkable thing about Fiona Apple's latest, verbosely-titled album isn't the speed at which she engendered such a remarkable maturity (after all, Joni Mitchell blossomed from pretty good folkie to peerless soul-drenching singer-songwriter in the course of three years, the same amount of time between Tidal and this CD), it's the age at which Apple has achieved it. Making her name with an album that had more going for it than against it (but was hardly the masterpiece some folks claimed) at an age when Christina Aguilera just wants to tell us what a girl wants, Fiona Apple had all the earmarks of too-much-too-soon, with a dash of high school lit-mag thrown in.
It's that last bit that had folks like me worried, and choosing a now-famously long title for her follow up album didn't exactly rid Apple of the stench of overweening pretension (nor did highly-publicized meltdowns and pouting fits). But I'll come right out and admit it: I blinked first. The 8-line poem of a title (which certainly beats anything Jewel's ever written, hands down) makes perfect sense to me, coming off as something of a cracked mission statement that seems completely loopy on first glance but crystallizes on closer inspection into a display of remarkable confidence and focus. The whole album falls into place from there, starting with the bass-heavy gallop of "On The Bound" (the only track that sounds even remotely like anything in producer Jon Brion's past) and carrying through to the serene and understanding (and cautiously optimistic!) closer "I Know" with not a single bad song in between.
More than anything, it seems that Fiona's been strengthened by finding her voice in both senses of the term. I was no big fan of her version of "Across The Universe" from last year (I'm too wedded to the original), but hearing it now, as a stepping stone from the sub-Toriisms of Tidal to the post-Joni wonderland of When The Pawn Hits The Conflicts He Thinks Like A King (my preferred shortening of the title), it makes perfect sense. It takes a degree of confidence to take on any Beatles song at all, but latching onto one that would be recognized primarily by avid Beatlefans demands a steadfast determination and a willingness to take lumps both merited and not. Instrumentally, Apple didn't do much more than add atmosphere (the song's really too simple to withstand much messing around without falling apart), but her vocals added a new jazz influence, playing around with the melody and the rhythm.
When The Pawn Hits The Conflicts He Thinks Like A King takes that as a launching pad and adds to it a musical and lyrical complexity to match. That "Fast As You Can" was released as the heraldic single from the album is shocking, considering that the drums skitter along so quickly that the rest of the band has to strain to play catch-up (which is why Apple added the midsection tempo changeup, to give everybody a chance to breathe before taking off like a shot again) while Apple curls her lyrics (warning a potential beau away from the nutcase that is she) around a vocal line that seems to unravel more and more with each successive verse; she might as well be scatting her repetition of the word "again" in the final verse. That the emasculating and fierce "Limp" was released as the second single I chalk up to someone at Sony hoping to grab listeners by shocking them with a graphic image (an increasingly common, and depressing, tactic these days), as well as the fact that it may well be the track that sounds the least musically out of place on the radio.
I probably shouldn't be so cynical, though, since Apple's muses may not have given her label many options (the album's opening song has a chorus that declares "You're all I need" while the singer sounds tormented beyond belief just by making such an admission). The second best song on the album is the playful "Paper Bag," in which Apple's jazz-inflected vocals register disappointment in finding out that some things in life (and some people) aren't nearly as deep as they first appear ("I was staring at the sky, just looking for a star... I thought he was a man but he was just a little boy"). The best song is "Get Gone," about the aftermath of heartbreak and a song that focuses primarily (but by no means exclusively) on the internal workings of the narrator rather than the rat-bastardness of the antagonist (unlike, say, "You Oughtta Know"). The music starts out delicate, with Apple's piano eking out a simple and effective figure that sets the tone without calling attention to itself, and then builds in intensity as she tries to make sense of the roiling emotions let loose by the realization that the romance in question was not nearly as important to the other person. When she tosses off, almost resignedly, "fuckin' go" before the second prechorus, it's provoked not by anger but by dismissal, and it gains so much weight from everything that happens just before it and everything that immediately follows that these two little words become the pivot around which the whole album spins.
If Apple still invites naysayers in and delivers them handwrapped presents, she's much more inured to it; she may be spitting the line "You fondle my trigger, then you blame my gun" as much at her critics as at an ex-lover. Then again, considering her own tendency to provoke negative responses, she herself may be the target of her own vitriol, but it ultimately doesn't matter. She may still be a half-cocked lit fuse (a mixed metaphor, but an apt one), but the lyrics and performances on this album bespeak a woman now graduated from her teenage years (even if only barely), fresh from being burned but now mature enough to place it into a greater context. Behind the title poem, Apple is smiling on the cover, and she has absolutely earned it. Tidal told us what Fiona Apple could do. When The Pawn Hits The Conflicts He Thinks Like A King does it. (MH)
(Clean Slate/Epic Records)
The Appleseed Cast
In one of my junior years of college, an English prof asked the class what was the greatest work of literature, for all time. Myself, and a few others, volunteered the King James Version of the Bible, but we were overruled by the surly prof in favor of Moby Dick. Now, of the two, I have only read one cover to cover...and it was not Moby Dick. Herman Melville's great novel of the sea is something I have only experienced in excerpts, but it seems to me that it serves us best now as shorthand for capital-O Obsession, and in a larger sense, as a metaphor for the pursuit of artistic greatness. I imagine that this book, and assorted other 20-pound novels, is what people think of when they consider greatness in literature. All works of art are evaluated similarly, when it comes their turn for canonization. How impressive would a diminutive David be? Or a 90-minute Godfather?
And why on earth would the foregoing paragraph be an opening for my brief review of The Appleseed Cast and their 2nd Deep Elm full-length, Mare Vitalis? Because I want to believe that there is a sane reason why a landlocked emo band from Lawrence, Kansas, would record an hour-long concept album about the Sea. Like too many bands already, Appleseed Cast choose to work in the belly of the rock's current Moby Dick -- Radiohead's OK Computer. Yeah, the subject matter is strictly American emo, what with the "hallowed breezes through your hair" of the disc's fourth track, "Forever Longing the Golden Sunsets," but the sound is all Computer. Or, more precisely, RadioChunk. And that's not a bad thing. This is not a bad record; it's really damn good, actually.
But, like the Android says, ambition makes you look pretty ugly...especially when you title your album and two of your songs in Latin. Yes, Latin is cool, but the first rule of any artist is to use your powers for good. You want to title your record "Sea of Life" or "the Living Sea?" Fine, then use English. It's good enough for Dirty Three, god bless 'em. And the opening track, with its relatively sweet lyrical restraint, should not have a title that undoes it, as "The Immortal Soul of Mundi Cani," surely manages to do.
Aside from a bad case of the Billy Corgans, this is a fine band. Guitarist and vocalists Christopher Crisci and Aaron Piller work well together, neither one overtaking the other, and sounding appropriately shimmering and melodic for the duration. Along with the bassist Marc Young and Josh Baruth, they create speaker-shaking, high-end and decidedly un-precious emo rock, or post-core or whatever. I did not once get tired of it; maybe that has something to do with Ed Rose, who recorded this album at Red House in Kansas, and who has produced fellow monsters of emo, the Get Up Kids. (I think he also did some board work for fellow Kansans and former Merge act Butterglory.) The Appleseed Cast are a wholly decent bunch, and they're supposedly a big emo band. Yeah, they're pretentious as hell, and their songs are too long, and this may be the first concept album based on a Christopher Cross hit. But if you can recognize these aspects of the recording as being fairly minor obstacles, then you'll have a disc chock full of autumn-lovin', saltwater depression. Drink up. (MP)
(Deep Elm Records -- P.O. Box 36939, Charlotte, NC. 28236; email@example.com; http://www.deepelm.com/)
At The Drive-In
Well, I hate to say it, but sometimes the hype ain't all it's cracked up to be. From what I'd heard about these guys before listening to the CD, I was expecting something that'd knock me off my feet and leave me stunned for a couple of days, at the very least. Unfortunately, while Vaya is pretty damn good, it's no rewrite of musical history. The music's interesting, in a sort of Fugazi-gone-pop sort of fashion (although that may be just the bass sound, more than anything else), but the songs all tend to blend into one another, with the spacey tension of "Proxima Centauri" and the quiet, pained intro to "198d" providing the only real "breaks," sound-wise. On top of that, the vocals just don't do it for me, I'm afraid -- the easy comparison is to Rage Against The Machine's Zach de la Rocha, but that's just the delivery, and it's not even necessarily a BAD comparison; the problem is that that style of singing just doesn't fit all that well here, to my ears. Dunno, maybe I need to listen to it another dozen or so times to really get it... At any rate, to sum up: good, yes; indie-rock's long-awaited Second Coming, no. But hey, I've been told you really have to see the band live to get the full effect... (JH)
(Fearless Records -- 13772 Goldenwest St. #545, Westminster, CA. 92683; http://www.fearlessrecords.com/)