Joel R. Phelps and The Downer Trio
"I can feel my heart and it's breaking ..." -- Silkworm, "Three Beatings"
"Pretty little landslide down to my heart ..." -- Joel R.L. Phelps, "Landslide"
"All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to be free ..." -- Beatles, "Blackbird"
So probably everybody knows this, and if you do, you can skip this paragraph: Joel Phelps used to be 1/4th of Silkworm (measured strictly by number of individuals; measuring by songwriters essentially raises the ratio to 1/3rd, on a strict quantitative level, while any qualitative measurement would raise his contribution higher), until their record Libertine, at which point he left to pursue a solo career, while Silkworm pursued their apparent dream of channeling '70s rock bands (pick up Blueblood if you want evidence of their ability to succeed in this rather dubious endeavor; to be fair, some of their other post-Joel material on Firewater and Developer is quite good and sometimes great, and their newest songs, yet to be released, show a return to form on a first impression).
Phelps's first solo releases can easily be heard as reactions to his tenure in Silkworm. After having penned such noisy cathartic rock songs as "Three Beatings," his first record, Warm Springs Night, contained only a token (and almost wholly out of place) hard rock song, while subsequent releases experimented with other instrumentation (the first EP with the Downer Trio), then settled into a Harvest-era Neil Young acoustic mode (on 3). Which is not to imply that any of the above are somehow horribly deficient (they're all, in fact, good records, and 3 has a quietly emotional greatness of its own), but what they lack is any sign that Phelps would ever return to the rock idiom which he had used to craft some timeless songs in Silkworm.
So opening Blackbird with three consecutive hard, heavy songs can be seen as a statement of purpose; that after a time of exploring other sounds at the expense of rock, Phelps is ready to work over a canvas that includes the hardest of rock and the softest of acoustic sounds. (Again, a Neil Young comparison seems apt.) Or maybe he just liked the way it sounded, and I'm reading too much into it. Either way, it works.
I could point to virtually every song on Blackbird as a high point; it's certainly Phelps's best and most assured work to date. But the first and last songs stand out as signposts. "Then Slowly Turn" is the sort of song almost every record is the better for opening with -- short, furious, memorable, and great. But for me the best song on the record is the last track, "Landslide." A six minute long slow epic that builds from minimal sounds to sweeping sadness, it's probably (from an arrangement perspective) Phelps's most ambitious song in memory, and easily as emotionally powerful as his early Silkworm work while attaining a maturity that work never could have reached. Blackbird is a record of an already great songwriter demonstrating new powers, and I can't wait to see how he uses them next. (DD)
(Pacifico Recordings -- 1916 Pike Place #12-370, Seattle, WA. 98101; http://www.pacificorecs.com/)
Planes Mistaken For Stars
Knife In The Marathon
Another EP of churning, badass, screamo-core from Denver's Planes Mistaken For Stars. To me they're still what half of Texas is the Reason would sound like with half of Hot Water Music all doused in gasoline and set on fire. This is tortured, frenetic (sometimes insanely so) post-hardcore with shimmering melodies delivered with gut wrenching emotion, which is then all mixed down so well that you can actually distinguish everything from everything else. On music like this that is simultaneously intricate and loud, it's a definite task to keep everything separate enough to not sound like mush, but enough of a conglomeration to make it a cohesive whole -- kudos to the engineer for succeeding. The only downside is that the EP is only 20 minutes long; the upside of that is that the feeling will stay with you long after it's over. (MHo)
(Deep Elm Records -- P.O. Box 36939, Charlotte, NC. 28236; http://www.deepelm.com/)
If anybody deserves a medal purely for persistence, it's Urbana's Poster Children. These folks have been slugging it out for a full ten years now, resolutely staying true to their D.I.Y. ethics and keeping firmly in the underground -- something they touch on on "Zero Stars," partway through DDD, the latest in a long line of damn good albums (they've almost released one a year, for crying out loud, something close to unheard of in the music world today). They're funny, smart, sarcastic, and creative as all hell, bending and breaking music-business rules at will. They're probably one of very few "underground" bands to regularly put out enhanced CDs, even programming the enhanced part of 1997's RTFM themselves, and I'd bet DDD itself is a pain in the ass for record stores, since the PC crew decided it'd be fun to make the back of the CD the cover and put the track listing on the front. They also happened to be one of the first-ever bands to realize the possibilities of the Web, putting tour diaries online since way back in '95 and using their site as a real contact point for their fans.
DDD doesn't seem like a big departure for the Children, at first glance. The anti-commercial sentiments are still there ("Perfect Product" and the trend-smashing anthem "The Old School And The New"), they still play loud punk shout-alongs (see opener "This Town Needs A Fire" for that), and they still sing about being a kid (see "Daisy Changed"). But they've got a lot more going on, once you've scratched the surface. Some traces of the band's Salaryman side project creep in, particularly in the robotic funk of "The Old School And The New" and "Silhouette," and the band even veers near to math-rock with the stuttering guitars and drums of their "Judge Freeball" instrumental.
The album starts with a real burner, the aforementioned "This Town Needs A Fire," but shifts gears almost immediately for "Strange Attractors," a shimmery psychedelic pop gem that wouldn't sound too out-of-place on a My Bloody Valentine album. They follow up with "Daisy Changed," a warning about being stuck in a high school mindset for far too long, and it becomes pretty apparent that the Poster Children aren't quite ready to rehash their old stuff just yet. In fact, "Daisy Changed" could almost be a metaphor for the album as a whole -- the title sounds like a nod back to their second album, Daisy Chain Reaction, but the music is much more mature and interesting, all anchored by a funky synth-sounding bass; not much punk rock here, and that's actually not a bad thing.
I have a feeling these folks are in it for the long haul, and they'll keep making records for years and years to come, not giving a damn whether anybody's listening -- we are listening, though, and some of us, at least, will keep on listening. (JH)
(spinART Records -- P.O. Box 1798, New York, NY. 10156; spinART@flashcom.net; http://www.spinartrecords.com/)