All Hands on the Bad One
I have no real reason to think this, but I will arbitrarily declare Carrie Brownstein to be the brains behind Sleater-Kinney, the axis around which the band spins, based almost exclusively on the pictures in the CD booklet of All Hands On The Bad One. The guitarist maintains, in every shot, an air of mystery and rabid intelligence, like she knows more than she's telling, while looking great and appearing to be in full rock-out mode at all times. Despite Janet Weiss's commanding and deceptively subtle drumming and Corin Tucker's piercing warble, there's something about Carrie that suggests that her contributions don't stop at her helical guitar lines and a third of the songwriting. I've developed an intense crush on her, which is destined to remain unrequited.
All of which is just my way of saying that this is a band that provokes strong personal reactions, and albums like All Hands are precisely what fuels the fire. When Tucker blithely turns her back on "girls who are soft for boys who are fearful of getting an earful," we who are not those girls or those boys know that we've made the right choice in putting our musical faith in this bassless trio. I almost always ignore record label copy, but the Kill Rock Stars mini-catalog insert packaged with All Hands nails it when it refers to Sleater-Kinney as "pure firegirl punk." With a respectful eyebrow raise at that last word (the punk spirit's still there, but the sound has mostly moved on), I couldn't come up with a better description myself. When the laser hits the CD, it all but ionizes the air around the speakers.
Despite the relatively low-key hum with which "The Ballad of a Ladyman" kicks things off, it's evident that last year's more reflective The Hot Rock was more of a departure for Sleater-Kinney than a transition, since All Hands hearkens back to the headlong drive of 1997's Dig Me Out in both sound and topic. There's a much deeper maturity here, though, which is surprising only because the usual formula is inverted: All Hands is a celebration (typically more evident of youthful abandon), where The Hot Rock was more of a lament (the usual path of growth and wisdom). Even more astoundingly, a good chunk of the album is dedicated to the glories and pitfalls of rock 'n' roll (always a difficult topic to handle gracefully), and Sleater-Kinney treat it with dignity and respect (if not adulation and awe) without falling into the same trap as the target of "You're No Rock n' Roll Fun," who by elevating it to "a piece of art that nobody can touch" misses the point completely and in fact serves the opposite purpose of diminishing it. If you don't believe such a thing is possible, compare the Nuggets box with, say, Yesyears.
If Sleater-Kinney desperately love the music, they're also keenly aware of the culture that surrounds it and the damage it can do. For them, rock 'n' roll is a life-and-death issue that can corrupt those who would save it ("You're No Rock n' Roll Fun"), simultaneously unify and divide its followers ("#1 Must Have," which is to riot grrls what the movie Hype! was to grunge), turn the world against you ("The Professional") and pretty much save your soul if you'll let it ("All Hands On The Bad One," "The Ballad Of A Ladyman," and just about everything else, actually). If you want a simpler statement of purpose for staying true to your muse than "The Ballad of a Ladyman," you'll have to go back to Dig Me Out's "Words and Guitar." If you're looking for a more articulate one, good luck.
As the band's lyrics become deeper and more complex, the music expands its reach as well, starting with the powerfully clear production by John Goodmanson (who also manned Dig Me Out). Weiss is the obvious beneficiary here, with her drums hitting harder than before (a plus, since Sleater-Kinney's one of the few bands unafraid to find rhythmic, not just melodic, hooks) while she demonstrates astonishing versatility and creativity; check out how she propels the ping-pong riff of "All Hands On the Bad One," instead of just supporting it. The sonic clarity benefits the guitars as well, with Brownstein's lead lines spiraling around Tucker's rumbling rhythm. Each guitar complements the other by carving out a totally distinctive voice that not only adds color and variation but takes the increasingly rare tactic of providing its own perspective on the song.
The intricacy of the guitars is mirrored in the vocals of the women who wield them. Tucker is the main singer, but Brownstein's secondary vocals are just as important in fleshing out the details of the songs. She is another voice in every sense of the word, and each singer inhabits her own space and fulfills a unique purpose despite occasionally coming in at the same time. They've pulled back a bit from before (simultaneous cross-vocals were all over The Hot Rock), but it's still effective, sort of like the conversation you're trying to have being nudged aside by the nagging thought in the back of your head. Both singers are more expressive and nuanced than they've been in the past (when it was sufficient for Tucker to blast her way through and for Brownstein to be more conversational by contrast), and the addition of Weiss as a third, more traditional backing voice widens the band's grasp as well.
The result of all of the above is that Sleater-Kinney's strengths intersect with alarming frequency. What they've added, I think, is clarity of vision. As Brownstein sings "You can't get to heaven with a three-chord song/they called you a sinner but the people want to sing along" in the rock-n-roll-as-revival-meeting title track, there's a whole world of hypocrisy, irony, temptation, human frailty, beauty and truth riding on those words as her guitar snakes its way around the rest of the band. Even the less straightforward tunes, like the fierce and angular "Ironclad" and the sad and jittery "Was It A Lie?," veer off for distinct reasons, rather than just displaying quirk for quirk's sake. Underneath it all, though, is the fact that Sleater-Kinney sounds as though there is nothing else in the world that they would rather be doing at this precise instant than playing these songs. They culminate in some great rockandroll moments, like the gorgeous harmony towards the end of "Milkshake n' Honey," the bassy tremble of Tucker's guitar coming in after Brownstein's marvelous "You're No Rock n' Roll Fun" solo and the sweet and perfect glockenspiel during the bridge of "Leave You Behind." The latter is quite possibly the loveliest thing Sleater-Kinney has ever done, a heartbreaking pop song about the last moments before the end of a relationship encoded with simple and intricate dual guitar lines that lasts 3:27. It is a perfect single.
If this album has a weakness, it's probably the fact that most of these tracks leave me so overstimulated that a few of them, like the closing pair of "Pompeii" and "The Swimmer," haven't managed to make much of an impression on me in the dozen or so times I've listened to it. To hell with it. All Hands On The Bad One is at least as good as Dig Me Out and at least as good as The Hot Rock, which means that for the second year in a row, my summer will sound, in large part, like Sleater-Kinney. This band can't possibly get any better. Can it? (MH)
(Kill Rock Stars -- 120 NE State Ave. #418, Olympia, WA. 98501; http://www.killrockstars.com/)
Designs for Automation
If you're into modern hardcore, chances are you like Snapcase. Rightfully so, 'cause they rock, consistently, on every album, at every show, and this album is no different in that respect, at least. What is different, however, is the more Fugazi-esque sound that Snapcase seem to be leaning towards on this disc (from what I understand, the Deftones do the same thing on their recent White Pony album). It's still hardcore, just more interesting, and that's something the genre needs right now. On Designs, Snapcase combines their trademark aural assault with some neat use of ambient guitar, dead space, and texturizing. Not to worry if you're a fan of the old stuff, though -- this is just a a step forward, not a total reinvention, so all the good old stuff is still there. In fact, with tracks like "Ambition" (the best song on the album, I think), I believe that Snapcase's new approach might be considered by some to be more post-hardcore than hardcore. Semantics. Just put it on and enjoy. (MHo)
(Victory Records -- P.O. Box 146546, Chicago, IL. 60614; http://www.victoryrecords.com/)
Welcome back to Snuff after a hiatus of several years; it seems they quit just when they were getting interesting, but being around for 13+ years can probably get a bit wearing in some ways... Well, dry your tears, 'cause Snuff is Snuff. They are back, hiding in Bob Mould's backyard, next door to some local dance hall that specializes in ska-punk (skunk? spunk?).
This is a collection of interesting songs that have quite nice melodies, but you have to sort of look for them, as they are hidden in a bit of a muddy vocal production; probably just the way they wanted them to be. Repeated listening is therefore advised. My guess is that this recording gets better and better with more listening and analysis, which, for my money, is the mark of a really good band. Pop melodies, doo-wop backing vocals, ska horns and a Hammond just shouldn't sound this cool together!
My only complaint here is that the vocals are mixed so far back. I know this is the current trend for bands that are trying to be relevant but the whole idea seems to be lost on me. The great melodies and lines are lost, and sometimes no matter how hard I listen to this recording I can't understand the lyrics and I just get annoyed and stop trying. I'm pretty sure the idea of this recording is NOT to have this response -- and if they want to be such enigmatic "arteests," then why do they bother to print the lyrics on the insert? Oh well, otherwise this is a very good recording with exceptional songs and melodies. Very good depth and a willingness to bend genres and use whatever seem to work without losing the bands identity (no easy trick). Hmm...I think I'll explore Snuff's catalog and get some of the earlier, grittier stuff, too. This is highly recommended; it's got the meatiness of an unknown classic that you would enjoy giving to friends. (And Snuff just finished a U.S. tour with no dates in Texas! Damn.) (BW)
(Fat Wreck Chords -- P.O. Box 193690, San Francisco, CA. 94119; http://www.fatwreck.com/)
The Mean Streets of Goleta
Punk that reminds me of Lifetime at times and Strung Out at others. Nothing insanely original or anything, but it's not bad, nonetheless. Some of the musicianship is impressive, especially for these young bucks. I think my favorite track on this has to be "Mom," cause it's so darn cute: "She's got more tattoos than all my friends combined/and all the vinyl records I can't find/She was around in '77 and around in '84/All my friends say for a mom/She's pretty hardcore." This EP is basically an introductory disc for the band, so let's hope that their full length due later this year will take their talent and expand upon it. And more on the saga of the hardcore mom, please. (MHo)
(Lobster Records -- P.O. Box 1473, Santa Barbara, CA. 93102; http://www.lobsterrecords.com/)
Truth Through Defiance
It's becoming increasingly more difficult to find good straightedge hardcore these days. It seems to all be either bad metal or fratboy posturing made by "disenfranchised" suburban white kids with trust funds. Fortunately, Strife is still making quality sXe hardcore that rocks without being redundant or boneheaded. The musicianship is tight, the lyrical delivery is intelligent and intelligible, and the whole damn thing flat out rocks. Somehow, on this collection of Strife's unreleased and rare recordings, the band has managed to perform a difficult task. The energy and intensity of their live show actually comes through on the disk, due in part to the fact that some of the tracks are live cuts. The CD only loses its steam on the last three tracks ("What Will Remain," "Inner Struggle," and "Question Mark"), which suffer mostly from bad mixing. They're still better than most of the crap that's out there right now, though. (MHo)
(Victory Records -- P.O. Box 146546, Chicago, IL. 60614; http://www.victoryrecords.com/)
The Suicide Machines
The Suicide Machines is not a good album. I want to make that perfectly clear right from the start. It is gimmicky, hollow and smug. I was tricked into buying it by a misguided and rapturous review which likened the Suicide Machines to a modern-day Wonders (of That Thing You Do! fame), and I feel used and lied to. The band is actually more like what Fountains of Wayne would be without a melodic sense or romantic streak or clear identity. They try to grab the listener's attention any way they can (within the hardcore-emo-punk-pop-ska spectrum) by creating the empty illusion that something good is bound to show up at any moment.
I can barely count the number of cheap tactics that the band uses to get our attention. These include: a love song to their dog (a ploy used to infinitely better affect by Paul McCartney, who at least had the decency not to give the joke away in the end); an ugly, ugly tune with a backing scream-along chorus of "fuck you!" (just the thing to put this on permanent kegger rotation at frathouses everywhere); and, most despicable of all, a cheap and entirely misguided cover of an ironically unhip song. Limp Bizkit did the exact same thing with their execrable take on "Faith," and the Suicide Machine's runthrough of "I Never Promised You A Rose Garden" (complete with a pointless and misused string section) begs the same question: why bother wasting your time and energy (and the patience of anyone listening) on a song that you obviously don't even like?
There are no answers, of course, because the Suicide Machines haven't thought that far ahead. Their problem is that they don't know what to do with the attention they desperately crave once they've got it, nor do I think they even care. Just as I have a general rule that a good album can withstand a handful of so-so cuts, I suppose that I'll accept the reverse and state that, although I have no desire to wade through the dreck to find them again, there are surely a few listenable tunes on here. That doesn't mean that The Suicide Machines isn't lousy, though. Its best tracks would be the worst ones present on any halfway decent album. Here, all they do is just break the mood and let the listener catch his or her breath until the next truly awful song. (MH)
Where You Are Now
The cover of this album features a still from the Japanese film Spin Cycle: a provocative, moodily-illuminated shot of a man and woman about to kiss. This EP is the musical embodiment of that still (and most beautifully-lensed Eastern films) -- complex, yet aesthetically pleasing mellow rock from somewhere to the softer side of Braid, yet paired with pop sensibilities and a bit of abrasiveness to make it interesting. These are the kinds of songs that you listen to when you're hopelessly in love with someone and in that state of confused euphoria. Maybe you don't know what to do, or how to get that person to sit up and notice you? Well, look no further for answers, just get them a copy of this EP, and I'm sure they'll figure out the rest. (MHo)
(Crank! Records -- 1223 Wilshire Blvd. #823, Santa Monica, CA. 90403-5400; http://www.crankthis.com/)
Almost like clockwork throughout the '90s, Matthew Sweet has released a new album every two years. With the arrival of 1999's In Reverse (which was a little late but still hit the mark), I'm forced once again to rethink my previously iron-clad beliefs on what makes a great Sweet record (keep in mind that I said "great," not "good"; the guy's constitutionally incapable of making a bad album). In the interest of finally formulating some sort of Grand Unified Matthew Sweet Theory (in which I'm disregarding 1994's Son Of Altered Beast because it's only an EP and...um...well, I just am), I have considered the following:
Postulate #1: Concept albums rule. Analysis: Probably not. Despite a few threads holding each of his albums together (some more than others), the closest Sweet has come to an honest-to-God concept album was Altered Beast, with most of the songs in some way about personal transformation (come to think of it, that's a recurring theme throughout his career; this is a guy who treats "Superdeformed" as his de facto theme song). In Reverse has all the earmarks of a concept album, what with its upside-down graphics, songs that bleed into each other pauselessly and a booklet that takes the title literally. The songs, though, don't really bear this out; sure, a few cuts seem to unravel and there are a few echoes of topsy-turvydom and loss, but there's no particular lyrical theme or unity to the proceedings; you could mix & match these songs with cuts from, say, 100% Fun and the album still holds.
Postulate #2: New producer = better album. Analysis: Inconclusive. Most of Sweet's better albums jettison the knob-twiddler of the previous one. 1997's Blue Sky On Mars, Sweet's least great album of the '90s, was his second collaboration with Brendan O'Brien, the first of which resulted in 1995's nifty 100% Fun. On the other hand, Fred Maher, one of In Reverse's several producers, was responsible for the spectacular Girlfriend, which was even then his second time behind the boards. In Reverse sounds great, with a strange (but intriguing) ping-ponging between high and trebly guitar raveups (like the disturbing "Split Personality," wherein he declares "It's time I get a piece of your mind" as though he's just clawed his way out of his "Superdeformed" cage, and "What Matters," which seems to have had the entire bottom end filtered out) to massive Spectorian pop operas such as "Worse To Live," which coasts on the mantra "If it's worse to live than to let go/You've got to let me know" as the inevitable Abbey Road harmonies slowly drown everything else. The result is a series of dynamic shifts that keeps things from humming along at a static level for the duration.
Postulate #3: Album length is inversely proportional to album quality. Analysis: Promising, with one exception. Although Girlfriend is widely regarded as his best work, I've always considered the slightly briefer Beast the better album, if only because the few lesser songs are all clumped towards the end (rather than distributed throughout), generating a longer sustained buzz. Otherwise, this holds, with In Reverse falling just below Girlfriend in the canon. It's certainly better than the pleasant but insubstantial (and shorter) Blue Sky, though it's infinitely harder to hum. Stretching out befits the guy, an oddity in pop music. Corollary: Interestingly, the above may hold promise for individual songs. The two best songs on Girlfriend, "Divine Intervention" and "You Don't Love Me," run over 5 minutes, and the length of the average song diminishes on each successive album in astonishing parallel with the album's quality. This means that In Reverse's closer, the nearly 10-minute "Thunderstorm" (which sounds like Neutral Milk Hotel tearing through "A Quick One While He's Away"), should be his best song ever. It's not, but it's pretty damn great nonetheless.
Postulate #4: Nothing beats the '60s. Analysis: God, I hope not. Sweet's main obsessions (the Beatles & Neil Young) still pop up in tandem with groovy-man touches like harpsichords, and there's a new focus on some more obscure Mod sources here (dig the buzzing, Creation-like "Faith In You"). And I'll grant you that the result's more diverting than his more recent forays into alt-rock and grunge-lite (which I'll blame on O'Brien and call it a day). But I don't know if this is really something that I want to encourage, so I'll move on.
Postulate #5: Guitar heroes save the day. Analysis: Close, very close. Part of the fun of Sweet's work has always been hearing folks like Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine tear their way through unabashed pop songs and temper the cloyingness with which Sweet flirts (but never quite gets it on with). That's another reason Blue Sky was a bit of a bummer: Sweet opted to do it all himself rather than farm the solos out. In Reverse doesn't resurrect Lloyd or Quine, but new guy Pete Phillips gives it all he's got, and if he doesn't quite stun or surprise, he gets the attitude down. Give this guy another album and he just might live up to the big shoes he's trying to fill.
Postulate #6: Sweet has a direct link into my internal state and can only reflect the way my life is headed. Analysis: Bullseye. For the past decade, each of Sweet's albums has effectively acted as a signpost for my inner psychology. When I entered the new, exciting and occasionally scary world of college, the new, exciting and occasionally scary Girlfriend was there; two years later, the driven but wary and antipathetic Altered Beast came along as I'd settled in and started figuring out who I am and what I'm capable of. The zippy and almost totally ballad-free 100% Fun appeared just as I briefly had pretty much everything I needed out of life, but it couldn't last; I was floundering and stateless just in time for Sweet to disgorge Blue Sky, both of us content to tread water and mark time. And now I'm at a point where I haven't reached any major epiphanies yet, but I'm confident that I'll get wherever it is that I'm going, and I'm comfortable with the road ahead, long and bumpy though it may be. And at precisely this moment comes In Reverse, which is relaxed but not complacent and forward-looking but not presumptive. I should count myself lucky that Matthew Sweet can articulate the moments of my life in a batch of perfect pop songs without me having to do much more than drive to the record store. But maybe I'll watch my back in the parking lot. (MH)