Mad Trucker Gone Mad
Madison, Wisconsin-based Mad Trucker Gone Mad live up to their psycho-billy name. They blend the very best of country, punk, and rock to create a sound that's all their own. The opening track, "Love is Pain" could belong on any "Truckin' Love" comp, and tunes like "I love you", and "I wanna F*CK" could be found on any punk rock love comp -- these guys use the best elements of each genre at just the right time, and mix it all up better than you could expect. If you are a fan of The Cramps, Reverend Horton Heat or the Supersuckers, you should check out Mad Trucker Gone Mad. (RZ)
(Crustacean Records -- P.O. Box 370156, Milwaukee, WI. 53237; http://www.crustaceanrecords.com/)
He's that guy from Pavement.
I'm listening to his debut solo album right now. It's not all that different from listening to Pavement, actually...except that it's good. Much better than the two-record death march that Pavement put to tape consecutively in 1997 and 1999. Brighten the Corners was unlistenable and Terror Twilight was only slightly better, a late-era Pink Floyd album filtered through Adult Contemporary sensibilities. They had been better. They used to be a confounding, lazy, promising band that somehow managed to craft three masterpieces in the first half of the last decade.
I say three because when you get me foolish drunk I'll tell you straight out that Wowee Zowee was the best album of 1995 and probably of that whole decade. I have said it before in passing conversation and will say it again now: when you are old and want to sum up those heady days of post-Nirvana indie rock with a single record, the way London Calling and Exile on Main Street speak for their eras, you will reach for Wowee Zowee and tell your kids about how this guy who everyone seemed to personally hate, and who spent his early years ripping off the Fall, accidentally made this great record. And how no one knew it because it got horrible reviews when it first came out. And how the band spent their subsequent tour apologizing to the press for not meeting commercial expectations. Yeah. It's a good story and a great record. Even the Spiral Stairs songs were cool on that one.
There are no Spiral Stairs songs on Stephen Malkmus. That's a good thing, but not the only one. Like Frank Black before him, Malkmus has cut loose his old band and commemorated his new freedom with a diverse and giddy collection of inspired songcraft. This eponymous debut is not the radical departure in form that Frank Black was; Steve has not stopped being Steve. Praise the lords of rock, though, he has started being fun again. In a few interviews lately, Malkmus has mentioned a fondness for late-era Thin Lizzy; one listen to the new disc, and you realize he's not just namechecking his classic rock past -- he means it. Part of the new fun is his unabashed fondness for lavishly considered and ingeniously multitracked guitars. Of course, Twilight had a lot of that, but here he is using his powers for good, and Nigel Godrich is not around to clean up any of the more inspired accidents.
"Black Book" leads things off in exactly this vein. Malkmus layers two tracks of stereophonic guitar heroics over a Soundgarden of decending chords, singing with sinister force and questionable diction, "the black book you took was permanent-a-ly diversified." Appropriately, it seems to be about re-considering one's friends and enemies following a nasty break-up. Not a horribly subtle opener. He wisely follows it with some real levity in "Phantasies," a cut that sounds like it was lifted from Wowee Zowee, complete with a nonsensical chorus, handclaps and a pleasant, woozy break. The press kit indicates it is somehow topically related to sex. If that's the case then both Alaska and Belarus are somehow linked to the crazy id of Mr. Malkmus. I told you it was fun.
From the cowbells that kick off the pirate fable "The Hook" to the gospel piano and (more) handclaps that introduce "Jo-Jo's Jacket," Malkmus is taking new pleasure in using the tools of traditional rock to deconstruct the same. Yeah, he's done it always, but he's achieving a level competence that, if he's not careful, will earn him some session opportunities on the next Wallflowers album. The fact that "Jo-Jo's Jacket" morphs into a joyous celebration of Yul Brenner -- or a merciless Moby joke, you pick -- proves that he's not quite ready to play sideman for the second generation yet. He spends nearly a minute on a guitar solo, though, and he plays it through a wah pedal; it is one of only a few missteps on the whole record. "Church On White" more than atones, with another long solo that satisfies as it saddens, and includes one of Malkmus' most poignant lyrics, as he eulogizes over the stately chorus about a friend of his who wanted "everything plus everything," and confessing that "I only poured you half a lie."
The best tracks are, of course, the slower songs. The epic "Pink India," and especially "Trojan Curfew," ease out of the stereo, and rank with the best examples of Malkmus' consistently high prom-song standards. That last one considers the capital-"G" Gods as they spend their idle days at Olympus watching "shepherds herd in real time." Malkmus is weird enough that his most affecting song is ultimately a first-person account of one immortal drinking his days away. He builds the tune around a languid, pretty slide guitar lead and lets a hidden piano bubble up in exactly the right places, conjuring visions of the perfect Grecian valley, where all the maidens are muses.
But he can slow down anything and make it sound achingly beautiful. The other half of these songs, while not exactly fast, are at least uptempo; and for once they aren't filler. Part of that success is due to a consistent batch of hooks, some of which were left over from his days with the Pavement and had to be shelved because they couldn't do justice to their relative complexity. His new band, the Jicks, are considerably more stocked in the chops department. Malkmus moved to Portland three years ago and he recruited two local scenesters to assist him in his vision of competency -- bassist Joanna Bolme (The Minders) and drummer John Moen lay down a solid framework for those crowded guitar and keyboard arrangements. Bolme and Malkmus' girlfriend, Heather Larimer, also frequently add their welcome female vocal abilities to Malkmus' thin falsetto for the choruses of several tracks, including the Shudder To Think-like standout "Vague Space".
The two best moments come last. "Jennifer and the Ess-Dog" is an unusually focused narrative about a May/December relationship that symbolically hinges on a mutual enjoyment of Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms. Malkmus still braggs about making lyrics up at the studio, but he thankfully doesn't seem to be doing it so much. "Deado" is the only track that sounds like its lyrics were last minute and it ends things in stoned spectacular fashion. Malkmus sings about beings who "measure you for size" and have "metal in their eyes," while a second vocal track consists of a distant, insane cackle. Who knows what the hell he's talking about? But the way he allows two or three inconspicuous samples to float atop a soup of warm synths and bits of crack guitar, well I can't quite explain it -- how this wisp of a song seems to coast from being tossed off studio time to a rewarding soundscape unlike anything he's ever done. It just does. If he can craft a few more songs like this one, he really will be on that golden Frank Black career path, and if so, then by my count he owes us at least three additional records of unquestionable genius. He needs to get to work. (MP)
(Matador Records -- 625 Broadway, New York, NY. 10012; http://www.matadorrecords.com/; Stephen Malkmus -- http://www.stephenmalkmus.com/)
Mock Orange takes old school emo-punk, meshing equal parts Rites of Spring, Samiam and Hot Water Music, and infuses it with indie rock sensibilities a la Superchunk, Pavement and Guided By Voices, producing a very interesting amalgam. The songs are very well-crafted, and the band knows when to rein it in (the appropriately titled "Slow Song") and when to let it all loose in a crashing frenzy, but even at it's loudest ("She Runs The Ride"), the band retains a firm grasp on melody. This is another one of those "Saturday afternoon" albums; you can let it blast throughout the house with the windows open, and the neighbors won't care because it sounds so good. They'll all be doing the emo quiver with you. (MHo)
(Lobster Records -- P.O. Box 1473, Santa Barbara, CA. 93102; http://www.lobsterrecords.com/; Mock Orange -- http://www.mockorange.net/)
Wrecked and Remixed
The toast of the Ann Arbor music community since its early '90s inception, Morsel (with vocalist/flautist Miriam Cabrera and bassist Be Hussey at its nucleus) blend basic rock instrumentation with prog and ethnic flavorings. Cabrera's flute often serves as a conduit for her singing, and recent addition Fat'hed's didjeridoo gives the band an extra global dimension. Morsel's first two full-lengthers have garnered critical parallels ranging from Sonic Youth (noisy rock with chick singer) to early King Crimson (hey, when's this song over, man?) and most everyone in between (miraculously, even with the inclusion of flute they've somehow kept a Tull comparison at bay). For their third album, the group offer a collection of remixes, some self-produced, others contributed by outsiders.
As with any such album (particularly if the subject doesn't fall into a dance genre), Wrecked and Remixed is a stylistically mixed bag, but the overall tone remains faithful to the band's dusky motif. That's half the battle won, but the true triumph lies in the grooves (such as they are). Warren Defever kicks off the disc with a version of "Needles" that, unsurprisingly, sounds like the more aggressive tendencies of His Name Is Alive. Eric (Persona) Cook's reworking of "Less Is More" is worthily epic, slinking from tribal funk to drum-n-bass without contrivance. Also standing out of this impressive crowd are "Squeezebox Medicine" (mellowed out by Hearts of Space mainstay Robert Rich) and the reverb-soaked "Muted", overseen by the late Geoff Streadwick, a former Morsel guitarist and Ann Arbor studio wiz.
Whether you're familiar with Morsel's previous output or you're just looking for something new with a beat (but not an aerobic beat), Wrecked and Remixed makes for a fine cerebral workout. If rampant studio tweaking isn't your thing, you might fare better with the band's 1994 debut, Noise Floor, produced (sorry, recorded) by Steve Albini. (JT)
(Small Stone Records -- P.O. Box 02007, Detroit, MI. 48202; http://www.smallstone.com/; Morsel -- http://www.morsel.org/)