I fell for it, hook, line, and all that -- "October," the first track on Exit Now, had me fooled all the way. It's a great pop song by any measure, nice and laid-back and jangly, a little like The Posies when they were at their mellowest, but it's not what this EP's about, by far. It just serves as an example that these guys (Jeff Dimpsey and Jeff Garber, formerly of midwest rockers HUM and Castor, believe it or not) can do whatever the hell they want, and do it well.
Track two, "Identity Crisis," ups the ante (and the energy) for a start-stop indie-rock rhumba that gets almost sexual, and then the disc's third track, "Ghosts," takes things even further away from the guitar-pop end of things; it's a dark, synth-heavy electro-pop song, with echoey, U2-like vocals and sampled drums. Don't think this is simple "electronica" dabbling, though -- National Skyline have created a pretty incredible amalgam here, throwing in elements of some of the more "orchestral" electronic artists out there, beautiful Thom Yorke-esque vocal melodies, and melancholy rock that makes me think alternately of Peter Gabriel, The Cure, and (in particular) The Cure.
"Karolina II," the final song on Exit Now, finishes the progression, feeling almost like a tape Gary Numan accidentally left in the studio; hell, it's almost rock opera, sweeping and grandiose. Weird robotic noise starts off the track, and then heavy synth-bass comes in to hold things down while vocalist Garber's voice soars and swirls above. "Karolina" cruises along for a glorious 12 minutes, finally rising to a crescendo of feedback, keyboards, and electronic effects that leaves me wanting to hit the "Play" button and do it all over again.
Granted, this isn't technically the duo's first album together (they've apparently got a mini-album out on Hidden Agenda), but y'know, it still feels like the aural equivalent of a shot across the bow. It's as if Dimpsey and Garber decided they'd better throw this EP out just to let people know they're coming...so they'll have something to hold onto once the full-length hits. (JH)
(File 13 Records -- P.O. Box 2303, Philadelphia, PA. 19103; http://www.file-13.com/)
How To Meet Girls
Okay, I'm the first to admit that I'm a colossal dork (actually, a former girlfriend was the first to admit it, but I realized immediately that she was right). I've come to grips with this fact and decided that the best way to deal with it is to use it to my advantage. Occasionally this means capitalizing on what many see as a liability, but it usually consists of little more than embracing my dorkdom and happily accepting it.
Nerf Herder's second biggest mistake is in ignoring that all-but-crucial last bit. They are dorks, yes. They know that. But in celebrating geekdom, How To Meet Girls fails utterly to have a shred of confidence in it. Instead of asking why anybody else would choose to be otherwise, even implicitly, Nerf Herder manages to make nerdiness sound utterly unappealing. "Lamer Than Lame" wallows in total unlikeability (there's no earthly reason that the girl being addressed, or anybody for that matter, would waste her time with the guy who describes himself here); "Pervert" hammers it home. For a band that seems so desperately eager to impress, they're working with the wrong material.
Is this fatal? Not necessarily. However, Nerf Herder's biggest mistake is in its total disregard for the fact that a knowledge of pop culture does not equal an understanding of it, nor does it replace actual life experience. So, scattered through the tuneful but not particularly tuneworthy punk-pop of Girls is an interminable litany of pop-cult references (not the least of which is its Empire Strikes Back-derived moniker), for the purpose of...actually, there is no purpose, at least none that makes itself clear. Ten of the eleven songs drop some name or other that's supposed to make you go, "Hey, cool! They just mentioned ["Crazy Train"/Hollywood Squares/Haysi Fantayzee/etc.]!," after which Nerf Herder sits there self-satisfied, a job well-done.
I found this sort of referencing to be distracting on Fountains of Wayne's Utopia Parkway, where it was done sparingly to set the scene or make a point. Here, it's actively, maddeningly annoying, like some guy at a party who, having overheard that you've seen the Go-Go's in concert twice, won't leave you alone for the rest of the night, trailing you with mutterings of, "Hey, do you remember 'Come On Eilleen?' How about 'Love Plus One?' Oooh, wasn't 'Don't Forget Me When I'm Gone' a great song?" It hits its nadir on "For You," a list of what the singer would do for his honey that is nothing but '80s touchstones ("I'd sing the whole soundtrack to Xanadu/Dance like Kevin Bacon in Footloose/I'd catch Pac-Man Fever too"), with a shout-out to bread-and-butter Buffy The Vampire Slayer to appease whatever twist of fate got them the gig to record the theme song. In Nerf Herder's world, love and sex, or the unobtainability thereof, are merely ways to mark time in the absence of some truly bitchin' flicks or tunes.
Shouldn't it be the other way around? Wasn't that the entire point of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity? Probably, but why bother when it's so much easier to rattle off highlights of your wasted youth? So instead, we get a run of do-you-remembers and did-you-catch-its (I picked up on quotes of "Rocket Man," "Born To Run" and "Don't Fear The Reaper" scattered throughout, but believe me when I tell you that it's not worth the effort to locate them), in addition to a pair of odes directed at pop-cult icons themselves. "Courtney" (Love, natch) is too star-struck and earthbound to do anything more ambitious than tick off events in her career, without giving a hint as to what any of it could possibly mean to the guy singing to her. Worse still is "Jonathan," about another proud and famous dork. Over an obvious and dumb "Road Runner" rip that goes a half a mile an hour, Nerf Herder, forgetting that the guy at least managed to reach beyond geekdom to evince actual human emotion, beg, "Please, God, don't let me end up like Jonathan Richman/Turn the radio off." That last part's a bluff; if they could do that, Nerf Herder wouldn't be singing about it in the first place. (MH)
(Honest Don's Corn Dog Emporium -- P.O. Box 192027, San Francisco, CA. 94119-2027; http://www.honestdons.com/; Nerf Herder -- http://www.nerfherder.net/)
The New Morty Show
Man, this is hard. I really like these folks -- The New Morty Show are undoubtedly one of the best of the "modern swing" bands currently roaming the country (although unless I miss my guess, there's quite a few less right now than there were just a year ago), and I went into Rigormorty hoping to love it. Unfortunately, I didn't. Why? Well, it's nothing to do with the band themselves, but more to do with the presentation. I hate to be one of those people who gets too hung up on the production to pay attention to the songs, but...well, it's all too damn quiet. Everything's so well-balanced that nothing really stands out, so it's all just sort of "muted," in the end. Which is fine, if that's what you're looking for -- when I listen to Underworld, for example, I don't listen hoping it'll blow my car's speakers out and make me want to do lots of E.
When it comes to swing bands, though, there's a fine line between "smokin' swing" and "stuff your grandma would probably enjoy in between naps" (assuming, of course, that your grandma isn't of the ultra-hip variety). In short, when I hear a swing band, I want them to freakin' explode, to make me want to get up and jump around, even when I'm only listening to the CD. And while Rigormorty does make me want to see these folks live, on its own it just doesn't quite hit it.
Anyway, the songs are fine, the vocals are good, the horns occasionally make me want to clap in appreciation, and I admire any band that has the audacity to cover a Cole Porter song, an X song, and the stellar Poison opus "Unskinny Bop" (who'd a thought the song would lend itself so well to swing?) -- I just wish the live energy that I'd almost bet money these folks possess had translated better to plastic. I'll definitely try to be there if they come through town, either way... (JH)
(Slimstyle Records -- 3400 E. Speedway, Suite 118-272, Tucson, AZ. 85716; http://www.slimstyle.com/; The New Morty Show -- http://www.newmortyshow.com/)
Fire in the City of Automatons
Okay, so you can mostly ignore the science-fiction-y title; this isn't sample-heavy electrocore or anything like that, but rather straight-ahead indie-rock, albeit with a little bit of a "technological" feel to it. The precision and jagged sound of the guitars brings to mind bands like Jawbox and aMINIATURE, particularly on tracks like "Heavy Weather" and "Angel Bomb"; the whole thing feels sharp, somehow (and no, I'm not even going to try to tie in the band's name, there). On the other side, there's also a heavy dose of melody, bringing to mind Jimmy Eat World, in particular, especially on "Secret Handshake" and "Charming" (love that majestic chorus), but it doesn't ever get quite as pretty or teary-eyed as most of J.E.W. and their ilk. If I had to pigeonhole, I'd say that No Knife's sound is probably closer to Edsel or J. Robbins' Burning Airlines than anything else; not bad bands to be compared to, by the way.
Now, since I've gotten most of the stylistic reference points out of the way, let me say that lately I've been running into a lot of stuff like this. By that I don't mean stuff that sounds like this, mind you, but that I've been reviewing a lot of good indie-rock/"emo" recently where the songs themselves don't always stick with me, but little bits and pieces of the songs do. The parts that stand out sink into my subconscious, only resurfacing later on, often when I'm listening to something else, driving to work with the radio off, or screwing around with my guitar. I guess that's because this sort of thing isn't as out-and-out catchy as your average pop song; you can't sing along (hell, most of these bands don't even bothering giving you the lyrics), so the sounds have to dig their way in more subtly. As a result, a lot of the songs here don't really leave a separate, singular impression, but blend more into one big whole -- which, as a whole, is pretty impressive.
The reason for this, I think, is because the emphasis is less on the words than it is in most pop, and more on the general overall feeling or atmosphere. Fire in the City of Automatons is that kind of a "feeling"-based album -- the lyrics evoke images rather than complete thoughts or sequences, like the image of people huddled in the snow in "Charming," the radio-transmission conversation with an out-of-control spacecraft in "Mission Control," or the shadowy figure leafing through blueprints in "The Spy." You don't get the whole story handed to you, and so you have to come up with the finale on your own. Which, in a way, is a lot more challenging to the listener, and sometimes a lot more fulfilling. No Knife makes smart, beautiful music that takes more attention than most people are willing to give to a band, I think, even in indie-rock.
And yeah, I do feel a little odd and pretentious saying all this about what's essentially a rock record, but why the hell not? Just because the music revolves around the standard guitar-bass-drums doesn't mean it can't be intelligent, right? (JH)
(Time Bomb Recordings -- http://www.timebombrecordings.com/; No Knife -- http://www.noknife.net/)
North Mississippi All-Stars
Shake Hands With Shorty
The North Mississippi All-Stars have this beat. This beat through everything they play. It doesn't matter what the musicians are doing. And it's not like it's a new beat, and it's not that it's a specific beat -- it's just this beat. Even as they throw every rock style they can think of into the mix, this beat summons something greater. What the North Mississippi All-Stars call up and channel through their instruments has less to do with the guitar being played than the foot being stomped. That's what makes them so unusual.
Part of what makes them sound old is the lack of dependence on long guitar solos -- like the old country guys, they rely on rhythm as much as notes. These guys aren't here just to showcase another guitar player's pyrotechnical technique; they like playing these songs too much to do that. Instead, these guys become a unit so that they can collectively stomp the ground. But the unit that they form isn't a machine, precisely and soullessly engineered. The unit that they become is a leg, full of imprecise motions and motives and impulses. These guys play as though every beat has a different meaning, like they can't control the beats, like they just keep coming.
And this stuff has got quite a beat...but not necessarily funky (although they can be); it's a beat that feels like there are no other beats except for this, an ancient feeling played through loud electric guitars and basses and drums that could almost be from a hundred years ago, except that it sounds like today or tomorrow. That feel grabs you and reminds you why people really play the blues. It's about dancing, and celebration, but more -- to connect with something bigger than you are. That's what the celebration is about.
The songs that they sing you've heard before, but these guys sing them like they were there when the song was new, like they knew why it was written. They change the words in the way that everybody used to, before the songs were written down in nicely wrapped little 12-bar packages. But while the story can change, the words can be different, in its heart still burns the flame passed on from the original, which is not the version on the old record but something else that happened just before the signal hit the tape. What they've captured is bigger than the band, or the music, or the tradition even. They capture the part that holds it all together. (HM)
(Uni/Tone-Cool Records -- http://www.tonecool.com/; North Mississippi All-Stars -- http://www.nmsallstars.com/)