Tall, Dark & Lonesome
It Ain't a Party Until Someone Gets a Haircut
Jerm Pollet, aka Tall, Dark & Lonesome, writes songs about life, love, and religious conspiracies. He infuses his live show and this CD with tales of growing up in New York, and is prone to stopping in the middle of a song to tell a story. He melds sincerity with humor, and pulls off an act that no one else can accomplish. The sound quality ranges from track to track due to the fact that stuff was recorded in several different places, but the arrangement of the songs makes it an easy transition.
Also, as a HUGE Masters of the Universe fan, it was refreshing to hear a guest appearance from the one and only Skeletor. I've been wondering what he's been up to for the past decade -- now I know he's helping to contribute some of the best story-telling music in Texas, or in all of the land, for that matter. For more info about the man and the legend (he has also performed in Gal's Panic and Missile Command), go to http://www.jermpollet.com/. (RZ)
(Pope Yes Records -- http://www.skribe.net/tdl/)
Tides of Life
Some stupid German agrophiles got a hold of a cheapo Yamaha you-can-play keyboard with the demo music to "Achy Breaky Heart" and other low points in American music, and then ran off to a dive bierhaus to devise a libretto involving the mein kampf of some Caterpillar-drivin' Deutschland volks. The theme spills out over a hellish Chuck E. Cheese score punctuated by lyrics such as "We are just the best... If we need more power, give us your hands and follow us now into the promised land." This is worse than the worst Weird Al, and just a hair better than Christian rock. (TK)
Here on the Outside
Imagine your favorite hard-rock cover band playing modern alternative, and you have Tidewater Grain. Their music is watered-down, soul-less, talentless, generic "rock" -- there is not even one track that stands out to me that could be considered a single. I have to give my congratulations to their management company for getting them a major label deal and a recent tour with the mighty Alice Cooper, because I know they didn't get to the position they are in now because of their moving, powerful songwriting ability. I think someone at the label owed someone at the management company a favor, and signed these guys because of that. To the guys in the band: Ride this high as long as you can, because it isn't going to last long. To Warner Brothers: Thanks for putting out more crap while overlooking some other more deserving band. (RZ)
(Ruffnation/Warner Bros. Records)
There's this group Tortoise, from Chicago. They make music known in some quarters as "post-rock". But, of course, everyone knows that, because there's been a lot of hype about Tortoise, putting them at the forefront of this important pseudo-genre. I liked Tortoise's first album quite a bit, but although their past couple albums haven't been bad by any means, I was a bit disappointed by them and felt that they didn't really live up to the massive hype that everyone around was heaping upon them. It seemed to me that for a band that seemed to have everything going for it, its output wasn't quite living up, in my book, to the perhaps-unattainable expectations that inevitably get built up as a result of being hyped to such a degree.
But they have a new album, Standards, out on Chicago indie Thrill Jockey. After having read a less-than-impressed review wondering what the big deal was, I was fearing the worst, but I have to say I've been pleasantly surprised. Rather than the big pile of passionless jazz-rock wankery I was fearing, the album is in fact a pretty compelling listen, brimming with ideas but never sacrificing song integrity or listenability at their altar. There are, however, a few moments where unclean prog influences overtake wholesome post-rock sensibilities, such as the one section of "Benway" that mars that otherwise great song, but for the most part such wankery is avoided.
Although the whole album is good, the first two minutes of it are what blew me away when I first put the CD in, and what keeps me coming back for more. A rather un-Tortoise-like thick texture of Neil Young guitars circa "Arc" combines with an amazing rolling thunder textured free-jazz drumming extravaganza to produce exultant modern entrance music. I wouldn't have minded a bit if the whole album were like this (it isn't). Though encompassing contradictions, rapid changes, and unusual combinations, elements which normally might produce jarring results, this album comes across as a seamless whole. Playing it on repeat, there's much to discover on each new listen, but not so much complexity as to inhibit familiarity. So, although this album may not change your life forever, it's still a damn fine listen, and what more can you reasonably ask for? (CP)
(Thrill Jockey Records -- P.O. Box 08038, Chicago, IL. 60608; http://www.thrilljockey.com/)
The Man Who
While I generally try to give myself credit for second-guessing my actions and tastes, stepping out of the here and now and looking at everything within the context of a greater pattern that in most cases hasn't fully developed yet, there are a number of albums that I manage to get excited about because of the potential that they represent, rather than what they actually are. This means that I go around singing the praises of, say, Material Issue or Ben Lee, equating a few stellar tracks with overall greatness. And while there's nothing wrong with the artists themselves (or, in many cases, the albums, even), my boosterism gets so engrained that I'm eventually just supporting them because I've always supported them, and I inevitably become slowly disappointed because I've essentially lied to myself. Occasionally, the artist will actually call my bluff and raise the stakes but, more often not, I praise these bands much more often than I listen to them.
Travis falls firmly into this category. I think. Of course it's still too early to tell (which is part of the nature of this whole problem), but after a few spins of The Man Who, there are exactly three songs that I can safely state are as great as I want them to be. The opening "Writing To Reach You" is an earnest yearning for connection that's also good-natured enough to contain one of several mild jabs at tourmates Oasis ("what's a wonderwall anyway?"). "Why Does It Always Rain On Me?" is a great dour pop song, hinting at a darkness that never comes, which only serves to make it even bleaker. "Turn" is grand drama, anchored by a chorus in which singer Fran Healy lets loose with a full-throated wail that pierces through the orchestral majesty provided by just two guitars, one bass and a drum kit.
And that's it. No alarms and no surprises. Possessed of a very subdued but warm electric sound, Travis is neither as fey as fellow Scots Belle & Sebastian nor as rockist as obvious heroes Radiohead, the T. Rex-ish guitar solo in "As You Are" notwithstanding. They basically hit on one tone -- comfortable melancholy -- and ride it out. Their goal is not to rattle but to soothe, and even when a chorus needs more distortion than the verse, the band provides a very quick and subtle swell, one which seems to say, "This part was quieter and this part was louder and we don't want to make a big deal about the difference."
The first time I heard "Turn," my introduction to the band, I thought I'd finally found the Remy Zero song that could give me some sort of entry into the two albums of theirs that I'd bought and just couldn't penetrate. Wrong band (though the two have been spotted touring together, so draw your own conclusions). But, very possibly, the right opinion. I will be watching to see what possibly great things Travis accomplishes next. But I will be watching my watching them. (MH)
(Sony Music; Travis -- http://www.travisonline.com/)
From humble beginnings, sometimes great things grow. Don't get me wrong: Tyro's Audiocards is the humble beginnings. But it has signs of life that explode all over the place. At turns odd and beautiful, dissonant and soaring, and sometimes all of the above at once, the Atlanta group's debut is spiked with electric jolts that provide surprise and a soul to their electro-punk scientist pop.
I'd guess that's mostly due to Katie Hartley's voice, which in pitch and timbre replicates nothing so much as the sound of her synthesizer, cool, eerie and vaguely robotic. Without her, Audiocards might be nothing more than ear candy. Like Susan Sarandon in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Katie doesn't possess musical-theatre vocal talents; unlike Sarandon, she's not actually in a musical and thus doesn't have to worry about it. Locating the perfect frame for her imperfect instrument, she shines in disparate contexts. The drum freakout of "Lonely" betrays the thinness of her voice by bolstering it with cacophony, while the slow and beautiful "Grey Clouds" is relatively stripped down, a sad, nearly five-minute pop song in 3/4 time that a singer with a more powerful voice would have ruined.
The rest of Tyro, meanwhile, keeps things moving briskly, banging through garage rock of a type (and density) that didn't exist before the advent of computers (although there are times, especially at the end of "Shadow," that guitarist Skipper Hartley reminds me of Mick Ronson, of all people). The songs are occasionally science experiments more than anything else; not only is "Blameless" sung through a walkie-talkie, the entire second verse consists of two Katies communicating across the left and right channels. Later on, the resignation story of "Over the Moon" ("She left without a word...") unfolds over what sounds like, but is most definitely not, a preprogrammed drum beat from a $90 portable keyboard, and the distorted electric guitars of the chorus act not as vocabulary but as punctuation (an ellipsis, if I had to pick which one).
The album closes smartly with its best track, "Remember When We Were Very Young?," an instrumental that seems to update the Tornadoes' "Telstar" by throwing out the crappy bits (which were most of them) and hurtling the remainder headlong into the not-too-distant future. The shifting time signatures, repetitive synth bass and diamond-hard guitar make it interesting; the simple and indelible melody line make it brilliant. Not all of Audiocards is up to that level, but the songs that aren't drift by innocuously enough, so I see no real need to elaborate. If, in the middle of weirdness, perfect little moments spring up, then, well, they're still perfect. Which, frankly, puts them light years ahead of most humble beginners. (MH)
(Mute Records -- 140 West 22nd Street -- Suite 10A, New York, NY. 10011; http://www.mute.com/; Tyro -- http://www.tyro.org/)