Sweet Revenge is too damn short. There, I said it. The opening "Fast Easy Love" clocks in at just under a minute, and less than a half an hour later, you're stuck with the decision of whether to poke your head into the sunshiny world outside or just push "play" again. The way the band cranks through the album should make the decision to opt for the latter tack an easy one. Welcome to my world.
On their second album, then, Bangs (no "the," which makes noun/verb agreement dicey) is (see?) generally happy just to bash a few songs out, and I'm happy just to hear 'em. What makes Sweet Revenge far more intriguing is that it suggests a persona that's certainly not unwarranted but is unanticipated at the very least, that of a punked-up (and Courtney-cognizant) Shangri-Las. Which may not have been even close to what they were shooting for, but I swear it's there: tough/sensitive girls (fast and easy though it may be, it is indeed love they want) eschewing neat and tidy vocals for not-quite-there harmonies, the better to articulate the portrayal of the smallest personal dilemma as cataclysmic emotional drama. Listen to "Undo Everything" immediately after "Remember (Walking In The Sand)" and then tell me I'm full of shit.
And with that, Sweet Revenge neatly sidesteps all of my normal defenses against sheer attitude as fundamental currency. That's mostly because this time it's not just for attitude's sake but actually informs the songs rather than merely existing outside of them (or, worse, taking their place). Also, like the Shangri-Las, said attitude has more than one note, sometimes simultaneously. Bangs can offer up the title track's vituperative "I'm smarter than I look and you're dumber than you know" as well as the dejected "You meet me on the dance floor/And then you cheat me out of the dance" (from "Scorpi-Oh") and not only be equally convincing on either but also make them both sound as though they spring from the same place.
I probably shouldn't belabor the point. Suffice it to say that Sweet Revenge wisely backs up the promises that the band makes throughout. The zippy and spirited rock of the abovementioned songs sets the tone; "Into You," for instance, stands as possibly the best female cock rock since "Volcano Girls." The keen and hurtling "Docudrama," meanwhile, forges Sarah Utter's voice into some glorious cross between Belinda Carlisle and Robin Zander, which is appropriate, since the song itself is "Lust To Love" melded with "He's A Whore." And then, of course, there's the band's version of Cheap Trick's "Southern Girls," which wisely chooses not to attempt to reinvent the wheel and is home to an unforced (and possibly unintentional) vocal trill in the first chorus that sounds exactly like what Robin Z. himself would do (and has done, I might point out). A cynic might note that that closing cover nicely pads out Sweet Revenge to just barely over 30 minutes, justifying the full-album sticker price. I will leave such brutes to ponder just why the Leader of the Pack would be hanging out in a candy store, which should get them off my back for a while. (MH)
(Kill Rock Stars -- 120 NE State Ave. #418, Olympia, WA. 98501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.killrockstars.com/)
Bardo Pond, as you may or may not know, are from Philadelphia, smoke a lot of pot, get real high, and happen to make some great music. Past releases have established their signature sound, which sounds like someone took the blues, supercharged it with molten lava, and placed it where space and time are stretched out in a hall of mirrors, a place which one can barely glimpse from our present terrestrial locale. This is in part achieved by dual guitars, set-to-overdrive slide drone with effects, dreamy singing and fluting by the ever-alluring Isobel, and underpinned by intense bass'n'drums. The most full-on example of this sound can be found on one of their previous releases, Lapsed. Dilate represents both a continuation of their sound, as on tracks like "Aphasia," and somewhat of a departure. Actual acoustic (as in non-electric) guitar can be heard being strummed at points, and the track "Favorite Uncle" features a lengthy acoustic intro, before subdued electrics join the mix. This is followed by the surprisingly quiet and pretty "Despite the Roar," which features plaintive acoustic strumming alternating with echoey psychedelic electric guitar effects. I was breathing deeply and regularly, about to enter the world of sleep (and that's "a good thing") before the reverie was ended by suddenly authoritative guitar strumming and drums entering the picture, quickening my pulse and bringing it all home.
One sometimes wishes that more tracks would feature actual tunes in addition to the mind-bending drones, however, but perhaps at a certain point into the drone world, melody becomes somewhat superfluous. In any case, this is a small quibble in relation to the power of the altered states delivered herein. (CP)
(Matador Records -- 625 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, NY. 10012; http://www.matadorrecords.com/; Bardo Pond -- http://www.threelobed.com/bardo/)
I do not profess to know the slightest thing about house music, although I've been desperately trying to learn about it and its many electronic cousins in the past few years. Part of that self-education process involved Basement Jaxx's "Red Alert" (from 1999's Remedy), the ubiquity of which in commercials and such would have deeply engrained it in my psyche whether I wanted it or not. Contented with that song's machine-induced funk, I gravitated towards Rooty as the make-it-or-break-it album for my appreciation for the genre.
And still I wait for something to be made or broken. It's a good thing I liked "Red Alert," because to an untrained ear, Basement Jaxx's latest chucks out a number of variations on it. The main difference, so far as I can tell, is that the appeals to throwdown partying are more typically implicit in the music, with the lyrics tending to favor sex and love (not necessarily in that order). That should be a good sign, and indeed, "Romeo" is mighty propulsive, kicking off an album that'll unquestionably get the joint jumping, while "Get Me Off" is the sound of fucking to a beat with an intensity not heard anywhere near the mainstream since Garbage's "Number One Crush." From the perspective of someone without the background, though, only "Broken Dreams" stands out, partly due to its pop song structure and partly due to its having hooks, not just jabs. I don't mind it in the least when it's on, but Rooty neither draws me into the waiting arms of the kingdom nor sends me back, defeated, from whence I came; instead, it leaves me right where I was, confused but curious. (MH)
(Astralwerks Records -- 104 West 29th St., 4th Fl., New York, NY. 10001; http://www.astralwerks.com/)
Bastards of Melody
Just who the hell do these guys think they are? "Bastards of Melody," indeed. Well, the sad truth is that this is one of the finest pop records I've heard in years. This just pisses me off. How come I'm not hearing em on the local radio show? Why aren't they on Letterman? Why doesn't Fastball open for them? Jeez. Take a little Weezer, a dash of the Replacements, and viola! Cool as it can be pop melody-laden rock with no pretenses. I'm a fan. I know it's hard to write a good pop song that's not trite, boring, or simply stupid, and this band does it again and again and again. Great melodies, hooking like a box of lures. Almost all the songs speak of relationship problems, and they do so with great humor, honesty and disarming openness. It makes me sick...this much talent should not go unnoticed. Get this CD. Or, you can wait and see em on Letterman, but by then you won't be able to say, "I knew 'em when..." (Note to the editor: you better send me the next installment from Bastards of Melody to review. By that time, this CD will probably be worn out.) (BW)
(Ransom Records; Bastards of Melody -- http://www.bastardsofmelody.com/)
With Leak, Blink, and Breath
Annika Bentley is my worst Fiona Apple nightmare come to stereophonic life. She is, let's not fool ourselves, a talented singer and piano player, and she is so profoundly adventurous as regards the ends to which she will deploy her gifts that all over With Leak, Blink, and Breath, she gets lost down a hundred blind alleyways following her impulses just to see where they will lead. Whereas Fiona ultimately knew where she was going, Bentley is so enamored with her own creative process that she fails to get anywhere in particular, or care.
The fundamental components at the sub-song level are themselves beyond reproach; Bentley's respectable piano skills place her somewhere amongst the Vanessa Carltons of the world (a comparison sure to mortify them both, for countless reasons), and her voice is a handsome and controlled alto. It's the additive use to which they are put that is frustrating and not just a little worrisome. If a mason were to do with the tools of his trade what Bentley does with hers, the finished product would be some fundamentally flawed and impractical structure (such as, I don't know, an unsupported upside-down pyramid with no entryway or windows to let people in or, as the case may be, out) that would get him pegged as insane no matter how lovely and clean the brickwork.
Okay, so she's probably not crazy, but the debits are many, to be sure. Throughout With Leak, Blink, and Breath, Bentley steadfastly refuses to provide anything resembling clarity. The music gets lost chasing the tails of ghosts. Her lyrics are utter, utter nonsense without the redeeming throughline of the utter, utter nonsense of the New Pornographers or the playfulness of the utter, utter nonsense of Guided By Voices. Bentley's vocals are so disconnected from what she's singing (not, as per the preceding, that it matters) that it's all the same if the words sound as though they are being wrenched from her or, as in "Duty of a Man at Wheel," ticking through a stepladder melody that ignores such linguistic conventions as syllable stress. Still, with little more than a hunch, I file away some faint hope that Bentley will eventually grow out of this phase of her development (hitting her twenties should be a good start) and quit being content to ride her muse like a bucking bronco, confusing the bruises that she sustains with scars, and scars with trophies. (MH)
(Billy Likes Records -- P.O. Box 10781, Rochester, NY. 14610-0781; http://www.billylikes.com/; Annika Bentley -- http://www.annikab.com/)
Bentmen truly are bent, but in an oh-so-good way. Their brand of crazy operatic rock is almost like some weird Blue Man Group/GWAR/Bowie/Ministry/Zappa hybrid, but it transcends all that to become a beast all its own. Operatic vocals float over pulsing tribal rhythms, while staccato guitars punctuate the sonic landscape laid down by the keyboards, coalescing in a miasma of insanity. It's not all experimental wanking or Eno noise, either; there are actual hooks to be found here ("Sunshine" is a good example of the symbiosis of experimental and pop sensibilities that the Bentmen specialize in). To top it all off, the band members are all very adept at playing their instruments, be they guitar, guitar-synths or "found drums." The combination of insanity, talent and general weirdness makes for some really interesting music to listen to that's enjoyable and inventive at the same time, which is not an easy task these days. (MHo)
(Sound Museum Records; Bentmen -- http://www.bentmen.com/)
I saw Benton Falls last year at a small club in Oakland, CA., opening for fellow Deep Elm band Brandtson, and I was thoroughly unimpressed. I thought their gear was great, but their songs were boring. Short, repetitive riffs and struggling vocals were performed by a band acting as though they were rocking much harder than what I saw. Now, presented with their debut album Fighting Starlight, I can only judge them by what I hear, and I find that it's okay. The vocals are much stronger, and I'm charmed by the repetition, rather than bored. Of course, this album was recorded by Ed Rose, so it sounds fantastic. Overall, I'm left with the impression that this is a competent band playing good songs. As a debut goes, it's not bad, but I think that Benton Falls will either get better or fade away. They have much potential, and as their experience in playing and writing together grows, they will only get better. (KM)
(Deep Elm Records -- P.O. Box 36939, Charlotte, NC 28236; email@example.com; http://www.deepelm.com/; Benton Falls -- http://www.bentonfalls.com/)
Live: Sacred and Profane
Ah...guilty pleasures. Adam Sandler movies. Fox primetime television. Maxim. '80s music.
Berlin, most famous for the 1986 song "Take My Breathe Away," featured in Top Gun, delivered several hits, notably the fem-pop "No More Words," dark eighties-alt gem "Metro," and the synthesizer-dominated and nearly forgotten "Sex." This live album, as one might cynically expect, is more of an attempt at a "best of" compilation than it is a snapshot of the energy and artistic variation found in the best live performances. The four hit songs providing the purchase/no-purchase critical mass for most consumers are surrounded by eleven less-inspired efforts varying in merit from the typical pop B-side "Confession Time" to the downright silly "Turn You On."
Interspersed between many songs are bits of insipid banter with the audience, beyond the "we love you [your city here]!" variety. This is an indulgence few musicians can afford, and frontwoman Terri Nunn is not one of them. Shut up and sing.
Still, you can't help but like the sound, especially if you're a fan of either the nostalgia or artistry of the '80s "genre." The power riffs, ridiculous by today's standards, deliver just the right mild punch to get the endorphins up, and the recurring synthesizer provides the musical version of comfort food. Nunn's vocals, while not musically impressive, offer just the right powerful and erotic feminine touch to make Berlin's sound somewhat unique.
Cover "Shayla" offers a pleasing surprise near the end of the album, a bit of a fusion between the pop of the mid-'80s and late-'90s, along the vein of Blondie's "Maria" (which makes sense, since it's a Blondie song), but a bit more pleasing. Yeah, it's pretty much just one of those "a good beat, and easy to dance to" tracks, but you can't help but bounce around in time.
Don't get this album for its musical merits (or lack thereof), or for the meaningful lyrics (of lack thereof), or for the energy and power of the live format (or lack thereof), but simply because you are still a sucker for that '80s sound; this album will take you there. (TD)
(Time Bomb Recordings -- firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.timebombrecordings.com/; Berlin -- http://www.berlinpage.com/)
Where Leaves Block the Sun
I'm going to make some assumptions and broad generalizations here. Seems like the rise of the Chicago indie scene was inspired by Slint. The downfall, or at least the stumbling of the scene, came as attempts at bettering Spiderland became more frenzied and desperate. Slint enthusiasts began by infusing elements of other genres, namely jazz and variants of country and blues, into their rock music. This was intriguing at first, but increasingly the artists embracing this post-rock fad -- dare I call it "fusion" -- seemed unable to bring any soul or spirit to the sound. In fact, a remarkable amount of stylistic overlap with Phish and the Dave Matthews Band began to appear. I braced myself upon seeing close associates of the worst post-rock offenders listed in the musician roster of this release.
Bevel is the solo vehicle of Via Nuon. Putting my Windy City indie scene paranoia aside, he does in fact pull from a vibrant pool of primarily Chicago talent to create vital music that recalls Gastr del Sol's skewed sound and Jim O'Rourke's more folksy endeavors. Nuon's backing musicians include Dutch Harbor soundtrack architect, Michael Krassner, Dirty Three member Mick Turner, and free jazz cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. As accomplished and varied as some of these musicians are, they certainly do not overpower Nuon's vision, but lay an alternately lush and minimal foundation for his finger-plucking and softly-wavering vocals.
By isolating specific tracks on the album, you could compare Nuon favorably to Nick Drake or Bright Eyes or John Fahey, but what makes the album so solid is its cohesion and the effort put into relating the tracks to each other as a complete work. Nuon has really come into his own here, continuing a progression from his first Bevel release, Turn the Furnace On, and his compositions with earlier bands, Drunk and Manishevitz. Where Leaves Block the Sun is an important album, but one that will likely go largely unnoticed. Perhaps you could make room for it in your collection by trading in those tired old Tortoise records. (EB)
(Jagjaguwar -- 1021 South Walnut, Bloomington, IN. 47401; http://www.jagjaguwar.com/jagjaguwar/)
Big, Big Furnace
Soundtrack to a Midwestern Winter
I'm a geek. Always have been, always will be, despite my wife's best efforts to transform me into a snappier dresser; it's just the way I am. And I think it's that geekiness that makes me enjoy the hell out of stuff like Big, Big Furnace, because this is geek-rock at its finest. By "geek-rock," I don't mean that Soundtrack to a Midwestern Winter is full of math-y, disjointed progressive guitar theatrics designed by and for intensely smart people, mind you -- this is about as far from math-rock as you could hope to get. No, Big, Big Furnace are just a power pop band, a bunch of kids too smart and sensitive for their own good, who fall hopelessly in love, think friends are the most important thing in the world, and like to go play in the snow. They're geeks, just like me.
And by that token, I simply can't dislike Soundtrack, even if I wanted to -- it'd be like denying a part of myself. I dig the melancholy songs of unrequited love ("Cindy In Sales," "George Lassos the Moon," "I'm a Bad Stalker"), the jangly, lightly rocking guitars, the matter-of-fact, boyish vocals, the whole deal. The songs are so awkwardly, goofily sweet that even when the lyrics skip a beat or two (i.e., the urgently-repeated "Can you feel / My thug appeal?" in "The Ghost of Sweetness"; what the hell?), I don't mind. The sheer innocent joy of it all surreptitiously tugs a smile onto my face, even on slower, more melancholy tracks like "Always Around" and "All My Friends" -- which, by the way, is simply a list of guitarist/singer Matt Loos' friends, put to a quiet, delicately lilting pop track (the result is absolutely endearing). "Cheer Up Emo Boy" heads for faster, more driving territory, coming closer to The Promise Ring, while songs like "The Ghost of Sweetness," "Katie's Envy," and "Poison Eye" could almost be fellow cheery popsters Too Much Joy, Poole, or Queen Sarah Saturday. This is fine stuff.
Now for the bad part: according to the band's Website, they no longer exist, as of August of 2001. Argh. Ah, well...I guess geeks like me will just have to be content with digging through our record collections for those old Philistines Jr. CDs, instead... (JH)
(Crustacean Records -- P.O. Box 370156, Milwaukee, WI. 53237; email@example.com; http://www.crustaceanrecords.com/; Big Big Furnace -- http://www.bigbigfurnace.com/)
Black Heart Procession
Some bands reinvent themselves endlessly with every record, journeying from sound to sound. And then there's the other kind of band, that finds a sound and settles into it like a comfy sofa; Black Heart Procession definitely fall into the latter category. While the songs on this record are new, the sound will be very familiar to anyone who's heard either of the last Black Heart Procession records. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the BHP have definitely forged out a sound all their own, one that might be considered a genre unto itself by now. (For the unfamiliar, this typically includes two major types of songs: those with a military -- or processional -- feel, and those with a dirgelike feel, both of which are set on a minor-key musical bed of plaintive guitars, organs, musical saws, basses, and vocals that focus around stories of loss and disappointment.) What it does mean, though, is that there are two types of listeners who are most likely to benefit from owning this record: those who have never heard the BHP before, and those who have supped deeply from the previous records. For those listeners, there will be much to appreciate here (particularly "The War is Over," possibly the best BHP song yet). For others, who already own a record or two, you might want to play those to exhaustion before running out and buying this. (DD)
(Touch and Go Records -- P.O. Box 25520, Chicago, IL. 60625; http://www.southern.com/southern/
label/TCH/index.html; Black Heart Procession -- http://members.tripod.com/blackheartprocession/)
The Last Adventures of Captain Dog
The expression "you can't judge a book by its cover" seems to fail so many times when applied to the arena of the Album Cover. When you look at the cover of Dylan's The Times They Are a-Changin' and you see a dour Dylan in a plain working man's shirt, you know you're dealing with a young folkie spouting hard social truths in a voice that would've made the Kingston Trio puke. When you look at the cover of Run DMC's Tougher Than Leather you know you're going to hear a couple of badasses rap about how badass they are. When you look at any cover on a latter-day Chicago album, you know they're not going to do anything remotely interesting. And when you look at the cover of Blind Dog's The Last Adventures of Captain Dog and you see the desert hippie guy with the Billy Gibbons beard and the Levon Helm hat smoking the last of what appears to be a very tasty joint in the middle of a parched wasteland, vulture at the ready, you know this one's all about gettin' lit and rockin' heavy. And you'd be right.
The tempos are a little brisker and the riffs and solos a bit brighter, and the arrangements are a bit more complex than your average Sabbathian sludge-a-thon, so I guess this falls more under the aegis of "modern American psych-rock" for the most part; while a good bit less "Satanic" (and therefore a good bit less silly) than Monster Magnet, the two groups might well share a few bong hits, were they ever tour buddies. They both share affinities for hard-charging riffs played by thick-and-heavy guitars, "scream o' the badass" vocals on the more rockin' tunes, laid-back stoner grooves, and a knack for droning, relatively simple but effective acoustic "psych-ballads."
This is definitely one for hitting the road in true "bad muthafucka" style, or, failing that, sitting stoned on your couch in the unholy glow of the lava lamp. (CE)
(MeteorCity Records -- P.O. Box 40322, Albuquerque, NM. 87196; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.meteorcity.com/; Blind Dog -- http://www.stonerrock.com/blinddog/)
One Sound for the Time
Snappy and flirty tunes make up this very well-produced album. Blue Corner mixes funk, rock and reggae and manages to create a sound completely its own. This album provides a range of clean, pure sounds and no track sounds like a rehash of the one before or after it.
Their style varies between funky pop ("Dissolved") to a mellow ballad ("Bridges") to rock with reggae influence ("New Orleans"). Oh, there are hints of Red Hot Chili Peppers, but not so much that you'd notice without really really listening for them.
This album is the best I've heard recently, and I imagine their live show would be impressive. If you seek an interesting listen, I suggest you try Blue Corner. This is a band to watch. (CPl)
(Blue Corner -- http://www.bluecorner.net/)
The Apology Wars
Okay, I'm going to beat this comparison to death, so I'll hit it up-front: more than anything, Blueline Medic make me think of Blake Schwarzenbach's old band, Jawbreaker. Specifically, of an Australian version of Jawbreaker (or maybe of Jets to Brazil, I'm not sure which). I can't help the comparison, I'm afraid -- on top of the cigarette-scarred vocals, there's the rough-yet-precise guitars and the encapsulated story-within-a-song structures. There're a fair number of similarities, at least to my ears.
Now, that said, I don't mean to take away at all from The Apology Wars' charm. This is a fine album, appealing partly because of the similarities listed above; I love guitars that roar and churn, seemingly right on the edge of falling into chaos but pulling together at the last second -- there aren't many straight-ahead power chords here. Also, I find that the ragged vocals fit the music and the lyrics just about perfectly; the singer doesn't sing like an angel, but hey, who does, outside of classically-trained divas? (Okay, maybe Elliott's Chris Higdon, but that's beside the point.) Blueline Medics vocalist sings like he means it, and I think he does.
And finally, the songs themselves serve to elevate this far above simple emo-by-numbers. Wars starts off on an impassioned note with "Cathedral," a track about the joys of building something while others stand off to one side and critique it all, and continues on through the fiery "Making the Nouveau Riche," where the band sarcastically sings about having to give up the music business to get a "real life." "At Least We Had the War" is almost baroque twee-pop at first, starting out less like Sunny Day Real Estate than Morrissey, but metamorphosizing subtly into full-on indie-rock; "Not Interested," on the other hand, remains quiet and delicate throughout, but still retains an underlying edge, a hint of anger to go with the sweet melodies.
I think that's the secret to Blueline Medic's success, really -- that bitter sharpness offsets the beautiful guitar lines when the two are paired up together. One without the other, well, that's not a big deal; hell, every other band out there gets at least one right, right? The real trick lies in doing both at once. (JH)
(Fueled By Ramen Records -- P.O. Box 12563, Gainesville, FL. 32604; http://www.fueledbyramen.com/; Blueline Medic -- http://www.bluelinemedic.com/)
A long list of musicians queue up every year to try and fill the scuffed-up shoes awarded to the reigning angst-ridden twentysomething Waif Queen. Most feature some hideous combination of solid-state guitar sounds, canned Casio-esque beats, and lyrics that read like a random anthology of sad phrases from good-love-gone-bad ballads.
While some of the best-known names in this business have fallen from their perches, many Americans still throw money in the genre's general direction, hoping to discover the next musical McBeal sister. Trying to ride the trend before it went the way of swing dance, Blush 66 throws Domecstasy into the fray. A first glance at the album reveals a passing similarity between its cover art and that of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. After 20 minutes of dreary synth-musings and weepy guitar licks, that first impression is lost.
The first song, "Understand" (as in "I don't understand"), begins with chords fed through an envelope filter, to no real effect. Each chord falls dead below uninspired vocals chanting "Baby, lately, you make me hazy." When the song kicks into full gear, a piano riff tries to drag those vocals and other keyboard parts out of their rut. Unfortunately, just before the chorus, Anthony Plank introduces guitar parts that bend under the weight of tremolo-bar misuse and hang on the song like wet clothing. There's no momentum, and the bridge only makes things worse by diverting into a completely different key.
Other songs are similarly lifeless. "After All This Time" begins with silky keyboards that recall Portishead and a variety of downtempo artists, hopes quickly trampled by tired slide guitars and tinny synth sounds. "In Your Arms" features a disastrous chorus, with keyboard arpeggios underneath a Madonna impression that may yet elicit a lawsuit. Only by the time the album reaches track four -- "Leave You Down" -- are there signs of life. Throughout, singer Laura Jean's voice strengthens in brief stretches, only to fall flat and breathy at the most crucial moments, which only adds to the monotony.
Lyrically, Domecstasy lies somewhere between Chicken Soup for Meredith Brooks' Soul and the screenplay for What's Up, Tiger Lily? All lyrics are courtesy of Jean, who appears to have a shaky command of the English language. On "Understand," Jean sings "Anticipating, so I, I look for reasons to find." "After All This Time" has Jean asking, "Can we not contain it?" She then wonders, "where has all the goodness gone to?" in "In Your Arms." Of course, Jean clarifies in the same song by stating that "I can't be held accountable for what I might be saying."
Interspersed with these skillful haiku samples are the classics: "You know I want you, I can't have you"; "You make me love you and I don't want to"; "No, I don't understand why it could never be that way." Jean's poetry is matched only by the band's definition of the word domecstasy: "an achievement in higher existence between man and woman...Wanton delirium and yearning doesn't exist in domecstasy." In adding the high comedy of their own life musings, they have unintentionally softened the blow. It is my sincere hope that laughter exists in domecstasy, for it may be a quiet and solitary place otherwise.
In seeking to fill the Waif Queen's throne, Laura Jean and Blush 66 have put together a pale, pasty cousin of the bleached music Natalie Imbruglia has made so very popular. Give them credit -- they seem to have outdone one of their idols. However, you need not stand in awe of this feat. Pause to contemplate, and then move on. (JD)
(Star Cross'd Productions; Blush 66 -- http://www.blush66.com/)
AKA Palace, Will Oldham, etc. You probably have a general opinion of him already, so I'll skip that. Assuming you like his work, you've got to get this -- easily his best release since I See A Darkness, and because of the nature of it (6 covers, including PJ Harvey, The Renderers, and Tim McGraw), it has a nicely diverse sound that many of his other records lack, although the focus is mostly rocking, in the good sense. No reason to belabor the point: it's good. (DD)
(Temporary Residence Limited -- P.O. Box 22810, Baltimore, MD. 21203-4910; http://www.temporaryresidence.com/)
When All Else Fails
Bracket sound good. But no, they don't, not on the evidence of When All Else Fails. Or, hang on, maybe they do, but it's just that I've never been a fan of that ultra-melodic So-Cal pop hardcore sound, where the bass is ultra-trebly (isn't that a contradiction?) and the guitars buzz (like heavy metal) rather than ring out (like power pop). Plus the songs are no good, but...wait, then why am I bobbing my head to "Parade?" Damn.
Such are the backflips and somersaults to which my brain is subject in trying to reach some sort of unequivocal conclusion about When All Else Fails. The one hard-and-fast bit that I can grab onto is singer/guitarist Marty Gregori's voice, which finds that happy, heretofore unexplored medium between Greg Graffin and Fastball's Tony Scalzo. I can't really explain the latter (genetic happenstance?), but the former seems pretty clear-cut, since the album's crammed full of Bad Religion-type harmonies (not many Bad Religion-style melodies, however). That band's not the only touchstone here, just the most overt. "Me Vs. The World," for instance, sounds an awful lot like the Barenaked Ladies, just louder and a bit faster (but not much at all), while "You/Me" is "Where Is My Mind" had the Pixies decided to keep things fairly low-key and subject the listener to a distractingly splashy and trebly snare (which thankfully sits out the rest of the album).
Elsewhere, Bracket can't seem to decide what it wants to sound like. "Warren's Song Part 9" intriguingly uses, to the letter, the components of reggae (the verses) and doo-wop (the choruses) without actually becoming either of them (or successfully melding them into a seamless whole). "A Happy Song," meanwhile, is actually two songs (one mid-tempo fast, one slow, both of which hinge on the lyric "I'm everything without you") with a clear and definite break between them. Finally, the album doesn't end so much as stop as though the band ran out of songs, rather than being sequenced in any particular order.
That may not necessarily be true, as the first and second slots are prudently taken up by, oh, let's just call them the best songs on the album, the speedy and cheeky and wonderfully-titled (if unnecessarily comma'ed) "Everyone is Telling Me I'll Never Win, If I Fall In Love With A Girl From Marin" (although the line about "her shit-stained smile" worries me for perhaps obvious reasons) and the aforementioned head-bobber "Parade." After all that, When All Else Fails sounds fine, I guess, a real B/B+ record. I'm sure that if I ever decide to put it on again (at the appropriate point in my now-what-did-this-sound-like-again? cycle), I won't reach for the stop button. But when that might be, I couldn't possibly guess. (MH)
(Fat Wreck Chords -- P.O. Box 193690, San Francisco, CA 94119; http://www.fatwreck.com/; Bracket -- http://www.bracket.f2s.com/)
Billy Bragg & Wilco
Mermaid Avenue Vol. II
One of the great strengths of Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, and something that I felt its predecessor lacked, is its willingness to let Billy Bragg be Billy Bragg and Wilco be Wilco (although its prevention of Natalie Merchant from being Natalie Merchant is still much appreciated). The original issue, possibly reeling from the musicological import of finally setting orphaned Woody Guthrie lyrics to music, felt a little distant and overly reverential. While a few of the songs were deeply affecting (most notably the slower, quieter ones like "Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key" and "Ingrid Bergman"), the majority seemed to wander down a path of studied restraint. It was as if the musicians were so determined to do up Guthrie right that they abandoned their own strengths, which were almost certainly why the project had been brought to them in the first place.
No longer. Where that one found Bragg and Wilco working around Guthrie, Vol. II sees them working with him, using him as a collaborator rather than an icon (which I'm guessing Guthrie would have preferred). Instead of asking What Would Woody Do?, Bragg and Wilco open up the arrangements wide, enjoying a more relaxed atmosphere and allowing textures that might not have even been imaginable in Guthrie's time. "Secret of the Sea" jangles and skims like latter-day Jayhawks, "Feed of Man" sounds as though it could be an outtake from Kiko, and the gorgeous "Remember the Mountain Bed" intersects Blood On The Tracks with the White Album (with a touch of The River thrown in for good measure) in its portrait of the reverberation of one perfect moment over the span of years. Elsewhere, "Blood of the Lamb" simultaneously evokes both carnival and revival atmospheres, while "My Flying Saucer" is like Johnny Marr at his simplest and most playful.
That playfulness informs most of the album, and a bunch of nonsense songs come across with more conviction than Vol. I's "Hoodoo Voodoo," although maybe that's just because the nonsense of "Joe DiMaggio Done It Again," "Aginst Th' Law," and "I Was Born" is merely limited from line to line; taken as a whole, each captures a moment or defines a political stance or paints a picture, even if only in vague and fractured terms. "I Was Born," in particular, is surprisingly effective; a simple folk melody backed only by Bragg's acoustic guitar, it makes Merchant sound like a precocious (and possibly slow) 10-year old.
It's the cuts with non-nonsense lyrics that are the most substantial, of course. The cranky, Waits-ish "Meanest Man" is a funny and perfect little song that seems to make the point that although civilizing forces such as love, family and friends may be all that prevents us from being sucked into a chasm of brutality and chaos, love, family and friends are enough. The narrator of "Hot Rod Hotel" opts for itinerant joblessness as conveying more dignity than cleaning up after an unspeakable orgy on his boss' orders, while "All You Fascists," representing something like the flip side, is easily the hardest-rocking song about unionization ever recorded. It's "Stetson Kennedy" that offers up the couplet that echoes through the decades, though. "I ain't the world's best writer nor the world's best speller / But when I believe in something I'm the loudest yeller," says both the dead man and the troubadour he inspired half a century later. Bragg's mouth may be forming the words, but it's Guthrie's voice coming through loud and clear. I honestly don't think you could ask for a better definition of collaboration than that. (MH)
(Elektra Records -- http://www.elektra.com/; Billy Bragg -- http://www.billybragg.co.uk/; Wilco -- http://www.wilcoweb.com/)
I Will Live in You Where Your Heart Used to Be
Brady Brock's solo release I Will Live in You Where Your Heart Used to Be is a collection of pop songs written by Brock, each one as a gift for a friend, about the things going on in that friend's life. That fact alone is pretty cool, but I didn't like this CD at first, I have to admit. I was listening to it in my car or while cleaning the house, and I found it rather mediocre and not too interesting. Then I listened to it sitting in my room with my headphones on, and I realized that this is the type of music that really requires concentration. You can't have it on in the background; it must be in the foreground for the listener to fully appreciate its emotionality and the experiences the songs represent. It's the type of music you would listen to after a fight with your beloved, a break up, or just a reminiscence session about a love lost.
Musically, this is acoustic-based pop in the vein of early Elliott Smith, with lyrics and subject matter sure to please any angst ridden emo fan. "I can't move on to bigger things because that was the biggest thing left in me, so I won't," goes the chorus to "Corpus Christi," portraying the desperation and sense of confusion following a devastating loss. Brock's sensitive and lovely vocals lead the way for the guitar-strumming melodies, themselves accompanied by driving basslines. The effect is dramatic and intense, and the feeling it invokes ranges from a sense of urgency to that of a deep melancholy. In the words of Brock himself, these are songs about love and are not necessarily profound, but are about things that everyone thinks about or has gone through. For this reason, everyone can find something that speaks to them in these songs and take comfort in the shared pain, misery, and confusion that is the bittersweet relationship. (NL)
(Feel Records -- P.O. Box 1221, Madison Square Station, New York, NY. 10159; http://www.feelrecords.com/)