Smokin' Joe Denson
Into The Madness
Usually I think that letting so much gut-wrenching emotion come through in your music is a little embarrassing; Joe Denson, however, is able to pull it off without coming across as a feel-sorry-for-me, self-indulgent, likes-the-sound-of-his-own-agony and wants-you-to-be-just-as-miserable musician...and I love it!
He invites you to travel with him on this rewarding journey into lonesomeness, yearning and bravado without pushing, more like enticing you along...and the funny thing is, it's not the melody that pulls you in, because there is none; it's the contradiction of the emotion of the music and the flat delivery of the lyrics that grab you. By the time the last track hits, after having your insides dissected, you feel whole again...it's a roller coaster ride without the nausea. A must-have for a good friend's get-together, or if you want to feel again.
His gift to the listener is delivered in a package of minor key bluesy riffs with amazing, grinding lead guitar solos. This guy knows what he's doing. From what I read, Mr. Denson has been around a long while, since the time when rock and roll was really rock and roll, and an old-timer like me never misses an opportunity to consume that sort of thing. I would compare him to Ted Nugent, or a really rough, edgy Stevie Ray Vaughan, but given that he is a peer of those icons, it would be in bad taste of me to do so. He stands on his own, and if he reminds me of that time, all the better.
Smokin' is right. (CPl)
(Bi-Polar Records -- 1203 Hopper Rd., Houston, TX. 77037-3526; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Diastemata is a duo from Washington, D.C., comprised of Meade Krosby on guitars and vocals, and Patrick Mucklow on drums. Their music is often melancholic (without being sad), spare, and evokes feelings of looking out the window on a cold day in late fall through the use of clean guitar, somewhat breathy female vocals, and unobtrusive drumming. I usually don't get into this sort of thing very much, but somehow Diastemata have caught me in their web. The guitar playing is really quite inventive in a confident but non-flashy way that I'm finding hard to describe right now, and there's a certain tone in the vocals and the lyrics themselves and their phrasing that seems slightly unusual and special. Sample lyrics: "I've seen stranger things than a boy / And a girl," on "Suckerhole"; "You should watch what you say to me / It's not like I have to stay inside this compromise / Of your / White lies," on "Slope." I have a sneaking suspicion that the vocal style may be somewhat derivative of artists that I don't usually listen to, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt on that count. It should be noted that, according to dictionary.comTM, "diastemata" refers to "a gap or space between two teeth." Although I couldn't tell if this is literally the case with either member of the group, since neither is smiling in their press photo, this is an apt metaphor for a group whose music, through being slightly off-kilter, is guaranteed to charm. (CP)
(Mud Memory Records -- 1654 Monroe St. NW, Washington DC. 20010; email@example.com; http://www.mudmemory.com/; Diastemata -- http://www.diastemata.com/)
All This and Puppet Stew
I was in high school when I came across the movie Killer Klowns from Outer Space. It was an oddball, lo-fi, cheesy horror flick about aliens who looked like circus clowns attacking a small Midwestern town, killing everyone, and preserving them in cotton candy to drink their juices later with oversized curly straws. Needless to say, I loved it, and so did my friends. We even wrote some silly songs based on the movie, so I was shocked when I came across the "soundtrack" to this movie, with songs done by the Dickies. I learned the theme song to Killer Klowns from Outer Space on guitar right away and enjoyed their cover of The Jetsons' song "Eep Opp Ork Ah Ah (Means I Love You)." (Remember that, kiddies?) Anyway, it's a pleasure now to review the Dickies latest release, All This and Puppet Stew, on Fat Wreck Chords. (Props, by the way, to Fat Mike for not only having a great label, but also for still going to local shows here in San Francisco.) Unfortunately, this Dickies album is strong, but not all that memorable. True to the Dickies, clever titles abound: "Howdy Doody in the Woodshed II"; "Whack the Dalai Lama"; "He's Courtin' Courtney"; and "My Pop the Cop," for a few examples. Also, big bonus points for artwork by Shag. After listening to this album a couple of times, I felt that it would be perfect background music for a party -- the songs are upbeat, but they don't grab your attention. One of the best may be "Donut Man," because with this track, we finally hear some hooks with a repetitive chorus and harmonizing "ooohs." Even still, while there's great playing by everyone involved, there just aren't enough hooks for me. Everything stays at one dynamic, making verses and choruses virtually interchangeable. Overall, if you're a Dickies fan and don't expect much other than a solid, upbeat yet unremarkable album, this is for you. (KM)
(Fat Wreck Chords -- P.O. Box 193690, San Francisco, CA 94119; http://www.fatwreck.com/; The Dickies -- http://www.thedickies.com/)
The Dismemberment Plan
The sad, unsurprising truth is that the music industry doesn't like the weird stuff. What the record labels and radio want is the predictable, we-know-the-kids-will-like-it pap that gets cranked out by literally dozens of copycat bands you probably wouldn't look at twice if you caught them playing at your local bar. They all want the sure thing, the safe bet; modern music doesn't have much truck with gambling on unknowns. Now, you'll note that I said the music industry above, not "the public," and there's a reason for that; people, unlike corporations, don't always go for the sure thing, thank God, and the business occasionally gets blindsided when, hey, people discover something the labels didn't know about first. How else do you explain Radiohead, Nirvana, or the Talking Heads, among dozens of others? Say what you will about those bands, they were genuinely non-mainstream for their day (and heck, Radiohead still is), yet they somehow managed to crack mainstream radio wide open. It happens; not often, but it happens.
The Dismemberment Plan are one of those bands, I have a feeling -- they're weird as hell, sure, but they've got this magnetic appeal that, given a shot, could make them gigantic, believe it. It's not even that the music itself is that strange, really, being mostly off-kilter pop with a funky/jazzy bass, but that its used in strange ways. "Sentimental Man," for one, makes me think uncomfortably of the Dave Mathews Band, except that it's actually good, intelligent music, while other tracks bring to mind Midnight Oil or that "Flagpole Sitta" band, Harvey Danger. This stuff could be on the radio, because it dodges the usual traps of obscurity and those "unplayable" indie genres. All it is is smart, well-thought-out, catchy pop, really, with that friendly, warm feel the Flaming Lips always have, not anything-"core," not indie-rock, not No Depression country, none of that. Maybe the Midnight Oil comparison is the most apt; like the Aussies, The Dismemberment Plan are intelligent, know how to rock, and don't have much use for people's preconceptions. They're the kind of band where, even if you don't dig the music, you at least respect what they do, y'know?
For my own part, my opinion of Change goes way beyond mere respect. I was hooked right from the falsetto in "Sentimental Man," thankfully held on for the freaky mandolin and bizarre abduction(?) story of "The Face of the Earth," and rolled right on through the galloping, propulsive "Superpowers," the oddly Supertramp-sounding (and yes, I mean that in a good way) "Pay for the Piano," the energetic, melodic rock of "Following Through," and "Time Bomb"'s desperate, crippling intensity (and damn, what a song that is...). There's nary a badly-thrown ball in this game, seriously. I can't speak for the Plan's past work, but if only I could get 'em on the radio right now, they just might knock those soundalike bands right off the map, at least temporarily. Ah, for a world where "Following Through" or "Superpowers" get played on the Buzz, instead of yet another Pearl Jam/Alice in Chains ripoff... I'd say Change is an apt title; it should serve as a warning/command to the lazy, complacent music business powers-that-be. (JH)
(DeSoto Records -- P.O. Box 60932, Washington, DC. 20039; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.desotorecords.com/; The Dismemberment Plan -- http://www.dismembermentplan.com/)
Don Caballero is a highly efficient instrumental rock machine, and this latest album, American Don, has the usual segments of brilliance scattered among music that is sometimes too busy for its own good. You find yourself pulling for them, as they shift from one bass drum pattern into another, as the time signatures spiral in all directions, and as the guitar pops in and out of the left and right channel in dazzling counterpoint. The album opens with some interweaving guitar lines that are dead ringers for some sort of Albini-ized Belew-era King Crimson.
I've always had a problem with producer Steve Albini's drum sounds, and though he does better than usual here, there's still a certain hollow resonance and faint echo to the skins that gives me too much of an '80s (the decade of bad drum sounds) flashback to be truly satisfying. The 10-minute-long "The Peter Criss Jazz" begins with a musical box tinkling that recurs through the whole piece, around which the band builds a very melodic and dainty groove for the first two minutes. Then it's more of those Crimsonoid double guitar lines shooting back and forth, as riffs are repeated endlessly and beats and bass interlock through more music box tinkles and even some ambient swirls.
"Haven't Lived Afro Pop" offers up a bit of a soulful Beefheartian stomp -- or closer to Magic Band offshoot Mallard -- not grimy like the Captain but sleek and not a little bit flashy. Don Caballero's "trick," demonstrated to perfection on this track, is to lock onto a bass drums groove at one speed, and then add multiple guitar lines -- some at the tracks played at full speed, and others at half speed. Very technically impressive, but they really have no swing; the guitar player displays a bit of flair with his fills, but the drummer might as well be a machine.
Subsequent tracks up the sweat quotient a bit, but not by much. Every track is yet another guitar/drums puzzlebox that meanders for a few minutes and then locks into repetitive and wiry anti-grooves. This music is the equivalent of Frank Zappa's post-Mothers work: intelligent, virtuosic musicians smug with the knowledge of their own superiority. Even the track titles smell of Zappa -- "A Lot of People Tell Me I Have a Fake British Accent", "Details on How to Get ICEMAN on Your License Plate," "Fire Back About Your New Baby's Sex," and the aforementioned "The Peter Criss Jazz." Their impulse to rock out meets my impulse to nod out. (CPz)
(Touch and Go Records -- P.O. Box 25520, Chicago, IL. 60625; http://www.southern.com/southern/label/TCH/index.html)
Experimenting With Contrast
So, in film, it's virtually unheard of that a first-time director comes out the gate with a 3-hour epic. Why? Simple: the costs are prohibitive. Unfortunately, the same principle doesn't apply in music anymore. So, you get willful bits of indulgence by first-time bands like this 74 minute blivit. Somewhere on here, amidst the bloops, repetitions, undoubtedly unauthorized soundbites (if Roger Waters couldn't get approval to use sounds from 2001: A Space Odyssey, there's no way the Dropscience got it) and the half-assed cover of "In The Air Tonight" (memo to all rock bands: if your cover of a Phil Collins song doesn't rock at least as hard as the original, there's really no point)...and yeah, I've lost the sentence structure at this point, but somewhere amidst all this crap is a killer 33 minute album that evokes some of the better moments of Candy Machine, Pitchblende, and Drive Like Jehu. Unfortunately, every song is overstuffed and/or poorly thought out, structurally speaking, and joy is limited to listening to little bits at a time that are pretty great, but meaningless in the context of their songs. If they get their self-indulgence in control, the Dropscience could be a great band (and they might even be that live, without a studio to distract them, though I wouldn't know), but for right now, they're still finding their way. (DD)
(Happy Couples Never Last Records -- P.O. Box 36997, Indianapolis, IN. 46236-0997; http://www.hcnl.com/; The Dropscience -- http://www.thedropscience.com/)
The Alison Effect
Now that I've been out of Houston for a couple years, I can freely admit that there're some things I really miss. Most involve food, but one that doesn't is the Mike Gunn/Dry Nod/Linus Pauling Quartet spectrum of heavy "psychedelic" bands. (I hate that name, and wish I had a better one, but you know what I'm talking about.) Believe it or not, not every city's lucky enough to have a bunch of bands like that around (although, yeah, the Mike Gunn had split up long before I left town, and I'd bet Dry Nod is past tense at this point). But all I'm trying to say is that this great new Dunlavy record, though more pretty and less heavy than the other bands mentioned above (probably largely due to being a two-person effort), makes me really nostalgic for driving around Houston, listening to 18-minute instrumentals with heavy drums and jammy guitars. You probably know whether you're partial to this sort of record in general, although even if you aren't this one just might convince you to give that whole psychedelic space/stoner whatever rock thing another try. ("Sassy" even sort of has a surf feel, strangely enough.) (DD)
(Camera Obscura Records -- Post Office Box 5069, Burnley, VIC 3121 AUSTRALIA; email@example.com; http://www.cameraobscura.com.au/)