Be a Criminal
On Be a Criminal, Garrison is another band that draws the (inevitable) comparison to Braid. Where Braid was satisfied with the hard edge, however, Garrison adds a poppier element to their sound. In this case, they add a few pleasant studio shimmers amid the loud guitars (but not too much), striving more for poppier melodies and leaning less on the angularity.
"Commit, Commit, Commit" builds up to a nice semi-psychedelic ending with phased guitars in a cyclical call-and-response; almost like a pop song, except not quite. "Dump the Body" is another nice near-catchy rock song that pulls a similar production trick -- a little extra guitar and help with harmonies is all it seems to need. "Know the Locale" does the job without anything extra.
Garrison sounds like they could turn all of this into something much bigger if they worked on it, which would probably suit them a little better. As it is, they seem to be going for the near-catchy, which is a little at odds with the poppier direction of some of the songs. And the problem with near-catchy pop songs is they're just almost-catchy pop songs. (HM)
(Revelation Records -- P.O. Box 5232, Huntington Beach, CA. 92615-5232 ; http://revelationrecords.com/; Garrison -- http://garrisonkills.com/)
Whither punk? Quo vadimus? I ask mainly because I was watching with bemused admiration at the punk kids who hang out at the entrance of the Harvard Square T stop when it suddenly occurred to me that they were reenacting a cultural moment that is 25 years past its heyday. Imagine that it's 1980 and there's an active subculture trying their damnedest to look like Elvis and listening to nothing recorded after Buddy Holly went down in Iowa, and you've got the same idea (not to mention the Stray Cats).
I wouldn't be thinking about this if Tyranny were any better. The Generators show up on our doorstep with an appealingly muscular sound and then sneak away, hoping we won't notice that there's no baby in the basket. The album seems to think it's political, but I'll be damned if I can tell what they're against ("tyranny," sure, but from whom, or where?) or for (probably freedom, but against what or to do what, and where?) Most of the great bands from the first wave of British punk (and it is to London, not New York or their native Los Angeles, that the Generators look) had some sort of ideological standpoint: Gang of Four were Marxists; the Buzzcocks were ultramodernists; the Sex Pistols were nihilists whose manager neglected to tell them that they wanted to be Situationists; the Clash were liberal humanists pushed to the brink. Hell, even Elvis Costello was anti-fascist. The Generators, who seem or want to be stuck in the same era, use the language of ideology but, not bothering to actually have one, lack a similar focus, or even a specific target, in their maddeningly vague anthems.
But honestly, the copy of Lipstick Traces on my bookshelf notwithstanding, I couldn't give a damn about punk ideology; my capitalist bent doesn't keep Gang of Four out of my CD player, and I was one of the countless many who'd been listening to The Clash for years before I had the slightest clue what they were even saying, let alone talking about. What ideology provides to those who might need it, on the other hand, is a schtick (for lack of a better word), and if the Generators are going to reenact the past rather than point to the future, they're going to need something concrete to give them character. Tyranny has all the right surface ingredients, but nothing quite adds up. The result is more "Sixty-Eight Guns" than "Janie Jones" (which nonetheless provides the backbone of "Dead at 16"), suggesting that the influence of the Alarm is far greater than I (or they) could have possibly imagined. (MH)
(TKO Records -- 4104 24th Street #103, San Francisco, CA. 94114; http://www.tkorecords.com/)
God Bless The Go-Go's
Having reunited at least three times since their last real album (1984's Talk Show), recording a handful of new songs along the way, the Go-Go's should have by now ironed any kinks out of their system (as well as told them once and for all whether a reunion was really what any of them wanted). And, 14 years after Talk Show revealed itself as one of my all-time favorites, I can safely say that on God Bless The Go-Go's, the band sounds great. So why'd they have to remake Vacation?
Yes, the title track was an immediate band highlight, but the Go-Go's' second album was an obvious time-holder, with a handful of good tunes outweighed by listenable filler. God Bless hearkens back to those heady days. Only "Insincere" rises immediately and easily to the band's legacy. A mid-tempo pop song with a simple but effective guitar hook stolen from some unidentifiable somewhere (maybe just my subconscious), it's about a man who lies, sung by the woman who lets him get away with it but doesn't know why. When Belinda Carlisle, at the end, repeats "Have a nice life," it's both liberating and sad (not to mention hypocritical and ambiguous). The fact that the Go-Go's can toss out a song this all-time worthy for the second reunion in a row is enough to justify the whole endeavor.
"Insincere" isn't the only keeper, though; it just happens to be the best song on the album and the only one that announces itself as an instant classic. "Talking Myself Down" is hooked beautifully by Charlotte Caffey's piano and continues, by dint of its "Caffey/Wiedlin/Hoffs" writing credit, down the slippery slope to Go-Go's/Bangles interchangeability (officially begun when Vicki Peterson sat in for the pregnant Caffey for a bunch of shows in 1994). "Apology," meanwhile, crams the words "I'm sorry" into Belinda Carlisle's mouth without her choking on them (perhaps because the followup line, "I have no regrets," completely reframes the statement), a theme continued by the sweet, album-ending "Daisy Chain." With its candid recap of the band's troubled first incarnation and its tacit gratitude for their second (or is it fifth?) chance, it plays like a four-minute distillation of their infamous VH1 Behind The Music special.
The rest gets the Go-Go's by but doesn't get them far. A bunch of songs on God Bless celebrate, well, Go-Go-ness; this is an album bookended by "Daisy Chain" and the opening "La La Land" ("Hello world, we're here again"), with similar stops along the way. A few others echo previous entries in the band's catalogue; while immediately pegging anything with an automotive metaphor ("Stuck In My Car," which may not be a metaphor, and "Kissing Asphalt," which had better be) as a rewrite of "Skidmarks On My Heart" is admittedly foolish, the similarities between 1994's "The Whole World Lost Its Head" and the new "Throw Me A Curve" are undeniable (although the lyrics, which deride stick-figure models and celebrate the inherent curviness of women's bodies, redeem the effort handily).
Let me repeat, however: the Go-Go's sound great. For one thing, they sound like a band, organic and interconnected, each member sympathetic to the others and willing to complement the music being made. That may seem a needless distinction to make, but plenty of bands squander their second chances through the stubbornness of musicians who feel the need to remind everybody of their independence. The fact that the Go-Go's of 2001 utterly lack this tendency speaks well for everybody's commitment to the band itself. Frankly, though, I was more surprised that Carlisle's still got it in her throat. If anything, in fact, she's stronger than she's ever been, with two decades of experience combining with a slight, age-appropriate deepening to give her a power finally equal to her range.
The anchor, though, is Gina Schock, who has always been the band's unsung (and unsinging) secret weapon (although, considering the number of Go-Go's songs that kick off with just her drums, it's not like they didn't try to point it out). Her surf-rock rhythms are cranked up enough to keep the band flying apace. Still, while the Go-Go's aren't a terrible punk band, they were never a great one, either, but don't tell that to the blaze and fury of the performances (or Billy Joe Armstrong, who wisely, and sheepishly, chooses to stick waaaay to the background in "Unforgiven"). The songs, however, are too eager to listen, desperate to reclaim the Go-Go's' stature as key figures in the legendary L.A. punk scene at the expense of the band's strengths, which have always been in their pop smarts.
So, sure, there's plenty that I miss. Caffey's lead guitar doesn't seem to have the bite or distinctiveness of which she's capable, nor is there much in the way of harmony vocals (never, in fact, one of the band's key ingredients). And some of those songs could've been a bit better (step one: you're a group again, so stop collaborating with outsiders). But, hell, nothing sounds bad. Everything sounds promising. Some of God Bless even sounds great. Knocking on the door of the 21st century in "Sonic Superslide" ("We are your solar sisters / Here to make you shine"), the Go-Go's make inviting them in sound like a pretty good idea. (MH)
(Beyond Music -- 9255 Sunset Boulevard, Second Floor, West Hollywood, CA 90069; http://www.beyondmusic.com/; The Go-Go's -- http://www.gogos.com/)
I read William Gibson's Idoru a while back, a novel in which the plot basically revolves around a completely-manufactured pop star icon (the "idoru" of the book's title); if I remember correctly, she was a virtual being who nonetheless had an army of obsessive fans and made millions, despite being essentially a well-developed animé character. At the time, it sounded pretty far-fetched, but step ahead to 2002, and it's time to take a step back and reevaluate. We now live in an age where two of the most-hyped movies of the last few years are adaptations of video games (the star of one which was essentially already an icon among drooling, adolescent video game fanatics); where The Blair Witch Project had people believing there really was an evil presence out there in the woods killing aspiring filmmakers; where people spend significant chunks of their lives in chat rooms and "virtual" worlds like that of EverQuest; and where so-called "reality TV" shows have the whole freakin' world tuning to watch, well, more obnoxious, usually more attractive versions of themselves duke it out on the little screen. And then there's Gorillaz, a "band" of misfits supposedly discovered living on the streets in London by Damon Albarn and artist buddy Jamie Hewlett.
Albarn & Hewlett have taken the next logical step in the whole trend of invented musical groups, not bothering to go through the process of auditioning and tacking together musicians/singers/dancers, a la The Spice Girls, *NSync and the rest -- instead, they've created a band out of whole cloth, music, image, and marketing scheme included (heck, they even credit the band "members" with writing the songs on their self-titled debut). There's crazy-haired slacker vocalist 2D, Japanese guitar wunderkind Noodle, Satan-worshipping bassist Murdoc, and zombie gangsta DJ/MC Russel, each with their own idiosyncracies and personality, and they've even got a Website that goes deep into the "backstory," so to speak, of the band. How fucking brilliant is that? Sure, the band's just a bunch of cartoon characters, but the pixelated-ness of Lara Croft sure doesn't deter her legions of admirers one bit, so why the hell should the Gorillaz' status as animated characters matter, in this age of blurred distinctions? Gorillaz are just as real as they need to be.
Needless to say, the above would be academic if the music didn't live up to the image, but Albarn and Hewlett have taken care of that side of things by throwing some damn fine real musicians into the mix, including Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, Ibrahim Ferrer (of Buena Vista Social Club fame), mixmaster Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, and even Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth. Hell, the credits take up a whole freakin' page of the CD sleeve, looking more like your average everybody-and-their-brother hip-hop effort than a bizarre electro-pop CD from across the pond. And don't worry, because the aforementioned real musicians deliver the goods. This is an eclectic album, to say the least, weaving from raw, overdistorted punk (the appropriately-titled "Punk") to dark, dub-y Massive Attack-style electronics ("Sound Check") to squirrelly electro-pop (the intensely addictive bumping & squelching of "19-2000").
The CD kicks off with "Re-Hash," which is a smooth-yet-sloppy mess of electronic-tinged pop, nearly a soda-pop jingle in its inane catchiness, then abruptly veers right, into "5/4," a wonderfully off-center stomping rocker that comes off like Blur crossbred with The Grifters (love those raggedy guitars...) "Tomorrow Comes Today" is slower and heavier, and a good deal more melancholy, with an overlaying haze of ganja smoke and a haunting harmonica solo, and its close cousin "Starshine" is similarly dark and distanced, relying on dub bass, minimal piano, and freaky, crackly vocals to evoke the feeling of being stoned out on a spacewalk in the airless void. The dub influence runs throughout, really, popping its head up on tracks ranging from the quasi-spiritual chant of "Man Research" to the happy-sounding "Slow Country" (which even has a cheery melody, a relative rarity here).
"Clint Eastwood" and "Rock The House" angle more towards hip-hop, both old-school-ish jams featuring nice raps by Del Tha Funkee Homosapien (playing the part of the zombiefied Russel, naturally) and bringing to mind the old days of the genre, especially stuff like Run-DMC and Slick Rick. "New Genious" runs yet another divergent line, becoming almost electrified soul/gospel and sounding a bit like Spiritualized doing a Massive Attack cover, while "Double Bass" is a grooving instrumental, odd, reverbed, yet still somehow oddly cheery, with a slapping, vibrating bass anchoring the whole mess, and the weird, heavy-as-hell sample-rock assault of "M1A1" rides off on a rocket to way over in left field. We're talking anything and everything, folks.
It works, thankfully, partly because of the manufactured-ness of the band -- that might be Damon Albarn's voice throughout, yeah, and Miho Hatori and Del are pretty easy to spot, too, but the Gorillaz' separate, concrete personas, set apart from their real-life analogues, make it possible for the folks involved in this to do whatever they want, with no preconceptions. What Gorillaz ends up sounding like, then, is the sound of a new, young band, experimenting with noise the way kids play with paint, and with the style to pull it all off as their own distinctive mixture. The Gorillaz' sound is their own, and it's beautiful; I can't wait to see where this bizarre little experiment goes next. (JH)
(Parlophone Records -- http://www.parlophone.co.uk/; Virgin Records; Gorillaz -- http://www.gorillaz.com/)
That's Not What I Heard
The recipients/victims of an unfair degree of hype in certain indie circles, the Arkansas-born/Olympia-based Gossip have been lauded less for what they are than for what they aspire to be, which is almost always a sign of trouble. The minimalist blues fugues on That's Not What I Heard represent a sort of anti-Beefheart; mining some of the same raw materials as the good Captain, they simplify where he embellishes, clarify where he obfuscates and recapitulate where he invents. And they possess in frontwoman Beth a singer of such vocal force as to apparently blind those who should know better to her clear lack of range, discipline, dynamics, and power, which is not the same thing.
Just as Beth's full-throated belt sounds more like bravado than confidence, so do the lyrics come off more hesitant than she'd like you to believe, sticking pretty staunchly to a salty-girl theme that she never quite pulls off. In the very first track, she confronts what should be a salacious double entendre and fumbles it; exhorting her lover to "swing low, down low, sweet chariot," she immediately defangs the line with a nudging and uncertain, "if you know what I mean." Like it or not, she's set the tone for the entire album less than 30 seconds in.
By then, the music's used up most of its bag of tricks, as well. That's Not What I Heard is not much more than a collection of riffs. Adhering to a completely modular approach to songwriting, the Gossip come up, in every song, with a few parts waiting to be used, repeated and switched around as desired. Each component leads more or less smoothly to the next, which isn't an indication that they know what to play and when to play it so much as a testament to the common ore from which everything on the record is mined. If it all seems to fit, it's because the pieces are interchangeable.
I suppose that it's admirable, in a way, to commit to only using guitar and drums (although I could swear I hear some double-tracking somewhere in there, which, frankly, seems kinda dishonest), but it doesn't really allow for any dynamics whatsoever. The Gossip hit their mark right at the start and don't, or won't, or can't, go up or down. That's Not What I Heard suffers from an utter lack of forward momentum as a result, and the otherwise preposterously skimpy 14 songs in 24 minutes take an awfully long time to elapse. When it was over, I was left with the nagging suspicion that the Gossip left the South not just to find brother- and sisterhood (not to mention sexual freedom) amongst the like-minded punks of the Northwest scene, but very possibly because the blues scene back home knew that they just weren't ready yet. They'll mature, but only if they don't believe their own press and convince themselves that they've already made it. If they can avoid that trap, the Gossip may someday truly be worth talking about. (MH)
(Kill Rock Stars -- 120 NE State Ave. #418, Olympia, WA. 98501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.killrockstars.com/)
Guided By Voices
(with the most effusive apologies to Robert Christgau possible)
Guided By Voices: Isolation Drills (TVT) blame it on the producer (but that's not really it) ("Twilight Campfighter," "The Brides Have Hit Glass") ** (MH)
(TVT Records -- 23 East Fourth Street, New York, NY 10003; http://www.tvtrecords.com/; Guided By Voices -- http://www.guidedbyvoices.com/)