The Panoply Academy Legionnaires
No Dead Time
This music will really annoy some people, particularly the voice: high-pitched male, theatrical. And the spastic sounds and quick changes found elsewhere may verge uncomfortably close to prog for the masses. With those caveats out of the way, this is a really good album, pulling from both the wells of Brainiac and Modest Mouse (to reference more recent bands; I bet they probably have some records by Captain Beefheart and DNA as well). I'd love to see these Bloomington kids live, as I imagine they put on a very fun, danceable show. Obligatory life imitates reality notice: just as I'm about to write this, The Onion runs this story on the "Terre Haute" sound. Meanwhile, the press kit contains numerous references to Bloomington (also the home of their label), along with this quote: "Bloomington has quite a few people who are into going to shows, playing shows, booking shows... we would not be able to do what we do if it weren't for the many others that are working to build and maintain this musical community." Tee-hee. Regardless, recommended. (DD)
(Secretly Canadian Records -- 1021 South Walnut, Bloomington, IN. 47401; email@example.com; http://www.secretlycanadian.com/)
MP4 [days since a lost time accident]
Pity poor Michael Penn. In March 2000, he had to watch helplessly as both his wife and his brother were nominated for, and did not win, Academy Awards, creating a diversion that allowed Sony to release and then bury MP4 [days since a lost time accident] in the ensuing confusion. All of the attention devoted to the extended and well-received Acoustic Vaudeville tour that began around that time seemed to focus on the blonder, female half of the bill, despite Penn putting in some excellent performances. And through those days of high hopes followed by dashed expectations and relegation to supporting status, Penn remained as he has been, one of the most gifted songwriters working within the field of pop music for the intelligently bitter.
The best moments of MP4 demonstrate that handily, by playing with more ornate production than Penn usually uses; 1996's "Christmastime," his outstanding duet with Aimee Mann, seems to be the keystone of his current sound. "High Time" gets bigger and bolder as it expands to fill the available sonic space as a way of marking the intersection of past and future and confronting someone who stands indecisively between the two, while the booming production of the opening "Lucky One" is huge from the get-go, with plenty of room for Penn's corkscrew-logical lyrics. The album credits include a "Play Loud" tag, usually reserved for more aggressive music, but it's less an ironic joke than a simple matter of equivalencies: a roomful of instruments went into this record, and therefore the listener deserves a roomful of sound. That the production of some of these songs is so crucial to their quality is less an indication of their gimmickry than proof of how well Penn works with a wide palette.
MP4 has problems, though, and they're not small. The biggest is a truly peculiar resignation imbued throughout, something not isolated to the songs lyrics (not necessarily trouble by itself), but which seeps into their very structure. The album quite simply runs out of steam after "Dont Let Me Go," or, more accurately, during it; after building up to a sublimely pained anguish for the second time, the best song on the album doesn't end so much as stop, over before it's truly done. He coasts from there. In fact, all of MP4 seems to be at a loss for satisfactory conclusions, as too many songs fail to finish properly. "Lucky One" changes entirely from gorgeous Spectorian flourishes to Lennonesque Beatlisms, which don't really belong together ("Instant Karma" notwithstanding). "The Whole Truth," with its anguished leads during the chorus continuing Penn's somewhat surprising career arc as whip-straight gonzo guitarist, sort of dissipates quickly, whereas "Beautiful" takes its time to do the same (the closing "Bucket Brigade," by contrast, seems never quite to begin). It's no big deal if it only happens once or twice (nor would it be a recognizable problem if the songs were no good to begin with), but it's far too prevalent here, repeatedly resulting in a sort of pop song interruptus.
What MP4 is not, then, is a perfect album; Penn has yet to make one of those, although if he'd paid a bit more attention to the last 45 seconds of each song, he'd've come closer than he has on any album except 1992's Free-For-All. It is, however, another occasionally sparkling gem, better, certainly, than 1998's well-intentioned but somewhat lacking Resigned, and with more good songs on it than Madonna's last album. Michael Penn is, whether he means to or not, building up a catalog that will one day feed into one of the great career-encapsulating compilations. I, however, have no use for those cretins who choose to wait for such an easy way out. (MH)
(Epic Records/Fifty Seven Records -- http://www.epicrecords.com/; Michael Penn -- http://www.michaelpenn.com)
Lee "Scratch" Perry
I was a bit apprehensive about this one. Now, like every other indie hipster type music listener on the face of the planet, I dig to no end the early works of Lee "Scratch" Perry, the guy who in case you hadn't heard basically invented dub reggae, but some of the later works of his followers in dub left me a bit cold. Whereas the early stuff was all mixed in real-time from analog tapes of real musicians, put through an analog mixer with tape echo madness on a fader, and sounded great for it, the later stuff seemed to have taken the transition to digital somewhat gracelessly, unimaginatively using drum machines and preset synth sounds. Although this disc, produced by Mad Professor, does sound like it uses the new digital methods, it doesn't suffer for it. Rather, the blend of techno techniques and reggae sensibilities works, held together by the inspired madness of Scratch, who, if it's possible, has gotten even more eccentric in his ramblings than before. Sometimes it's a bit hard to figure out just what he's going on about, as in "Papa Rapa," in which I'm not sure if he's saying, "you won't get no grace with the drum and bass," or its semantic opposite. On "This Old Man" he rhymes about himself to the tune of a nursery song, and various other tracks seem to be decrying the BBC, the Queen, and American agents. The title track deserves special mention as the modern counterpart to Bob Marley's "Punky Reggae Party." If you want to know what's up with Scratch's unique mind at the present time, this is the place to listen. (CP)
(Beatville Records -- P.O. Box 42462, Washington, DC. 20015; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.beatville.com/)
"PHILIA" is a Greek word meaning "friendship and brotherly love." Based partly on that, I get the feeling that PHILIA (always in caps) is one of those bands that puts friendship before music, and who don't have the conflict between members that makes a good band great. This CD is a mishmash of styles and ideas, never quite pulling together into a cohesive album. I'm convinced, as well, that this album was recorded by the band -- sometimes the mix just isn't very good, with a lead guitar jumping out and taking over and generally mushy rhythm tracks. Even the vocals are out of tune sometimes; that's a definite no-no, and if the band can't hear it, they need a producer who can.
So what about PHILIA's music? Well, it's actually a little hard to describe; it's something that sounds very familiar, but I'm lacking the vocabulary to make a direct comparison. The reason, I realize now, is that I just don't listen to this type of music -- Blind Melon is about as close as I can get. This CD is a mix of classic rock influences and whatever is popular on the radio over the last 15 years.
That mix of styles, oddly enough, is what I like about this album, too, because they occasionally lead to a really good hook and the feeling that this band really enjoys making music together, so much so that they will leave in a weak backing vocal to make the guy who sang it feel included. There is some strong playing on this CD; too bad it's lost in a weak mix. PHILIA could be a good band with a strong album, if they would only put some extra attention to the details. (KM)
(PHILIA -- http://www.philiaband.com/)
Even though they're kinda the same album if you squint your ears hard enough, I greatly prefer Fan Dance to Joe Henry's Scar, and I'll admit flat out that this is probably because Sam Phillips is a woman. I am, and have been for a long time, hardwired to respond to female voices in ways that just doesn't happen with men. Sure, I can appreciate great singers regardless of gender, but that pesky double-X vocalizing goes deeper than that for me, to a place where justification sometimes becomes tricky and very possibly moot. And so we have the lovely and ofttimes remarkable Fan Dance, which tunnels so far below my radar that it ultimately nestles in some subverbal cove in my brain. Try though I might to explain it, I run the very real risk of coming across as a gibbering moron.
Before I start rhapsodizing about how Phillips looks like the middle ground between Helen Mirren and Emily Watson, then, I'll try to compose myself and suggest that Fan Dance indicates what happens when a fine and nuanced pop singer opts to work from decidedly non-pop frameworks and styles. The last I'd heard from Phillips was in 1994, when the straightforward, poppish "I Need Love" enjoyed a too-brief run on discriminating radio stations, throwing Martinis and Bikinis onto my to-buy list, where it remains to this day. Fan Dance, on the other hand, can be jarring at times and not merely in the context of that song, which might as well have come from another planet (that is, ours). "Edge of the World" is gothic oompah, "Wasting My Time" is the sound of three cellos gasping for air, and what few songs don't dispense with percussion altogether (such as the spare and gorgeous "Love Is Everywhere I Go") are backed by drums so rudimentary that they barely register.
It's when Phillips opens her mouth that everything holds together and such distinctions seem petty and ignorant. "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be," she avers in "Taking Pictures," and the slightly facile sentiments (deep enough to make a catchy bumper sticker, but little more) are utterly transformed by a voice that sounds like honey pouring through molasses, tugging on the words until their literal meaning is completely superceded by the sound of a woman dripping syllables into your subconscious. It's a voice that I'd listen to recite the five Ws, and Phillips so clearly knows it that she gives us "Is That Your Zebra?" just to show off. In tandem with the stark but oddly warm instrumental backdrop, the result is what Robert Christgau calls "googlefritz" (although I notice that he failed to find it here), which is to say that at its most truly fundamental level, music is nothing more or less than magic, or mathematics, neither of which I purport to be able to explain. But I know them when I hear them. (MH)
(Nonesuch Records -- http://www.nonesuch.com/)
I didn't think I was going to like this. Pleasant Grove looked like a bad Phish-type jam band to me, and I guess that's what I get because, boy, was I wrong -- this is a really good album. Pleasant Grove actually play some very moody "Americana" music, in the vein of Wilco or Son Volt. Not poppy, really, but dark, slow and sad, with some rough edges that add to the homey feeling of this disc. Out of tune harmonies and too-loud distorted guitar solos all add to the ambiance of this excellent disc. (KM)
(Last Beat Records -- 2819 Commerce St., Dallas, TX. 75226; http://www.lastbeatrecords.com/; Pleasant Grove -- http://www.pleasantgrovemusic.com/)
Goodnight by Pleasure Forever is a great record, chock-full of the dark fantastic. Listening to it gives you that feeling of sinister goodness that makes you want to wake before dawn and put your boots on. The title track, "Goodnight," has a murderous heartbeat to it, like a pace car in a funeral procession. "Curtain Call for a Whispering Ghost" reminds me of Skeleton Key, with its menacing harmonies and off-the-beaten path timing. "Our Way" is what the Lords of the New Church could have sounded like, if Stiv Bators wasn't such an opportunist. An alternate version of "Goodnight" closes the EP (which is apparently sort of a "sampler" from their self-titled full-length), so if you're listening to this record as you go to sleep, you have no one but yourself to blame for what terrible thoughts creep into your dreams.
As for the band themselves, Pleasure Forever was formerly known as Slaves, who put out a record on Houston's own Love Letter Records. They recently toured with The Damned, appropriately enough. They're not your typical rock band, in that the songs are based around the piano, drums, guitar, and vocals, but don't let that deter you -- you should listen to this band because you will love this band. (BD)
(Sub Pop Records -- Sub Pop Records -- 2514 Fourth Ave., Seattle, WA. 98121; http://www.subpop.com/)
Robert Pollard with Doug Gillard
Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department
Pollard, of course, is the heart of Guided By Voices, and Gillard is his most-recently-recruited guitarist for that band. Now that Guided By Voices is trying to make it big or something and get their records to be polished within an inch of their life, Pollard apparently needs another outlet for his more rock-oriented songcraft. Perhaps that's why, despite the name, this is the best Guided By Voices record in a long time. By getting rid of the recent plague of excess production, while simultaneously eschewing the intentionally absurdly lo-fi approach of some of the early GBV and other Robert Pollard records, Pollard's distilled the presentation of his songs into probably my favorite setting to date. And the songs are some of the best. Even when the lyrics are thoroughly inane -- and I'll take money that there wasn't a worse lyric by a respected musician in 1999 than "Call him Max/Send him a fax/Charge him no tax" (from "Pop Zeus") -- they come with a pop rush or a rock charge (or an anthemic sway) that reminds you of every reason you ever liked classic rock, and makes you wish every musical experience was that visceral. (DD)
(recordhead -- 1521 W. 86th St., Indianapolis, IN. 46260; email@example.com; http://www.lunamusic.net/rechead/; Robert Pollard -- http://www.gbv.com/)
Til I Die
When presenting your music to an audience that doesn't speak the language, you often have to rely on the spirit of the music to carry the message. Keeping this in mind, Potshot's Til I Die is hard, fast, utterly unintelligible punk-flavored ska powered by a lot of enthusiasm.
Originally, I approached this CD with some misgivings. I own several Japanese-language albums, mostly soundtracks, and sometimes the mix works and sometimes it doesn't (my brother Craig does a very funny impression of a pidjin English poppy anime theme song that goes something like "Kissy boy good luck for you"). The English track listing prepared me for the worst (including a song simply named "Mexico"), but I shouldn't have worried. If the members of Potshot are attempting English, good luck finding it.
Til I Die covers all the bases, from "that-sounds-like-it-hurt-to-play" punk heavily-laden with heaping helpings of "whoa-ohs" to groovy instrumental ska with tons of brass. The members of Potshot can certainly handle their instruments. The vocals are right in line with what you would expect when Japanese is sung that quickly (the consonants tend to disappear, leaving the lead singer to sound like he is belting out "ah-ah-oo-oo-ah-ow"). The songs don't really tread on any new ground and stick to the formula of drums first, then guitars, and then brass. Without some sort of lyrical reference, after two rotations the songs pretty much all blended together.
Certain aspects of music survive translation regardless of language, though. If the album sounds like the band had a lot of fun, you, too, are probably going to enjoy the album -- and that's where Potshot's strength lies. Language be damned, they're gonna rock. The album has an energy that will get your head bopping and your fingers drumming the steering wheel of your car even as you think, "What the hell did that guy just say?"
Now for a word of caution -- Potshot probably isn't for everybody. Even if you really dig punk or ska, Potshot requires a certain level of patience and dedication. Think of it as ska off the beaten path (at least for American audiences). Keep an open mind and youll do just fine. (CH)
(Asian Man Records -- P.O. Box 35585, Monte Sereno, CA. 95030-5585; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.asianmanrecords.com/; Potshot -- http://www.ukproject.com/potshot/index.html)
What Lies Ahead
I really wouldn't want to run into these Oakland hardcore veterans -- I just wish the guitar sound on this record matched their mean and nasty look. The production on this CD is flat and lacks character -- the vocals dominate each track, and distract from the crunchy riffs and beats we should be rocking out to. Half the tracks are played at a Mötörhead/near-Slayer speed, but otherwise these songs stick to that head-bouncing rhythm so prevalent in these post-Korn and -Bizkit days.
"Bullet Proof" has certain anthemic possibilities -- rap-like verses with a punchy sing along chorus -- and I'd bet it goes down great in a live situation; a decent toasting breakdown adds a unique flavor to an otherwise formulaic tune. Unfortunately, the riffs don't really jump out at you -- the attitude is right, the metallic-hardcore songwriting is there, and there are enough unique moments to give the listener some hope, but the production is lacking. The guitars should jump out of the mix and bite the ear with the same ferocity as the vocals. (CPz)
(Resurrection A.D. Records -- P.O. Box 763, Red Bank, NJ. 07701 ; http://www.resurrection-ad.com/)
vocal studies + uprock narratives
Largely a one-man creation, Prefuse 73 synthesizes DJing, noisemaking, and studio production into a seamless beat-based sound. A little too seamless, perhaps: I found that, despite several listens, very little from this stuck to my ribs. While populated with many instrumentals, vocal contributions from folks all over the place (Aesop Rock to Sam Prekop) help add some hooks into some of the tracks. Overall: good background music, hasn't captured my mind in the foreground yet, but worth further attention. (DD)
(Warp Records -- 503 8th Avenue, 4th Floor, Brooklyn, NY. 11215; email@example.com; http://www.warp-net.com/)
Revenge Is Easy
Wooohooo! (metal sign) Rock 'n' effin' roll! (air guitar, then hold beer and swing hair around in circular motion) Puny Human definitely falls into the "stoner rock" subgenre inhabited by Kyuss, Clutch, Monster Magnet and Fu Manchu, and these are the influences one notices most upon listening to Revenge. Stoner rock has, for the most part, never been groundbreaking or original, and often self-cannibalizing, but usually it provides a modicum of entertainment value. Puny Human is definitely good at what they do, which is a combination of Fu Manchus wah/fuzz, Kyuss compositional skills, Clutch's vocal delivery, and Tad's "thwomp." Once in a while they even evoke the Misfits, C.O.C, Blue Cheer and Aerosmith (you know which period of Aerosmith I'm talking about) -- the hidden track even happens to be an Aerosmith cover ("Rock in a Hard Place"). Nothing really challenging, but this is only their first album (hey, it took Tool three albums to make Lateralus). I'd actually like to see what these guys could come up with if they got spacey and experimental like Tool, Clutch, or even Hum, because I can tell that the musicianship is there, and it could lead to some interesting stuff. As it stands, Revenge Is Easy is a good listen, albeit a bit of a one-note outing. (MHo)
(Small Stone Recordings -- P.O. Box 02007, Detroit, MI. 48202; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.smallstone.com/; Puny Human -- http://www.punyhuman.com/)