The Essential Radio Birdman (1974-1978)
The language of record reviews is usually filled with comparison to other musical entities. I have many theories why this is, but one is because using adjectives like "loud," "soft," "noisy," or what-have-you are subjective -- one man's Goo Goo Dolls is another man's Merzbow when it comes to "noisy," for instance. In theory, comparison to existing musical entities is potentially more objective. One big problem with the "sounds like (insert band name here)" comparison (of many), however, is the implication of some kind of stylistic debt to those entities. So, if I say Radio Birdman evokes the best parts of the Stooges and the Buzzcocks in my ears, for instance, it's certainly not because of any chronological debt to the Buzzcocks (the Stooges, I'm not so sure of). Probably those more schooled in old-school punk and its predecessors can draw the lineage more cleanly.
What I really want to say is this: Radio Birdman works with relatively minimal and primitive musical tools to tear the shit out of things, in a way that seems primal today but that few bands today can emulate. Why do I like the Buzzcocks but no current bands that "sound" like the Buzzcocks? I dunno -- maybe its because today's punk bands are playing from the rule book, instead of scrapping together their own -- but I can say the same thing for Radio Birdman: I can't think of any band now that I like much that sounds like this, but this classic set of tracks is essential for anyone who ever loved anything about punk rock. (DD)
(Sub Pop Records -- 2514 Fourth Ave., Seattle, WA. 98121; http://www.subpop.com/; Radio Birdman -- http://www.radiobirdman.com/)
It's September 13th, 2001, and I haven't done much of anything for the past two days except flip between various news and discussion sites on the Internet. At some point yesterday, it occurred to me to see if John Darnielle (he of The Mountain Goats, of the interview I did) had anything up at his site, Last Plane to Jakarta (www. ...oh, hell, you can figure out the rest), about the events of 9/11 and subsequent occurences.
As it happened, he didn't, but he had a bunch of stuff about Amnesiac up there. I picked up Amnesiac the day it came out, eager for the reputed "return to rock." It wasn't there, as we all probably know by now. I listened to it a few times at low volumes on headphones at work, and pretty much dismissed it. I think I said things like "warmed over electronica," and "roughly equivalent to Pablo Honey in terms of quality."
For somebody who loves music, and owns a lot of music, I often find I don't listen to it a lot. I hear a lot of music, yes, but oft-times it's background in one way or another. I rarely shut everything else in my brain down, sit in front of the speakers and listen to a record without distractions. Hell, there's precious few things I don't multi-task. The closest I get is when I'm driving (which is undoubtedly disheartening to other drivers, but it beats cell-phone conversations).
So, I figured it was time to give it another listen; had to go out to Guitar Center to buy some extra sticks and a DAT for our show tomorrow. Load Amnesiac in the changer, get in the car, and instantly I'm surrounded by this clicking and chattering. It's totally uncomfortable, and totally enveloping. Thom starts muttering "I'm a reasonable man, get off my case," and what sounded at low volumes like a whiny rock icon sounds at high volumes for all the world like the voice of a postal worker pushed to the edge and full of bile and barely containing himself.
And I realize that the difference between listening to this record at low volumes and listening to it at high volumes is the difference between looking at a swamp and jumping headfirst into one. And I realize that every record has its certain context in which it makes the most sense, and this record belongs in a confined space, so that you feel totally oppressed, like the little guy with his hands over his face on the cover.
And I hit the Fremont Bridge, and you won't know what this looks like, but it's massive with a big arch, and both flags (US and Oregon state) are flying at half-mast, and the piano of "Pyramid Song," with its uneven paranoid feel, kicks in, and I start to wonder if I intentionally avoided listening to this loudly before because I knew just how grueling it might be, and I'm not sure I'm going to make it over the bridge.
Obviously, I did, because I made it back to write this. I could go on about the crushing weight of "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors," or the drowning wail of Yorkes voice on "You and Whose Army?," or the sheer fucked-up catastrophic feel of "Dollars and Cents," but you get the idea. People are getting bomb threats left and right. The one piece of news that people were happy about (the five guys who supposedly survived in the SUV for two days under the WTC rubble) appears to be a mistake as of now. Americans are arbitrarily attacking Arab-Americans in the streets. It's a fucked up world, and this is about the only thing that seems to reflect the world accurately just now.
So, if you're like me and wrote this off as "weirder than Kid A" (or some other convenient sound-bite that would be useful at parties) and filed it away, put it on again. Loud. It may not feel good, but it'll probably feel right. And it'll be pretty clear that, despite being stripped of so many of the qualities that made other Radiohead records the experiences that they were, this is an unconditionally great record. (DD)
(Parlophone Records -- http://www.parlophone.co.uk/; Radiohead -- http://www.radiohead.co.uk/)
A Better Version of Me
If we ignore anything as simplistic as actual beats per minute, then Ranier Maria offer up a fascinating dichotomy, as the slow songs on A Better Version Of Me are (with one exception) the least interesting, while the fast ones are (with one half-exception) the best. Their songs seem to demand movement, which is stalled or delayed by a more pensive tempo. As evidence, simply compare "Artificial Light," the shining opener, with "Spit And Fire" seven songs later. They are built from almost identical materials, but the momentum of Kyle Fischer's guitar and William Keuhn's drums makes "Artificial Light" shiver with intensity (and thus I categorize it as a fast number) in a way that "Spit and Fire" won't acknowledge until halfway through when it gives up and begins leaping.
The best songs simply crackle with energy, like the closing "Hell And High Water." Over an instrumental bed that skips like a stone across the surface of a lake, bassist Caithlin Demarrais declares, "I've seen the girl who'll pick up where I leave off... She's a better version of me," and while I think she's convinced that she's catching a glimpse of her own future self, confronting the maturity and the death of the present that that entails, there's also an undeniably clear pre-breakup song in there if you want it, one that focuses on the sadness and frustration of impending romantic replacement. Both topics individually make a swell enough song (although my interpretation probably makes me a bit shallower than Demarrais's makes her), but the fact that each is embedded in the other is quite remarkable.
That nested double-meaning dovetails nicely with Rainer Maria's goal, which is, I think, to have every receptor, pleasure, pain, joy, sadness, everything, activated simultaneously and primed to the fullest. That's helped out immensely by Fischer, who somehow manages to make his guitar sound like a series of synth loops, no big deal when playing single-note lines but quite an impressive feat when playing full and ringing chords (see "Save My Skin" and "Artificial Light"). His swooping guitar also helps to redeem "The Seven Sisters" (the slow=boring exception), staving off the lugubriousness of "Ceremony" or "Atropine" (remember that title), although Demarrais's vocals are probably more important, soaring up to the heavens to which she swears she belongs. It's the only slow song on which she's allowed to be impassioned, and it benefits immeasurably.
The fast=good quasi-exception, meanwhile, is "The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets," which coasts along on a breezy melody as Fischer takes the title uncomfortably literally ("That there is Walt Whitman's pen," etc.). But then an odd thing begins to occur, as the music continues on but begins to pare itself down until Demarrais is left almost alone trying to comprehend the horrors of mortality: "Slammed to the back of your head... How can you deal with that kind of information?" This part of the song wants what the first part can't give it, so it just takes it from elsewhere.
And so A Better Version Of Me is uneven in the best possible way, as my desire for the less interesting songs to move on has as much to do with what I'm waiting to hear as with what's playing at the moment. One thing inexplicably makes me curious, though. In attempting to determine whether they mispronounce "atrophy" (they don't, exactly, but that doesn't make them any less willfully obscure), I discovered, oddly, that the word immediately following it in my dictionary (Mirriam-Webster Collegiate, 10th edition) is "atropine" ("a racemic mixture of hyoscyamine obtained from any of various solanaceous plants (as belladonna) and used esp. in the form of its sulfate for its anticholinergic effects (as pupil dilation or inhibition of smooth muscle spasms)"). Which begs the question: who's the bigger word geek, the band that would make such an arcane joke or the listener who actually spots it? (MH)
(Polyvinyl Record Co. -- P.O. Box 1885, Danville, IL. 61834; email@example.com; http://www.polyvinylrecords.com/; Rainer Maria -- http://www.rainermaria.com/)
out of the races and onto the tracks
Now here's a band that's playing from their own rulebook. The Rapture formula -- if there is one -- pulls bits from The Fall, Gang of Four, Drive Like Jehu, The Make-Up, The Birthday Party, and who knows what else into their own blender. The result isn't at all pre-digested, which is a good thing. However, it doesn't seem entirely focused yet, either; I kept wishing the results were a bit more energetic and immediate than they would turn out to be, and after numerous listens, it still hasn't really gelled for me. That doesn't keep them from being a band to watch, however, and fans of the aforementioned bands should certainly keep their ears open for The Rapture. (DD)
(Sub Pop Records -- 2514 Fourth Ave., Seattle, WA. 98121; http://www.subpop.com/)
Red Animal War
Breaking In An Angel
If Flemming Rassmussen were to produce an emo band, Breaking In An Angel would be the result. Red Animal War is a band solidly based in intricacies, and I would venture to say that this album has just as many time, riff, and thematic changes as ...And Justice For All. Take that as you will, but if you let it frighten you away, it's your loss. Red Animal War are complex, but never obtuse; they know when to bring out the rock, and they know when to keep it behind their backs, hidden, but ready to brandish at you at any time. Their more jangly moments are reminiscent of Jawbox, or even Superchunk, while the heavier moments veer towards labelmates Brandtson. There's even a track that makes me think of some of those less-metallic Quicksand b-sides ("Starter"). Judging from their promo picture, these cats are still on the upside of 25, so I think they have a long and prosperous indie-rock career ahead of them, especially with a full length that's this well-realized so early on in their career. (MHo)
(Deep Elm Records -- P.O. Box 36939, Charlotte, NC 28236; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.deepelm.com/; Red Animal War -- http://www.redanimalwar.com/)
I really wanted to like it. Really. You can tell he means it, and that should count for something, right? But I can't buy it. Maybe it's the over-slick production quality. Maybe it's because it reminds me of many things I've heard before and associate with vapid times. Maybe it's because a few of the more rousing tunes could be in a future Sounds of the Naughts or Jock Jams compilation. It's not even terrible enough to be really offensive.
According to the press release, Reese has been touted as the "next big thing" and "a young Richie Havens." Maybe so. Perhaps someday you'll even be shaking your rump to this "rock with the spirit and vibe of hip hop" in a sports bar. (AP)
(Exile Records USA -- 31 East 31st Street, 11th Fl., New York, NY. 10016 ; email@example.com; http://www.exilerecords.com/)
Stars & Hank Forever!
This CD is a digitally remastered reissue of The Residents' 1985 release, which was the second volume in their "American Composer Series." The first half of the disc consists of creepily foreboding twisted circus carnival versions of songs of the great country musician Hank Williams -- instead of the crying-in-my-drink sadness of the originals, with these versions the DTs have come in full force, distorting reality into a hideous and scary place. The second side of the disc features Residents renditions of tunes by that great composer of famous marches, John Philip Sousa. The twisted circus carnival sound is back, but this time seems to be of a more gleefully twisted nature than the foreboding of the first half, perhaps due to the respective source materials. This is not the sort of thing you hear much of these days, although you probably didn't back in the '80s either, I suppose. I think the Sousa half would probably work very well as music to accompany animation. Overall, an interesting album, but not one I see myself listening to too frequently -- although for Halloween it can't be beat. (CP)
(East Side Digital -- Postbox 7367, Minneapolis, MN. 55401; http://www.noside.com/; The Residents -- http://www.residents.com/)
The Sugar Tree
I once had the distinct pleasure of sitting pretty much literally at Amy Rigby's feet as she performed "Magicians." It was a new song at the time; Amy may in fact have just written it, since her band sat it out, leaving just her and an acoustic guitar. Nobody in the audience had heard it before, but we were happy to listen, since Amy Rigby's not really the type of artist that has hits to cheer for (a situation with benefits as well as drawbacks). And the song, which captures the last moment of the night (or relationship, if you're so inclined) when nothing exists but two people, was beautiful and devastating. When she finished to enthusiastic applause, all I could think to say, knowing that I was close enough that she would hear me, was "Very nice."
A massive understatement in reference to that performance, but my comment is, however, a fair assessment of the full arrangement that appears midway through The Sugar Tree, which doesn't fully capture the song's majesty. And the strangest thing about it -- and the most egregious flaw recurring throughout the entire album -- is Amy's voice, which is subjected to so much double-tracking and effects and (most problematic) what sounds to be inexplicable self-restraint that you start to wonder just where she actually is. Amy is such a clear communicator, accessing such an wide range of emotions with unsettling directness, that anything that gets in the way is a liability.
There is good news, though, in that there's plenty for Amy's vocals to work against, which makes The Sugar Tree a complete switcheroo from 1998's wonderful Middlescence. Amy's band is fired up and ready, not to mention a touch more stylistically consistent; veer though they might from the bouncy 1960s-style girl-group pop of "Better Stay Gone" to the New Orleans stomp of "If You Won't Hang Around" by way of the C&W propulsion of "Rode Hard," the record maintains a strong sense of sonic cohesion throughout.
Best of all, when Amy's on, songwriting-wise, she's as terrific as ever. "Stop Showing Up In My Dreams" is an almost perfect garage-rock song; drop the quivery guitar and even the arrangement is dead-on, right down to the guitar solo (the marvelously hallucinogenic lyric, in which Amy, dazed by her man leaving, ends up as a half-crazed bellhop, is another story altogether). "Cynically Yours" festoons the purloined skeleton of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" with a sigh of utter resignation, the sound of two tired people sharing the only wedding vows that they know in their hearts that they can keep (it starts, "You know I love you one hundred percent/Of the amount I'm capable of loving you...," and then drops like a stone from there). Best of all is the anthemic "Balls," in which Amy confronts the rat-bastard who keeps breaking her heart without really telling him to take a hike. The perfectly-realized second verse surely deserves some sort of award; the setup is hysterical, but the payoff rhyme clinches not just the joke but the point, raising the stakes of both in the process.
The problem, as I see it, is that, having heard many of these songs in a live setting, I know that they all benefit from simpler arrangements, an uncluttered vocal sound and a more confident Amy. Unlike the rest of her astonishing oeuvre, The Sugar Tree sounds as though its made a few concessions, from the inclusion of, let's face it, a few sappy tunes (certainly "Angel After Hours," and probably "Happy For You,"as well) to the occasional suppression of personality in the name of presentability (the closer, "Sleeping With The Moon," is lovely but not heartbreaking, a first for her). Defeat, however, is one concession she's not willing to make just quite yet. (MH)
(Koch Records -- http://www.kochrecords.com/; Amy Rigby -- http://www.amyrigby.com/)
United By Fate
Rival Schools & Onelinedrawing
Rival Schools United By Onelinedrawing
New End Original
Far, Quicksand, Texas Is The Reason. All three bands, in their own way, helped to define the post-hardcore musical landscape. All three bands also imploded upon themselves, burning fast and bright, each seemingly on the cusp of breaking wide open. People from each outfit began following their own muses -- Quicksand's Walter Schreifels experimented with various musicians (including Arty from Errortype: 11 and Norm and Chris from TITR) under the moniker World's Fastest Car, then reunited with Quicksand, who promptly broke up again. Far's Jonah Matranga brought his Onelinedrawing solo project to the front burner, amazing his old fans with his eclecticism and garnering new ones in the process. Norm Arenas from Texas Is The Reason moved to Chicago, tried out for the Foo Fighters (as did Shaun from Far), and so on and so on, ad infinitum. Slowly but surely, things began to happen. New alliances were formed, and old ones rekindled. New songs were written and old ones retooled. Tours were booked. Word of mouth began to spread. The indie rock community became very, very excited. And with good reason.
Rival Schools features Walter on guitar and vocals, Sammy Siegler (ex-Civ) on drums, Cache Tolman (ex-Civ, Iceburn) on bass, and Ian Love (ex-Burn) on guitar. Imagine a catchier, less metal Quicksand, filtered through Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, with a little texture guitar a la My Bloody Valentine thrown in. Sound pretty good? It is. Songs like "Used For Glue" and "The Switch" evoke fond memories of the Q word, while tracks like "Undercovers On" and "World Invitational," with its dub/dancehall bassline, take the power rock formula and build on it, creating an interesting mix of the old and new. All the musicianship is top notch: Siegler (a third-generation drummer) lays down complicated patterns without showing off; Tolman grooves with some funky basslines; Love's effects wizardry is just sick (you should see the man do all this stuff live for a really mind-blowing experience); and Schreifels...well, anyone familiar with his past work knows the man and his distinctive lyrical, vocal and guitar style. He definitely gets to show more range here than with his past projects, and he proves to be not only a dynamic vocalist, but a pretty good singer as well. One of the three best albums this year, in my opinion.
A while back, Walter, Sammy and some other cool NYC folk decided to start up Some Records, home to Errortype: 11, Cutlass Supreme, and J Majesty, to name a few. The label then decided to do a series of EPs, whereupon they would place artists that shared a mutual respect for one another together in the studio and see what came out. Rival Schools United By Onelinedrawing is the first of that series, and was released shortly after United By Fate. When Jonah Matranga did a stint as Onelinedrawing at last year's CMJ, it provided the perfect opportunity for such a collaboration. Jonah sang/played on Rival's tracks, or they played on his tracks, and at the end of the day came this six- (actually five, get to that in a minute) song EP. It showcases a decidedly different side to Rival Schools; with the exception of "Take One For The Team," the tracks on here aren't necessarily as straightforward as those on their full length. There's even a song with a y'allternative/insurgent country feel to it ("Where I'm From"). Jonah sings lead on two tracks, "Always" and "Be Real"...with Rival behind him and Walter singing backup, it makes for a pretty good listen, although not quite the meeting-of-the-luminaries nirvana that one would hope for. I do wish the EP had a couple more songs; as I mentioned earlier, the EP is technically only five tracks, as "Green Is Good" is more of a tease intro than a song proper. I would also like to see what these guys could come up with if they had some time to work on and lay down some tracks, rather than go into a one-off session and hope for the best. As it is, though, it's pretty good for a novel listen, but I wouldn't spin it as much as the other, separate works.
Then there's New End Original. Around the time that the Rival/Onelinedrawing EP was getting ready to drop, Jonah made a few teaser remarks on his Website about being part of a new band. The lineup announcement was slow in coming, but when it did, the messaging on Jonah's Website reached a fever pitch. New End Original also features Charlie Walker (ex-Split Lip), Scott Winegard (ex-TITR), and the aforementioned Norman Arenas, and from what I understand, not much time passed between everyone meeting in the same room for the first time and the band's first show at the March 2001 Noise Pop Festival. It doesn't seem to matter one bit, though, as live reviews for the band have all been stellar, with little to no lament over members' former projects. No surprise then that New End's debut CD, Thriller, is simply amazing. The guys take all of the best aspects of Texas, Far, and Split Lip, mash it all up, add some Radiohead-like textures and make a powerfully beautiful pop masterpiece that every single person should own a copy of. Seriously, you've got everything you could want here from chunky power pop ("Lukewarm" and "14-41"), to the acoustically sublime ("The Name"), even a non-cheesy love song ("#1 Defender"). Those song titles may sound familiar to fans of Onelinedrawing, but I'll steal a page from Tim Burton's book and call them "reimaginings" rather than "remakes"; there's just something about a full band (and some palm muting) that brings a different energy to the compositions. Throughout Thriller you'll also find soaring vocal melodies, air-guitar worthy riffs, and awesome snare-intensive drum work. Highly, highly recommended listening, and another of my three best albums of 2001.
Finally, the latest release from Onelinedrawing (and first full-length), finds Jonah opting for a decidedly more mellow approach to his solo material than that found on the Sketchy EPs. A few of the tunes will be familiar to fans of Onelinedrawing ("Um...," "Your Letter"), but most are featured here for the first time, aside from them cropping up once in a while in Jonah's live set. Despite the decidedly "low-key" mood of the album (or "context" as Jonah suggests in the liner notes), the material is still captivating and beautiful, and serves as a fine showcase for the man's songwriting talent (with a little help from his erstwhile R2-D2 drum machine). It may take a couple of spins for those listeners used to Onelinedrawing's energetic pop stylings to warm up to Visitor, but it's worth your time. Better yet, get all these albums and put the CD player on random. It'll be one of the best playlists anyone could come up with. (MHo)
(Island Records -- http://www.islandrecords.com/; Some Records -- 51 Macdougal Street #458, New York, NY. 10012 ; http://www.some.com/; Jade Tree Records -- 2310 Kennwynn Rd., Wilmington, DE. 19810; http://www.jadetree.com/; Rival Schools -- http://www.rivalschoolsunite.com/; New End Original -- http://www.newendoriginal.com/; Onelinedrawing -- http://www.onelinedrawing.com/)
So let's peel back the skin and talk about how this ugly business really works. When I first started reviewing records for Space City Rock, it was pretty straightforward: I wrote about records that I loved that I bought with my own bucks. But, eventually, if a magazine gets enough respect, people start sending it free CDs to review. The reasoning is pretty solid: there's way too much product out there, so any edge helps, and a good review is a great foothold. And if a small publication champions a record, that can be used to promote it to slightly larger publications, and so on. And then big publications write about it eventually, and you become as popular as Yo La Tengo or something.
But there's a drawback to this: instead of writing about it, the magazine may just ignore it, or, even worse, sell it to their local used CD store. (I say "worse" because the record label has spent money on shipping it out that they'll never get back, although given how difficult distribution is, sometimes that's the only way to get the CD into record stores. But we're really talking about labels that have some form of distribution, here.) To prevent this outcome, your record label may write "PROMO" on the front, or not include the disc packaging, or send it on a CD-R. While I tend to believe that there is a value to evaluating a CD by its complete package and get annoyed when the packaging is debased or absent, I can sort of understand this approach.
However. There arises another problem for the savvy record label that's trying to get press. Let's say they're in the enviable position of having people care enough about their music that others might want to hear it before release date. Or they're concerned that their discs might get bootlegged. Or that people will upload it to [insert whatever MP3 trading service is currently not shut down by the RIAA].
So the folks at Definitive Jux have come up with what I can only assume they think is a genius way around this problem. Namely, they have a synthesized voice come on every 15 seconds to a minute and warn the listener that they're listening to a promo.
Now. I was able to get around this for the El-P CD, maybe because I assumed it was a weird quirk of that CD. But when Jeremy [the editor, that is] shipped me this round of Def Jux, and I heard this voice constantly...well, I just can't give these things a fair review. The only analogy that I can think of is trying to watch a movie, and having a guy wander on screen every minute, stand in front of the action, and yell "This is Promobot 3000! Boshizzle foshizzle! And I swear ..." I can say that RJD2 is largely instrumental, with grooves somewhere between R&B and a spy movie, while Mr. Lif is a political rapper, and that I'll probably buy one or more of the Mr. Lif records but probably not the RJD2, unless I find it used at a good deal. But I can't fairly say how Mr. Lif stacks up to, say, Aesop Rock, or provide other comparative information that would help you in your decision making. And I can also say that I'm not going to bother reviewing any more Definitive Jux releases that come in this way. This is silly. (DD)
(Definitive Jux Recordings -- http://www.defjux.net/)
A Rollins in the Wry
I like Henry Rollins. I think that as a whole, he's a sort of love-or-hate thing, with not much middle ground, and I guess I fall in the "love" camp, at least at this point. I can't say I care much for his band (which sounds mostly like warmed-over, slightly amped-up blues-rock, to me), but as a person, and as a writer/philosopher/comedian, he's great. It sounds strange, but I think I probably feel some sort of empathy with the guy; he's extremely self-effacing, very intelligent, unlucky in love, a little bit stuck in the still-a-kid stage, and, well, he basically comes off like a geek with muscles and tattoos, something I can definitely empathize with (not that I've got muscles or tattoos, mind you, but you get my point). Rollins isn't some arty poet out to be the next Jack Kerouac, but just some guy who likes to write and talk, and who seems continually mystified that people actually want to hear him talk. And why? Well, there's the incisive political and social commentary, sure, but mostly, he's funny. People I've talked to just don't get why I like him; they usually shake their heads and say, "man, he's so pretentious and full of himself." But hell, even if that's the case (and I don't think it is), who cares? Possible pretentiousness aside, the man's just plain funny.
As you can probably guess from the above, A Rollins in the Wry, his debut on new label Quarterstick Records, is no exception. If you've heard any of his other "talking" albums (with the exception of Get In The Van and parts of Everything, both of which are pretty full-on depressing a large part of the way through), you know the drill -- good old Henry gets on a stage and just rambles, riffs, and jokes for about an hour, about everything under the sun. He reads some old journal entries, talks about Bill Clinton's incredible grasp of the English language, recounts a past visit to Israel, does a great impression of a woman's take on men and dating, and comments on both homophobia and the Colorado shootings, all with the usual self-deprecating humor and general sense of glee and wonder at the world. And its good stuff; it may make you a bit uncomfortable, if you're not used to Rollins's sense of humor, but if you take him up on his invitation to step inside his head, Wry will make you laugh out loud. (JH)
(Quarterstick Records -- P.O. Box 25342, Chicago, IL. 60625; http://www.southern.com/southern/label/
TCH/index.html; Henry Rollins -- http://www.henryrollins.com/)
The Low Power Hour
The core of the band Roto is comprised of David Arbury on bass and vocals, and Carleton Ingram on guitar and vocals. Both are members of Washington, D.C.s post-punk scene. Roto is something of a concept band in that, initially at least, each Roto show would feature a different drummer, and this idea is carried over to The Low Power Hour, which features three different drummers from the D.C. scene, all of whom have played in bands I could mention but won't, because it would give you the wrong idea about Roto's sound. Roto is definitely Arbury and Ingram's show. The music is refreshingly open, to the point of being extremely stark at times. The distortion pedals and other gizmos must have been put away in the social security lock box (which is somewhere in D.C., right?!) during the recording of this album, because everything is clean, clean, clean, and it sounds great for it. But make no mistake, this is no indie-pop Teenbeat affair. The melodies of the bass, guitar, and dual harmonizing vocals form patterns, plaintively intertwined, often to deliciously melancholic effect. Electronic drums and effects thicken the texture on a couple of tracks, but even with that and the three different drummers thing (which you probably wouldn't notice unless you had just been told), the album is quite cohesive. My one gripe is that the lyrics, while always sung poetically, when read on the page seem a bit didactic in a couple instances, as on the opener, "Trickster." That complaint notwithstanding, I think this is a really good, moving album, and well worth searching out. (CP)
(Resin Records -- firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.resindc.com/)
Back when I was a college radio music director, I had to evaluate a metric shitload of music each week to determine whether or not it made the cut for the to-be-reviewed pile. One shortcut for making this evaluation was to simply listen to the vocals. I found that this musical element in particular tended to betray the influences of a band, and was a good indication of whether it was worth the effort to take the time to try to get into the music itself. Vocals seem to be the area of style most prone to direct influence. You could tell right off the bat if a band was listening mainly to Pearl Jam, or Stone Temple Pilots, or whatever the current boring rock band on MTV was at the time.
Roundhead is a band from Cincinnati, Ohio, and apparently has some sort of membership connection with the Afghan Whigs. The first thing that strikes me about them is that I just don't like the vocals; they sound like they're trying to be cool and sexy in a mainstream MTV rock way, but crossed with '80s British alternative pop bands, if that makes any sense. Some of the music, which at times tries to be spacey rock, actually comes off fairly decently, but overall it doesn't make this album worthwhile, in my estimation, especially since some of the music just annoys, particularly the lead track, "Peel." The album reminds me of some of the "modern rock" of the early '90s, and there are definitely some good elements in there, but the mainstream (for that period) exterior makes me cringe more than smile these days. (CP)
(Small Stone Recordings -- P.O. Box 02007, Detroit, MI. 48202; email@example.com; http://www.smallstone.com/)