This album took me on a trip down memory lane, back to my childhood when afternoons were filled with cartoons and after school specials. This CD is an eclectic instrumental collection of electronic sounds, suggesting that someone's synthesizer got quite a work out. As a disclaimer, I have to admit that I had a difficult time taking this music seriously, and yet, I also honestly believe that some of the tunes must have been intended to be somewhat humorous. The tracks seem to be attempting to create a mood -- romantic, eerie, sly, etc. -- but do so with such understated melodies and muted drama that it comes off as, well, funny.
The first track, "Senio Junior," is an interesting ditty very reminiscent of a Nickelodeon-type jingle. After hearing this, I was ready for anything in the second track, "Heavy Meta," which delivered heavy reverb and bass, complete with screeches and squeals on top. It sounds like slam-dancing material for Scooby-Doo. In fact, as I listened to it, I couldn't help picturing the cartoon cast in one of their capers chasing (and being chased by) the villains. The CD continues along its merry way, nodding to both jazz and hip-hop, and creating drama with string and harp effects and even some helicopter-esque sampling. Track #8, entitled "Winter's Over," is a noted departure from the rest of the album, using acoustic guitar sounds and a slow, easy melody that sounds more like the love theme to a movie, as opposed to a scene from a kid's TV network sitcom.
I get the feeling that these tracks need to be paired with something (maybe visual) in order to be fully appreciated. As I've mentioned a few times, I really had to entertain myself by coming up with images that might match up with what I was hearing. Tracks from this CD might be great on a soundtrack, but standing alone they aren't so entertaining. (NL)
(Matador Records -- 625 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, NY. 10012; http://www.matadorrecords.com/)
The Deepsweet Nothings Network
On The Deepsweet Nothings Network by Saint Sophia, the band tries to lighten up punk rock a little, but unfortunately, they wound up a little too far in the light direction. Musically the band sounds like a cross between Sebadoh and the Flaming Lips, which wouldn't be bad except that they take the pop thing a little too far and wind up where Lou Barlow is condemned to be ten years from now.
In their heavier moments, as on "silverfish" and "slowFade nightflower," they combine good melodies and interesting riffs into nice songs (though "silverfish" still sounds like Sebadoh). On "cricket [paralyzed]," they incorporate lots of different musical ideas and still manage to not hide some nice harmonies, and "tesselations" has nicely intertwining piano and acoustic guitar parts. But then there are some moments like "low elms" and the ending of "my sighing lens," moments that sound a little too much like Phil Collins. In this case, unfortunately, more pop doesn't always equal more music. (HM)
(Little Girl Empire Records -- email@example.com; Saint Sophia -- http://www.saintsophia.com/)
Could You Please And Thank You
On his latest CD, Searcy seems to have a formula for song-writing, with the main ingredient being repeating the hook... over and over. Although the tracks are catchy, the fact that the listener is constantly subjected to the repetitiveness of Searcy's hooks and lyrics makes it become unbearable. In "Broken," he sings, "broken in the most beautiful places, broken in the most beautiful ways, broken in the most beautiful places, broken in the most beautiful ways." And that's just one of the songs -- the pattern persists! Well, maybe I can't place that generalization on all of the songs; it might be because of the track order. The next song, "Hateful," has Searcy singing, "'cause you're hateful and it's coming back, 'cause you're hateful and it's coming back, 'cause you're hateful and it's coming back on you." But at least all of his songs don't sound the same -- "Nothing" brings a nice change of pace, in that Searcy doesn't sing with that happy voice he uses in "Losing Light Fast," the first single, and "Movie Star Life" also introduces the use of a piano! A nice getaway from the loud, diluted sounds of the electric guitar, a motif that draws a monotonous shadow over most of the album. At least he writes his own music... (JF)
(Time Bomb Recordings -- firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.timebombrecordings.com/)
Oh, Inverted World
The advantage of blowing a deadline, part 2: The Shins did jack-all for me at the outset, quite frankly. I liked their last album as Flake Music, but this one just seemed like an excuse to bury half-baked pop songs in Beach Boys production-isms. But, having listened to it over time, I feel obliged to qualify that with the statement: "Yes, but good!" In a way, the songs do feel half-baked: they lack the calculated pop verse/bridge/chorus structural feel (which is not to say that the parts aren't there -- they just don't feel like they're there) that drives traditional pop music. And there's definitely more than a little Beach Boys over-the-top production going on, but the overall effect is much like a meandering drive on a summe'rs day: sure, if you're not in the mood, all you'll notice is the heat and the road noise and your legs sticking uncomfortably to the vinyl. But if you can put yourself in the right place, you'll enter a place, or maybe a state, where everything flows, where everything makes sense, where your eye picks up myriad details on the road and you feel yourself breathing and you're happy and sad to be alive all at once. (DD)
(Sub Pop Records -- 2514 Fourth Ave., Seattle, WA. 98121; http://www.subpop.com/; The Shins -- http://www.artisdead.net/theshins/)
The Cost Of Living
There's not a blessed thing wrong with The Cost of Living other than the fact that there's nothing particularly right about it. A singer-songwriter who defies the classic mold only through his choice of studio tinkerage over acoustic guitar as his key instrument, David Singer sings like he's fighting a cold and writes songs like he's trying to avoid getting tagged as a singer-songwriter of the classic mold. The Cost of Living sends notice that a major talent may have entered the arena without actually engaging in any arena-entering.
The album isn't a string of near misses so much as hits that bounce off; everything's good enough to make you wish that it were a just little better. Singer litters the record with hints of what might be, from the almost-but-not-quite-stellar wordplay of the lyrics to his disregard of a great title like "I Need To Be Able To See You," which only appears as a dialogue snippet occasionally materializing throughout an otherwise instrumental track. All in all, The Cost of Living is eyebrow-raising without being mind-blowing, and when it's finished whirring, I remember being fond of "The Cost of Living," "Base of My Skull" and "Table of Elements." But I don't remember them. (MH)
(Deep Elm Records -- P.O. Box 36939, Charlotte, NC 28236; email@example.com; http://www.deepelm.com/)
Well, this is simply incendiary. This stuff catches fire and just won't go out. Oh, sure, you can try to douse it, but it's like napalm; everything around it just catches fire, too. Yow... From Richmond, Virginia (what?), come Sixer, pumped with punk-pop attitude. These bastard grandchildren of the Ramones and Rancid also show some Southern music compositional sensibilities, touches that fit in just fine with these melodic shouters. How could you go wrong? Every song sounds familiar without being staid or stale. You could dance and hop all night to this bunch and feel like they're your pals. Hooks? Oh, yeah, they got 'em. Chops? They got those, too. Attitude, fun, lyrics, style... It's the whole package. Not too dirty, not too clean. Exceptional production help these gems shine like they should. Pick up on this for a disc that will become your new "sing along in the car on a road-trip" standard. (BW)
(TKO Records -- 4104 24th Street #103, San Francisco, CA. 94114; http://www.tkorecords.com/; Sixer -- http://www.sixersixer.com/)
In the recent media frenzy surrounding the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, ABC News ran a puff piece on the state of rock 'n' roll since the advent of the King. In chronicling the fallout, they showed clips of exactly four other artists: the unavoidable Beatles, the ludicrously outclassed Kiss, the inexorable Rolling Stones and, unnamed but represented by a reasonable portion of their video for "You're No Rock n' Roll Fun," Sleater-Kinney. While it would be preposterous to follow the implicit argument here and suggest that nothing else of importance has come about since the late 1970s, the point is well-taken. If you're looking for a bead on what rock 'n' roll as it exists today is capable of, your search should begin, and may well end, with Sleater-Kinney.
That's an increasingly common belief. Entertainment Weekly asked if they were America's greatest rock 'n' roll band, Time answered in the affirmative and Robert Christgau of The Village Voice suggested in his review of 2000's peerless All Hands On The Bad One that Sleater-Kinney demonstrated the consistency and quality of the Rolling Stones during their late-'60s peak. With critics tumbling over themselves to coin new superlatives and a devoted fanbase to sustain them, what to do for an encore? The answer is not much, and everything. One Beat shows Sleater-Kinney refusing to panic in the face of outsized and unmeetable expectations, while very quietly expanding their sonic palette. They're still Carrie, Corin and Janet, guitar/guitar/drums, but instruments which may have punctuated previous albums take on a more crucial role. There's no glockenspiel song on One Beat, sad to report, but horns, theremin and keyboards (especially keyboards) all take their turn and drive some of the songs in ways unprecedented in the band's catalog. The album is unmistakably Sleater-Kinney, while sounding almost nothing like its predecessors.
More than anything, One Beat is the sound of a band that is so clearly at the top of their game that they can experiment, and stumble, and still come up aces. Songs with lackluster verses, such as "Far Away" and "Light Rail Coyote," shift into hurtling choruses that easily redeem them without even trying. The lyrics are, surprisingly for a Sleater-Kinney album, hit-or-miss, less evocative and more descriptive than the band's previous work. Even so, the worst that can be said about them is that they condemn the occasional song to modest disposability. Less troublesome is a new tendency to mine the past for musical ideas, since even when their influences are clear and present, Sleater-Kinney's instincts lead them to assimilation and transformation rather than recapitulation. "Combat Rock" owes itself to the Clash in ways both obvious (need I?) and not (the beat's Caribbean foundation, the tenor of the vocal delivery, the politicized lyric) without, ultimately, sounding a thing like them; the song's warbly keyboard skitters over a groove that uses the components of reggae but, again, doesn't quite fit the category. "Step Aside," meanwhile, is crammed to the gills with '60s tropes, with horns and handclaps, woo-hoo-hoos and a wah-wah that you sense before you actually hear it, a call-out to the band to keep it up and a Motown drumbeat that's their most twistworthy since Dig Me Out's "Turn It On." Yet it sounds utterly now, as modern today as its component songs sounded in 1967.
That same avoidance of slavish imitation holds true for what should be the band's biggest and most unavoidable influence: Sleater-Kinney themselves. Tracks that by objective observation should be considered standard S-K songs easily avoid the trap of redundancy. The opening "One Beat" shudders along on Janet Weiss's thudding drums, with the interlocking guitars of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein dueling as in The Hot Rock's "The End of You." The song is all rhythm, though, with Tucker and Brownstein's guitars supporting the beat rather than vice versa; even for a band that allows their drummer to do more than simply count to four, it's a substantial risk, but it pays off, twitching with tension. That song's flip side is "O2," which is so propulsive that it may as well leave a trail of smoke and fire across the sky. It is nothing but pure, unadulterated release from start to finish, and when the vocal multiplies to holler "I wanna run away/I wanna get away" for a third and final time, the astonishing fact is that Sleater-Kinney, after spending most of the song at a level that most bands would be hard-pressed to achieve in the first place, let alone maintain, have somehow managed to find yet more reserves from which to draw. And they seem to know it, having scattered One Beat with moments where they simply revel in their power: offering themselves as an alternative to "the big so-so" in "Oh!," with the clarion call of its opening guitars and a keyboard hook in the chorus that sends me into ecstatic bliss; the demand to dance in the face of global uncertainty that is "Step Aside," the title of which is a warning to anybody who gets in their way; and the big, fake, superb goodnight-Cleveland bash-out that concludes "Hollywood Ending."
Even the political bent of the album seems both a natural extension of and a new expansion on previous themes, although Sleater-Kinney may not have really had a choice. Right in the middle of a long (for them) two-year hiatus, everybody's world changed, and it dramatically affected the album on which they were working. "Step Aside" is clearly informed by recent history, which is also implicit in "Sympathy," but it's "Far Away" that directly reacts to the events of September 11th, from the anxious telephone pleas to turn on the TV to the fear of even going outside. It is, in all truthfulness, a tad clumsy, more like an outline for a lyric than the lyric itself. Then a chorus of sorts kicks in, the band drops their measured response and everything comes pouring out as they howl, confused and noncomprehending, a question written in all caps in the CD booklet: "WHY CAN'T I GET ALONG WITH YOU?" If you weren't paying attention before, it snaps you into focus. The subsequent shift in the nation's political and discursive climate is addressed in "Combat Rock," which fiercely takes the ruling administration's jingoistic responses and recommendations to task (whereas "Far Away" merely skewers the president for cowardice). Brownstein sings it with a high sarcasm delivered through a smile that sounds as though it's composed of nothing but shadows and teeth.
Despite Brownstein's increasingly visible role, taking on truly lead vocals for more songs than in the past, One Beat seems paradoxically like Tucker's baby. That might simply be a result of Tucker's literal baby, who makes appearances in "Far Away" and "Step Aside" and is the subject of the closing "Sympathy" (and the sweet and lovely "Lions and Tigers," one of two songs on a well-worth-it bonus EP included with early editions of One Beat). A declaration of Tucker's all-consuming love and devotion and supplication to young Marshall in the guise of a prayer, the song could be cloying. Instead, it's devastating. Tucker doesn't just tell us how much she desperately loves her son, she makes it clear with every puff of air that escapes her lips. Sleater-Kinney aren't the first to tackle this topic; Liz Phair celebrated her child on the title track to 1998's whitechocolatespacegg and Chrissie Hynde acknowledged the same on 1983's "Middle Of The Road" (and even further back, depending on how literally you choose to interpret "Kid"), but Tucker's fear and love and determination to bring her boy up in a beautiful world (with Aunts Carrie and Janet standing steadfast by her side) trumps them all. If you'd suggested 45 years ago that it would be possible to make not merely viable but transcendent rock 'n' roll about a mother asking God to keep her baby boy from harm, you'd've been laughed out of the sock hop. The times they are a-changin'. The first great band of the 21st century welcomes you. (MH)
(Kill Rock Stars -- 120 NE State Ave. #418, Olympia, WA. 98501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.killrockstars.com/)
Small Brown Bike
You probably already know who Small Brown Bike is. If you don't, well, remember when "emo" had a "core" attached to it? When it wasn't well on its way to becoming an insult ("That's so, ugh...emo...")? This is where Small Brown Bike comes from, like their contemporaries in Planes Mistaken For Stars, Waterdown, and Boy Sets Fire. On Dead Reckoning, the band pretty much hits the ground running with the opener, "Like a Future With No Friend"; the throat-ripping vocals and churning, shredding guitars keep the momentum going throughout the disc, while the drummer seems hell-bent on putting his sticks through the kit. The best thing about Bike's full frontal aural assault is that they know how to reel things in once in a while, or break up a progression with an angular rhythm pattern to lend some dynamics to the proceedings, thus making the bombast that much more powerful. My only beef is that the lyrics, being as complex and introspective as they are, occasionally drift into pretentious/avant-garde/overly obtuse art-rock territory, which makes them almost seem out of place with the music and vocal delivery. Small Brown Bike makes it work most of the time, though, and it forms an interesting dichotomy. Damn, I just wrote "dichotomy." See how these guys can affect your thinking? (MHo)
(No Idea Records -- P.O. Box 14636, Gainesville, FL. 32604-4636; http://www.noidearecords.com/; Small Brown Bike -- http://www.smallbrownbike.com/)
The Soft Boys
Underwater Moonlight... And How It Got There
Robyn Hitchcock is nothing if not a staunch contrarian. Here comes Matador, then, encouraging one of the very few professional loonies left in the wild by celebrating two decades of the Soft Boys' 1980 new wave touchstone Underwater Moonlight a year late with an expanded rerelease on its wholly adecimal 21st anniversary, just in time for what hairsplitters (like me) are calling their first honest-to-God U.S. tour (the trick is in your definition of "tour"). In so doing, they almost double the album with bonus outtakes, and then almost double that with another disc of demos and rehearsal tracks that trace the album's development from inception to execution (the 3-LP vinyl reissue sees that quadrupling and raises Matador yet another 7" of tracks unavailable on the 2-CD set).
And is it worth it? Probably; the reissue ultimately succumbs to overkill, but it's a pretty smooth ride until then. The original Underwater Moonlight, slightly overpraised, easily earns its keep on the majority of its tracks (only the silly erotic blues of "I Got The Hots" seems flat-out not worth the trouble). "Insanely Jealous" is all tension with no release, gibberish lyrics following a strangely logical progression (typical of Hitchcock's finest moments, of which this is unquestionably one) in the service of painting a picture of the narrator's increasingly unhinged psyche. "I Wanna Destroy You," on the other hand, is just the opposite, all release with no tension, the lyric crystalline in its specificity. The rest of the album swings between those extremes, from the anxious instrumental "You'll Have To Go Sideways" (it's amazing how skewed a simple up-and-down scale can sound when it's done in 7/4 time) to the driving "Positive Vibrations," with the more traditional jangle-pop fare of "Tonight" and "The Queen Of Eyes" briefly, if precariously, finding a balance somewhere in the middle.
Wisely left out of the official running order of Moonlight, most of the bonus tracks that complete disc one nevertheless possess their own (occasionally substantial) charms when taken as the self-contained one-shots that they always were. A few develop ideas that first popped up on Moonlight -- "Strange" slows down and draws out the jangle in fascinatingly uncomfortable directions, the stop-start Bo Diddley beat of "Black Snake Diamond Rock" has a guitar solo that starts out determinedly incompetent before blossoming into canny psychedelia, and "There's Nobody Like You" is a happy shuffle that cops the chorus harmonies of "I Wanna Destroy You" (hey, a good idea's a good idea). Others seem to toy with styles against which the Soft Boys would have been rebelling if their energies weren't focused on fighting to be a part of what should have been their own scene. The stomping "Only The Stones Remain" is set atop a beat that is, when you really listen to it, pure disco, and while the echoes of Abba's "Mama Mia" in the prechorus of "He's A Reptile" (and the Pointer Sisters "Fire" in the verse) may well be sheer coincidence, Hitchcock being Hitchcock, I would seriously hedge my bets. Less consistent than the album proper, the outtakes (with the possible exception of the aimlessly loopy "Where Are The Prawns?," an unfinished idea which ambles off the track halfway through) at least manage to avoid falling into the overindulgence trap of many reissue bonus tracks.
That line is crossed with the start of disc two's rehearsal tracks, of course, but Matador obfuscates this by keeping the overlap to a minimum, so only three of Moonlight's ten tracks appear in any form. "Underwater Moonlight" is easily the most indispensable of these, housing one of Hitchcock's trademark ramblerants during the middle cooldown (it can easily double the length of the song when they perform it live), excised completely from the album version. The stuttering blues guitar freakout of "Old Pervert," meanwhile, is blessed with alternate lyrics (possibly still in the embryonic stage) but is unnecessarily drawn and quartered across the disc ("Wang Dang Pig," on the other hand, sounds for all the world like the chunk of marble from which it was eventually chipped). Almost everything else is of the textbook-variety outtake school, fascinating to acolytes and one long wash to almost everybody else (although I do profess a fondness for "Over You," despite its failure to accomplish anything "The Queen of Eyes" doesn't do one disc earlier). The sound quality's pretty good, however, even if this stuff wouldn't be confused with releasable recordings (one of the few ways that the Soft Boys didn't anticipate Guided By Voices). Still, there's a reasonable chance that I'll only ever listen to it again to reconfirm that there wasn't anything there the first time.
Ultimately, all the bonus tracks, even the good ones, muck up what would easily stand as the Robyn Hitchcock album for Robyn Hitchcock haters. Underwater Moonlight, more than anything else, captures what a good band the Soft Boys really were. Kimberley Rew's guitar playing throughout is inventive and spirited; the nervous, descending riff during the choruses of "Kingdom of Love" is ridiculously simple but seems thoroughly elusive in its invention while putting the low-key verses in stark relief. Morris Windsor, meanwhile, demonstrates why Hitchcock would keep him in the drum throne for the next two decades; notice how his playing ratchets "Insanely Jealous" even tighter and how his falsetto explodes the harmonies of "I Wanna Destroy You." As for Matthew Seligman, well, he was the new kid at this point, the band having embraced him for just long enough to make its masterwork before imploding, and he wisely chose to anchor the songs (successfully, I might add) rather than showboat. Besides, he played with David Bowie at Live Aid; what did you do in 1985? (MH)
(Matador Records -- 625 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, NY. 10012; http://www.matadorrecords.com/; The Soft Boys -- http://www.underwatermoonlight.com/)
Southfourth has all the earmarks of a group who got together in college because each of its members wanted to be in a band and took the first opportunity to play with others. None of them ever quite found what they were really looking for until they'd been together too long to quit over something as silly as not being very good, so they kept at it out of a sense of loyalty and a fear that cutting their losses would mean admitting that their time spent together was mere wheel-spinning. That's what Revolution sounds like to me. The only other alternative is that this wan acoustic piffle is their vision for pop music. For their sake, and for ours, I hope it's the former explanation.
Though mostly circumstantial, there is evidence to support my theory, which hinges primarily on the seeming lack of worthwhile interaction between any of the band members throughout Revolution. Robert Fischer's acoustic guitar skips along at a pace brisk enough to disguise the fact that he's not doing anything, while drummer Birt Michaels seems to be off playing his own thing as if that's the only way he'll amuse himself, providing mildly complicated beats and fills that fail to support, or be supported by, the songs. The presumptive attraction of the band is therefore singer AnnMarie Bugler, who displays all the personality of an awards-show seat-filler. Her voice is continually subjected to unnecessary and unhelpful double-tracking, possibly in an attempt to hide what it ultimately cannot, which is that Bugler sounds like Courtney Love switching to petulant and fey acoustic-rock without acquiring a better relation to pitch. There is a moment, when she melismatically sings the title of the closing "In My Own World," when her vocals actually made me physically wince. When my own body starts involuntarily trying to shake off an album, I'm afraid I've got no choice but to obey. (MH)
(Photon Records -- http:://www.photonrecords.com/; Southfourth -- http://www.southfourth.com/)
The Starting Line
With Hopes of Starting Over
I think that Drive-Thru Records would like you to think that The Starting Line is some kind of Cinderella story, and that the members meeting through Internet chat rooms is unique and therefore newsworthy. Here's their story: when the rest of the band contacted vocalist/bassist Ken, he was only 14, three years younger than the next oldest band member. They found him randomly by checking his AOL profile, then e-mailed him to see if he knew any singers, and he said he could sing, so they met. The rest of the guys where blown away by his voice, they jammed, and there was born The Starting Line.
Drive-Thru then compares the band to big-timers Jimmy Eat World and The Get-Up Kids. Now, this is a fair comparison, but The Starting Line just don't rock quite as hard. I put them in the same category as Saves the Day and Brandtson: good harmonies and simple rock songs. Utterly useless is the cover of Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us" -- what is it with young bands thinking they need to do a punked-up version of an '80s song? I hear a similar version of Richard Marx's "Right Here Waiting for You" every time I go to band practice, from a punk band down the hall. Give it up, kids. Pick good songs to cover or spend the time writing your own cheesy pop hits. Alright?
Having said all the negative stuff, these guys definitely have youth on their side. I'm sure they will grow, mature, and eventually become a really good band. They have label support and one of the greatest recording engineers on the planet, Mark Trombino, slated for their full-length release. I just hope that Mark refuses to let these kids waste their time recording crappy songs from Starship. (KM)
(Drive-Thru Records -- P.O. Box 55234, Sherman Oaks, CA. 91413; http://www.drivethrurecords.com/; The Starting Line -- http://www.startinglinerock.com/)
Don't Fear The Reverb
Well, the CD title and cover art pretty much say it all -- the three very sunburned-looking kids who make up The Stingrays play good, old-fashioned surf-rock, with not much in the "frills" department. No spacemen shtick, no Mexican wrestler masks, no spaghetti-Western imagery (although they do throw in a very nice, south-of-the-border-sounding trumpet on "La Chancha"), just cool, deep Dick Dale-esque surf guitar. The band's one lone "gimmick," so to speak (and I don't mean to denigrate bands with gimmicks, by the way; I dig Los Straitjackets and Man or Astro-man? as much as they next guy) is that, uh, they all surf. Heck, they've even incorporated shots of themselves ripping and pulling aerials in the CD booklet to hammer the fact home. Odd to think that there was a time when that much was just assumed, rather than seized on as a marketing angle -- "so these kids surf, so what? Don't all surf-rock bands?"
But hey, I can't complain; after seeing far too many surf videos where the soundtrack is a painful mix of Korn/Limp Bizkit/whatever rap-metal and SoCal poppy punk, its quite a relief to find that not ALL surf kids out there have forsaken their predecessors musical tastes completely. On the contrary, The Stingrays play it strictly old-school, pulling out a couple of classics ("Pipeline" and "Nitro," naturally) and mixing them in with their own set of twangy, rumbling instrumentals. It's hard to pick high points, since the songs largely sound similar (and they're all pretty good), but the title track, "Don't Fear the Reverb," manages to not get too goofy with its poke at the Blue Oyster Cult, "Bodybag" has an oddly creepy, threatening sound to it, "Larry's Got a Longboard" cruises along nicely (which is appropriate for the title, I guess), and "Sabrina" is probably the first real surf-instrumental ballad I've ever heard (and no, Dick Dale's vocal stuff doesn't really count, decent though it is).
All in all, Reverb doesn't break any new ground, really, but these kids are definitely talented, and the album serves as a nicely-done homage to surf-rockers of eras past, as well as a glimmer of hope for the future of the genre. Hmm...maybe I should break out the longboard and go flounder in the Gulf again next winter... (JH)
(Slimstyle Records -- 3400 E. Speedway, Suite 118-272, Tucson, AZ. 85716; email@example.com; http://www.slimstyle.com/)
Any Place At All
Straw Dogs are every sensitive male acoustic Adult Contemporary performer that you've ever hated: Marc Cohn, Dog's Eye View, Darden Smith (who I actually happen not to hate), Peter Himmelman (who I actually like), and the Barenaked Ladies (their earnest "What A Good Boy"-type songs) all thrown into a giant stewpot and boiled hard until all originality and tunefulness have been leached out, along with anything to say. It's such a colorless and deadly boring formula that sometime during "Out Of Breath," the sixth song on Any Place At All, I was suddenly hit with an acute and palpable sinking feeling, a full-body shudder when I realized that I had six more songs to get through. And I didn't even know about the bonus track of studio bloopers (hilarious! They find their own songs funny!).
Straw Dogs cram their lyrics Bon Jovi-full of clichés, set it to bland folk-based music received second- and third-hand from equally boring forebears and tack on vocal harmonies that are unnecessary and half-baked, as though backup guy Darren Smith found the first notes that sounded fine without duplicating lead singer David von Beck's melody and just stopped there. A few tracks, such as "These Ashes" and "Daylong Day," are so preposterously wrongheaded that they manage to be the first songs I've ever heard that come out in favor of scapegoating and emotional stagnation, respectively. The album might (no guarantee) be closer to tolerable if it consisted of just guitar and voice, but von Beck and Smith choose, for no good reason, to feign a full band. Having done so, Straw Dogs are free to be proud of making a record that sounds like the records of countless other musicians who are performers without being artists. (MH)
(Crafty Records -- P.O. Box 31113, Seattle, WA. 98103; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.craftyrecords.com/)
Is This It
Julian Casablancas has many things going for him that make him a great frontman. He's got a voice that splits the difference between U2 and Fountains of Wayne, coming across as too cool (rather than merely too bored) to bother with such pesky things as passion and range. He is utterly confident in his own charm and possesses a relaxed buoyancy that all but convinces listeners of the same. And, let it be mentioned, he's got a great name. He clearly has vocal limitations, though, and that's where the final piece of the great-frontman puzzle comes in: he leads a band that's ideally suited to make the most of his abilities. Despite a degree of hype usually unseen outside the British music press, the Strokes make good on their reputation by being, quite frankly, cooler than you.
It's evident that Casablancas's voice is just another instrument in the Strokes' arsenal not just by its place in the mix of Is This It (buried just like another guitar waiting to be unpacked from the cat's cradle of the band's noise) but by the way its processed. Foregoing the standard tricks of reverb and boost usually utilized to enhance the vocals, the Strokes take the riskier tactic of EQ'ing off Casablancas's upper and lower frequencies and, I think, distorting what's left just enough to emphasize the Bonoesque roughness of his yowls.
The Strokes' use of Casablancas is, in fact, identical to how all of the instruments are put to use on Is This It. The guitars form a sort of lockstep drone with embellishments in the same way that the drums take on the repetitive perfection of a loop, while Nikolai Fraiture provides the opening "Is This It" with the best bassline-as-alternate-melody since Spacehog's "In The Meantime" as a bait-and-switch before holding a deadly steady anchor for most of the rest of the album. The instruments are layers upon layers within a single plane, each part simple enough on its own but filling in an almost mathematically intricate pattern of sound when combined with the others. It's like listening to Crazy Rhythms just before the speakers blow.
The machine is so fine-tuned that it ultimately doesn't matter where Is This It is going. A masterpiece of sonics, the album is something of a cipher when it comes to substance. The reduction (or, depending on your point of view, exaltation) of Casablancas' voice to the position of mere instrument makes most of what he sings utterly irrelevant (good thing, since the mix makes picking out the words over the notes a task), and more than a few songs are carried on little more than a hook and an attitude of alienated cool. The Strokes are, when taken as a purely conceptual construct, direct descendants of the Cars more than anything else (Casablancas hits what I'm guessing is an unintentional Ben Orr imitation more than once). The difference is a matter of scale; each song on Is This It is something of a microcosm of what unfolded over the course of 35 minutes on The Cars. Individually, the songs are more or less unimpeachable, but the album has no center and seems to reset at the start of every track. The Cars had that problem licked at the start of their careers. The Strokes play as if they'll have plenty of time to address it in the future. (MH)
(RCA Records -- http://www.rcarecords.com/; The Strokes -- http://www.thestrokes.com/)
The Swords Project
The Swords Project
Holy cow, more post-rock that doesn't suck! The Swords Project are an eight-piece group from Portland with horns, strings, drums, vibraphones, and the usual coterie of electric guitars and basses, and some scarce vocals. Their songs are nicely epic in a non-pretentious way, often starting simply and building almost symphonically, but more in a rock/post-rock idiom than in a classical sense. You may look like a fool buying a record with a bunch of unicorns on the record, but it's worth it. One caveat: I'm not a big fan of the drumming, as it tends more towards the "Chicago sound" than to anything personally distinctive (unlike the rest of this record). However, another friend of mine finds it the strong point of the record. So, to each their own... it's certainly not going to stop me from picking up their next release. (DD)
(Absolutely Kosher Records -- 1412 10th Street, Berkeley, CA. 94710-1512; http://www.absolutelykosher.com/; The Swords Project -- http://www.theswordsproject.com/)
System and Station
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It wasn't long ago that I was wondering if there were any great "indie-rock" bands still making great music, but my questions were soon answered when I popped this album in my CD player. It's great. It really is.
This album has more hooks than your local fish bait shop. Every song is filled with time changes, interesting vocals, and beautiful instrumentation. The vocals are reminiscent of Perry Farrell (Jane's Addiction) or Tim DeLaughter (Tripping Daisy), while the actual music reminds me of something like Modest Mouse and Built to Spill put in a blender, with a hint of "emo" thrown in for good measure.
System and Station already have a pretty good history behind them. After touring with such acts as Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Alex Chilton, 764-HERO, and the Meat Puppets, releasing an EP and two singles, they finally have this great full length out. This isn't your typical indie-rock album, and it'll keep you rocking the whole way through. Definitely look into this band -- they seem to tour often, and hopefully will be near the area sometime soon. (TC)
(Crustacean Records -- P.O. Box 370156, Milwaukee, WI. 53237; email@example.com; http://www.crustaceanrecords.com/; System and Station -- http://www.systemandstation.com/)