I've never thought of myself as a masochist, but after an extremely thorough listen to Pain, I was left with a smile on my face and a bit of a bounce in my step. This band is nothing short of fun, with its happy pop-punk and ska mix on Wonderful Beef.
Perhaps the spawn of Green Day and Zebrahead, this eight-piece band is imaginative and tighter than anything Britney Spears has ever worn. The vocals don't have much of a range to them, but that's part of Pain's appeal -- the lounge-style vocals with the speed of punk and the free-for-all feeling of ska give Pain an outlandish sound. The band is strange in the most entertaining way.
"The Man Upstairs" is one of the strongest songs on the album, with its "Muppets"-esque horn sounds and speedy vocals. Meanwhile, "The Song of the Seven Inch Cowboy" is different from anything I've ever heard, and it's completely unexpected, with its acoustic guitar, weirdass poignant yodeling, and frequent changes of pace thrown in amongst the more upbeat punk songs on the album. Never would I have thought I'd enjoy a song about a seven-inch cowboy so much...
This band is kooky; the lyrics are often kind of childish (the last song is about quitting a baseball team) and cute, but it suits the genre. If Pain weren't making albums, something tells me they'd be recording the music for video games or giving humorous and yet motivational performances to children at elementary schools across North America. Give Wonderful Beef a try. Who knows? Maybe you're a masochist, too. (NK)
(Springman Records -- P.O. Box 2043, Cupertino, CA. 95015-2043; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.springmanrecords.com/; Pain -- http://www.thepainpage.com/)
Funny how a single from a somewhat neglected second-tier first-and-a-half wave UK punk band can sound so good right about now. I can't say exactly what the Partisans have that sets them apart; it sure ain't originality, since the anti-consumerist screed "So Neat" (in which they declare "I wanna have it all/I wanna make the world just like me") nicks the riff from "Anarchy in the U.K.," while "Classified Info" seems to cover much of the same ground as the first Clash album, from the reggae-infused rhythm guitar to the lyrics that act like the kid brother of "Career Opportunities," tagging along and pretending that the excitement of disapprobation isn't being experienced second-hand. I'll guess that what pulls them through is the spirit, which was more than sufficient to make folks fans of punk itself (rather than just a few specific bands) back then, and it's more than sufficient now. The Partisans get it wrong on at least one count, though: the bonus track "Hysteria" (which inverts "Now I Wanna Be Your Dog" and could probably teach the Hives a thing or two) is only available on CD, not vinyl. That's not very punk, now, is it? (MH)
(TKO Records -- 3126 W. Cary St. #303, Richmond, VA. 23221; http://www.tkorecords.com/; The Partisans -- http://www.thepartisans.org/)
It's nice to be liked
But it's better by far to get paid
-- "Shitloads of Money," a rewrite of "Money" from the Girlysound Tape 2
Really, when, you think about it, what's most amazing is that it's taken so long for Liz Phair to sell out. For God's sake, she's been telegraphing this career move since before she announced how short she was on the opening track of Exile In Guyville, so those complaining about how Liz Phair is a blatant and hollow Top 40 move are fools. There has been ample warning along the way for anybody who could be bothered to notice it: a Gap ad here, a Mac ad there, "Shitloads of Money" and Phair herself practically standing up in public with a megaphone yelling, "I am planning to sell out!" Yet the naysayers still make their presence known, disclaiming Liz Phair for failing to live up to a standard by which the artist herself has made it abundantly clear that she has no interest in being measured.
It's not surprising, then, that the folks who claim to know Phair better than she apparently knows herself haven't got a clue as to how to listen to the new record. For the simple fact is as follows: if we accept Guyville for the once-in-a-lifetime achievement that it was (and Whip-Smart for once-in-a-lifetime afterglow) and take it on its own terms, Liz Phair is a really good album, easily superior to 1998's inconsistent whitechocolatespaceegg. It won't define the zeitgeist, it won't serve as a shibboleth of cool amongst college radio DJs and it won't send a coterie of music nerds into a classic-rock cross-referencing frenzy. What it does is something so simple and elegant that many artists and listeners neglect to even acknowledge it as an option: it provides entertainment and occasional transcendence in the form of a well-crafted and worthy album by an artist staring down the start of her second decade in an increasingly fickle business.
And if that statement wasn't blasphemous enough, I'm not even sure that it's necessary to discount the four songs cowritten and produced by Avril-makers the Matrix to say it without fear of contradiction. Granted, the opening "Extraordinary" is a watered-down the-lady-doth-protest-too-much declaration of things that Phair has never really had to tell us in so many words, and "Favorite" torpedoes itself through the simple expedient of a bad conceptual metaphor (memo to all songwriters everywhere: there will never, repeat never, be a good song comparing yourself or your lover to underwear. Ever. Period. Stop trying.), with a whiff of bad poesy not helping matters ("Why I never threw it out, I'll never know exactly why" gets this year's "Live And Let Die" award for lyrical redundancy). But catchy they are indeed, and the other two show Phair's personality clawing through the lyrics, even if she can't make a dent in the high-gloss Top-40 production. "Rock Me" offers sexed-up excitement ("I'm starting to think that young guys rule") as well as a witty acknowledgement of Phair's cult celebrity that could serve as a preemptive volley against her bitter fans. "Why Can't I?," meanwhile, is such a carbon copy of Lavigne's "Complicated" (the arrangement and production are identical, and sharp-eared listeners might even notice that it uses the exact same chord progression in the chorus) that a lot of people have missed a lyric that, while it may be the subtext of teen-pop (of all pop, actually), hasn't ever been spelled out quite so explicitly before: "Here we go, we're at the beginning / We haven't fucked yet, but my head's spinning."
And with that, Phair is screwing her way all over this disc. The wound-up and roaring "My Bionic Eyes" has her bragging, "I scored again last night / I said, 'Thanks for the drinks. Nice party,' then I turned out the light," while the coyly thrumming "It's Sweet" would be a snapshot of the 20 minutes just before Whip-Smart's "Chopsticks" if she wasn't so into the guy that she knows she doesn't love. Purists may decry the hormone levels of some of the songs or take-me cheesecake pics littering the packaging as imposing Britney-level marketing tactics on a Joni-level artist, but it's entirely of a piece with the Phair they're trying to preserve, a woman who spent a great deal of Guyville taking control of her own sexuality. And she has an excellent excuse this time out: this is, after all, a woman who has just found herself single once more and is reminding herself of the pleasures (and terrors) of her newfound freedom. Having been on each side of the marital divide, Phair knows how both teams play and is ready to use that knowledge to her benefit.
The real measure of the album's achievement, however, is its acknowledgement, both explicit and implicit, of how such libidinous pursuits no longer happen in a vacuum but have very real implications for those in Phair's orbit. "Little Digger" finds Liz the mother trying to explain to her son in the gentlest, most detail-free manner that there will be men in her life that are not his father, and if it's as condescending in tone as The Onion A.V. Club suggests it is, then, well, that's part of the situation, too, isn't it? The album hits its peak with "Friend of Mine," which is about as clear-eyed a divorce song as you could imagine, where there's really no reason for the disintegration of the relationship except for the simple fact that the two people involved no longer love one another. In its economy, unflinching directness and melodic invention, it rivals "Fuck and Run" for the honor of being the best song she's ever written. It's certainly more assured, and when you think about it, that should scare the hell out of you.
That's still not enough to stave off the blacklash, of course, which means that good songs like the meat-and-potatoes "Good Love Never Dies," the anthemic and solipsistic "Love/Hate" and "Firewalker," which combines Guyville verses with a whitechocolate chorus, are sure to be totally ignored along with the career-high material that won't get heard because too many people have their fingers in their ears. In the face of those doubting Thomases, I'll fall back on the same argument that I've had with countless friends who've pilloried Phair for an album that they've refused to listen to: it's a rather curious sellout indeed that includes a song, and a surprisingly sweet and jaunty shuffle at that, called "Hot White Come" (no matter how the Wal-Marted back cover presents the title). I repeat: Liz Phair's Top 40 move has a song on it that is devoted to the non-procreative pleasures of semen. She might not make it; there are no sure things, especially not these days. But the evidence on Liz Phair fills me with confidence that if it does work, Phair will have hit the top of the pops on her own terms. (MH)
(Capitol Records -- http://www.capitolrecords.com/; Liz Phair -- http://www.lizphair.com/)
Quiet Games for Hot Weather
I first heard of Pinq courtesy of MP3.com while I was searching for indie bands in the Bay Area. I found the songs on their site amazing and decided I had to contact the band to tell them so. After that, it gives me great pleasure now to write a review of their debut CD Quiet Games for Hot Weather.
Pinq know how to take a small handful of elements and weave them into an opera. A quick comparison to give you a frame of reference would be "Death Cab for Cutie meets Grandaddy." Every track on this record has a unique cinematic quality. The first track, "Careful to Mention the Obvious" is your standard four-piece band arrangement of guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums. Much like a classic Pink Floyd song, however, it manages to full and dramatic using only these minimal sounds. The song is epic in scope, hitting the eight-minute mark, but it's well worth the ride. The song moves violently slow, like when the camera goes under the wave in a surfing movie and for a brief moment everything goes quiet. The rest of this album follows the same pattern, hitting the same unrelenting calm and powerful depths. Overall, this album is the perfect soundtrack for those long drives when the rolling hills stretch for miles and miles without change. Absolutely worth your time.
(Oh yeah, and Pinq has now changed their name to the Decoration.) (KM)
(Major 7 Records; Pinq -- http://www.thedecoration.net/)
Under The Same Stars
Dragged towards melodicism possibly by the piano that occupies center stage, the Prom's Under The Same Stars delivers songs that are mildly tuneful, if devoid of any shred of originality. Singer James Mendenhall has a voice that marries Matt McCaughan and Colin Moulding, a band that makes Counting Crows sound like the Attractions and a wounded-romantic lyrical bent that would make a high schooler blush. With big, dysphonious words strewn about (a result, perhaps, of confusing complication with complexity), we get lines like, "I know that I look awkwardly alone waiting so patiently next to the phone" (which is, interestingly, done in not by the "awkwardly" so much as that almost invisible "so") when not being forced to navigate mixed similes such as, "These songs are like letters / I employ my pen to write / The ink on the paper, like tears waiting to dry." Ben Folds it ain't. (MH)
(Barsuk Records -- P.O. Box 22546, Seattle, WA. 98122; http://www.barsuk.com/)
Just My Type
With their crunchy but not punky guitars and just a hint of country threading through Just My Type, Austin band Punchy sound like they're channeling post-breakthrough Soul Asylum. And like Dave Pirner, echoes of whose phrasing and delivery creep into his otherwise dissimilar voice, main songwriter Fritz Beer has never met a metaphor that he couldn't run into the ground. The big difference is that where major-label Soul Asylum, just by playing the odds, occasionally came up with a handful of keepers to counteract the obviousness and clumsiness that Pirner never knew how to filter out, Just My Type lacks a single spectacular, or even solid, song to use as a deposit for a down payment on the future. (MH)
(Pinch Hit Records -- 4001 Pacific Coast Highway, Suite 104, Torrance, CA. 90505; http://www.pinchhit.com/; Punchy -- )