Call And Response
Sahara Hotnights, who hail from Sweden and thus lie twice before you're finished speaking their name, are all Les Pauls and Marshall stacks cranked to 10. Despite their advance hype, their music isn't punk, exactly, no more so than "Communication Breakdown" or "Paranoid"; they're heavier than punk, less interested in velocity than in momentum. Jennie Bomb sounds like a Runaways party crashed by Elastica, and what pleasures there are to be found are mostly formal. The album's production guarantees that each section of each song does precisely what it's supposed to do, so that a track like "On Top Of Your World" becomes phenomenal due to the simple expedient of a chorus that throws it into a higher gear by slathering one more roaring guitar on top of anthemic chanting.
It's ironic, then, that I recently discussed my disinclination towards jam bands with a friend on the basis of my formalist sensibility, and I now criticize Sahara Hotnights for appealing to nothing but. There it is, though, an album that would be fine if it had hooks (the nifty "We're Not Going Down," buried near the end, seems to have used them all up) or, better yet, songs. For the most part, Jennie Bomb lacks both, which prevents the album from providing anything more than modest kicks that exist entirely in the moment. The opening "Alright Alright (Here's My Fist Where's The Fight?)," which is easily the best song title of the year, seems to be one of Jennie Bomb's few standout tracks (assuming that we don't count "With Or Without Control," which distinguishes itself mostly by being what is surely the first Sleater-Kinney/Suede hybrid, linking the verses for "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" with the chorus of "Stay Together"), but that may just be a function of the fact that it's the first one out of the gate, ensuring that it sounds fresh before the rest of the album devolves into formula. It's not a bad formula, by any means. They just need to find something worthwhile to say with it.
Whatever it is Sahara Hotnights are doing, Bangs seem to be doing the precise inverse. Both groups sound like high school, but where the former are like the cool girls who'd just ignore you when their boyfriends aren't pounding you in the kidneys, the latter make like the smart-ass kids who are a step away from nerdhood themselves and whose taunts are made even worse by being based entirely in truth. The Call And Response EP finds Bangs at an interesting juncture in their career whether they know it or not, and I don't think they do. It's simple: they must decide whether they want to remain steadfast and true as a punk band or delve into the dicier waters of pop production. The record's production goes for punk immediacy and sacrifices detail, and it works for those couple of songs that simply crash and explode. In "I Want More," new drummer Peter David Connolly earns his keep within seconds and spends the next two minutes putting a down payment on the future, while "Call And Response" has no real beat to speak of; it's all just Now! Now! Now! until the chorus, when Maggie Vail's bass deliriously rushes the song along faster than it thinks it can go.
But if those songs can get away with being bursts of bratty cacophony, some of the other tracks suggest that the band's beginning to experience ideas that would be better served by a sonic palette that goes beyond lo-fi minimalism. "Kinda Good," which comes complete with electric piano, steps clear of punk to embrace a tender and unrepentant pop song. It's reminiscent of "Undo Everything" (off of 2000's superb Sweet Revenge), but where that song's trashcan production worked (coming off as an updated Shangri-La's, who had lousy production themselves), "Kinda Good" flounders, fuzzing out the instruments and vocals alike when the song's lyrics and melody beg to be accepted with a clarity that the band doesn't permit. The 10" vinyl version of Call And Response adds a bonus cover of the Undertones' "Get Over You," and while it's impossible for someone who loves the song to do it badly (and Bangs don't even come close, despite a guitar figure apparently nabbed not from the O'Neill brothers but from the Buzzcocks' "Boredom"), Bangs' version subtly calls attention to the clean, clear production values of the original and how they crystallized rather than sanitized the song.
The closing "Dirty Knives" sums up Call And Response's strengths and weaknesses. Zippy enough to be considered punk, it's also a minor key pop song (albeit one with lyrics that are nicely evocative without suggesting what, exactly, they are evoking), with a catchy chorus filled out, quietly, with harmony vocals. They're barely noticeable thanks to the production, and the energy and momentum of the song are more than enough to make it an instant highlight. But Bangs' desire to start filling out their songs with small touches like harmonies and electric piano is a sign of expansiveness, that the songs that they're writing are becoming sophisticated enough to benefit from better sonics like their Scandinavian sisters. Sahara Hotnights might have better production and therefore a better sound, but Bangs write better songs. And only one of those is enough to sustain a career. (MH)
(Jetset Records -- 67 Vestry St. 5C, New York, NY. 10013; http://www.jetsetrecords.com/; Kill Rock Stars (Bangs CD) -- 120 NE State Ave. PMB 418, Olympia, WA. 98501; http://www.killrockstars.com/; http://www.killrockstars.com/; Punk In My Vitamins (Bangs vinyl) -- P.O. Box 2283, Olympia, WA. 98507; http://www.punkinmyvitamins.com/; Sahara Hotnights -- http://www.saharahotnights.com/; Bangs -- http://www.killrockstars.com/bands/factsheets/bangs/)
The Santiago Steps
Sometimes a band will make it really, really easy for you. For the Santiago Steps, that moment comes four tracks into A-flutter, when they give in and cover "I'm In Love With A Girl." That simplifies my job immensely, telling me what they're shooting for as well as what they can accomplish, underscoring the vastness of the gap that lies between the two in the process. Not to harp, but like any Big Star song, it should be a ringer, and anybody tackling it has their choice of two approaches (depending on whether they take their cue from the first or the last line): ebullient celebration or wide-eyed terror. That the Santiago Steps neglect both in favor of a sort of enervated detachment, as if a message which should be delivered from the very core of one's being is instead tossed off in an offhand love-ya-babe manner, sheds light on their fundamental shortcomings. Blowing a gimme, they don't stand a chance with their originals, a sort of low-blood-sugar smartypants pop that thinks it's clever to exploit uncoolness without really inhabiting it (be wary of "Nerd Pop Girl," not merely for its desperately cutesy title and wan faux-country backdrop but for referencing one of its betters, in this case Fountains of Wayne's similarly themed "Leave The Biker"). The closing "Wake" is simply a mess, a pretty melody fragment that goes absolutely nowhere too many times to bother counting, calling attention in the process to the perplexingly random imagery that the band fails to realize means nothing taken either one line at a time or in aggregate. (MH)
(dorcal-monster -- P.O. Box 1051, Orange, CA. 92856; The Santiago Steps -- http://www.thesantiagosteps.com/)
Look Back Fair Pilgrim
"Chapter One: In which the young man plays a cosmetic mortician."
I got pretty excited when Saturn Expedition's Look Back Fair Pilgrim opened up with analog synth and piano sounds. In those 45 seconds, I had formed an expectation that this would be an electronica album, but what happened after the intro was up was a totally different story. Acoustic guitar and fragile voice began to sing a tale of woe in "About It." Song after song, things never get better for the tortured soul of our singer/songwriter Patrick Shea. Patrick had a nervous breakdown that left him "in a state of crippling depression that lasted almost four months" -- it was during this period that he wrote the songs for this album.
This album is a seriously lo-fi, home-recorded effort and suffers for it because it just doesn't sound very good. Most songs are acoustic guitar-based. Sometimes there are bass and drums, but often they're out of time with each other. Like Elliott Smith, Saturn Expedition's songs are sad and beautiful, but unlike Smith, these songs are mostly too long and monotonous. I found myself skipping ahead on a number of tracks just to see if things changed at all, and usually I just found the exact same thing happening. Occasionally there's a nice piano riff, but usually it's just repeated until it starts to irritate. Like the depression that formed these songs, they get wrapped up in themselves and can't get out. Even the strings on "I Never Mind" can't save this record; like a good friend trying to get you out of your funk, it just isn't enough. (KM)
(Cronus Records -- P.O. Box 4696, Austin, TX. 78765; http://www.cronusrecords.com/; Saturn Expedition -- http://www.saturnexpedition.com/)
Alliteration and You
"Many of those who discover Alliteration and You will appreciate its well-crafted songs, which represent a quantum leap in musical and lyrical maturity from Dyn@mutt's work without containing any of the stodginess implicit in the term 'maturity.'"
I can't believe I've resorted to quoting a press release. I know record labels have to come up with glowing things to say about their artists -- especially if said artist's friends run said label, but this quote isn't really accurate. What struck me about this album immediately upon pressing play was just how much it does sound like Dyn@mutt. It's eerie.
Dyn@mutt's one and only album, A Handbook for Young Scientists came out in 1994, and I should 'fess up here that I recorded it, so my opinion isn't altogether objective. But then you weren't looking for objectivity from a record review, were you? Handbook was both a product of its time and of principal songwriter Dave Deggeler's influences -- so it sounds something like Superchunk mixed with some Minutemen and Elvis Costello. Not a bad thing. But to say that Alliteration sounds fresh would be less than honest; Deggeler still writes herky-jerky songs, which he almost sings in key. And he still makes it really easy to come up with crit-scum lines like "sounds something like Superchunk mixed with some Minutemen and Elvis Costello." So no, there's not much progression between Handbook and Alliteration. Oh sure, there are acoustic guitar and piano parts on Alliteration, but does that make for maturity? Not if you consider that there is acoustic guitar on Handbook. If you're one of the twelve people that still has it in your collection, you can go check. I'll wait. See? And I can tell you that if there had been a piano and more time during those sessions, I'm pretty sure that keyboard flourishes would have made it onto Handbook as well. I'm imagining them right now.
Listening to Secret Primper takes me right back to seeing Dyn@mutt play college parties and dive bars. Oh, I remember how Dave and Chad would trade vocal lines. Or how Thor (the nickname they gave drummer, Doug) would make funny concentration faces while playing. I remember... Wait. What was I talking about? Oh, right. Maturity.
I can't help liking this album on some level. Maybe I'm just comforted to hear Dave play again -- after all these years, he's still making the music that was a part of my college years. Same old Dave.
Eh. Maturity is overrated. (JC)
(Ertia Creations -- 7547 N. Brandon Ave, Portland, OR. 97217; http://www.ertiacreations.com/)
My Old Problems
The.Seximals í- such a great name for a band with such a poorly recorded album. My Old Problems starts off loud and crunchy and just plain irritating, but remarkably enough, it does get more interesting as it progresses. More often than not, it's quite difficult to listen to because of the horrible sound quality. If the album didn't sound as though it was recorded on budget equipment in a dingy basement somewhere in middle-class suburbia, it would be easier to tolerate and the band would sound more promising. Tinny sounds and monotone vocals aren't exactly what make up a great song, much less a great album, although I must admit that "Torando" and "Consequences" have a neat feeling to them both, with their electronic-sounding female backing vocals and simple guitar. Overall, this is not an album I'd recommend, but if the band were to swing through town I may give them a second chance. (NK)
(The Truth & Reconciliation Commission -- email@example.com)
Why the hell isn't Shades Apart on the radio? These guys write the most infectious power-pop that I've ever heard, yet the only single they've had of note was a cover of "Tainted Love" a few years back. Which is a freakin' crime, especially since every song on Sonic Boom could easily be a hit single. It epitomizes what a power-pop trio should be: perfectly crunchy guitar tone, vocals that aren't drowning in bad metaphors (with a delivery just rough enough to give them an edge), buoyant basslines and arena-rock drumming . Of course, you've also got enough "whoa-oh"s, "ooh-aah"s and other assorted background harmonies to multiply the sing-along factor. It's all delivered with the energy and enthusiasm of punk rock, which, in light of the band's history, makes sense to me. Although Shades Apart are not a pop-punk band by any means, it's obvious to me that coming up in the New Jersey-New York punk scene had some effect on their sound, and it's this influence that keeps the material from sounding stale or bubblegum-y. Face it, a song like "Rebel Teenager From Mars" would be really, really stupid in the wrong hands. Shades Apart make it a killer track, and there are eleven more here that are just as good. (MHo)
(Republic/Universal Records -- 1755 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY. 10019; http://www.republicrecords.com/)
Everybody Makes Mistakes
It's hard to listen to Shearwater's second release, Everybody Makes Mistakes, and not compare the sound to the quartet's "other band," Okkervil River. The two bands share two members, principal songwriters Jonathan Meiburg and Will Robinson Sheff, as well as sharing Sheff's distinctive near-yodel, a love of odd instrumentation (Wurlitzer, vibraphone, pump organ, glockenspiel, and viola, here), a decidedly downbeat feel, and well-crafted story-songs that beg for a short film to back them up. Heck, one song, "Mistakes," sounds like it could almost be a track off of Okkervil River's Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See.
Those similarities, though, thankfully don't serve to make Shearwater "OR Mk. II". On Mistakes, Sheff moderates his vocals somewhat, keeping things to a low-key, playing-guitar-alone-in-the-bedroom level, and the songs on which Meiburg sings (which are just about half of the whole album, with the exception of wife Kim Burke's beautiful solo turn on "All the Black Days 1") far outshine those to which Sheff lends his voice. Don't get me wrong, I love Will Sheff's voice, and he's a brilliant songwriter and singer; it's just that Meiburg's haunted, wavering, Thom Yorke-ish falsetto fits the slow, elegaic music so wonderfully that it seems a bit of a shame he doesn't sing on all of the songs. (Although if he did, admittedly, the result might be a little overwhelming.)
On tracks like "An Accident," "Wreck," or "Soon" (one of my personal favorites), subtle acoustic guitars slide along over delicate piano, ragged upright bass, and Travis Weller and James Alexander's understated strings, the whole thing drifting on a glassy, distant ocean while the vocals meander matter-of-factly overhead. The sound is warm and organic, to be sure, but so slow and melancholy that it feels like waking up on a cold winter morning in a place far from civilization. The Sheff tracks, in particular ("Safeway," for one) are reminiscent of depressive slow-core like Low or the Red House Painters, if that tells you anything, but that by no means defines the whole album -- the songs run the gamut, from the almost joyous, hymn-like "The Ice Covered Everything" to the countryish jangle of "Mistakes" and the glacial, minimal pace of "12:09," which somehow sounds doomed and hopeful at the same time.
In the end, there's one truly defining difference between Shearwater and Okkervil River: both swell with sadness and loss, but where Okkervil River revels and wallows in those feeling and runs down to the bar to drown its sorrows, Shearwater sits quietly on a high cliff overlooking the sea and simply thinks about and feels them. Like people, different bands deal with the same emotions in different ways, and neither one is necessarily more correct -- in this case, both are incredible. (JH)
(Misra Records -- 1405 Broadmoor Dr., Austin, TX. 78723; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.misrarecords.com/; Shearwater -- http://www.jound.com/shearwater/)
The Smoking Popes
The Party's Over
Smoking Popes -- Tribute
It's the songs that really matter, after all. Sure, it sounds trite and clichéd, but it's the truth. Take a look at the reality: the Smoking Popes have been officially dead for what, five years now? Everybody moved on long ago, and yet they're still putting out albums and inspiring other like-minded bands? I sincerely doubt that somebody like Limp Bizkit, for example, will be lucky enough to have that kind of lasting impact once they're dead and gone.
And like I intimated above, friends, the reason for that post-demise legacy is the songs. Throughout their too-brief career, the Popes wrote some of the most heart-breakingly sweet, painfully innocent music ever to grace a turntable, and that's what's given them staying power. Smoking Popes songwriter/frontman Josh Caterer didn't write "punk" songs, but love songs, of the lost and lonely variety, odes to love worthy of blue-eyed soulsters like Frankie Valli, the Righteous Brothers, or even Frank Sinatra. They're universal, to the point where they could be stripped of all "punkishness" and still be incredible and full of heartache. That's what makes Tribute a darn good listen -- as any actor can probably tell you, it's harder to do wrong with good material, and that same universality I mentioned makes it especially hard to screw things up, whether you happen to be doing a song ska-style, metal-style, or however.
With that said, here's where I've got a confession to make: I've never, ever, ever really been able to wrap my head around Pope frontman Josh Caterer's voice. No matter what I do or what he's singing, after a while it always starts to grate on my ears. I hate to say it, but that's the reality for me. What this means for Tribute, though, is that for me a lot of these songs actually benefit from the fact that, well, the band that's playing is not the Smoking Popes (although see later on for a bit more on that). Bad Astronaut start things off nicely with a great rendition of "Megan," a song I'd never really paid all that much attention to before, and then Retro Morning blazes through "Need You Around," one of my favorites back in the day, and manages to make it flow more smoothly, somehow, than the original ever did. I know, I know...look, I do love the Popes, okay? It's just that every time I put on Get Fired or Born to Quit, my head starts to hurt about seven tracks in (which is, incidentally, right where "Need You Around" falls on Born to Quit).
At any rate, most of the bands on the CD do a really good job with the songs; Notaword's pop-punk-y "Off My Mind" is pretty decent, Tom Daily's Rentals-ish keyboard touches on "Waiting Around" make me very happy, and Grade's pseudo-Jawbox/-Braid take on the Popes' classic "Days Just Wave Goodbye" rocks like I'd always thought the song should. Some of the tracks don't do a whole lot for me, like Junction 18's "End Of Your Time" and Death on Wednesday's "Let Them Die" (which I never much cared for to begin with), but those low spots are redeemed and then some by track 13, where The Ataris tone things down Ben Folds-style to transform "Pretty Pathetic" a devastating piano ballad. To make things even better, two "secret" tracks follow: Tom Daily doing "First Time" and Notaword's Chad Ashley doing "Gotta Know Right Know," both Billy Bragg-esque acoustic covers that make me want to run back home and listen to the originals to see if they were in fact that incredible (it's been a while since I've listened to 'em).
Oh, and how's this for weird: Duvall covers "Do Something" and Mike Felumlee does a good job with "Don't Be Afraid"...but both are really cheats, since three-quarters of the first band are ex-Popes (including original songwriter Josh Caterer) and Mr. Felumlee himself was the Popes' drummer. Come on, people -- where in the Rulebook does it say that you're allowed to play a "tribute" to a band you were in? Yeesh. I'll let it slide for now, since the end result is fairly impressive, but let's keep it in mind for next time, okay?
I guess it's appropriate, given the above tribute album, that the Popes' own "farewell" album consists of ten covers of love-gone-wrong songs -- it's obvious that these very songs are partly what's influenced the band's songwriting over the years, and it's nice to hear them give a nod to that. It's refreshing to hear a pop-punk band play a cover of a song they really like, as well, and not do it just for shock/shlock value; anybody who intentionally insults Patsy Cline by doing a goof-up of one of her songs deserves a sound pummeling, but the well-behaved lads of The Smoking Popes do "Seven Lonely Days" reverent justice. And yes, surprisingly, Caterer's high, nasal voice lends itself very well to Patsy's lonesome wail (and to a lot of the other songs on here, which makes me wonder if maybe he missed his calling when he started a punk band).
Is this ground-breaking? Nah, not really -- if you're a Smoking Popes fan, though, this certainly won't disappoint, as most of the songs sound as if they could be Popes tracks. I honestly wouldn't have guessed that the blazing, Social Distortion-ish "Valentine" was actually a Willie Nelson song, for one. The band does a delicate, sweet rendition of Rodgers and Hart's "Bewitched," a decent version of Burt Bacharach's "Wake Up Crying," and a good "The Party's Over," by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jule Styne (thanks, Marc). They prove they don't take themselves too seriously with Judy Garland's "Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart" -- who thought Vegas camp and punk-pop would go together so well? -- playing it lively without hamming it up, and then get downright spiritual on the quiet acoustic duet of Kristofferson's "Why Me?", which I guess showcases the more religious side of Josh Caterer (as does the new Duvall stuff, I hear). The Byrds and Harold Arlen covers I could live without -- not bad songs, mind you; they just don't do much here -- but my favorite (okay, it's a tie with the Patsy Cline song) is the beautiful, over-the-top cover of "You'll Never Walk Alone," the Rodgers and Hammerstein-penned hymn from Carousel. I never thought I'd live to see the day when a punk band could play a Broadway show tune and sound like they really, truly mean it. (JH)
(Suburban Home Records -- P.O. Box 40757, Denver, CO. 80204; email@example.com; http://www.suburbanhomerecords.com/; Double Zero Records -- P.O. Box 7122, Algonquin, IL. 60102; http://www.doublezerorecords.com/; The Smoking Popes -- http://www.smokingpopes.net/)
Fine Print At The Bottom
Ska-core has pretty much gone back underground these days. I've haven't seen (or heard, for that matter) hide nor horn from the likes of Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris lately...even the freakin' Bosstones seem to have disappeared. This is probably because (with the exception of the mighty Fishbone), these bands and their style have pretty much ceased to be relevant (or commercially viable). I'm sure a lot of those young ska bands have fired their horn sections, bought sweaters and horn-rim glasses, and now play "impassioned emotional rock." Fortunately, Spitvalves are here to remind us all what made the melding of ska and punk (and sometimes even metal) so appealing in the first place. The opening track, "One Time," brings to mind the old "Cookie Monster"-era Bosstones (without the ultra-menacing vocals), and then track two takes us into the jumpy ultra-fun skankalicious area that Pain usually mines. Oh, and I mentioned that Spitvalves also incorporate some metal...the openings of "SSDD" and "Would You Still Smile?" will make you want to put your metal horns up in the air, buddy. Reminds me a lot of Texas' own Middlefinger, and that's a pretty big compliment 'round these parts. Moral of the story: I half-expected this to be boring pablum, but I ended up grooving to the whole CD. (MHo)
(Resurrection A.D. Records -- P.O. Box 763, Red Bank, NJ. 07701; http://www.resurrection-ad.com/; Spitvalves -- http://www.spitvalves.com/)
I've got to admit it; once I had looked at the liner notes and saw what the guys in Starling looked like, I dreaded what was to come once I put the disc in my stereo. The band picture makes them look like your standard Third Eye FuelBoxTwenty type generic rock band...you know, the type of guys that spend more time on their "image" than they do on songcraft. Hesitantly, I placed the CD in the changer; my finger trembled as I reached for the "Play" button (I was also backing off the volume to keep the pain to a minimum). The album's selected single, "Don't Deflate," kicked in...and it wasn't that bad. Not bad at all, really. Sure, it's a bit whiny and plaintive, but the first line on the album is "It's a shame I've gotta start out like this whining boy / But I feel a little sick and numb these days". At least they're self-aware, and that goes a long way towards crossing the divide between being a joke and being in on the joke. Most of the songs on here are above-average power pop -- Weezer-ish, Matthew Sweet-ish, Mike Viola-ish...if you like your power pop catchy and crunchy, then Starling is right up your alley. The songwriting is fairly straightforward, but it succeeds at what it sets out to do, which is getting you to bop around and hum along...and, more than likely, hit the "Repeat" button after the track ends. I found myself listening pretty incessantly to "Delusional" and "Louise"; you'll probably find your own favorites here as well. (MHo)
(Time Bomb Recordings; Starling -- http://www.starling.ca/)
William Steffey has the nicest promo materials of any package I've seen. Sometimes that can be a cover up for a not-so-good album, but not this time -- Roadstar is an enjoyable album, with a variety of excellent songs and sounds. I like any album that can fuse electronica and rock, and this album accomplishes this seamlessly. "Ashland" combines a reggae beat, vocoder, and distorted guitars into a futuristic pop journey to Oregon. The title track is a downtempo affair with a robotic female vocal set to a groovy bassline with flourishes of trumpet and guitars. "Roadstar" returns again as the last track as well in re-mix form. The soundscapes of this record are lush; William Steffey has a real knack for combining electronic and acoustic elements into a cohesive song, a skill often lacking in other songwriters who play all the instruments on their albums.
I think if there was one word to describe this record, it would be simply "cool." I first listened to this album while waiting for a flight at the Oakland Airport, and it provided an excellent soundtrack to watching all the people hustling here and there. In my own mental trip I imagined each track represented a different traveler on their own adventure. (KM)
(Aquariphone Records -- 4637 Spaulding Ave. 3, Chicago, IL. 60625; http://www.aquariphone.com/; William Steffey -- http://www.williamsteffey.com/)
Stella Luna is a five-piece shoegazer band out of, of all places, northeast Florida (they apparently used to be one of a number of groups using the ill-advised name "Starbelly"). This is a four-song, 27-minute EP released in anticipation of a future full-length album. Very effects-laden, as you might expect. Usually, I would probably recoil in disgust at the wimpy male vocals present in the first track, "Change," but that would be if they appeared in a different context. In the dreamy, full-spectrum sound of this particular track, they work just fine. "Change" woozily segues directly into the next track, "Stargazer," which features abstract washed-out female vocals and a plodding tempo that seems to be just right. "Antares" seems to start weak, but that's apparently merely to emphasize the power that results when the guitar parts kick in. "A Bridge to Nowhere" is a little more rockin', maybe not quite spacey enough to justify the effects. I'm not sure if this release takes the shoegazer sound anywhere new, but that it sounds good is enough for me. (CP)
(Clairecords -- 1812 J Street, #1, Sacramento, CA. 95814; http://www.clairecords.com/)
Change Is A Sound
Strike Anywhere play hyperactive, politically-charged hardcore with just a skosh of melody that brings to mind Boy Sets Fire, or Propaghandi, if they were even more pissed off. From the opening salvo of "You're Fired," the album pretty much doesn't let up for the duration, and you'll be wondering how many times vocalist Thomas Barnett coughed up blood during the recording process. The lyrics he spits, spews and barks are all pretty incisive, and the band does a good job of keeping the proceedings together; a lot of what Strike Anywhere does could really come off as just a big mess of noise if the time and tempo changes weren't pulled off correctly. I guess the only thing that annoys me about this album is that Strike Anywhere veer oh-so-very close to some pretty catchy melodies, but right before they get there and lock it down, they quickly run in the other direction (which usually means a rapid-fire burst breakdown and some screaming). Maybe that's what you're looking for, and I can respect that, but I'd really be interested to see what the band could come up with if they applied just a bit of pop songcraft. Hmm...I think I just blasphemed in the eyes of the hardcore gods. (MHo)
(Jade Tree Records -- 2310 Kennwynn Rd., Wilmington, DE. 19810; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.jadetree.com/; Strike Anywhere -- http://www.strikeanywhere.org/)
Here's To Shutting Up
Superchunk is growing up. Understandably so, after 12 years of being one of the most influential bands in the independent rock scene. Me, I've never been one to worship at the altar of the 'Chunk, but I can definitely recognize their influence and relevance over the years. I'm like the guy that's heard all the stuff from No Pocky For Kitty on, but who only owns Foolish, Here's Where The Strings Come In, Indoor Living, and now, Here's To Shutting Up. So, with that said, I can tell you from my decidedly non-Superchunk-fanatical perspective that this album...is pretty good. By "pretty good," I mean that it's not as great as some as the stuff I've heard (even off of things I don't personally own), but that it's not the worst that Superchunk have to offer, either. Their new more mature approach to songwriting did take some getting used to at first, but once I gave Shutting Up a second listen, things really started to grab me. The pop sensibility is all there, and the rave-ups aren't exactly gone completely ("Art Class" is definitely proof of that, and I'll venture to say that it's the album's best track -- perhaps for that very reason), but there's just a more...seasoned sound to the band this time around. No, Mac's voice hasn't dropped down a few octaves or anything; this is more along the lines of composition, like giving the songs room to breathe, and experimenting with other sounds, like keyboard, strings, and even pedal steel guitar. I can totally understand Superchunk wanting to stretch out a bit, and now that they've gotten their feet wet, they can jump right in the deep end with their next album and deliver another heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Here's To Shutting Up doesn't quite reach those levels for me, but it's a pretty entertaining hint of what's to come. (MHo)
(Merge Records -- P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC. 27514; http://www.mergerecords.com/; Superchunk -- http://www.superchunk.com/)
Last Call For Vitriol
If it were just four songs long, Superdrag's Last Call For Vitriol might be the unqualified power pop gem that I hope for every time I walk into a record store. Sure, the kickoff track, "Baby Goes To Eleven," fudges its pedigree a bit with the parenthetical "(feat. Bob Pollard)"; not only isn't the nuttiest Daytonian "featured," I'll be damned if I can pick him out in the mix. But griping's a tad perverse in light of the song, which is something close to an instant classic, a love letter written on tough-but-friendly guitar distortion, sealed with sweet vocal harmonies and delivered to a lady who has all the singer needs and more. The next three cuts keep raising the ante, romping through Cheap Trickian nastiness ("I Can't Wait") and rough-and-tumble Urge Overkill-styled howler rock ("The Staggering Genius," which also includes what sounds like a fairly subtle Sgt. Pepper reference just before the last prechorus) before alighting on the pulverizing "So Insincere."
And then it all falls apart, starting with "Extra-Sensory," which is the same damn song written at least once by everybody who succumbs to the thrall of Big Star. From there, Superdrag starts ticking off the tracks until the disc stops spinning, patiently laying out cuts like "Way Down Here Without You" (which is like "Odorono" played as if singer/guitarist John Davis mistakenly thought it came from side two of #1 Record) and "Her Melancholy Tune" (which ensures that Fastball need never consider covering "I'm Only Sleeping" for fear of redundancy). All told, the final eight-song stretch is populated with nobly failed rockers and some no-big-deal ballads that may not send you running for the stop button but doesn't offer any special enticement towards rewind, either. It may help to consider Last Call For Vitriol a classic 4-song EP with bonus tracks. If using this logic to haggle with the sales clerk for a lower price happens to work, I'd like to hear about it. (MH)
(The Arena Rock Recording Co. -- 242 Wythe Ave., Studio 6, Brooklyn, NY. 11211; email@example.com; http://www.arenarockrecordingco.com/; Superdrag -- http://www.superdrag.com/)