Day At The Fair
I can't explain it, not entirely. Despite my best music-critic intentions, I find myself enjoying the hell out of Day At The Fair's new EP, The Prelude. It's nothing groundbreaking, no (although Springman's Website says that singer/guitarist Chris Barker's old band back in NJ, Lanemeyer, was a "pioneer" of the emo-punk sub-genre; never heard of 'em, so go fig), and I know life's too short to waste on music that's not absolutely crucial and brilliant, and blah, blah, blah. Who cares? This is sweet pop-punk/emo with pretty melodies, lyrics about love, loss, and change, and enough rockin' guitar to get those X-ed-up fists pumping in the air at shows...and from the first crunching power chord and plaintive emo-boy wail, I'm hooked.
Opener "Eastern Homes and Western Hearts" is the best track on here, a rock-out rumination on moving on so you can figure out what you've left behind, but it only slightly overshadows the bright, shining chorus of "Priscilla the Traveling Proton", the angry confusion of "The Blame Anxiety" (which is a dead ringer for pretty much anything off the Alkaline Trio's Maybe I'll Catch Fire), and the Imbroco-ish "Kira doesn't care about anything, she's a nihilist." The one lackluster track on the EP is the closing "Homesick Angels," which is definitely pretty and melancholy, but so sickly-sweet it's almost unsettling, like cheesy, teary-eyed Christian rock (on the good side, it features a guest female vocalist who sounds a lot more classically-trained than your average indie-rock girl singer, which is somewhat refreshing). Oh, and the CD barely scratches the 20-minute mark, so short that I've hit "repeat" three times in the course of typing up this review.
So like I said, no, I can't explain it. I could probably come up with some justification involving my emo-loving post-college years as a wannabe tortured artist/musician or tie it somehow to the fascination I had with some truly saccharine metal back in high school, but what'd be the point? It'd all be beside the point. Because in the end, isn't this music critic business is about one question -- "do you like it?" (JH)
(Springman Records -- P.O. Box 2043, Cupertino, CA. 95015-2043; http://www.springmanrecords.com/; Day At The Fair -- http://www.adayatthefair.com/)
Dead to Fall
Everything I Touch Falls to Pieces
For the most part, it was refreshing to hear a decent American metal band. Chicago's Dead to Fall released their debut, Everything I Touch Falls to Pieces in 2002, and it's an adequate metal record.
This technically-proficient quintet plays with a style reminiscent of In Flames, one of the better metal acts of the past few years. Bryan Lear's and Seth Nichols' guitars play together, then split apart to create a sort of multilayered effect. Dan Craig's drumming is extremely tight and precise. And again (those who have read most of my other reviews know my rant), there is no bass. Why keep a bassist on the payroll if he's not being utilized? Bass guitar, in my opinion, is essential to creating a fully-rounded sound. A good drum/bass rhythm section gives a third dimension to the songs and prevents the band from relying almost exclusively on guitar. Besides that, it also prevents the band from having to layer the guitars 70-80 times to create the weight that one bass guitar can provide.
To be honest, I had no expectations for this record, but I discovered a welcome surprise when I reached the ninth track -- "Doraematu". This is an acoustic instrumental with two separate guitar tracks by Antone Jones (a co-author of the other guitar tracks on the CD). Instrumentals can be great even though they have no lyrics (in this case, this was a blessing -- I can't stand death metal growling vocals). "Doraematu" has what sounds like a Spanish classical-type influence; it flows nicely and permits the listener to open his mind and use his imagination. It evokes an emotional response, which can be quite difficult to do, especially with only two acoustic guitars. This, in my opinion, is an excellent song, and it seems to be quite a risky choice for a hardcore/death metal album, especially a debut. I think it took some guts to include this song, but I also think it was well worth it. It's nice to see well-rounded artists in any genre.
Overall, if you're into In Flames and the like, you'll probably dig this album. The guys were obviously influenced by the Scandinavian metal scene and, even though the vocals aren't really my cup of tea, it is nice to know there is a decent new metal band here in the States. "Doraematu" is a sort of hidden treasure on the disc. It is unexpected and a welcome contrast to the aggressiveness of the other 10 tracks. (CM)
(Victory Records -- 346 N. Justine, Suite 504, Chicago, IL. 60607; http://www.victoryrecords.com/; Dead to Fall -- http://www.deadtofall.com/)
Descent Into Madness
In the Darkest Hours
For a first demo, In the Darkest Hours, recorded by Houston's Descent into Madness, isn't bad. One of the problems I see is that DIM, along with many other bands, is motivated by the fact that there is no good metal coming out these days...and then they turn around and make a record that isn't terribly original. The end goal of any band should never involve either just pleasing fans or outdoing other bands. The goal should be to expose as many people as possible to the music the band's created; isn't that the point? It's the love of the music that will ultimately make or break the band and keep the members together for any amount of time. Pantera fell into this trap. They not only tried to outdo everyone else, they tried to outdo themselves with every record. After their third album, nothing sounded original or particularly good because every song had to be as heavy as possible in order to achieve their aims, and instead each ended up basically being a worse rendition of a previous song. And look where they are now.
I like the band's idea to use a female backup singer, and Courtney Claiborne has a decent voice, but the idea didn't quite fly. I think it would be more effective to layer vocalist Tom Spencer's voice on itself, because Courtney tends to sound like a lost cat in an alley. The other option, I guess, would be to give her some lead vocals on her own, but then they'd sound like Evanescence, which would definitely not be good. Musically, the band's acceptable. The other four members can play, but there was nothing that really evoked a response from me. It just kind of played. Perhaps I need to catch them live.
Bearing all of the above in mind, DIM is not a terrible band -- they just need some polishing. They need to work on creating depth and purpose in their music. The Iron Maiden/Dream Theater influences come across clearly, but again, the songs were too long and too empty. DIM needs to sit down and really work on creating their own music -- not on pleasing fans, not on outdoing other bands, but just on making DIM music. When they start to find their true sound, (which isn't going to happen just because they added a female vocalist and keyboardist), all the other components will come together. (CM)
(Savage Brainchild Entertainment -- c/o Alexander Kamburov, 5607 Belrose Street #103, Houston, TX. 77035; http://www.descentintomadness.com/)
Life For Rent
If Eminem was only ever right about one thing, it was in his justification for using the first verse of "Thank You" as the hook for "Stan," which was simply that Dido is a terrific pop singer. With a voice that comes across as Delores O'Riordan without the screechiness mixed with Sarah McLachlan without the somnambulance, Ms. Armstrong possesses both a power and a subtlety that serves her pet topic of romantic longing extremely well. What Eminem didn't say outright but merely hinted at by sampling a single verse is that, as a songwriter, Dido is hit-or-miss, and while the best songs on 1999's No Angel (like the heart-as-a-shield "Here With Me," "All You Want" and "My Lover's Gone") showed a great deal of promise, the rest of the album simply showed how a gifted singer can make fairly unimpressive material shine.
Which is why I await, somewhat impatiently, a version of Life For Rent that reflects the above. Instead of capitalizing on her primary asset, the album ignores it almost entirely, as Dido, perhaps attempting to sound seductive, spends most of the duration vocalizing in a breathy coo just this side of a whisper. Doing so completely sidesteps the handsomeness and power of her voice, which is far sexier when it's captured in full bloom. As a result, Dido sacrifices the expressiveness that is her greatest strength, and she spends the album at a single, monotonic pitch. The songs are thrown into full relief by default, and there are no improvements in quality over the material from No Angel to counteract their creator's seeming absence.
What's confusing is that there were strong indications that Dido was poised to make an artistic breakthrough on her No Angel followup. On the road for an unconscionably long time to promote the album, she and her band began doing interesting things with the music, taking aspects of Portishead's bass-heavy sound and applying them to her unabashed pop songs. None of that's evident on Life For Rent, which follows No Angel's model of throwing an electronic sheen on top of textbook acoustic-guitar singer/songwriter confessionals. There's usually no shame in an artist simply continuing to establish his or her sound for their second album, but Dido's muse was leading her somewhere that she had initially seemed eager enough to go, and in failing to follow, Life For Rent comes across instead as a step backwards.
Nowhere is that clearer than on "Don't Leave Home," which Dido has been singing since at least 1999. Popular performers usually have to beg audiences to indulge them when they perform new material and all but apologize when they finish, but at the Boston show I saw in late 2000, she introduced the song to cheers and concluded it to enthusiastic applause. I was one of the converts that night; as it turned out, I hadn't heard Dido until then (I had come for the Bangles, thank you very much) and it was "Don't Leave Home" that did it. But I would never be able to justify that to anybody on the basis of the version of the song on Life For Rent, which belies the fact that she had been successfully putting it over to her audience for four years. Sped up, augmented with vocal overdubs and chipper acoustic guitar and approaching its subject matter (something of a "Comfortably Numb" redux, a song to an addict sung by the drugs) like a cute lullaby (instead of a terrifying one), it suggests that Dido didn't have the confidence simply to go into the studio and record the song as she had been performing it for nearly half a decade. Imagine a new Cheap Trick fan, pre-Budokan, seeing them live and falling in love with "I Want You To Want Me" only to discover that the only extant recording of it was the dinky version from In Color, and you've got a sense of my disappointment in finally getting a recording of "Don't Leave Home" all my own. In frustration, I performed a very cursory Google search and, 90 minutes later, had downloaded five performances of the song from the inter-album gap, none of them resembling the album arrangement, all of them superior.
If I'm harping on a single song too much, that's partly because it's emblematic of the problems on Life For Rent and partly because I can barely wring enough enthusiasm for the rest of the album out of my disappointed heart. If pressed, I could tell you that "Mary's In India" is sweet but a little stupid, "See You When You're 40" is a sharp enough calling-out of an ex-lover's behavior and "See The Sun" is a pleasant chin-up-things-will-get-better number. Nothing, however, can match up to what Dido is capable of doing, of which I now have documented proof. It's not the first time I've been let down by an artist of great potential, and it certainly won't be the last. But it never gets any easier. (MH)
(Arista Records -- http://www.arista.com/; Dido -- http://www.didomusic.com/)
About halfway through Freakin' Eureka, I was confused enough about Dipsomaniacs' sound to see what other reviewers had to say about their music. I knew what dipsomania was (ah, college), and felt that the comparisons to Fountains of Wayne must have been the work of some lonely dipsomaniac. But thankfully, I wasn't alone in thinking that this power-pop quartet smacks more of Big Star, The Replacements, and The Plimsouls. Hell, they even covered "Can't Hardly Wait" on a recent Replacements tribute compilation. And while the music and the lyrics may not be quite as strong as their influences, Dipsomaniacs do a fine job of reminding you how much you miss those bands.
One thing this New Jersey act -- featuring vocalist/guitarist Mick Chorba, bassist Matt Maciolek, guitarist Ron Mitchell, and drummer Tom O'Grady -- has going for it is that they don't seem to take themselves as seriously as they could, which helps to keep their songs light and fresh. Even on songs like "A Low Level Search for God" (one of the album's best tunes), "Worthless," and "Loneliness," the hooks and pop are so relentless the listener can't help but sing along, tap their feet, and feel compelled to get up and dance. And "Prince Harry," the Dipsomaniacs' diatribe against the tabloids, will have you rolling on the floor. It's a perfect singalong.
My one complaint about Dipsomaniacs' music is that it sounds too clean and too dated. Freakin' Eureka has a Soul Asylum quality hovering over it that, to me at least, really dates the music. Songs like "Calvin" and "Sun Shine Through" just don't have quite the timeless element that most of the songs by The Replacements have -- they sound like they should have come out in 1995. Who knows? They might have been huge. (DAC)
(Face Down Records -- P.O. Box 1733, Burlington, NJ. 08016; http://www.facedown.net/; The Dipsomaniacs -- http://www.dipsomaniacs.net/)
In the Face of the Enemy
After listening to In the Face of the Enemy, Tennessee band Disarray's 2002 release, I realized that I need to go back a bit and explain a few things before I begin this review.
As a long-time metal connoisseur, I have discovered that there are two broad categories into which virtually all metal falls: Basic Metal and Thinking Man's Metal. Basic Metal, a genre composed of bands like Pantera, Fight, AC/DC, and Slayer, is metal that is sufficiently repetitive and heavy, but not too strong in the lyrics department. Generally, Basic Metal is best when listened to as background music -- i.e., while cleaning the house or getting pumped up for an event by air-guitaring in the mirror with your shirt off (not that I'd do that). Basic Metal albums are generally not worth repeated listenings in one sitting.
Thinking Man's Metal, a genre made up of such bands as Metallica, Iron Maiden, Dream Theater, and all artists who record concept albums, like Queensryche and even Fear Factory and W.A.S.P. (referring only to The Crimson Idol here), has a lot more depth than Basic Metal. The songs still rock,, but they can be listened to on several levels -- either sitting next to the stereo and reading the lyrics with the music and trying to figure out what the authors mean or getting pumped up for something by air-guitaring in the mirror with your shirt off (again, not that I'd do that). Thinking Man's Metal albums can usually be put on repeat, or at least listened to once for several days in a row, and each listening can potentially yield a new discovery, like a previously unnoticed background vocal or exotic instrument.
With all that in mind, I'd have to say that In the Face of the Enemy falls right in the middle of the Basic Metal group. Reminiscent of Pantera and Drowning Pool, Disarray combines heavy music with that Southern "I'm gonna kick everyone's ass" attitude. This is probably a good one to listen to when you're pissed off.
The thing that kinda bothers me about the album is that all the songs are written in first person, but are directed toward society. The result is that lead singer Chuck Bonnett seems to be whining about his life for 50 minutes straight. Societal gripes are best when they are just commentaries. Take Metallica's first four albums: 1983's Kill 'Em All, 1984's Ride the Lightning, 1986's Master of Puppets, and 1988's ...And Justice for All. These discs are rife with complaints, but they are presented as "This problem exists in the world" rather than "I'm so put upon, look what society has done to me."
One of the major selling points of this album seems to be the fact that Gwar guitarist Balsac The Jaws of Death is a guest artist on "I'll Be Standing." My opinion? Big deal. He plays right with Chuck Bonnett for most of the song, anyway, so it sounds like there is still only one guitarist. "Life Is Gone" is the only sufficient attempt at a bluesy, acoustic departure from the norm, but it still lacks a good amount of substance. Quite frankly, that one riff -- a good riff, mind you -- gets too repetitive and makes the entire song difficult to sit through.
This album seems to be getting a fair amount of good press, but honestly, it's really nothing special. "Voice of Reason" rocks pretty good, but overall there aren't many memorable things about it. It's like music for wrestling fans -- loud, aggressive, and devoid of anything really thought-provoking. I haven't heard their previous three albums, but I'd say any one would be okay, if you wanted to check 'em out. I'm guessing there couldn't have been much stylistic progression since the first was recorded. (CM)
(Eclipse Records, Inc. -- P.O. Box 215, Butler, NJ 07405-0215; http://www.eclipserecords.com/; Disarray -- http://www.disarrayonline.com/)
First things first: yes, Distillers guitarist/singer/frontwoman Brody Dalle is Tim Armstrong of Rancid's now-ex-wife. Yes, she's a transplanted Australian. Yes, she bears an odd vocal resemblance to Courtney Love. And yes, their most recent album, Coral Fang, isn't as punk as their older stuff.
And in the end, who cares? That stuff's all beside the point, just trivia, at least to everybody but music-crit weirdos like myself. All you really need to know about The Distillers' Coral Fang (and Dalle herself) is that this album rocks harder (despite the "shiny" production I've seen reviewers elsewhere complain about) than anything I've heard outside of Rocket From The Crypt, The White Stripes, or maybe Refused, and that's due in large part to Dalle's desperate, cigarette-scarred voice, bloodcurdling howl, and sheer presence. The woman may sound a bit like Courtney Love in her prime, it's true, but that's a good thing, and on this album she climbs higher than Love ever has (and besides, I'd put my money on Dalle in a bout between the two). Tracks like the death-love rocker "Dismantle Me," the bleak, melancholy blast of "The Hunger," the anthemic, sing-along-y "Hall of Mirrors," and the speeding yet somehow pretty title track (which I think is an ode to smack, but I'm not sure) practically shiver with emotion, while the guitars burn and chug along beside. It's beautiful throughout.
The feeling I got when I first heard The Distillers is the same one I got when a friend first introduced me to Guns 'n' Roses back in high school. It wasn't groundbreakingly original, no, but it was incredible even still, because it felt like the piece that had been missing from the musical puzzle had suddenly snapped into place; a hole I didn't even know existed had been filled. Coral Fang hits me the same way. This album is what I'd hoped Karen O and the over-hyped Yeah Yeah Yeahs would sound like: just a raw, angry, nihilistic rock assault, led by a frontwoman who can sing lines like "I wish that you didn't love me no more, I've been dead for years" and sound like she really, truly means it. (JH)
(Sire Records -- http://www.sirerecords.com/; Hellcat Records -- 2798 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA. 90026; http://www.hell-cat.com/; The Distillers -- http://www.thedistillers.com/)
I was going to start this review off with some long tirade on how much I hate Dallas bands; how they all sound the same, how Dallas bands haven't been any good since the late '80s, etc., etc. Shallow Reign -- that was a good Dallas band. Toadies? Eh, they were okay at the time. There was this "Dallas sound" in the early '90s that just blew. But earlier this year, I heard a band from Dallas called Chomsky and they changed my attitude about Dallas bands in a big way.
Consider my mind open.
Doosu is another band from Dallas that would've totally given me pause had I seen or heard of them before they broke up. And although the band is no longer together, that in no way means you shouldn't check out their music. It's a great listen -- think Local H mixed with a poppier Monster Magnet. Doosu created a great album with Feng Shui, and it's unfortunate that they broke up. While the band was around, they won a Grammy showcase in L.A., performed at CMJ, SXSW, and NXNE. They played with Toadies (naturally), A Perfect Circle, and Porno For Pyros, among others. But unfortunately, there are a million bands out there with Doosu's sound, and this one wasn't able to rise to the attention of a major label that wanted to spend millions on promotion.
That said, Feng Shui is a very good album. "Four Steps" is a standout track, while "Working Man" (with its Skynyrd-esque intro chords), "Juggernaut," and "Racehorse" are all songs that scream to be played somewhere on the Clear Channel dial. "Scarlet Lullaby" is a mixed-genre epic that will make you immediately hit the repeat button. A great tune.
Don't think that the guys from Doosu have given up the rock, by the way. Casey Hess is now playing with Burden Brothers, Eric Shutt is in The Mermaid Purse, Chad DeAtley is playing with History At Our Disposal, and Todd Harwell is drumming for Flickerstick. There's even talk of a live DVD and a CD of previously-unreleased material. Solid news for the fans that knew Doosu when they were still in the game. (DAC)
(BearHug Records -- http://www.doosu.com/)
I think this bunch is from the Austin area. There is not too much information on the jacket. [Ed. Note: Actually, no, they're from right here in H-town.] The music's a folk-pop sort of thing -- romantic and fun songs done well, with a flair for the dramatic without being melodramatic. Neat trick, huh? Reminds me of the Dave Mathews Band. I really enjoy the lilting melodies and harmonies. Fine songwriting, well-arranged, and nicely presented. A lot to like here. (BW)
(self-released; Drifter -- http://www.drifterband.com/)
Nothing Was Ever the Same
Damn, that's maddening. Have you ever heard a song and then had the feeling, "hmm, that sounds really familiar; where the heck is that from?" Despite my music critic-ness, that's been happening to me more and more lately, like with Dutch Kills' six-song CD, Nothing Was Ever the Same. It drives me nuts, because I know these five Queens natives sound like somebody I should know, somebody whose CD is probably sitting on the shelf in my office right freakin' now...and yet I'm stumped.
Maybe I'm wrong, though. Maybe what Dutch Kills remind me of isn't a band, really, but a time, a sound, like the one I heard so often back in the early '90s, when college and indie-rock were brand new to me. Maybe they remind me of that whole school of Hüsker Dü-following bands, folks like Chavez, Small Ball Paul, Overwhelming Colorfast, Silkworm, the Treepeople, and all those damn bands on C/Z Records. They all had roaring, overpowering walls of guitar that blasted through the headphones, and yet at the same time, they could at least carry a tune, in an unpolished kind of way. At the time, it was a sound I loved (and some of it I still do; my Sugar and Superchunk records still sound incredible) -- maybe that's why Nothing Was Ever the Same feels so warm and familiar. Nick Altebrando's singing/yelling is sweet and earnest, without any pretenstions to true "lead singer"-ness, the guitars swirl and shine around each song's melody, and -- presto! -- it feels like 1992 was yesterday.
From the anthemic, roaring, Bob Mould-styled rock of "She's A Star" through the pretty strumming and strings of "Semi" all the way to the more orchestral stylings of "Jupiter" and the jangly melancholia of "Superpowers" (which, okay, is pretty cheesy, if sweet), the band drags me back to those happy times, and I find myself enjoying the ride. Maybe there was a reason I hung onto all those CDs, after all. (JH)
(Wordclock Records -- P.O. Box 3266, Merrifield, VA. 22116; http://www.wordclock.com/; Dutch Kills -- http://www.dutchkills.com/)