Boy, just when you think you can safely pigeonhole somebody and leave it at that... I'd heard a bit off of local Houston rockers Leaf's previous effort, The Drought, and while it wasn't bad, it didn't bowl me over -- I tagged it as middle-of-the-road nu-metal, shrugged, and moved on.
Fortunately, so has the band. While this is still somewhat metal-ish, Leaf prove on their new EP Just Take that they're hardly Linkin Park or Korn clones. In fact, the only nu-metal touchstones they really resemble at all are the Deftones and Jonah Matranga's Far, both of which were (and still are, in the Deftones' case) somewhat out-of-step with their dreadlocked, drop-D-tuned brethren. "Against the Grain," in particular, brings to mind the 'tones, mostly because of that thundering, roaring tidal wave of guitar that sounds like it's been stopped just short of crashing down on the unsuspecting lead singer. The band breaks up the standard emo-metal formula even there, though, throwing in a nicely dissonant math-rock bit in the middle and most likely leaving headbanging rockers scratching their heads.
"Gypsy Day," the EP's second track, is a little more bland, just fairly basic rock in a Far/Foo Fighters vein, but it's more than redeemed by "Monkey Love," a cool, strange little mess of a song that takes the quirky retro-New Wave sound of Interpol and Placebo and grafts it onto a heavy metal skeleton. The resulting song, with its oddly synth-sounding guitars and seemingly misplaced drifting, airy break section, is refreshingly original; I can't speak for everybody out there, of course, but a whole CD along these lines would sound pretty darn good to me.
Unfortunately, the final track on the EP, "Sunsets in Paradise," trades the raging guitars and emo-boy vocals for cheesy, early Enya-style synths (sorry, but I hate that sound) and delicately-picked acoustic guitar, basically attempting a quiet, melodic, pseudo-prog-folk instrumental. It's an interesting idea, but the band doesn't seem to know what to do with it, and as a result the song just ambles along for a while, repeats, and ends. Blah. It'd serve alright as the throwaway outro track to a full-length, but fellas, I'd skip this sort of thing when you've only got limited space in which to make your We-Are-Rök-Gödz-in-Waiting artistic statement (like, say, on an EP...).
In the end, Just Take probably won't be making my personal year-end list of best releases, I'll admit, but that doesn't mean it's not a promising step forward for a local band I'd written off as just another bunch of generic nu-metal wannabes. I'll be looking for more; keep it up. (JH)
(self-released; Leaf -- http://www.leafmusic.com/)
Truck Was Struck
[Ed. Note: In the interest of full disclosure, we'd like to note that Ms. Lin does indeed write for us from time to time; she started fairly recently, however, and trust us, it had nada to do with this review. Got it?]
I should probably state up front that I generally shy away from singer-songwriter folk music. I think the reason is that "folk" seems to be less of a genre than a kind of instrumentation -- play weepy love songs on a distorted electric guitar, and you're emo; play weepy love songs on an acoustic guitar, and you're a folksinger (or at least a Jonah Matranga wannabe). Sure, there's the older school of folksongs, like the kind played in backwoods Appalachia or interpreted by people like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, or even Billy Bragg, but how in the hell does somebody like Jewel (who thankfully seems to've dropped the conceit, these days), for God's sake, fit into that same framework?
Now, for the people in Appalachia, it wasn't a matter of "folk" music or not -- it was just music, the only kind of music they knew how to (or wanted to) play, and that certainly isn't the case today. In the hands of artists like Guthrie, Dylan, and Bragg, it became protest music, music used to make a point, and that was great at the time, but what about now? Is that still the kind of folk music people listen to? Hardly. Nowadays "folk" is the label music industry types slap onto singer-songwriters (most of whom seem to be women; I notice that not many people call John Mayer or Chris Carrabba "folk") who play acoustic guitars and who could probably fit quite easily into some other genre. In fact, it's mostly a category for people who aren't quite good enough to "cross over" into any other category; otherwise, we'd happily call them pop, or country, or Adult Alternative, or whatever. Note the "mostly," of course -- I'll admit that there are indeed people out there who're good at what they do and still fit the label, but the vast majority of "folk" music I've heard would be relegated to coffeehouses and street corners and not much else if it weren't filed under "Folk" at the record store.
So, whenever I hear about somebody being a "folksinger" or a "folk artist," it sets off some serious warning bells inside my head. Everybody's got their own musical prejudices; this is one of mine. Luckily, "folk"-y Houston-based singer-songwriter Annie Lin skips easily around most of the stylistic pitfalls on her latest full-length (and first actual studio recording, I believe), Truck Was Struck. She does strike out into Ani DiFranco or Indigo Girls territory from time to time (she goes so far as to swipe a guitar line in "Whole," which is one of the weaker songs on here, anyway), but for the most part, she takes that "folksinger" label and makes it absolutely unimportant. These are just plain old good songs, whatever genre you want to lump them into, and they're done extremely well. Heck, it's even sort of a concept album, for crying out loud, about a car wreck and its aftermath, and Lin's subtle enough with it that it doesn't come off as a gimmick -- how many street-corner troubadours could pull that off?
The first half of the album is the stronger, partly because it all seems to hang together a bit better. It starts off with "In the Waiting Room," which captures perfectly the tense-yet-hushed bureaucratic mess that is pretty much any hospital's waiting room, trudging along so slowly and patiently that you can almost hear the ticking clock. "Truck Was Struck" takes a step backwards to an actual collision, which kind of turns into not a real collision on the freeway but a collision in the middle of a relationship -- it's a pretty, melancholy piece, and a nice pseudo-duet with the deep vocals of Nava of Sixwest/The Last Place You Look infamy. "Ambulance Driver" shifts to the outside, taking the viewpoint of an onlooker driving by who uses the incident to imagine herself(?) as a heroic ambulance driver coming to put things back together for somebody they're in love with. The song's more upbeat than most of the rest of the album, coming within a hair of rocking out at several points.
"Path of Least Resistance" isn't really tied to the whole "wreck" theme (that kind of goes by the wayside after a while), but is my favorite track out of the whole bunch, a swaying, quietly beautiful love-gone-wrong song with one of the best lines I've heard in a while: "You don't have to hide, it's not Halloween." It's a damn near perfect song for listening to late at night when it's dark and you're alone, with just a bottle at hand. The strings on "A Lot Like Me," coupled with Lin's close-up, warm voice, make for another sweet love song (while avoiding saccharine sappiness), and the insistent drums and soft vocals of the closer, "Secret Me," a soft-yet-driving, country-ish ode to Lin's former self, make me think of Juliana Hatfield at her best, for some reason. All in all, there're only two "low" points on Truck; there's the fairly generic jangly pop of "Whole," which is just okay, and then there's the good-idea-gone-bad "Common Ground," which is an angry ditty sung by a homeless girl living on the Houston streets. The lyrics are great, but the affected vocals distract, and the song ends up sounding somewhat awkward as a result.
It's good to hear this. I've heard pieces of Lin's earlier stuff, and while I've always liked her, on CD the music struck me as being good...but not great. Her first two albums, Math Pope and Kicking Stars (never heard East Coast Songs, sorry), showed a lot of promise and demonstrated that Lin could write songs like a champ, but the performance felt unsteady, somehow, like a talented-but-nervous soul up on a hostile coffeehouse stage on Open Mic Night. On Truck Was Struck, by contrast, Lin is confident and strong, her voice and guitar finally sounding as good as her songs. And I'm glad to hear it, because with that combination in place at last, the whole thing is more beautiful and honest than any of the current crop of pop-rock "divas" could ever even imagine. (JH)
(Ariadne Records -- http://ariadnerecords.com/; Annie Lin -- http://www.annielin.com/)