Faces, the latest from Michigan rockers Scorch, has the potential to be a good listen, but ultimately, it's just not that unique. It's obvious who influenced the band -- Sepultura, Pantera, maybe even Marilyn Manson -- and that's fine, but the band used only those influences when crafting their songs, failing to infuse them with anything of the their own creation. Now, in this day and age, it's difficult to come up with something original that will appeal to many people, and I'll be the first to admit that metal isn't what it used to be. On the other hand, though, it does still happen, and every band should strive to infuse some kind of originality into their music. I got the feeling that Scorch was only trying to create a heavy-as-possible record, not a truly interesting or listenable one.
The most compelling evidence of this is in the lyrics, which have no depth at all -- they are not thought-provoking in any way, which, in my opinion, is essential to writing good metal. As an example of what I mean, here are some lyrics from "Orgasmic Taste": "Drop by drop / Cut by cut / Drip by drip / Slit by slit". The talent of the vocalist is at least as important as the talents of the other musicians in any band, and therefore the lyrics themselves are at least as important as all the other gear the band uses.
On top of that, Russ Meuchel's guitar didn't sit well with me. He's somewhat of a shredder (not to mention the leader of the band), so his guitar is louder than everything else on the CD, including the vocals (which he sings, by the way). Coupled with that, the playing and the tone he uses wracked my nerves. Very few of the riffs really got my attention, and there were numerous pointlessly long and uninteresting solos. Often the guitar sounded weirdly like a dying chicken (listen to Megadeth's "Crush 'Em" for another example of this). One of my pet metal peeves is when the guitars are the dominant instrument; this may be because I'm a drummer, but in my opinion, the drums, bass, and guitar all have their purpose and place. Otherwise, why bother? Why have a drummer and bassist, when their contributions could be just as easily added by computer?
I had a hard time really getting into this disc. Meuchel himself said that Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power is the album Scorch looked to for inspiration, but if they really referenced that disc, they would have figured out that Pantera's songs are loud and aggressive, yes, but they are also streamlined and pointed. I'm not saying that Scorch should have put out another Vulgar, but they should have looked at the big picture more instead of focusing on being as heavy as possible. Faces seemed to be all over the place, with pointless tempo changes everywhere; it was jumpy. Don't get me wrong: I like tempo changes if they're done right, and I like insanely long songs if they're done right. I often bash techniques that bands abuse that, if executed correctly, can be really good. Scorch has no problem being loud and aggressive; I think that for the type of metal they're doing, though, they need to either cut and streamline or add depth and dimension by penning more thought-provoking, emotion-evoking lyrics and letting the guitar sit in the back more. As far as adding this disc to your collection? I would pick a Pantera CD and a Sepultura CD and call it a day. (CM)
(self-released; Scorch -- http://www.scorchedmetal.com/)
Full disclosure up front: I know Dave Deggeller, the man behind Secret Primper. In case anybody thinks there's any favoritism involved, though, let me say that I don't know him well, really, having met him way back in college when he fronted Houston math-y indie-rockers Dyn@mutt (SCR contributor Doug Dillaman played drums, I should add), and I lost touch once everybody graduated and went their separate ways. These days he's a teacher out in the Bay Area, I'm told, and in his spare time, he dons the guise of the Secret Primper and drags a handful of friends into the studio to give life to his odd variety of bedroom indie-rock.
Okay. So, with that out of the way, let me also say that the very first thing his latest CD, Closet Drama, makes me think of is Ben Folds Five. I mean that as a compliment, believe it or not -- it's partly the piano, which is a new side of Deggeller's talents to me, but also the rollicking feel of "A Good Set of Wheels" (the high-pitched vocals help with the comparison, as well). Calling him a Ben Folds clone would be idiotic, though, because if there's one thing Deggeller is, it's his own man. The songs are planted firmly in the indie-ish rock realm, with some subtle of off-kilter rhythms and surprising melodies, but while they bring to mind a number of other artists, none really does Drama justice.
Although there're hints of The Minutemen, Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, and Pavement here, the closest analog I can come up with, in the end, is the sadly-defunct Dismemberment Plan. Deggeller's Primper disregards accepted indie-rock conventions in much the same way the Plan did, throwing horns, piano, and too-smart lyricism Elvis Costello would envy into the mix and coming up with something near to original. Also like the Dismemberment Plan folks, Secret Primper takes a little while to really enjoy; at first listen, it struck me as a little "off" (as did Dyn@mutt, I'll admit). With repeated listenings, though, the quirks start to become less weird and more, well, endearing.
"Great Flood" offers a nicely meandering, Archers of Loaf-style rock slow-burn, while "How Patriotic Are You?" is a cheery, tounge-in-cheek slap back at all the more-American-than-thou jerks out there. "Bloodhounds" then takes the piano down a dark, lonely back street and prods it into a duet with sharp, dissonant guitars, and "Here Comes the Chess Team" serves up a beautiful, triumphant ode to sincerity and bravery in the face of an uncaring world. All four tracks are worthy of repeated use of the "Back" button, as are the slacker-rock of "Wordplay" (which utilizes a sax better than most), the dangerous-sounding "Scantily Clad," and the slightly weirder rock of "Figurines."
The only downward points, at least to this reviewer, are the unfortunate turn towards jazziness with "Closet Drama" and the just-okay rock of "Underdog," and even those aren't truly bad, just not up to par. Putting those two aside, this is a damn fine CD. It's nice to see that some folks not only keep their musical visions alive, but improve on them, as well. (JH)
(self-released; Secret Primper -- http://www.gunn.palo-alto.ca.us/
Places I Haven't Seen
David Gedge, once of the Wedding Present, now fronts a band called Cinerama. I don't like them, and Seldom reminds me why: he never fucking shuts up! There's no self-torment too obviously implied for him to spout out, in doggerel rhyme no less. Now, with Seldom's Places I Haven't Seen, well, here's a pop band with a taste for understatement: "Surrounded by a hundred friends but still you feel alone. / I love L.A. / That's hard to say." Add some lurching west-coast indie-rock (urrrgh, Pedro the Lion), drumrolls, and that's a song. Okay, it's not Percy Shelley -- it's not even Henry Rollins, it's not even an original thought, but if it isn't acceptable to recycle thoughts in a pop song, especially ones about loneliness, then I think we'd better get on this national educational crisis thing pronto. I don't like pop music, but this EP pleases me -- seamless, thoughtful music for a world of ragged edges and gut reactions. Like the best girls in college, it's pretty to boot. (DM)
(Casa Recording Co.; Seldom -- http://www.seldomsongs.com/)
Tomorrow The World
With a band name taken from a Move album and an album title nicked from a Ramones song, the Shazam don't promise hell of a lot of originality, and Tomorrow The World sounds like your music nerd friend digging through his record crates (Ed. Note: Actually, I thought the band name came from comic book hero Captain Marvel...). Derivativeness isn't without its charms, though, especially in a tradition-oriented genre like power pop, and it's hard to complain too much about a vinyl collection that includes Todd Rundgren ("Squeeze The Day"), Imperial Drag ("We Think Yer Dead") and the New York Dolls, whose "Personality Crisis" is done one better by the opening of "Nine Times" and whose version of "(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown" seems to have been the blueprint of the anthemic "Gettin' Higher." Otherwise, the Shazam's most original moves are using "Don't Lie To Me" instead of the more common "Feel" as the basis for their Big Star rip (the shuffling, swaggering "Goodbye American Man") and selecting, I think, a fictional band as a touchstone for "Not Lost Anymore," which is what "All My Only Dreams" might have sounded like had the Wonders survived long enough to embark upon a quasi-psychedelic phase. I also hear bits of "Paperback Writer" and "Gimme Shelter" throughout, and I wouldn't notice, and it wouldn't matter, if the songs were more than scaffolding for the monuments the Shazam are building to their heroes. All told, Tomorrow The World gives us what we never really asked for but probably couldn't hurt anyway: another Sloan. (MH)
(Not Lame Recordings -- P.O. Box 2266, Fort Collins, CO. 80522; http://www.notlame.com/; The Shazam -- http://www.theshazam.com/)
What's Broken Is Easily Fixed
How often does a band come along that fuses heavy-riffage and screaming with melodic breaks and emotional singing? Okay, sure, there are a few. Okay, okay...probably dozens. But I ask you, of the multitude of band out there playing music like this, how many do it well? I'm talking about heavy breaks that could stand up to the aural assault of Poison The Well and melodic parts that evoke The Get Up Kids. How many can sound like old Cave-In and new Cave-In...in the same song, no less? I give you Silverstein. What's Broken Is Easily Fixed kicked my ass the first time I listened to it. The first four songs were so good, I thought "okay, the rest of the album has to suck...no band can keep that up for ten songs, these days." I was happy to find out that I was wrong, though, and the album rocks to the very last note. And then imagine my surprise when I open the liner notes and see that one guy (vocalist Shane Told) does the singing AND the screaming -- generally right on top of one another. This one became an instant workout classic for me -- and anything I listen to at the gym has to keep me interested enough to not fall off the treadmill. My favorite track (and the one that encompasses the breadth of the band) has to be "November": chugging, intricate riffage, a catchy chorus, and then full-on screaming metallic bedlam. Beautiful noise. (MHo)
(Victory Records -- 346 N. Justine, Suite 504, Chicago, IL. 60607; http://www.victoryrecords.com/; Silverstein -- http://www.silversteinmusic.com/)
If you're anything like me, God willing, then the first thing that's going to pop into your head when you put in this CD is "wow, she sounds just like Chan Marshall!" And yes, on her Website, http://chaoscontrolnetwork.com/girlwithguitar/, she does list Cat Power among "other stuff I like," but really, believe me when I tell you she sounds impressively like Chan Marshall. It's worth noting that on a couple of the songs her avowed Sinead O'Connor influence does come through; in a way, her voice sometimes sounds like a strange synthesis of the two. On the whole, the instrumentation is kept pretty spare, mostly just Simone and her guitar, though on two of the four songs she's joined by a cellist, and on another a drummer. The fact that it reminded me so strongly of Cat Power at times really didn't seem to me to be a problem, because though the likeness is pretty uncanny, lyrically she didn't seem to be in that vein, so the combination of her eerily familiar voice with a different songwriting approach made her seem less like Marshall and more like maybe Marshall's step-sister. (CE)
(self-released; Alina Simone -- http://chaoscontrolnetwork.com/girlwithguitar/)
Since By Man
We Sing The Body Electric
Production by Kurt Ballou. Pictures of the band going apeshit onstage, guitars held high in the air. A command to PLAY IT FUCKING LOUD stamped on the CD. Lots of black hair dye. What does this all add up to? Math-y, yet chaotic hardcore that would have been pretty groundbreaking back before Converge, At The Drive-In, or Swing Kids existed. Something like this just sounds dated to me nowadays...or maybe it's just easier for me to pick up on the ebb and flow of musical fads with age. There's no denying that Since By Man can play their instruments well, and they do a few interesting things on the album, but by and large you can see each tempo shift and screaming breakdown coming a mile away. One thing the album does manage to capture is the live energy of a band like this; spastic antics and the aforementioned guitar slinging have become the stock-in-trade of this particular trend. I'm sure these guys put on an interesting show, and that's probably how they've won over many fans, but I'm betting they got more points for acrobatics than innovation. (MHo)
(Revelation Records -- P.O. Box 5232, Huntington Beach, CA. 92615-5232; http://www.revelationrecords.com/; Since By Man -- http://www.sincebyman.com/)
Yes, Virginia, the boys in Bulgaria are just as sensitive as guys here in the States. While the four guys in Slang come straight out of Sofia, Bulgaria, and look like they could serve as KGB agent extras in a Cold War-era James Bond movie, the music they make is a perfect copy of good ol' American soft-rock, the kind that wouldn't sound out-of-place on your average WB teen-drama. On their debut CD, Blue, they tackle every side of the AA market -- sometimes they're funky ("Within You, Within Me," "Celebrity"), sometimes they play like Eric Johnson ("The Wind Of Your Dreams"), sometimes they throw in a little toned-down Tori Amos piano ("Empty Heart"), sometimes they go for "raunchy" rock ("Flash Of Light"), sometimes they throw in a little tribal-sounding percussion ("Bad Reputation"), and sometimes they sound like nothing more than updated '80s cheese-rock ("My Heart"; think "When I See You Smile"). And through it all, lead singer/guitarist Dimitar Ekimov bares his heart for all to see, singing about dreams and love and desire (see "Dreams, Love, And Desire"). If they were American band, they could very well make it on the radio and play to at least medium-sized stadiums of '80s-obsessed GenXers. (And ladies, if doctors are your thing, well, Mr. Ekimov also happens to be a gynecologist, to boot; no, seriously.)
Okay, so I'm making fun of these guys; I'll admit it. The music's not bad, per se, it's just...bland. It's too easy, too nonthreatening, too Dave Matthews -- sure, I like emo-boy sensitivity more than most, it's true, but I like my love songs ripped apart and bleeding, and these guys definitely don't do that. No, Blue isn't a CD I'll be listening to again, most likely, but it's still certainly an alright album for what it is.
One last note, though: the "If they were an American band..." bit above is what makes efforts like this kind of painful for me. I can never understand why musicians from other countries feel like they have to mold themselves to American styles, especially when they really don't, not necessarily. I've got a lot more respect for a band that can take what they like about "American" music, then infuse it with their own cultural sensibilities and stand the style on its head. If Slang ever decides to give that a shot, well, maybe then I'll give 'em another listen. (JH)
(self-released; Slang -- http://www.slng.net/)
Battered Wings & Rusted Halos
There are countless bands out there right now that all sound alike. In the world of melodic poppy-punk, you have lots to choose from, and unfortunately, most of those choices suck. Somehow Hollow, however, is one of the few bands worth checking out in this category. The disk starts out hard and fast on the first track and manages to keep the pace for most of the recording. They write hooks that draw you in and back them up with hard-as-nails riffing. Guitarists Kent Abott and Brad Casarin supply enough dual harmonies and crunching chords to fill a swiming pool. The vocals are strong, but the lyrics get sappy occasionally.
Overall, it's a strong effort and worth picking up if this is your bag. Think of early Blink-182 without the stupid lyrics about jerking off, and you'll have a good idea about what they sound like. Somehow Hollow has a little more metal in their sound than most, and I think that's what I like most about them. Nine out of ten critics agree (well, kinda...), this is a cool disk! (RD)
(Victory Records -- 346 N. Justine, Suite 504, Chicago, IL. 60607; http://www.victoryrecords.com/; Somehow Hollow -- http://www.somehowhollow.com/)
The Sounds Of Change
Stairwell ain't bad. They definitely have their pop songcraft down, and I'm betting that there's a lot of singing along, pointing in the sky, and quivering at their shows. Surely, The Sounds Of Change would fall among the better of the albums I've had to review...can you feel the "but" coming, here? Well, the "but" is that for all the polish and pomp, there's really nothing new to be found here, or for that matter, nothing really that exciting. The first track, "Disaster", got me kind of excited for what was to come on the rest of the album, what with its guaranteed sing-along refrain complete with staccato guitar work, but it's kind of downhill from there. Let me rephrase that -- not downhill, necessarily, but kind of a short drop of a few feet and then a meandering plateau. Entertaining enough, but nothing that really grabs you, and no full-on rocking out (at least not in my book), especially for a band with three guitarists. Come to think of it, the third guitar is a bit extraneous here -- the fairly straightforward songwriting doesn't even skirt the ideas that the Radioheads (or even the Digs) of the world came up with utilizing an extra axe. Looking at the band's Website, now it looks like one of the guys bailed; which one would you guess it was? At least the guy that looks like the kid from From Dusk 'Till Dawn is still in the band -- that counts for something. (MHo)
(Hopeless Records -- P.O. Box 7495, Van Nuys, CA. 91409; http://www.hopelessrecords.com/; Sub City Records -- http://www.subcity.net/; Stairwell -- http://www.stairwell.net/)
The Stratford 4
Love & Distortion
The Stratford 4 are a four piece band from the San Francisco Bay Area, and Love & Distortion is their second full-length album, following 2001's The Revolt Against Tired Noises. Apparently the band has since signed to Elektra Records (presumably on the basis of BRMC's success) and has another album in the can, ready to go, but held up due to major label consolidation madness. That sucks for the band, but for yours truly, the most procrastinatory reviewer west of the Pecos, it's something of a blessing. It would be embarrassing if they were able to write, record, mix, edit, release, and promote another album in the time it takes me to write up a couple paragraphs. Although, come to think of it, I guess they did the first four things in that list already...
Anyway, back to the album at hand. The Stratford 4 seem to be something of a shoegazer revivalist band, mixed up with a stew of other, perhaps more prominent, influences. If you know me, which you probably don't, you know that I loves me some shoegazerin'. However, the revivalist path is one that is fraught with many perils, the foremost of which is the danger of sucking despite enjoying all the advantages afforded by being part of such an awesome genre. Which is a very sad fate indeed.
At first, I suspected that the Stratford 4 had badly fallen along the way. For one thing, the singer seems to be afflicted with that most deadly of syndromes, fake-British-accent-itis. Then there are the cringeworthy lyrics of the truly embarrassing, but yet strangely catchy, mother/son name-dropping extravaganza, "Telephone." Some of the songs, like "Tonight Would Be Alright," don't seem to go anywhere. Others show their influences a little too openly.
But after a few more listens, I became more sympathetic to their tunage. "Where the Ocean Meets the Eye" is pretty catchy. "She Married the Birds" has clever lyrics like "I went to confession / and I had nothing to confess / They said what's wrong with you? / You used to be such a mess." "The Simple Things Are Taking Over" sorta reminds me of Disco Inferno. Perhaps there's not too much original here, but I find myself wanting to pop the CD in from time to time, which in the final analysis is I guess as good an indicator of worth as any. (CP)
(Jetset Records -- 67 Vestry Street, New York, NY. 10013; http://www.jetsetrecords.com/; The Stratford 4 -- http://www.stratford4.com/)
Soundtrack For A Generation
If this is the soundtrack for the current generation, we are all in a great deal of trouble.
There was a time when Victory Records' roster consisted of some of the most cutting-edge hardcore around. Snapcase and Earth Crisis were early members of the lineup, and either one could strip the paint off a rusty pipe with one power chord. The music was hard, fast, and focused, while the lyrics tackled some pretty heady topics. Back in 1994, these bands had conviction. In 2004, though, Victory band Student Rick seems to just want to be on the Vans Warped Tour. You can't fault a band for that, really, but you can call their music drivel.
Imagine Story Of The Year and Simple Plan doing the nasty in a tube sock, and you'll have a good idea what this band sounds like. If you want to hear a band attempt a decent Green Day knockoff, look no further than the third track, "Fallin' For You".
There's already enough of this stuff clogging the music video channels these days, if you ask me. In fact, we probably have the TRLs of the world to blame for this nonsense to begin with. It's all about signing as many bands as possible that sound like the latest hit on the radio. Chasing the dollars has turned the music industry into the mess that it is today.
While the boys in Student Rick are adequate musicians, the vocals are often whiny, and the lyrics are unispired. On "Please Forgive Me," we're treated to the singer belting out lines like "When I look into your eyes / It's pain you cannot hide / You have to carry on / Please forgive me." That's just flat-out lack of imagination, right there. If you're going to play the emo card, then for God's sake put a little effort into it. Just because you feel lonely, unloved by women, and generally depressed doesn't mean that you have to record it and torture the rest of the world with it. Student Rick may eventually be a decent band, once they graduate from high school. For now, though, they get a C- on their report card. (RD)
(Victory Records -- 346 N. Justine, Suite 504, Chicago, IL. 60607; http://www.victoryrecords.com/)
Sun Kil Moon
Ghosts of the Great Highway
Well, it's taken me a lot longer than it should have, but I think I've finally got it figured out. It's the voice. Mark Kozelek's voice is what sucks me into this CD every single time. Now, don't get me wrong -- I don't mean to imply that I think good music is all about vocal talent (despite the fact that I've been watching far too much American Idol lately). Kozelek's voice is far from perfect, in fact, a bizarre, ghostly pseudo-falsetto that probably doesn't fit most people's definitions of what a "good" voice sounds like. But that's kind of the point; he's unique, or nearly so. His voice is so otherworldly, soaring and meandering around the lyrics, that it becomes its own instrument, much like great jazz singers' voices do.
The late Nina Simone's a good example -- again, an odd, not necessarily appealing voice, but when she used it the way she knew how, it could melt stone. It didn't honestly matter what she sang, as long as she was singing. Kozelek's the same way; he could be singing the phone book, and I'd probably be just as happy. The fact that the songs on Ghosts of the Great Highway are beautifully constructed, and the lyrics are intimate and strangely confessional (how many people begin an album by nonchalantly professing their love of Judas Priest guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing and old Clark Gable movies?) is essentially just the icing on the cake, at least to me.
The album as a whole makes me kick myself for not paying more attention to Kozelek's earlier work with his old "band," the Red House Painters -- I'd heard some of the songs off of various albums, but nothing ever really stuck 'til now. There are tracks on Ghosts I skip, of course (notably "Si, Paloma," which kind of knocks me unconscious whenever it comes on), but they're far, far outweighed by the tracks that demand repeat listening. The opener, "Glenn Tipton" (see above), is one of the absolute highlights, a beautifully delicate, Son Volt-ish country elegy for a departed friend, and "Carry Me Ohio" takes that same countryish motif for a more melancholy turn.
I'm reminded on several tracks of Nick Drake ("Last Tide," the languid, lazy "Gentle Moon"), but every time I think that comparison's got the whole deal pegged, Kozelek and company throw in a curve ball. There's "Lily and Parrots," a fiercely rocking, upbeat, even fun classic-rock romp, and then there's the majestic Dinosaur Jr./Neil Young-style "Salvador Sanchez," an anthemic, wall-of-guitars ode to a long-forgotten Mexico City boxer. My one gripe is that it's not the final track, but instead pops up in the middle to roar out in defiance and then lets things subside back into the quieter, more plaintive tracks. Even still, Ghosts is well worth a listen; if the words and beautiful guitars don't get you, the voice definitely will. (JH)
(Jetset Records -- 67 Vestry Street, New York, NY. 10013; http://www.jetsetrecords.com/)