Call Me Lightning
The Trouble We're In
Call Me Lightning crosses Fugazi-esque guitar parts with Liars grooves. The band is tight and comes up with cool interlocking riffs, but while the instrumental parts are good, the vocals unfortunately don't match up. Mediocre melodies, overblown vocals and tossed-off lyrics add up to something less interesting than The Trouble We're In seems to offer at first. The singer/guitarist seems content with tossing off whatever vocalizations come to mind, and while some people can pull that off successfully, this one can't.
He's particularly annoying on "Golden Radical (Young Professional)," which serves as your standard rant about soulless yuppies -- except that his rant is just as soulless. His line about "I am the world and you are all just fucking sheep" is the kind of lowest-common-denominator lyric that he settles for time after time. Making a bad situation worse, the singer goes even more over the top with the vocal melisma -- it's like he'shoping to be the indie world's Celine Dion.
"Hungry Lions," in particular, wastes the talents of a really good band: the instrumental parts make a great vehicle for the singer, with each instrument leaving lots of room for the others. The vocals, however, soon disappear into the stratosphere yet again. It's too bad that the guitarist insists on singing; if he got someone else to do the vocals, he might have a great band. (HM)
(Revelation Records -- P.O. Box 5232, Huntington Beach, CA. 92615-5232; http://www.revelationrecords.com/; Call Me Lightning -- http://www.callmelightning.com/)
I Can't Believe You Live Like That
I've never heard of Jon Chinn 'til now, although from his bio, it certainly seems like I should've. He's been doing his thing for more than a decade now with Midwestern indie-popsters Pretty Mighty Mighty, and on top of that, he runs Columbus's Workbook Studio, where such artists as Tiara, The Velveteens, RJD2, New Bomb Turks, and The Bassholes have recorded. He's apparently a pretty notable figure in the Midwest indie scene, but me being down here in Texas, well...what can I say? We can't all be Greil Marcus, folks.
Now, with that said, after listening to Chinn's debut solo CD, I Can't Believe You Live Like That, I'm really wishing I'd heard of the guy before now. The album is a warm, rich-sounding, indie-rock affair, the kind that sneaks up and grabs you before you really know what's going on. When the excellent overfuzzed guitars kick in during the chorus of the first track, "Lying Through Your Teeth," you sit up and think "hey, that's pretty interesting," while the song sucks you further along, into the GBV-ish lo-fi pop ode to record-hoarding, "Record Sets." Then, just when you're figuring on a breather, the Elliott Smith-style disillusionment seeping through "Stop Being So Dramatic" takes hold and keeps you moving on to the stomping, yearning rock love song "All About" and "Last Night"'s wonderful wall-of-sound crescendo.
"King's Horses" works a nicely soft, Silver Scooter-ish indie-pop storyline, throwing you onward to the tick-tock drums of "The Last Thing," the piano touches of "Lie To Me," and the comparatively stark country-ness of "Accelleration." By the time you reach the scratched-record pained intensity of the closing title track -- a poignant cry of protest against the 24-7 workaday world too many of us live in -- you're left scratching your head and wondering what happened.
The songs on I Can't Believe You Live Like That don't "rock" in a conventional way, really, but instead sort of surge forward under their own power, propelling the listener effortlessly along with the song until they reach the end and ask "how the heck did I get here?" The only analogue I can come up with is Superchunk's more "mature" efforts, stuff like Come Pick Me Up or Here's to Shutting Up -- the guitars don't always roar, and the lyrics aren't always yelled at throat-shredding volume, but they don't need to.
I'll admit that's Chinn's not Mac McCaughan; his lyrics aren't always mind-blowing (except possibly on the first and last tracks), but really, that doesn't matter much when set next to the beauty of such well-crafted music. Sit back, let the songs pull you along, then start all over again. (JH)
(Reverbose Records -- PMB250, 30 Dilmont Drive, Columbus, OH. 43235; http://www.reverbose.com/; Jon Chinn -- http://www.jonchinn.com/)
Wow. This is pretty cool stuff, this Christiansen. I had been hearing things about this band for a while, but this album marks my first listen to them. What the hell took me so long to check these guys out? Stylish Nihilists hearkens back to the days when post-hardcore was king (just for reference, I think that now we are actually in the post-post-post hardcore period), when bands like Jawbox, Fugazi, and Hoover were all the rage in the Alternative Press. Christiansen rocks like those bands, but they put their own special, slightly psychotic twist on the proceedings. Each song sounds slightly off-kilter, due to the band's crazy song structures and weird tempo shifts, but the cool thing is that it doesn't ever really turn into a uninvolving mess -- there is a sense of melody and a certain "catchiness" at work here, but it's a very idiosyncratic (and ultimately enthralling) one. You will still find these songs getting stuck in your head, and you will still find yourself banging your head, pointing your finger skyward, and shaking your ass to certain parts. The lyrics are where the psychosis really shines -- "Music is my Dada / Judas is my Daddy / Screw the poppy emo / Poppy's meant for smoking" (from "More Saints Less Musicians") is just a small taste of the particular flavor of verbal dementia you'll experience on Stylish Nihilists. All this might make Christiansen sound like another At The Drive-In clone to you, but I assure you that these guys are following their own muse (and that that muse is a guy in a ski mask wielding a chainsaw). (MHo)
(Revelation Records -- P.O. Box 5232, Huntington Beach, CA. 92615-5232; http://www.revelationrecords.com/; Christiansen -- http://www.christiansenonline.com/)
Featuring members of Chapel Hill darlings The White Octave, this North Carolina collective's debut full-length is an interesting effort. First, the album is similar to what you might imagine Pink Floyd sounding like if they were starting out in the new millennium instead of the late '60s. That's not to say their music is spacey or jam-band-influenced, but at times it has the same experimental feel to it as some of Floyd's early efforts. Songs start in one vein, and a scant three and a half minutes later, you've been taken on a journey you never knew was even coming.
Second, the band is doing something that no one else is doing -- Cold Sides is one part roots rock, one part NC indie, one part solid rock'n'roll, and one part singer/songwriter. This could be the album Ryan Adams might hope to make a few years down the road, once his hype dies down and he's through with the inevitable rehab visit. "City From A Plane" and "(It Was Just) Numbers" are among the best songs here, and Cold Sides (Zeke Graves, Robert Biggers, Eric Lee Cope, and David Nahm) let their talent shine through on much of the album. Although many of the songs are almost more spoken-word then actually sung, the music more than makes up for it.
Cold Sides is a quiet, mostly mellow listen -- but it's a good listen, and would be a very smart addition to any record collection. (DAC)
(Moment Before Impact Records -- P.O. Box 447, Chapel Hill, NC. 27514)
Does anyone remember Choo-Choo, the herky jerky dancer? He was a character on HBO's Mr. Show, for those who don't, and the reason that I bring him up now is I think he would fit in perfectly at a Communique show. That said, I like this a lot...and I should be the last one to criticize anyone's dancing style.
Basically, this is "dance-y" indie-rock that could be compared to The Sounds or recent Get Up Kids: post-punk for people who find NOFX passé, but don't know what else they want. I would recommend The Band or Van Morrison, but since neither of these artists perform much anymore, I would wholly support listening to Communique and seeing their live show.
CHUG-a-chug-a-CHUG-a-chug-a -- CHOO-CHOO. (MG)
(Lookout Records -- 3264 Adeline Street, Berkeley CA 94703; http://www.lookoutrecords.com/; Communique -- http://www.radiocommunique.com/)
Count The Stars
Never Be Taken Alive
Man, Victory Records is really starting to broaden their horizons. There used to be a time when all of the bands on the label were some kind of "-core" or other, and most of them would probably kick the crap out of Count The Stars on a nightly basis if they ever did a label tour with them. That was Victory Records before Thursday came along. Now Victory is home to a lot of more "melodic"-type bands, and I think that's pretty much a good thing, since their product is usually pretty good, whether it be hardcore, emo-core, or whatever. Count The Stars is a punk-infused melodic rock band that has a lot in common with Lifetime, No Use For A Name, or even Sum 41 (yes, I know, that hurt me to type, but I mean it in a good way). CTS knows how to write a good song, and they keep the energy level up throughout the album. I think they'd fit right in amongst the landscape of today's "alternative" radio, but I don't really mean that as a dig. It's quality stuff, and while I'm not into it 100% of the time, it's still pretty damn entertaining. (MHo)
(Victory Records -- 364 N. Justine St., Suite 504, Chicago, IL. 60607; http://www.victoryrecords.com/)
Red Devil Dawn
It's that voice; that's what it really comes down to, at least for me. Crooked Fingers frontman/songwriter/guitarist/etc. Eric Bachman has that kind of Tom Waits-/Bruce Springsteen-ish voice -- whiskey-soaked and cigarette-scarred, rough and ragged, yet still capable of crafting and then carrying a honeyed melody better than your average teenybopper pop starlet ever could. Bachman's raspy croon is like a piece of lovingly-made furniture from another era, found discarded behind a motel dumpster; it's damaged, yes, but somehow beautifully imperfect, as if the imperfections merely enhance its charm.
Of course, it helps that Bachman's also a damn fine songwriter, as evidenced by the majority of the songs on Red Devil Dawn. The album's got a very folk-y feel throughout, but Bachman thankfully eschews any kind of out-and-out confessional lyrics, instead expertly spinning moody, murky tales of love gone wrong, dying towns, and killers in the woods. It's creepy stuff, with a lot of dark, gloomy imagery ("Bad Man Coming," if it wasn't played so matter-of-factly, could rival some of Nick Cave creepiest work), but Bachman thankfully always makes sure to balance out the darkness with beautiful melodies and strings.
Oddly, it's the happiest-sounding tracks that are often truly the darkest, with trumpets and majestic string sections playing cheerily along while a far crueler story winds its way beneath. Take "You Can Never Leave," for example -- the hands-down highlight of the album, the song begins as a foreboding dirge punctuated by clicking, insect-like, metallic samples but builds to a triumphant crescendo, and throughout it tells the story of two lovers who are cursed for a love they can never hold. The gloom of the song is brushed aside by a romance so big that the gods themselves even take notice. At the other end of the scale, there's "Sweet Marie," which careens in off the street in a rush, all jangly, swaggering, and jubilant, like a Magnetic Fields song gone drinking and crank-calling the boss at 3 A.M., but still bleak and menacing, threatening to kill the title character's lover so that she and the narrator can be together. "You Through A Spark" rides a similar line, its joyous trumpets and pretty string arrangements given the lie by the song's bitter, angry lyrics, which warn an anonymous ex not to try to blame the narrator for their failure.
Unfortunately, I haven't heard much of Crooked Fingers's earlier work beyond little bits and pieces off of the previous album, Bring On the Snakes, but from what I can tell, the sound has brightened up a bit on Red Devil Dawn. As hinted at above, the new songs incorporate brassy trumpets, lilting strings, and "Angelina" could almost be the theme to a sunny trail ride in an old cowboy movie. Bachman weaves his magic on the rest of the tracks, as well, channeling The Boss on tracks like "Don't Say A Word" (which is nearly roots-rock) and "Boy With 100 Hands" and sounding like nothing I can think of on others, like "You Can Never Leave" and "Disappear."
The latter, which isn't officially the album's closing song but should be (it's actually the okay-but-not-great "Carrion Doves," which sounds like an outtake from White Trash Heroes, the swan song album of Bachman's old band, the Archers Of Loaf), properly sums up all that's gone before, serving as a goodbye song to top all goodbye songs. It's melancholy and elegaic, signifying the end of a relationship or the end of the world (I'm not sure which), but at the same time it's also grand and hopeful, allowing the dawn to creep over the horizon. "There's beauty in an ugly thing," Bachman sings, as he heads off into the pre-dawn distance, "Redemption in demise." I can't put it any better than that. (JH)
(Merge Records -- P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC. 27514; http://www.mergerecords.com/; Crooked Fingers -- http://www.crookedfingers.com/)
Damn. I've been a bad, bad boy. As anyone who knows me well can attest, while I have been known to work feverishly on something 'til it gets finished, I also have a serious tendency towards procrastination. Great on planning...not so great on follow-through. And unfortunately, sometimes my reviewing duties fall victim -- hence, this quite-a-long-time-late review of Cruiser's 2001 debut, Northern Electric.
In my defense, Northern Electric had me somewhat stumped. This honestly doesn't sound quite like anything I've heard before. One of the two closest comparisons I can come up with is weird-rockers Mogwai, but that's just me being lazy -- Mogwai are Scottish, Cruiser are Scottish, and the two bands make some mighty atmospheric music, but that's about where the similarities end. The other kindred spirit that comes to mind, then, is San Jose's Duster, who make similarly spacey, MBV-inspired music, but Duster are all about the guitars, not the beats, while Cruiser tend to use the guitars as background and use drum loops to drive the songs along. On Northern Electric, the band meshes dancefloor electronics and My Bloody Valentine-style washes of guitar sound, and the result is the best bliss-out soundtrack I've heard in a while.
The opener, "Personality: Goes A Long Way," blasts off gently, with drifting, ethereal drum loops and strings, but it's the second track, "Blown," that really establishes the band's sound, balancing distant guitar feedback with a repetitive, addictive, hypnotic rhythm. Think MBV with breakbeats or Slowdive as remixed by Bentley Rhythm Ace, and you're partway there. After repeated listening, it's enough to make you feel like your brain's melting (albeit in a pleasant way). The whole dreampop-electronica combo reminds me of the better parts of the Chemical Brothers' classic Surrender, except that instead of wanting you to rock the party, the fine, friendly people of Cruiser don't mind if you just want to sit and nod off.
There're some nice "Scottish" touches here, as well, although they're fairly subtle. Delicately jangly guitars, mandolins, and a banjo (buried so deep in the mix on the title track that it's barely there), as well as Belle and Sebastian-esque vocals (on "International Space Station") and a sample of one of the band's heroes, famed Scottish Dance Band leader Sir Jimmy Shand ("Departure Lounge"), hint at a love for the folk music of their homeland. "Quality" floats a beautiful mandolin through the mix, over a thumping undercurrent of bass, while "Departure Lounge" does things to some kind of stringed folk instrument that even Kevin Shields would probably shy away from. Despite the fixation on spacing out -- both literally and figuratively (they also refer to their band as the "Flight Crew") -- Cruiser have managed to embrace their roots while making music that sounds nothing like the Braveheart soundtrack.
Of course, the mesmerizing rhythms are present almost throughout the album. "International Space Station" sends waves of melody crashing against a relentless, reckless, headbob-inducing beat, "Hardly Even Here" lets a strummed guitar and airy bits of noise float over an echoing drum, and even "Northern Electric," one of the few truly guitar-based tracks on here, is still anchored by a nearly subliminal bass knock and an insistent hi-hat. The one song on here that's left mostly unadorned, in fact, the plaintive-vocals-and-guitar of "Workingsong," suffers for the lack of programming, and that lack takes the wind out of the album's sails somewhat.
Now, since I'm disclosing fully in this little piece, here's a little more blunt honesty: I have no earthly clue what in the hell the five vocalists are singing on any of these songs. The vocals here are almost dreamlike in quality, just out of understandable range for all but those with the most sensitive of ears, so about all I can go on for subject matter is the song titles, and I'd bet those don't mean a whole lot. (And yes, you read right -- apparently five out of the six members in the band contribute vocals, and that's not even counting the guest singers/chanters and the drunk guy who mutters almost-intelligibly in the background on "Air Ecosse.")
But really, who cares? They could be singing the phone book, as far as I'm concerned; this isn't an album to listen to for the lyrical content, but instead for the atmospheric feel. This is about drifting off and staring at the Milky Way as it drifts by outside your spacecraft's window, not about deep, meaningful musings on life, love, and death. Call it chillout music for all the addicts left high and dry by the end of the dreampop era, but who can't quite stomach the technohead version. Who needs all those annoying words, anyway? (JH)
(Devil in the Woods Records -- P.O. Box 579168, Modesto, CA. 95357; http://www.devilinthewoods.com/; Cruiser -- http://www.cruiserland.net/)
Stay Poor, Stay Happy
For those of you who didn't check out Cub Country's debut on Jade Tree, High Uinta High, here's a quick primer: Cub Country's the solo project of Jeremy Chatelain, bass player for Jets to Brazil, and (more importantly) former frontman for underrated post-hardcore supergroup Handsome. High Uinta High showcased Chatelain's prowess as a singer/songwriter of the rootsy variety -- and proved that he could easily hang with Tweedy, Farrar, Miller, Lanegan, et al. On Stay Poor, Stay Happy, we're treated to just what one always desires from a sophomore album (but rarely receives): musical growth without eschewing the good stuff from the first time around (according to the Rock Handbook, you are allowed to jettison the aforementioned "good stuff" by the third album, in case you were wondering).
Cub Country has more or less become a full four-piece band in a live setting, but the tracks on Stay Poor feature a rotating roster of musicians, much like on High Uinta High -- Jeremy receives musical assistance from the other members of Jets to Brazil, as well as former and current members of Helmet, New End Original, Euphone, and J Majesty. The songwriting is still solid, yet the arrangements are a bit more expansive than the previous Cub Country disc; more than once, I actually found myself drawing similarities to Jets to Brazil's Perfecting Loneliness, oddly enough. The songs are longer and more layered here than they were on Uinta, and Jeremy seems more settled and emboldened in his role as frontman, especially on tracks like the mellow-yet-groovy opener "Be Yer Own Hitman" and the twangy rocker "Missed The Train". If you missed out on Cub Country before, now's your chance to catch up. If you dug High Uinta High, then you can expect to hear the same voice of our next great American songwriter, albeit moving a bit closer towards that goal. (MHo)
(Future Farmer Recordings -- P.O. Box 225128, San Francisco, CA. 94122; http://www.futurefarmer.com/; Cub Country -- http://www.cubcountry.com/)
Three Imaginary Boys (Deluxe Edition)
This expanded edition of The Cure's 1979 debut Three Imaginary Boys includes two discs of songs that show why The Cure has been able to remain relevant for the past 25 years. Songs like "10:15 Saturday Night," "Accuracy," and "Grinding Halt" are early pop-punk gems, while "Fire in Cairo" and "Three Imaginary Boys" are early indicators of songs the band would release later in their career.
A must for long-time Cure fans, this collection includes the original album (remastered) and a CD of rarities from the same period. The rarities include studio and home demos, live tracks, studio outtakes, and non-album tracks. There's not a bad song in the bunch, but fans will be particularly happy to hear the band's version of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady," and live versions of "Accuracy," "10:15 Saturday Night," and "Subway Song" from back in the late '70s.
The previously unreleased photos of a young Robert Smith and company -- including shots from early live shows -- and new liner notes are alone worth the cost of this set. But it's the music that has given The Cure staying power, and the music should be (and is) the major focus of Three Imaginary Boys. I have always enjoyed The Cure's music, especially their early work, but The Cure was around for 10 years before their music really garnered mainstream attention in the States. Three Imaginary Boys showcases a lot of what most of America missed during that time. Let's hope they get it the second time around. (DAC)
(Rhino Records -- http://www.rhino.com/; The Cure -- http://www.thecure.com/)