Dead Red Sea
It's always interesting to be able to observe the evolution of a musical genre (well, at least to me). In the span of a decade or so, that mythical beast known as "emo" rose and fell, in the process outlasting its usefulness to most of the most talented practitioners. Former (recovering?) emo artists who once howled and wept with the best of them have now moved on; and who can blame them? You can only burn like that for so long before you're out of fuel. Since those heady days when emo was king, most of the brightest lights of the genre have moved ahead, stepping out beyond the "rules" (most of which seem to've been laid down by critics like myself rather than by musicians) to walk in all kinds of different directions. In a way, emo's greatest legacy isn't the music left behind but the incredible wealth and variety of music ex-emo rockers are making these days.
Take Ryan Shelkett, for example. Once the frontman of Baltimore emo pioneers Cross My Heart, one of the flagship bands of Deep Elm Records' roster, guitarist/vocalist Shelkett's latest endeavor, Dead Red Sea, finds him headed out of the tortured city and into the Maryland countryside. The band's debut, Birds, drops any kind of "sensitive-guys-rocking-out!" pretense in favor of a much rootsier, subtler kind of melancholia. Tracks like "Love Is In the Air and It's Floating Away" and "Somewhere in the Universe" aim for something almost approaching the "electric white boy blues" Lou Barlow once screamed about, while the incredible "Bad Man" and "It's So Hard to Be Alive" both ride a country-sounding swing tempo that owes a lot more to Son Volt than Mineral.
Tracks like "Love Is In the Air" and "The Red Sea" are reminiscent of Joel R. Phelps and the Downer Trio, marrying electric guitars, pained vocals, and elements of backwoodsy folk. At the same time, though, songs like "We're Not Kids Anymore..." and "It's So Hard to Be Alive" make me think of Buffalo Tom's more depressive moments; think "Would Not Be Denied," off Big Red Letter Day (it helps that Shelkett's rough, impassioned, average-guy voice sounds similar to BT's Bill Janovitz, but that's hardly a bad thing). There's a country-meets-indie-rock twang to the guitars, and a raw, untouched feel to the vocals, both of which help to distance the band from its emo roots.
The end result of all of this is Birds, an album full of windswept, brooding, intricate rock songs that simmer rather than boil (with the notable exceptions of "Humanoid," which gets all dissonant and angry and dabbles with electronics, and the title track, which is just plain strange). Shelkett and bandmates Charles Cole (Rhodes piano/drums), Alan Randall (bass), and Darron Eager (drums) have successfully left their emo roots behind, forging ahead to create something new. Roots-emo? Alt-emo-country? Hell, maybe it doesn't need a damn name. (JH)
(Deep Elm Records -- Post Box 36939, Charlotte, NC. 28236-6939; http://www.deepelm.com/)
Smokin' Joe Denson
After being absolutely blown away by Mr. Denson's last album, I was certainly looking forward to sitting down with a cold one and losing myself in his latest one, Windows. And I was not entirely disappointed. I say "not entirely" because in order to hear his sweet guitar, I had to get past the rather disturbing mix. There are so many effects that it makes his playing hard to decipher -- and this happens on all the tracks.
On a more positive note, this album shows that Mr. Denson still knows how to treat a guitar, and it makes good use of his chops. All in all, it's a good listen, especially if you need a dose of those heady days when musicians were experimenting with new technology. Smokin' Joe is still fabulous; it's just that had this album been cleaner and a bit more stripped down, the guitar could have spoken more clearly. (CPl)
(Bi-Polar Records -- 1203 Hopper Rd., Houston, TX. 77037-3526)
Digifunk raps in that relaxed Q-Tip vein. He's relatively minimal in his rapping style -- by which I mean that he doesn't say much in most of his raps (which may be a first in the rap world). He doesn't play tough. Rather than boast about great he is, he raps about his personal problems and his emotions. If he was great, he'd be known as one of the important early "emo-rappers." Unfortunately, he's not great.
The first track, "Verisimilitude," is instrumental, and it's not bad; it's a nice way to get you into the mood. The bad part is that it sets a precedent for the rest of the record, in that most of the beats are okay, but his rapping isn't inspiring. "Meiosis" is supported by a cool beat, with rock guitar riffing driving the song, but again, he just doesn't have any lines that stick with you.
"Railroad" is pretty entertaining, a skit about a school project on the building of the Transcontinental Railway. He starts it with a tweaked chorus of "I've Been Working on the Railroad," which sounds promising...but then he doesn't do anything with it. The track itself is constructed well, but the rap just doesn't say anything.
Maybe with a little focus and polishing he could do something interesting, but this isn't it. (HM)
(Digifunk -- http://www.geocities.com/digifunklectic/index.html)
Seasons of the Weak
Hailing from Houston, Dimitri's Rail is one of those bands that probably doesn't have trouble getting gigs -- there is always a call for local bands that sound much like everything you hear on modern rock radio.
That's not to say Dimitri's Rail is a bad band -- there's a lot of talent in the band. The music's tight, at times catchy, but it's not original. Frontman Paul Ehmer's vocals sound a lot like former Creed frontman Scott Stapp or, at times, Chris Cornell. Hey, they're both popular musicians -- who can blame him for imitation? Guitarist James Black leads the pack, laying down excellent riffs and leads on several of the songs on Seasons of the Weak, while bassist Marty Durlam and drummer Greg Pitcock both do their parts with ease.
The standout track on Seasons of the Weak is "Looking In"; the worst by far is "Spectacle" -- bands should know by now to never (and I mean NEVER) use that Cher-vocal thing in their songs. It's just wrong; it makes them sound ridiculous, and ruins what might have been a decent song.
Overall, Dimitri's Rail is a band for fans of modern rock radio -- if you like Creed, this band's for you. If you liked Days of the New, late Soundgarden, or the Mayfield Four, you'll probably get into Seasons of the Weak. If you despise Creed... well, you're not alone, and you'd probably best avoid this album. (DAC)
(Dimitri's Rail -- http://www.dimitrisrail.com/)
Dirt Bike Annie
Show Us Your Demons
I hesitate to call Dirt Bike Annie "pop-punk," because that label has a stigma of suck attached to it these days. With good reason -- most of it does suck. Donkey balls. With that said, Dirt Bike Annie definitely does not suck, but they do play loud, straightforward songs that are insanely catchy and danceable, practically begging you to sing along. They are basically the antithesis of suck -- they f%$king rock. Vocalists/guitarists Adam Raubuck and Jeanie Lee split the singing duties down the middle, and it always makes for a great song, whether it's a full-on rocker like "Battle Lines" or a bouncy, cute number like "Two Ton Wait." When they really want to bring the rock, bassist Dan Paquin joins in on the vocalizing for some killer three-part harmonies. All told, Show Us Your Demons is a pretty damn enjoyable album. The only way you could possibly have more fun is if you actually caught Dirt Bike Annie live, guitar choreography and all. (MHo)
(Dirt Nap Records -- http://www.dirtnaprecs.com/; Dirt Bike Annie -- http://www.dirtbikeannie.com/)
I personally think Dondero sums it up best on the first track of The Transient, "Living and the Dead": "I play the skinny indie white boy blues." Yep, that's about the size of it. Dondero is definitely one of the new breed of indie-folkies that seem just about to snap during every song. (I mean that in a good way.) The Transient is a sprawling, rough-around-the-edges testament to life on the road, just you and your guitar, playing your songs no matter what and breaking strings and going nuts in the process. Or maybe that should be keeping yourself from going nuts. At any rate, the comparisons to Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes are easy to make (and even encouraged by the liner notes and press kit) -- Dondero does have the same quavering, automobile-wreck-of-words delivery, and a lot of the backing instrumentation is performed by the Bright Eyes extended family. There's no question that the end result does sound a lot like Conor's thing, but I think that Dondero brings enough of his own specific brand of quirkiness (craziness?) to the table to offer up something unique for the listener. I mean, the guy uses the word "tangelo" in a lyric. That's pretty original, I think. (MHo)
(Future Farmer Recordings -- P.O. Box 225128, San Francisco, CA. 94122; http://www.futurefarmer.com/)
Live at The Hemlock
I've read some reviews of David Dondero recently from a lot of respected indie music mags, and I'm surprised how many of them compare him to Conor Oberst, basically all but saying that he's copping that sound. The truth here, though, is that Dondero was playing his style of bare-all blues rock long before Oberst. Winona's ex even confessed in Spin that he grew up listening to Sunbrain (Dondero's band between 93-96) and that he owes his sound to Dondero and not the reverse. C'mon kids -- keep it real?
I first saw Dondero play this past August (at the Proletariat) when he opened up before The Polar Bears and The Velvetteen. I knew he played a modern troubadour version of Woody Guthrie-esque folk & blues, so I was really curious how he'd fare before the crowd that was mostly there for the piano-driven, cinematic soar of the Velveteen. The opening band were these guys Little Compass, who were, for lack of a better word, a bunch of cockrockers. When they got done swingin' their dicks and guitars, they sat right in the front of the still mostly-vacant stage area, chatting it up with some locals. Dondero came on with just his electric acoustic, and it was the weirdest thing, watching Dondero play his anti-rock with these local black shirts right in front of him ignoring him and chatting it up with some rock tail.
What was awesome, though, was that Dondero clearly didn't give a fuck. I doubt he even knew what state he was in. He sang and played like the room was empty. By the end of his set, the room was transfixed -- and the youngsters in front sat quietly and pondered his set.
So this new live album by Dondero is a recording off that very same tour in support of The Transient (which is great [Ed. note: See above.]), captured at The Hemlock in San Francisco. Recorded in a club, it's thus one of those live albums with the clinking glasses and all. It also goes without saying that it is not a perfect performance -- which is what makes it a fascinating listen. Opening with "Living And The Dead" and then "Ashes On The Highway," we get lots of entertaining interludes, including some quips about "my Jewish drummer, Craig." Craig and David scuffle, make up, and order whiskey between songs. I'd almost say this sort of stuff defines the album, but Dondero's songs themselves are perfect for small clubs. They are bare, personal blues that showcase a life on the road and reactions to modern times (check out the anti-war song, "Pre-invasion Jitters"). This live album is a woozy indoor rock experiment that adds to Dondero's growing Kerouac-like ethos. (DH)
(Future Farmer Recordings -- P.O. Box 225128, San Francisco, CA. 94122; http://www.futurefarmer.com/)