Machine Go Boom
Thank You Captain Obvious
It's nice to be surprised occasionally. I'll freely admit that I, like most of humanity, do tend to judge a book (or CD, or whatever) by its cover, and I've seen and heard more CDs than most human beings, most likely, and have learned to recognize what's crap and what's not sometimes just by looking at the exterior. So naturally, when I happen to get a CD in the mail with a middle school joke title like Thank You Captain Obvious, particularly when it looks like an almost homemade affair (it's not, strictly speaking, being on Cleveland indie label Collectible Escalators), I'm already anticipating tossing the disc into the "review this someday" pile. Any reference to Guided By Voices in a band's bio immediately raises my hackles these days, too, so that didn't help.
Luckily for me, I bothered to listen to Machine Go Boom's debut effort, and within the first thirty seconds of the paranoiac lo-fi pop raveup of "Lil' Devil," I had to check the CD player to make sure I had put the right disc in. The track starts off slow but quickly kicks into high gear, with oddly-accented vocals that remind me of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum at his most frenzied (or maybe the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley tripping on some bad acid). That brief little burst of a song propels the listener on to the rest of the album, and all things considered, that's a good thing. I'm absolutely addicted to the sped-up, Smurfs-on-meth "la-la-la-la" bit on "Captain Obvious," as well as the song's sugar-fueled, Starlight Mints-esque pop sheen, and "Hot Potato" reminds me of the (relatively few) parts of the Dead Milkmen's catalogue that actually demonstrated any musical ability.
On the latter song, by the way, I have no idea what the hell Machine Go Boom's one-man-band Mikey Machine is talking about -- one minute he's saying something about needing a booster shot, and the next he's triumphantly yelling "Hot potato!" -- but hey, that's perfectly fine by me. I'm guessing Machine's crazed lyrical sense is where the GBV comparisons come in, and for once they seem to be right on the mark (although the high-pitched vocals really make me think more of Neutral Milk Hotel, as mentioned above). Machine sings, but he also howls and yelps more tunefully than most singers can ever manage, and it works either way, whether he's shriek-singing over a pseudo-blues tune and samples of kids playing on a playground on "Hail to the King" or singing sweetly about Halloween on "Scary Costume."
Not all of this is quite as insane, of course. "What My Buddy Said" is straight-ahead, countryish folk-pop, while "Ms. Hepburn's House" sounds like a melancholy outtake from one of Wolf Colonel's recording sessions, and the gentle, real-life poignancy of "Kamikazi Plane," brilliantly placed at the midpoint of the CD, gives the listener a much-needed moment of rest and contemplation (before dropping back into the full-on weirdness of "The Kazoo Star" and "The Raincoat Song"). "Hold Me Down" flirts with strangeness, but it's a surprisingly serious meditation on the afterlife, especially given the jauntiness of the rest of the album, and the closer, "This Song is a Secret" is a funeral march of sorts that rides the line between somber seriousness and big-band-from-Hell lunacy.
At the heart of it, Thank You Captain Obvious is a remarkably innocent, unfiltered, joyously free chunk of pop genius, infused with a sense of childish glee and plenty of reckless abandon (see the full-on rock blowout of "Madeline isn't Coming Home"). That's a pretty incredible thing to find in our sad era of pre-fabricated, too-thought-out, made-to-sell rock bands. At the beginning of "Lil' Devil," Mikey Machine admits that "I don't think I think the way I'm s'posed to think / I don't think that that's gonna stop." I certainly hope it doesn't. (JH)
(Collectible Escalators -- 10803 Lake Ave. Suite 202, Cleveland, OH. 44102; http://www.collectibleescalators.com/; Machine Go Boom -- http://www.machinegoboom.com/)
The Model Rockets
Tell The Kids The Cops Are Here
I love power pop, but it's pretty easy to admit that a lot of it isn't much more than the sum of its parts. And so it goes for the Model Rockets' Tell The Kids The Cops Are Here, which scoops up sonic remnants of the subgenre's forebears and shows them off proudly. When they aren't sounding like the second coming of the Pursuit of Happiness, they're trotting out the solo from "The Bells Of Rhymney" as the basis for the verse of "Nanny's Caddy," installing Garth Hudson's organ into the Beatles '66 for "International Airplane" and making like Let's Active playing "I Can Hear The Grass Grow" for "The Dress Up Girls." That song, almost classically structured and possessed of a worthy "rum tum tum tum" backing vocal hook, is the best thing on the album, but it's also the first, which creates its own problems. Also worrisome is lead singer John Ramberg's tendency to go kinda flat when he reaches for the top of his range, and he reaches for it a lot; it's particularly noticeable in the choruses to "Honeymoon Home" and "Candy Aquamarine." With the exception of the latter song (whose "buttonhole girls" lyric is such an obvious hook that it sounds like it's been waiting years for someone to pick up on it), "The Dress Up Girls" and the sharp "Poor Little Lamb," Tell The Kids is crazy tuneful without being particularly catchy. It's a kick while it's on, though. (MH)
(Not Lame Recording Company -- P.O. Box 2266, Fort Collins, CO. 80522; http://www.notlame.com/)
Dark Nights, Knife City
An album like Moron Parade's Dark Nights, Knife City is one of those albums that restores your faith in music. Just when you've had your fill of self-absorbed trendy hipsters spouting off about how you should vote or alcoholic has-beens decrying a war, an album like this comes your way and makes it all seem better.
Moron Parade, a collective of musicians from Seattle and Colorado, seem to take a minimalist approach to their music. There no sense of grand production, no sing-song choruses, no pretentiousness. Instead, the songs on Dark Nights, Knife City are indie-rock in the finest tradition of late '80s or early '90s breakout bands like Pavement, Sonic Youth, and even Nirvana (at times). It's poppy at points, dark when it should be, and ultimately brilliant.
The band -- at last count, Stephen Evins, Adam King, Martin Martin, Daryl Waits, and Mark Mercer -- stick to no formula and never once let Dark Nights succumb to the perils of trying to be something it's not. You won't hear Moron Parade's music on the O.C. or the latest teenage comedy, nor should you. The songs on Dark Nights, Knife City deserve better than that. Check out the album for yourself, and you'll undoubtedly discover one of music's best-kept secrets. (DAC)
(Paradeco Records -- 219 Queen Anne Ave. N. #306, Seattle, WA. 98109; http://www.paradeco.com/; Moron Parade -- http://www.moronparade.com/)
Mike "Sport" Murphy's record Uncle is a concept record. It was made, one song per day, as a tribute to his nephew Peter, raised with Sport as a brother and killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. Its virtues include ingenious melodies, restrained production, flawless singing, relevance, and a lack of pretentiousness. Its drawbacks are mainly limited to a (self-admitted) lack of editing, although I suppose one could make a case for sentimentality, even then.
The existence of a work such as this, though, calls into question the very purpose of music criticism. Murphy himself describes it as a "public prayer" written "for an audience of one [who] will never hear it." I find the idea of judging a work so personal to be presumptuous in the extreme. A personal, unforced response to real death meets any standard of integrity so automatically and so thoroughly that its artistic success is guaranteed. It would be impossible for Uncle not to be good by its own standard, and any other standard is irrelevant, so my task is essentially reduced to convincing people that they should buy the record. OK, here goes: you should buy the record. It's the most honest, touching, and skillful piece of art produced for a "post-September 11 world" that I've encountered. And yet even that endorsement, infested as it is with the insidious cliche of American commentary, fails to do the work any real justice...hence this critic's dilemma. (DM)
(Kill Rock Stars -- 120 NE State Ave, PMB 418, Olympia, WA. 98501; http://www.killrockstars.com/; Sport Murphy -- http://members.aol.com/mysteryfez/sport.html)
The Party's Over
The O.G. purveyors of metallic-tinged smarmy party punk are back. Well, at least Jimmy Gestapo is, but what the hell, this stuff is great (way better than that Danzig stuff that Todd Youth did -- ick). This record may be called The Party's Over, but it sounds like it's just begun. Murphy's Law are pretty much NYC hardcore legends and have been around since the early '80s, so you might expect a misstep or watered-down version of their former glory, but that's not what you get here. This album rips from the get-go, and while it's not reinventing the wheel or anything, it does what it sets out to do -- which is rock your ass. Producer Daniel Rey makes the band sound better than they ever have, and the Misfits knob-tweaker's presence is really heard when the group vocals kick in. You'll be chanting along in no time to "Vicky Crown" and "Woke Up Tied Up"...and before you know it, you'll be waking up in a puddle of your own vomit the morning after the killer party that this record is going to incite. Maybe that's what they mean by the title: "The Party's Over...bleaaaugh!" (MHo)
(Artemis Records -- 130 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. 10011; http://www.artemisrecords.com/)
Unlike a lot of bands on the Not Lame label, Myracle Brah tends more toward psychedelia than power pop, though Bleeder throws on enough of the latter to keep the masses from panicking. That's a good thing, too, because beyond the opening "Song 37," with its GbVish production and melodic sense, it's the power pop moments that stand out the most. The punky "Orange Shirt" comes off like Will Birch leading Good Charlotte (but not nearly as stupid), while "Wasted" makes like a Cheap Trick ballad if Robin Zander had had a John Lennon fixation. Bleeder's best song is its most damning: a mighty fine cover of Paul McCartney's "Too Many People" delivered with a vocal that nails McCartney's phrasing and tone while avoiding a flat-out impression. The moral of the story? Buy yourself a copy of Ram and save yourself the trouble. (MH)
(Not Lame Recording Company -- P.O. Box 2266, Fort Collins, CO. 80522; http://www.notlame.com/)