West Of Pleasant
If you have seen enough live music, you've come across bands like Maelee Whitman. They're the types who wander slowly onto the stage without fanfare, pick up their instruments without addressing the audience and begin playing some low-key something with a measured pace that defies the conventional wisdom that you should probably start your set with something immediate and attention-grabbing. And slowly, one by one, the crowd shuts up and starts listening to the music with, if not enthusiasm, at least interested curiosity. And by the time the band is done, they might not have any new fans, exactly, but they have an audience.
West Of Pleasant is a lot like that. It's not an album that grabs you, but it generates its own momentum in much the same way that a Sigur Rós album builds moment by moment. Maelee Whitman (who have recently changed their name to Aviette, though the album is still credited to the old name) have a clearer sonic palette than that, though, with instruments that are more defined and songs with clearer intentions, like the gorgeous "E(a)ves," which casts a spell for seven minutes that are over before you realize it. Building on Americana sources, the band's sound is characterized by clear acoustic guitars and atmospheric electrics; songs where the latter dominate, like "No More" and "Of Blood And Love," are fairly rare. Despite the occasional lead vocal by guitarist Kyle Larson, who has more than a little Jay Farrar in his throat, it's Holly Muñoz who carries the album, with a voice that's a cross between Suzanne Vega and Lois. She's the soul of the most entrancing cuts, like the aforementioned "E(a)ves" and "Across The Square," where a muted bass is melded to thwacking drums like a DIY version of "You Don't Know How It Feels." West Of Pleasant is an album of modest pleasures, but some days, that's enough. (MH)
(Eightysevenwest Recording Company -- http://www.eightysevenwest.com/; Maelee Whitman -- http://www.maeleewhitman.com)
Is garage the new grunge? Spokane's The Makers must think so. They're not alone, of course -- there are numerous bands worldwide trying to cash in on The Strokes' semi-fame. With Stripped, though, the band appears to want to prove that they were here first. Before Jet, before The White Stripes, before The Strokes. Before it was fashionable to be a late seventies throwback, The Makers were throwing out their brand of garage rock.
After several releases on various labels, the band's latest release is a return to its roots. Mixing an interesting blend of rock star swagger and a strong punk ethos (and the obligatory keen fashion sense, of course), The Makers's music is a barrage of screaming guitars, heavy drum beats, and stereotypical rock god vocals. Short, punchy songs are the band's norm, and titles like "Hot Kiss," "Leopard Print Sissy," and "Sharp Leather Walkin' Shoes" give an indication of where the band comes from lyrically. This genre was never meant to change listener's lives; it's been done better, and it's been done worse. Either way, this collection should give fans of garage plenty of listening pleasure. (DAC)
(Kill Rock Stars -- 120 NE State Ave. PMB 418, Olympia, WA. 98501; http://www.killrockstars.com/; The Makers -- http://www.themakersband.com/)
The Stairs. Velo-Deluxe. Sleeper. 60ft Dolls. Imperial Drag. Melony. The Flashing Lights. Nada Surf. Bigger Lovers. The Mayflies USA. Brendan Benson. Mando Diao. sigh (MH)
(Mute Records -- 429 Harrow Road, London, W10 4RE ENGLAND; http://www.mute.com/; http://www.mando-diao.com/)
The Molly Maguires
Ah, surf rock. I'll bet that when most folks hear those two words, they conjure up slo-mo images of beefy, tanned guys or gorgeous, tanned girls jumping into bright blue barrel-shaped waves while Dick Dale-style guitars spiral in the background. Surfers hang out where it's all palm trees and clear blue water, right? Well, most of 'em, yeah -- not all surfers, however, are lucky enough to live within walking/paddling distance of Pipeline. Some, in fact, call the murky, smelly Gulf of Mexico home.
Come on, stop laughing. As somebody who's done it himself a few times, I can attest to the fact that there are surfable waves in the Gulf; it's not as picturesque as Hawaii or Malibu, no (think more of the Venice Beach shore back in the days of Dogtown's Z-Boys, complete with random spars of wood sticking out of the surf), and the waves are a lot smaller, but hell, at least the water's warm, and you don't often have to fight a bazillion people to find a decent little wave of your own. I'm barely a novice, myself, so I've got no absolute proof for this, but my guess is that most Gulf surfers are about as far removed from their counterparts in clear-blue Hawaii as the waters off Maui are from those off, say, Surfside. With that in mind, since the surfing environment's a bit different, shouldn't it logically have its own special surf-rock soundtrack?
Well, yes, you'd think so. Unfortunately, The Molly Maguires' Dirty Surf ain't qite it. Why? Well, for starters, while the Maguires are indeed from the Houston-Galveston area, Dirty Surf isn't all that different from most other surf-rock I've heard, right down to the guitar tone and sparse, minimal arrangements. Don't get me wrong -- that kind of thing can be great, absolutely...if it's got the fire of a Nokie Edwards, Duane Eddy, or Dick Dale behind it. The Maguires' music doesn't, sadly, but is instead a lot more middle-of-the-road (although I've got to hand it to 'em for showcasing Galveston's ever-so-beautiful beaches at red tide on their album cover; man, the smell on those days is unbelievable...). There are some good parts here, like the delicate melody that drives "Upper Stratus," the complicated guitar motif on "Tenderizer," or the creepy-yet-pretty "Attack of the Spiderwoman," but I'm afraid that the majority of the tracks on Dirty Surf can get to be a little hard to distinguish after a while.
It all sounds good, mind you, and maybe that's part of the problem -- the three "songs" that really start to rev things up a bit, "Slick 60," "Little Red Mushroom Chair," and "The Great Race," happen to be the two where the Maguires drop the shiny, ultra-clean guitar sound and go for a more distorted, manic, Agent Orange-style surf-punk attack. And y'know, it works -- it's a damn shame the band didn't start off the album with one of those tracks, rather than the anemic, twangy "Big Hands." It's that sound -- dirty, distorted, frantic, a little rockabilly -- that really screams "Gulf Coast breakers" to me. Next time around, guys, I'd leave the sparkly-clean stuff to the Cali kids and bring more of that down-home, dirty, Gulf sound. (JH)
(Smelly Menace Records; The Molly Maguires -- http://www.mollymaguiressurf.com/)
Moron Parade still suckles at Frank Black's flabby teat, but that's a good thing. Their updated take on vintage Pixies may not be the most original concept -- and like it's really going to be any better than the original -- but the songs on Heat Slap have a unique quality about them that's difficult to explain. The Portland band's musicianship probably has a lot to do with it -- each of the members lends their background and expertise to the music's style, and Moron Parade ends up with songs that run up and down the musical landscape. Most of the album is straight-forward indie rock (like their best effort, Dark Nights, Knife City), but many of the songs are more experimental. The album's opener, "One Note," is a humorous jab at the industry and themselves -- the band claims that it would be so much easier if all of their songs were only one note.
Listeners would do well to skip "Tennis Locum," however, as the singer's high-pitched whine grates quickly. But overall, Moron Parade score again with an album full (21 tracks full, to be exact) of indie rock. Dark Nights, Knife City is better, but this is an album worth owning. (DAC)
(Paradeco Records -- 219 Queen Anne Ave. N, #306 , Seattle, WA. 98109; http://www.paradeco.com/)
I really, really miss The Dismemberment Plan. It's pretty ridiculous, really -- I found out about the DC band very late in the day, only after they'd released what turned out to be their final album, Change, and yet when I finally heard them, I was utterly bowled over. When they called it quits, it felt like I'd missed the boat, like when The Pixies broke up before I ever got to see 'em live.
So, then I find former Plan singer Travis Morrison's solo debut, Travistan, and I'm feeling skeptical. Is he going to Frank Black me and offer up a pale imitation of the genius he used to help craft with his old band? Short answer: thankfully, no. The same unmistakable voice is there, of course, so it sounds at points a lot like the Plan (particularly "Change," a bizarre, messy version of the Moses story as filtered through, say, Dr. Phil-style self-help theory), and that intelligence that informed the Plan's songwriting is definitely in evidence, as well. But, ah, the humor -- it was always there with the Plan, but it got kind of swallowed, to my mind, by the seriousness of the lyrics. Here Morrison lets things get a bit sillier (albeit in a sarcastic way), like when he throws a funky dance break and faux audience chatter into "Born in '72."
Lyrically, Morrison skewers everybody in sight, offering a bleak, bitter retort to the fake sympathy people throw out when they hear about a death on "People Die," enumerating the ways in which he's a born-lucky bastard on "Born in '72," and engaging in a somewhat creepy bit of animals-gone-wild fantasy on "Song For The Orca," which evokes images of oppressed, caged animals giving their owners and trainers their final comeuppance. He goes somewhat political, not too surprisingly, with "The Word Cop," which examines the manipulation of language to sanitize thought, and then turns around and points a finger at the stupidity of sloganeering and the reality that nobody's political convictions are perfect on "Che Guevara Poster." Oh, and then there's the "suite" of "Get Me Off This Coin" tracks, numbered A, B, C, and D, all of which are fictionalized, folky, tongue-in-cheek angry calls from the great beyond by, um, long-dead Presidents (Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, and Washington, respectively), who each castigate our modern America in turn for being pretty damn dumb. Clever stuff, definitely, and well-done, to boot.
Oddly enough, though, it's the couple of odd-man-out tracks that are the most affecting. There's "My Two Front Teeth II & III," which is a poignant, confessional story about Morrison getting beaten up and having his front teeth knocked out -- it stays clinical and detached most of the way through, but the real feeling finally cracks through the surface at the end, when an increasingly frenzied, angry Morrison sings "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth" over and over again. After that, Odd Duck Track #2 is "Any Open Door," a quietly seething ode to the hopelessness of modern life and the inescapability of family, and #3 is "Angry Angel," a sweet, sorrowful plea for an end to inner turmoil. Believe it or not, Morrison's at his best on Travistan when he drops the smart wordplay and imagery and goes for the heartfelt, instead. Is this his new post-Plan direction? Maybe this line from "Angry Angel" offers a hint: "This isn't just a song I sing / It's my real life." (JH)
(Barsuk Records -- P.O. Box 22546, Seattle, WA. 98122; http://www.barsuk.com/; Travis Morrison -- http://www.travismorrison.com/)
Most of the press blurbs about the Murdocks name-drop other "garage" acts like the Strokes, or Hot Hot Heat, et al., but you know what? I call bullshit on that one. The Murdocks kick the crap out of any and all of those bands within their first few chord strums. This three-piece from Austin sounds like they're just about to explode on every track, with music chock full of the very incendiary energy that any of those media darling garage acts tries so hard to capture through empty posturing. All you need to do is to look at the pictures of the band, actually. The Murdocks are real dudes, guys you would see in your apartment complex or hanging out in a local pool hall. It's like that first time you saw what Nirvana actually looked like, and it simultaneously confused you and made perfect sense. "These guys look too normal to be that crazy...but they're probably that crazy because they're so normal." And it is this pretense-less, balls-out style of rock that you get in spades on Surrenderender. Tracks like "Horsegore" and "Bloody Murder" will send you into a conniption fit for sure, but amongst all the gravel-throated guitar smashing energy, you'll find some killer hooks. You'll also come across a subdued (almost haunting, in a way) acoustic track ("Easter Moon"), which is shaping up to be one of my favorite songs this year. If you've been on the lookout for a real rock band, then you needn't look any further. Murdocks fit the bill with aplomb. (MHo)
(Surprise Truck Entertainment -- P.O. Box 4077, Hollywood, CA. 90078-4077; http://www.surprisetruck.com/; Murdocks -- http://www.the-murdocks.com/)
It sure is nice that people appear to be enjoying soundtracks once again. I don't mean, necessarily, the mix-tape-style soundtracks to movies like Garden State (which was great), but actual, instrumental score-type music, the kind that evokes a scene without using words and that sounds like it was pulled from some never-to-be-made film. I've been digging the hell out of folks like M83, Ulrich Schnauss, and Explosions in the Sky lately, particularly on those hazy, early evening drives home from the office when I can finally let go of all of the tension of the day. Heck, Austinites Explosions in the Sky have even invaded the "real" film world, with Friday Night Lights, ("Your Hand in Mine" pretty much made the movie for me). So, when I got Italian, the latest album from fellow Austin instro-rockers My Education, I was really looking forward to it.
Unfortunately, while Italian is pretty decent generally, it's nothing really stunning. There are no moments of heartstoppingly brilliant grandeur, here, just a lot of good indie-rock that would probably sound darn cool if a charismatic frontman were out there on stage with 'em singing about angels and car wrecks and what-have-you. The glockenspiel and viola are nice touches, but really, this album is more suited as background music to other things than as any kind of focus of its own. It works really well, I'm finding, as headphone-filler for computer stuff I'm doing at the moment, but once each track's ended, I realize that I can't remember much of anything about it, so that's not the greatest recommendation in the world.
Okay, so maybe I'm being a little hard on these guys. So they're not M83; so what? Not everybody can be a genius -- most of us are just lucky to be able pull off something halfway decent from time to time. There are some nice moments here, like the roaring crescendo near the end of "Thanksgiving," that second of anticipation when Sean Segler's drums come charging in on "Puppy Love," the final bit of "Texas Style," and around minute eight of closer "Green Arrow." Unfortunately, those moments are marred by a number of other spots where the instruments sound like they're out of tune with one another (and not in a good way; see most of "Dirty Hands"), two nothing "interludes" of swirly etherealness that pretty much just take up space ("(Polyphonic Walnuts)", "()" -- and yes, those are the song titles, complete with parentheses), and some overly long arrangements that don't really seem to go anywhere. Call me a traditionalist if you will, but what makes a song a song to me is that it's got a recognizable structure to it; just noodling for ten minutes doesn't cut it.
Final conclusion? Not dreadful by any means, and the music is at points actually pretty interesting, but as instrumental mood-rock, Italian can't do the job all on its own. The key to the "soundtrack rock" pseudo-genre, really, is the ability to do without the movie playing on the screen; some of My Education's contemporaries can do that, but they can't. Again, these guys would probably be great if they were a real-live "band"-type band, with a vocalist, but as standalone songs, their Coldplay-esque soundscapes just don't have enough of a focus to make them memorable. (JH)
(Thirty Ghosts Records -- 8707 Coastal Drive, Austin, TX. 78749; http://www.thirtyghostsrecords.com/; My Education -- http://www.myeducationmusic.com/)