There are many combinations in life that seem to work: chocolate and peanut butter; hockey and fights; blues and rock. Then there are combinations that only seem to work for a small few if at all: pickles and ice cream; wrestling and football (XFL, anyone?); or punk and country. That last combination there is where we begin with Ninja Gun's Smooth Transitions.
I really enjoy unusual combinations of sound in music. When a band or a person can take things that are unexpected and somehow make it work, it's so impressive to me that they pulled it off; it makes the end result even that much better. When you try to put something unusual together and it fails, however, it's that much worse, in my opinion. I read about Ninja Gun and thought, "Wow, punk with a country flair -- that could be interesting." Unfortunately, it's not. The raspy twang in the singer's country-ish voice combined with the pop-punk music ends up sounding whiny instead of arty. At first, it was really hard to identify what I didn't like about this CD, but it boils down to this: Smooth Transitions is anything but.
The only two songs where the singer's voice and the backing music actually meld in a way I liked are "Unpopular Mechanics" and "Picture of a Boy in his Prime." "Picture of a Boy in his Prime" starts off with acoustic-style guitar and then leads into heavier riffs and almost a scream-y vocal. It reminds me of Jet, and I really like it. If the entire CD had more music like this on it, I would think Ninja Gun not only found the niche, but made it work, too. (JR)
(Barracuda Sound -- P.O. Box 11994, Gainesville, FL. 32604; http://www.barracudasound.com/; No Idea Records -- P.O. Box 14636, Gainesville, FL. 32604-4636; http://www.noidearecords.com/; Ninja Gun -- http://www.ninjagun.com/)
The Greatest Songs Ever Written (By Us)
With The Greatest Songs Ever Written (By Us), L.A. skate-punks NOFX celebrate a career of 22+ years. The cynical might look at this as something of a cash-in attempt, since, as the liner notes readily admit, every NOFX record after 1994's Punk in Drublic has sold fewer copies than its predecessor. The band seems to attribute the decline in their still-substantial popularity to the change in the tastes of American punk-rock teenagers, a shift from music made by politically-minded, foul-mouthed Average Joes to that made by whiny dorks with nice hair, fitted clothes, and Christian-friendly attitudes (see "The Separation of Church and Skate" and "What's the Matter with Kids Today?"). Others might attribute it to a lapse in the quality of the band's music. It's probable that both sides have a point: Dashboard Confessional, meet Pump Up the Valuum.
NOFX has made a couple of interesting choices with this collection. The first is to focus heavily on material released since 1994 or so. I'm pretty sure the reason for that decision is that a lot of their best early material is collected on 1995's I Heard They Suck Live, and so it's hard to argue with, although it makes the presence of tracks like "Linoleum" and "Kill All the White Man" harder to justify, quality aside. The other choice, apparently, is to focus on tracks with more serious subject matter, thus blessedly sparing us the likes of "The Brews" and "Liza and Louise," while regrettably omitting "Showerdays" -- although, again, there are a couple of exceptions, most notably the pointless "Thank God It's Monday." Any best-of collection will leave someone dissatified, but there are a few choices here that are just mystifying. Why open with the cheap and unintentionally ironic (and poorly performed, I might add) "Dinosaurs Will Die," instead of the stronger and thematically similar "It's My Job to Keep Punk Rock Elite"? Where are "Fuck the Kids," "Idiot Son of an Asshole," and "Olive Me"? Was the track order devised by a ouija board? For the love of Mike, why the incongruous "All Outta Angst" and the barely-there "Murder the Government," instead of "Kids of the K-Hole," "Eat the Meek," and "Quart in Session"? Perhaps the answer is that NOFX are such unredeemable contrarians that they prefer confusing and frustrating their fans over making the strongest possible record.
Despite their numerous faults, NOFX hold a deserved place in the history of punk rock, not only for their sheer longevity and prolificacy -- witness the name of their tenth LP, 45 or 46 Songs that Weren't Good Enough to Go On Our Other Records -- but because they were and are one of the last bands keeping up a tradition that is almost entirely dead or corrupted, for better or for worse. If you were a teenage punk rocker in the '90s, NOFX was the living embodiment of the culture that you were aping, cartoonish and anachronistic as it was. Their message (and perhaps their music) may have been 10 or 15 years behind, but we heard it all the same, and it was and remains the right one: self-effacing, comic, aggressive, and unashamedly political. (And, would you believe, multicultural?) For those things we -- at least, I -- owe them a debt of gratitude. Whether we should care about this record depends more on the extent of our patience for their foolishness. (DM)
(Epitaph Records -- 2798 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 90026; http://www.epitaph.com/; NOFX -- http://www.nofxofficialwebsite.com/)
NTX + Electric
We Are The Wild Beast
I am a very, very bad man. I hate to admit it, but We Are The Wild Beast, the magnum opus of now-former Houstonians NTX + Electric -- they've since changed their name to Indian Jewelry and headed for the bright lights of L.A. -- has sat on the shelf in my office for many, many months now, unreviewed...and that's bad, bad, bad. Not only is "NTX + Electric" just one of the many aliases used by weird-rock impresario (and occasional Space City Rock contributor, I should add) Tex Kerschen, who happens to be somebody I admire and like quite a bit, but the various incarnations of the band made a pretty major impact on the chimeric Houston scene over the past several years. Whether he and frequent partner-in-crime Erika Thrasher (now the other half of Indian Jewelry) called themselves Swarm of Angels, NTX + Electric Deth, Nikki Texas, Corpses of Waco, Turquoise Diamonds, or whatever the hell else they came up with the afternoon before a show, the end result was pure NTX, and they made (and still make) some truly bizarre, ground-breaking music. So, from that angle, me not reviewing this album 'til way past its release date is even more "bad."
The worst part of my slacker reviewing habits, though, is the reason I procrastinated on this review for as long as I did: laziness. Why? Well, because the music of NTX + Electric, both on We Are The Wild Beast and in general, is/was nearly impossible to classify. Is it post-rock, no-wave, art-punk? Carnival music made by lunatics? Post-industrial noise-rock? Truthfully, I have no clue. Labels don't stick real easily to these folks, and that makes the lives of inherently lazy reviewers like myself damned difficult.
That shouldn't be taken to mean, however, that the album's not any good. We Are The Wild Beast is strange and unclassifiable, yes, but it's also surprisingly compelling, melding art-rock with breakbeats, theatrical flourishes, and out-and-out noise. There are even genuine stabs of melody and beauty jutting out of the mess at points, like the sweetly-sung chorus of the title track, the raging guitars on "Horrendous Habits," and the pretty saxophone diving and swooping over the fuzz bass and Afghan Whigs-esque vocals on "Looking at You." The whole album, really, is a giant exercise in genre-bending; "Emptyhanded," for one example, sounds like nothing more than a Motown soul train gone horribly off the tracks, while another, "Barbwire," comes off like an outtake from some imaginary Suede/Massive Attack collaboration.
Beyond the stylistic stuff, this music also happens to scare the crap out of me. It's dark, claustrophobic, and headache-inducing; it's not the kind of music you generally listen to when you're in the car on the way to work, unless you happen to work at a mental institution or morgue and are yourself in need of medication. "Walk Through Fire" is loud, stomping, electro-rock punctuated with bursts of rhythmic static and sax, and it sounds like some kind of bizarre march written for demonic hordes; similarly, "Poison the Choir" is practically a dirge, with gloomy, orchestral backing beneath Kerschen's flat, Firewater-esque singing. If you ever needed any proof that doom metal bands don't have a trademark on dark, murky, evil-sounding music, hey, this CD should serve nicely. The only real "down" sides here are near Wild Beast's end, with the 13-minute pseudo-ambient noise of "S-O-S-O-S" and "Jonx," which is a minute and a half of bleeps and static-y fuzzbass noodling -- those two I'd recommend only to the diehards.
Despite the band's recent departure from the steamy, smelly wilds of Houston, it still feels like We Are The Wild Beast is an ode of some kind to this sprawling megalopolis we hardy Houstonians call home. It's bleak but still weirdly beautiful, dangerous and yet somehow enticing, chaotic but as tightly knit as a map of the intersecting highways and flyovers of the city. Listening to this disc feels like driving slowly through the creepier, darker parts of town, knowing you're someplace you shouldn't be but not caring. Wild Beast also makes me kick myself for not doing more for the band when they were still ours and ours alone -- maybe if more people had appreciated what we had when Kerschen and company weren't L.A.-bound, they'd have stuck around down here in the swamp. (JH)
(GirlGang Records & Tapes -- 3212 Hamilton Way #4, Los Angeles, CA. 90026; http://www.swarmofangels.com/girlgang.html; Indian Jewelry [formerly NTX + Electric] -- http://www.swarmofangels.com/indianjewelry.html)