Tournament of Hearts
The Constantines sound like Bruce Springsteen if he and the E Street band had grown up listening to Fugazi -- here, even the keyboard player is a punk rocker! Between the Constantines' preference for anthems and the singer's unique voice, they have a distinctive sound. Emotionally they're warmer than punk-rock usually allows, in the traditional rock sense -- not many punk bands would have dared to write something as unabashedly romantic as "Nighttime/Anytime (It's Alright)," from their last album, Shine A Light. Tournament of Hearts has more variety than Shine A Light, however: different kinds of arrangements, more dynamics, some mellower songs, even something that could be considered country. Their keyboard player may be their secret weapon; he adds really nice touches that are interesting, partly because keyboards aren't normally allowed by the post-punk mythos, but also because the parts simply work well.
In "Working Full Time," the drum intro and the chorus reveal that the song is in fact a hard rock song, despite the droning rhythm guitar and bass during the verses. And nothing could be more populist than the subject matter, since it's the one thing that everyone, regardless of class or musical interest, does. The band adds changes in the verse structure that bring the rock in a really interesting way, and the added keyboard riff turns the song into a thing of beauty.
"Hotline Operator" is the most complicated song on the record, but it doesn't sound like it because it's so ingeniously structured and arranged. The song changes meter at certain points, but the melody is strong enough to sustain the song. The arrangement is also very cool -- it starts out very quiet, with a single rhythm guitar, and adds instruments and intensity at one point a couple of minutes in, but it never builds to the rampaging climax until the last seconds of the song, after which it cuts out. The vocals are the most dynamic part of the song, which for a post-punk song is quite a change.
"Soon Enough" is another great song. This one sounds something like modernist country. The song doesn't swing like a good country song, and the band spends their time doing all of their normal jagged things, but the song's melody, along with the pretty harmonies, define it as a country song. It certainly helps that here the singer (either Bryan Webb or Steve Lambke, not sure which; both are credited with vocals) doesn't shout once -- he sings the song in a normal tone rather than his usual call. That's the other thing that makes it such a nice song, despite everyone's best intentions.
The Goons of Doom
There was a time when garage rock was considered a thing of the past. Fortunately for its fans, it was reborn earlier this decade with bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes. Since then, however, so many other neo-garage rock bands have emerged in the shadow of such bands that the whole movement could be pretty much considered a fad and dismissed as such. But fear not, rockers, for a new group in the genre has put a twist or two on the "garage" label and made things more interesting -- they call themselves The Goons of Doom.
Consisting of some former pro surfers, these Aussies play the standard three/four/five-chord rock song, but they occasionally throw in some punk rhythm and vocals. They also stain the not-so-proper-but-still-somewhat-clean image of their genre cohorts, by writing songs with titles like "She Wore Rat Skin Boots" and "Blood on the Streets," and they spend no time dressing to impress anyone.
The Goons combine the song structures of virtually any garage rock band, the aesthetics of The Sex Pistols, the themes of The Misfits, and the sound of The Ramones. Simple though it is, this EP is a fun listen that few rock fans would dislike. So, if you tire of sappy, lovey-dovey rock songs and avoid peppermint-clothing motifs, put Bikey Zomby on your stereo, listen to it, and call me in the morning.
The Return of the Death of the Legacy of the Revenge of the Jonx
Sometimes, you either get something or you don't. That's the conclusion I came to when I saw Houston rockers the Jonx play a few years back; after the first two or three songs, my wife was grimacing and shaking her head. "This sucks," she grumbled, "let's get out of here and see who else is playing." Being the dutiful husband (since I'd already dragged her out of the house on a weeknight to see several bands she'd never heard of), I agreed, and we bailed as surreptitiously as we could from the tiny confines of the club.
Far from being annoyed or disgusted, though, I'd been standing there with a big grin on my face. While apparently the off-kilter indie-rock stylings of the Jonx wasn't my wife's cup of tea, for me I was drawn back to the early days of post-punk noise, back when nobody knew what the hell people like Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth were doing, so they just called it "punk." Listening to the band was like rifling through old Fugazi, Minutemen, and June of 44 albums, what with all the shouted-sung vocals, weird time signatures, and disjointed guitars that sound like noise until you listen real closely and hear the sound coalesce into a half-buried melody. I thought it was great.
Fast forward a year or two, watch a couple of band members fall by the wayside (Shawn Durrani and Viki Keener, who I believe were still in the band when I saw 'em), and the remaining Jonxers finally have an album out, The Return of the Death of the Legacy of the Revenge of the Jonx. And while it's not as turbulent and messy as the live show I caught, the elements I liked are still there. Tracks like "Metal," an alternately speeding/stomping take on sludge-metal that comes off like Ian MacKaye fronting the Melvins, the muscular groove of the instrumental "China's Fault," and a lower-key (but still tense and menacing) version of "Murder" all recall those same noisy, quirky rock touchstones.
The songs intersperse Stu Smith's sharp, angry guitars with Trey Lavigne's churning basslines and Danny Mee's collapsing drums, and marry it all with yelled and spoken lyrics from all three, and the recipe works pretty well. Put all together, it carries an air of danger, which ably deconstructs any kind of pretentiousness and makes me want to compare the band to The Vehicle Birth or NoMeansNo. (I should probably note, by the way, that Danny's also a contributor to Space City Rock, but trust me -- he gets no special treatment here.)
Lyrically, The Return of... seems pretty bleak, at least at first. A lot of the songs touch on violence and disillusionment in various forms (see "Metal," "Man Without a Country," and "To Your Health," for three), but at the same time, there's an underlying optimism. Sometimes it's hard to tell if the band's being serious or applying that patented Indie-Rock SarcasmTM (as on "Everything Makes Me Happy," especially considering its "flipside" track, "Everything Makes Me Sad"), but when I listen to "I Party to Celebrate Friendship," it seems unthinkable that they're not being sincere. Tracks like "Orange Like the Future," though, give the proceedings a kind of paranoiac, claustrophobic feel. I guess that while music can sometimes be black-and-white, it doesn't always have to be.
(Mustache Records -- 322 Aurora Street, Houston, TX. 77008; "mustachemustachemustache" at "gmail dot com"; The Jonx -- http://www.thejonx.org/
Our Names In Concrete
Albums like Orents Stirner's Our Names In Concrete are why music reviewers find the word "stark" so necessary. Like Pink Moon with an infinitesimally larger recording budget, it's built on a lot of acoustic guitar, a single voice, a touch of reverb and the barest smattering of other instruments not performed by lone permanent member Fletcher Stafford. It's not a determinedly focused singularity like Pink Moon, though, just a collection of fractured, lugubrious tunes that aren't given enough room to build to anything particularly substantial. That's the Guided By Voices problem, but the songs on Our Names In Concrete don't possess the immediate melodic explosions that counteracted GbV's compositional fragmentation, opting instead for a downcast Magnolia Electric Co flatline that's more enervating than affecting. The end result is a collection that sounds important and deeply meaningful to the person responsible for it but throws up a wall before reaches the outside of the speakers. When "Future Was Red" invokes "Wish You Were Here" before becoming a continuation of the preceding "Making Plans," I find myself wishing that I was listening to that album instead.
Birds Make Good Neighbors
You know how sometimes you think to yourself, "Man, I wish I could listen to something just a little Shins-y but not quite so upbeat. A little Smiths-y at the same time would really hit the spot"?
Okay, nobody ever thinks that. But if you did, The Rosebuds would fit the bill perfectly. An old-school indie band out of Raleigh, North Carolina, The Rosebuds evoke not only the bands above, but also other recent breakout bands such as Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, and the New Pornographers. Husband and wife Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp share vocals on most of the songs and, not surprisingly, use their relationship as source material for much of the lyrics on the album.
The album holds together as a whole very well, transitioning from song to song without too much jarring, and yet at the same time managing to not sound like the same song over and over. "Hold Hands and Fight", the first track and one of the strongest on the album, starts slow and then breaks into a more vibrant ending -- in sound very reminiscent of the Old 97s. "Boxcar", another very strong track, further energizes the listener with a nice driving guitar before giving way to the more folksy "Leaves Do Fall". "Wildcat" slows everything down to near Nick Drake levels before giving way to "The Loveršs Rights", the most Smiths-y song on the album (okay, last time I use that made up word, I promise). "Blue Bird" is a nice dreamy interlude, but not terribly memorable, before moving on to the more straight-ahead classic rock sound of "Outnumbered". "Shake Our Tree" is probably the most fun song on the album, a playful call and response between husband and wife. "Let Us Go" and "Warm Where You Lay" are both pleasant enough, but quite forgettable, and not quite as catchy as the rest of the album. The final track, "4-Track Love Song", while musically very different than the rest of the album -- having more in common with a Projekt compilation than with the pop sound of the preceding material -- shows that the band does have an impressive range of musical styles to draw from.
All in all, a great sophomore effort from a band with a great sound that seems to be evolving.
Fine Upstanding Citizen
At first glance, the cover of Maia Sharp's Fine Upstanding Citizen is as unremarkable as the album covers associated with many otherwise remarkable solo singer/songwriters. Sharp herself graces the cover, and in case we fail to recognize her, her name is printed in large, plain print above her picture. She's carrying a guitar, and of course she's not smiling because, after all, she's a serious singer-songwriter and a darling of the genre championed by publications like Paste Magazine and Tracks. That genre is adult contemporary folk-pop, and for a solo songwriter like Sharp, there's plenty of competition for the attention of XFM listeners. Luckily for Sharp, though, such distinguished artists as Richard Julian, Bonnie Raitt and Lisa Loeb have taken notice of the 12 unaffected, folksy pop songs on this record. To put it another way: anyone who lists Kim Richey as a co-writer probably deserves my attention and yours, as well.
I listened to Citizen on a long, one-way roadtrip from Texas to New York. I was leaving behind a familiar life to pursue something new, different and perhaps wonderful. The things I had not sold or given away sat in the trunk of a friend's car, and Sharp's tomboyish but appealing voice urged me to keep driving. The theme of this record is subtle non-conformity: Sharp wants to break away from the ranks, but instead she secretly sheds the "standard issue gray" and dons a red dress that they "can't take ... away." Sharp may seem like a fine upstanding citizen, but behind the facade of "regular Jane," she's quietly subversive.
Sharp's voice falls comfortably somewhere between Erin McKeown and Catie Curtis; her voice is imperfect, but warm and comfortable. It's a commendable achievement for Sharp to sound so similar to those two icons of adult contemporary folk-pop, but it would be a far greater achievement for her to find a more distinctive voice, or at least to break into territory that Catie Curtis hasn't already covered. "Red Dress," Sharp's simple, infectious paean to non-conformity, is the strongest track on this record, and her voice works better with it's paired the bright guitars; she sounds a little strained when singing against the piano ballad instrumentals on "Come Back to Me."
For those who unabashedly love adult contemporary folk-pop, Sharp's new record is worth a listen and falls on the "to-buy" list just below Amy Correia's Lakeville. For the rest of us, Sharp's record is pleasant enough, but we can probably just wait to hear the songs in the background of some romantic comedy or in the closing /credits of some new show on the WB.
Okemah and the Melody of Riot
There's something comforting about the Son Volt sound -- it's warm, ragged, and reassuringly familiar. The guitars rumble and scratch the way guitars are supposed to, Jay Farrar's smoke-scarred voice climbs and falls, and the the band behind drives the machine like the whole thing's cruising down one of the highways Farrar always seems to be singing about.
Thankfully, now that the faddists have moved on to other things and "y'allternative" and "alt-country" seem to've been semi-retired from the music-crit lexicon, with Okemah and the Melody of Riot we can actually recognize Son Volt for the sublime roots-rockers they truly are. "Country"? Nah -- there are hints of it here and there, sure, but that's really just lazy pigeonholing on the part of folks like yours truly. The soul of country pioneers like Johnny Cash or Gram Parsons is part of the band's DNA, absolutely, but Okemah, the "band"'s first release since 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo, is much closer kin to the raw, throaty rock of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, with a fair dose of folkies Pete Seeger, Farrar hero Woody Guthrie (after whose home town the album partly takes its name), and Phil Ochs.
I say "band," by the way, since the original incarnation of Son Volt is long dead-and-gone, bandleader Farrar having replaced 'em with a whole new lineup of rock veterans. These days, Son Volt is Farrar, drummer Dave Bryson (formerly of slowcore-Americana act Canyon and, before that, hardcore/post-hardcore outfits Damnation A.D. and Bluetip), bassist Andrew Duplantis (Bob Mould/Meat Puppets/Jon Dee Graham/Alejandro Escovedo/a zillion other people), and guitarist Brad Rice (NC roots-rockers the Backsliders/Ryan Adams/Tift Merritt). Pedal steel guy Eric Heywood steps back in to help out, but gone are the band's old drummer, bassist, and guitarist. Son Volt was always basically Farrar's vehicle, but now that's pretty much official, apparently.
Getting back to the disc, Seeger, Guthrie, and Ochs seem to rise to the surface more than usual on Okemah -- which makes sense when you consider that the album's probably the most overtly political thing Farrar and company have crafted to date. No "give peace a chance" singalongs, no, but there're plenty of subtle musings on the failings of the system, the destructive nature of war, and the plight of the middle class, like opener "Bandages & Scars" and "Endless War," as well as masked jabs at the rich and powerful, like "Jet Pilot" (think Texas Air National Guard, circa the early '70s). There's even a powerful elegy (I think) to those lost on September 11th with "Atmosphere," which serves a quiet, delicately sweet high point of the album as a whole.
Admittedly, Jay Farrar's lyrics are oblique at best, but that's really an asset here, because it lets the listener read in whatever they think's there, rather than just sit and listen to somebody rant and rail. The head-shaking despair is palpable, particularly on the aforementioned "Endless War" and "Atmosphere," where Farrar ruefully sings "Getting that old time feeling again / Madmen on both sides of the fence." That said, there's also a vitality and optimism burning throughout, as on "Who" (which could practically be an R.E.M. song) and the two-part "World Waits For You," which starts bleak and quiet but slowly turns a hopeful face towards the dawn. The optimism and energy is helped by the muted snarl of guitars, the likes of which I haven't heard since the last time I put on Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend (or, yes, Son Volt's Trace). The lower points on the disc are generally the quieter, less propulsive tracks (with the exception of "Atmosphere" and the piano-heavy "World Waits For You"), songs like "Ipecac" and "Medication," both of which are decent musically but just kind of flounder in place 'til the next barnburner comes roaring in.
Oh, and then there's the other side of the CD. This is a DualDisc release, which means that one side of Okemah is CD audio and the other's a full-fledged DVD, with the same songs in "enhanced stereo" (something that only really matters if you've got a 5:1 surround sound system), live clips of the band doing its thing, and a little documentary on the making of the album. Which was a little odd, I have to say -- the live performances are neat to see and hear, definitely, but the on-camera interview with Jay Farrar himself was weird. For one thing, despite being a fan of the music, I'd never actually seen the guy before, myself, and was expecting some rough-around-the-edges, Steve Earle-looking fella chain-smoking and sipping Bourbon in between the Q&As, not the quiet, relatively clean-cut family man who looks to be about my age. A little off-putting, to say the least. The DVD also suffers a bit from Farrar's low-key, laconic nature -- at one point my wife observed that he didn't look excited doing anything, not even performing or recording his own songs. But hey, if that's the way the guy is, that's how it goes; better that than he be a Tommy Lee-style motormouth... And even with the overall reserve, his discussion of the album's origins and aims is pretty illuminating, so I shouldn't complain.
In the end, Okemah doesn't break much new ground -- but hell, who cares? If I want to hear "experimental" rock and half-listenable noise, I've got a wide selection of albums to choose from. Lately, I'd rather turn on something that's warm and "basic," a soft smile to wake up to, a real-life growl to give voice to the things that maybe we want to say but don't. Hearing Okemah and the Melody of Riot feels like watching the sun rise slowly over the backroads and highways of America, knowing that the world and the people in it keep on going no matter what.
Deep Trout: The Early Years of Walter Trout
I love the blues. There is nothing more comforting to me than the sad cry of a guitar and a heavy throaty voice joining in with its own distinct wail. I don't know about you, but whenever I have blues going on the stereo, I just can't help but at the very least tap my foot in time. It's uncontrollable, and it doesn't matter where I am or what I'm doing -- the blues grabs my focus and my attention immediately.
Here's one reason why. With a sampling of songs spanning nine years and bonus tracks that date all the way back to '72, I think the Deep Trout retrospective is a perfect introduction to bluesman Walter Trout. The songs picked for the album illustrate his ability to create music that pushes not only against being categorized but also against any sort of limitation. His music is all expression and emotion, with every riff speaking as loudly as his words.
Personally, I prefer the smokin' guitar style on tracks like "How Much Do You Want," "Put It Right Back," or "Killing The Monkey" -- the latter of which has a distinct 50's style rock sound to me -- but softer tracks like "Under My Skin" or "Running in Place" remind me of '80s Clapton, which could hardly be considered a bad thing.
I'm not sure that anything I say could do proper justice to what a talent Walter Trout is, but I will say this: there is a reason he was voted sixth in the top 20 Guitar Greats of All Time by the BBC, and Deep Trout is a great way to discover that reason for yourself.
I should start by saying that I haven't always been real impressed with past comps I've gotten from Kill Rock Stars. They're good folks, and I love 'em dearly, but the sad truth is that I can't get my head around three-quarters or so of their roster. Bands like Comet Gain, Bangs, Unwound, or (duh) Sleater-Kinney, hey, I'm right there with you -- folks like xbxrx, C Average, Deerhoof, and Tight Bros From Way Back When, on the other hand, they just don't do it for me. Throw all of 'em together on a disc, then, and...well, I'll generally listen to five or six selected tracks and ignore the rest. That's what iPods and mixtapes are for, after all, right?
With the label's latest showcase, Otis's Opuses, however, I find myself more impressed than usual. There are a lot of high points here, and relatively little in the way of junk to wade through. The Decemberists do their literate, too-smart-for-their-own-good indie-rock opera thing with "Everybody Knows," and it's good, as is the sweet, '70s-sounding pop of The Makers' "Run With Me Tonight." Then there's Gold Chains and Sue Cie, who turn in "Crowd Control," a seemingly unironic take on LL Cool J/Salt'n'Pepa-style hip-hop, and Nedelle & Thorn, who collaborate on "Cute Things," which sounds like a tune out of an indie musical, all light and breezy and '60s-ish while talking about stuff that's dark and creepy. Speaking of dark and creepy, the pAper chAse makes a fine appearance with "Ready Willing Cain and Able," a frenzied, orchestral murder symphony off of their excellent, excellent God Bless Your Black Heart. Out of all of the tracks on here, the highlight for me is Comet Gain's "One More Summer Before I Go" (from their damn-I-need-to-get-that new disc, City Fallen Leaves), a burst of frantic, pleading garage-pop worthy of the Buzzcocks or the Jam in their prime. Forget Coldplay or Oasis -- David Feck & co. are the Sound of England, no question.
Those tracks aren't a surprise, though, really, since I kinda knew what they'd sound like beforehand anyway. Out of the folks I'd never heard of before, KRS serves up The Old Haunts, with "By The Bay," a high-pitched, murky bit of garage rock that reminds me (favorably) of Black Cat Music, Jeff Hanson, with "I Just Don't Believe You," a melancholy, jangly folk song that's a dead ringer for Elliott Smith, and Numbers, with "I'll Love You 'Til I Don't," the wonderful Moog-i-ness of which makes me wish I'd put The Return of the Rentals on my iPod. Oh, and there's also Shoplifting, whose "L.O.V.E.", with its Hanna-esque vocals and sharp guitars makes it sound like the riotgrrl age never ended, and Delta 5, who I'd heard of but never actually heard -- their "Now That You've Gone" is as New Wave as it gets, halfway between the Velvet Underground and the Gang of Four (...which is pretty appropriate, really, since the 5 were following directly in the Gang's footsteps when they formed back in 1979).
With all that said, probably the biggest surprises onboard this disc come not from the unknowns or the already-likes, but from bands I generally don't care for. To me, listening to Deerhoof is generally akin to sucking housepaint through a straw, but when those guitars come stomping and crunching in on the delicate, beautiful vocals on "Siriustar"...oh, my. Same goes for The Gossip, a band I'd written off as Bikini Kill wannabes and hadn't paid much attention to since. With "Jealous Girls," they've crafted a surprisingly sharp-edged, dangerous-sounding chunk of rawk and proven themselves to be far better than just a ripoff band (and that's good). Then there's the Linda Perry track, "Freeway" -- and yes, she's that Linda Perry, of "What's going on?"../4 Non Blondes infamy. I loathed "What's Up?" when it was all over the airwaves way back when, and so I fully expected to hate this track, as well...and yet, I don't. The song itself isn't great, but it does serve to showcase Perry's strong, Johnette Napolitano-esque voice, which is impressive, and it makes me want to hear more of her solo stuff. (I should note, by the way, that the album this is on, In Flight, was first issued in '96 by Interscope -- I guess this means Kill Rock Stars has bought and re-issued it?)
Of course, even the best of compilations has a sour note or three. Otis's Opuses confirmed for me that Stereo Total doesn't do a thing for me, disappointed me with a lackluster track off Harvey Danger's "comeback" EP ("Cream & Bastards Rise"? Sorry, but songs that hang themselves on the cleverness of the title alone bug me...), and further convinced me that I just don't get the joke lurking behind Gravy Train!!!'s funky yowling. And John Wilkes Booze was just a mess, scrambled and noisy and barely listenable (hate to diss members of the Impossible Shapes, but oh, well...). All things considered, though, the "good" pile far outweighs the "not-so-good."
Unfortunately, since all Opuses really is is a sampler of recently-released KRS stuff -- only two tracks on here, one of the two each by Stereo Total and John Wilkes Booze, aren't on another KRS disc somewhere (and neither one's particularly entertaining) -- it's hard to recommend it on its own merits. If you're looking for new stuff or unreleased tracks or obsessively collecting every song ever put out by The Decemberists (good luck with that), look elsewhere. If, however, you're curious to see what the heck all those crazy Kill Rock Stars bands are up to these days but you don't want to buy twenty-odd separate CDs (I think Opuses goes for less than $10), well, have I got a deal for you...