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REVIEWS (January 2007):
Richard Buckner
Meadow
Richard Buckner pic
Everything about this record screams "Chapel Hill, North Carolina." The patchwork-quilt cover, the humbledy-mumbledy singer, the outdated production (smells like the '90s), the quite-unknown-guy who has accolades from hipsters and kisses from awkward girls on college campuses, New York n'er-do-wells, Midwest mailorder record houses that proclaim his genius, and the west coast folk trying to find a pulse in a musical atmosphere that's barely clinging to life. Somehow this coffeehouse messiah is something so huge, our lives would ever remain, increasingly, the same with or without this record.
There's a homespun quality, though, an honesty (moany and clipped in its words) that's here for those who're hungry for it. Go ahead, have second, even third helpings; there's plenty to go 'round. Pass the biscuits, please. "Town" introduces you to Mr. Buckner, first showing a glimpse of his finesse at the vocal vibrato technique. The melody is simple, not horrible but still quite forgettable. "Canyon" is a larger canvas for more prominent peacocking of the "vibrato." The arrangements, instrumentation, and melody, however, all seem more cohesive and less fractured-sounding. By the third track, "Lucky," the music's beginning to sound a little "happy," and a bit longing, too, but with more resolve -- not so much achiness. There's a styling of the voice that's certainly here to stay by the fourth cut; a lilt, a wisp, a curlicue that flavors each track.
Imagine 10,000 Maniacs and protest songs from "up North," flavored with a pinch -- just a pinch -- of Nashville and that guy at the place that sings on random Wednesday nights with the loneliness of a singer-songwriter, and voilá! -- that's Richard Buckner. And there's plenty of those lonely feelings here for you, if that's what you're after. And if you're after something completely non-sexy, non-threatening, and not too wild, that's here, too. Safe for parents.
(Merge Records -- P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC. 27514; http://www.mergerecords.com/; Richard Buckner -- http://www.richardbuckner.com/)
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The Cringe
Scratch the Surface
The Cringe pic
The Record Plant in NYC has been the birthplace to many rock classics -- Jimi Hendrix, KISS, Led Zepplin, and countless others. The question is does Scratch the Surface, the debut album from The Cringe, fall into the same category? Of course not; don't be silly. That doesn't mean, however, that this isn't a solid release by a good new band. The brainchild of the band is singer/guitarist John Cusimano, who also just happened to produce the album as well, and the music he has written is standard alt-rock. In the "Influences" section of his bio, he name-dropped Hüsker Dü, The Ramones, and Television, and while those may indeed be influences, the output of this CD is more along the lines of a Stone Temple Pilots or Live. That's not meant in a derogatory fashion, by the way, since both bands are excellent songsmiths.
On Scratch the Surface, all of the songs are very well-written and all seem made for radio. "Too Many Problems" should have been featured on The O.C. during one of those extreme moments of turmoil or overacting. Lead track "Another Day" is another gem, with a chorus that is a little too reminiscent of Pat Benatar. At the end of the album is "One and On," a song that could have been written by Paul Westerberg. The band does slow it down a couple of times, giving you time to whip out your Bics and hold them above your head. "Grave" and "Empty Table" are both slow-paced "Buzz" ballads that will make any 13-year-old wallow in their self-pity.
The band gives you your money's worth, as there are 13 songs on this release and nary a dud in the bunch. The next step this band needs is to get a real producer, put all their side projects away, and concentrate on this. If they do that, then they could have something special.
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Dead Voices on Air
From Labrador to Madagascar
Dead Voices on Air pic
Gadamer states in Truth and Method that the experience of the work of art "always fundamentally surpasses any subjective horizon of interpretation, whether that of the artist or that of the participant." If we hold this maxim as true, then few listenable musical compositions that I have heard surpass Dead Voices on Air's new album, From Labrador to Madagascar, in terms of pure artistic experience.
Led by the prolifically post-modern British psychiatrist Mark Spybey, whose penchant for ambient experimentalism has brought him into the company of such bands as Pigface, Faust, and I Am Spoonbender, DVOA bring the listener sounds that exist free from possible distinction. Seeming to come from the cavernous laboratory of some unintelligibly muttering Mad Scientist who performs experiments on flies using dentist drills, the first half of the album teleports the listener to a strange special temporality that leaps across the meridian of thought. Art destroys reality in space and time, and Jacques Derrida's comment on perspective, "Discontinuous return and round of the hours, the here of the clock hand spaces the now," is reduced to ash.
This conveyance across the meridians of temporal being presents itself in the title, From Labrador to Madagascar, as much as it does in the music. Progressing beyond the aforementioned laboratory via shrill sounds suggesting cybernetic transportation, the music enters a new planetary spirit of rhythm, interpolated from some transcendent electronic pulse, and of spirituality, provided by meditational intonation. The soft, priestly tones carry through the rest of the album like light through the interstices of a trellis covered in vines, until it gradually subsumes the album, sharing the locus of music with only a gently humming organ.
The soothing chant acquiesces to the sharp sounds indicative of telecommunications and the horrible mutterings of an incoherent human, providing a reminder of the fear and trembling of the initial stages of the album. The scary part only lasts a few minutes, however, before the the natural world reasserts itself with rich textures of African drumming and the strange, animalistic sounds of horns and conches.
Having traveled through a constellation of dreams, one leaves the album with his or her own bivouac pack of dreams intact, knowing that none could have experienced the work of art through the same ears. The only problem with the album lies in the sometimes-chaotic feeling of detachment, provided by Spybey's haywire technological noise, but if you have patience for ambient music at all, DVOA's From Labrador to Madagascar will not let you down.
(Invisible Records -- P.O. Box 16008, Chicago, IL. 60616; http://www.invisiblerecords.com/; Dead Voices on Air -- http://www.spybey.net/)
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The Drugstore Cowboys
Chapter 3006
The Drugstore Cowboys pic
Though British psychobilly revivalists the Drugstore Cowboys tore things up on Rockabilly Rumble Deuce with their track "Game Over," they -- wait, that's not right.
Popular cover band The Drugstore Cowboys always wows the crowd at the San Antonio Continental -- nope, nope, that's not it either.
OK, here it is. D.C. duo the Drugstore Cowboys blends the androgynous post-hardcore antics of the Blood Brothers with the electronic political-coke-party antics of Fischerspooner for a full-length record that is so consistently antic-driven that it is somewhat difficult to take seriously. Producer Philippe Grenade has an interesting sense of collage that frequently juxtaposes incongruous musical elements at a rapid pace, and the effect can be pleasantly disorienting, but the similar juxtaposition of hardcore throat-shredding with overproduced crooning merely sounds contrived.
The band's credibility is not aided by their cartoonishly uncreepy lyrics: "I detest your silicone laughter, fake like all the New York watches ... Stop pretending like your [sic] simple / We all know that youre [sic] diseased / Like a leech of dieting cancer / You are the reason for all this sickness... " (That's from "Only Fire Drive Away the Rats," by the by.) "Like a leech of dieting cancer"? Even the Deftones couldn't get away with that. Chapter 3006 further loses points for including a sample of a 911 caller from the World Trade Center -- honestly, how tasteless do you have to be to think that's a good idea? -- and taking an extended potshot at the South on the meaninglessly entitled "Pornographic Fruitstands:" "Georgian scum is sleeping under bridges / If you want lost souls you will find them there...you bible-belt joke rotting with strippers / This is your classic American shit hole / Welcome to the wasteland."
I suppose it would be impolitic to mention that D.C. is a long way from being the Lost City of Gold, or that no mayor of Atlanta has ever been convicted of smoking crack. Likewise, it would be undignified to point out that Georgia is currently producing some of the best metal (Mastodon), garage (the Black Lips), math-rock (the Blame Game), noise (Deerhunter), and hip-hop (Outkast) in the country, while if it weren't for Ian Mackaye and other people who have far too much class to talk shit about an entire state, no record label would touch bands from fourth-rate music scenes like D.C., and ignorant posers like the Drugstore Cowboys would spend their 20s freezing and starving in New York or, more likely, parking cars in L.A., until they finally gave up and spent the rest of their lives writing gratingly hip and unfunny television commercials and turning into Republicans...although perhaps it wouldn't be as impolitic or undignified as other things I could have written instead.
Finally, in the interest of aiding them the next time they start a band, I wish to call the attention of the Drugstore Cowboys to a useful new website called Google...
(Lujo Records -- 3209 Jennie Drive, Morgan City, LA. 70380; http://www.lujorecords.com/; The Drugstore Cowboys -- http://www.myspace.com/thedrugstorecowboys/)
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Ferocious Eagle
The Sea Anemone Inside of Me Is Mighty
Ferocious Eagle pic
First off: hot damn, the album cover just plain freaks me out (mmm...blood). And kind of in a good way, which is a bit disturbing to me. I like it, though, because it's a fairly hard-to-miss declaration of what's to come: whatever the hell this Ferocious Eagle thing is, it's going to be strange, possibly violent, and definitely not pretty.
Okay, so maybe I'm making a lot of blather out of a stupid picture, but the fact remains that the Portlanders definitely fit the description above on The Sea Anemone Inside of Me Is Mighty. The album is a full-on squall of Fugazi-influenced post-rock -- plenty of starts and stops, quirky-yet-arresting sung/chanted vocals, and a sinister, murky feel. The music churns and barrels along its tracks like a less-backwoodsy Federation X, or maybe Refused if they dropped the polemical stuff and dug back through those jazz collections they love so much. The songs get messy and chaotic at points ("Dinosaur," "Lion Hearted"), but even then they somehow coalesce into something solidly musical, which is no mean feat. There's a little Modest Mouse craziness here, to boot, particularly on album closer "I Just Don't Care" (which also makes me think of fellow Northwesterner Kind of Like Spitting), along with a fair dose of Polvo-esque math-rock.
Really, though, what comes to mind the most as I listen to Sea Anemone (and this surprises me, actually) is NoMeansNo -- I can vividly remember the first time I listened to "The Tower," and how simultaneously thrilled and scared the living shit out of me, so much so that I couldn't stop listening to it. Ferocious Eagle has the same kind of purposeful, dangerous momentum to its music, like a big-ass rock that rolls down a mountain and just plain never stops but keeps on going, crushing things in its path. You know you should get out of the way, but while you're staring at its destructive progress, you can't; you're mesmerized. Similarly, I put on Sea Anemone, my hands and feet start to move...and then the next thing I know, it's over and I've lost a half-hour of my life.
Of course, as you might expect from an album like this, the lyrics make zero sense, barring a brief (and surprisingly uplifting) little pseudo-Biblical interlude in "Be Not Weary, Be Not Weak." But eh, that's not the point -- the point is in the locked-down groove these three guys drive unrelentingly into your skull. Just step back and watch.
(54°40' or Fight! Records -- P.O. Box 1601, Acme, MI. 49610-1601; http://www.fiftyfourfortyorfight.com/; Ferocious Eagle -- http://www.ferociouseagle.com/)
Nic Garcia
The Desperate Ones
Nic Garcia pic
Nic Garcia is mood music. It's sullen, dark, and melancholy. There're glimmers of hope and love in between the lines, between the raindrops and floods of tears. Yet there are just mere glimmers, nothing to hang your hat on. "Song One" is the languid pacesetter, instrumental and vaguely nostalgic (and I mean "vaguely nostalgic" like the vague seems very familiar). Dark strings, piano, acoustic guitar, and French horns intermingle between sweet melodies and haunting harmonies. Nice. "In the Time of the Wolf" finally introduces Mr. Garcia's voice, a strained, moany scratch that seems more to "touch" the notes and move on, like handling an expensive antique. "…we waited for something, anything…" -- simple, effective, gracious.
"Triumph" starts with a murky, bluesy guitar and wilting strings. Mr. Garcia's imagery and messages are well cozy now; the sparse musical landscapes mirror the rain-dotted/sun-softened cover art. Sometimes he sounds like the Tinderstick's Stuart A. Staples, and then the song trudges along and is over before you know it. The melodies are short and simple but don't really suck me in as I struggle to keep up with the thick melancholy. "The Wasp" has a horn line that is a faint smirk, but all this darkness begins to wear halfway through the album. I'm looking for a ray of sunshine, some bit of cheer to get me through the rest.
Unfortunately, it's not until the last track, "Onward," where the bouncing harpsichord and organ give me the slightest uplift. I would've hoped that this number would make its appearance earlier in the album, and once its here, its hopefulness and cheeriness is over much too soon. Ah, but Nic Garcia's The Desperate Ones is not for the "young hopefuls," but for the late nights and the lost souls, or for those who just prefer a little shadow with their light.
(Yer Bird Records -- 1117 East Market St, Suite G, Charlottesville, VA. 22902; http://www.yerbird.com/; Nic Garcia -- http://www.nicgarcia.net/)
Gist
Diesel City
Gist pic
This is another one of those CDs that I spun during my road trip from Houston to New York last fall. Oddly enough, I popped this disc in right around the time we entered the Baltimore/Washington, D.C., area, which is where Gist hails from. Maybe it was a location thing, or maybe it was due to the fact that the previous CD we had in was utter crap, but I really enjoyed Diesel City. I have to admit that the one-sheet put me off a little bit beforehand -- whenever I see "international flavor" or some similar phrase used to describe a band, I run the other way. I've been burned by that particular tagline one too many times in the past, I guess...it usually equates to a cacophonic sound of immense proportions. I can't help but think, though, that someone put those words in there just to reference the fact that Gist's frontman is Indian. It doesn't matter one way or the other, but that's about as "international" as things get on Diesel City, which is not a bad thing. What you do get from Gist is angular indie-rock that reminds me of Mission of Burma, the Pixies, and Superchunk, with a little experimentation and jamming here and there (but never too much). It all adds up to a really enjoyable listen, and a somewhat nostalgic one at that -- Gist would have been right at home putting out records on Matador in the late '90s.
(Red Stapler Records -- 6903 Ridgedale Court, McLean, VA. 22101-5105; http://www.redstaplerrecords.com/; Gist -- http://www.gistmusic.net/)
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The Hidden Cameras
Awoo
The Hidden Cameras pic
I always like the start of a record. Such high hopes and, if it doesn't completely suck, the lingering chance of redemption. There's almost a sigh of relief when you start to get drawn in, or even hypnotized. Here, the "Death of a Tune" has that honky, '50s-ish, country-flavored rumble that is at once satisfying with its melodic hooks and humble in its approach. In the space of one track, and with all my other judgment suspended, the Hidden Cameras know how to turn a tune. This is a record with tunes! "From the moment I was taught to resist the education..." is how "Awoo," the eponymous second track begins, and who couldn't appreciate such a sentiment? The foreignness of the word easily bends itself to the melodic will of the singers, the vocal harmonies are almost Beach Boys, sweet and replete with strings.
The band's instrumentation is sparse and simple: guitar (heavy on the acoustic), bass, drums, and violins. Nothing is overused or underused but skillfully placed to enhance each hook-laden song, which will surprise you when you see how much instrumentation there really is (lap steels, synths, and glockenspiels, etc.). "Lollipop" sounds eerily like R.E.M.'s "Radio-Free Europe," but so what? You gotta put it to work for you, don'tcha? "Fee Fie" starts a different singer and quite a departure in mood but is deliciously introspective and sad. But don't get down, because the next track, "Learning the Lie," brings you back up with its catchy melody and solid falsetto-chorus. The Hidden Cameras are obviously lovers of great songwriters and unforgettable pop music themselves. Four stars. Bravo.
(Arts & Crafts -- 460 Richmond St W #402, Toronto, ON. M5V 1Y1, CANADA; http://www.arts-crafts.ca/; The Hidden Cameras -- http://www.thehiddencameras.com/)
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Frida Hyvönen
Until Death Comes
Frida Hyvonen pic
Frida Hyvönen's debut album Until Death Comes came out in her native country of Sweden in 2005 to worldwide acclaim, winning the Stockholm Prize and breaking into the Swedish singles charts for a few weeks with her breakout single "I Drive My Friend." The sterling acclaim is well-deserved, as Frida's glorious voice, raised in the candor of a singer-songwriter, splits the difference between Joni Mitchell's sublimation of the musical note and the drone of Nico's honest tone. Her lyrics often waver from the fatuous to the serious, from the romantic to the stoic, without a moment's hesitation, making her a fundamentally interesting personality, while her piano accompaniment compliments her will to measure tragedy and comedy with a strong degree of cheerful elegance. Songs of loss like "Once I Was A Serene Teenage Child" open up the paroxysmal effect of emotions resultant from the actuated childish fantasies of sex and independence on a teenager with a paradoxical, nostalgic tenderness. At the same time, the song "Djuna" exposes the chaotic nature of the down-and-out singer, masked by childish reaction to the corruption around and within her. As her piano trots merrily along, her voice chiming with tranquil ease, Frida spins stories of fear, loss, and pain. The music of Frida Hyvönen is music of a subtler genius, as natural and flawless as a winter's morning, within which every nascent insinuation of danger is contained.
(Secretly Canadian Records -- 1499 West 2nd St., Bloomington, IN. 47403; http://www.secretlycanadian.com/secretlycanadian/; Frida Hyvönen -- http://www.fridahyvonen.com/)
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Shanna Kiel
Orphan
Shanna Kiel pic
I'd bet a psychologist would have a field day with my weird attraction to women who could probably kick my ass. I've always been fascinated by tough, angry, musical ladies like, say, the Distillers' Brody Dalle, Kathleen Hanna, Kim Gordon, Atari Teenage Riot's Hanin Elias, Joan Jett, or, yes, the walking trainwreck that is Courtney Love (I draw the line at Karen O, though; she just scares me). I've got no idea why this is the case, really, and I'm not sure I even want to speculate; all I know is that there's something about a tough girl with a guitar, spitting angry lyrics over a roaring rock blast that makes me smile.
Which is pretty much where I am with former Midwest-dweller Shanna Kiel's debut solo effort, Orphan. The album's a short-ish set of driving, angry rock songs with plenty of ragged, dirty-sounding guitar shrapnel and Kiel's cigarette-scratched voice, and it hits a number of the female-rocker touchstones I mentioned above. The vocals resemble Dalle's at several points and Love's at others, a few of the songs echo Sonic Youth's Gordon-fronted efforts, and the raging guitars bring to mind everybody from the Distillers to Alkaline Trio. There's a sloppy, staggering, Nirvana-esque feel to several of the songs, to boot, particularly "Oh My" and "Song for the Hoodwink," although I can't say I'd credit Love with that specific influence.
The high point of Orphan has to be the sing-song-y, Kim Gordon-ish "Lost Our Vows," which kicks off with a particularly nice line: "With this drop of blood / I thee wed." The whole thing coalesces Kiel's various influences and musical kin into a solid mass of fiery, hard-charging rock, and it works quite nicely. The rest of the tracks are up and down from there -- some good ("Kismet," "Song for the Hoodwink," "Rotting From the Inside," the last third of "Sharpen the Dull"), some not-so-good ("Oh My," "Princess and the Pea," "Chariots of Silk"). Orphan's no mind-blower, it's true, but taken as a whole, it's a decently entertaining solo effort that makes me wonder what Kiel's old band Sullen sounded like. And hey, that's not a bad thing...
(Thick Records -- P.O. Box 351899, Los Angeles, CA. 90035-1899; http://www.thickrecords.com/; Shanna Kiel -- http://www.myspace.com/blackfurmusic)
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The Mall
Emergency at the Everyday
The Mall pic
Hyperactive hardcore that you can dance to is what fuels this San Francisco trio, and that's exactly what they deliver. Snazzy, catchy synth beats drag you in, and rambling guitars cause you to stay. But the longer you listen to the Mall, the more and more it starts to feel like the same song over and over, with just a few variations. It makes me feel like I'm playing a modern version of "Spot the Differences" but instead of reading it in the morning paper, it's streaming into my ears from an iPod. Despite the repetition, though, they still manage to keep things interesting with artsy/experimental harmonies, addictive Casio beats that soar over fanatical drum assaults, and random seizure-inducing guitar attacks that lay scattered amongst the short-lived songs (the longest track is 2 minutes and 14 seconds, and the shortest and craziest clocks in at a mere 17 seconds). While the vocals on this CD just do not cut it for me (you can't hear a thing singer Ellery Samson says; it's muted and muffled 'til it just sounds like another instrument, which is actually pretty cool in its own way), overall Emergency at the Everyday is a hodgepodge of hardcore, ADD, and hints of Indietronica, all blended together like a true masterpiece.
(Secretariat Records; The Mall -- http://www.themallthemall.com/)
Million Dollar Mouth
Say My Name...Now Say It Again
Million Dollar Mouth pic
They say don't judge a book by it's cover, and you should definitely follow that advice with Say My Name...Now Say It Again by L.A.'s Million Dollar Mouth. The CD cover is a suit and tie guy driving in his convertible with a lobster in his lap. Huh? Bypassing this CD because of it ridiculous cover, however, would be a mistake, since it's full of rather smart alt-rock. Music-wise, it falls somewhere between Weezer and Cracker, and just like both those bands, the songs have very clever lyrics. Lead track "Stupid Like Me" is a nice little jab about the hypocrisy of intellectuals, while "Big Kiss," with the line "You will always being living rent-free in my mind," is another winner. The standout track is "Lush," which has a remarkably hooky chorus that makes you wonder why you haven't heard it before.
Frontman Mike Biscotti has a nice, laid-back voice reminiscent of Jeff Buckley. Unfortunately, he tries to sing so low at times that he ends up sounding like the guy from the Crash Test Dummies. Just listen to "Strong," and you half-expect him to start going "mmm mmm mmm mmm." My only other complaint is that the guitars sound exactly the same on every track. It has that "I just got my new amp and I only know the reverb setting" sound to it. All in all, though, this is a pretty good release that should help propel these guys to the next level.
(Atonal Records -- 137 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA. 90211; Million Dollar Mouth -- http://www.milliondollarmouth.com/)
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One Night Band
Way Back Home
One Night Band pic
With their new album, Way Back Home, Quebecois septet, One Night Band has released a wonderful example of modern rock steady. With consistency and professionalism, the band cops a Slackers-style way of characterizing the sympathetic lowlife to great effect, contributing a compendium of exciting tracks that you can shake your ass to. Singer Alex Giguere rasps his vocals of love and loss over the base of a concisely melodic rhythm section and economical horn section. Particularly cool are instrumental track "Houdini," which stands on its own as a rock steady track on par with some of the greatest instrumental tracks of reggae history, and the essential "No, No, No," which epitomizes the superb quality and character of ONB's contribution to contemporary music. The balance of the raspy, Ruggiero-esque, Giguere and the wonderful clarity of Jaquinthe Michaud, whose limpid tone is reminiscent of the Version City star Selika Drake. Montreal ska is noteworthy for its expression of freedom, and if One Night Band continues to make music as solidly as it have on this, the band's debut album, fame is sure to follow.
(STOMP Records -- 78 Rachel East, Montreal, QC. H2W 1C6, CANADA; http://www.stomprecords.com/; One Night Band -- http://www.myspace.com/theonenightband)
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Paleo
Misery, Missouri
Paleo pic
Dave "Paleo" Strackany's debt to Neutral Milk Hotel would be far less obvious if not for his ill-advised affectation of Jeff Mangum's (unaffected) nasal whine. Ironically, it would be far more obvious if Strackany possessed a fraction of Mangum's talent. Unfortunately, the Elephant Six collective's influence on Paleo seems to have been limited to a fake folk sensibility, low recording quality, bad singing, and a grating sense of irony. With Misery, Missouri, Strackany has proved himself able to put together a song, arrange it for a small number of instruments, and record it. In an age when anyone can make a record (and seemingly already has), this is no longer an achievement, particularly in a genre, or at least an imitation of a genre (folk) that has a tradition of good songwriting that is so rich as to be itself a topic of good songwriting. Like so many second-rate practicioners of what is called "freak-folk" or "anti-folk," and unlike its masters, what Strackany hasn't demonstrated is an understanding of the difference between a song and a good song.
(Future Farmer Recordings -- P.O. Box 225128, San Francisco, CA. 94122; http://www.futurefarmer.com/; Paleo -- http://www.paleo.ws/)
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Quiet Life
Quiet Life
Quiet Life pic
"Country-inspired guitar melodies with a rock element" is the only way to really describe Quiet Life's self-titled EP. These New Englanders sing (er, mumble and yelp) and play like a few country kids trying to find a way to waste the day away; but their music is anything but a waste. Their on-the-road hooks and melodies collide perfectly with their singer's voice; with one guitar always an octave higher than the other, piercing through the steady drumbeat (and occasional harmonica) and creating a faultless alt-folk harmony. The jagged guitars and Sean Spellman's gruffy voice almost makes it sound like a lighter '90s-era Cursive. Although I'd like to hear more singing, the mostly instrumental songs still get stuck in my head. These guys are talented, creative, and different -- a great band to take a break from the mainstream with, and a band you don't forget easily. Quiet Life's rough but clean Southern-inspired tunes will have you counting the days 'till their full-length album comes out later this spring.
(Cosmodemonic Telegraph -- No. 46 State Street, New London, CT. 06320; http://www.hozomeen.org/; Quiet Life -- http://www.myspace.com/quietlife)
Reel Big Fish
Our Live Album is Better than Your Live Album
Reel Big Fish pic
After getting released from their major label obligations to BMG, Reel Big Fish have jumped back into the DIY/indie-label pond. With their first live album, Our Live Album is Better than Your Live Album, the band puts out a monstrous amount of live footage. The three-album live set contains 35 tracks, plus an additional 20 tracks on the DVD. The live set is a virtual all-you-can-eat buffet of pop-punk/ska. It's a great find for those hardcore Reel Big Fish fans out there, but listening to that much ska is borderline musical gluttony. Just remember to chew before you swallow, because this album is meaty.
Throughout the album, the band maintains an affable self-debasing demeanor, which makes for amusing segues between songs. They also show off surprising improvisational skill during their live set (I mean, it's not jazz, no, but they manage). After listening, I even found a few songs that I hadn't heard before that I liked. Overall, the album was entertaining and borderline good.
Unfortunately, I couldn't remember where the good songs were because there were so many tracks, discs, and intros to rifle through. Once you start playing the album, you're effectively about to hear the last ten years of ska as written by Reel Big Fish. Die-hard fans should love this, and while I admit to being a fan of the band, I'm not quite a die-hard one. I loved them until Turn the Radio Off came out, but after that, ska sort of dropped off the map for me. Goldfinger, Suicide Machines, Less than Jake, and Reel Big Fish all seemed to play more pop-punk than ska. I still listen to ska occasionally, but I haven't heard anything new that was interesting enough to pique my interest. I'm going to bet that most of you guys don't own one modern live ska album -- sadly, nobody does.
All in all, don't expect this album to rejuvenate your interest in ska; I'm still waiting for that next wave to roll in. Until then, give me some old Reel Big Fish, Operation Ivy, Link 80, or The Suspects.
(self-released; Reel Big Fish -- http://www.reel-big-fish.com/)
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The Thermals
The Body, the Blood, the Machine
The Thermals pic
Okay, first of all, a mea culpa to anyone who read my Thermals article and went to their show expecting the best live band on the planet. I saw their show in Austin, and they weren't even the best band of the night. (That honor would go to Man Man, about whom all I will say here is holy fucking shit.) The Thermals seemed completely out of sorts, disorganized, and basically uncertain of their identity.
The Body The Blood The Machine sort of captures that feeling for me. It's been near-unanimously praised, as near as I can tell, for its subject matter; you don't get any gold medals in my reviewing book, however, for songwriting topics, and after the first two songs make pretty blatant Christianity/Nazism parallels, it's clear that they're not trafficking in subtlety. If this is maturity, give me the juvenile stomp and playful phraseology of "No Culture Icons." That stomp, really, is what's missing from lots of the record -- in an attempt to "broaden their sound" or some such, there are far too many songs that come off as just dispassionate or lazy, two things you'd never brand their early records with. And if you sense the tone of a jilted lover more than an objective critic, well, perhaps I am guilty of that.
But then there's the last song on the album, "I Hold The Sound," and it's here, in the face of something extraordinary, that my negative energy falls away. With a stomping 3/3/2 rhythm and staccato phrases, frontman Hutch Harris churns out a scary yet intimate portrait of life after the flood, after everything has been destroyed and only two people are left to start anew. It doesn't throw in ostentatious parallels, dwell on pointing out religious hypocrises, or even ever really move beyond the intently personal, and it may be the best thing The Thermals have ever done (although the lengthy feedback ending means it probably won't make many mixes). If they stop trying to make grand statements and focus on trafficking in emotional honesty, they could yet turn out to be one of the best bands going. But I'm not going to put my reputation on the line twice in a row betting on them.
(Sub Pop Records -- 2013 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA. 98121; http://www.subpop.com/; The Thermals -- http://www.thethermals.com/)
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The Transit War
Miss Your Face
The Transit War pic
You can't always help what you like or dislike. That's just human nature; even the über-hippest SuicideGirls-reading, LiveJournal-typing hipster can't help but tap their feet to some of the uncoolest music on the planet, I guarantee you. And really, why shouldn't they? If it moves you, it moves you, even if you don't want to admit it. This is the reason "guilty pleasures" lists really don't work for me; why feel guilty about liking something if you really, truly like it? Hell, why do you even have to be "ironic" about it? If you like The Darkness because you think they rock and "I Believe In a Thing Called Love" makes you feel like you're fifteen all over again, great; on the flip side, if you like The Darkness because you think they're over-the-top and silly, hey, that's great, too.
All the differentiation, the hot-or-not bullshit is just an updated way for hipper-than-thou music fanatics to feel superior to others, period. Remember getting picked on in middle school because you didn't wear the right clothes or have the right haircut? Well, welcome to the big bad world, friend; if you snigger at people who listen to Nickelback or Christina Aguilera, you've become what you always hated. Now, if you honestly don't like something, then by all means, feel free to say so -- I, for example, loathe the music of Celine Dion with all my heart. At the same time, though, it'd be ludicrous for me to somehow pass judgment on all the bazillions of people out there who think Ms. Dion's the greatest artist in the world. If they like her, that's their deal, not mine; why bother denigrating somebody for not measuring up to some meaningless standard I created just because I don't like something? It's stupid, it's narrow-minded, and worst of all, it's a waste of time and energy.
Apologies for the ramble, but all this stuff spins through my head, unbidden, whenever I find myself listening to an album like The Transit War's Miss Your Face. Because it's the type of album that probably makes some folks sneer and turn up their noses. It's got plenty of melodies, nicely roaring guitars, little electronic bits, and pretty-boy sweet vocals (that make me think of The Outfield at points), all the emo-rock trappings that have become so fashionable to hate.
To me, though, it's like candy -- I can't help but eat this stuff up. It's the same reason I like similar-sounding bands like Mae, Armor for Sleep, or, most critically for Miss Your Face, Jimmy Eat World (see the stuttered vocals on "Chutes and Lasers," in particular). They're all basically pop bands at heart, really, just filtered through bigger amps and gritty distortion, and I love it. The Transit War aren't really carving out any new territory here, but they do what they do so well that I could care less.
On tracks like "Radar," "Safety In The Air," "Hey! Is For Horses," "Desiree, Safe!" (love the soaring vocals, but what's with the exclamation points, guys?), and "Loud" (probably the best song on here), they weirdly manage to meld mid-'80s pop like Big Country, the aforementioned Outfield, Tears for Fears, and The Alarm with arena-sized guitars, sly emoboy lyricism, and the ferocious energy that makes punk so appealing. The result is beautiful, intense, and warm. It gives me that weird-but-good tight feeling in my chest and sends a smile creeping across my face -- and hey, isn't that what music's supposed to be about?
(Orange Peal Records -- 12 S. First Street, 3rd Floor, San Jose, CA. 95113; http://www.orangepeal.com/; The Transit War -- http://www.thetransitwar.com/)
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Turn Blue
Fire Like TV
Turn Blue pic
A band of two Midwesterners creating beautifully crafted indie-pop rock has never sounded so fine. Turn Blue, consisting of multi-layered musicians Nathan Mathes and Mike Sappanen, has recently released their first full-length album, Fire Like TV. Recorded using the increasingly popular medium of lo- and mid-fi recording techniques, Fire Like TV offers a truly unique and masterfully constructed listening experience. Playing multiple instruments, both Mathes and Sappanen bring consistent quality and texture to every song on the album. Mathes' melodiously melancholy voice combines with the uncomplicated richness of the music to make songs like "Twenty One" and "Midwest Winter Workers" sound so good. The lyrics really speak to the band member's Midwestern upbringing and prove that Wisconsin's got a lot more going for it than great cheese. Fire Like TV, in all its unassuming glory, is an indie-inspired treasure.
(Utopian Vendor Records -- P.O. Box 5342, De Pere, WI. 54115-5342; http://www.utopianvendor.com/; Turn Blue -- http://www.turnblueband.com/)
24hourflu
24hourflu
24hourflu pic
Somewhere in the murky depths of post rock, drone, and jazz resides 24hourflu. Making music of such an experimental and progressive nature is a dangerous venture, which is compounded by the amount of music 24hourflu serves up (the CD clocks in at just over an hour). To be frank, I was set to hand the band their ass in this review before I'd even listened to the album. Their press sheet contained asinine statements about the band forging into "unlit territory beyond the musical tradition" and talked about how their sound is "artistry in motion." Well, like the old adage says, don't judge a book by its cover -- or, in this case, a band by its press release.
There's not a label you can place on 24hourflu's sound. Complex and densely layered, the band's sound stems from them drawing on diverse musical genres for inspiration and incorporating numerous instruments outside of those traditionally embraced by "rock" bands. Also, the members of 24hourflu play one another's instruments on various songs, which creates the unique effect of having songs that may be of a similar style but still sound completely different. The one rough spot is the band's occasional vocals. Unlike the digital speech samples used, which are processed, manipulated, and well-layered into the songs, the vocals sung by the band frequently seem unnecessary and out of place. Little more than monotone yelling, it sounds like something from a second-tier screamo/hardcore band.
Despite said vocal shortcomings, though, 24hourflu is an incredible band. Rarely can a band create music such as this that is not only enjoyable, but keeps your interest for well past an hour. For those who enjoy unusual, original music and/or well-done post-rock, this is a must.
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Various Artists
Happy Together: A Lujo Records Wedding Compilation
Happy Together pic
Here's the story: the guy (Erik Aucoin) who started the fledgling Lujo Records hired a girl whom he hadn't met (Jocelyn Toews) on the other coast to help do PR. Eventually, the girl found greener pastures and went to work for a bigger, better known indie label where, flush with some success, she decided to purchase half of Lujo Records. Inevitably, our hero and heroine met. Now, here's where things get interesting -- they fell in love and recently got married! How great is that? So what we get here isn't merely a compilation; this was the wedding gift given to the guests at Erik's and Jocelyn's wedding, to boot.
There's all sorts of flavors in this bag -- lo-fi to hi-fi, experimental, pop, emo dross, amateurs and charlatans, all doing covers as various as their composers (Johnny Cash, the Zombies, Aaliyah, and Phil Collins, for a few). Track 4, "This Will Be Our Year" by the Out-Circuit sounds great; very Beautiful South/ Housemartins-esque, doing justice to the original, and done with professionalism and class and some studio time, indeed. I tell you, the last thing I'd want commemorating the love of me & mine is some mopey mumbler with shoddy production. But hey, all the colors of the rainbow are here, the dull & the bright alike.
I don't know all these artists -- I don't think any of us would -- but that matters little because there're some great songs here, some great performances, some great interpretations, and it's good, plain fun. The story behind this project alone is enough to enjoy it. Love's a great thing, ain't it?
(Lujo Records -- 3209 Jennie Drive, Morgan City, LA. 70380; http://www.lujorecords.com/)
Vopat
Tell Them We Are Dead
Vopat pic
It never ceases to amaze me how willing people are to shower praise on relatively mediocre bands like Isis and Red Sparrows, while deserving drone bands like Vopat go entirely unnoticed. Tell Them We Are Dead is a double-CD set that clearly demonstrate why Vopat is head and shoulders above their colleagues. Disc one is 10 tracks of rock-heavy drone. It varies from song to song, with tracks like "Last On the Sun" and "Middle Killer" having prominent rock and stoner elements, while others, such as "Summer Rusk," are decidedly more ambient and mellow. Disc two is a single 30-minute track that embraces a more experimental and plodding form of drone. Synthesizers, tape loops, and distortion create a lush sonic landscape that manages to entrance the listener over the course of the song. I could go on about it, but my advice is to go track down a copy and see for yourself.
(The Inam Doctrine -- inamrecs@yahoo.com; Vopat -- http://www.myspace.com/vopatrock)

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