Do you remember being a little kid and listening to tapes (how ancient is that?) in the car that taught you the alphabet or all fifty states and stuff like that? And how it was really cheesy-sounding music that was probably programmed on a Casiotone by some thirty-year-old that still lived in his mom's basement? Well, that's kind of what Brandon Adamson's Costume Drama sounds like. The songs themselves are not particularly shoddy; it's just the production.
The subjects of the tunes seem cliché at first -- stuff about girls, breakups, self-pity. But a closer look exposes the barbed-wire lyrics that put a nasty twist on the whole thing. His voice, while not Bono, is mellow and vaguely pre-pubescent. You'd expect lines about adoring some hippie goddess, but instead he's referring to some bitch that ripped his heart in two. And he's pissed. It's nice. This angst-filled young bedroom music maker, his next step, after these glass-shard lyrics, is to sync his voice up. It sounds too much like an audio book. He needs to let loose and allow his frustration to seep into his delivery. Let the irony and disgust drip, Brandon, let it drip from your angered lips.
But then that production kicks in. The instrumentation is primarily keyboard/synth-based, which is not necessarily bad in theory, but it's bad synths. The cheesy things they used to program that shit about memorizing states I told you about. It's all too MIDI-sounding. If he found himself a Farfisa organ, a melodica, and a nice old synth, he'd settle into that warm, analog world. And then it might work. In fact, it would probably work very well. You're on the right path, Brandon; all you need to do is dive into a musical dumpster of lo-fi goodness. (The reviewer apologizes for ignoring the reader and addressing Brandon directly.)
Structure and Cosmetics
There are enough claps and chorus singers on "Brunettes Against Bubblegum Youth," the first track of The Brunettes' Structure and Cosmetics to make up for any failings on the rest of the album. That leads right into "Stereo (Mono Mono)," however, and the album's true colors start to show. It's innovating and catchy enough to reel in the casual indie-rocker, but there's not a lot beyond that.
Female vocals carry the album, and the male half bogs it down with a kind of maudlin charm best reserved for the modern sissified musical. The comparisons the band draws from The Shangri-las are the best part of the album -- I can't claim to have ever heard the Shangri-las, but I can imagine from their name that they like haunting melodies, lots of background vocals that sound like they're not supposed to be in the background, and the occasional mandolin. Think of being in a dreamlike, drug-induced apathy, and that's the band.
The Brunettes really have the potential, though, if every song didn't sound the same. The notable exception is "Obligatory Road Song," which starts off cheesy enough, then turns into a well-placed radio-friendly, almost beautiful track. Heather Mansfield's vocals shine the most on said track.
Don't compare them to fellow kiwi-huggers and label-mates Flight of the Conchords, mind you; there's no humor on Structure and Cosmetics. There are lots of "la la la"s on the album, so maybe you could compare them to the Conchords for that, but not the rest.
Maybe Heather should ditch bandmate Johnathan Bree and the whole boy/girl indie group thing before it gets too played out. Then Structure and Cosmetics would be brilliant. She's the primary vocalist on "Small Town Crew," the best song on the album for obvious reasons. Bree did write the bulk of the album's songs, however, and the lyrics are generally pretty great, so maybe I should cut him some slack.
The theme from "New York, New York" couldn't possibly be the same old cornball, oft-played cliché, could it? The drum intro, "boom-boom-SHACK da-boom-boom-SHACK," drags you right up to the doorstep of "Start spreading the news..." Cat Power's Chan Marshall conjures up a spirit and a vibe which can phrase those words into really something savory. Well, whaddya know -- those tired old lines do still have some juice left in them! That's the sign of a real pro, that's the sign of really something special: to be able to take something quite ordinary and ubiquitous and make it fresh. Jukebox is just that, with Cat Power's two original compositions amongst the cover songs (which very well could slip on by you if you didn't know any better). Due to Chan's band, the choice of compositions, and the skill and style in which they're treated, the album adds up to the first great release of 2008.
"Rambling (Wo)man" was the first song I've heard and was instantly my favorite on the album. There's a spaciousness in its feel; a slinky pace, an ease of execution -- no rush. The moans of the guitar, the constant rasp of the ride cymbal, the fender Rhodes, all work together with Chan's sultry vocal delivery. The refrain, "I love you, I love you baby," is sung so soulfully, in so heartfelt a way, it all makes sense.
"Metal Heart" plods with spacious piano to a slow-burn refrain. Aching guitar lines echo through until its zenith and then on to its bitter end. Songs like "Silver Stallion" take on the blues and wear 'em proud. "Aretha, Sing One for Me" stumbles in with a swagger worthy of the Stones, all chunky guitar and singing Hammond organ with chimes of Rhodes piano. Pleas and utterances of heartache and loneliness that are unforgettable. "Lost Someone" is a foray into gentle, country sway, with all the power and R&B vibe that's rife throughout this album. It all works so well.
There are no fragments here, and no filler. There is a strand of songs, each reaching, yearning, and lovely in their own way. Touches of rock, blues, country, and R&B appear, each treated differently enough so that it holds your interest but pushes you further along, deeper. Of course, that's Cat Power's territory, and a skill that Marshall seemingly masters more with each album.
It's fully evident that Cat Power/Chan Marshall knows where her strengths lie, and her vulnerability is definitely an asset. This amount of honesty and real-ness is found from cover to cover; not one dull spot. Jukebox is a glistening piece of work: powerful interpretation combined with stellar songcraft and performance.
Why Do We Even Try?
While I was apparently sleeping, it seems Houston's garage-punk underground has been busy. On top of the bands I've already been blown away by, like Something Fierce, the Monocles, Teenage Kicks, Born Liars, and Ragged Hearts, now here comes Deathbed Repentance, emerging just about fully-formed out of the toxic swamp we call home.
And I'll admit that H-town punk over the past five years or so, prior to these bands coming up, has had me despairing somewhat -- I'm not a huge hardcore fan in general, and the noise stuff just doesn't do a lot for me most of the time, I'm afraid. I get it, but I don't like it, if you get my meaning. The kind of punk I do tend to like is the kind I grew up with, meaning that it usually owes a heavy debt to the Clash, the Ramones, Rancid, and Social Distortion; loud-yet-tuneful guitars, raw-throated vocals, heartfelt lyrics you can yell along to, and hell, an actual melody underlying the whole thing.
All of which means Deathbed Repentance's Why Do We Even Try? is just about damn perfect for me. They hit all the touchstones above, particularly with regard to Mike Ness & co.; the first time I heard the awesome, awesome "Heads You Win, Tails I Lose," I would've bet a twenty that it was a song off a Social D album I don't yet own. The guitars roar and blaze but retain a countrified tinge (especially on "The Sun Goes Down in Houston," which has replaced Sugar Shack's "Go! Space City" as my favorite H-town anti-anthem), the lyrics paint pictures of hard-luck, bottom-of-the-barrel lives wrecked by love, booze, crime, and the IRS, and guitarist/vocalist Randy Rost bellows and croons like Ness in his prime.
There's barely a throwaway track on here, honestly -- the album kicks in with "Sun Goes Down" and keeps the pedal to the floor throughout. The aforementioned "Heads You Win, Tails I Lose" is my personal high point, with the danceable, back-and-forth guitars (love that funny little bend/warble Rost does in the chorus) and self-effacing lyrics that sound like they'd be best read through the glass of a bottle. Oh, and it reminds me a hell of a lot of Billy Bragg's "To Have And To Have Not," which is a very cool thing.
There's also the fiery "Live by the Gun" and "Don't Follow Me," as well as "Worn Out Shoes," which makes me think weirdly of a mashup between alt-country guys Lucero and ska-punk icons Operation Ivy. "The Doors Wouldn't Open" mixes up Bob Wills-style country with chiming pop and punk rhythms, not to mention some truly thoughtful lyrics about being downtrodden and forgotten in this oh-so-wonderful modern world of ours. And another high-high-high point, "Never Live It Down," is a beautifully nihilistic punk blast that's nostalgic and defiant at the same time, a toast to friends gone by and an amazed confession that life's lasted as long as it already has.
So, color me impressed; Deathbed Repentance have well and truly blown me away. Sure, they probably sound a little too similar to Social Distortion for some folks, but don't be fooled: beneath the rockabilly-ish guitars and gravelly vocals, there're some damn fine songs burning brightly. Hopefully this is far from the last thing from these guys -- I've heard a rumor that they're now signed to Tim Armstrong's Hellcat Records imprint, which is great if it's true, because they definitely deserve that kind of a boost. I'll keep my fingers crossed for y'all; keep it up.
August 2007 Demo
Seattle group Denelian is making music that somehow has elements of '80s-retro, garage, and euro-inflicted dance music, but it's fun and energetic. Their August 2007 Demo CD-R contains three self-recorded songs that're of decent enough quality, although the levels do clash at times.
The demo CD-R leads off with "Am I Down or Are You High?," which is the best track on the disc. It has a nice stop after the verses then lunges into a strong chorus hook that will have you rushing the stage with a mob mentality, while also making the dance floor happy at the same time. Unfortunately, I lose comprehension of the lyrics during the chorus when the instrument levels rise, but before that was a story about a kid with a lot of money that earned him some friends; then too much rocking happened and I couldn’t hear the vocals clearly. At the end of the song, the synthesizer is kind of humorously abrupt and misplaced, but it works somehow and adds to the fun.
Song two, "The Sound, The Answer, The End," gets really synthy, and it's all build up that goes nowhere. This song is seemingly just a reason to sing "Move your hips / To the sound of the Apocalypse." I guess there will be sound when it happens...
The last song, "It's Nothing Personal, We've All Got to Eat," reminds me of Love and Rockets, but better, as if those guys started taking vitamins. The song is synthy but dang it, it won me over; I can't deny that I like the sci-fi keyboard riff played during the breakdown. Then the song ends with laughter and good times.
All in all, the demo has two pretty good songs, and the other one didn't make me bitter. But don't listen to this non-dancer; go listen for yourself, as the Denelian website has all the songs on this demo (and their other demos too) available for guilt-free download. (I wish more bands would do that. To me, it's silly to miss out on listeners over a couple of bucks. And look, they've got lots of show dates. Coincidence? That's the one good thing about Myspace -- you get to hear the music -- but everybody having pretty much the same Webpage scares me, just like computerized music does.)
Empires and Milk
Listening to Empires and Milk is like breathing. It's easy to forget that you're even listening, so environmentally permeating is the sonic wash. That such an organic feel evolves from keyboards, computers, and sound loops, with very few acoustic instruments or unprocessed sounds, is a testament to the soundscaping prowess of Austin musician Loren Dent. Empires is only Dent's second full length release, but the maturity and confidence of his sound compositions reveal an artist who is anything but sophomoric.
In an ingenious moment of meta-composition, the painstakingly constructed, cut-and-splice nature of the music is sonically referenced as the title track opens the album with the sound of shears studiously disassembling something, the obvious indication being magnetic tape. Then, as vague sounds begin to swirl in the background, these pieces are shuffled together and fed into a reel-to-reel, which begins, fuzzily, to play them back to you, complete with tape hiss. The process repeats itself throughout the track, and indeed throughout the album, with occasional breaks in the sound, as if a piece of blank tape was inadvertently spliced in between sections every once in a while.
However accidental these intrusions may seem, they are part of an incredibly engineered piece of music masquerading, oddly enough, as an engineered piece of music. On top of all this conceit drifts an undulating mass of keyboards, punctuated by highly metallic-yet-soft guitar incursions. A vague beat, reminiscent of an irregular heartbeat in its organic pulse, helps add to the feeling that this is a living, breathing organism, despite its literalist tendencies. Nothing in this palette is comforting or unnerving -- at least not in any sort of obvious way. Somehow, though, the piece manages to fill the air with a vague, buzzing dread. Toward the end of the track, the keyboard and fuzz haze lifts, leaving Eno-esque treated guitar sounds and a shuffling tape-loop-in-reverse effect to close the piece, which fades like a fog rolling away from a dim shoreline.
As with most atmospheric music, Empires must be described mostly in terms of moods and silhouettes, rather than content and structure. If the title track brought a feeling of engineered alienation and conjured images of cold, bleak landscapes, then "Essential Drifts" follows like a warm sunrise. Answering the mostly synthetic sounds of the opening track, Dent brings chiming and echoing guitars to the fore, like a more restrained, less grandly sweeping Glenn Branca. This bright burst of "real" instrumentation matches a more comfortable, less ominous mood.
Oil and Water
Dimestore Dandelion's newest EP, Oil and Water, is tricky for me to review. Ultimately, I wish it had been sent to someone else. In reading the little snippet describing the band and record, it seemed the sound would be different -- something more lo-fi and homey, I guess. But that doesn't matter. Either way, I ended up with what is, in most respects, a smooth jazz/lounge pop record. That isn't to say it's bad, it's just that I'm not a smooth jazz kind of guy. The performances are flawless, and the production is smooth and well-rounded, but none of those are things I really appreciate as a listener. This not to say no one appreciates them; it's just not my style. Therefore, this is a great record -- if it's your kind of thing. If you're into dreamy, acoustic guitar-based pop backed by downtempo singles club keyboards, then this is the best in the business. And if you're like me, and you could really care less, then...you could really care less.
Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace
I can tell you that I, at least, didn't see it coming. I mean, who'd have thought that from what was once the biggest rock trio in the world, the member who'd go on to the most enduring, maybe even most influential rock stardom would be...the drummer? The hell? I mean, there're a few erstwhile Seattle scene folks I would've easily pegged as stepping out and into mega-mega-stardom (Chris Cornell, what the hell happened?), but Dave Grohl? Nah. If you'd told me that back in the early '90s, I'd have laughed in your face.
And yet, here we are. I don't know how it happened, but as of full-length number six, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, the Foo Fighters are to me the archetype of the flat-out rock band, minus any paltry hyphenations. Against all odds, Foos headman Dave Grohl has turned out to be one of those damn guys who's good at everything, whether he's playing drums, rocking out on the guitar, roaring at the top of his lungs, or writing these gloriously memorable rock anthems. Which, incidentally, have got to be Grohl's specialty -- he seems constitutionally incapable of writing anything that's not a fire-in-the-eyes, fist-pumping barnburner.
Even the "quiet" songs on here are only really masquerading, for the most part -- look at "Let It Die," "Come Alive," "But, Honestly," or "Stranger Things Have Happened," all of which start off with gentle, almost delicately clean, finger-picked guitars and build in this awesomely organic, uncontrived way to a blistering crescendo. The quiet's just the calm before the storm, apparently, whichever way you go. And to Grohl's credit, those exploding guitars, pounding drums, and bitterly angry vocals get me right in the chest every damn time.
Actually, the bit about the singing's a little unfair, really. While Grohl's throaty, shredded-but-still-in-tune howl definitely features prominently on Echoes, he in fact tones it down quite a bit on several of the tracks. There's the jaw-dropping, Springsteenian "Long Road to Ruin," which does rootsy rock better than anything I've heard in a half-decade or so, aside maybe from Lucero or Blackpool Lights, the band kicking through Midwestern dust like it always belonged there and was only waiting for a chance to return. The rootsy sound pops up now and again through the rest of the album, to boot, like on the '70s-sounding "Statues" or on "Summer's End."
Then there's "Cheer Up, Boys (Your Make Up Is Running)," the title of which reads at first glance like a cheeky slap at the Fallout Boys and My Chemical Romances of the world. Got no clue if that's really the point of the song, but the "bop-bop-bop"-sounding guitar rhythms and over-the-top poppy melody makes me not give a damn in the slightest. Oddly, the comparison that leaps to mind for this particular track is to the legendary Hüsker Dü, with the near-flawless mix of catchy melodicism and distorted guitar fury (and I swear, it's got nothing to do with the album's title, even if I keep thinking of "Charity, Chastity, Prudence, And Hope"...).
I can't get away without mentioning "Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners," which is a sweet, limber, Appalachian-sounding bit of guitar (played both by Grohl and guest guitarist Kaki King, apparently) that comes off like the sound of a forgotten river rushing through the mountains. Of course, for me part of the fascination's to do with the backstory -- according to Grohl, when trapped miners Brant Webb and Todd Russell were finally found alive, buried deep inside the earth, one of the things they requested was the Foo Fighters' music to keep them company while they were being rescued. Grohl reportedly wrote the song before meeting one of the rescued miners, as a tribute. Call me a sap if you will, but heck, that gets to me.
The album ends, fittingly, on a soaring, uplifting note, with Grohl playing piano and singing soulfully about coming home, in off the road. After the ride so far, you can almost get his meaning -- selfish as it sounds, though, I can only hope he doesn't decide to just sit back and stay there, at least not for a good long time. Sorry I doubted you, man.
[Foo Fighters are playing 1/22/08 at Toyota Center, with Jimmy Eat World & Against Me!.]
The Gold Sounds
The Gold Sounds
From out of the wilds of Deer Park, Texas, comes...well, the biggest surprise I got this past holiday season, at least. On their self-titled debut EP, these three young guys initially come off like shaggy-haired, countrified cousins to the whole garage-rock crew, bands like The Datsuns, The Hives, The Von Bondies, The White Stripes (especially roaring opener "Blow My Soul to the Floor"), and outliers like Jet or The Vines -- think raw, ferocious guitars, thundering, full-steam-ahead drums, bluesy, throaty vocals, and attitude sweating out their pores.
Don't dismiss The Gold Sounds as just some bunch of garage-y also-rans, though, because while most of the garage scene scrapes by on attitude and volume alone, bassist/vocalist Sean Donnelly, brother/drummer Dee Donnelly, and guitarist Chris Fuentes have the chops to back it up. Seriously, the songs are astoundingly well-put-together, and that's discounting the fact that these guys are basically kids.
Beyond that, they drag elements of glam-rock (the sleazy, slinky "Champagne," which rips the same "All Day and All of the Night" Kinks riff The Hives already swiped), down-home country (the harmonica-tinged walkin' blues of "Parfum"), and even psychedelic rock ("College Radio") into their sound to come up with a mixture that brings to mind Kings of Leon more than anything else. And like the Kings, they seem to come by the countriness honestly, rather than adopting it as some kind of shticky affectation.
I have to say, though, that the song on here that dropped me to floor was "College Radio," a damn near perfect gem of a track that recalls (I know, I know...) Kings of Leon's "California Waiting" in the best possible way. It starts off slow and languid, like some mid-'90s fuzz-pop band (hence the song title, I'm guessing), then cranks up into a neo-psych blast of thick-sounding guitars, furious drums, and hooky gang vocals that crawls up inside my brain and makes a cozy little home for itself there. Holy fucking shit, is this a good song. When the EP's over, I have to reach down and pull my jaw back into place.
[The Gold Sounds are playing 2/2/08 at The Forum in La Porte, with The McKenzies.]
From the first note of Pancho Fantastico, it's immediately obvious that John Hoskinson has a knack for writing catchy melodies and tight instrumentation. Unfortunately, these characteristics prove to be the album's downfall. The opener, "Miss Rejection," is plenty loaded with charming hooks and super saccharine vocal harmonies, but sounds like it should be the opening music to a Perfect Strangers-esque sitcom where a couple of people skip through the park and playfully push each other around. Most of the following songs suffer from a lesser degree of the same syndrome, though there are some high points -- the light and carefree music behind "Only One By Your Side" makes up for the straining vocals, and "Please Stay Off My Side" has a steady driving bass line that easily distinguishes the song from the rest of the album.
Another standout is the last track, "We Can Never Be Friends," but as a finale, it just further confirms the whole album as a set of your-best-Jon-Brion-impressions -- the bass lines climb in the right places, the accidentals happen exactly when they need to, the quirky instruments appear at the perfect time, etc. But while Jon Brion's songs all have a kind of delicacy to them, the songs on Pancho Fantastico want to be force-fed through the listener's ears. Still, Hoskinson's recognizable talent is easily solid enough to make some fans.
Skuffed Up My Huffy
Boy, did this CD get into the right hands! From what I've heard and read, I'm super impressed with the band Japanther from Brooklyn -- they've played shows at art studios, put on punk rock operas with big puppets, played on a floating platform at a giant indoor pool, and just put on some crazy shows at more typical club venues. Really, what comes through on their live footage and on their recorded stuff is an incredible energy. Japanther is a duo made up of Matt Reilly on bass/vocals/tapes and Ian Vanek on drums/vocals/tapes. Check out their clips on YouTube -- and you thought your band was doing cool stuff.
The latest Japanther CD, Skuffed Up My Huffy, straight up rawks, like back in high school when you rolled around in your beat up Chevette with the speakers blown out; the music was distorted and broken up but it still sounded great to you. Each song has samples from old TV/radio clips/weird beats/odd sounds that add to the chaos. The sound is lo-fi, poppy, fast-paced punk with cracked-up, offbeat melodies that will have you singing along. The vocals are Ramones-ish, and I'm also reminded of the New York Dolls, with sort of Dead Milkmen-esque humor thrown in. At the end of the day, though, it really is all Japanther.
Skuffed Up My Huffy starts up with "Summer of 79," where we go back to Jimmy Carter and gasoline shortages. Japanther sings: "Now is the summer of the '80s / And you were just a little baby / No idea what you're part of / or what the President has started..." (Man, nothing's changed, huh?) Then the song "Mornings" chants along about the morning after and has a Jim Carrey-ish chorus singing, "Good Morning, Good Night, and Good Afternoon." Next, Japanther laments about the poor "Cable Babies" growing up in front of the TV and the advertising vultures, with some funny samples thrown in. "Vagabond" kicks in with a neato bassline, and the song "$100 Cover" will get all stuck in your head and you'll be singing: "I wanna wanna be / Part of something / Revolution baby."
The song "River Phoenix" reminisces about the actor dying way too young, while asking Joaquin "what happened?" "Challenge" finds the fellas screaming for positive change in their blighted hometown of Brooklyn. And then there's the classic "Fuk Tha Prince A Pull Iz Dum" (come on, say it all together, class), about learning things while skipping school, and during the raucous chorus there is a perfectly executed stop, a pause, and then an awesome slap-to-the-arse sound effect.
Check out Japanther. They are artful, imaginative, creative, and a bit retro in their topics (it fits, though; they do play along with "cassette tape" samples), and they just come to rock out. And they do everything their own way, from their shows to their awesomely-awkward, lo-fi Eebsite. The CD cover is just weird art and collage; even though it's a foldout cover, not one word is on it other than the 12 song names (even though there are 13 tracks on the CD). Japanther stands everything on its ear, and I say "heck yeah."
Consider this truth: Liars has produced a solid new album. With three respectable records and a national tour with indie favorites Interpol behind them, Liars' should be prepared to greet new and old fans and much well-deserved attention. Liars is a haunting unraveling, still a bit jagged and gritty yet easier to embrace than past works. The album's first track and single, "Plaster Casts of Everything," starts off strong with an urgent beat and leads to visions of being on speed in a Haunted House. "Freak Out," an irresistibly catchy tune, and "Clear Island," an edgier, drum-banging track, both contribute to the album's deliciously dark and creepy undertones. Mellower songs such as "Leather Prowler" and "Sailing to Byzantium" both seem to slowly climb a spiral staircase in sound while playing up frontman Angus Andrew's often monotone voice. With their fourth album, Liars have emerged from the somewhat confining label of "art rock" with a familiar yet progressive sound -- a little less art, a little more rock, and still very bewitching.
Crosby Loggins and The Light
We All Go Home
I had the pleasure of hearing Crosby Loggins open for Joe Bonamassa at the Stafford Centre in the Houston area back in October 2007. That pleasure was only further enhanced by my first spin of his debut CD, We All Go Home.
Singer-songwriter/guitarist Loggins has joined forces with a cherry-picked ensemble of closely associated musician friends, rounding out the current lineup of his backing band, The Light, featuring Paul Cartwright (violin, mandolin, vocals), Jesse Siebenberg (guitars, lap steel, vocals), Dennis Hamm (keyboards), Jarred Pope (drums, percussion), and Forrestt Williams (bass). In addition to this musically well-versed cast of players, all of whom are seasoned and multi-talented in their own right, Loggins also inherently draws upon his own experiences formed through contacts made throughout his earlier life growing up in the family of music-legend father, Kenny Loggins. Now, as one might guess, such associations usually demand some pretty high expectations. Well, the proof is always in the pudding...and to my mind, Crosby Loggins has certainly delivered the goods with this 12-song first gesture.
Before I could even start to properly delve into the artistic aspects of the album, I was immediately struck by the sheer quality of the recording. Recording Engineer Jason Mariani did an incredible job here, creating a separation ratio mix and atmospheric imagery that is nothing short of superb. While this is always important, even with harder rock content, it's downright critical with projects that include lighter fare coming out of the acoustic-based adult alternative/contemporary arena. The resulting package is indeed outstanding, even by Nashville standards. Very clean, smart, and beautiful. (Get the headphones out, y'all.)
Loggins himself displays a genuine penchant for soulful penmanship and creatively wraps his thoughts around adept arrangements and styles. The music saunters, trots, gallops, and runs like the wind at all the right moments. He injects moderate rock beats, folk/bluegrass hues, and moody acoustic rakes into just the perfect spots within the collection. The song list is thoughtfully laid-out, and every tune is performed with the optimum of either accent or finesse for each instance. Though most of the album consists of simply soft-to-moderate rock pieces, Loggins also crosses many boundaries into other genre fields, as well.
There's plenty of subtle multi-instrument blends here, too, and the fairly consistent inclusion of violin consecutively fuels various rounds of differing styles, ranging from quasi-country/folk sounds to those of a lighter-sided, electro-classical Kansas or a delicately-twirling It's A Beautiful Day. Overall, I'd have to tap Jude Cole as the predominant candidate for a comparison artist, even though there's plenty of Jackson Browne, James Taylor, perhaps Tom Petty via The Wallflowers, and many other influences detected within the album's thick digest of divergent material.
The first two songs out of the gate, "Good Enough" and "Always Catching Up," are both catchy, well-crafted pieces, and probably the best examples of Loggin's own unadulterated musical signature. On "Rocks To Sand," you'll hear many of the aforementioned elements come together, set to Loggins' falsetto-stretching vocals. "Wanna Be You" offers a highly-syncopated, veritable megalopolis of styles, from a funk intro to a violin solo set amidst blue-eyed soul strains. Close to dead-center is placed the tempo summit of the list, "March On, America," a voice-in-the-wilderness patriotic statement set to a slowly-building hot rocker of a song.
One of my favorites is "Here She Comes," with its slight bow toward pop and satisfyingly-melodic vocal harmonies, somewhat reminiscent of Seals & Crofts. Later there's the hooky and passionate Jackson Browne-reflecting "Angel Of Mercy," which bears the feminine touch of the collaborating pen of Loggins' own sister, Bela. The CD closes with the title track and "Same Old Song (La, La, La)," both excellent renditions hinting at bluesy-soft, fairly stripped-down James Taylor-inspired inducements.
Yes, Loggins' mama does dance and his daddy does rock n' roll, and the younger Loggins seems to have succinctly applied this rich heritage toward his own openly honest, no-limitations, generation-crossing brand of music. Although I sadly don't see this album absolutely tearing up the charts any time soon, it's still a very eloquent and confident first step for a band that's being steered by an artist that apparently has a great deal going on for himself. Crosby Loggins obviously has very little trouble making great music just on his own steam alone, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see even greater things coming from his corner in the near future.
The demon is loose behind me right now, blasting its way into my ear cavities. The three-headed demon led by Scott Pinkmountain-Rosenberg (I'm not sure which surname he's sticking with at this point). If Fingerprints, Medicine is, in fact, the result of a veteran jazz saxophonist throwing down the sax and picking up a guitar (you've no idea how hard it was to resist saying "strapping on an axe"), then I highly encourage the jazz community to consider similar such transitions. Though I doubt it is sheer luck and happenstance that guided Pinkmountain to such triumph, his jazz roots clearly factor in.
One of the first aspects of P.A.F.'s music that struck me was their remarkable use of dynamics. Lately, I've been hearing a lot of hard and fast or slow and groovy, but the two rarely mix. Not so with Pinkmountain and company. Track five, "Passing Days," features extended passages featuring solely guitar and vocals and occasional full band crashes to accentuate the drama of the tune. Conversely, the record's opening number, "To Love You," is a haunting mess featuring spastic avant-garde noise breakdowns in between chilling vocals regarding love. But it's all going somewhere. The trio is tight and consistent. It's kind of...controlled chaos. Pinkmountain's long years of free-jazz jams are clearly guiding him in his stormy compositions.
According to current press info, the rhythm section featured on the album is not the present one. However, after glancing at the names featured in the current rhythm section, I can't really consider it a major loss. Not to downplay the job done on the disc -- the drums and bass are locked in tight providing exactly what the songs needed -- but let's be real, are you really going to be upset over bringing in Tom Wait's drummer (Gino Robair) and Elliott Smith's bassist (Sam Coomes)? That's what I thought. (Though honestly, I respect Coomes more for his work in Quasi. But that's a whole other deal.)
All high praise considered, the disc is, naturally, not without its pitfalls. The first two tracks, "To Love You" and "Blue Plate Special," are phenomenal. "Blue Plate" especially is a tasty trip full of power, angst, and damn good rock and roll. The third number, though, takes a turn for the worse. Pinkmountain starts drifting into "tears in my beer" territory, and without much luck. Lyrics about how, "We've got nothing / nothing but time," delivered in heartsick kicker fashion really don't help matters. A few other dips into miserable three-part country harmonies pop up here and there, but not too often, thankfully. Besides, the guitar work on "Lost In Plain Sight" almost single-handedly makes up for the cheap kicker misery.
Some might criticize Pinkmountain's vocals as being too much like a dying cat (as my father put it), but I'd strongly disagree. He howls with a borderline psychotic passion that really shook me up a bit. It's straight up haunting blues. And I fucking love it. In fact, the first thing you hear on the album is his voice, solo, yelling like his vocals chords are going to burst any minute. Then the band stumbles in noisily like Kramer, and the magic takes you away.
It wasn't just the music that endeared me so much to P.A.F., by the way. The production is what really sealed the deal. Jon Benson and Michael Zapruder know how to kick ass behind the controls. The sound is undoubtedly lo-fi, but not to a sloppy, irritable extent. The instruments are warm, and the vocals are natural. Recorded with minimal overdubs, it sounds the way records used to. The whole thing is like going home to your mom's cooking. You forget how good it can be.
Okay, so I've put off listening to Papermoons self-titled debut 7" for a little while now. I could be scrupulously honest and talk about how I'm a lazy ass who forgets things, or wax poetic about how having a kid and no longer having the space/time to review stuff not on headphones. But I'm not gonna do that.
Instead, I'm going to say that heck, I was just waiting for the right time, the right moment to finally listen to this record. And this is it. It's a quiet night, cold outside, and I'm all alone in the house except for the dogs, listening to the record spin in a mostly-darkened room. It's absolutely perfect. The music made by the duo of Matt Clark and Daniel Hawkins flows out of the speakers and settles over the dimly-lit room like a warm, soft, gently worn blanket.
And it's good stuff. Delicate, gorgeous melodies with plenty of deliberate, finger-picked guitars (think Iron and Wine's "Jesus the Mexican Boy"), the occasional harmonica, and wispy, nearly Simon & Garfunkel-esque vocal harmonies all add up to some truly captivating folk-rock. The four songs on Papermoons wouldn't feel out of place on a Mojave 3 or Red House Painters album, and that's hardly poor company.
Clark and Hawkins layer sounds beautifully one on top of the other, coming close at points even to Explosions in the Sky (plus vocals, of course) while still staying true to their overall sound. On lead-off track "Honest," there's this great, My Bloody Valentine-sounding warble lurking in the background beneath the guitars and voices, which makes it the most "rock" song on here. On the second A-side track, though, "California," Papermoons veers closer to the country side of the musical spectrum than any of the rest of the record. Then there's the B-side, with "Bad Note," which sounds almost desperate in its plaintiveness but remains low-key and sweet, and "Exist," which is probably my favorite track and the one that epitomizes, at least to me, the Papermoons thing as a whole.
(I'm not absolutely positive, by the way, but I'd bet a fair amount that the latter two tracks are flipped on the vinyl; I'm guessing that the song that starts off talking about "bad notes," it's probably, well, "Bad Notes" and not "Exist.")
End Note: I am feeling a bit peeved to learn that some of the 7"s came with a CD of all four tracks and an extra freebie track, to boot. Which is fine, except that, uh, my Interpunk-purchased one didn't, meaning that I'm restricted to listening to these excellent, excellent songs only on my decidedly non-portable turntable. Dammit.
[Papermoons is playing 1/19/08 at Walter's on Washington, with Buxton, By the End of Tonight, & Ghost Mountain.]
Chapter Four Verse 15
Phame is a rapper from San Francisco. His delivery is dense and staccato -- he squeezes lots of words into each phrase, and each syllable is precisely placed. While the rhythm of the words sounds spontaneous, however, his delivery of the words themselves can be limited -- he raps them all the same way, which ends up sounding a little flat. He writes in an intelligent mode, like Common or Tribe, and tries to tackle serious subjects, but his lyrics aren't particularly interesting. It's too bad, because on Chapter Four Verse 15, some of the beats are kind of cool, and yet he ultimately doesn't do anything to match.
"Remember My Name" is a good one -- it has a catchy beat with a nice female vocal line. It sounds a little like a lower-budget Rjd2 or something. Give producer Genessee props for this one! The rap is rhythmically well done -- he uses occasional double-times and clusters of syllables in an interesting way, and the flow has a lot of life to it -- but the lyrics aren't that inspired, just a lot of standard boasting with no memorable lines. And the lyric hook is decent, but not totally inspired.
"De la Cuna, Hasta la Tumba" has a nice Latin-sounding acoustic guitar sample, and the rapping again sounds good, although since it's in Spanish, I don't know what he's saying. The rapping isn't as virtuosic, but it still works with the rest of the song. Since the translation that they provide is "From the Cradle to the Grave," I can only assume that it's something thoughtful (or trying to be, anyway). But I wouldn't assume that they're any better than on the rest of the album. The hook uses another beautiful folky-sounding vocal sample.
"I Love Hip-Hop" is a shoutout to Phame's favorite hip-hip groups. It's backed by an energetic beat, and the rapping gives it more of an old-school feel. Despite that, though, Phame never sounds like he's really having fun, and when he's talking about something that he loves, he should sound like he's really into what he's rapping about. The lyrics are moderately clever, but again, they don't knock you out.
Phame still needs to work on some of the details. Over the course of the album, the flatness of his voice gets pretty monotonous. If there were any interesting lyrics to catch the ear, it might not be as much of a problem, but he doesn't give you much to listen to in that department. If you listen to delivery and beats more than words, you may enjoy this album, but otherwise, it's a pass.
This Conspiracy Against Us
The male solo musician falls into one of two categories, generally. He's either ripping off Bright Eyes and Elliott Smith or he's backed by bored synthesizers or a bored acoustic guitar. Singer Eldridge Rodriguez successfully avoids both traps on his new album, This Conspiracy Against Us. At some points, there are echoes of Xiu Xiu; at other points, he channels Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen.
He's got that exasperated, exhausted passion pushing its way through fuzzy, mysterious instruments on every track. The songs start off simple and raw but eventually fold into epic, desperate pleas for something. I'm not sure what that something is just yet.
"You Get What You Want" is one such song, unpredictable and fascinating as it is. When Rodriguez finally leads us to the chorus, it feels like we've heard a few songs. It's exhausting. "A-C-T-I-O-N / Action action, we want action," is yelled by cheerleaders or something while he tells us we get what we want. The song slows and sounds like it's about to end while the cheerleaders yell, then Rodriguez chimes in with another verse and the song takes on a new meaning.
This Conspiracy Against Us shows Rodriguez's potential, and he has tons. It's raw and full of stumbles and uneven moments but by the end of the album, one feels like they've just been taken on a broken journey through their very depths. Pianos haunt on "Tirefire," while Eldridge pleads again for that strange something. There are songs of heartbreak and songs of unrequited love, of watching that girl from behind a wall while she sways and manipulates. "Lexington, KY" is beautiful and sad, just like a stupid plan to get her back. A harmonica is utilized on "Parade of the Saddest Girls," the track with the most interesting lyrics of the album.
Most of the lyrics are too vague and confusing to be about anything in particular. They blend together into something slightly stream-of-consciousness and intriguing. Sometimes the lyrics make it sound like Rodriguez is an amateur, but it works. This Conspiracy feels real and more DIY than any indie staple I've heard lately.
The album is sad and endearing. It's exhausting and heavy. It's brilliant, and there's a perfect word to describe it, but it's escaping me, like the album's theme. It moves subtly and steadily along towards the next desperately breathed epic. I can imagine myself listening to it while staring at the ceiling and wondering where my life's going to go next. It's a snapshot of Eldridge Rodriguez' insides, full of melancholy and optimism; he probably wrote it while staring at the ceiling and wondering where his life's going to go next.
Saves The Day
Under The Boards
Why do I keep doing this to myself with this band? I'd enjoyed what I'd heard of Saves The Day's older stuff, so when Stay What You Are came out, I picked it up, mostly on the strength of "At Your Funeral"...and promptly discovered that the rest of the album was just "eh," at best.
Now, here I am again with this band, eagerly snatching up their latest, Under The Boards, in the hopes that, well, it'll be freakin' great. And sadly, it's not. I've built up the expectations yet again to the point where the actual music just can't match it. And no, that's not really the band's fault, but mine, for letting myself run away with it, totally unheard. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
That said, when I declare that Under The Boards isn't a great album, that's a little on the harsh side -- it may not be great, no, but it is pretty good, a mile or two better than Stay What You Are (barring "At Your Funeral," that is). There are definitely some interesting, hooky songs on here, particularly the aptly radio-friendly "Radio," which has a catchy-as-hell yell-along chorus, the straight-up power-pop of "Bye Bye Baby," and album bookends "Under The Boards" and "Turning Over In My Tomb." There's a friendly, easily-approachable, endearingly dorky quality to a number of the songs that I can't help but like, and I do indeed find myself humming snatches of a handful of tracks later on in the day.
In between the bright spots, though, the songs just sort of zip past, flitting through without making a huge impression beyond, "hey, that sure sounds like something I've heard before." Which has got to be a little painful for the Saves The Day crew, seeing as they helped create that general sound that seems to have been co-opted in recent years by every young rock band and their brother(s). I guess that's the problem with being a band that provides at least part of the blueprint everybody else follows: if you don't make a whole lot of forward progress, you inevitably get lumped in with all the second-generation kids who learned from you in the first place.
Not that the band's not trying to expand their horizons, mind you. With Under The Boards, Saves The Day feels like a band that's trying to outgrow its roots, broadening its musical palette to include darker, moodier colors along with the tried-and-true bright, cheery hues. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work -- the darker, less-poppy tracks stick out like a sore thumb in the midst of the full-on emo-rockers.
Take the title track, for example; it's murky, cold, and oddly reminiscent of The Bends-era Radiohead, right down to the Thom Yorke-esque vocals and bombastic loud/soft guitars. On its own merits, it's a damn good song, probably one of the best on the album. It's just that it sounds totally out of place. Ditto with the "heavier" tracks at the disc's end, like "Woe" and "Turning Over In My Tomb." Good, but not good here.
It doesn't help, by the way, that the bulk of the songs on Under The Boards are short, even by post-emo standards; not a one breaks the 3:30 mark, which has the unfortunate effect of making some of the songs, at least, feel like they end prematurely, like they're meant to keep going through another verse or bridge or something. This is particularly evident on the jump between the opening title track and followup "Radio," where I keep having to check the CD player to make sure the first song didn't just shift gears and head in a different direction.
There's something to be said for segueing neatly between tracks, sure, but in this case it's just plain confusing. Where does "Kaleidoscope" end and "Woe" begin? Well, after "Kaleidoscope" hits 3:17, but you might not realize that when the guitars barely miss a beat. This is one of those odd times where normally good production is itself the problem.
I know, I know -- I'm being negative as all hell here. I just can't help it, honest; I really want to love this disc, but it's just not happening for me like I'd hoped it would. It's partly expectations and partly execution, and the combination of the two makes Under The Boards a difficult album to really embrace, at least for me. I can already tell I'm going to like the songs I already like quite a bit, but I have a sneaking suspicion that that's as far as it's gonna go.
It's kind of hard to take Schoolyard Heroes seriously. They want to be scary; they want to be "horror" music, but I think they're missing their mark. They're more like, say, Scream than The Devil's Rejects, which they'd rather be. Maybe it's just the female vocals...
This is not to say that Abominations is a bad record at all. Quite the opposite -- I found myself repeating tracks and being blown away by the tight guitar riffs and vocalist Ryann Donnelly's nearly terrifying vocals. I've never been one for metal, but the Heroes do it in such a fun way that I don't care if it's metal. It's more like cartoon metal, like Mindless Self Indulgence and GWAR. They do appreciate their metal roots, for certain.
They burn "Children of the Night" down like that one witch's house in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when I was a kid. It's the best track, by far. Then they slow it down for "The Last Man On Earth," and it's cool as shit but it doesn't last. Opening track "Dude, Where's My Skin" nicely sets the album off when Donnelly sings, "Take off your skin and dance for me / Cut out your tongue and sing for me." She's great at changing the tempo of her aforementioned vocals. I bet this is a great live band; she probably spits in the audience a lot.
Donnelly has a sweet heart, but it's writhing with worms and crusted razorblades. Every song blisters along to the next one as she screams about cutting flesh open and being the devil and getting her revenge. I feel really bad for whoever caused this mess. Maybe not though -- he's probably already dead, much like my ear drums.
[Schoolyard Heroes is playing 2/26/08 at The Meridian, with Aiden, The Birthday Massacre, & Farewell To Freeway.]
Neaderthal is the latest release from Wisconsin's self-proclaimed "Arena Geek-Rock" trio Sunspot. Their fourth album promises to be a blend of Weezer and American power-pop pioneers Cheap Trick, but Neanderthal can't live up to its promises, instead coming off sounding like a weak version of The Stereo's New Tokyo is Calling or one of many generic and frustrating bands that populated the radio during the mid-to-late '90s.
Pop-rock always follows a blueprint, and Neanderthal sticks to the formula of a 4/4 time signature with a standard ABAB lyrical pattern. "Goodbye Good Guy" starts the album with a spite-drive break-up song driven by frontman Mike Huberty's rock-opera like vocals (think Roger from the musical Rent). Multiple songs are rooted in bitterness of basic, "I hate you, you suck and I hope you die," relationship enders. This theme continues in the broken-heart anthem "Power word, Kill," which includes the painfully awkward lyrics, "In a word / Obliterate you / With a word / She can make you die / Power word, kill." Brilliant lyrics aren't required for pop-rock, no, but competent lyrics are needed to offset the simple nature of the music. Huberty's overpowering vocal tracks, combined with his lyrics, detract from his bandmates to keep songs below par.
Take the album's title track, "Neanderthal," a song focusing on the negative influences of virtual violence. Not much can be expected from a song that manages to incorporate both "violating you" and "raping a hooker" into its lyrics. The song comes off more repugnant than poignant social commentary. Later tracks like "Viking Funeral" and "Ephemeral" differ in subject matter but still fail to make any impression. The only bright spot in the album is guitarist Ben Jaeger, who creates a few attention-grabbing opening riffs and some pretty decent bridge solos to pay homage to the band's hair-metal influences.
Pop-rock is simple music at its best and makes up for a lack of technique and complexity with catchiness and charm. Neanderthal lacks charisma and actually made me angry while listening to it. If you're able to overlook the lyrics, you might want to plug into Neanderthal. Emphasis on the "might." For everyone else, I'd suggest that you're better off going elsewhere.