REVIEWS (January 2009; Updated 1/20/09):
The Born Liars
Ragged Island
Born Liars pic
After a lot of thought, I've realized that the thing I like the most about the Born Liars, what makes 'em stand out from the crowd of loud, punkish, garage-y rockers, is, well, that they've got heart. It sounds sappy, I know, but it's the truth; they're real, they're genuine, and there's no posing in sight. By which I mean there's no blazing-hot rock songs on Ragged Island that're about rockin' fast and not much else, all attitude and no substance. The Born Liars, by contrast, play and sing like a real bunch of hard-drinkin', broken-hearted, bitter guys, the kind of crew you'd find hanging out at the local watering hole; they're the real deal.
Which explains why the songs on Ragged Island ring true the way they do. The whole album reads like one big long love-gone-wrong letter from a guy to the girl who broke his heart (is that the "Ragged Island," itself, maybe; some kind of metaphorical message for lonelineless and isolation?), and anybody who's been there will know the feeling. It's bloody, bitter, and alternately loose-sounding and tightly focused, like the angry, sloppy drunk at the bar who thinks you spilled his beer and starts swinging without a second's hesitation. Singer/guitarist Jimmy Sanchez sings like he's hurting, and like any wounded animal, he's liable to strike out in pain at anybody nearby.
The album's overall tone matches beautifully, too, and is a big part of why I'm finding that more and more, I truly love these guys -- unlike Exit Smiling, which was a good disc but suffered (to my ears, anyway) from slightly anemic, too-clean, not-rough-enough production, Ragged Island has that warm, mid-fi hum to it, like a record you've dug out of that box of records from the '60s you found in your uncle's attic. The sound meshes perfectly with the raw, scabs-ripped-open soul-baring of the lyrics, all fuzzy bass, sharp edges blunted with smoke. It's barroom-ready, drinking-in-your-beer music.
With this album, I think the Liars have really hit their stride -- or, at least, they've finally managed to capture it on tape. They suck in all the oldest of the old-school garage-rock influences, from The Standells to The Lyres (especially on the quiet, contemplative "Quiet Lives") to Chuck Berry (the speeding, rockabilly-ish "Fannin Street"), and what comes out ends up resembling nobody so much as themselves. They sound like they've skipped a generation or something, reaching back further than most of their contemporaries for the stuff they like.
I've raved about highlight track "Don't Tell Me, I Know" before, so I'll skip the bulk of that here except to say that this is a great fucking song, one that I haven't been able to dig out of my head since I first threw the band's last 7" on the turntable. It's an awesomely cutting, dismissive brushoff of a song by somebody who really doesn't give a shit what anybody else thinks. I was surprised to stumble across a close rival for the absolute best song of the album, though, with "How It Gets At Night."
By way of contrast with most of the rest of the songs on here, it almost comes off upbeat, with jangly, quasi-Latin guitars that bring to mind Springsteen's "Rosalita," and it's sweet and weary and broken-down, nearly pleading with whoever Sanchez is singing to to not be too brutal this time. It's probably the most genuinely sad, downtrodden thing the band's ever done, and it's a beautiful, refreshing moment for that.
The band revs back up and rolls onwards from there, blazing along with punkish fury 'til the final roaring stomp "Get Me Home," and I find myself scratching my head and wondering: have I really already have found one of 2009's best albums barely a month into the new year. Holy crap...
[The Born Liars are playing 3/20/09 at Rudyard's, with Pat Todd and the Rank Outsiders.]
(Cutthroat Records -- 5711 Hoover Street, Houston, TX. 77092; http://www.myspace.com/cutthroatrecs; The Born Liars -- http://www.myspace.com/thebornliars)
Dillinger Four
Civil War
Dillinger Four pic
Minneapolis punk band Dillinger Four finally returns with their fourth album. Civil War is another slice of their Hüsker Dü-meets-Southern Califoria sound. If anyone was worried about the band's six-year break between albums, never fear -- Civil War shows them in fine form. It's packed with lots of great songs and energetic backing from the band.
"A Jingle for the Product," a depiction of life as a punk rocker, features a great melody with a cool call-and-response thing between the melody and guitars and with just enough harmonies to build the choruses up to a fevered intensity. "Minimum Wage is a Gateway Drug," about the fact that how minimum wage isn't enough to live on, is a fast rocker with a cool droning guitar riff, cunningly deployed harmonies during the verses, and a big anthemic chorus. "AMERICASPREMIEREFAITHBASEDORGANIZATION," a punk lifer anthem, is another fast song with powerful drumming, efficient guitar riffing, and perfect backup vocals in the chorus.
Their sense of humor has survived, as well. They've always had a knack for great song titles, like "Minimum Wage is a Gateway Drug," "parishiltonisametaphor," and "Ode to the North American Snake Oil Distributor." In "Fruity Pebbles," an ode to a missing friend, their dark humor shows: "Fuck this, sick of thinking / Right now it's time for drinking / Yeah, I know you've heard that rhyme before / I don't care...." Later on they sing, "Now I curse the incidental / That turns so sentimetal / As I hum my little tune to the night." So many things in life start out incidental and become significant later on, too.
Dillinger Four has always been good at really catchy melodies -- these guys might be partly to blame for emo, but we shouldn't really hold that against them. At long last, they've done it again: another great album. Hopefully it won't take them another six years to put out the next one.
(Fat Wreck Chords -- P.O. Box 193690, San Francisco, CA. 94119; http://www.fatwreck.com/; Dillinger Four -- http://www.angelfire.com/mn/dillingerfour/)
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Matt Duke
Kingdom Underground
Matt Duke pic
My cynical side wants to sneer at Matt Duke's Kingdom Underground, tossing it aside as just another Adult Alternative-ready singer-songwriter. Fortunately, that cynicism ends up being undermined by Duke himself, who happens to be an earnestly sweet/bitter pop-rock guy with a sensitive, unthreatening voice that can jump from Rob Thomas-y growl ("I've Got Atrophy On The Brain") to Chris Carrabba-esque emo yelp ("The Father, The Son And The Harlot's Ghost") and -- definitely most importantly -- some genuine songwriting chops.
If it weren't for the latter, Kingdom Underground really would be a "do we really need another Gavin DeGraw? heck, do we even need one?" disc. To his credit, though, Duke demonstrates that he knows his way around a song, crafting a handful of catchy, shy-boy ballads and (soft) rockers that owe as much to, say, Elliott Smith as they do to more contemporary troubadours like Mr. DeGraw. On "Rabbit," for one, Duke's voice is delicate to the point of shattering, matching perfectly with the soft atmospherics and up-front gently-plucked guitars, and the song slowly and methodically unravels the collapsing relationship about which Duke is singing.
He's no one-trick pony, either; more uptempo, "rocking" songs like the heavily Mae-sounding "Opossum," the haunted "Rose," or the bitterly self-loathing "Sex and Reruns" don't feel forced but in fact come off nicely, in spite of being less fragile and gentle. The latter track actually provides the closest touchstones to Duke's sound, at least for me -- the seamless melding of minimal electronics and deft singer-songwriter pop makes me think of David Garza or Arthur Yoria more than anybody else. Then there's "A Happy Hooligan," which dives headfirst into psych-rock territory with overdriven guitars, Ben Folds-ish keys, and some fatalistic meditations on death and authority and whatnot. (And does this mean Duke's a devotee of long-dead comics?)
So, while there's maybe not a lot of new ground broken here, what Duke's doing definitely ain't bad. The album as a whole won't make it onto my top-ten list, sadly, but a few of the songs might, notably "Sex and Reruns," "Rabbit," and "The Father, The Son And The Harlot's Ghost." Nothing bad about that, right? And yeah, I'll definitely have to keep an eye on this guy later on down the road.
(MAD Dragon Records -- http://www.myspace.com/maddragonrecords; Rykodisc -- 30 Irving Place, 3rd Floor, New York, NY. 10003-2303; http://www.rykodisc.com/; Matt Duke -- http://www.myspace.com/mattduke)
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Followed By Static
Followed By Static pic
Austin duo Followed By Static has been quietly gathering praise as their songs float through the music scene. The sound on their five-track Demo*lition EP may be rough, but their point of view is quite clear: they like airy, pretty guitars combined with a good amount of dirty. Exhibit A: "Lullaby" begins with an almost joyously poppy guitar snippet that gets slapped with heavy screeching after just twenty-something seconds, but happily, the effect is intensifying rather than just jarring.
Exhibit B: the rest of the EP. "AADC" is overdriven overdrive; in comparison, "Bloody Arrows," though much more toned down, is immensely rich, capturing the same eerie hollowness of Neil Young's short riffs in the soundtrack to Dead Man. The final two tracks fall a little too much on the droney side, becoming music that you'd rather hear in the background than actively listen to. Nonetheless, Followed By Static should have the utmost confidence that their talent for creating graceful noise will get noticed.
[Followed By Static is playing 1/15/09 at Walter's on Washington, with Nervous Curtains & Antarctica Starts Here.]
(self-released; Followed By Static -- http://www.myspace.com/followedbystatic)
Guns N' Roses
Chinese Democracy
Death Magnetic
Guns N' Roses pic
In 1988, while I was in high school, I received the Holy Grail from a friend of mine who prided himself on his collection of tapes: a copied 60-minute Memorex with Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction on one side and Metallica's Ride the Lightning on the other (at the end of RTL, there was also the last song from AC/DC's Back in Black, "Rock and Roll ain't Noise Pollution," making this tape probably the awesomest thing, since, well, awesome).
I had waited up for hours until 2AM to see the debut of a music video (remember those?) from this band from California that was creating a huge buzz with teens all over America, and when MTV played it as the finale that night, I was floored. There was nothing better than this, ever. An insane lead singer with the greatest rock voice ever, this monster on guitar (back then, Slash wore his hair in front of his face and pulled his hat down, so you couldn't see anything), a craaaazy drummer, the quiet savant on rhythm guitar, and a lanky bass player. Being a poor highschooler, I couldn't afford the tape, so I was out of luck until my friend bestowed his charity on me. I wore that tape out rewinding and rewinding, savoring every swear word, every cool guitar riff, every rubbery groove. Depending on the day, each song was a highlight.
It took me a few months to warm to the other side of the tape. I started to play guitar when I was about nine and was into the hair-metal scene much more than the New York/California thrash stuff (in fact, I hadn't really heard it; that's what you get from growing up in the sticks). I learned all my Poison and Dokken songs, and then GnR happened, and I learned that album front to back, yearning for a Les Paul. It took a few times of forgetting to set the automatic rewind on my little tape deck to realize what was really going on on RTL.
Metallica pic
It was "Creeping Death" that really set the hook. All of a sudden, I got the power of Metallica. That, coupled with a five-minute section on MTV about them being on the Monsters of Rock tour in 1988, blew the doors open on "real" metal, and made me realize that Poison was not the future. I bought every album from each band when they came out, ending with Use Your Illusion I and II and ...And Justice For All. I didn't buy The Black Album, since every other person on this planet had it, and, well, it didn't sound like Metallica anymore...
It is no small irony that the two bands that most influenced my musical upbringing are releasing their most important albums in more than fifteen years at the same time. The birthing of Chinese Democracy is the stuff of legend: the culmination of nearly 15 years of fits and starts, the exorcism and subsequent increasing isolation of Axl Rose from the original band line-up (although original drummer Stephen Adler was such a mess by the turn of the decade he was jettisoned because he did too many drugs as compared to the other members), various Internet leaks and demos, constantly slipping release dates, skin peels and hair weaves, and finally, an album that some, like Chuck Klosterman, suggest is the last "traditional" album to be released under the traditional and increasingly archaic model of record company influence.
Death Magnetic, on the other hand, is a different kind of comeback. After the hateful failures of the Load albums and the embarrassment of the Some Kind Of Monster debacle, Metallica knew they had to reestablish their cred with an album that recaptured at least the spirit of their earlier recordings. So, how do I handle these monumental releases by the two bands that basically defined my musical existence for the better part of my life?
Yep, I'm going to use one of the oldest, most clichéd writing crutches known to man to try and disentangle these albums: The TALE O' THE TAPE! I'll break this down into a few categories, make a few points, and then give the category to one of the bands.
Without further ado...

Expectations (which album had the greatest expectations going in, and which album best met those expectations?)

This one is no contest: at least Metallica has been releasing albums. Chinese Democracy has been in the pipeline for almost seventeen years. It is impossible to live up to the hype and legend Axl created. On the other hand, Metallica's releases, while for the most part terrible, still seem to sell well (although it isn't clear who keeps buying them, since I have never met anyone who likes anything that Metallica has done post-Black Album).
Winner: Axl, by a giant margin

How good are the songs?

Chinese Democracy is fourteen songs of pure bliss, an absolute masterpiece of songwriting and arrangement. The sounds, drums, guitars, and especially the vocal parts reflect a stunning attention to detail that, frankly, I was surprised to hear, even though the album has been in production for so long. I can't imagine the focus and mental fortitude it took for Axl to see this project through. There isn't one dud, from the industrial intro "Chinese Democracy" to the straight-ahead ripping of "Riad N' the Beduins" and "Shackler's Revenge," and the "Yesterdays" cum "November Rain" stylings of "Street of Dreams" and "Catcher in the Rye."
Axl's vocal melodies are arguably the strongest part of the album (savor the flipping between a previously unheard mid-range yowl and his patented screech in the verses of "Scraped," as Axl changes viewpoints), while each guitarist (Buckethead, Ron Thal, and Robin Finck provide most of the gunslinging) sounds like himself, not just in playing style but their tone and rhytym parts are clearly written by them rather than instructed by Axl. Highlights include the solos on "If The World" or "Catcher" for a more traditional take, or the crazy reversed-sounding solo on "Scraped" (I'm pretty sure that it's not a studio trick or a pedal) and straight-out insanity of "Riad." While on first listen the album sounds overstuffed, repeated listens reveal how crucial each instrument is in the building of these songs. They are long, but none peak too early or devolve into meaningless extended jams.
Death Magnetic has its high points as well, but is much less well-executed. The best part? The riffs. Absolutely killer, from the intro riff from "This Was Just Your Life" to the old-school "Broken, Beat And Scarred," the killer main riff from "All Nightmare Long," to the swing of "Cyanide" and "The Judas Kiss." "The End..." has some of the best guitar tones Metallica has ever recorded, a perfect combo of loose real distortion (almost a, dare I say it, Slash-like sound) and '90s thrash. There is some theft here, as well, both from other bands and from themselves. "The End Of The Line" rips the main riff from Tool's latest album, and the vocal part is ripped from "Creeping Death."
Some of the songs seem to meander rather than build. "Broken..." is a perfect example: three sick riffs stuffed into a powerful framework, a killer solo, but offset by overly repetitive, simplistic vocals that don't move things forward. "The Day..." suffers from a lumbering outro that starts about five minutes in, so poorly played (i.e., not in sync) as to be distracting, ending with harmonized tapping that is embarassingly uninspired and poorly executed. Kirk Hammet uses many of his stock riffs in the outro solo, including the decending finger-exercise that appeared first on ...And Justice For All's "Blackened" outro. And then more tapping. Ugh. Top it off with a horrendous tempo change (due to Lars's inability to come in properly), and one wishes the song was over after four minutes.
"All Nightmare Long" is wonderful, probably the strongest, most accessible song on the album, with a great vocal hook. But again, Kurt's first solo goes nowhere. And the vocals are buried. But god, what a great main riff. "Judas Kiss" is another sick riff anchored by Robert Trujillo's bass. It feels lyrically like "Master of Puppets" (the song), copping the phrasing and urgence of James Hetfield's delivery. "Cyanide" has BASS (yay!) and a killer groove, very different from what you'd expect from Metallica.
In general, every song on Chinese Democracy builds to cresendo, while they just continue on on Death Magnetic. Everything is in its place on Chinese Democracy, while most of the songs on Death Magnetic have little cohesion or direction. Overall, the nod goes to Axl.
Winner: Axl

Quality of the album (which album is the best sonically?)

Chinese Democracy sounds phenomenal. Bob Ludwig's interview here suggests that we may just be seeing the first crack in the wall-of-sound destroying of audio CDs with the release of CD. My first listen was on the studio monitors. I was flat out shocked at the dynamics of the album, especially after suffering through the DM tragedy. CD is a masterpiece of engineering, with dynamic, clear, massive separation between the instruments (except when chaos takes over). And the different sounds, samples; the palate is so expansive, you really don't know where to start.
All you need to know about the production on Death Magnetic is that I reviewed the Guitar Hero 3 ripped and fixed version rather than the CD. The GH3 version was pulled from the game software, EQed a bit, and released anonymously. Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that the mix/master of the CD release of Death Magnetic was a disaster. No non-fanboi denies it. Lars's comments are here.
Essentially, the songs themselves are good, but the album sounds pretty terrible, especially the mix. "This Was..." sounds totally different from the rest of the album, as does "The End...," as if two completely different engineers recorded the songs on the album. There just isn't any cohesion. The songs all feel very live, as if they were recorded all together, but then all the overdubs sound obvious, pasted-on. Probably the worst example of this is the solo on "The End." It's not just that the solo is in your face: it sounds 5-10 decibels louder, completely out of the soundscape of the song, as painful as it is jarring. Is this a case where talent has overrun competency? There just seems to be a lack of attention to detail throughout the album.
Winner: Axl

Final Thoughts

If you tally the scores above, it is pretty obvious that Chinese Democracy is the clear winner. But make no mistake: this is not a Guns N' Roses album, this is an Axl Rose solo album. It is all him; his ideas, his life and experiences. This is totally off the planet for Guns N' Roses, and I bet that's where any pushback will come from. It is fundamentally brilliant, self-indulgent, overstuffed, ponderous, crammed full of all the insanity in Axl's head. This is an album I'll listen to for years, hoping to uncover yet another layer of complexity and detail that was so purposefully hidden in this modern masterpiece.
What do we do with Death Magnetic? Here's the problem. The album is also a masterpiece...sort of. It's what we have been asking for for the past decade and a half, a return to the pre-Black Album Metallica. And when looked at that way, it's wonderful. Unfortunately, there are such serious production issues with the album that it detracts from what should have been a five-star return to form for Metallica, and that's what is the most disappointing. Metallica's earlier albums are canon, existing outside the band but in the collective consciousness of our culture. It is odd to say this, but Death Magnetic sometimes feels like it is stealing from previous work, rather than building on it. Overall, everything kind of works, and that's what is so frustrating about it.
(Geffen/Interscope Records -- http://www.interscope.com/; Guns N' Roses -- http://www.gunsnroses.com/; Warner Bros. Records -- 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA. 91505; http://www.warnerbrosrecords.com/; Metallica -- http://www.metallica.com/)
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I, Octopus/Metronome the City
Split EP
I, Octopus/Metronome the City pic
I'm still a little bit confused about why these two totally separate groups chose to share one forty-minute-long EP divided into two über-lengthy tracks. The best way to express their relationship is to list their commonalities: both bands are from New Orleans, and both are marketed as being "experimental rock."
Metronome the City ("MTC", for short) boasts a simple lineup -- just five gentlemen and thirty-four instruments, including, but not limited to a didgeridoo, Gameboys, gas tanks, rain sticks, thunder sheets, a theremin, and a microKORG (very cool). Their range of sound machines enables a wide interpretation of musical genres, and the twenty-plus-minute track samples various forms of progressive rock, dub, and garbage noise. MTC's chord progressions and electric guitar jams remind me of Fugazi, and the deviating synthesized and organic sounds are much more refined and seem more focused on quality and complexity than the sound menagerie of EP cohorts I, Octopus.
I, Octopus (let's call 'em "IO"), for its part, is a dark spot on the awesomeness spectrum. Their solo track, "Craig Has a Beard Now," is a cafeteria hot dog of sound: macerated mystery pulp squeezed into a sustainable shape that you just don't know if you're willing to commit to. Combining different genres and sounds in ways similar to MTC (the comparison will stop here), IO is heavy on the synths and repetition of sound -- a poor placebo for what I assume is meant to be music.
Metronome the City is the clear champion of the non-existent shared EP "joust," and I'm digging their solo full-length album, Electric Elements Exposed, to boot. Check out both bands and their albums on their respective MySpace pages, and if you are feeling willing to give I, Octopus another chance, be sure to catch their act at SXSW '09.
(self-released; I, Octopus -- http://www.myspace.com/ioctopus; Metronome the City -- http://www.myspace.com/metronomethecity)
Pills and Ammo
Joetown pic
Loud (well, mostly), guitar-heavy, grunge-influenced rawk with vocals that swerve back and forth between Vince Neil, Chris Cornell, and Rob Zombie; that's Joetown (known to his 'rents, apparently, as Joe Delaney) all the way. And, surprisingly, I don't hate it. In fact, I'm liking it in spite of myself. Sure, it doesn't hit the mark all of the time -- the lyrics to "American Altar," for example, are clunky and don't make a lot of sense (although I think it's some kind of commentary on folks threatening to leave the States for saner climes; the "Wish You Were Here" tinge to the song is nice) -- but Pills and Ammo gets redeemed somewhat by its high points.
There's the sludgy, threatening, seriously Alice in Chains-esque (right down to the "Man in the Box" vocals at the break) "All My Angels," the quiet acoustic ode to folks moving out to L.A. in search of stardom, "LA Tuning," and chugging, sinister-sounding rocker "Devil As Woman," all of which come off quite decently. Then there's "Crash," Joetown's absolute apex by far, with its percussive, doubled guitars and industrial-metal-gone-cowboy aesthetic. The song reminds me of late-period, B-movie-lovin' White Zombie or maybe Prong, and it's one freight train of a track, with no stops in sight. Pills and Ammo isn't for everybody, no, but I can think of a handful of hard-rocking friends who'd absolutely love this one. Not half bad.
(self-released; Joetown -- http://www.joetown.com/)
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Masks Phantoms
...and All the Rest into a Sulphurous Horror
Masks Phantoms pic
It's almost impossible these days to classify bands -- what's the difference between hardcore and post-punk? The difference between emocore and plain old emo? Between grindcore and shit? I'm kind of worried that music is slowly becoming a naming game with nothing to separate the differences. And the worst part is that all these bands exist under that pesky moniker "indie" - the word that has made homogeneity popular again. Every once in a while, though, a record comes along that brings with it a sigh of relief, like, "finally, here's something I can grab onto and not let go."
That's exactly how it feels from the first second of the first song on Masks Phantoms' ...and All the Rest Into a Sulphurous Horror (available now on Paradeco Records). It's a punk album, all the way punk. And not the punk that Spin calls "punk." This is 1979-1981 all over again, the I-don't-give-a-fuck attitude that made The Slits and The Clash and The Sex Pistols more important than the Beatles.
There's not even a hint of pretense on the entire record, which is something necessary to the ethos of punk music; and at just under thirty-one minutes, Sulphurous Horror is a joy to listen to from start to finish (Masks Phantoms sound a bit like a less-severe Dropkick Murphys - kind of like how the Murphys would sound if they had a music baby with They Might be Giants). The band arrived on the scene organically, forming sort of by accident in the underbelly of Seattle's anti-grunge movement.
They built their own studio to record this record (with stolen materials -- so rock star) and seem to be unaware, or at least unconcerned about, the wonders of modern technology (I think they might not have cellphones, but I can't be sure). Masks Phantoms is a real punk band that makes real punk songs that are really short. Almost every song (all but one, if I'm not mistaken, and the one that's not is almost entirely instrumental) is under three minutes, but they seem to be much longer than that because each and every one of them works together seamlessly, like it's a thirty-minute record comprised of one song. And that's what makes it sound right.
Some of the standout songs on Sulphurous Horror are "Plans for Champions," "Sand Magic Kill Donkey," "Form to Further," and "Walking Amputees." I would tell you what these songs are about (if I knew), but on this type of punk record, it's not really what they're about, is it? It's more about how they sound, how they move you. And move you they will. Somewhere fun, I imagine.
(Paradeco Records -- http://www.paradeco.com/; Masks Phantoms -- http://www.myspace.com/masksphantoms)
Northern Liberties
Ghost Mind Electricity
Northern Liberties pic
Northern Liberties has been around awhile, playing up and down the East Coast and only recently getting as far west as Dallas. (They skipped Houston, for some strange reason. Or not.) Ghost Mind Electricity is interesting, strongly experimental post-punk, with little variation on a theme that Northern Liberties feels extremely comfortable exploring. "Controlled By Voices From Beyond" starts out with midrangy AM radio vocal samples, then flips the switch into a drum-driven assault.
Lead singer Justin Duerr is eerily reminicient of a spacey Jello Biafra, especially when he isn't wailing, with the same powerful warble (if that makes sense) but greater range. "Children of Unholy Light" is less controlled, with questionably tuneful vocal melodies slapped over a downtuned (C#?) bass line. "Among The Unborn" slows things down, a melodic bass line (doubled by with what sounds like an acoutic bass) starting a nice build to the repetitive second section of the song.
Gotta give props to bassist Kevid Riley -- really interesting parts, with enough variation to keep things interesting but never devolving into wankery. The brothers Duerr (Marc is the drummer) have a lot of interesting rhythmic interplay, and unique percussion sounds keep popping up (the swooshy drum scrapes in "Changing"). "E.G.G." might be the most interesting musically, flipping between time signatures with a nice left turn about halfway through. The album ends with "Asylum" and "National Anthem (for Birds)," the former building from a clean bass and drum nursery rhyme groove to a strong bashing ending, while the latter could be could be a folk song in some twisted alternative universe.
Regardless of the sameness of the song structure here, the energy is powerful, and I've heard Northern Liberties's live show is killer. As I've mentioned in other reviews, bands like this really need to be seen instead of heard; while one can pick apart the clammy note here and there on the album, they fly by in the moment, and the listener is left with a memory trace of the whole rather than distinct songs.
(Worldeater Records -- P.O. Box 42728, Philadelphia, PA. 19101; http://www.worldeaterrecords.org/; Badmaster Records -- 4500 Kingsessing Ave., Philadelphia, PA. 19143; http://www.badmasterrecords.com/; Northern Liberties -- http://www.myspace.com/northernliberties)
Pale Young Gentlemen
Black Forest (Tra La La)
Pale Young Gentlemen pic
Pale Young Gentlemen was founded in 2004 by brothers Michael and Matt Reisenauer, and has grown steadily over the last few years both in body count and musical range. Today, the critically acclaimed Wisconsinites travel as a seven-piece ensemble and make good use of a variety of instruments, including the viola, cello, and piano, in addition to the traditional guitar, bass, and percussion. Veering away from overplayed indie music-by-numbers and tangling American roots music with Eastern European gypsy folk, the Pale Young Gentlemen have caught the wandering attention of the unwashed, underfed, and underpaid indie scene.
In 2007, PYG dropped their self-titled debut -- a wonderful prelude to Black Forest (Tra La La), released in 2008. Poetic lyrics and a diverse range of sound (thundering solo acoustic guitar on some tracks, the quaint mini-orchestra on others) holds my attention for the length of two albums.
PYG's original quality and delivery is impressive. Recorded and mixed in two weeks, the album is far from crude but does retain a slightly ragged, lo-fi edge. A decoupage of gypsy eclectic, mini-orchestral medicine show melodies, and classic piano blues contribute to an overall folk-noir sound. Tracks like "The Crook of My Good Arm" and "Kettle Drum (I left a Note)" are a nightmarish cabaret of crashing tempos and somber string orchestration, and "Marvelous Design" and "Is There a Place" remind me of a Tim Burton film -- ethereal, clever, and darkly human.
That said, I'm wary to grant my full approval. Mike Reisenauer's melancholy voice is unnervingly reminiscent of Coldplay's Chris Martin. I won't make any formal accusations, but I will say that it disturbs me to hear his original musical recipe tainted with a dose of expired Coldplay. Regardless, I am already anticipating the next album. My hope for the Gents is that they will explore something darker and that caballero Mike would share the mic every now and again.
(Science of Sound -- P.O. Box 14573, Madison, WI. 53708-0573; http://www.scienceofsound.com/; Pale Young Gentlemen -- http://www.paleyounggentlemen.com/)
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Seasick pic
As Frank Zappa & The Mothers so cryptically stated it in one of their early songs, "What would you do if the people you knew...were the plastic that melted and the chromium, too?" The only thing I can possibly imagine theoretically rising back up from the ashes of such a poetically offbeat dissolution just might be Brooklyn's own neo-psychedelic trio called Seasick and their recent EP that explores a musical road far less traveled by most bands.
To put it mildly, Seasick is...well...complicated. Their music is the oddest amalgamation of intertwined sounds I've heard in a very long time. As their name might suggest, the combined emanations ushering forth from cuts off their EP kind of put you in mind of being caught in a boat in the middle of the ocean while huge waves loft the craft upwards and downwards in a spellbinding motion that eventually has an effect upon your very equilibrium. In much the same way, this band's sonic offerings -- best described as layer after layer of sound waves coming at you -- is definitely going to affect your inner-ear region, as well, whether for good or ill. I find it pleasingly hypnotic; others might find it nauseatingly awful. There's no accounting for taste, I suppose. Objective analysis aside, however, musical taste has a lot to do with how one reacts to this band. Break out the Dramamine and do your own evaluation.
On the one side, this EP is a fantastic example of just how dark and ominous a band can be, given the right conditions and creative tools. I'm tempted to call it goth-jazz-acid-rock-psychedelic, though certainly not "goth" in the traditional sense (whatever that is, and if you can even say it with a straight face), and certainly not traditional "jazz," either, other than mimicking its expansively-sweeping note runs without necessarily honoring the sacredness of any given harmony rules. "Psychedelic" fits, for sure, and "acid-rock" is noticeably a building block, as well, but Seasick is just not the kind of a band that can be solitarily labeled. Most of the material comes off sounding like a surrealistic cross between early Jefferson Airplane, free-jazz/art-rock fusion, and vox/orchestral-leaning, Cirque du Soleil-styled New Age music.
And, as the infamous psychic noted in the movie Poltergeist, there's definitely "more than one haunt in this house," too. To be specific, there's exactly three: Jasmine Golestaneh (vocals, guitar), Geoffrey Lee (keyboards), and Sam Levin (drums). As counterparts, they mix together a pretty strange brew of both conflicting and complimentary concoctions within. It's noteworthy and quite remarkable the way all three of these musicians manage to come up with a triad of overwhelming blends while still retaining a degree of individual presence in the mix that doesn't upstage any of the other segments. Musically, they absolutely exude more method than madness here, but the only completely unifying force behind their collection is the wafting and sometimes wailing vocals of Golestaneh, which are eerily reminiscent at various points of femme poet/singers like Nico, Grace Slick, Patti Smith, Deborah Harry and PJ Harvey.
On the flip side, Seasick does create true music qualities and not just incoherent noise. It's just that the music they create effectively walks a very thin tightrope between purist musical forms and abstract art-rock expressions. The band doesn't seem to be focused on writing mainstream -- or even underground -- hit songs. Instead, their focus is apparently upon motivating some type of right-brain, impressionistic hit with their listeners. The last artist I recall who was able to do this quite effectively was Jim Morrison, and there are certainly elements of his handiwork residing in Seasick.
Some people ask what "progressive rock" is. Most reviewers are shy to define it, because the term is so misused. In my opinion, "progressive" music, of any genre, is basically music that's ahead of its time, often almost prophetically so. (Since it's a somewhat elusive term to use in prospect, most avoid labeling content that way, except in instances where some musical features seem to hint of possible new directions for a particular genre.) Though few artists or bands rightly fit completely into this category, surely some of The Doors' material was correctly so-called. Jim Morrison, among scant others, had this future-reaching poetic-musical gift. Now, Seasick doesn't have this gift, but they sure do rehash and play off of Morrison-like artistry very nicely. There's nothing really new delivered here, however, just a fine recapturing of formerly progressive elements.
I haven't seen a live Seasick show except through internet videos, but from what I have heard online or from other people, these shows are truly affairs that tap into the late-'60s-psychedelia, oil-gel-filtered arena in marvelous fashion. Regardless, even without all the onstage bells and whistles, Seasick's music still succeeds in laying hold of the fingerprint of a fair amount of the Airplane-collaborated songs of the later "Sunrise" ilk, and the expressionistic appeal resident in The Doors' "Strange Days" material that provided fodder for their art-immersed live renditions on tours.
If you like artsy takes on the '60s psychedelia period set to intriguing female vocals and impressionistic lyrical poetry, then you'll probably really enjoy Seasick's music.
(self-released; Seasick -- http://www.seasickmusic.com/)
Strangers Die Every Day
Aperture For Departure
Strangers Die Every Day pic
On their debut album, Aperture For Departure, Strangers Die Every Day play instrumental chamber rock, reminiscent of Dirty Three with the rock feel of Papa M. The use of the violin and cello gives the group a distinct quality. They have a beautiful sound, which is pretty much given when you include strings, but their songs are also interesting. And while the strings also limit the range of things you can do, they still cover a lot of ground.
The first song, "...And The Blood Shall Spill," sounds like an acoustic version of Mono, although the violin goes a lot of its own places, including some classical-sounding variations on the melody. The minimal drumming fits perfectly with the tone of the piece, and on the chorus takes the song up exactly the right notch. And the bass player plays some clever lines that work like guitar parts.
"Aperture For Departure," another simple, pretty tune, sounds like a Dirty Three anthem, with a big, beautiful melody and a nice cello part in counterpoint. The melody is simple enough that they don't need to change it, and they keep repeating it, building it all further and further up. And it breaks down half-way through like a Sonic Youth tune or something -- one of those "Expressway to Yr Skull" tension builders, but much quieter.
Strangers Die Every Day have a lot more good songs here, too. And they make the most of their group, every member occasionally taking on the role of a different type of instrument. Because there aren't any dramatic changes of texture, some of it does start to sound the same, but their sound is unique enough that it doesn't matter. They have a lot of good ideas, and Aperture for Departure is an auspicious debut.
(This Generation Tapes -- http://www.thisgenerationtapes.com/; Strangers Die Every Day -- http://www.myspace.com/strangersdieeveryday)
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Eyes At Half Mast
Talkdemonic pic
Eyes At Half Mast is the latest release from Portland, Oregon's Talkdemonic, originally a solo project (founding member Kevin O'Connor's first shows used pre-recorded backing tracks), Talkdemonic blends hip-hop style beats with piano and viola, primarily, to achieve its unique sound. While the album is essentially an instrumental (sans a few backing chants here and there), the music holds your attention enough that you don't even notice. The beats are groove-laden and fit hand in glove with Lisa Molinaro's beautiful viola sounds. One can't help wonder where this band would go if one of them would lay a verse down here and there, or maybe even a catchy chorus, but it seems the duo has found their niche.
The best track on the album by far is "Duality of Deathening" -- the harmonies and note choices are somewhat eerie, and one might expect some underground rapper to lay down some rhymes, but nonetheless the tune is well-written and thought-provoking. Who knows how far Talkdemonic will take their instrumental symphony, but they've already spent a few years touring the country playing with bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and The National. Their Myspace provides no information about any upcoming tours, unfortunately, but keep an ear out and an eye open should they ever come to your town.
(Arena Rock Recording Co. -- 17 SE 3rd Ave. #405, Portland, OR. 97214; http://www.arenarockrecordingco.com/; Talkdemonic -- http://www.talkdemonic.com/)
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Totimoshi pic
Bay Area band Totimoshi is a power trio not afraid to sound much bigger than their numbers. Milagrosa, Totimoshi's fifth album, is big, bombastic stuff. Jangly guitars mix well with a thumping bass and heavy, cymbal-driven drums. Slightly proggy vocal parts reminds me of David Bowie or Ian Anderson, not so much in lead singer/guitarist Tony Aguilar's voice but in his story-telling phrasing and imagery. Interestingly, the vocals are mixed pretty far back, even though lyrically the songs are very story-driven, forcing the listener to really pay attention to the vibe of the words rather than just trying to absorb them subconsciously.
Unfortunately, the heaviness of the content gets to be a bit much after awhile. "Sound The Horn" is a call to arms, jumpy but heavy. "Fall And Bound" is a slower grind, seemingly about failure and the inability to recover, while "Last Refrain" is even more of a dirge, in the Black Sabbath vein. "Milagroso" feels a lot like "Sound The Horn," with cool crooning background chords underneath an AC/DC-lite main riff that resolves to a killer jam in the second verse and a cool mouth-harp -driven bridge. The contrast between this bridge and the main riff is great, lightening up the song just as the listener is feeling like they are being driven underfoot.
"Forever In Bone" is the breather before the heavy ending. "Gnat" fixes on a cool bass intro sitting under a disjointed 6/8 vocal and guitar and is an appreciated departure from the rest of the album. "Dear" relaxes the end of the album, synth strings and interesting percussion under an unfortunate vocal melody.
An interesting, strong album you should definitely pick up.
(Volcom Entertainment -- 1740 Monrovia Ave., Costa Mesa, CA. 92627; http://www.volcoment.com/; Totimoshi -- http://www.totimoshi.com/)
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The Wild Moccasins
Microscopic Metronomes
The Wild Moccasins pic
I'm envious. Honestly, that's what I am -- I mean, how can I not be? With their eagerly-anticipated Microscopic Metronomes EP, The Wild Moccasins have distilled the essence of what it's like to be young and wild and carefree, and I'll be damned if it doesn't make me feel real fucking old.
Not mad at the band for that, mind you; listening to The Wild Moccasins is like opening the door to a stuffy, overheated room and letting in a rush of cool breeze from the calm, clear springtime blue. It makes me yearn for my younger days, want to say "screw it" to life spent shuttling between the office and the car and just spend all day outside with my the family, enjoying the beautiful day. It's like a wakeup call when you're stuck halfway between sleep and waking, letting you know that the morning's here and it's time to get up with a smile on your face.
So, how do they do it? How do those crazy Wild Moccasins kids so effortlessly evoke in me feelings of long-gone youth and the need to go do something fun? Well, in the end it's probably a lead-by-example kind of thing, really -- throughout Microscopic Metronomes, the band itself sounds like it's having a blast, just smiling cheerily along as they play some of the sweetest, most unaffected jangle-pop I've ever heard. They exude a kind of exuberant, unforced energy that you can't help but smile along, from the opening "friends around a campfire at night" singalong (complete with crickets!) on "My Favorites Die" on through to the end of "Shiny Strings."
Obviously, while it certainly helps, energy isn't the whole ball of wax. It also helps that the Moccasins (Cody Swann on vocals & rhythm guitar, Zahira Gutierrez on keys, vocals, & percussion, Andrew Ortiz on drums, Nick Cody on bass, and Andrew Lee on lead guitar) write some fine, fine songs, balancing more layered, New Pornographers-style stuff (see "Shiny Strings" and "Fruit Tea") with more minimal, breezy, jangly, flat-out indie-pop a la Boyracer, The Boo Radleys, or more recent cohorts Rilo Kiley (see, well, pretty much everything else).
Swann and Gutierrez trade lines back and forth like a mellower Mates of State, while bright, sparkling guitars and Cody's amiable bass dance nimble circles around them. On "Spanish and Jazz," the track I'd tend to call as the band's "signature" song, the Moccasins swing and sway with just a hint of melancholy countriness, moseying along unconcernedly at a gentle pace, while "Fruit Tea" and "Mailman" turn things up a bit both in terms of tempo and volume, displaying a bit of a Brit-pop influence.
Throughout, the band is playful and friendly, with the nicely-synced yells in "Fruit Tea" and the silly, cute-as-hell little bit of faux-sleeping noise that makes up the entirety of "Zzzzzzz." I think I've found my new perfect soundtrack for the next sunny day.
[The Wild Moccasins are playing their EP release show 1/23/09 at Walter's on Washington, with Teenage Kicks, Buxton, & DJ ADR.]
(self-released; The Wild Moccasins -- http://www.myspace.com/thewildmoccasins)
Wilderness pic
It was like walking alone in the mind of a person tripping on acid while hallucinating on mushrooms. The guitar strummed, and it began; the sounds hit like a wave of colors smacking me in the face, waking me up to a new world. The drums followed soon after, and I realized I was falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, falling and screaming. What can take me out of this world and throw me into a spatial, dream-like sequential world? An unconventional band from Baltimore, Maryland, oddly enough, with the name Wilderness. Wilderness has always been an unconventional band, and with the release of their third full-length album, (k)no(w)here, they may have garnered that title more to themselves.
(k)no(w)here is eight tracks that are not readily separated from each other, the flow from each song to the next is so smooth, and you'd be a fool not to think that all the tracks have the same guitar track layered over them. There may be a reason why this album plays like one big track, as opposed to eight individual songs. The composition came from an invitation to collaborate with renowned visual artist Charles Long at Long's exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in the spring of '08.
I will admit at first listen I found myself cringing at the music, thinking it was nothing more than a mess of nothing passing off as music. On that first listen, I couldn't even bring myself to finish it, stopping after only the third track. Two weeks passed before I allowed my ears another listen. What I found then was sounds not heard before. It was no longer a mess of noise passing off as music, but instead a mess of beautiful, stylistic slow jams with a couple of missed opportunities for greatness.
From the fist track, "High Nero," with its wavy, airy intro that kicks off an assault of vividly imaginative visions into your brain via your ears, you get the sense that this album will open up a portal into some forgotten world. With the lights off and your mind open, you'll also receive this album how I received it on that second listening. Although at the start I praised this album and its band for its uniqueness and willingness to create a truly mind-expanding album, it's not without its misses.
During the first six tracks, the guitars and drums seem to have the Repeat button stuck, with the guitar giving the same sound -- a whiny riff that runs on -- and the drums seem very skeletal and barely there. Making matters worst is singer James Johnson's wailing and howling, rising, falling, and lifting his voice over and over and over chanting theatrically. So difficult is his voice that one can't understand what he's singing about. James Johnson does a good Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse) imitation, but unfortunately, it seems to miss when placed next to the music his band mates play.
The seventh track, "Soft Cage," sees Wilderness break out of the mold set within the first six tracks. The track starts with a tom-heavy drum pattern and cymbals that shimmer and splash over a guitar lead that echoes with light distortion. But again Wilderness singer James Johnson joins the track and begins to wail his voice which at times tends to draw attention from the music. Wilderness would do better if the band could become a strictly instrumental band a la Explosions in the Sky, or if James Johnson could find some way to add a melodic approach to his vocals.
On Wilderness's last track "<...^...>" (and yes, that is the title of the song), James Johnson is joined vocally by guitarist Colin McCann, who complements the music well. I wouldn't surprise me to hear him jump on more tracks and even take more of the singing over from principal Wilderness singer James Johnson. Wilderness are a band unlike any other, and like the band name suggests, it's okay -- encouraged, in fact -- to get lost in the Wilderness.
(Jagjaguwar Records -- 1499 West Second Street, Bloomington, IN. 47403; http://www.jagjaguwar.com/; Wilderness -- http://www.wildernesssounds.com/)
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Get Down
Woozyhelmet pic
[Ed. Note: In the review below, we blithely declared that guitarist/singer Jay Crossley was the band's only songwriter. Per Mr. Crossley, however, that's apparently not the case, and the songs tend to be communally written by all three members of the band. Sorry about that, y'all!]
Dang. I've had a hard time getting a handle on this one; it makes some sense, though, since Woozyhelmet's Get Down is the latest by a band that has vexed me in the past, where live performances left me reeling and wondering what the hell just happened, unable to really pin 'em down. The last time I saw them, in particular, I can remember thinking, "yeah, they're decent, but they're not quite there -- wherever 'there' may be -- just yet."
Good news time: Get Down is the "there" in my little bit of unvoiced mental criticism from back then. I can't put my finger on what was missing before, but I'll freely admit that the band's new stuff well and truly hits the mark. It's still strange, but it's good shit, better than I've heard from them in the past. That doesn't mean, however, that I have any easier of a time figuring out how the fuck to talk about it.
I know, I know -- what's the big deal, then, Mr. Hotshot Reviewer Man? If the album's so damn good, why in the hell have you been having problems writing the review? Well, the sticking point's really that this disc is one heck of a multiple-personality disorder mess. On the one hand, you've got raw, scraping, punk-gone-mathcore indie-rock that comes off like Sebadoh's noisier moments ("Carter (Wolf)," "New Bear," "Chocolate," "Nixon (Jessica)," "What Respect Means to Jose") with bellowing, threatening DC hardcore vocals that nearly rip the roof off the house. Then there's the oddly funky, art-/prog-damaged rock ("We Support the Italian Stewardesses," "May Be a Rock," "Carotid"), which reminds me of The Rapture at points and the Talking Heads at others.
And then there's the real right turn, the mid-tempo, countrified, drunk/sloppy-ish Modest Mouse-esque tracks ("If Not for Pants," "The Well," "Hopeless"), with those sloppy-but-not-really rhythms, lethargic, quasi-medicated vocals, and fractured -- yet never completely broken. The one songs that really bridge the gap, at least between the Modest Mouse songs and the loud punkier stuff, are "Hopeless," which meanders and jangles along cheerily 'til it explodes in bitter fury two-thirds of the way through, and "The Well," which is high-lonesome mopey 'til Nancy Walton cuts loose near the end.
In spite of the three-way stylistic split, however, I find myself humming along to bits and pieces of each of the band's musical "sides," unearthing gems in each of the piles. It took me a week to get "Nixon (Jessica)," which somehow encapsulates the total awkwardness of one of the uncool kids making contact with one of the high school superstars in its one-line lyric -- big, big kudos on that, y'all -- and then buzzy, edgy, Fugazi-ish "Carter (Wolf)" took its place. That track faded and got replaced by the low-key (mostly), warbly "The Well," after which followed the bumping, pseudo-glamorous "We Support the Italian Stewardesses," the weird, desperate musing of "What Was Dad Talking To Daniel About?" (love this one: "Daniel's a superstar / Daniel's from Jupi-tar"), and the hilariously repetitive "Karaoke." If you asked me to name a favorite, I honestly couldn't tell you, and that's an enviable problem for a disc like this to have.
To Woozyhelmet's further credit, Get Down rides the line beautifully, never falling into the Uncle Tupelo trap of, "oh, yeah -- I can totally tell which guy wrote which song, because it feels totally different; why are they all one band, again?" The songs are often disparate, sure, ranging off at right angles to one another, but they still work together somehow (okay, yeah, and maybe it's because guitarist/singer Jay Crossley's the only guy doing the songwriting, unlike with my Tweedy/Farrar comparison). The album trundles along like a wagon with square wheels; you get where you're going, and the scenery's incredible, but it's a bumpy, surprising ride.
(Soda Pop Sounds; Woozyhelmet -- http://www.woozyhelmet.com/)