I'm one of those people that believes that Decahedron is (was?) basically the continuation of Frodus in everything but name. It's still Shelby Cinca and Jason Hamacher with (insert bassist here) kicking out frenetic post-punk-hardcore-politicized-art-rock like men possessed. 2005 was basically released to fill the gaps between Decahedron's first and second full-lengths, but as things appear now, the disc may end up being the final release from the band, as they went on "indefinite hitaus" last year.
The new material on the disc will appease fans of the band to some degree -- the first three tracks ("Movement A", "Terrhetoric", and personal favorite "We Are The Virus") deliver the abrasive D.C. Dischord-type rock in spades. Then Decahedron decide to cover Cop Shoot Cop ("Cause & Effect") and Bauhaus ("Scopes"), and things get off track just a little. "Cause & Effect" isn't really that interesting, and "Scopes" is pretty cool on the first listen or two, but the novelty wears off rather quickly. I would think that fans of Decahedron would much rather have a couple of other "lost tracks" on there instead, especially with the band being in limbo at the moment.
The caveat to the slight let-down of the audio EP is the inclusion of video of Decahedron's incendiary MacRock 2004 performance on the disc, which is pretty damn cool to watch. Hamacher continually seems to be beating the drums into submission, then-bassist Johnathan Ford undulates and screams, and Shelby Cinca looks about ready to spontaneously combust at any given moment, even throwing himself nearly offstage at the end of the performance. Intermittently throughout the set, Cinca makes incisive statements about the subject matter of his songs, and the state of the world in general...at times coming close to the indie rock version of a "fire and brimstone" sermon. It's entirely too bad that the audience stands there slack-jawed the whole time, either not getting it or not wanting to. If only more people would listen to the "Delete False Culture" gospel of Decahedron, the world might be a better place. More importantly, the band might still be active.
Her Accent Was Excellent
I've always been kind of conflicted on The Appleseed Cast, the long-lived "main band" of Hundred Hands vocalist/whateveralist Aaron Pillar (his former Hundred Hands/Cast cohorts, Christopher Crisci and Ed Rose, have apparently dropped out, leaving everything to Pillar and new co-producer Peter Buxton). On one hand, those four Kansas kids were pretty instrumental in making the whole emo-rock scene into the melancholy juggernaut it became for a short while -- they pushed the boundaries between post-punk indie and old-school prog-rock with their convoluted, literate songs. On the other hand, though, the songs themselves never really resonated all that much with me. I liked 'em, and apparently my subconscious latched on fairly tightly to their first disc, The End of the Ring Wars, but consciously, they never really made that much of an impact. They were important, yes, but not exactly something I'd find myself listening to every single day.
After hearing Her Accent Was Excellent, the latest from Pillar's Hundred Hands project, though, I'm wondering if that two-sided thing isn't what it's all about to begin with. This album seems to be about a fight between the two disparate sides of Pillar's songwriting personality -- on one side, he's enamored with studio-created textures, with all those neato swirling washes of noise and crinkly electronic sounds, while on the other, he's a low-key, pop-rock-loving guitar strummer. Throughout Accent, the two sides trade off, noise and guitar rock, until the last third of the album, where they meet face-to-face in the excellent, mind-bending "Dude, You're Drunk." The track starts out as pretty, straightforward jangle-pop but then mutates into a Faint-esque robofunk workout before melding elements of both and soaring up into the sky.
On the "guitar" end of things, there're tracks like "Waiting in Denver, 4:05 AM," which comes off like a warbly, soft-rock version of the Cast's older, more rocking stuff -- it's nicely done, but God, somebody tell them to please never use that cheesy keyboard sound again. It hurts my teeth. (While we're at it, guys, I'd suggest that you not use a sticker to hold your CD closed; one slip when opening, and I had to break out the Goo-Gone to be able to play the damn thing. I'm just trying to help, here...) There's also "Afflicted by Affection," a piece of swinging, languid-yet-electrified blues, and "Misinformation Rules," which reminds me a bit of The Gloria Record but with much lower-key vocals; I particularly like the more upbeat, cheerier bit near the end. The feel of the disc as a whole is very downbeat and melancholy, so breaks like that are welcome when they (rarely) appear.
Also, where the last Hundred Hands album, Little Eyes, seemed to kind of point backwards to The Appleseed Cast's early, more explicitly emo stages right when The Cast were diving headlong into space-rock with their pair of Low Level Owl CDs, Accent embraces the motif wholeheartedly. The best example's probably the very last track on the album, Gayhouse.com, which is far cooler than the idiotic title might suggest and which nears Spiritualized territory in its atmospheric majesty and drifting vocals.
Then there's the more overtly "electronic" end of things, which is...well, it's okay. My initial reaction to the alternately plinky and funky "How Many Licks to the Center" was to sit back and scratch my head, but when Pillar and Buxton kept throwing the little chunks of studio wizardry into the mix, they almost started to coalesce into something interesting. That's almost, mind you. The sound varies, making me think of The Octopus Project (with less urgency or danger to it) at some points and Peter Gabriel's instrumental moments at others, with a few points in-between like "She Disappears," a tiny, blink-and-miss-it bit of glacial, staticky pop, like Statistics' Denver Dalley with an even shorter attention span.
The undisputed highlight of the "electronic" tracks, though (other than "Dude, You're Drunk," as noted above), would have to be "A Downtown Scene" -- I love the murky, distorted bass that slinks along beneath the jangle. Sadly, the remaining tracks -- particularly in the album's second half -- drag the rest down, feeling more like "look what I can do!" studio experiments than actual compositions. "On Fire with a Dolphin" is nice and all, but at the end of the day it's just meaningless fluff, as is the roars-and-bleeps of "Don't Fall Asleep" and the utterly baffling robotic drums and distorted vocals of "Give Up, Yeah."
To that last one, I'd say this to Pillar: yes, please do give up. Don't give up music, no, but quit fighting with yourself and grab hold of both sides of the music you're creating, rather than switching between the two. Her Accent Was Excellent is a fine, fine effort, far better than I'd expected, but if the next Hundred Hands release were more like "Dude, You're Drunk," well...you figure it out.
The (International) Noise Conspiracy
By far The (International) Noise Conspiracy's cleanest record, and after relentless touring in support of their breakthrough album, A New Morning, Changing Weather, the Swedish band exchanges the stripped-down, raucous sounds of the past for more radio-friendly fare. This isn't to say that Armed Love doesn't teem with the same sociopolitical banter the band is known for, but their new sound seems to water down the message. "Black Mask" and "Communist Moon" both stand out as the album's best songs, and the band's usual garage-y sounds will blister listener's ears. Other songs -- specifically "The Dream Is Over," which (from the title, at least) has the potential to be another political screamer. Instead, producer Rick Rubin does what he does best -- makes it a catchy, accessible mess.
Older fans will undoubtedly scream "Sellouts!" after hearing the new album, but The (International) Noise Conspiracy has always been about making music for themselves, and Armed Love follows this same path, even if much of the album sounds like they made it specifically for the label reps. Changing weather, indeed.
It's been eight years since the last Marbles release, but the actual lag between projects is closer to 13 years, since 1997's Pyramid Landing was a delayed collection of songs that Robert Schneider had recorded half a decade earlier. To put that in perspective, consider that the seemingly interminable wait between Donald Fagen's The Nightfly and Kamakiriad was a slightly zippier 11 years. The difference is that unlike that foot-dragger, Schneider was making music all the while, most notably as the head honcho of the Apples In Stereo. As a result, Expo doesn't have the feel of a major statement, nor does it need to. Clocking it at under 26 minutes and characterized by an offhand (though not at all sloppy) charm, it's a one-man-band effort that finds Schneider playing everything except drums, vibraphone and anything he'd have to stick in his mouth. He sounds a little like Reggie and the Full Effect on "Out Of Zone" and a lot like the Magnetic Fields everywhere else, with programmed backgrounds laying the framework for meatier instruments. That turns "Hello Sun" into low-tech computerized psychedelia, but most of the rest of Expo is simply one pop song after another, with a trio of instrumentals (like the lush and gently cinematic "Jewel Of India") scattered throughout. It's not bad, just a little insubstantial, but anything beyond that would be out of the scope of a project with such modest aspirations.
Much has been made of Cursive-related side project The Good Life, but I really haven't seen all that much about Mayday; maybe I just don't read enough "alternative" rags. At any rate, Mayday is the brainchild of Ted Stevens, Cursive's guitarist. The record is on Saddle Creek, the usual group of collaborators is present (including most of Cursive), but one might find the sound surprising. Well..."surprising," that is, if you're expecting the usual straightforward indie-rock side project. Mayday is many things on Bushido Karaoke -- '50s-style balladry, Nick Cave-style doomy storytelling, quirky rootsy rock, angular bluesy rock -- and sometimes all of those things at once.
The impressive part is that it's utterly engrossing and eminently listenable. From the Orbison-esque "Old World, New World" to the (up until now only filmic) juxtaposition of Eastern Samurai stories and Western sensibilities of "Hidden Leaves" to the depressing balladry of "Rock And Roll Can't Save Your Life", Mayday seems dead set on taking seemingly antiquated musical contexts and injecting them with modern relevance. It never sounds like they are trying too hard, however, or being intentionally ironic. Bushido Karaoke actually comes off more honestly than most of what passes for indie-rock these days. It's been said that the coolest thing in the world is not caring if you're cool, and I think Mayday pretty much musically personifies that.
Too Young To Go Steady
chug chug chug deeply buried sub-Debbie Harry vocals bash bash bash anemic handclaps in "Bubblegum And Binders" buzz buzz buzz monotonous guitar in every single song blah blah blah god could any of this matter less click click click hey I haven't listened to Damn The Torpedoes in a while...
Chandeliers in the Savannah
I've got a soft spot for Seattle noisemakers the Blood Brothers, it's true. Unlike a lot of their fellow travelers in the noise-rock arena, they always seemed to hang onto to some semblance of a groove, and vocalist Johnny Whitney always staggered relatively close to comprehensibility. Out of that whole scene, they're one of the few I can listen to with any kind of regularity.
Of course, that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt to listen -- the Brothers may be slightly more better-put-together than some, but repeated listens are still somewhat akin to being beaten on the head with a lead pipe. For that reason, I was immediately eager to hear Chandeliers in the Savannah, the product of a "side project" by Brothers Whitney and drummer Mark Gajadhar (they put out the Headlines EP earlier this past year, but this is the first full-length), wondering if maybe it would serve as the missing link between actual accessibility and Blood Brothers insanity. And it is. Kinda.
There's certainly a lot of "quieter" moments here, alongside real-live melodies (first single "Headlines") and seasick pianos ("Crystal Beaches Never Turned Me On"), and there's a far clearer sense of structure to the actual songs, but at heart these guys are the same twisted, strange creatures they've been all along. The album kickstarts with the raw garage-stomp of "Black Cactus Killers," which brings to mind Houston's own Fatal Flying Guilloteens (Whitney's falsetto shriek, in particular, reminds me of Guilloteen Shawn Adolph's shredded-throat howling) and which incorporates guitars that occasionally step just to the left of where my ear thinks they're supposed to be -- the effect is kind of unsettling.
Throughout, Whitney comes off like an alternate-reality version of David Bowie if he'd started smoking crack rather than getting hooked on coke ("Chandeliers and Vines"), while Gajadhar manages to just barely hold things together (especially on "New Detroit," which literally makes my head hurt, and "Princess Skullface Sings," which could probably induce seizures if played loud enough). Gajadhar deserves most of the credit for the album's sound, to be honest -- Whitney's pseudo-Freddie Mercury stylings are intriguing, but it's the slinky beats and cyberfunk grooves ("The Future is a Mesh Stallion") that really make the show. Samba rhythms saunter in and out, the programmed drums practically scream for finger-pointing disco, and the taut balance between craziness and processed funk makes the whole mess feel paranoiac.
This may not be quite the mess of noise these guys generally make, but that doesn't mean it's not just as bizarre. For proof, see tracks like "Dead Mellotron," where Whitney's multitracked, sing-songy caterwaul sounds like a tribe of Oompa-Loompas gone feral -- the song's strange as hell, but it still flows, somehow. This is some truly damaged, whacked-out shit; I can hardly believe I like it.
The job of the critic, I think, shouldn't be to say whether or not the critic likes the record so much as to communicate whether or not you would like the record. So let's say you're not me. Let's say you like high-concept stuff like the Decemberists dressing up as pirates but really wish that they would have done it with a Western-style theme, instead. And then maybe you also really, really love that whole Magnetic Fields thing, or at least what I think of as that -- the early '80s retro-synth-pop assault -- and you don't mind having your otherwise high-concept album broken up by some stray dives into said stylistic terrain. And so you have this album Brigadoon from P:ano, which for the first few tracks sounds like it's meant to be an indie-pop band entirely influenced by the themes to Bonanza, Rawhide, et al., but then loses its thematic consistency. (Not only that, it even dives from the Western back into the world of pirates with "Ghost Pirates".) It's reasonably accomplished, ambitious, and at times clever, and I have no doubt that there are many who would dig this album quite greatly, and the fact that I really have no desire to listen to it ever again shouldn't stop you if it sounds like it might be your cup of tea.
Descended Like Vultures
If the reference point for Rogue Wave's sunny one-man show Out of the Shadow was the Shins, then for the paradoxically dense and weightless near-psychedelia of Descended Like Vultures, it's the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Like the Flaming Lips (and the rest of the canon of moneyed pop acts), Rogue Wave approaches recording with ambition and the big ideas to back it up, but unlike them, Zach Rogue doesn't yet possess songs or performances of enough character to match that ambition. Like hesitant line drawings overlaid with sheet after sheet of decorative tissue paper, Vultures' songs virtually disappear beneath the record's gossamer overproduction. It often sounds like Rogue is so focused on making a perfect pop record that he is afraid to let the songs stand forth on their own, simple and naked.
Rogue treats his own voice with what sounds like a surprising lack of confidence, obscuring most of his lyrics with a haze of gauzy slapback and multitracking, an especially cavalier choice for someone who is fundamentally a songwriter. The lilting "Catform" is, lyrically, a mystery, and "10:1," which I believe has a good idea at its heart, is nearly incomprehensible. It's difficult to tell how much of a tragedy this is; lyrics on tracks like "California" ("Screw California and friends who are never there ... and ice that will never melt, from hearts of the modern and children of Cicero") and "Bird on a Wire" ("Geriatric at twenty years old / Break like a matchstick as soon as you're told") hint equally at literate, introverted delicacy and lack of inspiration.
"Publish My Love," clearly one of the record's high points and quite deserving of the magical #2 slot, gives the impression of a conflation between songwriting and production value. On the other hand, the lush and chaotic bridge of "You" is a perfect fit as a counterpoint to the song's delicate verses. And yet even here, Rogue's voice is doubled, distancing the listener and damaging the song's beautiful intimacy. It sounds almost as if Rogue is afraid to let the listener hear what his voice really sounds like, a suspicion given credence by "You"'s successor, the album's quiet coda, "Temporary," in which Rogue barely murmurs on top of an acoustic guitar, as if he is afraid to drown it out.
Here another reference to the Flaming Lips is warranted: if one were to go back to the early days of these psychedelic pop darlings, one would find Wayne Coyne yelling at the top of his lungs, frequently losing control of his voice, but belting it out nonetheless, reveling in the joy of a song and a rock band, lacking the psychedelia and the fancy production but making great records nonetheless. Rogue Wave has to learn that before one can make a rich, lustrous pop record great, one must have the ability to write great pop songs and the (over)confidence to let them stand on their own. Before there could be a Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, there had to be an In A Priest Driven Ambulance; before an Achtung Baby, a War; before a Sergeant Pepper, a Meet the Beatles. And so before Zach Rogue can truly make Descended Like Vultures, he has to first make Rogue Wave.
the person with the telescope is me
Minimal singer/songwriter music from Mr. Stevens's own noggin. It's a difficult task to create a solo work that retains its individual identity without becoming self-absorbed or so personal that no one else can relate to it, but by remaining simple, plain, and true, this artist lays it on the line in an honest manner. True bravery indeed, and worthy for that. I call it "shoegazer," most others call it "acoustic indie-pop" -- you know the type, they're opening in every city for the Americana band. We look forward to another full-length project with the same simplicity, honesty, and vigor.
Road to Rouen
I've been a fair-weather Supergrass fan, I'm afraid. I loved 'em when they first emerged, kicking and spitting, out of that shiny-clean era of Blur-obsessed Britpop, saw them play an amazing show here in Houston to a shamefully small crowd of local hipsters (at a club that no longer exists, naturally), tried my best to emulate the near-falsetto vocals, cracked up at the chipmunk-sounding "We're Not Supposed To," and marveled that a bunch of kids younger than me could create an album as carefree, catchy, and wild as I Should Coco. They were great, with only better things to come.
And then...well, not much, at least not from my end of it. The three lads of Supergrass (guitarist/vocalist Gaz Coombes, bassist Mickey Quinn -- who I always suspected of being a hobbit refugee from Middle Earth -- and drummer Danny Goffey; actually, there's a fourth pseudo-member, as well, keyboardist Rob Coombes) rode the wave of critical adoration 'til it crashed, then proceeded to put out three more albums -- '97's In It for the Money, '99's Supergrass, and '02's Life on Other Planets -- a best-of comp, and a slew of singles, all without ever really hitting that promised pot of gold at the end of the rock rainbow. And me? I saw the albums come and go, and for some reason, I never bothered to get any of 'em. I can't explain why; I just didn't.
I'm now kicking myself. I've heard good and bad things about the intervening albums, but damn, if they're anywhere near as good as Road to Rouen, I should've plunked down the cash for them a long time ago. I started out a little nervous with "Tales of Endurance (Parts 4, 5 & 6)" (which, by the way, is awful short at 5:30 for a three-part "epic"), wondering how the band of punky, Buzzcocks-loving youngsters I used to know had gone from that to this drifting, country-inflected rock that reminded me of the Beta Band more than the Who. Then the raunchy, Rolling Stones-esque stomp kicked in, and I realized that the band's grown up, to the point where they don't need to do the all-out rock thing all the time. "St. Petersburg," a surprisingly down-tempo, almost mournful bit of English blues-rock, a little like the stuff the Kinks used to play, provided more proof, as did "Sad Girl," a dramatic Motown soul revamp done Nick Drake-style.
The highlight of the disc for me (although it was difficult to pick, admittedly) is the raucous majesty of "Roxy," a glorious rave-up of a rock song the likes of which I haven't heard since the Verve flashed in their happy little pan and vanished. I'd declare the song to be the band's new "Caught by the Fuzz," the track that would propel 'em back to radio prominence, but truthfully, the damn thing's too complex for that -- it dances between roaring rock glory and soft-touch balladry 'til both sides crash into one another at full speed and collapse into nothing. In this age of quick-hit rock icons, I don't know how well the music world at large would receive something like that.
Out of all of Road to Rouen, only the title track and "Kick in the Teeth" sound much like the Supergrass of old, but even those two songs sound tougher somehow, less cocky and more self-assured. "Road to Rouen," in particular, is supremely confident, a '70s-ish bit of funky rock that brings to mind New Yorkers the Strokes...if, that is, the Strokes actually knew what the rockstar life was like when they started singing about it. This album is the sound of a band that knows what it's doing and doesn't give a shit what anybody else thinks, and Supergrass pulls it off wonderfully, even delivering a silly, tropical-sounding instrumental interlude mid-album ("Coffee in the Pot") with such a straightforward lack of sarcasm that it seems to fit perfectly.
Taken as a whole, Road to Rouen comes off like what its title and cover art implies: it's a road album. There's a momentum here, as the songs cruise along, never missing a beat, creating a feeling of nonstop motion, of movement. It's like part of the soundtrack for some long-lost tour movie of an obscure British Invasion band, traveling from town to town and rocking whichever way they can, never sure what the next day'll bring. Specifically, though, Road is that part of the film where the tour bus careens across an alien European continent in the dark and the guys in the band are all moody and introspective, sitting apart at their own windows and watching the night-time lights blur together.
Apologies To The Queen Mary
How to do yourself no favors: send out a press kit where every article mentions Modest Mouse or Arcade Fire or both, and then mention both several additional times in the base text. Setting yourself up for comparisons to those bands is a recipe for disappointment, and indeed, on a first listen, this was a pretty disappointing listen. Lacking the out-there visionary parts of Modest Mouse or the straight into the sun majesty of The Arcade Fire, my immediate reaction was: well, why should I listen to this when I could listen to...oh, I don't know, Modest Mouse? Or The Arcade Fire?
The short answer, which revealed itself over multiple listenings, is: because Wolf Parade are playing at a different game. I'm not sure exactly what that game is, but it's one that's a bit jagged, a bit propulsive, a bit elliptical, the slightest bit arty, and by turns indirectly and nakedly emotional (which maybe where the Fire/Mouse comparisons are fairest). The vocals have a quaver to them that will undoubtedly be a make or break deal for many, and by my ears they've backloaded the album with their better songs, which is never a particularly good idea for a first-time band trying to make an immediate impression. (I don't know if there is a single, but "Shine A Light" would be my candidate; it certainly is making an appearance on my best of the year compilation CDs.) All of that's dancing around what they sound like, and for a reason -- I can't still really pin down their sound, but it sounds very much like them, which is a good thing, and the more I listen to this album the more I want to listen to this album, which is the best thing a band can hope for. Recommended.