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REVIEWS (February 2007):
A New Dawn Fades
I See The Nightbirds
A New Dawn Fades pic
The debut CD from Virginia's A New Dawn Fades, I See The Nightbirds, is a life preserver for the music fan that doesn't need a singer and loves to dive headfirst into the music. Stylistically, ANDF is a tough one to describe. To compare them with a well-known act would prove fruitless, since the band changes like a chameleon from song to song and sometimes during the same song.
The opening track, "No Experts On Big Things," echoes the atmospheric musical landscape of Godspeed You Black Emperor but manages to not get as longwinded. The band crafts a free-standing musical story in the same time it takes to play a pop song. The band's love of and influence by Fugazi is prevalent on "Glories of Summer Camps Past." ANDF gets a little more experimental on the last couple of tracks. "He Carried Whip in His Trotter" is built upon a simple percussion track that sounds like someone tapping on a can. Normally, that would sound horrible but here it's very intoxicating and hypnotizes you until the rest of the music envelopes you.
Interspersed between the songs are one-minute tracks that serve as a bridge. The songs are strong enough on their own, but with these bridges, the album comes across as one giant piece. The best compliment one can give this band is that all four members seem to act as one. The are no soaring guitar or drum solos that shine a spotlight on one person. The music has an almost jam-y feel to it, since it sound so organic and stream-of-consciousness. The band will play SXSW this year, and then the rest of the world will hear how great they are and they'll surely become the darlings of Pitchfork or AP. Until then, remember who told you about them first.
(Alone Records -- P.O. Box 3019, Oswego, NY. 13126; http://www.alonerecords.com/; A New Dawn Fades -- http://www.myspace.com/anewdawnfades)
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The American Black Lung
...And They Rode Their Weapons Into War
The American Black Lung pic
I usually reserve the term "brutal" for death metal, where the Cannibal Corpses of the world enlighten us with the finer intellectual details concerning disembowelment and necrotic fantasy. This is usually administered via a double-bass ninja and a twin-detuned guitar attack going at a blistering pace, while the Beast Rabban tears out his bowels with Cookie Monster growls. After listening to ...And They Rode Their Weapons Into War, the latest from Tucson's The American Black Lung, I may have to revise my nomenclature.
The American Black Lung are "brutal," and are everything good about the post-pop-punk pushback happening right now. Like friends and local Houston heroes The Jonbenét, ABL force their groove on the audience by way of their attitude and song arrangements rather than by tuning their weapons down to subsonic levels. Every song on ...And They Rode Their Weapons Into War is tight, tightly played and written. The highlight of the band and the album is the fantastic locked-in groove of bassist Dhusty Rhodes and drummer W. Moon. The thickness and power of ABL is in this awesome bottom end, a cement and rebar foundation that the rest of the band lug-bolts their parts to. While limited in range, Diamond Rhino's vocals are all power and no subtlety, and Johny Detroit and Easy E tear into their Gibsons and Peavey 5150s (creating yet another non-traditional 5150 sound, proving once again how versatile these amps are) with aplomb. No wussy Fenders, please.
[The American Black Lung will be performing at Walter's on Washington on Sunday, February 4, along with The Jonbenét, Blues, & Fight Pretty.]
(Burning House Records -- 9136 Valencia #110 PMB #52, Tucson, AZ. 85747; http://www.burninghouserecords.com/; The American Black Lung - http://www.myspace.com/theamericanblacklung)
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Black Ice
The Death of Willie Lynch
Black Ice pic
Black Ice starts his new album, The Death of Willie Lynch, with a prayer -- as if he needs it. With lyrics that openly criticize the superficiality and ignorance of the "gangsta" mentality, as well as the holes in the American Dream, Black Ice joins a burgeoning group of lyrical hip-hop poet rappers searching for something greater than wealth, but bolder than violence. Like Black Thought of The Roots and Mos Def, Black Ice rails against the corporate hip-hop that represents the apathy of the corporate world with regard to the poor or downtrodden. "It's a beautiful world we live in / But the ugly ones push the buttons," he avers, reflecting the anger of a generation of intelligent rappers disillusioned by commercialism, exploitation, and the glorification of the drug-and-thug life that causes the death of so many bright young men. Songs like "Dream Transferred" and "Front Page" evince Black Ice's connection to African-American roots from the Harlem Renaissance and his own roots in Philadelphia, while songs such as "The Real" and "Hoodwatch" bump with beats so progressive that they could have come from The Mars Volta. As a radical album, the The Death of Willie Lynch stands strongly, and Black Ice brings in excellent talent to feature on the album, making it a good conglomeration of facts and material. Warning, though: if you buy it, you might even learn something.
(KOCH Records -- 740 Broadway, New York, NY. 10003; http://www.kochrecords.com/; Black Ice -- http://www.myspace.com/blackicemusic)
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Dead Child
Dead Child
Dead Child pic
Okay, so this one's a bit risky: a bunch of the biggest, most revered luminaries of the once-cerebral Louisville indie scene, the folks who brought us (well, partly) math-rock, get together to form...an '80s-style metal band, complete with pointy mëtül logo and song titles like "Black Blood Leather"? Ah. Gotcha.
Seriously, I have to be skeptical as hell about this. I grew up on metal, listening to Metallica, Megadeth, Queensryche, and the like and learning guitar pretty much so I could play that stuff (the first song my guitar teacher ever taught me, naturally, was "Iron Man"), so I'm a little sensitive about jokes at the expense of the soundtrack to my youth. When I see that Dead Child includes David Pajo (guitarist; ex-Slint/Zwan/Tortoise/Aerial M/etc.), Todd Cook (bassist; ex-Crain/Shipping News/The For Carnation), Tony Bailey (drummer; ex-Anomoanon/Lords/Aerial M/Crain), and Michael McMahan (guitarist; ex-The For Carnation and younger bro of Slint's Brian McMahan) have formed a "metal" band, therefore, my first instinct is to assume that these guys are taking the piss. On a cursory sniff, Dead Child sure smells like an elaborate in-joke for a bunch of jaded hipsters, particularly given the recent resurgence of metal and rock in general. Oh, the delicious snark of it all -- I can practically hear the music-geek blogger snickering and hi-fiving now. Heck, this could be bigger than "Bring It (Snakes on a Plane)"!
But maybe I've got these guys all wrong. I mean, I certainly don't listen to just metal these days, despite my upbringing; who's to say Pajo, Cook, Bailey, McMahan, and vocalist Dahm (ex-Starkiller, currently also in Phantom Family Halo) didn't grow up listening to the heavier side of the rock spectrum like I did? Partway through "Angel of the Odd," and I start to feel my cynicism ebbing away. Holy shit...are these guys actually serious about this? Lyrics about blood raining down and "Earth's dying glow," pummeling, crunching guitars, and nicely driving drums -- put all together, this is a damn convincing impersonation of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, or hell, Dio.
"Black Blood Leather" continues in the same vein, channeling Judas Priest (complete with twin-guitar attack) with lyrics that sound like they were ripped out of the Metallica songbook circa Ride the Lightning, but it isn't 'til the stomping, merciless "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" -- the best track on here -- that the secret weapon of the band really comes into his own. Sure, the guitars are unexpectedly good, and the rhythm section charges right along beside, but it turns out that singer-with-one-name Dahm (if he's got a first/last name, I can't find it) is the glue that holds the whole of Dead Child together. He clearly loves the same metal screamers I used to love (and yeah, in some cases, still do), coming off like a more-comprehensible Ozzy Osbourne with a handful of Dio/Dickinson wail and just a touch of Federation X's Bill Badgley's backwoodsy drawl.
By the time "Curse of a Legend," with its Wrathchild America-esque chorus (in my opinion, one of the most sadly overlooked metal bands of the late '80s, by the way), and sludgy, slow-simmering "I Will Live Again" roll around, I'm smiling and stomping my feet. If this is a joke, then it's at least a friendly one, a playful nudge-and-wink to folks like me who still have a soft spot for guitar crunch and throat-shredding wailing about werewolves, witches, and rainbows in the dark. In the final analysis, though, Dead Child is good enough that I'm not sure my initial is-it-a-joke-or-not dilemma even matters.
(Cold Sweat Records -- http://www.coldsweat.org/; Dead Child -- http://deadchild.net/)
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Dead Moon
Echoes of the Past
Dead Moon pic
Dead Moon plays garage punk rock from the '80s. If you like The Pixies, Sonic Youth, or Adolescents, you'll understand. Blink 182 fans or Fall Out Boy fans probably need not apply. This music is stripped-down, raw, and fundamentally black. By "black," I mean that they share an elegiac, anti-social vibe with many "old school" punk rockers, but there's something perhaps more deep in Dead Moon's sound. As a Seattle band, Dead Moon played a profoundly influential role on the movement of hard rock that would come to be called grunge. Pearl Jam covered one of the songs on this compilation, "It's OK," during their recorded live show from Jones Beach back on August 24, 2000, exposing their roots in Dead Moon's chaotic and melancholy sound.
Throughout this comprehensive compilation of Dead Moon material, Echoes of the Blues, jagged guitar riffs, driving bass, and crashing drums deconstruct the melody, which is moaned and yelped by singers Freddy and Toody Cole, creating an anarchic vision of life. The anthemic quality of so many of the songs on this album tap the passion of a subculture that actively seeks out human feeling and adventure through empathetic and powerful lyrics and a variety of rock n' roll styles, making this pioneering jaunt through the world of garage-rock a must have for any punk rock archive.
(Sub Pop Records -- 2013 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA. 98121; http://www.subpop.com/; Dead Moon -- http://www.deadmoonusa.com/)
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Deftones
Saturday Night Wrist
Deftones pic
I've been a huge Deftones fan ever since I saw them open up for the Bad Brains, way back before Adrenaline even came out. I also really dig the fact that they've managed to grow musically over the near-decade that I've been following their output -- pretty much outgrowing the nu-metal/pimp rock/rap-metal/whatever genre seemingly for good with White Pony. I remember the first time I heard that album; it fucking blew me away, man. It was heavy and dense, yet melodic and groovy, pretty much everything I like about music all wrapped up into one neat little package (we're talking about the original release, sans "Back to School").
With all that said, I was pretty let down by Deftones the self-titled followup. Sure, it was a return to heaviness, but in a more ham-fisted, "look, we're still pissed off and metal" kind of way. By this point, I thought the band was better than that. Nothing really caught me on that album, and to this day I break it out once every few months to see if something grabs me, but to no avail.
Of course, after that, I followed all the info that preceded Saturday Night Wrist's release with trepidation. I'd pretty much resigned myself to the fact that it wasn't going to get any better than White Pony, and it seemed be doubtful that any subsequent Deftones album would even come close. All the talk in the press about band tensions and acrimony with original producer Bob Ezrin didn't really help matters any. I mean, if a band hires Bob Freaking Ezrin to produce something and after about a year of recording, numerous accounts (including some from within the band) label the material produced as pretty much worthless, well...chances are you're in for a shitty end-user experience.
Now, meet Shaun Lopez. He apparently saved the day (from what I can gather), and helped shape a possible clusterfuck into at least the second best, possibly the best album that the Deftones have put out so far.
I'm a little biased, I admit. Shaun was the guitarist for Far, one of my favorite bands ever. Far and Deftones go way back, as both came up in the Sacramento scene of the late '90s. After the demise of Far, Shaun got into producing and recording, so when things got hairy with Saturday Night Wrist, it seemed only natural that the Deftones take the masters to Shaun to help out. From what I've read, there was a lot of chopping, re-arranging, remixing, and overdubbing done, but what results is an album that sonically sits right in the middle of Around The Fur and White Pony.
It's got the heavy, angry alterna-metal that the Deftones are known for ("Rapture"), but generally it's the angular, Fugazi/Snapcase-infused variety. It's also got the ambient/New Wave-y stuff ("Beware," "Cherry Waves"), and then there's also super-dense, Hum-like walls of sound that will blow your mind ("Hole In The Earth"). Some songs even seamlessly combine all three to some degree. If Depeche Mode played metal, this is the album that they would make.
This is what Deftones are. This is what sets them apart from the Limp Bizkits and the Korns of the world. This could possibly be their greatest achievement to date. (White Pony and Saturday Night Wrist duke it out regularly on my iPod; a clear winner has not yet been determined. That White Pony album is a scrapper.) Nice save, guys.
(Maverick Records -- http://www.maverick.com/; Deftones -- http://www.deftonesworld.com/)
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The Dent
Farewell
The Dent pic
The first time I heard the opening song from this Denton-based indie-pop band, I clenched my fists involuntarily. Something about the earnestness of the lyrics and the lead singer's soft, pretty voice made me want to provoke him to violence so that I could have an excuse to beat him up: "Seems we never ever fight / Always a good guy / Always an ally." It would have been like taking down a Backstreet Boy.
Years later, someone put this CD on my desk at work when I was trying to find a song for some TV show on the WB. I gave the album a second chance and now feel compelled to say a few things about the band. First off, the saccharine tune that I had initially disliked, "The End of the World," is actually a solid pop song with glossy production and a hook that can contend with any of Maroon 5's offerings (remember Kara's Flowers?). Second, I still think the band's greatest shortcoming is its lead singer's inability to growl, grimace, or sound even remotely menacing on songs like "Fantastic," "Farewell," and "Help the Dead." Some lines are not meant to be delivered that tenderly. The choirboy vocals work better on acoustic rock numbers like "Without Fail," where the band sounds like a modern-day Jars of Clay. But when the band aspires to be a Jimmy Eat World or, God forbid, a Fountains of Wayne, I lose my patience and clench my fists once again.
That said, "End of the World" would make a damned great song for some kind of prime time TV goodbye scene. I hate to admit it, but I think I really like the song. Too bad the band's now broken up...ah, well.
(Thursday Morning Records -- P.O. Box 1557, Fairfield, CT. 06430; The Dent -- http://www.dentmusic.com/)
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Four Star Alarm
Four Star Alarm
Four Star Alarm pic
Four Star Alarm's self-titled EP is competent, well-written guitar rock. The drumming's strong, all the instruments are well-played, and the vocalist at least sounds like he's heard Mike Patton and Brandon Boyd, especially on "Impenetrable," which could easily have been a B-side on Make Yourself. The drums are a bit loud in the mix, but it's not bad, and the whole album sounds well-recorded. (With the exception of the sound of the right guitar, that is; it gets a bit muddy in some of the songs and needs to be louder on the left. I'm guessing that the dude on the left is the Izzy Stradlin of the band). It doesn't sound auto-tuned, which is a good thing, although it says something about the current state of this genre that one automatically assumes that there has been some tuning chicanery going on. Usual lyrical content: world sucks, you suck, parents suck, etc.
One of the nice things about EPs is that they tend to be pretty solid, since there isn't room for filler, and the band's had a ton of time to refine the best songs in their catalog. I thought it was interesting that Four Star Alarm ended with the strongest song (of all strong songs), "Impenetrable," although it's the song that most blatantly nicks Incubus. Maybe that's why it's at the end: if you heard it first, you'd immediately toss Four Star Alarm away as a clone band. As it is, you hear an influence rather than outright theft.
Overall, though, "competent" is about the best I can say. It all sounds great, but there's not really anything that you go "whoa, that's interesting," either musically or lyrically. That isn't to say that it's bad or not well-done, but there just isn't much here. Four Star Alarm sounds pretty much like every other MTV2 band right now, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn't do much for getting you anything but lumped in with the rest of the crowd. I'm guessing their live shows are pretty ripping (this music lends itself to a good bashing; I'll be sure to see them when they come around next), and hopefully their label gives them a chance to evolve and grow. A strong but safe debut.
(Thick Records, Inc. -- P.O. Box 351899, Los Angeles, CA. 90035; http://www.thickrecords.com/; Four Star Alarm -- http://www.myspace.com/fourstaralarm)
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The Good Mornings
The Good Mornings
The Good Mornings pic
Rise and shine, kiddies. The Good Mornings are here to jump start your day with their self-titled debut album. Calliope bandmates Carmen Paradise and Jason Lantrip come together with their fellow Good Mornings counterparts to produce an album that rivals the prowess of a high school band jamming in their mother's basement. Unfortunately, the record's instrumentation is its only saving grace. Lantrip weaves together sounds of pleasurable sorrow and shoe-gazing goodness, yet never manages to converge with the less-than-poetic styling of singer/songwriter Paradise. While Paradise's voice whistles with promise, the sophomoric tone of the lyrics read more like bad teenage prose. The vocals and music remained star-crossed lovers through the album's entirety, never finding a way to come together in harmony.
(Thick Records -- P.O. Box 351899, Los Angeles, CA. 90035; http://www.thickrecords.com/; The Good Mornings -- http://www.myspace.com/thegoodmornings)
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Hello Defective
Kill Us Now
Hello Defective pic
Duo Armitage and Kirby have created an original yet highly pop and psychedelic-influenced sound that could've been produced at Apple Records by Badfinger and Jane's Addiction. Cool grooves and instrumentation, thick sound layers, unusual samples, and Eastern music influences combine in a sophisticated gumbo that mostly eschews the tired distorted guitars that usually pass as "progressive psychedelic." Not to be confused with kiddie-pop, this stuff is loaded with content, counter-melodies, and obscure references. Multiple listenings are required for listeners to gather all of the nuances, yet even on the first listen, they'll find Kill Us Now to be catchy, fun, and intriguing. Highly recommended for the discerning ear.
(Element 115 Recordings -- http://www.element115recordings.com/)
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JMprint
Mperfect
JMprint pic
Austin hip-hopper JMprint rapped on and produced his album, Mperfect, which is solidly in the alt-rap tradition. The samples run the range of styles, from hard-edged rock to jazzy funk to simple electronic noises, and his beats have potential -- some of them are pretty creative, and his flow isn't bad. But they still don't save this record. The biggest problem is his rhymes -- they're just lame. On the more aggressive songs, the energy helps you ignore them, but on the rest, they're hard to forget (and not in the good way).
The few decent songs here are saved by interesting beats. The energetic rapping on "Get Up" is set to a solid droning beat which matches the rapping nicely (especially if you can ignore the lyrics), and the energy carries the song. "Mind's Eye" features a stark, tense beat with a pounding keyboard and rock guitar that complement each other, and the Arabic-sounding keyboard sample heightens the tension. "Every Story Ever Told" features a pretty fingerstyle guitar sample that matches the song perfectly -- it's a shoutout to all the records that don't get played anymore and the record collectors that give them new life. Do we got record nerds in the house? Put your hands in the air!
But again, the biggest problem he has is with the rhymes. They're pedantic and tedious, like this phrase from "Get Up": "And yeah, we're free to believe that we're free / And this purely symbolic freedom will remain unredeemed / Until we do what is deemed to clean house." You have to give him credit for trying to say something other than some gangsta clichés, but good ideas still need good rhymes to work, and that isn't one. "Get Into My Car" is a contrived satire of consumerism and big-box shopping, while his rap with guest MC Sleep is supposed to be annoying in a funny way, but the satire is too broad and too obvious to be funny, so it just ends up annoying.
JMprint's got some talent with the beats, but the rhymes and the rapping overwhelm most of the songs. I guess somebody needs to tell J that not everybody's cut out to be Kanye West.
(self-released)
Lamexcuse
All Important Little Things
Lamexcuse pic
Lamexcuse hails from the depths of Graz, Austria, bringing with them a pretty banal indie-rock album. Their debut release, All Important Little Things, has made its way to the States and is being touted as "The Proclaimers playing Moody Blues covers in Lindesfarne's basement produced by an early eighties R.EM." Lamexcuse couldn't be a further representation of those bands. All Important Little Things does have some redeeming qualities, though. The songs, while not lyrical masterpieces, are catchy and complement the skillfully constructed melodies. While the acoustic vibe of the album is pleasant and palatable, the obvious talent of the band members seems to have been drowned out by complete mediocrity. All Important Little Things has all the makings of a solid indie-rock album, but overall there's just nothing overtly, or even obviously, new and interesting about the music. Really, it's just another Lamexcuse for an indie-rock record. Hey, I guess they couldn't have described themselves better if they tried.
(self-released; Lamexcuse -- http://www.lamexcuse.com/)
LOW.Z
Salvo
LOW.Z pic
I have the unenviable task of reviewing the most recent salvo (ahem) from one of Houston's most well-ensconced and varied musicians, Rob Smith, aka LOW.Z, as an outsider. Smith is well-known to the Houston area music scene, having been a member of The Sperlings and All Transistor, amongst others, and having won various Houston Press awards back in 2000 and 2001. And that's about all I know about the guy. In this case, however, it's more a blessing than a curse, since it means I can look at the music without any influence or thoughts about how Salvo reflects on Smith's past work: I can judge the music on its merits, rather than on its buzz or reputation.
And I judge that this album is the most unique, most interesting, and, dare I say, coolest albums I have heard in a long time, with one big caveat: You probably won't like it.
Salvo won't appeal to everyone. On the contrary, it may appeal to almost no one. It's quirky, obtuse, beat-driven but hook-laden, vocally limber, but almost cliché-driven (in a specific, twisted way). Smith listens to and absorbs the patois of our vocal culture, culling verbiage, sounds, and words from the background noise. In fact, you will recognize most of the lyrics in some form or another, whether they're twisted words or lines from television or radio or print. The album seems to be mixed in reverse, with the tweedly bits and honks way out front and the song and vocals buried in the back. On top of this wiggly mess, Smith pushes occasional sound blasts and bass hits front and center, such that you are jerked out of you head-bobbing and slapped alongside the skull in case you weren't paying attention. For a solo album, especially one that's so inaccessible (and I mean that in the more mainstream sense), this is a heady, risky choice, and one that I believe says something not only about the confidence Smith has in this work but about the staid state of the music coming out of Houston right now, as well.
If you visit the guy's Website, you are treated to a song-by-song explanation of the album. (Note: I purposely did not read the descriptions before reviewing, although I did stop by the MySpace site.) It sounds obvious, but Zero is Gary Numan meets Kraftwerk meets Squarepusher (sort of), with the songcraft on the Gary Numan side and the knob-turning of Kraftwerk. Smith clearly loves his vocoder. For a bedroom/home studio recording, Salvo sounds brilliant, every bit as good as any of the other homebody ninjas slaving away in their self-imposed solitude in London. If I had this disc pushed on me at the store, I'd pick it up in an instant.
By the by, you can download the entire album from Smith's site (or via the MySpace page). Go pick it up; you won't be disappointed. Completely different from everything else coming out of Houston right now.
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Many Birthdays
Days of Beat/Days of Hollow
Many Birthdays pic
The self-released EP Days of Beat/Days of Hollow, from Austinites Many Birthdays is a fusion of sounds and moods, with lyrics sung in both English and Japanese. The music ranges, at any given instant, from some kind of jaunty indie-pop to darker, beat-heavy prog-rock and manages something almost unthinkable: it sounds at once shimmery and well-grounded, pretty and cynical, sexy and...humorous?
This is the band's fourth release in about as many years, and looking back, the sound is consistently eclectic (yet another seeming contradiction, but one they somehow pull off beautifully), although tighter and more focused. I've heard comparisons justly made to a plethora of artists, including Ladytron, Beck, and Cibo Matto, and would like to further confuse with the addition of Stereolab and fellow Texans Japanic (of yore, that is...from Tex Kerschen, etc., now of Indian Jewelry). A weird profusion of similarities has been suggested by various sources but, to the credit of Many Birthdays, everyone seems to hear something different in their music, and while all these potential influences can be heard, none is overbearing enough that the music feels derivative or rehashed. In other words, you're not listening to this and thinking "cover band." Many Birthdays are like auditory fusion food, and who doesn't love that?
Each of the five songs that constitute this latest effort is a unique venture, anything but interchangeable, with seemingly dissonant themes and sounds fading away only to reappear later in another song, tying everything together. Opening with a persistent tapping, the first song, "Freeway," is hypnotic lyrics sung in Japanese over simple electropop keyboard. "Days Like Turtles" is a contemplative sunny-day ramble; the vocals are sour, twangy, like the unlikely offspring of Bob Dylan and David Byrne, and imbued somehow with a slightly cynical humor, as if we hear the wry little smile they are sung through. This is set up against rich layers of lush, beautiful sounds and vocals, interspersed with unbelievably catchy electronic effects.
"Handful of Zeros" begins with a darker, sexier beat and is punctuated by a robotic countdown giving way once more to detached thoughts filtered through that cynical smile. "Black Crow" follows form, with abrupt, staccato lyrics juxtaposed with eloquently eerie warbling and a heavy pulse that flows in and out as if underwater. It's almost as if the vocals punctuate the songs like drumbeats, whilst the synthetic beat creates the flow. "Yume No Sekai" is dark, ethereal pop, like swimming at night in the ocean...with, like, a robot.
In the end, it's really quite interesting. And whether or not "interesting" alone is adequate persuasion is up to the discerning reader here, but it seems that, more often than not, this is, in fact, a rather elusive quality. Aside from this, the sound is catchy enough that it can stick in your head (for good or for evil), just brimming with Japanese cyborg lyrics, pop melodies, and other assorted electronic loveliness, yet always with an undercurrent of refreshing darkness to counteract all that sunshine. Ah, yes, a well-balanced breakfast.
(self-released; Many Birthdays -- http://www.manybirthdays.net/)
Blake Miller
Together with Cats
Blake Miller pic
Although many liken his music to the early works of Sam Beam (a.k.a. Iron & Wine) or the eccentricity of Devendra Barnhart, 19-year-old Blake Miller is making impressive waves on his own terms. His recent debut album, Together with Cats, is a curious and insightful selection of home recordings Miller and his many friends produced in his hometown of Columbus. Though some of the songs on the album cleverly and convincingly incorporate sounds from unconventional instruments like keystrokes from a typewriter and the clanking of kitchen utensils, Miller's tender and unassuming voice and gentle guitar strums take center stage.
While a distinctive folk influence can be detected with songs like "Sinners," a lo-fi recording of a country-folk-inspired ballad, Miller's most notable song, "Mama Papa Witch Daddy," is the most telling example of Miller's potential to edge his way into the indie-pop/rock arena. Many of the songs on the album have a pure and delightfully indie feel to them. I daresay there's even an inkling of a possibility that somewhere down the road, Miller could pick up where Elliot Smith (sadly) left off. His overall appearance and sound really radiate a teeny bit of the beloved Smith. (He even kinda looks like him...) Overall, Miller's first collection of songs really provides a solid and enjoyable introduction to the potential that Miller possesses as a singer/songwriter.
(Exit Stencil Recordings -- 6205 Detroit Ave., Cleveland, OH. 44102; http://www.exitstencilrecordings.com/; Blake Miller -- http://www.myspace.com/burntape)
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The Minstrels
Our Cruel Demise
The Minstrels pic
I'm depressed, and the perfect soundtrack to my life right now is The Minstrels' Our Cruel Demise.
Okay, that's a joke, guys, but if I were depressed, this would be what I would be listening to. That doesn't mean that the album is bad, mind you. It's along the lines of a ballady goth genre -- dark. Vocalist Jeff Curtain, who is the bass player, as well, is the one who sets the mood for the album with his heavy bass lines. The Minstrels hail from Rochester, New York, originating back in 1998, and this two-man, one-woman band claim to be influenced by everything from Joy Division, Leonard Cohen, and "The For Carnation Medieval Dance." "Medieval"? I never would've guessed it.
Overall, Our Cruel Demise lives up to its name. The songs are about -- you guessed it -- cruelness and love. I can see myself dancing to this if I were surrounded by knights celebrating, with an enormous feast before me. Jeff Curtin, Rob Grenier, and Lauren Bohrer have really captured the sound of "dark folk." They're definitely very original and because of that, I've added The Minstrels to my collection of music.
(Klem North Records -- P.O. Box 879, Downington, PA. 19335; http://www.klemnorth.com/; The Minstrels -- http://www.myspace.com/theminstrelsmusic)
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The Rocket Summer
The Early Years EP
The Rocket Summer pic
Ah, teen angst, deliverer of a thousand heartfelt youth anthems. Not knocking it, mind you -- I spent many days in my youth obsessing over Superchunk's Foolish, which is in my opinion one of the all-time classic breakup albums ever, and then started a band basically so I could sing about one particular girl, so trust me when I say I know the urge to strap on a guitar and bare your soul with power chords and a distortion pedal. And really, that's pretty much what you get on The Rocket Summer's The Early Years EP: loud, impassioned rock with pretty melodies, heroic choruses, and boyish vocals just this side of Davey vonBohlen. (I should note, by the way, that the "band" is apparently mostly one fresh-faced young guy named Bryce Avary. And no, the EP's title isn't some lame attempt at hipster irony; this is actually a reissue of Avary's first self-recorded EP, from back in '99-'00 or so.)
Ironically, the track that sums things up the best, "Teenage Love Rock," also demonstrates somewhat the perils of this kind of lovelorn mopery; in short, it's too poppy, too light, practically ephemeral, and before you know it, it's gone, leaving you not really missing it much. "That's What She Said" takes things a step slower and loses even more ground, coming off like a budget Jimmy Eat World. Not strictly bad, no, but not real memorable, either.
The Rocket Summer fares better when it gets faster and cranks up the volume, like on opener "So Far Away," which is ferocious but jangly at the same time, melding the driving anthem of Buffalo Tom with the aforementioned Superchunk's caffeinated howl. Same goes with "My Typical Angel," a bitter rock blast that evokes Weezer's less pretentious moments (or, hell, maybe the better ones from Blink-182), and "December Days," which mines Promise Ring territory and comes up with gold.
Hell, even "She's A Seven," the lyrical conceit of which is cheesy beyond belief, does the trick when the band puts their energy behind it, very nearly channeling all those teenage UK power-pop bands from a couple of decades back. When Avary's on, he's on; if this was just the first step, I'm curious to see where things've gone since. Moral of the story, kids: when you're displaying your scars for all the world to see, do it as loud as you freakin' can.
[The Rocket Summer will be performing at The Meridian on Tuesday, March 13, along with The Early November & Melee.]
(The Militia Group - 13892 Harbor Blvd. Suite 4A, Garden Grove, CA. 92843; http://www.themilitiagroup.com/; The Rocket Summer -- )
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The Seximals
No Glamour All Frenzy
The Seximals pic
"I got Sunday School bruises and my share of Cathedral scars," Anthony Barilla sings on "Bound For Glory," the lead track on No Glamour All Frenzy. With simple acoustic strumming and stripped-down drums, the band's music lends itself wholeheartedly to the song's honest feel, which instantly intrigues the listener and takes the focus to the lyrics. Most of the album's songs draw listeners in much the same manner, especially on "Gin Tango," the electrified "The Utilitarians," and "Drinking Song," yet the band's musical quasi-experimentation on "Bring Out Your Dead" and the female vocals on "Speakeasy" detract from the album's overall moody effect.
The Seximals' music deserves to be heard -- unique in almost every way, their mostly acoustic and piano-based songs are perfect for that lazy afternoon, hazy morning, or smoke-filled coffeehouse. Whether the Houston act is still around, however, is anyone's guess...
(Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- P.O. Box 131004, Houston, TX. 77219-1004; The Seximals -- http://seximal.blogspot.com/)
The Shins
Wincing the Night Away
The Shins pic
When you get albums for review from labels, they generally come accompanied by a press release that is meant to color your perception of the album they have just sent you. The press is supposed to give you pointers on what you are to be thinking. In reading these things, you will inevitably find that many of the articles are similar and touch on the talking points that the label is trying to get across.
With Wincing the Night Away, the Sub Pop press machine (which in reality is probably less like a machine and more like one person) wants you to take away a couple things: that this new Shins album sounds something like Echo and the Bunnymen or '60s pop and that Natalie Portman's character in Garden State said that the Shins' "New Slang" (from 2001 release Oh, Inverted World) could "change your life." The former makes a kind of sense, because comparing an album being reviewed to an album that you may already be familiar with is one of the fastest (some would say laziest) ways to get across in words what the music sounds like. The latter bit -- mentioned in four separate articles -- is somewhat confusing to me, because I'm not sure sure how Queen Amidala's musical taste tells me anything about the music of the Shins.
There are indeed bits of Wincing the Night Away that sound like '60s pop, but it's a heavily '80s-influenced '60s pop, like the Echo and the Bunnymen that they mention in the press release, but only vaguely like Echo and the Bunnymen (nobody ever accused me of not being lazy). A better comparison would be a different '60s-via-'80s band: Tears for Fears. Both the Shins and Tears for Fears reinterpret '60s pop and both Tears Fears' Roland Orzabal and the Shins' James Mercer have -- how shall I put it? -- quirky voices.
Usually when you read about quirky voices, you're getting a euphemism for "out of tune," but that's not the case here. In this case, I use "quirky" to describe a voice that is primarily employed at the upper end of its range and the voice's owner struggles -- just a little -- to keep it there. Other offenders in this category might be Rush's Geddy Lee, Yes' Jon Anderson, and XTC's Andy Partridge. It's okay to hear for a while, but not for extended listenings. If you've ever tried, you know how grating it can get.
It's a shame about the vocals, too, because there really is some sparkling pop on Wincing the Night Away, stuff that I might well listen to over and over. The production is lush, with keyboards, strings, and other interesting sonic textures that make you want to listen closely. If you're a Shins fan, don't worry; the production is only marginally more lush than that on the Shins' last full-length, Chutes Too Narrow, so you won't be surprised or disappointed there. The biggest difference is that there are fewer upbeat songs on Wincing that you fans might describe as Supercatchy. I'm here to tell you, though, that's a good thing.
If you're like me and you enjoy listening to a whole album, rather than one song, dynamics are key. The songs can't all be upbeat, because you need a little space for things to sink in. So listen to the whole album and don't be afraid of the moody ones. As Mercer sings in "Red Rabbits": "So help me, I don't know, I might / Just give the old dark side a try." Oh -- the dark side -- that's what Queen Amidala has to do with the Shins. It makes sense now.
(Sub Pop Records -- 2013 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA. 98121; http://www.subpop.com/; The Shins -- http://www.theshins.com/)
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The Silvermen
Incendiary Luminary
The Silvermen pic
First of all, let's make it clear that we are talking about the rockabilly/western/surf rock band called The Silvermen. If you googled "The Silvermen" and came up with "NSW. Smooth bear seeks all ages locally or internationally," you might be looking for Ken, a gay older man with a need for love. If so, and this page came up, my apologies. Here's where you can find your own smooth bear: http://www.silvermen.org. If, however, you were looking for the band The Silvermen, the real links for the band are at the bottom of the article. Please use those. It's much more embarrassing to figure this out at work, trust me.
Now, on to the review. The Silvermen's debut release, Incendiary Luminary, adds a unique fire and energy to the rockabilly genre. They have a sound that is most easily comparable to Reverend Horton Heat. The band sings about jail time, cops, drinking, muscle cars, Nashville, and their "babies." If you're into Reverend Horton Heat, then you shouldn't have any trouble getting to like this band. My favorite track, "Love Shakin' Blues Playin' King," sounds so close to Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" that I caught myself singing the words of Mr. Berry right along with the song. There are a few other tracks that borrow from other rock icons, specifically from the repertoire of Dick Dale. The Silver Men have a few songs that will certainly make some surf-rock waves at their shows.
The instrumentalists keep the music eclectic and fresh. The songs contain soft harmonics, jazzy breakdowns, sneaky bass, and swinging beats. One song might be a little more mellow and possess some of that Southern charm, while the next could be a dance floor brawl waiting to happen. The band makes sure to maintain their roots by keeping a touch of country on Incendiary Luminary. Break out the hair grease (Dapper Dan, preferably), roll up the cuffs of your jeans, and go see The Silvermen.
(Shindig Records; The Silvermen -- http://www.thesilvermen.com/)
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Speakerfire
Audio Alchemy
Speakerfire pic
Speakerfire hails from Buffalo, and apparently the snowy winters have allowed the band ample time to hone their craft. Audio Alchemy is the perfect name for their album, as it's an interesting amalgamation of all alt-rock leanings. In the band's bio, they list comparisons to the Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age, but that's a tad ambitious. The band is more melodic and musically leans more Saves The Day or Underoath. There are seven tracks listed but two of them are under-one-minute instrumentals, so this is really more of an EP than a full-length. As for the five remaining tracks, there's not a dud among 'em.
The songs range in mood from rockers "Synthetic Shepherd," which sound like Velvet Revolver if the band was made up of members of Mudhoney and Every Time I Die, to "Lupercalia" and "Omega," which both have a more somber and emotional side to them without using tired clichés to dupe the listener. On each track, the band musically creates a perfect foundation for Ian Wiedrick's vocals to lead the song. One part that must not be overlooked is the bass playing of Jon Skowron; he knows when to play something special and when to just lay back and follow the song.
Every week, the big-box stores feature "Artists on the Rise." Out of all those CDs, maybe a couple are as good as Audio Alchemy. Hopefully with the horrible weather conditions affecting the North, the band will sequester themselves away and record another gem. Maybe then someone will include them in a Sunday insert.
(Piermont Records -- P.O. Box 91, Allendale, NJ. 07401; http://www.piermontrecords.com/; Speakerfire -- http://www.myspace.com/speakerfire)
Tommy and the Terrors
Unleash the Fury
Tommy and the Terrors pic
Just by looking at the band name, the album title, and the producer (Matt Kelly of Dropkick Murphys fame), you know what you're getting here. Raucous, old-school '70s punk with elements of Oi! and hardcore. Lots of chanting and group vocals. Furiously pounded-out power chords, buzzing guitars, and lots of spilled beer. Lots of it, I imagine -- this album never lets up, from the first shout to the last downstroke, it's all pure piss and vinegar. What the hell is up with Boston that makes it keep creating these bands? Even their album cover is a depiction of a scene of insane, drunken carnage. Is that a leprechaun punching a skinhead? It sure as hell is. This is definitely not MTV/Hot Topic punk. You could probably call these guys the anti-Good Charlotte. God bless Tommy and the Terrors.
(TKO Records -- 8941 Atlanta Avenue, #505, Huntington Beach, CA. 92646; http://www.tkorecords.com/; Tommy and the Terrors -- http://www.tommyandtheterrors.com/)
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Various Artists
Take Action!, Volume 6
Take Action! pic
I have to hand it to The Kids, sometimes. From the precious distance of Middle Age, I can remember back in the days of my youth, when music was ghettoized and genre-fied. You had metal, you had rock, you had hip-hop, you had pop, and you had all the bazillion sub-genres of each, and the rare intersections between were bright anomalies in the galaxy of Boxed-In Music. Sure, we made steps in the right direction ("we" meaning people and bands from my youth, not me personally) -- Faith No More, Fishbone, Bad Brains, and when Anthrax and Public Enemy did "Bring Tha Noize," for me, at least, it felt like the opening of a new era.
Jump forward TiVo-like to today, though, and all bets are off. The bands coming up these days don't give a damn about labels or what you "can"/"can't" do with certain genres of music. Hell, it occasionally feels like they don't really care much about genres in general. Your average band of post-teens with guitars is just as likely to throw an electro break into a song as they are a hardcore breakdown; they mix and match styles as the occasion calls for it, not based on some supposed rulebook.
The end result is pretty much what amounts to the New Modern Rock. It's loud, heavy on the guitars, and subgenre-defying, melding elements of metal, punk, hardcore, and pop with all the soul-baring hallmarks of emo. And dammit, I have to admire those crazy kids for coming up with it.
The reason I'm waxing ecstatic over the rock of today is because I've just worked my way through the Take Action! Volume 6 double-CD/DVD comp, the latest in the Take Action! series from Hopeless/Sub City Records. Close to half of the bands on here, from My Chemical Romance to Kaddisfly, fall vaguely in the New Modern Rock camp, albeit with sometimes wildly different takes on the same general blueprint. There are definitely some wide-ranging acts in the other half, like arty weirdos These Arms Are Snakes, sludgy, off-kilter stoners He Is Legend, gloomy Scandinavian metallers In Flames, and agitpunks Anti-Flag, but even those add to, rather than detract from, the mix.
Frankly, the biggest downside to this comp is that all but five of the tracks on here are taken from each band's previously-released albums; if all you're here for is new music from Cool Band A, you're going to walk away disappointed. In a weird way, this comp isn't for the diehard fanboy, but for somebody more like, well, me. Somebody who's a casual observer -- maybe a fan of some of these bands, maybe not -- but who doesn't own every album by every band on here. Taken as a whole, what Volume 6 is is a nicely varied cross-section of what The Kids have been up to lately.
And most of it's good. On Disc One, the My Chemical Romance track, "This Is How I Disappear," makes me actually want to like the band, which isn't something I ever thought would happen. There's also Emery's "The Ponytail Parades (Acoustic)," which nicely pairs that you-just-ripped-my-heart-out anguished howl with boyish harmony vocals and piano, and Paramore's "Emergency," a ferocious, anthemic female-fronted emo-rock with gorgeous melodies and vocals that tread the line between ass-kicking and sweetness.
Drop Dead, Gorgeous get more chaotic and crazed than the rest on "Daniel, Where's the Boat?," while It Dies Today pummels you into submission with "Reignite the Fires." Scary Kids Scaring Kids, Senses Fail, and Cute Is What We Aim For turn in decent performances, and In Flames' "Come Clarity" burns with a fire that seems out-of-place coming from a country as chilly as Sweden. Hell, even the full-on metal-göd wail of Into Eternity's "Timeless Winter" manages to make me smile.
For Disc Two, things take a bit more of a punkish turn, with excellent tracks from Anti-Flag ("This Is The End"), Strike Anywhere ("Instinct"), and lesser-knowns like The Briggs ("Don't Care"). There's still a heavy dose of more straight-ahead alternarock, too, with the likes of Heavens and So They Say filling in the ranks, but the level of quality manages to remain pretty high. Crash Romeo's "Life Camp" brings in some nice, Anniversary-esque keys to complement the impassioned emo-boy vocals, while Damiera's "Via Invested" aims for some old-school emo chords. Headed off in another direction entirely, The Hush Sound's glam-cabaret "Wine Red" swings and swaggers coolly enough to make me wonder why I've never heard much by 'em before now, and Copeland's "Control Freak" drives on serenely like Ben Gibbard's best nighttime dreams.
Come to think of it, I have a hard time finding any low points to bitch about -- which is surprising, considering that there're 41 full tracks on these two CDs (and the fact that I'm a grumpy old codger with a low tolerance for sound-alike rock these days). But there it is: I finish the second disc of the set -- I'm not even going to go into the DVD here, so you can experience that one all on your own -- and I'm already thinking about which tracks I want to listen to again.
Of course, I can't really talk about a Take Action! comp without mentioning the cause. The whole point of the exercise is to raise awareness of and fight against teen suicide, from the PSAs tacked onto all three discs (even the DVD) to the 5% of the proceeds donated to the Kristin Brooks Hope Center (http://www.hopeline.com/), the organization behind the 1-800-SUICIDE hotline.
Which, as someone who was once a cripplingly shy and depressed teen himself, is something well worth supporting; when you're a kid, it's far too easy to give up hope when you feel like there's no one out there willing to listen. So whichever your passion is, the cause or the music, this comp's well worth it.
[The Take Action! Tour, including Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Emery, Scary Kids Scaring Kids, A Static Lullaby, and Kaddisfly, will be performing at Warehouse Live on Tuesday, February 13.]
(Sub City/Hopeless Records -- P.O. Box 7495, Van Nuys, CA. 94109; http://www.subcity.net/; Take Action! Tour -- http://www.takeactiontour.com/)
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Your Black Star
Sound from the Ground
Your Black Star pic
Your Black Star formed in 2001 in Louisville, Kentucky, home of well-known heroes Elliott, with whom the members of YBS toured extensively between 2000 and 2005 on the Louisville icons' final hurrah. After Elliott dissolved, YBS decided to stay on the road on their own, hitting the Far East, Australia, and Europe, where they've established a strong following and critical acclaim. Their new album, Sound from the Ground, includes a bunch of everything that was good about rock music over the last 20 years. Depending where you start spinning the disc, you might hear early U2, The Cult, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden (or many other bands in the Seattle scene at that time), The Clash, or Radiohead. While "heavy," YBS aren't all dirge and dour. The opener, "Why Do I Wait," directly pulls from early U2 in influence if not in vocal stylings. "The Gauze..." has a slightly Radiohead-ish sound in the verses, but without the glitch-pop wankery. "Rockets (Reserved)" might have been an early Cure throwaway, with a subdued chorus smashing into a huge arena chorus. Pretty powerful stuff.
YBS doesn't blow you away with flashy playing or faux attitude. The songs are strong, hook-laden, and brash without being pretentious a là Oasis. One of the best I've heard in awhile; definitely one that grows on you.
(Wonka Vision Records -- P.O. Box 63680, Philadelphia, PA. 19147; http://www.wonkavisionmagazine.com/; Your Black Star -- http://www.yourblackstar.com/)
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