Able Baker Fox
If you haven't heard of these guys, go ahead and put them on your short list of new favorite bands. The Casket Lottery and Small Brown Bike are both gone, but because of their chemistry in past collaborative efforts, ex-band members Nathan Ellis, Ben Reed, Mike Reed, and Jeff Gensterblum are creating amazing music together in a long-distance love affair they call Able Baker Fox. And it's damn good (as you can tell from the 10-inch they put out together in 2002, available on Second Nature). They're already making waves, playing one of the Hot Water Music reunion shows in Chicago in early February. Voices was recorded in 2007 with familiar name Ed Rose out in Kansas, and the vinyl comes in yellow/black, blue/orange, and a special edition yellow, only available at that Hot Water reunion show.
This is one of those albums on which you don't want to skip a single track. "October" starts the album out and gets your fists pumping -- powerful guitars, intense bass lines, solid drumming, and plenty of awesome sing-a-long anthemic vocals guide you through the variations on this album. "Face on Fire" is driving, with a gnarly guitar solo on a song that's sure to be a crowd pleaser live (how many will be grabbing for the microphones, trying to yell "Face on fire!" with fists raised to the sky?). "Twenty Centuries" has amazing group backing vocals, with some great dueling vocals courtesy of Ellis and Mike Reed.
The lyrics speak to so many of us, probably, that have been through some years that have calloused us. And the whole album makes me feel like it's all going to be okay -- that there's other people who are keepin' on keepin' on. "Whispering" reminds us as the album closes: "Hey don't stop / Take a look at what you've got / Hey don't quit / Not while you're living it / Did you hear what your heart is whispering? / Aren't you listening? / Why aren't you listening?" Yeah. Fuck, yeah.
Win Us Over
Southern rock need not be ridden to compilation albums sold on TV in the wee hours of the night. ASG has got the goods and has pushed the genre enough to show real ingenuity. With their fourth album, Win Us Over, the band from North Carolina delivers tracks that will please both Skynyrd fans and prog-rock snobs alike.
The disc opens with "Right Death Before," and immediately you know you're in for a ride, with wailing harmonics, and drum skins that must be begging for forgiveness. Then there's the vocals -- unique tonal qualities and melodies that make you wonder why guitarist Jason Shi didn't step up to the mic from the beginning (ASG was an instrumental band, looking for a vocalist, till Shi gave in). The tracks continue with more original riffs, entertaining guitar accompaniments, and beats to abuse your steering wheel to. "Coffee Depression Sunshine" is the first opportunity you'll have to avoid a kick drum in your face; the chill mood of the track at first seems an oddball, but the lyrics create such haunting imagery that it feels worthy.
Ah, yes, the lyrics. If there's anything that can be faulted on Win Us Over, it's the lyrics. You'd be hard pressed to find a track that doesn't include references to god, death, violence, or rebirth (sometimes all of the above). The bias towards metal-like lyrics doesn't do the music justice for most of this disc, and I think we'll see ASG sharpening their pencils soon, if they aren't already. There are no exceptions to this theme, but there are exceptional moments; impressive and original unplugged sounds, marvelous harmonies, and time changes that make your head nod with approval, over and over again.
Despite the doom-and-gloom lyrics, you can see these guys are enjoying their work. The angels tracking their souls on the title track "Win Us Over" may very well be the kind with wings. ASG's sound, however, tells me they're the kind that ride Harleys. The disc concludes with "Bombs Away," a tease at barely over two minutes, but the downtempo pace is a fitting end to the furiousness that precedes it.
The disc is a roller coaster ride through heaven, hell, disappointment, and redemption. Overall, it just fucking rocks.
Audible Stellar Hypnotic Situations
The boys in A>S>H>S have been grooving around Houston for about a decade now, recently releasing their first album Audible Stellar Hypnotic Situations. Their instrumental sound has an electronic/jazzy/funk feel to it, peppered with turntables and saxophones; think Thievery Corporation dabbling in trance music. Or a really good porno soundtrack. Dark trip-hop overtones hold the album together, and the sound is surprisingly mature and polished for a debut release.
This music works well in the background (desk job, anyone?), and midway through the CD, my left toe caught the bug and started tapping; a good sign. Congo drums add a little jungle flair to a few tracks and provide some earthy contrast to the predominantly electronic vibes. Turntables scratch around most of the songs, and the song "Nova" adds some levity with a few Clark Griswold samples ("Excuse me, holmes?"). The standout track, "Lost," showcases machine-gun snares and nebulous space soundscapes, with a drawly saxophone right at the peak.
Most of the songs are over eight minutes long, giving all the members a chance to show off. With no prominent melody in most tracks, these jams and solos drive the album. The variety of instrumentation and talented musicians gives A>S>H>S plenty of room to play around onstage live. Don't worry about band chemistry, either; the last two tracks were improvised in-studio and sound solid.
This type of music is usually appropriate for the club scene and upscale lounges, at least somewhere where guys need a button-down. A>S>H>S, however, owns and often performs at their own warehouse southeast of downtown Houston. According to their Website, the performances there "showcase live suspension rituals, fire breathing robots, and fire dancers with raw unadulterated music." Holy shit. Drinks, robots, space-beats, and fire? Yes, please.
On their self-titled EP, Houston band Balero plays instrumental heavy metal. One of the biggest things that annoys me about metal is the singing, so these guys are already more up my alley than most current metal bands. And hey, Slint used death-metal pedals and nobody complained, so why shouldn't everybody else? The guys in Balero have a decent feel for dynamics, and they're tight. The problem is that the band seems to be hoping a singer will show up, rather than trying to write music that works on its own -- they're instrumental because they can't find a singer, not because they deliberately want to play instrumentals.
That's a big part of the reason the songs sound the same. They've all got the same sort of feel, because they use the same ideas over and over. The last three songs ("The Voyage," "El Mere," and "Well Look Who It Is") are almost entirely built on similar-sounding power chord riffs. And the first song, "Drop The Bomb," uses a guitar line that sounds much like a line in "El Mere." To top it all off, the first three ("Bomb," "Voyage," and "Mere") are all in the same key. All of this makes them sound very much the same.
The last track, "Well Look Who It Is," starts off differently, at least -- it starts out like some droning Slint-type tune, and there's a nice slightly dissonant riff in the middle, but then most of the song is exactly like "Voyage" and "Mere." Even with some overdubbed guitar parts, it goes on for longer than it should (a whole five minutes, for some reason).
If Balero had intended to have a singer, or even an instrumental melody line or something, the songs might have worked better that way, but as it is, it all sounds the same: like it's missing something.
The Besnard Lakes
The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse
Music bloggers love to compare The Besnard Lakes to the Beach Boys. It's true; try navigating your way through the webosphere to find a blog and/or zine that doesn't -- they're not there. And yes, this six-piece indie outfit from Montreal has clearly taken some harmonic cues from the '60s (pre-Uncle Jessie on drums) super group, particularly on the gorgeously-crafted "For Agent 13," but that's only part of the story. On The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse (released February 20th on Jagjaguwar), husband and wife Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas take listeners through an expansive array of orchestral pop-rock that's reminiscent of early Sigur Rós, placing them firmly in the center of the post-rock genre made hugely popular these days by the likes of Grizzly Bear and Menomena.
But there is something different about The Besnard Lakes, something that allows listeners to relate to them in ways they can't to other bands in this genre -- they don't take themselves too seriously. Whether singing about spies, riding the rails, or the pleasures of begging a girl not to leave, The Besnard Lakes get it. They seem to understand what it takes to exist in a world that is at the same time critically adored and popularly accessible -- and, as we all know, there are but a few bands that are allowed to live there with them (or maybe just one; Sufjan, anyone?). The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse will stay with you for days -- try to listen to it and not want to listen to it again. And then again. It might be impossible. And isn't it wonderful to stumble upon an album that can do that?
There is something great happening in Montreal these days, and The Besnard Lakes are doing their part in making us all jealous we don't live there.
Nothing short of "amazing" should be used to sum up the newest addition to the Bloodsimple world. With it being over two years since their first debut album, A Cruel World, the now-four-member crew has proven their place in the metal scene with the follow-up album Red Harvest. This new collection definitely shows how much they've grown, from a semi-small NY group into the big hit they are today, with tracks like "Whiskey Bent And Hellbound (HELLMYR)," "Dead Man Walking," and "Out To Get You."
Bloodsimple has fine-tuned their sound and made it their own. Unlike most new music coming out, Bloodsimple has reintroduced solos back into the lost relic that we call metal. With help from record producer Machine (Lamb Of God/White Zombie), the quartet flew through the recording of this album in just two short months. Despite losing drummer Chris Hamilton, the band soldiered on, with Mike Froedge filling in for them in the studio.
The concept for Red Harvest was based on a 1929 detective novel, also conveniently titled Red Harvest. The lyrics were constructed based on characters like those mentioned in the novel. For example, in "Dead Man Walking": "Look at me I'm a dead man walking / Put another nail in my coffin / On the hill I see the bodies burning / Burn, Burn, Burn it down." Sounds like their recent touring buddy Chad Gray (Hellyeah/Mudvayne) must have rubbed off some of the same vocal styling to front man Tim Williams, as seen on such tracks as "Whiskey Bent And Hellbound (HELLMYR)." Track two, "Red Harvest," sounds similar to Killswitch Engage and displays a perfect blend of deep, crunchy chops, mixed with high-end harmonic overtones.
All in all, from the bluesy spoken-word intro to the speedy, machine-gun-style riff ending, you'll never tire of this album; it's one to definitely add to your collection.
Built By Snow
Sometimes dorks really do make the best music. Something about the goofy Buddy Holly-esque glasses, shaggy hair, and lankiness combines to create music that is clever, catchy, and not completely devoid of lyrical merit. Built By Snow may strike the average appreciator of music as just another indie-rock band out of Austin, but the one thing they have that sets them apart from the rest is their sense of humor. After winning a Battle of the Bands competition, the quirky quartet used their contest earnings to produce the 7-song EP Noise. Their sound is reminiscent of Weezer's Pinkerton days, complete with silly lyrics, brash guitar riffs and distinctive vocal harmonies. "Juliana" is an awesome ode to geek-chic love; the indie-rock ballad has comfortably muted strumming that plays well against the more pronounced and emotionally charged vocals. The Noise EP, while not a nod to anything particularly new or innovative, is fun and unexpectedly impressive for a first release.
Fatal Flying Guilloteens
Sweet Jesus. I'm having a real hard time digesting the fact that Quantum Fucking is now officially the Fatal Flying Guilloteens' tenth release. I was almost positive the ground would open up and swallow the band whole before the universe would allow that much Guilloteens-ness to exist in the world. Damn... The album pretty much picks up where the Guilloteens' last album, Get Knifed, left off, eschewing the sloppy garage-ness of years past in favor of a tight, tight, tight, math-rock-y/NYC noise hybrid that doesn't careen drunkenly around the room so much as step straight in and punch you in the face, hard.
Which is a good thing, believe it. Because over the span of their ridiculously long life, the band has dialed in what they do so it's a damn science, and crafting it into something heavy and sharp and jagged; it's amazing to experience, but dangerous at the same time. "Reveal The Rats," Quantum Fucking's first "single," such as it is, lays out the band's cunningly devised gameplan: the Roy Mata's bass and John Adams's drums drive on through like a freight train, knocking you off your feet and keeping you down while Brian McManus (who's since left the band and been replaced by Bring Back the Guns' Erik Bogle) and Shawn Adolph's guitars chime, scrape, and screech, almost Yeah Yeah Yeahs-style, over your head and singer/drummer Mike Bonilla (both he and Adolph tackle the vocal duties on this one) rants and spits about extermination. Despite the song's title, by the way, I honestly can't tell if Bonilla's singing about killing off actual rats or snuffing out people. Ah, fun.
The rest of Quantum Fucking follows suit, for the most part. Tracks like "Charts," "The Siren," "Fantasy Licks With Platinum Ceiling," and "Hello, Boss!!!" are intense, churning, and desperate, the soundtrack to a too-late night of paranoia, self-mutilation, and bad speed; the lone "melody" on here, such as it is, appears briefly in "Illegal Weapons Party," probably the least-menacing song on the disc. It's weird to say, too, but with this album the band's really hit the mark in terms of the actual songs and not just the sound. While I'm definitely very fond of the Guilloteens' older stuff (the one concession to the "old" FFGs sound is "Tiger vs. Gator," midway through the album), Quantum Fucking may be their first real "album," the first collection of tracks that seems to hold together. Best of all, it's one that seems to hold up well even after repeated listenings.
There are resemblances to a ton of like-minded people scattered throughout -- "Great Apes" plays like an amped-up Frodus track (especially towards the end, with the "The apes, they're here / They walk among us / We made them!" bit), "Non-Original Talent" at times sounds like a distant cousin to June of 44, and several other tracks bring to mind Polvo, Nomeansno, Hella, or Out of the Races and Onto the Tracks-era Rapture. In the end, though, it's all Guilloteens, and fuck the comparisons. These guys have gone from being a gimmicky-yet-fun joke band to one of those bands other bands get compared to, and that's no mean feat.
[Fatal Flying Guilloteens are playing 2/1/08 at The Proletariat, with Whorehound, O Pioneers!!!, & Cop Warmth.]
End of the World
You know, if Firebug had spent less time on fancy packaging and boastful self-reviews, they might have actually found the time to write the amazing songs they claim to. The reality is that they came out with half-assed, clichéd pseudo-rock and roll. In their defense, the material is really not all that bad, but with the way they hype themselves up, I got kind of offended at such a big letdown. Their PR guy included a little snippet in the press packet asking me to "try to imagine Erykah Badu fronting a delta blues guitar driven rock group." I'm going to let you know right now that I tried very, very hard to find evidence of any of those descriptions in the songs.
My first point is that the white girl with pigtails and an expensive guitar has nothing in common with Erykah Badu. Beyond the image issue, there is not a drop of soul in Juliette Tworsey's voice. She fits more into the Sheryl Crow pseudo-angsty-singer-songwriter rock vein. "Sittin' there / Sippin' your whiskey / So bitter"? I was half-expecting some reworded stab at that being the first and deepest cut that the unnamed, male offender perpetrated.
Okay, we've dealt with the Erykah Badu disaster; moving on. Um, Delta blues? Has Mr. Curt (he provided no last name; figures) ever seen the Delta? Or at least heard anything that's come out of there? The Mississippi Delta does not typically describe polished radio-rock anthems. A really grungy guitar solo usually comes out at one point or another in the Delta, but not so with Ms. Tworsey and company. Not to say that there's no guitar featured. Oh, no; there's guitar, but it's usually somewhere between Trans-Siberian Orchestra's melodramatic melodies and Alanis Morrisette. I can't say Robert Johnson would be singing their praises. On the third track, lead guitarist Jules Shapiro tries out his slide chops, but even then it keeps that singer-songwriter, soft rock feel. The song is actually pretty solid -- solo guitar and vocals intro, full band kicks in, and the rest of the song is a crescendo. It could be a top forty hit. Almost. But still, it has nothing to do with the damn Delta.
And the final claim: "guitar driven rock group." Is there a more subjective description? Guitar-driven? Does that just mean if they have a guitarist and he plays for the whole song, they are guitar-driven? Does he have to be soloing all the time? Does he have to be the frontman? And "rock group"? The term "rock" has become so subjective, misinterpreted, and generalized that it has lost nearly all of its definition and credibility.
I may be coming off as unnecessarily harsh, and that's only half true. I don't mean to sound like a complete purist asshole. But come on -- super fancy packaging on the disc, their PR guy writes up some shlock on their remarkable originality and greatness, and the band bio is an overdone piece on how many radio stations and famous people they've played with. Then you take a listen to the music and realize that hundreds of other radio rockers have written the same tunes hundreds of times before. There's nothing wrong with doing radio rock if that's what you're into, but don't claim to be something exciting and innovative that I've never heard before.
Wow, this is different. Upon listening to The Forms self-titled second CD (the follow-up to Icarus, released in 2004), I had to go on the Web to find video of The Forms and see how they were producing those sounds. The Forms play fairly quiet, smooth, atmospheric music that follows these riffs and then they somehow harmonize the vocals off the riffs, and the final result is rocking. I'm just glad there is someone out there making music like this. On their Myspace, under the obligatory "Sounds Like" field, they put "hermits in a laboratory." I really can't do better than that description. And reading their bio, it seems they labored and stressed in the studio (with audio engineer Steve Albini) to get all the details of this intricate CD right, all while trying to stay under budget.
It must be stated that lead singer/guitarist Alex Tween has an excellent voice, and the band harmonizes together well. The bass is very low-toned and shifts like they are actually rotating the tuning key to get the sound. The drums change volume and accent well, while the guitars or piano lead the riffs. My favorite tracks from the CD are "Red Gun," the most accessible song, piano-opener "Knowledge in Hand," and the stretchy waves of "Blue Whale." The lyrics are abstract and repetitive, as the band paints images through harmonies and vocal layers. The Forms' presentation also fits; the band pictures and album cover are artful, understated, and mysterious -- just like their music. The Forms create a new sonic world that hopefully this world is ready for.
The King Hen
The King Hen
There are some bands that attract fans by the ferocity of their music alone. They make sure that every kick, every hit of the tom, every bass note rumbles, making itself known and felt. Whether a song is awesome or awful is irrelevant. Luckily, the King Hen is not one of those bands; however, they could seriously stand to learn something from them.
From start to finish, each of the seven songs on their self-titled album is carried by solid guitar skills, flip-flopping between fuzzy grunge and pretty and melodic sounds. Their blistering energy especially stands out on the dizzying opener "Bad Magnet" and fast-paced "Too Far to Tell," but frustratingly, the other aspects of the music don't quite match the guitars' quality or fervor. The vocals, going for that Ian MacKaye half-yell kind of singing, sometimes come across as limp and bored. The bass needs to be cranked up throughout the whole album, and it doesn't help that the drums, already kind of sloppy, sound as if they were recorded from the room next door.
This isn't meant to be strictly a critique of production, mind you -- the songs themselves are definitely enjoyable, and the band has the potential for one hell of a live show. The problem is that the music wants to shake you by the shoulders, but as it is, the end result is a few pokes to the chest, falling just short of the high intensity the songs demand.
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly
DC-based band Le Loup includes eight musicians, (or, "a collective of talented young artists and entrepreneurs," according to their Website) who have collaborated to create The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly. Don't let the complicated title scare you away -- the album is good. Like Sufjan Stevens but less grandiose, The Throne holds a rich and layered sound that is upbeat and serious, enchanting and substantial. It's difficult to highlight certain tracks, especially since the album should be taken as a story; it's a personal, spiritual journey developing canorously in a beautiful collision of banjos, campsite choirs, and synth beats.
The album begins with "Canto I," which holds a spoken narrative of a person's mental wanderings. The album remains in the theme of a life's meaning in question into "Outside of this Car, The End of the World!," a catchy and repetitive song which claims, "This could be the end of the world." The first four tracks lead to a literal thunderstorm, opening up to the ethereal "We are Gods! We are Wolves!," then to the two understated gems (and my personal favorites) of the album, "Breathing Rapture" and "Look to the West." Le Loup's The Throne has the feeling of being born in a forest, in a cabin; it's mysterious and pretty, and deserving of a complete (no track skimming!) listen.
Mike Miller says in his bio that he sounds like "They Might Be Giants, Biz Markie, The Rentals, and Atom and his Package, with a punk edge...and please don't say Weird Al." Well, sorry, Mr. Miller, you kind of forced my hand, after listening to Complete Buffoonery. You sound like Weird Al.
Actually, on second thought, I'm wrong. You don't sound like Weird Al. Weird Al is somewhat witty and creative with his song parodies, and you write all original music. Weird Al can play the accordion, you use synthesizers. And here's the kicker to this statement: Weird Al is, on occasion, actually funny.
That last part may be a point of contention for many who would read this, but I'm sure we can agree on one thing -- Mike Miller, though he tries his gosh diddly darndest to be, is not funny. Oh, damn, I'm wrong again. He would be funny, but only to kids in junior high school.
With songs like "Hirschsprung's Disease," which is about experiencing a hypertrophic anus, and "Domino's Blows," which sounds like a high school punk band trying to be political, I was left staring at my car stereo, wondering who in their right mind would actually find this funny. Then I found myself wanting those 38 minutes of my life back.
What gets me about this is that his lyrics are definitely written by a well-read wordsmith, so to resort to that low bar of comedy just confuses the hell out of me. I have to be honest about that last statement, however. Up until five minutes ago, I didn't know what he was singing through about half of his songs, because my ear could not get past the fact that he was tone deaf. That fact plays into the only time that I laughed while listening to this album.
During "Missing Him, Missing Limb," after he butchers the sound waves coming out of his throat, a female singer by the name of Alyssa Ashner, is heard, singing purposely off-key. At least, I hope it's on purpose, because if not, she's singing at a key that I think only aliens have heard about prior to this record. The point being, I'm sure they were trying to be funny with this move. And it was, but only because they didn't need to add it. Miller's notes did the job already.
I will be fair, though, and say that if you can get past the immature humor and Miller's off-key impression of the aforementioned polka celebrity, his synth work is actually pretty good. I find myself humming some of the riffs he pulls off to this day, and he actually had a good idea to be experimental with the song "Windshield Wiper." Which is just that -- he actually found a way to write a song where the main percussion track is the sound of a cars wiper blades running across the windshield.
All in all, however, this record is not worth the ten bucks on iTunes. Miller's attempts to be witty and humorous end up coming across as idiotic and annoying. His prowess on the keys is evident, but he really should be looking for a band that will ban him from singing. I think Weird Al has nothing to worry about.
They've Actually Gotten Worse Live
Don't be fooled by the title; on their latest live CD (the most recent of five), iconic California pop-punkers NOFX sound better -- tighter, faster, smarter -- than they have in a while. It's probably because these guys really do shine live, where they can bounce shit off the audience, be their smartass, snarky selves, rant about politics, and perform tricks like the one here where they crank through eight songs in the span of, well, one for a "normal" rock band.
In a way, NOFX have remained the standard-bearers for a lot of the original spirit of punk rock: the nihilism, the fuck-it-all attitude, the uncompromising, unapologetic politics, the humor, the booze/drugs, and yeah, the over-the-top power of the live punk show. That's how it all really got started, after all; the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones didn't become icons because they sat in their bedrooms and released a slew of albums to stay-at-home kids, right? Live is where punk really lives.
And while Fat Mike, El Hefe, Melvin, and Smelly repeatedly make fun of themselves for fucking up, hell, I could care less. Occasional flubs aside, They've Actually Gotten Worse Live roars like the post-Green Day pop-punk implosion never morphed into emo, all middle fingers in the air, drunk fun, yell-along choruses, and blazing punk guitars. You get the loud, snotty rock, naturally, plus the impromptu song to make fun of a moron audience member for requesting a birthday shout-out for herself, the ragging on the frizzy red-haired guy up front, and the unending intra-band heckling.
Personally, I think the band's at their best with the more political stuff, but hey, that's just me, and if you're not into NOFX's politics, well, you probably already know you don't like the band. They take the formerly-acoustic "You're Wrong," off the Never Trust a Hippy EP, and amp it up into a fiery, barn-burning indictment of people who blindly believe the guv'mint, treat Fox News media people like prophets, and cling to trickledown economic theory. And while I didn't care too much for the slower, mellower original, the punked-up version's pretty badass. The band follows it up with the East Bay-sounding "Franco Un-American," a fist-pumping anthem of anti-kneejerk "patriotism," and things don't really slow down 'til "Eat the Meek," which is a surprisingly sweetly-sung reggae slow jam about, um, eating poor people to make more room in the world. (Meant sarcastically, I'm assuming, but hey, you never know.)
They throw in songs from pretty much every part of their ridiculously lengthy career, from White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean ("Stickin In My Eye") and Punk in Drublic ("Scavenger Type," "Lori Meyers") up through more recent stuff like last year's Wolves in Wolves' Clothing ("Instant Crassic," "We March To the Beat of Indifferent Drum") and 2003's War on Errorism ("Whoops I OD'd," which Fat Mike dedicates to a golf buddy who literally OD'ed the morning of the show, on the golf course).
The aforementioned 8-songs-in-6-minutes trick works nicely, by the way, and oddly demonstrates just how tightly NOFX's whole discography hangs together -- they nail together "Murder the Government," "Monosyllabic Girl," "I'm Telling Tim," "Instant Crassic," "Can't Get the Stink Out," "See Her Pee," "I Wanna Be an Alcoholic," and "Fuck the Kids," holy crap, they could all have been put out on the band's latest album and not on five different discs that span 10-plus years.
Normally, I tend to view live albums as being about as useful as best-of albums; I can count the really, truly vital ones I've heard on one hand (think Hüsker Dü's The Living End). Bands like NOFX, though, I think they honest-to-God need to put out stuff like this, to capture the live energy you just don't get on the "real" CD. Damn, this makes me want to finally get out and buy all the NOFX discs about which I've said, "yeah, I'll get that one of these days," all those years.
[NOFX is playing 2/26/08 at Warehouse Live, with No Use For A Name, The Flatliners, Latch Key Kids, & The Hates.]
In general, I've tried to make a habit of keeping a bit of critical distance from bands that make their living by digging up the musical past. Sure, I enjoy the hell out of bands like The Redwalls or The Darkness in part because of the fact that they mine styles that evoke a certain era, or a certain memory, or what-have-you, but at the same time, I have to force myself to back it off a bit and remember that it's almost a "fake" kind of appeal for just that reason.
Bands like Paris Falls, though, make me want to throw said habit to the winds and fall head-over-heels in love. At their core, they're basically, well, a classic rock band. Crunchy, loud (but not too loud) guitars, an organ sound the band nearly swiped from Question Mark & the Mysterians, that raw, rock-bellower voice of Raymond Brown's that carries hints of Eric Burdon, Phil Lynott, and even Roger Daltrey, those solid-yet-all-over-the-place drums (courtesy of Mike Deleon, ex-about a billion Houston bands), and even that "warm," analog-like sound -- the whole thing is bluesy, shuddering rock that sounds like it slipped off of one of those Nuggets comps '60s gems. I swear to God, if you slapped these guys up on some classic rock station next to The Who, Steppenwolf, or Pink Floyd, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
The latter band, in fact, is all over the place on Paris Falls' Vol. II, from the Floyd-meets-Aerosmith (circa "Dream On," mind you, no later) track "Repeater" on through to the trippy, soaring "White Rose." There's a purple-tinged neo-psychedelic rock influence splattered throughout, the music shambling along in a haze every once in a while before it crashes back into lucidity. I keep finding myself thinking of "Wish You Were Here," in part because several of the tracks are downright sleepy, albeit in a good way. Then there's the Beatlesque "Satellite," which incorporates some nice strings and complex arrangements while still staying relatively low-key.
"Shelter," on the other hand, starts off ferocious and angry but ends up stumbling to an end like a drunk getting belligerent and loud right before falling hard into bed. That track, though, is probably the most like the band's previous release, Vol. 1, that you're likely to find here. Most of the rest of the album feels bleak and melancholy, desperate and sad; it's nowhere near as straight-ahead "rock" as the band's first album, and there's only a hint of the band's bitter swagger left over from that album. With this outing, they've headed in more of an introspective, vulnerable, heart-on-the-sleeve direction. And frankly, it's beautiful, and heartbreaking, and awesome -- all of that and a heck of a lot more.
The thing about picking up elements of musical styles that are firmly rooted in days of yore is that you've got to be doing it for the right reasons. If you're up there on a stage windmilling like Pete Townsend because you think it'll make you look cool, then no, fuck you, it never will. If, on the other hand, you genuinely love a particular sound and want to use that sound to express your own thoughts, emotions, and ideas, well...you just might be golden.
[Paris Falls is playing their CD release party 2/28/08 at Boondocks, with DJ Jason Puffer.]
Professionals and Convicts
Patient Patient's first album, Professionals and Convicts, is a quality album, full of hard-boiled, determined tracks. This group from Bellingham, Washington, has crafted a powerful and balanced piece with form more mature than usually seen in a first release. They've been compared to Radiohead, but Patient Patient's appeal is ultimately distinct, with separate walls of sound all carried by Neal Burton's devoted voice. He leads the music in dynamic fashion, preaching like Billy Corgan, except more able to sustain the dramatics in a believable way.
The songs are well built, toughly coordinated, though they meander just enough to not be catchy. "Without Arms" powerfully starts the album with a swaying acoustic intro, followed by a steady build to rock velocity. It pushes and touches with gusts of exclamation. "March of a Million" swells with emotion and a demanding, driving beat, starting with a convulsive pulse and finishing with a march to move the masses. "Deus ex machina" rises and falls with raw energy and Burton's high crying tones.
Going a step further, "Nyctalopia" gives a good sense of Burton's indulgence for the sound he's crafted in the album and what we can expect from the band in the future: cold, sad lyrics brought to life with real rock attitude, without flying off the rails. Patient Patient is a sure-footed act, not so pre-occupied with sonic patchwork that it gives listeners a fractured experience. There's something more intense and final in its design. This band is no one-trick pony.
Strum Sum Up
Local progressive rock icon Doug Pinnick is at it again, having completed a new solo project recorded at Blacksound Studios in Los Angeles, Strum Sum Up. The famed bassist and lead vocalist for King's X has teamed up with fellow Houstonian Walter "Wally" Farkas, formerly of Galactic Cowboys, to put together a new collection of fresh original material amply representing the latest phase in Pinnick's ongoing songwriting.
From the very onset of the first cut, "Perfect World," the album feverishly unleashes the hard-driving sonic belts and sublime lyrical wit listeners have come to expect from the previously-aliased Poundhound artist. Most songs that follow are a relentless smorgasbord of prog-metal installments, some extended into reprised jams, with just the right admixtures of funk and groove to nail it all down with Pinnick's unique signature.
As with most of his solo creations, the lyrical content brims with his philosophical and introspective observations. Unlike many songwriters, Pinnick unveils his inner self rather freely through his music. The result is largely a mosaic of emotionally-charged pieces of self-expression. In this vein, "Life Is What You Make It" and "Smile" are pretty straightforward numbers -- melodious journeys into his life explorations and existential advice. Standout contrast songs "Dynomite," "Hostile World," and "Cross It" contain both paradoxical angst and fervent determinations -- the superb and explosive "Dynomite" being the lightning rod track on the album, and "Cross It" serving as a Hendrix-riff-styled super finale.
By far the longest and most fun song of the set is "Coming Over," a highly-funkifized, almost bohemian track that revels in the definitive nature of funk itself. The mid-jam section of this song features a highly-distorted, wah-wah-enhanced vocal that invokes imaginations of a screaming Little Richard being backed by Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention.
After hearing Pinnick guest sing on an especially bluesy extra encore song at a recent Joe Bonamassa concert, keyboardist Rick Melick told Pinnick, "I can tell you've been to church before." That he has. And Pinnick draws upon his gospel-soul-rock music background in the album to include some very jazzed-up vocal adlibs, everything from quickly glossing rollercoaster slides to the gravelliest of freakish screams.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this newest release is getting to hear Pinnick temporarily divorced from his collaborations with King's X. Alone, both his contributions and personal differences in musical direction are more readily apparent. Not only does he play one of the multi-layered six-string guitars on this recording, but he is beautifully set against background vocalists quite different from Tabor and Gaskill. While diehard King's X fans will find favor with "Angel," which has an arrangement more reminiscent of the group's trademark sound, all others are thoroughly just dUg Pinnick, pure and simple.
Strum Sum Up is replete with cutting-edge effects and remarkable stereo recording mix imagery, revealing even more subtle intricacies upon multiple plays. It is sure to be a keeper for prog-rock CD collections, and there are several songs on it that will no doubt find their way into many a personal music playlist.
As Pinnick recently reflected, "I finally realize that people just want to dance and have a good time." In perhaps a somewhat heavy-handed way, the new album definitely scores big on that count.
Singles, Demos, and Live Houston Punk '78-'80
I can't claim have a lot of knowledge about Houston punk rock. I used to frequent hardcore shows, I know who the Fatal Flying Guilloteens are, and I know who 30footFALL is. Beyond that, bands like Plastic Idols are pretty unknown to me. They were around before I was born, and they lasted until I was 2 or 3. That adds up to 4 or 5 years, from '78-'82, that the band punked around with.
It's obvious they're from the post-punk/New Wave era, judging by their self-titled compilation of live and unreleased tracks. They love the occasional electric piano, along with off-tempo productions and incredibly nasally vocals. It helps that they do the sound justice, too. The songs are never too loud, always kind of lo-fi and subtle. Each song blurs into the next with such precision that it's a wonder the band didn't stick around longer.
There is noticeable Velvet Underground influence, as proclaimed by Chris Lord, vocalist and band founder in the meandering liner notes. The casual listener will notice the Sex Pistols' or the New York Dolls' influence on the band, to boot. And let's not forget the live Beatles cover, "The Night Before," done in a post-punk homage. Despite the influences, though, the Plastic Idols do have their own unique charm.
They plod through the two-chord experiment "Goodbye," a song that was used as a filler for a demo tape released some time ago. It's a long, fun, improvisational mess. The song (as with the rest of the album) is intelligently written, musically and lyrically. The band has a timeless allure, a quality that most bands of the era lacked. "No more ugly things to see / Jesus' eyes won't follow me," Chris sings in "I'm Already Dead." You won't hear "I am an anarchist" on this record.
The first 9 or so tracks are good enough for a full-length album these days, but there are an additional 11 live songs on the compilation. This is the more fun part of said compilation; the band is a creative one, for sure. I bet they were a ridiculous live act. The live version of "I.U.D." outshines the original, and I still don't know what it stands for. "Yellow Stains" sounds great, as does "Dangerous Drama," as both are the most VU-like tracks on the album. I can imagine "She Knows" playing alongside clips of surfing accidents -- it's another good one.
I don't know; this is a subtle release from a time of chaos and experimentation. It's the same sound that influenced all of the modern nu-New Wave acts with their toned-down punk sensibilities. Bloc Party or The Bravery could learn a lot from the Idols -- not that the latter sounds anything like the formers. Chris Lord would likely be insulted by such a claim.
The Playing Favorites
I Remember When I Was Pretty
Supergroup/Side Project Warning: The Playing Favorites are a group of indie musicians who have been or are in bands such as Lagwagon, Sugarcult, Penfifteen Club, Bad Astronaut, and The Rentals, just to name a few. After a late night out, Joey Cape and Luke Tierney, who were on tour together, hatched an idea for a band that would reunite old Santa Barbara-area friends, including Tim Cullen, Marko DeSantis, and drummer Mick Flowers. Living in different cities and being busy in other bands, the songs were written by shipping files via the Internet and adding parts to the songs. Then the crew all finally met for a week in a Los Angeles studio to record The Playing Favorites CD I Remember When I Was Pretty.
The CD has a pop-rock sound that differs in approach from song to song, due to the fact that there are four songwriters and frontmen in the group. You get the feeling, however, that these guys have been around the block and have no problem at all putting a song together. Actually, it's quite an interesting exercise in songwriting to compare and contrast the styles. The Cullen- and DeSantis-penned songs are smooth and dreamy, for example, while Cape and Tierney wrote more gravelly, rockin' tunes.
The overall production value of the album is very clean -- perhaps too clean, making the album even more poppy and radio-friendly, and I think robbing it of some of its energy. I must admit that there's not a bad song on the 14-song CD. On the other hand, though, I came away thinking this CD could have been so much better.
I Remember When I Was Pretty is a smart pop album, but it doesn't really tread any new ground musically. I guess the sound is sort of a compromise of the musicians' different styles. The lyrics tend to deal with life-passing-you-by ideas, scattering good lines throughout the disc like: "I'm just a thought you've been kicking around"; "That's the sound of everyone else in the world"; "You're gonna waste all your good years"; "This is the last train I will ride"; and "I got 16 years of this town in my lungs." All solid ideas, accompanied by good hooks and riffs. It's the total implementation of the songs that left me not bowled over.
On the instantly-likable song "Drug Hugger," for one, the piano accents in what's meant to be a rock song ruin it for me and waste the best lyric on the disc: "It's hard to make it big / when you're trying to make last call." And on the song "Good Years," it's a great idea, but I just don't like the build up before the chorus. On the song "This Is The Last Train," it chugs along perfectly until a forced rhyme about "painting yourself red." I just couldn't let that fly; it derails the song for me. At the same time, opening song "Leaving Town" and the acoustic closing song "Citizen's Band" are solid.
I guess I'm just torn, wondering what this CD could have been if it was a full-time band hammering down the songs, trying them out in the clubs, and fighting in the practice space. Instead, we're left with a side project full of good ideas but lacking a finished, cohesive sound and focus.
Used Alien Mind
The Placement Aside
In Used Alien Mind's second album The Placement Aside, Mike Leporte's one-man-show once again plays space lounge sound to perfection. With all the subtle blips and lo-fi burps and cosmic nuance, the work offers eclectic musicality. "Splashes of Color" sounds like robots building other robots whose purpose is to create carnival rides. Other songs lurch along a clumpety-clump road, but only the sense of escape is important, whether they achieve that purpose or not.
Leporte is trying to be more human with this record, though. He gets help from Pete Weiss and Robert Wohl; they collaborate in several tracks in a creative effort, throwing together every instrument in the closet, threatening with steady bass and a Moog, enriching the album with sonic variations, and at times adding a lost-in-the-woods feeling. Some of the songs are more down-to-earth, with guitars and beats, like "Your Sad Eyes." It seems that midway through the album the band touches down somewhere in the galaxy, on some planet where no star in the sky above outshines another star. And the voices just talk among themselves, complaining to alien ears who do not understand and have to get back to mischief.
The talk is excessive, however, on "Soul Hit One Time" and "Dazed Mutations," and at times the repetitive lyrics and echo of voices suffer by their own design -- if the record has a downfall, this is it. Leporte chirps as if he is trying to surprise himself. And when he is really onto something in several of the songs, he doesn't chew into it enough, keeping the motion bizarre in a hazy scheme. The real pleasure in this album is leaving the enclosed spaces of mainstream sound you know and trust for something more experimental, and to that end the work is solid and original.
While You Were Gone
Heavy Lies The Crown
I've been looking forward to this one for a while now, but now that I've got it in hand and am listening to it, I'm torn. Don't get me wrong -- I'm enjoying the heck out of While You Were Gone's new EP and kicking myself for not yet having seen them play live. Vocalist/pianist Misty Gray's got one of the best voices in the realm of emo-ish rock, hands down; she's sweet and expressive, yearning but still fiery when she needs to be, and at the end of the day, she's pretty much the star of the show, at least on Heavy Lies The Crown. I'm reminded of Maura Davis (Denali/Ambulette/Glös) at times, Alison Mosshart (Discount/The Kills) at others, and even a less-punk Stella Maxwell (Austin's Cruiserweight).
The band I'm really reminded of, however, from Gray's vocals to the gentle-yet-distorted guitars to the melancholy melodies drifting beneath the surface, is the tragically underrated proto-emo-pop band Pohgoh. The voices of Gray and ex-Pohgoh singer Susie Richardson share the same kind of delicate, uncertain vulnerability, even when they're really belting it out. On Heavy Lies The Crown, too, the lyrics are all about being unsure of yourself and not feeling worthy, which further deepens the resemblance. I guess that when it comes down to it, While You Were Gone is an emo band at its heart.
Obviously, all the comparisons in the world don't mean a thing if it's no good, and While You Were Gone delivers, for the most part. Album bookends "Sinner" and "Thief," which resemble one another enough that I thought they were two parts of the same song for a little while, are the EP's twin highlights -- they're beautiful, poignant, scar-baring heartbreakers, and they demonstrate that the band knows what it's doing. Two of the other three tracks, "Waiting" and "Learn to Fight," fare pretty well, to boot, the former full of fire and desperation and the latter slow and methodical, like beaten-down footsteps fading as the protagonist passes down a darkened street. The title track, unfortunately, doesn't come out so well, mostly due to some klunky, repetitive lyrics, but hey, four out of five ain't bad.
In the end, I find myself having the same issue with Heavy Lies The Crown that I generally have with EPs, at least when they're good: it's too damn short. There's a boatload of promise here, shown especially on "Sinner" and "Thief," but there's not enough sonic space for the band to really stretch out and show what they can do. For now, it's a good start, but it's too little of what sure sounds/looks like it could be a really, really good thing.
[While You Were Gone is playing 3/7/08 at the First Baptist Church in Shepherd and also 3/8/08 at Fuel Cyber Cafe in Humble, with Artist vs. Poet.]
Emily Jane White
The thing about writing songs that speak to the darker parts of our soul is the delicate balance of writing songs that are sentimental without being prosaic and annoyingly emo. It takes a truly talented and self-aware musician to construct lyrical poetry that is reflective without taking itself too seriously. Emily Jane White has mastered the art of beautifully written songs that highlight themes of isolation and yearning in a somber and honest way. The songs on her debut album, Dark Undercoat, can be universally understood, and her hauntingly gorgeous voice echoes an endearing vulnerability. Every note she sings is rich and earnest. Armed only with an acoustic guitar and the occasional stroke of the piano, White uses her voice as the most telling instrument throughout the album. "Sleeping Dead" and "Dagger" are solemn folk melodies that carry the depth of White's words and the strength of her vocal prowess. Dark Undercoat is a truly a melodic breath of musical beauty.