Built By Snow
Austin's Built By Snow's sophomore release Mega injects a quick dose of Atari-influenced nerd-pop. I get the feeling these kids spent more time in arcades than J.J. Cooney, but instead of Fear, their headphones were jammin' to The Cars and Cheap Trick while in battles with the Bishop.
"Something in 3D" is an anthem that seems destined to blast from Geek Squad bugs everywhere. "All the Weird Kids Know" is a catchy rocker with a "stroke of Strokes" riffs. BBS hands reach into the Weezer cookie jar, as well. I found myself listening to "Implode Alright" over and over; it's a heartfelt song that speaks of the truest form of love, a love only found in Mr. Do's castle, no doubt, -------V-V-VViva PacMan.
[Built By Snow is playing 2/14/09 at Walter's on Washington, along with The McKenzies, The Tontons, & The Mathletes.]
Crisis in Hollywood
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
"Look at me I'm the next big thing," sings Crisis in Hollywood singer Adrian Snyder, and with his band's anticipated debut album, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, he may be on his way. The band, which consists of Daniel Valery on guitars, Logan Berton on bass, and Andy Wambach on drums, has compiled 13 tracks that are full of catchy hooks, infectious guitar riffs, over-the-top sing-alongs, and a swirl of three-part harmonies that rival anything the Jonas Brothers sing. The album's first track, "The Fashion of the Christ," kicks off with repetitive drum rolls before an attack of dual vocals soon join in, reminiscent of early Taking Back Sunday. Adrian spills lyrics describing how they see the scene they belong to and take stabs at the number of mass-produced bands popping up year after year, the trendy clothes and dark eyeliners that mask the quality of the music.
"Sin on my Lips" is the quintessential first single from this pop-punk band, fitting the formula to a T. It's filled with heart-on-your-sleeve lyrics, repetitive, captivating choruses, and melodic guitars, with lyrics touching on that all-too-familiar subject, a failed relationship. Although not new, Crisis in Hollywood manages to make the topic as fresh as ever, and you'll find yourself singing the chorus by the second go-round.
As you get to the fourth track, though, you may begin sensing a feeling of déjà vu, as the track "Like a Wave" begins with yet another repetitive snare drum roll, but once your ears get past the assault of drums, the song is an in-your-face attack filled with double-bass patterns and guitar solos. It's definitely a track where Crisis in Hollywood envisioned sweaty bodies slamming into each other, but while the track is filled with fury it still holds its pop roots so as to not alienate their fans. It's nice to see Crisis in Hollywood depart from their formula on "Out with a Bang," which incorporates tambourines and handclaps over a steady heart-thumping bass line that sends shiver down your spine. The lyrics touch on the subject of living your life as only you can and the need to stop living by the orders of the masses.
On the negative side, while Crisis in Hollywood may be on their way to playing bigger venues and competing with the likes of Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco, this album won't be the one to make them rockstars. The band seems to be coping with an identity crisis, as the musicians blend their catchy hooks with overzealous metal-crunch guitars and overused double bass pedals. "Let it Go" is a prime example; the band adds its love of metal where it's not needed and alters the songs overall appeal. On their last track, Crisis in Hollywood does manage to make you forget that they're a pop-punk band. The title track showcases the best of Crisis in Hollywood's love of metal -- midway into the track, they break down and delve into a metal-like trance filled with dual guitar solos and constant double-bass kicks that are evocative of Atreyu. The melody of the song is more rock 'n roll than pop-punk; perhaps this is the growth of the band that we're witnessing.
Crisis in Hollywood has found a niche in a scene where emo, screamo, hardcore, and mass-produced pop acts rule the charts, and they've done it with relentless touring and an old-school, punk-style DIY attitude. The band is currently in the studio recording their followup, and with the band growing up, one can only expect their second full-length to be bigger and better. Maybe, just like Snyder sings on "The Fashion of the Christ," he will be the next big thing.
A Bird's Heart
There's a scene in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine where the Time Traveler pushes his machine millions of years into the future and sits on a beach under a dying red sun. There, he watches life itself begin to fade, like a person with terminal cancer slipping off bit by bit. If, when he had come to a stop, there had been a girl at a piano quietly singing a requiem for the Earth, that girl would have to be Joni Davis.
A Bird's Heart is the San Francisco native's second album, and it could not be more full of idyllic emptiness than if it was an inside-out zero. "Haunting," "ethereal," and "beautiful" are words that have already been thrown at her numerous times, but they're none the worse here for having been used before. Every track on the album sounds like it was recorded with a broken heart on Mars, tripping along in orbit with little more than her soul voice and grand piano.
There's little here of the dynamic change-ups in tempo and tone that make other piano artists like Nick Cave and Tori Amos the trailblazers that they are; Joni Davis tends to stick with what she does best. She does that very well, however, and I wish that everyone who insists on calling Amy Winehouse great just because she's got a soul voice would pick up this album instead. She's really real.
It'd be way, way easy to lump Golden Cities in with the whole guitar-heavy, spacey-atmospherics crowd, tag them as Explosions in the Sky 2.0 (3.5?), and move on. I mean, there's a fair bit of doubled, echoey guitars on here, particularly on tracks like "The Beautiful Death of Immortality," which by itself wouldn't sound very out-of-place on the soundtrack to Friday Night Lights.
To pigeonhole these guys like that, though, would be a major disservice. For one thing, the atmospheric meanderings they come up with sound to me a lot more akin to Mogwai's dark rumblings than anything the EitS boys have ever done; from lead-in track "Introit" forward, there's a menacing, foreboding tone to the music, like it's a warning. It definitely paints some gorgeously sky-like imagery, to be sure, but Golden Cities aren't about pretty clouds drifting across the moon -- rather, this the sound of a looming, threatening storm, one that's likely to do a ton of damage before it moves on out to cripple some other community.
Granted, this whole feeling may be because I still see the debris left by Hurricane Ike every time I drive home from work or take my daughter to school, but to me Golden Cities seems remarkably prescient considering it was recorded in late 2007 (during the Perseids meteor shower, apparently, which accounts for at least one song title), long before Ike inflicted his wrath on Golden Cities' (and my) adopted hometown. There's majestic grandeur, sure, but despite the band's name, there's more of a sense of danger to it than of triumph. This is the sound of a storm passing by, just put to music.
Marcus Gausepohl and Nathan Heskia's guitars lead the way, really, coming in distant and quiet -- almost jazzy at points, but we'll get back to that -- and steadily, implacably building over the course of each track (and sometimes multiple times within a single track) to a thundering, overdistorted roar, something most members of the high-lonesome school of atmospheric rock would hardly ever touch. The drums, meanwhile, push the storm forward to wherever the heck it's going, with drummer Lance Higdon throwing in these surprising jazz fills and off-kilter rhythms.
Listening to Higdon's drumming, in particular, some of the band's non-spacerock influences seem to peek through. There's a resemblance to post-rock icons Tortoise, and stepping beyond them, Fugazi or even (no, really; bear with me here) jazz-fusion-y stuff from the '70s -- and that's no bad, thing, as far as I'm concered. I've honestly never been big on either fusion or post-rock admittedly, but here they serve to somewhat deepen the mishmash of styles; there's the Mogwai-/Pelican-esque guitar crushers, the grand, wide-open-sounding Explosions in the Sky instrumentals, the quirky avant-jazz undercurrent, and even some proto-emo-style stuff scattered throughout ("Where the Earth Meets the Sky" makes me think of EndSerenading-era Mineral, for one).
I should probably note, by the way, that I've had a hell of a time discerning one track from another, even when I'm sitting here with the CD case staring me in the face. It's partly because the band crafts multiple movements within the songs themselves, so much so that I've had to check the CD player in my car to make sure that yes, I was still on track 2, but more than that, Golden Cities just feels like one big long track, meant to be listened to and digested slowly on a long drive home. Just sit and squint into the setting sun, watching the clouds build off in the distance.
[Golden Cities is playing 2/6/09 at Rudyard's, along with The Appleseed Cast & The Hungry Villagers.]
Ever since I first heard "Airport Surroundings" on NPR's All Songs Considered back in December, I have not been able to get Loney, Dear out of my head. I waited patiently for almost two months to be able to have that particular song and others from the new album, Dear John, on my iPod and to be able to blast it as I walk through my college campus.
The long-anticipated day has come, and I now listen to the entire album at my pleasure. What was the first song I listened to over and over again when I first got my hands on Loney, Dear's new album? That's right: "Airport Surroundings." I think that this is the best song on the album; it's got a catchy beat set to Emil Svanängen's beautiful yet mysterious voice and thoughtful lyrics, as when he sings, "I've got a hole in my head and a hole in my heart." It's soft enough to be background music at any party or playing at your favorite coffee shop, yet catchy enough to blast at any dance party or club and get people moving.
I find it smart, by the way, that this song is the opening track of the new album; it catches any listener's attention and keeps them listening. The album continues, but not as well as the opening track, I feel. By the third track, Svanängen slows things down with "I was only going out," a charming little song about apologies and forgiveness.
I honestly got lost a little throughout the next few songs. It feels like the catchiness of the first track wears off by now and the album desperately needs help to keep listeners tuned in. Just as I'm about to lose hope, the opening of "Summers" begins, and I'm immediately back. This track is definitely my second favorite on the album and reminds me a lot of Loney, Dear's previous single "I am John," which is a definitely a good thing. That track is just what the album needed to keep us hooked until the end.
"Violent" is another good song that will slowly creep onto my favorites list, and I really loved that the album ended with the quiet melody of "Dear John." I think it's the perfect finishing touch the album needed, ending the album on a quiet, soft, thoughtful note.
Overall, I'd definitely recommend this album and cannot wait to see Loney, Dear on their current tour. To be completely honest, I think I was a little disappointed with the album, but at the same time I was also very satisfied. I had very high expectations, and although they weren't met, they rarely are.
I think Dear John's great also because it plays to all kinds of moods and feelings that listeners experience, much like previous Loney, Dear albums. I can picture myself blasting some of the songs with the windows rolled down and friends in the car singing along, but I can also turn it on as I am going to sleep. It's another Loney, Dear masterpiece, and I expect great things from them as hype around the album hopefully rises.
[Loney, Dear is playing 2/10/09 at Rudyard's, along with News on the March & Alkari.]
Maps of Norway
Die Off Songbird
Minneapolis indie outfit Maps of Norway has released their second album, Die Off Songbird, touting somewhat elevated guitar ramblings and vocal presence over their first outing. Featuring ex-Vespertine Jeff Ball (drums) and Eric Hanson (guitars), ex-Unbelievable Jolly Machine Matt Helgeson (bass), and newcomer Rebecca Leigh (vocals), the group has put together a close-dozen collection of new songs this time around that continues to revel in the band's personal brand of largely dance-style music.
By and large, the majority of cuts here range between impressionistic takes on multi-layered instrumentals with electronica flavorings and heavy-on-the-beat dance numbers that lean much more toward post-punk retreads of '80s New Wave styles than any of their '70s disco predecessors. All of this is decoratively, yet sporadically, enhanced by Leigh's smooth, scale-traveling vocal injections.
The set kicks off rather mysterious-sounding with "Blues 1," a short intro piece that slowly fades in and builds into a synth-sampled mix of audio pulses resembling -- strangely enough -- a close facsimile of what's used in audio hearing tests. From that point on, the band deals out wave after wave of cascading melody, driven by either overlapping or echoing instrumental parts throughout. The album's overall disposition reflects wide swathes of moodiness that move from rather murky hazes of heavily-reverbed instrumental doodling to more straight-forward rock numbers fueled by more mainstream rhythmic filling. They know how to double and relay individual parts quite well, even in the slower and smoother sections, and they do an impressive job at taking a repeated chord progression and swelling it into a charging romp.
Though there are certainly some brilliant moments in Hanson's lead guitar passages, Leigh's voice laydowns are the abundantly dominant stand-out feature for the band. Albeit quite artsy, the final mix chosen on several songs reduces her vocalized presence and utterances to a co-equal level in the pack. While these few takes do succeed in producing an "added-instrument" effect for her crooning, as a by-product, they also muddle-up her lyrical articulation, making the words to these songs almost completely incomprehensible.
To my ears, the best songs of the collection begin in mid-album, where "The Runout," "Tyranny Is Over," "Ex-Ghost," and "Polo Grounds" fill out more pleasing exhibitions that bear hints of the likes of Blondie and David Bowie, with Leigh very effectively pulling off belts and slides that mirror early-'80s femmes like Debbie Harry or even the quasi-operatic glissando runs of Pat Benatar.
Maps of Norway has delivered a second attempt that is not a thoroughly easy listen. If you have the wherewithal to wade through the impressionistic artistry that surrounds the meatier dance/rock segments, however, or you've enjoyed past-AOR where about half of the time is spent under a huge, dynamically-atmospheric instrumental canopy, then you'll probably really like this album. In its most downbeat-oriented moments, it's a fantastic modern dance music offering.
The New Duncan Imperials
End of Phase One
Long-running goofballs the New Duncan Imperials bring plenty of their inspired nonsense to their eigth album, End of Phase One. The band pilfers a multitude of styles, from garage to punk to '50s rock, and cuts it all with the silliness and catchiness of the Replacements. You might ask yourself what it says about bunch of guys in their forties who write songs called "High School Soul," but music like this is like sausage -- you don't ask too many questions about where it comes from. (Kind of like "Cherry Chapstick.")
The Imperials are best when being as childish and silly as possible, such as in the gloriously anthemic album-closer "Circular Wheels," a moment of completely inspired lyrical stupidity -- "Circular wheels they will turn you around" are the complete lyrics of the song. (It's almost a Zen koan of meaninglessness.) "The Mother Ship" combines a punchy garage riff with a monstrously catchy melody and takes the song over the top with inspired harmonies and an epic guitar solo.
Not all of the songs are silly, though. "Nothing to Do" is a slow, pretty acoustic number with a melody remininscent of the Replacements. "I Love You Honey But I Hate Your Band" is about a situation every musician is afraid of being in. They offer a few suggestions to alleviate the problem: tear her gig fliers down; sabotaging her band's van; and so on.
It's remarkable that a band that started out as a joke has managed to survive for almost 20 years. It helps to have a knack for catchy melodies and a tight and tasteful band -- there isn't a bad move on the entire album. If the Imperials are still putting out good music this far into their career, there's nothing that can stop them. Maybe there's something to not growing up, after all.
I honestly didn't think he'd be able to pull it off. After 2006's mind-crushingly awesome Audition, with its paranoiac rhymes, punk-rock-ified beats, popcult-fueled riffs on suicide and revenge, and full-on angry-ass vibe, I figured nah, there was no way Minneapolis skate-rapper P.O.S. would be able to come anywhere near that high-water mark, much less beat it.
I'm happy to say I was wrong. Never Better takes the musical motifs of Audition and stack 'em on top of one another, crushing the layers together like one gigantic fucking sandwich of sonic misanthropy. The popcult-ness is still in full effect, what with the lines/tributes to The Big Lebowski in opener "Let It Rattle," the Fugazi ref and chorus-closing rhyme (and title, to boot) of "Savion Glover," and the Stooges shout-out in "Get Smokes," thankfully, as is the razor-sharp wordplay and punk sensibility.
If anything, though, Never Better improves on the Audition model -- where Audition was full of fury and bile, a battle cry in a war against everyone and everything, Never Better is a thoughtful (yet still angry) rant. The whole thing is more measured, less crazed, like P.O.S. is deliberately holding back to let the outrage and pain and loneliness simmer under the surface. Or maybe it's that he's made progress since the last outing; he definitely sounds like he's moving onwards and upwards with this release, even while having to deal with the ugliness and confusion of growing up with the spotlight shining in your face. In that sense, the title itself of the album could be seen as both truth in advertising and a sarcastic, defiant, middle-finger-up response to a world determined to beat us all down.
Take lead-off single "Goodbye," for instance; I'm not sure who the title's aimed at, because the lyrics to the track are doggedly determined, never-say-die in their message. P.O.S. stands up, refusing to get beat and declaring that we all need to not hate ourselves or let other people choose our destinities for us. And if the autobiographical nature of a lot of these tracks is to be believed (and there's a heck of a lot more of him bleeding through, I think, than on past releases), he knows what he's talking about.
These songs are about needs, whether he's talking about the need to be loved and safe (the Sage Francis-esque "Been Afraid," a murky, heartfelt-but-unsentimental chronicle of two damaged kids finding one another), the need to be accepted somewhere (the stuck-between-worlds "Out Of Category," where P.O.S.), or the need to just plain survive ("The Basics (Alright)"). Through it all, P.O.S. is at his self-deprecatory best, deflating any hint of an ego with quirky bits of studio screwing-around and dropped lines, some of which turn out to be the best parts. One of my favorite moments in "Purexed" is when the rhyhmes trail off to nowhere and P.O.S. just shrugs: "I dunno, man. Me and Joe like real shit." Then -- boom -- the song slams back in, loud as ever.
Setting aside my amateur attempts at psychological profiling, by the way, I have to say that it's the sound of Never Better that grabs me more than anything else. Love the lyrics, yes, but damn... Lazerbeak's taken a bit of a back seat this time, only producing the beats for about half the tracks, and for the rest P.O.S. grabbed the reins and made 'em all his own. Which explains somewhat the sheer density of the tracks, thick enough you can peel back layers like you're cracking open an onion one piece at a time.
Seriously, this album is just about the densest piece of music I've heard in years of any genre. There's sound piled upon sound here, to the point where it makes me listen and re-listen so I can catch the little nuanced bits lurking behind/beneath the up-front stuff -- "hey, is that a sample of a woman screaming back in there?" Listening is like finding Easter eggs in your favorite video game. The overall gist is dark and murky, like always, but the elements are all over the place, from Portishead-esque jangly guitars to '80s pop-metal synths to D.I.Y. percussion made on what sounds like plastic boxes. Frantic drums collide with sludgy, Mudhoney-style bass, hip-hop verses, and Strike Anywhere punk anthem choruses, sometimes all in the same track (see "Drumroll (We're All Thirsty)," for one). P.O.S. breaks rules like they were never really there in the first place, except maybe in our minds.
In fact, at the end of the day, he's almost done something entirely new with this album; this is probably the first true amalgam of hip-hop, punk, jazz, and shoegazery pop I've ever heard. Think I'm kidding? Nope -- check the utterly fucking awesome "Purexed," with its thundering, My Bloody Valentine-heavy sheets of gorgeously skyward-aiming guitars, speeding drums, chilly keys, droning melodies, and heavy-lidded raps. The only person I've ever heard come close to something like this is fellow hip-hop iconoclast Mike Ladd (who's also known for ignoring the "rules" of the genre completely), but where Ladd drifts off towards the psychedelic, dropping-psilocybin-on-a-mountaintop set, P.O.S. dives head-first into the indie-kid mosh pit.
Now, I'll admit that for me part of the guy's appeal is the whole relational thing -- me, I've never been in much danger of ending up a gangbanger slinging crack rocks on the street corner, getting into gunfights and burying my friends. So while I can like N.W.A., Ghostface Killah, and Mobb Deep, sure, it's all at a distance; it's cool, but it's not something I can relate to in any personal way. Rhymes about never fitting it, trying to find one's place, getting your heart broken repeatedly, and learning to fight back and carve out your own world, on the other hand...yeah, I totally get that.
P.O.S. and his Doomtree crew -- Dessa, Sims, Paper Tiger, Lazerbeak, and Marshall Larada all make appearances here, by the by, and acquit themselves so damn well I'd keep an eye out for solo records from each real freakin' soon, if there's any justice in the world -- they do this stuff for the love of the music and because this is how they talk through how the world works. Label this however you want; any way you look at it, Never Better is something pretty damn special.