Forever the sullen girl, Fiona also seems to have become one with a certain humor. Her newest release, Extraordinary Machine, inspires contradictory imagery: that of a beatnik with a peppy, even somewhat chipper, backing track. A figure in black with a cigarette smoldering away in one hand (whether she actually smokes or not is immaterial here) and a microphone stand cradled in the other, accompanied by jazz but without all the frantic, frenetic pacing; a sultry flight of expression. In recent interviews, she has mentioned having a certain comfort in letting her craft take whatever path it's going to, never trying to force it, never trying to escape it. It absorbs when it absorbs and wanes when it wanes.
As someone who's always been a fan of her work, it's easy to be impressed, but what strikes me most about Extraordinary Machine is how much I identify with it. I connect to the offbeat collaboration between bouncy and assiduous. The title track could be described by some as a "little engine that could" type of work, some evidence that we can go on and make it through. Fiona's take on it, though, removes the sickeningly sweet overtones and just lets it be. Life is what it is -- "Be kind to me or treat me mean / I'll make the most of it, I'm an extraordinary machine" -- but the rest of the song assures that not everyone handles that in the same way.
It's hard to describe something clearly when you could easily just gush and get all fan-girl about it. I wake up with pieces of this CD stuck in my head, and they travel in and out through the day. I appreciate her honesty and ability to compartmentalize a feeling, as in the lyrics to "Tymps (the sick in the head song)": "Those boon times, they went bust / My feet of clay, they dried to dust / The red isn't the red we painted, it's just rust." They are also unflinchingly direct, as in "Parting Gift": "I opened my eyes while you were kissing me once / More than once, and you looked as sincere as a dog / Just as sincere as a dog does, when it's the food on your lips with which it's in love."
From start to finish, it absorbs, and although that may be expected, the expectation doesn't prepare you for the first pluck of the strings or the first jangle of the piano. I love its easy juxtaposition.
Buckethead & Friends
Enter The Chicken
For the true fan of the half-man, half-chicken god of shred known as Buckethead, any new release is cause for celebration. Luckily, he's been pretty prolific over the years, putting out an astounding body of work while staying as far away from the mainstream music community as you could possibly get. This guy doesn't just fly under the radar, he's actually buried about a mile below it, deep down in the earth. He has a rabid core of fans (mostly dudes that play metal guitar in their bedrooms) that think he's the coolest thing since the distortion pedal was invented, but he also has his detractors, who are mostly shred guitar devotees that spend their days practicing sweep-picking exercises at really loud volumes at their local Guitar Center store. If you're one the latter, stop reading and go listen to one of your crappy Steve Vai CDs.
For Enter The Chicken, Buckethead teamed up with System of a Down vocalist Serj Tankian and several other guest musicians to produce a record that is a buffet line of musical styles and guitar firepower. "We Are One" is the most accessible track on the disk and is as close to a standard rock song as you are gonna get with the chicken man at the controls. Tankian belts out the lyrics in his trademark nasally "quacking" style, while Buckethead backs him up with dense rhythmic chunks on the ol' six-string.
But the shred doesn't really drop until "Botnus," and as always, it's worth the wait. Much like his invented persona, the over-the-top silliness is what makes his solos so much fun. Guest vocalist Efrem Schulz brings the Cookie Monster death metal vocals like a champ, which make the track just flat-out rock. There are a few clunkers here, but for the most part when the focus stays on the heavier side of things, it ends up being pretty satisfying. And if you stick it out until the end, the last song, "Nottingham Lace," delivers the traditional Buckethead experience that fans of his earlier work are going to flip for. It's a six-and-a-half-minute instrumental that lets the chicken king do what he does best, and that is no-holds-barred freakout guitar playing.
Buckethead isn't ever going to become a household name. His brief (and some would say misguided) stint with Guns N Roses was the closest he was ever going to come to that. But true fans of his work shouldn't worry; he'll probably continue to put out record after record of tasty, nutjob-style playing. I mean, what do you expect from a guy that wears a mask and a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket on his head when he performs?
When We Break
Rarely does a band I've never really listened to blow me away the first time I see them live. Usually, I have to build up some sort of familiarity with their catalog to really "get into the groove" (so to speak). Criteria, however, had me running to the merch table as soon as they left the stage following their recent gig in Houston, cash in hand, ready to buy up anything they'd released.
Now, I'm going to have to eat crow a little bit here. A while back, I gave The White Octave a negative review in these pages (Stephen Pedersen fronted that band before forming Criteria -- he also was in Cursive in the '90s). I have to admit, I'm still not a huge fan of The White Octave. But it almost seems as if what The White Octave hinted at has taken its fully-realized form in the guise of Criteria. There's still that slightly Cure-ish vocal delivery style, but now it seems more focused and precise. The music itself brings Rival Schools or Sensefield to mind -- driving guitars, interesting leads and fills to color in the spaces, and a monster rhythm section that is also super-tight. There's also lots of melody to be found on When We Break -- the songs are all infused with a pop sensibility beneath the angularity of some of the arrangements, and there are some very cool call-and-response and group vocal moments that actually don't seem forced.
Criteria's When We Break is highly recommended if you're slowly becoming an indie-rock curmudgeon like myself, who just wants a band to make good solid music that excites without the pretense and trappings that are associated with "hip scenester-ism" these days. In response to such things, my friend Dwayne recently (and probably rhetorically) asked, "Can't we all just rock?" Criteria's response? Yes. Yes we can.
Out Here All Night EP
Damn. I did it again. I went to a show last night specifically to see Boston rockers Damone, rushing my little girl to bed, throwing on a T-shirt I didn't mind getting smoky, and blazing like a lunatic down the freeway to the club, all so I could get to the show before 8PM, when it was supposed to start...only to find out that the band had started playing at 7:30PM. I literally walked in just in time to hear singer/guitarist Noelle (last name Leblanc, but she goes by the first) say that the next song would be the band's last and tell the crowd to stick around for Less Than Jake. Fuck.
Don't get me wrong -- that last song was great, all distorted rawk guitars and pounding drums, but I'm starting to feel like I'm cursed when it comes to this band. The only other time I've seen them (at the same club, the downtown Engine Room, and with the same couple of friends, weirdly enough), I'd never heard of 'em before, and I stumbled in about halfway through their set with a big scowl on my face...and then found myself wishing I'd gotten to the club earlier so I could've caught the whole thing. The little snippet I caught then was the highlight of the night (and only later did I realize that "Damone" was actually the new name of "Noelle," a band a friend of mine had been raving about for a while via e-mail).
So, this time I thought I was ready. I got off work early so I could do all the evening stuff and still make it to the show on time, homeboy Mel had already bought the tickets so there wouldn't be much waiting in line, and I had enough cash in my pocket to hopefully afford a T-shirt and a copy of the band's latest release, the Out Here All Night EP. I was set. And in the end, I got to see one measly song (although to be fair, it sounded like even the earlybirds were left wanting; when Damone finished their last song after about 20 minutes of music, one disgruntled friend yelled out that it was a cocktease). I'm not blaming the band, by the way -- bassist Vazquez told me afterwards that they'd been assured it was the club's standard operating procedure...and this in a city where a show seldom starts before 10PM. Guess it serves me right for bitching about the lateness of shows here for a full decade now. sigh. Engine Room: 2; Me: 0.
What I'm left with, in the end, is the EP. And y'know, that might just be enough ('til the next time they come through H-town, at least). I'll admit up front that no, it's not From the Attic II, but I think the disc is far better as its own unique beast than if it were just a copy of what the band had done before. When the From the Attic songs were recorded, frontwoman Noelle was still in high school, after all, and the songs themselves (written by now-departed guitarist Dave Pino) were juvenile, sweet, and naive to match, all tomboyish toughness and teen angst. The older, wiser, more mature Damone of now would've looked ridiculous, frankly, if they'd tried to recapture that pseudo-youthful innocence, so it's a damn good thing they decided to go a slightly different road this time out.
Where From the Attic was the sound of the car wash and the high school crush, Out Here All Night is the sound of somebody leaving home and working on being an adult. Most of the sweet puppy love story-songs are gone, replaced by more thoughtful, more defiant, almost angry tracks along the lines of From the Attic's "On My Mind". The title track of the EP, for one, is a blazing roar of a cautionary note to a (possible?) love that ends by finally shrugging and saying, "You can say what you like / It doesn't matter to me." Then there's "What We Came Here For," which depicts a struggle between love and disillusionment and the painful aftermath, "Get Up And Go," which is an exhortation from Noelle to take a risk and quit playing it safe, and "Never Getting Mine (Demo)," which is a big middle finger of a get-lost-you-loser song. The only "soft" moment lyrically comes at the very end, with "Time And Time Again" almost holding out a conciliatory, supportive hand to a friend/loved one gone astray.
And despite the songwriting shift from Pino to the rest of his erstwhile bandmates, I'm loving the songs -- they're like the best moments of Veruca Salt's classic Eight Arms to Hold You crystallized and stripped of any hint of goofiness (and I'll admit it, the vocals remind me at points of Nina Gordon's, which ain't a bad thing). It feels a lot more honest, as well, knowing that the primary songwriter's actually the person doing the singing. I'm well aware that Noelle wasn't ever really the "character" she played/sang in Pino's songs, and that makes it especially nice to hear something this time and know it's actually her speaking for herself, in her own voice.
Oh, and then there's the sound. Beyond the lyrics, the music itself differs pretty significantly from the songs on In the Attic, even with the same sweet-yet-edgy voice soaring and snarling over the guitars. Again, it's almost like an age progression -- I read somewhere that Dave Pino originally wanted to write universal pop love songs like Rick Springfield, and he succeeded admirably, but with Out Here All Night the band's left the teenybopper pop behind and sped head-on into the realm of '80s metal. The guitar solos in "What We Came Here For" scream "Scorpions Rule, Dude!", the backing vocals on "Get Up And Go" sound like Hysteria-era Def Leppard (and believe it or not, I do mean that in a positive way), and the bombastic thunder of "Time And Time Again" comes off like Queen playing to a crowd of millions at Wembley. It's enough to make me want to bang my head and go digging through my old box of cheesy metal tapes; I'd almost forgotten what that adrenaline rush felt like.
It's fast, too, far speedier than most of In the Attic -- "Out Here All Night" could be a Sahara Hotnights song if you listened to it with your eyes closed, and "Get Up And Go" makes like The Donnas if they were, uh, actually as good as their hype says they are (sorry, but I've never been impressed). One review I've read of Damone in general referred to them as a "pop-punk" band, but despite the punkish fire, that's absolute bullshit; they're a rock band, of the full-on, leather-jacket-wearing, fist-pumping, arena-playing variety. There are echoes of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts all over the place, which is pretty appropriate, but I don't know that Ms. Jett ever sounded this badass. Noelle's and lead guitarist Mike W's guitars roar and scream, drummer Dustin Hengst pounds like a madman, and Vazquez drives the whole thing along like an out-of-control freight train, and the whole thing's got this slick, razor-sharp metallic sheen to it. The one exception's "Never Getting Mine," which is explicitly labeled as a demo (even though it sounds very finished) -- of the EP, it sounds the closest to the band's earlier stuff, production-wise.
(I should note, by the way, that the production made a lot more sense once I glanced at the liner notes -- and started giggling hysterically, in spite of myself: two of the five tracks on Out Here All Night were mixed by none other than Mike Shipley, the same engineer who mixed both of Def Leppard's best albums, Pyromania and Hyseria... Man. I must really be an '80s metal nerd...)
Oh, and this is apparently just a taste of what's to come on the band's sophomore full-length, due out in June 2006. Until next time, then, at least I've got this to hold me over and that to look forward to. In the Attic
is still a classic, yes, and I still adore the "old" Damone, but hey, you can't sit in the past forever. The band probably puts it best on their Myspace site
: "The 'carwash' is fucking closed." They've moved on, and good for them -- I'll happily move on right with 'em.
Maybe We're Making God Sad and Lonely
This is heady, trippy stuff from a band that I know absolutely nothing about. But sometimes not knowing anything about a group is better than getting a CD in the mail from an artist that you really love. When there are no expectations, it's a lot easier to write a review that is honest. At least, that sounds good at the moment, don't you think?
With Maybe We're Making God Sad and Lonely, Dreamend get right to the business of transporting you back in time to a place where bands like The Chameleons plied their craft with reckless, reverberated abandon. It's all about going really slow and creating an aura around the melody so that it seeps into your subconscious like warm water through your fingers. According to the liner notes, this was all done pretty much live in the band's rehearsal space, a setting that, to my mind, really captures the mood. When bands go into a recording studio and try to recreate the sound that they've been used to hearing during their practices, they are always surprised by how different and sterile the sound is.
Great-sounding records usually come after thousands of dollars and lots of hours have been invested. But there's a lot to be said for Dreamend and for their decision to put themselves down on tape in the rawest form possible. This medium instantly adds a natural ambiance that cannot be created in a studio under any circumstances. And if you don't believe me, listen to any of the original Motown stuff, back when it was pretty much one microphone in one room with ten musicians playing all at once. It's obvious that Dreamend are pretty far removed from those R&B pioneers of the early '60s, but the recording blueprint is the same.
If you have the ability to sit still in a dark room and listen to the world breathe and exhale around you, I think you'll like this record. Put it on and paint something, write some poetry, or just close your eyes and make something up. Fans of My Morning Jacket and Built to Spill will find a lot to like here if they're willing to be a little less excited than usual.
I Remain, as Always, a Rabble Rouser from the Mountains
I had high hopes for this, based on what I've heard in the past from John Dufilho's full-time band, the Deathray Davies, but despite the decent songwriting, his solo debut, I Remain, as Always, a Rabble Rouser from the Mountains, is a bit of a letdown. The tone throughout is low-key, which is fine, but what I like about the Davies is that frantic, gleeful abandon with which they attack a song -- see "Plan to Stay Awake," off of The Kick and the Snare, to see what I'm talking about. They're one of the few bands that can match the joyful noise of power-pop heroes Too Much Joy at their best, and that's saying something.
Here, though, Dufilho seems to revel in his bedroom melancholia, striking a pose not too far removed from the likes of Elliott Smith or maybe Badly Drawn Boy. The songs amble along at a middling pace at best, and the "down"-sounding vocals suck the life out of all but a couple of the tracks. It's almost like Dufilho makes his mission statement with the first track, the bleakly minimal "I'm Gonna Stay Under These Covers Today," and then follows it to the letter, not leaving the bedroom 'til the tape stops running. I guess I can't say I wasn't warned, but it's still a little disappointing to be missing the fire the Davies throw off.
More suspect, however, are the bits of 4-track screwing-around scattered across the disc. "The Bridge of Stolen Bicycles" is a fine, brief imitation of Blade Runner-/M83-ish electronic ambience, true, but is it really serving any purpose here, other than to derail the pop-rock train established by the previous track, "My Circuits Are Blown"? "I Can Be Nothing But Trouble" is the worst example of this -- all it is is a multitracked voice repeating the song title over muted electronic drums -- and it kills any momentum that might've been created between the David Garza-sounding "When Madness Strikes Again" and the catchy "Check the Engine."
The latter's one of the better tracks on here, by the way. There's also "What Are You Waiting For?," which has nicely fuzzed Superdrag guitars, "Paper Hats and Campfire Hands," which is surprisingly sweet and buoyant, and "I'm Outside," which is practically a Weezer B-side (albeit better than most of what R. Cuomo's come up with lately). That's the problem: there are good songs nestled deep within I Remain, but the wan Elliott Smith-isms and "ooh-I-just-bought-a-4-track!" experiments make 'em hard to find.
If it sounds like I'm being harsher than is warranted, yeah, I probably am. The thing is, John Dufilho's such an all-round good songwriter that I tend to expect more from him; if this were somebody I'd never heard of, hell, it'd be pretty decent. When you know the guy's capable of better, though... You don't congratulate somebody on coming in 31st in a marathon when you know they could easily come in fourth or fifth, do you? Same deal here. I guess it's a matter of doing what my real-job boss calls "managing expectations." Me, I'll be rocking out to Dufilho's full-time gig, instead, and waiting to see if, with all the junk now out of the way, he can bring the real deal next time out.
Lemonade for Vampires
What is there to be said about Gas Huffer? Lemonade for Vampires is just immature punk rock coming from a group of guys who have been around for ages. On this latest attempt to create old school-sounding punk rock, though, Gas Huffer has sadly failed to measure up to the truly great punk legends of their time. Even the name of the album really doesn't seem to coincide with the rest of the album. Tracks with titles like "Taco and Bottle", a wannabe bluesy song with childish lyrics, offer nothing to the musically inclined. I hear these guys are much better live, so until then...
The High Violets
To Where You Are
The Pacific Northwest is best known for two things: beautiful scenery and rain. Reverb Records, however, is doing its best to put the area on the map for another reason. The Portland label is at the forefront of the American shoegazer movement, and Eugene, OR, act The High Violets lead the charge. It's easy to focus on Kaitlin Ni Donovan's sultry vocals -- at times she sounds like a modern-day Siouxsie -- but it's the music that makes listeners take notice. The Violets' fuzzed-out instrumentation, with low droning overtones and faint poppiness (just enough to get you hooked), makes comparisons inevitable. The band gives nods to shoegazer legends My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus & Mary Chain, but one listen to To Where You Are proves that The High Violets are well on their way to making a name for themselves on their own. After the success of their debut for Reverb, 44 Down, the beauty of this new album comes as no surprise. Standout cuts include "Love Is Blinding," Sun Baby," and the haunting "Invitation."
Quit +/or Fight
Holopaw is a low-key post-Elliot Smith sextet. The two singers take turns -- one sings as if unsure of himself, with a quaver in his voice, and the other sings more assuredly, though not necessarily more loudly. On Quit +/- or Fight, most of their songs are pretty reserved; they do rock on occasion, but even that's pretty mellow.
A lot of the songs use unusual accents in the melodies, making the songs sound rhythmically more complex than they actually are, which is a nice effect. At other times they use actual different feels or rhythms in the same song to differentiate each part of the song. "Holiday" is a good example of the former, with the music seeming to float above the 3/4 rhythm, especially between phrases of the melody. The sustained keyboard chords and drum fills also contribute to the floating quality. The band also uses real time or feel changes frequently: "Little Shaver" is a good example, cycling between 4/4 and 3/4 parts at various points in the song.
"3-Shy-Cubs" sounds like a quiet anthem, with periodic handclaps and big (well, big for them) keyboard chords, and it eventually turns into more of a real rocker, with distorted guitar way in the background and a guitar solo at the end. "Curious" takes a pretty and seemingly simple song and again, using lots of the same kinds of rhythms in the melody, makes the song even more interesting. "Needle in the Sway" matches an attractive melody with an interesting Papa M-ish guitar part. Some of the songs aren't quite as interesting, such as "Clearing," which lacks a strong melody, and "Ghosties," which is entertaining and provides a change of pace but on which the melody is weak. "Losing Light," which starts the album off, has a nice rhythm and drive to it, but the melody doesn't contribute anything.
None of the songs is particularly bad, but since the band tries to be mellow and restrained, that's what you would expect to hear. They certainly seem to have some potential -- they just need to refine it.
I Don't Know You
I've run out of ways to describe what bands sound like. And if you think about it, telling you that one band sounds like another is really a worthless observation. So for the purposes of this review, let's just say that if you put Lola Ray on a bill with any of today's '80s-inspired bands, they would fit right in.
I love bands that understand that you should put your best songs at the beginning of your CD. In these days of microscopic attention spans, the average listener is not going to sit around while you try to lure them in with your slow, sensitive side. It seems that Lola Ray are working off a similar philosophy. They put their best foot forward with "Plague (We Need No Victims)" to start off the disk. It's full of the kind of sporadic chugging chords that give many of their contemporaries their drive -- if you can envision an American version of Franz Ferdinand, then you're halfway there. "What It Feels Like" appears at number two and is easily the best song of the lot. The vocals are compelling, the music builds to a crescendo at the right time, and you feel satisfied at the end.
"She's A Tiger," though, follows up the strong start of the first two songs but comes across as an out-of-place love song. Sadly, Lola Ray aren't as interesting when they slow things down. I know that bands have to have their breather moments, but this one just doesn't make you want to keep listening. They come back to form on "Automatic Girl," a decent rocker that never quite rewards the listeners' anticipation. As you approach the back of the bus, there're a few gems to look forward to. "One By One" does a nice XTC impersonation at the beginning before hitting the mark as a solid, melodic rock song. If you make it as far as "Slave," second to last on the CD, you'll find a commercially viable track that shows off the band's strengths: upbeat tempos, intriguing vocals, and cleverly placed space.
It's a good effort from a band that is full of promise. Is it worth your bucks to buy? Maybe. It's just a gut feeling, but I think that they could be the real deal in the future.
Memphis' Lucero blends a solid dedication to Southern rock (sans racism) with early country and punk-tinged garage rock (thanks in no small part to producer Jim Dickinson, best known for his work with The Replacements, Big Star, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Bob Dylan, and the Stones). With such well-heeled musicians' auras hanging around, comparisons are inevitable. At times, the band pulls off Social Distortion-style punk, and other times vocalist/guitarist Ben Nichols -- whose gravelly voice sounds like he's a firm believer in the double shots of whiskey he sings about on "California" -- sounds oddly similar to The Pogues' Shane McGowan. Nobody's Darlings, however, showcases the band's obvious appreciation for both Replacements-esque rock 'n' roll ("California," "Bikeriders") and Wilco's early country fixation ("Noon As Dark As Midnight," "All The Same To Me").
"Shut up and play that guitar...we ain't nobody's darlings," Nichols sings on "Nobody's Darlings." Obviously, slogging it out in dingy bars gets the band down -- and the band's had plenty of ups and downs since their last release (chronicled on the recently released documentary, Dreaming In America) -- but this album proves that Lucero's near-success with 2003's That Much Further West was just a hint of good things to come.
Y'know, I know that Washington rockers The Makers left any pretense of "punk" behind back in '98, but since I haven't had all that much exposure to the post-Hunger version of the band, it's taken me a long time to adjust somewhat to their swerve into full-on glam rock. With Everybody Rise!, though, I'm finally there -- I get it now, at last, and I understand that these guys are dead serious about this.
There's no irony here, not even a hint, and that's pretty rare in this age of sarcastic, ironic, retro-trendy hipsterism. Much as I love The White Stripes or The Darkness or Andrew W.K., I still get this weird feeling like they're laughing behind their hands, amazed that all us listeners actually buy the act. The Makers, on the other hand, sound like they're doing exactly what they love -- channeling Motown and the Mods through T.Rex and David Bowie -- and that's pretty darn entertaining.
"Good as Gold" is the highlight here, a sweet concatenation of '50s pop with mid-'80s New Romanticism (and a teeny-tiny nod to Cat Stevens' "Wild World," to boot) that has one of the most yell-able choruses I've heard lately. The band shines on "Run With Me Tonight," as well, turning down and throwing a little McCartney jauntiness into a come-get-lost-with-me love song (the "ba-ba-ba"'s near the end are a nice touch), and gets dirty with lead-off track "Matter of Degrees," which wouldn't sound out of place as a long-lost Hanoi Rocks bootleg and which practically demands to be cranked up to ear-damaging volume.
The album lags a bit after the halfway mark, but even there the band throws out odes to Motown and '60s pop like "It Takes a Mighty Heart" and "The Story of You and I," respectively, as well as closer "Promises for Tomorrow," which is grand and sweeping like Ziggy Stardust at his best. The only tracks I find myself skipping are the pseudo-creepy "Sex Is Evil (When Love Is Dead)" (guys, c'mon -- you don't need to mine the hearse schtick any longer...) and "Ordinary Human Love," which just isn't all that memorable a track. But hey, if you can shriek about being a "tiger of the night" and not sound like a complete idiot, who gives a shit if you don't hit the mark with every single song?
Songs From Sacramento, Vol. 1: Songs I Hope My Mom Will Like
Okay, so I feel like I'm trespassing. Historically, "The Jonah Matranga Guy" here at SCR has always been Mel House -- he's the one who's reviewed nearly every single thing Matranga's done up to this point, from Far onward through The Volunteers, and these days he's even playing in Matranga's backing band -- so I feel a bit like the pretender to the Throne of Jonah Fandom, as it were. (Don't worry, Mel -- you're welcome to review the new There's A Lot In Here CD/DVD set, if you want; that one's all you...)
One basic fact first: this isn't a new release. Songs From Sacramento, Vol. 1: Songs I Hope My Mom Will Like was first released way back in 1994 on cassette, recorded during Matranga's time with pseudo-metal band Far for his mom, who he says "missed my softer acoustic stuff." I'm glad there's a note, actually, because if I had been handed this CD with no label or context, I would've assumed it was something he recorded himself, just hanging out in his San Francisco bedroom with Are Too, the much-beloved (and now-retired) R2D2 drum machine/sampler. It's pretty remarkable that this fits so well within his "Onelinedrawing" oeuvre, considering that the material's really more "proto-Onelinedrawing" in terms of when it was put to tape.
Another funny thing about Songs From Sacramento: I know some of these songs. There're a few covers, sure -- versions of Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee" and the Sugarcubes' "Birthday," as well as a bleak, foreboding cover of Prince's "The Cross" -- but the rest are all Matranga's (and they're generally a lot more interesting than the covers, in my opinion). Turns out, though, that I have heard some of 'em before: the beautiful, haunting, Bob Mould-like "Welcome Wearing Out" appeared in somewhat electrified form as "Leper Song" on Thriller, the solitary full-length by Matranga's shortlived band with Texas Is The Reason guy Norm Arenas (and here it's the absolute high point of the disc, so I can see why he repurposed the song); slow, swaying "Six, Suns and Cows" became "Sixes" for 2002's Visitor; and "Candle Song," a soft, almost bluesy folk track, also popped up almost unaltered in Visitor.
(The same goes, apparently, for the second "volume" of the Songs From Sacramento set, the re-release of Jonah's One-Line Drawing, which I unfortunately have yet to hear but which includes early versions of "14-41," "The Big Parade," and "Yr Letter," all three of which have appeared on subsequent releases by Matranga's various "projects.")
The rest of the CD's only available on this release (or on the original cassette), as far as I can tell. There's "Littleness," all fingerpicked and delicate like Nick Drake's more minimal moments, and "Anima (For America)," which is a bit on the repetitive side but still nicely melancholy and folky, with a cool falsetto part at the end. "Springtime" is looser than the rest, more flowing and countryish, and the lyrics seem to obliquely hint forward to "Lukewarm," another of the New End Original tracks.
"Loud Mom" and "S.H.P.," the two oddballs of the album, come close to the end -- the former's an affecting a cappella song/poem about the ways that love and embarrassment dovetail when it comes to your parents, and it showcases nicely the belting style he pretty much abandoned after his Far days, while the latter gets quiet and personal in almost a James Taylor folk vein. Stacked up next to some of Matranga's other releases, I'll admit that Songs From Sacramento is currently far from my favorite, but it's growing on me with each listen -- it's just a lot more intimate and personal than some of his more recent stuff, and I'm a sucker for the louder sing-along songs.
I feel like I should qualify my praises, by the way, by noting that Matranga's appeal, at least to me, is as much about him as a person as it is about the music. He's such a genuinely sweet, smart, unpretentious guy that listening to him sing or speak makes me want to give the guy a big hug and invite him over for a big long dinnertime conversation with the family.
At shows, he has a habit of stopping mid-song to drop intensely personal bits of information, explain some obscure bit of background, or dissect the nature of art and rock stardom (or lack thereof), all of which would normally have my cynical rock-critic self rolling my eyes and checking my watch. If it were anybody else, that is. Because of who Matranga is and how open he makes himself to his audience, I can't help but admire the get-it-all-out-there approach he takes to what he does. It's a cliché within the music business (and the art world in general) that "it's all about the music, man," but over the years he's demonstrated that he really, truly does do it all for love of the music.
I mean, what the hell else could it be that drives him? He could have easily ridden the "emo" train into post-Far stardom within the indie community, at the very least, but he chose not to. He asks only what people can afford for his CDs, T-shirts, and shows, criss-crossing the country to play to strangers in foreign cities for relatively little money; simple logic would dictate that if his primary goal was about selling lots of records and becoming a star, well, he's going about it in a really dumb way. Take all that out of the equation, then, and what's left? Holy shit -- what if this guy really is "all about the music"? Sincerity is extremely hard to fake well; it smells to high heaven, and Matranga's about as far from that as you can get. He's The Real Deal.
Speaking of Real Deal-ness, this album's noteworthy for marking the first time that Matranga's scrapped the "Onelinedrawing" moniker he's gone under since his Far days. Apparently he got tired of all the "emo" tags associated with the name, so him going just as himself is an attempt at starting clean, with no preconceptions of what his music "should" sound like. Which is good, because all that easy pigeonholing does a great disservice to Matranga's sheer talent as a songwriter and drive as a confirmed DIY-style artist. He's not some emo guy gone folk, but rather the opposite -- an immensely gifted folk/pop songwriter, singer, and guitarist who just happened to be in a loud-yet-emotive band for a while near the start of his career. I mean, c'mon -- just because Neil Young used to be in Buffalo Springfield, does that mean, "oh, he's just some old folkie, not a real rocker"? Uh-uh.
Granted, the Neil Young analogy might be a bit of a stretch, but looking back over Matranga's career so far, the breadth of everything he's done is pretty amazing. As he puts it on his Website: "15 years, 4 band names, 6 full-lengths, 5 EPs, a few splits, several comps, 100+ songs, 1000+ shows." He's been a rocker, he's experimented with drum loops and samplers, he's done the sensitive-folk thing, he's done the "Nü-Metal" thing -- and, most importantly, he's been good at all of it.
All of which says that what Matranga is at heart, underneath the distortion or the synthesized drum beats, or the "Godfather of Emo" label, or whatever, is an excellent songwriter of the Can-Do-Anything variety. He pulls in influences from everything from Sinead O'Connor (one of his idols) to straight-up punk rock, turns them inside out and makes them into his own immediately recognizable thing. How many other people can say that they've done that consistently and brilliantly for a decade and a half?
One of the most refreshing releases of the year, this Chicago-area band mixes poppy hooks with anthemic, classic rock riffs and a seventies sense of rock 'n' roll cool. There's no garage-y throwbacks here, though. Instead, the band works through radio-friendly alt-rock on "It's A Disaster," looks for elusive indie cred on "Here It Goes Again" ("Throw on your clothes, the second side of Surfer Rosa," Damien Kulash, Jr. sings), Prince-like falsetto soul on "Oh Lately It's So Quiet," and inevitable mainstream success with Oh No's catchy-as-hell single, "A Million Ways." The album is a study in restraint, however, as OK Go could have just as easily overloaded on feedback and overdone sentiment -- like many of their better-known peers -- but instead they opted for across-the-board experimentation that lets their influences (and talent) shine. This is easily one of the better albums of 2005.
Parker Street Cinema
[Ed. Note: Just so nobody thinks we're being shifty or anything, we should note that this band includes sometime SCR contributor Ken Mahru on drums. The guy writing the review, however, has never met Ken and has no clue who he is, so take that for what it's worth...]
Parker Street Cinema is a three-piece instrumental ensemble from San Francisco; pretty straightforward, but instead of using a guitar, like a standard three-piece, the third person instead rocks out on keyboard. Keyboard player Brian Glover really does rock out, too -- he plays lots of pounding chords in a way that sounds similar to punk rock guitar. The bass player, Kevin Dick, also sounds a lot like a guitar player; he contributes a lot of melodies throughout the record and he deploys the distortion pedal whenever a guitar player would. Bassist Dick is their secret weapon -- he provides the melody when they need it, brings the distortion when they want to rock, and generally comes up with interesting lines throughout.
"Deliver" is a fast rocker with lots of pounding chords from the piano ("pounding" is his big M.O. throughout the record), but he changes things around enough to keep things interesting, for the most part. Dick comes up with an interesting bass line that occasionally goes outside the normal scale, but he uses them at times when they're not obvious. Very subtle. "Little Red and Black Circles, Floating" features him in particular -- the piano part pounds pretty consistent throughout (with a couple of melodic breaks), and Dick gets to play the melody. Unfortunately, he can't save this one himself, as the piano part doesn't really contribute much to the song.
"Midnight Shakes the Memory" is the big rock song where all three get to show off. The song has so much energy that it almost makes your stereo shake -- it almost dances with energy. Dick gets to show off here, too -- his bass lines at the beginning build tension, and the bass and Glover's keyboard parts play off each other nicely. They change the melody often enough that it's hard to tell when they're repeating a section, and that keeps things interesting.
All in all, an interesting idea that they execute pretty well, although over the course of a full-length album the piano style might get somewhat tedious. Their bass player, though, is the one that really makes it work -- they'd better get that guy a contract!
No Straight Lines
No Straight Lines by Private Eleanor is the Baltimore alt-pop band's third album, and its seems to do well at fitting into what I call the Garden State aesthetic. No, I'm not talking about the fact that Baltimore is near New Jersey -- I'm talking about music that could have fit on the soundtrack for the movie Garden State. Those of you that know what I mean can stop reading right now, because it perfectly encapsulates the sound of this album, and you like it, you find it dreary and depressing, or you like it because you find it dreary and depressing. I actually like it, but I find that the album as a whole may be a tad repetitive for folks who don't dig on Elliot Smith or Nick Drake. Each song as a whole is pleasant and pretty, and I will be listening to this album in the future, but it's very hard to differentiate one song from another, which is not necessarily a bad thing for the ambient feel of the album.
No-depression fans and shoegazers will find this album a great treat, but most other folks will probably tire of listening to it after a few tracks, unless it's shuffled in with other music.
Snake's Got A Leg
I was intrigued by Snake's Got A Leg when I saw "includes members of Wolf Parade" in the tagline for this album. Sunset Rubdown is essentially Spencer Krug, the lead singer and keyboardist from said band, one of a number of recent Canuck bands emerging on the hype scene, and nowadays, if you're Canadian and you're in a popular indie band, you've gotta have a side band. I think it's written somewhere in the Canadian constitution. Is there actually a Canadian constitution? Anyway, I digress. The Wolf Parade sound is a sort of jangly guitar rock party, backed up by whizzing keyboards. It's also important to note that they recorded one of the best albums of 2005 in Apologies to the Queen Mary.
So, I was a little bummed to discover that this album is more of an "experimental" project. That's code for "crap." Basically, it's a bunch of songs filled with electronic farts. The chorus of half the songs sounds like "BLARP -- BONK -- BONK -- QUEEEEEEF." The lone highlight on the album is "I'll Believe in Anything," which is actually a song from Apologies to the Queen Mary. And by "highlight," I mean that it's about half as good as the Wolf Parade version. My general recommendation is to steer clear of this. But if you're a huge fan of the Wolf Parade, then...well, you should still probably steer clear of this.
Masters of Horror Original Soundtrack
Did anyone catch that miniseries on Showtime called Masters of Horror? If the answer's "no," well, it was a showcase of thirteen one-hour original horror films, each directed by a different classic director (John Carpenter, Dario Argento, John Landis, etc.). The current de facto rule in Hollywood is that virtually all new horror movies must have soundtracks that consist of heavy metal music -- Masters of Horror abides.
While the two-disc set does have a few good tunes, the soundtrack mostly contains repetitive alt-metal. The majority of the bands that appear on the record, like Norma Jean, It Dies Today, and From Autumn to Ashes, follow a simple songwriting formula: beat the bass drum(s) at a deadly pace, put a layer of loud yet simple guitars and an even simpler bassline on top, and finish it off with a scratchy scream similar to that of a pre-pubescent boy.
But fear not, fellow readers, because there is an exit ladder from the abyss, and it comes in the form of decent tracks by Shadows Fall ("This Is My Own"), Mudvayne ("Small Silhouette"), In Flames ("Discover Me Like Emptiness"), and the ever-unique Buckethead ("We Are One," featuring Serj Tankian). Live tracks from Mastodon ("Megalodon") and Avenged Sevenfold ("Beast and the Harlot") also provide emergency exits. The album's primary savior, however, is "End Of The Road," a long acoustic ballad by Murder By Death -- it's this song that will prevent this album from being doomed by cynical critics.
Something Must Be Wrong
As anybody who's read this little e-zine for a little while probably knows, I've been a fan of H-town singer-songwriter Arthur Yoria for a few years now. And upon receiving his latest two releases, a pair of EPs entitled Suerte Mijo and Something Must Be Wrong, I'm reminded why. I swear, every single time he comes up to the plate, this guy bats it out of the park. It's amazing.
Not that either of these discs is exactly a "typical" Arthur Yoria release, mind you. The first of the two, Suerte Mijo,
is actually doubly
odd, being A) sung all in Spanish and B) an iTunes
-only release (a first for Yoria). I'm guessing the latter has something to do with the former, but I'll get to that later. Right now I should note that it turns out to be a heck of a lot more difficult to review something when it's in a language I don't understand. It's kind of a new experience for me -- I could've sworn I'd had to try something like this before, but right now I can't figure out when that might've been, and the experience feels pretty alien. So yes, here I am, listening to an album's worth of music in Spanish, a language I only "know" inasmuch as I can ask where the bathroom is and kind
of comprehend the answer I get. When it comes to the five tracks on Suerte Mijo,
Yoria could be singing about love, loss, and pain, or he could be singing about the weather; I really have no idea.
So, with that in mind, all I'm left with is the music. And what music it is -- Yoria has the ability to effortlessly turn out these gorgeously-textured, foot-tapping pop-rock masterpieces that pull in the best elements of the guitar-pop genre over the past two decades or so and meld them all together into a cohesive whole. Top it off with that smoky voice of his, capable of jumping from sultry whisper to heartbroken cry at the drop of a hat, and it's nearly flawless music in any language. Sadly, that's about all I can say about it. The music's great, yes, but without the added depth of the lyrics (or, heck, even the song titles -- I know a few of the words in there, like "baño" and "amor", but that's about it), I'm finding that I can't get into Suerte Mijo in any kind of meaningful way.
Which is okay, really, because I don't think I'm really the intended audience; this feels more like an experiment of sorts, a guarded, not-too-serious stab at crossing over into the Spanish-language market without expending too much effort on actually marketing the disc to Spanish-language radio, TV, or whatever -- hence the iTunes-only distribution. I suspect that Yoria views Mijo as just a fun "whatever happens, happens" one-off, with him enjoying writing and recording the songs but not having much hope of success riding on the release.
And hey, more power to him; I've been known to gripe about how the "opening up" of the music world to people who can self-record, self-release, self-promote, and self-distribute their music has killed any kind of filter separating the good stuff from the not-worth-the-plastic-of-a-CD-R crap, but on the other side of the coin, it's great that we live in an age when a guy as talented as Yoria can just throw out something like this without the backing of a major label. Again, though, it's the lack of comprehension of the lyrics that kills me. While I like Suerte Mijo, I'm not real likely to be listening to it much (at least, not until I take a class or two in Spanish, which is something I've been meaning to do). There's only so far the music gets me without being able to delve into the meaning behind it.
On the positive side, the meaning of the lyrics is what Yoria's "other" EP, Something Must Be Wrong, is all about; it's practically packed with the stuff. Take the title track -- with a beautiful, nearly cheering chorus of "This can't be this easy," he seems awed and surprised by how simple it is to just step back and take life as it comes, to be in tune with the world and not get freaked out by every little thing. Everything's running so smoothly, in fact, that the ease of it has got him worried (guy can't win for losing, can he?). To my ears, at least, this song is about Yoria trying to discover his "center," figuring out how to balance the different parts of his life without going over the cliff. The feeling continues into "Only Me," which is the yearning, sweet-as-honey sound of Yoria rediscovering himself -- he looks around at all the chaos and realized that the person he really needs to be paying attention to is, well, him.
Then there's "Goodbye Marisa," which strikes out into unknown territory (for Yoria, that is) by incorporating odd little gospel touches and handclaps in the middle, some bluesy guitars, and an almost roadhouse feel throughout. It's nothing like any of the songs I've ever heard from the guy before, although it's recognizably him. After the first two tracks on the EP, "Goodbye Marisa" comes off as kind of a signal that things are headed in a new direction.
Okay, so maybe I'm reading a bit into this and interpreting what are actually fairly innocent little pop songs as windows into the deep, dark portions of Yoria's subconscious; that's definitely possible, I'll admit it. Maybe it's because I know what all Yoria went through before and during the making of his last full album, I'll Be Here Awake, that this EP sounds kind of like it's the sound of him getting back on his feet and being comfortable again with his life and his music. Awake was kind of like the chronicle of his crash into illness and depression, and the urgency and edginess of the music reflected that, but now that he's made it back, Something Must Be Wrong is the celebration of how good it feels to really live again. The songs here are less edgy, less frantic, and less melancholy than a lot of the stuff on Awake; they're more introspective, on the whole, more uplifting and positive. It's like he's saying, "okay, I'm doing better now," and is warming up for his next bit of full-length brilliance. After listening to both of these EPs, I can hardly wait to hear it.