REVIEWS (March 2007):
The Walking Wounded
Bayside pic
Straight up, I'm not really a huge Bayside fan. I had heard of the band before but never really heard much from them up until now. Obviously, I therefore have no real idea how The Walking Wounded stacks up against their previous output. What I do know, however, is that regardless of (or maybe as a result of) my relative unfamiliarity with the band, The Walking Wounded pretty much rocked me from the first listen. The songs are poppy, catchy, and sung cleanly, but the band has a pretty huge post-hardcore guitar sound going on that really adds to the proceedings. Honestly, the guitar work is what stands out the most to me...most bands that are vocally and lyrically in step with Bayside don't have a raging six-string maelstrom behind them. That really sold me from the start.
Song-wise, the album is full of interesting dynamics and musical ideas, like the title track's first verse shift from insane guitar riffage to waltzy carnival march; that's not something that you hear everyday from a loud rock band. Actually, these days, you almost never get a taste of anything remotely left-of-center, but Bayside manages to somehow sound somewhat experimental ("progressive" might be a more apropos term) and poppy at the same time to my ears. Bayside also like their tempo shifts and rests, which makes for a pretty engaging listening experience from a band that could probably phone in much simpler songs and still do pretty well. On top of that, they can play the hell out of their instruments, which is a refreshing thing to hear. As a result, the entire record sounds huge and pretty much begs for repeated listens.
So yeah, let me revise that first sentence: I wasn't really a huge Bayside fan...but thanks to The Walking Wounded, I am now.
[Bayside is playing 3/25/07 at The Meridian, with Anberlin.]
(Victory Records -- 346 N. Justine St., Suite 504, Chicago, IL. 60607; http://www.victoryrecords.com/; Bayside -- http://www.myspace.com/bayside)
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Blinded Black
Under The Sunrise
Blinded Black pic
Attention all you bored, 15-year-old suburbanites sporting dyed black hair and Hawthorne Heights T-shirts: here is the soundtrack to your sad, miserable lives. Basically, Blinded Black is what would happen if the Muzak Corporation attempted a foray into the realms of screamo and metal-core. Under The Sunrise incorporates every cliché of the genre -- the three-cord, chuga-chuga guitar riffs, the alternating scream/moan vocals, ridiculous "depressing" lyrics, and so on. The only element that isn't completely generic is the horrific synth action that's going on throughout the album. I could keep going on about what an atrocity Under The Sunrise is, but why waste the effort?
(SideCho Records -- 2698 Junipero Ave., Suite 101A, Signal Hill, CA. 90755; http://www.sidecho.com/; Blinded Black -- http://www.myspace.com/blindedblack)
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Lucas Cates
Lucas Cates pic
From Madison, Wisconsin, Lucas Cates' band brings together the sounds of folk, pop-rock, storytelling music -- somewhat similar to the sound of Jack Johnson. Although the band is named after frontman Lucas Cates, it's a collaboration of talented and lively musicians. Contradictory, the band's first album has gained a high reputation on college radio stations nationwide. The lyrics throughout the album describe matters of the heart vs. those of the mind.
I've listened to the album several times, and the one song that caught my attention was "Undercover." The blues melody, coupled with the words of a man waiting for his lover, would be a perfect soundtrack to any good chick-flick. I found myself chuckling, however, at some of the lyrics from the other songs on the album: "Rock it like a pirate, standing on a wooden leg / Make you walk the plank...think I'm going ape shit..." If your musical tastes lean toward Dave Matthews, then do put this in your top five. The one thing that isn't expected at all, really, is the humor in the songs. For that reason, Contradictory is worth a listen, and if your attention isn't caught by the soothing vocals, great acoustics, or funny lyrics, then you, my friend, should check to see if you're still breathing.
(PopBomb Records -- P.O. Box 567, DeForest, WI. 53532; http://www.popbomb.com/; Lucas Cates -- http://www.lucascates.com/)
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Bobby Conn
King for a Day
Bobby Conn pic
Bobby Conn's latest record, King for a Day, satirizes movie stars, musicians and other celebrities amid so-bad-it's-good commercial radio production. Conn uses every cliché of '70s and '80s pop radio that you can imagine, cramming in so much crap that the songs almost implode. Even still, however, the songs themselves are perversely catchy, and they make you listen anyway, despite your misgivings (which are many, trust me).
The pretension begins with the eight-minute opening track, "Veritas" -- it starts with Middle Eastern-sounding violin that goes on and on and on, then goes to a guitar solo that's epic in its wankiness, and then a big chorus that's in Latin, no less. "Love Let Me Down" and "Twenty-One," on the other hand, take on Steely Dan-style pop affectation. And what goes perfectly with Steely Dan bombast? Why, hair-metal bombast, of course, as on "Sinking Ship" and "(I'm Through With) My Ego." Throughout the record, you get the feeling that Conn said "yes!" to every bad idea he had, as excess piles upon excess.
The subjects of his songs are as impaired as the production values. The subject of "Love Let Me Down" has slept with so many women that he can't remember the name of the one he's with but is deluded enough to announce that he still believes that "Love won't let me down." Conn takes on Tom Cruise and Scientology in two songs, "Punch the Sky!" and "Anybody" -- in "Punch the Sky," the Scientologist narrator declares, "Think about it -- isn't it weird that we know so much about dinosaurs?... And this is explained by, what, a bunch of bones in the ground? Maybe we know so much about dinosaurs because some of us remember the dinosaurs, because we're 70 million years old..." No, maybe it's because some of us can think! On the other hand, "King for a Day" sounds like a great rock-star parody, and it's straight from Bobby Conn's own life. So maybe for celebrities, this is all more true than we all think. Frightening, huh?
The album may be the most perfect match of music to content that I've ever heard. And the content's there too -- some of this stuff is strong enough to be on real commercial radio stations, rather than only on the ones in Bobby Conn's head. This album is definitely worth checking out. (Although I'd recommend bringing a HAZMAT suit; otherwise the reeking stench of grandiose pomposity may never leave you.)
[Bobby Conn will be performing at Notsuoh on Sunday, March 4, along with Faux Fox, James Eck Rippie, & Laura Palmer.]
(Thrill Jockey Records -- P.O. Box 08038, Chicago, IL. 60608; http://www.thrilljockey.com/; Bobby Conn -- http://www.bobbyconn.com/)
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Die Hunns
You Rot Me
Die Hunns pic
You Rot Me is the second release from Die Hunns, a pseudo-punk supergroup. The band has an impressive pedigree, with Duane Peters and Jamie Reidling from the U.S. Bombs, ex-Circle Jerk Zander Schloss, Nate Shaw from the Skulls, and Corey Parks from Nashville Pussy. The experience that all the members have comes through the speakers with each and every song. Songs like "Mad Society" would normally be a punk rock cliché, but Peters' strong vocals are able to transmit true frustration. Similarly, "Rock and Roll Boulevard" displays a low growl that sounds like Omar and the Howlers if they grew up in 1970s New York. Song subjects stay true to punk rock ethos and deal with frustration with society, being a misfit, and loving and losing.
"Ain't It A Shame" is one of the tracks that have both Peters and Parks trading vocals. It's a great track about the frustrations of the music industry. "Jorge," an incredibly catchy song about dealing drugs, also has Peters singing lead, with Parks on the chorus. Die Hunns have the good fortune of having two vocalists and the flexibility that they can bring. When Parks sings lead on "On My Mind," she seems to channel vintage Joan Jett, and that's a very good thing. Parks' vocals really shine on "Don't Want To Hear It Anymore" -- her deep voice is a perfect vehicle for Schloss's lyrics. It's a very emotional track that underscores the band's experience. You Rot Me is the record that the New York Dolls should have made. It sounds like it came right out of the gutter and didn't bother to clean itself up before walking in your house.
(Volcom Entertainment -- 1740 Monrovia Ave., Costa Mesa, CA. 92627; http://www.volcoment.com/; Die Hunns -- http://www.diehunns.com/)
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Karrie Hopper
An Unusual Move
Karrie Hopper pic
Karrie Hopper sings old-fashioned sounding folk songs reminiscent of Palace-era Will Oldham. She has a pretty, unaffected alto voice that sounds somewhat innocent and childlike, although the songs are not. Her songs are mostly personal in nature. An Unusual Move features her on acoustic guitar, with some occasional unobtrusive accompaniment. It's also in a pretty package that looks like Edward Gorey playing with a wood-block press.
Beyond the packaging, though, her lyrics are particularly interesting. "True Rider" is a remarkably evenhanded song about a solitary man and a woman that loves him -- but where many people would side with the woman that loves him, she also understands his nature and instead sings:

"Someone should tell her that he rides alone
So that she knows
Cause what can you do... with the heart of a martyr?
At least she'll know so that she doesn't develop any hopes
And she can let him go on."

A reasonable solution, although love doesn't always work that efficiently. Admittedly, the rider on the horse is a major Palace motif, but the melody is pretty enough that it works anyway. Similarly, "An Unusual Move," a song about learning to take chances, has this wonderful chorus:

"When you dance, dance, fall to the floor
It's an unusual move
Try not to think, plan or decide
Move however you move"

Which, in my experience, are not the normal instructions you might be given for a dance.
An Unusual Move is an impressive debut, and Hopper's definitely got a lot of talent. If she can move away from the Palace inspiration a little bit, she'll really have something going.
(Nobody's Favorite Records -- 34 West Main St., Dudley, MA. 01571; http://www.nobodysfavoriterecords.com/; Karrie Hopper -- http://www.myspace.com/karriehopper)
Jihad Jerry and the Evildoers
Mine Is Not a Holy War
Jihad Jerry and the Evildoers pic
Make no mistake about it, Jihad Jerry, aka Gerry Casale, is Devo, and Devo is the '80s. The opening bars of "The Time is Now," the first track on Mine Is Not a Holy War, slap you back to that most maligned of musical decades faster than being butt-fucked by a Member's Only jacketed Cory Feldman. For the next 34-and-one-half minutes, you will be treated to a panoply of throwback tunes, modified pop-rock standards, and a few Weird Al Yankovic moments. All in all, it's about what one would expect from the guy behind the design of those crazy orange hats.
I won't even bother getting into the sardonic back-story provided for Jihad and his compatriots. If you really want to know, just look them up on Allmusic. I will tell you that the inane nature of the band name, album title, and cover art are definitely harbingers of things to come. I worked hard not to judge this album before hearing it, and succeeded only in temporarily suspending my disbelief. Mine Is Not a Holy War, despite its earnestness-through-farce approach, rarely reaches much higher than empty quasi-political whining and cheap, almost slap-stick comedy. Often in the same breath.
For all of Jihad Jerry's foul-crying over the deplorable state of modern, specifically American, culture, I can't help but shake the nagging feeling that this whole record buys into it. A few things point me in that direction. Allow me to enumerate:

  1. Jihad Jerry was birthed, and this record released, in a musical environment which has proven to be highly lucrative for '80s nostalgia acts and post-punk revival wannabes. You know who I'm talking about, right?
  2. The production is so slick that the disc practically flies out of your hands the second you take it out of the jewel case. Slick production just seems to be counterintuitive for a guy who is, ostensibly, fighting the mainstream.
  3. Jihad Jerry sells t-shirts. And ring-tones.
  4. Devo 2.0
Of course, none of this really makes a difference if you dig the music. I didn't. It's not that it's poorly performed. It just feels like, musically, they're just going through the motions. Part of that, I suspect, is the overly slick production mentioned above, but there's also the fact that I never got a sense of inventiveness. Devo, while not my favorite group by any stretch of the imagination, at least challenged the contemporary musical conventions of its time. Hell, they were one of the first pop groups to base their sound around a synthesizer. Jihad Jerry, on the other hand, just seems to regurgitate.
There are a few fun tunes, and a few interesting moments. Flagship tune "Army Girls Gone Wild" is definitely catchy. It's got a nice driving bass line which provides a much-needed dose of funk, and the lyrics are amusing even if the sarcasm is a bit thick. It's hard not to at least smirk at a line like "...You have the right to remain naked / She's gonna show you what it means to liberate." The overall sense I'm left with after hearing this tune is that Weird Al got hooked up with a really good backing band. The "Bad to the Bone" riffing of "Beehive" is amusing in a kind of B-52's-meet-Southern Culture on the Skids way. "What's in a Name" marries 1970s-style scratchy wah-wah guitar with harmonica and a Stop Making Sense-era Talking Heads feel. While not terribly interesting or original, these are all fairly enjoyable listens.
"Danger" and "I Need a Chick" share a strange affinity for ribald lyrical misogyny. After listening to these two, I'm surprised Tipper Gore didn't get her little hands on this disc. The former is a song about the problems caused when a sexual fantasy meets reality. The protagonist is "tricked" into a threesome with his girlfriend's girlfriend, crying all the while, "What's a man supposed to do / When fantasies of sex come true?" The latter is a repetitive chant, with Jihad declaring (please correct me if I am mishearing these lyrics) "I need a chick / to suck-a my dick / I need a cat to stroke-a my bat / I need a dog to lick-a my hog." I honestly can't figure out what Casale was thinking, there.
The award for strangest musical menagerie on this disc, though, goes to "All She Wrote." It opens with a sloppily-staccato guitar lick reminiscent of a poorly imitated Franz Ferdinand imitation of Gang of Four. From there it devolves into a strange war of the sexes dueling rap between Jihad and one of The Evildoers. When I listen to this song, I simply cannot avoid picturing a pasty-faced Mike Myers as Dr. Evil. Again, I'm not sure what Jihad Jerry was hoping to accomplish with this, but it certainly doesn't do anything for me.
I think that the best representation of what I don't like about this album can be found in "If the Shoe Fits." Not much to say here, really. This is just two minutes of inane, anti-Bush prattle. Riddled with Yiddish. If Jihad Jerry is going for a sincere political message, this isn't it. If he's going for a humorous send-up of the current political situation, this isn't it. The only thing I get here is that Gerald V. Casale thinks that our president is a complete idiot and can't think of an intelligent, creative or actually humorous way to say it. And the music is nothing special, either.
All in all, Jerry falls flat because he fails to focus enough in any direction. The music is competently performed, but un-inspiring. The humour is either juvenile, obvious, or just not humorous. The political bent is not particularly intelligent. Actually, with these three statements in a row, this record ends up looking like a pretty good representation of the subject of Jihad Jerry's fatwa: modern American culture.
(Cordless Recordings -- 1290 Avenue of the Americas 24 Floor, New York, NY. 10104; http://www.cordless.com/; More Gold Records -- http://www.moregoldrecords.com/; Jihad Jerry and the Evildoers -- http://www.mineisnotaholywar.com/)
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The Jonx
No Turn Jonx Red
The Jonx pic
One of the coolest things about being an observer of the local H-town scene, at least for me, is getting to watch a lot of hometown folks evolve. The band process here works the same as it does anywhere else, at least most of the time -- almost nobody magically appears, fully-formed and ready to blow your doors off. Rather, the initial steps any band takes are often fumbling, uncertain ones, with the band just trying to find its collective footing. Over time, that band becomes more sure of itself, more comfortable in its skin, and more willing to take chances with its basic sound.
No Turn Jonx Red hits me like the product of a band well into that second stage of band-dom. Where some of The Jonx's earlier stuff was a little scattered -- good, definitely, but still scattered, in a charming, friendly way -- with this album they've really hit their stride, and it shows. These three guys (bassist Trey Lavigne, guitarist Stu Smith, and drummer Danny Mee; I think everybody sings) are so unshakeably tight, so together in what they're doing, that even the noisier, more seemingly chaotic things they do come off as perfectly natural. I swear, if I didn't know better I'd think Lavigne, Smith, and Mee had been playing together as The Jonx for their whole freakin' lives.
And the sound? Take that surging/swinging sound I loved back in the day when I first heard NoMeansNo, Fugazi, or, heck, Jawbox, add the screamed/yelled vocals and the combative, threatening guitars, throw in a decent helping of noiserock atmospherics and off-kilter rhythms, tack on some too-damn-smart, cynical lyrics, and you can call The Jonx one of the best bands currently working in Houston's oft-beleaguered music scene. (Any indie labels out there listening? Put out these guys' records. Seriously.) It's bleak, engaging, a bit frenzied at times ("Iron Steed"), a little ambient (see "Prelude," "Interlude," the first part of "Escape (This Is Not A Song)," or the awesomely sludgy, Earth-esque "The Scent of Earth"), and heck, there's even a melody peeking out here and there ("Parachute," "Escape (This Is Not A Song)").
There's plenty of improv-ish stuff, but it doesn't sound like it was improvised; rather, the whole thing sounds like the band knows exactly what it's doing. No aimless, meandering jams, thank God, just purposefully intense rock that has a destination in mind, no doubt, evem if you can't quite see what it is 'til you get there. Even on the longer tracks, things build so organically, getting thicker and more complex as the music moves and shifts, that the changes make perfect sense.
Given all of the above, the sarcastic lyricism of tracks like "Building Tomorrow's Slums Today," a dark little song about the, ah, transience of Houston's recently-built structures that rings so damn true that I knew what it was about before the song even started, almost seems like icing on the cake.
[The Jonx are playing 3/18/07 at The Mink, with Ponys, Black Lips, & Deerhunter.]
(Mustache Records -- 322 Aurora Street, Houston, TX. 77008; The Jonx -- http://www.thejonx.org/)
Loney, Dear
Loney, Noir
Loney, Dear pic
I've had a bit of a hard time with the music that's been coming out of Scandinavia (primarily Sweden, actually) for the past year or so. Whether it's Jens Lekman, Sondre Lerche, Frida Hyvonen, Peter, Björn and John, or heck, The Cardigans, there's just something about it that leaves me cold. I don't have anything against Scandinavia in general -- some of my best friends are Vikings -- and I firmly support their right to make music however and whenever and whyever they feel like it. It's just not for me, apparently. (Most of it, anyway, but I'll get to that.)
It's not that it's bad mind you; a lot of it's very good. I can listen to Lekman and Lerche and appreciate what they do all day long, at least in an intellectual, damn-that's-difficult-to-do sense. But does it really get me? Nope, sorry. In fact, maybe the seemingly effortless skill these folk from the Far, Far North display when it comes to songwriting and music as a whole that bugs me. It's almost too perfect. Too bright, too shiny, too polished-clean, too freakin' friendly for its own good. (Which, come to think of it, all kind of jibes with the handful of folks I've met over the years from Norway and Sweden.) Hell, even louder, more rock-oriented Scandinavian bands like Refused or The Hives (both of whom I like, by the way) manage/managed to make the supposed chaos they threw off sound awfully well-thought-out and meticulous.
Then there's Loney, Dear, the one-man recording project (he has a live band now, apparently) of Stockholmer Emil Svanängen, whose first big-time full-length, Loney, Noir, was reportedly recorded all by Svanängen himself in either his teeny studio apartment or his parents' basement. And it's incredible. No, really; it blows me away, particularly the first half of the disc (I tend to lose momentum around "I Will Call You Lover Again").
So what's the deal? What's Loney, Dear got that his fellow Swedes don't have? Partly, it's the voice. Svanängen's got one of the most ineffably beautiful, highest-pitched voices I've ever heard from a guy -- not that there aren't guys who can sing this high, but that they're not as downright pretty as this oddly elfin-sounding fellow. And then there's the bit about halfway through "I Am John," where an even higher voice comes in, sounding so gorgeously soprano and amazing that I had to double-check Loney, Dear's bio; yep, that really is him, no girls involved (well, except maybe as inspiration, that is). It's damned impressive, right on the verge of otherworldly. Svanängen's vocals sound closer to those of a band from a totally different Scandinavian country than they do any of his countrymen/women. Think Sigur Rós's Jónsi Birgisson singing and playing delicate indie-folk, and you'll come close to the general sound of Loney, Noir.
That's not all of it, however. Beyond Svanängen's voice, what really sets Loney, Noir apart from other indie-pop pouring out of the North is that the music's got an urgency, a heart to it that I haven't heard from a whole lot of Svanängen's peers. The sound is soft and gentle, but not twee (nope, not even with the vocals), reminiscent instead of the lite-but-quirky rock stylings of folks like Death Cab for Cutie or fellow Sub Popsters Wolf Parade. There's a lot of Belle and Sebastian here, too, particularly in the driving urgency of the rhythms and the way each track builds and builds until it doesn't feel like it can hold another drop of sound.
That layer-upon-layer building of sound seems to be Svanängen's modus operandi, really. On album high point "I Am John," for one, he slaps strings atop keys atop burbling fuzz-bass atop jangly Nick Drake guitars atop shimmery organ, managing to not let any of the pieces overwhelm any of the others. It careens along at a breakneck pace, seemingly unstoppable as the music gets more and more complex. "Carrying a Stone," too, follows the same general pattern, swelling and surging upwards until it very nearly explodes, crescendoing in a moment of sublime, Polyphonic Spree-esque glory.
The songs themselves are insistent and careful, especially early on, but they avoid the pitfalls of over-meticulousness to which folks like Sondre Lerche (to my ear, anyway) fall victim. Tracks like "Sinister in a State of Hope" or "Saturday Waits" sound like holdovers from '70s AM radio, all warm earth tones and smiles coupled with nicely layered strings, keys, and Svanängen's crystalline vocals. Even songs like "No One Can Win" come off as triumphant and friendly, which is a little weird considering that the song's basically an admission that the singer's stuck in a no-win situation. By the time Svanängen nears the end of "Hard Days" and leaps upward into a howl straight out of "Take On Me," I'm finding that the smile plastered across my face won't come off, no matter what I do.
[Loney, Dear is unfortunately not playing Houston any time soon, but he is/they are playing SXSW on March 13th through 15th, along with Of Montreal (check the SXSW site for schedules). You know what you've got to do.]
(Sub Pop Records -- 2013 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA. 98121; http://www.subpop.com/; Loney, Dear -- http://www.loneydear.com/)
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Muller and Patton
Muller and Patton
Muller and Patton pic
Just when I've figured that the world's pretty much had its fill of "two-name" pop duos -- I mean, c'mon, Simon & Garfunkel were the high water mark, and from there it's been downhill to the likes of Jackopierce -- here comes the eponymous debut from Muller and Patton, a law firm-sounding duo otherwise known as Jaye Muller (vocals, piano, keys, guitars, and drums) and Ben Patton (only vocals, guitars, and bass -- I guess he's the slacker of the duo? Ah, but he writes the lyrics...) to prove me wrong. And from the very start, I've got some problems with it. For one thing, anybody who titles a song "After You Cum" or sings sexual double-entendres about condoms ("Life Preserver") really just needs to be smacked and told to cut it out; it's a symptom of the irrepressibly cheeky, look-how-clever-and-naughty-we're-being feel to the whole thing, and in general that bugs the crap out of me.
Luckily for M&P, they also happen to have an incredible knack for harmonies (seriously, I haven't heard anything like this in a while) and know their way around a pop song. Sure, songs like "We Oughta Work Together" and "I Want My Mommy" sound at first like bad, bad ideas made real, but they're also intensely catchy and sugary-sweet, at times nearing the pop brilliance of Jellyfish or Great Divide-era Semisonic. The music's buoyant and clean-sounding, the vocals soar and dance around one another, and the goofy lyrics actually work to make the songs on Muller and Patton endearing, evoking Harry Nilsson or even Randy Newman with the over-the-top wordplay. By the end of it, they've managed to break through the defenses of even a jaded music critic like myself, and I'm nodding my head along and smiling. Maybe that cheekiness thing works after all...
(self-released; Muller and Patton -- http://www.mullerandpatton.com/)
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All things, forests
Palomar pic
Damn, I've missed stuff like this. Back when I was a mere musical tadpole, smart, self-deprecating, guitar-heavy indie-rock bands seemed to rule the freakin' world; lately, however, they seem to be in short supply. With All things, forests, Palomar manages to bring back that style while updating it for our too-cynical time. And they do a hell of a job.
Admittedly, the first track's a bit of a bait-and-switch -- the album starts with "Bury Me Closer," a chunk of gorgeous, insistent pop from beyond the grave that wouldn't sound out-of-place on an Arcade Fire album. It's great, definitely, but from there the band ups the volume considerably; "Our Haunt" is probably the darkest Palomar song I've ever heard, a murky cautionary tale that aims more for distortion than pretty melody. When the fuzzed-out guitar kicks the door down, it's damn near perfect.
Then there's "He Came To Stay," which starts out jangly and slow before slamming in with feedbacky guitars, the cheery, sweet "You're Keeping Us Up," and the sleeper of the disc, "Beats Beat Nothing," which begins slow but rises to a heroic note. "How To Beat Dementia," though, lays the essential template for most of All things, forests: coolly detached, almost flat vocals, delicate keys, and raging, roaring guitars. And oh, the guitars... I haven't heard a rock band comprised primarily of women (Rachel Warren plays guitar and does most of the singing, Christina Prostano plays guitar, Sarah Brockett plays bass, and lone male Dale Miller drums; everybody sings) that rocks this hard since the much-revered Sleater-Kinney or, heck, Elizabeth Elmore's old band Sarge.
The music the band plays is hard to categorize, really; it's indie-rock, certainly, but it doesn't fall into any of the neat little boxes we've got these days for indie bands that play loud and sing sweetly. This is just rock, really, and that's it. Palomar tries on a closet full of styles through the course of the album, but amazingly, almost all fit just right.
A large part of why All things, forests works is Warren's vocals, honestly. Her voice has a nicely flat, unaffected, almost world-weary quality to it that reminds me of Aimee Mann, but she can still get all soaring and beautiful when she feels the need. And that voice matches the understated, let's-just-do-it feel of the music perfectly; no chirpiness, no prettiness here to undermine the surging power-pop melodies and gritty guitars (which is a very good thing). In the end, the band probably describes themselves best in the lines to "Beats Beat Nothing": "We're nice when it suits us / but terrible sometimes."
(Misra Records -- 1501 Powell St., ste H, Emeryville, CA. 93608; http://www.misrarecords.com/; Palomar -- http://www.palomartheband.com/)
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Robert Pollard
Normal Happiness
Robert Pollard pic
I've been reading the 33 1/3 book on Bee Thousand, which -- your reviewer says, realizing his age -- was a Guided By Voices album that was a revelation to everybody back in 1994, albeit a more gradual one for me than some. It was fraught with technical mistakes, low fidelity, songs at lengths that would normally be considered fragmentary, et cetera. And it took me dozens of listens to get it, to care, to be obsessed, and to have it become a touchstone to the point where it was a priority for me to time an ocean crossing to see Guided By Voices' farewell tour.
But it's only because we weren't privy to Guided By Voices' history that Bee Thousand was as alien (and therefore striking) as it was, and it's for this reason that maybe Robert Pollard's solo career in general and Normal Happiness in particular has been neglected as is has, even by Guided By Voices who -- not unreasonably, I hasten to add -- have decided that maybe 8 or 9 Pollard/GBV albums are all they need. And whereas Bee Thousand initially perplexed because of lack of familiarity, Normal Happiness arguably suffers from the reverse problem: the recording has some rough edges sanded off (though it's downright primitive compared to those big GBV studio records), the obscure influences are now somewhat familiar (although surprising -- I'd swear "Accidental Texas Who" is ripping of a Halo of Flies riff), and the collection of the songs is arguably his most approachable ever. It's so easy to get into that its charms were, to my ears at first, almost invisible.
And, like Bee Thousand, the repeated listens are working their magic. As with that album, it's track 3 ("Supernatural Car Lover") from where it unfolds, but there are nuggets of genius strewn everywhere, with the sun-strewn shards of "Gasoline Ragtime" my current discovery of choice. Pollard may never reach as wide of an audience as he did solely due to his profligacy, but Normal Happiness is proof that his creative powers are undimmed, and the treasures are waiting there, should you only want to find them.
(Merge Records -- P.O. Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC. 27514; http://www.mergerecords.com/; Robert Pollard -- http://www.robertpollard.net/)
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The Sammies
The Sammies
The Sammies pic
You know how sometimes bands produce albums that meander down various paths, randomly picking at genres of music and making it work? It's usually a refreshing change of pace, isn't it? An album that successfully and modernly weaves together sounds from rock, Motown, country, or pop is a economical way to get a little bit of everything you might like all in one musical voyage.
Take Rilo Kiley's 2004 release, More Adventurous, for example. From beginning to end, More Adventurous takes you on a contemporary trip through an array of diverse musical musings. While the songs don't follow a formulaic indie-pop sound, the record pushes the bounds of indie music and offers its listeners a light-hearted journey into other types of music they maybe hadn't been exposed to before. More Adventurous is kind of like Cliffs Notes for hipsters.
Now, why am I talking about Rilo Kiley when I'm supposed to be reviewing the Sammies' self-titled debut album? It's to help you gain a frame of reference for how on-the-other-end-of-the-spectrum The Sammies is.
The songs, for the most part, are actually pretty good. The music is catchy and well played, and it makes for an enjoyable listening experience overall. Is the band new or unlike anything you have ever heard before, however? Um, no. The first five songs on the CD comprise the "indie" portion of your listening experience, and "Caretaker" is so painfully close to The Dandy Warhols' "Shakin'" (off Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia) that it's laughable. One of their singers (no idea which one) has a voice that so yearns to be Courtney Taylor only it comes out nowhere near as beautifully arrogant and blasé. The rest of the CD sounds like Jet with a little of something else mixed in -- I want to say The Rolling Stones, but I think that would be giving the album too much credit.
There are two, maybe three, distinct possible albums lurking in the depths of the Sammies. I'd even venture to say that had they developed three distinctly different albums all at once, it would have been more convincing than the muddled, hurried feel of their debut attempt. They would have had time to nurture their obvious ability to play lots of different kinds of music. Here, though, the band members tried so hard to be different that they ended up sounding just like everyone else. Perhaps what sets them apart is that they sound like everyone else across a couple of different genres of music all on the same album. So, technically, that does make them different. Right?
Despite the haphazard and somewhat trite air of The Sammies, the band's ability to play good music and keep the listener's interest throughout the album leads me to believe that with a little more experience, the Sammies have the potential to produce something really worthwhile in the years to come.
(MoRisen Records -- 2125 Southend Drive, Suite 451, Charlotte, NC. 28203; http://www.morisen.com/; The Sammies -- http://www.myspace.com/thesammies)
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Sebadoh pic
Whenever an album is rereleased with a passel of bonus tracks, there's a myth that suggests that it's a classic worthy of being rediscovered by a new generation. The updated double-disc version of Sebadoh's III reveals that as the dirty lie it is. If it's being hailed as a lost masterpiece, it's only because of severe grade inflation.
Originally released in 1991, III captures the moment in pre-Nevermind indie-rock when the music had to decide what it was actually trying to do. Like Guided By Voices before it all came together on Propeller, Sebadoh was at this point intrigued by the melodic formalism of pop but still distrustful of its accessibility. The result was an album whose defining feature isn't musical but attitudinal, a double LP characterized by the non-editing of a band that indulged in every idea and every whim without regard to merit, as though each one was worthy of capturing on tape and sharing with the world.
Which is a shame, because Lou Barlow is a guy who, within a few short years, would eventually start to have ideas very much worth having. But before Sebadoh could have anything worthwhile to say, it would have to become an entirely different band, one that actually cared about the records it put out. It would also have to do away with the snotty high sarcasm of the "Gimme Indie Rock" single, included here as a bonus that solidifies its status as its generation's spiritual descendent of "Like A Rolling Stone."
It also cheapens it in context, since it's easy to piss in people's soup when you're pissing everywhere else as well. If III were simply composed of mildly half-baked indie pop like "Violet Execution," "The Freed Pig," and "Supernatural Force," it would be a tolerable portrait of a band in its inchoate state. But it's not. It's loaded up with wretched tracks like "Wonderful, Wonderful" on the original album and "Calling Yog Soggoth" in the bonuses that not only far outweigh the slight charm of the others but devalue them by their kinship.
If you're a Sebadoh completist who hasn't yet encountered III, you'll probably feel compelled to get it either way. And you'll listen to it. And you'll struggle. And if you're more of a mental gymnast than I am, you'll work hard to convince yourself of its deeply buried genius. The sepia glow of history and the weight of an entire extra disc's worth of unearthed demos, single tracks, works in progress, and alternate takes practically orders the album's naysayers to dig deep and empathize with its claims of masterpiecehood.
But the album had no such aspirations of its own, conceived and executed as it was as a slapdash middle-finger of noise. Sebadoh knew as much, peppering the stream-of-consciousness self-promotion in "Showtape '91" (which the band played before gigs) with pronouncements like "Incompetence masquerading as inspiration, inspiration mistaken for true talent...Sebadoh!" A decade and a half down the line, III remains what it always was and what it always intended to be: a godawful mess.
[Sebadoh is playing 4/13/07 at Walter's on Washington, with The Bent Moustache.]
(Domino Recording Company -- P.O. Box 47029, London, ENGLAND SW18 1WD; http://www.dominorecordco.com/; Sebadoh -- http://www.sebadoh.com/)
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Smoke Or Fire
This Sinking Ship
Smoke Or Fire pic
"It's true there is a color divide / It's not black or white, it's green." Nice. I already dig this band's worldview. I've not heard Smoke Or Fire's previous LP, but apparently, it drew comparisons to Avail and Hot Water Music, and while I can still hear those influences in there, This Sinking Ship also contains aural nods to The Replacements and Social Distortion. As such, it's a lot more just plain adjectiveless "rock," which is great in this era of multi-hyphenate-core bands. That's not to say that Smoke Or Fire's punk roots are absent; you can pretty much detect them on every track, from the raging guitars to the anthemic sing-alongs to the overall energy with which the material is delivered. Actually, at times Smoke Or Fire reminds me a lot of a less-metal Ignite, both stylistically and idealistically. And since Ignite is one of my favorite punk bands, that's a good thing. They also remind me of a less-hardcore, slowed-down version of Lifetime, which is also a very good thing. If you like good, loud, smart rock without posing or artifice, then I don't think you could go wrong with Smoke Or Fire.
[Smoke Or Fire is playing 3/27/07 at Walter's on Washington, with O Pioneers!!!, This Year's Tiger, & Charger Fits.]
(Fat Wreck Chords -- P.O. Box 193690, San Francisco, CA. 94119; http://www.fatwreck.com/; Smoke Or Fire -- http://www.smokeorfire.com/)
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Something Fierce
Come For The Bastards
Something Fierce pic
Aww, man. It always makes me a little nervous when I see somebody's thanked this little e-zine in their album's liner notes; it's sweet, and I appreciate the sentiment, but when it happens with a band I've only heard a little bit of 'til now, like Houston's own Something Fierce, I get worried. I've talked to a couple of the folks in the band before now, but hadn't actually heard much of their music beyond a minute or two of a MySpace clip, so... There's nothing worse than having to deliver the music-crit smackdown on somebody who's just finished thanking you for your help, y'know?
Luckily, Something Fierce don't have that problem. Come For The Bastards is honestly one of the best local releases I've heard in a while, a full-on, snarling blast of sweat-soaked rawk that kicks its way into your head and stays. The band certainly lives up to their name; from the very start of the opening title track, guitarist/singer Steven "Baby Face" Garcia, bassist/singer Niki Sevven, and drummer Red Rocket are a ferocious, unstoppable force. And best of all, they manage to throw off all that energy and fury while at the same time keeping things catchy and entertaining.
I've had "Come For The Bastards" (the song, that is) stuck in my head for the better part of two days now, despite playing all kinds of other things between listenings; it's fast and angry, with a definite punk edge to it and a cool, Hives-ish urgency (think "Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones," off of Tyrannosaurus Hives). "Repent" runs along the same lines, with a dirty, rockabilly-ish main riff and vocals that nearly wear a Brit-punk-circa-'77 sneer, and "Find Darkness" charges in with a pounding rhythm and a yell-along chorus that'd make Rancid proud. There are more "American" punk elements here, too -- "Cut Deep," with its somewhat slower tempo and more brittle sound, reminds me in particular of old-school California bands like 7 Seconds, Agent Orange, or even Social Distortion.
The oddest thing, though, is that more than anything else, the crazy kids (well, relatively) in Something Fierce make me think of another band of kids (who also happen to be a power trio), UK wunderkinds/press darlings The Subways. And yes, that's a compliment, because like Billy Lunn & co., Garcia, Sevven, and Rocket definitely know how to craft an actual song and not just a bunch of kids banging away on guitars. "Lost Perspective" makes me want to bang my head and pump my fist in the air in time with Rocket's drums, while "10ft Demon" sounds like it was written for the sole purpose of getting a vicious mosh pit going. There's also "Better Off Without You," a sweet little Spector girl group-style fuck-you song that features Sevven on main vocals and which serves to cut the rawness of most of the rest of the album somewhat.
Okay, now I've got a confession to make: most stuff like this turns me off. Nine out of ten bands like Something Fierce don't ever even make an impression on me -- there's just so much sound-alike garage-y junk floating around there these days that it's almost as easy to tune out as the American Idol theme song. Live, sure, it's all a blast; on record, though, stuff like this tends to fall flat, at least for me. It's partly the samey-sounding thing, but it's also the actual recording style, because frankly, most of it sounds like crap, like it was recorded in an airport trashcan while 747s pass overhead. Not that I always want things to sound shiny and clean, but seriously, there're only a handful of bands out there that can be noisy and sloppy and lo-fi and make it work. Not everybody can be the Fatal Flying Guilloteens, folks (and heck, they've even left most of their early lo-fi craziness behind).
For their part, though, Something Fierce aren't rallying under the lo-fi-is-better flag. Instead, they've managed quite a feat, by playing fast, loud, wild garage rock that still stays focused and tight as hell. Sound-wise, they're furious and ragged, yes, but they're nowhere near messy or half-assed. Which is good, because Come For The Bastards is an album that deserves to be heard, over and over again and at full volume. Rock the fuck out.
[Something Fierce will be performing at the Noise & Smoke festival at The Axiom on Saturday, March 10, along with Indian Jewelry, Skullening, The Wiggins, Blades, & The Sporatics.]
(self-released; Something Fierce -- http://www.somethingfiercemusic.com/)
Sputnik Monroe
Wake the Sleeping Giant
Sputnik Monroe pic
Sputnik Monroe, the man, was a pro wrestler who used his popularity to integrate the city of Memphis. Sputnik Monroe, the band, on the other hand, has just released Wake the Sleeping Giant, their new album of "experimental indie/alt-rock." While it is impressive that they've managed to use four different terms to describe themselves, they would've been better served by sticking to one or two. In their bio, they say they take cues from Mars Volta, Muse, and Radiohead, but while name-dropping those groups is fine, for the first couple of tracks the band sounds more like Incubus.
"EEE Funk" replicates the pseudo-progressive rock of Mars Volta, it's true, but with more of a pop sensibility. Sputnik Monroe does seem to emulate Muse, but the band members cannot replicate Muse's ability to play different genres. "Tokyo Sky Surprise" is the band's best attempt at Brit-pop -- the track's very successful at creating energy and feels like it came all the way from Britain. It would be a mistake to say that it's just a simple pop song, though, since that would be ignoring the uniqueness of the track and the way it morphs into almost a different song towards the end of the track. Radiohead may have been an influence, but Sputnik comes nowhere near the experimental instrumentalization of Thom Yorke and the boys. The moody pieces sound more like ISIS, and while that's not a bad thing, it comes off as a copy.
The band needs to streamline their vision some; it's like the old saying: pick a hole. Wake the Sleeping Giant isn't a bad album, but it's not remarkably good either. Sputnik Monroe is like a trip to the mall: nothing really happened, but at least you got out of the house.
[Sputnik Monroe will be performing at Fitzgerald's on Saturday, March 10, along with The Smoke Eaters. They will also be performing at Super Happy Fun Land on Sunday, March 11, along with Solarfed & Sunday Best, and at Valhalla on Rice University campus on Friday, March 16. phew.]
(Nine 12 Records -- 275 Cathy Dr., Newbury Park, CA. 91320; http://www.nine12records.com/; Sputnik Monroe -- http://www.sputnikmonroe.com/)
Teenage Harlets
Up the Fixx
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Some bands live to record, and some bands record to live. The Teenage Harlets (their misspelling, not mine) clearly fall in the latter category. Everything about this low-fidelity burst of uptempo, surf-inflected garage rock seems to prove that their virtues are meant for a live setting: their songs, while energetic, are incredibly samey; the lyrics are incredibly generic and uninspired even by garage rock standards; and for the most part, they aren't distinguishable anyway, because of the crappy recording. But you can tell from the record they definitely have the in-your-face attitude and outsized performance approach that probably means their sets are great fun; a cursory YouTube search confirms this, revealing lots of, um, interactivity in their shows. So, yeah: I'll go see them if they come to town, but I can't really recommend this record when there's so many better garage records out there. (Stock up your Oblivians and Thee Headcoats records first, and then we'll talk.)
(Springman Records -- P.O. Box 2043, Cupertino, CA. 95015-2043; http://www.springmanrecords.com/; Teenage Harlets -- http://www.teenageharlets.com/)
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This Moment In Black History
It Takes a Nation of Assholes to Hold Us Back
This Moment In Black History pic
This Moment In Black History play the same hybrid of garage rock and hardcore punk that has served the Wrangler Brutes and Houston's own Fatal Flying Guilloteens, but they have some practicing to do before they're up to the standards of either of those bands. Listeners familiar with the Guilloteens' career and reputation may be surprised by that statement, but the foundation of both Guilloteens LPs, even across a lineup switch, is the hard-hitting grooves of the rhythm section. TMIBH drummer Lamont Thomas pounds courageously but fails to support such a groove, and though bassist Lawrence Caswell does a good job for his part, he can't carry things by himself. Guitarist Buddy Akita fares a bit better; his ability to convey anger and discord without resort to the clichés of punk guitar is TMIBH's biggest strength. Strangely, though the Wrangler Brutes are probably better musicians than either the Guilloteens or TMIBH, their knockout punch is vocalist Sam McPheeters, whose throaty howl never obstructs the flow of his witty and absurdly disturbing lyrics. Which brings me to the biggest problem with It Takes a Nation of Assholes to Hold Us Back.
The album is dedicated to Richard Pryor. The tray card reprints an impressionistic sermon-poem by a young Black poet named R. A. Washington. The title is a reference to one of Public Enemy's best records. The band itself, This Moment In Black History, was recently mentioned in a New York Times article on Black hipsters, oh-so-cleverly nicknamed "bipsters." Clearly, this is a band with, to put it delicately, something to discuss. So why can't I understand anything singer Chris Kulcsar is saying? Why doesn't the band reprint their lyrics to help me out? Why does a band in which the two major compositional roles (voice and guitar) are filled by white men cultivate the impression that they are speaking in some way for Black people, when they apparently don't consider that speech important enough to be made intelligible? Mind you, there's no reason that a white-fronted band couldn't do what TMIBH appear to be trying to do, but it makes their failure to actually get their message across all the more important.
On the opening track of Nation, "World B. Free," a sampled voice delivers a lecture on the success of the American people, praising the efforts of "all races and nationalities -- Italians, English, Mexicans, Germans, Poles, Chinese, Indians, Norwegians, Frenchman, Japanese, Russians, Spaniards, and many, many more." Then the voice asks, "But what of the Negro's role?" The track concludes, "Let us turn back the pages of history, and start at the very beginning." Whether the second track, "Larry Pulled a Knife on Jesus," constitutes this beginning is impossible to say, for these are the last words the listener will understand for many minutes. Supposedly the band claims to be apolitical, but given the context that they themselves have created for their music, that seems disingenuous. Clearly TMIBH have something to say, and more power to them; whatever issues they are trying to air out deserve to be addressed. Some people might say that rock music is not the appropriate venue for them. I disagree. But I do think that those issues should be treated with more consideration than is on display here.
(Cold Sweat Records -- http://www.coldsweat.org/; This Moment In Black History -- http://www.myspace.com/thismomentinblackhistory)
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Play Dead
Tomihira pic
San Francisco songwriter Dean Tomihira challenges audiences to find just one song they like on his eponymous band's debut full-length, Play Dead; indeed, they may have difficulty even telling where one song ends and the next begins, so consistent is Tomihira's muse. Tomihira counts Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine among his chief influences, but his songs have neither the suicidal melancholy of Joy Division nor the mechanistic power of My Bloody Valentine. They're just mild, midtempo guitar songs, polished into smooth, harmless oblongs of pop. Play Dead is never offensive, never irritating, never even really boring -- but edgeless material makes for poor hooks. The remaining hints of buffed-out corners on songs like "Pillbox" and "Color of Destroyed" suggest that Tomihira might do better to choose as his model someone like Silkworm, or the Wedding Present, or the Pretenders, all of whom have made multiple records full of midtempo guitar songs that are relatively inoffensive, but far from tame.
(RDS Records; Near Earth Objects -- P.O. Box 77273, San Francisco, CA. 94107; http://www.nearearthobjects.net/; Tomihira -- http://www.tomihira.com/)
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tvfordogs pic
Hmm. Lots of comparisons to the Foo Fighters in this one-sheet -- color me ready to be disappointed. Indie-rock bands love to compare themselves to the Foo Fighters, almost as much as crappy horror films love to invoke the spectre of The Sixth Sense in their press blurbs. In both instances, though, more often than not, this marketing strategy has the opposite of the intended effect on me. I know that they're lying through their teeth and trying to run a scam on the unsuspecting masses.
The Colour And The Shape it ain't, but tvfordogs' Roller could maybe bear a passing, second cousin-type resemblance to There Is Nothing Left To Lose -- if you threw in a little Wilco, the Chili Peppers' recent output, and the middle bunch of Pearl Jam albums (No Code through Binaural) for flavor. A lot of the songs actually sound like louder versions of songs you would hear on those "easy listening at work" stations. Don't get me wrong: it's not bad, but it's not the aural assault that the press release would have you believe. I mean, comparing these guys to Queens of the Stone Age? Come on.
In their defense, tvfordogs do have some good songwriting chops, as well as an ear for groovy arrangements. They'll probably be able to secure a safe spot on Adult Contemporary radio between the Third Eye Blinds and Matchbox Twentys of the world. Personally, I would rather the band buy a bunch of Triple Rectifiers, crank those mothers up, and deliver on some of the press kit promises for once.
(Wampus Multimedia -- 4 Weems Lane, #300, Winchester, VA. 22601; http://www.wampus.com/; tvfordogs -- http://www.tvfordogs.com/)
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Unsparing Sea
Unsparing Sea
Unsparing Sea pic
Unsparing Sea is the perfect name for this band. This is staring at a slate-grey ocean kind of music, Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman kind of music. Take "The Sleepless and the Faulty Ends," for example, where the instrumental section finds lovely cello melodies and some soothing chord changes resting under roiling drums and dissonant squalls. The music definitely fits the oceanic theme.
Lyrically, the songs are uniformly impressionistic and fatalistic. J.R. Bennett's vocals have the world-weary whine of a Thom Yorke or a "Something in the Way" Cobain, and for me they took a couple of listens to get used to. And in some places, they seem unecessary. On the improvised (mostly) instrumental "Beside Your Name," Bennett's lyrical ad-libs don't do much for me. In fact, I would love to hear the band doing more instrumental numbers; I could easily see them as a more melancholy Red Sparowes.
But when their songs work, they work well. "Life From a Plane" gets everything right, lyrically, vocally, and musically. You start out drifting at sea, the cello creaking like the boards of a ship, then there's a glorious drumroll, and you're eight miles high, floating along on the ether, watching the clouds, detatched from everything below. And that, as the song says, can be a beautiful thing.
(self-released; Unsparing Sea -- http://www.unsparingsea.com/)
Mike Uva
Where Have You Been
Mike Uva pic
On his second solo release, Where Have You Been, Cleveland, Ohio-based Mike Uva doesn't stray too far from bands like The Go-Betweens and singer/songwriters like Ken Stringfellow (of the Posies) and Art Garfunkel. His songs work best when they are either jaunty, like the modern-day breakup ballads "Protective Touch" and the alluring "Dinosaur," or light and airy, like the acoustic gems, "Quickening" and "Spaced," hidden near the end of the record. Uva made a wise decision in selecting a female backup singer and then inviting her to take the lead on "Dinosaur" -- her warm, breezy vocals bring to the song a focus that some of the other tracks on this record, like the narcoleptic "A Trophy to Bear" and the ethereal but weak "Fine Once We Start," lack. I liked the instrumental intro track and would have enjoyed hearing more energetic material like that particular track. Overall, Uva is a seasoned performer who has appeared alongside bands like Cat Power, The Decemberists, and Clem Snide, and the album displays that. On the down side, mixer Don Depew (Guided By Voices) could have done Uva the favor of highlighting the vocals more on this record, at least enough for us to hear the lyrics.
(Collectible Escalators Records -- P.O. Box 19394, Cleveland, OH. 44119-0394; http://www.collectibleescalators.com/; Mike Uva -- http://www.myspace.com/mikeuva)
Various Artists
Saw III Soundtrack
Saw III Soundtrack pic
Astute Space City Rock readers might know that I am a director of horror films. They might also reason that I must be a huge fan of the Saw series -- after all, it's got guts and misanthropy galore, right? It's a huge phenomenon, and every bloodthirsty person has to love Saw, right?
Yeah...um...not really.
I realize that this is a music review, but I assure you, I have a point here. I'm indifferent to the movies, and I'm pretty indifferent to this album, too. I like the idea of the Saw movies (and, by extension, probably the idea of an accompanying soundtrack), but the execution is lacking for me. I honestly think that the movies are a cynical exercise in producing what mainstream Hollywood thinks horror fans like me want to see. Substitute "hear" for "see" in that last sentence, and you pretty much have my description of the Saw III soundtrack, as well. There's lots of palm-muting, guttural screaming, and blast beats, but I've heard better songs by most of these bands, especially Slayer, Ministry, and Static-X. And Helmet, of course -- the greatest travesty is that one of the most boring songs on here comes from Helmet ("Monochrome"), who in their day could've eaten any of the other bands on here for lunch. Then again, that song is taken from a pretty disappointing full-length -- but that's another review entirely. And what the hell is Blue October doing on here? With a song called "Drilled a Wire Through My Chest," no less? That sounds like a grasp at tangential relevance on par with the Van Halen songs from Twister. "Respect The Wind," indeed.
Anyway, there are some small glimmers of coolness (again, like the movie series): Lamb of God's "Walk With Me In Hell" and Mastodon's "The Wolf Is Loose," for two, but they're not enough to raise the rest of the album above mediocrity for me. Avenged Sevenfold's "Burn It Down" is enjoyable, as well, but I've owned the actual album that song came off of for some time now. To top it all off, I don't really remember any of these songs being in the film proper, except for "Monochrome" being the end-title cue. It's all smoke and mirrors, pretty much, musical fast food designed to make you think you just experienced something cool just through sheer sensory overload.
And what the hell is up with this being a "clean version," bleeped profanity, sanitized soundtrack album for Saw III?!? They use the gruesome imagery and innuendo to sell you on this stuff, sure, but then it's like they only want to halfway commit to it. Say it with me now: Just. Like. The. Movies. How you feel about that will determine whether or not this is your cup of tea.
(Warcon Records -- 121 W. 27th St., Suite 1001, New York, NY. 10001; http://www.warconrecords.com/)
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The Light Divides
Winterpills pic
I know more than a bit premature, but with The Light Divides it sure feels like Winterpills have crafted one of the best damn albums of 2007. Don't let the whole "loved by NPR" hype color your judgment; this disc can't be pigeonholed into that inoffensive-folk/country box most NPR faves (that I've heard, anyway) seem to fall into. The smart, melancholy people behind Winterpills (singer/guitarist Philip Price, singer Flora Reed, electric guitarist Dennis Crommett, and drummer Dave Hower) have taken what started out as a soft, wintry afternoon talking about music, love, loss, and all the rest and have transmuted it into a fairly unique modern folk-rock gem, polished to a perfect, crystalline sheen.
Now that I say that, though, it occurs to me the album feels a bit out of time, like a chunk of amazing '70s AM radio you never heard that dropped through a hole in time to end up here. There are a lot of indie-rock/alt-country touchstones, of course -- the quieter bits of The Mendoza Line and Son Volt, the delicate country sensibility of Iron & Wine -- but there's also a warm, earth-toned feel (which is weird, given the album's overall gray imagery) that brings to mind, well, Fleetwood Mac. I say that not to demean Winterpills, by the way; I'm thinking back to my own faded memories of listening to the band on the radio when I was a kid, and that's definitely a happy little bit of nostalgia.
One of the best things about this disc is that it's so completely unassuming, so unpretentious as to be almost shy. The songs come in like slightly embarrassed visitors at a party of close friends; they wave awkwardly, sit down in a corner, and slowly seep into the surroundings. You barely notice when you start nodding your head in time and smiling wistfully. The end result is an album that sounds so warmly familiar, like you've heard it and liked it before and are finding it again after a long time away. At the same time, there's a quiet fragility to the music -- some of the songs on The Light Divides seem so fragile and insubstantial that if you breathe on them too hard, they'll crumble to dust and blow away. There's an odd, endearing delicacy to it all, especially on tracks like "Hide Me," which is nicely meandering and plaintive, and "June Eyes," where the lyrics flit by so swiftly that it takes a minute to realize what's been said.
Of course, given the above, you'd be justified in wondering how this is any different from all the rest of that laid-back, soft-spoken folk/country that's floating around out there. And you'd be right, somewhat, if it weren't for Price's bitter, bleak, often dark songwriting. On opening track "Lay Your Heartbreak," for example, the music is slowly-unfolding lite-rock, to be sure, but there's a hint of bite lurking beneath the gentle guitars. Same goes with "Handkerchiefs," a beautifully understated folk tune that seems to essentially be about two people who want to be alone but who aren't supposed to be together; by the end, it sounds like they're wandering off by themselves into the snow, never to be found.
"Broken Arm" is gentle, too, but below the swooping voices and strummy guitars, there's a simmering anger, carried across through the insistent chorus. Everywhere you look, the gorgeous melodies and pretty voices -- Flora Reed's is the sweetest female voice I've heard since Hem's Sally Ellyson -- serve to camouflage intricate, mysterious story-songs filled with characters who suffer and lose and never do what they know they want to do. There's enough heartbreak and disappointment here to fill a Red House Painters album.
Perhaps appropriately, Price's voice brings to mind Elliot Smith at his bleakest and most self-destructive (esp. on "Broken Arm"), all indie-rock melancholy and bitterness, but with Reed's gorgeous voice swooping and diving in and around it and Crommett and Hower singing along in the back, it evokes something else, something "old-timey," for lack of a better word -- it's like one of those old country "family" bands where everybody sang and played something. This is music that sounds like it's meant to be played around a campfire late at night, soft and quiet but still so beautiful and haunting it draws you in.
(Signature Sounds -- P.O. Box 106, Whately, MA. 01093; http://www.signaturesounds.com/; Soft Alarm -- http://www.softalarmmusic.com/; Winterpills -- http://www.winterpills.com/)
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