A Wilhelm Scream
Talk about your split personalities... When I first heard A Wilhelm Scream's 2005 release, Ruiner, it knocked me down, cracked my head open, and utterly rearranged the mental furniture before stitching me back together again. The music was (and still is, but I'll get to that) smart and literate to a ridiculous degree, polished but still fierce as hell, and packed full of yell-along melodic choruses and semi-ironic, bitter song titles/lyrics about our vapid, pointless modern society, melding prog-rock, hardcore, metal, and emo-boy dynamics into one damn near seamless whole. It's an incredible album, honest.
With that in mind, then, I was psyched as hell to check the band out when they came through town not long afterward. When the show rolled 'round, though, the band that took the stage resembled old-school SoCal punk more than anything else -- a bunch of beefy, tattooed guys roaring and howling up on stage, blasting away with their guitars and churning the meatheads on the floor into one of the most frenzied, violent pits I'd seen in a few years. The film/literary references got buried in the distortion, the noodly prog bits were subsumed by raw punk fury...it was like a totally different band.
A different band, mind you, but still a damn good band. It's just that they've apparently got two sides to their musical personality -- on the one hand they're snarky, smarter-than-you post-hardcore guys, flipping you the bird while effortlessly mashing up the Dillinger Escape Plan and Say Anything!, and on the other they're a four-on-the-floor punk band who loves nothing more than moshing like mad and playing as loud and fast as possible. And weirdly, that almost makes me like these guys more. How many people do you know who are totally one-dimensional and only love one thing in the world, period, especially when it comes to music? Not many, I'd bet; hell, even my mom listens to Metallica, for crying out loud, and her favorite singer's Barry Manilow. We human beings are multifaceted and diverse, darn it.
Now, with all that out of the way, I must confess that Career Suicide didn't immediately grab me, not the way that Ruiner had. I liked what I heard okay on first listen, but the album just didn't bowl me over. Partly, I suspect it's because I was hearing the album through the filter of that one show, catching nothing but the breakneck drums and hardcore yelps and figuring, "ah, so that's why the show went like it did..." Maybe I went looking for an explanation for my dilemma, and that's why I was initially lukewarm on Career Suicide.
Thing is, this album is definitely the same band -- make no mistake about that. Everything I loved about Ruiner is back in force on Suicide, from Nuno Pereira's gravelly-but-tuneful bellowing (which brings to mind Hot Water Music or Samiam at points, both favorably) to the whip-smart lyricism and pop-culture references (I think part of the reason I dig "Get Mad, You Son of a Bitch!" so much is because I love Glengarry Glen Ross) to the guitars that leap without even a blink from hardcore pummeling to Guitar Player-worthy metal licks to bassist Brian Robinson's serpentine, proggy bass.
Tracks like "5 to 9," "Die While We're Young" (love the No Knife-esque guitars and desperate chorus vocals), "These Dead Streets," "Career Suicide," "Get Mad, You Son of a Bitch!," "We Built This City! (On Debts and Booze)," and "I Wipe My Ass With Showbiz" burn with a righteous fury, so fucking fast I keep having to hit the Back button to keep up. And the more I listen, the more I want to hear it again, and again, over and over. Split personality? What split personality? Holy fuck do I like this band.
[A Wilhelm Scream is playing 3/26/08 at Warehouse Live, with Unseen, The Krum Bums, & Blackstar.]
Arise and Ruin
The Final Dawn
Murder and death never sounded so sweet! But don't let Arise and Ruin fool you -- this isn't your average, everyday, run-of-the-mill metal band. This Canadian metalcore group, consisting of members Ryan Bauchman (vocals), Brent Munger (lead guitar), Greg Richmond (rhythm guitar), Ben Alexis (bass), and Derek Prince-Cox (drums), creates a mixture of European thrash with some American metal, fused together to form an adrenaline-fueled masterpiece.
The release of their debut album The Final Dawn hit shelves, appropriately enough, on Devil's Night (Oct. 30th). This gritty and raw album sounds much like the band of the producer, Ken Susi of Unearth. With hits like "Bound By Blood" and "The Final Dawn," it's enough to make your bitter old grandmother crap her Depends!
As long as you can get past the over-killed Cookie Monster-like vocals -- "C is for cookie..." -- this album grows on you like a cancer.
Is iPod-Rock an official genre yet? Jet, The Fratellis, that ultra-processed garage-glam-pop-rock sound...just close your eyes and picture those twitchy shadow dancers in monochrome hell. shudder It's damn easy (and fun) to mock, but the music's so undeniably catchy that no one can resist its charm. Everybody catches it eventually, and once it's in you, it's there for good. Like herp...uh, chicken pox.
With Good Problems, the boys from Astra Heights have quickly picked the aforementioned niche and don't stray. Head-bobbing riffs, clap-your-hands breakdowns, and singalong choruses show up in pretty much every track. Resistance is futile. A few moments like "The Whole World Changes" and "Never a Reason" add some ethnic spice, but this is still a very accessible pop-rock record through and through. Believe me, their catchy, anthemic melodies will stick in your head for days.
The band is five brothers (one honorary) from Palacios, the shrimp capitol of Texas, who played together in Houston before recently moving out to LA. Though they may have picked up a little of that LA flair in their sound, they still take their name from a Houston neighborhood -- sorry, Cali, that means they're ours.
Mark Morales's voice sounds familiar from the start, a mix of the guy from The Black Crowes plus the funny accent of Jethro Tull. It works. Lots of guitar hooks show up, and it's reassuring to see people in pop still playing that instrument (it's not just a prop, Avril). Just remember that Astra Heights is made up of brothers, who won't have to spend a few albums balancing influences before finding their signature sound; this is it. The pieces fit together well and make for a pretty cohesive album.
No new genre is being invented here, no walls being torn down or ground being broken...but so what? This is a fun record to listen to, and these guys bypass the pretentious bullshit to show you what they're about: just good, clean iRocTM?.
[Astra Heights is playing 3/10/08 at The Mink, with Nicole Atkins & The Sea, Papermoons, & Parlour Mob.]
The Black Crowes
By hook, crook, and sideways handshakes, I got a copy of this record just a few days before its official release date. I was biased going in -- I had a grudge against the Crowes from the last time I saw them live with their beards and their jam-laden, meandering odysseys. And now their stingy hands weren't willing to send out any promo copies for press reviews; could it get much worse? Once I'd landed my copy, however, I ended up forgiving them. In fact, I thank them.
I fear Rock & Roll's death from one day to the next. Some might say that it's already gone cold, and I'm just a fool still in mourning. And yet, records like this make a body twitch and shudder with just a bit of life. For myself, it's a salve for a cynic, but perhaps just a (not-too-small) relief. A bit of relief is better than no relief at all, even if it seems a little late in arriving.
"Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution," the lead track, is a typical Black Crowes strut, with steel guitars, bottleneck slide, moans and cries, and clever innuendos. Oh, it's great to hear these sounds tapping you on the shoulder and whispering to you. The Crowes have always had a good lyrical strength, and it still shows throughout.
"Walk Believer Walk" is the second cut, a swampy blues number droning with dark imagery and gospel hope. The name kinda gives it away, don't it? Its appeal, however, goes on for about 1:30 too long. Likewise, "Evergreen" and "We Who See the Deep," in its psychedelic way, take the same, l-o-n-g stroll down a country path and are not back in time for supper. But with Southern charm and grace, guitar hot-licks and timeliness, they'll charm you right back. "Thanks, ya'll!"
Tender moments abound, like "Josephine," "Locust Street," and "There's Gold in Them Hills," with dulcimers, mandolins, pianos, and teardrops. Chris Robinson's voice shows incredible honesty and a rawness that I forgot he's capable of. I begin to wonder if there's some sort of confession going on here...but we're here for my own healing, not for Chris Robinson's.
There're no tricks, or lies, or apologies with Warpaint. It's honest, sad, cocky, and undoubtedly 100% American rock n' roll. There's enough slide guitar, country leanings, soulsy bravado, and whiskey-soaked swagger here to scare those frowning, angular-haircut emo kids -- or, at the very least, bring more of them to repentance and belief. I wouldn't say it's everything for everybody, but it stakes its own claims and owns up to its own deeds. If you miss a bit of the old rock & roll, it's a well-needed dose.
Sofa City Sweetheart
Ahh...the ability to play your instrument well. Some musicians inspire their listeners with poetic lyrics, some through their unflappable discipline, and some are just hot. Cricket, from Louisville, can play. Fortunately, they also like to show off, and they've created a psychedelic monster in Sofa City Sweetheart.
This album sounds at home in the back of a van. Most of the tracks, like the aptly named "Liquid Acid," balance metal with the groovy to keep the sound afloat somewhere in between; funky metal with frequent acid flashbacks. Suffice it to say that this is a guitar-driven album, and its forms range from the nebulous duels on "Coast off LA" to the more robotic "Carousel." The drummer sounds like he wants a few extra arms at times, and the bassist holds his grooves pretty easily. This must have been a fun album to record.
Cricket is a jam band at heart, and their instrumental moments are the real treat. "Movie Trailer" has a great melodic breakdown, and "Only the Wind Knows" is nice energizing punch in the ear. At their live shows, they "tend to bleed the songs together into one pulsing blob of music," apparently, and this album sounds like they're holding back from doing just that: the freedom and spontaneity of a small, talented group of musicians sharing a stage is a beautiful thing. I would be curious to check these guys out if they ever get off their Kentucky asses and into Texas. Jerks.
Though Cricket displays an arsenal of sounds, they could still use a little variety. The effects mainly show up in solos, resulting in a fairly homogenous album with standout moments. Try and ration those things, eh? The ratio of heavy songs to anything else is off, and some balance would make this CD easier to listen to. Sadly, they have some newer tracks on their Myspace page which seem to be heading into the realm of alternative rock. Cricket, please do the right thing and stick to the road less traveled.
In a word: potential. It's there, and it consistently pokes its head out from the storm of sounds that is Sofa City Sweetheart, but then pulls right back in. If Cricket manages to control this beast a little more, they have a chance to make some pretty exciting acid jams. Groovy.
With Modern Mexico, Seattle duo Los Femurs (or "Femurs," or "The Femurs"; they seem to use both articles interchangeably or not at all, depending on their whim) have created something that's familiar and brilliant at the same time. Rob and Colin Femur pound away on guitars and drums and sing their hearts out in frantic, nearly desperate fashion, begging comparisons to the Violent Femmes, The Mountain Goats, and personal faves Machine Go Boom, and the manic energy these guys throw off is just plain ridiculous. It's difficult at times to believe that this is just a pair of guys, a minimal-sounding drum kit, and un-distorted, plain guitars.
Beneath the folk-punky crust, though, beats a heart of shiny-pure power pop, the kind Nick Lowe or Elvist Costello would be proud to put their names to. On top of that, there are points where The Femurs remind me a heck of a lot of Ben Lee back in his younger, scrappier days, which makes sense considering that both Lee and the Brothers Femur manage to graft punk energy onto sunshiny, sweet melodies. Tracks like "Crazy Girl" and "Round and Round" are confident, smiling pop tunes full of fast, silver-tongued melodicism, speedy and cheery at the same time.
The biggest obstacle to the jangly, poppy singer-songwriter duo in general, in my view, is that they seem to let their "humor" run away from 'em, ending up being goofy and jokey and not all that interesting musically (okay, Flight of the Conchords excepted). The Femurs dodge nimbly 'round that pitfall, however, and manage to infuse their intricately-crafted pop songs with both a tart bite of sarcasm and a hands-in-the-air disregard for irony. That is to say, they're sincere without being overwrought and they're smart without feeling the need to throw it in your face. Even "Calgon," the one song where they go for a "clever," outdated, kind of clunky lyrical idea (how long has it been since those damn commercials were on the air, now?), still works in spite of itself.
If it sounds like I'm laying the praise on a bit thick with the comparisons to Lowe, Costello, and John Darnielle, well, I just can't get away from it. The songs on Modern Mexico -- which is technically two albums, by the way, the "main" EP and a previously-released EP called Jack Cafferty vs. Chuck Scarborough, which is good but is definitely a less-polished effort -- are catchy as hell, with both Femurs harmonizing seemingly effortlessly like the Beach Boys, if the '60s icons had, uh, been into The Ramones. Basically, these two guys have somehow stumbled upon that missing ground between sunny-day, squeaky-clean '60s pop and the Ramones' streetwise, hooky snarl.
Seriously, this is one of those albums where I catch myself half-consciously trying to pick which song of the bunch is going on the next mix CD I make for friends. Actually, now that I say that, it occurs to me that I already know the top contender for that spot. Despite coming not even halfway through the album, the capper track has to be "Allison," a sweet, poignant song about love-gone-wrong (what, like there's any other kind of love song worth a damn?) that rides a beautifully simple guitar line and rumbling, tripping-over-itself, Silver Scooter-ish drums. Despite the Femurs' insistence that "All is fine / all is fine," the frantic, unmeasured pace of the song betrays the nerves jangling beneath.
The only thing stopping me from hitting the "Back" button after hearing that track is followup "September 1st," which is -- holy shit -- an honest-to-God birthday song that isn't cheesy or trite but heartfelt and eminently hummable. Oh, and then there's second-half track "Peter Wolf," with that surf-y, Wonders-gone-Rockaway Beach beat and handclaps, and I can't forget the sing-along ready "Crazy Girl," and...ah, hell. Better start the whole thing over again.
[The Femurs are playing 3/14/08 at The Mink, with Teenage Bottlerocket, Broadway Calls, Something Fierce, & Teenage Kicks.]
Girl in a Coma
Both Before I'm Gone
Mom, wait -- don't throw out my hair goop, cuz I'm bringing back my Morrissey-styled pompadour that I tortured you and Dad with during high school. The Queen is not dead, lads, she's just moved to San Antonio. Well, actually, it's three young ladies that make up the band Girl in a Coma, hailing from the Alamo city, and they have totally blindsided me with their debut CD, Both Before I'm Gone. Obvious is the inspiration taken from both The Smiths and Moz, from their name to the singing style and even some of the lyrical content (who else but Moz, and now GIAC, sing about Oscar Wilde characters and celibacy?). Make no mistake, though -- these girls' style, edge, attitude, and talent are all their own.
Now, I may be biased, since as mentioned, I was a Smiths devotee way back when, but it's not just me that's been wowed by Girl in a Coma. Joan Jett saw them play and signed them on the spot to her Blackheart Records label. And they've already played the Vans Warped Tour, opened for The Pogues and Frank Black, and even toured with their idol Moz himself. Girl In a Coma's lead singer/guitarist, Nina Diaz, has a huge voice. At times she can sing a sad lullaby with a voice that carries and resonates like Patsy Cline, and then she can holler, raspy punk-rock style, a la Joan Jett or rockabilly singers of days past, and the whole time she trembles and inflects in homage to her hero Morrissey. While she's belting out these complex and arresting vocals, she's also playing guitar and soloing. The rhythm section of GIAC is strong, too, with Phanie D., Nina's sister, on drums keeping everything on track and using the cymbals to fill in the space. And Phanie's long-time friend and fellow art class cut up, Jenn, takes on a lot of the instrumentation with plenty of nice bass riffing.
Both Before I'm Gone is an unbelievable debut CD. While the singing is reminiscent of Moz (or the voice he dreamt he had, anyway), the music is jumped up and rowdier, with nods more to Nirvana and Social Distortion in places rather than The Smiths. Much punkier, but still on the pop side. My favorite song is "Their Cell," which starts with a dreamy guitar riff before Nina croons in like an AM-radio songbird with an Elvis-arched lip, "I'm saving all my secrets for a deaf man / Blabber on / I blabber on." Then bam, the snare kicks in, and slow, swaying bass notes set the mood to a song that builds heart-wrenchingly from there. Opposite to that is the song "Say," which is an in-your-face-rocking declaration of she-ness.
"Clumsy Sky," the disc's first single, and "Road to Home" are also instantly likable and show the band's catchy songwriting abilities, while "Sybil Vane was Ill" displays a darker, psycho-ier side. And I like the driving, jangly "Mr. Chivalry," to boot. GIAC goes mathy on the frenetic "Race Car Driver" and waltzes loudly on "Consider" and "Celibate Now." The acoustic ender "Simple Man" shuts the door on the disc, which is currently at the top of my collection, a collection in which I'm ashamed to admit that there are far too few female bands. I'd say the (clumsy) sky is the limit for Girl in a Coma.
[Girl in a Coma is playing 3/29/08 at Chances (1100 Westheimer).]
Guns Are For Kids
Too Much Red Not Enough Red
In an interview I stumbled across the other day, Australian skronk-rockers Guns Are For Kids proudly declared that, "We don't write chord progressions. We have hooks, but they're more rhythmic." Well, yeah -- they pretty much nailed that one on the head. Any melodies lurking on Too Much Red Not Enough Red are undoubtedly curled up in a fetal position in a dark corner somewhere, having been beaten senseless by bassist/vocalist Oswald Mainstream's lurching, staggering low end and Reverend Helix Also's skittering, threatening drums. Guitarist Ben The Unclear, for his part, scrapes and skirls around up in the ether, playing like he's wielding a dentist's drill rather than a six-string. And the combination is something like an updated amalgam of Gang of Four, Essential Logic, and NY No Wave quirkiness; it's threatening, halfway deconstructed post-punk, and probably a lot more true to its forebears than contemporaries like Liars or The Rapture.
The nice thing about this EP, though, isn't that it's noisy or messy -- hell, anybody can do that, given the right equipment -- but that it loosely harnesses that noise and that messiness in a rhythmic frame that somehow, against pretty much every law of musical physics, holds together. They skirt the edge of total collapse, at times really teetering, but they never completely fall off, not even on tracks like "C'est La Vie," where the bassline holds things down while the drums slip around jazzily in the background, or "SMS to God 'Keep Up the Good Work'," which comes off like a less-anthemic Parts & Labor. All of which shows that A) Guns Are For Kids know their way around their instruments and around song structures, and B) they fully intend for this EP to be a stuttering, scary, apocalyptic, aggro mess of needle-sharp guitars and jazz-influenced rhythms. Put the two together, and the six crawl-inside-your-brain-and-die tracks on Too Much Red Not Enough Red all start to make a frightening sort of sense.
Giselle Webber is the kind of woman whose path you probably shouldn't cross. She is obstinate in her presentation and has a voice that is strong and guttural and oscillates wildly as she belts out lyrics that are equally as brash and commanding. Webber's Montreal-based Hot Springs recently released their first full-length album, Volcano, complete with a handful of songs that rock with unwavering intensity. There is a calculated arrogance to their lyrics and an unforgiving tone to the music that makes it instantly infectious. "Tiny Islands" personifies the band's eerie but seductive pop fusion by intertwining angular harmonies with in-your-face vocal melodies. The album's overall sound is a little hard to decipher at first, but once you let go and let Volcano be what it intends to be, with or without your approval, it won't disappoint you.
A solo album, especially a first solo album, is the opportunity for an artist to create a different path for him or herself. It's the chance to offer up another side of one's musical personality, separate and distinct from the collaborative band experience. The solo album can be liberating and artistically exciting, but can also make or break future solo endeavors if not executed just right. Jenny Hoyston has approached her solo project Isle Of with reckless abandon. She's pulled out everything she had inside her and let it unravel into a dozen distinctly different songs. Each tune is sung like a representation of a different part of her musical soul. "Send the Angels" reads a lot like something that would have appeared on Liz Phair's pre-sell out gem Exile in Guyville. Hoyston's natural and uncomplicated vocal sound bounces just as calmly and confidently alongside the titillating twang of her guitar as it did off her synth-pop melodies. Isle Of is the embodiment of a solo album done right.
Giant World Knowledge Bliss Control
Giant World Knowledge Bliss Control opens with a spoken-word and guitar noise piece called "Quixotic," which sets up the story of a man who may be a legend in his own mind. Like Don Quixote, Gregory Padrusch (aka "LEK") is a psychedelic-idealist who seems to be trapped in his own world. And it's a mad one.
With song titles like "Demons," "Elephants Parade," and "Grandma's Chickens," you never know what'll come next from this character. Moving from spoken-word pieces to shoegazer jams and ending the last half of the CD with acoustic guitar, GWKBC is a mixing pot of one man's thoughts and I'm not sure what else. It's kind of hard to take seriously at times. When tracks of a psychedelic bent like "Fuzzworld" and acoustic ballad "Olivia" drift into "Chiliman," you'll see what I mean. "Chiliman" is song about hanging out in Bangkok and getting high on some hot-ass chili with some faraway friends.
Which sounds like fun, really, but after a bowl of Bangkok chili, everyone might want to stay as far away as possible. Together with a few friendly musicians and a Guru (see the liner notes), LEK is not afraid to tell us the details of his multicolored universe. You can't condemn a man for that.
Searching, traveling, loving, and flirting with distortion, LEK might not know where he's going, but he writes these songs to remember where he's been. The last track, "Post Travellin' Blues," gives us a little insight on his quest and how serious he's not. Mixing journal recordings made on his travels over an acoustic guitar, LEK adds the voices of characters he's met along to end this chapter. I'm sure there's more to come.
After a listen to LEK's Giant World Knowledge Bliss Control, you might end up as confused as he is. Or maybe you'll want to find an Odyssey of your own. Just stay away from the chili. Cue the "Piano Interlude"!
Let me just start out by saying I guess I just don't get it. I can dig some funk. I can dig some jazz. I can dig some metal. I just don't like the mix that Little Brian puts out into the world. Small parts of the album are good, but then they switch parts, and it just sounds horrid. Thrash Funk is the debut album from this Austin-based band, originally from Denton, and apparently their live show is quite something with the nine piece band plus a man in a chicken suit. I've seen quite a few bands like this, and they get their fair share of fans because they are "weird" or "crazy," but I need more substance than that. Little Brian is probably chock full of some pretty decent jazz and funk musicians, but the way the parts of the songs come together does nothing to show off their talent. I think that speaks to their musical taste more than anything. There seems to be some book by the same name (by Tarah Damask) that also adds to their demented shtick, and the book's concept actually seems kind of cool if it's written well. Anytime a band's shtick is bigger than its sound, though, it really turns me off. The music should stand up on its own, something that doesn't happen with this album.
That Jonah Matranga, he's certainly come a long way over the years. He's gone from fronting critically-acclaimed nu-metal act Far to sweet, romantic, emo-pop as Onelinedrawing to post-hardcore supergroup New End Original to...this? Honestly, die-hard Matranga fans are going to be somewhat thrown off by And, his latest solo release, because it's, well, a country album.
Actually, that's not fair. The songs on And are indeed countryish, with shuffling drums, subtle slide guitar, delicate piano, and a significantly slower, mellower pace than even a lot of his more folky work. Matranga even incorporates some Teenage Fanclub-esque guitar melodies from time to time, as on "Waving Or Drowning?" The one track that sounds like the guy's "old" music is the roaring guitar-rock "Not About A Girl Or A Place" (the zombie-gore video for which was done by Houston filmmaker Mel House and is apparently now up on Fuse), which couples a gorgeous melody with bitter, love-gone-wrong lyrics; it's the only song on And that brings to mind New End Original, by a long stretch.
Beyond that, Matranga seems to have taken a turn lyrically, as well. The songs here are vulnerable, less self-confident, and sometimes almost pleading ("I Want You To Be My Witness"), showcasing a songwriter who's less sure of his place in the world but is still desperately trying to find it. This is fairly soul-baring stuff, even for a guy who's built his career on wearing his heart on his sleeve. And is a contemplative album, one that sees Matranga wrestling not with his usual demons but with maturity and fatherhood and family, the issues everyone has to cope with when we become adults. One of the album's highlights is "Every Mistake," a smiling admonition from Matranga to his young daughter to not worry about getting things right all the time but learn to fall gracefully and get back up again; it hits straight in the chest, honest and poignant.
Most surprising of all is album closer "Lost, Then Found," where Matranga takes a long, hard look at the life of a father he doesn't seem to have known very well. He's made a career out of essentially writing about himself and his own feelings, so it's refreshing and captivating to hear him methodically dissect the life, loves, and failures of someone else. The song pulls no punches but in a bleak way succeeds as a heartfelt meditation on the arc of a man's life.
In fact, nearly all of And succeeds, an impressive feat considering the left turn Matranga's made with this release. Here he proves the theory that genre, volume, and instrumentation really don't count for all that much, as long as you're one heck of a songwriter.
[Jonah Matranga is playing 3/11/08 at a warehouse at 3612 Mangum Rd. #209 (entrance on Tulsa), starting at 8PM.]
American Anthems, Vol. 1
It's not often that you run across a fairly new indie group that plays straight-up rock n' roll. It's even rarer to find one that demonstrates a real knack for doing it well. New Jersey's The Milwaukees bring all of this -- and more -- to the table in their latest City Desk Records release, American Anthems, Vol. 1.
In the group's third album, frontman Dylan St. Clark (vocals/guitar/vox), Jeff Nordstedt (guitar), Patrick Fusco (drums), and Donovan Cain (bass) have combined their talents to produce a very fine collection of cuts that exemplify an unusually fresh and energetic application of raw-roots-rock into the new millennial music arena. The final results that pour out of the speakers are as pleasing as they are somewhat surprising. You definitely come away with the sense that these guys really love this style of fundamental music and have carefully invested heart-and-soul into molding their crafted version of it into a beautiful masterpiece.
While most of the songs on the album are stylistically retro, they're certainly no where near retrograde. Despite a slight alternative rock lean on a couple of tracks, the remaining material is a high fidelity, riveting charge forward, fueled incessantly by old-time rock backbeat-rhythms and graced throughout with catchy melodies, vocal harmonies, and extreme dynamics changes that provide many unexpected moments to listeners with traditional leanings. Sometimes described by their fans as "charmingly arrogant," this somewhat oxymoronic personal nature bleeds into their music, too, delivering its rudimentary sounds through bold, periodic departures from former hard-and-fast music rules.
Now, when I say "rock n' roll," I'm not referring to merely copying far earlier groundbreaking stuff like Bill Haley or Buddy Holly. I'm talking about more recent restoration or reproduction moves in that general direction. Clearly, The Milwaukees haven't set out to either reinvent or redefine rudimentary rock so much as they've remained determined to simply redeploy it in new and more creative ways. The lion's share of the collection fits well within the "back-to-basics" genre movement of the late '70s/early '80s, which produced not only diecast-styled groups like Springstein or Huey Lewis, but also New Wave groups of The Pretenders' or The Cars' ilk.
In this regard, The Milwaukees are definitely more the former than the latter. Though they do journey into lighter fare on a couple of songs, the majority of cuts are pretty hard-hitting, and more comparable to pumped-up versions of Huey Lewis & The News or even Eddie Money. Numerous critical citations of the E Street Band as a major influence seem appropriate, as long as you also prepare to include more modern guitar effects and the total absence of Bruce Springstein's coarse shouting chants. St. Clark is an extremely excellent singer, and he projects a formidable presence in the music with powerhouse vocals that are energetic and emotional, yet completely melodious.
As the album name suggests, the major concept theme running through the collection is the band's own take on modern Americana. The lyrical content is stylishly poetic, delivered in updated vernacular, and rests squarely between the extremes of Tom Petty's Century City sarcasm and John Melloncamp's hometown-spun romanticism. The extensive North American touring of The Milwaukees (which reportedly succeeded in wearing-out four vans in the process) brings many of their own personal experiences into view through the words to several songs.
The lead-in track, "Moonshaker," is the most unique of the bunch. It stands out mainly for its artistic versatility and potential marketability. It begins with several great sonic punches and settles into a swinging rhythm that combines a subtle, off-beat, Nickleback-styled tinge with expansive, full background instrumentation. Personally, though, I find the opening keyboard sampling to be a little too J. Geils pop-cheesy, and it kind of makes the song a bit weak around the edges.
For a band that prides itself on delivering slick rock 'n roll revival stuff, the best tracks are to be found on the remainder of the album. Standout songs include "Highway To The Sun," with its travel-metaphor-filled pairing of great vocals and lead guitar, "American Girl," and its easy-going, Bob Seger ballad phraseology metering, "Save Me," a very catchy tune with a chorus and finish that's all Eddie Money, and "Rich And Famous." This last song is my personal favorite, and I'm thinking about substituting it for my usual morning caffeine fix. I mean, if you're not totally hopped-up by the end of this song, then you better break out the defibrillators, because there's definitely something desperately wrong with your sensibilities. This track alone is worth hitting the download button for.
If you enjoy revisiting some slightly older backbeat rock styles and don't mind the occasional insertion of more mod tweaks here and there in vocal harmonies, chord progressions, or lead guitar work, then The Milwaukees are a fantastic group to check out. American Anthems Vol. 1 is a professionally-forged rendition that fits this bill to the nines and comes laid down in a high-quality recording format. As you might have guessed, follow-up album Volume 2 is already in the can and promises to be a continuation of this band's engaging style of music.
Before I begin this review, I feel it's important for you to understand where I'm coming from. I'm not a bluegrass afficionado. Like some of you, I once thought of bluegrass as the music Appalachian hillbillies played while waiting for their moonshine to distill. This all changed when I heard mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile cover "Morning Bell." Yes, that "Morning Bell," by Radiohead, from their monumental album Kid A. After a long stint with the bluegrass pop band Nickel Creek and a few solo albums, Thile assembled a band to capture his creative vision and explore the limits of bluegrass. An LP and a few name changes later, the Punch Brothers were born.
The opening track of Punch, "Punch Bowl," is your typical bluegrass affair: a charming interplay between each stringed instrument overlaying clever harmonization and folksy vocals. This is all good and well, but it merits no special attention. The crux of the album is the four-part bluegrass suite, "The Blind Leaving the Blind," a cathartic masterpiece influenced by the events of Thile's divorce. Gone are the traditional Appalachian sounds and melodies, replaced by a potent blend of highly technical chamber music and evocative bluegrass. The music apparently diverges so much from traditional bluegrass that it made seasoned banjo player Noam Pikelny openly admit to reevaluating what can and cannot be done on his instrument. The suite seamlessly flows between beautiful instrumental passages and wonderfully crafted verses that depict a man struggling to save his doomed marriage.
Nothing about the album feels traditional. The songs lack any real structure, and much of the music feels like the chaotic improvisations of friends who are emotionally and mentally synched to their friends' emotional trials. The result is an uncompromising and brilliant composition. The last two tracks, "Nothing, then" and "It'll Happen," might lack the ambition of "The Blind Leaving the Blind," but they still neatly and carefully wrap up the album.
I'm unsure of how the bluegrass community will receive this album. It's certainly unorthodox and might be unpalatable to the bluegrass faithful. As a person who grew up listening and playing classical music, however, it's impossible not to love and appreciate this album. It's hard to believe that five-stringed instruments are able to produce such a rich sound. The album grew on me each time I listened to it, and I had to listen to it multiple times to fully take in what I heard. Punch is absolutely astounding.
Gary Reynolds and the Brides of Obscurity
Welcome to 1998. Or was it 1997? One of those years, for sure. I don't know which, but Santiago's Vest, the sophomore release from Seattle band Gary Reynolds and the Brides of Obscurity (that's way too long a name, guys, for real) belongs there. And it's not 1998 Seattle on this record; let's call it 1998 North Dakota, or maybe 1998 Switzerland. It's gotta be somewhere neutral, somewhere no one really remembers. It seems to have been constructed at a time when grungies like Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog (rock it!) were fading away and sensies like the Counting Crows were picking up speed. This records seems to be searching for an identity when musical identities were in constant flux and has employed a '90s-style ethos to do it. Strange.
I listened to this record maybe ten times and still, I just don't get it. It's simply uninteresting, like the color beige. There are ten songs here, and not a one do I recall with any certainty actually being a song. More appropriately, I think, we should call them something like dirges in the vein of wallpaper. "Capital State" tells us that someone, I'm not sure who, is not one in a million. I could make a snide comment about this record, comparing it to that very sentiment, but that would be too easy. Simply go down the list of songs on this album, and what you'll find are clichéd titles with clichéd song times. (Three and a half minutes for almost every song? Come on, Gary.)
The Brides' official bio makes some sort of reference to the cover art being subconsciously moving or enigmatic, but what I see when I look at the cover is a green vest. Just a vest. Belonging to someone named Santiago, I imagine. And the songs don't work, either, whether taken separately or as a whole. It's a difficult record to get through if for no other reason than its blandness. I've kind of already forgotten what I was talking about; this is a record review for grunge music, right? Oh, wait.
Lorrie Ruiz & Chewy
Refreshing funk. I'm not talking about the occasional whiff of your Old Spice-laden pits, but describing a modern dish of jazz/funk with an old-school garnish, and Lorrie Ruiz & Chewy's first release, Chewy, serves it up just right. The disc gets funky right out of the box with "New Train," and you begin to expect there will be some grooves to shake your ass to. First impressions of Lorrie Ruiz's delivery lean to over-processed vocals and a commercial lyrical presentation. You picture the band's audience as a bunch of 40-something divorcees in an upscale club who work too hard at looking casual when they should be working on their rhythm. The fact the band is from Seattle may lend credence to this, but I have to give the city -- and the band, for that matter -- more credit than that.
Don't be fooled by the painful trendiness, because you'll soon be rewarded. On "Don't Wanna Let You See," Ruiz starts to reel you in with her sultry voice and lyrical foreplay. Then just when you start to get connected with the disc, you get kicked in the seeds. While you're on the floor, it's also likely you'll scramble for a razor -- to slit your wrists with after listening to "Five Little Fingers," a sad tale of an inner city youth whose absentee father is the cause of all his problems. The blame-it-on-dad theme is a tired one, in my opinion, yet the song is very powerful and elicits unexpected emotions. Listening again, sans my personal bitterness regarding the issue, the song really impressed.
This is where it really starts to get good. Ruiz dispenses with the foreplay, and you can feel the band just itching to break into a long bowl-packin' jam. Chewy avoids lengthy jams, thankfully, as these don't typically deliver well outside the live experience. The band does, however, show their improv skills without seeming unfocused and stepping on each other. To put it simply, the band is tight. On the most impressive track, "Is This Real," the pace settles down, with a perfect dash of synth thrown in, and Ruiz reveals the pipes she was blessed with. The use of minimal but effective lyrics on this track is unique among the rest and is also one if its best attributes.
This five-piece band does well with this first release, and hopefully lacking a mainstream sound doesn't affect future releases. All too often, "indie" is synonymous with "hack." That's not the case with Lorrie Ruiz and her band on Chewy; this crew is first-rate. You could spend all night with this disc and nothing but a heavy-bottom glass filled with smoky bourbon for company, but the funky pieces would mix just as well into the soundtrack for your next soirée at the loft.
Arrivals and Departures
Inside the liner notes for the promo copy of Arrivals and Departures reads the line, "Many great bands have broken new musical ground over the years, SILVERSTEIN is ready to do the same right now with 'ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES'." Well, they'd better hurry, because the malls are closing and the kiddies are growing up. I've come to think bands that fall into the category of emo/screamo are one step away from becoming the next "Where are they now?" hair-metal bands we all loved in the '80s. Just like Dokken stole the same brand of hairspray Poison killed the ozone with, Silverstein takes cues from so many emo clichés -- but hey, it's rock 'n roll. We take from what influences us.
Arrivals and Departures seems like a solid album at first glance. The music arrangements are well-executed and the vocals are strong, but the songs fall flat. There's nothing new here. Even on the heavier parts of "If You Could See Into My Soul" and "Vanity and Greed," it's the same muted, upbeat chugs we've all heard before. With parts reminiscent of Saves The Day and their touring partners Rise Against, Silverstein rehashes the formula over and over again.
Silverstein is undoubtedly a tight band, with a good touring future. I can see the appeal the band has on people -- they have the look and the sound, and the boys can play. But after three albums and seven years, I hear nothing fresh. The songs constructed for this album have volume but no drive. Even with plenty of interesting guitar parts interlaced between the harmonies, the songs felt scarcely genuine. Screaming about nothing doesn't make it something; there are plenty of subjects to sing and scream about. Enough of the whiny relationship blubber. Waiting for one song to catch my attention, it just became background music to the other things I was pursuing at the time. I'm sure I'll hear one of these songs in a videogame some day.
So, where would I file this record? I'd hate to call this radio emo/pop, but with songs like "Worlds Apart" and "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow," what else could it be? Silverstein sometimes feels like Simple Plan or Blink-182, only with a sharper design.
If you were a fan of Silverstein before Arrivals and Departures, I doubt you'll be disappointed. For me, post-hardcore music started with bands like Fugazi, Quicksand, and Jawbreaker, all unique bands that gave inspiration and that I could embrace. I don't feel that these days.
[Silverstein is playing 3/7/08 at The Meridian, with The Devil Wears Prada, & A Day To Remember.]
So They Say
Life In Surveillance
I have a love/hate relationship with this music -- mostly hate -- and So They Say epitomizes why with the release of Life In Surveillance. While sonically tight, the vocals are way overproduced, to the point of killing the music. So They Say would easily fit on the current roster of Victory Records, and probably the only reason they're not is because Fearless Records picked them up first. As for the music, produced by Matt Hyde (Sum 41, No Doubt, Slayer), it falls somewhere between Saves The Day and Atreyu and maybe the pop sensibilities of Box Car Racer and P.O.D.
For musical artists whose main influence can easily be pinpointed to a prominent style of thirty or forty-plus years ago, it's easy to be criticized for just rehashing that decade. Kelley Stoltz's sound has often been described as sounding straight from the 1960s psychedelic-pop era, but on Circular Sounds, his third Sub Pop release, he mashes that style with touches of bluesy riffs and light acoustic work, creating music that is both familiar and distinctly quirky.
The opener is a bit of a clunker, experimenting with slightly discordant horns and piano, but coming off as pretty unmemorable. It's followed up by the immediately catchy "Tintinnabulation," which sounds kind of like the opening to a mystery cartoon -- in a really good way. The staple of the song is a sort of call-and-response instrument/vocal hook that will linger in your head for days. The third track, "The Birmingham Eccentric," is the one that perhaps best showcases Stoltz's musical arsenal -- layered vocals, bubbly bass lines, ringing keys, and perfectly timed horns are all wrapped up together in this power-poppy explosion.
The middle of the album introduces a mellower tempo, which he executes masterfully; "Put My Troubles to Sleep" is unexpectedly pretty, tinged with southern licks over wistful, drawn-out guitar. Things speed back up with "Your Reverie," the album's first single. Though not as original-sounding as the rest of the album, this straightforward rock song is definitely a crowd-pleaser.
Stoltz's talent for songwriting and structure is made apparent in the way he skillfully layers instrument over instrument without making anything sound heavy or overdone -- surely not a simple feat by any means. Any music fan that's susceptible to a good pop hook will be completely smitten by Circular Sounds.
[Kelley Stoltz is playing 3/28/08 at Rudyard's, with The Dirtbombs & Dead Roses.]
My foot starts frantically tapping from the first crashing guitar of "I Heart Lora Logic," and it doesn't stop 'til the very end of final track "Bound for Glory," after which I have to shake my head, smile, and laugh at the ridiculously simple, plainspoken awesomeness of what these three Houston kids are doing. With this (far too short) four-song EP, Teenage Kicks have sucked in all those brilliant late-'70s/early-'80s Brit-pop influences and spit back out a snarling, catchy-as-fuck, blessedly un-ironic ball of rough-edged power-pop fury.
It's damn near impossible not to namecheck the best-and-brightest of the bands these guys evoke and/or wear proudly on their sleeves -- The Buzzcocks (first and foremost), The Jam, The Clash minus the politics, sadly overlooked punk icons The Boys, The Records, The Undertones (natch, given the band name), The Skids, Stiff Little Fingers, even Francophone latecomers Plastic Bertrand (especially the irrepressibly driving guitars in "Lora Logic"). Once "Bound for Glory" rolls around, though, the comparisons fall by the wayside and my jaw hits the floor as it becomes clear that Teenage Kicks are something all their own: sweat and hormones and teenage angst and anger all melted down into one big sticky, messy (but never sloppy) puddle by the H-town sun.
This stuff makes me want to pump my first in the air and pretend I'm back to being a kid, with all the uncertainty, bitter drama, and painful freedom stretching out before me once again. And I never in a million years thought I'd say it, but damn, that feels cool.
[Teenage Kicks is playing 3/31/08 at The Mink, with Pink Razors, Erin Tobey, & The Holly Hall.]
Not So Quiet on the Country Western Front
Taken as a whole, country music is known for being the most utterly depressing of all music types. Not surprisingly, the Not So Quiet on the Country Western Front compilation showcases an array of country-ish songs whose subjects run the gamut from crying for the Lord to dying for a drink.
Perfectly embracing the genre stereotype, the first track, "Lonely Days and Whiskey Nights," sets the tone of the album by oozing regret and lamenting the passing days, all over a dragging pedal steel. (Even the band's name, Lenny and the Piss Poor Boys, reeks of self-pity.) From there, most of the songs fall into a middle ground of being somewhat enjoyable but easily forgettable. In addition, there are a couple of serious sore thumbs: the Enablers' "Dear Beer," and the especially cringe-inducing "17 years," by Armchair Martian, both belong on a future dollar bin punk anthology.
The more successful tracks are noticeably minimal. Whether through bare-bones instrumentation (Dustin Kensrue's "Consider the Ravens"), hushed vocal harmonies (Limbeck's "Reading the Street Signs" and Rocky Votolato's "White Daisy Passing"), or a continuous plucking of strings (Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World"), they are able to evoke a country-worthy melancholy that doesn't come off as overly repetitive or too drawn out.
But at the risk of sounding biased towards the ladies, it's the two songs with female lead vocals that seem to be the clear standouts. The swelling strings and echoing guitars on "Star Witness" are a flawless backdrop for Neko Case's equally flawless vocals, and the singing of Marie Litton in Ghost Buffalo's cover of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" finds a seductive tenderness that could persuade even the most rigid of heads to sway. Overall, Not So Quiet is not so bad, held back by a general predictability, but not without some genuine charm shining through.
Self-proclaimed "dustcore" band the Wormwood Brothers hail from Phoenix, AZ -- I guess "dustcore" is the name given to these depressing desert/country drinking songs. Spider Lake is a safe release, as it does not try anything original, but what does these days? There are a few bands that can pull this sound off and sound as if they were made for it; however, Wormwood Brothers fall short of that with these 10 songs.
For the most part, the songs are bland songs that you would hear in a middle of the road 1970s movie, a la anything with Robbie Benson in it. There are a few standouts, like opener "Dark Hour," which has a real Uncle Tupelo feel to it, or the bluesy "Mr. Blackbird," which is my favorite track of this release. The Simon and Garfunkel-influenced "Just Like John Lennon Said" is more Garfunkel than Simon. Overall, Spider Lake is a safe and easy release for the Brothers; it's just been done before and pulled off better.
Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer
I requested this album based on two considerations: A) I heard one song a long time ago and that, combined with the groovy name, kept them stuck in my head, and B) I figured that any group of people that could formulate such a nifty name could certainly provide equally nifty tunes. Plus, they have a girl in the band (singer Rachel Minton), and, generally, I'm a sucker for girls in bands. Girls that aren't gimmicks, at least; girls like Kim Deal and Tina Weymouth or even Subways bassist Charlotte (playing bass helps -- hint, hint). Other than that, I knew absolutely nothing about Zolof. One song and a name.
Apparently, two different types of creativity are employed in naming a band and then writing spiffy music for that band. And folks, let's face it: a name like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer does conjure up words like spiffy, groovy, and nifty...as well as visions of a little green spacemen zipping around blasting stuff. With the creativity utilized to name said band, they could apparently even come up with awesome album artwork reminiscent of New Age comics. So why can't they pull off equally vibrant tunes?
The disclaimer about the record filled me in a bit on Zolof. In their earlier records (2003's Jalopy Go Far) band members Rachel Minton and co. churned out juvenile happy-fun ga-ga pop punk. Emphasis was placed on their supposed maturity on this record: "If the previous releases from Zolof had listeners day-dreaming of candy-apples and panda bear cuddle-parties, then Schematics will conjure up images of appletinis and dinosaur orgies." See, I told you, image-conjuring shouldn't be a big deal to these people. But instead of surreal drunken dinos parading around in dance party madness, we're left with generic, grungy guitar pop-punk, with a gimmicky girl churning out Top 40 vocals.
Maybe they were better off as panda/puppy delinquents. Maybe then they were more into sexy Moog synth lines. On Schematics, the Moog gets a few blips here and there, but nothing significant. Guitars are so played; why would you under-utilize the Moog, if you've got it? Admittedly, the record is not a completely rotten candy-apple. "The Moon and Mars" has an upbeat space-lounge vibe propelled by a B-movie Moog line in between verses. I mean, it's a generic structure -- quiet verse, exploding chorus -- but it's not so bad.
Unfortunately, few other tracks employ cool vibes and grooves. Most are straight-ahead pop-punkers with this new "serious" spin on all the lyrics. Breakups and backstabbers, corporate evils, blah, blah, blah. Zolof would do well to return to quirky, Moog-driven tunes with no pretensions to seriousness or musical maturity.