A Place to Bury Strangers
Nothing ruins a good idea more than poor execution, a point exemplified by "fusion" concepts. The world is full of them: the "Southwest eggroll," hybrid cars less efficient than cars from the 1980s, countless movie sequels, etc. It takes a determined bit of genius to merge two concepts into a cohesive and unique creation. Brooklyn's A Place to Bury Strangers attempts to exhibit their particular brand of brilliance in their second album, Exploding Head.
I hate to sound like an old man on the porch, but this is a loud album. From "It's Nothing" to "I Lived My Life to Stand In the Shadow of Your Heart," you're bombarded with an unrelenting sound. It's as if they're going to yell at you until you understand that they're the loudest band in New York, and nothing is going to change that. Loud can be good, but their brand of self-described "sonic annihilation" is just so grueling that you're left fatigued and in desperate need of a break.
The band's biggest crime isn't this unending noise, though, but the lack of creativity when fusing multiple genres together. Imagine My Bloody Valetine's Loveless on speed, played over any distorted and washed-out industrial rock riff, and you have Exploding Head. To make things worse, vocalist Oliver Ackermann sounds like another homage to Ian Curtis. Even the song titles pay tribute to their influences with names like "Smile When You Smile" and "Ego Death." What you're left with is an album that starts out promising but ends up losing your interest due to repetition and homogeny.
For me, there was so little to like about this album mostly because I had such high expectations for could have been. It's incredibly daring, almost brash, to try to improve cult classics by fusing them to other genres. However, when it comes to Exploding Head, A Place to Bury Strangers might have been better off leaving them alone.
[A Place to Bury Strangers is playing 4/7/10 at Warehouse Live, along with The Big Pink.]
The Bodies Obtained
Dead Plans, the second album from Detroit band The Bodies Obtained, has a creepy, 1980s-infused sound, with bleak lyrics and a well-thought-out combination of synthesizers. Their first album, From the Top of My Tree, did well, leaving fans in eager anticipation of a follow-up, and Dead Plans, a ten-track album released this past September, gives the duo another opportunity to show off their trippy, depressing concoction of music.
Their talent lies in their ability to combine many swelling synthesizer parts in an intriguing way, which works through layering and with the pleading words carrying above them. On my iTunes, they were listed as "unclassifiable," but I'm trying my best to categorize or at least describe them. They use so many effects I can hardly keep up. I recognize some of them from my own keyboard, such as "raindrop" and "fantasy." At times all this chaos sounds like noise, but not to the degree of The Locust, because the vocals stay at a medium level tone, almost rapping or talking occasionally. They're not as dark as Nine Inch Nails, but darker than Pulp, and definitely place their emphasis on recalling the homage to synthesizers of times past.
On the opener, "Death From Above," the band sings of impending doom, with the words "Death, you still come," sounding like a funeral gone electric and an odd bass saxophone solo at the end. "She Wants What She Wants" is a bit more upbeat and jolly, with the repetition of the confession, "We were young / We did what we did." It fades out with a light beat on the cymbal, which sounds like the end but is only the middle, then erupts back into the complex layering of several synthesizer parts.
They wear their pessimistic attitude on their sleeve, like in "The Perfect Plan," when they sing, "[You] can't hide from a sad day." All The Bodies Obtained's songs seem to be about plans gone amiss or the consequences of past actions. Basically, they're not too positive or optimistic. Their sense of humor is also prevalent and a bit harsh. They like using hyperboles, such as, "Did I ruin your life / or just a bad day," in "Walking on my Head." I wouldn't recommend them to the easily offended.
Progression, I'm finding, is generally a good thing in the end, even if it doesn't necessarily seem like it at first blush. Back in 2005, Tody Castillo's self-titled solo debut appeared and promptly blew my doors off with its in-your-face hooky choruses, smart lyricism, almost Rentals-like keys, and shiny-bright roots-pop. I still listen fairly regularly to "Brainwashed," arguably the best track on there, and it makes me shake my head in wonderment at how flat-out perfect a pop song it is. The guy seemed poised for great things.
And then...poof. Nothing. Word would come periodically out of the online ether that yes, the followup would be forthcoming, and soon, but no new album materialized. He'd play occasionally, but really, after the initial burst of activity when the album came out, Castillo seemed to disappear himself for long stretches.
Four years and a move from Houston up to Austin on, Castillo's finally back with the followup, and Windhorse is nowhere near what I'd expected. The album seems to be a wholly different thing from the debut, the previous disc's bold splashes of primary color wiped away and replaced by darker, more muted, melancholy hues and a far more delicate brushstroke. The full-on pop-rock is mostly gone, only appearing on jangly, sweetly poignant opener "The Other Side of Love," the almost Tom Petty-sounding "Sad Decision," and the one truly "rocking" track, "Spoken Up Sooner," which blazes nicely with just-distorted-enough guitars and a great, almost Bob Mould-ish feeling of regret.
The rest of Windhorse, though, is gentle and soft-voiced, far more on the folky side of things; the guitars jangle and swoon, the drums (when they're there at all) are appropriately minimal and subdued, and the vocals are downcast and tragically beautiful. At times Castillo's voice reminds me of Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek in its careful restraint and expressive beauty -- it's almost an instrument to itself on songs like the utterly spellbinding "Set to Lose" or "Mustang Island."
The best moment on here comes with "Best Thing Ever," which is cool, laid-back pop that brings to mind both Aimee Mann in its Jon Brion-esque production and Elliott Smith in its downtrodden, meandering feel. Hell, even the little string touches remind me of Smith, and that's no bad thing in my book.
Listening to the song, as well, the melancholy vibe of Windhorse suddenly makes a bit more sense -- while it's technically pretty much a love song, there's an undercurrent of loss and pain running through it, particularly when Castillo sings, "I miss my brother." You have to wonder if the personal stuff he's experienced since Tody Castillo set the stage for Windhorse's new-ish direction.
Granted, Castillo's got a long history of performing as more of a folk-pop artist, so maybe this is actually a return for him to what he was doing before the brasher, poppier stuff. Or, hell, maybe he's just been doing a lot of growing up in the meantime -- being married and having kids can definitely do that to you. Maybe it's like on "Hearts On A String," a wispy, bittersweet meditation on (I think) fatherhood where he sings, "I'm an angry old man / among other things." I feel that one, definitely.
Whatever the cause, once you peel back the layers of Windhorse, it becomes pretty apparent that there's a lot more going on below the surface than on the previous album. As a songwriter, Castillo's matured and deepened, and it's awesome to see. It sneaks up on you, even; I'd put the CD away for a while before writing this review, and when "Set To Lose" and "Best Thing Ever" came on, I realized I'd been humming both songs at various times over the past couple of months, not remembering in the slightest where the hell I'd heard their respective melodies.
Like I said, even unlooked-for progression is most often a good thing; it definitely shows here.
[Tody Castillo is playing 3/27/10 at Rudyard's, along with Bright Men of Learning & The Sour Notes.]
Of Love, Scorn, and Insecurity
Relatively new on the scene, Crossing Togo consists of two men who create wonderful music together. They possess a pop-rock feel, with steady guitars and a likeable singing voice. Their songs are like a journey into a colorful landscape, with transcendentalist themes related to nature and a person's true essence. There are no "I love you"s or "my heart is broken"s here. All references to relationships are done through complex concoctions of words which require you to read between the lines for comprehension.
This duo sounds like Radiohead at times, with somewhat intense guitars and strange arrangements. Ko Nakamura is a relatively well-known lyricist outside the band, and his relatively high-pitched singing voice sounds like Damon Gough from Badly Drawn Boy. The lyrics here are very literary, using a lot of imagery, similes, metaphors, and plenty of rhyming. The words read like poetry in the lyric booklet. Everything Ko sings can be imagined into a vivid picture by the listener, like an eclectic painting.
On track two, "Delilah" (not to be confused with the Plain White T's hit song) Nakamura sings, "you danced as though nothing could fall," alongside a pretty guitar melody and chords on a piano. Track eight, "Autumn Sunshine," opens with, "You take your place where the colors bleed through the canvas / where the air tastes like kiwi and passion," and continues wistfully until the chorus, which utilizes an odd vocal effect. Track nine, "Like Water," warns, "Never going to be what you wanted her to be / She's got her own set of sails," over an interesting, countryish banjo part that turns more rock when he says, "Hard as glass / but you move like water."
Texan guitarist/composer Scott Spencer met Japanese lyricist/vocalist Ko Nakamura on Craigslist here in Houston. It took them two years to write this debut, with help from a slew of musicians, including Steve Christensen and Dave Alberta on drums, Max Dyer on cello, Dan Workman on keyboard, and Brendan Buckley on percussion. Crossing Togo has an easily accessible sound I think anyone could like, given the opportunity, but their best bet for getting new fans hinges on connecting with people who crave good lyrics.
[Crossing Togo is playing 3/12/10 at the Last Concert Cafe.]
Electric Courage Machine
Electric Courage Machine was one of my top stand-out bands for 2009. Hailing from New Braunfels, TX, they're one of those bands that you marvel aren't bigger than they are. Their latest EP, Wasted, was a steady fixture in my tape deck all summer, and they achieved one of those rare feats with their song "We Can't Count," in that I would listen to it on repeat for hours straight.
Brothers Vincent and Jonathon Flores, on guitar and drums respectively, along with Damnit Joe on bass, capture raw feeling and emotion in their music, which I feel should be the aim of all musicians. The songs are earnest and aren't over-produced or polished to within an inch of their life. Vincent sings with a raw simplicity but captures so many meanings and nuances with just a few simple words. The songwriting is great, often oblique and never straightforward, with the same minimalist approach they take to their music. Heard in context, when Vincent sings, "Oh, Hero, are you brave?", on "We Can't Count," it's one of the most powerful lines on the whole EP. Occasionally, they'll add a light electronica flourish to their songs that's slightly reminiscent of Radiohead, without the reference ever becoming distracting.
Wasted is a beautiful disc and a must-have; head over to their Myspace and check them out right now. Just make sure to get this disc before summer rolls back around, because I'm telling you, this is the perfect summer record.
Trying Got Us Nowhere EP
On seven-song EP Trying Got Us Nowhere, Elika, an electro-indie-pop band led by a female singer, is sure to have you swaying. It's shoegazey and lush, not quite fitting into the 1980s. It's nice mood music, for the background, sleeping, driving, or headphones. It has an ambient feel, using light drumming, a keyboard, and an acoustic guitar, but occasionally growing into a harder sound with an electric guitar.
Like Azure Ray, there are two singers, but one is male and one female, Brian Wenckebach and Evagelia Maravelias. They have that feel like when you're listening to Abba, though, where you forget there's even a male in the band because you hardly hear from him vocally. Elika has a Ladytron vibe, with Maravelias's mid-range vocals which don't go too far in one direction or the other. She also sings in almost a monotone, even when the lyrics become more urgent, but sounds less robotic than the females in Ladytron. Her voice echoes in a pretty way, clear even when it goes electronic, and it's sometimes layered over herself. Most of the songs build into a noisier climax from a soft beginning.
The first song and first single, "The Whip," starts off the EP with distorted guitars. The music video features a spinning motion sequence of the band playing in a room, for the most part devoid of color. On "To the End," Maravelias sings, "there is no philosophy in saying the right thing when I am not listening." Second single "Let Down" has a catchy melody and keyboard part, and she sings the lyrics, "I should have read my sister's books as a young girl," as she searches for answers on how to be in love. This music video is completely black and white, and split in half, with a picture on each side of the band playing and sitting outside. Track seven, "Eliana", repeats the "all I have is nothing" theme and makes an interesting end to the CD, with its breakdown slow-motion effect.
The songs themselves are definitely more entertaining than the videos, but I'm sure it's on purpose, to keep the emphasis on the auditory and not the visual, form of art. Elika, deceivingly from Brooklyn, have also done a split EP with Auburn Lull.
It's funny, but until I heard Freelance Whales' Weathervanes, it'd never really occurred to me how much influence Ben Gibbard's had on music; I mean, the guy's an icon, these days, both for Death Cab and The Postal Service, but all of a sudden I'm seeing threads connecting folks like Freelance Whales backwards to Gibbard's melancholy, melodic soft-rock. There're huge chunks of Weathervanes, in this case, that I'm guessing wouldn't exist were it not for Gibbard and cohort Jimmy Tamborello melding indie-pop and electronics back in 2003.
I don't mean to disparage Freelance Whales, mind you -- they've taken what they love, which is early-'00s, sweetly-melodic indie-pop, and built on it in admirable fashion. There's an undeniable, wildly joyous feel to a lot of Weathervanes, especially on tracks like "Starring" and "Stairs," and the baroque, clever arrangements call to mind bands like The Decemberists (were they to drop the drama-school stuff somewhat, that is) and a less-frantic You Me & Iowa. I let the album spin, and after a while, even if I'm not fully paying attention, I feel like I need to skip back and rehear bits and pieces here and there.
"Stairs," in particular, is hooky to the point of marvelousness, making me smile like an idiot while the lyrics unfurl like a bespectacled poet hurriedly trying to woo the girl of his dreams but tripping over his own intelligence. There's also the thumping, heartbeat-like rhythm of "Location," a track that layers sheets of spacey guitars over vocals and that insistent beat. Further on, "Starring" employs skittering, stuttering drums beneath lush beds of sunshiny synths, and the whole thing makes me long for sunny, warm days when the sound can just explode out of the car's windows. "Kilojoules" is more laidback but still smiling and subversively sweet, like a friendly ghost singing from his home inside the house's walls before dissolving into nothing but a fading shimmer.
Then, at the halfway mark of the album, "Broken Horse," things shift gears pretty dramatically. All the electronicism moves to the rear, and the more delicately folky stuff gets dragged protesting up to the front of the stage. "Broken Horse" itself sounds less like any of the preceding indie-pop songs and more like stark, bitter-yet-calm indie-folksters Winterpills, and it's pretty great for that, channeling a fair amount of melancholy through choral vocals, subtle bells, and jangly, strummy guitar.
After that, it's like Weathervanes becomes a totally different album. "Ghosting" is appropriately drifting and gorgeous, a far cry from the full-tilt speed of some of the previous tracks, while "We Could Be Friends" sways and meanders along in a dreampop-y haze. Banjos (at least, that's what I think they are) figure prominently into "Generator ^ Second Floor," turning it into a warm, thoughtful hoedown/elegy, even though it veers somewhat back into Death Cab-ish territory. Then there's closer "The Great Estates," which is pastoral and fuzzed-out at once, plinking along gently 'til it becomes a river of sound that drags you along with it. And by then, trust me, you don't mind.
[Freelance Whales is playing 3/16/10 at Mango's, along with Cymbals Eat Guitars & Bear In Heaven.]
Hell City Kings
The Wolf EP
The Road to Damnation
So I've kind of gone about this bass-ackwards, to be up-front about it, but honestly, I'm now thinking maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. You see, I got a hold of a copy of the Hell City Kings' 2009 LP, The Road to Damnation, a month or so ago, but it languished on the floor next to my desk until I got sent a copy of the band's new EP, The Wolf, released this month.
I put on the latter, curious to hear the band for the first time in some form other than their Myspage page, and hot damn, was it good. Nicely raw, satisfying sleazy rawk songs about booze, wimmen, rockin' the fuck out, murder, partying, and breaking shit, all played by a bunch of tattooed, chain-smoking guys who look like they'd kick your teeth in as soon as talk to you; how can you not like that? The music's awesomely thick and meaty, while the guitars slash and gouge out chunks with each garage-y riff and the rhythm section thunders along. It's not headphone music, admittedly, but that's not really what it's meant for, I don't think -- instead, this is music to crank insanely loud, preferably on busted-up speakers littered with cigarette burns and weird, how'd-that-happen? holes punched in the sides.
Musically, The Wolf dwells in the same garage-punk ghetto as fellow Houstonians (with whom the band shares at least one member) Born Liars, but they blend in more of an old-school punk ethos, funneling in a fair dose of the Ramones and street-punks like Roger Miret and the Disasters; hell, they even come near to Black Flag territory every once in a while (see fuck-you anthem "Neighbors"), and when I hear "The Rivers Edge," I can't help think of Black Cat Music's classic "Hands in the Estuary, Torso in the Lake." It's furious, rough-edged rock that makes no apologies for living fast and hard, and it's great for that.
Now, having heard the EP, I went back and listened to the LP, putting on The Road to Damnation for the first time, and...well, it's just not the same. The sound's actually better than it is on the EP, but that may kind of work against the band, making their scrappy, facepunching tunes sound too damn clean and polished when they should sound scratched-up and messy.
Beyond that, though, it's the lyrics that really give me pause. It kills me to say it, but about half the time, the Kings' lyrics on the full-length are clichéd to the point of inanity. I started cringing about halfway through the lead-in title track, and that's not a good sign. Things got better for a while, with the darn good "If Tomorrow Never Comes" (not the Garth Brooks song, thankfully) and the sinister, Steel Pole Bathtub-ish guitar line the band throws in towards the end, and followup track "Gone And Forgotten" ain't bad, either.
"Silver Bullet," though, hits a new low -- it's a sleazy, grimy punk rock song about, yes, werewolves. "Scumbags And Scallywags" doesn't help matters any, with its nautical theme and sailor jargon; I'll give it to the Kings that the chorus is pretty catchy, in spite of itself, but it's hard to take the band seriously when they're singing about Davy Jones' locker and "salty dogs." Wow. Then there's "Rock N Roll Outlaw Rides Again," which puts the band in Western gear and fantasizes about robbing banks, Jesse James-style, and I'm left shaking my head and wondering if these guys are just screwing around.
It's telling that the best songs on Damnation either sound like the stuff on The Wolf or are the same songs as on the EP -- "Never Let Go," the awesomely head-snapping first track from the EP, is easily the best song on here, followed by bitterly angry breakup song "Another Lesson Learned." My advice? Keep going the way you seem to be headed with The Wolf, guys, and don't get sidetracked by the weird storylines and all that shit. Leave out the werewolves, the outlaws, and the pirate songs, and you're golden.
[The Hell City Kings are playing their EP release 3/12/10 at Mango's, along with White Rhino, Shit City High, & The Wrong Ones.]
Soundtracks to Lost Road Movies
DriftingFalling is a really cool little local label specializing in atmospheric electronica. They recently released the debut from Kontakte, a UK trio billed as a combination of "ethereal melodies, celestial tones and a pulsing electronic backbeat to produce a hypnotic noise with depth, space and staggering intensity." The disc is a collection of twelve tracks, consisting of six originals and six remixes.
With instrumentals, we're limited only by our imagination, and upon hearing a work for the first time, we're dependent upon track and disc titles to frame our thoughts. With a disc title such as Soundtracks to Lost Road Movies, and with the first track being "Pacific Coast Highway," I sat back and envisioned cruising on the West Coast, top down, driving north with an ocean view to my left and beautiful hills and peaks to my right. Two minutes in, and I'm enjoying it.
Now my wife sits in the passenger seat next to me, her hair pulled back, with a few loose tangles sneaking out of the hold of her band. Smiling, with her head tilted back as if the sun and light wind are breathing life into her. My daughter sits behind her in the back, chilling in her white, oversized sunglasses and leaning on one arm while the other rests on the back of my Border Collie mix, who is also smiling and wearing sunglasses. The sound, so far, is a low-tempo and ethereal mix, with synth accompanied by guitar and bass.
About four minutes in, the guitar gets loud, distorted, and downright damaging to the ears (figuratively and literally). I have to notch the volume down on my iPod, and my suddenly happy trip up the coast becomes a nightmare. Nothing happy about this sound, and rather than take my family into Tarantino territory, I break my thoughts.
Putting my disappointment aside, I optimistically dive into the next tracks and am greeted with more of the same: slow and medium-tempo soothing sounds eventually savaged by the same loud nasty guitar. By track four, "Life's Road Movies," that same dreaded guitar finally starts to find its place and feels like a more organic addition as compared to the former tracks. By the time I get to the last track before the remixes, I'm pretty disappointed for the most part and aggravated by having to adjust the volume before, during, and after every song.
The tough sledding I've endured seems to be worth it, however, because "Two and a Half Thousand Miles" is so far brilliant. Unfortunately, I find myself praying, as I listen, that it doesn't get ruined by that horrible guitar. At four minutes, there is a taste of it, but it's not intrusive like before and is its best use yet, as it slowly enters behind the other instruments and pushes the song to crescendo, rather than attacking it. Satan's guitar rears its ugly head again though at around the seven-minute mark, and I'm trying real hard not to let it mar what is otherwise superb music.
I have to preface this by saying I'm not generally a fan of remixes, and other than mentioning them, for this disc, I don't have much to say. They aren't better or worse than any of the other tracks here, and in my opinion, they don't add value to the disc. Overall, I wouldn't say I'm disappointed, just a little bemused.
The majority of first releases from the land of instrumental electronica do not impress me, but Kontakte has the right ingredients and proved with "Two and a Half Thousand Miles" and "Life's Road Movies" they can make a good recipe. I'll be eagerly awaiting their next release, while keeping at least one track from Soundtracks to Lost Road Movies in regular rotation.
There's an awesomely free, effortless feel to Miike Snow's eponymous debut, so much so that you can practically hear the roguish grins and collective shrug -- Miike Snow feels not like a trio of musicians setting out to "make" something, but instead just letting everything spill out and grabbing onto whatever sounds good. I mean, look at the name of the group, for crying out loud; supposedly the guys had a friend named "Mike Snow" and wanted to show off their love for Japanese auteur Takashi Miike, so they came up with this goofy amalgam that practically screams "joke band!"
All of which belies the insane amount of talent on display here, however. Even before you know each of their respective pedigrees -- singer Andrew Wyatt was previously in The A.M. and is also currently doing stuff with Fires of Rome and Tiggers, while Swedes Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg won a freaking Grammy for Britney Spears' "Toxic" and have worked with all kinds of famous folks under the alias Bloodshy and Avant -- it's immediately apparent that the trio is so damn good at this stuff that they make it all sound easy. They toss out killer hooks and throw in little mind-blowing flourishes seemingly on a whim, and I'm left shaking my head in wonderment and feeling like I need to hear it again.
As you might guess, there's a bit of a resemblance here to fellow Swedish pop heroes, especially Peter Bjorn & John (for whom the Miike Snow guys have done some remixing). "Song For No One," in particular, hops onto a peppy, wide-smiling PB&J beat and guitar riff and rides it to the end of the line, in the process incorporating one of the best damn basslines I've heard in quite a while. The track also makes me think of unforgivably-overlooked retro-'70s popsters The Push Kings, with its cheery, sunny vibe and soul-pop vocals.
Then there's the more out-and-out funk/soul stuff, like "Black and Blue," which comes off like Basement Jaxx fronted by, well, Prince (no, I'm serious; check out that falsetto) and which incorporates a cool-ass, crunchy-sounding keyboard line, the kind most bands would probably build a whole song around but which here only pops its head up in the choruses and then fades into the background again. "Sylvia" follows a similar path, albeit taking a route that's a bit darker and more mournful, and features possibly the last good use for AutoTune you're likely to ever hear, when the dreaded tool morphs Wyatt's voice into a near-unrecognizable electronic wail.
More than anything else, though, the tracks on Miike Snow make me think of Peter Gabriel. There's the easy amalgamation of traditional pop-band instrumentation with electronics and keys, which is something Gabriel practically pioneered back in the '80s, and the playfulness of it all keeps dragging me back to So, even on more somber tracks like "Sans Soleil" (which melds Coldplay-esque piano lines to a samba beat but still manages to bring things down somewhat).
Plus, there's Wyatt's voice, which, like Gabriel's, is nicely roughened and earth-level soulful but can -- given the right setting -- soar skyward, pulling the listener right along with it. On "Animal," for instance, the vocals bring to mind "Big Time," and the resemblance is strengthened by the bumping, jumping, insistent, almost ska/reggae beat and happy-sounding keys. "Burial," with its military-sounding drums and surprisingly cheery electronics, evokes later hit "Steam," and I hear echoes of a lot of Gabriel's other songs throughout.
Influences aside, the more I listen to Miike Snow, the more I feel convinced that it's a bona-fide masterpiece of techno-tinged pop. It's so ridiculously, insanely infectious that even the more over-the-top electro-funk tracks -- which could easily sound sappy and overdone, in the wrong hands -- sound freaking perfect, all by themselves. The "gee, this sounds like..." stuff becomes less and less important, and then I start feeling like I just need to hear that awesome, awesome song (pick one) just one more time. Okay, and maybe once more again after that...
[Miike Snow is playing 3/20/10 at Wired Live (formerly The Meridian), along with Delorean.]
Noah and the Whale
The First Days of Spring
The British indie-folk band's follow-up to its highly successful debut album wasn't quite what I expected, but I love it nonetheless.
The First Days of Spring for the most part leaves behind the toe-tapping tunes we came to love on Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down and introduces us to a softer, more toned-down set of songs. The album starts out slow, quiet, and calm, and the band continues this way throughout most of the album, giving us a feel of rebirth -- like the first days of spring.
When I heard Noah and the Whale were coming out with a new album, I expected more upbeat folk songs that dominate Peaceful..., but when I listened to the new album for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised. The band uses more violins and other stringed instruments on the new album, with a few purely instrumental tracks. The group also uses more harmonies, giving an almost Fleet Foxes feel to some of the songs.
I thought about the stark difference between this album and the band's debut album and I quickly realized that although the overall sound may be different, several things on both albums are quite similar. For example, themes of sadness, love, happiness, and despair come through just as strong on this album as they did on its debut album. The First Days of Spring just presents the music differently.
A cool feature of the album is that when you buy it in stores or download it on iTunes, it comes with a film the band made. The film is a series of short scenes set to the music of the album. It presents a unique way to listen to the album's 11 tracks.
Most of the songs on the album have a sad, almost depressed feel to them, but then track 6 begins and completely changes the entire mood of the album -- for about 3 minutes, at least. "Love of an Orchestra" begins with the singing of some kind of choir; you may even check to make sure you're still listening to Noah and the Whale. The group's familiar vocals soon return, however, and a happy, upbeat Noah and the Whale song comes through your speakers. I couldn't help but listen to the track over and over. After it's over, the album goes back to the sad feel it had before, but that one catchy track lightens the feel of the entire album.
I love The First Days of Spring and I can't stop listening to it; I think it's a great step forward for the band. They didn't just repeat what we loved about Peaceful..., instead keeping some of the same elements while also taking it to the next level.
Billy the Star Fighter Pilot vs. The Phlegmatics
By all rights, this shouldn't work. It really, seriously should not work -- how could you expect it to, after all? Songs of awkward, nebbishy, teenage nerddom with titles like "My Mom Thinks I'm Cool" or "Unibrow," played by a crew of guys who're closer to my own age than they are to high school; these guys are far more Revenge of the Nerds than, say, The O.C.. I mean, with songs like, say, "Yellow Fantasy," a song about an unrequited crush on Ms. Pac-Man, or "Unibrow," where frontman/guitarist Jonathan Marshall uses his unibrow as a big long extended metaphor for he and his(?) special somebody getting serious, how the hell could this not fall flat?
And yet, it doesn't. In fact, it works ridiculously well, against all odds. The aforementioned "Unibrow," for example, admittedly teeters on the edge between clever-cool and what-the-fuck, but it never actually falls on the latter side. Plus, I have to admire any band that can grab hold of a truly, truly horrible lyrical conceit and not only see it all the way to the end but manage to play awesomely catchy music as it goes. Come to think of it, that's pretty much the entire Phlegmatics modus operandi in a nutshell.
Okay, so they don't always go for the awful metaphors, truthfully. I was initially a bit disappointed by Billy the Starfighter Pilot, feeling like it didn't quite pack the punch of the band's previous full-length, Alumnus -- the guitars here are still Marshall-stack loud, sure, but they don't step to the front like they did on songs like "My Friend Chi." The disappointment faded, however, when I realized just how far the Phlegmatics have progressed in terms of actual songwriting.
They're at their best when they come up with songs that are like these cool, ridiculously detailed little sketches, just glimpses of fully-formed characters put to music. For one, there's "Punk Rock Club," a depiction of a seemingly mild-mannered NPR radio host who transforms by night into a pit-stomping punk rocker, rocking out to The Clash and Claude Debussy at the same time -- I can't tell whether they're poking fun or celebrating the guy's fearless diversity, and really, that may be part of the point. Either way, by the end of the song, I find myself nodding and smiling and growling along with the faux-gruff, tough-guy chorus, thinking, "hey, that sure sounds like that guy I met one time..."
Further on in, "Davey" hits in the same vein, albeit kind of in a "twofer" sort of way. It's an oddly intriguing internal monologue of sorts, "between" the finder of a lost wallet and the guy to whom it belongs, who inadvertently becomes the subject of a fumbling, endearingly creepy attempt at stalking the eponymous wallet owner. It's sweet and friendly, but a little freaky at the same time, particularly when the band gets to the backup vocals in the verse: "Davey, Davey / I know about you, Davey." And as it unfolds, you get a feel for both of the characters.
The same goes, in a sense, for the possibly-autobiographical (okay, scratch that; make it "the dear God, I hope it's not autobiographical," instead) "My Mom Thinks I'm Cool." It's the best song on here, hands down, taking everything that was great about early Weezer and boiling it down to its essence, all rumbling bass, thick, chunky, roaring guitars, melodic gang vocals, and an inherently geek-ish sensibility. The Phlegmatics whole style is somewhat of a throwback, all the way down to the lyrics, and that shows nowhere better than here.
Frontman Jonathan Marshall painstakingly lays out the depressing, kind of pathetic details of his(?) nerdy existence, living in the basement of his parents house and unable to get girls because he wears nothing but Star Wars t-shirts: "In the class of 1993 / voted 'Most Likely to Keep My Virginity'..." I definitely find myself worrying about Marshall, but at the same time, I'm grinning and shaking my head ruefully at how close the song hits to my own teenage reality.
Through it all, the Phlegmatics (Marshall, drummer brother Ethan, guitarist dad Dave, and bassist Jonas Velasco) blaze through track after track of addictively catchy, shout-along pop-punk-ish rock, melting in The Stereo, Weezer (again), Overwhelming Colorfast, Hüsker Dü, and even Tenacious D to make one big-ass Sword of Nerd-Rock Glory.
Amidst all the nerd-love, there're a couple of surprisingly straightforward tracks on here, like "Where Do We Go Now?," which is relatively basic, love-gone-wrong pop-rock that feels weirdly like classic rock at points; I wasn't a fan, at first, but it's been slowly growing on me. There's also "I Need Her More Than She Needs Me," which has a cool little bit in the middle that makes me think of Devo's "Girl U Want," and "Boys and Girls," which almost sounds like it could've come out of the late-'70s pop-punk scene in England, with the "echoed" background vocals and straight-ahead rhythms.
Not everything works, mind you. The title track gets bogged down in a bit of a clichéd storyline, while "Christmas Carol" and "My Space" try to be too clever and don't quite make it (and yes, the latter track is about what you think it's about). But honestly, they're a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the album, and I find myself minding less and less that I have to skip past when I listen to the disc. As long as the band can keep crank out those quirky, weird-yet-familiar tracks about video games and not fitting in, hell, I can easily forgive 'em a couple of missteps.
[The Phlegmatics are playing 3/27/10 at The Continental Club, along with The Stinkertons.]
Quest For Fire
Quest For Fire
"Quest For Fire"? Really? That's the band name you decided on? I mean, why not at least do one of those 12-word names, or something with "wolf" in that all the hipsters dig? With a name like this, everyone is going to think that you are 1) a group of archaeologists doing authentic Cro-Magnon music, 2) a caveman version of GWAR, or 3) a bunch of stoners cranking out fuzz-laden tunes.
Since your album's on Tee Pee Records, however, the answer's obviously 3.
Moniker aside, Quest For Fire's self-titled slab is one bodacious piece of work. In this day and age of bands trotting out what they think are throwback sounds and aping bad stereotypes passed down by supposed authoritarians, QfF is a real breath of fresh air. Even though that breath might cause you to fail a drug test.
What makes this album so much better than all the others is that this sounds like it could have come out in the early '70s. Singer Chad Ross sounds like a second-generation Amboy Dukes a la "Journey to the Center of Your Mind." His voice helps weave the tapestry that the rest of the band fills out. The album starts of with "Bison Eyes," a song that would've been the byproduct if Josh Homme had been born in the early '60s.
Guitarist Andrew Moszynski's guitar playing propels the band by not playing the same distorted feedback tricks, and the band does a nice job of changing tempos, allowing "Strange Ways" to ride the line between a Crazy Horse song and what stoner legend Wino's definition of "stoner music" is. For him the meaning is that the music should take you to a place that makes you feel like you are stoned. Mission accomplished. What's remarkable about this song is that at nearly 8 minutes, it doesn't drag at all. "Hawk The Hunts the Walking" unfortunately does, however, and a minute or two should have been trimmed off this near 9-minute opus.
Any review of this band would be best served by mentioning the rhythm section. Drummer Mike Maxymuik and bassist Josh Bauman do a remarkable job of balancing the traditional job of providing a music foundation for the songs and doing some free-form jamming of their own. Bauman especially does a nice job in making the bass a lead instrument at times.
Quest For Fire's debut is not merely another slab of '70s psych/stoner rock. It shows both what is wrong with the milieu of acts that profess themselves to be part of that scene and how good it should sound when it's done right.
Slow Gun Shogun
Slow Gun Shogun
Slow Gun Shogun is a one-man band whose first offering, a self-titled album recorded in Chicago, explores the simplicity of early country, folk, blues, and rock'n'roll. Comprised of five original songs and one cover ("Lonesome On'ry & Mean," by Waylon Jennings), the album is a fairly standard interpretation and amalgamation of the genres mentioned above.
The first track, "Spinning Wheels," is a song meant to drive to. The guitar riff is fuzzy, groovy, and catchy, with some grunge-tinged tips of the hat to Mudhoney (which the artist mentions as a heavy influence in his PR material). The second track, "Ace Rudy Haightley," is a jangly, almost form-fitting sample of John Prine's "Paradise" that rides along in a happy-folky way. The vocals sound more nasal, as well, the accent of a deeper-voiced fledgling Dylanesque cousin.
A mellower rise-and-fall pattern in chords and vocals is heard in the third song, alongside a barely audible percussive pattern and low-volume shoegazey walls of sound and guitar flutters. The overall sound has kind of a ragtag Spiritualized/Spacemen 3 vibe to it. Up next is a chug-a-lug blues song thirsty for a genre switch, the fuzziness of the first track, and some fairly priced do-the-trick Evan Williams whisky twang. The fifth track sounds a lot like all of the songs on the album so far, which all individually sound similar and different at the same time.
Lastly, the artist gives us his cover of Waylon Jennings' "Lonesome On'ry & Mean" and confirms that his one-man sounds are aptly titled. He just takes a while to warm up and cock his "Shogun." This is definitely the strongest track on the album, interlacing many important elements of a more noticeable song. Beginning with an AC/DC-like slow guitar buildup, the tune segues into a driving and light-blues rock tune reminiscent of a filler song on a CCR album and ends with the lone guitar solo on the album, albeit a short and fairly quiet one.
All of the songs on this self-titled debut by Slow Gun Shogun are consistently cohesive, easy to listen to, and very accessible. While catchy, they can sound repetitive and simplistic, and it's safe to say that the album just doesn't take many risks. That's not necessarily a downfall, though. On his first solo go-around, the artist does a good job playing the music he loves. I'm interested to see his growth and maturation as he continues to explore these genres and learns how to mix and master his albums better.
I sense the need for more band members, most importantly a drummer/percussionist. Some intense drums would add a lot to these guitar-heavy tunes. In the future, I can see him coming into his own. His cover, the final and most successful track, suggests this: he hasn't escaped simply re-creating what he loves yet. But this album gives us evidence that in time, he possibly can.