The Suitcase Sessions EP
The sixties are alive and well in Aster's world. The band incorporates understated vocals and infectious harmonies with low-key indie rock, complete with organ, harmonica, and a stripped-down drumkit. "Lift Provider" and "Counter Culture" are the best examples of the band's broad range of sounds, and "Stop The Parade" is the closest the band gets to modern garage -- Bryan Ellis and Tim Hussman constantly mix genres on the EP (there's a definite Britrock influence), yet the Austin-based Aster never sounds like any particular influence. This is a good start; hopefully their full-length will be as adventurous.
Sun, Sun, Sun
I'm relatively ignorant of Rilo Kiley, Elected frontman Blake Sennett's "day job" band. Hard to believe, I know, given the amount of RK-love currently floating around out there, but I think I've actually heard more of Sennett's The Elected than I have the other band. And right now, I'm pretty glad for it, because it lets me listen to The Elected's Sun, Sun, Sun without the raft of preconceptions that would otherwise be tagging along.
So, while I haven't a clue what fans of More Adventurous are going to make of this, I can say that from an outsider's viewpoint, Sun, Sun, Sun is simply a freakin' brilliant gem of an album. Sennett (along with co-producer/occasional co-writer Mike Bloom) has continued to grow in leaps and bounds as a songwriter on this release, crafting some of the most effortlessly beautiful songs I've heard in quite a while. For a large part of the album, he aims for the same countryish vein the band dug into on 2003's Me First, but this time out he ups the ante by also taking on the mantle of a '60s-inspired soul crooner on several tracks, a shift that works better than I'd guessed it could. In the hands of a lesser musician/singer, the smooth horns-and-organ soul raveup of "Did Me Good" would come off as supremely hipster-ironic (and therefore worth forgetting about completely after the obligatory sly indie chuckling), but here it sounds like honest, heartfelt love of the music, right down to the James Brown-style "testifying" in the break.
This isn't to say that the only songs on here worth hearing are the handful of soul-inspired tracks, mind you. From opener "Clouds Parting," a soaring, swooping orchestral intro that'd make The Polyphonic Spree blush, onward, the whole album rolls along nicely, first straight into the jangly, desperately sweet country-pop of "Would You Come With Me." After that, there's "Fireflies in a Steel Mill," which is exuberant and melancholy at the same time, with a sunshiny sound like the best AM radio songs you remember from your childhood (if you're my age, at least), the sappy, repetitive, yet still endearing "It Was Love" (a duet with Kiley's Jenny Lewis, and a track that reminds me of The Pogues at points), the chiming, measured prettiness of "Beautiful Rainbow," and the delicately folky, Bright Eyes-esque title track.
I've tried to intentionally downplay the Conor Oberst comparisons, by the by, but I figure I probably ought to get 'em out of the way and be done with it. I have to admit that when I first heard the songs on Sun, Sun, Sun shuffle through my iPod's headphones, I could've sworn they were tracks from some long-lost Bright Eyes album I hadn't bothered to get. The smart, literate, sometimes self-referential lyricism, the strained, nearly whimpery vocals -- I had to check twice to make sure I hadn't hit the wrong button on the player. The Oberst comparisons don't really hit the mark, however, because where Mr. Bright Eyes turns introspection into self-obsessive navel-gazing and seems to revel in the dark, dysfunctional side of the relationship coin, Sennett flips the whole thing over and looks forward hopefully and joyfully, with an blissfully unrepentant smile plastered all over his face.
If you want proof, just take a listen to Sun, Sun, Sun's two highlights, "Biggest Star" and "Not Going Home." The former essentially closes out the album (the final track is actually "At Home (Time Unknown)," but it's just a quick bit of jangle-pop that bookends the disc) with Sennett jumping feet-first back into soulful "shouter" mode. His voice gets more and more frenzied through the course of the song 'til he's practically roaring -- which comes as a bit of a shock, really, since his vocals everywhere else are so deceptively soft and gentle -- and towards the end, the song even throws in some of the only real "rock" guitars on the album, sending the proceedings veering unexpectedly off into Pinkerton-era Weezer territory. It's a heck of a way to end an album.
Then there's "Not Going Home." Although it doesn't show up 'til four songs into the album, "Not Going Home" is where Sennett and company (assisted on this album by Jason Boesel on drums, Daniel Brummer on bass, and Mike Bloom on gorgeous lap steel and harmonica) really hit their stride. While the rest of the album is excellent, this track was the one that made me sit up and really start paying attention. The shimmering guitars, the understated keys, the fuzzed-out bass, the whispered harmony vocals -- the whole thing's just an absolutely perfect example of a well-put-together song.
And then, when the band hits the chorus, ah... I'm a cynic to the core, these days, but I'll be damned if my heart doesn't feel a bit lighter in my chest. The song's a triumphant, defiant declaration of love, of finding home wherever the person you care about happens to be, and it's one of the bravest, sweetest, least cynical songs I've ever heard. Taken as a whole, Sun, Sun, Sun is one of my favorite albums of 2006 so far, but even on its own, "Not Going Home" would be worth the price of admission.
Late Night Conversations
I've mentioned a couple of times in these pages that it seems like Victory is moving away from the hardcore types of music that established the label, in favor of more accessible, poppier fare. I guess The Forecast further proves that point. In all actuality, though, I think Victory is just broadening its roster (and has been since the days of Thursday) rather than eschewing harder bands altogether. Whatever the motivations, at least the quality control hasn't gone out the window. Late Night Conversations is a better-produced, more accomplished take on what The Forecast put forth on Proof of Impact, without watering down the dynamics or just plain rocking the fuck out. Actually, I'd say that there are songs on here that rock even harder than those on Proof, as I remember it. The Forecast still utilize the male-female vocal dynamic to great effect, most especially on "Fade In Fade Out" (probably my favorite track on the album), which combines the unisex melodies and call-and-response shouts with buzzsaw guitars. There's even an occasionally twangy, rootsy side to the band ("Helping Hands") that exposes The Forecast's Middle America roots. I like what I've heard so far from these guys (and girl), and can't wait to hear what's next.
Yeeaaah. THIS is what "screamo" really is and should be. You won't find a Funeral Diner CD at your local Hot Topic, that's for sure. But (or maybe because of that), this is the most incendiary, most cathartic, most real example of this subgenre I've heard since...well, since probably the first Planes Mistaken For Stars album. If more bands made music like this, then "emo" wouldn't have picked up the commercialized, milquetoast-y modern-day connotations that are killing the genre. I mean, you can practically taste the blood and smell the sweat during The Underdark. And it's not just the pure power and volume level that I'm responding to here -- there are lots of "louder" bands out there -- it's Funeral Diner's raw emotion that really gets me into this record. Reminds me of a time when bands like this actually believed in what they were singing/screaming/thrashing about, instead of conforming to an "image." The Underdark is ultimately a bad-ass album, and if you yearn for the stylings of Rites of Spring, Still Life, or even Saetia, then find this disc somewhere and commence to rocking the fuck out.
Head Wound City
Head Wound City
Seven songs in nine minutes. That alone should give you, Constant Reader, an idea of what lies in store for you here. Just in case that's not enough of a warning/invitation for you, you should know that Head Wound City features members of the Locust, Blood Brothers, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Take all those bands, and distill them down to their basest, most primal, most visceral, and you'll have Head Wound City. Whenever I review a CD like this, it's hard for me to say that I "enjoy" it...but then again, it's probably hard for people to comprehend why I "enjoyed" Slayer or Mr. Bungle back in the day. This is the kind of music that pummels the listener into submission. I think it appeals to the part of the zeitgeist that is also responsible for Faces of Death, Ultimate Fighting, and Rotten.com (all of which I like, actually, so I'm not being smarmy). At any rate, if you like any of the member's other bands, or Dillinger, or even stuff like Chimaira, then you might want to check out what Head Wound City has got going on. Everyone else, stay the hell away.
Aim Right for the Holes in Their Lives
Funny name, but Novillero's newest release Aim Right for the Holes in Their Lives, is nothing but serious. These guys mean what they say and they aren't holding anything back. Issues to do with broken hearts, politics, and life in general are all in evidence on this album, thrown together with no compunctions.
Made up of Sean Stevens on guitar and moog, Grant Johnson on bass, piano, and vocals, Dave Berthiaume on drums and vocals, and Rod Slaughter on piano/organ, bass, and vocals, Novillero as a whole has a wealth of talent. Their opinions are more than obvious, and the music is upbeat and entertaining. It really seems to draw all of your attention to them and forces you to really listen to their delivery and what they have to say. Trombones and trumpets make an appearance in "Dean," a song about a self-centered actor (everybody can definitely relate, including myself), while the title track is a song about fulfilling our lives with materialistic items as opposed to just being happy with ourselves.
Beyond the lyrics, Novillero brings an array of musical genres to the table. "The Hypothesist" brings a mix of ska and modern rock, along with haunting vocals. "Abbey," on the other hand, seems to be inspired by The Beach Boys or The Beatles; it combines catchy keyboard hooks and poppy lyrics to which everyone can relate. Novillero's certainly their own kind of band -- their unique, original compositions and the freedom to speak their collective mind makes them a band worth getting acquainted with.
For nearly a decade, the music industry's armchair quarterbacks waited for "the next Nirvana" -- the band that would remind big record labels and radio listeners (again) what decent music sounded like (and that it could be sold to teenagers). When it came, bands that hit the (much smaller, due to hip-hop) rock jackpot turned out to be a whole slew of artists in a variety of genres, including indie/emo (Death Cab For Cutie, Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes), stoner rock and metal (Queens of the Stone Age, Mastodon) and garage rock (the White Stripes, the Hives, a million worthless bands with short names). And then there's the Brits. In the past few years, only Death Cab for Cutie has surpassed Interpol (who, admittedly, aren't from England themselves, but that's where they draw from) and Franz Ferdinand for sheer overplayedness on college radio, at least in Houston. Their potent, if one-dimensional, dance-rock bounce and extreme hipness go over quite well with a generation of listeners whose primary fixation sometimes appears to be fashion. The inevitable legions of imitators suffer greatly from the genre's lack of musical ideas and conformist sense of style, but with good execution, a sense of humor and a little attitude, the formula can still succeed.
In come the Rakes. The London quartet deftly cuts Interpol's Joy Division copping with the edge of the Buzzcocks and Wire, though they unsurprisingly lack the latter's adventurousness. The Rakes also seem to be grasping tentatively at a tragicomic take on the dead-end dance-party lifestyle, particularly on the bleak title track, though they could stand to expand their lyrical scope. And like their countrymen, they eschew the bombastic overproduction that plagues so much good American music (I'm looking at you, Rogue Wave) in favor of a tight, clear and driving rock sound.
The Rakes have the formula down. The question is whether they can expand on the borrowed ideas of this EP to produce music of real meaning and distinction. Having their single remixed by Bloc Party's producer does not count. They could also do with a splash of humility -- drummer Lasse Peterson: "I don't get the fact that people create stuff that's already there anyway." Get this, guys: you sound like Interpol. Deal with it.
Sharks and Sailors
Sharks and Sailors
The first release from this Houston quartet reveals a startlingly well-developed sound. This bold, forceful, thought-provoking EP recalls a whole lineage of loud indie rock, from Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. to Fugazi and Sonic Youth to Jawbox and Hum to Drive Like Jehu and Sunny Day Real Estate, with dashes of something like Kyuss or Helmet thrown in, all while defying direct comparison to anyone in particular. Sharks and Sailors have a little ways to go still -- veteran bassist Melissa Lonchambon and guitarist Allen Hendrix haven't mastered their voices yet, and guitarist Mike Rollin hasn't recorded any vocals here at all -- but to see a band so far down the road at this early stage is simply wonderful.
Heaven's Pregnant Teens
Funny that I review this right after reviewing the Head Wound City EP. Some Girls also features Justin Pearson of that "band" (although only on bass here), along with current and former members of Give Up The Ghost, Unbroken, and The Plot To Blow Up The Eiffel Tower. Heaven's Pregnant Teens, (much like the Head Wound City EP) is also something of a old-school beatdown in aural form, although here the material is a little more on the punk side of the angry/grinding/chaotic music spectrum. I would go into each song specifically, but they all kind of run together for me, honestly. Heaven's Pregnant Teens delivers one 25-minute long beating, and the breaks in between the jabs, crosses, and uppercuts are incidental. You'll still be reeling on the floor afterwards (or at the very least, have a massive headache). Again, as with Head Wound City, if this is your thing, then you'll be in hardcore-thrash-punk nirvana. If not, then give this one a wide berth. Don't let titles like "Hot Piss" and "Ex Nuns/Dead Dogs" fool you into thinking this is some Nick Drake wannabe.
The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living
How in the heck do you take The Streets' Mike Skinner these days? He started out on Original Pirate Material (and even somewhat on 2004's A Grand Don't Come For Free concept album) as a raggedy, rough-around-the-edges, streetwise, lager lout/rapper, but here he is on his latest, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, coming off like a pampered popstar. Gone are the days of heartfelt, awkwardly sweet love songs or odes to friends and clubbing; they've been replaced by sordid tales of drug use and trashed hotels, dumbfounded meditations on the agony of the music business, and braggadocio about screwing fellow celebrities. The kid whose self-conscious tough guy talking made him endearing has gone Big Willie Style. What the hell happened?
Okay, so this can't really be called a sellout. Even back on Original Pirate Material, Skinner danced along the line between dancefloor bliss-out and hip-hop, with plenty of entertaining detours through song-skits about the life of the down-to-earth London teenager. And despite the brushed-with-fame skeeziness of tracks like "Prangin Out" and "When You Wasn't Famous" (and no, not being a reader of the U.K. tabloid press, I've got no clue which pop starlet Skinner's claiming to have slept with), there's still a layer of tense desperation lurking beneath the fancy wheels and lines of coke. Take the title track, which paints a bleak picture of an artist scrambling from month to month to break even on record sales, despite the outward trappings of wealth and success, or even the aforementioned "Famous," which seems to hint backwards at the yearning to be unknown and ignored.
Part of Skinner's appeal, as touched above, has always been his awkwardness. For a guy as obsessed with stardom and celebrity as he seems to be, it's nice to see that he's still occasionally willing to bare his soul on the gorgeously melancholy "Never Went to Church," an uncertain, fumbling elegy for his departed father. There's also "All Goes Out the Window," a pseudo-love song that seems to warn against playing around and breaking hearts, which points back at tracks like Material's "It's Too Late" -- which, sap that I am, I've always enjoyed, off-key warts and all. And yes, there're still a few attempts at social commentary/wit here, like the U.K.-meets-U.S. "Two Nations," Skinner's interpretation of the classic dog-in-a-bar con game in "Can't Con an Honest John," and "Hotel Expressionism," which attempts to update the typical rockstar hotel-destroying drama and turn it into bona fide art.
So, does all this mean that The Streets is still The Streets, no change since Original Pirate Material? Not quite. Sadly, there are some major missteps on here, like "War of the Sexes," "Prangin Out" (what hell does "prang" mean?), and "Memento Mori," the last of which sounds like something that probably sounded way better when Skinner was drunk and impressed with his own wordplay. The popstar sheen of the whole thing also knocks down the average-bloke-ness of the songs, as well, which isn't a good thing considering that Skinner hasn't got the best lyrical flow in the Isles (that award, for my money, goes to Roots Manuva's Rodney Smith).
Of course, the tracks themselves still bump and jerk along disconcertingly like they always have, except that now Skinner's presumably got the dough to buy better equipment, and the lack of progression on that front makes me step back and scratch my head a bit. It's almost like Skinner's trying to have his cake and eat it too -- he wants to remain street-level, but at the same time, he wants the money and the fame and all the bizarre shit that goes with it. And the world just doesn't work like that. Either you evolve, or you don't.
All in all, given that there are only a relative few bright spots ("The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living," "Never Went to Church," "All Goes Out the Window"), they drag Easy Living down to a sub-par level, below Original Pirate Material or even A Grand Don't Come for Free (and I couldn't stand the single from that album). This one's entertaining, sure, but worth more than a few listens? Thanks, but I think I'll dig out Skinner's debut, instead, at least until he comes up with something better.
Let me start here with a little history of one of my personal musical obsessions. I can remember that after I finally heard Massive Attack's Mezzanine, I searched for what felt like years to find something, anything else that sounded like that. Never happened; it was all either too near to bland old dancefloor junk or too poppy and electronic or whatever else. It didn't sound quite right. I liked Protection (and later, 1,000 Windows), but nothing could touch Mezzanine. That one album became, for me, the be-all and end-all of trip-hop.
When I put on Télépopmusik's Angel Milk,
therefore, I certainly wasn't expecting the three Frenchmen (Fabrice Dumont, Stephan Haeri, and Christophe Hetier) and associated cohorts behind the band to have magically replicated the Massive Attack genius. Then "Don't Look Back" started in, and ex-Wild Colonials singer Angela McCluskey's husky, Lena Horne-esque warble hit me, and my jaw nearly hit the desk. "Is this it
? Is this the album I've been waiting to hear, the 'new' Mezzanine,
more of that perfect nighttime music?" Well...kinda. Télépopmusik do
ape the trappings of the Massive Attack crew, particularly on tracks like "Last Train to Wherever" or "Hollywood on My Toothpaste," where guest vocalist Mau (ex-Earthling, currently in a band called Winter Camp, and whose stories, up on his own personal Website
, are pretty damn intriguing) comes off like he's channeling present and past Attack vocalists 3D and Tricky, respectively.
There's a little bit of that Massive Attack murk floating in there, too, but where Angel Milk gets interesting is where it doesn't try to be all dark and moody. "Don't Look Back" is a pure love song, beautiful and sweet, as is "Stop Running Away" (which features vocals by the group's third singer, DJ Shadow collaborator Deborah Anderson), while "Anyway" is precious and delicate, like Trembling Blue Stars gone dance. The only "real" dance track here is "Into Everything," which is more straight-up danceable (not to mention the only track where Anderson's voice, which is generally nice but not very distinctive, really shines), a chillout track to get people up off the couch and smiling just in time for the sun to come up. "Tuesday," towards the end of the disc, is similarly bright and sunshiny, and after a slew of "dark" tracks in-between, it really hammers home the point that while Télépopmusik might love Massive Attack's work as much as I do, they're better when they follow their own collective muse.
The problem with Angel Milk, sadly, is that after the first five stellar tracks or so, the album takes a nosedive. The aforementioned "Last Train to Wherever" tries to scrape the sheen off of Mezzanine and turn it into gold but can't hold a candle to the real thing, "Swamp" and "Ambushed" are utterly pointless atmospherics with no substance -- both swell promisingly but then collapse into nothing -- and "Nothing's Burning" starts off decently but then just ambles around for a while before it stops. (The only decent instrumental track on here, by the way, is "Another Day," which closely resembles something off of The Man in the Shadow, by fellow Frenchman Dominique Dalcan, aka Snooze.)
The Tricky-alike track, "Hollywood on My Toothpaste," sounds like a throwaway from Angels with Dirty Faces, and then "15 Minutes," the final track on the album, begins with an interesting little bit of crazy poetry/spoken word stuff from Mau...and then dissolves into nothing for another fourteen fucking minutes. Okay, people, new rule: if you're wasting that much space on an album, then maybe you should rethink how long you want the damn thing to be and go for an EP or something instead. You're not being clever, you're not being "ground-breaking," you're just being an idiot and you're wasting people's time. Oh, and what happens after that fourteen minutes of absolutely nada? Not a damn thing.
The saving grace of the disc is Angela McCluskey. I'm not familiar with the Wild Colonials (although I'm thinking now that maybe I should be), but I've fallen hard for that ragged-edged, gorgeously damaged voice of hers. There's an uncomfortable resemblance to Macy Gray, I'll admit, but McCluskey's got a wooziness that sounds more like too much champagne than hard drugs. On "Love's Almighty," she sounds like the heir to Beth Gibbons' trip-hop throne or, hell, Shirley Bassey in her prime -- she simmers over the sinister, sweeping strings and plinking piano, a samba-ish score worthy of a James Bond flick, before the whole thing comes shuddering to a halt halfway through and then roars back to life as a Sinatra-style big band blast, less music for spies than for high-kicking Rockettes. It's incredible fun. McCluskey also saves "Brighton Beach" from being just another exercise in "dark"-ness, her voice nicely complemented by the bleeps and bass bumps beneath; it's one of the few tracks in the middle of the disc that's worth listening to more than once.
Taken as a whole, Angel Milk promises a heck of a lot, but it doesn't deliver more than half of what it could. And that's a damn shame, because beyond the trickery and mimicry, the members of Télépopmusik sound like they could do a whole lot more. Maybe if they (like me) can just get over the Massive Attack obsession and try for something new, they'll hit the mark more squarely next time out.
We Are The Fury
For a band that dubs itself "The Fury," there's not much these guys seem upset about on their five-song EP, Infinite Jest. Maybe they're broken up a bit about a lost love ("I'm tired of wasting words that keep me locked inside / I want to say how much your love has pushed me away; maybe it's better this way," from "Better Off This Way"), or perhaps it's the ever-popular politics that gets to them ("You want to talk about indecision? / Just take a look at all the Seminole lies / We are the product, misinformation, a generation milked from a Colombian high" -- from "Nation, Forgive Us"). Whichever, the lyrics may be meaningful, but they ring hollow when matched with the same pseudo-aggressive pop-punk peddled by nearly every other pseudo-aggressive pop-punk band making music today.
While their sound may play well to the Take Action Tour crowd, more discerning listeners will hear much of Infinite Jest for what it is: derivative, radio-friendly alt-rock that sounds similar to a dozen other bands currently raiding the airwaves. The riffs are there, and the band undoubtedly has the talent to put on a great live show. But for a band to truly stand out, it needs to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack. Hopefully the band's eventual full-length shows a bit more maturity and progression.