A Step Behind
This is what we've become
When an alternative rock band asks fans to help them climb the Clear Channel charts, that says a lot. "Clear Channel" is just one of those phrases that pulls half the crowd to the stage while the other half slips out back unnoticed. But mama always said, "don't judge a book by it's cover," and everyone deserves a fair chance. This is what we've become is the first for local alt-rockers A Step Behind.
Meh. Sometimes stereotypes work. Every positive point about this EP seems to double as a flaw: intense playing energy negated by generic rhythms; production quality so overdone it still has that fresh factory smell. From the cheesy Faith No More fade of the opening track to the tired Papa Roach-esque riffs on "Don't Ask Me How, I'll Tell You (Plan B)," this release just lacks. Like another poster of Starry Night on a dorm room wall, this CD just emulates what came before while doing little justice to the source. A Step Behind would fare better taking the cover-band route.
All that said, good luck to them on their quest to climb the charts. They've got an upbeat sound and can play well enough. The singer has a nice voice with an uncanny resemblance to Jamie from The Stereo, but catchy hooks and melodies didn't get that band on the mainstream radar, either. Spike your hair, get some tribal tats, and find a producer to sex up. Abracadabra: Billboard Top 40.
The Autumn Offering
Fear Will Cast No Shadow
In 1999, when up-and-coming group The Autumn Offering was formed in Daytona, FL, most of the local music scene was apparently nothing but radio-friendly pop-rock crap. Thankfully, The Autumn Offering was about to change that repetitive scene.
Having just released their third studio album, Fear Will Cast No Shadow, they seem to have done what they set out to do, mostly by pushing the boundaries and in spite of some changes. Since their last album, The Autumn Offering has replaced two of their members, with Allen Royal (drums) and former Hell Within frontman Matt Chesney (vocals) now filling the vacated spots.
The Autumn Offering has crafted their sound to somewhat match their old-school metal influences; that is, Pantera, Metallica, Ozzy, and Guns 'N Roses. Alongside them is producer Jason Suecoff, who's helped record albums for Ozzfest players like Trivium and God Forbid. This band's 11-track, 37.6-minute CD is an intense and hostile rollercoaster ride which will violate your very existence. With classic tracks like "Crown Yourself A King, Kill Yourself A Queen" and "Silence And Goodbye" that both stoic and creepy, The Autumn Offering will leave you crawling out of your skin.
They're not big names right now, having only sold 40,000 or so records, but in my mind The Autumn Offering will one day soon be a rousing success.
Casy and Brian
All Teeth and Knuckles
Club Hits to Hit the Clubs With
Alright, so I knew San Francisco was weird as fuck to begin with, but apparently SF is the new insane party scene you always wished you were cool enough to be into but can really only shake your head in wonderment at. Based on the latest full-lengths from Bay Area electro-freaks Casy and Brian and All Teeth and Knuckles, all I can say is that these folks must throw some killer parties, the kind where too-smart, too-hip people all get together to take a metric ton of drugs apiece and spend three whole days dancing around and beating one another up before acknowledging that The Real World Outside the Dancefloor is calling.
I should note, mind you, that this ain't exactly my scene. I'm the wallflower in the room at most parties like this (at least, parties that I've been to that were kinda like this), much more content to sit on the sidelines and argue with random people about why I just don't get the appeal of Kanye than to get out there and shake my booty. But even still, I think I can get it, sort of. There's something appealing as all hell about the total wild abandon with which these crazy club kids attack the floor.
Despite the geography, it seems that what unites these two acts' releases -- Catbees and Club Hits to Hit the Clubs With, respectively -- is that kind of a shared audience. Basically, Casy and Brian and ATAK are both playing specifically to those aforementioned crazy club kids, anybody else be damned. Both records are fascinating for that, really, because of their focus on that one niche community; listening to these two discs is closer to reading some kind of sociological analysis than it is watching one of those overblown TV "exposés" that pop up every once in a while on the lurid side of clubbing.
As for what it sounds like, well...that's where things start to diverge. While they may be from the same city, the same scene, and even the same label, musically the two acts are pretty much from different planets in the Electro Galaxy. Let's take Casy and Brian's Catbees first -- the album's a crazed, desperate-sounding electro-dance clusterfuck and a half, packed chock-full of sneering, goofy/angry vocals, fractured synths, and flat-as-all-hell drumbeats (possibly due to the duo's apparent penchant for playing only on "dumpstered" equipment) and seriously obsessive about The Animal Kingdom as a whole. It's ferociously underground, defiantly so, and the whole thing would reek of nerdcore if it weren't so aggressively pushy, shoving the listener unrelentingly towards the dancefloor. Rather than geeking away on the sidelines, Casy and Brian are like that psychotic guy at the show who keeps drunkenly "dancing" into you no matter how far away you try to move from his little circle of strobe-lit concrete.
And oddly enough, the sheer insanity of it works in Casy and Brian's favor. They could easily have come off as silly and pretentious, but instead tracks like "Duex Drumbaclots," "Animal Calls n' Dancehalls," "House on Haunted Hill," and the impressively dark instrumental "The Great Owl" sound like the bastard offspring of hip-hop and post-punk, like Mates of State doing covers of those Animal Collective folks, with vocal help from a speed-addled MC Paul Barman. Casy and Brian crib from Public Enemy's angry, confrontational hip-hop, delve deep into the Beastie Boys' circa-Licensed to Ill box of smartass attitude, smear on some of Prince's sweat, and gleefully deconstruct the whole thing with chainsaws borrowed from Liars, and the finished product may not be easy to listen to, but it's at least unique and intriguing.
On the opposite end of the spectrum lie All Teeth and Knuckles. Where Casy and Brian are frantic and scratchy, street-level noise, All Teeth and Knuckles' Club Hits to Hit the Clubs With is slick and fake, self-referential to the point of being irritating as fuck, a parody of pretty much all the most ridiculous hip-hop floating around out there right now. They take the ironic hipster thing to its most inane depths, going so far as to pen a response to CSS's "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above," "Let's Undress and Listen to CSS," where singer/programmer/whatever guy Patric "Sick Face" Fallon babbles about how he met Lovefoxxx of CSS backstage at a show and basically pitched his clever song title to the exhausted musician.
The backing beats aren't half bad, I'll admit -- the music's funky and bumpin' in a way that probably gets the dancefloor moving quite nicely -- but damn, those lyrics. I find myself enjoying the city-proud shout-out of "The Real San Francisco," where Fallon name-checks all the 'hoods that get down, but I mean, c'mon, "Fuck Your Jacket"? It's a confrontational slam on leather jackets (and presumably their wearers) that's so silly I keep expecting Andy Samberg to pop up and start rapping. It's a sad thing when one of the best handful of tracks on the album is essentially a couple of drunken phone calls from friends set to beats, atmospheric electronics, and gently-plucked guitars ("Blackout Dance (Interlude)").
Some of Club Hits is catchy, certainly; I've got "Social Drinking" lodged uncomfortably in my brain right now. That doesn't excuse the utter inanity of the whole project, though. One Har Mar Superstar's more than enough, in my book. I hadn't expected it, but I find myself sucked in by Casy and Brian's hyperkinetic dance-racket and utterly repulsed by All Teeth and Knuckles' studied pose.
Punch Your Lights Out
I'd like to offer some advice to the guys in Danger Radio: trade in your vocalist/songwriter for a new one who doesn't come off like a cheap Panic At The Disco rip-off. The lyrics and vocals on Punch Your Lights Out are actually worse than PatD, if that's possible.
Musically, this is a decent band. In fact, they would work as a fully instrumental band, for sure. They blend funk and synthesizers into a light, fun sound that's reminiscent of nobody in particular. There are even some sweeping choir vocals here and there, which is always a good thing. But then Torres starts singing, and we're back to square one -- a cookie-cutter post-emo crapfest.
Before I end this, however, let's take a look at some of the so-bad-they're-good lyrics, shall we? From "Slow": "She makes it hard for me to read her / Makes it seem like the energy between us may or may not be functioning / With her there is no questioning the love that I have deep inside."
Yeah, the band can definitely do without that guy.
[Danger Radio is playing 5/23/08 at Warehouse Live, with Forever the Sickest Kids, Metro Station, The Maine, & The Cab.]
Everyone knows hype can be a double-edged sword, especially for brand new artists; it gives snobby skeptics reason to dismiss a band without giving an adequate listen. The Epochs have generated a lot of hype with their self-titled debut, and now I know why: an electro-pop gem like this, that demonstrates surprising range with a unique point of view, is bound not to go unnoticed.
The appropriately-titled "Thunder and Lightning" starts the album in dramatic fashion. Pounding percussion drives the song, and instruments constantly drop in and out. The chaos is...interesting, but also jumbled and busy. "Opposite Sides" follows up with a complete change in tone -- mysterious, gentle and atmospheric, layered perfectly with the high-pitched crooning of the Holladay brothers. Next is "Love Complete," the first single off the album and the song that most clearly displays the Epochs' knack for instrumentation. It begins with a definite tropical vibe, then weaves in jazzy piano and disco-esque background strings, and somehow comes off both seamless and accessible.
Equally terrific songs include "Picture of the Sun," "Mouths to Feed," and "Right On," all single-worthy in their own ways. The obvious standout, though, is "Head in the Fire." It's the opposite of the other songs -- simple and straightforward, with minimal instrumentation and vulnerable vocals -- but still equally intricate and well-crafted. The album's flaws clearly surface a bit towards the end. "Stand Up and Be Counted" is hotel lounge easy-listening at best, and "Tug of War," in which the first three-and-a-half minutes sounds like a bizarre remix of America's "A Horse with No Name," is flat-out confusing.
What the Epochs have in their favor is their distinct sound, blending beats and moods that'll make your head bob along in confusion at first, then in admirable acceptance. And if the hype follows through right, we'll be hearing a lot more of that sound in the future.
Viking Wizard Eyes, Wizard Full of Lies
I was really jaded about new music for a while. Over the last year, I kind of woke from my trance and realized that music now is not all bad. One of the bands that helped me come to this realization is Fake Problems' Viking Wizard Eyes, Wizard Full of Lies. I was set in my record rotation and didn't think I'd find any new bands that could compete, but these guys woke my ass up. They appeal to all the different genres I've been into over the years -- namely, punk, ska, folk, and rock. And the mix isn't obnoxious; it's just catchy enough. All the parts add to the other ones. Chris Farren's vocals are reminiscent of Brendan Kelley in Slapstick and appeal to my nostalgic side.
This 7-inch is their followup to an amazing full-length debut and existential concept album, How Far Our Bodies Go. On Viking Wizard Eyes, Wizard Full of Lies they bring the fun but don't lack on lyrical content at all. Fake Problems will have your toes-a-tappin', and you'll be humming the songs even after the record stops spinning. This is a three-song release, with two on the first side and one on the second, and each side is solid and should get equal spin treatment. They returned to Rob McGregor (Hot Water Music, Against Me!, that whole "Gainesville Sound") to record this one, which isn't surprising since Fake Problems hails from Naples, Florida.
Definitely a good addition to your 7-inch collection. I'm looking forward to a new full-length and hoping they can make room on a tour for a Houston show this year, which shouldn't be a problem considering how much this band tours.
Initial response: um, what? I've caught snatches of Goldfrapp over the past several years, alternately lulled into a Brave New World coma by the '50s sci-fi lounge stylings and thrilled by the bumping, grinding robo-sex of "Strict Machine," and now...this? Pastoral, delicate, hazy-summer-day orchestral folkiness, with nary a robotic thump or warbly synth in sight. At first blush, Seventh Tree is slow, slow, slow to the point of near-somnolence. The first time I listened to the disc, barreling down the highway in the car, I very nearly chucked the damn thing out the window -- it practically put me to sleep behind the wheel.
In quieter surroundings later on, though, I put on the headphones, gave it a second try, and discovered that Seventh Tree is absolutely a headphones-required affair. It's the only way to do it, honestly; the music's layered beyond belief, and casual listening on car stereo speakers doesn't really do it justice. Despite my initial disillusionment, as well, this is an electronic album like the rest of the band's oeuvre -- it's just that rather than crafting dancefloor anthems or sly James Bond themes, Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory have instead gone organic, with a set of warm, pretty, supremely inviting, earth-toned bits of downtempo folk-jazz (although yes, the ghost of Felt Mountain does indeed peek its head out, on "Cologne Cerrone Houdini").
It helps, I'm finding, if I think of Seventh Tree as the sunny-side answer to fellow electronica refugee Beth Gibbons' Out of Season project. There's the same subtle jazz vocal influence, the same melding of electronics with real-live folk instrumentation and rhythms; heck, on the sublime "Eat Yourself," Goldfrapp's voice takes on a cracking, vulnerable sound that nears Gibbons'. Where Out of Season invites you to open your veins out back under the old oak tree, however, Seventh Tree wants you out in the sunlight, dancing and swaying gently in fields of tall grass. Take, for example, the Beatlesque "Happiness" or the grandiose, beautiful "Little Bird," which is seriously reminiscent of the Chemical Brothers' Surrender -- both are bright and smiling and warm like a beautiful day in summer.
It's that sunshiny-ness that makes this album work, in the end. The lugubriousness I cursed on the first listen's still there even with the headphones, but it becomes less boring and sleep-inducing and more cheery and hypnotic. The quiet sucks you in, especially on a track like "Some People," which starts with only Goldfrapp's voice underscored by minimal piano and strings, and makes absolute sure you're actually listening both when she dives into an impressive falsetto and when she promises, "What you thought you lost / was just mislaid." Despite being nothing like anything I've ever heard from this band 'til now, the song just drops me where I stand. Same goes for the nicely Imogen Heap-ish "A&E," which is probably the closest to a dancefloor seduction track the band gets this time out.
Good as they are, though, they're nothing compared to the full-on body blow of "Caravan Girl" -- it's sassy and speedy and melodic with gorgeous, gorgeous vocals and wonderful synths, and it's just about a pitch-perfect pop song, I swear to God. It's like an ABBA song as covered by Feist, all light and fire and unashamed adoration, a song about just taking a girl's hand and running away to somewhere the two of you can be alone, on your own, and never coming back. Any lingering doubts I had about Goldfrapp and Seventh Tree are gone, gone, gone, and they ain't coming back. I get it now -- Goldfrapp and Gregory really can do any damn thing they want. Wow.
The Gutter Twins
I'm sorely tempted to milk a well-worn cliché and call this a marriage made in Hell, but not only is that trite and overdone, it doesn't really do justice to Saturnalia, the much-anticipated collaboration between two of rock's rawest-yet-most-charismatic frontmen, Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli. At first blush, the pairing of the two feels like it's probably fueled more by a shared history of tangles with booze, drugs, and almost-made-it superstardom, but that overlooks the fact that the duo's been working together since 2000 or so in various incarnations. From even a cursory listen to Saturnalia, it becomes apparent that Dulli and Lanegan have gotten real comfortable with one another artistically.
The music, though, is honestly more Dulli than Lanegan, harking back at several points to Black Love-era Afghan Whigs, except that this time the gospel-party punch has been spiked with bad acid and everybody's started freaking out. And really, that's not a bad thing. It's gloomy, murky, and dangerous, like a long, weird night spent with shifty characters when you're not sure you've got a way out; they could well cut your throat and leave you dead in a gutter somewhere, but if they don't, it's bound to be a night to remember. This is like Dulli's long-held vision of the Whigs' sound all gone horribly, jaw-droppingly wrong.
The tension starts with the dark, threatening "The Stations," where Lanegan's throaty growl establishes that the two mean serious business, and burns hotter and deeper on through the swaggering, almost funky "God's Children," where Dulli feels like he's alternately beckoning and warning you away. "All Misery/Flowers" is thundering and near-religious, with Lanegan sounding like a bad man come undone who's ready for forgiveness but not entirely prepared to repent. Things back off just a bit with "The Body," a sweeter, more delicate track featuring subtly cool guest vocals from Martina Topley-Bird, but then the Twins slam the whole thing home with "Idle Hands," Saturnalia's centerpiece and the holy-fuck moment of the disc.
The song's mean and menacing, starting off with oddly Eastern-sounding strings, distorted chanting, and Lanegan doing some kind of Tuvan throatsinging-esque hum before kicking the wall down with some raw, sleazy-ass metal guitar and drums. The damn thing just about demands that you pump your first in the air in full-on surrender to The Metal. Lanegan's low rasp works to absolute perfection here (as it does elsewhere on here, I should note), heightened by Dulli's higher-pitched nasal yelp and spookily atmospheric organ. It's grand and gorgeous and terrifying, all at once.
Seriously, I've heard quite a few bands lately who ostensibly make "scary" music, apparently influenced by too many horror flicks and too much eyeliner, but this album flat-out blows 'em all out of the water. It's genuinely unsettling, and in a good, can't-break-from-the-stare kind of way. By the time the end nears, with those freaky, siren-sounding guitars, fiery solo, and eerie organ reprise, I'm shaking my head in awestruck wonderment.
Thankfully, the Twins are no one-trick ponies. Even after I recover from whatever the hell just happened to my speakers (and my head), I'm still captivated by Saturnalia's darkly beguiling charms. Dulli steps back in, reassuring the listener that it's okay to, um, kill(?) him on "Circle the Fringes," Lanegan shifts into gospel for the mournful, hopeful "Who Will Lead Us?," even dropping the growl in favor of a more straight-ahead bluesy vocal key. And then there's "Seven Stories Underground," which manages to meld Tom Waits and Nick Cave with more gentle, softly pretty vocals from Lanegan, and "I Was in Love with You," which features some awesomely shimmering, Radiohead-esque guitars and is probably the best stalker-love song since "Every Breath You Take" -- taken together, the two tracks serve as a bit of a breather after all that dark, desperate shit.
And I can't speak for everybody, but I sure as hell need it. There's a definite weight to the music the Gutter Twins are making, here; it feels gritty and real and dangerous, a little uncomfortably close to a real-life encounter with the dark side of reality. I keep thinking of the surreal walk-on-the-bad-side parts of Training Day, where Denzel Washington's character leads Ethan Hawke's righteous Boy Scout cop into Hell, a twisted, homicidal Virgil showing off the seedy underbelly only to try to have his metaphorical Dante whacked. There's a lot of sin, sin, sin here to revel in, dangerous though it might be.
The really weird thing is that, well, I like it. If Dulli and Lanegan came calling late one night, offering to drag me off to some urban nether realm, would I go, even after hearing Saturnalia? Yeah. Yeah, I think I would. Either I'm more of a voyeur than I'd guessed, or there's something out there in the dark that appeals to all of us, somewhere deep in our souls. Somewhere down there, maybe we all secretly want to run into the hellhounds out there in the black night.
His Name is Alive
Sweet Earth Flower: a Tribute to Marion Brown
His Name is Alive has released music in a lot of different styles over the years, but new album Sweet Earth Flower breaks new ground for the group: free jazz. On the album, the band plays music by Marion Brown, a somewhat forgotten saxophonist who performed and recorded with John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Pharaoh Sanders, as well as recording a few albums of his own. Warn Defever, the longtime leader of HNIA, recruited members of Nomo and Antibalas for the recording, and his approach to the music respects the original songs while bringing them up to date.
The music runs the range from Ayleresque anthems to hard bop to African music, all boiled down to their essence. The most distinctive piece here is "Capricorn Moon," which has a catchy, African-influenced hard-boppish melody. It uses an afrobeat feel which complements the melody perfectly. If it wasn't conceived of that way, it certainly could be. It's also a natural for the band, which eats the song up.
Their approach on the studio version of "Sweet Earth Flying" is also interesting. The song opens with the band playing a drone that lasts for the first half of the song and mutates very slowly. It's more minimal than you hear in most jazz -- it's almost like Tony Conrad, or electronic music. And the feedback in "Bismillahi 'Rrahmani 'Rrahim" and distorted guitar in the live "Geechee Recollections" give the music a different feel from most jazz offerings.
You'd ordinarily be worried any time a rock musician takes on jazz ("Jazz Odyssey," anyone?). Defever's outsourcing of musicians who are familiar with jazz was wise, however -- because of this, the album is as enjoyable as it is heartfelt. It's a joyous tribute worthy of a visionary jazz artist.
There Came A Lion
Ivoryline's new Tooth And Nail label release, There Came A Lion, is their full-album debut, underscored by the success of a previous EP and over two years of extensive touring. Based in Tyler, Texas, Ivoryline features Jeremy Gray (vocals), Scott Socia (guitar), Dusty Kittle (guitar), Robert Woodward (bass), and Wes Hart (drums). This largely undiscovered quintet from the Lone Star State was fortuitously launched into more prominent view after being included in the Vans Warped Tour in 2006. The group prides itself on creating music simply for the love of music itself. In this vein, Lion seeks to portend, rather than pretend, the sincerity of the band's honest approach toward reproducing their musical impressions among the droves of listeners now being drawn more increasingly to their art.
As a collection, the album is a thoroughly relentless release of high level energy. The pace hardly lets up at all, as song after song of crafty guitaring, pounding rhythms, and attention-grabbing vocals weave their way pervasively through a set of rock-patterned anthems to form a combined fabric of pretty uniform texturing. The only odd-man-out selection is the last track, appropriately entitled "The Last Words," a beautifully melodic piece that could have rather served as a mid-set cut to break-up the prevailing drive of the remainder of the album.
You don't have to get very far into the album before you realize that not only do the band members love rock music, but they also seem particularly wedded to the power pop/pop-punk sub-genre style. They've pretty much wrapped themselves completely around this solitary musical area, almost formulaically so. Now, whether that's a great thing or a terrible thing will largely depend upon whether you like a good bit of versatility or experimentation out of a band. Personally, I have to give them substantial credit for their ability to do a fantastic job of doing that one thing very well...even though it may indeed be but one encapsulated thing. As far as this isolated page of the script goes, they've certainly dotted every "i" and crossed every "t." Maybe they were just playing it safe. Maybe not. Whatever the case may be, as a full-fledged maiden voyage, this emphasis has definitely worked for them. The collection succeeds in standing on its own merits, and contains some very interesting moments.
One of the stand-out features of this album is Jeremy Gray's vocals. They consistently cut through to the forefront with vivacity and passion. Combined with backing vocals, Ivoryline produces some of the most atmospherically expansive and explosively melodic harmonies I've heard recently. The complimentary buoyancy created between vocals, guitar riffs, and percussion attacks is stylishly sophisticated and comes across quite succinctly in the final pan mix.
Every single track is a viable offering, with no throwaways. The influences range from Jimmy Eat World to a harder-hitting U2 or the chops of a much more melodious Green Day. There are also many musical allusions to sub-genre partner Anberlin and lead vocalist Stephen Christian.
My picks for selected cuts are "All You Ever Hear," with its metaphorical heads-up on listening only to enticing liars outside your window, "Bravery," a harder-rocking tune that explores the ironic element of courage inherent in leaving, and "Parade," a rite-of-passage celebration for new starts, set to double-picking guitar arpeggios, stimulating drum syncopation, and revved-up vocals. My personal favorite is "Be Still And Breathe," which combines great switching high-hat and snare quadrupling with very memorable vocal harmonies and lyrics. The acappella intro and hooky words and tune really set the song apart from the pack. This song also soared to #1 on the Radio & Records Christian Rock National Airplay charts (a regular Tooth And Nail touchstone) within three weeks of the album's release.
Though I haven't heard the band live, I have read at least a couple of enthusiastic reviews giving them special mention in large, multi-band lineup shows. If this lends any credence to the idea that their live performances are on par with their studio work, then Ivoryline might very well be an excellent band to catch live when they pass through your area.
[Ivoryline is playing 4/6/08 at Warehouse Live, with Family Force 5, The Myriad, & The Maine.]
The early 2000s saw an influx saw a huge influx of emocore bands anxiously awaiting their chance to make it in the indie club circuit, which begs the question: do we really need one more? Seattle's The Johnbenders thinks "Yes!" with their second EP.
The opening track, "Nine Pound Hammer," begins with a familiar sound: dissonant, siren-esque leads and quick, muffled rhythm overlaying a quick and percussive bass part. Vocalist Mark wails, "To work for it / To suffer it / No fleeting facts of redemption / So don't even try to say you were there," in a voice that channels a Joe Strummer-infused Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio. Pretty straightforward stuff; however, keyboardist Nate's part lingers in the background, playing in parallel with Mark and giving a peek at what's to come. "Thirteen Lights" brings in more of the keyboard, taking a cue from the late '80s with an intro that would make Tears for Fears proud. The track continues the "strum only on the downbeat" pattern seen in "Nine Pound Hammer," while infusing a bit of New Wave-inspired keyboards. It's not a horrible song by any standard, but it wouldn't make it in my regular music rotation.
"Dissolution," the final track of the EP, is where the band changes pace and replaces their emo sound with darker New Wave pop. Easily their best track, the Johnbenders almost effortlessly sprinkle British electronica keyboards over the harder emocore sound. Unlike the previous tracks, which allow you to disconnect your emotions and listen, "Dissolution" engages you and makes decide whether you love or hate the song. My only complaint is that the fusion of post-hardcore rock and electronica blend effortlessly in the verses but loses its cohesion during the chorus.
It's a bit hard to judge a band from an EP, but I'll give credit to the Johnbenders for trying to explore as many genres as they can in three short tracks. I'm unsure whether or not to recommend this CD to anyone, because there are better emocore bands and better electronica bands out there -- however, there are very few bands that fuse the sounds together. The style might translate and develop better on a full-length CD, but for now I'm honestly undecided.
Over the last several years, there have been a growing number of instrumental bands whose musical vision is focused on gorgeous ambient melodies, hypnotic chords, and intense musical progressions. These bands create stories woven not with words, but with the union of instruments that mesh together to sing tales of desire, passion, and sadness. With so many established ambient rock bands already out in the world, novice bands really need to step things up to stay ahead of the curve. Bands like Pennsylvania-based La Brea have to constantly and consistently keep their music groundbreaking, beautiful, and different. Although La Brea hasn't been around long, it's already showing a great deal of promise for such a young band. The band's self-titled release is a surprisingly mature compilation of songs that place an exquisite blend of traditional instrumentation against less organic electronic rhythms. The fusion of sounds results in songs like "Reign of the Idiot God" that ebb and flow through layer upon layer of melodic complexity. Each instrument floats on top of the next, maintaining its unique sound until they all collapse into a vivid, harmonious pile of instrumental fury. La Brea is hope that young musicians have what it takes to move independent music to new heights.
Those that have been missing the power ballad and anthem-rock sound that has been MIA since the mid-'90s will undoubtedly find their fix with The Millions' sophomore release, Disrespectfully Yours. It delivers almost a sugary-sweet injection of upbeat hard rock. The edgier and more modern sounds on the album manage not to overshadow the happy rock target at which the Millions aim and keep the group from being a direct offshoot of bands like Poison and Bon Jovi. Be forewarned, though: the "hard" part is very subtle, and it is impossible to be in a bad mood while listening to this album. The foundation of this Chicago band is the twin guitars of Johnny Million and Dan "The Fox" Edwards, who're backed by drummer Kip Serena and bassist Christopher Grey.
The lilting hook on "We're Through" is downright "pretty," to use a word that is not generally in my vocabulary. "Island of You" is the quintessential power ballad that runs in the vein of Def Leppard, and "Stay Down" actually starts out a little harder, with a pluckier guitar opener, before quickly falling back to the happy-go-lucky, "I'm stronger than your suppression and will rise again," poppy metal/rock optimism. This is not a bad thing, considering that the sound the band sets out achieve is heavily memorable harmonizing hooks. Mission accomplished...
I'm not going to ruin the CD for you by doing a play-by-play of each of the 13 tracks, but if you're a fan of '80s and early '90s rock, you'll love Disrespectfully Yours. The more you play it, the more it tends to grow on you....damn those hooks.
The only downside to the album, if you can call it a downside, is that there is virtually no difference in the speed of the songs, and it's easy for them to blend into each other rather than stand significantly on their own. Otherwise, Disrespectfully Yours is well-produced and ready for radio play. The arena rock sound combined with dueling guitars, heavy kick drums, and those big harmonizing hooks is the recipe for success that allows The Millions to stand out among the other anthem-rock bands.
Parts and Labor
How do you feel about your day job? Yeah, I thought so. The Austin band Paperwork makes a musical dissection of the dull anguish felt by so many in cube farms across the world. Just peer over the cube at your huddled-over co-worker, working away their adult life -- clacking on the keyboard, shuffling paper, emailing, and someday retiring with a grand retirement party at the local buffet restaurant. What happened to those dreams, man? (Side note: I always love those Bring Your Kid to Work Days, watching high schoolers find out how boring their parents' jobs are. Aren't those days supposed to inspire kids?)
Well, the band Paperwork is hanging onto their dreams, working away at the day job just to get a chance to create some music in their off hours. Paperwork's debut full-length, Parts and Labor, plots the band's revolt against the nine-to-five-grind while commiserating in the harsh reality of it. The music is standard alt-indie-rock fare but very calculated, with no loose ends or reckless noise. The vocals are well done by both of the band's primary singers, and there are some nice mathy beats and rhythms, as well. I guess you could call it post-college rock; err, um, grad-school rock with lyrics to get you thinking a bit.
Take the song "Company Man," for example; Paperwork sings, "Put away your childish things / Isn't it enough to have had a dream?", and then they end the song with, "I'm giving in / I'm not giving up." On the track "Accts Receivable," however, there's a hopelessness: "I blink away days at a time / Waking dreams by fluorescent light." And the disc goes on like that, one song getting discouraged by what seems like just wasted time ("Buried in Layers") and then the next song revving up the energy and not allowing the day job to be all that defines you ("Part and Parcel")...check out Paperwork if you find yourself thinking about such things.
Arm Your Weapons
The press release warns that partlycloudy threatens to dethrone The Ramones and The Clash. That press release should be destroyed. First of all, musically, why would this progressive rock band change any kind of history that The Clash and The Ramones have given us? And even if they were in the same category of sound, the legacies of those two bands don't have much to worry about. This self-released debut album, Arm Your Weapons, seems a bit overproduced, especially when the band attempts to give off a "defiant hardcore" attitude.
The sound is a little bit like Snapcase, but for some reason this effort doesn't do much for me. Even the name "partlycloudy" seems so forced (and then, come to find out, their Myspace is filed under "PartlyCloudyRocks"). It seems like the band is trying to scream out how dark, hardcore, and serious they are, but they can't quite make all the synapses come together in the way they want. Fans of Hawthorne Heights and the like might be into this, though. If they can just tone everything down a little bit, like press and production, they would have a better chance of fitting into the whole nu-Victory-emo sound -- I'm guessing that's what they're after.
Consolers of the Lonely
The cover of Consolers of the Lonely, the much-anticipated followup LP from the Raconteurs, is some black-and-white job with the group posed as some turn of the 20th century group of minstrels, or maybe as some saloon stand-ins. This is obvious foreshadowing of the banjos, fiddles, horns, and grind-organs you will find here. Personally, I think there's an embarrassing amount of horns on this record, but I think it's balanced out by the weirder prog-rock elements.
The first two cuts are full-on rockers which generously utilize Jack White's White Stripes-style yipping vocal delivery. I sense the Raconteurs are flirting with ideas much more complicated than the settings on their effects pedals. "Old Enough" is a powdered mixture of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and some sort of mountain/bluegrass/hillbilly parade, all pulsing organ stabs with fiddles and plucking banjos. The songs with such flirtations never seem to fully commit themselves one way or the other, however. Rather, there seems to be a slightly formulaic way of being "not-too-formulaic." Just when I get to feeling cozy, someone slams on the brakes.
"The Switch and the Spur" is molded into some sort of Mexicana/soundtrack from Hollywood's golden age (think old Zorro films). Blaring trumpets and dashes of flamenco-styled guitar. This track is 4:53 of pure awfulness. But hey, you might like that brand of madness. Songs like "Attention," "Hold On," and "Rich Kid Blues," on the other hand, have all the fun, urgency, and/or solid pop backbone to really sell me. In fact, I wish more songs were like these. Likewise, "Many Shades of Black," in its simplicity and melody, has a timelessness that I'm intrigued by. Or maybe it's because of the strange sounds lingering around the solo.
With a 14-track album, things can get a bit testy. Consolers is certainly not my favorite release this year, but it does have some really outstanding cuts and is pretty easy to get along with. Much like their debut effort, the album's an interesting mix of sounds and textures that proves that this is not some Jack White-only show, nor does it attempt to duplicate itself. So, if you don't like the direction the music's heading, don't worry -- things will turn around in a second or two. Well played, boys.
Scott Reynolds & The Steaming Beast
I won't pretend to have known much about Scott Reynolds before listening to Adventure Boy, his solo debut as Scott Reynolds & The Steaming Beast. Upon doing a bit of research, however, I discovered that Mr. Reynolds has quite a rich punk rock past. Reynolds began his musical career in 1989 fronting All, a punk rock act comprised of members of the legendary punk band Descendents. Between '89 and '92, Reynolds released four albums with All and then split with the group over artistic differences. From there he went on to form two pop-punk bands, Goodbye Harry and the Pavers, both bands gaining cult followings and both now seemingly defunct.
This brings us to his newest and current project, Scott Reynolds & The Steaming Beast. Well, he's also currently in a band called the Bonesaw Romance. And another band called 40 Engine. But we're here to talk Adventure Boy, his album as Scott Reynolds & The Steaming Beast, so let's get back to that.
One of the best things to be said of the Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev)-produced Adventure Boy is that Reynolds is trying something new here. While his other work never strays too far from the pop-punk formula, Adventure Boy is something of an eclectic country album that only hints at his punk predispositions, although they still do peek through from time to time. "Eclectic," is a double-edged sword here, though. "Tracy Hardman's Cheek" is a saccharine pop gem that will undoubtedly get stuck in your head after a few listens. The songs harmonies sound effortlessly catchy, and the sunny instrumentation and bouncing drum beat are perfect accompaniment for a song about puppy love.
On the other hand, "Jesus, Satan, Gene Beeman, His Car, and Pizza Hut" is a song as weird as its title suggests. The song tells the tale of Gene Beeman, a man who shrugs off encounters with both Jesus and Satan and then goes to Pizza Hut for "a Dr. Pepper and a mushroom pizzone." The song's lyrics sound even more silly when sung over music fitted for an arcade game. Similarly, "Scaffold Lick" is a pretty instrumental whose pensive piano arrangement suggests a songwriter more talented than the same one who wrote the album's throwaway track, palm-muted rocker "Line Check."
Adventure Boy features several guest musicians, such as Suburban Home labelmates Drag the River and members of Reynolds' band the Bonesaw Romance. Reynolds seems to be at his best, however, when musical virtuoso and member of the Flaming Lips Steven Drozd is in the mix. Drozd plays on four of the album's tracks, "Tracy Hardman's Cheek," the unfortunate "Gene Beeman," "The Boy Who Stole Your Heart," and "The Truth Teller's Soul." Exclude "Gene Beeman" from the list, and you have the album's best songs. "The Boy Who Stole Your Heart"'s pitter-pattering snare brushes and sparse but effective organ and guitar are the perfect soundtrack for lyrics that lament unrequited love. "The Truth Teller's Soul"'s fuzzy, chirping synthesizers and bare acoustic strums make for a nice contrast and satisfying album closer.
In a way, Adventure Boy is a gift to Reynolds, both from the people who helped make the album possible and from Scott Reynolds himself. In the album's liner notes, Reynolds says that he didn't pay a "red cent" towards making the record and thanks those appearing on the album for helping him "remove and catalogue these slivers of inspiration which have, for too long, remained agonizingly embedded in my spirit." It would be wise of Reynolds to work with Fridmann and Drozd in the future, as the three clearly have chemistry. If future collaborations between them bear more moments like "Tracy Hardman's Cheek," Reynolds may just get the recognition as a songwriter that has eluded him thus far. For right now, though, Adventure Boy is an album made for the maker that has too few moments the rest of us can enjoy.
P.S. Adventure Boy comes packaged with a sample disk from label Suburban Home Records.
The Ruby Suns
Though I can't quite put my finger on it, there's something about Sea Lion's packaging and artwork that perfectly fits the album's sound. Kudos to artist Amee Kathryn for accomplishing (let alone even attempting) this feat in an age where the MP3 is sadly making album art irrelevant.
What is it, though, that makes the artwork adorning the Ruby Suns' second full-length record so appropriate? Is it that the vivid colors used on the album's case seem to mirror the colorful Pacific and African sounds that paint Sea Lion's forty-plus minutes? Maybe it's that the collage of images adorning the outside of the album's booklet remind me of the collage of sounds and Dictaphone tape recordings that string together Sea Lion's ten tracks. Or it could be that the psychedelic lettering used in the artwork reflects the band's psych-pop leanings.
Really, it's a combination of all of these things that make Sea Lion's artwork so fitting, just as it's the combination of inspiration from psychedelic and pop acts past and present that make the New Zealand-based Ruby Suns such a fun and intriguing listen. The joyfulness and symphonic grandeur of the Polyphonic Spree, the sporadic energy of Animal Collective, the experimental attitude of Os Mutantes, the harmonies of the Beach Boys, and the world music dabbling of Paul Simon are all present in the Ruby Suns' music on Sea Lion. Chief songwriter Ryan Mcphun infuses these influences with his own style, however, obscuring them from the listener and celebrating the result.
The festivities begin with "Blue Penguin," a track whose distant reverberated vocals and easy sway sound like a sleepy morning that finds the suns rays slowly peeking over the horizon. The following track, "Oh, Mojave," shakes the grogginess away with sunny Hawaiian melodies, cheerful handclaps, and dancing percussion. "Tane Mahuta," the most distinctly New Zealand-sounding song (it's sung in the Maori language) begins with clanking, tribal-sounding percussion that leads to flamenco guitar riffs and mariachi horns. "There Are Birds," written and sung by Ruby Sun Amee Robinson, continues to show the band's fascination with '80s synth-pop, featuring the same drum machine sound and airy synthesizers as "Give Advice," which appears both on 2007's Lichen Ears EP and (oddly) in abridged form tacked onto the end of Sea Lion's finale "Morning Sun."
"Adventure Tour" is pure solar energy, with bright 12-string guitar strums and thumping toms in the distance that sound like a timer ticking away the seconds until the song will explode, only rather than an explosion the listener is treated to the space launch of "Kenya Dig It." "Kenya's" otherworldly synth notes and climbing flangers make it feel as if the song is heading toward outer space, and eventually you're looking back down at the Earth with the band as thunderous drums and sunny reverb-drenched vocal lines are traded between singers in one of the album's most satisfying moments.
The Ruby Suns' music borrows greatly from like-minded contemporaries and predecessors, of course -- all songwriters have influences, and these influences will always show up in the music. The line between being derivative and innovative is a thin one, and what keeps bands on the right side is what Ryan Mcphun has done with Sea Lion: drawing selectively and conservatively from a broad spectrum. In doing so, The Ruby Suns are developing a sound that in another album or so will be distinctly their own. For now, the band has a great sophomore album under its belt that shines as brightly as the sun.
[The Ruby Suns are playing 4/16/08 at The Mink, with Scout Niblett, Throw Me The Statue, Elaine Greer, & Sew What.]
When I'm looking over the lists to find a new record to snag for a review, not a lot ever pops up in the Dub/Reggae section. In fact, it's usually completely vacant. So, when something did finally show up, I grabbed it because, frankly, I like dub. It's a dying style, but it's not without it virtues. And, yes, I'll be honest, "Shangoband" just sounds way to cool to pass up.
While I'm not blown away, I wasn't all that disappointed, either. Wise Shepherd shows these guys have been around the dub block before; they know the routine. They can sink into a groove just like old-school. The lyrics seem to reflect a sincere immersion in the beliefs historically associated with reggae -- Englishman and company really wish you would all stop fighting and just get the hell along. Okay, he's a little more graceful than that. And I think we could use some of that these days. Maybe we should just relax a little bit, okay? And maybe enjoy something every now and again.
The real shame about this record is the production. Rather than stay true to the old school, Shangoband slips into the smooth-jazz trap, with super-artificial keys and programmed drums that ultimately reflect no soul. While lyrically and vocally they deliver sincerity, it's hard to take seriously when that's backed by such sterile instrumentation. A lo-fi analog run with that "live-in-studio-feel" would really serve their purpose with a much higher degree of soul and passion.
While driving my usual commute to school, I was fumbling around trying to find a suitable radio station -- or at least one that wasn't depressing country -- when I remembered about a little college radio station and automatically veered to it. After several minutes of interesting music, this nauseating song spilled from my speakers. Although it was entirely in French, its diabetic pop energy immediately piqued my interest. Despite my four years of French classes, I was overwhelmed by the fast lyrics, which left me with only a few decipherable words to aid me in the search for the band that birthed such a song. With the help of Google, I found out it was by those experts of the chanson, Françoise Cactus and Brezel Göring, who make up the eccentric pop group Stereo Total.
They've been around for years, with plenty of productions to boast, and have brought us lo-fi poppy song after lo-fi poppy song, continuing to do so with Paris-Berlin. The songs range from a song about a sexual revolution to a repetitive song about the infamous terrorist Patty Hearst to one about nonsensical chewing gum. Expect some name-dropping of dead rock stars in the song, "KÜSSE AUS DER HÖLLE DER MUSIK," although I'm sure that none of those mentioned would approve. Most of you won't understand the album, since the majority of the songs are in French, German, or a mixture of the two. Alas, do not fret, because there are a couple of songs in English and there's always freetranslation.com. Do a quick translation, and Brezel and Françoise expose us to their lack of creativity in lyrical style, already evident in their English songs, by repeating the same phrase over and over.
Such an album might impress virgin ears but will sound like regurgitated songs with different song titles to those who've heard Stereo Total before. Cactus's phony, youthful vocals will irritate the listener, especially since she's on almost all of the tracks. Göring, not to be outdone, will creep you out with his cavernous voice. This album is not a breath of fresh air but the recycling of pop hooks and the repackaging of them into a weird, offbeat list of songs that make no sense. Their band's energy remains a constant in this album, but it seems a little repetitive and boring now. If I had known things would turn out this way earlier, I would've quickly changed the radio dial.
Sun Kil Moon
Mark Kozelek's sound has become his language, the way he sets himself apart from emulation and the derivatives that seem so common these days. It typically takes three chords to recognize a song as being a Sun Kil Moon composition, and there is a comfort in that, something like warm marshmallows eaten under a pine tree in November or half-drunk conversations with friends on a Sunday. Something simple, something nostalgically longed-for -- this is the feeling of a Sun Kil Moon song.
And no other band or musician I can think of can do it with as much consistency and ease as can Kozelek. He's always given us transcendentally simple yet enigmatically literary songs (think David Mitchell writing narratives about the landscapes of New Jersey, if he would ever do such a thing, which is he probably wouldn't, but still...) that beg for a re-listen, and this, his third release under the moniker Sun Kil Moon (which is just him, basically), is no different.
April is actually only the second original Sun Kil Moon record (not including Tiny Cities, Kozelek's take on Modest Mouse), and it's a perfect extension of the hypnotism found on his first release, Ghosts of the Great Highway. There is something different about these songs, though -- they're much more epic, much more lilting, and much more mature. On first listen, April does not have as much immediacy as Ghosts; no longer, it seems, is Kozelek trying to construct radio-friendly singles that will find a large audience (think back to a time you heard a Sun Kil Moon song played on the radio...yeah, they're not, and Kozelek is starting to realize that, and his songs are all the better because of it). These songs sound like they go together narratively -- the disparate feel of Ghosts can't be found here, and that makes this record one that gets better with each listen.
The record grabs you with the very first song, "Lost Verses," a ten-minute jaunt through the dreamscape of emotional defeatism; it reads as an ethereal love letter to the ghosts that reside in Kozelek's sometimes tragic imagination. Kozelek is a storyteller, and his stories are original pieces of emotional relatability -- there seems to be a bit of all of us in each of his songs, which is what has made him a cultish figure in the indie-pop zeitgeist (if there is such a zeitgeist).
Each song on April seems to play off the one before it -- "The Light" and "Lucky Man" follow the lead of "Lost Verses" by drawing the listener into a place of seemingly recognizable lyrical and musical amenity (as found on Ghosts), only to push them to the brink of irrevocable discomfort by the time "Heron Blue" starts. "Moorsetown" sounds like a B-side from Ghosts and acts as the climax of the album before "Harper Road" gives the audience hope that maybe Sun Kil Moon is turning optimistic (no one but Mark Kozelek can make the line "I'll always find you stretched out like an orange tabby" sound so relevant), only to end with two songs that sound like twilight, "Tonight in Bilbao" and "Blue Orchids."
With the brilliantly multi-layered April, Mark Kozelek is putting himself firmly into the picture of artists that matter, and not a minute too soon.
Sometimes It Will
Honestly, Vopat's Sometimes It Will is actually a beautiful album, and it stays surprisingly interesting for a collection of Explosions In The Sky-esque instrumental ambient-rock movements. In fact, some songs even stray into darker -- but still strikingly pretty -- dissonance-filled numbers reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins or Sonic Youth.
Not many can write a slew of four- or more minute instrumental songs with no solos but still manage to keep it interesting, but Vopat does it. All the transitions from one section of the songs to another section were timed perfectly to avoid being repetitive; I just really dig this album.
Normally I wouldn't support the metallic, bare-bones drum programming throughout Sometimes It Will, but with the wall of distortion and slicing leads just made it work, and the use of smaller interludes to segue larger pieces had everything flowing beautifully into one another in a way i can only liken to, as cheesy as this may sound, the sea. To further this metaphor, sections and melodies rise and crash gently into one another in grand crescendos and then periodically calm, although never enough to become placid.
The album registered more to me as a score than as an album, because it wasn't just a collection of thoughts but more of a progression or exodus from one place to another. I would suggest driving to this album; you'll feel like you're in a car commercial, but perhaps a really epic car commercial, where maybe Gandalf's in the passenger seat and you're driving maybe The Millennium Falcon.
The last track ventures into this creepy region of music that itself at times ventures close to a Latin sound, featuring this almost flamenco-esque breakdown with a pretty sweet lead line. As an outro for the album: genius move.
I think that's all I can really say...it was really good. Also, in closing, this CD was ten tracks long, and just so the world knows, that is a really good number for tracks on an album. Eight, nine, ten, eleven -- that's the ticket. Don't give 13 or 14, give me ten, like Vopat.
Destroy The Wall Street Sundial
Joshua Geissler, the lone member of Worrytrain, has created an electronic orchestral sound bereft of words that is powerful and raucous yet at the same time delicate and reserved. Geissler's third album, Destroy The Wall Street Sundial, denotes this beautifully -- with its roaring waves of crescendos and decrescendos, it embodies the movement of emotions. The twelve tracks on this album are enriched with dark, massive, heavy downbeats whilst sprinkled with fragile mandolin strumming that shows the depth and layered technicality rooted in the ambience/experimental genre. Unlike similar artists, you can listen to this effortlessly and never feel overwhelmed or bored because of the lack of lyrics. I don't know what kind of beef Geissler has with Wall Street, but it's as if he is channeling the ups and downs of the market and its ultimate destruction through his music. Too analytical? Perhaps, but that's the beauty of instrumental music and Worrytrain.
Cheesy guitar solos, nauseating high-octave boy vocals followed by non-sequitur lyrics and electro-manic music is what embodies spastic quartet ZibraZibra. Those things are not necessarily positive, yet the band uses these qualities to make themselves annoyingly endearing.
Why can't I help but feel like I just walked into the self-indulgent '80s, with all its fluorescent pop glory, while listening to these guys? Is this one of those fake bands that make up horrible songs yet exude charm that you can't help but adore? I can't pinpoint it, but they're crafty.
T Kid Z, Vanilla, The Atomic Wolf, and Technosaurus Flex formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they recently graduated from high school, which is crazy, but what's crazier is that they've only been playing for a year and a few months. Their sound is contradictory, with its fragile hooks and erratic sense of time. These guys know what they're doing -- or, at least, know how to play it off as such.
777 is ZibraZibra's second full length album (End of the Lion being their first), and is probably their weirdest by far. They dabble in a little old school hip-hop on the song "Kiss Kids," along with '80s synth-driven pop, corny metal, manic electro, and anything you could think of. With peculiar lyrics like, "Touch, touch my body with your fingertips and salty hands," to childishly calling someone a "butterfinger face" to a seizure-inducing ode to the quintessential arcade games of years past, one can't really seem to take them seriously, but I don't think that's what they're aiming for.
They're not trying to be groundbreaking -- they're aiming to invade and disorientate all your senses with laser sounds and out-of-tune vocals. Their main objective is to play loud and fast and irritate you in the process. Mission accomplished.