No, this wasn't what I was expecting to hear coming from a bunch of guys who've made their names playing raw, punkish garage-rock in bands like The Monocles and American Sharks. The guitars are thick and "round"-sounding and bluesy, the sound's warm and inviting, and singer Mike Hardin's vocals are confident and in-your-face. Put together, Bolt come up with a flamboyant, brash, almost theatrical chunk of '70s throwback rock, a cross between the boogie parts of the Rocky Horror soundtrack, The White Stripes (particularly the stomping groove of "The Man Who Couldn't Save the World") and, weirdest of all, Bowie.
"Hot Saturday Night" is the boozy roller of the pair, a song that sounds like it could've been playing on the hi-fi in the background of Dazed and Confused -- it's like a long, wild, warm night (duh) spent partying with your buds, just having fun and not giving a shit about the rest, even though you're due back at school in a month or two and you all know it. B-side "The Man Who Couldn't Save the World," though, is the one that really grabs me, more over-the-top and deliberate, sounding like the Thin White Duke could've easily written it himself (and the song title's maybe-unconscious nod to "The Man Who Sold the World" doesn't hurt). When singer Mike Hardin declares "We were born -- oh, baby, we were born!", I swear, I feel it.
The weirdest part is that if you were to describe this little two-song EP to me, I'd probably chuckle and shake my head -- nah, no way. I can't help it, though; put it on for two minutes, and the rest of the day, I'm singing along under my breath. The key, I think, is that there's not a trace of irony here; this is seriously retro-rock crafted by a bunch of guys who sound like they spent their formative years digging through their older brothers' record collections and loving every second of it.
[Bolt is playing 4/18/09 at Walter's on Washington, along with News on the March, The Eastern Sea, & The Tontons.]
Caught In Motion
On The Edge Of A Dream
Popular bands always influence up-and-coming musicians. For every Radiohead or Coldplay, there's a Starsailor or South to counter them -- bands that make decent music but that don't quite reach similar levels of success, for whatever reasons. Portland-based musicians Banah Graf and Sam Krulewitch, recording under the moniker Caught In Motion, seem aware of the pitfalls of relying too much on their influences. While On The Edge Of A Dream favors the piano-based songs that make up Chris Martin's sappier songs, Graf and Krulewitch know when to rein it in and make the songs their own. From the emo-y pop of "Blood Still Beats" to the funky "Drop The Ball Now" and dreamy "Once Again," Caught In Motion's ability to make dramatic music without being over-the-top makes On The Edge Of A Dream a refreshing alternative to the band's stadium-sized influences.
The Eastern Sea/News on the March
"The Sea"/"The March (If You Had Gone Away)"
Talk about a tailor-made release... Seeing as -- obviously -- the world naturally spins around yours truly, I'm halfway tempted to think these two bands, The Eastern Sea and News on the March, both of whom happen to be among my tip-top favorite things to listen to of the past year or so, heard I liked 'em both and decided to collaborate pretty much solely to make my day. And hey, if their joint efforts make other people's days, as well, then the more the merrier. Right?
Totally kidding, of course (my ego's not that big, thankfully), but damn, just seeing those two bands on the same piece of vinyl makes my heart do weird things and a manic grin creep across my face. I feel like the guy who puts a buck into the snack machine, presses the button for the oh-so-enticing bag of peanuts, and on the way down from its coiled-wire perch, the bag of peanuts catches on a chocolate bar and drags it down, too. Both are great on their own, but together they're out-and-out wonderful.
And not just theoretically, mind you. The Eastern Sea's half of the deal, "The Sea," is a surprisingly murky, dark piece of indie-pop experimentation, seemingly almost an ode to the ocean's power to wipe manmade structures off the face of the planet. Songwriter/frontman Matthew Hines hits the perfect note with one line, in particular: "We picked the wrong pig to put together our house / The one with the straw that always gets blown down."
The song starts off busy and apprehensive, quickly building to what sounds like it'll be a clashing crescendo, but abruptly shifts downwards to a delicate, somberly repetitive guitar figure, inexorable as the song's namesake and lending a weird heaviness to the proceedings. Fans of the band's self-titled EP may be thrown a bit off-balance by the track, honestly, since it eschews the pastoral, bright-and-shiny the band seems to use most of the time in favor of a corkscrewing, ever-falling melodic structure that brings to mind Radiohead's OK Computer more than anything else. Trust me, though -- it works, like Hines and company have been doing it forever.
As does the News on the March side of the EP, "The March (If You Had Gone Away)," which sees the band doing a beautifully organ-heavy, deliberate-sounding waltz 'round the room. It's a melancholy/pretty tune, swinging and slow and gorgeous, incorporating those awesome, awesome harmonies the band does so well (like nobody I've heard but maybe Fleet Foxes, really) to great effect and two dancers who used to be in love but aren't anymore twirl and step in perfect time.
There's a resigned bitterness to it all, the kind that comes at the end of a relationship, after the harsh words and slammed doors are done. The lyrics give it away, with the narrator giving an audible shrug as bassist/vocalist Brent Randel flatly sings, "It wouldn't matter / if you had gone away," all over a delightfully woozy melody that's like a ride spinning on its own in an empty, lonesome carnival. I doubt they planned it that way, but the two bands have managed to somehow meet in the middle, thematically -- while The Eastern Sea sings about how it feels to witness the death of a place, News on the March sing about how it feels to witness the death of a feeling.
[The Eastern Sea & News on the March are playing their 7" release show 4/18/09 at Walter's on Washington, along with The Tontons & Bolt.]
At the end of the day, I have to admit it's the accent that makes Fever Ray's self-titled debut so strangely, darkly alluring. Fever Ray everything-woman Karin Dreijer Andersson, who's made her name as half of oddball Swedish electro-pop duo The Knife, has that Scandinavian lilt to her high- (and low-, but I'll get to that) pitched voice and alien, decidedly non-English phrasing that makes everything she sings sound like it's coming out of the mouth of the eldritch Elf Queen of the Winter Court or something. Andersson's voice, when married to the brooding keys and beats she orchestrates beneath and around the words, turns what would probably end up being fairly bland electro tracks into some wholly Other.
Things get off to a promising start with "If I Had a Heart" and its throbbing bass tones and shifting, deep-sea murkiness, the bass providing both the anchor for the song and leading the melody, at the same time; it's a duet, of sorts, between Andersson's un-affected voice and a weirdly low, vocoder-like vocal that sounds surprisingly masculine but that I'm guessing is Andersson again, just run through some kind of distortion filter. The effect makes me think of the slowed-down sample of Horace Andy from Snooze's The Man in the Shadow, where Andy's voice sounded so rough and deep I didn't realize for years that the guy's voice is actually pretty damn high.
Second track "When I Grow Up" switches up quite a bit, with the "real" vocals taking center stage in a meandering, cracked, quasi-confessional ramble about, well, Andersson herself. It's not as bottom-of-the-ocean deep as the previous song or the similarly lowdown "Concrete Walls," but it's still dark and weird, like a funhouse-mirror version of a Björk song -- and yeah, the aforementioned accent and phrasing makes the Scandinavian-female-vocalists comparison hard to avoid, in particular with Ms. Gudmundsdottir and her countrywoman Emiliana Torrini. Tracks like "Seven" further the resemblance, making me think of "Hyperballad" more than anything else.
Music-wise, there's a fair resemblance to trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack on Fever Ray, in everything from the semi-dirty beats to the nighttime vibe to the use of bass. "Triangle Walks" sounds like it could've fallen off Blue Lines, while "Concrete Walls" is Mezzanine all the way, all somnolent claustrophobia and urban malaise, a kissing cousin to "Man Next Door." In terms of production, though, I keep coming back to the overall sound of Peter Gabriel's elegaic Up; like that album, there's a lot of empty, sterile-sounding space here, Andersson apparently not feeling the need to gratuitously layer the crap out of every sound she can find.
That space works in her favor, allowing the songs on the album to breathe rather more than they might otherwise. It's all the ramblings in the dark of a possibly-disturbed person, but there's an openness to it throughout, like it's all happening in a very large, very empty room, or maybe standing on a silent hillside above town. Spooky, dark, and sometimes menacing, maybe, but nothing out-and-out evil. I find it intriguing, by the way, that Andersson primarily wrote Fever Ray after having her second child; while parenthood definitely has its share of late, late nights, this isn't exactly the sort of nighttime music that moves through my head when I rock my kid to sleep. At least, it wasn't, before now.
The Beautiful Unknown
Looking for a new album to put on as you slowly drift to sleep? Or maybe you really wish Enya would one day pick up a guitar? If so, Foreverinmotion may be your next favorite band; even the cover art of the band's two albums look like the front of every Enya CD.
Foreverinmotion is the name of Brendon Thomas' one-man band, and the music sounds like a mix between The Rocket Summer and Andrew Bird, but less poppy than Rocket Summer and less catchy and original than Andrew Bird. I am a huge fan of singer-songwriters, but this album really doesn't do anything for me. I really love the first few songs, especially the album opener "Magic," but I just don't get pulled into the album. I thought that after "Magic" I would be hooked, but I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up.
Like I said, I may put this album on to play as I am trying to fall asleep, but only after The Get Up Kids' Something to Write Home About and Slowreader's Slowreader plays multiple times each. It is a charming, calm album, but I just can't seem to get into it very much. "Avalanche" starts off really good, but ends like the rest of the songs. The songs all sound the same, and they are quite lengthy as well, not a good combination. I thought I had been listening to the album for a long time, but when I looked, it was only half over.
One thing that I did really enjoy about the album is its lyrics. Thomas sings about positive things, and I enjoyed that a lot. In "Turn and Chase the Wind," he sings, "I feel so lucky to be alive / Just behind every raincloud is a starry, quiet night / or a beautiful, bright blue sky." He also sings a lot about love, and the more the positive side of it, not the whole breakup/bitter side, which I find refreshing.
I'll probably listen to the album again, especially the first few tracks. After that, however, I will probably shuffle on to something else. I was hoping for a really good ending track to lift my spirits, but unfortunately, Foreverinmotion didn't deliver it for me. While Thomas is very talented, and I feel like there are a lot of people out there who are really going to like The Beautiful Unknown, it just didn't do it for me.
Future Clouds and Radar
In my book, Austin's Cotton Mather were one of the most sadly underrated bands of the late '90s; while good-but-not-great people like Fastball got the hype and the spotlight, Robert Harrison and company's absolute gem of a magnum opus, Kon Tiki, languished in obscurity. And that still feels downright criminal to me, given that the album was so good that for a long time it was (and sometimes still is) the benchmark by which I judged all subsequent pop albums, and a lot of the judge-es didn't measure up. I never got to see them live, but that almost made the band's mystique better -- they were just these eccentric, immensely talented, Beatles-obsessed geniuses who lived somewhere up in the Hill Country and put out brilliant albums on totally obscure record labels that only critics like me ever truly loved.
Actual reality aside (I suspect that the band did have a fair number of devoted fans up in A-town, and likely elsewhere, to boot), the above's why Peoria, the latest full-length from ex-Cotton Mather frontman Robert Harrison's new band, Future Clouds and Radar, has had me so conflicted for the past few months.
First of all, it is good, with scattered moments of full-on brilliance -- the beautiful falsetto in "Old Edmund Ruffin" and the slipping-downwards guitar in the break on "Mummified," for two -- those crystalline Beatles-derived melodies are in full feather, Harrison's still McCartney-ish vocals (to my ears, anyway) sound even better, more refined and controlled, than ever, and the guy's lyricism always makes me shake my head in wonder. I mean, I've got to hand it to anybody who can make me Wikipedia the titular subject (sort of) of a song like Harrison did after I first listened to "Old Edmund Ruffin" (handy factoid: Ruffin was one of the leaders of the pre-Civil War secessionist movement in the South and claimed to have fired the first shot of the war at Fort Sumter).
Where Harrison's work with his old band was desperate and strange, however, feeling like the band was trying to pack the energy of a twelve-minute epic into traditional pop-song length, Future Clouds and Radar come off languid and sleepy, with too many pointless excursions into aimless psychedelia. Take "Mummified," probably the worst offender on Peoria, as an example. The track is gorgeous and weirdly sweet, like a love song from one dessicated corpse to another pretty much has to be by default, with a brittle, delicate feel to it that works.
But then, at about 4:30, the song staggers off into self-indulgent, meandering piano, alien atmospheric noises, and guitar scrapes, and the whole ensemble loses the plot completely for the remaining three minutes of the track. Had Harrison cut things off when they started to go south, "Mummified" could have been a great song, but at its full length, it's instead overlong, pointless, and confused, a decent pop song derailed by the band screwing around in the studio. And the sad part is that Harrison knows better; he's proven that, both with Cotton Mather and elsewhere on this album.
Even on the best track here, "The Epcot View," the pace is slow and methodical, and I hate to say it, but it makes the song drag. It's still good, yes, and I've had bits and pieces stuck in my brain for a while now, which demonstrates that Harrison definitely knows his way around a hook, but the fiery, wide-eyed frenzy that made his other work truly sing is missing. The music just drifts, anchor-less, in an almost Floyd-ian psych-pop haze.
Things amp up only once, for "Eighteen Months," which is faster, closer kin to modern Britpop than the Beatles, and which incorporates Matthew Sweet-esque (okay, Robert Quine-esque) raveup guitars and handclaps; a coherent, sharp-edged pop-rock blast that never outstays its welcome, it's a stark contrast to both the songs before and after.
Of course, while I'm a fan of his old stuff, I can't fault Harrison for wanting to take a bit of a different direction this time out; it just doesn't work all that well for me. Good? Yes. Great? For my part, I think I prefer the Lennon/McCartney side of his British psychedelia obsession to the Gilmour/Waters.
On Chub, Austin band The Gary (none of the members of which, it should be said, are actually named, y'know, Gary) manage to take hold of three of my favorite elements of late-'90s indie-rock, the flat-sounding vocals and understated but still powerful guitars of all those dead-serious Touch and Go/Dischord bands from that era (think Arcwelder, Fugazi, and Silkworm, for three) and the warm, melody-leading bass of fellow Austinites Silver Scooter. Which, for my own selfish part, is a combination I'd love to hear happen more often.
The result is strong, erudite, restrained-yet-bitter, almost methodical indie-rock that doesn't so much knock you down and invade your head as step past you with a hard look, sit down inside, and start reading your books, all uninvited. The Gary rocks with a ridiculous amount of restraint, surging and rolling along with barely a nod towards the audience; they can roar and burn, but fuck it, they don't need to. Why play an ace when a two will do, after all?
These guys aren't out to be rockstars or blow away any observing scenesters, but rather are playing pretty much for themselves and for people who understand them; they make a point in the press materials of saying they each moved to Austin for reasons not connected to music, which is a nice change from the "get to Austin to make it!" mentality that happens far too often. I get the feeling that The Gary is just three guys who work, have families, and want to make music they themselves would like to listen to, and assuming that is really the case, I respect the hell out of 'em for that.
The closest musical comparison I can get to, really, is Arcwelder, both in terms of the "flat" singing (heck, bassist/vocalist Dave Norwood comes across almost like Johnny Cash on "Damn Machine") and the churning groove of the music itself. On tracks like "Expiration" and "Freeways," the band plays low and loose, with the bass and Paul Warner's drums driving things and Trey Pool's scraping-yet-melodic guitars sliding back and forth across the top. Pool's guitars can be utterly beautiful when he wants them to, as on the mostly-(all?-)instrumental "Freaks Go Forward," which sounds like it could've fallen off of the aforementioned Silver Scooter's The Other Palm Springs, but he mostly tends to play things more Silkworm-style, with the guitars as embellishment where needed.
Out of the songs on Chub, it's difficult to pick one best track, but I find myself coming back to "Expiration" and "I May Have a Drink," in particular, over and over again -- the former has a solid majesty to it that I love, while the latter puts up a somber, all-knowing facade over doubt and desperation, finally cracking when Norwood flips the repeated "I assure you, it passes" line around and demands, "Assure me it passes." That combination of pleading uncertainty and resignation hits home, hard.
[The Gary is playing 4/10/09 at Rudyard's, along with The Jonx.]
Y.U. So Shady?
I've heard bands before that blur the line between Southern-fried rock and the blues -- hell, Stevie Ray Vaughan rode that line at times -- but few obliterate it as completely as Austin's Grady. They grab hold of a fistful of downhome Delta blues licks, drown 'em in cheap whiskey, the run 'em through Godzilla-sized amps they borrowed from Pantera and a bunch of pedals they stole from some hapless grunge band, and play 'em like they're channeling Junior Brown (which, honestly, gives far too little credit to guitar virtuoso frontman/singer Gordie Johnson). End result? Bluesy, thick as hell, wall-shaking, hillbilly sludge-rock that sounds equally inspired by the Queens of the Stone Age and Robert Johnson.
And like I said, while there're folks out there that do similar things, sure, it's hard to imagine 'em pulling it off as deftly as this. I dearly love The Black Keys -- who drink from the same raw, heavy, amplified-blues well as Johnson and crew -- but I always get the feeling they're content to sit at the end of the bar and drown their sorrows. They come off like genre purists, to boot; with those guys, every move feels like it's done with reverence to blues masters past.
Grady, on the other hand, isn't willing to just sit there at the bar, but rather drains its collective glass and smashes it in the face of some big loudmouth jerkoff a few stools down. Not for any real reason, of course, but just to start some shit and get fists flying. And the band's music's like that, like a drunken bar brawl nobody can remember starting or really wants to finish.
The guys (well, and girl, but drummer Nina Singh's a recent addition to the band) in Grady throw everything they love into the mix, from the heavy, crushingly bassy rock to the sun-stroked stoner metal to the most basic, rootsy blues imaginable, and it all fucking works. "Three Minute Song," for one fine, fine example, steers a Mötörhead-style stomp-groove into the stratosphere, incorporating country-boy harmony vocals with tales of boozing it up and partying down out on the road.
Then there's "Woman Got My Devil," which sounds for all the world like Thin Lizzy if they were from somewhere in the Piney Woods of East Texas, with a great high-pitched guitar line that mirrors the vocals and a shaggy-dog story about a guy whose woman gets kidnapped by the Devil, only to discover she's too much to handle and kick her back out of Hell. (Hence the title.) And "Reach Out Yo Hand," an amped-up gospel boogie that sees frontman Johnson playing tent-revival preacher in some alternate universe, all over speeding, rockabilly-esque guitars and four-on-the-floor drums. And "Western Cowboy," a tribal, electrified country-rocker that could kick Toby Keith's flabby ass without even getting up out of its seat.
Craziest of all, Y.U. So Shady? isn't new; it's actually an expanded version of Grady's 2006 debut, re-released with a couple of fiery extra live tracks on punk/oddball label Alternative Tentacles apparently at the insistence of Jello Biafra, who loves the damn band. So these folks have been out there all this time, and this is the first I've heard? Damn.
[Grady is playing 4/3/09 at The Continental Club, along with Two Hoots and a Holler & Molly and the Ringwalds.]
Hail The Size
Side Two by Hail The Size is a comical, light-hearted take on dysfunctional relationships, explosive farts, and addiction. The whimsical and witty lyrics remind me a bit of Weird Al or even Flight of the Concords, but country music-style, if you can imagine.
"Booze, Pills, & Her" is a love-ditty about a man who falls for a registered nurse (innocently, of course), where Charles Ezell sings, "Two out of three really work up a thirst." The tune is highlighted with a punchy B-3 organ and steel guitar, all of which kept me listening. "When I'm sober, I don't call ya whore" is another delightful line wafting from the song "Mean Means I Love You," complete with melodious fiddle. "I Can't Hold It In" is a jazzy rendition of Ezell's horrible flatulence problems, complete with congas, piano, and trumpet, and proves they can offer up a range of different genres.
The "7/11" song is slow and boring, but "The Ass Kicking Song" reels you back in with a faster-paced guitar, peppy drums, and haunting steel guitar melodies. I think HTS would be fun to see live, but I don't think I could listen to the album on a regular basis; sorry, folks, but this album would make a great gag gift.
Lamb of God
Fucking Awesome. Those two simple words are the perfect description for Wrath, the new release from Lamb of God.
Wrath is a return to form that allows the Richmond, Virginia, quintet to reclaim its crown as the new kings of metal. The album sets you up for disappointment at first with opening track "The Passing," a soft instrumental that lulls you into regretting your purchase, but what it does is set you up for the 10 knockout-punch tracks to follow. "Set to Fail" should serve as a warning to all those that thought the band had lost their way on the disappointing Sacrament. It's full-on metal, with Chris Adler's blast beats and the twin guitars weaving monstrously meaty hooks, all of it topped off by Randall Blythe screaming bloody hell. Blythe's vocals are best described as what it might sound like if the crazy man that wears the "The World is Going to End" sandwich board finally snapped and grabbed a microphone. The combination of anger, hatred, frustration, and rebellion acts as an intoxicant and grabs onto the listener and gleefully throws them into the mosh pit.
The best example of how great Wrath is, though, is on the track "Contractor." Starting with an opening "Yee-haw!", the track is a lyrical attack on the controversial Blackwater Security and its cowboy attitude. It starts off with machine-gun riffs and Blythe spitting lyrics just as rapidly. It slows down to the heaviest of chugs before it launches into a full-on aural assault that peaks with what can only be described as metal Viagra. If this song does not give you a musical boner, then you need to put this CD down and go buy the new Jonas Brothers.
Lamb of God has worked its way up from being a struggling band on a tiny label to being a headliner and the face of the American metal scene. Wrath serves as a milemarker on their journey to ascendancy. Fucking Awesome.
[Lamb of God is playing 4/24/09 at the Verizon Wireless Theater, along with As I Lay Dying, Children of Bodom, Municipal Waste, & God Forbid.]
Emptiness Is Forever
With the music market now offering paths that circumvent the mechanisms of the music industry entirely, bands have the option of sidestepping the dog-and-pony show of glossy 8x10s and vapid music videos. By the same token, it doesn't hurt to have some quirk, kink, or outright gimmick to prick up the overstimulated ears of Joe Bloglete, who now possesses more promotional clout than half a dozen A&R dupes. Austin's Many Birthdays more than cut it with instrumental and songwriting chops, but they have one such ear-turning advantage, to boot.
Lead singer Sarah Luce is a fluent speaker and active teacher of Japanese (the band logged some time in Osaka, Japan in years past), and there are several songs on Emptiness Is Forever sung in that language. Listening to Luce belt it out on "Minnawa" and "Tsugi ni Kuru Koto" in indecipherable syllables brings to mind Saint Augustine's observation that even unknown tongues retain the strength of pure intentionality. The energy and passion of Luce's and John Dixon's voices translate perfectly, even when the words do not.
Musically, Many Birthdays takes a similarly macaronic approach. Though other reviewers might describe Emptiness Is Forever as post-punk, the music comes closer to a late-noughties updating of New Wave acts like Oingo Boingo and The Vapors. Thankfully, Many Birthdays ditches the kitschy sonic (and visual -- not a spot of American Apparel neon-pastel casualty on these kids) tropes, retaining the pogo-ready progressions and tempos that made those bands so damn catchy. An undeniable and infectious bounce propels "Rock It," before "Good Luck" struts its way down a post-disco path that may induce involuntary head-bobbing and toe-tapping. Even when the band slows it down a bit, on "Electro Fantastic," there's enough of a human touch to the programming to keep you paying attention.
As with many bands from the Houndstooth Era, Many Birthdays builds songs with drum machines and synthesizers as often as they employ the garage-rock triad of guitars, bass, and drums. However, this instrumentation also indicates their indebtedness to electronic and experimental bands (indeed, guitarist Henna Chou has also played with avant-garders Fiction & My Education). Both halves of the musical equation behave as correctives on the potential excesses of the other -- not too slick, not too strange.
Emptiness Is Forever is the fifth release from Many Birthdays, and while it clocks in only slightly over twenty minutes, it belongs on the Top Forty of some alternate universe, where Bis are famous for much more than the Powerpuff Girls theme song and the refrain of "Hey Mickey" reverberates in perfect hyojungo.
[Many Birthdays is playing 4/10/09 at Super Happy Fun Land, along with Perseph One, [Insert Credits], The Good Tryers, & Light.]
From the Basement
Mista White has been making a troublesome nuisance of himself in Houston since 1996. Since then, he has released albums, protested, spouted off, and otherwise bothered the people who have suits and pens and things like that. His music, when broken down the way Mista White himself surely will be in Gitmo in the near future, is your basic electronica, in the style of the Chemical Brothers.
Like Negativland, however, White has absolutely no regard for copyright, and many of his compositions are rife with samples lifted from the news. His sole music video for "Generic Ad" follows suit. That being said, he has a wonderful sense of beat and rhythm and a propensity for knowing exactly what sounds a particular piece calls for. The end result is passionately political dance music that is obviously anti-everything-established-ever.
That being said, if the rest of the world was as capable of releases like From the Basement as Mista White is, then maybe we'd all be bigger, better people. His presentation and presence is utterly perfect. The CD comes in plain white cardboard with what almost looks like hand-typed track lists. The insert is brown cardboard, and the thank-yous contain the name "Tyler Durdin." The back is blank except for the phrase "It's Later than You Think." The entire DIY ethic is present in Mista White, and it was this dedication to his approach that brought him to SCR's attention. In other words, he is his work in every way.
Let me be plain. To like this album, you must like electronica. You must be utterly fed up with both the corporate and government military complexes that reign over our fair country. You must not like George W. Bush. If you do not meet these criteria, then you are wasting your money. If, however, there is something inside you that cries out revolution, you will appreciate what Mista White has to say. You will fall in love with the message of "21st Century" and be struck dumb by the perfect melding done in "N.W.O" with politician's samples that make a seamless rap. If you'd rather be fighting the man, then you will like From the Basement.
Don't Be A Stranger
On Don't Be A Stranger, Seattle band The Moondoggies aim squarely at what The Byrds tried to do way, way back in the day -- grafting a psychedelic haziness onto subtle, rootsty folk/country. They take things a step or three further, though, by injecting a heavy dose of gospel-revival sound into the jangly guitars and psych-sounding organ (see "Ain't No Lord," for one; "Jesus On The Mainline" goes even more straight gospel, complete with handclaps). They sing about redemption and change and looking for the Lord (but not really finding him), all over woozy layers of Southern-boy harmony vocals, alternately Neil Young-y/Roger McGuinn-y guitars, and Doors-y keys, with the occasional sidetrack off into delicate folk.
Hell, sometimes they even do it all in one song, as with the epic "Night and Day," which begins with gorgeous, fingerpicked folk guitar and soft vocals 'til about 2:30. Then the song revs up and throws on some awesome barroom piano for a liquor-fueled speakeasy hoedown, 'til 3:30 rolls around, at which point things slow back down a bit and drift off into full-on Floydian psychedelia. Granted, going from quiet-night folk to boozy ragtime to psych-rock all in the space of 8 minutes can be a bit hard to digest the first time through, but The Moondoggies pull it off.
The entirety of Stranger strolls along at a leisurely pace, all languid and loose-limbed; even when it gets louder and rougher (like on the rough, bluesy "Ol' Blackbird," for example), it retains the vibe of a bunch of (very talented) friends hanging out on the porch of some out-of-the-way shack, just playing music to play music. Oh, and getting wasted of course, while they're doing it. It's so damn laidback it makes me want to crash out on the living room floor, nodding along with a smile on my face.
The Mother Truckers
Let's All Go To Bed
This Austin, Texas-based band has brought a tinge of country, rock, and blues on their latest recording, Let's All Go To Bed, creating a pleasantly surprising sound even to a country novice. The album starts out with the rockin' "Dynamite," which finds dual vocalists Teal Collins and Josh Zeal trading off verses. Zeal exhibits impressive lead guitar work, with unexpected technicality for a country-esque band. Collins' voice is strong and compliments the music very well; to be honest, her voice is preferable in the lead position than Zeal. Not that he isn't an adequate singer, but her voice fits the music much better.
There are other standout tracks in the first half of the album, like "Never Miss My Baby," but the second half of the album slows things down a bit, focusing a bit more on country and folk and less on the rock side of things. It's not bad by any means, but it just isn't as striking as the first half. One can definitely tell that these musicians have been honing their craft for quite some time and have developed a niche that works for them and their fans. The biggest complaint has to be the "metal horn" logo with the cowboy hat -- nowadays it appears as if everyone is using it. Check these guys out now before your friend who doesn't even really like music finds out about 'em.
Hearts and Coffins EP
Considering the band sounds just like him, Old Ghost should be glad Bob Dylan hasn't sued for copyright infringement. Okay, so they don't sound exactly like Bob, but unfortunately, that's because they're missing his songwriting ability. Paul Hutzler, the leader of the group, also suffers from a voice that doesn't quite work for his songs. Put together, it's kind of hard to recover from that kind of situation.
In general, Hutzler's songwriting needs a lot more work. "Black Crow" sounds exactly like a somewhat limp cover of "Absolutely Sweet Marie." If they'd just done the Dylan song instead, that might have been a little better, but the song suffers from an extremely derivative melody and an odd horn part that doesn't really help anything. "Home is Where You Find It" is one of those songs with verses that have overstuffed cadences, but where Dylan's lyrics are interesting and dense enough to really demand those sonic ideas, Hutzler's just sound lazy and careless and, most importantly, just don't work. The rest of the songs aren't quite that egregious, but they still aren't very interesting.
The other part of his problem is his vocal style. His vocals tend to be third-rate, slightly fatuous Dylan parodies. "Black Crow" again sets itself up -- it really needed a fiery rant to match the melody, but he doesn't put nearly enough into it, and it comes off sounding way too smooth. Even on slower, mellower songs, though, like "Put My Watch Away," where his style might work better, Hutzler's vocals still come off bland and characterless.
Plenty of musicians start in different (and louder) styles and move to another, like Hutzler did, and make it work. This guy, however, needs to go back. He's not doing himself, or us, much good here.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Working on a Dream
Working on a Dream may seem unfinished to many people. Bruce Springsteen has spent 40 years plumbing the depths for us; the hopeful, escapist youths of Born to Run and the prideful would-be laborers of Born in the U.S.A. spoke without metaphor to our struggle. The personal narratives in Tunnel of Love, Lucky Town, and Human Touch failed to resonate, where the grief in The Rising and the righteous anger of Magic brought The Boss into the historic relevance in which Working on a Dream arrives.
And that's where Working on a Dream falls. Because it has exactly two songs that aren't great -- I won't name them, because critics shouldn't try to remedy art, but almost every song on this record continues the emotive strength of the previous two records, to the point of seeming like a trilogy. The Rising reacted to September 11th. Magic meditated on the war in Iraq, and Dream speaks to the personal stories of our current crisis. The Americans in Working on a Dream have lost their jobs, their homes, their cars, and perhaps the protection of The Constitution, but they are no less American. The characters take comfort in each other. They count their blessings. They fall in love a thousand times a day. They seem to stop and smell the flowers 'cause it's free.
I think that's why it's called Working..., because the American Dream is not merely one of Cadillac trucks. If it were, it would not endure. The truest glory, the soberest nobility of our American Dream is that it persists. The dream remains a Work in progress.
[Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band are playing 4/8/09 at the Toyota Center.]
Starvin Hungry's Cold Burns comes across less like an album of individual songs and more like one not-very-exciting song reworked a few times. Sure, it's okay to have a signature sound, but when everything remains at the same volume and tempo for almost forty minutes, there's a problem. Listen to the first three tracks and tell me they didn't all spawn from the same half-hour jam session.
Throughout Cold Burns, the Montreal-based group straddles the line between punkish discordance and discernible melody but doesn't stir up anything notable on either side. "The Triumph of Non" sounds like it aspires to be Soundgarden circa 1994. "Pink/Black" is more angular and less grungy, but equally unimpressive. At their best, like on "Well Below the Bottom," Starvin Hungry deviates from sounding like a genre band by kicking up the artistry a notch, masking witty hooks with scraping walls of guitar. Unfortunately, the bottom line is that in spite of their undeniable high energy, Cold Burns is an album stunningly easy to forget.
The Great Revival
It's insulting to think that one word could sum up an album. With the new CD from rap-metal pioneers Stuck Mojo, the one word is obvious: laughable.
Decibel Magazine has already given The Great Revival the honorable distinction of being the first album of the New Year to earn a 0. As in, "0 out of 10." Now, I may not be a math major, but that is not good. After popping The Great Revival in the CD player, though, the mag's opinion was quickly confirmed.
There are so many thing wrong with this album I don't think my computer's keyboard could take all the pounding. Is the world really waiting for a new CD from any band playing rap-metal? Judging by the absence of their former competitors, I'd say no.
The bands sound is so formulaic that you could replicate it with any high school garage band and a good producer. Rich Ward's distorted guitar playing a generic heavy riff with Lord Byron's average rapping making the most obvious of pairings. The band has added in Ward's voice singing harmonies, for some reason. They've also opened the gender doors of suckiness by getting Christine Cook to contribute backing vocals. When you hear her voice, you realize how bad the two guys actually are. The vocal trifecta is achieved on "Friends," with Lord Byron rappping the verses and Cook coming in and doing harmonies with Ward on the choruses. Keep in mind that this is all done over a song whose lyrical content about being best friends is on the level of Sesame Street.
The track that sums up the awfulness of this experience is "Country Road." Yes, you read that right -- a rap-metal version of the John Denver classic. The song is an ode to Rich Ward's mother, and while the intent is admirable, the execution is not. It starts with some personal lyrics from Rich to his Mom and him saying he's going to sing her favorite song, and then he starts singing the famous chorus except he changes the location to North Carolina. Ironic, really, that as he is singing about mountains, his voice is as flat as a prairie. While that may get John Denver to start spinning in his grave, when Lord Byron starts rapping his verse, John's revolutions increase. It's all capped off with more false endings than the Lord of the Rings, ending with a "choir" on the final chorus.
The atrociousness of The Great Revival is beyond my vocabulary, and for that I am grateful. It is a horrible album that only serves as a reminder of what a waste the rap-metal movement fad was.
Oak City EP
You have to love that the band Teith explains that their name is pronounced "Keith," as in Carradine, Richards, and Sweat. Makes me laugh everytime.
The Oak City EP is the re-release of the band's demo that made the MySpace rounds a while back. It's a four-track instrumental offering that seems like it was born out of a computer rather than a band room. Musically, it's led by fuzzed-out guitars with intermittent keyboard lines. It has a stream-of-consciousness feel that overpowers its cleverness with a feeling of "I'm so clever"-ness.
You can sense that there is a method to the madness, that it is part of one big picture, a musical screenplay, if you will. In theory, that sounds good if you could pull it off. Every song seems to have its moments of brilliance but still seems incomplete or unfinished. It seems to click best when they put down the dissonance and allow the melody and noise to blend together.
Even though Oak City is only a four-track EP, it requires a lot of work from the listener. And the payoff may not be worth the effort.
Happy Birthday To Me
To celebrate its twenty-year anniversary, Sub Pop released a compilation album called Happy Birthday To Me, comprised mostly of tracks from 2008. Judging by the songs and the roster of artists, it's clear that for all its grunge beginnings the label has, for better or for worse, found itself putting out some of indie-rock's prettiest music. Blitzen Trapper and Fleet Foxes, in particular, gained some serious attention for their 2008 albums, both layered, airy, and undeniably gorgeous, and most of the other tracks aim for a similar intimacy. But on the whole, Happy Birthday To Me is weighed down by songs that are pleasant-but-forgettable.
There's a stark difference between the two Mudhoney songs, first and last on the album, and everything else in between. Nothing comes close to matching Mudhoney's volume or intensity; though the Gutter Twins' "Idle Hands" is dark and driving, the cheesy goth electro-rock is so dreadfully painful to listen to it hardly counts. Most of the other tracks just come off as boring. This isn't to say that to be memorable, songs can't be quiet -- the handful of standouts includes Death Vessel's "Bruno's Torso," which elevates itself with a terrific vocal melody and thoughtful restraint, and the Grand Archives' "Miniature Birds," whose rich, quaint instrumentation is instantly classic. No one will argue that the quality of music isn't high, but the album is plagued by the constant feeling that something is missing.
Andre Williams & The New Orleans Hellhounds
Can You Deal With It?
I have to admit, sometimes it's nice to not have to think too much about this stuff. I mean, c'mon -- this is Chicago wildman Andre Williams, the dirtiest, funkiest, nastiest soul singer you're ever in danger of mistaking for one of your grandpa's old-timer friends. He's a truly, truly raunchy dude, the original Dirty Old Man, and as evidenced by the grimy, funky soul of Can You Deal With It?, he ain't changing. Don't let the yelled/sung question in the album's title track fool you, by the way; when Williams bawdily asks if the audience can deal with his old-man lecherousness, but the tongue-in-cheek delivery makes it pretty clear that he doesn't really give a fuck if you don't.
He's got a pretty fucking incredible team of partners-in-crime for this one, too, in raw, barroom blues-rockers the New Orleans Hellhounds (who apparently also do time in/as Morning 40 Federation). I'm not familiar with the band, but they play gutbucket, bluesy, sloppy-but-who-cares? rawk with the kind of wild abandon that's as genuine as bourbon in a dirty glass. The horns, frankly, are the best part, all thick and meaty enough to be cut with a knife (see "Never Had A Problem" or "If You Leave Me"), but the guitars have a nice roar to 'em, too, and the drums snap and crack like a bottle breaking on the sidewalk. Put it together, and it's a fitting accompaniment for Williams' too-sharp-for-his-age sideways leer. Add to that the bonus of Big Easy legend Quintron on slippery, soulful organ, and holy fuck, you've got yourself one hell of a platter of bluesy, funky, ballsy, entertaining soul.
There's a somewhat apt resemblance to fellow womanizer Greg Dulli here, especially when Williams slows it down and goes Motown ("If It Wasn't For You" or the slinky, dirty "Hear Ya Dance," one of the album's absolute highlights). He spins out quirky tales of lust, need, pain, and danger, all in that trademark slurry yelp or croon (which makes me think of Screamin' Jay Hawkins at points, and in a good way), playful and nasty at the same time. It's hard not to grin and chuckle when you heard the faux-mollifying tone in "Your Woman," where Williams at first says he's "giving back" another man's woman, only to undercut it later on like he knows exactly how things will play out: "But if she walk back through that door / She ain't your woman no more." Can you deal with that?
You Me & Iowa
The Adventures of You Me & Iowa
First thought: dumb, dumb, dumb name. Second thought: damn, this is good; why the hell didn't I listen to this before now? Tangential (and mostly inconsequential) third thought: what the heck's up with the weird-ass comic book?
Put that last part aside, though, and focus on Thought #2, because it's the truth -- goofy name and unnecessarily quirky album art aside, L.A. band You Me & Iowa's The Adventures of You Me & Iowa is a non-stop gem of an indie-rock album. The vocals are seriously reminiscent of The Dismemberment Plan, although the feel's a whole lot more mellow, clever, and playful, closer to artful jokers The Decemberists. The complex-yet-beautiful arrangements bring to mind The Decemberists, too, as well as a less fluids-/ghosts-obsessed Neutral Milk Hotel (especially when the horns come in).
As far as album highlights go, I honestly can't recall the last time I heard a disc where I can't decide which of the tracks I like best; maybe The New Pornographers' Electric Version. There's the fast, propulsive "The Song Entire," with its snapping drums, frantic vocals, and addictive "okay, okay, okay" bit in the choruses. Then there's "Goldfish," my current top contender, which starts off atmospheric and spacey but turns into a speeding, poppy-as-hell picture of a dysfunctional family. Er, I think? (Love the "You know how fish are / singing when they're not supposed to" bit, in particular.)
Beyond those, there's "Tommy Hall," which I'm guessing based on no evidence but the name is named for the 13th Floor Elevators songwriter/jug player, and which sounds for all the world like late-period, poppier Supercunk (think "Pink Clouds" or "Hello Hawk"), or opener "Dress The Stage," which is low-key, bubbling, and baroque indie-pop all at the same time. The oddly crunchy-sounding keys/electronics at the start of "Margaret Mourning" are a bit off-putting at first, admittedly, but once you get past it and into the shiny, prog-ish, almost Braid-like guitars, the intro doesn't matter. "Valhalla" is gentle and bumping, again like the softer side of Superchunk, and "Perpendicularly Speaking" features an awesomely majestic chorus, with guitars that seem to erupt into fountains of sparks like gigantic roman candles pointed at the sky.
In fact, the only track on here that's somewhat "eh," at least for me, happens to be the band's first single, "Make Your Home (Smell Delicious!)". It's a decent enough song, with almost tropical feel to it, but the noodly silliness makes me cringe somewhat -- the sound is like that of an amped-up Barenaked Ladies outtake, and that's not really my thing. It's probably not coincidence, either, that the track also happens to be the longest on The Adventures of...; for my money, You Me & Iowa does better when the band keeps things brief.
But hey, one "eh" to seven "yeah!"s is a pretty sunny ratio, I'd say. It's a great, great album throughout. I've got no idea where these five guys are headed, but once I pick up my jaw, I'll be following right along.