The Blame Game
Honey and Salt
Don Caballero is the 800-pound gorilla in any room where a post-rock prog band is playing. A critic can seat them anywhere he wants, to outmuscle the comparatively awkward drumming of a Sweep the Leg Johnny or a Maserati or to tower over the rhythmic insignificance of a Turing Machine or an Explosions in the Sky. In the areas of instrumental capability and sheer inventiveness, the standards for post-rock bands have been set so high that it takes an artist of the extremely rare caliber of Hella to be worth bothering about. A mind that's already been blown -- more than once -- is difficult to blow again.
Which makes it all the more gratifying when it happens anyway. On earlier releases, including an enigmatic split LP with Germans Zann, Atlanta's Blame Game combined shambling, jazzy indie rock with loose miscellaneous-core, but the result was often less a fusion than a juxtaposition or an alternation, and though thrilling and vital (especially in comparison to the urbane detachment of, say, Storm and Stress), their records could also be jarring. For Honey and Salt, their first full-length, the quartet has been stripped down to a trio, with guitarist George Asimakos replacing both Ian Denton and Matt McCalvin. The band's sound, meanwhile, has been stripped of many of its more abrasive tendencies and is now a real synthesis of the elements of hardcore, indie rock, and jazz that previously appeared side-by-side in earlier work.
What's more, it has become a powerful study of rhythm, harmony, intensity and volume. This exploration sometimes reflects calculated tactics, as on the conclusion of "On Waiting," which poses Asimakos and bassist Chris Ware in a static phrase against drummer Alex Lambert's gradual build from relaxed noodling into a naked and barely controlled blastbeat. The tension points up the convention of post-rock -- really, most popular music -- that almost requires changes in intensity to be in unison. Yet it does not leave the listener stranded in that moment of uncertainty, but draws back into unison without jarring any of the musicians out of their ostinato. More often, however, Honey and Salt's ideas are the result of a spontaneity that is not unlike the trance of legitimate jazz improvisation, although it is not improvisatory.
This state of mind is recognizable on a number of tracks. Take the title track, which is marked by a musician's joyous yell, a moment that reflects not only being-in-the-moment but the confidence necessary to risk a take. Another example is the album's epic conclusion, "Subtle Parts," which runs with nimble feet through any number of musical idioms but never leaves the listener behind, before concluding with a pounding unison apotheosis. The only weakness of "Honey and Salt" is Asimakos's vocals, which sound uncomfortably like an afterthought. They are clearly a leftover element from the band's earlier work, to which Denton and Ware brought a visceral emo-core howl that has fallen away. It seems probable that they will eventually be discarded altogether.
The Blame Game repeatedly achieves a wonderful mental immersion that rivals that of any of Hella's most frenetic moments, and I dare say may even surpass those of Don Caballero, who for all their improvisatory power were more rigid stylistically -- the necessity of playing louder, harder music. The band's secret weapon is Lambert, a virtuosic, original, and almost unbelievably expressive drummer; when Asimakos and Ware drop away for four measures in "Basilar Membrane," one hardly notices that it's a drum solo, so in tune is Lambert with the feel of the song and so musical is his playing. Ultimately, it may be Lambert's leadership of the band's rhythmic mastery that gains the Blame Game a place in the canon of post-rock, and Asimakos's fluid, graceful harmonies that define it: if Hella are post-rock's raving prophet, the Blame Game is its courtly bard.
Music reviews tend to be of two types. The first is the type where the reviewer tells you how Artist A sounds like Artist B. The second compares this new material by Artist A with earlier material by Artist A. Both of these review types serve the purpose of giving you something to go on. They give you a shorthand way to know if you're going to like what the reviewer is going on about because words just don't really tell you what something sounds like.
I could say, for example, that the music is dense. Or that it's filled with harpsichord. Or that it's contagiously catchy. But then I'd go back and listen to the music and realize how flimsy words are. Here's the first paragraph of the review I was going to write:
With a name like Crystal Skulls, I was expecting (possibly hoping) that I was in for something like Swedish death metal. Something melodic, yet with Cookie Monster vocals. This is about as far from metal as could be possible, however. This is '70s rock. And it's not the sort of '70s rock that early '90s Seattle bands repopularized. This is '70s light rock. With a touch of prog. It's like Steely Dan and Nick Drake and Todd Rundgren. All at the same time.
Now that would make a fine beginning, if I do say so myself. I start off telling you what the music isn't and then I compare it to some well-known artists and then add a little humor for seasoning. But what would happen if I just told you what the music isn't? Or used metaphors that don't resemble the sounds at all? Could you tell what it sounded like from that sort of negative review? That is to say, "negative" in the "this is what the music is not" sense, rather than the "dude, this sucks" sense.
Let's start off with the death metal. There is little in the way of distorted guitar on Outgoing Behavior. Nor is the guitar tuned down. Vocals are not screamed. And there is no double-kick action. None of the songs are ostensibly about death or Satan or killing. Though I've seen only a handful of pictures of Crystal Skulls, none of them feature white face paint or all black attire. So, as I mentioned in my false first paragraph above, it's safe to say that nobody will confuse Crystal Skulls with death metal.
Critics love comparing new music to The Beatles. In this situation, comparing Crystal Skulls to The Beatles is not a bad comparison, so making it a bad comparison is hard, but I'm willing to give it the old college try. The Beatles split up their singing duty. Even Ringo had one song per album. Crystal Skulls are not like that. They just have the one main singer, with some backing vocals. The Beatles loved to use a straight 4/4 rhythm that many of their peer bands also used. It eventually became known as Merseybeat. Crystal Skulls are not in the Merseybeat tradition.
Let's try this with Rush. Rush is what some call a "power trio." All songs feature only the three musicians and are therefore intentionally limited. Crystal Skulls are four people. Rush features the fingernails-on-blackboard voice of Geddy Lee. Not only do Crystal Skulls not feature Geddy Lee, but their singer (Christian Wargo) isn't grating at all. Many of Rush's songs are written to demonstrate its members' proficiency. There are quick starts and stops. Crystal Skulls, while not slouches with their instruments, do not compose their songs to show off their instrumental prowess. Also, Rush are also Canadian. Crystal Skulls are not Canadian, though the CD claims that it was made there.
Finally, let's compare Crystal Skulls to a washing machine. Washing machines vary, but most emit a watery, repetitive sound. Crystal Skulls are not watery and not nearly as repetitive. Washing machines will get your clothes clean. It's not clear at all to me how Crystal Skulls would get your clothes clean. So Crystal Skulls are much less practical than a washing machine.
Hopefully this exercise gives you a good idea what Crystal Skulls sound like. They are not very much like death metal, Rush, or a washing machine and are only modestly similar to The Beatles. If you don't get a clear picture of Crystal Skulls' sound in your head, you may just have to go out and pick up a copy of Outgoing Behavior to get a better idea.
The Essex Green
Have no fear: in spite of the nautical-sounding title, The Essex Green's latest release, Cannibal Sea, comes nowhere near the piratical obsessions of, say, The Decemberists or The Coral. The press materials try to paint Cannibal Sea as some kind of chronicle of the yearning of overstressed city folk to escape their concrete confines for the boundless reaches of the sea, but nope, I'm not buying. This album doesn't set a course for the vasty deep, but instead soars at tree-level over the American heartland in the height of a hazy, warm-but-not-hot summer. These are indeed traveling songs, yes, but I get the feeling that they're more landlocked than not -- those depressed city-dwellers don't want to climb on board a damn boat, they're eager to stretch their legs, get out of the city, and just roam.
And for that, I have to say that this record is a marvel. Simply listening to "Cardinal Points," with its driving beat, chunky synths, and paralleled doo-doo-doo-doo vocals, I feel this crazy urge to head for the garage and drive off to the rolling hills of Elsewhere, U.S.A. (and yes, this urge is rendered even weirder by the fact that it's 12:20 AM as I type this). Cannibal Sea isn't just a great traveling record, it practically begs to be played while cruising through green valleys and past waving fields of grain and peaceful cows munching grass by the roadside (those places do still exist, right?). This album's the plaintive cry of three Brooklynites who've transplanted themselves from the significantly more rural environs of Vermont and Ohio and have finally realized they miss it back home -- and as a child of the Texas Hill Country living amid the urban blight myself, heck, I can sure as hell get where they're coming from.
On top of that, the songs on Sea are picture-perfect little pop gems that run just long enough to do what they need to do and get out without wearing out their collective welcome. The tracks come off like New Pornographers-esque compositions -- particularly "Elsinore" and "Don't Know Why (You Stay)" (God, I love that insistent, swooping chorus...) -- stripped of all fat and too-smart wordplay and then grafted onto the best moments of Boy With the Arab Strap-era Belle and Sebastian (see "This Isn't Farm Life" and "Slope Song," for two). The result is magical, a collection of bucolic, Byrds-y, backwards-looking (but not backwards-sounding) pop songs with just the right touch of electric guitar, synths, and spit to make 'em really work.
All this, by the way, comes from a band whose members (Sasha Bell, Christopher Ziter, and Jeff Baron) have all done time in other psychedelic/poppy bands I've never really cared for like Ladybug Transistor and the Sixth Great Lake. I know those bands are indie-pop icons, sure, but for some reason, they just never did it for me. Going by this album, however, The Essex Green definitely does. Now, where did I put my car keys?
The Get Hustle
Rollin' in the Ruins
The Get Hustle's promo sheet claims that the band has "consistently made albums that amaze." For once, a publicist's overblown claims might not have been hyperbole, but for the substitution of one word: though the Get Hustle's music, as on Rollin' in the Ruins, is certainly remarkable, it is less amazing than...disturbing. Like kindred spirits Japanther, but less playfully, the Get Hustle retain a sense of the danger of rock music that is almost anachronistic. Though the band has existed for nine years, and toured for nearly that many, it displays none of the leanness or precision of a veteran outfit. Drummer Maximillion Avila plays his double-kick pedal like he bought it yesterday, though that can't be the case since his drums sound as if they haven't been tuned in years. Organist Mac Mann fares a bit better, if only because his parts are so strange that it is difficult to say what it would even mean to play them accurately. Singer Valentine Falcon, for his part, would sound like he was simply imitating the Blood Brothers' Johnny Whitney if not for a powerful sense of creepiness that, in a way, outdoes even the Brothers' piercing menace. The sum of these parts is an opaque mess, a slurry of thumping, pounding, whining, screeching noise that commands attention like hot lava. Ruins's closer, an untitled fourteen-minute dirge, embodies the dread and livid paranoia of the Get Hustle majestically, as Avila and Mann maintain a throbbing loop that fades in and out under Falcon's schizophrenic rant about the "Revolution Man" and the "yellow van right outside my door." Its oppressive horror recalls Drive Like Jehu's most frighteningly anarchic moments, but in a milieu that, while a bit less listenable, is perhaps more appropriate.
The January Taxi
Keep Quiet, They Might Hear Us
The January Taxi sounds to me like the missing link between Jawbreaker and Jets To Brazil -- or, more appropriately, a cross between Dear You and Four-Cornered Night, perhaps with a hint of Spanaway for epic guitar-ness. TJT also reminds me a lot of Liars Academy for some reason -- lots of comparisons, I know, but they're a good thing (to my ears, at least). It would be really easy for this album to blow, mainly because the genre of melodic emotional rock that TJT treads around in has been so overdone by this point that most bands sound like innocuous, manufactured clones of one another. Fortunately, The January Taxi manages to infuse the songs with enough post-hardcore energy and abrasiveness to rise above the crowd.
Apparently, their tracks have been played on MTV and Fuse, so I'm glad that the guys in TJT are getting some recognition. Unfortunately, I've recently read that the band had to go their separate ways so that the members can concentrate on the "real world." I think that the band recorded a full-length before they split up, so hopefully that will see the light of day, and maybe The January Taxi will see fit to reunite and tour in support of it. It would be nice to have another band out there creating pop that isn't pap.
Wolves for Winter
Little Mountain is the band name for Josh Deeters, who does the typical singer-songwriter thing on Wolves for Winter. The four songs are mostly solo with occasional minimal accompaniment, but the focus is on the guitar and the songs (although Deeters gets in the way on occasion). With one exception, his songs are all about the uncommitted, emotionally unsure young man that everybody was at one point (and might still be, though we'd hope not).
"Draw a Little Heart in the Sand" has a nice melody; lyrically, it's stream-of-consciousness, and Deeters's stream just keeps flowing. There's one nice line in the chorus that goes "footprints like instructions to a strange dance," but the rest of the lyrics go on a little too long, and the melody can't sustain them. Moment of foreboding: the first time the song slows down, which Deeters really, really likes to do.
"The Ballad of Fanni + Simon" is the only one that's not really about himself -- it's about a guy who tries to break his girl out of jail, but he gets thrown in jail with her (okay, if this one is about him, too, I'll give him a lot more credit). The vocals get a little cheesy, but the story is interesting enough that it's only mildly irritating. He does the same breakdown thing at the end of "The Ballad of Fanni + Simon" that he did a couple of times in "Draw a Little Heart in the Sand," which is amusing.
"Thieves" features some pretty guitar work and a decent melody, but the lyrics are kind of vague, circling around his great theme. Then there's "Oh... Lost Sons," which, despite its Will Oldham-esque title, turns out to be a long, overdone Bowie-esque folk song (again on his great theme). There's one nice moment at the end of "Oh... Lost Sons" where the harmonies sound like wolves, but the rest is annoying. And yes, he does that slowing-down thing one more time.
It's not offensive stuff, and people in their twenties who haven't heard anything else like it will probably remember it fondly. But for the rest of us who have grown up a little bit, it's mostly irrelevant -- not bad enough to hate, but not good enough to really be worth your time.
The Silver Age
Morning Spy is a poppy quartet from San Francisco, and on the band's new record, The Silver Age, the songs encompass a range of feels, from rocking and energetic to calm and mellow -- although even the energy of the loud ones is pretty contained. The band has two singers, Jon Rooney, (who sounds kind of like Robyn Hitchcock, and who writes the songs) and Allison Goffman (who's got a nice voice, dreamy and youthful). They seem to be as interested in arrangements as anything else; the production varies from song to song, giving them all different feels.
A number of the songs sung by Rooney don't work that well, unfortunately. The arrangements are fine, but the melodies are weak. "Princess Vancouver" tries too hard to be a pop song and just gets old. A lot of his lyrics are dorky -- a line like "A haggard rider rode up beside her and said the world is not dead / He offered no proof, just the promise of the temple in the square" relies more on making it rhyme than on making it say anything interesting. The keyboard part is pretty cheesy, to boot (and not helped by their use of the "Strings" setting). Some of his songs succeed ("Ask Us to Dance" is a pretty song), but a lot of them have the same problems ("Sugar Witch" gets really irritating).
The songs sung by Goffman are more interesting. She sings my favorite two, "Foggy Filter" and "Overnite." The latter is their most mellow and atmospheric song, aside from the instrumental closing the album, but it doesn't rest on the atmosphere -- it's also got a simple and beautiful melody and a great guitar riff. The band adds just enough variations to the arrangement and dynamics keep the thing moving but not so much that it takes away from the sleepy mood (particularly with regard to the discipline of the drumming). I'm still not completely sure what the lyrics mean, but since it seems at least partly to be about confusion, I suppose that's appropriate. "Foggy Filter" is faster and more rocking, with a simple, catchy melody and sturdy guitar part and overall, it's just as good a song. In the end, if Rooney wrote more songs for Goffman, they'd really have something. But the songs he writes for himself don't work as well.
Under A Billion Suns
Yep, Mudhoney are still around. I know, I can't believe it, either. I have to admit that I had really lost track after the band after Tomorrow Hit Today, and I'd assumed that they had gone their separate ways long ago. Boy, is there egg on my face. I still haven't heard anything from Since We've Become Translucent (which is apparently the only actual new album that I missed), but Under A Billion Suns proves Mudhoney to still be alive and kicking in a big way. This is actually fast becoming my second favorite album of theirs (Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge being the first). Longtime Mudhoney fans will find that familiar sound still very much intact -- although Mark does seem to be a little less warbly in his vocal delivery, to me. Not that it matters one way or the other; we're not talking about a James Hetfield-ian vocal change, here. This is obviously still Mark Arm belting it out as only he can.
The rest of the band kicks it like they always have, in that rollicking, chaotic-yet-tight manner that you know so well. I actually don't detect a lot of Superfuzz by way of the Big Muff, but maybe that's because it's a bit lower in the mix this time around. One notable addition to Mudhoney's sonic palate is the horn section that shows up on a good deal of this album's tracks. From what I can tell, Mudhoney began utilizing the brass on Translucent, and I'm actually glad they decided to keep that approach on Under A Billion Suns, because it works. The horns mesh really well with the band's signature sound, surprisingly so, in fact. I'd actually like to see Mudhoney take the horn section out on the road with them (they might be doing this already, I'm not really sure), because I think the fans would love it. It's nice to see that as one of the only two bands left standing from the grunge explosion (the other being Pearl Jam), Mudhoney is still Mudhoney, still "keeping it real," yet trying out new things that actually could add to their sonic legacy rather than floundering and making choices out of desperation. Color me impressed.
Conditioned by the Laugh Track
On Conditioned by the Laugh Track, Sloppy Meateaters feel like a band that's trying to rip their way out of their own collective skin. At their core, they're a Warped Tour-playing pop-punk band that shares the stage with the second-string Blink-182s of the world, but with this album, they seem to be waging some kind of internal battle over what they really want to be as a band. Are they punk? Are they good ol' boys from the wilds of Georgia? Are they dark, mysterious atmospheric rockers? I don't know, and I get the feeling that the Meateaters themselves don't, either.
On songs like "Stop (Snake Mountain)," that internal struggle comes to the fore. For about half the song, the band mines a countrified rawk groove, but halfway through they switch gears and turn it into a full-on hardcore blast...only to stop a second time and dive into a droney, sung-spoken meditation on the nature of existence. Hell, it's like three songs packed into one, with no real clue as to which one they're really aiming for. "The Ballad of Boo Radley (Unwavering Band of Light)" does something similar, again starting off with a stop-start, backwoods kind of country-rock thing but then slowing down at the halfway mark and mutating into a sinister, Jesus & Mary Chain-esque head-nodding groove (which, incidentally, beats the heck out of most what's come before by that point).
The bad part, unfortunately, is that the mixing and matching of styles doesn't always work. When the band changes things up, it's not the most natural shift, but is instead fairly jarring -- in a few spots, the song stops completely, so much so that I have to check to see if I've gone to a different track entirely. Worse still, sometimes it seems like the band's just doing it so they can say they can, not for any reason related to the song. At the end of "Lusting Heavy (Castle Greyskull)," for example, the heavy rock guitars fade out, there's a few seconds of utter silence, and then a delicate, pretty acoustic guitar plays for a few more bars. And why? The song, for all intents and purposes, is done -- why prolong it with something completely unlike the rest of the song, especially after creating such a solid, "finished"-sounding ending?
Given that problem, it's hard for me to say what Sloppy Meateaters should do. I enjoy the dark, death-obsessed Alkaline Trio-isms of songs like "Run Mary Run," "Alone and Wicked," "Lusting Heavy," and "Daywalker" (one of the highlights), and the Far-meets-Jets to Brazil rock of "Truth in Rations" is absolutely the perfect way to close out the album, but at the same time it's nice to see them trying to incorporate different elements and distinguish themselves from relatively generic pop-punk bands like some of their Warped cohorts and labelmates. Whatever they do, I think they're going to have to either pick something and stick with it -- whether it's pop-punk or country-rock or whatever -- or work harder at integrating all the different elements they're trying to use more seamlessly. Up to you, guys.
"Ask Me If I Care" starts off the Speeds' four-song EP with a promising if unoriginal roar: punky but not punk, it's a high-velocity snarl along the lines of Sahara Hotnights' "Keep Up The Speed," full of blaring guitars, a bad attitude and ripped-throat screaming. It's not a song on which to stake a career, but it's energetic and just melodic enough to raise expectations that the other three songs don't bother trying to meet. "Go Away" looks at the menu above and selects only "bad attitude," building its chorus around the lines "You should go away / I can't stand your everything" while the guitars grind away in a manner probably intended to be menacing. The Speeds turn to power pop with a vaguely psychedelic hue (the Mellotron thrown in at the end seems like a random afterthought) on "Nothing At All," which comes across slightly better than "High On Cash," which I can't for the life of me remember a thing about, and I was just listening to it. It's early yet for the Speeds, though, and if they could go either way at this point, they're still ahead of a number of bands who are already done by now.
Thumbsucker Original Score
Based on the novel of the same name, Mike Mills' cinematic indie hit Thumbsucker tells the story of a teenager who adamantly maintains a habit of sucking his thumb. While other external forces view this as an obstacle that he needs to overcome, the film explores all of the other natural but less noticeable dysfunctions of family life. With that kind of a story, what better music to accompany the film than that of the trippy, happy, relaxing variety?
The majority of songs on the score were composed by Tim DeLaughter of the orchestra/cult The Polyphonic Spree; the songs are intricate orchestrations of many different instruments that seem to result in Woodstock reminiscences. You know those scenes in movies where a character runs through a beautiful field and everything is all happy and warm? The music that DeLaughter and his minions produce here can best be described as the soundtrack to those sorts of scenes. The album also contains three previously unreleased tracks by the late, great neo-troubadour Elliott Smith (probably best known for his work on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack). These songs, not unlike his other material, are minimalist yet pleasant ballads of emotion.
This may be the kind of music that you prefer to have playing in the background to create ambiance. On the contrary, you might like to listen to this stuff and sing along. Whatever your preference, this album contains a lot of soft talent and is well worth a listen.
I'm fairly certain that Waits recorded this album, The Rustler, on his 4-track in his apartment. Therefore, you've gotta know up front that the production quality on this CD isn't that great. Regardless, I can't stop listening to this album -- I wasn't a fan before listening to this CD, but I am now.
The album actually came out in 2004 and has probably been lying around the SCR office for a little while now, gathering some dust [Ed. Note: We didn't receive it 'til 2005, we swear...]. That's a shame, because this is inventive stuff. Waits actually has a more recent album out now, called Eurocamp, and also plays in a number of other bands on the Paradeco label (which he runs), most notably Moron Parade.
The quick-and-dirty on this album is that the sound brings to mind a sort of lo-fi cross between the Velvet Underground and early Modest Mouse, with a focus on pop. I can't believe I just wrote that. Throw a Drive Like Jehu comparison in there for good measure. At any rate, it's basically just Daryl on vocals and guitars and his friend Adam King on drums. There are a few really kickass tracks on here, notably "Bingo," "Neu," "Hulk Hands," "Punk'd," and "Optimum." I guess I should point out here that there are 19 songs on this disc and that the average length of the songs is 1.5 minutes. It does make for odd song structures, but that brevity really helps move the album along.
With each track, Waits builds a sort of dissonant wall of guitar and punctuates the noise with alternating spoken-word delivered vocals and a shouted pop warble. Each song is a surprise in the various hooks he'll use to pull you in, throw you off, and then have you shout along. It's a lot of disorienting fun, and I'm really liking it, with "Bingo" being the best example of all this. I had the following line from that song stuck in my head for weeks: "My new number is 57113 / An evil cavity of dangerous reprieve." Nonsensical? Yes. Exciting? You betcha. Check it out, brother.