Musique Concrete. Krautrock. Spacerock. These are some of the terms floating around in sound-bite bubbles above the collective head of Brooklyn quintet Alex Delivery. Certainly, these are some of the forces at work on their debut album, Star Destroyer. At its best, Star Destroyer combines these elements in elegantly shape-shifting exercises in diametric reconciliation. At its worst, the album winds up a lost train-of-thought, steadfastly chugging along the tracks.
Debut single "Komad" opens the disc with pummeling drums, metallic keyboard squalls, and a minimalist bass line. Through its ten-minute span, "Komad" plays games with melody and noise, like a sonic Ouroboros. Separated into several distinct sections, the song repeatedly finds melody devouring noise, which then in turn devours melody. These changes are not nearly as abrupt or shocking as could be imagined, however. Rather, the parts segue into each other in a very organic progression. If this track can be seen as an evolutionary process, it's clear that melody has the Darwinian advantage; by minute five, the angular, metallic keyboards which dominated the first half of the track have faded to the background, now serving as unlikely support to a very dance-ready mix of keyboard and bass. A string arrangement draws the track toward its close, which offers a fun-house mirror image of its beginning. The metallic noise bursts are back in full force, but now the sound is driven by rudimentary electric piano and a simple vocal melody. If the entire album worked as a macrocosm of this track, the self-contained universality of the whole thing would be wondrous. It would be like a sonic fractal, combining mathematical calculation and mechanism with organic transitoriness in wondrous synchronicity.
"Rainbows" marries a shuffling swing beat with a softly warbling organ and understated, half-spoken vocals. Fluttering just above the surface is a variety of "non-musical" sounds. This track is much more readily approachable than its predecessor, though not as rewarding. The track closes with the de-evolution of melody into pure sound collage, though the transition is awkward, as if the band lost track of where they were going, or got bored, and just threw in some noise for lack of a better idea. This unfortunate ending deflates the melodic impact of the track, without adding anything in its place.
"Milan" seems to promise more of what "Komad" introduced, starting out as a very cerebral quasi-melody supported by understated vocals and various sounds of indeterminate origin. Don't be deceived by the first two minutes, though -- this track is probably the most fully-realized track on the album. Once it begins to slough off the noise-rock trappings, "Milan" ends up sounding like The Sea and Cake imitating Can or Faust. Motorik-inspired drumming hurtles along as shimmery keyboards and New Age bass dance around one another. What sounds like a steel drum should feel out of place, but doesn't. Plucked strings a la The Dirty Three bring the piece to an understated close, marred only by another oddly placed noise concession, which awkwardly wrests control at the final moment.
"Scotty" is an interesting mash up of noise-rock bombast and hurdy-gurdy wackiness. Initially reminiscent of Florida duo The Goslings' brilliant 2006 noise release The Grandeur of Hair, "Scotty" quickly sheds its noisy pretensions, and offers a delightfully tongue-in-cheek respite from the somewhat trying seriousness of the majority of the album.
"Sheath-Wet" is definitely the low point of the album. It's just too long, and not only because, at 11:09, it clocks in as the longest cut on the album; it just doesn't go anywhere. Alex Delivery is not really a jam band, but it tries for that here. The only enjoyable part of the album is the scale-following keyboard lick that repeats periodically throughout the song.
"Vesna" finds the band giving fairly free reign to sound. Aside from a pretty vocal harmony, much of this song is built on ambient sounds, like birdsong. Plenty of shimmering cymbal and occasional marching band drum rolls add an interesting touch. The back half of the song is almost an entirely different composition, having an air of late-period Brian Wilson. Happy and sprightly, this is an interesting way to end what is a largely gloomy record.
When Alex Delivery's blend of style and concept gels, it works alarmingly well. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of potential for pitfalls in this approach. When they are unable to bridge the stylistic gap, they fall headlong into a musical black hole of their own creation, forever frozen (at least it seems that way, at times) on the event horizon of a groove that is too thin to maintain itself indefinitely. When they figure out the ebb and flow, the whole thing comes together organically, only to fall apart again a moment later, only to reconfigure itself again and again; a perfectly designed system feeding off of its own demise.
[Alex Delivery is playing 5/12/07 at The Proletariat, with Frog Eyes.]
Bleeding Diamonds EP
It's hard to believe Nicole Atkins is only 27 years old. I was so sure that the voice coming out of my stereo belongs to someone who's already blown out the candles on her 50th birthday cake. And I do mean that wholeheartedly as a compliment. Which should explain to you how her all-knowing voice will immediately wrap you up and bring you along for a dizzying ride through songs about war, longing, and her New Jersey childhood on her debut EP, Bleeding Diamonds.
From those six songs the hint of alt-country never fades, in both slow piano ballads and moody singalongs. The melodies are never repetitive and always moving along, thanks to her four member backing band (dubbed "The Sea"). They provide the sweeping strings, atmospheric synths and twinkling keys of the piano to create a sparkling world similar in sound to what Eisley did in 2005 with Room Noises.
The strongest part of the album, though, is anything but Eisley-like. It really hits you with "Caroselle", a jaunty barroom piano piece based on the demolishing of Ashbury Park's Palace Amusement Park; it reels in and out with a jagged bass line and frightening clashes of cymbals, but the real chills come in when the playful piano goes solo, dancing along with rumbling drums underneath it.
Atkins' voice stretches to fit the different rhythms and takes freedom in lingering on every few syllables in "War Torn." In "Delora," haunting backing choirs furtively sneak in behind her voice, and there's a storm full of instruments and background vocals that swirl around one another near the end. There is a lot to take in on this EP: the tambourine accents, the start-and-stop bass lines, the flurries of cymbals, and more, all glazed over Atkins' hypnotizing, world-weary voice.
Beyond the Valley of the Barbarellatones
My first mistake was telling Space City Rock editor Jeremy that he could send me whatever he wanted. My second mistake was not getting completely drunk before listening to Beyond the Valley of the Barbarellatones. I really should have known better. The front cover of the self-released disc's sleeve features a banana hammock-clad Robby Quine (formerly of Sex with Lurch), and the track-list on the back (which includes such titular gems as "Gothabilly Gulch" and "Baby Wants a Corndog") should have sent me running for a bottle. Surely a record that sounds like the result of an incredibly drunken, "hey, wouldn't this be funny" recording session would've sounded better if accompanied by some of Kentucky's finest, right?
Unfortunately for me, I was not so insightful as to pick up on this, and thus had to suffer through eleven tracks of surf-glam-gothabilly without the aid of inebriation. For those of you who enjoy the "this-sounds-like-that" method of rock criticism, the Barbarellatones sound like what you'd get if Southern Culture on the Skids re-imagined the soundtrack to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but without wit or skill.
That's really all that's necessary to say about this particular record, though I will leave you with a parting thought, taken from the first track on the album, "Hellhound," the blood-soaked, debauched tale of "Jethro, the Gothabilly Dog": "He'll sniff your bottom oh so fast / Jethro loves the stinky smell of ass / I see two glowing red lights in the fog / the eyes of Jethro, the Gothabilly dog."
New Brains for Everyone
The Brokedowns play hardcore with touches of metal; their sound on New Brains for Everyone isn't unusual, but their singer is -- he's a more subtle vocalist than most. Throughout the album, he sounds like he's enjoying himself. Humor is always the most difficult emotion to convey with screamed hardcore vocals, but he pulls it off.
Even better, though, he's got some great songs to sing. The lyrics are cynical and satirical, targeting politics and American culture in general, and the singer is clearly amused at how fucked-up everything he sings about is. And the band tries to keep us laughing along -- the song "Brains" follows an excoriation of followers and conformists with a chorus that suggests "Issue out / New brains for everyone!" (If only it were that easy.) On "The S.A.R.S. Groove," the quote from the Neil Young song "Ohio" over the hardcore beat makes for a great, amusing combination.
Behind all of this are catchy songs with melodies that don't try too hard. "Brains" is a big anthem that really works, with unison vocals during the chorus that give the song a real boost. "Huge" is probably the best melody here -- it even has a bridge! And when the bridge is over, they add a driving figure that makes the song build and build.
Someone needs to send a copy of New Brains for Everyone to Hillary Clinton; "Brains" would be the perfect theme song for her presidential campaign. After six years of George W. Bush, I think we could all use a new set of brains.
I think some wires got crossed up in the Space City Rock offices. An album like Alice Despard's Vessel usually falls firmly in the stomping grounds of my esteemed associate, Marc Hirsh. I think he may've even reviewed one of Despard's earlier releases a while back. For whatever reason, though, I, the punk/hardcore/metal/loud music guy, ended up with her latest offering. I think editor Jeremy might have mentioned something about "alt-country leanings" in the description -- I can get into that stuff most times. So what the hell, let me give it a try.
Ahem. Okay, here we go: indie. Patti Smith-esque. Hints of Juliana Hatfield. Guitar that's sometimes shimmery, other times jangly, but most times cleanly picked acoustic. Definitely a "coffee house" kind of vibe going on here, for better or worse.
The songs can be hauntingly stark, but sometimes are a bit too long for my tastes, especially since there's very little dynamic to be found within them. Alice Despard does have a neat vocal style, however -- kinda deep alto, not showy or indulgent, and very real. I dig that. Unfortunately, the songs begin to all run together, at least to my ears. Maybe that's because there are no "mosh parts" -- who knows? Apparently this album was recorded in one day in order to bring the listener the experience and intimacy of a live show, and while I didn't dislike it, I think I'd rather just see Alice Despard's show. My guess is that the material translates much better in that context.
And maybe she'll throw in some mosh parts.
I missed Hello Stranger when they played here almost a year ago; I will not miss them again. This is a great pop record, and I'm sure they'll have some new offering by the time they tour again.
"Take It to the Maxx" is all feel-good, Studio 54 disco-pop but done with style and finesse. Not too many guitars, not too many synths, not too little or too much of any one thing, but a perfect combination of just the right instruments. It's all dressed up in a polyester suit with a wide collar, yet this is some not tongue-in-cheek/ironic twist. This record has both futuristic and nostalgic feels to it and is executed perfectly (refer to album's H.G. Wells-ish illustration).
This is helped, of course, by Juliette Commagere's vocals, which are rich, warm, and versatile -- her voice is somewhat reminiscent of the Cardigans' Nina Persson, but only in the sense of owning the songs she sings. Sweet and gentle (when required), swift and serious (in just the right doses); all are applied with a gracefulness much looked-over by this band's contemporaries.
Thematic as this record is, it does veer off at just the right moments. Songs like "Kubrick Eyes," "Let It Ride," and "We Used to Talk" are together a different story of orchestration and presentation from the rest of the album. Gone are the flashing floor lights and mirror balls and out come the acoustic guitars and a more introspective tone. Yet Hello Stranger doesn't lose sight of this "feel" of this record. Every song has strong melodies and plenty of surprises to keep you on your toes. I hear something a little different with each listen. Encore.
There are several things that are noticeable upon listening to Strange House by The Horrors. The first is how come no one has already used this name for a band? Especially with al the metal bands out there and then the legions of mall kids that wanted to be Marilyn Manson; you'd have figured that "The Horrors" was taken. Second is how aptly named this album is. Not since Metallica's Load has a title fit so perfectly.
The Horrors are from London -- that should be a given, since the Brits are the only ones with bands still using the "The." Also, a band as quirky as this could only come from there or from some major city on the coast. No way could a band that sounds like the soundtrack from Repo Man with a keyboard could originate from Middle America. That's either a shame or could mean that only the nose-in-the-air music snobs would think this is great. Case in point: The Strokes.
Describing the band's music is sort of a tough proposal. The allusion to the Repo Man soundtrack, more specifically to the Circle Jerks, but with a way-too-upfront keyboard added, is pretty damn close. Listen to "Draw Japan" or "Thunder Claps," in particular -- the latter evokes the chanting chorus of "TV Party." A more conscious comparison is local weirdos Attic Ted, if the members of that band were in their late teens and wore way too tight jeans.
All of these wacky comparisons may make it seem like The Horrors have made a bad album, and that wouldn't be totally true. Strange House, is good, but it gets very repetitive and, by the end, boring. It would have been nice if the band had done a little more experimenting. There is an instrumental on here, "Gil Sleeping," but it's as interesting as its title. I have a gut feeling that all of the reviewers and writers that have lauded this band with accolades are going to be the only ones who enjoy this album.
Land Of Talk
Applause Cheer Boo Hiss
When I was in my early 20s and finishing up my Masters, I fell in love with Poe. Her first eponymously titled album was a bong in the lightsocket, angry and grooved. Lots of loops and sounds and such, and it didn't really have the sound of a pretty face that had screwed her way to making an album. I was in love.
While discovering Poe, I met a girl, in that one special time where planets align and you get that manna from heaven. Through a number of happy coincidences we started seeing each other, and I ended up in Cincinnati at her flat wearing flannel boxers and walking barefoot on the 150-year-old cedar floors, the two of us enjoying the hell out of each other. She was clearly insane (or not so clearly, at the time), and she might have been on the rebound. And she smoked. And she loved Poe. I used to describe to this girl a deep desire for Poe (in the same way I wish the same thing for Justin Timberlake now) to actually front a band of humans, who played real instruments and not laptops, and let some of that hatred out on top of music that mattered. Of course, it never happened; Poe released an obscure second album that did nothing, and the insane girl left me to "find herself" in the California desert. They were both gone, but neither desire ever died.
Land Of Talk is, in some ways, the fulfillment of that desire. It is Poe singing for Coldplay, in an alternate universe where Chris Martin plays piano and writes quirky chord progressions without opening his emo mouth. Land Of Talk hails from Montreal, Canada, lead by "anti-folk" singer Elizabeth Powell, who taps a wonderful quirky voice that reminds me of my beloved Poe -- airy, pained, yet warm and inviting. The supporting musicians are perfectly lo-fi, lots of solid musicianship without too much polish. Applause Cheer Boo Hiss is a very pretty album, in the way that Manhattan is beautiful: rough, dynamic, emotional but not depressed, with a symmetry that pleases the eye (or, in this case, ear) as long as you don't look too hard at the minutiae. "Magnetic Hill" is probably the strongest song on the album, but there is a great hook (or five) in every song. One of those few albums that get better the more you hear it.
Just like I did 13 years ago, I am falling in love again.
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
Living with the Living
After more than fifteen years of dedicated musicianship, Ted Leo is still searching for his voice. His roots are in D.C. hardcore, but his music frequently draws on folk and British mod-rock. He's political, but he has neither the proletarian singability of Phil Ochs or Billy Bragg nor the impressionistic power of the Minutemen or Fugazi. Most importantly, while Leo has a talent for guitar, a gift for incidental hooks, and a downright beautiful voice, he solos only passably and he rarely pens a memorable chorus.
Living with the Living reflects these conflicts. Leo breezes through marginally catchy maximum-folk-n-B numbers like "Army Bound," "Colleen," and "The World Stops Turning" with an idealism that borders on naivéte, as if he could add a couple of hooks to the right politics to make a good song. As with much of Leo's work, the biggest weakness of these songs is that they're simply not very challenging, for Leo or his audience.
Fortunately, the easy pop tracks are cut with songs that are starting to show a bit of edge. On opener "The Sons of Cain," Leo's honeydew voice cracks into a bracing shriek, a welcome sound that's all too rare for someone who came of age in D.C. His political material is starting to get more canny as well: "C.I.A." closes the album with a indictment, "only you know what you've done," that, repeated, begins to implicate the listener along with the spooks. The ambiguity doubles its punch. Living with the Living's best songs, "La Costa Brava" and "The Lost Brigade," lay understated, personal refrains over wonderfully patient emo-indie builds. Perhaps it's less an "edge" than the twinge of real emotion; when Leo reflects in "The Lost Brigade" that "Every little memory is a song," we get the impression that he's finally collecting the right memories to match his talent.
The Little Heroes
With Cinematic Americana, California's Little Heroes prove amply that you don't need to be flashy or over-the-top to pen (and play) incredible, thoughtful, often heartbreaking music. The band isn't out to wow you by being the smartest or funniest, no, but are rather out to win your heart by being gentle and sensitive -- they're like the musical equivalent of the teenage kid who's absolutely certain that his/her One True Love would eventually pay attention if they could only hear the songs that're pouring out of them. (The difference being, in this case, that the Little Heroes are actually really good songwriters.)
In the process, the band bridges the gap between late-'90s emo-pop as exemplified by Clarity-era Jimmy Eat World (think that band's more understated, melancholy stuff) and that whole crop of bands from slightly earlier in the decade who worshiped both R.E.M. and the Replacements in equal measure -- Buffalo Tom, Gin Blossoms, Soul Asylum, the less-crappy side of the Goo Goo Dolls, maybe even the Connells, etc. There's plenty of sweet, delicate jangle-rock here, both quiet and countrified on "Come On" or high-flying opener "Flight Plans for Airplanes" and anthemic on fast, driving "Teeth" and the gloriously roaring burner "New End Game." The vocal melodies and structures, though, are Jimmy Eat World all the way, and there's a bitter jolt of punkish adrenaline running through the proceedings, to boot, so Cinematic Americana never gets bogged down in "Runaway Train"-land.
Admittedly, some of the songs on here are so subtle they might slip right by without you noticing, but they're packed so full of pretty melodies and love-just-out-of-reach lyrics that they creep in subliminally, even still. I just spent a half-hour Googling the lyrics to a song that have been running through my head all week, only to realize that they're from the chorus of "Thank You," off the album I'd just finished listening to. Funny -- I could've sworn I'd known 'em forever.
Drums and Guns
As you've no doubt been hearing, Low has recently been moving away from their trademark slowcore sound. Their previous record, The Great Destroyer, added distortion and rock elements, and their new record, Drums and Guns, moves into yet more uncharted territory, adding drum machines, keyboards, and samples. It's not as loud as Destroyer was, but it's no less intense of an experience.
Songwriting-wise, the band has returned from the sunnier melodic peak of Destroyer. The melodies here are in their usual, more melancholy style, which is appropriate given the subject matter (which, by the way, is not as political as the title implies). Despite the drum machines and samples, this is not their big pop move -- the songs here are as desolate as the ones on their other records.
The best songs here are built around the most minimal beats -- "Dragonfly" uses nothing more than looped feedback, and "Breaker" contains a basic beat, some handclaps, and a single-note organ drone. Songs with denser beats aren't as successful; in "Take Your Time," the denser beat doesn't fit the vocal, and on "Murderer," the vocal gets lost amid too much clutter. Which isn't a surprise, since minimalism is what Low does best.
Most bands fourteen years into their careers aren't making music that's fresh and interesting. If they're doing anything, they're usually refining their sound. Low, however, has chosen a different tack -- rather than rest on their laurels, now they're beginning to explore the possibilities out there. It'd be inspiring even if it weren't particularly successful, but they also made it into a successful record, which is even more impressive. If Drums and Guns is any sign, they're just getting started.
A Better View of the Rising Moon
Dammit, I'm stumped. I've been wracking my brain to try to come up with what possibly could've been so big about 1997 the year that it would cause 1997 the band to name itself after it. And I've got no freakin' idea. What, was it that Deng Xiaoping died? The Simpsons
became the longest-running animated series? The big shootout in N. Hollywood
? The band members' collective twelfth birthday?
On closer inspection, maybe it's not a particular event 1997 the band has in mind, but a general sound. Thankfully leaping backwards in time past contemporaries/recent forerunners like Taking Back Sunday or fellow Chicagoans Fall Out Boy, 1997 instead choose to mine those heady early days of emo, back when bands like Mineral and Sunny Day Real Estate ruled the skies. Honest -- had this album been released a decade or so ago, it would've been on Deep Elm or Jade Tree, not a more hardcore label like Victory. And hey, that's great by me; the late '90s were a happy time for yours truly, especially with regard to music. I was one of those sappy emo kids for whom the roaring guitars and shy-boy vocals really seemed to fit perfectly.
So given that, I guess it makes sense that despite my initial misgivings, A Better View of the Rising Moon has burrowed deep into my brain, to the point where I'm roaming around the office muttering bits of songs under my breath (and possibly freaking out my coworkers). 1997 take their love of folks like Mineral and The Promise Ring, with all the catchy, emo-kid bitter lyrics, singalong choruses, jangly/loud guitars, and sweet melodies, and drag it forward into the new century, in the process incorporating some neat little sounds (the playful mandolin in "Garden of Evil," the slight country feel to "The Roads You Can Take" and "Tennessee Song").
Oddly, the band this album reminds me of isn't even strictly an emo band -- at points it's a dead ringer for fellow Midwesties The Anniversary. A Better View brings to mind that band's Designing a Nervous Breakdown in a big way, from the oddly thick guitar sound to the boy/girl call-and-response vocals to the delicate, warm keys (which also bring to mind Mates of State, to boot). While The Anniversary trafficked most of the time in soul-crushing melancholy, however, 1997 do it all with a smile rather than a grimace. The guitars chime and crash, Caleb Pepp and Kerri Mack's vocals swoop and swoon, and there's a sense of cheery joy throughout, even on sadder, slower tracks like "Droppin' Dimes" or "Grace" (which, by the way, sounds like a great Veruca Salt outtake, mostly thanks to Mack's singing).
At the end of the day, I shouldn't really bother trying to figure out where the heck in the musical timeline these kids think they're from. The good part, the important part, is that they're here right now.
I hate to say it -- and maybe it's the sinus infection I've got talking, true -- but Sucks Blood is mostly making the knives behind my eyes stab into my brain that much harder. I definitely admire Coachwhips/Pink & Brown guitarist John Dwyer for being able to funnel his garage-rawk/noise fixations down into the folkier, somewhat poppier songs he does with Thee Ohsees -- there's a lot more of The Kinks here than I've heard on Coachwhips records, for one thing -- but damn, does it hurt.
Thee Ohsees apparently began life as Dwyer's own home recording side project (they've since evolved into an actual band), and that feel still lingers in the lo-lo-lo-fi sound of the recordings on this disc. Each and every track practically skips with hisses and scratches, the instruments not so much on top but scraping thin layers of sound off as they go. It's woozy, dirty, and halfway to psychedelic, like the dirty trailer-park cousin to that whole "freak-folk" movement. According to the Midheaven Mailorder site, the whole thing was produced by Sub Pop songster Kelley Stoltz using "all green energy," and based on the music, I can't tell if they're talking sustainable power or the light from Green Lantern's ring.
Sonically, Sucks Blood resembles the Velvets or more recent lo-fi-sters Comet Gain or The Kills (or, yes, pretty much any Billy Childish project), but the songs don't have the cohesion of those bands; they feel like they're in a constant state of falling apart. Tracks like "You Make Me Sick, Oh Yeah" and "What the Driven Drink" stumble and stagger around like a shipboard drunk, with little shreds of noise and airy sound skittering around around their heads. At points, there are some really nice notes here, like melody buried beneath "It Killed Mom," the languid Grifters-ness of "Iceberg," or the exuberant '60s vibe of "Invitation," but too many of the tracks just amble aimlessly in circles with no real destination in sight.
The capper comes halfway through the disc with "The Killer," 1:30 of pointless, near-ambient noise weaving left to right and back again. Gah. I'm glad to have heard a handful of the tracks on here, definitely, but I'll leave the rest to the Coachwhips fans out there. And hell, despite my grouchiness, I'd be willing to be the band's pretty decent live...
[Thee OhSees are playing 5/3/07 at Super Happy Fun Land.]
Omar and the Howlers
Bamboozled: Live in Germany
It's been twenty years since I last saw these guys play live-- back then it was in Nacogdoches, Texas, at a place called The Market -- and since then have maintained only a peripheral interest in their music, but I was curious to hear the difference two decades and over a dozen albums makes.
Bamboozled isn't the first Omar and the Howlers album to be recorded live in Germany -- apparently they have quite a following overseas, especially in the Scandinavian countries and Germany, where Omar's cowboy style and gravelly voice have made him an iconic Texas bluesman. Kent Dykes, the howling man known as Omar, is a prolific singer/ musician in a great tradition; he plays wild, raucous music that rambles through rock, country, and blues, incorporating influences from Bo Diddley, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, among others.
At fifteen songs, this seems a long set for a live album, but there aren't really any new songs or overwhelming changes to distinguish this album from past ones (it's been only two years since the last live album was released). Aside from a fanatic whistler in the otherwise fairly reserved audience, it's often easy to forget that this was a live event; every song is polished and tight, and the sound is excellent, but the downside of this is that there is little to no improvisation or alteration of what are, by now, quite familiar songs. Everything sounds fine-tuned and really rocking, which is enough maybe for hardcore followers, or a great introduction for anyone new to Dykes' music. In the end, casual fans may find this album superfluous, a greatest-hits endeavor by an artist who has already gone down that road. Still, for what it's worth, there are few if any songs here that don't really deserve to be included in a greatest-hits compilation, and one hell of a compilation at that. And it grows on you somehow.
At times, Omar seems a little toned down here from earlier days. He's mellowed out, the growl subsiding into a more pensive voice, but not to say in the least that it's lacking in soul. Then again, at other times he's wildly rocking, his voice thundering, ecstatically and howlingly contorted. He breathes life into his guitar, as in "Mississippi Hoo Doo Man" and "East Side Blues," a pure blues jam in the line of Led Zeppelin. It may not be the first track to stand out, being somewhat more understated than others, but is one which should not be overlooked; there are moments here which are actually beautiful. Howlers Jon Hahn and Barry Bihm are in seriously fine form, too. The nearly six-minute instrumental "South Congress Blues" ("a true story," according to Dykes) is just one instance wherein Bihm justifies the existence of bass players everywhere, and the drumming here is completely primeval, in the best possible way -- "Magic Man" is another in the same vein. What it comes down to is just simple, straightforward, kick-ass blues rock.
Pit er Pat
Pyramids is Pit er Pat's second full length album. It was recorded essentially live by John McEntire, whom you may know from such hits as Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. If you like the post rock sounds of either of those groups, you might like Pit er Pat.
Pit er Pat was originally formed as a backing band for a singer who suddenly left town. That left the rest of the band to decide what to do about a show that they had committed to play. Instead of calling it quits and scrapping the whole project, they quickly composed and rehearsed new material. Then, apparently enjoying the process, they decided to stay together and repeat it.
The aforementioned process seems to consist of composing and recording songs in a hurry. In fact, in the case of Pyramids, much of the material was actually improvised in the studio. And you can tell. Improvised music doesn't lend itself to changes or complicated melodies, so the songs on Pyramids tend to be of the long-groove variety. The vocal melodies often follow the keyboard melodies and are similarly understated. You don't get key changes or any other fanciness. Sometimes you just don't need fanciness.
All in all, Pyramids makes for a good background album. I don't expect to be humming any of the melodies, though -- in fact, after several listens, I can't think of a single one right now. This may be a good thing, since the last time I listened to it was on a road trip. For that purpose, it seems perfect.
Evil is Job One
Being a pop band in Houston seems to be a hard road to travel. I dunno what it is -- the air, the water, the electromagnetic radiation from all the powerlines -- but over the years, the bulk of the poppier bands I've run across in this town have been, to put it a bit harshly, only somewhat "eh" at best. For some reason, truly great pop-rock musicians from H-town are few and far between; the hardcore/emo/noise bands outnumber the Arthur Yorias and Mike Haagas of this city by a factor of ten.
It's partly because of that dearth of good, solid, poppy music that discs like Program's Evil is Job One feel like such a breath of fresh air. Don't be fooled by the album title -- the songs are earnest, occasionally bitter, and unrelenting pretty and bright, all while never lapsing into sappiness or using the "it's just a pop song" excuse to be lazy about the songcraft. The band definitely worships at the altar of folks like The Smiths and Keane, taking those influences and melding them with a touch of emo-ish desperation (the excellent "Vulture Pub," "Sent by God") and some Weezer-esque rock guitar for a sound that's poppy but not light or dismissable.
The guitars jangle, Byrds-style, the keys burble and bump, the lyrics are sweet in an insecure, shy-boy kind of way, and the vocals hit all the right notes (especially when guest vocalist Liz Wason steps in). The result's a nicely woozy concoction that blends Wolfie's manic energy and synths with Material Issue's more deliberate songwriting, and it's frighteningly addictive. The band saves the best track, "Zebra Zebra Tiger," for last -- it's a low-key, wurlitzer-heavy (courtesy of guest musician Derek Dunivan, who also throws in a fiery guitar solo) bit of pop that could've been ripped right off of an XTC album, and it's freakin' incredible. If that's what Program's got coming later on down the line, I'll definitely be listening.
[Program is playing 5/25/07 at Notsuoh, with Thieves Like Us and The Last Gasp.]
Has a Banner Year
Okay, so there's no way in hell that I'd claim any responsibility for getting somebody to improve musically, but even so, I'm happy to see the change. A few years back, recovering pop-punker and Chicagoan Kris Racer (born Kris Narunatvanich) sent us his last full-length, Time Spent on Airplanes
, and yours truly spent two long-winded paragraphs first praising the songs and then savaging the poor guy's voice
. I can't even entirely explain what I didn't like about it, unfortunately, just that it sounded like he was trying to get over a cold or something. The voice made it hard for me to like the songs, despite how good they actually were.
This time out, Racer appears to have done some serious work on his vocals, and Has a Banner Year shines because of it. The songs have a seriously Posies/Elliott Smith-ish pop bent, all jangly and nicely polished and slathered with beautiful harmonies, and Racer's voice meanders gently in and out of the guitar lines, mostly steady and calm but occasionally working up to a barely-concealed bit of bitter anger. Tracks like "Sharper Than Knives," with the delicate guitars and sweeping vocals, the minimalist, Sebadoh-ish "This Is Your Emergency," and "Lesser Ways of an Office," with it's somewhat speedier, countryish tone, amble into the room with a soft smile and a shrug and just do their thing, and for the most part, they do it right.
Now, time for the "but..." (Oh, come on -- you knew there had to be one, right?) Had a Banner Year sounds great, and Racer's improved vocally by leaps and bounds, but he's also stepped a bit away from the sparking energy he threw off on Time Spent on Airplanes; with few exceptions, the new album's pace is slow and sleepy, nice for lazy summer afternoons laying on the couch in the sunlight, and the production's so smooth it practically gleams. The high level of polish and more laid-back approach to this record, though, takes away from some of the passion Racer generally shows. Less Dashboard Confessional, more Badly Drawn Boy, if you get my meaning.
But you know what? That's okay. Call this the Empire Strikes Back of Racer's oeuvre, if you will -- with Time Spent on Airplanes, Racer proved he had heart and raw talent, with this one he proves he knows what he's doing, and hopefully with the next one, he'll blow us away. (Okay, so I know my Star Wars metaphor falls flat when I get to Jedi; work with me here, people.)
[Kris Racer is playing 5/13/07 at Notsuoh.]
Sedalia's Growtheries EP is just what it sounds like -- it's a nursery for the before-beginnings of beautiful song. In this sparse, echoey, uncooked lo-fi outfit (which is basically one guy, Ross Nervig), you may just find an overgrown barn tilting next to a corn field under a big sky, with tiny sprouts shooting up in a few places here and there in the dirt. In the planting, there's a loose sense of control, along with a Weird American folk/rock sensibility, all directing the raw beginnings of a garden (recorded live on a one-track) while not quite seeming to direct at all. A hint of Devendra Banhart's lo-fi mysterious Oh Me Oh My folk-ness in Growtheries is a unmistakable at first, but it quickly fades as a very new set of quirks and interests takes over and, well, grows on you. Where Devendra purposefully leaves the strands of his songs and ideas untied, Nevrig clearly ties them, creating more conceptually complete if equally non-refined pieces for a new kind of mosaic.
As the farmer with the pitchfork in a rolling Iowa landscape, Nervig certainly has a lucid if hard-to-catch-onto ear for rarefied, unanticipated, and enjoyable sounds. Five voices, two guitars, chimes, a cello, synth, percussion and "dreetar" -- whatever that toy-piano-like instrument is -- contribute to the soundscapes of the Growtheries songs, but given the unconventionality with which they're used, you might never guess so many people (six, total) were involved. The tracks range from the lingering and melodic, like "Regretta Shay (Intro)" and "Big Yellow Buzzards," the latter of which features Nervig's voice over a pair of meandering, angelic female vocals and a bare-bones drumbeat, to the off-tune, catchy upbeat tracks, filled in with a bluesy acoustic guitar in "The Heavens" and "9 Steps to a Little Death," the most uptempo song of the EP. With the haunting, lyrical, dreetar- and cello-supported "Give Up Your Ghost" and the return to high-tempo folk guitar-based "Eyewax," this six-song collection asserts an amazing diversity of moods and tones that sits somewhere on the spectrum between austere sparseness and clear articulation of lyrical ideas.
While it's a major strength of the album, that spectrum-spanning can also be the main cause of criticism of its approach -- it's remarkably successful at invoking a meaningful investigation of an isolated, newly revisited Midwest American Gothic psyche, but the songs can easily get lost in all that space, slop, and vocal off-tune-ness if one doesn't listen very, very carefully. The execution sounds maybe too self-taught, and the beauty of the songs deserves more technical attention and flushing out for an exponentially more powerful version of an already interesting EP.
In other words, Growtheries is just the first sprout of a new set of ideas that deserve a chance to develop the fullness and complexity of a wild, flowering garden, streamlining the elements that don't quite work (like vocals being just too reliably, even irritatingly, out-of-tune) into an environment of word and sound aiming straight for the emotions. It's an interesting listen; keep your ears open.
Sine Qua Non
Le Silence N'existe Pas
Ambient; the term conjures up horrible images of bands whose albums consist entirely of either atonal, single-note compositions or droning, repetitive static. It's a challenge to find good ambient music, but if you can manage to accomplish it, you're bound to hear something amazing. Such is the case with Sine Qua Non's debut album, Le Silence N'existe Pas. The lush, ambient guitar work and skillfully done processing found throughout the album seamlessly blends together all 11 of the record's songs, leaving you in a dreamy state of euphoria. It's hard to explain, but definitely enjoyable. I was kind of hoping this would have been terrible; it would have given me more to write about. This is exactly what ambient and experimental music is supposed to be.
Between Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
Nice guitar...um...but, yeah. Indeed, there's slide guitars and upbeat drums, and a voice that sings rough and ready. This is very Fabulous Thunderbirds-y; bluesy, rocky, and gritty and yet still, perfectly lacking something.
But you already know this; you've heard this music tumbling out of blues clubs and barrooms where weekend warriors congregate hoping to catch something "real" but keep their distance safe. While the music is felt and lived and passed by, graciously.
I went through this record knowing Mr. Sterling's intent, or at least thinking I knew the intent. I'm familiar with the rootsy, even Springsteen-like roughness of his voice. The wailing blues harps, the riverbanks, the empty glasses, the lonely streets; we all know them to some degree or another, but this album's not enticing me to go any further.
Granted, there's an execution and style here that doesn't pretend to be anything but honest. And for an artist to be honest is much appreciated. So if simple, honest music that holds no pretense is your cup of blues, then drink up.
Sur la mer
Prelude to the Sea
So, what happens when members of Tortoise, June of '44, and The Boredoms get together and form a band? Probably not what you'd expect. Atsu Nagayama of Boredoms fame is the mastermind behind Sur la mer, composing the tracks on the EP and recruiting members of the aforementioned bands to help in recording the material. The end result is four songs' worth of minimalistic, instrumental neo-classical music with heavy doses of viola and trumpet. Um. What?
Prelude to the Sea is definitely interesting and innovative work, but at just under 15 minutes, there's not enough music to really sink your teeth into. Supposedly, a full-length album has been recorded and is awaiting release, but seeing as it took five years to get this EP out, I'm not holding my breath. In the end, Prelude to the Sea comes off as a bit of a tease; there's some good stuff, but you don't get enough to truly feel satisfied.
Tammany Hall Machine
Austin's Tammany Hall Machine might not earn points for originality, but they can certainly claim a win based on execution. Amateur Saw occasionally has the air of pastiche about it -- it channels post-Beatles English power-pop with an uncanny accuracy, but it does it with such a command of the style that it is hard to complain.
The album opens with "Mega Lamb," which works a "Green Onions" piano riff and has some spiky guitar that might fool you into thinking your hearing one of those garage revival bands from a few years ago. But press on undaunted, for greater treasures await you: "Farrah" has a sweet falsetto disco strut that will have you Bee-Geeing around the house. It's pop-rock crack, and I would avoid soda while listening, lest your stomach explode. What "Jesus Chrysler" is about lyrically, I don't know or care, but I was a convert as soon as I heard those swirling, angelic harmony vocals.
This is definitely a band where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While Joel Mullins handles the bulk of the songwriting chores and his vocals and keys are right up front, none of the other members are dispensable. Nick Warrenchuk's multi-instrumental talents, in particular, really help the band's sound gel.
Which makes it a travesty that the production on Amateur Saw is so flat-sounding. There are so many good things going on here, so many moments when the brass should be melting your face, little triumphs of arrangement that should jump out at you, but somehow, they don't. I found myself listening closely through headphones to eke out what these guys have to offer, and this is by no means a headphones album. It's a big, brash party album that needs to be heard loud. I'll paraphrase both Reagan and Badfinger by saying: "Tear down this (old grey) wall." Get these guys a bigger studio budget, and I think they'll vaporize it.
I've never met a musician, from Houston or anywhere else, who can reinvent themselves as effortlessly from album to album as Arthur Yoria seems to. Just when I think I've got him pegged, he slips out the side and does something totally off the map from what he's done in the past, whether it's shifting from a smooth seducer
to a freaked-out, amps-on-eleven rocker
or from a rocker to a playful Spanish-speaking troubadour
With Handshake Smiles, then, Yoria's shifted, chameleon-like, from all of those things into, well, himself. He's gotten a little scruffier, growing back/our his hair and beard, he's not wearing the shiny shirts anymore, and the music feels like a throwback to the things Yoria himself probably listened to growing up. Smiles is all a little rough around the edges -- probably partly because it was done just at a friend's house with a borrowed mic, although it sounds a heck of a lot better than it should for that -- and the songs follow suit, heading off in a more bluesy, more '60s-ish direction that "Goodbye Marisa," off of 2006's Something Must Be Wrong, telegraphed.
The guitars are simultaneously rawer and not as up-front as they have been in the past, the bass and drums grind together nicely -- see the break in "Clean For Free," in particular -- and the band seems relaxed as hell. I've heard Arthur play a fair number of these songs live a few times now, so they tend to sound somewhat familiar to me. Beyond hearing 'em live, though, there's just this warm, intimate, friendly feel to the songs, the kind that makes you feel like you've heard them all somewhere before, maybe on a crackly AM radio station back when radio didn't completely suck. Smiles is the sound of a bunch of guys getting together to chill and jam in their buddy's living room.
Except, of course, that they're not playing half-assed Zeppelin or Stones covers, but are instead playing some damn fine songs of their own. Despite the stylistic changeups, Yoria hasn't lost his songwriting touch, thankfully, and there are few weak moments among the 11 tracks on here. The aforementioned "Clean For Free" is easily a highlight, a languid, bluesy rocker that has Yoria declaring bluntly that he wants out (of a relationship, I'm assuming?) with no strings attached, and he doesn't give a crap about the fallout. "Love Song in G" comes off like a '60s rock love song, somewhere in the realm of a less-poppy Push Kings, while "Sandy" aims for Byrds/Teenage Fanclub heaven with an awesome-sounding organ. Then there's the title track, which swipes half a guitar line (and that lazy-summer-day feel, to boot) from "Brown Eyed Girl" and bumps along contentedly beneath the words.
Speaking of which, the lyrics make Smiles strike me as a coming-of-age album of sorts -- although yeah, that's a little silly, given that Yoria's no kid. Call it, instead, a back-to-basics album. The songs are about the everyday stuff we all deal with; no wild rockstar parties here, just down-to-earth lyrics about getting older and slowly turning into your dad ("Should Be"; and Arthur, I feel your pain there, man) or trying to make a living doing what you love ("Handshake Smiles"). Yep, despite being as accomplished an artist as Yoria is, the latter song's a humble ode to being able to just make it by on music. This sounds like Yoria spurning the frantic rat-race of "stardom" and just wanting to be able to live on what he does -- no more, no less.
"Jimmy's Rig" is an understated little folky bit about a friendship gone sour, while "Trash Bag" is a gentle, self-deprecating picture of a would-be lover who might not be the flashiest or coolest but who'll take on all the hard stuff that's involved in a relationship, like doing the dishes or taking out the garbage. And, yep, there's also "Rim Job," which is a sweetly rockin', uh, spiritual/gospel track about sex (duh). And I have to say, while it takes quite a songwriter just to pull something like that off, to turn it into one of the best tracks on an album takes damn near a genius.
Now that I'm thinking about it, maybe I'm making too much of all the stylistics changes Yoria's been through over the past four or five EPs and albums. Rocker, folksinger, pop star -- at the end of the day, they're all the same guy, right? Looking back, though, it sure looks like the progression that led up to now was the collective sound of Yoria learning to live inside his own skin. Handshake Smiles is him actually making it there, comfortable with who he is and where he's headed, leaning back with a beer in his hand and a grin on his face.
[Arthur Yoria is playing 6/7/07 at The Proletariat, with Chris Garneau.]