Band of Annuals
Let Me Live
The first time through Let Me Live, the second album by Salt Lake City's Band of Annuals, I wasn't blown away. Nowhere close, in fact. It felt slow, a little dull, nearly sleepy at points. I just shrugged and turned off the CD, moving on to other things; more quiet No Depression alt-country, nothing new going on. The second time through, though, I was driving slowly home in the torrential Houston downpour, staring blearily at blurry taillights and with the rain hammering on the car's roof, and all of a sudden Let Me Live seemed less like a bore and more like a slowly-unfolding flower.
To be sure, the album's low-key as all heck -- Band of Annuals make me think of Winterpills in that respect -- but that laid-back understatedness masks a startling fact: the music is fucking perfect. No, really -- the male/female harmonies (courtesy of bandleader Jay Henderson and keyboardist Jeremi Hanson) on tracks like the poignant "Lessons Learned" and resignation ode "Thought I'd Have Learned" are utterly flawless, soaring and stumbling exactly where they're supposed to, the guitars crackle and scrape in all the right places, the harmonica sounds like a forlorn train whistle, the slide moans and wails like the wind whistling down a West Texas freeway, the melodies suck you in inexorably and get stuck in your head, the lyrics paint Steve Earle-esque pictures of world-weary characters you could probably meet at that dingy bar down the corner, and the rhythms alternate wonderfully between sorta-upbeat brushed drums and almost-to-the-point-of-gone minimalism. Every single track on here goes where it musically needs to, no more and no less, displaying a level of songwriting talent you don't run across real often (like, maybe since the last New Pornographers album I bought). Simply put, the folks in Band of Annuals know what they're doing, and they've got the considerable skill necessary to pull it off.
It also occurred to me partway through the album that maybe it's finally time to pull the "alt-" off the "alt-country" tag, at least when it comes to bands like this. There's nothing "alternative" about this, really -- they're just plain country, albeit somewhat of a cross-time throwback to both the mellow country-rock of the '70s and the stand-and-sway country exemplified by Patsy Cline. Band of Annuals, to my ears, are plenty "country," enough to be considered full-on denizens of the genre and not just indie-rock dilettantes playing the role (although I'm guessing album closer "Soon"'s not gonna make it onto country radio, since it's basically about a couple needing to get it over with and just have sex). And while country in general ain't my thing, I've got to applaud them for that -- Band of Annuals have somehow managed to make an album of just the kind of country music I do like.
Be warned, mind you, that on a casual first listen you might not be bowled over, much as I wasn't. It's with time that the innate beauty of Let Me Live shines through. The music is sweet and melancholy, gently swaying and rumbling beneath the gorgeous vocals (especially when Henderson and Hanson sing together, although Henderson's voice is plenty nice on its own, too), melding the wounded romanticism of Ryan Adams with the gentle swing of old-time country (think Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys) and the scruffy edges of folks like Son Volt or Lucero. It also occasionally brings to mind Okkervil River's slower, less literary moments, but what the album really sounds like to me is what might happen if somebody stole that earnestly downtrodden Lucero song "My Best Girl" and expanded it into a full suite of twelve songs, all sad and resigned and hitting the bottle hard, with nothing left to rely on in the world but a guitar.
Let Me Live is the sound of a man resigned to his fate, whether that fate means facing a firing squad blindfolded (the Civil War story "Blood on My Shirt"), loneliness on the road ("Mercy"), or plain old-fashioned heartbreak (pretty much every other track). Henderson sings like nothing he could do is going to matter, so what's the point in bothering? He's just there to take what comes, shrug and sigh, and have another round. And while that's not the recommended way to live your life, to be sure, it makes for one hell of an album.
[Band of Annuals is playing 5/29/08 at Boondocks, with Program.]
Only as the Day Is Long
All of the press releases, record reviews, and magazine articles that come from Seattle all say the same thing about their hometown songstress Sera Cahoone: something like, "finally our city is finding its voice and stripping itself from our once-proud grunge aesthetic." Citing acts like Cahoone's ex-band Band of Horses (not actually from Seattle, but the devil's in the details, I suppose), Seattle-ites seem to fancy themselves progressive in the establishment of musical newness, and clearly think they have found something original in the folky Americana roots-rock these types of acts produce. The problem with that kind of provencialism is obvious: Seattle has forgotten (or maybe never knew) that this type of music has been gaining momentum in towns like Omaha, Minneapolis, and Austin for the better part of a decade. That's not to say that the music is bad -- it's plaintive and it's lonely and it's gorgeous (something like pre-Figure 8 Elliott Smith) -- it's just not new. Go to the Austin City Limits festival this year and try not to hear any number of Sera Cahoones peppered amongst the stages.
Of course, none of that is Cahoone's fault, and her sophomore release Only as the Day is Long is beautiful and comforting, kind of like Christmas Eve. There are songs that sound like they belong to Neko Case's voice and David Berman's guitar, songs that are elaborate enough to be moving yet simple enough to stave off musical affectation. When I first heard this record, I was skeptical -- skeptical of the hype, skeptical of the record label, and skeptical of the city in which it came from. But then I listened again, and it stuck. "Baker Lake," "Shitty Hotel," and "You're Not Broken" sound like the Hill Country sounds in mid-October -- airy, leafy, breezy, and worry-free.
Taken as whole, this is a great record, and Sera Cahoone seems to be doing everything necessary to make a name for herself in a city that's full of big names and that owns a royal genealogy. Just chill out and give her time, Seattle; this isn't 1992. The world isn't yours anymore.
The Dagger Brothers
You Don't Have to Be Mad to Be in The Dagger Brothers but It Does Help
About halfway through this album, I came to the conclusion that it must be a joke. I certainly hope this wasn't a serious musical venture. I advise The Dagger Brothers to return the Casios they used for both the drum and the synth tones for the album to the 1980s yard sale where they found them.
Dear Dagger Brothers: you are stuck in the '80s, trying desperately to replicate either Depeche Mode or Tears For Fears (and failing). The vocals are completely comical, as well -- one singer sounds like an out-of-key Adam Green, while the other sounds like Right Said Fred. All of these songs (especially the first, "Sean Ross") sound like B-sides to the Ghost Busters soundtrack.
In spite of all of this, the worst part is the lyrics: take "Wash your mouth and wash your body / smells like Red Bull," and the unforgettable "I had sex last night / I got your text last night." I really suspect, because of both the performance and the actual lyrics themselves, that The Dagger Brothers came up with the words off the top of their heads while on copious amounts of drugs in the recording studio. Unfortunately, that doesn't make up for the fact that as I listen to this sad, sad display, I can actually feel my IQ plummeting: "He wore a hat over his hat / He wore gloves over his gloves / He wore two pairs of everything."
But, in a final effort not to entirely condemn the two British-looking pharaohs on the cover, I am going to assume that this is a satire making fun of bad electronic music, which for some reason is more popular than the good kind. The only other good thing I have to say about this is that the chorus to "Do You Remember The 80's" is actually pretty upbeat and catchy; even still, I defy anyone to put this album into regular circulation.
Honestly, I really tried to enjoy this CD, but I found myself too preoccupied with feeling embarrassed for the Brothers. Let me put it this way: listening to this album was like watching America's Funniest Home Videos; you just feel sorry for the guy who keeps accidentally hitting himself in the groin with a wiffle-ball bat while the nation watches and laughs. Thank God none of these songs is longer than two minutes and forty-five seconds and that most never venture further than a minute and a half.
I whole-heartedly believe that the only time I will ever find myself taking this CD out of the case again is to show friends how hilarious it is. If you're looking for good music, look the other direction, but if you're looking for a cheap laugh at probably the cheesiest thing you've ever heard, The Dagger Brothers' You Don't Have to Be Mad to Be in The Dagger Brothers but It Does Help is just what you are looking for.
Drag the River
You Can't Live This Way
Drag the River sounds a lot like Son Volt. More precisely, imagine Jeff Tweedy breaking off to form Son Volt instead of Wilco -- that's what Drag the River sounds like, complete with poppier melodies and vaguer lyrics. The band centers on two guys who sing and write the songs; one of the guys, Chad Price, is a dead ringer for Jeff Tweedy, and the other guy, Jon Snodgrass, is more distinctive, gritty, and lonesome. Regardless of who's singing, the songs on You Can't Live This Way still sound as if they belong together, even more than Uncle Tupelo's ever did.
They have similar senses of humor -- Price's "Death of the Life of the Party" is almost exactly the same kind of ironic country title as Snodgrass' "Bad Side of a Good Time." Their voices blend in a way that is simple but effective, and the harmonies are some of the the best parts of the songs. Their differences, however, also complement one other: Price has more of the catchier and more immediate melodies, while Snodgrass brings a broader range of styles to the album.
And the songs themselves are almost all keepers. "Death of the Life of the Party" is one of those beautiful sad ballads that still leaves you feeling good. "Rangement" is faster, but still melancholy, with an unusual chord progression and a horn section lifted from The Kinks' "Alcohol." "Bad Side of a Good Time" is a jaunty, amusing closer, complete with barroom piano, that you wish wouldn't end. "Lost Angel Saloon" is another great ballad with witty pedal steel guitar lines.
Drag the River has been around for ten or eleven years, so the consistency of tone should be expected. But quality songs are never a given, and their songs are impressive. Their songs are reminiscent of Son Volt and early Wilco, but they've put their own twist on those bands. And the songs are good enough that it doesn't matter anyway. They carry you away to their own world, and that's what's important.
First To Leave
Forging A Future
Some people just have good yelling voices. Trust me, I know this; I went to military school. And Matt Foster, the frontman for Bay Area band First To Leave, has got the right pipes for scream-singing.
On their second album, Forging a Future, First To Leave sounds like what I would call melodic-hardcore, or post-hardcore, or pop punk -- or some combo of all that. It's a slightly distorted, guitar-driven sound, with that essential quick-paced drum work, but it stays away from the hardcore warp speed where you can't understand a single word. To me the sound is comparable to Lifetime and Saves the Day. The guitars have plenty of hooks and riffs, and the bass has nice runs which really shine through during the breakdowns of the song. Top songs on the CD for me were "Drag the Lake," "Two Guns, One Mile," and "Revival (Starts And Ends)." Favorite lyrics: "What she said was, 'I'll leave the door open' / But what she meant was, 'I'll never let you in.'"
Although the music doesn't differ too much from song to song, at least it has nice changes within the songs to keep things from going stale. So, like most of punk rock, for me it boils down to lyrics, song ideas, and delivery. And Matt Foster definitely delivers on that. He has the volume and his own style, his lyrical ideas are good, and the lines are crafted in an unusual way.
The one complaint I do have is that there are too many losing-the-girl songs. I'd have like to have heard some more songs dealing with some other subjects (there's a whole crappy world out there that could use some screaming at). Maybe that will come on later albums. Reading in the liner notes, however, it looks like First To Leave has changed out its whole lineup except for frontman Foster since the recording of the CD. So, it seems the future is still unsettled for First to Leave.
Noise music is a genre rooted in experimentation. Songs that fly past conventional lengths, guitars played in strange tunings just to see what sounds they yield, volume levels turned up just to see how loud they can go -- you get the picture. But all of these ideas come within a frame. Typically, it seems that guitar-driven post-punk takes on this role, providing a template for bands with noise leanings to work in, from elders Sonic Youth to new kids on the block HEALTH.
This trend is changing, though, and slowly the guitar is taking a backseat to the synthesizer as chief noise and effects maker, as more and more acts are opting to press keys and turn knobs rather than pick strings and strum chords. Entering their ranks is British duo Fuck Buttons, two electro-minded musicians given wholly over to the synthesizer who have combined the visceral elements of noise music with the droning-fixation tendencies of electronica. The resulting creation is Street Horrrsing, a spacious, arctic debut album that sounds near effortless at times.
Each track on the album has plenty of room to breathe, never becoming too crowded or too complex but featuring subtle changes in key and tone, achieving a sort of mesmerizing effect. Opener "Sweet Love for Planet Earth" sprawls over the nine-minute mark, building suspense with thundering synths and alleviating it with airier ones. Following this is "Ribs Out," an aptly titled bare-bones song that uses only a hypnotic tribal drum beat and delayed vocal screeches.
Obscured vocals are used on every track on Street Horrrsing, to varied degrees of success. On most of the album's tracks, they're simply another sound, never taking away from the songs but not always adding a whole lot, either. On tracks where they're used as punctuation, however, as on "Ribs Out" and "Bright Tomorrow," they complement each song and become integral to their development.
Integral to the album's development is "Bright Tomorrow," the beating heart at the center of Street Horrrsing, its bass beat pumping rhythm underneath stuttering, crashing synths and distant vocal squalls. "Bright Tomorrow" feels like the moment the album has been building toward, and it meets this expectation admirably. The album's comedown, "Colours Move," sees a return of the tribal drums and screeches of "Ribs Out," pounding and echoing under grinding synths. The track serves as a summarization of the album, using most of its basic ideas but without sounding rehashed.
Music that wanders as much as Street Horrrsing's invites the mind to wander along with it. In doing this, it's easy to imagine the album as the experiment of two friends attempting to satisfy their own musical curiosities more than to appeal to an audience. And their difficult-to-market-to-the-major labels name seems to further the idea that Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power are making music for themselves. That's not to say, however, that Street Horrrsing can not be enjoyed by anyone else. Rather, the album is one of those that grows on its listener over time, each listen yielding new subtleties and nuances that make the album more and more rewarding.
The Grand Archives
The Grand Archives
The Grand Archives is the latest project from Mat Brooke (Band of Horses, Carissa's Wierd). The Archives' self-titled debut prides itself on being light-hearted and uplifting, and indeed, it's the audio equivalent of a sunny, cloudless day. Seriously, there isn't an unpleasant note on the whole album. This is great -- if perpetual sunshine is your thing, that is.
The opener, "Torn Foam Blue Couch," is textbook feel-good, built on steadily driving percussion and jangly guitar. Soaked with sweetness and mild melancholy, Brooke's airy vocals are paralyzingly comforting. The bliss then cools down a bit with "Miniature Birds," a mellow yet bouncy track. It starts with a whistled melody over harmonica, and the verses have the perfect hint of discordance. The song then ends with a couple of horn breaks, channeling Beulah at their best. Careful craftmanship continues throughout the album: see the washy guitars on "Swan Matches"; the harmonica and bells on "George Kaminski"; the dragging pedal steel in "A Setting Sun"; and the strings a bit before the halfway mark of "Sleepdriving."
In spite of the album's many notable high points, though, there's something exhausting about it all; as easy as the songs are to like, they're just as easy to get tired of. Like the Coldplay-ish reverb-y guitar riff that begins "Index Moon," the album overall feels like a string of stuff you've heard already, and a lot. The only track that really catches you off-guard is the excellent "Breezy No Breezy," an instrumental which comes across as warm and creepy, like a present-day Western. The overwhelming emotional weight of the songs, however, detracts from the genuinely solid songwriting that Brooke is clearly capable of. There's nothing wrong with music seeming familiar, but it shouldn't bore you, too.
Twelve Angry Months
It's said that hindsight is 20/20, and as many musicians age, it often seems to be the case. Musician Scott Lucas started off angry at the Chicago suburbs on 1995's Ham Fisted, slammed relationships and unwanted fans on 1997's As Good As Dead, then railed against the record industry on 2002's Here Comes The Zoo. The band showed more maturity on their last studio release, 2004's Whatever Happened to PJ Soles?, but while Lucas may have mellowed over the years, his anger hasn't abated much. Twelve Angry Months is a concept album based on the aftermath of a bad breakup -- each month gets its own track, and Lucas treats each song as an outlet for venting.
From whining about stolen albums on "The One With 'Kid'" ("Where's all my Kyuss records? / You never liked them before you met me") to ranting against his ex's new fling on "BMW Man" ("She can't really care for you / just another flake who drives a BMW"), Lucas purges his feelings and seems to come to terms with it over the course of the album ("You know we'd never make it anyway," he sings on "24 Hour Break-Up Session").
He doesn't make excuses for his feelings ("I'm allowed to break, when my shit's wrapped too tight / And though it all seems strange, this compulsion to die," from "The Summer of Boats"), and thankfully he never comes off as trite -- though he comes close with a line like, "Only a groupie would want to love me." Throughout the album, listeners get a sense his anger is legitimate -- we've all felt it before -- and drummer Brian St. Clair adds to the mood by creating pummeling beats to accompany Lucas' powerful Zep-heavy riffs and Floyd-y melodies that propel each song to a near slamfest.
Lucas has a good outlet in electro-rock side project The Prairie Cartel (http://www.myspace.com/theprairiecartel
), but it's nice to know that after nearly 20 years, he can still crank out relevant music with Local H. A weeklong sold-out residency at Chicago's Beat Kitchen this month proves that fans are still interested in hearing what he has to say.
Deliver This Creature
It's really, really hard for me to believe that that voice comes from where it does. One of the absolute best things about Cleveland duo mr. Gnome, comprised of guitarist/vocalist Nicole Barrile and drummer Sam Meister, is Barille's singing; frankly, it's incredible. The vocals are one part Tori Amos, two parts Karen O, and one part Jana Hunter, all run through a blues-belter filter and exploding out of Barille's diminutive frame. There's an oddly country-sounding twang to Barille's voice part of the time, especially when she's quiet and mutter-y (hence the Jana Hunter ref), but when the music expands to arena size, her voice expands to match, soaring operatically at all the right points. And then, when things turn nasty, hell, she can do that, too -- see the angry, warning-sounding "Thief" for proof.
Happily, that kitchen-sink motif works for the rest of Deliver This Creature, the band's debut full-length. Tracks like "After the Sun" (one of the disc's several high points) and "Rabbit" veer wildly from quiet, woozily delicate sounds to raw, open-wound rock -- in the case of "After the Sun," the quiet part is some Portishead-ish almost-jazz, and parts of "Rabbit" come off like French cinematic-electronica guy Snooze, but then those sludgy, heavy-as-hell guitars come stomping in and crush the proceedings like Godzilla stepping on a pretty flower. Same goes for "Deliver This Creature," which swings between frantic, aggressive prog-ish rock with a Tool bassline to swooning electronic lushness and right back again. The overwhelming wall of guitars and vaguely psychedelic bent to things occasionally brings to mind Silversun Pickups, but there's less sweetness and more rage going on here.
For the heavy parts, there's definitely a metal influence, too; "The Machine" is thundering and epic post-metal, reminiscent at points of ISIS or Pelican, but unlike those bands mr. Gnome punctuates the bombast with moments of fragile vulnerability. The band occasionally keeps it low-key, as on "Silhouette," which is soft and delicate all the way through, with whispery vocals and Explosions in the Sky-style "lonesome West" echoey guitars, or "Night of the Crickets," which is gorgeous and trippy, a sing-song-y soundtrack to a quiet (yet unsettled) night, but for the most part they ride the loud/soft dynamic to great effect. The album sounds to me like Jucifer might if they were force-fed a diet of Björk nonstop for a full week; it's strange and seemingly all over the place, but pieced together the way it is, it's almost freakishly compelling.
I can't say Deliver This Creature is easy to listen to, because it's really not -- it's somehow intensely uncomfortable, at least for me, and conjures up some truly strange images that creep around the edges of my subconscious as I sit here with headphones on. There's a cracked fairy-tale quality to the music, partly because of Barrile's voice but also because of the lyrics, which reference kings and pirate ships and cursed men and murky things happening at night. It makes me twitch and shudder and wonder what the hell's going on, but then I want to listen to it all again.
[mr. Gnome is playing 5/16/08 at Rudyard's, with Fired for Walking & Treehouse Project.]
My Milky Way Arms
My Milky Way Arms
Dear My Milky Way Arms: thanks for totally ruining my long-time love for (post-Gary Numan, pre-Talking Heads-ish) proto-electronic music. It's over. Forever. And it's your fault. Your self-titled debut EP sounds like a junior varsity marriage between Holy Fuck and Hot Chip, and in five songs you've given me the clearest definition of "mediocre" I've ever heard. There are songs on here that remind me of the color grey, and I hate the color grey. It bores me like mini-blinds bore me, and mini-blinds are really boring.
Synthesizers, drums, guitars, vocals, repeat. Pseudo-philosophy disguised as profundity. Remember when you thought of this lyric: "What one may see as weakness, I see a perfect flaw / The tiniest bit of detail is the greatest small / So when your brain is freakin' over an atom's bond, what will this worry do but drive you to change what's not really wrong"? Oh, man -- I bet you want a take-back.
Or maybe I just don't get it. Maybe I don't get a one-word song (the word, by the way, is "Ooohhh," and the song is called "Sunshine"), or maybe I don't get why you would take the title of a breathtaking and hugely important book (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and name a song after it with the words, "Feeling fifteen, but I'm [enter appropriate age[ killing my stability / 'Cause I feel myself ending an ultra-everlasting brain freeze," giving it its meaning. Is that irony or something else, something like blah?
I know you guys are from Houston, and I love supporting local acts, but come on...gimme something I can use. There's nothing here that makes me want to not turn this record off. It's the same thing again and again, and that's a hard thing to do when creating music that is supposed to be danceable or eclectic or playful. This record just falls flat from the first listen.
Normal Love's musical lineup is basically your standard rock group, but their music is anything but. On their debut album, Normal Love, they play completely composed music. The music sounds like Ruins playing Anthony Braxton-style jazz or maybe 20th century classical music. It's a different sound, for sure.
The interesting thing is that despite Normal Love's rock lineup, the music never really rocks. It's loud, and they use their instruments in rock fashion, but the music itself doesn't have much of what you normally think of as "rock" in it -- no power chords, no driving drums, no guitar solos.
Aside from "Severe Confection," the music was written by members of the group. And though each has their own style, the band makes them all sound of a piece. "Severe Confection" and "Hooks" are the most far-out pieces here -- "Hooks" sounds like a free-jazz improvisation, while "Severe Confection" uses a similar feel but breaks it up with Ruins-style smashes. "The Signal's Coming From Pittsburgh..." Parts 1 and 2 are more linear and flow more but are still dissonant. "Ndugo" actually sounds more like classical music than rock, with the band playing pizzicatto-style on their guitar, except that about half-way in, they add loud drums behind it all. Interestingly, the drummer contributes the most melodic piece here, "The Final Sarcophagus of Darkness," which is the closest thing on the album to regular rock.
The idea behind Normal Love is great -- playing composed music on rock instruments is really inspired. In a lot of ways, it's an extension of the old punk ethos, which shunned any kind of improvisation and placed a premium on loud, edgy sound. It's the sort of thing the Minutemen might have done if they'd been listening to classical music rather than punk rock. It would be interesting to hear Normal Love play stuff that rocks more conventionally, though. If they've gotten this much mileage out of abstract music, they could get just as much out of more structured, melodic music.
The Old Haunts
Strong bass lines and solid chord structure musically define Poisonous Times, the third release from Olympia, Washington, act The Old Haunts. It's evident that this garage-rock band won't have to work late-late nights to keep on the lights, but lead vocalist Craig Extine's loud-twelve-year-old-boy brand of yearning and sadness and loss ultimately turns the work into an intrusive blur.
The quality of the songs is reflective of their previous full-length albums, Fallow Field and Fuel on Fire, employing steady beats and vintage riffs. The first track sets the stage for the album, with guitars that are twinkly and summery. It could almost be considered beach music, if such a genre still exists. It's catchy; it almost had me, but then vocalist/guitarist Craig Extine started wailing and didn't stop the whole way through, although he's checked by Scott Seckington playing bass and Kill Rock Stars stalwart Tobi Vail on drums. They provide the law and order; they keep this album from sliding down the rocky slope with punk and pop and positive gusto.
The album is neither pop nor punk, yet there's too much pop for it to be considered post-punk, plus there's sort of a debauched flavor. And throughout, Extine conveys directly his feelings and doesn't mean for us to search for them. He sounds mad but not confident about where he's been or where he's going. The sometimes manic tone doesn't seem to suit him, though -- he's capable of more. Poisonous Times achieves the middle ground like no record I've heard in a while: equal measures of annoyance and enjoyment. Perhaps it transcends genre, or maybe it doesn't reach whatever genre it intends to fill. It's a dog and cat act.
The Pleasures of Merely Circulating
Four Songs 530 Seconds of Pleasure
The Pleasures of Merely Circulating
The Pleasures of Merely Circulating are from Marfa. If that doesn't ring a bell, it's a town of about 2500 near Big Bend. Far from being one of the innumerable backwards hamlets that litter East, West, North, South, and Central Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Georgia, Marfa is, in part, a thriving, modern artists' community, known for modern art, location filming, and something called "soaring."
So although the Pleasures are a punk trio from a small town, they're not your everyday punk trio that made it out of a shitty small town, like the Gossip. And yet, nor are they exactly cosmopolitan. They do live in West Texas, and it's not as if your average touring band stops there between Austin and L.A. (Sonic Youth hardly qualifying as your average band). Their unusual location, which does away with both the conservatism that sometimes plagues small towns and the competition and variety that drives big cities, may explain some things about their music: it's traditional, but not rooted; intellectual, but not musically intelligent; loud, but not angry; self-aware, but not self-actualized.
Speaking for the music itself, Pleasures' take on punk rock is so conservative as to approach the retrograde. This by itself is not necessarily a drawback, especially considering guitarist Jeanne Sinclair's messy whirlwinds of solos, but it does mean that it needs both conviction and seriously butch sound to work. Four Songs 530 Seconds is thin and weak; it doesn't sound as if the band is really digging in. The self-titled full-length record, which includes re-recorded versions of three of the four songs on the EP, is at least louder, but here, too, the music suffers from production and performances that are too polite.
Sinclair's vocals have their own problems. She has a pleasant voice, but her singing bounces and squeaks, rather than roaring or screeching as Pleasures' ultra-traditional punk songs seem to demand. Combined with her rapid and largely tuneless delivery -- again, neither drawbacks on their own -- it makes her lyrics difficult to understand and further contributes to the general impression of non-badassness. It also doesn't help that the record lacks strong hooks, which, again, is only a drawback because the music is so unimaginative. Sinclair's lyrics are fairly interesting, but without more intelligent and appropriate music to support them, they simply fly by. And on songs like "Unbellyfeel," a rant about American foreign policy, and "Half-Life," a catalog of one-liners from old rock and roll songs, they are too self-conscious to be enjoyable.
The overall picture, from both 530 Seconds and Pleasures, is of a band that is simply playing the wrong kind of music. It's as if the band chose three-chord punk because they couldn't think of anything else, not because they had anything particularly punk-ish to express. The Pleasures of Merely Circulating need to either pick a genre that's more expressive -- perhaps just slow down and explore a little more, as they do on the better-than-average "Orbison's Glasses" -- or dig a little deeper to find something that really makes them angry. International politics does not count.
The Silence We Deserve
Despite being around for eight years already, Swedish metal band Scarpoint has finally released their debut full-length, The Silence We Deserve. The band was started by Henrik Englund (vocals) and Zoran Kukulj (lead guitar), and with the addition of Eric Holmberg (bass), Alexandor Nord (rhythm guitar), and Erik Thyselius (drums), the Swedish revolution was complete.
The album feels like a mixture of Fear Factory vocals and Sevendust riffs. On the positive side, the whole thing was produced by Daniel Bergstrand, who also jump-started such widely known bands as In Flames and Meshuggah, and Peter Gabriel from Lamb of God also gave a hand of inspiration in the making of the new CD. Songs of interest: "Disorder" and "Oblivion."
The Set of Red Things
Who Touches Pitch Defiles Herself
This album brings out a lot of mixed feelings in me. I really like some of it, but then the bad parts are just too bad to let go. The first track, "Between Tangled Wire & Sand Bags," was really sweet; it reminded me a lot of Deloused-era Volta or Volcano!. It was passionate, almost Björk-esque yelps over chaotic noise instrumentation reminiscent of Melt Banana. The Björk-ness of The Set Of Red Things doesn't end there, though -- the breakdown on "Babies," with the throaty, showtunes-y vocals...that was awesome.
But then I got to "Hand Grenades Next Month." The music lost its edge, its innovation. Oh, and the lyrics... They sound as if a bunch of 8th grade mall-goths tried to be Rage Against The Machine, with their pseudo-rise up protest calls. The song is just bad. I go on listening, nevertheless, hoping that maybe it was just a bad track; after all, that's only one out of four now, right?
Unfortunately, the next few songs really turned me off of this album for a number of reasons, almost all of which revolved around the vocals. What an embarrassing mess. I know what they were going for, but if you can't get it down by the time you hit the studio, then cut it from the album or put off recording until you're ready. I know that on "To Every Woman, A Happy Ending," they really wanted to have those punchy rhythmic vocals on the verses, but they should've spent a little more time plotting out the syllables to the beat so it wouldn't sound so strained.
Undoubtedly, my biggest beef with this album is "Hey, Let's Make A Trade," which starts out with the cheesiest first-person mid-battle war diatribe in the history of fighting, followed by the most uneducated, recycled, anti-war sentiments I've ever heard. These are each followed by the magical repetition of the line, "Man, this shit gets my dick hard," which takes away entirely from the message to make the band appear edgy and offensive and ends up making them look like they are trying way too hard to be different instead of actually just being different.
"Vow" brings back the sporadic Lightning Bolt-ish-ness of the first few songs, but after I had to force my way through the heart of the album, I'm too disillusioned to really get into the last couple of songs. They all seem like more of the same, actually taking away from the good part of the album by watering down what little originality I could scrape out of this CD.
The only other part of the album interesting enough to even mention now is the extremely annoying beginning and ending to the last track, "A Subterranean Fire," which sounds like a B-side on a System Of A Down coverband's attempt to write their own music. The music is bland, and the vocals are starting to get annoying.
All in all, I think the cover of the album really embodies the musical content: two ugly, alien-esque creatures, one masturbating the other while he screams in anguish. What does this metaphor mean? That The Set Of Red Things really, really wants to be edgy and experimental and creative and stand for something, but they just aren't that band. It's a struggle for identity, with the band landing somewhere between what they really are and what they think is cool (which isn't cool at all)...and that puts them behind a mask of pseudo-rebelliousness and would-be artsy-fartsy.
Gods of the Earth
Synchronicity, when it happens, can be a truly beautiful thing. I've been stuck in House-Moving Hell for the past month or so, with all my crap boxed and bagged and sitting in one garage or another, and in the process of packing the ridiculous stacks of books in the back of the house, I stumbled across the much-loved copy of Conan of Cimmeria I bought used way back in college. So, here I am, reading Robert E. Howard's pile of half-finished Conan stories, pieced together and finished out by pulp-fantasy cohorts L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, meandering giddily through blood-soaked temples, vicious double-crosses, gloomy marshes, and clashing battles.
Now, back to the synchronicity bit. While I've had to pack away most of the CDs sitting on my desk for a few weeks, I happened to keep out the latest from Austin retro-metal heroes The Sword, Gods of the Earth. And whether it can be chalked up to brilliant musical instinct or sheer dumb luck, I'm damned happy I grabbed this particular CD out of the pile before shoving it all in boxes.
Lyrics-wise, Gods of the Earth sounds like it might well have been conceived as some kind of post-Schwarzenegger soundtrack to a long-lost Conan flick. Guitarist/vocalist John Cronise bellows grimly about icy enchantresses, ancient WMDs, battle-weary warriors, and hideous beings "mere steel can't kill," weaving his own saga of some far-past realm. Which fits pretty much perfectly, considering that it's metal we're talking about here.
Metal bands don't sing about chivalrous knights rescuing princesses, after all -- nope, nuh-uh. They sing about barbarians, rough-around-the-edges rogues like the Cimmerian himself, guys who operate on their own specific code of honor but tend to smash things and slay beasts to survive. Hell, you could even argue that some metal bands take the barbarian thing beyond the music itself, living The Rock God Life of nonstop partying and women and breaking shit. Listening to this stuff while reading Howard, de Camp, and Carter's stories just brings a smile to my face.
And then, three stories into Conan of Cimmeria, I glance at the title of the story: "The Frost Giant's Daughter." Whoa...now that's spooky as shit. See, "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" also happens to be the title of the second track on Gods of the Earth, and both song and story revolve around a white-skinned snow witch who tries to seduce a brave warrior on a tundra battlefield. Which tells me two things: A) me and The Sword probably ought to start our own long-distance book club; and B) I should maybe try for my own psychic show on the SciFi Channel.
Alright, maybe not, but I still can't help but think this is fate, me happening to pick up and read this book while listening to some of the most badass, roaring, doom-y metal this side of Sabbath. Because, hey, neat fantasy lyrics alone do not a killer metal album make (just ask Rush). The Sword have got both sides of the equation down, luckily -- beneath Cronise's sword-and-sorcery imagery, he and second guitarist Kyle Shutt trade razor-sharp leads and crushing thrash riffs Ride the Lightning-era Metallica would've been proud to claim.
Seriously, check out the excellent "Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians" and try to tell me it wouldn't fit nicely next to "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Ditto for "The Black River," although it sounds like it was run through a Queens of the Stone Age filter. The guitars crunch and rumble, thick and menacing, and it's freaking great. Bassist Bryan Richie and drummer Trivett Wingo thunder decently alongside Cronise and Shutt, but honestly, it's the guitars who run the show (although I should note that on the "hidden" bonus track at the end, Wingo's percussion makes my jaw drop). Gods of the Earth makes me want to grow my hair long again and spend all day tomorrow reading every damn fantasy novel I own, with the disc on infinite repeat and the stereo cranked loud enough to piss off the neighbors.
[The Sword is playing 5/29/08 at Rudyard's, with Torche & Stinking Lizaveta.]
Wild Sweet Orange
The Whale EP
There's a certain type of music that, even upon first listen, makes you miss someone; or, maybe more appropriately, makes you miss a feeling. It's hard to explain, really, but we all know this type of music -- songs that touch the nerve of emotion that gets you. Wild Sweet Orange's EP The Whale (out on Canvasback Music) does precisely that.
This five-man band from Birmingham, AL, sings songs about warnings -- warnings about the future, warnings about the danger of remembering the past, and warnings about getting too comfortable in the present. They're songs that want to grab you and not let go, because they are songs about you, songs that are intimately relatable. And because of that, songs that are really fucking good. On The Whale, Wild Sweet Orange move seamlessly between acoustic whispers (listen to "Tilt") and gritty guitar-laden straight rock songs ("Be Careful (What You Want)"), all the while sounding a bit like home would sound if home were set to soundtrack.
Wild Sweet Orange's official press release states that this is "music for the whole family" -- I wouldn't go that far (because some families, as you know, are super lame), but it sounds catchy so I'll go with it. There's a little bit of something for even the most discerning ears, and for a five song EP, The Whale hits the spot.
[Wild Sweet Orange is playing 6/3/08 at The Meridian, with Augustana & Paddy Casey.]