Atarimatt vs. great unwashed luminaries
I Was a Teenage Metalhead
One of the more intriguing artistic trends in recent years is the reconstitution of the debris of mainstream culture and industry into forms standing at a substantial distance from their original intent. From the sardonic collages of advertising and news broadcasts by Negativland to the recovery of plastic, paper, and other commercial would-be waste for installations and sculptures, recycling appears to have found its artistic side. Atarimatt and great unwashed luminaries both find inspiration in the two sound sources long rendered obsolete but enjoying a degree of renaissance in recent years: the single-bit soundtracks to Atari video games and the synthesized soundtracks to B-grade midnight movies.
As his handle suggests, Atarimatt composes on an Atari 2600. The resulting compositions serve as good introductions to the world of 8-bit electronic music. Despite his avowed love of the thrashy end of punk rock, Atarimatt produces charming little ditties teeming with the binary crunch and squiggle of many a misspent hour playing Duck Hunt. "Space Squid Shakedown" backs up a an eminently hummable sinewave melody with rhythms fit together like a successful round of Tetris -- perfectly even, but full of color. "The Electric Monsters" is aptly named, bringing to mind the frenetic tempo and modulation of the last forty seconds of Megaman's contests with Tree/Ice/Running Man. A remix of AM's own "Commuter" pulls in samples taken from what one can only guess is Logan's Run and fits them over a downsampled electro track that resembles a pitch-perfect 8-bit take on electro and Italo-disco tracks from the 2600's heyday. Despite his instrumentation, Atarimatt proves to be a competent songwriter with enough pop sensibility to keep his music from being relegated to a mere novelty.
great unwashed luminaries trafficks in a different set of antiquated '80s technology. Synthesizers and drum machines are the primary tools here, carrying the faint aura of an entire generation of genre movie soundtracks and furtive high school escapes to Numbers. There are no direct rip-offs of The Burning or Madman here, but sole member Kelly Minnis manages to evoke the same dramatic tension that kept the Class of '85 on the edge of their theater seats and on the dancefloor. The 16th note sequencing and liquid bassline of "Bodyrocking" may very well live up to its title at the tail end of a long D&D session. "Silence Sea & Sky" cruises along like Kraftwerk riding shotgun with Knight Rider in some alternate version of Beverly Hills Cop. It isn't all Me Decade with great unwashed luminaries, however; his remix of Atarimatt's "Commuter" stretches enough to incorporate a cut-up Amen break alongside its synths but falters under its eleven-and-a-half minute length.
Released by the prolific College Station(!) label SinkHole Texas, Inc., this EP is an enjoyable survey of two artists mining new sounds from the obsolete resources of the recent past. As the children of the Me Decade catch wind of them, they may find themselves able to afford forays into other realms of untapped nostalgia. In the meantime, they offer solid proof that there are some portions of the '80s worth remembering.
[Atarimatt & great unwashed luminaries are playing 5/1/09 at Super Happy Fun Land, along with Pretty & Nice, The Dee Use, Tran Tran, & Female Demand.]
Do a little research into this band, and you'll find that they're quite popular with high school crowd, particularly girls. Will features in CosmoGirl and MTV2.com lead to the inevitable appearance on The Hills or the new Twilight soundtrack? Probably not, but all this buzz bodes well for the Oakland quartet, even if I'm a 26-year-old Asian male.
From the start, you get a big dose of Ryan Karazija's vocals, and more than any other band I've heard, Audrye Sessions really revolves around their lead vocals. Karazija confidently soars through his vocal range, going from his natural tenor into a strong falsetto that evokes Muse lead singer Matthew Bellamy. Personally, there are times where Karazija's vocals just feel a bit off, particularly in the chorus and bridge of "Perfect, Sometimes," which sounds strained and forced, while the same vocal style helps make "Awake" one of the highlights of the album.
Audrye Sessions gives quite a bit of variety, which leads to some nice pacing. The insertion of the slower acoustic songs, like "New Year's Day" and the love ballad "Relentless," nicely complement the arena-rock ballad "Where You'll Find Me." The music is purposeful, without any unnecessarily long guitar solos or breaks but still allowing the band to breathe and show off their chops.
The amazing thing is that Audrye Sessions sounds a lot like a band from the UK -- a little Snow Patrol here, a little Badly Drawn Boy there, with just a pinch of Coldplay. It's as if Oakland was secretly annexed by England. It a takes a little time to get used to it, but in the end, you're rewarded with a very satisfying album, even if you're a few years removed from 16.
[Audrye Sessions is playing 5/28/09 at Walter's on Washington, along with Manchester Orchestra, fun., & Winston Audio.]
The Christmas Lights
Walk Like a Human
Treading heavily on the previous footprints of late turn-of-the-century groups such as The Postal Service and contemporary Passion Pit, The Christmas Lights have released their debut record, Walk Like a Human. The record is a remnant of what was once a burgeoning electro-pop scene but which has since become so saturated with artists borrowing and lending that dividing lines are no longer clear.
Walk Like a Human, however, stands on its own as an honest electronic album, with delicate, cascading synths coming in and out of airy textures over jarring, erratic, compact blips and blushes. Recorded in entirety by Kenny Tompkins, the Christmas Lights' debut seems to rely more on the writing aspect of the music than some of its peers, letting the songwriting take the place of a full band ensemble with traditional instruments.
The album's sound, often dark and musing, gives way to sardonic lyricism sung in tight-lipped reservation. The projected single and most exemplary track, "Show Your Teeth," opens with the words, "Talking just feels so ugly/c'mon and show your teeth" backed by an undulating, arpeggiated synth-bass. "Show Your Teeth" presents the antithetical, hook-driven writing that the band opts to use to pollinate their barren, electronic landscape. Other songs, like the progressive "Atlas" and "I Can't Won't Help You" -- both incorporating diffused, machine-like experimental tendencies -- employ the same motifs as "Show Your Teeth" but seem to wilt in comparison.
To the Christmas Lights' credit, though, there are still bright moments on the record beyond that one song. The opening track, "Sign of Life," does a brilliant job of setting the overarching themes of artificial or inorganic life that decorate much of this album to a visceral wash of electronica. Tompkins sings, "No sign of life / left in their eyes / No sign of life / left in mine," as if to forewarn the listener to the curiously inanimate and caustic nature of Walk Like a Human.
"Born Young" is an opulent moment on the record, with an ascending melody in a major mode and lyrics and vocals alluding to, perhaps, a human side to all of the mechanical industry put forth on the album. Other tracks, "Interrogation Song" and "The Water is Gone, The Fire has Come!", show experimental and hard house-style influences but fall short of being forward progress from the album's centralized, minimal, and smooth textures.
This is a defining debut from a talented band, but sometimes it leaves too much out -- it shines, but it does not sparkle. Though, given the scant production, complete use of synths and electronic drums, and the over-arching themes of an unnatural and counterfeit existence in the writing, perhaps that's the effect desired. The gratifying subtle, dark, and conceptual album parades around under the guise of poppy incandescence, which gives Walk like a Human a delightfully deceptive shine.
Down The Pacific
With Down The Pacific, City Light have something of a surprise-attack thing going on. When I first put it in the car stereo, nothing really clicked for me in a major way, and I yanked it back out after only a few songs. I instantly pegged the band's sound as a fuzzy, electronified variety of indie-pop, with half-sleepy vocals, snapping, sometimes-electronic drums, and guitars that blur into synths; basically, a softer, less-intrusive Say Hi, a less-pastoral Postal Service, or maybe a less-popcult-heavy Aqueduct. All of which makes sense, given that the band started out as a Postal Service-esque long-distance collab between Northwestern U.S.-dwelling songwriter Matt Shaw, S.F. hip-hop producer Nick Andre, Aqueduct bassist (and Seattleite) Andy Fitts, and Nashville denizen and Statistics/Intramural/Desaparecidos/general everywhere man Denver Dalley.
And honestly, the above is pretty much what City Light sounds like, at least at a quick glance. When I tried out Down The Pacific with the headphones on, though, everything that I'd dismissed as been-done-before dull haze immediately snapped into intense, attention-grabbing focus. I'm not entirely sure what happened, really, except that there're definitely albums floating around out there that are distinctly "headphones albums," and apparently this is one of 'em. With the earbuds in, the overfuzzed guitar/synths sound massive, a crushing (yet still warm and comforting) wall of noise that provides a bed for the rest of the music to fall into.
The vocals are definitely in Say Hi territory, narcoleptic yet engaging, but they suddenly took on a more desperate, melancholy feel -- especially on "I See," which mixes hip-hop breakbeats and swaying, swirling guitars to nice effect, and opener "Waiting," where the lyrics take on the tone of a patient man about to snap, falling away at the end as the music collapses into stuttering sampled drums. Things break loose from there, though, like with the seriously Bloc Party-esque nu-New Wave of "Let's Not Speak," with its driving beat and sweet lyrics defining the things that both separate and hold a pair of people together.
Then there's "Hang On," which takes the drifting, half-awake vocals and marries 'em to an NWA beat and ultra-fuzzed bass; I'm really digging what I'm guessing is producer Andre's history producing folks like Gift of Gab bleeding through here. It works damn well on the sinister bump of "Hwy 99" and the Radiohead-gone-trip-hop groove of "Cityscape," to boot, turning both tracks into murky slices of an urban soundscape. At the same time, there's some seriously shoegaze-y stuff on Down The Pacific, too, namely "I See You" and the M83-ish "Evil Twin," and even a dollop of Guided By Voices pure-pop gorgeousness (the meditative, gentle "Hour on the Floor").
By the time I get to the soft prodding forward of "Night Train," at the tail end of the album, with its nicely understated, fuzzy/scratchy synth lines, I've had to take that initial dismissal and spin it 180 degrees. I haven't been so happy to have to change my mind about something in quite a while.
[City Light is playing 5/14/09 at Walter's on Washington, along with Her Space Holiday & Benjamin Wesley.]
A full generation after the first release of Culturcide's Year One, I have the unfortunate ability of hindsight, with all my exposure to synth-powered sound, glam rock, garage rebellion, what-have-you. I can only put an album in the path of that train. If I could just turn back the clock...turn it back to when Culturcide was entering cult-phenomenon status, even in that age.
Ronald Reagan was tackling the USSR, building a nuclear arsenal, keeping peace in the world alongside Margaret Thatcher. (How did we make it out of that show?) On the other hand, I get to enjoy a re-mastered disc, and it instantly gets renewed life. The first track of the album -- and one of their most well-known -- "Consider Museums," was issued in 1980, before the band started performing live, leading to the LP Year One in 1982. A bunch of punk poetry, just sort of flung together.
The stuff they did, with cassette recorders and sampling, would be perfected by other artists; they performed with it. Tape loops amplified through a PA? Beck later did the same thing. Every sound on this album is a prelude -- the crude electronic percussion and hazy blips strolling drunkenly across the record. Everything is indicative of a state of culture everyone would later drool about. It's a subterranean sound, not precise.
Year One may sound impotent by today's standards, but maybe it's the jewelry followed by imitations? Give this disc a listen to counterbalance whatever else you've got in your collection.
Euphoria is an apt title for the sophomore release from Swedish group Dead Man, and proof positive that the resourceful Swedes don't exist in camps of polar opposites -- the poptastic indie rock bubblegum kids versus the hairy, hoary death metal set. The two meet in the middle with Dead Man, forming a striking amalgam of hippie-friendly, sun-drenched '70s sounds and proto-metal blues riffage.
Folk-inspired strumming abounds, along with a relative abundance of jazzy chord changes, lending an overall relaxed, lawn chair and umbrella drink vibe to the proceedings, like a '50s-themed poolside cocktail party thrown by ex-stoners. Interrupting the breezy, sunstroked feel, Dead Man interjects plenty of psychedelic effluvia, chord changes darkly reminiscent of The Doors, and some doom-inspired atmospherics. Those moments are themselves fleeting, though, merely adding counterpoint to the overwhelmingly sunny demeanor.
Standout tracks include the Steve Miller-by-way-of-The Band country shimmer of "I Must be Blind" and the spacey flourish and slow, bluesy shuffle of "The Wheel." The only major complaint, unless you can't forgive the time-capsule tendencies, is the occasionally irritating tremolo warbling through the vocals. For those interested in the space-time fold between the light and dark sides of stoner songcraft, however, Dead Man give as good a hit as any.
Kill For Sport
When "Promised Land State Park," the first track on Kill For Sport, kicks in, with its fey keys, understated guitars, and brisk drumming, the album seems to be headed straight for Teenage Fanclub/Belle and Sebastian-esque pastoral pop. It's a feint, though, made apparent when Joshua English's vocals come in, rambling and meandering through a lovelorn road song; English is pop, to be sure, but his songsmithing is far, far more Elvis Costello or Lloyd Cole than Brian Wilson.
In spite of the tats and ironic-hipster shirts, there's a heavy coffeehouse vibe here, and English demonstrates that that's not necessarily a bad thing. The songs on Kill For Sport are warm and comfortable, as easy to slip into as a pair of well-worn shoes, with an echoey empty-stage sound that makes it difficult not to picture the guy sitting on a chair with his guitar, lit by a single spotlight while an unseen cohort plays piano off in the darkness. His voice has an ease to it, too, a self-assured worldweariness made more impressive by his fast-paced delivery.
Then there's the lyrics, all just-shy-of-too-clever wordplay and deft imagery, and the resemblance to Costello, Cole, and, hell, Michael Penn gets hammered tightly home. English's former band Six Going on Seven were essentially a power-pop band at their collective heart, and now that the engine of that machine's left the shed to go out on his own, he's fully embraced the singer/songwriter thing. These songs are smart, they're seemingly aware of their roots, and they've each got a funny little smile on their face as they stroll on by.
Admittedly, the downside to English's sound is that in its utterly friendly, unthreatening-ness, it skirts Adult Contemporary at times. When that happens, though (see "Bested" and "Junk Science," for two that ride the line), he crashes back in with something else, like the Hold Steady-esque testifying and organ-driven sound of "Get It Where I'm Going" or the blazing power pop hookiness of "Morning After The Night Before" (which has got to be one of the cheeriest songs about the death of a family member, by the by).
Stepping back for a look at the whole thing, Kill For Sport stands as proof of English's skill -- he slips and ducks through motifs like he's changing t-shirts, sounding like a well-honed master posing in punk rock clothing. He throws off gorgeously heartwrenchingly stuff like "In Hospitals," the how-did-he-do-that-so-quickly? flash of "Dulcinea del Toboso," or the propulsive country kiss-off "Tall, Tall Tree," songs most folks would struggle with for years, like he's done it all his life and can keep doing it for the duration. Here's hoping he does.
[Joshua English is playing 5/31/09 at the i.am.we House (819 Land Grant Dr., Richmond), along with Justin Blumenstock, and 6/1/09 at Mango's.]
Fair to Midland
Fables From a Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times is True
Fair to Midland were discovered by System Of A Down singer Serj Tankian while on tour; apparently, their live shows are sick, with tons of chops and energy. The album reflects the chops but less of the energy, sort of how Jethro Tull never came across on their albums compared to their live shows. But don't worry, prog-heads: there's more than enough ear-candy here for the most woodshed-y amongst us.
Musically, this album is strong. I love the interplay between the piano and guitar, like the beginning of "Kyla Cries Cologne." There's a ton of heavy jamming as well -- "Seafarer's Knot" slams together heavy bottom-end riffing with arpeggiated musical weaving of a delayed guitar with fleet-fingered piano. "A Wolf Decends" sounds like something you would hear during the hero's montage right before the third act in Beastmaster 2.
Singer Darroh Sudderth is dynamic and controlled, reminiscent of a talented Paul Stanley(?) when singing in his upper register, a serious undiscovered talent. Sudderth has a quirky warble, almost like a minstrel on some of the tracks ("The Wife, the Kids"). Let's hope he doesn't overdo it, like Kevin Martin did (look it up). The drums are sick; I'm really amazed that they aren't programmed. I don't know if that's my problem or the fault of producers for overusing Beat Detective like their first Penthouse.
Make no mistake -- this is about as prog as you can get without resorting to instrumental wankery and self-indulgence, but there's more than enough here for musicians to sink their teeth into. The arrangements are impeccable, every sound is perfect, the mix and mastering are wonderful...
...and it all works, but...
...in the immortal words of Jeremy Clarkson, I want Fair to Midland to reach down the front of my trousers and rummage around a bit. Fables just doesn't grab you like it should. It isn't simple, but it is a bit soulless. On the other hand, I feel this way about most prog music, so your mileage might vary. My musician friends love it, others find it ponderous. I'm somewhere in the middle: a strong musical statement, but missing that shouty bit.
I want the shouty bit.
The Intellect of Apes
I'm conflicted on The Intellect of Apes, the four-song debut EP from Hollywood Black bassist/vocalist Ben Ellis's Framework solo deal. And yeah, what it boils down to, at least for me, is the religion thing -- my heathen self just has a hard time getting past it. I can't completely explain it, but when somebody's singing about God, I get this weird twitch.
That said, I do like Intellect quite a bit, and ironically, it's partly because of Ellis's focus on his faith and its teachings. While I don't necessarily get all of his reasons, I definitely feel and empathize with the bitter fury of jangly, speedy "Poverty's Song," which nears Billy Bragg at points with its driving rhythm and energy. And Bragg himself would probably agree wholeheartedly with the song's condemnation of the neverending pursuit of material wealth.
The same goes for the softer, more subtle "Two Party System," where Ellis acts out a mock trial between politicians on both sides of the aisle (I'll leave it to you to figure out what those sides might be), finding neither one to be a real answer and declaring that they both need to be blown away. A little dramatic, sure, but hell, I get the raw bitterness there, too -- as Ellis jangles and burns, I find myself nodding firmly to myself.
Third track "Christmas Cheer" takes the whole "War on Christmas" theme that gets trotted out every Yuletide season, but thankfully, Ellis doesn't point the finger at them durn lib'ruls, instead focusing his fire on the rampant consumerism that disgusts, well, pretty much everybody I know, Christian or non. (I do feel the need to point out, though, that Christmas most likely wasn't when Jesus was born -- I'm no farming expert, but I'm fairly sure shepherds don't sleep outdoors with their flock in the dead of Winter...)
The most affecting song on Intellect, though, is closer "Swallowing Sovereignty," where Ellis slows down to a deliberate, '50s pop song tempo, just him, a tambourine, and a guitar. Here Ellis has a flat-out conversation with God, and in the process he doubts and questions, refusing to just shrug and go along with what he's been taught God should be. Which makes complete sense to me, since every single person's faith is an utterly personal, individual thing at heart; general skeptic that I am, it's not faith that bugs me, but unquestioning, blind faith.
In the end, Intellect is an intriguing musical journal of sorts, Ben Ellis chronicling the ups and downs of his own faith and the way it works within the shell of the modern world. And while I still feel that twitch occasionally, y'know, I think I finally do get it.
[Framework is playing 6/2/09 at The Mink, along with Western Giants, This Old House, sIngs, & Cedar Boy Bailey.]
The Fresh & Onlys
The Fresh & Onlys
Driven by many different muses, from an obvious fixation on the psychedelic occult to the ability to produce straightforward rock 'n roll, the Fresh & Onlys have provided yet another item to be added to the canon of West Coast psych rock. Drawing from the likes of the cultish Brian Jonestown Massacre and L.A.'s The Warlocks, their songs are simple, unrefined, and tinged with the elemental deeper, double, and many times darker meaning of the psychedelic drama.
Take "Only One I Want," the first song on the second half of the 14-song album, for instance. Backed by chaotic guitars that seem almost too fast and chaotic for Tim Cohen's scrambled, mid-range vocals, he sings, "because the way that you are, you are the only one I want." This would come across as hollow, pedestrian writing were in not for (1) the low-fi production quality, which gives the entire record a warm, spacious, rough-around-the-edges feel and allows for more uninhibited material to make the cut, and (2), when the chorus "Only one I want!" is repeated, it sweeps back and forth between the major and the minor chord, perhaps eluding to psychedelic paranoia and creating a dark side to what would have otherwise been a sunny pop tune.
Other songs, like the Stones-esque opener "Feelings in my Heart," the shiny "Let's Hang," and the revelatory "Love & Kindness," are saved from 1960s, peace-and-love monotony by the Fresh & Onlys' ability to coerce a bit of melancholy into their music. It's this sort of artistic environment the band creates that allows such facile writing while still retaining a level of depth.
Still, the Fresh & Onlys attempt to diversify their sound, and though they don't move far from the path, they do find themselves on different ground. Perhaps the best song on the album, "Peacock & Wing," a concoction of early Strokes, punk, and darling female background vocals, has hardly a hint of psychedelia. And the closer track "Arm's Advice" is a reserved Fresh & Onlys, passing all previous notions to focus on melody and song craft -- and sounding eerily like the Velvet Underground.
After "Arms Advice" and "Peacock & Wing," the band momentarily emerges from the psychedelic mesh with roots, pop-driven rock. "Fog Machine," "I Saw Him," and "The Mind is Happy" all show the Fresh & Onlys on their most sober kicks throughout the album. They canter back forth between jangly, fuzzy surf-rock and macabre hymnal to good effect, but perhaps the more interesting moments on the album are when the band decides to depart from any sort of convention and embrace their inner weirdness. "Imaginary Friends" ("I don't have many imaginary friends / but if I did, I'd live with them / 'til the very end") gives way to playful, sardonic whims, while "Nuclear Disaster" is a mockingly optimistic view of the apocalypse, as if the Fresh & Onlys were saying, "Let's just get this over with already, and move on."
Despite the many-headed psyche that steers the ins and outs of the Fresh & Onlys eponymous debut, a strong panache for straight ahead rock sensibility gives the album cohesion -- just as much an ambitious record from a young band as it is an impressive debut.
Guns Are For Kids
It Takes a Nation of Morons to Hold Us Back
Post-rock quartet Guns Are For Kids may hail from Sydney, the sunny-side Harbour City of the Land Down Under, but the music on the band's latest release, the P.E.-ref-ing It Takes a Nation of Morons to Hold Us Back, sounds like it's just stumbled out of some scary-ass dive on NY's Lower East Side, pre-cleanup. Or, for that matter, maybe out of some dingy pub in post-industrial Leeds.
Nation of Morons is like some bastard offspring of all that messy, chaotic NY No Wave -- James Chance, Swans, Sonic Youth -- and Gang of Four's angular, sharp-edged urban funk. "Cockroach Killer," in particular, is Gang of Four all the way, with its jerky, stuttering rhythms and oblique, shouted lyrics, while "Thanks For Pissing On Me (I Was On Fire Up There)" starts off with a menacing SY-ish drone and flat, somber vocals before building into full-on anthemic noise-rock a la Parts & Labor. There's a turbulent, clanking wildness to it all, like the sound of big machinery gone horribly, intelligently wrong.
While I definitely dug the band's last EP, the scraping, crazed Too Much Red, Not Enough Red, this new release feels a lot more solid. This time out, frontman Oswald Mainstream and drummer Helix Also replaced previous guitarist Ben The Unclear with the much more tightly-wound Audrey L. Carpetbagger (along with bassist Nick Name, who replaced the moved-to-England Reg Artless), and the music's aided immensely by the increased focus. Where Too Much Red skronked itself into a corner, Nation of Morons comes off as the product of a band that knows what the fuck they're doing and where they're going (although going by the band's own rambling diatribes, they'd probably disagree).
Not that they don't still cut loose and go berserk, mind you -- just skip to "Tropical Worthless," the last track on the EP, for wild, freaky-ass insanity. But I think Guns Are For Kids do better when focused, laser-like, on...um, whatever the fuck it is they're yelling about. You got me on that part...
Hymns From Rhodesia
It'd be beyond easy to keep referring to listenlisten as "old-timey" in terms of their sound, but the more I hear, the more of a disservice that too-easy tag seems to me to be to this band. "Old-timey" feels like it connotes a fakeness, a sort of play-acting going on, like SCA dorks at RenFest bashing at one another with padded swords before going home to cable TV and World of Warcraft.
There's none of that here. Rather, listenlisten evoke the weight of ages past in their gloomy, waltz-y, folk-y music, dragging the listener backwards and sideways to a time that maybe their grandfathers knew but which is somehow different, somehow unique in its own right. They sound like they don't meander off to watch reality TV when they finish playing, but instead pack everything up and head back out to a remote cabin in the woods where they can play 'til the wee hours of the morning undisturbed. They step past the pitfalls of shallow revivalism to grab hold of a feeling that itself sounds, well, old.
And bleak. As befits an album that draws its title from a divided, bloodied ex-colonial state now consigned to the dustbin of history, listenlisten offer very little in the way of hope, from the swooning, waltz-y "Funeral Dirge; Burial Service" all the way through to the revitalized new take on "Watchman" (from their self-titled EP). The message of Hymns is less to praise but to warn, warn that the world is a cold, cruel place from which there's only one avenue of escape.
There's an absolute fatalism here, a knowledge that death comes for everyone and could well be right around the corner. The cyclical nature of life and death is captured wonderfully in "On A Rope," a forlorn, resigned backwoods elegy that steps smoothly from the umbilical cord to the noose without much to show in-between. It starts with brutally minimal, somber vocals and guitars, then turns into a stomping, almost defiant hoedown before winding back down to the final moment before the inevitable end. Then there's the polka-ish reel of "A Little," sung from the viewpoint of a bomber pilot dropping firebombs on an unnamed city (Dresden, maybe? or some more recent horror, given the sidewise reference to a "piece of plastic with a magnetic strip"), who initially plays off the utter awfulness of what he's done but seems ready to eat his gun by the song's end.
A welcome bit of warmth here is "Safe Home, Safe Home In Port!," a delicately joyful ode to the relief of coming in from the sea, hale and whole. The whole track is an understated gem, all quiet, gentle rhythms, plaintive/cracked vocals, fingerpicked guitars, and horns. There's also the aforementioned "Watchman," which hints at the uncertainty of the night itself but feels oddly comforting. At the album's end, listenlisten bring things back up a bit, too, with "Watchman, Tell Me" parts 1 and 2, which bear little resemblance to "Watchman" but instead turn out to be sweetly poignant, countrified Appalachian folk.
Otherwise, Hymns is dark and murky and foreboding, sometimes a bit angry (as on the crashing, less-melancholy "Whoever Will") but mostly melancholy and minor-key and low. The instrumentation helps -- band members Ben Godfrey, Shane Patrick, and E. Marshall Graves play a dizzying array of instruments, from plunking banjo to drunken barroom piano to mournful trombone to church-y organ , and enlist friends to add some gorgeously orchestral strings to the affair, all of which give the album its out-of-time feel.
The album technically ends with two "Watchman, Tell Me" tracks, but as good and poignantly sweet as they are, they come off misplaced and tacked-on. For my money, skip ahead after "If I Leave" and then back to the track that truly has to be the closer, "When The Man Comes," which starts off slow but revs up into a mournful, frantic near-rocker that seems to promise salvation and redemption in spite of everything that's come before. When Godfrey, Patrick, and Marshall pound away at their instruments and howl in desperation and fear, an honest-to-God shiver runs down my spine and I start to wonder about what comes after for all of us.
[listenlisten is playing 5/15/09 at Mango's, along with Robert Ellis & Buxton, and 5/16/09 at ArtStorm compilation release party at The Mink, along with News on the March, Young Mammals, Buxton, Roky Moon & Bolt, The Mathletes, Elaine Greer, Alpaca, One Hundred Flowers, listenlisten, The Brood, Giant Princess, & B L A C K I E.]
Crack The Skye
It's a daunting task to follow up a classic breakthrough album. Many bands take the route of making a copy of what got them where they are. Or worse, making an album that they think people will like. Atlanta's Mastodon, fortunately, decided to make an album that they like, and what comes out is a seven-track, 45-minute monument to heavy prog-rock greatness.
With the help of producer Brendan O'Brien, Crack The Skye is an album that slowly unfolds, revealing things with every listen. The story is a bizarre tour de force about a quadriplegic that travels through the astral planes and is returned to his body with the help of crazed Russian monk Rasputin.
I know, I know -- not that same old story again.
Musically, all four members of Mastodon are on their game. The rhythm section has always been solid, with the drumming of Brann Dailor, whose drum fills are nearing legendary levels, and the playing of vocalist/bassist Troy Sanders. Sanders has really elevated his performance this time out; these two work as not just a foundation but as partners with the guitar histrionics of Brent Hinds and Bill Kellihor. The pair's ability to play intricate yet engaging riffs makes the most advanced of MIT shredders green with envy.
Crack The Skye doesnt have a "single" like its predecessors, but every track is engrossing. From opener "Oblivion," with its hypnotic vocal lines, all the way to closer "The Last Baron," the band never sits still. "Last Baron" is an 11-minute epic that flows seamlessly, changing emotion, power, and feel several times throughout. The songs are not overly busy or pretentious like Dream Theater's, but are rather quicksand-like. They slowly pull you in, until there's nothing you can do to resist.
Crack The Skye isn't an album that will grab you from the start. With each listen, you become more and more involved with it, picking up new things along the way. Most albums are not worth that kind of effort; this one definitely is.
I can't think of a decent way to skirt around it, so I'm just going to say it: on their new full-length, Neon Creeps, art-punks O Pioneers!!! truly, seriously remind me of Braid. It's the distorted-yet-jangly guitars that (thankfully) never veer off into hardcore territory, the odd melodic structures within the songs, and the un-rhymed lyrics, but most of all, it's singer/guitarist Eric Solomon's voice. It's raw and throaty and broken, at times like the voice of Braid "second vocalist" Chris Broach (aka "The Screamy Guy"), and yet it still manages to come off strong and unbowed.
There's also an odd resemblance here, to my mind, to Irish folk music, both in the jangliness of the sound and in Solomon's punkish delivery. When he hits his most bitter, roughest moments, I find myself thinking of American Steel's excellent Destroy Their Future, in that Solomon and American Steel frontman Rory Henderson both sing with voices that sound smoke-scarred and desperate, almost with a bit of a folk lilt to the phrasing of it all.
And when it gets to the lyrics, the Braid comparisons go out the window. No Midwest melancholy here, but rather harsh, bitter musings and defiant fuck-yous to the world at large and Houston in specific. In a way, Neon Creeps almost reads like a 10-song love/hate letter to our not-so-fair metropolis, with its constantly shifting landscape and isolated, self-involved people; there's a lot of anger here, but it's anger less at The City itself and more at the forces that make and remake it every fucking year in a never-ending quest for more, bigger, faster, louder, newer. And hey, that's Houston in a nutshell, right there.
As the title probably indicates all by itself, "Dead City Sound" is pretty much the model track for this feeling, with Solomon railing against a city that "eats its history, and sometimes its young," but it's not all negative -- there's a big "sometimes" in there, letting slip that even in his bitter fury, he does still love the place. In fact, that makes it harder; what could be worse than having to watch as something you love gets ripped apart and refashioned every three months? It helps, too, that the song's probably the catchiest damn thing on here, with a fist-pumping chorus and cut-loose break that makes me howl along every single time the track comes on.
Viewing Neon Creeps as an auditory diary of life in this place, it all makes a crazy kind of sense. Solomon grapples with the day-to-day job routines and stresses ("9 A.M. Everyday," "Stressing The Fuck Out," "I Have a Major Weightlifting Problem"), tries to get past all the self-doubt and second-guessing we all, every single one of us, sometimes find surging up and out of our gut ("My Life as a Morrissey Song"), deals with friends and ex-friends who can't see past themselves ("Saved By The Bell Was a Super Good Show," "Chris Ryan Added Me on Facebook"), and gives the finger to know-nothing elitists who try to control the scene we all love ("Cool Kid City"). The album's the story of his life, and to an extent, of yours and mine, too. And it's pretty freaking beautiful for that.
I should note, by the way, that Neon Creeps represents a big, big step up for the band; while I liked 2007's Black Mambas, it always felt chaotic and messy. Creeps, on the other hand, is raw yet focused, tight enough to hold together but loose enough to rock. Which is a little surprising, considering that the songs were written and recorded with three different incarnations of the band over the span of two years, but it's true. The guitars jangle like they always did, but now they're locked, loaded, and aimed right at your head, deadly serious and intent. And while Solomon's lyrics sound like he's a man in search of something, he delivers like he knows exactly what he's doing.
[O Pioneers!!! is playing 5/15/09 at Walter's on Washington, along with Ninja Gun, Mike Hale, This Year's Tiger, & Hobo Mouth.]
I Blame You
Straight out of the hipster bowels of Brooklyn comes possibly the most unassuming yet rawest garage-rock crew you're likely to hear any time real soon. On I Blame You, Obits churn through twelve tracks' worth of driving, dark-as-hell rawk that's at turns drone-y and noisy but never too much of either one. The grim, moody, Sonics-meets-Cramps sound might make you think these four guys -- ex-Drive Like Jehu/Hot Snakes guitarist/frontman Rick Froberg, ex-Edsel guitarist Sohrab Habibion, bassist Greg Simpson, and drummer Scott Gursky, all vets with rock resumes a mile deep -- stomp around their NY 'hood wearing black leather jackets and zombie/vampire makeup, but nah, they're too freaking real for that. Obits aren't about campy costumes but about stripped-down, retro-cool rock; nothing more, nothing less.
Lyrically and vocally, the whole thing spits venom, with Froberg grafting a nearly audible sneer onto tracks like the bitterly sarcastic "Talking To The Dog" and blazing, furious standout track "Pine On." The band's utter confidence comes through in the loose, wide-open playing, but Obits manage to keep things taut and tense throughout, even still. The murky bass, echoey/distorted, almost-surf-rock-y dueling guitars, and threatening rhythm lines push things further along, making the songs on I Blame You sound like they belong on the soundtrack to some never-made movie about a pair of killers that shoot a cop and then hit the road, on the lam and paranoid. You can practically see the movie poster, all bold, scratchy titles, hard faces, and clichéd Mike Hammer-style taglines.
Put all together, this is the kind of band you accidentally encounter in some kind of Dream of the Big City thing during a night of restless near-slumber. You find yourself wandering the streets of a dirty, grimy city that might be NYC, might be somewhere else -- who knows? -- and somehow discover a half-hidden basement door to a smoke-filled club packed with people with murder in their eyes. Up on the low stage, there's a band playing, howling and beating on their instruments to make this sinister, menacing noise. You know, somewhere in your dreaming mind, that you need to get the fuck out of there, get back to your safe, warm bed before something bad happens, but you're transfixed, frozen by that perfectly-placed, utterly dangerous sound.
The prospect of another concept album from Queensryche will most assuredly cause many a headbanger to roll their eyes. American Soldier, however, is a truly unique album in its subject matter and execution. For this album, lead singer/lyricist Geoff Tate conducted several interviews with veterans to get their perspective and stories, then took these tales and molded them into American Soldier. What comes out is an emotional yet flawed tribute to the members of the United States of American armed forces.
The album's tracks run the gamut of a soldier's life. It opens with "Sliver" and the feeling of basic training, complete with a drill sergeant's barking. It then segues into battle-hardened words on "Unafraid" and "Hundred Mile Stare"; the former is unique in that the main lyrics are the spoken experiences of a vet.
The album tackles the very complicated emotions of what happens to a soldier when one of his troops goes down. The gauntlet of emotions, running from guilt to sadness to regret to hopelessness, are tackled on "If I Were King," "Man Down," and "Remember Me." Geoff Tate's daughter Emily makes an appearance on "Home Again," where she sings in the role of a daughter whose father is at war. The emotional extra impact of the father-daughter duet is underscored by the lyrical content of a family making sacrifices. The heavy emotional weight means that this will not be something you pop in with regularity.
You can't make one complaint about how the subject matter is treated. I was a little skeptical at first, but the band does a tremendous job of showing the broad spectrum that is the life of a soldier. While the words are top-notch, though, the music is lacking. At times it seems to work harmoniously with the words, but for the most part, it comes off as cliché. It's a shame, because this had the earmarks of becoming another landmark album.
[Queensryche is playing 5/22/09 at House of Blues.]
Beautiful to Be Alive
Ooh, finally an album of inspirational lyrics created (according to the press release) during a "vision quest" in the Mojave desert -- the supposed endeavor highlighted in her song "Caves of Possibility," where she repeats that exact phrase countless times while throwing in a few other rhyming words such as tranquility, infinity, mystery, reality. "Deep," mind-blowing lyrics like, "Wish I'd wake up from this superficial plastic dream," in the song "Sacred Sex," and "It's beautiful to be alive, the sun in in the sky."
God bless her. This broad wants to go deep, but it's just not happening. After listening to this, Jewel seems like a damn visionary. A lot of the words here are just tragic; this kind of corny mystic imagery is charming coming from 1960s garage bands but doesn't work coming from a whitebread Sheryl Crow/Joan Osborne wannabe. Listen to the Beatles "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," then listen to her "Desert Garden" -- or don't, but I'm sure that's exactly what she did before she wrote it. I just hope she calls it homage.
One song resembles a third-rate B52's, but I'm not going back to check which one. Bland. For a laugh, check the Web for her video interviewing some guru known as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (no, not that one). Silly. For a split second, I was puzzled to find Johnny Rzeznik on lead guitar in her song "Wildflowers" but then quickly remembered he named his band "Goo Goo Dolls." Zoe Scott's Beautiful to be Alive is not one that I could recommend.
So I pick up the case for Palomino; Noush (pronounced New-shh) Skaugen's first release, and on the front cover is a cute, naked girl posing with a guitar covering her goods. Nice. Open it up, and you get more pictures of Noush, and she looks pretty damn good. The packaging looks great, well-produced photos, and one of those cutesy discs that are made to appear like a record. Aw, shucks, but when you see all this flash associated with a first release from an obscure artist, well, you can be damn sure it ain't Scottish. But is it crap?
She won 2007 Alternative Pop Artist of the year with Palomino, so someone must like it. I, however, don't think the disc stands on its own, and from the effort put into the packaging, someone else thinks it doesn't, either. She's hot, and that usually sells, but not so much with music (thank God). Apparently she's showing up on shows such as CSI, Passions, and Entourage, now, and it's no surprise - many TV audiences will put up with anything if the players look good.
So, other than the nice packaging, what do you get with this disc? Five tracks and a video. Track 1, "Gone," is about a lover that is leaving -- he's "washed away," she's "holding on," and "so lonely," etc.; you get the idea. From the uptempo beat, you'd think it was a song about girl power and get some talk of revenge in the end, but you don't. Not a good opener.
"Skid" is on the disc three times; a studio version (track 2), live solo acoustic version (track 5), and a video of track 5. The title is interesting, and I get a little excited about something that could be quirky, but instead I get melodramatic prose about someone else Noush is "in deep" with, and she wants them to "love, live, lie with you next to me," and -- oh, yeah -- "breathing right down my neck." So what about this title? Wait for it: "if I fall and I skid, but I would have lived." Moving on...
...from the song whose title makes me think of bloody knees, to track 3, "5 Weeks Away." It starts off like a serious attempt to channel 10,000 Maniacs, and there are few occasions when Noush sounds just like Natalie Merchant, but as a whole she struggles with the vocals across all tracks. This particular song is again about a relationship, and I get the feeling Noush likes singing about herself. She is "1400 miles away from you" and has "faith in yesterday," and there is more breathing again, with "breathing over me."
Cripes, it's starting to get tough getting through this, and then there comes a break with some record scratching and a "rock the beat" sample, so out of place in the song that I had to back up and listen to the section a couple of more times to believe it. My eyes are starting to hurt from rolling them.
"Beautiful Lies," track 4, is a buried gem. A rough gem, for sure, but a song that shows that Noush has some songwriting potential and a bit of melody. Of course, she is again singing about herself, and someone who apparently lied to her about how they "must go," and has her "hypnotized with [their] beautiful lies." Did I say it was rough? It's hard to forget the past that we had to sled through to get to this point, and unfortunately, the best I can say is that I'd like to hear it sung by someone else, with a few tweaks to the lyrics.
As mentioned, the video is the same live song you get with track 5. Why include a video of the same live track? Oh, yeah, that's right -- she's hot. But the video is laughable -- first off you get a flash of the title of the CD, Palomino, with a voiceover by that deep raspy voice that's in all the movie promotions; I'm not kidding. Then you get to see Noush sitting there looking good. You won't make it through the whole song, but if you stick it out, you'll see why all her songs include a lot of "me," "I," etc. -- she truly loves herself.
I'd say to avoid this one, but everyone has to start somewhere. From the bits I've heard, Noush's new album is nothing like Palomino; whether it's good or not is a subject for another review, but interestingly, she has much more of an accent now. Let's hope it's Scottish.
The Soldier Thread
The Soldier Thread may hail from Austin, but the music they make is far, far chillier than any warm Hill Country night could ever be. Rather, they're distant and detached, like stars in a Northern sky. The lush, atmospheric indie-rock this quintet makes is beautiful but remote, with lyrics that drip with bitter venom all smothered in the fey, Eisley-esque vocals of singer Patricia Lynn; the droning guitars, the sweeping strings, the beautiful boy/girl harmonies (courtesy of Lynn and guitarist/singer Justin McHugh), the delicate keys, it's all a facade of prettiness covering a tamped-down ball of betrayal and shame. By its end, Shapes has the feel of a backhanded insult, its beauty just an empty shell around a core of something very dark.
But hey, as shells go, it's pretty impressive. The music itself draws from similarly atmospheric folks like Broken Social Scene, The Secret Stars, or Denali, throws in some driving, Stills-esque rock guitars, and dabbles in electronica, retro electro-pop, and psych-rock at various points (Dido-esque "The Silver," seriously Killers-ish "Criminals," and closer "Rock 'N Roll," respectively). The similarities to Eisley extend beyond Lynn's vocals, as well, in that the majority of the songs have an ethereal, drifting quality to them but remain rooted in rock, tied to the ground by the band's understated rhythm section.
It's all very dramatic and utterly deliberate-sounding, but surprisingly, it doesn't really suffer for it; rather, it adds to the lonely, distant, resigned feel of things. The high points are scattered throughout, from the trickling, almost Edge-like guitar line in "Make Believe" to the old-school emo tinge of "Northeastern" to the glorious ball of strings-and-distortion near the end of "In the Sky." Oddly enough, one of the most intriguing tracks on Shapes, "Seven," totally throws the band's musical motif out the window -- it's a brief, vocal-less interlude with far-away, echoing samples and playful keys, and it's got a coolly cinematic thing going on that's absent anywhere else on the album.
This isn't a breakup album, not really -- in the case of The Soldier Thread, everything's already broken, and it sounds like it has been for a long time. This is a can't-move-on album, instead, and perfect for those among us who find perverse enjoyment in wallowing in the end of something.
[The Soldier Thread is playing 5/2/09 at Dean's Credit Clothing, along with Alpha Rev.]
Where the hell do I start? Just to get 'em out of the way, let's hit the negatives (such as they are) with Benjamin Wesley's debut EP, Geschichte, first. For one, the disc sadly can't compare to seeing the guy live -- there's just no topping watching, open-mouthed, as Wesley nonchalantly plays bass, guitar, keys, and harmonica (and sings, obviously) all at the same freaking time. He just stands there like a kicked-back, wise-beyond-words sage who knows exactly what the fuck it is he's doing, even if you don't, and serenely plays, shifting effortlessly from one instrument to another or using multiple instruments at once. And good as Geschichte is -- and yes, it is -- nothing can beat witnessing that first-hand.
The only other quibble, really, is the length of the tracks, which never dip below 4 minutes and near or top 6 on half of the songs on here, and it can get a bit wearing at points. Again, live the songs drift and sway and suck you in in a way that makes you hardly care that you've basically been listening to the same beat for more than six minutes, but here I caught myself wondering when the current cool-ass track would end so the next cool-ass track could step in. It's honestly the longest six-song EP I've run across in a while.
Those little caveats aside, though, Geschichte is one of those oddball releases that makes you scratch your head and wonder how in the hell it ever came to be. Wesley (full name Benjamin Wesley Winder, alumnus of bands like Tha Fucking Transmissions and Basses Loaded) stitches together a set of unlikely sounds -- the crazy car-horn sound and Mellencamp guitars on "People Will Never Stop Being Crazy," for one example -- that really shouldn't work the way they do, throws on his mellow-yet-serious lyrics in a rough, cigarette-scratched croon/howl, and delivers it all with an air of somebody who's doing what they want to do and don't care who's watching.
The lyrics veer from the sublime to the silly, confessional and personal but not too intimate, the ramblings of one hell of a talented coffeehouse poet. In the span of one track, Wesley can take a wry, deadpan jab at drinking your coffee Irish while driving and then warn menacingly that, "you haven't seen angry," and sound like he means it both ways. He's rough and tender in equal parts, playing the latter to particularly nice effect on the title track, which is plaintive and sweet in spite of being an end-of-the-world love story.
Musically, the album's a weird, wonderful grab-bag mess of sound, diving headlong into lonesome country harmonica one second, shiny-bright Afrobeat guitar the next, and a Darling Buds-esque melody the moment after that. Wesley melds beats nicely with the instrumentation, in a way that makes me think of the criminally underappreciated Beta Band more than anything else. The Beta Band, in fact, is probably Wesley's closest musical peer; the two share the same mostly flat, unaffected vocals, unlikely-yet-irresistible pop melodies, electronicized rhythms, and trippy, long-running pseudo-psychedelic vibe. Throw in the bits that I'd swear sound like they emanated out of a Soweto dancehall, and the result comes off like Steve Mason & co. covering The Rhythm of the Saints, particularly when it comes to tracks like "Beat Bloody Battle Axes" or awesome closer "Have You Ever Died?"
Except, of course, that it's coming from that one guy standing up there on the stage with the guitar and bass both hanging from his neck, idly noodling on the keyboards while he fingers chords, dances languidly in place, and croons to the microphone like it's the only thing in the room. How do you beat that?
[Benjamin Wesley is playing 5/22/09 at Mango's, along with Spain Colored Orange.]
Pre-emptive caveat time: the copy of Winter Wallace's self-titled EP that a friend handed off to me isn't technically her full four-song EP; all it has is the first two songs on the actual EP available on CDBaby. So I don't entirely know what the whole thing sounds like, although I'm liking what I can hear.
I've been a little burned-out when it comes to quirky, bitter pop-rock divas lately -- there've been way too many Tori Amos-influenced clones floating around out there, it seems like -- but Wallace manages to break past that barricade and make me pay attention, nonetheless. The two tracks on here are astoundingly well-done, gorgeously layered pop-rock that's both murky and jazzy at the same time, drifting darkly from side to side as they roll on. Asher Pudlo's drums are solid but low-key, keeping things nailed down for the guitars, keys, and strings (courtesy of Kris Noland, Sally Tawfik, and Nolan Burke, at various points) to slide across the top.
It sounds crystalline, and I mean that in a good way. And Wallace's breathy, octave-jumping vocals make the whole thing flow beautifully. There is an Amos resemblance, true, particularly on the interestingly-arranged, nighttime-listening second track, "Holiday" (which isn't about an actual vacation, no, but about a person whose appearance makes things feel unusual and new and maybe(?) good), but that's not all of it by a long shot. There's also a fair amount of Fiona Apple's husky, sultry croon in there, nestled alongside the quirkiness of somebody like Regina Spektor, but honestly, she makes me think of Beth Orton more than anybody else.
Like Orton, Wallace can rumble and growl deep and low when she needs to but then belt it out in the very next breath and get high and quavery the next, and she sounds the whole time not like she's "performing," but rather just singing like she has to sing or she'll go crazy. And that works perfectly for a track like "Here's To Everything," which is bitter and self-recriminating, like Wallace is mad at herself for falling for some lame-ass line for the umpteenth time.
[Winter Wallace is playing 5/1/09 at Last Concert Cafe, along with Jacob Meador, The Beautiful Contributors, & Chad Strader.]