Alcibiades Jones is a power trio that plays instrumental rock. Although a lot of the music on Refraction Mirage is funky in sort of a John Scofield vein, harmonically it's pretty straightforward. With instrumental music there's no singer to make or break the songs, so it's a lot harder to be a really irritating instrumental band. On the other hand, it means you have to come up with something really good to draw the listener in. And Alcibiades Jones doesn't really pull that off very often -- a lot of the guitar player's parts kind of sound the same, and the ones that are different aren't necessarily any more inspired.
There are a few songs here that are decent, of course. "The Villa is Burning" is one of the funky ones -- there's a stop time part that gives it some energy (they really like stop-time parts). The double-tracked guitars give it more variety than a lot of the other songs here, although the part where it goes to half-time sounds like one of those irritating Eric Johnson instrumentals. "Switch" has a nice riff to it and a solo that gets crazy in a Stephen Malkmus way; mostly the solos on this record here are kind of the same, but here he tries something new. (Of course, it's the second-to-last song on the record, so this one is as different as it gets.)
"Down with Uncle Jed" is also kind of fun, but it's the fact that it's the only number with just two acoustic guitars that makes it stand out, not any real qualities that the song itself possesses. It's kind of a banjo breakdown travis-style picking tune with accompaniment on slide, which is nice...but the music doesn't really go anywhere. The melody isn't particularly developed, and it relies on its instrumental break for extra flavor, but the break can't save the whole rest of the song (did I mention they really like those stop-time parts?). Most of the pieces have the same problem as "Down with Uncle Jed" -- there isn't a whole lot going on. The guitar parts in "Honduras" are even worse. They're really clichéd -- they're common guitar riffs that you hear a lot of different places. There's a change to 6/8 at the end that tries to make it interesting, but it's too little, too late (to use another cliché).
"Mirage" starts off well, which is good because it's also the extended jam of the disc. It's got the most developed guitar part, but it's annoying because they don't ever go back to it. During the rest of the jam the guitar player comes up with some stuff that's fine, but nothing on the level of the first part. It doesn't even feel like the piece is intentionally multi-sectioned, because there's nothing else in the jam that compares to it in complexity. So it's a little mystifying that they start things off with the big riff and then just completely throw away.
A lot of the songs sound like they'd be better with a lead singer. Which is an embarrassing idea for an instrumental band. But hey, Bad Brains were trying to play jazz fusion before they got HR, so maybe these guys will be as lucky.
The New You
At first blush, it's tempting to shrug and dismiss these five North(?) Houston guys as just another wannabe alt-rock band, taking its cues from Taking Back Sunday, Fall Out Boy, and all the other bands currently swirling around out there who meld hardcore dynamics with emo melodies and über-hipster cool.
Dig a little deeper into Thee Armada's (not to be confused with the Winnipeg emo band of the same name
; how the hell did that
happen?) debut album, The New You
, though, and the band paints a different picture. The music steers close to Jimmy Eat World territory, with roaring guitars, anthemic choruses, and bittersweet melodies, and despite the dearth of like-minded bands out there, the band pulls it off nicely, from the inaugural kick-in-the-door slam of "Guess I'm Inconvenience" on.
There's a hint of '80s worship on the plaintive-yet-furious "This Flick has Talent," along with a slightly sci-fi, No Knife-ish feel at points, and it works. "The Sinful Bliss" takes on teen love/lust and manages to sound angry, frantic, and madly in love all at the same time, while "Hotels & Heroin" is bleaker, sort of a halfway cautionary tale about the perils of the rockstar life. Closer "Ravensway" is a blistering, snarling rocker, more full-on rawk than anything else on here, and it makes for a good switch (even if it ends with part of a fairly pointless acoustic version of "Guess I'm Inconvenience"). And it's weird, but although I know I've heard this kind of thing about a million times before, the hooks still latch deep into my brain, and I catch myself humming/singing parts of the songs days later.
Weirder still, while the songs are memorable as hell, the whole of The New You feels like it just blazes on through and is gone before you know it. It's a seven-song album, trapped somewhere between an EP and a full-length album, and maybe partly because of that, it leaves me wanting to hear more and thinking that modern alt-rock gets a bad rap critically. I'll grant you that, no, Thee Armada may not be poised to throw the music world on its head; nevertheless, The New You it a catchy, air-drumming-inducing slice of surprisingly well-put-together rock. And it's good.
[Thee Armada is playing 7/15/07 at Reliant Park as part of the Warped Tour, with about a million other bands.]
Mirrored, the debut album by Battles, has been hotly anticipated, partly because it took nearly three years to finally appear, but mostly because the band unites guitarist Ian Williams with drummer John Stanier. Both men are icons to fans of intelligent hard rock: Williams helped reinvent the punk song as a dense cluster of instrumental riffs with post-rock giants Don Caballero, while Stanier defined hardcore crossover drumming with Helmet and later collaborated with Mike Patton and the Jesus Lizard's Duane Denison in Tomahawk.
The pedigrees of the two most well-known members of Battles have turned out to be unreliable indicators of the kind of music that they make together, however. Far more than any of the bands that Stanier or Williams played in before, Battles eschews standard rock song construction. The band creates music not by all playing a song together, but by layering simple musical elements and short riffs on top of Stanier's drumming, rather more like an electronic artist. Indeed, Mirrored sometimes recalls the work of bands like the Liars that have recently rearranged their music around electronics.
This approach to composition makes for unusual and attention-grabbing music, but the band has difficulty wrestling these nonlinear pieces into compelling dramatic arcs. Mirrored's opener, "Race: In," is an example: Stanier's racing drumming and multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton's eerie vocals build up a good head of tension that simply vanishes unresolved at the end of the song. Likewise, "Tij" goes nowhere in particular and takes a good long time getting there, though it has quite a bit of fun with whole-tone scales and loops along the way. The unmistakable Williamsisms of "Tonto," by contrast, build to a chilling release in the middle of the song -- still leaving, however, more than four minutes of wind-down.
Battles also have trouble sustaining a mood. This is in large part due to Braxton, who often seems capable of neither singing in a voice untreated with comical pitch-shifting effects nor inserting these bizarre utterances into pieces that do not seem to call for them, such as the otherwise menacing "Leyendecker" -- though, like a grackle's call, they do fit rather well into the simulated birdsongs of "Bad Trails." Braxton's vocals have the paradoxical effect of wrecking the album's continuity while simultaneously imposing a new continuity derived from his willful and self-absorbed experimentation. The pinnacle of this reappropriation is Mirrored's first single, "Atlas," which hews more closely than any other song to the aesthetics of rock, building gradually on Stanier's tribal shuffle and augmenting bouncing guitar riffs smartly with loops and electronics. Braxton's vocal line fits right in, but his heavily whammied and filtered voice turns the song into a cartoonish romp. The good news is that everyone who's been waiting to hear Donald Duck sing with members of Don Caballero and Helmet can finally relax and enjoy.
Braxton, not Williams or Stanier, is most often the star of the show here. Largely because of him, there has never been another band that sounds like Battles. That uniqueness is one of the best things that Battles have going for them, and it's a very good thing indeed. It would have been nice, however, to be able to say that Mirrored was uniquely listenable as well.
[Battles is playing 6/23/07 at Numbers, with Ponytail & Sharks and Sailors.]
Black Metal Jacket
Black Metal Mission
Naming your band Black Metal Jacket is a pretty bold statement. Not only are you borrowing from one of the greatest movies ever, you're implying that your music is some of the most intense metal ever heard. Black Metal Jacket, however, the jokesters they apparently are, sound closer to the Sex Pistols than Xasthur. Well, the irony's definitely lost on me, and I don't think I'm alone.
The songs on Black Metal Jacket's Black Metal Mission run from punk aerobics classes ("Exercise") to rowdy anthems ("Kill 'em Dead") with minimalist guitar work (another deception of the band's name) and singer Clinton doing his best Jello Biafra impression. The one track that does actually live up to the Black Metal name (or something close to it, anyway) is the final track, which, while still overly punk, features speedy riffing and blast beats and plenty of guitar solos. It almost makes up for the rest of the album's lack of 'em.
45 and 33
"I put the needle down and in between the crackles and pops, I hear the way it used to be." This is the way it used to be: catchy pop songs circa 1983, with touches of present day pop that make it fresh and delightful. Tons of melody, personal lyrical content, and well-crafted songs keep your toes a-tappin'. Lots of influences, from Beatles to Costello, without ever hanging on any particular style. I even heard some references to Replacements-era songwriting and production that make me wish for those days again -- this disc is just the treat for that. Too bad more bands don't write songs like this.
Not since the Bastards of Melody have I heard so many great pop songs strung together in an album. As I was catching up on my reviews, I found that I didn't want to remove this disc from the player. I wanted to hear just what the next song was going to sound like, and guess what? They all have the goods. Man, isn't that somethin'?
Woke on a Whaleheart
Over the past decade and a half, Bill Callahan has gradually evolved from his roots as a lo-fi weirdo into one of the most confident and recognizable voices in the freak-folk movement. With Woke on a Whaleheart, Callahan has stepped, finally, out from behind the mask of his alias, either Smog or (Smog), to claim his rightful place. It's a largely symbolic step, as the musical difference between Callahan and recent Smog work is marginal. Perhaps the name change reflects Callahan's ideas about his own artistic maturity: the pseudonym once protected an unsure, fumbling youth, but now Callahan speaks with a security that needs no disguise. This security shows up in Whaleheart's frank, unhurried opening track, "From the Rivers to the Seas," as a "faith in wordless knowledge" -- in particular, sexual knowledge: "We got in the river, and it groped us / Made us think of sex between us / At a time in our lives before we knew."
This knowledge echoes in the indisputable titular truth from the album's final track: "A man needs a woman or a man to be a man." Whaleheart interweaves sexuality with spirituality, both mythic ("Diamond Dancer") and religious ("The Wheel"), but he always keeps transcendental side grounded in the physical world, as on the album's strongest track, "Sycamore." That song envisions the tree as a source of strength and truth, in a life represented by a boxing ring: "Love in the wild and fight in a gym... / You won't get hurt if you keep your hands up and stand tall like sycamore." It's a subtle but powerful statement, and it exemplifies the peace, wisdom, and wonder that make Callahan one of the best songwriters of his generation.
This is an interesting release by '60s boogie blues band Canned Heat. Known for classic rock staples "Let's Work Together" and "Goin' To The Country," this retrospective concentrates on legendary guitarists Henry Vestine and Alan Wilson. Nine of the fifteen tracks are from the band's glory days, and the album really showcases the bands blues roots. Now, while their hits have become background music for soda commercials, the band came into being by backing legendary but long-forgotten blues man Son House, and it's in that spirit that these tracks live.
In true hippie-jam fashion, the first track, "Parthenoenesis," is over nineteen minutes long. "Mi Huautla" has some great harp playing by Wilson to accommodate the fast-paced boogie blues. The band takes a turn into psuedo-jazz on the appropriately named "Skat." Arguably, the best track on this album is "Terraplane Blues." The song has a slow and dirty feel to it that is reminiscent of long Saturday nights at the Reddi Room. One peculiar thing worth noting, though, is that this "instrumental" CD has vocals on about a fourth of the songs. Even still, this would be a great introduction for new fans of blues or for those that are eagerly awaiting the next Hightailers gig.
The Church of Philadelphia
The Church of Philadelphia
I'm the most secular person you're likely to meet, these days, especially down here in the almost-South. My parents distrusted organized religion, so the only times I went to church growing up were for funerals or weddings. And in my adult life, it's never been something I've really felt I needed, y'know? I've got no issue with how or what other folks choose to worship, by any means, but my own brand of spirituality is something I'm happy with. I've got no need to be "saved," regardless of what creepy guys peddling flyers out in the parking lot seem to think.
At the same time, growing up in semi-rural Texas, I haven't lacked for exposure to explicitly Christian music -- I had friends who were into stuff that ran the gamut, at least back in the day, from Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith to Stryper and that godawful Christian grindcore band my friend Danny listened to just to piss his mom off (he wasn't allowed to listen to anything but Christian music, so he had to get creative). And while I'll grant that it may be fine for some, certainly, I thought the bulk of it was horrible. Pushy, pretentious, annoying, and just plain bad. To this day the words "Christian music" give me this weird tic in my left eye. It drags me kicking and screaming back to the rolling hills of central Texas as they were when I was a kid, all trees, abandoned cars, and creepy roadside churches with signs about the Apocalypse.
With all that in mind, I was a bit hesitant to review Woodlands band The Church of Philadelphia's self-titled debut; this is a band that is pretty firmly in the "Christian rock" camp, with a serious message behind most of the songs. Could I really give it a fair listen, considering my own biases against this kind of thing? I like to think I'm generally open-minded and all that, but it's hard to overcome a lifetime of conditioning. Could I listen to and appreciate the album just on its own merits? I wasn't sure.
As it turned out, I needn't have worried. The Church of Philadelphia is definitely an overtly religious album, but it's not accusatory or sappy, instead balancing somewhere in the realm of personal faith and love -- and how the heck could I have a problem with that? The songs are intimate, about personal demons and the struggles of family to find their way in the world, and they're done so earnestly they make it impossible to suppress a warm, unsarcastic smile.
Admittedly, the music helps. These folks, to put it bluntly, are freakin' amazing musicians -- they sound like they've grown up playing together each and every day (which may be the case, since at least a couple of members are family), bouncing effortlessly off of one another as the songs demand. They swing from stardust-soft atmospherics ("We Were Strangers", "Kingdom of Hearts") to gentle, Hem-esque folk ("Recover," "Patiently") to more urgent-sounding, more "rocking" tracks like "Never Give Up" or "This Time Around" without missing a beat, and the whole thing's gorgeous throughout. Apparently these folks have quite a bit of experience under their belt, separately speaking (playing the Grand Ole Opry and opening for Roger Waters, for two), and it shows. I can honestly count on one hand the number of bands who do harmonies this well, for one thing -- the vocals are heartbreakingly beautiful.
"This Time Around," in particular, is the crowning jewel of the album, a heartfelt, earnest-as-all-get-out roots-rock stomper that comes off like Bruce Springsteen fronting The Arcade Fire at their most majestic. The song builds steadily from simple organ and drums to a near-frenzied, joyful roar, and it's incredible, like a speeding train charging right out of the speakers. It's the kind of song you'd run out and slap down $15 to hear, all by itself, only in this case it's surrounded by seven other equally stunning tracks. Consider those a bonus prize.
[The Church of Philadelphia is playing 7/1/07 at The Proletariat, with Canada & The Papermoons.]
The obvious starting point here is the band's name; who ever came up with "Complicated Shirt" needs to be taken out and beaten within an inch of their life. Following that, frontman Drew Benton needs to have his vocal chords surgically removed so he can never annoy anyone ever again with his godawful, whiny-ass vocals. Finally, the band need to be informed that their intentionally verbose and obtuse lyrics are not anywhere as clever as they think they are.
The most unfortunate aspect of this all is that musically, Complicated Shirt is actually quite skilled. For the brief moments I was able to block out the horrendous vocals, I was enjoying what I heard, despite the fact that I'm not particularly a fan of the post-punk style of music they play. As talented as they may be, though, there's no way it can compensate for the train wreck that is Benton's "singing." This one's destined for the discount bin at the record store...
Cloud is a great name for Cyan's new EP, since this album is soft, fluffy, and light. The love-saturated subject matter, the soft major chords, and upbeat singing made me think of Shakira and Cheyenne, and it would've made more sense to hear a poppy diva belting out the high notes rather than hearing a Ricardo Montalban sound-alike sing the tracks. It comes off as a bit much. This is a pop-lite album that succeeds in making Lifehouse look like Slayer. Perhaps the album is bubble-gummy in order to appeal to a broader international audience, but blanding out the music like this only makes it harder to find any specific group that would enjoy it.
I realize that this artist is from Barcelona, and one might argue that I wouldn't like it because I don't understand it (although, I have spent time in Barcelona and have had a chance to listen to Spanish rock). The only song on Cloud that I actually enjoy, however, is the one Cyan does in his native tongue, Catalan -- "Lo danse de nos reves" is put together very well, and all the Spanish elements come together. His accent didn't overwhelm every phrase, and the instruments matched exactly what he was doing vocally. I could tell he felt much more comfortable singing in his own language than in English. It wasn't my cup of Kool-Aid, no, but I could easily see how the Catalan community could embrace his songwriting.
I'd say this album is a candy-coated love soundtrack waiting to turn into a cartoon puppy with wet eyes. I know Cyan has the talent to be a great artist. Unfortunately, the fact that I am not part of his chief demographic (middle-aged single women?) will keep me from purchasing a Cyan CD. I'd let this Cloud pass over head.
A funny thing happens to me when I review the albums editor-guy Jeremy sends me. I'm an old stodger, hate everything that came out after Lateralus, believe music is terrible right now, etc., etc. So I invariably start every session with a new album with a set of notes that includes gems like:
"Holy fucking hell, these are terrible lyrics."
"_____ might be worst song I have ever heard."
"I used this douchebag's CD cover for a coaster."
Then something happens. I sit down with a drink (or six) and really, really listen. Sometimes my first impressions are correct (a review of my reviews(?) will let you know when I was correct), but most of the time, I'm wrong. Really wrong.
Ronnie Day's The Album is a chronological disaster; not in a Memento sort of way, but in a terrible-iceberg-crashing sort of way, like those relationship disasters that seem to happen in slow motion where you can see the impact, see the ribs of the hull snapping, the prow folding, and, depending on the size of the vessel, the drama of each individual making his own decision: stay on the ship, or jump in and hope.
The Album is Day's heart all over the tape, all over these songs, a story arc starting with the euphoria of a perfect love and life ending with a new understanding of self following a painfully graphic evisceration by his first love. We hear the shock and disbelief, the resignation, and finally the anger and recovery. Every song is written to tell this story, verbose and detailed and perfectly designed to capture the full palate of emotions Day lived during his personal hell and redemption.
The album is broken into four parts, with inserts that are essentially narrative: "Insert 1" separates the euphoria of new love in the first three songs from the second act, where he finds out that his love has dumped him for a drunk at a party, while "Insert 3" presages the almost inevitable internal conversation that we all have when our ex comes crawling back. Do you take them back, or kick them to the curb and move on?
Almost every song is well crafted, but three stand out as signposts along the way. "Half Moon Bay" is all cuddly fuzziness, road trips and smooching in the back seat, a summer of youth when the world is perfect and nothing matters other than your own happiness and future. "Written at a Rest Stop" is brilliant, one of two masterpieces on the album. The other, "Outside," is honest and vicious, for all the gushiness in the first half of the album, lyrics like, "It must be hard living in a castle / counting daddy's monies must be a hassle / proudly you can't abide." Day reflects every man's feeling, the wounded animal, slashing back wildly with claws hidden from the world when everything is clicking.
On the other hand, "Lived, Learned, Loved and Lost" is the weakest song on the album, when it should pack the most punch for where it is in the story (he sees his girl kissing someone else). An opportunity missed.
"Falling For You" is the final trap, where the failed partner calls to have dinner with expected confusion -- Day knows she has failed, and he has learned from the experience, but is worried that she will suck him back in. As a comforting climax, "Past Through" (a workable pun within the context of the album): is it about a new girl? Is it reminiscence? I think the latter, since he says:
"I'm a lucky soul to have these memories /
I will always hold them as a part of me /
Live your life, I hope you find meaning"
No reconciliation there.
I think I need another drink.
Woke Myself Up
You know Julie Doiron. I don't mean you've heard her music before, mind you, either solo or from her time with Canadian indie-rock superstars Eric's Trip. On her most recent full-length release, Julie sings like the best friend you haven't heard from in years, catching you up on her life. Don't expect cheerful, banal ten-year reunion banter, though. Doiron puts her listeners through the paces, grinning along to heartfelt tunes about family and love and barely stifling sobs on tales of missteps, loss, and regret. All this emotional honesty would be tiring in many other guises, but Doiron matches her candor with well-thought-out brevity. With most of the tracks clocking in at less than three minutes, the sweet tunes can't turn saccharine, and the somber ones can't sour the mood.
Many of the songs on the album act as their own interpreters, offering subtextual back-story to their very existence. The title track announces itself thusly: "I woke myself up / To rest my weary head / From all the work I'd done / In those dreams I had." It's as if Doiron is inviting us inside of her creative process, introducing the song and almost apologizing for it, passing it off as the midnight respite of a restless sleeper. The vocals here sound anything but sleepy. Doiron sheds her usual somber-whisper vocal style in favor of an upbeat, almost exuberant approach as she reveals the source of her sleeplessness -- her daughter. "Almost each night / Between two and four / She rolls out of bed / And onto the floor / Sometimes I have to go in / And put her back into her bed, again," Doiron chimes happily. You can actually hear the smile stretching the edges of her mouth and sense the fact that she is on the verge of tears just at the thought of scooping her still-sleeping child off of the floor at three in the morning. This sort of irrationally gleeful tenderness gets me all misty-eyed, as I have often done the same thing for my daughter, with similarly irrational enjoyment.
Musically, Woke Myself Up (both the album and the song, actually) heads in a slightly different direction than fans of Doiron's solo work might be used to. Typically, Doiron's arrangements are sparse, focusing on simple acoustic guitar patterns and hushed vocals. Not since her 2000 release with Canadian rockers The Wooden Stars has Julie released an album with full-band backing on the majority of the tracks. Here Doiron is in familiar company, being supported by former bandmates Rick White(bass, drums, guitar), Mark Gaudet(drums), and Chris Thompson(guitar) of Eric's Trip. As evinced by the fact that the album is released as a Julie Doiron effort, the other band members are here as support, not as a focal point, and they do an excellent job. The structure allowed by an actual rhythm section lends weight to Julie's sometimes flighty, meandering vocals, keeping them rooted in the song while still giving her the room to bend and shape the melodic line. Occasionally, the band is given permission to rock, most notably on "Don't Wannabe/Liked by You," a fuzzed-out rocker reminiscent of the sloppy, loose-legged rock of early Violent Femmes.
Some of the most charming moments on Woke Myself Up pop up when Doiron harmonizes with her self. There's a wonderfully ramshackle element to the way she fuses her voice to itself. Doiron is not overly concerned with timing with her multi-tracked harmonies, allowing them to chase each other around the time signature and up and down scales. This ghost harmony is most effectively, and hauntingly, used on the bass-heavy, head-nodding dance-folk of "No More" and the bad-dream, semi-psychedelic "The Wrong Guy." The former pairs hip-hop sample-ready drumming with a nice pulsing bass line, and the latter finds Doiron singing in her more characteristic hushed style, accompanied by Doug Martsch-inflected guitar work. These tunes are poster children for the melancholic side of Doiron's material. "No More" is especially affecting, serving as a funeral dirge for Doiron's musical life.
The final cut on the album, untitled and included at the last minute, is likely the most stark song of the bunch, lyrically. It's a song of loss, regret, and hopelessness. "What a foolish thing I've done," sings Doiron, "To lose the only one / Who really knows me at all." It's a fitting capstone to the rest of the songs collected here, running over all of the themes discussed in the course of the prior 27 minutes. Doiron slurs her words slightly, here, giving the whole thing the feeling of a late night, drunken confession put on tape before sobriety and second thought could prevent it. After this track, one would not be surprised to find Doiron silently fading from sight, with the lines echoing in your head: "And all those songs that I sung / Well now I know they were wrong / And now I'm taking 'em all back."
[Julie Doiron is playing 6/8/07 at the Aurora Picture Show, with Calvin Johnson.]
If Daft Punk and Weird Al took some X and collaborated and then the asshole-womanizing-cokehead-singer of Koufax and Herbie Hancock decided to get in on it, the result would probably sound something like Jascha Ephraim.
Actually, most of the music here is is quality synth-pop, but the lyrics and vocals are fucking retarded. If you're into joke bands, check out this band -- at least the jokes are good jokes.
Really, though, this guy can't be serious about this. I say "guy" because it could be a one-man-band; I can't really tell by looking at the layout, which is also stupid. The ballad "T-Rex" sounds like Ben Folds mixed with preset samples and retarded, frugal horns. It's worth a listen, as is the whole album, but the problem is that nobody cares about joke bands.
Just to prove my point, here are some retarded quotes: "You spend my money playin' Lotto, with a five dollar scratch-off and a jumbo bag of cheetos"; "She creeps around like she's an undercover ninja."
This guy should play with Reggie and the Full Effect.
What the Hell Do I Know?
If you read other reviews of What the Hell do I Know?, the debut EP by Pennsylvania indie quartet Illinois, you will find yourself barraged with a litany of comparisons to major player indie influences from the past five years or so. This is not without validity. If you find yourself hosting a foreign exchange student from some backwater nation that doesn't have an Internet connection, and the poor kid thinks that indie-rock is Ravi Shankar playing an electric sitar, you could set him or her reasonably straight by running through these seven brief tracks. I, however, will leave the name-dropping to others and will tell you what this album sounds like, rather than whom.
This album is Dorito music. You enjoy the hell out of it while it's on and can't stop listening to it once the first guitar strains hit your tympanic membrane, but it's ultimately not particularly enriching. This is not meant as a slight; not every record can be a musical-landscape-changing masterpiece, but everyone needs music that makes them smile with each listen.
The grinfest starts with the soaring guitars and scat sung intro to "Alone Again." I know that, in light of my previous statements about name-dropping, this'll seem hypocritically bandwagonesque, but I just love that Teenage Fanclub guitar sound. The whole thing is supported by an ingeniously simplistic drum line centered around sparse snares and rim-shots. (I have a thing for rim-shots.) Lyrically, it's just about what you'd expect, based on the title -- a commentary on isolation and disenchantment. Fortunately for all involved, it's sung so prettily that you really don't care what it's about. My one complaint about this track is that there's a vaguely annoying filtered vocal that keeps cropping up. There are a few annoying vocal tricks the band employ on this EP, and this one might not annoy me as much if not for the tendency throughout.
"Nosebleed" pairs rudimentary banjo playing stacked atop a hand-clap-inspiring backbeat, conversationally shouted lyrics, catchy bass fills, and the occasional spacey keyboard. The treated vocals, again, are fine in a vacuum but begin to nag at the edge of my annoyance horizon as their influence spreads through the songs. One thing about this song that intrigues me is the fact that, despite being fairly tame both in tempo and attack, it somehow feels like a potential riot inciter.
The light, strummy (sorry, I know that's not a word) "Screendoor" does a good job of showcasing Chris Archibald's ability to wear a variety of vocalist hats. Sounding like he'd be a great fit as vocalist in any Nuggets band, Archibald sheds the sensitive, vaguely emo-centric vocal style present throughout many of these tracks for this one, and though his sensitive side is pretty, this departure is a welcome contrast. Bearing the song on its back, more scat-sung backup and a good mid-song dose of rim-shot keep my grin plastered.
Despite the fact that it brings back that beautiful soaring-guitar sound I love so much, I am sad to announce that "Headphones" is my least favorite track in the bunch. It's mostly due to those damn vocal hi-jinks. The main vocal is annoyingly shadowed by an ill-advised, filtered falsetto, and a normal register, but filtered vocal takes over primary duty after the first verse. It's a shame, really, because aside from the vocals, this is pretty decent song. If they rewrote it as an instrumental, it might have been a contender for best track.
Album closer "Bad Day" is a nice left-field punch in the face after the annoying vocals of "Headphones." I know, I know -- it's got filtered vocals throughout. The song is saved, though, by the incredibly fun interplay between the fuzzy bass and drums. There's also that lovely tinnily chiming, descending lead guitar, and it's pretty entertaining to follow Archibald's rant.
At only seven tracks and under 20 minutes, What the Hell Do I Know? is only a small taste of what Illinois have to offer. I think it would be prudent to keep an eye, and an ear, on these boys. On the off chance that you guys see this review, do me one favor: next time, Arch, just sing. Please, no more vocal effects. All in all, though, I must say (and I apologize profusely for this in advance; my twisted brain won't let me not write this) I feel the Illinois.
[Illinois is playing 6/7/07 at Walter's on Washington, with The Hold Steady & Blitzen Trapper.]
Wasn't Lisala an American Idol finalist? I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case, because she can really belt out those vocals. Or she can really layer those vocals, at least; she seems to enjoy doing that. She layers them on every song like she's the next John Lennon, only black and not as inspired. Her voice is actually not bad, full of honey and soul as it is -- it's just that the layering becomes a gimmick pretty quickly. We get it, Lisala; you're really good at over-producing your voice. It turns out she comes not from American Idol, but from her very own jazz ensemble. It shows on her debut solo album, Get It, which is full of decent beats but full of tired vocals and lyrics.
The songs on Get It start off well enough. Every time a new one starts, I think "Oh, this sounds interesting," until she opens her mouth and the voice and words come out. Her lyrics are clichéd and way too repetitive. On "Lie to Me," Lisala apparently wants someone to lie to her twenty times -- she says so in the song. And that's not counting how many times she layers her vocals over the chorus. "We've all been hurt before / There's no way to avoid / There's pain in life / But just think of the joy that we would miss / If we passed through each day resisting love," she sings in "Take My Hand". Huh? Is she singing or talking?
Get It is entirely too long, as well. Nearly every song is four and a half minutes or longer, and it's only because she mucks around with her vocals so much; all filler, no killer. I thought at one time the album was almost finished, but when I looked, it was only halfway through. That's the effect her music has on me. Time flies when you're having fun, right? Well, apparently that phrase works in reverse, too.
She reminds me of someone John Mayer fans might listen to when they're not in the mood for guitars. It's a great album for all of those pseudo-revolutionary twenty-somethings with their clever T-shirts and Diesel shoes and ethanol. Stoners might enjoy it, as well. I take that back -- I know some stoners who would disgrace me if they found this CD in my possession. Hippies, on the other hand... So maybe find the album if you think India Arie was passionate and ahead of her time. It's no surprise Lisala opened up for her a few years back. For my part, though, I'm no fan of weak inspirational R&B, and she's not helping the issue any.
Inventions for the New Season
Like Mono and Explosions in the Sky, Georgia's Maserati interpret instrumental post-rock as a vehicle for the delay pedal. Though less famous than their artistic peers, Maserati have become masters of the genre in their own right. Inventions for the New Season is easily Maserati's best album, in part because the band have tweaked their sound to accomodate Gerard Fuchs, whose tasteful yet propulsive drumming recalls the hypnotic thump of techno but without the artificial perfection that makes dance music sound so cheesy to rock fans. Fuchs is such a strong presence that Inventions frequently sounds like another of his bands, Turing Machine.
Like Turing Machine, on the level of the riff, Maserati are consistently exciting, and frequently beautiful to boot. On higher levels, however, the band has little to offer. Maserati have become experts in dynamic shifts, rewriting riffs ingeniously to fit different levels of intensity, but they never reach beyond simple dynamics to any real composition: their songs simply don't go anywhere.
This is not a categorical failure for the band, as some long songs, like "Synchronicity IV" and "Show me the Season" go further afield than others and are the more successful for it. But none of the songs on Inventions are unpredictable; Maserati's music never has the revelatory quality of great instrumental rock. In this respect, Maserati is outclassed not only by the monsters of post-rock but even by bands from their own state, like Cinemechanica, whose instrumental work dances with the furious joy of a whirling dervish, or the little-known C'est Mortel, who exploded post-rock into vast, ambitious suites, or even Deerhunter, who prove, like the best kraut-rock bands, that though a song may be repetitive, it need not be stagnant. Maserati has always been a good band, and in the past few years they have come to be even better. But until they decide to take their music somewhere new and surprising, they will never be a great band.
[Maserati is playing 6/12/07 at Walter's on Washington, with Sharks and Sailors and My Education.]
...and to the Republic
It's fitting that the images on the linear notes are a rifle and a sniper, since the music on Mismo's ...and to the Republic is rather scattershot. The music ranges from a 311/Incubus style on "Fade Away" to mall-core on "Tears Of Ash." It all sounds like you've heard it before, without anything really standing out. The music itself is fine, as are the vocals, but it seems like something is missing. The obvious thing is a second guitar, because the one that's there is lacking. It has the same tone all the way through, very generic and nondescript.
On top of that, there's a dearth of solos. Now, the music Mismo's playing doesnt need guitarist Nicholas Rampmeyer to be the reincarnation of Eddie Van Halen, but he should be able to add more texture and depth to help fill out their sound. He does show some signs of life on "Unmarked Grave," a really honest and emotional ode to soldiers, where besides the bizarre Gregorian chanting that starts the track, there's some nice flair and a nod to Iron Maiden on the solo break. Vocalist James Purkey's vocals on the track help to underscore the reality and the sensitivity of the song.
The highlight of the album is "None of This Will Ever Bring You Happiness." Just imagine the nastiest, meanest fight you've had with your boyfriend or girlfriend and set it to music. Purkey does a nice job in handling both views. The band gets a little too ambitious on "Death Sleep," a nine-minute track with music musical interludes that're way too long and not interesting enough. One aspect of the band that needs to be mentioned is their lyrical ability. Don't be misled by "Anal Voltron" -- the title belies the political message behind it. Politics are the impetus for many of the songs but the band does a good enough job so that they do not overpower the tracks. Mismo does a good job on a debut that'll appeal to fans of modern alt-rock and the throngs of kids hanging out at Hot Topic on the weekend.
Mummy the Peepshow
School Girl Pop
Hey, all you Asian fetishists: Mummy the Peepshow just put out their first full-length album, School Girl Pop, in the U.S., on Records of the Damned! There's Maki, who sings and plays the guitar, Naru the bassist, and Mayu, the drummer. Three lovely, bubbly Japanese women performing poppin' tunes to their hearts' content -- what more could you ask for?
While not as musically diverse as the likes of Cibo Matto or Pizzicato Five, and not quite as novel as the 188.8.131.52's, Mummy the Peepshow prove that their music is just as fun to listen to. So fun, in fact, that this could be an album the whole family could enjoy, adults and children alike. Consider School Girl Pop as a substitute for those ear-splittingly annoying CDs sung by kids for kids that you're forced to listen to when your children are around. This is to ensure that your sanity remains sound (and plus, with songs like "Cut" and "Hello Stan," the little tykes can learn Japanese!).
School Girl Pop is the girls' fourth studio album since their formation in 1994. Although her vocals are somewhat nasal, Maki sings nicely in both her native tongue and English alongside sugary, sweet punk-lite melodies. A kazoo hums merrily as Maki sings "Don't say goodbye / C'mon dance with me" in "Good Bye." "Good Morning," on the other hand, features no lyrics -- just a whistle and a dog barking -- and "Sailing" is reminiscent of early-'90s No Doubt.
Check out their official Website to learn about their tour experiences in the U.S. and Europe. You can also find out little-known facts about each member: Maki loves beer, Naru's blood type is O, and Mayu listens to the Pixies. And because the site can be translated into English, reading their journals is cute, if a bit awkward. When talking about Ladyfest, Mummy the Peepshow had this to say about all the women with whom they played: "Every girls are shining!!!"
The Streets, The Sounds, and The Love
With The Streets, The Sounds, and The Love, the debut full-length from Jersey's New Atlantic, the band lunges out of nowhere to join the crowd of thankfully-growing emo-pop bands currently smiling their way across America. New Atlantic run with that small-ish crew of bands like Mae, Saves The Day, or Longwave; they rock like emo bands of yore, but there's scarcely a frown in sight, much less a sardonic T-shirt or suicidal-sounding singer. These are songs that keep their heads held high, more confident and hopeful than a club full of Get Up Kids.
And that's a damn good thing. The guitars roar and shimmer like Jimmy Eat World at their least melancholy ("Cold-Hearted Town"), the vocals echo The Stills ("What It's Like To Feel Small," which starts off a dead ringer for "Let's Roll") or Saves The Day (and The Outfield, believe it or not; see the title track), and a few tracks ("Wire and Stone") even get dance-y like the Killers used to pre-Sam's Town. Granted, this album probably isn't destined to set the world on fire, but even still, it's pretty good.
One caveat, though: don't listen too closely to the lyrics. More often than not, New Atlantic comes off like one of those mid-'80s pop bands like a-Ha, whose grasp of the English language was shaky enough to shrug off the cheesiness of the words; you'd just smile, shake your head, and figure, "hell, it probably sounds badass in Swedish, anyway." If you can forgive some of the cheesy lyrics, though (see "Now That You're Gone" for a prime example), and just enjoy Giovanni Gianni's soaring vocals and Chris Hindley and Matthey Sztyk's Saves The Day-esque guitars, The Streets... is a fun listen.
Oh, and the band turns the standard way of doing things in Rock World upside-down and saves the two best tracks for last. "The Ever After" takes a different tack than most of the rest of the songs on here, aiming for a more theatrical, retro-pop-y sound, like a cross between Cursive and The Stereo. After the full on pop-rock of the rest of the disc, it's a nice switch. Then "The Streets, The Sounds, The Love" closes things out with a churning, blazing ball of fervent pop-rock fire, complete with awesome gang-chant vocals. Maybe it's the beaten-down arena rocker I was back in high school peeking back out, but I can't help but smile when I hear it.
[New Atlantic is playing 6/3/07 at the Java Jazz Coffeehouse (Spring), with theAUDITION and The Graduate.]
City of Echoes
One of the best things about instrumental music, to me, is that it lets you visualize your own little picture of what it's all about, without any of those pesky lyrics getting in the way. Sure, I love lyrical music, too, but there's something inherently cinematic about stuff like Pelican's City of Echoes. The band's been pigeonholed as a "metal" band, but honestly, that's about as accurate as calling Explosions in the Sky an alt-country band -- on this album, at least, Pelican manage to deftly dodge any easy labels and instead stake themselves out in a realm of murky, fantasy-tinged instrumental rock that owes more to John Williams than it does Metallica. Labelmates/owners and fellow heavy-instrumental cohorts Isis fit the bill, yes, but here Pelican's left the "metal band" tag behind.
The album's title feels awfully appropriate, given the feel of the tracks; Pelican's particular brand of heavy, metal-tinged instro-rock is majestic and threatening at the same time, like the soaring towers and brooding statues of some ancient, proud metropolis. "Bliss In Concrete" starts things off like the first glimpse of the city by some traveler coming across the plains, awe-inspiring and foreboding, while title track "City of Echoes" morphs into the hustle-and-bustle of a living city, grabbing pieces of prog-rock and vaguely British-sounding nu-New Wave as it needs 'em. The music's pounding and thick-sounding throughout but still melodic and glorious (despite the weird bit in "Spaceship Broken--Parts Needed" that sounds a heck of a lot like "Dancing With Myself"; I'll forgive the band that one).
A few tracks take a more delicate tack, like "Winds With Hands," which marries cosmic, swirling feedback with gentle acoustic guitars for a Radiohead-ish feel, or album closer "A Delicate Sense of Balance," with its wistful, yearning, Joel R. Phelps-esque feel (and yeah, as you can probably guess, "wistful" is fairly difficult to pull off when the music you're making is generally crushing, pseudo-technical rock without words). Even when City of Echoes takes a breath and opens itself up slightly, though, there's still an underlying sense of menace, of something dangerous lurking right around the corner. It's borne out on the heavy tracks, which shift in and out nicely to create a soundtrack to the strangest city you've never seen.
Admittedly, it's difficult to get my head around any particular track on here as a stand-alone "song" -- the only way I can really view City is as one huge, 42-minute composition with eight different "movements." Hell, even within a particular track, the band shifts from one motif to another at will but seemingly with a sense of purpose. This definitely sounds like a well-planned City, but like any real-world city, it takes a while to begin to make out the landmarks just yet. Probably my favorite of the "movements" on here is "Far From Fields," an honest-to-God, meditative-yet-crunching, actual song, with recognizable start, finish, and all in-between. It's like Chavez at their best, nice and weighty, with more aural substance than you get from your average metal band.
My one and only complaint, here -- and it's not a major one, all things considered -- is that from time to time drummer Larry Herweg sounds like he's rushing the beat of a track, throwing in an extra beat or two where there really shouldn't be one. When it happens, it's annoying, sure, like hearing a guitarist hit a blatantly off-key note, but what the hell; it never kills the song, or the overall mood of the album.
By the end, when all the instruments fade out into the distance but a confident, close-sounding acoustic guitar, the traveler's making his way back home from the mystery city, a little bit wiser and probably poorer. He knows for certain that he'll be back someday soon, mind you, ready to learn more about the sprawling byways and alleys. And for that, he's smiling to himself.
What Is It About This Place?
Is it possible at this point to create a new form of pop-rock that is more serious than the norm, maybe even adult? With its debut album What Is It About This Place?, Secret Annexe makes a valiant effort but don't quite hit the mark. Using viola, piano, and guitar, this six-piece band from Baton Rouge tries to imitate Bob Dylan's Desire but falls short. At times the viola overpowers the vocals, in particular, which is quite sad considering that Rob Mulhearn's voice is reminiscent of Lou Reed's.
Overall, What Is It About This Place? is just another pop-rock album trying to be something more, but it's evident through their songs "A Way to be Sure," "The Fatal Glory of Steamboat Racing," and "I Can Hide" that the members of Secret Annexe are well on their way to musical maturity.
Math and Magic
Spacey, thoughtful, and -- dare I say it -- pretty, Setting Sun's music is perfect for watching sunsets from a balcony while taking long drags from a licorice-flavored clove cigarette. Their sophomore release, Math and Magic, finds the band functioning at a higher level than before (the production is tighter, more fluid, and polished) and further establishes front man and guitarist Gary Levitt as a songwriter whose uncanny ability to draw his music from his scenery -- be it the tropical Q-tip trees of L.A. or the frenetic pulse of New York -- makes him one of the most interesting talents to emerge in the indie scene. Just listen to the sweeping balladry and throbbing crescendo of "It's Light," and you'll get what I mean.
Okay, so I know damn well The Pogues didn't invent Irish folk, but they sure as hell dragged it kicking and screaming into the 20th century. Because of that, I find that I have a very hard time not holding up any band that plays Celtic-style folk mixed with rock to Shane MacGowan's, er, yardstick.
Obviously, this can be a bad, bad thing -- most bands don't have the talent MacGowan, Finer, Stacy, and co. possessed in one measly pinkie. So when I realize that Agony, the latest from Chicago Southsiders the Tossers, falls in the other camp, I can feel the smile start to spread across my face. Because yep, the Tossers are good. Damn good, in fact, like Second Coming of the Pogues good. I've heard bits and pieces of the band's past stuff, and while it's always been entertaining, Agony sees the Tossers really coming into their own, despite my (and probably every other music writer on the planet's) comparisons to the band's most direct inspiration.
All of the hallmarks are there, of course, from Aaron Duggins' tin whistle to the drunken gang vocals to the foreboding mandolin to Bones' propulsive drums, and it all works. The best part of the album, though, is the dark undercurrent that runs through the whole thing. The band'll throw out what sounds like a happy-go-lucky, rollicking drinking song like opener "Never Enough," the rambling "Did It All For You," or the eminently catchy "Siobhan," all wild, whiskey-fueled stompers, but when you listen to/read the lyrics, the story beneath turns out to be far more bleak. "Never Enough," for one, is the tale of a nonstop party thrown to keep the demons at bay and constant in need of refueling (hence the title); "Did It All For You" is the sad tale of an old fighter with no more fights to win but who can't cope with a world at peace.
One of the highlights of the whole crazed mess is "Pub and Culture," which sounds sloshed and scattered, like a drunk already well into his pints confessing his sins. When you check the lyrics, though, the song's actually a harsh picture of the real face of alcoholism, with the singer/narrator offhandedly mentioning that "A man's in critical condition because I had to drive" and clinically discussing the fact that his natural dopamine levels are too low. "Siobhan" does something similar, but this time from the outside, watching forlornly as a daughter(?) rolls from bar to bar, twisting men around her finger and downing booze the whole way.
I don't know if the band really intended it that way, but the album's title sure seems apt at points. Behind the cheery, beery exterior, there's a hell of a lot of pain. In the best Irish tradition, what you get with Agony is a set of brilliantly-told, crushingly depressing stories, put to music that (for the most part) sounds carefree and reckless and half sauced. You've got songs of love gone wrong, scathing indictments of the actors in the brutal tit-for-tat "war" in Northern Ireland, tales of parents who've given up on their wild kids, stories of marital strife, well-drawn images of men with anger management problems, and enough alcoholic confessions to fill a decent-sized AA meeting. And that's just the happy-sounding stuff -- there's also the chilling, spooky, mandolin-and-vocals "Shade," which sees the ghost of a man's conscience rising up like a revenant to warn him of his impending doom.
The closest analogue I can come up with, really -- and yes, I'm going back to the big "P" yet again -- is the classic Rum Sodomy & the Lash, with its bleak songs of war, death, and disrepair. Hell, the dark, swirling instrumental "The Sheep in the Boots" even reminds me of "Wild Cats of Kilkenny," although that's admittedly mostly because of the background howling.
It's weird, though; frontman/singer/lyricist T. Duggins' words are far, far more convoluted and deep (and I mean that in an unironic way, honest) than you'd guess from the music. I'd swear there're a couple of entire Dr. Phil episodes buried in "Not Alone," just to pick one track at random. Now, I like to think I'm a fairly good-hearted guy, but man, if this is what it sounds like when T. Duggins and his crew work through their issues, I hope to heaven that they keep struggling with their problems for a good long time to come.