Kublai Khan EP
Some days, it can be damn difficult to pin down a band that doesn't fit in any kind of neat scenesterized box. What are you, if you're not nu-New Wave, screamo, post-punk, metalcore, or space-rock? Just guitars and drums and a voice -- what the hell's that, these days?
That's where I am with Alkari. On their Kublai Khan EP, they present the picture of a rock band that's just that, with no prefixes or suffixes; just "rock." There are elements of plenty of different sub-genres scattered throughout, certainly -- like the math-y bits in "GG249," or the retro-sounding middle bit in the title track -- but those elements never define the band itself.
So what I'm left with, instead, is five songs to try to use to puzzle the band out. And as puzzles go, Kublai Khan is one I don't mind listening to repeatedly to try to piece together. Alkari start off with "GG249," where their warmly fuzzed-out guitars make me think of Superdrag, and I'm impressed that they manage to mesh piano in with the guitars without coming off like some sort of cheesy lounge-rock band; it's a difficult trap to avoid.
"The Code" ups the ante by a heck of a lot -- it's yearning and anthemic, grand in that way that Arcade Fire songs are, where you know the band's singing about something bigger and more meaningful than tiny, insignificant little you, even if you can't pin down just what it is. If I had to namecheck somebody, I'd say Doves; Alkari have the same kind of arena-rock-but-not-detached feel to their music, at least on this song, and the same sense of urgency besides.
"If I Could," though, the EP's midpoint, is probably the true centerpiece. While I find myself liking "The Code" more, it feels like a fluke compared to "If I Could" -- this is what this band really, truly sounds like. The guitars are fucking awesome, in particular, thick and substantial and almost bluesy at times. Plus, there's a warm, friendly, unpretentious sound to the whole thing, like it tumbled out of some long-forgotten Twin/Tone vault somewhere. And hey, that could work, come to think of it; slap some Replacements on after these middle two tracks, and you might be fooled into thinking it was '80s Minneapolis all over again.
Sadly, the EP staggers downhill after that. "Kublai Khan" starts promisingly, with a nice riff that repeats later, but then speeds up into relatively standard bar-band rock and never really comes back. It sounds retro at points, although not in a particularly good way, like the band's playing a song it only remembers halfway from the band members' collective youth. There are weird washes of synths at times, too, that don't really seem to fit and kind of disrupt the proceedings. Closer "Jayco Michobay" improves, but not by a whole lot -- the band ventures into electronica territory with murky atmospherics, burbling synths, and clicking drums, and while they're not bad when the song cranks into full-on rock mode later, they never really recover.
But hey, I can live with it -- it's an EP, and it's a start, and these guys have a hell of a lot of potential. For "The Code" and "If I Could" (and, to a lesser extent, "GG249"), I'll happily overlook the second half of the disc. Three out of five ain't bad, particularly when the good side's that good.
Far Beyond the Pacific
Today is a confusing day for me. I swear I spent eight hours at work, but it felt like I was in the waiting room of my dentist's office. You know the ambience: old musty couches, lamps from the 1970s, and copies of Highlights intermingled issues of Cosmo that let you know of "50 ways to pleasure your Man." Topping it off is the faint sound of adult contemporary music playing from a small radio next to the secretary's desk. Melissa Giges' second full-length CD, Far Beyond the Pacific, must be what the secretary is listening to and the source of my confusion.
First off, let's give singer-song writer Giges her well-deserved props: she appears fully capable of performing all the work of the songwriters, composers, and lyricists needed by a Sara Bareilles or even a Barbara Streisand. Now I'm not saying Ms. Giges' music is as good as the incomparable Barbara Streisand, but the ability is there. Furthermore, her classical training gives her an impressive three-octave range that's strong from top to bottom and which she uses to channel a myriad of influences and genres.
Songs like "Caught" and "Carry You" have that nice, smoky jazz feel that made Norah Jones so popular a few years ago, while "Find Some Time" manages to slip a little country into the '90s pop sound. All these songs are carried by Giges' good vocals -- good, but not great. Strong vibrato and a clear tone with an almost calculated amount of aspiration, Giges' voice can most easily be described as a good choir voice: her voice fits equally well in doctor's waiting room or a Sunday morning service.
It seems as if there's something, however, that fails to separate her voice from the other good voices. It's as if her voice is too well-trained and lacks that "something" that allows her to move beyond the pack. Sometimes her voice seems out of place, as if she's covering a song she wrote herself. It's a good cover, but it doesn't bring the same feeling as the original.
I think my biggest problem is that I'm not the audience that would go see Ms. Giges perform. I'm not one who needs to his music to throw him into some sort of emotion-driven frenzy, but I listened to this and didn't really connect to anything. It's a good CD in the same way a Honda Accord is a good car, but I'm not ready to go out and buy a sedan. I really think she has a perfect place in the Adult Contemporary scene, but you might pass on this brand of pleasant but non-threatening music.
Crooked Shepherd EP
I've got to be honest, here -- much as I wanted to, I just didn't like Hollywood Black's debut, Two Thousand Years Of Progress, all that much. It had the right parts in most of the right places, sure, but taken as a whole it felt petulant and immature, with lyrics that got so self-righteous and "Christian" that they made the band seem childish for spouting 'em. The music itself was a decent, if not spectacular, brand of punkish indie-rock, but by the time the album finished, all I could do was shrug.
Not so this time around. If Progress was immature and callow, Crooked Shepherd is confident, savagely raw, and self-assured all at the same time. Where the first album was a water balloon, this one's the aural equivalent of a Molotov cocktail. The crowning moment of the EP comes real early with the lead-off title track, which rides a menacingly deliberate, head nod-inducing, almost Silkworm-esque guitar drone grimly throughout to great effect. The track comes off like Sebadoh's more-focused moments...only, when the distorted guitars kick in, they come in raw and huge, like somebody doused Lou Barlow's amps with gasoline and set them ablaze. And holy crap are they badass.
Of course, then there's the lyrics. Where Progress was a rallying cry at points for Christians to fight the good fight (whatever the heck that fight might be, I dunno), Crooked Shepherd, as its title indicates, takes aim squarely at the Church itself. Specifically, at the crooked-as-hell bastards who seem to run the show, the multibillion-dollar megachurches that've become commercial empires unto themselves, and the gullible fools who nod and smile to hear that God wants them to be successful and rich and pretty; one line in particular stands out for that last group: "My check account is full / That's how I know I'm right with God." The song's ferocious and bitter and totally, totally compelling.
"Memoirs Of A Televangelist" takes nearly the same tack as the previous song, blasting TV preachers who play the role on the small screen but don't actually live it in their real lives; it's less fiery, but the message and energy are still there in force. Ditto for "Old Grey Mare," which takes the fight to our wonderful do-anything-for-a-vote politicians and beats 'em down with snarling post-punk guitars.
"Revolution" makes a bit of a sidestep, with Hollywood Black heading off into Strike Anywhere territory on a fist-pumping agit-punk tangent. It works nicely, too, although it's not entirely clear which revolution the band's claiming to be children of -- and that's kind of where I trip over middle track "For The Sake Of The Elect," too. It's a bit of an oddball here, being almost roots-rock with a Western twang to the distorted guitars and a windswept, rural feel to it, but the lyrics are what leave me confused. I may not be catching the sarcasm, but the parts I can grasp sound like the inner musings of some compound-dwelling, anti-guvmint yahoo out in the backwoods who thinks the Founding Fathers started the NRA right after they dumped all that tea into Boston Harbor.
So, is this the band talking, or some kind of character they're using to make a point? Got me. But this is one of those moments where I have to paraphrase Voltaire (or Evelyn Beatrice Hall, whichever) and declare that while I disagree pretty much completely with what you're singing, I'll defend to the death your right to sing it. Especially if, um, you fucking rock.
[Hollywood Black is playing their CD release show 6/28/08 at Walter's on Washington, with The Goods & Tambersauro.]
The Nature of Things
From the first listen of this CD, it was like meeting someone that you know you're gonna get along well with. Jon McKiel is another Canadian import and has recently released the CD The Nature of Things, a follow-up to his debut self-titled 2006 disc. Jon McKiel plays simple, honest, acoustical songs and is backed by a band that accents right, rocks when needed, and leaves proper space for Jon's earnest, raspy-tinged voice. It leans toward the singer-songwriter side but still rocks. Very comparable to Ryan Adams (whom I really like), although McKiel has a stronger
voice and less cut-your-gut-open-and-bleed lyrics. McKiel's lyrics know of sadness but are masked a bit.
The Nature of Things begins with the song "War on You," which, like most of the disc's songs, starts off simple with just vocals and guitar before the band comes in later, building steadily behind bass drum beats and a military-ish snare and a trumpet at the end. The first single and video from the disc, though, come from "Somebody's Listening," a song that's a bit different than the other songs. In places, it has a seemingly misplaced, peppy-sounding organ in it for the beat, which contrasts with McKiel's slow, pained delivery and tragic lyrics. While he's pushed and pulled by this beat, he sings, "I know you're some wayward heart / And we got lost from the very start." Strangely, the song works.
Other high points on the disc include the songs "123 My Friends" and "Walking With The Dead," but my favorite song is the heartfelt "Get Caught," which is just guitar and voice for the most part. McKiel sings, "Seems like the best thing to do is cry / So I laid on the blacktop and started to die / Out on this hot street breaking sun / Now everybody watch as I come undone." Then he sings, "Oh my God when you get sick / Just don't let the medicine take care of it." At the end of the song, the band comes in to drive things home with echoing guitars in the distance. The song really gets to me. That's just The Nature of Things, and it works.
Inventing Stars, by pArAdOx OnE (also known as Phil Jackson), is one of those albums that you have playing while doing other things. Things like driving, household chores, and general life things that are typically empty without the sound of something musical in the background. It's a good album, but it's nothing really special.
The majority of the tracks are instrumental, minus two that have very poetic lyrics. You have a very straightforward rhythm section, a very '80s hair-band guitar, occasional flashes of acoustic guitar, and Elton John-ish synths. The album is almost borderline boring, to be quite honest, but it's saved somewhat by Phil Jackson's creativity.
Other than on the last track, "The Bridge Over the Rhein," the rhythm section is typically driving, with acoustic and electric guitars as accents, and the synths take the lead with very pleasing flourishes, on occasion. Whereas the songs don't change much within themselves, however, Phil does play around with different keys that you wouldn't normally hear in rock music.
In the end, Inventing Stars becomes very ambient, so if that's your cup of tea, I do recommend picking up this album. It isn't really my taste, but I at least try to be an impartial judge when it comes to this kind of sound. I do have to respect someone who's willing to take the reins and create whatever it is in his heart, and if you do actually find yourself listening to this album without any distractions, that fact does shine through.
You Tie a Rock to Your Leg Cuz it Fits You
Three piece Danish neo-Punk outfit Plök's first American release, You Tie a Rock to Your Leg Cuz it Fits You, sounds familiar. "Familiar" in that it sounds derivative. "Derivative" in that it sounds stolen. Stolen from something circa Warped Tour 2002. Don't get me wrong, there's a pleasure in derivation, and it's easy to recognize the appeal of such a band. Their beats are easy to follow, their lyrics beautifully meaningless -- but in the roughly 30 minutes it took to get through this six-song EP, I could've eaten dinner, or read the newspaper, or walked the dog. It simply doesn't grab hold of the listener.
A live Plök show might consist of something like a few dozen teenagers moshing for the sake of moshing, like that time they saw their big brother moshing to Alice in Chains and thought it looked cool so why not? And there's something to be said for that. Plök is a fun band, they have quirky lyrics, and they most certainly have a straight-edgy hard-core-y kind of charm. Plök sounds a bit like Limp Bizkit sounded the first time you heard them on MTV's Spring Break. The band's interesting in the way that story you read about that car crashing into a Denny's somewhere in Ohio (or was it Wisconsin?) at three in the morning is interesting -- interesting in their forgettableness. Music that can be forgotten is adored in some circles, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt for now. I assume that Plök has a method to making this kind of music, and I'll go with it.
Plök's official press release sells them as a band that leads their audience through a "full set of un-punked polka," but that's not the entire story. Yes, they could most likely be classified in the genre of 21st-century punk music, though there is no clear understanding of what that actually means. If it means they are loud, then Plök is clearly punk. If it means that their songs are consciously void of substantive lyrics -- check. If it means they sound like most and/or all of their influences -- I want to say the Minutemen, but that might be pushing it; let's say the Red Hot Chili Peppers with Henry Rollins minus tattoos on lead vocals -- Plök is punk. Not big-"P" punk, of course, but small-"p" punk. I have no problem lumping them in with other small-"p" punk bands like Anti-Flag and perhaps even Panic! at the Disco, but to call them "Punk" would be a misnomer. They are something, but it's not that.
No official word yet if Plök was named after the popular 1993 (not so much fun) Super Nintendo game "Plok," but I'll say this -- the band and game are quite similar in their methodologies. In the end, things end up dying.
Lust, Lust, Lust
Lust, Lust, Lust walks you into a distorted world filled with love, sex, desire, and sin. Stripping away the more garage-rock sound of The Raveonettes' last album, Pretty in Black, Sune Rose Wagner anchors his sound with feedback as '50s guitar hooks circle through each song, sweeping you under the concrete slab of a wet deserted street in the middle of the night. There is nothing clean about this album. It's raw, murky, and beautiful.
By the fourth song, "Dead Sound," you may start to feel safe with Sharin Foo's dreamy vocals, but heartbreak is just around the corner. You get no sympathy here -- instead, you're taken right back into another state, drowning in white-noise with "Expelled from Love" and "With My Eyes Closed." Sometimes you can't even hear the tone of the guitar, as it's hidden under the shrill thickness of the distortion.
The Raveonettes tease us, too, with the pop hooks of "You Want the Candy" and "Blitzed," early '90s Mary-Chain-styled jams that are solid and inspired by something you know you shouldn't have. Throughout the rest of the album, though, the feel remains dark and seductive, sucking you into the atmosphere of lust and regret, wanting more but getting less. The Raveonettes have reopened their world of tortuous echoes. It gets a little repetitious for my taste after 14 tracks, but I did enjoy the appetite they have for wanting, dying, and never healing -- all major themes throughout Lust, Lust, Lust.
Call It Off
On their debut full-length, Call It Off, Speaker Speaker continue down the path they took on their We Won't March EP. They still like the stripped-down force of the guitar/bass/drums trio, but they expand their palette with harmonica, glockenspiel, and lots of harmonies. They include three great songs from their EP, but what's more important is that the new songs are as good or better.
And the album has a lot of strong songs. "Parties," an amusing discourse on exactly why the narrator hates parties, packs a fun melody and a dry joke into its 47 seconds. "I Was Wrong" sets relationship advice to a SoCal punk melody (punctuated by hilarious '60s girl-group harmonies): "You looked to me like the kind of girl who would come to shows and even sing along / I should have known right when you said you hate the Beatles that I was wrong." The new version of "Radio Days" adds some cool harmonies to the feel of the original, and the studio rendition "Call It Off" bests the live version on the EP. There's only one weak song here, but even that puts them ahead of most bands.
Call It Off shows the band stretching into warmer and more melodic territory, hitting notes from the Weakerthans to Jawbreaker to (somewhat unexpectedly) Screeching Weasel-style melodies. On this album, Speaker Speaker shows that there's no style the band can't handle and proves the band members can write great songs. When they find their own identity, Speaker Speaker will be one for the ages. And given the skills they've shown, that shouldn't be long.
Sunny Day Sets Fire
Stranger Remix EP
Sunny Day Sets Fire plays with a colorful sound palette derived from their respective places of origin: Sardinia, Hong Kong, Italy, Canada, and London. If only our little world was as harmonious as this quintet. Their Stranger Remix EP gives us the band's original "Stranger" times four, plus more. The layout of "Stranger" is a uniformly upbeat, melodic trip.
The first track is the original. Play it once, and if you don't end up breaking out into a full jog down the street, you'll at least tap your feet. Mauro Remiddi gives us atmospheric vocals and seems lost in the theme of his own music: some kind of time-can-go-to-hell love I can't more specifically identify. He strikes me as the kind of guy who wears the same outfit everyday because it works, but nothing too garish. Not to draw any ridicule upon him, mind you -- on the contrary, I applaud his formula, giving us a whimsical psych-pop beating with kid gloves. No raunchy machismo to deal with.
And what connections he must have, tapping the Slips and The Cool Kids for "Stranger" remixes and Mad Decent, Baron von Luxxury, CSS, and XXXChange for other tracks. Each has its own way of making goo-goo eyes. The superior version of "Stranger" on the album is that by the Slips, with the most disappointing being The Cool Kids'. The latter's take on "Stranger" is a casual slaughter of SDSF's bouncy tune, resulting in a drunken mix of nightsounds.
As for other tracks on the album, there's the CSS Remix of "Wilderness," mainlining '80s pop beats, and Baron Von Luxxury's bordello-friendly "Brainless." The bunch claims on their Myspace page that this EP will be enough "to make you burn your passport and declare yourself a converted citizen of the world." I sense a remix of "It's a Small World After All" coming.
Your Black Star
A band's physical album is often an exercise in the art of presentation. Even major label releases with all the money of Midas behind them are often bargain-basement CD cases and booklets little removed from the practical paper sleeve. Why waste money on pictures and lyrics, right?
Emptiness can also be an artistic medium, however, and as such the cover of Your Black Star's third album, Beasts, tremendously excited me. Solid black, the album's only front decoration is a Rorschach image seemingly captured with primitive Xerox technology. I've taken to staring at it endlessly as their hateful, hard, and hurting music makes me wish that I had invested in better computer speakers before embarking on a career as a music reviewer. You turn it one way, and man screams angrily to the left, while another perspective yields an almost empty skyline.
I can't imagine a better stage for the six songs that comprise Beasts. The album pulses with a dark, raging energy that calls The Jesus and Mary Chain or Peter Murphy to mind. The influence of the ex-Bauhuas singer is particularly apparent in Jeremy Johnson's powerful, sinister tenor. It's a voice that never stumbles or trips, leaping with sure confidence over the free-form poetry of the album's drum-heavy opener "Fight." That's not to say that "Fight" or any other track on the album is some overly emotional art-school exercise in gentle wordsmithing. The music throughout the entire opus is angry just shy of shouting, preferring the zeal of a psychotic to the wailing of an angry drunk. Controlled chaos, much like the fury of The Cult, is the order of the day.
The helpful (if unnecessarily rhyming) press release accompanying Beasts makes the claim that this album was an attempt to eschew the blatant over-production of modern mainstream music and instead go for something raw and mean. Your Black Star's experiment can be called a success, and I feel sorry for anyone turned off by the visceral quality of the recording. Sure, it's not a pretty painting (it's a Xerox, remember?), but you sacrifice feeling like you're listening to a commercial jingle for the unbearable ecstasy of actually being inside the artist's vision. Granted, that vision is dark and often violent.
"Set the Trap," for one, is frankly unsettling, reminding me of nothing so much as a credit song for the latest installment in the Saw franchise. Still, the album is called Beasts for a reason, and so much of the music reflects the animal mindset. The wild spirit is never absent, and a desire to roam free, to hunt, to love, to kill, and to die any way but while running away is howled by every song.
If I was held down and forced with a pair of pliers to choose a hit single from the disc, I'd certainly suggest "The Break" or perhaps "Little Storm." Both are the most evolved Pokemon versions of the selections. But as far as I'm concerned, Beasts is a six-sided animal, and every side has teeth. Play it frontways, backways, or randomly on shuffle -- it doesn't matter. You're going to get bit.