Our Queen of Dirt
The Ax make a lot more noise than you'd expect a two-piece band to make. On their first album, Our Queen of Dirt, they use a lot of overdubs to flesh out the sound. Their sound is different -- it's a combination of Unwound or Shellac, crossed with a Sonic Youth vibe. You wouldn't ordinarily put Sonic Youth in with that sort of band (at least, not after EVOL), but these guys made the connection, and it's an interesting sound.
Their best song here has that SY character to it. "Sea Urchins" is a slightly off-kilter rock song with a break that sounds like "Expressway to Yr. Skull." The song has some math-y, sharp edges to it that give it a bit of the feel of Bob Bert-era SY, as well. They have a nice variety to their songs, too. "Out to the Wolves" sounds like less virtuosic math rock, with a weird rhythm below abrasive, menacing guitar riffs.
The band doesn't use vocals the way most rock bands do. Some songs are almost completely instrumental, with just the occasional line, while "Who Wears the Crown" has nothing but these weirdly cheery harmonies above driving drums and guitar -- it almost makes you want to laugh. It's like a pop song boiled down to its essence, except that it's all a little strained. And "Bargain in Hell" has these odd dual vocals, where they don't seem to be listening to each other all the time. "Red Witch" sounds almost like garage-rock, except with occasional sections that shift and destabilize the song.
The Ax definitely has a unique sound; not many bands combine Sonic Youth style ideas with more abrasive punk sounds. But they don't stick only to that sound, either -- they incorporate a lot of different sorts of ideas and sounds. And considering that this is their first album, it's even more impressive of an achievement. A fine start to a musical career.
Death is not a Joyride
The Human Zoo
The Human Zoo is the first full-length album from Austin's Death is not a Joyride. Recorded by John Congleton of the Polyphonic Spree, it sounds like the dark mirror of that beacon of shiny happiness. The approach on The Human Zoo is highly experimental, with punk and industrial noises choreographed like a symphony or a Trent Reznor cover of an entire Zappa album. The audio experience is an exploration of humanity's fear of being caged and how we manage to incarcerate ourselves regardless. It's a restless cacophony of drums and guitar most of time, with the vocals mixed low in among demonic organs and a violin. The title track says it all when it states that we are in the mind of a tiger pacing in cage. You cannot rock out to this vision of prison. Even the softer and more mainstream cuts, like the instrumental "Rats at the Fair" and the almost-pop "Sleeping With Skeleton Keys" leave you feeling skinned and salted. You might like that -- after all, some people like to hang themselves on hooks -- but just because you enjoy the screaming of your nerves doesn't mean you're not bleeding. The Human Zoo's got teeth and claws. I advise you to approach with caution.
You can't force yourself to like somebody; anybody who's been through middle school knows that sad little truth. Even if you're talking with somebody who's got all the same interests as you, somebody who's got the same background, somebody who likes the same things, there's no magic button you can press to instantly make the two of you friends. Sometimes you do get there, sure, but not just because of your similarities. That's just not how it works.
And that pretty much sums up how I feel about Deleted Scenes' Birdseed Shirt. I know, deep-down, that I should freaking love these guys, right off the bat, and yet, it's been a bit of a struggle. Which is weird, because they hit all the right notes most of the way through Shirt. There're hints of the New Pornographers here, some seriously Modest Mouse-esque phrasing right off to that side, a bit that sounds like a less-cerebral Dismemberment Plan, vocals that come off like Band of Horses, and even a murky, seemingly out-of-place of near-trip-hop that sports a cool, crunchy, Soul Coughing-ish bass stomp. The band veers back and forth between styles like a speeding drunk swerving across four lanes of traffic.
It's the scattershot aspect of the Deleted Scenes that makes Birdseed Shirt a hard album to love, really. The band apparently forcibly recruited reclusive producer/songwriter L. Skell to help out with the record, citing his one album as The Rude Staircase as an overlooked classic, and I have to wonder if maybe Skell's the reason things are so all-over-the-place. The band lurches from the breezy, swaying pop of "Take My Life" to the aforementioned trip-hop-ness of "Mortal Sin" to the shambling, WTF?-inducing backwoods gospel raveup of "Got God," all in the span of about ten minutes, and while each song's pretty cool on its own, they could very well have come off of totally different albums.
Listening to the album for the fourth and fifth times, I catch myself thinking, "oh, yeah -- I remember that song now, that was a good one." Except that I can't remember it in context, staring at the track listing, because it feels like it doesn't really fit there, y'know? I like all the pieces, just not necessarily together.
At their best, the Deleted Scenes mine the indie-pop thing, as on opening track "Turn to Sand," which staggers and stutters coyly 'til it suddenly clicks right into place with an awesome rippling guitar line and back-and-forth melody, or the end of "Deacons," which is Jeff Mangum dragged back down to our reality, or "Ithaca" and "Fake IDs," both of which sway hypnotically like Isaac Brock covering Death Cab For Cutie.
When the band gets going, there's a loose, half-loaded messiness to it that brings to mind (favorably) the Grifters in its constant teetering on the edge of chaos. The Modest Mouse-isms further that feeling, too, but Scheuerman and bandmates Matt Dowling, Chris Scheffey, and Brian Hospital (all of whom play too many damn instruments to list out here) do it with their feet still firmly planted on the ground, like they know exactly what they're doing. Stack the indie-pop-ish tracks together and leave the oddball stuff for a B-sides comp, and you'd have one damn impressive EP.
[Deleted Scenes are playing 6/12/09 at Mango's, along with Young Mammals, News on the March, and Flowers to Hide.]
Want some punk for the masses? Blasphemy! Go buy some Green Day if your stomach can't handle real punk. If you get tired of all the hate and madness, however, Double Dagger's More is much easily digestible. What you get, instead of the routine "I hate George Bush," "government oppression," is a rather comical commentary on the typical schlub, and the American experience. Then again, at times I don't know what the hell they're singing about (and I bet they hate George Bush).
More is Double Dagger's third full-length album, and while decidedly post-punk, it's also a definite departure from the genre. The band operates without a guitarist, which is a departure in itself. There are plenty of groups that lack a bass, but hell, even Les Claypool keeps a guitarist within reach. Despite being a guitarist myself, I can't say I miss it. Bassist Bruce Willen has crafted some really cool licks and plays his bass quite like a guitar, where it could be easily mistaken as one at times. As you would expect, those who like bass-heavy tracks will dig this and should sample "Camouflage." Vocalist Nolen Strals and drummer Denny Bowen round out the trio and manage to stay just as loud and impressive as Willen.
No punk album is complete without some spoken word, and "The lie/The truth" delivers its point with a little bit of that comedic flair I was mentioning: "Your living in the middle of nowhere / in a town called exactly right / It's got a population of you / and everyone sleeps well at night." These serious-yet-fun lyrics continue through much of the album, and it's nice to see a loud group not take itself too seriously.
I was also impressed with the soft beginnings of some of the tracks. Upon first sound, it's not something you'd expect to hear, and even though you know some heavy sound is coming, it somehow builds anticipation. If you're in a hole of confusion, then let me try to create some imagery: Explosions in the Sky drinking Mezcal from the bottle, smoking unfiltered Camels, and doing hammer curls -- they'd craft similar intros. I might possibly have dug that hole deeper with that, but hell, if you like punk and like to have fun, then just go see 'em! They'll be in Houston June 23rd. I'd bring a mouthpiece if you plan to get close. Bring some extra cash, too, because I bet you'll want to take a disc home with you.
[Double Dagger is playing 6/23/09 at Super Happy Fun Land, along with Black Congress & Muhammid Ali.]
The Heartless Bastards' third album, The Mountain, is a return of sorts for Erika Wennerstrom, the leader of the band. After breaking up with the bass player, the previous lineup dissolved, and she replaced them with the people that performed on the Bastards' original demo. It doesn't affect the sound of the band, however -- the core is Wennerstrom's guitar and vocals, which are still intact.
The album is full of great songs, full of Wennerstrom's usual dark songs with a few rays of light breaking through. "The Mountain" is a driving mid-tempo anthem set off by a nice pedal steel part. "Hold Your Head High," a slower-moving song, combines a countrified feel with her standard rock style in an unusual way. And the album closes with a beautiful, upbeat rocker, "Sway," which features a graceful melody and vocals and the band churning behind her. The band's accompaniment never gets in the way of her melody and guitar pounding, remaining as professional as they need to be but still bringing the rock.
In some ways, the quieter songs are the most interesting ones here. Her voice is even more impressive and distinctive when she restrains it, taking on an ethereal quality. And those are some of the best songs here, too. "Had To Go" is a striking acoustic ballad with pretty, bluegrassy violin and mandolin contrasting with the sturdy folky melody. And "Could Be So Happy" is a fragile-yet-determined solo acoustic number accompanied by only her pretty harmonies.
The Mountain is the Heartless Bastards' best yet. It's full of great songs and impassioned vocals. Wennerstrom's voice also helps -- it's one of the more unusual in rock, big like Robert Plant but with the wistfulness of a folk singer. That might seem like an odd combination, but she really uses it well, never oversinging like most people with her range and vocal talent would. Her taste and vocal style will continue to bring the Heartless Bastards more attention, and they deserve everything they get.
[Heartless Bastards are playing 6/24/09 at Warehouse Live, along with Jenny Lewis.]
Parable of the Surveyors
Invention is from Seattle. Do "electronica" music, apparently. Beyond that, we know nothing about them -- nothing really online, no bios, nothing. In crafting their spacey, midrange-y music, Invention use compressed bass and guitar to create very synth-like sounds. Lots of interesting rhythmic vocal parts jammed against round-cornered industrial beats. Lots of reverb keeps everything melodic way in the back, guitar and bass way up front.
Snippets of a sci-fi "B" movies weave in and out of the songs, apparently about the imminent destruction of the earth, connecting, stitching together a bloated album that never feels heavy. In some places a dirge, in some places a delay pedal ("A Retrospective") or ping-pong echo ("Non-Vista") creates the beat for a half-time vocal line surrounded by bees. The vocals are nearly always dreamy, nearly stream-of-conscious. "Baskerville" introduces a death metal riff over programmed drums.
Surveyors is at once dense but not murky, spacious but not airy. It may be overlong, and a few of the songs drag a bit, but dragging to one listener is a slow build to another. "Nacht" attempts to crush itself under its own weight, but a fantastic chorus riff gives you just enough joyous lift to keep the whole thing standing, and slammed up against "Greatest of All Directions," another tech-metal mashup (think an electronic Dream Theater, but without the pretension), probably the heaviest thing on the album. "Never Before Imprinted" never really goes anywhere, but "Passion and Capacitance" and "Pepper and Cream" (appearing back-to-back on the album) introduce a somewhat new feel while never moving too far from the spine of the album (in fact, the middle of "Pepper" might be mistook for an experimental online e-jazz jam).
This is not an album to include in a party mix; there aren't any singles, and you have to be in the right mood to digest it. It is masterful, however, and an incredible achievement, really. The palette of sounds and images reminds me of Pynchon. There's just so much coming at you that it's hard to know where to focus your attention, but when it's over, you know something important happened -- you just can't really describe what it is.
Okay, so I do like Kylesa's Static Tensions, but I have to ask: what the hell does it add to your sound, really, to have two drummers? Especially if they're playing the same damn thing (or minute variations thereof)? I get the whole percussionist thing, believe me, and everybody knows dueling guitarists rule, but two guys pounding away at drum kits at the same time seems more than a little redundant to me.
But fuck it, that's small potatoes, because in pretty much every other way, Kylesa bring it on Static Tensions, and the result is something that's got a metal foundation but spirals out of control from there. Opener "Scapegoat" comes out swinging, belligerent and satisfyingly raw, a pit-spinning anthem that combines hardcore vocals, Mastodon-ish drums, and thick, messy-sounding guitars that occasionally dive sideways off into this weird scraping post-rock thing; it's like some NY hardcore band fed through a Mudhoney filter.
That sets the mood, and "Insomnia For Months" takes it from there, churning and heavy, bassy as hell like Federation X but with guitarist/singer Phillip Cope's roaring vocals reminiscent of Isis. "Said and Done" treads similar stylistics lines, but gets one-upped by "Unknown Awareness," with its nicely trippy, shimmering guitars and tribal (and yes, every so slightly distinct) drums, and "Running Red," which starts off with spooky, minimal piano before shifting into Eastern-sounding melodies, more of the snapping, handclap-sounding tribal drumming, and other guitarist/singer Laura Pleasants' serenely psychedelic monotone. Of course, then the desert sands morph into hard, sun-blistered rock, the whole track turning into something off the last Sword album.
The band's appeal, really, lies in their willingness to throw any kind of style considerations to the winds -- who gives a shit if it's "real" metal, as long as it's crush-your-head heavy, right? And Static Tensions delivers plenty of that, to be sure, alongside the woozy, heavy-lidded flights Eastward. Suddenly, the fact that the band takes its name from a Buddhist term for evil spirits of "defilement and delusion" makes a lot more sense.
Like Bells is a violin-led, mostly instrumental trio from Antioch, Ohio. The music on their self-titled debut is sort of a cross between Dirty Three and Mono, embracing quieter lyrical moments as well as some louder rock. They borrow more from Mono than anybody else -- a lot of their melodies sound strongly like Mono -- but their sound is more varied than Mono generally is.
Unfortunately, they need to borrow more from those groups. While the songs themselves have a few nice lines, the band rarely comes up with enough for an entire song. The best song here is "The Streets Themselves," which has a pretty guitar line opening the song and a nice, intense chorus. "Atlas," however, is more typical of the songs here: a pretty verse violin and guitar line, but an odd chorus that's mostly just bombast without any interesting going on. Sadly, songs like "Where is the White?" are just as common, songs which have no real melodies to them and are just kind of pointless.
They also subvert the songs by adding contrasting ideas that just don't work. A couple of songs use keyboards and processed instrumental sounds that are really silly. "Searching Now" wrecks an otherwise decent song by incorporating some really cheesy processed keyboard and violin. In "Can I Say Something to You?," they don't manipulate in those kinds of ways, but the big rock chorus is just overwrought and pointless.
Like Bells tries hard, but a lot of it just doesn't work. They have some nice moments, but those moments aren't enough to make a record. And the processing that they did to the record further shoots themselves in the foot. They have some nice intros and verses, and if they wrote songs took from those quieter moments, they could significantly improve their songs -- more of a Dirty Three idea than a Mono idea. But as it is, Like Bells doesn't really work.
What's most exciting, and most maddening, about Eleni Mandell is that just when you think you've got her figured out, she spins off in a new direction. And yet, whether cranking out a roots-pop tour de force like 2004's Afternoon or offering up 2007's duskily noir Miracle Of Five, she's never lost her own identity. Artificial Fire confronts that head-on, with Mandell all over the place but still sounding like herself. She amps up the rock and roll quotient on the spirited "Little Foot" and "Cracked," while "In The Doorway" is so soft and dreamy that you barely notice the guy's hand up her skirt. Mandell's lyrics are still both straightforward and evocative; "Personal," for instance, begins "My eyes are the color of martini olives / I only drink two, never three." With some odd but satisfying detours like "God Is Love" (which combines vaguely off-center drum clatter with a guitar that sounds like a clock continuously winding down) and the cracked-bell chimes hooking "Front Door," Artificial Fire doesn't do anything resembling hanging together. But it would be difficult to grab three random songs and not end up holding at least two winners.
I think Volume III works best when viewed as part of a bigger whole, right alongside Paris Falls' previous efforts, Vol. 1 and Vol. II. Going by the band's choice of titles for the three albums so far, it sure seems like they intended there to be some kind of progression, and even if they didn't, well, the theme definitely fits when Volume III rolls into view.
Looking back at the first disc of the trilogy, Paris Falls seems like an a much angrier, more bitter band, with guitarist/singer Ray Brown snarling and spitting venom as much as singing. The followup, Vol. II, headed tentatively down a somewhat more low-key road, trading bitterness and attitude for thoughtful depression; while I definitely liked it, the album seemed uncertain, unsure of itself and where it was supposed to be headed. With Volume III, though, the band sounds like it's gotten where it was going all along.
The sound here is still very similar to that on II, but with less out-and-out melancholy and more of a forward-facing outlook. Take "Obsolete," for example; the song's fairly straight-up pop-rock, with a nicely jangly, almost Elliott Smith-like melody, and while it's resigned and down, to be sure, there's still a hint of relief that at least something (whatever that something happens to be) is finally settled. There're heavy, heavy nods to Floydian psych-rock here, definitely, as with II, but now it's less the slit-your-wrists-and-bleed variety and more the it-all-ends-anyway-so-why-worry variety.
That comfortable feeling allows Paris Falls to both stretch out some, as on the drifting, woozy, seven-and-a-half-minute "Delay," which is all shaky/shimmery guitars and David Gilmour vocals, and to head for sunnier territory, like they do on "Goodmorning," which is louder and a lot more Beatlesque than most of what the band's been doing lately. It's also the best moment on Volume III, its quasi-psychedelic strummed guitars and roaring vocal melody reaching for the skies in a way Paris Falls rarely seems to since Vol. 1.
Of course, part of the reason Volume III shoves up so tightly against 1 and II is because of the band's all-encompassing love of that warm, '70s-sounding analog vibe. The band declares their allegiance in the very first bit of crackly, staticky record noise on the album ("Intro"), and even when things get strange, Volume III sounds like it was recorded love, straight to tape at some dingy dive on the wrong side of town.
To their credit, Paris Falls still steer clear of the whole revivalist thing. Regardless of the fact that Volume III does point backwards to a bunch of the standard "classic rock" benchmarks, the band doesn't play like followers, not by a long shot; they play like they've absorbed all the old stuff and are making something new out of it, not just within its boundaries. Better still, the music here sounds a lot more deliberate and interesting than the music made by a lot of similar bands.
So much of this sort of thing seems faddish, throwaway music that you'll like the first time and then file away, but Paris Falls write songs that are smart and heartfelt and pained and that definitely don't fade away after just one listen.
[Paris Falls is playing their CD release party 6/20/09 at Mango's, along with Airon Paul Dugas & georgia's Horse.]
As the first raw, lava-lamp guitar chords of "Laywayed" rolled forth from my headphones, my first thought was that if this CD was about twice as long, it would be great to listen to it on acid. It wasn't long, however, before I was forced to reconsider.
WARNING: Do not listen to Maker on LSD, magic mushrooms, or any other hallucinogenic substance. At least, not unless you can afford a new stereo, because you're going to tear your stereo to pieces looking for a loose connection if you do. The CD is liberally peppered with amplifier buzzes, sudden silences, odd effects, noises, stereo-mono shifts, and other things which often make it sound like there's a problem with your stereo equipment. I must've checked my headphone cable eighty or ninety times during the span of 41 minutes.
The odd-duck production notwithstanding, Pontiak delivers a buzzworthy psychedelic sound to rival that of Pink Floyd back when they were known as THE Pink Floyd. (Yeah, that long ago.)
Overall, the album leaves the listener wanting both less and more. Some of the shorter songs, such as "Blood Pride," "Headless Conference," and "Heat Pleasure" could have been left off of the CD altogether and they'd probably never be missed. On the other hand, some of the better tracks, like "Wild Knife Night Fight" and "Seminal Shining," disappoint by being too short -- very enjoyable, but before you get a chance to fully enjoy them, the song's over.
By contrast, the title cut clocks in at a cumbersome thirteen and a half minutes, and while it's quite an interesting sonic journey, it could have been cut to about eight minutes without losing anything but excessive repetition. Overall, it's pretty good, but I'd really like to hear a shorter version of this song, perhaps more cleanly recorded. Be sure to open your ears extra wide, though, for "Wax Worship," "Aestival," and "Honey." Of all the songs on the album, these are among the best.
This CD, while certainly not without its strengths, is a shining example of why most bands hire producers, rather than self-produce as Pontiak does. If you want a reason not to buy this CD, the overall production quality would be a good one. On the other hand, if you want to know why you should buy it, I would say that Pontiak's music itself is as a good reason as any to overlook the production value and buy it anyway.
Better yet, go see them live when they play tonight. Bring your favorite psychedelic substance(s) and a designated driver.
[Pontiak is playing 6/7/09 at The Mink, along with Ghost Town Electric & Cavernous.]
Underneath the Owl
The Riverboat Gamblers' latest release for the Volcom label, Underneath the Owl, does well at providing die-hard fans with torrential vocals over quick, slappy guitars, but feels like a shallow push towards marketability -- although I doubt that was the Gamblers' intention. Donning a new producer to cultivate the hard, adrenal sound of the young Texans, the Gamblers have come out of the studio with something that lacks what previous albums had in abundance: indiscernible, balls-to-the-wall rawness. This is what we all liked about previous Gamblers music, and this is exactly what kills us about their latest release.
The old Gamblers retain a minor presence on a few cuts on Owl. On the album opener, "Dissdissdisskisskisskiss," the Gamblers seem to be breaking the news of their change of format to us easy, because when the raucous guitars and a general sense of playing-too-fast-for-their-own-good comes to light, it's all a bit too clean and contrived to really be authentic. The projected single, "A Choppy, Yet Sincere Apology," has a nice chorus, which is almost enough to cover ground for the lackluster verses (it's that four-chord progression staccato strum that's played really fast; think radio-worthy '90s alt-rock a la Lit).
The Gamblers seem to proceed with formulaic precision into a mood of punk rock stagnancy with "Keep Me from Drinkin'," a post-party comedown song, and the xylophonic "Robots May Break Your Heart," which seems to be some sort of social commentary on the organic vs. inorganic, technological vs. the visceral. Then "Catastrophe" harangues its way just safe of mediocrity, while "Steer Clear" inadvertently grooves its way in and out of '90s pastiche. While these tracks all serve as solid cornerstones, providing the subject and the sound that could make a worthy effort on the Gamblers' behalf, they also lend themselves as fodder for a shabby go.
Surprisingly, the Gamblers are at their best on Owl when they cater to their pop tendencies, and although it's not the Gamblers of old, there is some promise. "Alexandra" first catches the ear with a sophisticated pop-punk feel that's reminiscent of early Green Day albums. "Tearjerker" shows vocalist Mike Weibe in a honest and vulnerable light, with the music acting as a vessel for the lyrics, something that's rare with the band's music. The Gamblers even don some lap-steel to seal the song's fate as the "feeler" of the album.
It seems that the Gamblers, like the natural process of things, have begun evolving -- unless, of course, it was a conscious attempt by producer Mudrock to give the band a new, more mainstream skin. Now instead of getting harder and heavier, they are letting up a little bit and giving their songs room to breathe.
This album is a crossroads for the boys from Denton. When they're not thrashing and crashing their way through Underneath the Owl, the Gamblers seem to be doing a little growing up, which is refreshing and proof of actual artistry in the music, but still leaves the fan feeling nostalgia for the old days. They couldn't stay our sweet, beer-soaked, punk, party band forever, could they?
The Small Sounds
The Small Sounds
Honestly, the greatest thing about the Small Sounds' self-titled debut has nothing to do with the guitars, the melodies, or even the words. It's just that the album possesses this amazing, gentle warmth -- listening to those jangly guitars swing and sway over vocalist/guitarist Holden Rushing's gravely melancholy voice as he spins out bassist Tommy Ramsey's somber/sweet songs of loss and love is like laying on your back out in an empty, open field, feeling the sun and the breeze play across skin each in their own time.
The Small Sounds is vulnerable and wide-open, moving along at just the right speed without feeling rushed or sloppy. These guys are past masters when it comes to restraint; they never overdo it, only playing exactly what they need to play to make each song work. Take the heartbreakingly gorgeous "Leave Virginia Girl," for one, where drummer Paul Beebe builds gently throughout the course of entire damn song, hitting the crescendo right where the music breaks and crashes over the walls. Then there's the luminous slide guitar and piano on "Grey While Gone," which trade back-and-forth like friends arguing, and the folk-gospel feel of "Room Eight" -- it's difficult to pin down a standout track.
The music itself is country, but not yee-haw country, thankfully. The Small Sounds are far closer kin to '70s country-rockers like Buffalo Springfield or alt-country followers like Son Volt or The Jayhawks than they are most of what emanates from Nashville. It helps that Ramsey's one hell of a lyricist, foregoing the cheeseball trappings of bars, trucks, and girls to focus on delicate stories drawn from history both public (see "John C. C. Hill," which I think is about the Mexican War, although I can't really be sure) and personal (see "Leave Virginia Girl" and "Mothers & Daughters" for two).
Taken as a whole, the album feels less recorded than crafted, like the musicians involved -- the folks mentioned above, along with keyboardists Alan Knust and Cullen Evans, guitarists Craig Feazel (who wrote "It Could Be") and James Thompson (who also wrote opener "Somervell" and "Biloxi Grand"), and vocalist Mark Riddell -- painstakingly carved the pieces necessary to assemble the thing by hand.
The amount of time and care the band took with these songs is evident throughout, even on oddball track "Area 51," which is goofy but still works, thanks to the earnestly friendly, smiling sincerity the band imbues to the track. Sure, they're obviously tongue-in-cheek about it, but they pull it off in such a way that it doesn't matter that they're joking. Bands who take themselves seriously all the time suck, anyway.
Even now, after repeated listens, I find myself drawn to The Small Sounds over and over again, wanting to hear those subtle flourishes and heartworn voices and feel that deep-down warmth one more time, smiling to myself all the while. And really, that's the best recommendation I can give.
[The Small Sounds are playing 6/20/09 at Walter's on Washington, along with Elkart & The Literary Greats.]
Star Fucking Hipsters
Until We're Dead
Star Fucking Hipsters are a classic punk band. Their songs rarely clock in over two minutes. Their live shows often involve a couple bottles of Jameson's and a ton of aggression. Their lyrics are politically charged, awakening calls for nonconformity and awareness to the pitfalls of greed and the fruitlessness of war. Despite this, however, their release Until We're Dead is anything but a classic punk rock album.
The band consists of Sturg Fuckin' Hipster, Frank D. Generic, Ara Slack, Yula Beeri, and Nico de Gaillo, who all hail from other projects like Choking Victim, Leftover Crack, The Degenerics, and the Slackers (among others). Their numbers can sometimes swell even higher, as they treat Star Fucking Hipsters as more a musical collective than a typical band. The result is sensational. Until We're Dead is an epic album. Epic in part because they have something to say, which roots their music with a validity, purpose, and passion that is too often missing in everyday commercial releases, but also because of the musical scope of the album, a result of the many different musicians and styles that came together for this project.
The title track starts off with a mid-tempo piano solo, reminiscent of Danny Elfman's work in the '80s, and then slams into a full tilt Bad Religion-ish anthem about war, cops, avarice, and capitalism, all in one song. The standout track of the bunch is by far "Empty Lives," a slow-tempo punk ballad that simply reminds you that as long as you're breathing you can learn and free yourself from misconceptions, prejudice, and conformity. Whether you're a hardcore vegan straightedge anarchist or a Libertarian high school dropout, the song will get you amped and serve as a powerful call to arms that you're never out of time until you're dead.
This album is accessible to people who aren't hardcore punk fans, but that isn't by design; it's just a natural extension of where their music and collaboration took them, but through it all they never lose sight of their punk ethic. Until We're Dead is anything but a classic punk rock album. It is much, much more.
Season to Season
I love a good lyricist. Poets impress, but much of the time I find myself working at it to get a feeling or image from the words. Call me a simpleton, but that's why when I first read of The Traditionist, which advertises influences the likes of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, I was expecting nothing more than gangly vocals over melodramatic lyrics. I wasn't much interested, but I had a listen to a few tracks posted on MySpace, and became intrigued.
The Traditionist consists of Joey Barro and a guitar, and on Season to Season, he collaborated with longtime friend Tim Bluhm, of Mother Hips, who also helped produce. The arrangements, instrumentals, and sultry female vocals on select tracks are all very impressive. The only beef I really have is perhaps one unnecessary guitar solo, and a track or two that seems to have a hard time finding an ending. Overall, though, the disc is well-produced.
The album begins with "Shallow Winter's Moon," a haunting story that, for me, was about feeling lost but not without hope, and buried in the melody there is hope. Hope served up via warbled pulses of warm notes that progressively get brighter, to the bridge where percussion comes in. It's a brilliant opening to a host of tracks that are very diverse, and if you didn't know otherwise, might think they were scored for a film.
That advertised influence of Simon & Garfunkel hits you right in the face on the next track, and while I'm not a fan of tunes from either Simon or Garfunkel, I have to say that "A Sleep Be Told" is catchy. Not one of the best tracks, but if you can fight away the images of the Muppets parading behind Paul Simon in Central Park, the track will deliver a little seriousness. After these two tracks, you'll have no idea where Barro is going to take you, and it's best just to keep an open mind.
If you're going to pick and choose tracks versus purchasing the lot, try "No Self Portrait" and "I Know My Ocean," the former being a great lesson on the rhythmic effects of parallel prose. It projects imagery of Barro hunched over a piano with a bottle of bourbon in one hand while the other's pounding the keys. With the latter, you can sober up with a toe-tappin' song about togetherness. By the way, you're in luck -- you can pick up an MP3 of one of my top recommendations right now for free: http://www.betterlookingrecords.com/ thetraditionist/onesheet.php
The sound of Season to Season can't be pinned down to one genre. There are some country and western beats you could two-step to, and even a waltz and a polka, but don't expect to see The Traditionist throwing out coozies to the crowd anytime soon. It would take up much more Webspace than I'm given to describe every track accurately, but gnaw on this -- take Robert Earl Keen, Radiohead, and Paul Simon, put them in a rocket, and launch it to the next galaxy. If they return before killing each other, their collaborative effort would be The Traditionist.
Enter the Vaselines
There are only a handful of bands (if that) that have more deluxe, post-career reissue albums than they do actual LPs -- and the Vaselines are one of them. The fact acts, if nothing else, as a testament to the true awesomeness and brevity of this kinky Scottish duo.
Perhaps all of this is due to heavy endorsement by Cobain, who often touted the Vaselines as his "favorite band," but to give all of the credit to him would surely sell short the delightfully simple genius of this band. They still had to make the records, didn't they?
Enter the Vaselines is the latest installment canonizing the Vaselines' minimal repertoire in all of the different types of releases you can make. There are demos, EPs, LPs, and live recordings. Some of you may (like me) have found your love for the Vaselines through The Way of the Vaselines, released in '92; some of you may have never heard of them before. Either way, Enter the Vaselines gives a radiant glance at one of the most unknown and cultish '80s punk-pop acts at all angles and gives plenty of reason for Cobain's fascination.
With (now) classics such as "Jesus Don't Want me for a Sunbeam" and "Son of a Gun," the Vaselines' amateur and greasy demo version of three songs -- "Son of a Gun," "Rosary Job," and "Red Poppy" -- give great insight into the roots of the band. Obviously understaffed as a boy/girl duo, the Vaselines produced a hollow, drum-machined version of their latent hit. The other two songs, "Rosary Job" and "Red Poppy," which only materialize on the demo and live versions, are jangly, sing-a-long-y, bits of euphoria, and surprisingly sober for that.
The two live concerts offered show what the Vaselines sounded like in the '80s, which is exactly what you'd think: gritty, unwittingly sloppy, and fresh. Though I should note that it seems they had time to mature, as the second live offering ("Live in London") has a greater catalogue and is much more listenable.
Of course, these three installments offer a more behind-the-scenes look and have the subliminal appeal akin to looking at someone's adorable baby photos when they're lying naked on the rug. The real meat of this deluxe edition comes in the form of the Vaselines' two EPs (Son of a Gun and Dying for It) and their single full-length release DUM DUM.
DUM DUM offers an intricate depth and high production quality of an honest LP -- much different from the sound of The Way of the Vaselines. The songs are meaty and excited. Kelly's adolescent snarl comes off clean and crisp, while McKee's vocal are unabashed and unaffected. Songs like "Oliver Twisted" and "Slushy" are almost too colorful for the Vaselines' notoriously Scottish drab.
The two EPs compile what were the cuts from The Way of the Vaselines, with better production quality at the hands of Sub Pop re-mastering. Both, however include the recorded versions of "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam," "Molly's Lips," "Son of a Gun," and an electro-rock version of Divine's "You Think You're a Man," which are all infamous and important tracks charting the rise of the Vaselines into the cult rock spotlight. Hence, they're both redundant and necessary in the catalogue at the same time.
An homage like this to the Vaselines was not only needed to give this band their proper spot in rock's tapestry, but also to further the notion that the mainstream (even in the MTV generation) has often overlooked crucial and worthy bands. Songs like "Sunbeam" and "Molly's Lips," as innocent and unwitting as they are, were in jeopardy of being unheard. Thankfully, though, no more.
The War on Drugs
Barrel of Batteries EP
You know when some bands will release an album and have tracks that are just a few seconds long, or maybe a minute long, of just instrumental music? Well, I normally really hate that and just delete them from my iTunes library. However, on The War on Drugs' recent Barrel of Batteries EP, I find myself actually liking that part. I think that these little intermissions, found between almost every other song on the EP, fit and connect the album together and make it flow a lot easier.
This particular release features only three full songs, plus three of those instrumental tracks that I mentioned above. The album opens with a quiet, 50-second opening track that I think does really well building into the first full song, "Arms like Boulders." Then the EP goes right into my favorite track, "Pushing Corn" -- this particular track reminds me of Arcade Fire's Funeral, with singer Adam Granduciel's sort of whiny voice, the steady beat from the drummer, and the use of some sort of tambourine-type instrument in the background. I love it.
After that track, another intermediate track plays. This one's only 19 seconds long, and at first doesn't seem to fit as well as the others, but thinking about it, I really like it. It sounds like a static-y radio station and then just cuts out, and it takes a few seconds for the final full track on the EP, "Buenos Aires Beach," another charming track, to start up. On this particular track, I enjoy even more Granduciel's unique voice and how he uses it to enhance the song. It's hard to explain -- you'll just have to listen to it to understand.
Then, just as the album began with one of those instrumental tracks, the album ends with one, as well, a perfect fit for closing out the album. I have a track in my iTunes library from the band's full-length release, Wagonwheel Blues, by the way, called "Taking the Farm," and really like it, too. I'd highly recommend this band, especially the Barrel of Batteries EP. It's catchy and smart, just a fun collection of songs. I look forward to getting their newest album and hearing what they have in store for the future.