There's a certain flea market quality to the instrumentation / configuration on Anathallo's debut, a little bit of everything laid out in cardboard boxes. A far-from-inclusive list would still have to include glockenspiel, bleacher stomp, well-miked children's bikes, strings, odd (yet sincere) choral harmonies, (unintentional) polysyllabic humor, distortion, hand-claps, vocal soaring, pidgin English, a rhythm section veering from straight-ahead competence to I'm-in-a kitchen-and-I'm-going-to-smash-everything art-rock, baseball cards, mouthful song titles ("Genessaret Going Out Over 30000 Fathoms of Water"), Japanese stories about dogs, horns of all sorts, all known species, possibly even some mounted, garage-hung antlers...just, really, a whole lot of gorgeous debris but all of it, admittedly, informed by the sort of easy yet heartfelt spirituality that you really want to respect but basically don't.
This impression (of said spirituality being somehow cheap and the resentment you feel towards it for making you think so and for making you feel not sophisticated but jaded for thinking so) is something whole books could be written about and without really saying or concluding much. Suffice it to say that the casual listener's relationship with the artist's relationship to God and/or overall, non-specific spirituality is uneasy at best. But this, in and of itself, is hardly an album killer. It can be resolved or, more easily, ignored. What can't be ignored, however: despite the garage sale everything-for-5-cents list of instruments and modes, there's nothing small, familiar, or offputtingly clever about this record. Where one expects the musical equivalent of curio or knickknack, one instead encounters grandeur, vapid, and intent-ridden. The album is, in a word, overwrought. It's also, even if only momentarily, beautiful.
Frustratingly beautiful. That's the crux of it. The record is unsatisfying not because it doesn't deliver but because it occasionally does, offering up intimate, lovely kitsch and then, as promptly, abandoning it altogether. You're never seduced but you are interested, then disappointed, in quick succession. Perhaps it's inevitable -- the band (which is, by the way, closer to a swarm in number) samples too many genres, too many sounds, too many ideas. Occasionally (perhaps inevitably) they get it right but just as often, they flat out don't. Funky, herky-jerk folk segues into needlessly showy instrumentation; intimate yet catchy murmuring grabs your attention, then fades, replaced by glassy ornamentation.
Lyrically, Floating World (which presumably refers to Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, An Artist of the Floating World?) ranges from wooden half-talk ("I dug, pulling out the bites of snakes / And slugs and bugs") to semiotic nightmare ("Where I can be the signifier / Not that which is signified / The referent convincing us (you and me both) / For you smile my is like bow, bow, bow, bow"). On the other hand, this is music you hear instead of decipher; bad as those examples may here appear, they're exquisitely choreographed on the record. The harmonies, though cloying at times, are both celestial and acrobatic. Sonic, very.
But hit or miss is the modus operandi for this Michigan outfit. At their best Anathallo sounds like fellow faith-rocker Sufjan Stevens, but at their worst they sound like a New Wave version of the Polyphonic Spree that's somehow lost its sense of humor. For every minute of hey-this-sounds-like-potently-new, there are several where you find yourself not so much bored as uncomfortable, feeling parental responsibility for a bunch of talented but whacked-out kids wearing gowns. They are reportedly an amazing live act, one where the contradictions of their music are musically discussed, worked through, etc., the net effect being that this reviewer's frustration with the record itself has only increased.
Anathallo, in Greek, means "to renew or to make bloom again." Ignoring the whole OMG factor of such a name, it makes a certain additional criticism available to yours truly. The band, genuinely talented and apparently nice in a totally non-threatening way, try too hard to live up to their name. They try to make it new and that's of course a fun, wholesome grad-school goal. It's just that sometimes the best way of achieving that goal is to recycle, to reuse, to restate in a newly giving way. Viz. sometimes the best way to write a good rock song isn't to overthink/implement said overthinking in a truly pyrotechnic, structural way. The best way to write a good rock song is to write a good rock song. Period.
This will make the fourth time I've sat down and tried to write a review for this album, with many apologies to our illustrious editors. I can honestly say the delay is in large part due to the feeling that I wasn't giving Barbez enough of a try before I reviewed the album. I would sit, and begin to criticize, and then stop myself; reminding myself how many listens of OK Computer it took for me to appreciate it.
Finally, I've some to the conclusion that Barbez is not Radiohead, and does not merit the same time commitment, because after innumerable listens, I've reached the same conclusion time after time: man, do they need a new lead singer. And I mean that with all due respect; I get the Marlene Dietrich thing they're trying to pull off. It's just that, well, Miss Dietrich wasn't all that great a singer, and the only reason she sang as much as she did was that she had an impressive screen presence.
A voice on a CD, however, has no screen presence.
The musicianship on the album is quite good, and musically all the tracks are actually quite listenable, but once that voice kicks in, you long for the karaoke version of the album -- the one without the singing.
For all you skeptics out there, thinking to yourselves, "He just doesn't enjoy unusual singing voices," I say to you that I own the Tiger Lilies musical Shockheaded Peter and quite dig it, and on top of that, I'm a big fan of both Rush and Blossom Dearie. So stick that in your hat and smoke it.
All in all, if you're a big fan of Marlene Dietrich's singing and the more experimental music of Dead Can Dance, you're in for a treat, but if you really only like the latter, leave this album be.
I know what you're thinking. Honest, I do: four young, greasy-haired Toronto guys who look like they moonlight as clerks at Old Navy, a band where everybody but the drummer sings, vast promises of crunchy guitars and melodies (all at the same time! whoa!), murky, sketchy album artwork, and a band moniker ripped from a movie about a fictional punk band (Hard Core Logo, if you care). Add all that up, and what do you get? Taking Back Sunday blah blah Hidden in Plain View yadda yadda Brand New blah blah blah [random emo-indie-punk-rock band name here]. Right?
Not quite. From the opening Rob Halford-esque mëtäl yowl of propulsive rocker "Devil In A Midnight Mass" onwards, the four members of Billy Talent (vocalist Ben Kowalewicz, guitarist/vocalist Ian D'Sa, bassist/vocalist Jon Gallant, and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk) seem intent on smashing all my (and your) preconceived ideas about their band into tiny little pieces. Rather than make their way back down the musical track so many of their contemporaries seem content to tread -- loud guitars, emo-boy melodies alternating with Cookie Monster growling, and songs that don't go anywhere and mistake volume and speed for energy -- Billy Talent has carved itself a weird, strangely alluring little niche in the walls of the hallowed Halls of Punk Rock.
On barnburners like "Red Flag," "Fallen Leaves," and "Perfect World," the band marries the rough energy of punks like The Explosion or The Living End with angular, sharp-edged, "bright"-sounding guitars reminiscent of sci-rock heroes No Knife or even seminal math-rockers Rodan; the voices yell and soar, the anger and fury barely reined in by the melody, and the guitars buzzsaw and lunge in from both sides. The finger-pointing condemnation of indie-hipsterness (and yes, I'd cry "guilty" myself if I weren't so damn uncool) of "Where Is The Line?" moves a bit further from the pop-punk end of things, nearing Jam territory -- about 30 seconds in, I smiled and nodded to myself, as it finally clicked why in the heck the Buzzcocks would want to take these whippersnappers out on tour with 'em.
"Worker Bees" is more New Wave-ish, bright and sinister at once, with more of those laser-like guitars and singer Kowalewicz seemingly doing his best Justin Hawkins impersonation. Then there's "Pins and Needles" and "Surrender," which turn down the tempo a bit and get sensitive but still manage to keep up with the rest of the album, and a few odd bits like "Covered in Cowardice," where the Brit-metal howling becomes a freaky screech and I can't tell if the lyrics are pro- or anti-war (they read -- to me, at least -- like they're one or the other), and "The Navy Song," a rollicking, ferocious tale of heroism and pain on the high seas that has Kowalewicz sounding like...Jon Anderson of Yes? What the hell?
The whole of II is a mashup of influences that don't seem to have much in common -- the No Knife/Chavez guitars, the Billie Joe Armstrong snotty sneer, the New Wave of British Metal roar, the streetpunk yell-alongs -- and yet it all fits together like it was designed to, somehow. I don't entirely get it, but it works, and along the way it manages to be catchy as all hell. Billy Talent's brand of rock may not be for everybody, but it definitely stands out from the crowd of kids with guitars currently clogging up the 'net with all their MySpace pages. For me, all it took was one listen for the lyrics to "Red Flag" to lodge in my brain, and I was sold: "Cast off the crutch that kills the pain / The red flag waving never meant the same / The kids of tomorrow don't need today / When they live in the sins of yesterday." Just makes me want to jump up and punch the ceiling...
Exene Cervenka and the Original Sinners
So unlistenable as to call into question whether X was worth it in the first place. Shut up and stop pretending that your name isn't Christine, lady.
The Coma Recovery
Drown That Holy End in Wine
The Coma Recovery puts out a solid progressive/hard rock epic with Drown That Holy End in Wine. After listening to the album, I can see a lot of potential in this band down the road. Unfortunately, the album gets mired and lost in itself; like the latest Johnny Depp shipwreck, these songs seemingly go on forever. The album is almost an hour long, with only eight songs on it. The last three songs are around nine minutes long apiece; "Fifteen Minute Hourglass" is marathon-like in its length and a testament to patience, topping out a little under ten minutes.
Putting aside the problem with length, the album has many enjoyable moments. "The Glory of Alone" showcases the band's progressive spin from hardcore/melodic to soft ambient noise. There are moments that reminded me of Mourning Maxwell, Pink Floyd, and The Killers. The band's eclectic amorphous style is complemented by the shaky, wavy distortion of the guitar; throughout the album, the songs are constantly changing around the musicians' dexterous fingers. Once again, however, while the music is ingratiating at times, it feels like the songs are reluctant to take full shape.
"Fifteen Minute Hourglass" is an epic of about ten minutes in length (that is to say, ten punk songs long). The beginning starts out with a great hard/bluesy riff. The guitar gains power, and at times during the song you can hear the influence of hardcore heavyweights Refused. The bass drives the guitar like the follow-through of a ball-peen hammer, and the drummer does a great job glueing the song together. Vocalist Daniel Brigman is focused in his intensity, but I feel he lacks the foreground exposure needed in order for the listener to be able to appreciate his talent. For the entire album, it sounds like he's harmonizing in an adjoining room away from the band; his voice sounds distant (though, live at Fitz, I'm sure he would sound fine).
The Coma Recovery sings hopeful poetic lyrics, borrowing from the softer ethereal side of their melodic breakdowns. The lonely melodies fall slowly from the guitar like ripples in the water. While these breakdowns from the hard rock pace are nice, they occur in every song multiple times. There were so many breakdowns and start-ups in "The Fifteen Minute Hourglass" that I thought four tracks had played before the one was over. Most of the songs could have been broken into three or four songs and the listener wouldn't have noticed. All I'm saying is that not every song has to be epic -- the listener gets tired and lost. The melodic ingenuity, pumping guitar, and catchy beats were not all lost on me, luckily, and I'd spin this disc a few more times. If you're driving from El Paso to Houston, I'm sure you won't even notice how much of a journey each song is.
Cansei de Ser Sexy
You can't say CSS sucks, because they're way ahead of you. Track number one of their self-titled album is, in fact, "CSS Suxxx." I'm not sure if "suxx" is the same as "sucks," but let's say that it is. It's the cleverest thing on the album.
CSS stands for "Cansei de Ser Sexy," which apparently means "tired of being sexy" in Portuguese (and also happens to be the title of their debut full-length). You see, CSS are from Brazil, where sexy is the thing, and they are young rebels. They are so rebellious, they don't even sing in Portuguese, because it sounds too pretty. Or so they say.
And yet, some song titles include "Music Is My Hot, Hot Sex" and "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above." All this from a singer who calls herself "Lovefoxx." So are they tired of being sexy or not? Is that irony? I'm confused.
Lovefoxx's real name is Luisa Matsushita and she is Japanese-Brazilian. Did you know that there are 1.5 million Brazilians of Japanese ancestry? Early in the 20th century a labor shortage in Brazil and bad conditions in parts of Japan resulted in mass migration. I am sort of fascinated by the possibilities of the kind of music that would come from two cultures as different as those of Japan and Brazil. And so what does the Japanese-Brazilian Lovefoxx come up with? Well, nothing special.
In fact, there is really very little to distinguish CSS from the raft of young bands that are discovering '80s New Wave for the first time: The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, The Killers... I could go on. There's very little to distinguish CSS, that is, unless you listen to their lyrics.
Now I know maybe English isn't their native tongue, but really, these lyrics are especially adolescent. They have a song called "Off the Hook." Folks, it's always a bad idea to appropriate a buzz phrase -- you might as well call your song "Whazzuuuup." There's more: how about "Fuckoff Is Not the Only Thing You Have to Show?" What does that mean? They just want to say "fuck off" a lot, don't they? And don't get me started on "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above." Never mind the meaning of title, Lovefoxx can't even get all the words in. "Let's make love and listendeathfromabove" is what comes out. But I'm sure that to some none of this matters. What's important is that they're cool, right?
My advice for CSS is this: drop the cool bullshit. It just leads you to be like everybody else. Why would I want to listen to you trying to sound like other bands? Don't you have anything new to offer? Really? Don't you? Stop trying to be what you think people want to hear. Every faddish music trend is littered with copycat bands that nobody remembers. On the other hand, everybody would remember something that fused Japanese and Brazilian cultures. Like a samba noise band or something. I don't even know how that would work, but you, CSS, should figure it out.
The Dead Science
A syrupy, crooning falsetto, Sam Mickens's voice is clearly the centerpiece of the band, and as he goes, so goes The Dead Science. This type of vocal is extremely difficult to record, and I must say that for that, Mickens sounds great. The songs are merely here as a framework for his voice; they don't stand on their own, which is an advantage in this case, since it forces the vocal to be both instrument and messenger. The instrumentation serves to enhance and strengthen the moods of the vocals and the content of the lyrics, which seem to be primarily concerned with slitting your wrists or wanting someone else to slit theirs. The lyrics read like a Goth high-schooler's journal, replete with stuff like "Blood in my mouth," "Waiting for your amputation," and "I went to sleep / Perchance to dream / I waited patiently / But nothing came to me." Ugh.
But you know what? It works. Usually, I'm pretty down on depressed naval-gazing, but The Dead Science is definitely more than the sum of the parts. "Last Return" starts the album powerfully, with tense instrument interplay and Mickens's wispy voice over the top, while "In The Hospital" reads like a scene from Hellraiser. "Drrrty Magneto" features a righteous upright bass part, propelling the song through an idiosyncratic chorus and strong build to the end, and it might be the highlight of the album. A surprise horn part opens "The Future, Forever," which then devolves into loose arrhythmic near-free-form jazz. It's probably the weakest song on the album but still interesting. "Blood Tuning" rights the ship with twisted, atonal guitar work, and the in-your-face vocal that starts "Black Stockings" is undeniable. Unfortunately, the guitar is horribly clipped, removing all of the wonderful atmospheric headroom of the vocal. "Lil Half Dead" almost feels Spanish in flavor, until you hear the overdrive boost kick on, and you're dumped into a sick loungy swing where you're asked to "[c]hoke to death on these unfulfilled prospects." Fun.
Fletcher-Munson eat your heart out, but I would swear that the drummer mixed this, since for much of the album, drums are all you can hear. Although out-of-synch in parts (for example, the breakdown of "In The Hospital"), the guitar and bass nicely lock in beautifully when you can hear them, especially considering that it sounds like most of this was recorded with everyone in the room. If this is an overdub job, kudos, you fooled me, because it sounds very live. Someone plays a bottle in "Lead to Gold in the Hour of Chaos," and there's enough interesting instrumentation to keep the listener involved if they lose focus on the vocals. Strangely, the album sonically sounds better as it goes along -- the first part's a bit muddy and overbearing, while the rest has a luscious aural space without an over-indulgence of the reverb.
So, is it good? Yep, but not in large doses. Probably shouldn't listen to Frost Giant after being dumped by your girlfriend and subsequently killing a bottle of Scotch, though.
Every Move A Picture
Heart = Weapon
The '80s post-punk revival is getting a little out of hand. When bands like Interpol and Franz Ferdinand came out, it was a breath of fresh air because most modern rock fans hadn't listened to Joy Division in a while, much less heard of Gang of Four. As more and more bands of the same ilk have emerged, however, it's become increasingly difficult for them to make much of a wave. Nonetheless, the trend isn't slowing down anytime soon, especially in the UK. Just for kicks, I was looking in the "Form a Band" section of the want-ads in a recent NME, and the first ad I saw said the following: "Guitarist/Bassist available, with image and experience, looking for a London band with management and image, influences Joy Division, Yeah Yeah Yeah's, Interpol, Bravery, The Stooges, The Clash." Wow.
Americans Every Move A Picture, hailing from the venerable San Francisco music scene, don't really add anything new to the post-punk revival. The staccato snare drums and circuitous guitar hooks are all there (along with the humming synths), but the attitude is sorely missing. Listening to them, I couldn't help but think they formed by posting one of those NME ads. I mean, take a look at their MySpace page... The band bears more resemblance to relative newcomers Bloc Party, albeit with an Elvis Costello clone on vocals, than they do earlier touchstones Joy Division and Gang of Four.
The production quality is fantastic but is less post-punk and more Oingo Boingo. The big liability here is the vocals by Brent Messenger, who at times goes annoyingly overboard on the start-stop vocals, à la William Shatner. Heart = Weapon starts out strong with "Mission Bell" but then slowly starts to wind and gasp for breath. It gets particularly clunky on "On the Edge of Something Beautiful (at 12AM)."
Some of the stuff I've read about the band says that they have a political bent, but that must be buried in the subtext. Or maybe I just started dozing off and had a hard time listening for the messages (I did hear something about the "national defense," though). Sometimes CNN through a Fender is exciting (e.g., The Clash) and other times it just comes off like a slab of cheese.
Ghost of the Russian Empire
with fiercest demolition
The easiest verdict for an album is how many tracks you skip past. When you get a new CD and you only skip maybe two songs, even after repeated listens, that's probably a sign of a damn good CD.
With that in mind, consider that with fiercest demolition, the debut album by Ghost of the Russian Empire, is an EP that tracks in at only six songs (right about 30 minutes), and yet I only skipped one song ("Psychomedicated"). Cha-ching! The CD opens up with a spaghetti-western trumpet line that then gets chased around by a distant drumbeat. Brandon Whitten's buzzing vocals sneak in with some acoustic guitar strumming, creating an air of dread. Stories unfold about "earthquake seas" and empires. The songs pulse with fear about "invasion plans," and you wonder whether the band is thinking about extinct societies, as their moniker would suggest, or something closer to home.
The rich sound brings to mind the atmospherics of South, with a resemblance to the Appleseed Cast's Christopher Crisci in Whitten's vocals. The drilling guitar onslaught of "The Sovereign and a Sword," in the vein of OK Computer, is a knockout track. The band has an eerily developed sound, given their recent formation and lack of major label dollars. They have a rainy, London-y feel, yet hail from the "frigid tundra" of central Texas. Keep an eye on these guys as they give chase to those other solemn Texan bands-with-long-names, Explosions in the Sky and I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness.
Speak For Yourself
I've fallen in love with a song. Hopelessly, insanely, head-over-heels in love with it, so much so that it's a little freaky. Not that it's anything intimate, mind you -- my wife's got nothing to worry about -- but more that this one particular song is just so damn cool that I want to keep hearing it over and over and over again, and on top of that, I want everybody else to hear it over and over again, too. It's almost like back in middle school, y'know, when you made friends with somebody who turned out to be really cool, or funny, or interesting, and you liked 'em so much that you wanted all your other friends to know them, too? It's just like this massive, overwhelming admiration. It's the kind of song around which mixtapes are created.
At any rate, that's how I feel about Brit songstress Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek," off of her recent step back into the solo spotlight (after a few years as half of Frou Frou), Speak For Yourself. This one song is why I bought the album -- and I'll get to that in a minute -- and I still think it's absolutely worth it, just so I can slap it in the car CD player any time I want. "Hide and Seek" is a gorgeous, heart-swelling gem of a track, the kind that makes you feel that little catch in your throat at certain specific moments. It practically glistens with a futuristic-sounding, almost metallic sheen, but still burns warm and bright in the best way, the vulnerable humanity shining through the oddly vocoder-esque vocals. (Note, by the way, that this song may be the only existing example of the right way to use that goddamn annoying electro-vocal trick popularized by Cher, Madonna, and a host of even more irritating pop stars.)
Thankfully, Ms. Heap's vocals aren't obscured by the studio trickery, but instead catapult off of it to shine their brightest; there's something utterly magical about the way, when she hits the highest notes in the song, you can't tell where she leaves off and the computer begins. At the low end, too, her voice hums and vibrates like it itself is an instrument, which makes sense when you realize that there really aren't any "real" instruments on the track -- it's just her voice and the electronics, and yet it feels full and vibrant. There are elements of Lisa Gerrard here, but the closest touchstone I can come up with, really, is Enya; the vocals on her vastly underappreciated, self-titled debut, often accompanied only by synths or not at all, came near to the alien beauty of this one song.
Not that the lyrics don't matter, of course. After the first few listens, I had in mind some kind of hypnotic, foreboding-yet-thrilling tale of alien invasion, but at this point I'm going to chalk that imagery up to the atmospherics of the track, because the lyrics are a lot more down to earth. At the heart of it, "Hide and Seek" seems to be a song about a relationship gone wrong, with Heap/the narrator confused, bewildered, angry, and viciously bitter all at once. The sweet shimmeriness of the music belies the venom of the words, which only really pierce through near the end, when Heap offers a series of damning rhetorical questions: "Mm what d'ya say? / O that you only meant well / Well of course you did / Mm that it's all for the best / Of course it is / Mm that it's just what we need / And you decided this?" Music and words together, the song sounds, at least to this reviewer, like a document of that exact moment when a relationship comes crashing down and leaves the people involved suddenly lost and confused, striking out at one another because they don't understand what just happened. Time practically stops as they stumble to find words to fill the gap that suddenly looming between them.
Now, this review's been a little unfair so far, I'll admit. I'm not reviewing a single, here, but an album, and for me to ramble on at length about one track wedged in the middle certainly makes the other 11 tracks seem pretty paltry by comparison. And they shouldn't, because as a whole Speak For Yourself is a stellar disc. In fact, the disparate elements of "Hide and Seek" are everywhere on here in various measure: the warbling, high-and-low vocals; the electronic backing tracks; and the lyrical focus on relationships, whether they're beginning, ending, or somewhere in-between. Beyond "Hide and Seek," highlights include "Goodnight and Go," a sweet, poignant bit of yearning for a relationship that really shouldn't happen but would be really great if it did; "Clear The Area," a head-bobbing electro-pop track that likens the state of a depressed would-be lover to a crime scene; and "Closing In," a claustrophobic, Massive Attack-esque roar of a song with nice washes of distant electric guitar and Blade Runner-like beeps and bloops.
Oddly, while Heap herself frequently gets compared (and not unrightfully so) to alternadivas like P.J. Harvey, Björk, Annie Lennox, and Kate Bush -- and I do hear a lot of the latter of the four, in particular, in Heap's vocal style, although it's nowhere near as pixie-like -- the person who comes to mind most often as Speak spins is a guy, veteran pop experimentalist Peter Gabriel. There are several moments here when I could swear Ms. Heap's about to break into an (undoubtedly gorgeous) cover of "Red Rain," or maybe swoon off into the elegaic "I Grieve," off Up (Gabriel's most recent full-length). I should note that I mean this as a compliment, by the way; to my mind, there are few figures as pivotal as Gabriel in the realm of pop music, particularly when it comes to blending electronics and "traditional" pop stylings. That's probably where the resemblance is strongest, as both performers apparently have no fear of freely using computers to enhance their work. Beyond that, both have unique but beautifully expressive voices, the kind that may not be destined for singing arias (although Heap's background is reportedly in classical music, if not opera) but are powerful on their own terms. If you don't buy the comparison, try listening to the bumping, almost funky opening track "Headlock" alongside Gabriel's Us -- the music Gabriel and Heap make may be far from identical, but the general feel of it sure seems close.
There's other stuff, naturally, like the slinky robofunk of "Loose Ends," which also serves as a foil to the confusion and bitterness of "Hide and Seek" by way of being totally blasé about the collapse of an affair, "The Walk," which comes off like "Missing"-era Everything But The Girl with its dance-y, speedy momentum, and "Just For Now," a quirky, believable picture of familial strife at the holidays (I particularly enjoy it when Heap declares "Whoever put on this music / Had better quick sharp remove it" and then demands another drink from a disapproving parent).
And then there's "The Moment I Said It," a faltering, frightened-sounding track which closes out the album with a stark testament to the reality that sometimes all it takes is one wrong, angry word, one thoughtless sentence to tear the heart out of even the most passionate of relationships. Like the flipside of "Hide and Seek," "The Moment I Said It" realizes immediately that things have suddenly spiraled out of control and frantically tries to reverse course. Taken as a chronicle of the wonderful possibilities and tragic dangers of relationships, Speak For Yourself is utterly real and authentic. I fell in love with one song, it's true, but I'll definitely be back to visit with the others.
The Invincible Czars
Gods of Convenience
"Keep Austin weird." A friend of mine who lived in Austin for ten years told me that when these bumper stickers popped up, longtime Austinites began uttering the phrase ironically when they saw things truly strange and unsettling. The image of Austin as a free-spirited artist's community, whatever the case fifteen years ago, is now probably equal parts rosy nostalgia and apocryphal marketing cliché. Indeed, I have spotted parallel stickers for communities ranging from Boulder (OK) to Louisville (what?) to Houston (dream on, Pacifica!).
And yet, every once in a while we receive a reminder that some clichés have a basis in reality. Though they couldn't be less savvy about it, the Invincible Czars are one of the truly weird bands to emerge from the Austin music mill recently. Combining Klezmer music, prog rock and the pseudo-classical musings of Oingo Boingo could produce no other result. It's difficult to tell how to judge Gods of Convenience. Is it successful in blending dissimilar genres into something resembling a distinctive style? Is it successful in executing complicated and difficult music? Unquestionably, on both counts. Is it sufficient as a document of a unique musical vision? Is it at least largely free of cliché, hipsterism and lameness? So far, so good. Do its ideas convince the listener of their veracity? Does it thrill and move? Does it rock? Here our ground is less certain. Does it sound good? Does it look good? Are the lyrics to the first track not a totally unnecessary sour-grapes attack on "the indie rock gurus"? Frankly, no.
The charitable retort is that as long as the musical ideas themselves come through (which they do here), the record is successful -- but an idea isn't just substance. As any student of Heidegger can tell you -- and Czar idols Nomeansno know it ("The Worldhood of the World As Such") -- different words are different for a reason, and in order to present an idea effectively, one must choose words with exactly the right shade of meaning, taking into account both denotation and connotation. Just so, musical ideas must be presented in exactly the right way. To fail to do so not only prevents people from understanding your ideas; it changes the meaning of the ideas themselves. So tension becomes awkwardness and attitude becomes childishness, the ominous becomes the ridiculous and the unique the quixotic, an edgy band in crazy costumes becomes a bunch of dorks in exposure suits (ahjonx why, excuse me!), and what one is left with is that of which The Onion once accused Les Claypool: "cartoonish weirdo wankery." Or, from another perspective, anything worth doing is worth doing well: a recording that sounds bad detracts from the quality of the music. And bad album art and design -- why is it even there?
If the principle that genius is close to insanity is represented by Lou Reed or Iggy Pop, what Oingo Boingo, Primus and the Invincible Czars demonstrate is that genius is close to geeky self-indulgence. You want to play it tricky and fast? You want to play in costume? You want to play "Hava Nagila," "Pink Elephants on Parade," "A Night on Bald Mountain," and "The Nutcracker" as rock and "Blackened" as a polka? Fine. Weird is good. But remember that the original "weird" that Austin had was the Big Boys, MDC and the Dicks. So before you make it weird, please, make it frickin' rock.
White Trash Girl
It's difficult, if not impossible, to talk about Candye Kane's music without first discussing her life or at least that of her persona (assuming that there is a distinct difference between them which, we'll get to in a moment). So: purportedly born in the mean streets of East L.A. (Highland Park, specifically), Candye's early life has an After-School Special quality to it, deliciously lurid and true-to-life (too true, really) in a weirdly artificial way. She fell in with gang culture and was a single mom at seventeen. She was on welfare -- well, off and on. She had -- and has -- huge breasts (used onstage in ways -- believe it or not -- that you wouldn't exactly expect). She had, and lost, a scholarship at USC. She began posing for such glossy (and not) rags as Hustler, Floppers, Mounds, Melons, and Jugs. She worked as a phone sex operator, a (presumably minor) plus-size porn star, a stripper, and a generally about-and-ahead girl in the straight-to-neon punk scene of '80s L.A.
She was not, she would want to assure you, a victim of any sort. Rather, as she likes to say, she was working with what she had, funneling flesh-stuff cash into (mostly) musical endeavors. But although Ms. Kane was in a series of raucous country outfits early on, her musical career didn't truly take off until 1992, when the infusion of blues, burlesque, and Texas finally came together in a simple, shimmering form of loud...dropping the whole laud-talk bit, we should probably just say "she picked up some decent players from SXSW and went to town." Anyway. The story's garish, gorgeous, and most likely true in every particular. Generally speaking, life really is that bad. Life really is that sordid, at least that sticky, hopefully that fun, and at best that clean. But there's a certain paucity to this account, isn't there? Isn't there something rather deadening about the very familiarity of it? The realness, even? Minus the self-love glow (which: artificial tan, more or less), it's a story heard a million times, albeit with, generally speaking, a different ending. Behind every sex worker's hard, disinterested eyes, there are a million similar details, and if they're all different then they're different like snowflakes -- that is to say, not in a way that really matters to us.
This might, to you, all seem rather mean-spirited, and why the hell would her life be up for summary judgment, anyway? More to the point, you might add, given that this is her life, what exactly do you want her to say? How should she introduce herself? Does she have to revise her narrative? For her music to actually get even some cursory attention? And if this isn't, say, the whole story but carefully selected details intended to mold a nice, sexy, and (let's not forget) brassy, persona, well what's the fucking problem?
Fair enough. This is, after all, entertainment. But the thing of it is, though my reaction to the life and times of Ms. Kane is basically "so what?," that's not my problem with said life and times and all the talk surrounding it, at all. The problem with the headline-grabbing backstory is that it's reduced her music to a sort of critical afterthought; it's all the reviews talk about. It's also, for the most part, what Ms. Kane herself talks about in various interviews, which brings up another problem: the whole "since someone has told me to think of them this way, I am naturally inclined not to" thing, though if I'd merely heard of them in such a fashion my reaction might be substantially different. Regardless, the focus upon Candye Kane the trading card, the interesting, the alluring, the street chanteuse, etc., devalues the one thing that actually makes her unique, the one thing that is atypical, bawdy, hard-boiled, and powerful. Which is her music.
Which is also far more interesting than any discussion of it, this one included. The music, at least, is exactly as advertised, which is a good thing. Though not scarily groundbreaking or arguably important (unless you, like me, think the pleasure of the listener happens to be important), Kane's music is more than just a curiosity; it's potent, it's big, and it's proud. Since '92, Ms. Kane's released seven albums and countless singles and comp appearances. Her songs have been featured in TV and movies. She's played with some serious luminaries of rockabilly and blues. She's dominated the scene of her adopted city of San Diego. She has, surely, made her heroes (Big Maybelle, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James) more than proud. And she's done so with an increasingly varied lineup, including her almost-grown sons. Stylistically, she's thrown together swing, cabaret, blues, and a little bit of glue-sniffing moxie; the result's Vegas, honky-tonk style, complete with feathers, tits, and sweat. There may not be a name for the genre, but it's warm and fuzzy, like a nice beer-drunk.
Today, with White Trash Girl's release, the beat goes on -- there's some serious fun on this record. Though not a huge departure from previous efforts, Girl is still the best of the lot. The all-dirty swagger of the title track alone is well worth the price of admission. It's also a perfect summer song, all howling sexual menace, barbeques, clear skies, broken families, and guitar licks that sound positively salty. Unfortunately, the track's muscularity doesn't reappear on the album (save for some truly nasty bass/snarl on "Queen of the Wrecking Ball"), but if the toughness goes missing, the bawdiness of what follows more than makes up for it.
"Whatever Happened To The Girl" is a delight, a nice bubblegum ballad reminiscent of the sunniest stuff off of Grease. "Work What You Got," though a bit anthemic, shakes and shimmies with the best of them. And the admirable "Mistress Carmen," is one of the more endearing odes to a stripper/dominatrix I've ever heard. When Ms. Kane coos "We don't want much / We don't have to touch / We just want to watch you dance," the desire is actually earnest, not seedy or even pathetic, more loving than not and suffused with longing. Of course, "We all say thank you / & please / She might even let us touch / What brings us to our knees" is a bit of teenage wish fulfillment, but what's wrong with that? It's refreshing to see want combined so unabashedly with hope and without contempt for the one wanting being expressed in any way.
There are some missteps. "Estrogen Bomb" is hokey -- and probably intentionally so, but in this case that's no saving grace ("I'm talking about the estrogen bomb" -- no kidding, and also more like yowling). "Masturbation Blues," despite some nice tickling piano lines, is a bit easy and a bit too easy to imagine reconfigured as a toss-off NOFX song ("It helps me to snooze / I've got the masturbation blues;" ouch). The piano-bar styling of "I Could Fall For You" is, at best, vacuous. Way too much vermouth. But the only real wince-worth moment occurs a the end of the record, with a straight-up rendition of "Let There Be Peace on Earth." It's not just bad, it's the sort of bad that makes you want to protect the singer from the judgment of others, from specifically having the same reaction to it that you've already had because after all, you love the singer and can forgive the trespass (have already forgiven the trespass), but others, one imagines, might not understand the overall value of the singer's oeuvre vis-à-vis this particular song. They might not. Truly. But here's hoping that they do.
Drum's Not Dead
If they had any other band name, you could probably take Liars to court for some of the most jarring stylistic changes since Neil Young got sued for transmogrifying his roots-rock sound into Trans. Their first album fit snugly in the school of spastic dance rock (cf. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Rapture, etc.). I never picked up their second album, recorded with a different rhythm section, after hearing many disappointed reports, but word had it that it was almost unlistenable noise. And now we have...this.
What "this" is slightly defies description to me, which I don't mean as a pejorative. This is possibly the best new album I've heard this year. Liars apparently live in Berlin now, and some of the more recognizable sonic touchstones are German -- Faust and Einstürzende Neubauten spring to mind, although neither's quite right. There's more than a few moments of menace, tribal percussion, and processed sounds that teeter on the axis between "music" and "noise," but there's also a spare and delicate feel to parts of the album as well, nowhere more prominent than in the beautiful closing track, "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack." That there's not a consistent adjective that can be used across the album is indicative of the fact that this isn't a genre album but an odyssey by musicians who may not be sure where they're going themselves but are intent on exploring and carving out their own space. In an era of trendy micro-genres, even attempting this is noteworthy; that it works is cause for great praise.
Most notable about this release (and a reason not to content yourself with downloading it, not that you would ever consider that) is the inclusion of a DVD which has three full-length videos for the album. One is completely fucking useless (unless you like looking at a snail for 40-some minutes; if so, enjoy your drugs), but the other two are actually quite interesting. Julian Gross's "Drum's Not Bread" is often silly but also sometimes quite clever in its use of split screen, stop-motion, and other special effects; moreover, it's insightful for its inclusion of studio and live footage which completely recontextualized this album in my head, taking a slightly alien music and grounding it in flesh and blood performances. Markus Wambsganss's "By Your Side," meanwhile, feels much more like an "art film"; while largely stripped of humor, it has its own Teutonic charms, particularly for those who like experimental film. "Let's Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack," for instance, hearkens back to the films of Stan Brakhage in its use of scratches and Bruce Conner in its use of leaders. Also noteworthy is that the DVD gives you the option of 5.1 sound -- if you've got the setup, this would be a perfect album to get lost in, with or without visual accompaniment.
En Garde, Society!
"I can kill a dog in six ways. Five of them are throwing missiles at it."
I'd be lying if I said I was much of an expert on recorded comedy. The only comedy album I own is Mitch Hedberg's Mitch All Together, a document of genius from a sadly-deceased comedian. So where I feel reasonably secure in giving opinions on music, I don't know how much my word counts for on comedy. On the other hand, I feel like comedy is the most basic of all forms to evaluate -- you either laugh or you don't.
So, on this level: I laughed quite a bit. Eugene's almost a bit of a stealth comedian; on the CD, his performance isn't the sort of outsized "comedian" performance you might expect. He feels more like your funny friend, the one where you can never quite tell if he's telling a joke or not 'til he's most of the way through it. Which isn't to imply he's not talented, as Mirman has a particular talent for extending a concept to a joke and running with it into very random places that you'd never expect -- sort of the opposite of somebody like Hedberg who thrives on one-liners.
"It was like being invited to a '50s theme party where the only theme element was segregation."
It's worth noting that this is actually a CD/DVD combo, with the DVD being a collection of short films. They mostly have the feel of a guy sitting down in front of a camcorder, riffing along for a while, and then editing out the bad bits. Which isn't to say that some of them aren't pretty damn funny (particularly his "sexpert advice"), although the more he started hauling costumes and "characters" into it the less I got into it. Still, a nice bonus for a CD price.
Mr. Lif's third album, Mo' Mega, is the latest blast at the government from the undie-rapper's undie-rapper. Lif may be right to be afraid of government interference, considering that he's one of the most unabashed political commentators in rap, but the biggest development on Mo' Mega is that he's finally started talking about himself.
That said, though, this reviewer isn't sure it's a good thing Lif has suddenly decided to start revealing the depths of his soul -- if a friend told me about how he was going down on some girl and she tasted really nasty like Lif does in "Washitup," I guarantee I'd be shouting "Too much information!" He also opens up about his desire to go commercial -- on "Murs is My Manager," he's all worried about business and looking for his first corporate sponsorship. He's particularly worried about the deal with Herbal Essences falling apart because he hasn't washed his hair. Thanks for sharing, Lif.
Politics, however, is still what he breathes. Even on the track that's supposed to be a goof ("Murs"), he still can't keep away from politics: Lif hatches a plan for Kanye West to distract government attention from his records and rejects Al Gore as a guest rapper. And the rest of the record is his typical blend of social criticism and conspiracy; even "The Fries" wraps a condemnation of the fast-food industry with some conspiracy theories (although you'd think that the fast-food industry would be an easy enough target in and of itself).
The producers come up with some top-notch beats, too -- El-P sets a new standard for himself, from the abrasive guitar riff that drives "Collapse" to the electronic orchestra on "Ultra/Mega" to the spooky piano of "Lookin' In." Edan digs up a couple of great samples, a bouncy bassline and brash horn section that make "Murs" a huge amount of fun (and make it the catchiest song here). And Lif himself comes up with a fun Caribbean beat that perfectly matches the lighthearted "Washitup."
Have no fear, mind you -- Lif won't ever turn into a weepy confessional rapper. He'd still rather watch CNN than reality TV. But his desire to open up turns out to be good for not only himself, but for the fans, as well. In this case, it looks like the nice guy is finishing first.
Moody Dipper EP
With 5 Popes, Texas drone rockers My Education wowed critics and won legions of fans with their spacey, Britrock-influenced songs. With their latest EP, the aptly titled Moody Dipper, the band hopes to gain even more exposure by riding the coattails of the some of instrumental rock's best and brightest and including remixes by the likes of Red Sparowes, Dalek, Kinski, and Teith.
Fortunately for My Education, their three new tracks outweigh and overshadow the remixes. "Spirit of Peace" starts things off and is a good introduction to My Education's melodic music. The song begins slowly and steadily builds into a dreamy jam reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed! You Black Emperor. The EP flows nicely into "Armistice Day," a similarly structured -- yet no less effective -- song that mixes strings, a great drum beat, and willowy guitars. The final My Education original included on the EP is the title track, which follows in the same vein as all of the band's music -- swirling, shoegaze-y guitars and keyboards, feedback, and plenty of drone.
The rest of the songs on Moody Dipper are the aforementioned remixes, and while each interpretation is interesting, they all seem completely out of place here. The extra beats and faster rhythms cancel out the beauty inherent in My Education's music. The Kinski remix of the band's "Puppy Love" is the most listenable of the bunch, but even that song pales in comparison to the original. Some things just shouldn't be touched.
The North Atlantic
Wires In The Walls
Sometimes a band is its own worst enemy, and that seems to be the case with avant-garde punks The North Alantic. On their sophomore album, Wires In The Walls, the guys can't seem to decide if they want to thrash or chill. And picking one side or the other would be a good thing, if they made their sound congeal. The problem is that they don't, and it's hard to pay attention as the album lumbers from one track to the next, thrashing without distinction or any catchy release.
Wires In The Walls comes off as a mess, although that may be what the band intended. The sound is scathing, scratchy, and worn -- the ultimate in the DIY punk aesthetic. At first listen, Wires almost mimics Glassjaw, but several of the tracks, especially the openers, are so gnarly and abrasive that they stagnate the intensity and offset the sting. With so much noise and so little song, the tracks often seem to overpower themselves. Even the singer has to scream over the tracks. And therein lies the problem: it's just too much noise.
Frontman Cullen Hendrix howls of cities tainted by mud, nerdy ex-girlfriends, and love gone awry -- interesting topics, to say the least, but how can the words resonate when the lyrics can barely be heard? When Hendrix whines "I'd rather listen to my Clash records all night than be with you," I just can't help but feel the same way; at least The Clash could rock and still could hold down a melody.
Despite my commentary, the album does showcase an untapped reserve of talent and potential that could come to fruition should the band decide to use it. So here's my suggestion, should the band decide to heed it: ditch the over-the-top hardcore aesthetic and explore the Pavement-tinged angst of ballads like "Scientist Girl" instead. Its jangly guitars, broken harmonies, and bittersweet lines make this track a keeper, more so than the rest.
The Radium Screen
So I was driving around California, and to my surprise, there was nothing good on the radio. Believe it or not, the radio in Laguna Beach is worse than Houston's very lackluster channel selection. Anyway, I was driving around and happened to have White Faces, the demo by The Radium Screen, in my car. I looked at the beautiful, vibrantly colored red flower on the cover and assumed that this band would probably sound like something along the lines of the New Radicals or maybe Ash. Oh, how I was wrong...
The Radium Screen's four-song demo begins with the track "Dirty Blonde," which within four beats has me turning up the volume and wanting to shake my ass. But as the CD plays on, the beats get darker and darker and so do the vocals, and I still want to shake my ass. It's as though The Radium Screen is this wild offspring of !!! (aka "Chk Chk Chk"), with their ass-shakeable beats, that hits puberty in the middle of their second song and begin to sound much more like She Wants Revenge or Interpol, while still maintaining those dance-friendly beats. It's a very interesting mixture that the band members themselves even notice, apparently, describing their sound as "electronic music with a human feel," as well as "danceable" but at the same time "dark and lethargic". If you are into the Goth dance-rock vibe of Numbers, then this band from Louisville is just the thing for you.
The Seldon Plan
You know that feeling you get when you run across something you used to like but then forgot about, and then seeing or hearing or tasting it reminds you all over again of the way you used to feel? That's kind of what The Seldon Plan's debut full-length, Making Circles, is like, at least to me. I hear the mid-speed, deliberate tempos, the boyish, Teenage Fanclub-esque vocals, and the murky fuzz-drone anchoring the delicately-plucked guitars, and I have to smile (okay, yeah, it's partly because the sci-fi geek in me appreciates the Asimov reference, but still...).
It brings back nights spent in dingy clubs, listening to bands like Seam, Bedhead, Heatmiser (rest in peace, Elliott), and Silver Scooter, people who played this kind of pseudo-melancholy, close-your-eyes-and-bliss-out indie-rock. It's not as downright suicidal as the likes of Codeine or old-school Low, but there's still an alluring somberness to it all. There was a point in my musical life where I absolutely lived for stuff like The Seldon Plan, couldn't get enough of it, and on hearing Circles, I'm back in that warm, cozy little space.
The bad part? I couldn't tell which song was which, even with the track listing right here in front of me; I lost track after the first few songs (although I think "Top Left Corner" and "Checkered Flag" were the names of two that particularly caught my ear). The good side of that, though, is that it honestly doesn't matter, so long as the CD keeps playing.
Everything Wants To Be Used For What It Was Made For
Hmm...wow. Okay, this is a little awkward. I've listened to Everything Wants To Be Used For What It Was Made For, the latest release from Single Frame, and I'm still not sure exactly what it is. The album toys with your musical sensibilities; it bats your head back in forth with a wide variety of genres, mashing together arena rock/acoustic/techno/New Wave/acid. Oh, and almost all the tracks are previously released songs that have been mixed, remixed, or are unreleased demos. After listening to Everything, saying the band is experimental would probably be an understatement. It left me wondering, however, what their original stuff sounds without all the preening and posturing.
The first track that really stood out for me was "Taken for a Walk" -- the cottony distortion of the electric guitar slung out catchy riffs with a head-bopping beat. This is one of a few songs on the album that has a definite garage-rock feel. If you want a great impression of the band, I would recommend listening to "Clippership." There were irrepressible similarities between this song and the indie-dance sensation that is The Faint. The band also resembles The Faint in terms of the singer's style and lyrics, which are macabre but so catchy you probably wouldn't notice the creepiness. Before you know it, the instrumentals have steered "Clippership" deep into your ear canals.
I have to say, though, that this is probably the first album where I've wanted to break out dancing one minute, only to want to throw my headphones down in aggravation minutes later. I speak specifically of "Sores for a Change" -- the song produces what sounds like bees screaming. At this point my eardrums felt so tortured that I almost went limp and left my body. It's a good thing that I didn't, of course, because then I would have missed "Dry Lips," which creatively samples from The Legend of Zelda and the silencer in the classic GoldenEye N64 game. Another track on the album that follows the electronic feel is "Silver Crime Lining" -- reminded me of The Chemical Brothers. The drum machine and dub style of the song kept the lyrics bouncing from ear to ear.
After listening to this album, surprisingly, I found myself enjoying a good portion of it. Normally, if you find a New Wave/techno/acid CD around my person, you'd most likely hear a muffled scream, and shortly thereafter it'd be deposited into the nearest river, but I can appreciate more than a few tracks on this CD. From the dissonant piano to the bitter telephone calls and recorded dialogue to the Nintendo sampling and flat-out rocking beats, this album has it all. There are a few songs I'd love to hear over and over, and there are a few ambient tracks I'd avoid altogether. If anything, this album is a buffet of sound; pick what you like and sample the rest. I'm sure there are a few choices that will satisfy.
A bit of a grower, actually. On a first listen, Slacks' Terrestrial sounded like pretty generic Neil Young-circa-"Down By The River"-inspired instrumentals (with a couple of vocal tracks popping up -- interesting formal gambit, that, being a mostly instrumental band with a couple vocal songs). I'm not sure that additional listens revealed more per se, but what did come across was a stylistic variety from song to song (while retaining an overall coherency through the seven-song EP) and the songs becoming more memorable and pleasant to return to with each listen. There's hints of Calexico in here, as well, in the lyricism of some of the guitar lines, although they're much more likely to cling to the rock than those guys are. If you're looking for something with lyrical guitar melodies and a mix of wistfulness and soaring rock to play on your car stereo while driving alone on lonely backroads, this should fit your needs nicely. If the concepts "Neil Young" or "soaring guitar solos" give you hives, however, look elsewhere.
Speakers for the Dead
Prey for Murder
If you spend part of your day playing the washboard or attending Bible studies, you should probably drop this CD and run. Unless you are into death metal or ominous portents of the second coming, you may not want to give this CD a spin. I was a bit surprised, because I'd heard Speakers for the Dead described as "melodic hardcore," and while parts of it are in that category, the majority of the album would most likely fall under death metal. I am not a death metal fan. That said, I could appreciate Prey for Murder for its texture and talent.
The first song on the album, ironically named "Finally," provides a rich, layered feel, with a sure steel-toed metal kick. Guitarist Jason Garcia has skills. Not even brain and lung cancer could keep this axe-slinger from playing and touring with the band. His six-string talent provides much of the depth and melody, and he confidently swings from pendulous rhythm into machine gun harmonics.
By the time you hear the second song, "Far," you realize that the album is more or less a "Revelations"-type album. The heavy, rapid-fire kick drums provide the heavy metal stomp, while vocalist Curtis Shamlin chimes in with dissonant growling and hollow crooning (a little reminiscent of Maynard Keenan). Finally, bassist Rob Slocum turns in a solid effort and provides a thick backbone for the songs to stand on.
While Shamlin does give melody to the songs, he is nonetheless trapped in a death metal box of sound. His voice contains a lot of good energy, but lyrically the songs don't expand on his feelings beyond the monosyllabic screaming. For example, one verse propounds "I am not God / I am just me." To me this almost sounds like caveman-speak, but when you get listen to death metal you shouldn't expect Walt Whitman. I'm guessing the average metalhead could appreciate the arcane simplicity and violence in the lyrics, but sadly, I am not death metal -- I am just me.
There are times when the album breaks the fetters of metal, however. "Longway" contains slow trance-like breaks with eerie echoes, and I believe I heard soft bongos tapping in the background. On the other hand, I almost flung the CD out of my computer, burned it, and said a "Hail Mary" when I heard "About to Fall." It sounded like Lucifer was singing the opening verse after drinking a liver full of bile.
All in all, the album is exploding with aggression and energy that any true death metal fan should enjoy, though music listeners outside of this music genre may feel out of place and a little scared. It would be a nice soundtrack, say, if the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse were racking up a body count in my neighborhood. Prey for Murder is a talented, head-banging album. If you're into the death metal scene, I'd recommend it; otherwise, proceed with caution.
Blues Guitar Women
Blues Guitar Women, as you might imagine from the title, is a collection of songs all performed by female guitar players and compiled by a fellow female guitarista, Sue Foley. Now, I don't know if it's just me, but blues tends to break down into extremes -- if a song isn't interesting, it can be extremely irritating, and this is true regardless of gender. So it's nice to see a set that's actually good, and even better to see a good one that features only females. The package includes two CDs, split between between "traditional" and "contemporary" blues. The divisions between traditional and contemporary seem somewhat arbitrary, but the performances help you ignore that fact.
Regardless of the category, the discs encompass a variety of styles -- rock, gospel, instrumentals, country/delta blues, and even some Arabic-sounding music. Most of the women on the CDs are relatively unknown, but there are a few to draw in the more casual listeners, like Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Debbie Davies, Rory Block, and Memphis Minnie (what would a female blues guitar comp be without Memphis Minnie?). But there are as many good performances here from the unknowns as the more established artists.
The set starts with a great, rocking blues by the Lara Price Band called "Can't Quit The Blues," which features great guitar work as well. It follows up with an amusing original by Debbie Davies called "Taking It All To Vegas," my favorite of the bunch, if only because it's the first blues I've ever heard about Wall Street. Sue Foley contributes a great, beautiful Middle Eastern-flavored instrumental appropriately called "Mediterranean Breakfast." Maria Muldaur and Bonnie Raitt go beyond themselves on the soulful "It's a Blessing," and Alice Stuart contributes an imaginative and amusing take on Skip James's "Rather Be the Devil" -- a Joni Mitchell-esque folk version that makes you almost forget the original (which is saying a lot).
There are some good traditional performances here, too. Etta Baker's "One Dime Blues" is a pretty ragtime instrumental that never outstays its welcome. Rory Block contributes a typically beautiful version of "Fixin' to Die" -- she deserves to be on anyone's list of top blues guitar players, male or female -- and on "Going Down This Road," Alicia May Hinton pays homage to Mississippi John Hurt. The set wraps up with four women who no doubt inspired a lot of the people on this album: Mattie Delaney, Elvie Thomas, Geeshie Wiley, and Memphis Minnie, all of whom are represented here by some rip-roaring songs.
There are a few missteps on the record. "Baghdad Blues," by Beverley "Guitar" Watkins, is a well-meaning but nonetheless heavy-handed song about the price of war. Ellen McIlwaine's version of "Dead End Street" attempts a version more stark than that of Son House, but it falls flat. An instrumental by Ana Popovic called "Navajo Moon" hopes to be pastoral Jimi Hendrix but comes across more like any-phase Eric Johnson. Joanna Connor's "Living on the Road" isn't bad 'til she hits the chorus, where she makes it unredeemable without the use of a HAZMAT suit.
Still, any collection of 29 songs is going to be hit or miss for anyone. What's pleasing to see is that there are so many current blues musicians finding interesting styles to play, and the added fact that they're all female is even more pleasing. It's gratifying whether you're a woman or not.
Houston Band Coalition Presents Music for the Masses, Volume 1
Compilation discs are difficult to review. It gets even more difficult with a disc like Music for the Masses, Volume 1, where all of the bands are a part of small but beloved local scene, I get a single song from each band to review, and I'll probably get my face smashed in at Fitzgerald's if I say anything particularly, um, poignant. Do I focus on each song, decide whether it sucks or not, who it sounds like, tally up the winners and losers, and post the score? Or should I look at the album as the "state of the Houston metal music scene" and proclaim that scene true or false? Or do I take the easy way out, and say that it's all good music, some of it isn't my thing, and coddle the bands and the readers into a kumbaya circle, where everything that is local is the best, dude?
Meh. It's probably a combination of these options: I have to tell you what I like and don't like, and in many ways, this is a reflection of the local scene, isn't it? And these songs were chosen by the bands for the compilation for a reason, correct? And we are all in this together, correct? Well, metaphorically, since I'm not the one sleeping in a van scraping together gas money to get to the next gig. And because of that, I have a tough time deeming any of the bands on the disc false; they are all good -- nay, supreme -- and I deem them all essential.
(If this isn't translating well, by the way, Google "The Laws of True Metal." It'll make more sense, I promise.)
Now that the ass-covering is out of the way... Let's commence with the one-sentence-or-so-per-song review, front to back. Dine Alone's "Coming to Senses" combines a powerful APC intro and rhythm with Three Doors Down vocal stylings; a strong start to the album. Hollister Fracus's "The Power" sounds a bit too much like Disturbd for my taste, but kudos for sort of including a guitar solo (it's more a bridge/breakdown, but I'll take any sign of the return of righteous metal wankery). Prognosis's "Torn" is the most derivative of the MTV metal-lite genre, but it kicks enough ass. I replayed this song a few times, as I'm a sucker for songs where the most important part is the vocal harmony, and there is, again, a guitar solo, even though it's under the final chorus. Points lost for that. Rhenium's "Jack" is more down-tuned guitars, soft verse/loud chorus describing, if I'm getting it correctly, a biography of Jack the Ripper (although it should have been sung with a Victorian accent for full effect).
Melovine's "Take What You Want" is strong, awesome musicianship, and they do dig Lamb Of God, which allows me to deem them true. Trace Element's "Oceans" starts, obviously enough, with watery echo guitar, following the tried and true formula of quiet verse followed by a thrashing chorus that, for once, doesn't sound too stale. We also get a real guitar solo, although it's left-handed, so I'm not sure it counts. Hectic's Rise is harder than the previous bands, less nü-metal and more hardcore, with a wicked double-vocal attack that actually doesn't sound like a gimmick. And another real guitar solo. Yes. LoneStar PornStar moves the needle to rap-rock with "Failure Is Not An Option," comping Zack de la Rocha vocals and a wicked breakdown. Great bass sound. Copious gives us "The Bride," vocals from the Doug Pinnick/Corey Glover school but thicker and heavier than both, sick-visual Frankenstein-parable story ("Back to the drawing board, but even Jesus makes mistakes"), awesome samples.
I would have liked to hear just a bit more separation amongst the guitars/bass/drums, but I'm nitpicking. Undermine's "Wake Of An Eye" -- have I heard this before? It sounds familiar. Sort of a guitar solo as well, nice and heavy. Then we hit Salting Job's "Catcher's Rye." Fuck yeah, the singer sells it. Somewhere between Metallica, Korn, and White Zombie. Severin's "Fade Out" is the closest we get to Cold's emo-core, tons of energy. Truck's "One Day Behind" is competent alt-pop-metal, sounds like pretty much everything on MTV2, which I guess is a good thing. Finally, Mindflow's "Innerfaith" is okay, but it sounds like the singer is doubling himself, and one of himselves is a bit flat. But we do get another guitar solo -- actually, two solos, and one is in a mid-song tempo change reminiscent of (dare I say it) Metallica's "Orion." And we can't forget the double bass. Sweet.
So, the final score: if I counted correctly, in fourteen songs, we get six guitar solos. The dearth of solos depresses me, but since this compilation came out in 2005, and most of this music dates probably dates from about 2003 or 2004, you can't fault these bands for riding the wave. And since apparently hell froze over and bands like Slipknot are including huge amounts of shred on their recent albums, maybe the things are swinging back to where they should be. It just sounds a bit dated now.
It will be my mission, however, to see each of these bands live in the future, assuming they don't implode or get huge record contracts and I have to wipe the egg off my face. And what about the state of Houston's metal scene? I DEEM IT TRUE. Every one of these bands is worth seeing, and every one of these bands is worth supporting. Any of these bands could be on MTV, could be national, could be famous. The songwriting is really strong, and the production is top-notch. If you are into nü-metal and are from Houston, this compilation is essential. If you just like strong songwriting, heavy music, and some serious talent from a growing music scene, you should pick this up, too. It is in rotation on my MP3 player, and that's saying something.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past decade-plus, Thom Yorke is Radiohead's weirdo frontman, and not too surprisingly, his first solo work, The Eraser, sounds like, well...Radiohead. If you spaced out staring at the shadows in your bedroom listening to 2003's Hail to the Thief and have been eagerly awaiting a chance to trip out to some new material, this album will have the same effect, so plan a similar regimen.
Yorke's shaky vocal melodies are all over the place, high and low, and the accompaniment is a wash of ambience, blips, clicks, and strange sounds. The snare in track two, "Analyse," sounds like Yorke could have been swatting window shutters with a bamboo stick or something. Guitar and keyboard progressions add to this extremely rhythmic collection of songs, arranged with the help of long-time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood also makes a small appearance on the title track, providing the piano. One thing is for sure -- if you were anti-Kid A and beyond, you will continue to feel the same way here, considering that The Eraser is 100 percent electro-weirdness.
The layout is completely wigged out by Stanley Donwood, who Yorke thanks on the insert for "being there and explaining the wider meaning of what was happening." You may be familiar with Donwood's work if you have opened any Radiohead inserts or have found yourself lost on the band's Website.
(Speaking of Websites, be sure to check out xlrecordings.com
and click on "Have you seen this man?" I am glad that some labels still find unique ways to promote their releases.)
So what is Thom Yorke ever talking about? Who really knows, but The Eraser is another 40 minutes of his beautiful ranting for you to add to the catalog. Dreary and delightful, I give it five chicken wings, real saucy.