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REVIEWS (July 2008; Updated 7/30/2008):
Autovein
Bullets and Bruises
Autovein pic
Just two words: "Loved it."
St. Louis-based Autovein's debut album, Bullets and Bruises, is the end result of a great many twists and turns of both bad record label timing and sheer fortitude in pushing forward to actually bring it about. Originally signed by Columbia Records in 2004, a restructuring at the recording giant in 2006 edged them out and eventually landed them, rather fortuitously, right in the lap of Denver-based Outlook Music, who finally got the first offering out of the can in early 2007. Ever since then, vocalist/guitarist Bryan Roach, bassist Zack Alexopulos, guitarist Chris Capaletti, and drummer Ben Miller have been racking up live shows supporting its release and have seen relative airwave successes from a couple of songs off the album. These tunes -- opening track "Bullet In An Angel" and mid-collection piece "Save Me" -- continue to be the forefront numbers spearheading this one-dozen-strong batch of largely Alternative Rock-sounding material.
As a whole, Bullets is a fantastic album. Autovein's strong suit, among many other qualities, is creative versatility within their choice of genre. There are a wide variety of musical influences readily apparent from close listening to the band's songs. Even though the lion's share of the cuts are moderate-to-hard examples of Alternative-based rock, there is hardly any song that doesn't also exhibit freely moving ranges that bring in some elements of progressive rock or even pop leanings. The dynamic extremes in this bundle are also quite notable. Not only are there louder and softer songs, but also a number of songs that punch-in volume-extremed passages within them. There're very few common denominators present that would ultimately characterize or classify the band concretely. For the most part, their overall style leans heavily toward the new millennium's melody-infused post-grunge attributes that now fuel a good many of the more mainstream alt-rock groups on the market today.
Another thing that I found fascinating about the set was its tendency toward resembling a "concept" album; haven't really seen much of that lately. Yes, there are "bullets" and "bruises" found throughout, in ever-referenced lyrical content pointing to topics surrounding the impassioned nature of a one-way-or-another wounded -- or wounding -- soul.
My personal dubs from the album are "Quitter" and "Useless." Both are set to rather unusual chorded-note flows, often with somewhat dischorded accenting, and along with their clever lyrics, they come off with some pretty hooky attraction. The latter track also stands out as an artistic odd-man-out in the set. Replace Roach's vocals with Ty Tabor and add acoustic strums in the milder portions, and this song would sound just like King's X, particularly the riff progression undergirding the whole thing. "Drowning" is also an excellent piece, combining some earlier post-grunge characteristics with almost punkishly repetitive, consistently pumping chord patterns. Another song worth noting for its sheer beauty is "Here With You." It's a very smooth, simple number, and a great break in the album's mostly hard-driven content, especially the way the group has combined some slow-dance features with slowly drawn-out legato vocal syncopation.
At this writing, Autovein is about halfway through the recording phase of a second album at Music Creek Studios, under the co-helm of good friend and producer James "Ziggy" Stull of Saucy Jack Recordings. Though they're presently being about as tight-lipped as a clam about the title, according to lead singer Bryan Roach the new material promises to be "a little less alternative and a little more anthemic." It'll be interesting to see just how far a field Autovein goes to intertwine its alt-based thematic structuring with neo-ballad building blocks. For now, I'm quite satisfied with the first prototype.
In the final analysis, if you like musical elements that weave their way around, periodically cherry-picking from styles like Nickelback, Nirvana, Bush, Green Day, or even the slightly breathy rasp utterances of Chris Cornell, then you'll probably like this album.
BUY ME:  Amazon
Cardinal Trait
You Already Know
Cardinal Trait pic
Cardinal Trait's latest release, You Already Know, signifies the next coming of Southern-based soft rock. With every track there's a show of talent, care, and an ability to cohesively carry a tune. With heard-before riffs and barely-there melodies, however, You Already Know falls leagues short in terms of originality. Throughout most of the tracks, the rock is soft, the melodies are underdeveloped, the rhythms are consistent, and the most emotion that can be conjured is simply one of agreeability. Overall, the album is a lethargic combination of simplified rock music and is for people who've ever wanted to hear what the love child of Matchbox Twenty, Ryan Cabrera, and 3 Doors Down would sound like.
(Emanon Records -- P.O. Box 545, 9521-B South Riverside Drive, Tulsa, OK. 74137; http://www.emanonrecords.com/; Cardinal Trait -- http://www.myspace.com/cardinaltrait)
BUY ME:  CDBaby
Darkest Hour
Deliver Us
Darkest Hour pic
Do you like bone-crushing double-kick bass drums? Do you like finger-blistering guitar solos? Then you're going to love Darkest Hour. They've just sewn up a new album, entitled Deliver Us, and this new addition to the band's catalogue does in fact deliver.
In 1995, this five-member death metal group originated in Washington, D.C., which explains why they're known for their anti-government/political messages. The blueprint for the band's sound is laid down right off the bat with lead-off track "Doomsayer (The Beginning Of The End)," which is tainted with lighting-speed solos, annihilating beats, and their over-the-top grunts/growls.
Ultimately, Darkest Hour has shown how ambitious they are about expanding their horizons since their last album, and I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more from them in the near future.
[Darkest Hour is playing 7/17/08 at Warehouse Live, with At the Gates, Municipal Waste, Toxic Holocaust, & To Scale The Throne.]
(Victory Records -- 346 N. Justine St., Suite 504, Chicago, IL. 60607; http://www.victoryrecords.com/; Darkest Hour -- http://www.darkesthour.cc/)
BUY ME:  Amazon
The Delta Block
A Sleeping Nation
The Delta Block pic
I was listening to The Delta Block's A Sleeping Nation in the car when, in the middle of one of the songs, the CD started skipping. But I didn't realize it until maybe thirty seconds later, when I stared down at the display and noticed the track numbers going wonky. I left it skipping for a bit and listened to the clipped loop of noise, noting how eerily identical it sounded to a minute earlier, when the CD was playing fine. No wonder I didn't notice. Fast, abrasive, and indecipherable seem to be the common threads track by track.
When words are actually audible, it's clear they're attempting some sort of political commentary, but more often than not, the lyrics seem as elementary and ineffective ("Fuck you imperialists / Fuck me I'm a consumer whore" -- yawn). The overall impression, then, is a very one-dimensional politi-punk band who has settled for decent-at-best riffs and some weak jabs at the government. They'll have to do better than that if they want to get their message, whatever it is, across.
[The Delta Block is playing 8/1/08 at The White Swan.]
The Drawing Board
Clear to the Far Side of Way over Yonder
The Drawing Board pic
Flashback time, boys and girls: I'm a short, fat, four-eyed, thirteen-year-old kid who still listens to Nirvana and wears flannel. Life is good until some guys from Knoxville decide to light up a few cigarettes with twenty-dollar bills and play some inspired pop-rock about Ursa Major and having the feeling sucked out. It's the kind of music that the Beatles would have played if they had been influenced by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. My adventures into power pop have begun. Five years and many bad CDs later, power pop's slipped to the back of my mind, but it seems I've come full circle with The Drawing Board's debut album, Clear to the Far Side of Way over Yonder.
The boys from Austin-via-L.A. seem to have gotten the formula right: a foundation of keyboards and efficient, to-the-point guitar riffs overlaying crisp vocal harmonies set to that familiar 4/4 time signature. It's really quite good. Clear to the Far Side of Way over Yonder starts with a spacey, 1950s sock-hop intro with "Clear to the Far Side" before officially starting it off "Something I Can't Have," a song that brought a huge smile to the face of this Superdrag fan. Lead singer Justin Tapp's finds the vocal sweet spot, mixing the right amount of edge without sounding forced and strained while making a few trips into falsetto-land and leaving before he comes off as whiny. The same can be said about "What about Me," which really could be a blueprint on how to write a great power-pop single. Songs like "It's a Lie," a slower acoustic rock song, and "Happy with You" keep you listening by slowing down the speed of the album.
My only complaint with the album is that some of their songs sound too much like someone else -- "Opposite of Home" is uncomfortably similar to Elliot Smith, while "Lose my Mind" reminds me too much of the Beatles. This might be an idiotic argument, like complaining my girlfriend looks too much like Jessica Alba, but you really feel that The Drawing Board could embrace the sound and progress it further or scrap it all together and create something new. Again, these are only minor complaints; when it's all said and done, this isn't just a great first full-length album, it's a great album.
(self-released; The Drawing Board -- http://www.myspace.com/thedrawingboard)
BUY ME:  Amazon
Driver Side Impact
The Very Air We Breathe
Driver Side Impact pic
In a world where every punk rock fan can safely emote themselves into outer space by way of special effects and a synthesizer, Driver Side Impact reigns as kings of the world with their release The Very Air We Breathe. Although little vocal variety adorns each angst-ridden track, there are unique melodies, intricate riffs, and fantastic instrumental layers that are impossible to ignore. Overall, the production of this album exceeds musical boundaries and makes you want to cry, dance, or perhaps do both in a galaxy far far away.
(Victory Records -- 346 N. Justine St., Suite 504, Chicago, IL. 60607; http://www.victoryrecords.com/; Driver Side Impact -- http://www.myspace.com/driversideimpact)
BUY ME:  Amazon
Aaron English
The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon
Aaron English pic
For me, after having been submerged in a whirlpool of repetitive lyrics and overdone production, Seattle-based musician Aaron English truly brings music to my ears. His latest release, The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon, successfully crosses musical genres with a result that is both explosive and intoxicating. Elbow-deep in a melodic pool of pop-rock, jazz and world beats, The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon effortlessly weaves around with catchy hooks and a passionate exuberance in every sung word. Each track, whether it be tinged with a Middle Eastern-sounding progression ("Like Smoke") or an achingly sweet, piano-laced love song ("Lovers In the Red Sky"), carries a truly deep, crisp and touching melody. With out a doubt, Aaron English's album is true to its name, optimistic without having to try, sad but not depressing, and mesmerizing yet with just enough variety to keep you wanting to hear more.
(self-released; Aaron English -- http://www.aaronenglish.com/)
BUY ME:  CDBaby
Gallhammer
Ill Innocence
Gallhammer pic
Gallhammer is an all-girl black metal band from Tokyo patterned after Hellhammer and its psuedo-successor Celtic Frost. If that sentence alone does not make you at least check out their Myspace, then you have no backbone whatsoever. Ill Innocence is the girls' second full-length album, and lives up nicely to the legacy of their previous effort, Gloomy Lights.
Let's talk vocals, shall we? This album is written in a completely made-up dialect (which I call "Gallhammerian") that sounds like Japanese, English, and Klingon all at the same time. For those of you interested, the English translation is available for perusal with the CD. Composer, bassist, and lead vocalist Vivian Slaughter has the voice of a murdered nun, and that analogy fits quite well with the horrible things the CD insert tells me she's singing about. In fact, the whole musical approach is as distorted as a swarm of locusts, a Biblical plague in audio form carefully measured like an army march.
The album opens with "At the Onset of the Age of Despair," which lives up to its title. Serving as a wonderfully horrible prelude, it's a good choice of background music for suicide bombers and snuff-film makers. Still, it comes across as strangely melodic and indirectly complex and feels like an eight-minute version of World War II. The pace of the album picks up nicely with "Speed of Blood," and particularly with "Blind my Eyes," which features some absolutely awesome J-Pop backing vocals from drummer Risa Ripper. If gangrape had cheerleaders, "Blind my Eyes" would be the song they would set their state competition dance routine to.
Never at a loss for a change-up, "Delirium Daydream" is 1/3 pop ballad, 1/3 sludge metal, and 1/3 The Idiot by Iggy Pop. Gallhammer refuses to coast through the middle of the album and instead uses it to show the audience the band's more experimental side. And just when you thought it was safe, here comes the murder ballad "Ripper in the Gloom." Vivian, Risa, and guitarist Mika Penetrator hit a perfect dissonant rhythm in a bit of Jandek-style darkness for two-minutes before tossing it all aside in a sudden, frenzied speed metal race back to the status quo with "Killed by the Queen." Brief aside: the line "I was killed by a queen of killing" rivals Consortium of Genius's "Death to the Angel of Death" as the most metal line ever. End aside.
Ill Innocence is not crossover material. This is metal and nothing but, and occasionally that works against Gallhammer. "Song of Fall" is, as Pinhead put it, so exquisitely empty, and Vivian's bass sounds like a church bell at night until the zombies start clawing out of their graves. This is one of the few times when the sludge metal vocals work against them, however, as the two-line poem that makes up the lyrics is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read:
Fall in fall and dream in dream
I am in fear and eternal fall
It's funny how much an awkward translation can say, and it's a shame that Vivian tread her usual -- though awesome -- path and distorted a moment of pure poetry. Ironically, a softer vocal is used on the next track, "World to be Ashes," in between the hell screams.
The album ends on a more transcendental note, with the eight-and-a-half minute "SLOG" and the instrumental "Long Scary Dream." Both, though still unequivocally in the same dark and hopeless vein, do seem to promise some life among the ashes. "Long Scary Dream," in particular, is dominated by a long frightened moan in the mix, and the listener is ultimately drawn to the conclusion of a nightmare ended. Scarred by our inner demons, we are nonetheless alive.
(Peaceville Records -- PO Box 76, Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire, WF16 9XN, UNITED KINGDOM; http://www.peaceville.com/; Gallhammer -- http://www.gallhammer.com/)
BUY ME:  Amazon
The Gena Rowlands Band
Flesh and Spirits
The Gena Rowlands Band pic
I have been sitting on this review for many months, really unable to get my head around Flesh and Spirits, the third album from The Gena Rowlands band, an ever-shifting project centered on singer and main songwriter Bob Massey. Not because there is anything inaccessible, difficult, or indifferent about the band (there isn't), but really trying to come up with a way to properly describe what is expressed on this album.
I don't think I have heard an album that sits at the crossroads of stream-of-consciousness and beat poetry quite like this one. The songs are constructed beautifully, with ample space for Massey's free, loungy singing style. "The joke I played on Washington" is especially strong, with a neat soaring chorus and flexi-verses, and "God And The Way Women Walk" is a wonderful love song, probably the most cohesive on the album. "These Windows on The World" and "Mercy" finish off the journey, "Windows" as a vocoder-based poem barely supported by light strings and pads, and "Mercy" a seeming lament on change and regret with a gospel-tinged refrain.
Every song is good, however, and the musicianship is especially top-notch. As difficult as it is to get a stable group to gel, the rotating roster of The Gena Rowlands Band is even more impressive; while I hear stylistic differences across the album, it is extremely cohesive, retaining a core sound while allowing each member to stretch within each song's elastic framework.
(Lujo Records -- 3209 Jennie Drive, Morgan City, LA. 70380; http://www.lujorecords.com/; The Gena Rowlands Band -- http://www.genarowlandsband.com/)
BUY ME:  Amazon
Giant Princess
Giant Princess
Giant Princess pic
First of all, there's really no need to read this review. Giant Princess isn't even selling this album; they're giving it away for free. You can download the whole thing with no jumping through hoops at the three links at the bottom of the review. Whether what I say about the recording entices you or repulses you, there is no excuse for not trying something freely given.
That being said, you might as well hear my thoughts while you wait for it to download. Giant Princess's self-titled debut recording is an exercise in all the wonderful things you can do with a bad recording of good songs, and I do mean a bad recording. The mix is a "mix" only in the loosest sense of the word, with the vocals all but unintelligible and the organ so far up front you might as well be sitting next to it. That's the total genius of the album. Just like the Pixies forced you to see through the haze of noise into the weird minds of Frank Black and Kim Deal, so are we pulled into the awesomely loose song style that makes up Giant Princess. When you pull the blues up to the red line and speed it up, this is what you get. It's an unstoppable journey of energy and insanity that makes me proud that we're both from Houston.
I do wish that some sort of lyric sheet was provided with the recording, because I have no idea what Collin Hedrick is saying. I can only assume that with titles like "zip zop wow" and "lifetime sexbrain" that it's either surrealistically genius or complete irrelevant. In fact, the complete lack of any information on how or why these songs exist only serves to further the belief that the album is being beamed in from some wonderful dimension where music didn't fall into decline.
More and more, I am becoming convinced that the world is actively hiding awesome music from the populace. Like slavemasters outlawing the teaching of reading and writing to slaves, the miasmic music industry is struggling at hundreds of thousands of kilowatts to convince us that 3 Doors Down and their ilk has anything at all relevant to say. Meanwhile, artists like Giant Princess have to scream themselves hoarse just to whisper the true evolution of rock and roll. They have to give away an album that twenty years ago you would have paid through the nose to own a special vinyl edition of.
Rough, amateur, and loud, I guarantee that Giant Princess is just what you need.
[Giant Princess is playing 7/15/08 at The Mink, with Sleepercar & Buxton.]
Hello Tokyo
Sell the Stars
Hello Tokyo pic
Hello Tokyo has achieved a small amount of fame for the single "Radio," produced by Wallflowers bassist Greg Richling. I personally think they should have taken the next baby step of an EP before trying a full-length album, though, because Sell the Stars is a trick, a sneak attack, and I can't decide if I hate them for it or not. It calls to mind Siouxsie and the Banshees' The Rapture not in style but in its shattered presentation.
Here's the skinny, puppies. The songs of Hello Tokyo have been featured on MTV's Real World and on Road Rules. Those are your warning signs right there. The entire approach to the first half of this album is desperately modern in the footsteps of Goldfrapp and No Doubt, though there is some real feeling in JohnE Cheeseburger's distinctly Spanish guitar. The entirety of the first half of the album, however, is depressingly radio and overproduced, though it does offer a subsistence helping of ethereal poetry. There's not so much a darkness as a duskness; a slope, not an edge. The whole approach, especially the title track, is hung on the hook of Kat Sugar Plum's voice, with most instrumental breaks failing to fill the space without her at all. And here to finish off the commercially perfect emptiness of the first act is your typical ballad "Hands to Hold." Why do they put the acoustic ballad in the middle of the album? It's as if they expect the listener to be so exhausted by the previous tracks that some kind of rest is essential. Well, sorry, but it's not.
Do you think I hate the album? I don't, and the reason why finally kicks in at track six. "The Affair" is the song that made me request this album for review in the first place and is really the reason you should buy it. I know now that if I had randomly selected any other track on Hello Tokyo's Myspace for perusal, I probably would have skipped reviewing it and gone on to another band, but here their approach is tried and true without being cliché. Effected-out verses and clean choruses and the same stuttering solos are still in the way of pure artistic orgasm, but in "The Affair" they're overshadowed by the unbelievably erotic pain of the lyrics and the image of bruised and bloody lips locked in an illicit kiss. The power and the passion help you climb up onto the equally palatable "Midnight Snack," which retains the kind of catty claws that only Artificial Joy Club used to be able to pull off.
The context set by "The Affair" utterly redefines what Hello Tokyo says in the first half of the album and completely turns it around. A never-miss set of homeruns takes Sell the Stars straight into the somewhat emotionally empty "Run to You" (here an actually necessary breath-catcher), which plays like a hastily-made resolution to not repeat the mistakes made in the previous two songs. A perfect trilogy of subtle beauties finish out what should have been a six-song EP.
In short, the first half of Sell the Stars is a bunch of commercial garbage for the modern MTV emo set, and it's barely worth the electricity used to power your stereo. The second half, starting at "The Affair," is a cycle of modern masterpieces that belong on any self-respecting disaffected person's CD shelf. It's a sexual soundtrack of crazy power. The differences between the two halves are as minute as they are unavoidable. I look forward to the evolution of Hello Tokyo's style. Clearly they have one finger on the pulse of America's musical wrist and one finger on the button supplying the painkillers that keep us from really seeing what's wrong with the world. I guess we'll see where they go from here.
(self-released; Hello Tokyo -- http://hellotokyomusic.com/)
BUY ME:  Amazon
I Love Math
Getting To The Point Is Beside It
I Love Math pic
I imagine living in Dallas would sort of be like living in an elevator. Nothing ever really happens there, everything seems to go by in a blur, and the entire city is a background. It's only fitting that a lot of the music made there sounds like nothing; or maybe it sounds like everything. One of those.
When I first listened to I Love Math's debut release, Getting To The Point Is Beside It, I was intrigued. Because some of the track titles are pretty interesting -- "Some Bridges are for Burning," "This is Something I Might Miss," "The Shape of the Sum" -- and that might make you want to listen, right? Well, I did. And from about the first minute of the second song ("Only Clowns are Scary"), I completely forgot there was even music playing. It was only upon a second listen, where I had to force myself to concentrate on what was going on, that I decided that this record needs work. It sounds very similar to early Mates of State (though there is no female lead) or, more presently, a male version of Au Revoir Simone or even Dallas' own Smile Smile.
The songs are pretty simple, and the lyrics -- see "I'm right on this, the world does not exist for you / If you're the center of the universe, then we're a mess" (on "Some Bridges are for Burning") or "Take this road, drive out of town / I can't focus now on what went down / Anger goes away" (from "Some People Get Away") -- seem a bit clichéd and overwrought for a group that has been receiving fairly stand-out reviews. That's not to say that the entire album is bad, or that it's entirely dull. There is some good to be taken away from it, and some hope that I Love Math has something in them that might make for a solid second release. "Volcanic Ash" is a fun, what seems like two-man production that sounds very similar to (another Dallas band) old-time Jackopierce, and "Josephine Street" is great, full of French overdubs and sounding like it could have come straight from the mouths of the Fruit Bats.
Getting To The Point Is Beside It is just okay; it's kind of there, kind of invisible. You probably won't remember you bought it unless you keep it on a constant loop in your stereo, but if you need something light that is good to read to, this CD would be perfect.
(Glurp Records -- P.O. Box 15157, Seattle, WA. 98115; http://www.glurp.com/; I Love Math -- http://www.myspace.com/iloveilovemath)
BUY ME:  Amazon
Jet Black Kiss
Star Rock Lights
Jet Black Kiss pic
OK, now. Close your eyes really tight and try to imagine Alice Cooper performing periodically with keyboards. That's a pretty fair description of most of the material contained within the first self-released Jet Black Kiss album, Star Rock Lights. A functional nom de plume for musical artist Robert Liam of Los Angeles, Jet Black Kiss pours on the pseudonyms even further by referring to Liam on the album merely under the lone moniker of "Simon." Make no mistake about it, though: the whole thing boils down to just the one person who all-inclusively wrote, performed, and produced everything on this set from his personal studio in Southern California. Though Simon, as it were, is currently auditioning musicians to form a live stage act, this recorded collection represents his virtual take on what Jet Black Kiss will likely evolve into when it eventually takes on more literal, humanized elements.
The aforementioned comparison to Cooper and company might be a bit oversimplified, but not by too much. After hearing Simon sing throughout, I have to say that he's about the closest thing to a Vincent Furnier vocal deadringer that I've ever heard. Take away the lowest reaches of Alice's mumbled growls and add the periodic shrills of Mötley Crüe's Vince Neil, and you have a quasi-verbatim copy of Simon's vocal range and leanings.
By and large, the instrumental usage and musical arrangements fit pretty squarely within the hard rock-to-older-heavy-metal category. As far as rock styles are concerned, there's not really much new here. In fact, even though there are a few smatterings of progressive and post-punk properties sparingly doled out here and there, the lion's share of the tracks simply play on retroactive, well-established hard rock features developed over the last three decades or so. Star Rock Lights might have been a cutting edge candidate in the late '70s, but it's pretty standard fare today compared to the differing sub-genres and experimental content that are toyed around with in today's multi-directional music market. As such, the album is a good and pretty solid example of up-tempo, guitar-layered, fairly bombastic and rough-edged pieces, accompanied for the most part by gravelly-yet-melodious lead vocals.
Still, there are two definite areas where the songs depart markedly from traditional hard rock renderings. First, where the bottom and high ends are usually brought up in most mixes of this type, Simon has chosen to attenuate rather than accentuate these frequencies. The resulting sound is relatively flatter around the extremities; much less of the in-your-face, John Bonham drums or Doug Pinnick bass headbanging ambience one usually expects in such cases. If this was done by design, then as a byproduct it succeeds in enhancing the keyboard and other mids quite effectively. This observation segues into the second difference, where Simon creatively punches in keyboard synth-instrumentation to introduce a subtle symphonic fullness into the sonic landscape on several songs. Far less prominent in presence than bands like Evanescence or Styx, to be sure, the crafted effect of this slight nuance, along with the previously-stated mix qualities, comes off sounding either somewhat surreal or somewhat tinny, depending on your personal music taste and expectations. Now, don't get me wrong -- Jet Black Kiss is still going to get down and rock your socks off, just not to the overwhelmingly bass-pounding kickdrum degree of a lot of other bands in this same general category. If Simon isn't totally wedded to the idea of compressing all of the outer edges toward the middle, I would personally suggest that he make the bass heavier/hotter and highs just a tad crisper on his next recording project. It would give the recording a much more extreme, modern-sounding edge and feel to it, and any trade-offs might be well worth it.
A clear majority of the cuts on Star Rock Lights are just great rock songs, of the Alice Cooper, Mötley Crüe, Joan Jett-on-steroids ilk. My personal dubs from the collection are "She's An Alien," a dramatically-fused mixture of '70s heavy metal and glam rock influences, "A Road Called Psychosis," a synth-filled Cooper-esque rock anthem with dark lead guitar work, the monotonically-ranting title track, with its thoroughly punk-laden strains, repetitive and slightly dischording riff patterns, and pedal-to-the metal vocatives, and "The Secret Door," which invokes an on-the-beat vocal echo effect the likes of which I haven't heard since Brit-invasion experimentation. (Certainly more like The Blues Magoos or something here than Ozzy's "Crazy Train" FX or whatnot.)
Listeners who like their rock music hard and the vocals a bit on the gratingly-coarse-yet-melodic side will probably enjoy this album. Though currently available only via MP3 download, a CD version release is planned by mid-2008. All Alice Cooper fans really should check this stuff out. For now, just go to the appropriate site and click on that old download button. Uh-oh, please excuse me. I'm not playing the game right. I guess I should have prefaced all this by saying, "Simon says..."
(self-released; Jet Black Kiss -- http://www.jetblackkiss.com/)
Jordan
Back To the Gym, Kid!
Jordan pic
Paris, France's Jordan would be on Dischord Records if they were from D.C., but, being as it is, they're from France. It's always a surprise to get something this good that I did not order or know about to review. With their debut Back To The Gym, Kid!, Jordan kicks up some dust and with the right spark could easily be France's answer to At The Drive-In or Q And Not You. Produced in Montreal's Hotel 2 Tango by Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire, Godspeed! You Black Emperor) and Brian Paulson (Beck, Slint, Mates of State, Superchunk), this E.P. is a really solid release from French label Motoneige Records. All six songs are standouts, and all I can really say that is wrong with the record is that it is too short. Hopefully we will hear more from these guys soon.
Juhu Beach
Scenes of Abandoned Industry
Juhu Beach pic
At this point, the only way that music can move forward is by becoming something other than what we think of as "music." While this may seem contradictory on the surface, it's a concept which has likely been seen (and heard) since man started making noise for purposes other than the purely utilitarian. Certainly, this concept has informed the major sonic milestones of what might be referred to as "popular music." Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto was roundly dismissed as being poorly composed and unplayable, so far did it push the limits of contemporary composition and performance; jazz threw the world of chamber music and cellos into an uproar with its smoky, sexy phrasing; jazz then went on to create its own micro-verse of tumult and tribulation, with each new movement prompting its progenitors to decry it as purposeless noise. Certainly, Rock & Roll can claim the honor of revolution, its first practitioners thought to be degenerates and dangerous to the general public. Since then, though, Rock & Roll has been the most consistent musical force in Western music, on the whole remaining relatively unchanged from those first brash chord changes.
Music these days seems to have reached critical mass and is just waiting to explode or, as is more likely the case, implode under the force of the vacuum it has become. Having apparently lost the rebellious and restless spirit that has driven musical innovation through the ages, bands are content to recast their golden idols, simply putting the same metal into slightly different molds. What results is easily confused with creativity, especially when you stumble across a band particularly skilled at this type of sonic metallurgy. Combining various and sundry signature elements from an admittedly large conglomerate of noteworthy artists, a talented practitioner can create alloys whose facets reflect a bit of everything in them, but none so much as to be brazen. What results is a piece of work which seems to shift to meet, if only slightly, the expectation and appreciation of just about anybody who hears it. It is passable.
The advantage of this is that nobody finds it truly objectionable, but this meager benefit is tempered by the fact that nobody finds it truly exhilarating. I long for the day to come when an entire generation of people gasps in collective horror at what their children are listening to, honestly and fervently believing it to be a force of corruption, mindless hedonism borne out in something only those willing to move forward will call "music." Until that day, the best we can hope for is a steady stream of middling non-efforts, palatable in their unwillingness to challenge, but never truly exciting. The emulsification of dissent.
Unfortunately for SoCal quasi-punkers Juhu Beach, their debut effort Scenes of Abandoned Industry is not revolution, but reiteration. Like most of the music coming out of the ever more dubiously titled "underground," these songs are fine. There's not really anything sonically displeasing among these four tracks and a "fuck you" snippet. Some of them are even interesting to listen to, albeit in a slightly innocuous fashion. I like the bands whose sounds they're fusing, namely early Modest Mouse, Pavement, and Built to Spill (the singer occasionally bears an eerie similarity to the ever-diffident Doug Martsch). I like the direction they're trying to take those influences, blending stop-start rhythms, sometimes screamy vocals, angular guitars, a contrarian sense of both melody and harmony, and a slight penchant for epic bombast that rides the ragged edge of tedium without falling over.
Clearly, these guys have talent, and I certainly don't mean to accuse them of complacency. Nobody sets out to create a mediocre record. I have no doubt that they're trying to think outside of the box. My recommendation: forget about the box; try thinking outside of something else, entirely.
(self-released; Juhu Beach -- http://www.myspace.com/juhubeach)
The Kindness Kind
A Novel
The Kindness Kind pic
The Kindness Kind has an unusual sound. On their debut album, A Novel, they combine a sort of Strokes-style dance-pop with acoustic instruments, electronic loops, and classical instrumental lines. The group shows a lot of talent and potential, but unfortunately, they don't do that much with it.
The band's singer, Alessandra Rose, is both the band's secret weapon and Achilles heel. She brings a huge vocal style reminiscent of Karen O or Jana Hunter to the band, and that's something the band needs, but her singing is mostly flat. She sings in the same way for the entire album. Her voice is beautiful and powerful, and for a song or two, it works. Over the course of the whole album, though, she makes all the songs sound the same.
The songs are also not quite memorable. The best song here, "Quiet Words Are Quiet Words," is a pretty slow-burner but the rest, particularly the more energetic ones, are bland and unremarkable. The band itself comes up with some interesting ideas, like the rocking of "Climb in the Sun," the dissonant classical interlude in "Perfect," and the droning introduction to "Timeless," but all of this isn't enough to save the album.
For any band, having your own sound is valuable. And The Kindness Kind don't quite sound like anyone else. It's what you do with it, however, that counts, and at the important task -- songs -- they don't fare real well. Considering this is their first ablum, they've got time to work on that part. If they can start writing something more interesting, they might have something real here. Otherwise, they'll just be another pretty face.
(self-released; The Kindness Kind -- http://www.thekindnesskind.com/)
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Eric Layer
The Fall
Eric Layer pic
From the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, Eric Layer brings us his self-produced cd, The Fall. There are ten tracks here, ranging in sound from The Mammas & The Papas to Layer's own complete inventions.
Right up front, it's important that listeners maintain a flower child, free-flow mentality in order to appreciate the psychedelic experimentation of this CD. The bottom line: it does not rock, so if you are looking for that, go elsewhere. That being said, the next thing you should know is that this disc will not stand up to a hi-fi bass setup, and the mids appear to be recorded too hot on some sound systems, although not all.
It should also be noted that there is beautiful guitar work here, and the vocals are light and delicate through most of the CD, with the unfortunate result that they're buried in the music. The song "Sheila" showcases Layer's voice best with the vocals further out in front of the music compared to other tracks.
Each song can be listened to time and again, with something new emerging every play; it's almost exhausting to try and encompass everything that is going on musically. "Karina" brings an interesting Indian influence to the table, and title track "The Fall" has a great '60s breezy sound that carries listeners along like water. I personally like "Stupid Dreams," which has the heaviest sound on the CD and the closest you get to being rocked; it has a nasty little gritty buildup with a tea kettle whistle and spacey guitar string sound effects throughout before dropping back and falling into a quiet lull for the rest of the song, which brings the album to an end -- sweet.
I do get the vague impression that this Eric Layer-written, performed, produced, mixed, and released album was made for...Eric Layer. And while you are metaphorically allowed in the car, without the aid of an alternative substance, you are not necessarily on the same trip.
(Layermusic; Eric Layer -- http://www.ericlayer.com/)
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Little Name
How to Swim and Live
Little Name pic
Did cartoon dog icon Droopy try to step back into the limelight via the British indie music scene? Where is E!'s True Hollywood Story on this momentous event? More importantly, how did a cartoon character manage to step into reality? Nope, false alarm -- it's just Little Name's debut album, How to Swim and Live. Liverpool's Lee Barker, aka Little Name, recently escaped eight years of panic-attack induced isolation with the help of his music. Sick of hearing the same old Britpop, Barker craved to create something better. It was his goal to have music with "greater themes, songs that said something about his life." Right...
How to Swim and Live features a mix of indie-pop, lounge music, and sad vocals that amuses me in ways that music shouldn't amuse people. "For the Attention Of" is really an inauspicious start, consisting of the dreadful sound of synthesized trumpets and nasally vocals overlaying electric guitars. Thankfully, Barker's voice opens up later on, allowing him to mutter unsympathetic lyrics about isolation and vulnerability or cheeky Morrissey-esque ripoffs. Songs like "Picked Out the Line" and "This Was Your Place of Birth" sound like the rejected lyrical scraps of Morrissey. Barker also does his best Morrissey impression in the miserable "Nobody Loves You," where Barker claims, "I always thought it was easier / to get away with murder / than to get through to you." Barker can't quite pull off Moz's ability to insult you while simultaneously making you love him, however. In fact, the more you listen to this CD, the less and less you like Barker.
It really feels as if Barker didn't know what he wanted to do here. So many of the songs lack a true introduction, none more obvious than "Tracy and I," which immediately makes you feel as if you've missed the first 15 seconds of the song. Even worse is the fact that everything sounds the same -- the same chord patterns and sometimes the same chord, as seen in "I Always See the Sun Rise" and "How to Swim and Live," two consecutive tracks that don't even transition into each other but share identical guitar parts and droning drum patterns. When you're not being attacked with monotony, you're being hit with the bland, synthesized sound of the fake orchestra. It just doesn't sound like he's trying.
(Sleepy Records -- 7831 Acord Bank, Pasadena, MD. 21122; http://www.sleepyrecords.com/; Little Name -- http://www.littlename.co.uk/)
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Los Doggies
Onebody
Los Doggies pic
I specifically requested Onebody by Los Doggies from the myriad CDs available for review under my cursor because they seemed, for lack of a better phrase, cuckoo for Coco Puffs. I have since amended my opinion. They are not insane, but they are certainly only minor acquaintances of normalcy.
A first listen through Onebody is going to bring on an inevitable comparison to great absurdist bands like The Presidents of the United States of America and They Might Be Giants. I believe, however, that the roots of Los Doggies grow in the soil of a jam-band orchard, in the shade of the giant Zappa Oaks, Grateful Dead Willows, and Electric Light Orchestra Pines. Essentially, they are standing on the forward slash of '60s pop/rock and using their vantage point to explore modern geek culture.
Case in point: "I Lost a Sai." Now, here we have a song that's only four lines long yet clocks in at well over six minutes. You have to go way back to 1990, when the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie was released to fully appreciate this track. After the turtles save April O'Neil in the first several minutes of the flick, we return to their sewer hideout, where Raphael laments that he lost a sai and thereby has revealed that ninjas inhabit New York City. The song takes his lines almost verbatim and lays them melodically over a Pink Floyd ambient dirge.
Based on that description, you might be tempted to write off Los Doggies as another vapid candy-band catering to the nerd demographic, but if you look just a little more closely at what's going on, you'll see that there's often something a little more. The last line of "I Lost a Sai" is "Master Splinter don't be upset / It's just the voices in your head." That line is not in the movie, and you have to wonder why they would include it if they were just trying to play Where's Waldo with the lyrics. It's the kind of sudden shift that turns a Weird Al record into The Wall, and Los Doggies pulls it off several times.
Though "I Lost a Sai" is very indicative of the kind of tracks you'll hear on Onebody -- and I think almost anyone would like the song -- it is also a measure of the album's flaws. It is extremely jam-heavy. Almost every track exceeds five minutes, and most of those minutes are filled with elaborate but somewhat repetitive instrumental breaks. Ultimately, it gives the album a fuzzy sense of focus, and the primarily comedic subject matter (a love song about the two Abobos from Double Dragon, for instance) doesn't help that. Sometimes the instrumental breaks are filled with lines unspoken, such as in "Tackleberry." Beating "I Lost a Sai" by a minute and with only one lyric ("Why did you have to die, Tackleberry?"), the fast-paced, Wagnerian song makes an action-revenge drama play in your head with a scientifically perfect progression of progressive guitar work. Mostly, though, the instrumental breaks serve as the elevator ride to the lingerie and lyric departments.
If you find yourself drawn to the madness of bands like Peelander-Z, the Billy Nayer Show, or the Consortium of Genius, you will like Los Doggies and Onebody. If you will settle for a jam with inside jokes, you'll like it, as well. I certainly did.
(self-released; Los Doggies -- http://www.losdoggies.com/)
Marqui Adora
White Buildings
Marqui Adora pic
Timing plays a hand in every good thing, and bringing drummer Joe Shockley, and bassist John Tooker together with singer/guitarist Danny Ashe was no exception. Joe and John were in search of a lead singer when they happened across Danny, who already had a band called Marqui Adora. The men combined efforts with Ashe in 2004 to create a team with a serious talent for lyrics and layers.
Marqui Adora (mark-e uh-door-uh) hails from Miami's land of sun, yet maintains a chilled sound that would never equate with a tan line. The band's initial release, White Buildings is a tightly produced six-song offering that reveals a play-friendly dance and electronica landscape. These guys really know what they are doing in the studio, and the sound is not forced or over-manipulated. Ashe's melancholic indifference brings out the emotion of each song, and he knows exactly how to turn each word without the need to try too hard -- which is, by the way, one of the reasons White Buildings is so good.
The title track, where some of the bands' influences can be heard best, is a sweeping ballad reminiscent of U2 circa The Joshua Tree, with a bit of REM thrown in the mix. "Die in a Disco" will get stuck in your head for days, and "Empty," arguably the best track on the EP, was picked up by Nissan for its 2007 Sentra ad campaign. The band's influences range from Pink Floyd and Duran Duran to the Cure, yet Marqui Adora does not mimic, and as a result White Buildings is fresh and breathes with a life of its own.
With a wealth of veteran musical and technical knowledge -- and, of course, the addition of guitarist Howard Melnick -- Marqui Adora will be around for some time to come, and we definitely want more.
(self-released; Marqui Adora -- http://www.marquiadora.com/)
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The Mathletes
#$@% You and Your Cool
The Mathletes pic
Joe Mathlete, I underestimated you. Yeah, I did, and it's damned embarrassing. How? Because I figured, stupidly, that any band that kinda-sorta made its name playing (admittedly entertaining) covers of people like My Bloody Valentine and sang songs about dehorned unicorns had to be pretty much a one-trick pony, not much worth paying attention to beyond the occasional chuckle (although yes, I do love the Marmaduke strips).
So, on the basis of absolutely zero evidence, I gave a too-busy shrug each time I had the opportunity to check out the spectacle that is The Mathletes. And like I said, it's damned embarrassing, not least of which because the brand-new-ish Mathletes' full-length, #$@% You and Your Cool, out on now-sadly-defunct Asaurus Records, is fucking brilliant. No lie -- one of the best damn pop albums I've heard in the last few years, and it gets released into the ether nearly dead right at the start, the last release of a dying label (it's apparently now only available at Sound Exchange or at shows), crafted by a shambling quasi-collective of Houston scenesters and musicians that ringmaster Joe Mathlete drags together as the need arises.
While Mathlete credits the album to The Mathletes, it's really a rotating all-star cast of Houston musicians, including all of Young Mammals (ex-The Dimes) and members of The Defenestration Unit, Lazy Horse, and Two Star Symphony, plus probably a few I've never heard of before. The full list of Mathletes past is as long as my arm and delves even deeper into the crazy-talented indie-pop side of Houston's music scene. (Hell, it even includes SCR contribs Justin Crane, Charlie Ebersbaker, & Anneli Chambliss.)
The "rotating cast" part of the thing makes perfect sense, really, if you look at it historically; call The Mathletes Houston's answer to the whole (overblown, but still shining at points) Elephant 6 thing. Except that the music also resembles The Dead Milkmen, The Flaming Lips, The Apples In Stereo, The Polyphonic Spree, Machine Go Boom, Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, The Mountain Goats, and TeenBeat heroes Eggs at various points. Although, um, about half of those "bands" are basically one genius-level songwriter doing his crazy, mind-blowing thing with random friends along for accompaniment. Kind of like The Mathletes. Whoa; I think I just accidentally furthered my point by trying to disprove it.
What I'm also trying to say, though, is that Cool hits a heck of a lot of indie-pop bases for me. Mathlete's (the guy, not the band) voice is high-pitched and delicate, but not twee or warbly, thank God, and it melds the best elements of Tim DeLaughter's smiling yelp, Jeff Mangum's nasal strangeness, and Wayne Coyne's fragile earnestness. And that latter bit, I think, is what makes Mathlete's songs so damn endearing -- he sounds so full-on serious about it, even when he's singing bitterly about being a unicorn without a horn who keeps getting mistaken for a horse ("Hornless Unicorn Anthem"), musing on the damage an asteroid hit could cause to our fair planet ("ASTEROID!!!"), or delivering a half-serious warning to not view High School as the best point of your life, after which it all goes downhill (it's not, and it shouldn't; "Will's Graduation Song").
My absolute favorite track here's got to be "Opening Number (Hollywood Version)," which sounds like it could be a piece from some very obscure (but awesome) nerd-rock musical -- all of a sudden, Joe Mathlete taking a temporary sabbatical up to Austin not too long ago to do quirky musical theater based on the music of Daniel Johnston (Speeding Motorcycle, staged this past spring at the Zach Scott Theater) makes a hell of a lot more sense. (Thankfully, he's back now, and Austin's loss is Houston's gain.) The jaunty horns, the Belle and Sebastian-esque vibe, the gentle, soft vocals; it all works together beautifully.
I don't mean to belittle the rest of the album, mind you, because there are incredible songs all over the place. "ASTEROID!!!," recorded live on KTRU, is appropriately noisy and raw, with the coolest drums imaginable (couresy of soon-to-be-gone Young Mammals drummer Iram Guerrero); squint a bit, and they like crazy, computer-produced drum & bass breakbeats. Opening track "Hornless Unicorn Anthem" comes off like driving Northern Soul at fist, a neo-psychedelic stomp complete with awesome organ, "That Stupid Grin On Your Face" manages to be simultaneously airy and fuzzy around the edges, with Mathlete's soft-as-felt vocals, gently insistent strings, and sublime marimbas (and it's about damn time marimbas became cool to incorporate into pop music again), and "Pinnochiobot Rock" is a roaring, anthemic song about robotic aspirations that Vampire Weekend would probably wish they'd come up with first, could they hear it.
Then there's album-ender "Clumsy Little Symphonies," which is Mathlete at his most (truthfully) autobiographical, a quiet, touching glimpse at the soul of a bedroom-pop maestro. On the one hand, Mathlete shrugs and stares at his feet, claiming that his "clumsy" songs aren't quite what he wants 'em to be, so he hides away in his room; on the other hand, though, he recognizes that it's what he does, declaring confidently that "I've done this since I was a kid / And I can keep it up 'til I'm a hundred and three," regardless of whether or not anybody's paying attention.
And in that, Joe and his crew represent one of the greatest things about music: you make it for yourself, first and foremost. Obviously, if you bother recording it and all that you do want it heard, sure, but to my mind the absolute best, most thrilling, most interesting music gets made by people who aren't entirely sure where it fits in or if people will really like it but feel compelled to do it anyway. Because it's all they know and all they need. Clumsy? No way; beautiful and sweet and quirky and wide-eyed, yeah, but #$@% You and Your Cool is as astonishly good as it is self-effacing.
[The Mathletes are playing 7/24/08 at Rudyard's, with The Misfires & Lazy Horse.]
(Asaurus Records -- http://www.asaurus.org/; The Mathletes -- http://www.myspace.com/themathletes)
--
Melba Toast
Melba Toast
Melba Toast pic
The resurgence of Nirvana-tinged roots rock is alive and well in Greenville, TX. Melba Toast's self-titled debut brings heaps and heaps of grunged-out guitars and sometimes sweet, sometimes heavy-handed lyrics that appeal to the lovelorn and lonely -- think Mudhoney meets Kings of Leon. And it's nice to hear while sittin' on the back porch swing, basking in the sunshine next to a koozie-covered Pabst Blue Ribbon (the band's beer of choice).
Lead singer Adam (couldn't find his last name) summons Pavement on "Humdrum," clearly the strongest track on the album, when he sings, "Passing through these days with a cynical flavor / I'm well aware that it's kind of hard to make nice." A more concise encapsulation of the entire album could not be said than that. There are ten songs, all of which revolve around the idea that love and friends are hard to find. Simple enough, yes? But it's in this simplicity that Melba Toast finds its beauty. And it is beautiful. The lyrics are simple, the beats even more so, and the listenability is apparent from the first song, "Check Your Head," to the last, "Lucky Day to Lose." And Melba Toast's influences are vast. "Strikes and Gutters" sounds like we're stuck in the year 1994 (not a bad year in which to be stuck, I dare say) and Nirvana ruled MTV's Unplugged set, while "Icy Sleep" sounds as if J. Mascis never left the comfort of the four-track.
The songs go together well, and though Melba Toast is about a decade and a half too late, they've successfully brought 1990s Seattle to Texas.
(BLABJAC Records; Melba Toast -- http://www.myspace.com/melbatoast)
Mission Giant
Golden Triangle
Mission Giant pic
You know, every record starts off with a review. It's that little dirge the band writes describing their record and how good it is and how much better than the others so that I will review it and you will buy it. And usually, like New York-style pizza in Texas, it is all a lie. Lies, people.
Unbelievably, Mission Giant are not liars. Really. This is incredible. Think Hot Chip with sexual tension and angst. You people put on your sneakers, hop into your used cars, and go find this record. Then wait 'til midnight, go find back roads, and ride around alone with the windows down and just absorb it.
That is how you experience Mission Giant's Golden Triangle: play the whole thing out and absorb it. It's an 18-track oddity stuck in an age of 12-track records with 8 tracks of filler. There is little in the way of filler. And most of the "filler" cannot even be regarded as such; they're transitions furthering along the overall product. Beginning, middling, and closing the record are "I-35e s," "I-30w," and "I-35w n," forming the big-picture map. Along the way is a world full of weird things off the exits of the freeway.
For electronica, Giant achieves impressive variety. They combine spacey, pad-driven soundscapes with uptempo, drum machine-driven Devo rockers. Lyrics show up only seven times, with samples of odd spoken-word bits here and there. The vocals shudder with sexy, trippy nervousness, spouted with an '80s-sounding attitude.
If you've ever wondered how a nerd writes a love song, jump over to track six, "Dark Love." Who writes like this? "I like it when you calls the shots / Being bossed around gets me hot / I remember your forget-me-nots / I think about your hair a lot." A nerd. A nerd packing some edgy witticisms on being the bitch in the relationship but too in love to quit, all the while backed by 8-bit flourishes ripped from an ancient Sega system. Bitchin'.
Mission Giant aren't just making noise with their circuit-bent toys, game systems, and plethora of synths. They are making music, dammit. This is no bad acid trip into noisy electronica. This is it for electro-dance-rock. Catchy melodies, crazy-as-hell drum machines, and some serious geeky white-boy pride.
Taken individually, only maybe four songs would stand strong. But I don't see that as the point of this record. It should be taken together, as a completed masterpiece where the sum of the parts is what's important. Roll down your windows, dammit, and take it all in.
As my eight-year old brother noted (true story) after hearing "Type A" for the first time, "This is booty-shaking music! Play it again!"
(Fellowshipwreck -- 1008 Hillcrest St., Denton, TX. 76201; http://www.fellowshipwreck.com/; Mission Giant -- http://www.missiongiant.com/)
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Mostly Bears
The Ed Mitchell Clinic
Mostly Bears pic
Two things struck me when I first listened to The Ed Mitchell Clinic, Mostly Bears' debut LP. First, what's the deal with bears?; and second, I hate the word "prog."
Grizzly Bear, Panda Bear, Teddybears, Minus the Bear, Barenaked Ladies -- I've had just about enough of the "bear" thing. And this word, "prog," it bugs me. Mostly because I don't know what it means, but also because all the reviewers who use the word can't really come to a clear consensus about what it means, either. I swear; every single review I've read about Mostly Bears compares them in some way or another to the über-progtastic hair bands The Mars Volta or Coheed and Cambria, which makes me shrug a shrug of "huh?"
Because Mostly Bears sounds nothing like either or those bands -- although, to be fair, I've never really been able to get past the first twelve seconds of any Coheed and Cambria song, but still. Mostly Bears sound something like Arcade Fire would sound if Arcade Fire didn't have a certain fetish for obscure instruments. Lead vocalist Brian Lopez sounds eerily similar to Win Butler, too, but that's not such a bad thing, right?
Close your eyes and listen to "The Digital Divide," and try (seriously, try this) to tell me it's not Arcade Fire circa 2003. The backing screams, the subdued tambourines, the knee claps, all of it. (It kind of feels like magic.) The Arcade Fire derivations sound fresh, though, due in large part to the disparate feel of the songs. They don't really go together in any consistent way -- the album has the Radiohead-sounding "Airports" turning into the straight rock "The Pharmacist" turning into the countrified "The Stationary Divide" suddenly turning into with what sounds like a Bon Iver B-side in "Maslow's Hierarchy."
In short, there's nothing prog, nothing particularly experimental, but most importantly, nothing ordinary about The Ed Mitchell Clinic. It is loud and it is grand -- its sound is so full that you might end up believing that there are more than just three members in the band. The songs are sometimes tormenting, sometimes simple, and sometimes beautiful. Always, though, they work.
[Mostly Bears is playing 7/27/08 at Rudyard's, with Over Sea, Under Stone.]
(Funzalo Records -- P.O. Box 35880, Tucson, AZ. 85740; http://www.funzalorecords.com/; Mostly Bears -- http://www.myspace.com/mostlybears)
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Mudhoney
Superfuzz Bigmuff (Deluxe Edition)
The Lucky Ones
Mudhoney pic
It's almost inevitable that rock bands mellow out with age, packing up their drums and trading their overdrive pedals for acoustic guitars (or worse, philharmonic orchestras). And for whatever reason, it seems that the louder the band, the more mellow they become. So it's nice to know that Mudhoney, who turns twenty this year, intends to do no such thing, celebrating with the release of two awesomely rough and raw albums: a deluxe edition of Superfuzz Bigmuff, and their latest, The Lucky Ones.
Those new to Mudhoney will quickly be bowled over by the aggression of singer Mark Arm's relentless screams on Superfuzz Bigmuff's opening track, "Touch Me I'm Sick." The weight of each gleefully violent, grungy line is mesmerizing, a fingerprint that can be found over all of the album's songs, whether slow and thick ("Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More," "Mudride") or frantic and driving ("Touch Me I'm Sick," "In 'n' Out of Grace"). The overtly blasphemous opening words of "In 'n' Out of Grace" ("Jesus take me to a higher place / slidin' in 'n' out of grace") are foreplay, setting the stage for the middle of the song; the guitars simmer as the drums keep pounding, a low bubbling that heightens the anticipation of the maddening explosion to follow.
The deluxe edition comes with live recordings which hail all the way back to 1988 and include both a concert and a live radio performance. "Hey! We're Mudhoney! How ya doin? ... We're from America!" Arm cheerfully pipes to what sounds like an anxious Berlin crowd. The concert recordings capture perfectly the sprawling energy of Mudhoney's songs. On the other hand, the album could have done without the radio recordings, which are muffled to the point where the music is hardly recognizable.
Mudhoney pic
For the most part, new effort The Lucky Ones is a solid album. Notable is the fact that it was recorded in only three and a half days, the shortest recording time in the band's history. From the beginning of the opener, "I'm Now," it's clear that Mark Arm and company haven't lost a step -- "The past makes no sense / the future looks tense / I'm now!" he exclaims at the end of the chorus.
The rest of songs can be described as classic Mudhoney -- abrasive, dark, and strangely funny -- but unfortunately, there's something missing that made their earlier stuff such as the Superfuzz Bigmuff hits so memorable. The album does present a couple of pleasant surprises, however. On "Next time," lyrics that are sweet on paper turn creepy and stalkerish, intensified by the almost tribal tom beat that underlines it. "I've been thinking of you," Arm growls, threatening with a predatory menace. Clocking in at under two and a half minutes, "The Open Mind" is striking in its directness, with lyrics like "Here comes another line with a hook for you to swallow" taunting the listener.
Though Mudhoney may get shortchanged in the music history books, they know very well who they are. Other grunge bands have long faded away and become has-beens; Mudhoney is able to look back and see two decades of uncompromised ass-kicking.
(Sub Pop Records -- 2013 4th Ave. 3rd Floor, Seattle, WA. 98121; http://www.subpop.com/; Mudhoney -- http://www.myspace.com/mudhoney)
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My Morning Jacket
Evil Urges
My Morning Jacket pic
These Kentucky rockers were mislabeled as a "Southern rock" band in their early days, but their last couple of albums likely appeal to hippies more than rednecks. On the band's latest -- their first full-length since 2005's Brit-rock tinged Z -- those well-versed in '70s rock will enjoy playing "Name That Tune" throughout the album. For the most part, the jammier elements of their early albums (and live sets) are replaced with an amalgam of the band's classic rock influences. This may work to their advantage, as it's likely many of their younger fans have never listened to Cheap Trick ("Two Halves"), The Eagles ("Sec Walkin"), or The Grateful Dead ("I'm Amazed"); singer Jim James even name drops Karen Carpenter on the mesmerizing "Librarian."
Although nearly every song on Evil Urges is derivative, the album flows well and quickly grows on the listener -- the band is undeniably talented, but Jerry Garcia on his most plumped-up heroin binge would have never included "Highly Suspicious," possibly the most grating song since Cameo's "Word Up," on an album. All is forgiven, though, with tunes like "Touch Me I'm Going To Scream" (parts 1 & 2) and "Aluminum Park," vastly different songs that flaunt the band's experimental tendencies. Like Z, Evil Urges is destined to be an album that divides the band's fans, but those that stick around are bound to enjoy the My Morning Jacket's continued evolution.
(ATO Records -- 44 Wall St., 23nd Fl., New York, NY. 10005; http://www.atorecords.com/; My Morning Jacket -- http://www.mymorningjacket.com/)
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No Age
Nouns
No Age pic
Remember the days (quick caveat: I don't remember these days, but I think I'm right about this; at least Wikipedia tells me I am) when making music that sounded like how a venue looked was interesting? Those days in the mid-'70s when great musicians were all hanging out together at CBGB, influencing and encouraging each other to do something more original than the other? The Ramones, Television, Blondie, the Talking Heads; they were all there, creating music that mattered. And now we get this?
No Age is inevitably tied to the venue in which they got their break: The Smell, a vegan-friendly (and straightedge-friendly, or so I would guess) underground club in downtown Los Angeles that fancies itself associative of "punk rock/noise/experimental" music groups like the Mae Shi, Health, Mika Miko, and now, No Age. The problem is, nothing about No Age is experimental and nothing is particularly punk. Their second LP, Nouns (their first since being signed by Sub Pop), received a 9.2 (!) on Pitchfork, making it the highest-rated original release this year, which makes me assume Pitchfork and Sub Pop are forming some unholy alliance with designs on owning the world. Because Nouns is blah and nothing more.
I've read reviews that compare this record to Daydream Nation, I've read reviews that compare it to Slanted and Enchanted, and I've read reviews that compare it to New Day Rising. To align No Age with Sonic Youth, Pavement, or Hüsker Dü is fucking ballsy, and the madness needs to stop (I'm talking to you, New Yorker). I think a more apt comparison would be to something like Enema of the State by Blink 182, or maybe Grave Dancers Union by Soul Asylum. The music is monotonous, the lyrics are tedious, and the noise is contrived. No Age sounds like every other derivative hardcore band sounds. Listen to "Cappo" and tell me it doesn't sound like any number of songs by Thrice (who Pitchfork rates a 6.0). Try to get through "Here Should Be My Home" and pretend you're not listening to Alexisonfire (who Pitchfork, of course, does not even bother reviewing). "Sleeper Hold" sounds like Jack's Mannequin after drinking eight Red Bulls, picking up drum sticks for the first time, and turning the volume to max.
No Age is just uninteresting, and I have a feeling they'll fizzle out in a few years, picking up clean-up duty spots here and there on various legs of the Warped Tour. To compare these guys to Sonic Youth or Pavement...I mean, really? Maybe I got the wrong CD? Whatever it is, something's gone terribly wrong.
(Sub Pop Records -- 2013 4th Ave. 3rd Floor, Seattle, WA. 98121; http://www.subpop.com/; No Age -- http://www.myspace.com/nonoage)
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The Oswald Effect
Love & Sabotage
The Oswald Effect pic
It seems like everyone wants to be Muse these days. Well, there are worse bands you could emulate. Unlike Muse, however, Love & Sabotage by The Oswald Effect rarely worships at any other altar than that of the god of energetically empty political pretension. Four-fifths of the album is a fiery condemnation of the war in Iraq long after such sentiments could have any consequence at all. The death of true protest music and the power of song over politics has never been more apparent than in this annoyingly commercial and formulaic rock album.
Without even the tiniest bit of personal perspective, The Oswald Effect lets you, the listener, know that war is a bad thing. People die in it, you know? And hey, the government is lying, too! Well, they're not going to take that lying down, no sir. They're going to yell it from the rooftops, and hey, they don't care if the Bush administration rounds them up and shoots them for treason (it could happen). No, The Oswald Effect are rebels, and for just $8.00, you can hear all about it. Don't forget to show the world you're a rebel, too, by dropping ten bones on a t-shirt, as well.
I believe truly in the power of music, and I also believe that artists have an obligation to comment on current events. But Love & Sabotage is not social commentary. It's a marketing scheme. The band might as well be saying "beer taste good" and "sex is a carnival ride." What we have here is MTV and Hot Topic manufacturing counterculture.
Look, it would be a perfectly listenable rock album if the message was personal instead of smugly anti-American. The guitar work on the album is incendiary. The work between Heath Bauer and Joshua Shepherd is like a mix between Dimebag and The Edge. Even when Bauer's mean-suburban-streets voice impedes the tracks' escape velocity, the dual six-string juggernauts are usually enough to at least hit high orbit. And take a song like "The Most beautiful Spacesuit" -- it's a highly emotional poem on love, sex, and family, which comes across honest and invocative of old-school U2. It's a shining moment that transcends the rest of the album's mass of impotent anti-war gobbledygook. If it was playing on the radio, I wouldn't change the station. Might even turn it up a bit.
It's these open moments, revealing the emotions behind the current state of the world, that are infinitely more illuminating than baldly stating the current status quo using the same parameters of music production and composition utilized in propaganda by your supposed enemy. For the majority of Love & Sabotage, the only difference between it and all it claims to oppose are the words. In the end, though The Oswald Effect affects to be more than just a band, they are just a band pretending to be more than just a band.
(self-released; The Oswald Effect -- http://oswaldeffect.com/)
Pain Principle
Waiting for the Flies
Pain Principle pic
If your one comfort in life is that some things never change, then you will love this album. Otherwise, you'll be like me and loathe it. With fifteen years' experience performing, you would think that Pain Principle would have a more professional sound, but on their new album, Waiting for the Flies, they use the same rhythms and breakdowns that are common in most songs. I don't understand how these guys were able to share the stage with such well-known bands as BLS, Drowning Pool, and Rob Halford. They don't even scratch the surface of their largest influence, Pantera. It was hard to find an ounce of originality in this album. The album's one saving grace was the introductory track, "Body Farm."
(Blind Prophecy Records -- P.O. Box 666, Bokeelia, FL. 33922; http://www.blindprophecyrecords.com/; Pain Principle -- http://www.painprinciple.com/)
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Papermoons
New Tales
Papermoons pic
It's the warmth that does it. New Tales feels soft and gentle and -- most of all -- somehow warm throughout, like a well-used blanket when you're really needing one. There's barely an offensive note here, just delicately-balanced harmony vocals that make Death Cab's Ben Gibbard sound like a thuggish ruffian by comparison, guitars that slip nicely from just-enough distortion to quiet jangliness, lots of brushed (or nearly brushed, anyway) drums, and the occasional bit of keys, all dressed up with lyrics so low-key and understated I find myself missing 'em completely 'til the second or third time through.
These guys are really something; they're close compatriots to Winterpills, in that both bands play song that feel so delicate they might crumble at the touch, bury their emotions beneath layers of beautifully-crafted guitars and harmonies, and seem imbued with this down-but-not-out kind of sadness, the kind that kills you slowly rather than crushes you right at the outset. They hit countryish notes in a few places ("Lazy Bones," in particular, but also "Holy Cow," which also has some nice, Joel Phelps-esque guitars), but they can rock, too, as they demonstrate ably on the urgent-sounding "Find Me an Island," "Car Lights" (love how both tracks amp up near the end), and the seriously Death Cab-like (and great) "Live Right." Even then, though, the vocals are plaintive and (relatively) soft, gently pleading and quietly desperate.
Of course, there's a lot of Elliott Smith-ing going on here (esp. on beautiful, beautiful "Bad Notes"), but with the crucial difference that unlike Smith, who constantly seemed to be just shy of going off the rails completely and offing himself (making his eventual, tragic end not all that surprising, really), Papermoons feel ultimately content and peaceful. Like I said, they're like a blanket. This music makes me yearn for a fireplace to curl up in front of on a chilly, windy night, with the dogs at my feet and my daughter asleep in my arms. It's music for late nights when you're the only one awake and the TV's (thankfully) finally off, so it's down to just you and your thoughts 'til the dawn breaks through the trees in the backyard. There aren't many albums out there that fit that bill; here's one.
[Papermoons is playing their final Houston show 7/30/08 at Boondocks, with Benjamin Davis Murphy.]
(Team Science Records -- 4210 Dallas, Apt. #1, Houston, TX. 77023; http://www.myspace.com/teamscience; Papermoons -- http://www.myspace.com/thepapermoonsband)
Pomegranates
Everything Is Alive
Pomegranates pic
It's often tempting to characterize an album with a season, especially when its qualities are so reminiscent of a particular time of year, and even more so if the album is released around the season it recalls. Pomegranates' formal debut Everything Is Alive fills both these criteria for a "seasonal" album, released appropriately on the cusp of summer as the album seems to embody its spirit. Above all reasons that come to mind (the surf-rock influence, the breezy guitars), the sheer youthful enthusiasm the band exudes throughout the album is the main cause of correlation. Summer is, after all, a season enjoyed most by the young. (If you disagree with that statement, then more power to you, but when was the last time the boss gave you June and July off?)
The fatal flaw of Everything Is Alive, though, is that this exuberance is a smoke screen. Like many of the summer blockbusters that come to a theater near you each year, underneath all the loud noises and special effects, there isn't a whole lot of substance. Beneath all of the band's energy and "experimentalism," there aren't many reasons to listen to this record more than once or twice. At its core, Everything Is Alive sounds forced, an average collection of indie-pop songs much too easy to shrug off.
Pomegranates have already garnered more than a couple of Modest Mouse comparisons due to jaunty guitar work that could have been plucked from anywhere in MM's discography up to The Moon & Antarctica. This is both a great compliment and an accurate connection, but the best thing Pomegranates have going for them is the one-two punch of vocalists Joey Cook and Isaac Karns. Cook's high, child-like voice plays well off of Karns' solid baritone, a contrast used most successfully on the exceptional closer "Thunder Meadow." Karns sings at the beginning of the song like a man in disbelief, "I heard the voice from the grave / where you're going is where I'll be," only to be reassured the voice was real by Cook over a playful guitar line and a soft, persistent bass drum thump. Cook sings with the earnest belief of a child, "I know you're still not dead / no matter what they say." It is unfortunate that Pomegranates choose to use this interplay on only three of the album's ten full tracks, but it would be even more unfortunate if the other two songs featuring both singers weren't so marginal.
If this album were a contest between Karns' voice and Cook's, I would have to declare Karns the winner, not so much due to some fault with the latter's voice, but because Karns seems to be singing over the better songs. "Appreciations" explodes from the start with piano chords rumbling out from the left-hand side of the keys and an equally forceful drumbeat backing them, eventually giving way to a fragile one-off chorus that finds Karns nearly whispering over soft xylophone tinkering and drum sticks delicately clicking against a snare shell. "In The Kitchen"'s sunny guitar work dances over the track as Karns promises, "when twilight calls / I'll be home for dinner." This sweet sentiment of devotion is offset on the next song by one of Joey Cook's best moments, the rambunctious "Late Night Television." "I don't know where you've been / but I know that you've not been alone," Cook sings over growling distortion, reflecting the wild-eyed paranoia of suspected infidelities.
There are two ways to look at the album: as a bad one and as a good one. Bad, because it's ineffectual. Good, because it isn't bad, just ineffectual. As you can tell by what you've just read, I've chosen to look at Everything Is Alive for what it is rather than what it should be, and what it is is functional indie-pop. Functionality is great if you're talking about a doorknob, but when the term can be used to describe an album, it's clear the band needs to go back to the drawing board. And Pomegranates may very well have a good record in them. Not all of their ideas on the album are bad; they just need to find a more interesting way to present them. As for now, though, they've only created songs that evoke indifference. If you were to walk up to me on the street and ask me what I thought of Everything Is Alive, I would simply reply that I don't. A good album will have people talking about how good it is. A bad album will have people talking about how bad it is. But a forgettable album won't have people saying much at all.
(Lujo Records -- 3209 Jennie Drive, Morgan City, LA. 70380; http://www.lujorecords.com/; Pomegranates -- http://www.myspace.com/pomegranatesart)
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The Riff Tiffs
festival/snflwr
festival/sunflwr, the new twenty-three minute (plus!) CD from the Riff Tiffs, opens with eloquence and grace. Starting with an undercurrent of drums and slow-motion guitar textures, "Festival" creeps up as everything builds into crashing eruptions, only to calm the storm when Chris Rehm's enigmatic vocals enter the atmosphere, giving a glimmering feel to the equation. As Sean Hart's marching drum rings out through the cosmos, Althea Topek's bass holds the musical constellation together, making it a solid takeoff. Almost six minutes into the first song, and you're taken through the melodic territory into which these young navigators are headed. And it's a sound not heard much in our city.
"/" releases an explosion of ambient noise into deep space, spiraling past the limits of distortion pedals, echoes, and black holes. A soundscape to get lost in for a few minutes. A good time to gaze through time, space and beyond.
Before you know it, though, you're heading back towards the clouds with track three. Coming in for the landing, "snflwr" ends the disc with more of a rock feel than either of its predecessors. The song starts with riffs reminiscent of Dinosaur Jr. and ends with the structure of Sonic Youth; the guitars never seem to stop until the final touchdown. Fusing guitar leads, smooth bass, and Curran Rehm giving us a safe ride home with his crafty pedal work, "snfler" grounds us. At least, until the next journey. I can't wait to see where they take us next.
[The Riff Tiffs are playing 7/5/08 at the Keene St. Warehouse Party, with The Octopus Project, Winning, Andy Dixon, Bring Back the Guns, O Pioneers!!!, Papermoons, The Watermarks, Welfare Mothers, Limb, BLACKIE, American Sharks, & B.]
(self-released; The Riff Tiffs -- http://www.myspace.com/RiffTiffs)
Sharks and Sailors
Builds Brand New
Sharks and Sailors pic
These folks are an enigma -- on the one hand, they can be crushingly heavy, with thundering guitars, surging basslines, and neck-snapping drums, but even at their heaviest, Sharks and Sailors remain tranquil, almost serene, with guitarist/vocalist Mike Rollin and bassist/vocalist Melissa Lonchambon's mostly-detached vocals drifting over the noisy, jagged musical shoals below. What Sharks and Sailors do is meld sweeping, atmospheric-yet-heavy guitars with intricately shifting math-rock, traversing that heretofore undiscovered middle ground between post-punk bands like Edsel, Arcwelder, or late-period Jawbox and instro-metallists like Pelican or Isis.
And what a middle ground it is. The tracks on Builds Brand New alternately swoon and stomp, guitars roaring and thundering one second and working a delicate prog-rock pattern the next, drums sounding like the hand of God smacking down in time, the whole thing coming off like the turbulent soundtrack to some deep-sea rescue on The Discovery Channel. Honestly, I just can't escape the marine metaphors while thinking about this album, and I swear it's not because Sharks and Sailors might've gotten their name from a June Of 44 track (you know how much those folks like nautical crap). The music's like the aural equivalent of a brooding, angry sea, tumbling and crashing onto the rocks of some hazy, cold, probably Pacific-facing coastline.
I should note, by the way, that the June Of 44 thing's not entirely coincidental -- there's a fair resemblance to that whole Chicago post-rock scene here, with tons of math-y guitar bits that churn and grind like they were drawn out on some arcane, musical CAD plotter. The band tempers all that, thankfully, with a noisy-yet-beautiful aesthetic like the one that got draped sloppily over most of my favorite Sonic Youth tracks; the first half of the album, really, is the methodical-sounding, laid-back, droning, chiming part of the program (see the title track, "Cliffs," "Terminal Lesson"), with some nicely drifting/shimmery bits wavering in and out of view. There's something narcotic about it all, especially when Lonchambon takes over the vocal duties. This album really sees her come into her own, vocally -- it's cool to hear after observing the band over the past few years.
Near the halfway mark of Builds Brand New, the gloves come off, and the band once again throws me for a loop. With "Fix Your Radar," which is hands-down my favorite track, the band flexes effortlessly and transforms the gentler, more contemplative band you thought you were listening to into a crushing juggernaut of post-rock. "Radar" sounds like an outtake from Jawbox (think "Iodine" or "Empire of One," although "Desert Sea" applies elsewhere on Builds Brand New, too), lodged halfway between J. Robbins & co. and The Jonx. It's jagged and confrontational, a flat-out at-your-throat anti-anthem.
Now, if "Radar" is where Sharks and Sailors drop the glove, the followup track, "Rickshaw," is where the band wades into the melee to beat the living crap out of you. They've done this before, they're saying (and they have, on their debut EP), and they're still capable of fucking your shit up if and when they need to -- they just choose not to, preferring to get all Zen Buddhist and detached like the bulk of the tracks to this point. It's metal, metal, metal, the kind of thing Page Hamilton of Helmet would've been proud to claim as his own, even back in the pre-suckage Meantime days. Although I have to admit, it's got a much more melodic undertone to it, lurking just out of hearing, beyond the devastating reach of the guitars.
And it just gets better. To continue the marine thing from earlier, the seas have become decidedly choppy. "Metes and Bounds" makes me wonder if The Jonx and the S&S folks have been sharing a practice space or something, because the song's way math-y, lurching and noodling like Rush on a heavy-duty psychedelic bender. Between this track and "Hello Sister," I came to the weird realization that Sharks and Sailors are actually making me like prog-rock once again. I'm reminded of The Dillinger Escape Plan, Dub Trio, or Between the Buried and Me, in equal measure. I love how the latter track rolls and tumbles on the waves 'til it finally disintegrates into wobbly, distant-sounding electronic noise.
Maybe it's because the last three times I've seen or heard these folks, I've been tired to begin with, but I have to say, Builds Brand New lulls me into this weird soporific trance state, where I find my head nodding and my eyes focusing on nothing. So by the time closer tracks "In the Sandbox" and "Condor" come stomping in, I'm gone, lost somewhere out at sea. The music's murky and thundering at once, and I'm out in, rolling serenely with the waves.
[Sharks and Sailors is playing their CD release show 8/1/08 at Walter's on Washington, with UME, The Jonx, This Man Is Art, & DJ Under Warranty.]
(self-released; Sharks and Sailors -- http://www.sharksandsailors.com/)
Sigur Rós
Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
Sigur Ros pic
The quartet from Iceland is back with their fifth full-length album. In an attempt to shake up the norm, this time Sigur Rós decided to solicit the help of Flood, producer of albums for Nine Inch Nails, PJ Harvey, and Smashing Pumpkins. Obviously the boys desire something different, but c'mon, can you get any more different than what Iceland has to offer?
The first two songs are drastically different from the music on the group's previous four albums. If it wasn't for Jón Birgisson's falsetto vocals, I might think that I'd put in the wrong CD. Everything has been stripped down; what used to be layer after layer of sounds and melodies has been focused into a single idea, a single concept. It's raw and unpolished. Take the opening track "Gobbledigook," which lacks a single synthetic sound -- no longer is the band's music put through filters and run across a litany of effects. Instead, you hear the sounds of fingers running up and down the frets or the squeak of the bass drum pedal as Orri Páll Dýrason creates a rhythmic chant on his kit. Most bands strive to take out the "noise" when creating music, but it seems as if Sigur Rós amplified the sounds, knowing it would be another instrument. Have the synthesizers and orchestra nearly been packed up on this album? It's so drastically different, not just in sound but in the mood of the music. From an emotional standpoint, Ágætis Byrjun sounded more reverent, while Taak... was uplifting, almost redemptive. Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust is joyous and innocent, a child's summer day compared to Ágætis Byrjun's eulogy...or so it would seem.
This drastic transformation quickly shifts after the first two songs. While for the first two the orchestral instruments and synthesizers have taken a backseat to the piano and guitar, things switch around; the streamlined sound created in the opening of Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust still remains, but the overall feel of the remaining songs is more reminiscent of the Sigur Rós of old. Songs like "Með suð í eyrum" and "Festival" really display what made Sigur Rós famous: sweeping melodies that beautifully build on one another until we're engulfed in sound. "All Alright," their first English song, and "Straumnes" end the album in familiar Sigur Rós fashion, with a slow and deliberate piano piece followed by a hauntingly simple organ instrumental song.
This is the problem with Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust -- for all the creative effort and genius required to write and play the first two songs, the rest of the album becomes too safe. Rather than explore the tone set by the first two songs, the band seems content to make another "Sigur Rós album." I've grown to adore Sigur Rós and I feel their latest LP is absolutely fantastic. I do feel a bit disappointed, however, and I'm left wondering what could have been.
(XL Recordings -- One Codrington Mews, London, W11 2EH ENGLAND; http://www.xlrecordings.com/; Sigur Rós -- http://www.sigurros.com/)
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The Soulshake Express
The Soulshake Express
The Soulshake Express pic
The Soulshake Express's self-titled EP is apparently an amalgamation of several different eras of musical style. The sound ranges from very late '60s rock to rock with a modern edge -- but never one single decade at the same time; there are elements of each present in almost every track. The guitars have a strong classic-rock, almost southern-rock, feel, while the keyboards are very Doors-esque. There are some guitar licks that scream '80s rock, but the mixed effect of retro and recent keeps it pretty blended.
The five-member Swedish group consists of David Ericksson on lead guitar and vocals, Marcus Andersson on rhythm guitar, Robert Schlyter on bass, Joakim Eriksson on drums, and Martin Hammar on those completely awesome keyboards. It's not an exaggeration to say that this is primarily a guitar-driven EP with some drum and keyboard icing. The music is very free and very laid-back, without a whole lot of substance, lyrics-wise. The EP has five tracks, starting off with "Introducing T.S.E," an intro that is just over a minute in length -- it may be short, but it's a nice overview of the Soulshake sound. "Feel It" is next in line and has a nice breakdown about midway through that picks back up with a guitar solo toward the end. "Dirty Woman" has a hard rock theme straight from the '80s, and the most classic-rock-tinged track on the EP is "Whiskey (And The Blues)," which has a old-fashioned guitar duel, although it does feel a little too rehearsed. For the life of me, I can't think of anything but the movie Rock Star when I hear "Weekend Man"; it just conjures up that whole leather pants, anthem rock, flashing lights, and shirtless sweaty six-pack abs thing.
The Soulshake Express gives the ultimate impression that this is a band that grabs their instruments, downs a few brews, and starts up a jam session. In truth, this album would be better off as background music, as it really isn't bringing anything new to the table in the way of lyrics, innovation, or musical style. All in all, though, the band's not completely awful, especially if you just want some rock without any strings attached.
(Beatville Records -- http://www.beatville.com/; The Soulshake Express -- http://www.soulshake.se/)
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Spanish Prisoners
Songs to Forget
Spanish Prisoners pic
Leonid Maymind has done some traveling in his day. Born in Latvia and having lived in various parts of the U.S. from New Orleans to New York, the now-Brooklynite makes music that changes genre as often as he has changed addresses. Maymind is at the center of the musical constellation known as Spanish Prisoners, a collective with contributors from bands such as Pedro the Lion and Margot and the Nuclear So and So's. Spanish Prisoners' debut album Songs to Forget is a genre-hopper that hints at a wealth of potential from Maymind in the years to come. From indie-rock to neo-country, psychedelia to blues, and garage rock to pop, Spanish Prisoners' stylistic restlessness makes for an album full of ideas that hit more often than they miss.
The album's second song, "Some Among Them Are Killers," is one of two clear single candidates, the other being track seven "Dear Just Curious." The former sports a catchy electronic drum beat and paranoid lyrics made all the more daunting by Maymind's endearingly insecure and sincere voice and the chorus's sinister distorted guitar lines. While the song does veer off into a clichéd bridge that breaks its momentum, it quickly finds its way back to the chorus and a satisfying conclusion.
As stated before, "Dear Just Curious" is the other single candidate on the album, a pop song with a sort of Spanish (get it?) sound to it thanks to minor chords and the guiro (the percussive instrument that makes that scraping noise; I didn't know what it was, either). Its marketability, however, is unfortunately due more to its polished sound than actual catchiness. While it isn't a bad song by any means, it is one of the more easy songs to forget (I know, I know) when put up against the energetic Pavement homage "A Thousand Zimmermans" and the bluesy, garage rock swagger of "Periwinkle Blues."
Maymind shows his prowess as a songwriter by being just as effective and affecting in the albums tender moments as he is in its intense ones. "Song For The Weary" has the familiar sound of a country gospel standard that he makes his own by using pollination as a sugary metaphor for lost love -- "I was a once a flower / and you were the bee" and "but after drinking my nectar / how soon did you flee." "Mantequilla" conjures images of young love and paints this picture with passionate violin and steel guitar, soft cymbal crashes, delicate acoustic guitar strums, and twinkling xylophone.
After a debut as solid but scattered as Songs to Forget, the listener is left wondering what will be next for Spanish Prisoners. With the myriad genres in which Maymind has shown himself to be proficient, will the next album see him narrowing the scope as the band continues to define itself? Given the band's collaborative aesthetic, who will be performing with Maymind, as the names Spanish Prisoners supports continue to become more and more recognizable? It's hard to say this early in the band's career, but one thing is certain: those who keep an eye and ear on Spanish Prisoners in the coming years will be rewarded.
(Exit Stencil Recordings -- 6205 Detroit Ave., Cleveland, OH. 44102; http://www.exitstencil.org/; Spanish Prisoners -- http://www.spanishprisoners.com/)
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This Holiday Life
The Beginning of the End of the World
This Holiday Life pic
My god, I miss the '90s. What's that you say? They're back? But which '90s is it, the Pixies '90s or the Gin Blossoms '90s? Gin Blossoms? Sweeeeet. Seriously, I'm glad to have bands like This Holiday Life bringing back to life oldies but goodies Toad the Wet Sprocket and oldies but greaties Del Amitri. The Beginning of the End of the World (available now on 7spin Records) sounds like the summer of 1993 for a fifteen-year-old kid who has yet to realize the social repercussions of not liking Nirvana. It's incredibly catchy pop music that's easy to listen to and guilty of being completely uncomplicated. We could use more things in life with those traits, that's for sure.
This Holiday Life has been a staple on the San Diego music scene (a scene that seems in dire need of life -- my apologies, Jason Mraz) for years, garnering a "Best Rock Album" in 2004 for their EP The Fallout and a "Best Pop Band" nomination in 2005 at the San Diego Music Awards, and regularly play over 100 shows a year, mostly up and down the West Coast. Yes, The Beginning of the End of the World is a straight pop record, but I'd like to encourage the guys in THL to try and distance themselves from comparing their music to the likes of Coldplay, U2, and Travis. Sure, those bands are whatever, but let's get creative, shall we? I hear hints of Mr. Bungle, maybe a little bit of Ant Farmers, and whole whole lot of Cornish in a Turtleneck. Has enough been written over the years about Cornish in a Turtleneck? I think not. But no, this is really good stuff.
This Holiday Life sing about the ends of things -- the ends of relationships, friendships, the world, the word "no." That's not all that makes up this record, though. There's a lot of joy in these songs, a lot of spirituality, and, strangely enough, a lot of inference to starting over. Oh, and they rhyme the word "no" with "know," and the word "go" with "gone." Genius. Some of the song titles are a bit suspect, though -- "Mission Control to My Heart," for example, is the linguistic equivalent of an eye-roll -- but overall, the album is solid. With their feet firmly planted on the West Coast, guitarist Bobby Anderson says the band is excited about expanding further east (and further south?)make it happen, guys. We'll be waiting.
(7 Spin Music -- 259 Indiana Ave., Valparaiso, IN. 46383; http://www.7spinmusic.com/; This Holiday Life -- http://www.thisholidaylife.com/)
The Tontons
Sea and Stars E.P.
The Tontons pic
Ah, "Best Experimental," that perennial catch-all category. For the past few years, it's felt like the Houston Press Awards throws anybody it can't easily categorize as going in one box or another into the category, with the end result that the "Experimental" label becomes a joke that doesn't mean much of anything (much as I like Satin Hooks, for one, I was as flummoxed as they seemed to be when they got dumped in the category a few years back).
After re-listening to Sea and Stars, the debut EP from this year's "Experimental"-ists The Tontons, though, I find myself sympathizing with the folks doing the nominating. How in the hell do you categorize this band? They've got thick, bluesy guitars that switch easily from trippy psych-jam to gentle jazz at the drop of a hat, a talented rhythm section that somehow pulls off blues, jazz, and funk rhythms without sounding like genre-hopping dilettantes, and singer Asli Omar, whose dusky, sultry, Nina Simone-ish pipes make my jaw hit the desk each and every time I sit down to listen to Sea and Stars. In the realm of music, "uniqueness" gets thrown around so frequently it barely means more than the HP's "Experimental," but damn... I can't speak for everywhere, but for Houston, at least, The Tontons are utterly one of a kind.
Despite the retro touches, the band doesn't even fit in with the '60s/'70s vibe they occasionally throw off (see "Jazz June," congas and light funk guitars and all, for the most prominent example). These folks come off like street-jazz as interpreted by a band schooled more in postpunk dynamics than in bebop, which is a good thing, since the band seems to know exactly where each track on here needs to end. While pseudo-jazz stuff like this often seems to get bogged down in the noodly, improvisational aspects of the genre, The Tontons play it like a pop band, getting in, doing what they came to do, and then getting the hell back out again. And while fans of the improv side of things may disagree, I'm relieved as hell to hear it.
Atmosphere-wise, they're like the bar band playing in some film adaptation of a William Gibson cyberpunk novel set a few decades into the future -- mysterious and alluring, but still murky, dirty, and maybe even a little dangerous. Sure, Omar's vocals are responsible for a large part of that, but fellow Tontons Adam Martinez, Justin Martinez, and Tom Nguyen deserve credit, too, for managing to take a sound that could easily be retreaded to death (and which probably will, in the post-Amy Winehouse era) and grafting it onto edgier sensibilities. The result is a set of smoky-sounding songs that swipe the best aspects of blues, jazz, and rock and crush them all together into some shiny new substance. I don't know what the hell it's called, but I want more of it.
[The Tontons are playing 7/26/08 at Venue, as part of the 2008 Houston Press Music Awards Showcase, with a ton of excellent bands.]
(Esthetic Noise Records -- P.O. Box 70635, Houston, TX. 77270; http://www.myspace.com/estheticnoise; The Tontons -- http://www.myspace.com/thetontons)
Paul Weller
22 Dreams
Paul Weller pic
If you don't know Paul Weller, then you're not really listening to music. If you've been alive for more than 15 years and still don't know who Paul Weller is, then you're beyond help altogether.
22 Dreams is a genre-twisting, sprawling double LP of 22 tracks, and not since Stanley Road has Weller entered into such experimental waters. Whereas Stanley Road left much to be desired, 22 will leave you wanting more. In fact, I still haven't stopped listening to it. (I won't stop listening to it, either!) I keep finding new and great things all throughout it.
Though Weller is painting a bit outside the lines on this effort, that doesn't mean this is anything esoteric or far-out. Rather, Weller masterfully takes on whatever genre he chooses to dabble in and uses it beautifully, whether it's folk, blues, rock, country, epic soundtracks, tear-streaked ballads, a bit of cabaret, even spoken word. And nobody does spoken word well -- nobody. Except Paul Weller.
"Light Nights," the initial track, sure scared me. I was excited to explore this record, to take in all that information, and there Weller comes at me with this left-field folksy number that seems completely out of order. Wouldn't the title track have been more fitting? A soulsy rave-up of the likes that helped defined Weller's sound, an exciting and jumpy statement of intent? As I soon found out, however, even though there is some methodology here, these songs are fused together in some sort of way that just works. It's not tempo, theme, or anything else; just colors and textures that add up to something special.
Tracks are bound together by the occasional instrumental interlude that, like bit of some stream-of-consciousness rambling, carries one thought seamlessly into the next. Standout numbers like "Have You Made Up Your Mind," "Empty Ring," "Invisible," "Echoes Round The Sun," "Push It Along," and "Sea Spray" are sure to be some of the finer fixtures in Weller's future repertoire. Certainly, they should also be in yours. In fact, anything left over is simply too strong; I can't just list every song title here and let it go at that. This is Paul Weller, this is a master, a true artist in an age of very few, and a document manifesting and re-affirming what we've known all along, that he's untouchable amongst his peers. This is the summer album of 2008 -- hell, it could very well be the album of 2008. If you hear it, you'll agree.
(Yep Roc Records -- P.O. Box 4821, Chapel Hill, NC. 27515-4821; http://www.yeproc.com/; Paul Weller -- http://www.paulweller.com/)
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The Willowz
Chautauqua
The Willowz pic
The Willowz. I figured that any band popping up on the Eternal Sunshine soundtrack was worth a listen. Top that off with a turn-of-the-century American controversy for a title, and it gets even better.
The Willowz started out with one of those revolving-door line-ups, taking anyone that could keep them playing shows. This lasted for several years, and they made some waves with their debut record in their native California. For the third album, this mess currently spinning in my stereo, they married a solid guitarist and drummer and brought it together. So far, the marriage is successful and lasting.
Musically, the Willowz follow roughly in the -- this kills me to say -- "garage rock revival" that has been perpetuated by The White Stripes, The Hives, The Von Bondies, and the every-other-bands that employ fuzz and nastiness. Not to say this is bad; I will binge on nasty fuzz over radio rock any day. The 'Lowz, however, gnaw on a classic rock pie as well. Kind of like if Jet wasn't the worst band to ever try to play down-n-dirty rock n' roll.
For example, Jet's slide-guitar attempt at Southern tinge resulted in a too-played cheesy bit of shlop aptly titled "Move On." The 'Lowz do the same thing, except they don't bomb it. They don't moan about heartache and the falling of the leaves, they make it relevant to themselves: young, nasty rock n' rollers. It's not that they are more intellectual than Jet; they just think more in terms of taking inspiration from their forebears, not simply re-hashing them.
There's a lot of fuzzy guitar, bounding drums, and rattling bass, backed by yelping vocals from both boy and girl throats. (Note: Miss Jessica plays bass. Like Tina Weymouth. Like Kim Deal. Like the girls in bands that don't suck.) In between this nastiness, however, there are honest folk ballads with scratchy acoustic guitars and legitimate Southern drawls. There are also moments of psych-rock bliss.
Basically, these kids have learned the one thing a lot of popular rock n' roll revivalists forget: the art of songwriting. For them it's not about partypartypartyrocknrollcrazytimes. Think about it: the brief description of this new record on their Myspace touches only on the opinions of respected writers and artists, in contrast to the opinions of popular politicians of the time, regarding the Chautauqua movement that swept America up in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This is what they are about. Think. Think a lot. But think with an attitude.
Only downside? I've lost this record three times since getting it in for review. I believe it is now gone forever. Shame. I'll have to pick up another. Now, go and research for yourself about what what this unpronouncable Chautauqua actually was.
(Dim Mak Records -- P.O. Box 348, Hollywood, CA. 90078; http://www.dimmak.com/; The Willowz -- http://www.thewillowz.com/)
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