The Able Sea
The Able Sea
With a voyeuristic fixation on meandering, psychedelic soundscapes, Austin band The Able Sea has released a debut album to satisfy that taste. From start to finish, let there be no confusion: this self-titled work is well-primed to make you feel windswept, to hypnotize you. Listener, beware.
The Able Sea is a trio, including Robert Pierson, Alex Thompson, and Robert Fisher, with contributions on the album by Brad Bell and David Morrison. Thompson's voice is sorcery, drifting like a fugitive phantom in the album's opener, "Western Dreams." The rest of the tracks are just as serene -- almost reverent, like prayers. The Able Sea's marching-psych cadence sounds a little sleepy at times, suffering from a comfy-cozy effect that's someone's nostalgic daydream of the late 1960s. The pace isn't paralyzed, it just could use more texture.
I like this Sea. I've heard of a heaving sea, a vast sea, a dark sea, and the slime of the sea, but the is the first instance in my life of an Able Sea. It's a cool sound and rises and falls easily, like the poetry that comes in the record sleeve: "east east is now west west stumbling forward with the best of them not thinking about the next and on he goes across the ocean."
The Antlers' ambient and elegiac debut, Hospice, has generated a veritable buzz from indie sites and bloggers alike since its online release in late June. For the most part, it's been received well -- some even going as far to say that Hospice is the best album released in 2009 so far.
Here's the gist of it: Hospice focuses on a terminal patient restricted to a hospital bed, and the narrative comes from the point of view of her bedside significant other, played by Antlers front man Peter Silberman. What's striking here isn't the praise -- although the album is well written and sounds beautiful -- but that an album with such a meditated concept and a strong narrative could have so much appeal.
Given that songs like "Sylvia" and "Two" are made of that necessary indie, bleeding-heart, synthesized prog-rock, they are divided up among the rest of the album's somber ambient rock. "Sylvia" acknowledges our unwilling patient and the subsequent focus of Hospice. It erupts with a revelatory chorus line ("Sylvia, get your head out of the oven..."), and Peter Silberman's voice rises into a strained soprano. There's life in this song, and for our speaker, a glimmer of hope for his patient.
For the few moments of excitement in Hospice, there's a lot of time given to sparse sober tunes that Silberman uses to progress the narrative. Thankfully, where the instrumentation and songcraft is minimal, room is created for threads of beauty in more cinematic moments. "Shiva" trots with sloshy shoegaze and an oddly appropriate trumpet fanfare washing over a chorus of "ooh"'s. "Wake," appearing near the end of the album, has one of those moments that makes you go, "Ahh..." When Silberman's voice hits that falsetto note on the line, "because the hardest thing is never to repent for someone else, it's letting people in," it's hard not to shiver.
Other songs are a congenial mix of the two. "Bear," an indie flare-up, is a catchy, off-beat number that gets mention here because of its relevant use of the word "unfucked" and incessant ear for a tight indie shuffle. "Kettering" leans towards the softer side of things, but progresses via pulsing piano and fuzzed-out drums (sort of reminiscent of late Radiohead), taking time to tell the story of Sylvia and why an entire album has been created around her tenure in the hospital and after.
Hospice, isn't an album that grabs you right away with catchy hooks or industrious tunefulness -- nor was it conceived with that intention in mind. It's a hard-line conceptual work that requires attention and focus on the part of the listener (god forbid!). Still, there're songs and moments that immediately draw your ear out and pique your interest for its washy, ambient, and emotional ambition. Look for Hospice, in physical release, later on this summer.
Arab on Radar
Sunshine for Shady People
This may possibly be the worst DVD that I have ever seen. Seriously. I was actually really excited to watch it and hear some great music, but I was very disappointed. The DVD was cheaply made and just consists of the band Arab on Radar carrying around a camcorder on parts of their tours and talking a bunch of crap and swearing every other word. Honestly, it was annoying to watch, and I was only glad that I was doing other things as I watched and didn't have to devote my full attention to the DVD. The only cool thing about the DVD is the fact that The Locust were on it. Arab on Radar played a show with them. That was cool.
The DVD didn't even really show the band playing any music, which is obviously why most people would want to pick it up. Yeah, under the "extras" option, there are some of their shows, but the quality, both sound and visual, are terrible. I could find better videos on YouTube.
I had listened to a few Arab on Radar songs before I watched this DVD. They weren't my favorite band, but I had a good taste in my mouth and would have considered going to a show if I'd gotten a chance to see them before they broke up. This DVD, however, has actually ruined the image I had of them -- I now just think they are/were annoying and am relieved I hadn't ever paid to go see them live as a result.
A lot of the things the band did on the DVD were stupid, immature things already covered by Blink 182 or MTV's Jackass ten years ago. It wasn't original or funny at all. I think that even fans of the band wouldn't enjoy this DVD. I did like the main menu and got excited when that came up; it's an artsy black and white view of the band with one of their songs playing in the background, and it's catchy. Unfortunately, I was sadly disappointed by the rest.
The only other good thing I can say is that I love the DVD case that it came in! It's bright green and yellow and pink. I think I'm going to throw away the DVD and use the case for an art project...
Time sensitive material
If you're the type to use CDs as drink coasters, hang them from your car's rearview mirror to watch them glisten in the sun, or maybe just for junk/experimental artwork, then I'll give you this album for nothing. Just think: you could make a CD Art Car for next year's parade!
The starting song "My Fault" echoes with whiny, cock-rocker vocals that make Skid Row's Sebastian Bach sound like a freaking rock god. I also get hints of the 1990s band Extreme as a possible influence of theirs. "Audiocrash" is aptly titled, I will give them that, as they're truly the sounds of audio that has been in a wreck, dismembered and mangled up into something grotesque and hardly audibly bearable. If you have an enemy that you have been waiting to retaliate against, I'd suggest sitting them down and forcing them to listen to this album.
"When you come back home can you bring some wine and flowers?," they start at one point, continuing with, "It's my fault, It's not your fault." This doesn't even make sense! Why is Guy S. (known only as "Guy S." on the album information) telling this woman that the problems they are experiencing are entirely his fault but requesting that she bring home the wine and flowers? Gross. That's rank.
"I Can't Feel You Anymore" is a live recording with the two vocalists on acoustic guitar: "I don't think I can feel you anymore / come and pick me off your kitchen floor." Wow, he really has a way with words. This leaves me wondering if this is some kind of dirty sexual reference. I can just see the women swooning to pick a drunk Audiocrash member off their floor. "Half past three and my phone's been dead / is that you running 'round my bed?" "I don't think I can see you anymore / look at me I'm on your bedroom floor..."
I do feel for any woman who might have played a part in this wretched scenario and hope the best for her future. If any one of these band members comes near my bedroom floor, I will have no bones about shooting them with my "guitar riff-le" (I'll get to that in a minute, don't worry) and quickly disposing of the remains in a nearby incinerator.
In "Lifeline," Guy S. sings, "Come on baby throw me a lifeline / sing to me, sing to me, come to my window," and I think to myself, "what's happened to the good old days?" Shouldn't this be the other way around? Since when is a woman supposed to serenade a grown man or "throw him a lifeline," whatever that's supposed to mean? Hmmm.
The band makes a feeble attempt to support soldiers in Iraq with a cheese-rock video that I accidentally stumbled upon as I was researching them for this review. They even go as far as inventing something that looks like a guitar and rifle combo and have coined the term "guntar"; in the video, they force the participants to pretend to strum this atrocity while in desert camouflage.
Other offenses include such monstrous song titles such as "Leprechauns Waltz" and "Captain America." Just thinking about listening to songs with titles like these makes me sick on my stomach. The album and Website artwork add further to my theory that music and art go hand in hand because they both suck terribly.
Remarkably, according to their Website, a percentage of all proceeds from Audiocrash's music sales are donated to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and other nonprofit organizations. Unfortunately, from the looks and sounds of it these charities will not be receiving any money, sorry. If you are looking to rock out with the band, I'm sad to say that all of their summer gigs have been canceled. Excuse me while I go hurl.
It's lead guitarist Jason Willis's awesomely meandering -- yet still relentlessly driving -- and somehow downhome riff that does it, honestly. This review almost feels like a cheat, on my part, because Buxton's been playing A-side "Feathers" live for a little while now, and from almost the first second I heard it, it's been locked away in my brain, popping up at random times and making me go, "oh, yeah; that's right..." with a big grin on my face. I swear to God, I've heard it in my dreams, for crying out loud. If there's an award for Best Hooky Riff of the Year, these guys should be in the running.
The song itself starts off loose and rehearsal-esque, like the orchestra tuning up before the play starts, but it quickly coalesces into a tight, focused lockstep countrified rock rhythm. Frontman Sergio Trevino sings in his backwoodsy-but-indie warble/yodel, and I realize that the longer I listen the Buxton guys, the less important it becomes to play spot-the-influence -- sure, Trevino's voice and delivery still sounds somewhat like a mutual cousin of Conor Oberst and Will Sheff, but more than that, it sounds like, well, him.
Plus, there's the gentle, affirming pledge at the heart of the song, which is something I can't help but like; "Feathers" comes off almost as a celebration of the band's shared youth in LaPorte, TX, name-checking neighborhoods and towns nearby. It's like an oath of loyalty and friendship not just to a person, but to a specific place and time, Trevino swearing he'll hold onto that feeling, that love, no matter what. My goofy grin just keeps getting wider and wider...
B-side "Flint," sadly, I find myself a lot more ambivalent about. It lopes along just fine from the start, but the pieces just don't seem to fit as well together, at least not at the beginning; the guitars here come off more noodly than anything, and the horns are cool but a little weird when they (unconsciously, I'm guessing) sound like the Sesame Street theme song.
Things get a whole lot better when the song collapses into a slo-mo explosion of psych-country -- the guitars echo and roar distantly, Trevino's low-key melodies get some weight from the shouted background vocals, and the whole thing feels like it's about to all come crashing to a shuddering, quaking end. Which, to my mind, fits the song much more aptly than the more out-and-out country-pop stuff.
Of course, any criticisms on my part of the second track should probably be tempered by the fact that the first sets the bar do damn high it's an Olympic feat to get over it, so keep that in mind. Runner-up still ain't bad when first place is fucking incredible, right?
[Buxton is playing its 7" release show 7/11/09 at Mango's, along with The Wild Moccasins & Ghost Mountain.]
Valley of the Cyclops
The Austin quintet Diagonals are Steve Garcia, Ryan Camarillo, Wiley Wiggins, Ben Prentice, and Todd Larson, and plenty has been said about the 13th Floor Elevators influence on the their latest album, Valley of the Cyclops. But I think it's unfair to categorize them as a one-dimensional surf/stoner/psychedelic band. Are they psychedelic? Sure, which is clearly evidenced by their music video for their song "Neil Diamond Blues." I mean, Children of the Corn-like little girls playing electric guitars and epileptic seizure-inducing color flashes; that video is trippy, to say the least.
And while it's true that Valley of the Cyclops flows from stoner/surfer rock to grungy garage indie, that's simply because this band is not of our time. They evoke a simpler era, when the air was a little purer, drugs were the course de jour, and people had free-flowing unprotected sex with a multitude of partners in parks. With flowers in their hair. Valley of the Cyclops also comes with a mini-comic by Michael Berryhill, which, dare I say it, is pretty cool.
The fact is there is more to this band than 13th Floor Elevators. From paying homage to the Rolling Stones in the beginning bars of "Wizard Dome" to overtures of David Bowie circa "Uncle Arthur," Diagonals infuse their languid brand of Austin rock with echoing guitar fills, minimalist backbeats, grinding organ, and fun, frivolous lyrics. Yes, listening to them will have you feeling that you are in Hawaii surfing the Big Kahuna, sipping mushroom tea while smoking a blunt, but does that mean they're automatically a surf/stoner/psychedelic rock band? Maybe. If I were to pigeonhole these guys, I'd have to say psychedelic, yes, but with a whole lot of fun and more than a twist of crazy.
[Diagonals is playing the Monofonus Summer Slammer 7/11/09 at Super Happy Fun Land, along with Pillow Queens, The Caprolites, Over the Hill, Muhammadali, Slow Motion Rider, Follow that Rider, & School Police.]
And now, dropping by from another planet...Ghost Mountain's Siamese Sailboats. Okay, maybe not, but that's sure what it feels like to listen to the trio's seemingly acid-fueled mashup of Spiritualized psychedelia, nerdcore-style rapping, and downright joyful-sounding, Atom and His Package-esque candy-pop melodies; I'll grant that there's probably somebody out there who's hit on this particular combination independently, but I sure as hell haven't ever heard 'em.
The band's closest analogue at points is probably Bay Area freak-hoppers cLOUDDEAD, particularly in terms of the oddball lyrical imagery and the waves and washes of noise that occasionally threaten to drown vocalist/sampler-wielder Daniel's voice, but really, I can't bring myself to label this "hip-hop" of any flavor. It just doesn't fit; Ghost Mountain's vocals are primarily rapped in Daniel's nerdy-guy deadpan, but they're only a tool, a piece used to build the whole contraption.
At their best, Ghost Mountain plays like the love child of Animal Collective neo-psych and a syrup-slowed, heavy-lidded MC Paul Barman, incorporating vocab-heavy lines with layers of bright, warm-and-fuzzy M83 synths, cloud-sweeping atmospherics, and a gleeful sense of childish abandon (see "The Atomic Brain," "Trees," "Face"). At their weirdest, they near Four Tet territory, crafting intricate blankets of warm, comforting instrumental melodicism, with multi-instrumentalist Stephen (the third member of the triad is electric guitarist Max; no last names here, apparently) singing near-unintelligibly through a vocoder (see "Neon Swings," "Furry Smiles," "Friends").
Oddly enough, those bits of the disc remind me of nobody more than ex-Houstonian Jody Hughes, who put out a completely obscure album of vocoder pop several years back before vanishing completely to parts unknown. Given these guys' relatively youthful demeanor and the fact that Hughes is barely a memory these days, I'm guessing they'd have no clue who he is/was, but it's still an intriguing resemblance.
The utter high point of the album is "Good Heart," with its bitter-yet-restrained lyrics (which are addressed to a former lover/girlfriend but really seemed aimed, Stuart Smalley-like, right back at the singer as a kind of affirmation), head-nodding beat, thick, escalating bassline, watery keys, and -- best of all -- left-field, hymn-like "Stars in the sky" refrain.
It's like nothing I've ever heard before, and even after repeated listens, I find myself skipping backwards through the album, trying in vain to figure out how they pieced and assembled all this together and made it work. Because it definitely freaking does, somehow.
[Ghost Mountain is playing 7/11/09 at Mango's, along with Buxton & The Wild Moccasins.]
It's not my favorite album, but it's good. That's what I would say if I had to sum up in one sentence what I thought of Handsome Furs' newest release, Face Control. This indie-rock band from Montreal, Canada is comprised of husband/wife duo Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade and Atlas Strategic) and his wife Alexei Perry. I personally am a huge fan of any husband and wife band, like Mates of State, Matt and Kim, etc. Something about it just appeals to me, so Handsome Furs are already ranked high in my book based on that factor alone.
Face Control is the band's second Sub Pop-released album, following up 2007's Plague Park. If the Arcade Fire decided to throw some heavy drum machine beats into their next album, it may slightly resemble Face Control, although it would probably be slightly catchier. Face Control opens with a few songs that, again, are good but that don't really do too much to stand out in my mind. I've listened to the album several times, and those first few songs just don't reach me.
Don't give up too easily, though, because I promise the wait is worth it. From the first time I listened to the album, track five popped out at me. I even think I turned it up and replayed it before I went ahead and listened to the rest of the album. It's called "All We Want, Baby, Is Everything," and it's probably my favorite on the album. The very beginning of the song makes you feel like you are in some club in downtown on a Saturday night. It's great. Turn it up loud and prepare to listen to it over and over.
The next track, "I'm Confused," is another great one that makes the album worth it. It's catchy, clever, and will most likely get stuck in your head. The album closes like it began, with a few more songs that are good but that just don't do it for me. I do think the album goes out better than it starts, though. "Radio Kaliningrad," the closing track, is very catchy and will leave a good taste in your mouth. The only problem I foresee is whether you will even make it through to the very end of the album. I recommend that you do.
I love the combination of synth and drum machine the band uses. I think they're a very talented band with a lot of potential. I would go see them live in a heartbeat, because I feel that their live performance would change how I feel about the album. I bet it would make some of the songs come to life more for me and cause me to listen to the album differently. Emotion and energy are definitely not lacking on this album. For me, Face Control is one of those albums that I'll put in every once in a while, listen through, and then put away. I think that there are a few gems on this album, and that they certainly are worth all the other mediocre songs thrown in there.
One other complaint I may throw out there is that personally I feel like the songs all sound too similar. When I listen to the album all the way through, I get a little tired of it by the end and just want so desperately to throw in something different to listen to. Some people may enjoy that about Handsome Furs, but I kind of have song ADD, so that probably plays a factor.
I love the band's style and the type of music they play; I'm hoping that their next release will do more for me and be one of those records whose songs get stuck in my head all day and that I can't get enough of. I feel like Handsome Furs have the potential to make that album for me. I guess I'll just have to wait and see.
A Touch of Evil: Live
Judas Priest's new live CD, A Touch of Evil:Live, is a nice little payoff for diehard fans. The 11 tracks that make up the release are all songs that have not been previously recorded live, and this is saying something considering that the band has something like 30 live albums in their career. Okay, not really -- they only have five, but three of those have come out in the last decade.
All kidding aside, the content is a little uneven. The listing has two songs from 2008's Nostradamus, an ambitious yet uneven release, and one could argue that the two selected, "Death" and "Prophecy," where the wrong ones. Those mistakes are quickly offset, though, by renditions of "Beyond the Realms of Death" and "Eat Me Alive."
One of the supposed highlights is "Painkiller" -- the original is a massive Teutonic slab of metal greatness that showed the band incorporating the heavier styles of bands from the early '90s that were influenced by them. Singer Ron Halford's voice sounds horrible on this version, however. His attempts of recreating the gravelly vocal style sound woefully inadequate, and if anyone else would have done this, they would be getting mocked.
In the same song and throughout the rest of the album, though, his voice still sounds amazing when he sings. A lesson to all the kids out there: if you take care of your voice, your voice will take care of you. Also noteworthy is the drumming of Scott Travis. It was his debut on the Painkiller album that helped to boost the band's sound and bombast, so it's refreshing to see him still having the same effect 15 years later.
While A Touch of Evil: Live is a nice attempt at filling in holes for diehard fans, the set is so specific that it comes off like a cash grab rather than as a sincere release.
My Education is an instrumental rock band from Austin. On their fourth album, Bad Vibrations, they seamlessly blend pastoral-sounding violin in with epic rock anthems. Their songs blend pastoral Dirty Three ideas with a more lyrical Mono into a sound of their own. They have a great head for melodies, which range from epic rock numbers to more subdued ballads, and they pull everything off well.
The best song here, "Briches Blanket," is a slower, pastoral number featuring a beautiful slide guitar part and a beautfiul counter melody from the violin, building up into a massive anthemic bridge and then settling down into something sleepier again. "This Old House" is a louder rock number that opens with a wash of ambient sound, supporting a picked melody that's sort of a less-minimal Mono, and builds into a quietly beautiful chorus section. They use violin as a harmony as much as a melody instrument, almost like a high vocal harmony or something, and it's a beautiful effect, and expecially on the slower numbers.
The only unnecessary addition to the album are some keyboard overdubs that at best aren't necessary, and at worst are clunky. On "Sluts and Maniacs," the prominent keyboard chords are just dense chords pounded out that don't really work with what the rest of the band is doing. On "Briches Blanket," the keyboard overdubs are sparser, and work better, but even they don't add enough to the song.
My Education has been through some lineup changes, starting originally as a trio, but the additional guitar and violin work effectively to create an epic quality to the band that would have been difficult in their former incarnation. It clearly worked out in the band's favor because their songs might not have worked quite as well as a power trio. And they have a lot of powerful songs that use the full lineup -- not an instrument is unnecessary. Bad Vibrations is strongly recommended.
Oh No Forest Fires
The War On Geometry
Have you ever had someone tell you they saw a great live band, and you're like, "what the hell does that even mean?" Well, I've been watching YouTube videos of Oh No Forest Fires after receiving their The War On Geometry EP, and I think I've found the definitive answer on that.
Yet another band with "Oh No" in their name, yeah, but that's for another debate. Oh No Forest Fires hail from Toronto, and this four-piece has been called prog-pop and indie-math. What I hate about that comparison, though, is that whenever people start talking "progressive" this or "math-rock" that, I immediately think that the music is more pretentious and less accessible to someone who just wants to sit back and hear a good song, and that's not what Oh No Forest Fires is about at all.
These guys ooze cool and keep it indie, and on their latest EP, the music explodes. Rajiv Thavanathan has a Simon & Garfunkel timbre to his voice that completely captivates you, while the guitars wake you and the drums invigorate you. If I have one beef with them, it's that their song titles take longer to say than the length of the actual songs -- and who in their right mind names their EP after an Xbox video game? But hey, some people may find that charming.
Other than that, though, The War On Geometry has got a bit of it all. It's got pop, it's got weirdness, it's got indie, and it's got a touch of prog. First track "It's Not Fun And Games Unless Someone Loses An Eye" has an awesome breakdown two-thirds into the song, replete with accordions, cellos, and four-part harmonies, while "You Know What That Is...Trouble" bounces with as much energy as these guys unleash onstage. Oh No Forest Fires makes me feel, thankfully, that Canada maybe has a little more to offer than Martin Short and William Shatner.
Reel Big Fish
Fame, Fortune and Fornication
Reel Big Fish's Fame, Fortune and Fornication is no Born to Run or Pet Sounds, it's true, but so what? There's nothing wrong with having a little fun, and I enjoy a good ska cover song as much as anybody, so I was kind of looking forward to an album full of what I was guessing (going by the cover, anyway) was '80s cheese-metal done ska-punk-style.
I was a little bit off, in the end, but that's probably a good thing. The cheesy hair-metal tracks on Fame, Fortune and Fornication -- Poison's "Nothin' But a Good Time" and "Talk Dirty To Me" and Ratt's "Mama We're All Crazy Now" -- work the least well, honestly, even though the bright, cheery ska horns smear together with the simplistic, primary-color party-hard songs. It's almost too easy, really, too mindless; I'm thinking that's why it doesn't elicit more than a shrug.
Things get better, though. It turns out that both John (Cougar) Mellencamp's "Authority Song" and Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" work amazingly well here, coming off nearly like they're the band's own compositions -- hell, I never would've guessed that "Brown Eyed Girl," in particular, would sound so damn natural with low-key guitars and a gentle ska rhythm, but hell, there it is. Of course, there're lightyears of difference, songwriting-wise, between "Mama We're All Crazy Now" and Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down," and it shows.
The surprise track of the album is The Eagles' "The Long Run," which in the hands of the Reel Big Fish guys is stripped of its California folk-rock clothing but not the sunshine-y feel, dropped down in the sun-soaked Caribbean like a long-lost Jimmy Cliff song. I'd apparently blocked the original from my memory, only going, "oh, yeah..." about halfway through. The song comes off more like a real-live Jamaican ska classic than the actual Toots and the Maytals and Desmond Dekker covers (which aren't bad in themselves, mind you), and that's no mean feat.
The best part of all of Fornication is that the band doesn't treat it all as a big joke -- no, not even the hair-metal tunes. Rather, they handle the songs with near-reverently and making it obvious that, despite the goofy faux-metal cover art, these are songs the members of Reel Big Fish really and truly love and adore. Which beats the heck out of somebody just screwing around and taking the piss, in my book.
[Reel Big Fish is playing 7/27/09 at Warehouse Live, along with The English Beat & The Supervillains.]
I think I've cracked it. It took me a while to get my head around it, but I think the best way to look at RX Bandits isn't as a reggae+X band -- like I'd always instinctively wanted to see them 'til now -- but as a damn talented prog-rock band that just happens to pull in reggae, dub, punk, metal, and (yes, definitely) salsa/Latin-tinged rock so it can put together the kind of fiery, many-faceted songs the Bandits want to craft.
I do mean "craft," by the way; while there's definitely an organic feel to a lot of the tracks on Mandala, the care and meticulous plotting that went into the music is absolutely evident. Maybe that's why this works better for me than a lot of hybrids -- while the vast majority of bands like this stick Genre A to Genre F willy-nilly, with a superfluous blast of distortion used as glue to (hopefully) make it adhere, RX Bandits' mashups flow, to the point where I catch myself thinking, "oh, yeah -- it makes total sense that the guitars get all wild and noodly right there, right after that drifting, gauzy melody starts to dissolve..."
The comparison that holds in my brain, more than anything else, is to The Police. I don't mean that these guys are rewriting Outlandos d'Amour or anything here, but rather that they succeed in a similar way with what that band did, melding reggae to funk to rock to whatever else and making it all work as one seamless whole.
All this isn't to say RX Bandits can do no wrong, of course. "Hearts That Hanker For Mistake," for one, with its "Under the Bridge" melody shuttling along over roaring guitars, makes me shrug and feels overlong at only 4:30. And while I'm initially intrigued by the funky, murky salsa-psych of "Mientras La Veo Soñar," I find myself checking my watch and wondering when the next track'll come on.
When it clicks, though, it really clicks. "It's Only Another Parsec" throws the prog influences into sharp relief, with sharp-edged guitars carving complex shapes into the soft wood of the song's rhythm, then shifting and shimmering into spacey trippiness; the track makes me think oddly of late-'90s math-indie-rock stuff like Edsel or No Knife, and it comes as a nice surprise without disrupting the rhythm of the album as a whole. "Hope Is A Butterfly, No Net Its Captor (Virus of Silence)," too, forages further afield and ends up drifting and gorgeously, warmly psychedelic, like Dorothy wandering through the beautiful field of soporific poppies and trying half-heartedly not to fall under their influence.
"March of the Caterpillar" is subtle and muted, with a windswept, desolate feel but lyrics that aim to uplift, and opener "My Lonesome Only Friend" starts off similarly low-key but revs up to stomping, semi-metallic rock with fiery, Santana-esque guitars. The metallic guitar lines reappear at random throughout the disc, particularly on "Breakfast Cat," but there they veer back towards the prog-rock thing once again.
While guitarist/vocalist Matt Embree does well throughout, he hits a real high note with "White Lies," where he swears not to fall back into the same old traps and status-quo fibs we all tell ourselves. His voice cracks and boils over with outrage and bitterness, like he knows how much damage a little looking-away can do if everybody does it. He gets near it again (albeit in more of a controlled fashion) on album-ender "Bring Our Children Home Or Everything Is Nothing," where his voice takes hold of pretty much the only singalong chorus on the album and drags it skyward, soaring up to the heavens over the defiant, blazing almost Hendrix-like rock going on below. As befits the album's title, Mandala as a whole sounds like a musical meditation of sorts, a critical, introspective look at the world and the chaotic, often-downward spin we who live on this big globe seem to find ourselves.
[RX Bandits playing 7/17/09 at The Meridian, along with Zechs Marquise & Dredg.]
So Many Dynamos
The Loud Wars
The Loud Wars is one of those albums that makes me want to go dig out an album I used to play 'til it felt like the CD player laser would burn out; in this case, the album they make me want to go grab is The Dismemberment Plan's 2001 classic, Change. It's a disc I'd be willing to bet the guys in So Many Dynamos know intimately, and I can't help but think of D-Plan when I hear the Dynamos' take on smart, half-broken/twisted, synth-tinged pop.
Not that that's all there is, mind you -- the guitars wriggle and intertwine like snakes, the edges of the songs are sharp and cagey like the best Jawbox tracks, the synths and "flat" sung/shouted vocals call back to fellow Midwesterners The Anniversary (and Braid, at times), and the rhythms bump and grind along seductively, bringing to mind The Rapture's near-funk. Crushed together into a whole, it's an alluring combination of sounds, witty and brooding and funky all at once. A few tracks fall somewhat flat -- "Friendarmy" and "It's Gonna Rain," for two -- but for the most part, So Many Dynamos wield their sound effectively, marrying intricate, self-referencing lyricism with the best post-rock I've heard since, say, Bloc Party, to which they also happen to bear a weird resemblance.
"Glaciers" is shifting and anthemic, with a nicely sweet uplift to it, and "The Novelty of Haunting" is a well-crafted look at what happens when you suddenly, um, die, somewhat like Armor For Sleep's What to Do When You Are Dead, except that the Dynamos skip the tortured emo posturing and opt instead for confusion, dismay, and then exploring the benefits of undeath, all to the sound of turbulent, spastic guitars. "New Bones" makes me think of the D-Plan (again) taking on The Rapture in some kind of head-to-head music war, all synths, chiming guitars, and Faint-esque atmosphere. I find myself seriously digging the sound of vocalist/keyboardist Aaron Stovall's keys on "Oh, The Devastation!", too -- it's awesomely thick and ragged-sounding, a perfect fit with the thundering drums and No Knife sci-fi guitars.
The unifying thread throughout, though, has to be the paranoiac feel that kicks off with the clanging guitar lines and busy drums/synths of "Artifacts of Sound." When Stovall pleads on that track, "The record doesn't lie/ So what friend could the record be? / What secrets could the record keep?", it sounds like he's desperate for answers of some kind, for somebody real to confide in. That nervous, self-effacing fear persists across The Loud Wars, rearing its head again in "The Novelty of Haunting," where Stovall admits that he wants to see his friends but doesn't want to be a "creep," a spooky, unwanted shadow hanging around the room. On "No Bones," Stovall flatly declares that he and the subject of the song could agree if only that person could stop believing in him; I'm sensing a weird pattern of self-loathing and mistrust.
That pattern's unfortunate for the Dynamos guys, but it's my (and your) gain, because it lends an intriguing weight to what could've easily been nothing more than a D-Plan retread. The nervous, twitchy energy makes me think of my own hometown heroes Bring Back The Guns (especially on "Keep It Simple") -- which seems apt, since the bands shared a split-7" a while back, with "It's Gonna Rain" as the So Many Dynamos track -- and it's what makes The Loud Wars work, propelling the whole thing along.
[So Many Dynamos is playing 7/22/09 at Mango's with Baby Showers & Cast Spells.]
I hear people lament about the lack of talent in Houston all the time, and I always have to look at them like, "what are you talking about?" Houston is teeming with great talent; just stop watching NCIS for a night and get out to see a show. I was listening to local singer/songwriter Hans Stockenberger recently and couldn't help but think that artists like him, and the countless other awesome bands out of Houston, debunk that myth.
Hans has performed locally and internationally, from Saudi Arabia to Italy to Boston to Houston. He's a multi-instrumentalist, with his primary instrument of choice being his voice. On Shine, his latest full-length release, Hans explores the singer/songwriter genre with ten songs' worth of rousing ballads and a few uptempo tunes that showcase his powerful and dynamic vocals. With a touch of early John Mayer, Shine incorporates touches of country, rock, and even R&B. Ultimately, Shine is about Hans and his guitar and the stories he belts with each rousing chorus.
Tiny Masters of Today
When I was in middle school, my musical abilities could be summed up by a few stagnant years of piano lessons and proud ownership of first chair in the band's trumpet section. When the Tiny Masters of Today were in middle school, on the other hand, David Bowie was calling their music "genius."
Brooklyn-based siblings Ada and Ivan -- now 13 and 15, respectively -- are truly something unique. With the help of Garageband, they write, play, record, and produce their own songs. Their latest release, Skeletons, is proof that not only do they understand their own musical strengths and limitations, but that they are capable of calculated restraint that's not often exercised by far more experienced musicians.
If you had to sum up Skeletons in a singular thought, it should be that these kids really know how to have fun with their songs. "Drop the Bomb" is an explosive album opener, marked by phrases of crunchy, rhythmic snippets alternating with smooth, almost calming guitar lines. "Drop the Bomb" sets the tone for the rest of the album's sound: equal parts gritty industrial and sugary pop. But "Two Dead Soldiers" is when TMoT really kicks it into gear, with charming wordplay and a repeated call-and-response that'll stay in your head for days: "Can you hear me, Brooklyn?" / "Yahhhhhh!" / "Can you hear me, Brixton"? / "Yahhhhh!" "Real Good" is another infectious track, lumping together serious sing-along-ability with some of the most squawking guitar you've ever heard.
Towards album's end, the energy dwindles a notch or two; "Big Bass Drum" seems like part two of "Big Stick," and "Understandable Honesty" and "Abercrombie Zombie" fall into lackluster sloppiness. Regardless, Skeletons is an impressive feat, expanding on an already-developed signature sound and showing off an innate sensibility for hooks and melodies. Not bad for a couple of full-time students who still have to spend their Autumn and Spring days in public school classrooms.
You Wish I Was Channeling Your Spirit
You ever fall hard for somebody who you know is really, truly not your type, but there's something weirdly attractive about them, some quirky thing that makes you look past what your brain's telling you and convince yourself they're The One for you? And then, after a year or three's gone by, you run into 'em again and cannot fathom what in the hell you were thinking that first time around?
Treasure Mammal's You Wish I Was Channeling Your Spirit is like that for me, I'm afraid. 2004's Secret Treasures managed to worm its way inside my skull, knocking down my defenses with its over-the-top exuberance and total disregard for the rules of pop, rock, or whatever the hell this stuff actually is. With that in mind, I was actually looking forward to Spirit.
'Til I put it in the CD player, anyway. At that point, my interest quickly morphed into what-the-hell-was-I-thinking horror. The noisier, chipped-and-scratched edges of Secret Treasures have been mostly sanded away this time out, leaving behind twelve or so tracks of primarily unbelievably cheesy, goofy electro-pop that makes no sense about half the time (the good half) and is insipid for the rest. Some points on here are entertaining, I'll admit it, like the screechy "Pterodactyl Girlfriend," the raw/bluesy "Peer Pressure," and Western-sounding "Rio Grande," in particular.
They're undermined almost immediately, though, by sappy faux(?)-feel-good songs like "Best Friends Forever" and "Dale Earnhardt Jr.," which meld Treasure Mammal frontman Abe Gil's apparently real-life motivational speaking with synth-pop. With regard for the latter, I'm going to go out on a limb and declare that any song with a line about getting "a full tank of confidence" deserves to be destroyed.
The comparison I just can't freaking get out of my head is to the campy, utterly ridiculous videos and songs of Liam Sullivan (think "Shoes" and "Text Message Breakup"). Imagine that guy from DFA wearing the goofy Kelly wig and singing, and you're pretty much right there with me (except that I'm fairly sure Gil's totally serious about most of this). And y'know, that's not a comparison you really want to aim for.
Patrick Wolf is back, with his quirky music and colorful image (he's currently a bleached blonde), and his new album is sure to impress his loyal fans. The Bachelor is filled with Patrick Wolf's characteristic violas and voice with vibrato. What new aspects he brings: a variety of back up singers, including children and even gospel-style women, and a more mature sound that pushes beyond just electronics. He utilizes many uncommon instruments, like a ukulele and a harmonium, giving this album a sense of hard work behind it and an international feel, as it crosses many borders to accomplish such a rich sound. It seems as if Wolf wanted to perfect The Bachelor using the most minute details in order to truly make it a masterpiece. It's amazing how much this man can do without the typical electrical guitar of most rock stars.
The Bachelor repeats the upbeat quality of his last album, The Magic Position (my personal favorite), but also possesses the seriousness of Lycanthropy and the long sustained notes of Wind in the Wires. There are memorable melodies, uplifting bells, and danceable tracks; this Brit comes with a bang. He pays homage to his country by titling his song "Hard Times" after the Charles Dickens novel about the struggle of his people under the belief in Utilitarianism during Victorian England.
The CD starts with an instrumental introduction, making the first song a short one meant to lead the listener into the rest of the album. Most of the songs contain a violin and piano part, in keeping with Wolf's familiar motif of using various instruments behind his vocals. "Vulture" has a 1980s feel with a low synthesizer part layered by a higher one. "Blackdown" is a purely piano-driven song, soft and sweet. "Thickets" has an Irish sound, due to the piccolo used as the primary instrument. The title piece, "The Bachelor," is a duet with an urgent feel, about the fear of getting married. The mood of the album is overall somewhat sad, yearning, and even desperate at times, but the songs chosen as singles so far are the more joyous-sounding ones (even if the lyrics give way to a deeper struggle).
The videos for "Vulture," his first single, and "Hard Times," his second, are posted on YouTube for your viewing pleasure. The first one is a bit reminiscent of Madonna's mid-career scandalous black-and-white videos, and the second goes the opposite route, featuring him fully dressed and dancing with a slew of women in the background, all glowing in the dark. He is still young and hip, flaunting his boyish charm and singing his heart out for those who will listen.
Back and Fourth
On Back and Fourth, soft-voiced singer/songwriter Pete Yorn comes off almost like a musical chameleon, to the point where I'm at first not entirely sure what to make of the guy. He starts off with gently determined, heavily folk-influenced country on "Don't Wanna Cry," which sounds like an Uncle Tupelo song as played by the Elephant 6 crew (complete with trombones), but immediately switches gear with "Paradise Cove," diving headfirst into alluring, California-sounding pop that teeters on the precipice of Adult Alternative-ness. The former is mournful but defiant, the sound of a man on the verge of a breakdown who's refusing to let his emotions get the better of him, while the latter is bitter and sexy at once, a tale of two lovers who can't resist their urges, even though, as Yorn bluntly worries at the end, "that could be bad for us both."
He rolls the dice a third time after that, following up with "Close," the sweeping, pleading grandeur of which sounds either like Coldplay or the subtler moments of Coldplay forerunners U2, including an occasional odd accent and darned decent falsetto bit. Yorn neatly sidesteps pitfalls of overblown arena-rock, mind you, mostly by virtue of the track's nicely samba-ish rhythm. And then, on to "Social Development Dance," with its shimmering, chiming guitars and gorgeously low-key vocals; the track comes off like a less-high-pitched Sun Kil Moon outtake and makes some awkward lyrics, a remembrance of someone half-known but loved, somehow endearing in their strangeness: "I Googled you in quotes / got no results / I never learned how you had died / but I knew that you had lived."
On it goes, after that, through the sweet, tick-tock guitars and plinky, toy-like keys of "Shotgun," the jangly, appropriately sunny-sounding "Last Summer," and the less-jaunty riff on "There Goes My Baby" in "Country," all the way to piano-heavy closer "Long Time Nothing New," which is a frustrated cry for change, for needing to escape from the always-been and over-familiar. That last track feels as honest as anything I've heard lately, Yorn emptying out his burdens onto tape for all to see and feel kinship with. And as Back and Fourth unreels, I find myself pulling closer and closer in, basking in the warm, nicely layered, Saddle Creek-esque glow (Mike Mogis produced the thing, so Yorn comes by the feel honestly) and wrapping my head around the quirkily heartfelt lyrics.
By the end, I don't care much that Yorn doesn't stick to a genre or formula, beyond the straightforward, boy-next-door voice that ties all of the songs together in a single package. As long as it all works on its own -- and for the most part, it does -- why fret about labels? While I'm not blown away just yet, I get the feeling I very well could be, with just a few more listens.
[Pete Yorn is playing 7/14/09 at The Meridian, along with Zee Avi.]