Who's the Creampuff Now?
Alright, so I'm pretty favorably disposed, these days, to any band that can do the D.I.Y. thing, no fancy-shmancy computers and whatnot involved, and pull it off. Oddly, I've found myself yearning for the days of hand-cut 7" sleeves, painstakingly glued together and assembled like poor bastards like myself used to have to do back in the day; I'll grant that the advent of cheap CD-Rs and laser printers has been a godsend for a lot of musicians, but there's still something intensely personal about a handmade release, y'know?
Of course, these days "D.I.Y." also seems to equate to "sounds like ass." Sorry, but my indie-nostalgia only extends as far as the packaging. For me, the days when you could record your album using a tin can for a mic and get away with it are long-dead -- or should be, at any rate, pushed off a cliff into the sea or dumped in a shallow grave. Take this EP, Who's the Creampuff Now?, the first ever release from badass instro-rockers Blades. The sleeve's hand-made, complete with scribbly pen on a freaky bit of cover collage-art, and the back cover's pretty much hand-written track names and a teeny little bit of info. Actually, it even pushes my limits for what you should do for a release (after a certain point, it's just laziness, folks), but given the cover art and the way it sounds, man, I can forgive it.
There's certainly nothing sloppy about the music here. Blades play math-rock-y, churn-and-sway indie-rock that recalls June of 44, Slint, Rodan, and the rest of that whole Kentucky/Chicago axis of bands, and they do it like nobody's business. The whole thing's tight as a drum, muscular and intricate, with freakin' incredible drumming from Kyle (no last names needed, apparently), who, along with bassist David, pretty much propels the songs along from track to track.
Top of the heap is second track "Fury Christmas," which nearly comes off like two or three separate songs mashed together, except that the music's so driving you don't even mind when you check the CD and see that yep, you're still on track 2. Chris and John's guitars are sharp-edged and precisely dissonant without being grating, reminiscent of underappreciated mathcore heroes aMINIATURE, and the rhythms flow beneath like a river flush with rain, shifting and surging in unexpected directions.
There's noise in there, too, but it adds nicely to the whole. In fact, for me that's the appeal of bands like these -- Blades is one of those groups that can combine seemingly discordant musical elements, whether you're talking off-time rhythms, keening, screeching guitars, or bursts of flat-out noise, and meld them into something that's (believe it or not) quite beautiful in its own right. A good example on Creampuff is "Flares 'n Stacks," which starts out delicate and meditative, just two guitars dancing hypnotically around one another, but rises steadily to more majestic, ambitious-sounding heights. At points it makes me think of a more down-to-earth, slightly less "metal" Pelican, and that's no bad thing.
The Pelican resemblance stretches further on "You've Reached a Lion, So Leave a Message," which sounds in a few spots like dextrous heavy metal dudes Mastodon in its noodliness; heck, it's practically prog-rock. Squint hard enough, and some of the bridges could be straight off of Rush's 2112. And no, I'm not trying to slam the band by saying that -- I've got no problem with a little prog influence, so long as the band doesn't let it get in the way of coming up with actual interesting songs, and Blades certainly has no problem there. (The fact that there are no dorky lyrics here about priests of Syrinx helps, naturally.)
There are a few fumbles along the way, but that's to be expected. First track "Goons, Hired Goons" swipes one of my all-time favorite Simpsons lines ever but leaves me somewhat cold, in the end hitting like a length lead-in to "Fury Christmas" instead of a standalone composition. And then at the end of "You've Reached a Lion, So Leave a Message," the music reaches its conclusion and fades out but then drifts for another six minutes on subtle layers of static and oceanic samples before swinging back in for a bit of pseudo-surf rock/spy music. The first bit's relaxing in a white-noise machine kind of way, especially on second or third listens, but the tacked-on bit of surf-rock's really not worth the time -- I'd almost rather they just kept on with the splashing water and birds and then faded to nothing.
But eh, these are small quibbles, considering that I've already spun this little disc five times in a row. Even the "bad" spots are hardly that, and the good spots more than make up for 'em. I'm already wishing for more from those Blades guys.
[Blades is playing 7/7/07 at The Backroom (The Mink), with Maserati, By the End of Tonight, & Sharks and Sailors.]
His Mighty Hurricane Machine
Bobcrane represents the foray of Ryan H, better known as the mastermind behind the epic drone-rock unit Vopat, into the world of electronic music. The basic element of Bobcrane's sound is what would be labeled as '90s industrial (think Treponem Pal or Rammstein) but with a less aggressive demeanor. Mixed in with this are liberal portions of drum & bass, ambient, and all other manner of electronic music. The end result is a pack of unusual and menacing compositions of mechanized sound. His Mighty Hurricane Machine is definitely not your typical electronic or industrial album, and definitely not for the typical electronic or industrial fan. Bobcrane is breathing new life into a genre that's been stagnant and worthless for almost as long as it's been around.
Bring Back The Guns
It only takes about the first five seconds of the first track of their it's-been-fuckin-long-enough-y'all debut CD, "No More Good Songs," for Houston indie-rockers Bring Back The Guns to demonstrate why they regularly top local critics' lists of Local Bands That Really Deserve Some Damn Respect (and Cash, Please, Lots of It). Over a pounding, stomping beat and crunching guitars, singer/guitarist Matt Brownlie yells and howls, ducking in and out of noisily melodic lines and crazed polka-sounding drums, sounding like that crazy guy on the corner who catches you unawares late at night when you're out walking all by yourself. He comes off as being mad as a hatter (at least lyrically), frantic and insistent and scary, but his words and delivery are still somehow fascinating nonetheless.
And honestly, that's pretty much always how Bring Back The Guns' music has struck me. They're weird and clever, almost too smart for their own good, and they play music that simultaneously gives a big middle finger to pop convention and manages to be addictively catchy. The closest comparison I've been able to come up with -- and yeah, I know this is dangerous -- is to the Pixies. Not since Black Francis & co. infused rock with freaked-out college-graduate smarts have I heard a band that comes as close as BBTG, and I mean that in the best possible way. Just when I think I know where a song's going, it abruptly switches gears and does something totally different.
To the band's credit, it's easy to screw something like that up. Take a song like "The Art Of Malnutrition," for one; it starts off quiet and cartoony before clicking into a bent Modest Mouse-esque groove, then veers into more dramatic, nearly math-rock territory and a grand, urgent-sounding chorus. There are so many damn places it could fall flat on its face. But in spite of itself, it all flies, exactly like it was supposed to, like it's the most natural thing in the world. The various bits and pieces don't feel like they've been grafted together but instead just flow easily into one another.
Actually, I kind of lied above, now that I'm thinking about it. Beyond the Pixies, the four guys in Bring Back The Guns also strongly remind me of countrified psych-rockers the Grifters; songs like "Let's Not" or "Take It Like A" have that same loose-limbed, swaying majesty, those wonderfully murky guitars, not to mention a similar sense of not giving a shit about what other folks think. Of course, there's also the fact that, like the Grifters, I generally don't have a clue what Brownlie's singing/screaming about -- is "The Art Of Malnutrition" an acid critique of political talking heads? Um. Maybe? And what about that "I work my Christian body / for the ravens and the snakes" bit, in "The Season For Treason"? No freakin' idea. I like the words anyways, so why mess with it?
I should note that even for somebody who's followed this band for a while now (not as closely lately as I'd like, it's true, but hell, I think they've been playing some of these songs for something like three years now), Dry Futures still holds a number of happy surprises. There's the churning, heavy, sinister instrumental "Face Smear Pt. 1 (All Right Now)," which sounds like a Queens of the Stone Age song being covered by Polvo, the hypnotically dangerous "The Family Name," and the slow-simmering fury of "Radio Song '04," all of which I'm pretty sure I've never heard before.
After all that, there's also finisher "In Piles/On File," which is probably the most straightforward "song" on here, an almost New Wave-sounding blast of brilliance that shows these guys can play it straight/simple but mostly choose not to. (Hell, there are a few Specials-sounding moments in there, especially with the guitars...) Oddly, though, the normalcy of this one track makes the rest of Dry Futures gleam even brighter, highlighting the unique, strange-but-catchy nature of the whole thing.
[Bring Back The Guns is playing 8/10/07 at The Proletariat, with The Show Is The Rainbow, The Dimes, & Always Already.]
The Death of a Party
The Rise and Fall of Scarlet City
It's amazing what a shift in the musical climate can do to your supposed musical singularity: e.g., fuck you over completely. Death of a Party could once have been as easily lauded as condemned for the very thing that now knees their necks to the ground, which is a remarkable similarity to their musical predecessors, all those frantic, frenetic, punk rock bands spiked with dance beats and dynamics. I've come down on both sides of the fence, so far as this predicament goes -- make it new or make it up to me somehow, you sick fuck -- and, as I feel more inclined to say today, just make it, well.
Do a good job, you. If you can't do it, be more like someone who can. If we can't be innovative, we can be excessive; and just possibly, we can exceed. That is, there's something to be said for capable imitation, particularly as filtered through individual perception. Which is just a fancy way of saying that if Death of a Party can write Gang of Four songs as Death of a Party, then that's actually a pretty neat trick (think Pierre Monard not translating but "recreating" Don Quixote). Immersion isn't such a bad thing if you're immersing yourself in the right stuff, right?
But then the quality of said immersion ends up being what we measure success of said band by. If we're going to fuck with originality, then we need to privilege excess. So, does Death of a Party sounds like Gang of Four? Kind of. Could they sound more like them? Absolutely! Should they try to? You fucking know it, dude. See, the thing is, Death of a Party isn't a bad band but they can't possibly be a great band; perhaps they should, then, instead, merely behave like a great band (hello, hotel room!) and, along the way, do their best to sound like said pre-existing great band (or bands). We're not talking brand confusion -- this is more like musical non-progression as a sort of comfort food. It's the same reason Bloc Party's first record was so easy on the ears; this was rock 'n roll that we knew was rock 'n roll and that was more than enough. So why not tear a page from the same book?
Of course, you're welcome to be indignant about this and anything else but the fact remains that Death of a Party's best will be interesting, perhaps, but important? Never. They simply don't have the talent. They barely have the sound and here, by the way, this reviewer if forced to seriously stretch to find words for "angular" and for "sharp" that have not been previously used (read: "exhausted") by presumably similarly exhausted critics. Let's see... Moderate rock that sounds like someone cutting off their fingertips in a dimly lit kitchen. Occasionally as piercing as a chopstick through the drum of an ear. But, I mean, with a beat you can shift your eyes to. There is the occasional, lambent lurch -- like there's a great party going on and you can hear it, too, but you're in the next room drinking cough syrup. But this (as a whole) never gets particularly New Wave-y; it never gets sticky. It stays fast and loose, and if that's enough for you, buy the damn thing. Just be warned that though the style is impeccable, there's not much oomph behind it. The production's more tinny -- more tin-snip-y, even -- than I'd like. Too much damn treble. Not near enough oceanic fullness to back it up.
When you're this hard on a band (and again, not a bad band! a fun band! probably great in basements, great with girls), it does seem like one should let the band speak for itself, at least for a bit. And so, buried beneath the disco-from-hell racket are actual lyrics. Actual content! Which you may want to avoid. Or to touch with gloved hands, at the very least. Before rubbing your eyes, etc. "With great regret I did entrust / this song to you / of drowning in your arms / into the deepest blue" isn't bad so much as it is lugubrious. There's got to be a less wordy and less adolescent way to say this. There's something about the super-verboseness that's been dripping into radio these days like poison from a fucking funnel.
And you can blame Panic! At the Disco and you can blame The Academy Is..., et al, but spare a little blame, too, for whoever isn't stopping this influx, for the non-succinct, the casual, and the only apparently clever. As the late Vonnegut pointed out, one has to be careful who one pretends to be. Or as Frank Herbert said, "long pretense creates reality." You can't act average. I mean, look: you can't imitate the incompetent (e.g., The Blood Brothers). You can only repeat the same mistakes. Lyrics like "In exhibit a, she states; 'you'll be the fox.' / in exhibit b, she says; she says, 'I'll be the hound and I'll find you in a faceless crowd / Yeah, you know I'll hunt you down'" seem familiar but sour, with that feeling like, "not this, not again."
Sound like whoever you want, but say something, man, anything. More of the same makes me want to die. The imitation of a style is the nascent version of the same; it doesn't take much to be nothing much. Here's to hoping Death of a Party try to be a little more ambitious in their future fawnery. As is, it's all a little of this, a little of that, and lined with razors. There are some sequins in there, too, and probably some shit-kicker shoes. Das ist weichgespült, as they say, close, I imagine, to what I'm saying (as a whole) but translated literally as: "treated with softening agents."
[The Death of a Party is playing 8/3/07 at Warehouse Live, with The Lovemakers, The Riff Tiffs, & DJ Cuba Gooding Jr.]
Anything But Ordinary
This pop-rock female songwriter, producer, and collaborator (wow, that's a mouthful) hails from New Jersey, and the first time I listened to Deb Ferrara's album, Anything But Ordinary, I was a bit skeptical. The name of the album threw me a bit off, so of course I raised my expectations. To my surprise, the music is as good as Southern food -- it fills you up and leaves you more than satisfied. I couldn't help but reach for the volume knob when "Loving You" came on. Most of the songs are about love, pain, and happiness; you know, all the stuff that we are most experienced in. It's a good thing all of the songs have a catchy beat. You'll catch yourself humming her music in the shower, promise.
Okay, so what does her music sound like? The closest thing would be a mixture of Faith Hill (without the accent) and an old school John Mellencamp. This indie artist is definitely worth a listen. Aside from this album, Deb has quite an impressive resume of artist she has collaborated with, so much so that my eyes widened as I was doing my research. Some amongst the many include BB King, Jessica Simpson, and Destiny's Child. Be sure to keep an ear out for Ferrara's music; it's booming on MTV's Made. For an indie artist, I'd say Deb Ferrara is a success and is becoming well-known. You go, girl!
The Gods of Kansas
The Gods of Kansas
Do you like your beer cold? Do you like your chicks hot? Do you like to pump your fist out the window of your bitchin' '79 Camaro when Judas Priest comes on the radio? If you answered "yes," to any of those questions, then The Gods of Kansas are for you.
It's a shame The Gods of Kansas don't have a time machine a la Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, so they could go back to the '80s and make it big. Despite how talented they are and how hard they rock, the basic fact is that The Gods of Kansas are 20 years too late; the kids these days are into being pussies, not into rocking out. A track like "Don't Touch the Radio" would've been an instant radio hit, and one like "Oh! The Magic" would've been a stadium rock mainstay back in the day. Despite the fact that The Gods of Kansas aren't going to be selling out stadiums, they can at least have the satisfaction of knowing it's their CD being played by the dudes who beat up emo kids at the mall. Rock on...
Symphony of Voices
Guff has a remarkable ability to turn gold (well, okay, aluminum) into lead. On their album Symphony of Voices, they take every possible opportunity to screw themselves over in the studio. Their melodies are inoffensive, but between the arrangements and the studio processing, they turn them into something much worse. It's not like this would be the Mona Lisa otherwise, but the production still doesn't help matters.
The most irritating aspect is the way the band uses effects. It's like they set themselves a goal of using every bad '70s and '80s studio effect they could possibly find. On "Symphony of Voices," they use an effect that's frighteningly close to the vocoder on Frampton Comes Alive. Worse still, on several of their bridges they suddenly make the vocals sound far away, and it's so over-the-top you it makes you want to laugh (until the third or fourth time they do it, when you want to cry).
The processing you might be able to blame on their producers, but the band has to be held responsible for their arrangements. The members of Guff are the masters of the strange bridge. During the rest of each song, they're able to restrain themselves, but for some reason they lose their minds during the bridges. On "Saving the World," the bridge goes from standard up-tempo rock to a half-tempo power ballad with this heavily tremolo-ed synth part, which has such a strange sound that you want to laugh. And they manage to screw up the choruses of most of the other songs here. It's amazing how 20 to 30 seconds of sheer crap can ruin an otherwise bland-but-not-awful song.
Guff undoubtedly doesn't care. They're playing on the Warped tour this summer, which will erase any lingering shreds of self-doubt about their albums. And anyway, Guff sounds like they're in it for money and girls rather than for art. So it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody that they use novelty so well to hide the fact that their songs are boring.
At times, Plague Park, the debut album by Handsome Furs, sounds almost untouched by human hands. That seems a strange thing to me, as I find a close affinity between this album and Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, which I consider to be one of the most nakedly "human" albums ever recorded. Aside from the issue of humanity, there are plenty of similarities between the two. Both records are sparse, ominous, and claustrophobic. Both deal heavily with the issues of place, history, personal identity, interpersonal identity, and the breakdown of all of these. The difference is that, where Springteen's guitar, harmonica, and soul-baring howls evoke the spirit of humanity at its most fragile and honest, Dan Boeckner's cold, disaffected vocal delivery, static-electricity synths and fractured guitars, along with Alexei Perry's metronomic drum machine beats, seem more like the last ditch effort of MIT scientists to create an artificial intelligence with human emotion. Think of the Handsome Furs as the house band in a Philip K. Dick novel.
"What We Had" starts the album off with a shiver. "It's cold flame and diamonds / Nobody here, just empty space." This song should be a lament, with its incredibly bleak depiction of a relationship that is far worse than over, even while it might still exist as some trimmings-and-trappings imitation of itself. Dan Boeckner's delivery, however, can't summon enough sentiment for much more than a declarative voice when he announces, "And what we had / Don't mean anything / And what we had / Is already gone." Instead of tugging on heartstrings, Boeckner seems to be pulling his own puppet strings, a 21st Century Pinocchio longing to be a real boy. All this floats just above the surface of repetitive, crashing guitars and weaving synths, punctuated by hollow percussive intrusions. The whole song sounds as if it was recorded in a vacuum, with no intrusion of light or sound, and no possibility for these sounds to escape their own confinement; a fitting sonic accompaniment to such resigned, claustrophobic lyrics.
The lead guitar that provides the melodic thrust on "Hearts of Iron" sounds like a robotic Neil Young, circa Ragged Glory, whose jammed servos have him stuck on repeat. Lyrically, Boeckner and Perry draw from the Finnish creation myth of Ilmatar, Goddess of the Air. Implying a deep mistrust of man, his origins, and his destiny, the dream-sequence song follows the life cycle of the world, from mythical accident to mechanical inevitability; iron-egg infancy to iron-heart obsolescence.
"Cannot Get Started" actually gets started quite nicely, featuring an almost groovy beat and nicely timed keyboard hits. As with most of these tracks, the music itself functions mostly as a sonic whitewash for Boeckner's voice. Turning things around a little, the last minute of the song allows the music to break free a little bit, bringing in a nice guitar figure that plays well off the basic drum pattern and keyboard filigree. Even Boeckner's vocals find a more assertive position, bringing in more depth of emotion and character than found elsewhere on the album.
"Dead and Rural," the album's dance track, features New Wave-inspired keyboards and an almost upbeat pop feel, an idiosyncrasy considering the title. Then again, that sort of juxtaposition makes sense on an album which, lyrically at least, plays opposing concepts against each other at every turn. Somehow, the whole thing comes together to sound like it would be more at home on a mid-'50s pop record, like something by Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers, than on a 21st century electro-pop workout.
Album capper "The Radio's Hot Sun" is probably the most sparse of all, mostly featuring acoustic guitar and tambourine as accompaniment to Boeckner's vocals. The album opens with a bit of a bang, and ends here with a definite whisper, winding down like a mechanical toy whose springs have expended all of their potential energy.
I needed a CD to both fall asleep and wake up to. I have a feeling Ilad's National Flags would give me nightmares, though, as dark and ambient as it attempts to be. I remember once I fell asleep to Wilco's A Ghost is Born, and it gave me some pretty terrifying dreams. I'm musically sensitive, I suppose.
Anyway, there's not much to mention about National Flags. It's hard to tell where one song ends and another one begins. Each one has the same sleepy, depressed vocals and lazy drums. "Babel" is the only song that sounds different, and that's because it's a bunch of noise and sounds, more upbeat than the rest of the album. Sometimes I forget that the album is even playing, it's so quiet. The vocals are mostly unintelligible, except for "D.O.I.," which was apparently written by Thomas Jefferson; but who needs vocals with this kind of music?
It's beautiful and well crafted enough, the album, but it just blends together into this monotonous, not-quite epic sound. Sometimes it sounds like it'll turn into an interesting CD, but then it doesn't. Think of Pink Floyd's dreamier, darker songs and remove a little bit of their intrigue and you have Ilad. I could almost say they're pinching Radiohead, but I don't think that was their intention. I think they just want to put us to sleep. Maybe I just don't get Ilad's point.
Iron and Wine
Boy With A Coin
One of Iron and Wine's strengths is the band's ability to grab hold of a humble, deceptively simple motif, idea, or sound and just repeat it 'til it's driven like a railroad spike through your skull. That's not as bad as it sounds, honest; on past Iron and Wine albums, songwriter/guitarist/etc. guy Sam Beam has been able to take a riff or a rhythm or a couple of lines and use them as a gorgeous, wonderful mantra of sorts. (See "Free Until They Cut Me Down," "Radio War," or "Promising Light" for good examples.)
Unfortunately, it doesn't always work. Sometimes repetition becomes less meditative and more like running in place, fruitlessly going nowhere fast. That's the snag with the lead track of this three-track teaser for Iron and Wine's upcoming full-length (due out this fall), "Carried Home," which is decently lush, melancholy, and backwoodsy, all at the same time, but which gets really repetitive as it goes on (and on, for six-and-a-half minutes), almost to the point of, well, dullness. Things turn around a bit at the end, admittedly, where all kinds of organic keys and string-type things come in and start layering on top of another, like Four Tet's Kieran Hebden doing some kind of an Iron and Wine remix. It's interesting, yes, but also a little bit off-putting to fans of Iron and Wine's earlier stuff.
Luckily, things pick up considerably afterwards with the title track -- there's still a more layered sound than Beam's listeners might be used to, with nimble, finger-picked guitars very nearly dancing over clapping hands and a wistful bit of slide guitar, but the tempo's quick and lively enough that it draws the attention along. The track's reminiscent of one of the late Jeff Buckley's less-pretentious moments, and that's never bad (okay, almost never, anyway). Not bad, especially considering that it's the one song of the three that's actually on the new album.
The capper, though, is "Kingdom of the Animals," a down-home, Appalachian-sounding hymn complete with friendly, welcoming piano, bluesy guitar, a sad-but-warm tale of childhood love, and a full-on gospel choir of backup singers (whom I keep expecting to break into "Goin' to the chapel / and we're gonna get ma-a-a-ried..."). The song rambles and rolls like it's actually going somewhere, finally, straggling off down some country road known only to the narrator and his girl.
Strangely, near the end it hits me: it sounds like Sam Beam's actually happy. Not just smiling fondly at reminiscences of friends long gone or lazing about on a sunny Southern afternoon, but honest-to-God cheerful. And stranger still, the feel really seems to fit him. If the upcoming The Shepherd's Dog is anything like "Kingdom of the Animals," it's definitely going to be something worth hearing.
While New Erections, the latest disc from SoCal hardcore freaksters The Locust, is not exactly tame, it doesn't quite bear the same oppressive weight of their previous material. While certainly heavy, daunting, and at times frightening, the songs contained therein actually leave you with quite a bit of room to breathe. I'm sure this is due in no small part to the fact that all but a few of these eleven tracks clock in at well over a minute, which is much longer than The Locust generally allows for a single track, let alone an entire album's worth.
I've never really thought of The Locust as writing "songs" in anything close to the traditional sense. Their pieces are more like sonic collages manufactured using live instrumentation, rather than from found sounds, like mixed-media performance artists with guitars. Since many of these songs lack any discernible melody, the focus tends to be on rhythmic overlay and textual reconstruction. Just when you think you know where the band is heading, they veer violently in a different direction or slam on the brakes, keeping the listener in a constant state of whiplash.
Like many in the new vanguard of noise, The Locust demonstrates here how noisy silence can be. Half a minute of all-out carpet-bombing noise followed by three seconds of silence can have a profound impact. The guys use that effect well here, creating a very refreshing album. The concept is not at all unlike the Russian sauna experience of jumping from a steam room into a freezing pond. After the initial shock wears off, you feel shockingly invigorated. In that way, this album becomes almost pleasant to listen to. Don't worry, guys; I did say "almost."
The Lonely H
The Pacific Northwest was such a mecca for churning, powerhouse guitar rock in the '90s that it seemed to have completely switched gears in the following decade. But it didn't really happen. Watching the likes of Death Cab, Modest Mouse, and Minus the Bear rise in popularity made you think that the old sounds were abandoned outside of Portland and Seattle in favor of more ironic and hyper-articulate touchstones. In actuality, there were fucking rad bands growing up on neglected labels post-Vedder. We've recently seen some of the byproducts of that slow burn with bands like Black Mountain and Blitzen Trapper emerging with a big "S" on their respective chests (as in "Sabbath").
The Lonely H, from Port Angeles, Washington, could be the brightest beacon of them all. For one thing, they are barely out of high school yet nonetheless release an album, Hair, so good you'd think Cameron Crowe is kicking himself right now thinking, "Damn! Why weren't these guys around when I was putting out Almost Famous?!" This release is chock-full of bad ass shit. My first couple listens brought to mind CSNY-style harmonizing over Ted Nugent guitar screaming. Alternately sad/reflective ("All Hope" and "It's Not Right") and triumphant ("The Meal" and "Say Your Prayers"), it brings to mind the best of '70s radio rock. It's an album that can find its way from mild winter road trips to raucous bonfires in the woods. It's an album that will sound good years from now. If Midlake had any balls, this is what they'd be attempting.
The only trouble now will be how do you top it without falling into the traps of excess like so many of those '70s bands before them (yet still remain fresh and free from self-parody)? Keep on the road, and don't believe what you're told.
[The Lonely H is playing 8/14/07 at Super Happy Fun Land, with The Watermarks, Ladyheat, & The Gold Sounds.]
Miracle Mile is a musical enigma. One listen to their latest release, Glow, makes you wonder if you've stumbled across an untapped musical gem or if you've just spent the last thirty minutes listening to lyrical Muzak.
The feel of Glow is sappy and somewhat lullaby-like. Some of the songs aren't even sung but are instead just recited over the music. Those unsung songs read like a personal history lesson set to music, kind of like when your old elementary school teacher would rap about science to pique your interest. At first listen, I thought of The Police's Outlandos D'Amour, but soon realized that the songs on Glow don't have the same macabre undertones that made Outlandos so much fun.
The music isn't half-bad, slow and kind of dreamy. Sans the lyrics, the album makes me feel like I should be lounging in an open meadow chewing on wheat and playing with fluffy, innocent little Labrador puppies. Assuming I wanted to be doing those things, Glow would be the perfect album to facilitate a lazy day in the country. Instead, I'm left feeling a little unnerved, because there's a strange, quirky component throughout the album that's a bit unsettling. Miracle Mile incorporates an element into their music that I'm not sure I've ever heard before: optimism. Don't get me wrong, optimism is a beautiful thing, but this album's optimism is like the nerdy guy in your high school who has no idea he is such a goober. The combination of the lyrics, the music, and the voice of Trevor Jones is so earnest and optimistic that it's hard to stomach.
Glow's saving grace is its inclusion of unusual and uncommon instruments. One song, "An Average Sadness," provides the only relief from the album's overall syrupy disposition, finding a fantastic happy medium by putting somber and honest words to music. It flows; it meshes in an incredibly believable and sobering way. And that's what is missing from most of glow Glow; the lyrics don't fit the music or the voice of the artist presenting the words to you. This mismatch of musical pairings creates a surreal feeling that makes it hard to embrace the vision of the Miracle Mile duo.
Essentially, listening to Miracle Mile's Glow is like hearing Kirk Van Houten's "Can I Borrow a Feeling?" combined with A Night without Armor (Jewel's lame attempt at poetry) set to a screwed-up version of elevator music.
My Loving Tiger
The name My Loving Tiger gives you no hint of what to expect of this band's self-released EP, Problem Set. What you'll find is poppy (yet mellow) rock filled with quirky keyboard harmonies and well-written lyrics. The Minneapolis duo is made up of Justin Mazahn and Mark Kayser. The sound is slightly reminiscent of Edina's favorite post-rock quartet, Mise En Place.
The four-song EP includes some cleverly titled and likeable tracks. In the opening track "Write Your Local Congressman," the band depicts a lonely guy who got into debt solely to connect with humans via collection agency calls. He begs that you vote no on a legislative bill that restricts these calls or he'd lose all his friends. On a side note, the winter month only ballad, "Sorry, I spent all my money on natural gas...," is less a love ballad and more about Minnesota's real-life gas provider, Peak Natural.
The EP is well recorded, catchy and recommended. I am definitely looking forward to future releases.
People for Audio
The New Ancients
Have you ever taken enough Tylenol PM to become drowsy, but not enough to kill the throbbing pain between your eyes? That's pretty much what listening toThe New Ancients feels like. Oh, don't get me wrong; People for Audio are entirely capable of creating some engaging, enjoyable music -- they just choose not to. There're a few tracks scattered about the album that stand out as impressive slabs of low-key, drifting psych-rock, but the rest is utterly useless.
So, what are they doing wrong? People for Audio are skilled musicians and they know it, so they go about attempting to make every song into, as the promo blurb pasted on the cover of their CD says, "epic art-rock" and "grandiose psych rock masterpieces." Now, do you think that when King Crimson went into the studio to record In the Court of the Crimson King, they did so intending beforehand that it would be a "grandiose psych rock masterpiece"? The end result is The New Ancients sounds contrived and pedantic and leaves the listener frustrated and tired. They may be people for audio, but they aren't people for good audio...
Plot Against Rachel
Plot Against Rachel
Having had an extremely prominent ex by the name of Rachael (just in case you're keeping score), I have to admit to some initial disappointment: despite the catchy name, the CD you (presumably) hold in your hot little hands does not detail, in any significant way, how to revenge oneself on my "Rachel," much less any others. There are no schematics and no homemade explosives. Beyond that initial disappointment, however, one finds little else to complain about in this initial offering from the Bay Area hipsters. If this is a plot, it's a sweet one, the goal being to, I don't know, tenderize? Maybe it's to distract with sweetness and abrasion.
Let's get down to brass tacks. This is a slightly math-y, extremely tuneful offering. More than that, it's an extremely precise recording: each note fits together as delicately as the interlocking bones of an outstretched hand. "Terminal A" starts us off in the off-kilter, slightly sad are (think about waiting at a bus stop, think about being lonely at a bus stop, think Robitussin and plaintive) -- admittedly, the lyrics are a bit opaque, but occasional lines do emerge from the seasick mess ("did you remember to call your mother?"). Nice. We move, from there, quickly into the more jangly "Casual Carpool," which, despite the name, seems, you know, sweet and lonely still, but now by a fence of some sort. Distant horizons sorting themselves into loss.
If there's a weakness to this five-song offering, it's that it speaks to a range that by nature of the release itself (five songs, yo, only five songs) can't possibly be obtained. Additionally, it puts a hell of a lot of pressure on each individual song: new territory, every time, or there's a sense of "okay, now what?" Which unfortunately does come in and out of the mix itself -- sometimes the record seems a bit droney, a bit too much like itself, a bit, somehow, similar -- where one wants fine, compacted difference.
But the moments of the record, the imagistic pushing, make up for whatever's lacking in variety. The indelible ("You left a note upon my car / That didn't get you very far") stays with you like a sad-looking photograph. And the disorientation, the lost and found of the record ("Catch me slipping / Into the ground / Around, around") refreshes as well as discomfits. The songs sound new, the third time through. You can't get a firm grasp. And that elusiveness and desire are what keep you coming back.
The echo-drenched "Accord Memory" concludes the quick little suite. The harmonies are primarily vocal now and more than a little ghostly (hello, banshee!). For at least a moment one buys the song's lyrics as self-indictment (again, "that didn't get you very far") but there is, again, a certain brittle quality, that keeps yrs truly fixated, if not fixed and dilated, so to speak. The occasional piano notes scattered in the musical thickness are raw and tooth-like and nicely eerie. In fact, the record as whole is eerie, dream-like, adrift on the heath. Even the noisier bits seem preludes to the delicate. I jotted down, in the margins, "occasionally rough hewn, gravesstones overturned or overgrown: just noticed." There is something like that, throughout. Something Escher-angled and more than a little lost or even forlorn. I found myself, subsequent to my initial listen, listening to the silence that came after. That is, I found myself lingering with nothing to say and nowhere to go.
The Last Little Life EP
I honestly didn't figure it'd ever happen. Once Weezer bassist Matt Sharp's side project-turned-fulltime gig The Rentals faded from view, I assumed, somewhat sadly, that, well, that was it. Return of the Rentals was the tongue-in-cheek, impenetrably poppy retro-future album, and followup Seven More Minutes felt like Sharp giving the finger to everybody and everything in the L.A. scene and kissing even his new (relatively) band goodbye.
And that, essentially, is what it turned out to be. Sharp fell off the face of the planet, moving back home to his rural roots and going kinda country in the process. He did some home recording, the results of which ended up as the "eh" Puckett's Versus the Country Boy, and that seemed to pretty much be it. No more rockstar dreams, just a guy who was happy to hang out at his house in the woods and not be anybody other than Matt Sharp, country boy who's fled the city. The Rentals were as dead and buried as the remains of Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo's humility.
Or maybe not. Now, just about a decade on, Sharp's resurrected the band, albeit with only himself and Rachel Haden as holdovers from The Rentals Mk. I or II (no Petra Haden this time out, sorry). The new folks are all L.A.-area musos, looks like, with ex-Nerf Herder Ben Pringle on synths, trombone, and guitar, in-demand classical player Lauren Chipman on viola and synths (she's apparently played with everybody from Barry Manilow to Rosie Thomas), and all-round session-type guy and Random A.O.K. headman Dan Joeright on drums and percussion. The big surprise, though, at least for yours truly, was guitarist/singer/pianist/etc. Sara Radle, formerly of San Antonio and the once-truly-awesome pop-punk band Lucy Loves Schroeder. Wow; great band, but I'd totally forgotten about 'em until I saw Radle's name in the credits. At any rate, the reconstituted band's touring, and in advance of the tour, they've tossed out this, The Last Little Life EP, as a bit of a teaser of what this new incarnation's all about. Will wonders never cease?
And maybe it's appropriate that it's a whole new crew this time, given that The Rentals that appear on The Last Little Life are nowhere even in the neighborhood of the "band"'s previous stuff. Lead track "Last Romantic Day" sets the tone -- it's jangly and yearning, with some nice warbly keys floating in and out (and no, they really don't ever come back on the subsequent tracks), and is reminiscent of Teenage Fanclub's sweet/melancholy pastoralism more than it is either "Friends of P" or "Barcelona." That said, it's a great song, and second track "Little Bit of You in Everything" builds upon it, a reassuringly cheery, beautiful little duet. The (faux?) cockiness, the sarcastic rockstar poses, the jaded in-joke feel, it's all gone, replaced by a seemingly genuine romanticism. Oh, and there's a bit of the country influence still left over from the Puckett's days, to boot.
In the end analysis, this EP sure makes it sound like Sharp's spent the intervening years doing a lot of growing up and examining things, and that maturity's worked its way into the music. Heck, he even gets a little grumpy-old-man-ish near the end of "Little Bit of You in Everything," where the female vocalist (can't tell if it's Haden, Chipman, or Radle, since everybody apparently sings) asks, a little exasperated: "Tell me one thing / That's worth saving / From this nameless / Generation?"
The EP ends with a new version of the Rentals' classic "Sweetness and Tenderness," but unfortunately, it's the one track that feels like a real step backwards -- it's a much more "organic," non-electronic, and decidedly non-rock take on the song, and sadly, it's just "eh." It's not godawful or anything, no, but it can't hold a candle to the original. The original had a fire, earnest and impassioned, that this version lacks, instead feeling sort of lazy and summer-day sleepy.
So let's move back a track, to "Life Without a Brain"; it's a little near to some of the music on Seven More Minutes, but not in a bad way. The song incorporates some nice horns and strings, as well as an aww-shucks feel to it. It's funny, though -- while the song's essentially an ode to putting things off, it almost seems like it's Sharp acknowledging that he'll be back. Hell, I hope so.
[The Rentals are playing 9/9/07 at Warehouse Live, with Copeland and Goldenboy.]
The Riff Tiffs
Okay, I give. I've been listening to The Riff Tiffs' Afflictinitus for several weeks now, off and on, and I've had quite a time getting a handle on it, somehow. I don't know how to take these four H-town kids -- are they part of the whole nu-space-rock movement that seems to've hit our fair city, or are they a straight-ahead indie-rock/pop band, a la Superchunk, Spoon, and the like? Or, hell, are they some kind of psych-rock revival thing? As Afflictinitus spins, the band seems to manifest its multiple personalities at random on different tracks.
In reality, the band seems to live happily in all three of the aforementioned musical worlds at the same time, drifting beautifully like an Explosions in the Sky outtake on one track ("James Ralph Brown Part I"), pulling off a throwback to the mid-'90s indie-rock scene on another (the Buffalo Tom-esque "Nightmare," "Timing Out"), and coming off like a trippier retro-rock band on a third ("Cornman"; holy freakin' Pink Floyd, y'all...). And it's good. I mean, "good" as in "really good," like "damn, I wonder how long it'll take these kids to find their way onto some hipster indie label" good. (Anybody from Thirty Ghosts Recs reading this? You Jagjaguwar folks?) This is some wonderfully sublime, drift-off-in-a-painkiller-induced-haze-type music that makes me kick myself for not having seen the Tiffs live in the year or three they've been around.
My one quibble is that while I dearly love the opening track (the aforementioned "James Ralph Brown Part I") on its own merits -- I dig those brightly-drifting "Texas"-sounding but still shimmery guitars -- it kind of does a disservice to the rest of Afflictinitus to stick a meandering instrumental up-front, even when it's a good one. The Riff Tiffs don't truly kick into gear 'til the second half of "James Ralph Brown Part II," once the song mutates from EitS-style melancholy into an Elephant 6-tinged pop-rock track (one that practically shrieks "your favorite Austin band!") and then subsequently surges back skyward near the close.
From then on through the end of the album, the momentum stays strong, all the way through the appropriately Rogue Wave-ish "In My Brain (There Are Waves)" and the gentle, sweet, proto-emo dynamics of "Snow" to finisher "Sailor's Scorn," which does the swirl/sway thing quite nicely before building to some gorgeously majestic choruses. The songs drift in and out, sailing along on beds of static and classic rock-tinged guitars, coalescing every once in a while to allow singer/guitarist Chris Rehm to yelp out some words over the top.
The more I listen, the less I care about the genre-jumping, instead feeling more and more impressed at the Riff Tiffs' ability to switch from blissed-out spaciness to full-on rawk at the drop of a hat and still make it feel like the most natural thing in the world. Whatever kind of music I think the Tiffs are making, it really doesn't matter; it's obvious that they know how it should all go, on a gut level, and neat-and-tidy boxes be damned. Let the guitars crash and soar, let the drums lull you into a head-nodding trance, let the trippy, not quite sensical lyrics bob around in your consciousness, and just trust the kids. They know exactly what they're doing.
[The Riff Tiffs are playing 8/3/07 at Warehouse Live, with The Lovemakers, The Death of a Party, & DJ Cuba Gooding Jr.]
The Sleeping Pimps
The Sleeping Pimps
With sounds as elusive as their whereabouts, The Sleeping Pimps strut their way through their first self-produced, three-song EP. The Sleeping Pimps is a flashback to the days of free love and flower power -- "Medicine," a syrupy slow rock and roll song, is reminiscent of rock bands from throughout the '60s and '70s. The other songs on the EP, on the other hand, "Pray to the Sun" and "Lexus," are more melancholy tunes that drift lazily and provide a complementary contrast to album's harder melody. Singer/songwriter Kevin Christopher's languid voice meshes well with the soothing strums and strokes of guitarist Brian Patrick and drummer Mark Tullin. Though little else is known about them, The Sleeping Pimps have managed to turn out a few quality songs that are representative of the potential they could possess.
(FYI -- There's no record label, sorry. The only site or contact information I could find on the band is www.thesleepingpimps.com, but it's not a working site. This is the only info we got from them. Spent awhile trying to find them online via google/youtube/myspace, but couldn't find anything. Oh, well...)
(self-released; The Sleeping Pimps -- 413 Hanna Rd. Apt. D, Ranchester, NY. 63021)
Something Fierce/The Hangouts
"Teenage Ruins"/"The Pirate Stomp"
This is almost too easy; it's like eating my favorite candybar, seriously. I've been impressed as hell by local punk kids Something Fierce since I first caught their full-length effort, Come For The Bastards, but the blazing rawk fury of "Teenage Ruins" still catches me off-guard, nonetheless -- truthfully, it's their best damn song, and while I do love the vinyl, I find myself hoping the Fierce trio eventually throws it on their next actual album, as well, just so the rest of the non-turntable-owning universe can listen, too.
The guitars roar and drive like a freight train, Stephen "Babyface" Garcia croons over the top like a more-tuneful Joey Ramone, and classic UK power-pop melodies straight out of the late '70s/early '80s lurk just below the ragged edge of the music. Simply put, it's a perfect anthem for teen rebellion, just like the song's title implies.
The band's second track on the 7", "On Your Own," combines handclaps, '77 punk guitars, a limber, Rancid-style bassline, and a fine shoutalong chorus for a slice of retro-style punk/power-pop that's nearly as good as the first song. Plus, the intro guitars make me think of my favorite Billy Bragg live EP, and that's never a bad thing.
The side of the record by College Station's The Hangouts, unfortunately, doesn't quite match up to their H-town compatriots. And it's true that I'm a little biased, already knowing and liking the Something Fierce crew, but even still, the songs seem a lot less, well, substantial than the Side A tracks. First there's "The Pirate Stomp," which is a sneering, more modern-sounding bit of garage-punk with Kathleen Hanna-esque, screechy, ear-rattling vocals that I think is about pirates and country barbecue (although beyond those elements, I've got no idea). Then there's "Don't," which is slower and somewhat easier to listen to but is also more abrasive, but the "na-na-na" vocals just seem to fly by and then the song's over before it really has a chance to sink in.
Neither song's bad, by any means, and on their own they'd probably be decent (even if the vocals on "The Pirate Stomp" take a little getting used to). They just can't hold a candle to the Something Fierce one-two punch. Sorry, y'all -- that's the risk of the split-7", right there...
[Something Fierce is playing 10/30/07 at Rudyard's, with Jay Reatard & Wax Museums.]
We Won't March
Speaker Speaker is a three-piece post-punk band from Seattle. The band's style is very much within the '90s post-punk template, but being in the tradition isn't a bad thing if you make it interesting, which they do. Their take on post-punk features catchy songs that sound like Blake Schwarzenbach of Jawbreaker fronting Jawbox. On their EP We Won't March, the band manages to be both tight and energetic. That can be hard to capture in the studio, but they pull it off.
It would be sad if the title song wasn't good, but Speaker Speaker doesn't disappoint. And it's the title song for a reason -- it was produced by J. Robbins, and it shows. It's a catchy song, one of those classic statements of dissent that punks are so good at. So it's also nice to see that they can also write songs about themselves; "Radio Days" is about music and ex-girlfriends, and it's another great song, with some cool harmonies on the chorus.
It's rare that a young band shows so much maturity and range in their songs right from the start. Considering that this is their first real album, it's even more impressive. These guys definitely have a long career ahead of them.
Blackhawks Over Los Angeles
Strung Out sets out a big task for themselves: bridging metal, punk, and prog-rock, three approaches which at one point were mutually exclusive, though not anymore (for better or for worse). They set metal riffing atop a rhythm section that switches effortlessly between metal and hardcore punk when needed. Blackhawks Over Los Angles, is their seventh album, and after 14 years, if nothing else, they'd better be tight, and they are. Unfortunately, they're not much more than that.
While the sound of the band itself is powerful and effective, and they come up with some cool riffs and things, their melodies settle for cheap crowd-pleasing sentiment. They try to write big anthems that, despite the sonic power and dexterity, still sound like pop-metal singalong throwaways. And it's not because they didn't work hard enough on them -- "Dirty Little Secret" shows a lot of craft, with an intricate bridge, well-deployed harmonies, and even keyboards here and there. In a bid to be the new hardcore Springsteen, Strung Out have instead become the new hardcore Poison.
Ordinarily, you might hope that a band might still continue to develop, and maybe improve their songwriting over the course of future albums. But after 14 years, this dog is too old to learn any new tricks. It's sad, because the band's every intention is good -- they have an interesting sound, socially aware lyrics, and a good singer -- but the melodies are so annoying that you still don't care.