A Journey Through Roman's Empire
Athletic Automaton's album A Journey Through Roman's Empire starts like an angry car, gets into a bruising pace, and doesn't shift from that gear. What partially deflects the bullying effect of the music is that it's performed by two guys in jerseys, short-shorts, and striped tube socks who look like -- and in fact actually once were -- aspiring professional dodgeball players. This adds some amusement to the noise, an overpowering sound surprisingly produced by just two instruments.
Stephen Mattos plays the lead guitar and Patrick Crump provides percussion. Both share in the vocals. Based in Providence, Rhode Island, and working through the indie label SKiN GRAFT, they take the stage ready to provide relief for their favorite local dodgeball team. Or perhaps, at this stage, they're seeking only to provide a soundtrack. I believe their athletic uniforms serve more of a functional role when the band is onstage, presenting a veneer of coherence with a clownish touch. It's a visual that softens the walls of distortion and chaos. The music's hard rhythms come at you with a drunken smash, defiling any silence. If you have a taste for noise rock, Athletic Automaton provide fulsome flavor.
B L A C K I E
Wilderness of North America
Out of the wilds of H-town's indie scene comes...well, shit, the absolute weirdest, rawest, most uncompromising, and most intriguing hip-hop I've heard since that Justin Broadrick/Alec Empire collab, Curse of the Golden Vampire. Take equal parts fucked-up electronics, distorted pop-cult samples, guitar feedback, video game noise, and angry-as-hell street flow, set it on fire, and you might come up with B L A C K I E (the caps and spaces are apparently necessary). If you're lucky.
Now, I'm not gonna lie -- Wilderness of North America isn't some Source-endorsed jam full of hits you can tip a glass of Kristal to. It's downright hard to listen to at points, lurching around like an angry, bad-manners drunk taking swings at all and sundry. That said, if you can endure, there's some brilliant, jaw-dropping stuff lurking in there.
The disc gets off to a bit of a slow start with "That's Right," a confused ball of wire that begins with an Abba sample, segues through a wall of noise into speaker-crushing bass tones and then into hard-ass rapping and back again; it's an interesting combination, but it skips a step at times and leaves me scratching my head. Better is "Big Big Joke Jokes," a short-and-sweet bitter burst that provides a glimpse of the good side of Wilderness to come. Things get better by the time "B L A C K I E ...Is Still Alive" comes in, with its distorted Galaga(?) sounds, Cat Stevens sample, and trippy, echoey lyrics -- it really shouldn't work, but against all odds, it kinda does.
The album really kicks into gear with "I Write On Money," though; after about the first five seconds, I found myself nodding and saying, "ah, okay...I get it now." The distant-yet-heavy distorted drums, the siren-like guitars, the syrup-slow rhymes about writing weird-ass crap on dollar bills, it all of a sudden makes perfect freakin' sense. B L A C K I E's like a hip-hop head bred on Massive Attack, jazz, John Zorn, and DJ Screw, and he's taken all of that in and spat it back out as this. Barring a few stumbles, tracks like "Caught, Lost," "Knives Incorporated" (love the plunking guitar), and "You Followed" are incredible, all dark and heavy and grimy like most hip-hop artists wish they could be.
B L A C K I E (born Michael LaCour) gives himself away a bit with "You Followed," which ditches the explicit rap stuff totally in favor of a brief interlude on some barren, gas-choked planet too close to an uncaring sun; dense, thick clouds of noise-haze drift across the sky, radiation pouring down in the gaps. "Copy Coma Edit" does something similar, coming off like Mike Ladd's non-vocal moments -- thundering beats, shimmering sound, and a sense of alien grandeur. The one that hits hardest, though, is "Filter," which manages to meld menacing, sinister Massive Attack-esque electronic noise and a heartfelt (if kinda disturbing) profession of love. Top that, Kanye.
[B L A C K I E is playing 8/28/08 at Numbers, with The Mathletes, The Goods, & Giant Princess.]
Six Songs EP
The Six Songs EP offers another jolt of what the Brokedowns gave us on their second album, New Brains for Everyone: fast-paced, energetic, Midwestern punk rock. It was also amusing to note that the press kit for this one was exactly 4 lines that they cut out of a piece of printer paper. Punk for the oughts?
Once again, the Brokedowns present us with a bunch of catchy songs. "Git'R'Dunification," the third song, is rightly the centerpiece here, an anthem worthy of the Clash, with a few sparingly used "aahs" to add weight to the song. An expression of punk's ambivalence towards the world: "I wanna relearn my ABCs / I'm feeling leery of the way they were taught to me."
"Dan Has Powers" is another catchy track, with some amusing bellowed, '60s-style "harmony" vocals behind the chorus and a big energetic guitar riff driving the song. The song offers another distilation of punk life: "This is how we fight / Can you make that bottle hit the river tonight?" Forget about politics, there are more important things to do!
Some people have compared the band to Jawbreaker, which isn't exactly right but is nevertheless a sign of how good this band is. It's impressive that the Brokedowns' songs here are better than the cover, a V. Reverse song called "Clinical Rock." They've surpassed their own inspirations, which should make them feel good. Keep it up, guys -- you've got something great here.
Canadian rock music has a relatively long and impressive history and includes a whole host of recording artists who have successfully spearheaded and maintained careers that have produced extremely memorable songs. As potential candidates, add to this list functional newcomers Cherry Suede of Ottawa, Ontario, with their recently-released, self-titled debut album featuring group members Randy Scott (lead vocals, guitar), Randy Young (guitar, vocals), Eric Holden (bass), Craig MacIntyre (drums), and Zach Provost (keyboards).
Great music has always had a way of making national boundaries pretty much evaporate. Following a tried-and-true course that has launched such outstanding bands as The Guess Who, Rush, Pat Travers, Alanis Morrisette, and many others, Cherry Suede seeks to weigh in with their own particular take on rock in a market that traditionally enjoys a unique affinity with the northernmost U.S. cities. Having paid their dues by developing a substantial following in their home province, they are now starting to enjoy some notable airplay on both sides of the national border.
Their ten-cut first album proper is a slick and engaging set of songs which injects their personal timbre into retrofitted styles reminiscent of the '80s, smack-dab between the powerful chording of Bryan Adams and the lighter-pop-dipping sounds of Loverboy. The recording mix is put together beautifully, in a way that enhances each individual musician and further lends credence to the engineering and production helmanship of Rick Slater (who also produced Blondie and Keith Richards).
The result is a smoothly-honed package of swaying moderate rock pieces that deftly and pretty consistently hit just the right harmonies and riffs in just the right places. Effectively hitting a dead-center, middle-of-the-road spectrum in the musical fields marked out by fellow Canadians Bachman-Turner Overdrive's heavy-riff-to-pop numbers and Nickelback's more recent post-grunge booming, frontmen/band leaders "Randy & Randy" have staked out a slice of rock territory well worth revisiting and revamping. They've included rousing pop choruses that will draw in Bon Jovi enthusiasts and sufficiently tromping rhythmic sections that will satisfy more fist-lofting fans, as well.
Though there really are no disposable tracks to mention, stand-out tunes worthy of special dubs include the opening cut, "Not A Day Goes By," the band's Bryan Adams-esque airplay-magnet staple, the personifying "Miss Jealousy," the lighter-sided, hauntingly harmonica-garnished "Since You've Been Gone," and "Why," with its laidback keyboard vibe invoking Loverboy's "This Could Be The Night." Alongside the first cut, my personal favorites are the Bon Jovi-mirrored "Learning How To Let You Go" and "What You Do To Me," another well-crafted mix of infectious lyrics and instrumentation.
Of course, Cherry Suede still has a considerable way to go before they see their band name stamped on the Canadian Walk Of Fame. On the nit-picky side, there are a couple of sections where the vocals could have been a bit less pinched and more soulful than delivered. Most of their songs, however, already bear the indelible marks of excellent road-testing, effecting an overall debut venture that many other groups take a triad of albums or more to attain. Though this first effort is nowhere near Bryan Adam's Reckless or Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet in stature, there are several moments that skirt the quality of Adam's Cuts Like A Knife. Those who like an '80s kind of feel to their rock will undoubtedly enjoy Cherry Suede to the hilt.
The Dead Trees
After a few listens to Fort Music, you realize the Dead Trees wear their influences on their sleeve. The album sounds as though it was recorded in a basement, but worse still, the band never really comes up with a solid sound of their own. In six songs, they pull the basics from Wilco, Pavement, and a little Replacements. They even use the Beatles line, "She's so heavy," at the end of "Head Trauma." I'm not sure if that's allowed.
The alt-country tune "Television" goes south when the melodic texture of the guitars are pushed aside for some noisy drum fills. The slide guitar, the best part of the song, is quickly lost in the usual verse-chorus-verse and is never brought back. Moving into "Shelter," with its carefree whistling and off-kilter vocal melody, the EP quickly runs into Stephen Malkmus territory. Which isn't a bad thing, until the body of the song seems to fizzle out.
As intriguing as some of the songs to that point sound, nothing really seemed to stick until "Me Too." Maybe it was the laid-back Tweedy-style guitars that reminded me of how a simple riff can go a long way. It's at the end of "Second Hand Drugs" and "Head Trauma," however, where the vocals get more abrasive and lose the touch of sincerity the other songs try to offer. Luckily, we're left with "My Funny Footnote" to remind us that the Dead Trees have strength when they keep their songs simple and untreated. So let these guys write a few more songs, put out a full album, and tour with their curly-haired fan, Albert Hammond, Jr., then we'll see what happens.
The Dreadful Yawns
We've been hearing it since we were children -- "don't judge a book by its cover," meaning, don't make hasty assumptions based on superficial impressions. This is the exact mistake I made with The Dreadful Yawns, forgetting these elementary words of wisdom and presuming them to be twee-poppers based solely on Take Shape's opener "Like Song." The track has all the guitar jangle, earnest vocals, and simple catchiness of a K Records gem, and so it seemed like a logical connection. But logic be damned, after listening through their fourth album several times, the old adage rings true, because The Dreadful Yawns are not a twee band.
Sure, there are some influences from groups like Belle and Sebastian on the record, but to say The Dreadful Yawns are simply one kind of band is to do them a great disservice. They're also folkies and garage-rockers, with psychedelic tendencies and subtle rock 'n roll sensibilities, and with Take Shape they've created a true sleeper hit. Their ability to inhabit so many different styles on the record while maintaining a sense of uniformity throughout is a testament to the experience and talent of the band. It's one thing to write diverse songs; it's another to write diverse songs that sound like they're in the right place when put next to one another on an album.
In the liner notes, Take Shape's ten tracks are split into a side A and B, with the intended pause coming between the seventh and eighth songs. On side A, "Catskill" exhibits the band's penchant for beautiful-but-simple melodies. Ben Gmetro and Elizabeth Kelly sing sweetly about "driving to Cleveland" and "falling in love / under the stars" over gently-strummed guitar and soft, whistling organ, the song evoking Simon and Garfunkel in their prime. The most important instrument to Take Shape's sound is the organ, used masterfully throughout the album to create wistfulness on songs like the ambient, slow-burner "All For Me," or simply to hold a few shimmering notes over the bubbling bassline and busy drums of "Saved," a track whose slippery power chords show an undeniable appreciation for the Kinks.
The distribution of songs between the two sides may seem a bit uneven, but B's three songs run about the same amount of time as A's seven. The lengthiest track on the album's second half is the ten-minute "Don't Know What I've Been On." The song finds the band sounding like post-John Cale Velvet Underground in its first two minutes, as Gmetro and Kelley joyfully sing the song's refrain until the band breaks first into sporadic and frenzied bursts of instrumentation, then into passages of silence, and then into screeching white noise, the guitars smashed, the mic stands knocked over, and the drums thrown across the room. The true genius of the song is at the end, when out of the electric hum comes a sobered Dreadful Yawns, softly picking acoustic guitars and singing the same line, "don't know what I've been on," now more as a bewildered question as they look back at the chaos behind them.
Following this is the album's closing number, "Mood Assassins," which begins as a baroque-pop arrangement, with its plucked violin notes, but gives way to a thick wall of guitar distortion, the violins now straining to be heard above the roar. The song proves once again that The Dreadful Yawns are a hard band to pin down. And this is the band's biggest strength, their ability to keep the listener guessing through consistently catchy and well-crafted songs. Take Shape could be The Dreadful Yawns' crowning achievement, but with this band it's hard to be sure what's coming next.
The Dutchess & the Duke
She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke
Damn, this album makes me want to hit the secondhand record store & dig out some Animals, Rolling Stones, and Byrds albums. And no, I don't mean that as a slam, some way to say that Seattle duo The Dutchess & the Duke (known to friends and family as Kimberly Morrison and Jesse Lortz, respectively, and formerly in a bunch of garage-y/retro-y bands I'm unfortunately not real familiar with) are derivative of those bands -- although that's certainly somewhat accurate -- and therefore should be ignored. Not a chance.
What I mean is that the whole of She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke is one of those discs that so fully encapsulates the '60s sound that it's impossible to not think of it when you listen. It's not just the songs themselves, either, but the production; there's this earthy, raw feeling to all of it, like it was recorded in an earlier, less technologically-savvy, rougher era and dropped off back here in the present to be mastered and released and all that. There's a strange familiarity to the album, like you know you know the songs these songs sound like, but you can't quite put your mental finger on it.
That's where I am with "Strangers," in particular -- the back-and-forth melody sounds so freakin' familiar that it's killing me that I don't remember where the heck I've heard it before. There's a hint of the Byrds, a bit of the Monkees, and a fair dose of the Stones, all melded together into an urgent, speedy two minutes' worth of brutal post-relationship honesty that dares you to sing along with lines like "You fucked me in the phone booth / You know you took me by surprise." Morrison and Lortz's beautifully harmonizing voices swing and sway a la the Mamas & the Papas, the pretty melody camouflaging the grim lyrics beneath.
And really, that's the most interesting aspect of this album, not that it's a straight-up '60s homage but that it's really, really fucking dark, in spite of some of those sweet melodies. I mean, the duo throws out convoluted song-stories about abusive parents ("Mary"), sordid (and apparently somewhat anonymous) sex ("Strangers"), disillusionment with life in general ("Out of Time"), death ("You Can Tell The Truth, Now"), and tons of love-gone-wrong (pick one). Which is really awesome, to me, because it makes the music so much more than simple rehashing of oldies radio favorites and more closely connected to real life.
I've opined before that we -- Americans in general, that is -- tend to have rose-colored glasses when it comes to the music of the '60s, viewing the whole era as hippy-dippy "fun" music that's great at parties but doesn't really matter a whole lot, content-wise. I'm guilty of this, for sure, and I'd guess that a lot of folks in my generation (X, Why, whatever) are in the same boat; it's Mom & Dad Music, so it obviously has no relevance to me in the here and now, right? It's only as an adult that it clicked what the hell folks like the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Byrds, and even the Beach Boys were singing about, and that even the most outwardly lightweight musicians of the time were capable of some dark, dark shit. It wasn't all vapid pop about girls, not by a long shot.
I think that's part of why She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke has got me so firmly in its grasp right now. I love rolling along with the melancholy, Dylan-esque folk ("You Can Tell The Truth, Now"; "Ship Made of Stone"), the faster, sitar(?)-inflected Stones-y numbers ("Reservoir Park," which I swear to God sounds just like "Paint It, Black" at points; "The Prisoner," which makes me think of the Animals), and the mid-range, almost country tracks ("Out of Time," which includes the best, most cynical line in the album: "Ain't you sick of hearin' things are gonna work out?"). They're amazingly well-crafted songs, the kind that suck you in with the jangly guitars and warm vocals and then sucker-punch you with lyrics that make your jaw drop like the first time you realized what Springsteen's "Nebraska" was about (I know, I'm a little slow on the uptake).
The funny thing here is that growing up I hated the music my parents -- well, my dad, really; my mom had the Shaft soundtrack and some really cool Sly & the Family Stone albums I've always liked -- played around the house. I loathed it, avoided it at all costs. And only in the last decade or so have I really been re-evaluating that kneejerk reaction, both to music actually from back then and music, like The Dutchess & the Duke, that's current and new but definitely informed by the older stuff. In doing that, I've been finding stuff like this winding its way inexorably into my soul.
Hmm. Looking back, I think I'm overdue to make my dad a mixtape; the Dutchess & the Duke are definitely going on it.
[The Dutchess & the Duke are playing 8/20/08 at The Mink, with James Jackson Toth & Benjamin Wesley.]
The Glass Should Be Full
Elemental Zazen stuck himself with a really bad name. There may be worse rapper names out there, but he's got one of the worst ones I've ever heard. On his second album, The Glass Should Be Full, Elemental Zazen demonstrates a casually virtuosic flow reminiscent of Aceyalone, with the dark, self-deprecating lyrical quality of Aesop Rock. His flow makes him fun to listen to. Unfortunately, he shoots him in the foot with his wordplay -- it's not much better than his name.
He has a few moments of cleverness here and there. "Disappear" contemplates the hip-hop game and offers some advice to young rappers: "Mortgage your future for some money and some fickle fans." And also some thoughts for more established rappers: "Hope that I left more than some money and some crummy advice." But most of his lyrics are more like those from "No Handcuffs: "So what if life's a bitch / Spread her lips and fuck her / 'til her mother has a miscarriage / and we never exist." And most of the album is lyrics like that.
If the beats on the album were better, he could get away with a lot more, 'cause he's got a wonderfully busy flow. But the beats are mostly utilitarian. They're mostly serviceable, but they start to sound the same after a while. "No Survivors" has a nice, funky piano part and some kind of delayed keyboard on "Dying Planet." And when the beats are boring on an album, you listen to the lyrics more, but that doesn't help things here.
Zazen's flow is good enough that he's genuinely enjoyable to listen to. He does have a few moments of cleverness, but his lyrics are mostly pretty bad. If he could get some good beats behind him, it might not make as much of a difference. With the sameness of the beats here, there isn't that much worth checking out. If he worked on his lyrics more, he could have a lot of potential. Or, alternately, if he found himself some killer beats, he could probably balance out his lyrical lameness. But The Glass Should Be Full doesn't offer very much on its own.
Hype up the ying-yang with these guys. Pitchfork, NME, Rolling Stone -- they all love Fleet Foxes. I saw these guys live in a little club in S.F. about a couple months before they hype machine really took off. My reaction at the time was basically, "Is the lead singer going to do the entire concert on a stool?" Nothing else stood out. The music was bland harmonies, devoid of any excitement.
As for their debut LP, Fleet Foxes blend a poppy concoction of '60s folk harmonies and West Coast rock'n'roll a la the Beach Boys. Or some shit like that. They are CSNY without any substance. They lack testicles; this is Starbucks music. Check out Sun Kil Moon, instead, or The Tallest Man on Earth. Call me when the lead singer loses the stool and grows a set. Excuse me, I need to run over to Starbucks and pick up my soy latte and Norah Jones EP.
The Jealous Girlfriends
The Jealous Girlfriends
Yeah, I've been wrestling with this one for a while. It's surprisingly hard to peg down a band when they remind you of a period in music rather than of any specific band or bands, and that's the case for me with The Jealous Girlfriends on their self-titled full-length. The easy thing would be to tag 'em as a nugaze band and move on, sure, but while the Girlfriends start off with a heady dose of vintage dreampop, all swirly/shimmery guitars, half-asleep vocals, and electronicized beats, that's really only a part of the story.
Take opener "Secret Identity," for one, with its infectiously simple vocal line, sung drowsily by vocalist/guitarist Holly Miranda, who sounds nearly like Johnette Napolitano at points (and I mean that as a big compliment). The track rides a nice MBV-ish undercurrent of noise-melody, but at the same time it sounds stark and "big sky"-esque, like dreampop reimagined by some West Texas roots-rock band. Miranda's vocals shine throughout the album, veering from Cat Power-y gruff mumble to streetwise, blues-belter wail in a handful of steps. I'll admit that I kind of figured I'd get sucked in by her voice, considering that she blew me away live not long ago, but Miranda's matched nicely on about half the tracks by fellow guitarist Josh Abbott, whose voice I found myself liking a lot more than I'd guessed I would.
Abbott's tracks tend to lean more towards glam-tinged pop-rock ("I Quit"; love the male/female vocals, there, especially the "woo-oo"s near the end), often heavily accented with electronics. His vocals are almost New Romantics-style, British and moody and generally bitter as hell, and they work wonderfully as a counterpoint to Miranda's smoky bluesiness. He evokes Say Hi, if the Northwestern electro-popster were more angry and less sleepy, hopped up on caffeine or sheer self-righteous fury. That fury's especially evident on "How Now," a sharp-edged, surly roarer of a track that brings to mind late-period Superchunk with its driving, unrelenting forward motion.
You wouldn't think the Jets To Brazil-ish rock of "I Quit" would segue neatly into sultry, soulful "Organs On The Kitchen Floor," but fuck, it works. Speaking of the latter track, by the way, the band throws in some of the badass-est, thickest horns and keys, slathering it all with a desperately sordid, pleading vibe that makes the weirdness of the subject matter and title totally not matter. Miranda's voice could thaw whole city blocks in winter, y'all. The Girlfriends take another hard right into "Something In The Water," with huge-ass guitars, ferocious rhythms, and a Poster Children-ish feel, and continues on through "Gift Horse," a stomping warning that's got something to do with beachheads and biting horses in the mouth.
Of course, the band can't totally escape their roots, so they dive into the shoegaze bag now and again, like on sweet, pastoral "The Pink Wig To My Salieri" or the murky, hazy "Hieroglyphics," which comes off like a sunnier Jesus and Mary Chain and practically crushes the landscape with the sheer weight of those clouds of gorgeous guitar noise. "Roboxulla" steps down a bit, into Belle and Sebastian territory, all green grass and sunlight, while "Machines" is noisier and messier, a crashing dirge of noise and buried melody that builds and builds 'til it dissolves into "Carry Me," delicate and beach-sounding with soft washes of sound and plinking keys.
Taken as a whole, then, maybe trying to categorize The Jealous Girlfriends into a neat little box is a stupid, pointless idea. They're their own thing, their own amalgam of all these dreampop, '90s indie-rock, blues, whatever styles into something new and ridiculously addictive. Forget putting 'em in a box; they'll just cut their way out through the bottom.
The May Fire
The May Fire's six-song EP, The List, rubbed me the wrong way initially, I'll admit it. After a few more listens, though, I'm slowly warming to the band. It wasn't the music that threw me off, really -- The List is pretty much straight-ahead, indie-tinged rock with nicely-done guitar effects, understated keys, and some nice energy to it. Think Superdrag fronted by Kim Deal, and you'll be nearing The May Fire territory. And really, that's no bad place to find yourself.
The problem for me, unfortunately, is singer/guitarist Catty Tasso's voice. It's really weird, because I'm around people with accents all the damn time (including my French-Algerian mother-in-law), but for some reason the South American (Chilean, I'm told?) inflection to her singing just doesn't fit with the music. It throws things off, emphasizing words that really don't need the emphasis and skipping blithely past others. It makes some of the lyrics sound out-and-out comical, particularly on opening rock track "Burning Up" and the trippy, psych-pop-ish "Red Unicorn" (and the Donovan-gone-wrong lyrics for that track don't do it any favors to begin with, I'm afraid).
Like I said, though, I'm warming. I can't resist the hooky, power pop-on-speed riffs the band churns out, especially with title track "The List," the murky, Jesus & Mary Chain-esque "Under The Wave," or roaring/raging closer "Mother/Father," which channels enough vitriol to make my headphones crackle. At best, The List is a sign of The May Fire's promise, of possible greatness to come; standing on its own two feet, its uneven but good at points. A definite grower.
[The May Fire is playing 8/19/08 at Warehouse Live, with Astra Heights, Monte Negro, & Johnny Goudie.]
It's a problem of expectations. When I first heard M83's Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, I was blown away. I fell in love with Anthony Gonzalez and Nicolas Fromageau's primary-color-shaded walls of melodic, ethereal-yet-visceral noise, reveling in it like I had Loveless back in my youth. It was (and is) awe-inspiring, majestically grand music, the kind of which gauzy, intricately detailed daydreams are made. I hoped against hope for years and years of more of the same.
Then Fromageau split, and Gonzalez came back pretty much on his own with Before the Dawn Heals Us, which, while it's not a bad album -- in fact, it's quite good on its own merits -- left me disappointed and stunned. The coruscating, swirling noise-rock was replaced, for the most part, with poppy/New Age-y electronics just this side of Tangerine Dream, mangled-English vocals, and occasiona moments of utter brilliance (see the circular, terrifying "Car Chase Terror," which evokes more fear in four minutes than two weeks' worth of SciFi Channel B-grade horror flicks). I was left adrift, it felt like, left trying to fill the space left after Dead Cities ended. (Enter Ulrich Schnauss, but that's another review entirely...)
With this year's Saturdays=Youth, I'd clung to a vain hope that maybe the "old" M83 would resurface, that Gonzalez had decided all the vocal crap wasn't his gig and he should stick to sculpting noise into improbably melodies. Nope. On the contrary, Saturdays=Youth takes the formula of Dawn and amps it up tenfold, with vocals on nearly every track (courtest of guest vocalist Morgan Kibby, of baroque-pop band The Romanovs, and Gonzalez himself), lots of pretty, retro-fied synths, and melodies so thick you could spread them on toast and call it breakfast. And it's good, seriously; I find myself smiling just listening to it. It's just not what I'd hoped for. It felt -- at first, anyway -- like a letdown.
Then I started listening closer to the words, and caught myself thinking about what the music dredged up in the back corners of my mind, and it all began to make sense. True to its title, Saturdays=Youth is an homage to the teenage years (specifically Gonzalez's teenage years, obviously), when everything seems wide-open and new and amazing and important, even though you find out later in life that that's not always the case. There's a barefaced joy to all this, like Gonzalez is celebrating that period of his life, rose-colored raver glasses and all.
And true to M83 form, the whole thing comes off like a soundtrack, from the beautiful-yet-foreboding Mogwai-esque piano at the start of "You, Appearing" onward. Weirdly, what it makes me think, specifically (bear with me, here), is a kind of mishmash of River's Edge and The Virgin Suicides, as directed by John Hughes with musical help from Angelo Badalamenti and, um, Kate Bush. No, really -- I can't help but listen to Kibby's voice on tracks like "You, Appearing," "Skin Of The Night," "Too Late," and "Up!" without thinking I'm listening to some lost collection of outtakes to The Sensual World, and closing track "Midnight Souls Still Remain," in particular, could've come right off the Twin Peaks soundtrack.
Plus, there's the overall '80s vibe, with the synth-y drums, echoey keys, and unashamedly pretty melody lines; see "Kim & Jessie," a straight-up pop-rocker, or "Skin Of The Night," with its swooning, utterly romantic feel. "Graveyard Girl" has that whole devil-may-care thing going on beneath the shoegazer-pop instrumentation, sounding like a cross between Modern English and Mute labelmates Goldfrapp's latest, with thumping drums, soaring vocals, and sublime melodies. Plus, the spoken aside about halfway through sounds like it could've come straight out of Winona Ryder's mouth, so there's that.
There're hints of Dead Cities scattered around, to be sure, but even when they're there, as on the eminently danceable "Couleurs," their DNA's been spliced liberally with '80s synth-pop. On "Couleurs," in fact, the sound resembles nothing so much as Depeche Mode or New Order with its darkly-tinged keys and cheesy electronic beats. (And yes, it works quite nicely.) "Highway of Endless Dreams" perhaps comes closest to Dead Cities, but by that point (or maybe Trembling Blue Stars with distortion pedals), heck, it doesn't seem to matter.
The songs meander about the subjects of death, youth, and finding your place, all that teenage angst that sure as hell didn't feel real fun when it hit the first time but is entertaining to think back on now. There're ghosts, suicides, forbidden loves, and kids with clothes and haircuts about two decades out of date strewn all 'round, with the end result that M83's Gonzalez has crafted what could be an impressive concept album about a death (deaths?) among a group of teenage friends back in the '80s and the ripples the catastrophe causes.
Maybe. Honestly, I don't want to know -- if that's not what this album's about, I think I'll choose to remain blissfully ignorant. Because when I look at it from this angle, Saturdays=Youth looks downright amazing.
This is not a Bright Eyes record. Don't believe the critics who tell you it is. Because it isn't, not even close. There are things very specific to Bright Eyes recordings, beginning of course with guru producer Mike Mogis. He's not here this time around, and it shows. Other things missing: obscure opening track distortion, consistent thematic elements that tie together what appear at first to be disparate songs but end up relying on each other completely to make the album work, literary devices fit for graduate students to study for their dissertations, Saddle-Creek -- oh, and politics. Up equals down.
The fact that Oberst released this record (his first solo effort since the cassette tape days of 1993 debut album Water) under his own name rather than the more famous moniker he's been known for since 1998 is both telling and important. Telling in that it gives hint to the idea that he is trying to distance himself from the brand that Bright Eyes has become. And make no mistake about it; "Bright Eyes" is a brand. It's taken on a life I think Oberst never dreamed it would -- it's become an object, a commodified piece of property chewed up and sometimes spit out by writers, musicians, and fans who take for granted Oberst's own subject-hood in the extraordinarily co-opted myth perpetuated by all of them.
Important in that Conor Oberst should not be compared to a Bright Eyes record. It would be unfair to even try. If, say, you put this album next to Fevers and Mirrors (which is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of recorded music to come along in the last fifty years or so), it would be impossibly difficult to make sense of the fact that they were written by the same artist. Apple, meet orange, and so on. What we have here is a beginning of something else.
Oberst seems to be reveling in his own meaninglessness these days. For so long (going on fifteen years), critics have pegged him as the "next Dylan" (Jakob can't catch a break, man), some kind of musical demigod, or the provocateur of is-it-or-is-it-not protest music. Some writers (the type with the biggest balls, I assume) have even suggested that he's an emo wunderkind here to sing the soundtrack of universal teenage angst or some such nonsense.
Oberst is nothing if not divisive, and it seems more and more that if you have an opinion of Bright Eyes at all, you're either in the camp equipped with unconditional worship or the camp of transcendental detestation. People have, fairly or unfairly, made Oberst into something he clearly wants no part of, ascribing weight and meaning to him without bothering to ask him if he means anything at all. Surprise -- he doesn't.
Conor Oberst (available on Merge Records) was recorded over the course of a month in Tepoztlan, Mexico, in a makeshift studio in the middle of some mountains. It is a minimalist piece of folk-country strumming, produced by Oberst alongside longtime Saddle Creekers Andy LeMaster, Nate Walcott, and Jason Boesel (among others), who call themselves The Mystic Valley Band. On it are songs so complex in their simplicity that it's immediately apparent that it could have been written by no one other than Conor Oberst. On "Lenders in the Temple," the most beautifully composed song on an album full of them, Oberst sings, "Erase yourself and you'll be free" -- further evidence that that is that (that being Bright Eyes) and this is this (this being Conor Oberst).
And it's not only name that Oberst is trying to escape; he seems to want no part of place, either. In recent interviews, he's said that he never feels comfortable staying put for more than a few months, and that sentiment is heard throughout Conor. In "Sausalito," Oberst sings in all his Holden Caulfield-ian glory, "We should move to Sausalito / living's easy on a houseboat / let the ocean rock us back and forth to sleep." And on the jaunty, jingle-jangle (yep, it's a jingle -- I dread seeing this song live amidst 2,000 jumping thirteen-year-old girls; it's gonna be completely exhausting) "NYC-Gone, Gone," Oberst seems to be all too happy to leave the place that can numb the mind of the best of them, singing, "Gone, gone from New York City / where you going to go with a head that empty? / Gone, gone from New York City / where you going to go with a heart that gone? / Down, down to Mexico City / got myself a girl, she know how to treat me."
No word yet on what this girl from Mexico City did to Oberst, but on the very next song, ("Moab"), Oberst sings, "There's nothing that the road cannot heal" -- so she's bound to have done something. The thing is, though, regardless of what (almost every single solitary) critic has said about this record, it's not solely about travel. There's nothing necessarily connective about these songs, no theme that makes you think that hey, this song relates to this song and this song relates to this song.
There are serious moments on the record, as on "Souled Out!!!", where Oberst sings about buying one's way into heaven (word up, Joel Osteen), and more serious moments -- see "Danny Callahan," one of the saddest songs Oberst has ever written, about a young boy who dies from cancer and the forgotten humanity associated with the questions that science never wants to answer. But there are also lighthearted moments here...about the joys(?) of suicide ("I Don't Want to Die in a Hospital").
Side note: hey, Rolling Stone, this song is so not about Oberst's grandfather. Read a liner note every once in a while, will ya? And there are even lighter moments; an entire song, "Valle Mistico," with nothing but a conch shell being played by someone, I think, named Ruben.
Conor Oberst is an incredibly interesting record, and if I hadn't said earlier that I wouldn't compare it to other Bright Eyes' offerings, I would probably rate it like number three out of anything Conor's ever done. I'm not going to rate it, though, because who are we without our integrity? It's an amazing piece of musical and lyrical evolution from an artist who is constantly evolving. Oberst matters to music, and this record shows precisely why. Is it time for top ten lists yet?
All the clever things I wanted to say about Nil Recurring by Porcupine Tree ended up not being quite as clever as I thought. So I'll keep it simple. Porcupine Tree is one of the most exciting bands out there right now, and the amazing thing is that they've been around for almost 20 years. Most bands don't last half that long, and those that do tend to peak early and become dinosaurs. Porcupine Tree, on the other hand, has continued to grow and expand their musical palette, refusing to be pigeonholed into one genre and not being afraid to incorporate whatever sounds they feel fit the song. They're also not afraid to let a song take as long as it needs to get where it's going.
If you're a fan of Porcupine Tree and already own their previous full-length, Fear of a Blank Planet, buy Nil Recurring now. If you're not (yet) a fan of Porcupine Tree but are interested in trying something new and fresh, go buy Fear of a Blank Planet and Nil Recurring together, then listen to them as a single double-disc album. Simply put, Nil Recurring is not the best starting place for those who are not already fans, but it's a wonderful expansion of the themes explored on Fear of a Blank Planet.
The best analogy I can think of is the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The movies released in theaters were great, but the extended editions were even better. Trying to watch the extended footage on its own would leave you feeling dissatisfied; what you saw might be great, but it would be obvious you were missing the context. That's how I think of Nil Recurring.
The title track, which is the opening instrumental, is one of the most aggressive things Porcupine Tree has ever recorded, featuring some really sweet lead guitar work from King Crimson's Robert Fripp. It starts off rather lazily but builds into a frenzy over the course of its six minutes. In fact, all four songs here are excellent, taken individually. The problem, as I said before, is that they don't gel into a whole. When listened to back-toback with Fear of a Blank Planet, however, you can hear the recurring themes, both musically and lyrically.
So, do I recommend it? Yes, wholeheartedly. But not necessarily for neophytes. Granted, that's a relative term; after all, I only started listening to the band four months ago. In those four months, however, I've obtained all but three of their in-print releases (I'm a little OCD). Deadwing was my entry point, and it wasn't until I'd bought Fear of a Blank Planet and In Absentia that I finally heard Nil Recurring. Had it been my first exposure to Porcupine Tree, I'm not sure what I would have thought of it. I probably would have liked it enough to check out some of their other stuff...at some point in the future. But I don't think I'd have rushed right out and bought more -- and that would have been a shame, because I've discovered some incredible music in the last four months. Fortunately, that's not how I started off, and I can now appreciate Nil Recurring in its proper context. I encourage you to do the same.
Pushing Red Buttons
Foreign Film or Tango Dance?
Pushing Red Buttons' Foreign Film or Tango Dance? sounds like nothing so much as a lost Mike Patton project, or possibly a series of unreleased demos from Soul Asylum. All the best aspects of '90s alternative music are presented to the listener, and you had better be prepared for it. The album has an unavoidable sense of nostalgia for a time that might've been the last era when you could turn on to a major radio station and hear really good music.
That's not to say that all the songs are locked into a past groove with nothing to offer modern listener. In fact, the album is almost absurdly current and could be considered something of a different take on Green Day's American Idiot. Of particular note is the track "Girls Gone Stupid," which is about exactly what you think it's about. References to modern America's march toward idiocracy in the name religion, television, and a pathological need for the easy peek at a boob form the crust and topping in this bitter apple pie of an album.
All of this is presented, as well, with perhaps some of the greatest rhymesmithing heard on a rock album. The songs are incredibly lyric-heavy, with few instrumental breaks. Songwriter Steve Herrig (with the occasional assist from guitarist Rich Gaglia) always has something clever to say, however. His words and Gaglia's voice never falter, though singing along with the album might leave you a little out of breath if you don't stretch first.
Most of the album is like having sex in the closet at work; short, hard, and absolutely awesome. No new ground is being covered as far as bare musicianship is concerned. If you're looking for the next step in the world of tonal progressive brilliance then sorry, Mario, your princess is in another castle. This is a rock album for people who get the bad joke that is our current decade.
If there is a flaw to be pointed out, it's a sense that PRB feels themselves above the world they are commenting on. Whereas American Idiot was a tale of someone caught in the world of mindless suburbia, Foreign Film or Tango Dance? is more of a denunciation by someone too good to get their hands dirty. Few of the songs are written from a first-person perspective, and this robs us just a little of an emotional anchor for the message. Instead of tragedy and triumph (not necessarily in that order), we get a sort of jolly nihilism. It's a very minor point, though, all things considered.
To sum up, if you know what sucks, then you will know that this album doesn't. If you don't know what sucks, then this album is about you, and you are the problem.
An interesting coincidence happened to me the second time I listened to the Seximals' latest album Small Songs. Right as track five began playing in my car stereo, I noticed in my rearview mirror that a group of motorcyclists had pulled up behind me. The irony here is that the song I was listening to was entitled "I Dreamed About a Motorcycle Crash Last Night." The chance occurrence of visual aid arriving right as this particular song began, and the song itself, which deals with coping with a sudden death, made me think about the unpredictability of life.
Such is the nature of Small Songs, a record whose tracks betray their album's namesake by inviting much rumination over life's heavier subjects. Here Anthony Barilla, the man behind the music, has crafted eight dark, cinematic pop songs that, even in their sunnier moments, still have a few clouds on the horizon.
Before Barilla moved from Houston to Kosovo, he served as music director for the now-defunct theater group Infernal Bridegroom Productions, experience that is evident as Small Songs' soundscapes are lush and layered and its instrumentation varied. Case in point is second track "When The Lights Go Out." Beginning with an ominous, whiny clarinet and clattering percussion, the song quickly evolves into a danceable affair reminiscent of Dntel, with its programmed beats and bouncing bassline. When Barilla sings, "Ooh, I get a bad, bad feeling / When I'm stumbling around in the dark just the best that I can," it's hard to believe the lighthearted vibe throughout the song, and another lyric, "I'm pretty sure I had the time of my life when the lights went out," leads the listener to conclude that the darkness here is something to revel in rather than repel.
The second half of the album is devoted to more ballad-esque songs and is the stronger half. "L'Esprit D'Escalier"'s delicate acoustic guitar plucking and sharp harmonica squalls evoke a sort of Southern Gothic feel when Barilla sings in his baritone, "Where were you when the bottom dropped out / when the mine collapsed / when the canary died." The song continues to build toward a climax by way of bouncing low-end piano chords and stuttering violin, until all drop out and the same acoustic picking resumes, the harmonica whispers its last notes, and Barilla whispers the song's last lyrics.
The one detractor from an otherwise cohesive and beautiful album is the oddball blues stomp of "Year of The Drought." With its sing-speak vocals, jangled piano parts, and distorted guitar, the song sounds more like a Modest Mouse B-side than the rest of Barilla's work on the album. Though the record does feature a good bit of stylistic variation, "Year of The Drought" seems to be missing a certain unifying quality that the rest of the songs have, and for an album like Small Songs whose sum is greater than its parts, this is a noticeable flaw.
The motorcyclists behind me rode in tandem for the duration of the song, and shortly afterwards I turned and they rode on forward. Just as I wondered then where these four were going, I wonder excitedly now what Barilla will pull out of his orchestral bag of tricks to follow up the sublime Small Songs.
The Show Is The Rainbow
The Show Is The Rainbow
That Darren Keen, he's a wily one. Hailing from Omaha, NE, by way of Lincoln, Keen seems like the only act in Omaha not on Saddle Creek, and he is doing his damndest to make sure you don't mistake him for one of the litany of Conor Oberst disciples he shares a city with. And it's a smart move. It's difficult, I'd imagine, to get noticed in a town when Saddle-Creekers seem to be everywhere, but on The Show Is The Rainbow, Keen screams his way through ten songs, begging you to try and ignore him. You can't.
On "Up a Creek Without a Saddle," (which isn't on this record but is still interesting enough to note), Keen beefs with Oberst in ways that are often hilarious, sometimes even rather silly, but to nit-pick would be to miss the point. Keen is making his mark. One piece of advice, though, Darren: if you want to separate yourself from bands on Saddle Creek, for the love of Pete, stop touring with them. But that's neither here nor there -- on to the record review.
On this self-titled full-length on S.A.F. Records, Keen (the singular man behind The Show is the Rainbow) is trying to get noticed. On "I Am the Decline," he fretfully shouts (and raps, smooth it out) that he wants to be bigger than Jesus (which might be another jab at Oberst; who, let's face it, is bigger than Jesus, and why not?), but realizes that, until a major label comes calling, his screams are futile.
"Do the Skinny" laments the fact that girls these days only want to dance with boys who can wear girl's jeans, while "Safe Art" and "Waiting Not Working" both intelligently address the growing divide between popular music and art, telling us all that art is dying because gas prices are rising. Yeah, this dude's angry. Or maybe just ironic. I can't decide. But at just under 30 minutes (for 12 songs! Who the, what the...), The Song Is The Rainbow is a brilliantly catchy dance record that might just make you interested again.
SCR's own Scott Whitt lukewarmly reviewed sputnik Monroe's first effort, Wake the Sleeping Giant, back in 2007. In that review, his major criticisms seemed to be that Sputnik Monroe failed to live up to the experimental fusion of Muse and Mars Volta that they claimed to be. I can't speak knowledgably on the subject, as I'm only a passing Muse fan, am barely interested in Mars Volta, and don't own Wake the Sleeping Giant anyway. All I have to go on is Sputnik Monroe's latest release, We're Doomed.
The term "experimental" is thrown around today so much that it has lost all real meaning. Most bands seem to think all you need is a delay petal and all of the sudden you're Pink Floyd. To me, experimental is John Cage telling his audience that the show is over when the piano eats the bale of hay. Still, I will admit that We're Doomed is sufficiently left of the dial to warrant the label "oddball," at least. Set up as a five-chapter story, with two songs mimicking the multi-movements style of Green Day's "Jesus of Suburbia," We're Doomed is almost everything I ask for these days in a CD: it's short, it's weird, and it's got absolutely no chance of ever being on mainstream radio.
The atmosphere of the album cannot be denied. The air is so thick in these tracks I'm surprised my computer doesn't ooze an oily smoke. It's a fairly dark album, with Kevin Netzley's voice rarely exhibiting anything but a kind of desperate neediness. Still, many of the tracks rise out of the synth-y ambience to exhibit the smoother notes of ska or the revivalist energy of the Polyphonic Spree. The true mark of distinction of We're Doomed, however, is the seamless way that the album progresses. Often, you'll have no idea that you've switched to a new song, and with that in mind, you should view We're Doomed as a thirty-minute, one-song opera.
And that is the only real drawback of the album, if you can call it that. It really is one song played for thirty minutes. Now, it's a very very good song, don't get me wrong, but the album lacks any notable tempo changes, or even real key changes. There is not a lot of up and down in the musical presentation. Rather, you have a sort of continuous slope (is it up or down? Good question...) interspersed with brief rest stops for hamburgers and to use the bathroom. You are in for the long haul, and there is little to be gained by skipping to the end. The damn thing plays like a musical of Camus's The Stranger, ending on approximately the same melancholy note it began on.
Who's going to like We're Doomed? People who stand in the corner and look sad to make friends will like it. Librarians will like it. People who own one (and only one) Legendary Pink Dots Album will like it. People who prefer pencil drawings to watercolors will like it. Do you still believe in the Loch Ness Monster? Then you will probably like it. I like it.
There is something to be said about a band who unabashedly embraces their roots and in so doing makes music that appeals to an almost singular set of people who come from the same place. This approach has led to what has become a hugely popular genre of music: Americana. Stuyvesant is one of those bands. It's not Americana, though; it's not roots-rock, either. They're from Jersey. Call it Jers-emo.
Stuyvesant's official press release has an entire paragraph devoted to the origin of the band (they're named after an area in northeastern New Jersey, as well as the name of a liquor store where one of the members of the band worked as a teenager), and there are many, many, many references to various haunts in the Garden State littered throughout the press material I was sent (something about a statue and a brewery and a cannonball -- it's all very abstract -- but they're from Jersey, how abstract can it be? I'm kidding; I love the place).
Linden Calling, Stuyvesant's newest release (on Manual Phono Records), is what you'd expect it to be given the long list of famous Jersey rockers (The Boss, Jon Bon, Kool and the Gang, The Jonas Brothers). It's rock music. Plain and simple. Very similar to Bon Jovi's seminal New Jersey (released in 1988, two years after Slippery When Wet, and, in my mind, criminally neglected). If you want a rock and roll record, this one will do just fine. Its themes include the normals for rock and rollers -- drugs and sex and poker and so forth. There are also two mysteriously unnamed songs, unnamed for the sake of something in the name of rock and rollllll (though I'm not sure what that something is).
Linden Calling is solid, though. It's a fun ride through the landscapes of New Jersey (Exit 14 on the Jersey turnpike kicks ass), and there is a lot here for the fan of American rock and roll music. Loud but sweet guitars, extra-pound-y drums, lyrics that strike deep and stay there, and probably long-haired singing dudes. Really good stuff.
A Quick and Dirty Guide to War
Normally I can't stand it when bands use polysyllabic words too much, but The Velocet pulls it off on A Quick and Dirty Guide to War. They use words like "circumstance" and "coronation" without even rhyming them with other words. And I've never even heard the word "childrening" before, but it's in here, amidst some of the most interesting lyrics I've heard in a while.
If one were so inclined to read the liner notes, they'd read as if said lyrics were one long song/schizophrenic story, if that makes sense at all. On "Chinatown," they begin with, "I'm hurtling home again / A sad device / At the precipice / Of something fake intelligent, my friend / Still I'm not through." Nice. Then "O, Concertina" starts with, "And there's a garden; / There's a subway line / I'm cueing up the dominoes / To fall a second time." Also nice. Or how about the aforementioned "Coronation": "We lay black wreaths / Of circumstance / Three snakes weave / In and out of / Chance's eyeball." I'm not sure who that makes sense to, but there's got to be someone out there. I personally find it fascinating.
So the guys in The Velocet swagger gracefully along like an edgier version of The Killers or a less grandiose Bloc Party. Their sound is sharp and refined, as if they've been doing this for years. The music is driving and somehow honest without being arrogant. They sound like what you'd expect a band named The Velocet to sound like: mean and passionate, like your ex-girlfriend. There's lots of sweeping vocals and wavering feedback on the record, a very tightly produced one, and the guitar-work is punk-influenced and loud.
The band's '80s influence is subtle, unlike most bands from their genre these days. Sometimes Billy Idol glimmers through, sometimes it's The Cure. But The Velocet sews it all together into a noisy, confusing, progressive spin. Vocals are layered over distorted wails and hollers better than anything I've heard as of late. The album keeps going and going and it builds momentum to some heartfelt instant, and then it's time for the next song. The choruses are hard to differentiate from the bridges or the verses, but it works. The guys in The Velocet do a smashing job on A Quick and Dirty Guide to War. My only complaint is that it ends too quickly.
The Distorted Historian
I popped this shit in my CD player and genuinely knew within the first 30 seconds that this would not be a one-and-done listening. Not that I knew I was going to love it -- rather, that it was going to be one of those CDs where you really didn't know what to make of it at first. That's still a good sign. It made me uncomfortable, and it was on the fringes.
Imagine the guy from Crash Test Dummies doing his best to emulate the singer from Wolf Parade, then getting together with a goth chamber pop group, spitting out carnival tunes (case in point: "Sails"). Not exactly party music, but it's definitely a step outside the lines of most modern indie-rock. It's a mustache-scratching experiment of the highest order (see what I did there?).
The rumor is that these guys pieced together this album without even stepping in the same room together. I'm not buying that (at least two band members are related). Truth be told, a lot of the shit on this album seems like a couple guys dicking around -- but I'll bet money you will be hearing bigger and better things from these guys in the near future.
Bears in the Yukon
Roll up your sleeves and dig on this wack Explosions In the Sky cover band. On the one hand, all this fancy guitar noodling is hard to dismiss -- then, on the other hand, I feel like I should be watching Friday Night Lights as this shit pounds out of my truck while I wait to board the bus to the state high school football championship.
Apologies: I'm old and dismissive, but really -- these guys have no future in music unless they bring in a singer, actually start saying something, and start piecing together actual songs, as opposed to Pelican-meets-Phish jam sessions. Otherwise, it's all just lifestyle music, or the mixtape for your roadtrip across West Texas.