A Third Wish Granted
The Lost Art of Conversation: Vol. 1
If history has taught us anything, it's that bad things come in threes. Billy Mays, Michael Jackson, and Farah Fawcett all died in the same week -- in fact, they died within three days of one another. Coincidence, no. Cosmic law.
So I shouldn't be surprised that A Third Wish Granted are as awful as they are. Not only have they decided to form a band consisting of a trio, but they have included a form of three in their name. They're just asking for trouble with the latter. Can you actually think of a band that has some form of three in their name that you would want to see? 311? I'm not 12 anymore. Third Eye Blind? I'm not 14 anymore. Three Days Grace? Hell, no. If you're still reading this, then let's continue.
First, the promotional material is the biggest fabrication I've ever read. Sure, these things are meant to build up the band, but at least say something truthful. The material claims the band has "a distinct Arabian flavor" and an "in your face sound that's in the vein of Queen and Foo Fighters..." Lies. Outside of a few lyrics in Arabic and what can only be described as the half-assed fake oboe/mizmar/electric saxophone instrumentals on "Paranoia's Alter," nothing sounds Middle Eastern, not even with a stereotypical Arabic sound. Considering that System Of A Down have a deeper "Arabic" sound but are Armenian, A Third Wish Granted are a huge disappointment in the "ethnic sound" department.
So, Queen and Foo Fighters? This should be huge arena rock? Not quite. No fist-pumping guitar riffs or mind-blowing solos here; instead, we suffer through the straight-laced and soulless drumming of Erik Kreft, accompanied by the generic and over-distorted strumming of Jesse DeSanto. Even worse, instead of the operatic vocals of the great Freddie Mercury or the edge of Dave Grohl, we get the reject boy-band vocals of Mr. Alaeddin, whose poppy style is exemplified in the overly sappy and pathetic "Dearly Departed."
There is just so little to like about this CD -- even the cover art looks like the doodlings of a bored high school student who can't be bothered put in a good effort for this band. It might be cliché to say, but hey, this is a cliché band: the best thing about this CD is that it's only six tracks long and ends quickly.
So why does this band exist? Does the Buzz need more garbage? Possibly. My guess is that these guys must be in it for the ladies. The generic alternative sound? The awful love songs? Cut-off shirts and douchebag tribal tattoos? Sounds like pure shit to me. Chicks dig that?
I'll admit I didn't have high hopes for this album, a CD-R with a laser-printed CD sleeve and an unwieldy, pretentious-sounding name; I figured it was headed for a quick listen and then a toss on the ever-growing pile on the desk. Atlum Schema frontman/one-man show Andy Mort turns out to have some impressive surprises up his sleeve, however.
On Atlum Schema, he soars and spirals through eleven tracks' worth of dramatic, high-minded songcraft that brings to mind Peter Gabriel at times ("Closing the Doors"), Baby Bird at others ("Gunfight At the O.k. Corral"), and even a less-precious Radiohead ("Feeling About for Conformity in the Dark", "Ink Star") every once in a while. He layers swooping electronics and a heavy keyboard/organ haze over his alternately defiant and angelic vocals, throws on some interesting beats, and the result is a blindside shot of murky, impassioned retro-'80s pop.
Through it all, he's so damn intense and sincere and socially-conscious (I think?) lyrically that I can't even poke a stick at it; his lyrics work nicely, evoking an almost irresistible urge to punch the air and march along, but stay vague and anti-Big Evil enough to be mysterious. On some of the tracks on here, like the aforementioned "Gunfight," Mort's delivery is seriously reminsicent of New Model Army's Justin Sullivan -- it's strident and fearless, even if I've got no clue what, exactly, Mort is railing against.
By that point, though, it no longer matters anyway, and I'm just drifting along with the swooning, thundering music. By the time Atlum Schema rolls on to the beautiful roar of "Warning Light," I can't turn away. It's sweet and wondering and furiously angry, all at once; maybe what Mort's railing against, in the end, is the world at large?
I once had to make the agonizing drive from Houston to Los Angeles in one sitting. From the grueling scorch of land between San Antonio and El Paso through the mind-hell that is Arizona, I really wish that I'd had Blackwood Company's debut album, Forbidden Fruit, with me. The album begins with a fluttery synth and a distant guitar, and as soon as the first song drops in, you immediately feel that you should be driving cross-country in a convertible with the wind in your hair.
At first listen, you'd definitely think that Blackwood Company offers light, sunny, upbeat fare wrapped in diverse musicianship and crafty guitar solos. This is due in part to the bright acoustic guitars and melodic vocal harmonies, but upon closer inspection, you realize that the songs have a slightly darker presence that belies their upbeat feel.
Forbidden Fruit took the better part of a year for singer/songwriter John Stuart and guitarist Stephen "Sven" Shirl to write and record. John handled most of the songwriting duties on his acoustic guitar, and it's the songwriting, by far, that makes the album so enjoyable. Don't get it twisted, mind you -- Sven can rip a guitar solo, and Dan Hassay is a monster on drums, but the songwriting is both crafty and personal, deeply melancholy and entertaining and is the heart that pulls you into the songs.
In "Indie Blues Pt. 1," John bemoans, "It's hard as hell playing to an empty room / Told the manager all my fans'll be here soon," which every local band in Houston can at one time or another relate to. He cleverly tells of the traps and pitfalls that make up the local music scene, and the problems that confront every band at one time or another. Then there's the scathing admonition of Fred Phelps in the song "Reverend Phelps," where John reminds the reverend, "Reverend Phelps, God don't hate a soul he made / Even demagogues who decry gay pride parades."
There's definitely more than a hint of Beck here and a touch of Liz Phair, which John openly admits is an influence. The album also has a mildly erratic nature. You'll hear keyboards and synths in one song, and a didgeridoo on instrumental track "When the Bees Go..." The songs will swing from a pop acoustic feel to rockabilly to bluesy love ballads.
Nevertheless, the diverseness is never distracting, and the album never loses the cohesive character that John and Sven stamp on it. If anything, it just feels more an extension of who John and Sven are as musicians and possibly a byproduct of listening to too much Beck. So anytime you have the notion of making a 22-hour nonstop trip across the country, be sure to take Blackwood Company with you. I even hear that John will play acoustic in your back seat.
Does It Offend You, Yeah?
You Have No Idea What You're Getting Yourself Into
If you're a fan of The Faint, you're either going to really love this album or really hate it. The sound is actually so similar it kind of freaks me out at times; however, I'd say I fall into the category of Faint fans that really love this album. It's one the best albums I've discovered recently and is definitely worth a listen.
Does It Offend You Yeah is a British electronic band that formed in 2006, and You Have No Idea What You're Getting Yourself Into is the band's debut album, released in 2008. I don't think they could have done any better on their first time around. The album is heavy, with a darker feel to it -- very dance-punk. You Have No Idea opens with "Battle Royal," a heavy electronic track with no lyrics; words aren't needed to grab any eager listener's attention. When I first listened to the album, I was a little hesitant with how it began -- I'm not a huge fan of music with no lyrics, and I tend to get kind of bored. This opening track was different, however. After listening to the entire album, I think beginning the record this way was genius. It captures the essence of the band's sound, but leaves a little mystery, as well. As the album continues and unfolds, lyrics are added to most of the songs. It's like the icing on the cake -- everything is now complete.
Another track thrown in the middle of the album, "Attack of the 60 Ft Lesbian Octopus," doesn't have lyrics but is another fun track. These two lyric-less tracks really work on the album. They're not slow-moving, experimental tracks that make you want to scream with frustration and hope they're almost over. This is straight-up, fast-paced electronica, and it works, enough to get any group of people moving at any dance party.
Throwing in lyrics only makes the album better, and to top it off, most of the lyrics are convincing and honest. On one of my favorite tracks, "Dawn of the Dead," the band sings: "Like the dead that walk before me therein / I can't believe that you ignore me, such a shame / I didn't come here to try and hurt you, you hurt me / I'll never sit back and say, 'That'll do,' I'm afraid."
There is not a song on this album that I don't like, and for me, that's rare. The album is unified in sound, but each song has something different. I can put this album in and listen to it all the way through and still not get enough. Although the album's sound as a whole is quite similar to many Faint songs, I think You Have No Idea What You're Getting Yourself Into is more pop than anything The Faint has ever done. The songs are pop-y enough to get stuck in your head after the first time you listen to them. "Epic Last Song," the final track, is a great way to end the album -- it ends even stronger than it began.
I'd say this is one of the best albums from 2008. Does It Offend You, Yeah? is now working on its follow-up album, which is expected to be released sometime this year. I honestly can't wait to see what the band has in store. I'm only nervous that since the band's debut album was so great, I may have too high of expectations for the follow-up.
Foreign Cinema's Non-Synchronous Sound EP is pretty low-key. The four songs, "Arbitrary Map Mode," "At the Bottom of the Deep Blue Sea," "Ice Machine," and "Lovers and Killers," have creative names but little to offer in the creative department, as far as the music goes. The music fits into the shoegaze category, so for those who enjoy this genre, the CD may be satisfactory. This style can be done quite well, but the problem is that Sigur Ros has already done it, and their long, drawn-out songs build into new territory that Foreign Cinema's songs never reach. Once one track fades away, the next song begins, and the CD finishes quickly without leaving a mark behind. All tracks sound relatively the same: light, sleepy, and atmospheric, with almost no vocals.
Foreign Cinema comes from the UK. The band's two members, frontman/guitarist Dave Han and bassist Natty D, are featured on the CD cover in black and white, one on the front and the other on the back, lending a laid-back feel which compliments their sound. They represent themselves in a way which doesn't serve to surprise the listener when the music begins. This is their first official release, which may be a reason for its simplicity. The emphasis for this band is clearly on the calming sound of the music, which is great to play in the background but doesn't necessarily push someone to see them live or purchase a CD. After listening to it, I found I could easily forget it by tomorrow, if not a few hours later.
Franz Ferdinand's Tonight is the Scottish rockers' third release since their inception in 2002. Released in January of this year, the album is at best hit-and-miss.
I have to admit that musically, it's worse than I expected. While at times there are some solid jams on display and somewhat creative rhythms at work, as a whole everything seems hampered by unremarkable lyrics and wordplay, thin-sounding recording, boring vocals, and singer Alex Kaprono's general inability to nail the Britpop-party vibe he's shooting for.
It's likely Franz Ferdinand is destined to live on for "Take Me Out," if for no other reason than it being an ideal song for pitching changes and time-outs at sporting events, but nothing here matches their big hit's catchiness. Many songs seem like lazy afterthoughts with patchwork electronics just filling in the gaps. On "Lucid Dreams," there are some cool psychedelic sounds, but don't try to find the heart of the song -- it's not there.
"Twilight Omens" starts off like an XTC throwaway with charming keyboards, and at just over two minutes, it's tolerable. "Bite Hard" and "No You Girls," I'm guessing are the singles, with that FF trademark anthem-like chorus (yawn). "Live Alone" has cool liquid synths like a Kraftwerk song, but that can't save it. There are some disco-funk-flavored tracks that miss the mark, as well (instead, just grab some A Certain Ratio). "Send Him Away" is the closest thing to a winner here, with its Soft Boys-meet-Ventures vibe, but I would have dug it more as an instrumental.
Chalk it up to hype over substance; of course, years ago Franz Ferdinand was one of "those" bands, the type of band that gets loads of praise in press like Pitchfork, Shortlist (does that even exist anymore, and if so, why?), and other major media outlets masquerading as "indie journalism." One of "those" bands, when there are tons of groups mining similar territory with loads more creativity; I'd dump the singer & songwriter, but it's probably his band, so what do I know? They're the ones who've sold a million records.
[Franz Ferdinand is playing 8/8/09 at Toyota Center, along with Green Day.]
From Autumn To Ashes
Live at Looney Tunes
From Autumn To Ashes' Live at Looney Tunes captures the band's classics in their live form for the fans, giving in to the all-out jams of post-hardcore and metal. It has the energy and atttiude of any other band and, at that same time, it has a personal feel that's rarely recorded live, especially with bands like these.
The thing I didn't like about the release is the lack of substance; it doesn't really seem to change but is more of a snapshot of the band's sound. It seems too drawn-out at times, but I know that some fans really like that, considering that this is a metal record. And being somewhat of a fan myself, I can say that a lot will enjoy this; I must say, though, that this really is more for the diehard FATA fan than anyone else.
White Night White Night
I've always thought of The Velvet Underground as a band that was less about songs and more about a general feeling, a kind of sleepy-yet-restless nervousness that's raw and wide-open and pretty much uniquely urban. To this kid from partly-rural central Texas, the VU was like the sound of Noo Yawk, the dirty, unpretty side of Manhattan that's been plastered and painted over (for the most part) in the ensuing decades. Some of the songs I liked and some just gave me a damn headache, but it didn't matter in the end, because what I got out of it was that feeling, like I was standing out there on the street corner with 'em, looking around nervously and smoking and wondering when The City would step out and eat me alive.
After listening to Guitars' White Night White Night, I'm thinking maybe they get that feeling from those old VU albums, too. I'll admit, the album's title makes it hard to escape the White Light/White Heat comparison, but it's in the band's sound, as well. The guitars are sharp-edged but half-aware, drifting around lazily in a cloud of knives that occasionally brush the skin, while April5k's bass and J.D.'s drums rumble and bubble beneath and primary singer Pope Jon PPPP talk/sings in a near-monotone over the top. The effect is so laidback as to be nearly narcotic, even on faster, more energetic, guitar-heavy tracks like "I'd Never Lie," which has some seriously "Satisfaction"-ish guitars.
I don't mean to say, by the by, that Guitars are some VU tribute, because they go far, far beyond those boundaries in terms of music; like I said, I'm thinking more just the general feel, here. Music-wise, they're a lot more mellow and rural than Lou Reed and company could ever manage, taking the mid-fi urban grime and making it less grimy and more, well, dusty and lonesome.
Looking towards more contemporary folks, I see some close kinship to fellow retro-'60s/'70s ramblers The Duchess and the Duke, although those two fuse far more Byrdsian jangle into their sound than the Guitars crew. Still, though, there's a similar bitter/tired darkness going on in both bands, and a very similar warm-yet-bleak feel.
"It's Probably Inevitable," for its part, channels the ghost of some long-gone girl-group from the wrong side of the tracks (vocals courtesy, I believe, of keyboardist/guitarist Stacey, although I can't be sure) for a head-nodding, damaged yet beautiful meander that's halfway between The Cowboy Junkies and the Vandelles, with guitars that start out twangy and echoey and morph into a psych-blues raveup by the song's end. "Not This Time" is similarly sleepy and melancholy, with downbeat vocals from Pope Jon PPPP that make you want to find a cool, dark place and open your wrists.
The high point for me comes with "The Black Mass," probably the fiercest/fastest thing the band does on White Night; it's helped along by the urgent "Watch out, watch out!" backing vocals and the twisting, corkscrewing guitar riff that brings to mind the Fatal Flying Guilloteens.
Weirdly, the one track on here that I'd heard prior to the full-length, "Waiting For A Good Time," is significantly improved from the version I'd heard (can't remember where, unfortunately). It's the odd man out here, starting with an odd little speech and some party chatter, then riding a coolly Sonic Youth-ish groove and see-saw guitar riff, with April5k serving in Kim Gordon's stead. It's pretty appropriate, really, that this comes at the very end of the album -- if it'd been dropped somewhere in the middle, it would've totally derailed the overall mood.
Which, again, seems to me to be pretty much the point of the album as a whole. Give it a little time; I wasn't sure what to make of White Night at first, so it just eyed me from the corner for a while 'til I could really get a grasp on it. Once I did, though, I was sold.
[Guitars is playing its CD release 8/15/09 at Cactus Music, 3PM.]
The Sleeping Eye
Hailing from the hipster central town of Austin, Iron Age offers their latest, The Sleeping Eye, for all to enjoy. Hopefully.
When you see any album from Tee Pee Records, there's a good chance that it should come equipped with rolling papers. While there are snippets of traditional stoner rock on here, Iron Age offers up a sound that is more in line with a poor man's High on Fire or a less polished Mastodon. "Dispossessed" offers an old-school feel that rides the line between homage and parody, which may be due to the fact that the band has somewhat of a crossover hardcore background. This becomes quite obvious when listening to "Burden of Empire," as it echoes the legendary D.R.I.
The Sleeping Eye maintains that feel for the rest of the album, mainly due to its very repetitive, chugging guitars and screaming vocals that sound like they are struggling more than singing. The stoner does show its head, though, on album closer "The Way is Narrow" -- the 11-minute track features guitars slower than molasses in Alaska infused with leaves of aggression.
The album has some enjoyable parts, but after two or three tracks, you feel like you've heard it before. Probably because you have.
[Iron Age is playing 8/30/09 at Walter's on Washington, along with Weedeater, Dixie Witch, & Bowel.]
There's a lot to like on La Snacks' Newfangled EP, with all its throwback-ness to my own personal indie-rock heyday, when Pavement was great, The Pixies and Sebadoh were gods, and Spoon weren't famous yet. It's got a great, fuck-it-all looseness to it, oozing so much Malkmusian laidback ease that the sound at times threatens to knock you unconscious. The guitars are totally '90s-esque, dirty-but-not-grimy and unlayered as hell, with just one guitar switching back and forth between crunching chords and quasi-tonal Black Francis lines (the band's apparently a five-piece, by the way, but I've got no clue why they need all those people, since they sound like a power trio). Plus, the band originally hails from sister city Beaumont, which always makes me puff up with Southeast Texan pride.
And lyrically, while a few of the lines are clunkers, even those somehow stick; I cringe every time Robert Segovia gets to the "I'll be your Neville Chamberlain / You can have my Sudetenland" line in opener "Kristin Was A Meteorologist," but I'll be damned if I don't catch myself muttering it under my breath half a dozen times a day. The rhythms shamble and stumble, meandering along heavy-lidded, like you just stumbled on the band jamming in their practice space and they really don't care if you're watching; see the Spoon-meets-Weezer ramble of "Devil Has Left the Building" for proof.
Then there's "Jackson 88," both the literal midpoint and high point of the album, all triumphant and addictive, with a beautiful, New Pornographers-esque cascading guitar line and some bitter, ambiguous lyrics about family (love the "I was raised by loudmouths" bit) and childhood. I can't figure out how Segovia gets from a Jesse Jackson t-shirt on a sidewalk in 1979 to Jackson's actual political runs in '84 and '88, but hell, I don't mind. It's a brilliant little burst of indie-rock glory, one seemingly tailor-made for a mixtape you give your closest friends.
The Lonely H
If you miss the classic rock of the '70s before it got caught up in the hit-making machinery of AOR radio, or you recently discovered the musical gems hidden in your parent's album collection, then Concrete Class, by The Lonely H, is an album you'll want to hear. Released in June of this year, the band's relentless tour schedule over the past three years shows through in the road-weary wisdom and yearning of its songs. So does the influence of the music they've been listening to while traveling, which includes country legends Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. Even if you're not that into country, though, don't head for the door just yet. The country influences are unmistakable, but the album is through and through good-time rock 'n roll, bringing in the best of greats like The Band, The Faces, and The Eagles, with echoes of southern-fried rock like The Allman Brothers and The Marshall Tucker Band.
Listening to these guys, it's impossible to tell that the oldest member of the band is a mere 21 years old. Mark Fredson is also the tallest, a 6' 7" lead singer with an amazing set of pipes. Ben Eyestone is the drummer, and brothers Eric and Johnny Whitman are the guitarist and bassist, respectively. With talent to spare, they've managed to take their many classic rock influences and make them into something all their own, a heartfelt and authentic rock and roll that sounds almost time-warped straight from the '70s.
Songs like "Cold Blues," "Going Out West," and "Other Side of the Water" are standouts and provide the foot-stompin' get-up-and-boogie energy of the album. "Singer" shows a more mellow side, definitely influenced by The Eagles, and "Phoenix" is a lament about missing a lover that calls up those aforementioned southern rock influences. Another favorite of mine is "The River," a stripped-down song with just acoustic guitar and some sweet, sweet harmonies. The whole album hangs together very well and has a warm, approachable sound, no doubt helped by the fact that the band recorded the whole thing in analog without any digital influences until it was pressed to CD.
This is feel-good music for warm summer days and cool summer nights. So tilt yourself back in your chair, kick up your feet, and let The Lonely H rock your soul. Better yet, get your sweet self to Rudyard's Friday, August 14 and boogie with the band live. This is definitely one you don't want to miss.
[The Lonely H is playing 8/14/09 at Rudyard's, along with Fake Believe.]
Back in 1998, Rawkus Records released Black Star, featuring the iconic debut of Mos Def and Talib Kweli as the hip-hop duo Black Star. One year later, Mos Def released his critically acclaimed solo album, Black on Both Sides, solidifying himself as a socially aware and truly gifted MC. Things then took a sharp turn south. His second album, The New Danger, missed the creativity and freshness of Black on Both Sides, while his third album, True Magic, seemingly lacked any real effort and can barely be considered an album. Ten years down the road, and Mos Def has yet to live up to the potential he displayed on that debut solo album. If Mos Def wants to avoid the has-been label, things need to change with The Ecstatic, Mos Def's newest record.
Thankfully, The Ecstatic is a return to what made Mos Def great: the ability to weave in metaphors with the lyrical agility that most MCs lack. As obvious as it sounds, lyrics make or break for hip-hop, and it appears that Mos Def has rediscovered his ability to craft a great verse. Gone are the self-seeking lyrics and lazy poetry of the last two albums; instead we're treated to a barrage of lyrical gems. In "Quiet Dog Bite Hard," Mos Def calls out the whole wack-MC sound by claiming, "They flow so petty, unsteady, it's boring / These dudes ain't throwin, they yawnin' / They need to get off it / So 'wack rap' is all you can call it / Therefore move it on to Def for stimulus." The subject matter is back to what Mos does best, as well, relating his life through brilliant observational lyrics. "Life in Marvelous" describes Bed-Stuy Brooklyn in 1982 as a place where, "The windows on the ave look like sad eyes / They fix their sharp gaze on you when you pass by / and if you dare to stand, you can see 'em cry."
It's not just his lyrics that are better, though -- it's not that he hasn't tried to incorporate new sounds and styles in previous albums, it was just so unsuccessful. The Ecstatic has found the right balance between hip-hop beats and the other, with beats ranging from the aggressive and brass-heavy "Twilite Speedball," by the Neptunes, to the classic hip-hop sound and looped R&B samples in "History," by the late J Dilla. Mos Def even does a little experimentation in "Casa Bey," a song that's one part funk and one part music for a 1970s game show. While conceptually bizarre, it all works well with Mos Def's lyrical style.
Listen to The Ecstatic, and you can't help but wonder what happened to Mos Def. It's as if Mos knew that his last two albums were terrible and now speaks and rhymes with the passion of someone who has something to prove, someone with a chip on his shoulder. This is the Mos Def we'd hoped for and expected after Black on Both Sides. With rumors of a new Black Star album in the pipelines, it's good to know that Mos Def still has it.
[Mos Def is playing 8/19/09 at House of Blues, along with Jay Electronica.]
"Retro" has become a bad word in the musical world. First we had the '70s stoner bands, the neo-thrash bands, and the revival of glam. So what's a band like Nebula supposed to do, when they were retro before retro was a cool, and subsequently uncool, thing to be?
Their newest release, Heavy Psych, attempts to get one foot outside of their psychedelic/stoner box while keeping a Birkenstock-wearing one safely still in. While it does retain many of the standards and trademarks of said genre, what accompanies the psych are some slivers of -- gasp! -- pop.
This is not to say that they are trying to become something akin to Shinedown (oh, the horror...). What they have done, instead, is taken off the fuzzed-out edges and allowed some of the songs to breathe.
[Insert bong or smoking joke here.]
Listen to "The Dagger" or "The Other Side," and the guitars and vocals sound a lot cleaner, and the organ gives it a nice feel. Now, long-time fans shouldn't fret too much, as the back half of the album will make them feel like Spicoli and friends climbing out of their van in Fast Times and Ridgemont High. "Dude that's my skull!"
"Dream Submarine" and "Little Yellow Pill" should make the hashers happy just on name alone. Musically, the guitars distortion gets cranked, vocals get fuzzed up, and structure gives way to feel.
Heavy Psych is not two halves of a whole, as the album flows easily even with the new influences. While some may argue that the "heavy" of Heavy Psych is lacking, what's present is a band that's learned that knobs go two ways for a reason.
[Nebula is playing 8/31/09 at Walter's on Washington, along with The Entrance Band, Trian Woodburns, & Ghost Town Electric.]
One Small Step For Landmines
If You Could Get Over Me
It's hard to resist the temptation to compare Floridians (er, Floridian, at this point) One Small Step For Landmines and the significantly better-known Dashboard Confessional. Beyond the geographic kinship, both are shifting band/solo acts focused around punk-rock-bred guys playing hearts-on-sleeves, sweet, jangly, emo-boy acoustic pop songs, both are utter romantics who deal with love won, lost, and celebrated in myriad ways, and both have appealing, guy-next-door voices that can go from gentle melody to desperate howl at the flick of a switch.
Listen blind to most of the tracks on the free-download EP If You Could Get Over Me
(get it here
), and odds are that you'll think you're listening to the latest from Chris Carraba and company. In spite of all that, though, singer/guitarist Kevin Allen manages to distinguish himself over the course of this handful of songs, and while the Dashboard Confessional feel does stick, it doesn't hurt things any. If the songs sound like Carraba's, they sound like they're among his best.
And while Carraba seems to move further towards lush orchestration and full-band stuff with each album, this album's actually a stripped-down version of One Small Step For Landmines, with the band stepping aside to let Allen take the reins all on his own with just his voice, guitar, and these unassumingly beautiful songs. He starts with the warm, up-close "If You Could Get Over Me," with its wonderfully sweet, nimble guitars and lyrics like a cheerier, more okay-with-the-world Elliott Smith, and dives headlong into restrained heartbreak, wishing goodbye to a love who can't reconcile his big-stage dreams with their loathing of the band life.
"Aluminum Can Strings" is more languid and endearing, mellow but world-weary, all about dealing with the trials of a long-distance relationship, while "I Woke Up" is jangly and yearning, with Allen playing the bad guy at the end of something -- when he declares, "nobody will ever treat you worse / 'cause I was first," he doesn't even really sound that sorry about it. He knows it's spin, just a justification, but he also knows that that's how a love crumbles.
The crowning moment here comes halfway through the EP, with "New York, On Purpose," a pitch-perfect snapshot of a night spent on tour in NYC that becomes one of those nights you'll remember for the rest of your life not because it was spectacular in some way but just because everything felt absolutely perfect. Allen's voice here is smiling and serene, beaming as he reels back and lets the memory play, and it's beautiful and elegaic and thoughtful, making you feel the cool city breeze across the rooftops and yearn for the blissful freedom of getting lost in a city that's not your own.
Oppressed by the Line
There's something fascinating to me about the ties between music and place -- how a certain sound, song, or voice can immediately evoke somewhere you've been, something you've seen, and immediately pull you inexorably back to the exact moment when you first experienced it. I'd be willing to bet everyone's got those moments; hell, movie soundtracks are essentially built around the very premise. I know I've got my own, like the way I can't help but think of roaming the woods of summer camp when I hear the first Enya album, or the Irish countryside when I hear The Pogues' version of "Waltzing Matilda," or a dusty train station outside Tangier when I hear Destiny's Child's "Survivor" (no, seriously).
All of which goes somewhat to explain, I think, why I'm getting into Oppressed by the Line's Kiku EP so much. OBTL music-maker Jonathan Thompson, ex-Of Normandy, ex-The Wash, and sometimes ex-Houston, came up with the songs on the EP while visiting Japan back in 2006, so the whole thing plays like an auditory postcard/journal of the trip, music as travelogue. And as travelogues of this sort go, it's a remarkably alluring one, marrying a lush/ethereal dreampop haze to restrained-yet-beautiful beats and synths and bringing to mind folks like Ulrich Schnauss (particularly on opener "Mountain Mist") and M83.
The aforementioned opener, for example, starts off with nice, gamelan-sounding percussion, then shifts upwards into a beat-driven cloud of melody, while "Sunset from the 16th Floor" is shimmering and ephemeral, gorgeous and gone far, far too soon -- although that's appropriate, given the inspiration/title of the track itself. It's electronic, yet warm and stunningly bright, with crystalline keys drifting over the top and an almost Tangerine Dream-esque harmony (and yes, that's a compliment).
"One Thousand Red Stars," for its part, is M83 all the way, complete with those thick, all-encompassing synth sounds; I find myself loving the calm, implacable single drum thumping along in the background. Then there's "Shinkansen," part of which Thompson apparently literally recorded on a bullet train across Japan; the train sounds eventually get swallowed by the solid-sounding Underworld lines Thompson slowly layers on, transforming the track into a speedy, sleek piece of robot-pop that moves along with the clean, efficient precision of (okay, never having been to Japan, I'm guessing, here) its namesake trains.
My personal favorite, though, has to be "Paper Cranes" -- I can't help but dig the steadily-building beats and vocals that sound like they're being broadcast from inside the airlock of a space station somewhere high above the planet (complete with the cool little electronic beep that precedes Thompson's vocal lines). Once the guitars switch on, covering the whole thing with a woolly blanket of fuzzed-out melodic noise reverently swiped from Kevin Shields, I'm fully sold. Majestic and awesome, with all the open-mouthed wonderment you should feel at discovering a new place for yourself.
Chris Schutz + Tourists
Let me start off by saying that I've never seen this much variety in a single record; I have to compliment Mr. Schutz for his combination of jazz, blues, lullaby-type songs, and Spanish flair. I think Gemini has the potential to be a good record, but without any sort of general theme at all, it's just more up-and-coming singer/songwriter stuff that honestly becomes sort of, well, already done, so to speak. I will say, though, that there's a range of influences here, ranging from Paul McCartney to Bob Dylan -- this isn't the hip new exciting record it wants to be, but while being groovy at times, it's really for the older crowd.
Such Hawks Such Hounds
In the overflowing racks of DVDs at your local record store, the subject of stoner rock has long been neglected. The void has now been filled, however, with the release of Such Hawks Such Hounds. The film is the culmination of three years work by John Srebalus, a first-time director who seeks to expose one hard rock's many subgenres. While any documentary on stoner rock is very welcome, Srebalus has unfortunately delivered a very disjointed and confusing result.
Such Hawks Such Hounds starts off with a timeline beginning with Sabbath, plus a nice piece on Pentagram; the American band is one of those underground influences that get sadly overlooked. Then the timeline becomes almost inconsequential, as there's a piece on Earthless, a band who was not born when Pentagram was formed. This is nothing against that band, by the way, as their live piece is outstanding, not to mention bassist Mario Rubalcaba's explanation of the "cosmic nod."
The film continues in the same vein, with a look back and then a piece on a modern band. While that may be acceptable, what isn't is some of the bands included. There is Fatso Jetson, a blues band complete with a harmonica-playing frontman. The fact that they refer to themselves as a blues band should have been Clue Number One for the director. When guitarist Mario Lalli says, "a clean tremolo can sound so evil that it makes Black Sabbath sound like Peggy Lee," however, that should've been the proverbial final straw. They seem to be included because they were signed to SST Records.
Srebalus seems to play up the alt-rock and punk influence more than it really should be. Case in point is the inclusion of über-producer Jack Endino and Mudhoney's Mark Arm. Their inclusion wouldn't have been so bad, but it comes at the expense of Wino, generally regarded as the grandfather of stoner rock -- although after watching this film, you wouldn't get that impression. It's sickening that the director was able to land him and then to not fully expand on his influence. Instead, he chooses to spend more time of Arik Roper and others on "the art of stoner rock." Maddening.
That said, there are several good parts to Such Hawks. For one, the classic Sleep album, Jerusalem, is justly given its due. The 58-minute, one-song album is covered in detail, from the long and tiring recording to its mishandling by the record label, London Records. The label was so confused on what to do, partly because the band had broken up by the time it was released. The groups that rose from Sleep's ashes, OM and High on Fire, are both featured extensively.
One of the more interesting things Srebalus does is to touch on the pot influence of stoner rock. What's curious is how many bands apparently didn't like the tag, because they thought it gave them an unfair stigma. Also mentioned is how all the bands know they will never "make it" and the sacrifices that they make to keep playing.
Subjects aside, the film is not well-produced. It feels disjointed for the most part, and the timeline graphic used never seems to matter. There are many points brought up -- like how important Man's Ruin Records was -- that are never followed up on or further explained. My biggest complaint, though, is that Srebalus never does a complete job of explaining what "stoner rock" is. There are some cursory attempts at the beginning of the film, but they're never developed. I've read Wino's explanation, that stoner rock is the type of music that makes you feel like you are stoned, and to me that's the perfect genre definition. Of course, if Wino was given more time, we might have heard that in the film, but no such luck.
Reviewing Vetiver's latest release, Tight Knit, has been a most pleasant experience. Self-classified as "Thrash/Black Metal/Christian Rap"on their MySpace page -- proof positive the band does have a sense of humor -- the band tends to get tagged as "Freak Folk" or "crippled pigeon music" by reviewers, although most bands within this genre apparently prefer something more along the lines of "Naturalism" or "Naturalismo," as proposed by Vetiver singer/songwriter Andy Cabic's musical counterpart Devendra Banhart. To a new listener, it might be described as easy-listening folk-style music with soft and subtle arrangements and vocals.
There's an element of humility running throughout, which may be traced back to Andy's seemingly tranquil demeanor. There's a really nice French interview with Cabic at http://www.hi-nu.com/event/vetiver.php
(it's in English, with French subtitles), if you're interested knowing more about his life, work, his very first guitar, and the one he tours with -- not to mention get a glimpse of his angelic-looking face.
In the album's first song, "Rolling Sea," he sweetly sings, "Wouldn't you like to be out on the rolling sea / What if your friends were there laughing at all your jokes and shit / Wouldn't that be good? You know it would." Light, intricate acoustic guitar and arrangements get you thinking, "hell, yeah, that'd be good -- and just exactly where are my friends!?" Further on he sings, "Nothing escapes the rolling sea / not the past or you or me." I can feel the hair against my face as the cool ocean breeze passes me gently...oops, that's only my bedroom fan; but seriously, it's fun to dream along with Andy.
"More of This" is a timely upbeat melody, much needed amidst the collection of other rather gentler works, and somehow manages to get me boppin' along, lifts my spirits, and also happens to be my favorite song on the album. This is one of the few songs that I can literally listen to over and over and over again without any qualms about it -- meanwhile possibly annoying any well-meaning vehicle passenger of mine. More likely, I'll teach them to enjoy such good musical stylings themselves.
"On the Other Side" is a quant narrative of Andy's aversion to the unnecessary business of being busy in the modern world, not to mention a valuable moral tale. At first listen, though, a proverbial red flag goes up in my mind's eye. "Wait just a minute here, Andy," I think to myself -- how do you keep so calm at all times? Are you really being true here? Are you not guilty of flipping off the occasional commuter, loudly blowing off steam in a public place, or just all-around freaking out every now and again? Are you so well-behaved that I should take lessons in composure from you? Now, having listened to the song repeatedly, I've come to believe that he is being honest and most likely has a very, very calm disposition.
"Sister" is a song where Cabic pleads for his sister to come back home, partly because, "Mom and dad are mad at me..." I can't help but become attached to this song, as it could very well have been my little brother crying out to me during my recent travels to Colorado, hurriedly leaving Houston, my family, and my friends far behind me.
Tight Knit is guaranteed to lower your blood pressure immediately, or your money back. I highly recommend purchasing this album to drive long distances across the countryside or just chill out on the seashore. When the album comes to an end, I can promise you that you won't mind replaying it time and again.
And when it comes to album covers, the old adage isn't always true. I believe that often times you can judge an album by its cover, and so is the case with this diamond. Quality musical creativity is usually reflected in quality artwork. The dark blue, black, and white cardboard bi-fold is well-designed, with starry nighttime constellations and a dense black forest of painted trees all against a background of what appears to be an old school record.
I find the lyrics and music here to be quite heartfelt, well thought-out, honest, and intelligent -- qualities oftentimes hard to come by in this age of incessant musical fodder and empty musical calories. Tight Knit proves itself a lyrical memory book worthy of keeping within arms' reach.
The band is currently starting out on their European tour, joined by Beach House, which will make for a fantastic sight to see and hear if you feel like taking a little 9-hour flight.
The Mirror Explodes
Psychedelic music often gets a bad rap for its close kinship to '60s hippie culture. Despite modern psychedelic rock's distance from its groovier brethren, its dedication to mind-altering substances often does the music more harm than good. Early psychedelic music was the result of a time, mostly, while much of today's psych rock relies too heavily on the style rather than the substance.
The Warlocks are as guilty of this as any band, as was evidenced by the band's last album, Heavy Deavy Skull Lover. The Bay Area stoners redeem themselves with their latest release, however. The Mirror Explodes still reflects the band's dark, brooding sound, but longtime fans will appreciate frontman Bobby Hecksher's ability to create new material that doesn't sound completely rehashed.
While nothing on The Mirror Explodes has the instant addictiveness of anything on Phoenix or Surgery, "Standing Between The Lovers Of Hell" and the wonderfully drone-y "There Is A Formula To Your Despair" are among the album's best. Each song is classic Warlocks material, full of fuzzy feedback and low-key melodies, but the latter is the closest thing to a ballad Hecksher has written -- it never builds to an explosive peak the way the band's songs typically do -- while the other capitalizes on the group's strongest points: drawn-out intros, soft-spoken vocals, and catchy (for The Warlocks, anyway) choruses. "Frequency Meltdown," the album's token instrumental jam, is a shoo-in for being great live, which is how the band's music is best experienced.
[The Warlocks are playing 8/22/09 at Walter's on Washington, along with The Morning After Girls & The Vandelles.]
WE ARE HEX
I usually come across four types of bands: the bands that impress you with their musical technicality; the bands you feel sorry for, knowing that this is their passion but that it's probably time for them to hang it up; the bands that get you fired up and make you want to put your fist through something; and the bands that make you want to dance. WE ARE HEX, a foursome out of Indianapolis, makes you want to dance.
Jilly Weiss, Brandon Beaver, Trevor Wathen, and Matt Hagan have thrown convention out the window with their debut full-length album, Gloom Bloom, which is an auditory assault of organic pop psychedelic-disco-noise experimentation. From the plush atmosphere of opening track "Sea Hound," which sounds like a trippy audio warp of transmuted accordions, plucked mandolins, and moaning synths, the album builds into a lush pool of sound that leaves you unprepared for the more indie "I N D P L S." The album then takes a decidedly retro feel with "Bottom of My Belly," and so on and so on, with each song taking the listener in a new direction.
What's most remarkable about the album is the live spontaneity of the recordings, due to the fact that most of the songs were done in a few takes, recorded in their living room. The retro synths the band employs and Jilly Weiss's distinct voice have brought comparisons to bands like Joy Division, Peaches, the Cure, New Order, and even Erase Errata, but with their airy doubled vocals, stripped-down three-piece drum kit, loopy guitars, and crunchy bass, they remind me more of their experimental contemporaries TV On The Radio, with a much more retro feel and, of course, female lead vocals.
If you've been looking for a gem of an underground band to call your own, get into WE ARE HEX now so you can say you were into them before they went mainstream.
Topless at the ARCO Arena
Topless at the ARCO Arena is the first album from Wonderlick since their eponymous release in 2002. With two former members of Too Much Joy in the band, it's tempting to skip breezily over the pretty surface of this album and chalk it up as another tongue-in-cheek record full of the acerbic wit that was TMJ's stock-in-trade. Certainly the album is replete with ironic humor and sarcasm, and the smorgasbord of genre-bending post-modern pop hooks is fun to listen to, but don't let Wonderlick's smooth taste fool you into missing a rewarding experience.
Although seven years in the making, as the band had time and money to record (mostly through donations from fans), Topless at the ARCO Arena still hangs together as a concept album loosely centered around the problematic intersection of art and commercialism and reaching from there into an impressive array of subjects. The band masterfully juxtaposes accessible and never-repetitive music with intelligent lyrics and subject matter that deal with life's many contradictory impulses. Their songs address issues like the freedom of falling in love and the fear of actually letting it happen, the hunger for what is real and meaningful and the allure of the quick fix - of what makes us feel good now, the desire for personal independence and the need to be needed, the hope for a transcendent experience and the bitter disappointment of a life that often falls short of what we dream of for ourselves. What's truly marvelous about this album is that in spite of, or perhaps because of, its life and death subject matter, the obvious pleasure the band has in making music shines through. They provide a finished pop polish that makes a sweet coating over a sometimes bitter pill, and they manage to do so without ever becoming hopelessly cynical or falling prey to pat answers.
Like the band's name itself, Wonderlick offers up a tasty blend of the sacred and the profane. "This Song Is a Commercial" quips about itself, "It's vaguely defined in order to appeal / to the maximum number of fans / Has parts designed to make you feel / That someone finally understands," and then follows up with, "Your rage and your fear and your sadness and your dreams / Your dependence on certain lotions and creams / Your most beautiful hopes and most terrible pain / The urge you have to jump at oncoming trains." Wow. Are they sincere, or is that the part designed to seduce me into believing someone finally understands? Just when I think the joke is on me, the next verse in the song comes: "Your reluctance to sing along now / And the reasons you'll do it anyhow / Gimme a kiss, gimme something new now / Gimme something real no one can see through now." While skewering human foibles, Wonderlick never becomes so arrogant as to not include themselves in the joke.
"You First" is a song about falling in love, but love as only Wonderlick can describe it. It starts out with a sinister, throbbing bassline and morphs into a stirring anthem that's uplifting without being forced or serving up the commercial schlock we are cautioned about. And the lyrics follow a similar trajectory. Singing about his wife, we learn, "The day she said, 'I love you' / I had the worst reply / I should have said it back / But all I said was, 'Why?'" The sad inadequacy of that moment is palpable, and then comes the chorus and a moment of redemption that's gone almost as quickly as it came: "We are scared but we are willing / Unprepared and unrehearsed / Could be lame or could be thrilling / You go first." Again, Wonderlick artfully describes our conflicted natures: our greatest virtue, the transformative capacity to love, so often undermined by self-centered fear.
"Fuck Yeah!" pulls off the neat trick of being simultaneously about suicide and self-love, and there's a great cover of The Clash's "Janie Jones" that takes a 2:05 song and stretches it into a downtempo shuffle that lasts almost four minutes. "Devil Horns" first comes across as a snarky slam on Def Leppard and their mindless fans paying far too much for tickets and t-shirts, complete with a mocking sing-song melody. The gospel influences at the end of the song are the final biting punch line to the joke. But Wonderlick is never so simple -- in the midst of ridiculing concert-goers in search of some kind of transcendent experience, the lyrics affirm what those of us who love music know, that such experiences are possible. Suddenly the rousing gospel sounds at the end of the song no longer sound derisive but instead inspirational.
So it goes with the rest of the record, each song serving up a compelling blend of hope and despair, redemption and humiliation. And in the mix is the message. The album is about the spaces in between, those moments of grace when, even if we fall short of our very best, we are spared the pain of our own demons and find solace -- if only for a moment.