Avagami doesn't play typical rock -- few bands put keyboards in the foreground as much as these guys do. This Chicago duo doesn't even use a bass on their debut album, Metagami. And the only "real" instrument here is a saxophone. So they deserve credit for that. More questionable, though, is the fact that singer Eric Lebofsky sings all his parts with this goofy childlike voice which you either love or hate. But okay, it does contribute to their unique sound, which you have to admire.
The other member of the duo, Matt Espy, does a lot of cool things with keyboards and electronics, too. "Fuck the Man" has some scary electronic sounds that, if they were about twice as loud, would sound like a Parts and Labor riff. "Sickly Time" has some cool riffs supported by what sounds like a dying Game Boy. "Luxus" features a catchy keyboard riff with menacing, distorted keyboard chords behind it.
On the other hand, Lebofsky's vocal style doesn't help them. When the singer tones it down, it works much better, like on "Mushy," "Small Victory," and "Never Let Me Down Again." Those three also happen to have the strongest melodies and arrangements. The rest of the songs, however, aren't very strong, and the over-the-top vocal style makes it that much more annoying.
If you enjoy Lebofsky's style of singing, you may enjoy this record. But an entire album of vocals in this style is not for everyone, even if the melodies were stronger. For a song or two it works, but over a whole record it gets old. On the other hand, this may be perfect iPod material -- and there won't be anything else like it on your iPod!
Build a Nation
I challenge anyone to put Bad Brains' Rock for Light and I Against I next to Metallica's Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning, and then explain why the latter are megastars and the former spent the better part of 25 years in near-obscurity. The answer is not in the music, but in the mind of singer Paul "H.R." Hudson: devout Rastafarian, erstwhile homophobe, borderline schizophrenic, and possibly the most powerful punk vocalist of all time. Beginning just after the band's inception in 1978, H.R. and his brother, drummer Earl Hudson, pushed the Bad Brains to abandon hardcore, the genre that they are often credited with inventing, in favor of reggae. By the 1990s, creative differences and H.R.'s erratic behavior had broken up the band several times.
Though the original Bad Brains lineup has toured on and off for the past ten years, it has not recorded since 1989, and from Build a Nation, the reason why is obvious: H.R. is simply not interested in hardcore. He mumbles and whines his way through the album, and with a couple of exceptions, none of the rock tracks on Build a Nation receive vocal treatment that sounds more than perfunctory. From a man who was once capable of literally phoning in a moving performance -- I Against I's "Sacred Love" was famously recorded over the telephone from inside prison -- it's a pathetic underachievement. The album's five reggae numbers, though overproduced somewhat comically by Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, at least have real melodies and singing. By comparison, the band's trademark hardcore comes off here as formless, unfinished, and sad.
Illicit Hugs and Playground Thugs
You'd think with an album title like Illicit Hugs and Playground Hugs, you'd get rock songs about bar fights or running from the cops. Instead, The Basement gives us alt-country fare with vague songs about our women and our melancholy, boring lives.
They describe them well though, vocalist John Mullin knows how to write lyrics like he should. I even heard the word prognosticate on "Just a Dream". "When Tomorrow Comes" tells us, "To be born in a bar / Like a fake movie star / With your soul which was spastic and weak / And you're wishing people luck / But you just don't give a fuck / And that's a lot to have dragging at your feet." As vague as that sounds, I agree. The rest of the album is written obscurely enough to give Illicit Hugs a nice, timeless feel to it.
Mullin slurs his vocals like a young Bob Dylan, but when you actually figure out what he's saying, it sounds intriguing enough to listen to the next song, and maybe even the entire album. It's paced and produced well, put together by Mike Crossey, producer of Arctic Monkeys. Everyone seems to like them enough, right? I wouldn't be surprised to hear them in a Vince Vaughn movie or on Scrubs. Is that show even still running? Anyway, each song flows well into the next and the album slows down just when it needs to slow down. Each time a chorus starts, it keeps Illicit Hugs and Playground Thugs from sounding monotonous.
I have relatively close ties to Ireland, where the band hails from. I burn easily and I'm half Irish and my brother runs an IRA website, which is what probably makes the album so listenable to me. I've always been down for good Irish music, but it's usually cookie-cutter, singer/songwriter garbage or it's way too authentic and it sounds like it was recorded by a shepherd taking a break from his flock. It's not the case with these guys, though.
Don't compare them to U2 or Snow Patrol, those guys kind of suck. The Basement shows off a lot of staying power here. It's good driving music, it's good post-coital music, it's good drinking music. It makes me want to pub-crawl and get into fights, so maybe the title is indeed fitting. Also, banjoes are never a bad thing, in my Irish opinion.
Slow Speed: Deep Owls
Bear Claw is a Chicago-area band that uses two basses instead of the standard guitar and bass lineup. This gives them a different kind of sound. However, they usually use one of the basses like a guitar (including the distortion pedal), so it's not quite as different as you might expect. Their sound borrows a lot of Shellac and Slint. Unfortunately, it doesn't incorporate quite enough, because on Slow Speed: Deep Owls, their second album, these guys don't have that much going on.
They are tight on what are some technically demanding riffs, but the riffs for the most part aren't very interesting. There are maybe three songs here with interesting musical parts -- the first, "Distant Apology," has some cool riffs and a nicely plotted intro. "Stubborn Agenda" sets free its inner Shellac and creates some punishing propulsion. The second half of "Slippage" has some cool riffs and a nice use of dynamics, and the ending is fun. "Slow Speed: Deep Owls," an instrumental, passes a melody back and forth in call-and-response fashion in a way you don't usually hear from a band like this. But beyond those tracks, the rest of the songs don't have anything special happening.
The biggest problem is the vocals. Two of the guys sing at different times, and one has a really annoying voice. The worst vocal performance is on "Distant Apology," where the singer sounds like Cookie Monster -- it's too bad, because it could have been a much better song. And thne he does the same thing to "Stubborn Agenda." The other problem is that the melodies they sing are not very good. The one solid song here, melody-wise, is "Embrace," which has interesting riffs and a surprisingly catchy hard rock-style melody that the annoying guy can't do much damage to. The rest, unfortunately, have melodies that, even if they were sung better, still wouldn't be particularly interesting.
These guys do have some spark, but not as much as you would hope. They've got an interesting sound, musical technique, and some decent musical ideas. What they need to do is hire a decent singer with better melodic ideas and leave the Cookie Monster vocals behind. Unless they want to do a children's record -- hmm, they might actually have something there...
Goodbye To The Gallows
Teenaged-boy angst is nothing new; heck, it's been sung about for as long as there've been instruments, I'm sure. With Goodbye To The Gallows, though, it sure feels like Emmure's put somewhat of a new spin on the idea. For one thing, I'm pretty sure I've never heard songs of bitter recrimination and youthful agony done in sludgy, deep-as-the-sea doom metal. Jesus, what the hell do these guys tune down to, drop-A? Opening track "A Ticket For The Paralyzer" kicks the door down with crushing, distorted bass tones that make me feel like my freaking chest is vibrating (even when I'm listening on headphones), and just when I think it's as bottom-heavy and snarling as it can get, they throw in a bit where it sounds like they're detuning while they're recording.
The rest of Goodbye generally follows the same track, thick, doom-laden, grindingly bassy metal with vocals that swing from "straight" sing/yelling (singer Frankie actually sounds like The Paper Chase's Jon Congleton at times) to Cookie Monster roaring to screamo shrieking. Tracks like "10 Signs You Should Leave" and "You Got a Henna Tattoo That Said Forever" trudge along like a tyrannosaurus rex, destroying everything in their path. Emmure's not into the solo noodling, either, but simply want to stomp you with primordial metal fury.
There are little twinges of industrial noise here, too, which adds a nice bit of color to the proceedings (I keep thinking of a dark, deep blue when I hear this disc; take that for what it's worth). "When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong," in particular, features kick-drums that come off like a robotic heartbeat thwacking along beneath the sludge. Then there's also the eerie instrumental "Travis Bickle," which is a murky bit of illbient atmosphere with weird footsteps/breathing and dark synths. (And no, I've got no idea what the Taxi Driver connection is.) And, naturally, what would teen angst be without at least a teeny bit of melody? For that you get "Rusted Over Wet Dreams" and "Sleeping Princess In Devil's Castle," both of which are somewhat akin to Killswitch Engage at points.
The melody can't disguise the angry, tortured confusion of the lyrics, though (not that they're real comprehensible when you're not reading 'em). I'm not absolutely positive, but I think Goodbye To The Gallows is basically a concept album of sorts that traces the downward spiral of a kid whose love life's fallen to pieces -- loses the girl, doesn't want the girl anyway, hates the girl, misses the girl, life sucks, wants to die, wants to get back at everyone around him, yadda, yadda. Ever feel/felt that way yourself? Uh-huh. Just make sure you don't end up like the narrator of the album eventually does (not to give it all away, but the album title's a bit literal, if you get my meaning).
[Emmure is playing 9/26/07 at Java Jazz Coffeehouse in Spring, with Misery Signals & The Agony Scene.]
Burning Off Impurities
On Burning Off Impurities, their fourth full-length release, the reticent Portland quartet Grails take post-rock to its logical extension, removing the rock from their music almost entirely in favor of a loose assemblage of folk sounds backed by a conventional drumset. The result sounds like vaguely Eurasian rock, suggesting something with a passing resemblance to Gogol Bordello or the Ukrainians, but with a very important difference.
Most acts that blend Eurasian folk with rock come at the music with an insider's perspective on both genres, resulting in demystified music. They play up the genuinely comedic aspects of both traditions, creating a pastiche that refers to both simultaneously.
Grails, on the other hand, treat folk music as deeply mysterious, using its alienness to emphasize the scope of their expansive post-rock, and ultimately blending it seamlessly into a musical idiom that seems not only to reach across the globe, but to span it, transporting the primal, crushing drive of rock onto the steppes of central Asia. Removed from its native context, rock no longer sounds like a thing of modernity, but instead roars like a conquering barbarian and wails like a clairvoyant bard. This, like nearly all post-rock, is an unsmiling and unapologetic type of music. It's capable of taking the listener to strange and breathtaking new places, but it demands to be met halfway -- if you can't take Grails seriously, you simply won't understand.
You ever have one of those moments where you look at the person next to you, speechless, and with a "...the hell?" look on your face? Well, that's my exact reaction to hearing Doubting Thomas, by T. Hallenbeck. I'll admit it -- I am a "Rennie," a Renaissance Festival devotee, complete with costumes and everything, so I am no stranger to folk music. In fact, I'm a huge fan of the now-defunct Clandestine from Houston, which, although Celtic, played a similarly medieval type of folk music as showcased on Doubting Thomas.
Unfortunately, that's where the similarities end, for me. I just really couldn't get into this CD. I haven't been able to completely put my finger on why, but there's something about the quality of the voice or the enunciation of the lyrics that really grates on my nerves. I actually enjoy the backing instrumentals and hearing something unusual like a dulcimer being played, so I find myself focusing more on those than any of the vocals. The only song on the CD where I actually enjoy the song as a whole is the second track, "Life Not Lived." For some reason, on that track the vocals come across as being smoother and have much less of a quiver to them.
There are moments of this style sprinkled throughout the CD, but none strong enough to overwhelm the feeling of forced emotion and drama. I just don't get it. When you add in lyrics like, "Sometimes it's fun to drop on all fours and run or / Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not maim," from a song entitled "Dr. Moreau," the end result for me is a CD that I can't listen to no matter how much I would've liked to enjoy it.
Two of Diamonds
Mick Harvey, the once partner of Mr. Nick Cave, was the second half of Australian noiseniks, The Birthday Party. Two of Diamonds, the latest release from Mr. Harvey, is a long way from those Birthday Party days. Yeah, there's a musical maturity; call it introspection or even a keen skill of observation. These are songs.
"Photograph" is lonely, lush, soft, and achey. A voice made rich by years and experience (the good & the bad). There's a soundtrack quality here, even if there's no film to support it. Do you know what I mean? A type of musical landscape that partners well with a story, or a directness of intent. And there is definitely no lack of intent here. I'm a sucker for the lonely-heartache songs, and the refrain of "Why does it always make me feel this way?" is a perfect response to the gentle string-rakes of the acoustic guitar and the tinkling piano keys.
I'm sure the fears and horrors of comparisons to Mr. Cave are a challenge to get around for Mr. Harvey. The second cut, "I Don't Want You on My Mind," will not help you. The half-mumbly baritone voice, a twangy Telecaster, the stabbing Hammond organ, holding on to eerie chord sequences behind a march-like beat will make anyone -- anyone -- sound like Nick Cave. Pass this one up; comparison is inevitable. Pass up the next one, too; same thing.
"Here I Am" is a song full of beautiful longing with angelic back-up vocals, brushed drums, and a looming triumph hidden underneath. "You are the blood of my heart, the breath of my lungs..." Here's a man with a guitar (and a band, and production, etc., etc.) who's not polluting everything with metaphor or letting ornaments get in the way of the ultimate sincerity of getting his point across.
Yet, there's a haunting Nick Cave-ness every other song or so. Is this something imagined? I think not. Those who are not initiated to this duo will be none the wiser; those who are, however, will certainly find the comparisons impossible (but not un-enjoyable). When you approach a song with more Hammond-stabs and reverb-soaked Telecasters and talk about Jesus in a tragic-narrative tone, half-sung/half-spoken like "Everything's Fixed," what do you think you're getting into? You'll either fall into Johnny Cash territory or Nick Cave's. The answer to this one is not Johnny Cash.
Mind you, Mick Harvey has nice voice. He's a real singer -- a crooner, even. It's classic, this album, in the sense that the songs are complete and there's little room for complaints. You get the feeling you've heard them before without having actually heard them. Sadly, I would find the Two of Diamonds more enjoyable if the more 'Cavey' songs were abandoned. Leave off the instrumentation and arrangements that will cause the least bit of suspicion. Why even tread those troubled waters?
Two Thousand Years Of Progress
Hollywood Black is a Christian rock band, although reading their interviews and listening to their lyrics might lead one to believe they conflicted about their faith. Is their first album Two Thousand Years Of Progress meant to be ironic, or a warning, or is it really meant to be introspective? If it is ironic, Hollywood Black is playing a big trick on their Christian listeners: they know what you're thinking, kids, but they're above it, have figured it out, 'cause they aren't really sheep like you are, you know.
On the other hand, if this is an introspective album meant to help the listener examine a confused relationship with the Christian god, it exposes those who follow that god as self-absorbed, self-loathing victims of uncontrollable circumstance ("There's no need to be afraid / The future has been written/ But only God in Heaven knows when it will happen"), programmed by a god that they can never please. I, for one, feel terribly sorry for these sorry sacks. And honestly, I have a tough time listening to "The End" and believing that this is all a big sendup: the description of the Rapture is too succinct, too loving, to be ironic. If I've missed the irony or sarcasm, I'm sorry, but I'd bet dollars to halos that lead singer and lyricist Ben Ellis is serious when he tells his listeners to "Make ready your eyes / Make ready your heart / For the trumpet call."
Musically, the band captures a competent post-punk energy on the first half of the album. Ellis is a capable lyricist, although he has a limited vocal range and struggles to hit the high notes (especially in the pre-chorus on the title track). Musically, the band is tight and heavy without being dirge-y, and a few songs have some great hooks. "Almighty Dollar" might be the strongest song, nice and Clash-y in parts, and "The End" bashes along, although it is the most preachy and lyrically clumsy. "Kingwood" and "The Prodigal" examine paternal relationships gone bad. The album loses a bit of steam after that, with "The Restoration" lamenting the crucifixion and man's denial through Jesus' eyes. By "Holy Roller," the momentum is pretty much gone, as if contemplating theses heavy thoughts has ground the energy out of the band.
[Hollywood Black is playing 9/28/07 at Walter's on Washington, with The Western Civilization, Papermoons, & Elbows as Weapons.]
I Am The Pilot
Crashing Into Consciousness
If you dig this kind of modern screamo, guitar-driven, hook-laden rock, I Am The Pilot's first album, Crashing Into Consciousness, is strong, if typical of the genre: well-executed, great-sounding, hooks galore. But what sounds like typical mid-2000's rock on first listen becomes some serious throwback ear candy after a few listenings, especially if you are older than 25 or so. "Gone Too Far" is a strong opener, a big arena rock anthem with a smashing chorus that presages the twists that are coming.
And they aren't twists I had heard before; I'm pretty sure that Pilot's influences reach back to the early to mid-'80s, before hair got huge. "Warriors," for one, is slightly reminiscent of, um, Loverboy. Seriously, it's in that same Journey/Foreigner range, with a chorus straight off classic FM radio. The title track, "Crashing into Consciousness," is even more '80s pop-rock, while on the other hand, "The Frequency" is a bit less mashed-up, much more straightforward. "Rescue" rocks, and "These Machines" are as close as you're going to get to a power ballad without squeezing into the spandex. Production is top-notch, a very nice-sounding album.
Overall, I Am The Pilot are one of the first bands I have heard that captures this era not as an ironic statement or nostalgic act, but as a serious influence that colors but doesn't overshadow their modernity. In fact, the entire album feels like a flashback, not in a rip-off sense, but as a solid combining of the best of that classic '80s era with mainstream 21st century rock. Very solid, really rockin' , extremely listenable, and -- dare I say -- the first "cruising" album I have heard in, what, fifteen-plus years?
Make It Blur
Don't you just hate Fallout Boy? The way they prance around like they started a scene or something. Their overproduced music, their annoying fan base, their god-awful music videos. Fallout Boy is the sad product of dying trends and a mix-up of poorly-made emo slop. They're just another record company marketing ploy and not in the least bit entertaining or indie, like they try and pretend to be, right?
Strip all of that nonsense away, and you get June. The casual listener may write them off as a Fallout Boy rip-off, but upon further listening, June shows much more maturity and depth. They take the All American Rejects/Fallout Boy/Panic at the Disco sound and they do it in the proper way, without all the fancy colors and pouting. Enough with the comparisons, though.
Make It Blur drives along with a "lover-not-a-fighter" sensibility. Weezer-esque guitar riffs push AJ's (yes, his name is really AJ) and Tim's vocals along well enough, and June only has good things to tell us, however cynical they might come across as being. They tell us in "Machine and the Line" that, "While you sit there and disagree / We are moving ahead. / We are moving beyond this machine. / We're moving ahead. / Build a world inside your head, try to make it what it can't be. / The silver lining is now dark red." The rest of the album is similar in its side-by-side cynicism and optimism. "Bittersweet" is a good word to describe it.
"Tempter" is a standout on the album, as is "Closer," their most AAR-like song. Both songs make me want to find a girlfriend and fuck it all up again. The only track I found lacking was "Swallowed," which isn't a cover of the Bush song, although that would have been pretty cool. Instead, it's got the repetitive chorus of "If you could, would you?" slowed down, then sped up, then slowed back down again. This means it's perfectly ready for radio airplay. The only redeeming quality to the song is the bridge, the best part of all of June's tunes.
Make It Blur chunks along naively telling us how everything's going to be okay, although maybe it's not, and then it ends with a hidden track (remember those?). It's the only acoustic song on the album, with a prominent drum beat and tender lyrics. The harmonies blend together in a way that would make any drunk cry after an eventless night at the bars.
It's a surprising release from Victory Records, those responsible for hardcore staples Hatebreed and Ringworm. They're also responsible, however, for Hawthorne Heights and Taking Back Sunday, so maybe it's not so surprising. I just don't see any tattoos on any of the guys in June.
And thankfully, the band doesn't thank Pete Wentz anywhere in their liner notes, I checked.
[June is playing 11/6/07 at Numbers, with Bayside & The Sleeping.]
This little five-track disc seems to encapsulate the previous year of Michael Massimo's life. According to the press release, he set his own car on fire with himself inside. I do not how that is even possible outside of a Jackass video, but anyway. Then his guitar collection was stolen, and, most seriously, his father passed away. All of the would seem to indicate that this would be a downer of a listen, and indeed it is. You know there's not a fun time to come when the first three tracks are titled "Anywhere But Here," "Accident," and "Wasted."
All of the songs have the same mid-tempo pace and are really hampered by the overly-revered guitar sound. The playing seems to be at the level of your average teenager, with big strumming notes that are held for too long. The music seems to be the foundation for Massimo's vocals, and that would be a good idea, except that only on closing track "Daylight" does he sound good. On this track, his vocals match the slower pace of the song and allow the track to build some momentum for the chorus. On the other tracks, he tries too many add-ons -- think "eh-eh-eh"s unnecessarily added onto any word. At those times, he sounds like a singer in a Live cover band. This CD could still seemingly sneak onto the playlist of an adult contemporary radio station -- probably not a good one, though.
Wheels in Motion
More than thirty years into his career, Glenn Mercer (best known from the Feelies) has released his first solo album, Wheels in Motion. Most of the people he recruited to play on the album are former Feelies, and as a result the album sounds a lot like what the Feelies might sound like thirty years on. Wheels in Motion is closest in feel to the pastoral sound of The Good Earth, although it's even cleaner and mellower than that. But never fear -- there is still plenty of that raving-up that the Feelies were known for.
In fact, Glenn Mercer is a master of the rave-up. Like Rhys Chatham, he finds a melody that's strong enough that you're still not tired of it after four or five minutes. And then he changes it just enough to keep the song moving, and like with Philip Glass, each small change becomes interesting enough to sustain the song. Sustaining any kind of drone in an interesting way is difficult to do, but he manages it beautifully.
It helps that several songs have absolutely beautiful melodies, so you want to hear them over and over anyway. "Wheels in Motion" is rightly the title track here, with a pretty picked acoustic guitar part complemented by a nice distorted electric lead. "Two Rights," another great song, has a chorus and an outro which add just enough harmonic change without disturbing the hypnotic quality of the song. And the rest of the melodies are more than strong enough to sustain themselves. The only thing that's superfluous is the cover of "Within You, Without You/Love You To," which proves that the rave-up has musical predecessors beyond the Velvet Underground, but he doesn't add that much to the song.
The most interesting part is that other than the drums (and some bass), Glenn Mercer played almost all of the instruments himself. 'Cause it's a remarkably tight-sounding album. The key to a rave-up is the groove that underpins it -- it's the groove that makes it so hypnotic -- and the fact that he was able to get that quality while playing most of the parts separately is impressive. It doesn't sound any less "alive" than the Feelies' records themselves.
Since it's unlikely that the Feelies are coming back any time soon, this is probably the closest thing you'll get to a Feelies reunion. So it's nice to see that this is also an excellent record, on par with any of the Feelies' albums. Hopefully Mercer will keep putting out records as good as this one.
I'll Follow You
Southern California hipsters have been flogging the roots-rock idiom since at least the mid-'60s, when every third musician who rolled out of Laurel Canyon and onto the Sunset Strip had an acoustic guitar and a song to sing. The golden age of this stuff happened in the seventies, but unlike, say, disco, punk didn't kill off SoCal roots rock, it just morphed into the L.A. cowpunk scene. Midwestern hipsters rediscovered this brand of roots rock a decade or so later in the mid-'90s and ushered in a minor music explosion variously called alt-country, No Depression, or Americana. But over the next few years, roots rock went on the wane. Many of those '90s bands are still chugging along, but much of the excitement about the new, old music is gone. Now some cutting-edge Brooklyn hipsters are here to remind you about guitars and fiddles. Oh, and harmonies.
Oakley Hall's I'll Follow You, is almost like a first album, the sort where a band will put all the material they have been playing for years on a single album and because the songs for those first albums developed over years, they tend to be more varied than if the songs were all written in a short time. All of which is to say I'll Follow You is long and varied. But it's not a first album. In fact, Oakley Hall put out not one, but two albums just last year, making this their fourth overall. So I guess that makes them prolific. Ah, but does it make them good? Well...
The nasally male vocals bring to mind Eef Barzelay, who sings for the also New York based Americana-ish band, Clem Snide (another similarity between these two bands is the literary origin of their names: Clem Snide is a character from William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, while Oakley Hall is a southwestern novelist). The female vocals bring to mind Neko Case. And when you put the two together, you get something that sounds remarkably like John and Exene from X. So, yeah, it's good -- especially when they do the harmonies. With considerable variation, the songs tend toward the slow, sad variety, which some people find excessively maudlin or, at the very least, tedious. Others of us, though, love the stuff. So if this is you, find something to mourn and put on I'll Follow You.
[Oakley Hall is playing 9/13/07 at Walter's on Washington, with Zykos & Benjamin Wesley.]
Werewolves and Lollipops
I have a really hard time writing about comedy. It's not that I don't enjoy it, but just that it's not my "area," so to speak. I'm a music guy, not a comedy guy, and believe it or not, there are rules to both -- and if you don't know the rules to something, it's damn difficult writing about it. There're things you do in a rock song (especially in a rock song), formulas to follow, and if you don't, well, you're either a mad genius and will probably end up changing your name to a symbol and referring to yourself annoyingly in the third person or you're a musical imbecile who can't write a song that holds together to save your life and should probably stick to playing covers of Nirvana songs on Wednesday nights at that sports bar down the block.
Listen to enough music, and you learn the rules and formulas to the game, as well as how to tell which camp all the rule-breakers fall into (it's a lot more of the latter than the former, I'm afraid). I know, for example, that if a band's playing a song that's heavy as hell and rhythmic and staccato, there's gonna be a breakdown in the middle of some kind, either quiet and melodic or even heavier still; it's just the way it works, honestly. If I run across a song that fits the bill but doesn't do the expected, well, the song's either a lot more interesting than the run-of-the-mill or it sucks ass. Like I said, you need to know the rules, but you also need to recognize that rules are really meant to be broken, at least by a brilliant few. So musicians learn 'em, take 'em to heart, and then do their damnedest to prove they're geniuses by breaking 'em in just the right way. Pull it off right, and you're golden.
Now, take comedy. Again, comedy's got rules, too, and comedians and improv people and true comedy nerds know 'em. Me, about all I know is that if you want something to be funny, you have to do it three times -- not two, not four, but three. A very wise improv junkie told me that once (hi, Marc!), and it's absolutely, categorically the truth. (If you don't believe me, try counting the next time you see a repetition gag in a movie or on TV. If it's funny, it'll happen three times, no more, no less. Trust me.) Beyond that, though, I turn into the comedy equivalent of the guy who just shrugs when you ask him why the fuck he likes that annoying Staind song: "Hell, man, I dunno. I just like it."
So that's my conundrum when it comes to Patton Oswalt's latest offering, Werewolves and Lollipops. I glommed hungrily on to the disc when it dropped on my desk, giggling with glee and eagerly anticipating laughing myself silly, but after repeated listenings I'm still having a hard time not being That Guy Who Likes Staind when I go to talk about it. All of which is probably just a cheap way of me trying to distance myself from my own crappy writing, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Luckily for me, Werewolves in Lollipops is good enough that it sort of makes my job easier, because it turns out that I really, truly fucking love it. Patton Oswalt, to me, is just about the perfect comic for the looney-tune times we live in -- simultaneously cynical and adoring, obsessive and manic about the details of things in a way that only a post-modern, self-analyzing society can really ever be. He's a geek's geek, and unashamedly so, still delving into the quirky arcana of comics and movies and sci-fi and whatever. When he loves something, he goes whole-hog for it, and hell, I have to respect that. (I suspect, by the way, that his casting as Remy the rat in Ratatouille says something about his passion for food and chefs, and it makes perfect sense.)
On top of that, he's got a way with words. You get the feeling on Werewolves that Oswalt -- being the obsessive he seems to be -- painstakingly works over every word of his routine until he gets it exactly the way he wants it, rather than relying on the improv-ed schtick like Robin Williams and the like do. Nothing wrong with Williams, by the by, but it's a whole different ballgame, and while his stand-up stuff is funny, it's nowhere near as memorable as Oswalt's is.
By the end of "America Has Spoken," you will damn-sure remember about half of the bit, if not the whole damn thing. The last comic I heard where I could do that was Eddie Murphy, back when my friends and I memorized whole chunks of Delirious and Raw. I like a lot of comedians I've seen over the years since, but none of 'em, not even the excellent David Cross, sticks in my brain like that. Except, now, for Oswalt.
Of course, there's a fine line between making people laugh and making them uncomfortable, and there're times when Oswalt skirts that line, occasionally making forays over into territory that makes even me twitch and cringe -- towards the end of "I Tell a Story About Birth Control and Deal with a Retarded Heckler," for one (and no, it's got nothing to do with the heckler, because the righteous indignation with which Oswalt hands the guy his clueless ass is impressive). That particular bit was cringe-inducing enough to make my wife not want to listen to the CD again, although I can't say with any certainty that anybody else would feel the same.
But hey, even the edge-riding kind of appeals to me -- he's a guy who likes to take a risk with humor, and once again, if you know the rules of comedy well enough, you can do that. And if you're good, you can pull it off nicely and make even something dark and disturbing funny as hell (see "Clean Filth" for a good example, or the awesomely funny "Steak," off of Feelin' Kinda Patton).
And I can't give a little glimpse of this disc (which has been brief, I'm afraid, in fear that I'll screw up the punchlines if I say more) without mentioning the DVD that comes with it. Yep, it's a set, but unfortunately, the DVD ends up being not so much a selling point for the album but rather little more than a happy extra. Beyond the utterly useless intro bit with him in his(?) house in Athens, GA, which goes on for way too long and comes off as self-indulgent time-killing and isn't particularly funny besides, the fact is that the recorded performance on the DVD is just about the same as the one on the CD (minus the audience member pissing on another audience member's shoes on the DVD and the idiot heckler on the CD).
Worse still, the one on the CD is the better performance -- Oswalt seems to be more on his game, sharper and quicker on the jab. It also sounds like he'd refined the jokes a bit more by the time the CD version was recorded (the DVD show is from about a month earlier). Bits like "The Dukes of Hazzard" feel more fleshed-out on the CD, while a handful of really good bits ("The Best Baby in the Universe," "You Are Allowed 20 Birthday Parties") didn't get told/recorded at the Athens show on the DVD. I naturally listened to the CD before watching the DVD, so the jokes that changed slightly in between the two don't fly as well, somehow; the details are just that little bit off.
The funny thing is that Oswalt's last DVD foray, No Reason to Complain, actually felt pretty much the same for me. I'd bought and loved Feelin' Kinda Patton beforehand and knew the jokes by heart by the time I finally saw the DVD, and as a result, the jokes seemed watered-down and not as good as the CD versions. Plus, there's the fact that I paid for two (well, bought one and rented the other) slightly different versions of the same jokes -- if there's not anything new on the DVD, then what's the point, right? I guess that's the downside of Oswalt being a non-improv comic who writes and writes and rewrites all his stuff; when you work the jokes like that, you necessarily have to tell them frequently and change them a little to see what works best.
On the whole, though, my problems with the DVD are minor, minor quibbles. Look at it like this: you're already getting a CD packed full of freakin' great, laugh-out-loud-at-work comic genius; you just happen to also be getting a bonus DVD, too. It's like what I did with Feelin' Kinda Patton and No Reason to Complain, only the DVD's free (well, sort of). However you look at it, it at least doesn't take away from the CD itself, and that's a very good thing.
Raze to Ashes
Raze to Ashes
I can't help but feel a little bad for Raze to Ashes. They're clearly trying to get you to bang your head and shake your first in the air with this 4-song EP, but it's just not going to happen. Sure, the band is technically proficient, but they lack even an ounce of creativity or originality. Raze to Ashes plays some of the most generic-sounding heavy metal I've heard. Seeing as the band only formed a year or two ago, there's the possibility that they will mature into their own, distinct sound. Until that happens, there's absolutely no reason to listen to them.
Synergism, by Allene Rohrer, is a folkish record that rocks. It's got more energy than you'd normally expect from a folk record, and the drummer rocks, which is something you don't hear that often in folk music. But the songs are still basically folk songs, and there are enough acoustic guitars on this record to fuel a large campfire. (Can someone organize that? Anyone have Bob Geldof's number?) Unfortunately, the band is one of the best things here -- the lyrics are uninteresting, and Rohrer's voice is annoying most of the time. It's mediocre, and she oversings everything; it might sound better if she didn't overdo it, but she doesn't give us a chance to find that out.
"Oaktown," the first song, is typically annoying. It's a portrait of her neighborhood from her bedroom window, but she doesn't make it sound that interesting. The first verse is about two guys getting into a fight, which you'd think would have plenty of dramatic potential, but the lyrics are so generic that there's no life in them, and the melody doesn't add anything -- it's as annoying as the lyrics. Her singing makes her sound far too pleased with herself here for such a small accomplishment.
There are a few interesting harmonic things throughout the record, though. "Gold," in particular, has a few moments where the melody and the guitars use notes outside of the scale, which is kind interesting, and the song as a whole isn't bad (though still not exactly inspired). The main riff in "Monsters" is in a similar chromatic vein, but the song itself isn't that great, either (although it's considerably better than "Oaktown").
"Monsters," in fact, is one of the only songs where Rohrer's oversinging actually works. It's a big rock song with a big guitar solo, so energetic singing works there. But most of the time she's overselling it, and when she's not, she's underselling it. "Red Angel" is a rock number like "Monsters" and is about some kind of deception, so you'd expect that maybe she'd really sing this one like she's loud and pissed off. Instead she sings the thing at a moderate level, without any kind of emotion -- it's not even cold, just bland, even when she sings things like "You drive me insane" and "You go straight to hell." To me, that's just odd.
Maybe it would sound different live -- I'll admit that a lot of the time, folky types get production that doesn't really suit them. But this time I'm not so sure there's much there to begin with.
Yeah, I just can't seem to escape it lately -- metal's come back into my musical world, and in somewhat of a major way. It's like slipping back into any addiction, I suppose: you promise yourself that it'll definitely only be this one thing, this one time, until the next time you do it, and then you find yourself looking for more pretty much all the time. A little Killswitch here, a little Isis there, and pretty soon I'm staring in the face of a full-blown Metal Relapse. And yeah, it feels pretty good.
Which is sorta how I ended up snagging a copy of local Houston metal band Rustler's brand-brand-new disc, Phonetic Whips. Where not long ago I probably would've shrugged and said, "eh, why bother?", not wanting to subject myself to yet another Korn/Tool/Pantera clone with nothing new under the sun, I got the CD on a whim after hearing just a song or two on the band's Myspace page.
And I'm damn glad I did, because this is something new and mesmerizing, at least to me. Metalheads be warned: Phonetic Whips ain't hair-swinging, devil horns-pumping, Headbangers Ball-watching metal. Well, not all the time, at least. Phonetic Whips eschews the confines of "standard" metal in favor of something a hell of a lot more complicated and more interesting. Every time the band gets locked into a crushing, Sabbath-stomp of a groove, members Justin Giardina, Chris Courville, and Jason Caldarera almost inevitably lunge sideways (at just the right time, mind you, which really says something) into something melodic, something syncopated, something drone-y, or all three at the same time.
The music Rustler makes is tense, slow-building instro-metal, the kind that's relentlessly technical but still thunders and slams in all the right places. There's some resemblance to fellow instrumental metal heroes The Fucking Champs, but Rustler don't just add to the genre, they own it. Rather than aiming for either the atmosphere or some kind of novelty shtick (looking at you, Champs), the band comes off like an incredibly skilled bunch of jazzbos who moonlight as Metal Dudez; think the original Rollins Band crew, maybe, or possibly more appropriately, Dub Trio (replacing the dub/reggae with jazz, obviously).
Take "Jammin' on the One," for example -- the track starts with a hypnotic swirl of guitar and drums, sounding dark and menacing but keeping things subtle for a while, 'til the guitars break free of the drone and charge headlong into a Clutch-heavy metal assault. Or "Mark of a Gentleman," which is heavy and thundering, with guitars just this side of Master of Puppets, but which shifts gears and drops into a Rush-like melodic passage partway through before returning to the rock. Everywhere on Phonetic Whips, Rustler effortlessly melds jazzy elements to heavy-as-hell metal dynamics, to the point where they very nearly transform into a prog-rock band, or maybe some long-lost cousin to the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
"Stardotstar" is probably the real proof of the band's fusion-esque skills; out of all six tracks on Whips, it's the least out-and-out metal, instead using guitar and bass to nimbly spiral and twist the melody around the rhythm like on some Yes B-side. It's noodly and nimble, hardly what you'd expect from a band that can do the Sabbathian stomp of closer "A Mat of Human Hair." Even at their heaviest, though, elements of prog and jazz peek through -- "Hair" and "Aardvark," for two, both stomp along like Godzilla but still shapeshift from one moment to the next into intricate-but-still-rocking compositions that resemble "Tom Sawyer" or "Red Barchetta."
When the album ends, I've got this ringing in my ears and I feel a little off-balance. And then I want to go back and do it again. Ah, screw the support group...
(Apple Eye Recordings -- 12430 Oxford Park Dr., Ste. 532, Houston, TX. 77082; "appleeyerecordings" at "gmail dot com"; Rustler -- http://www.rustler.ws/
Seven Storey Mountain
At the Poles
It's a shame these guys -- okay, "guy"; apparently there used to be an actual band, but on At the Poles, Seven Storey Mountain is Lance Lammers playing pretty much everything -- have gotten lumped the past in with that whole emo school. I can't speak to what Lammers's previous stuff sounds like, but to these ears At the Poles sounds like it owes a hell of a lot more to the early days of post-punk than anything else. The music nicely bitter in a Hüsker Dü-ish (or maybe Jawbreaker-ish) way, with utterly taut, propulsive drumming, fiery guitars, and Bob Mould-style yell-singing.
There's a lot that's familiar here, really -- some Mission of Burma here, some Pixies there, a dash of Shudder to Think on top, with a teeny pinch of Helmet dynamics for color. The rock is raw, loud and furious but never out-of-control. Opener "So Cursed" has that math-y edge that makes me think of Chavez, while "The Crux" mashes together Grant Hart's stuttering, behind-the-beat playing with Dave Grohl-esque vocals...and yeah, the Foo Fighters resemblance continues on through several more songs, particularly "Elevator."
Don't let the familiarity throw you, though, because Lammers certainly knows how to pound a hook in deep, pushing each song with a relentless energy that's hard not to admire. Plus, as evidenced by "Elevator," he really knows his way around a chorus. The one misstep is ending track "Tunnel Vision," which slows things down so much it feels like a cover of somebody else's song. Seven Storey Mountain works better for me, at least, when it keeps the pace speedy and the rhythms tight. At the Poles might not blow you away on the first listen (although "So Cursed" is pretty potent), but it'll take root and grow, fast.
Fame! Fame! Fame!
Something about Slider just doesn't sit right with me. Maybe it's the "post-grunge" phenomenon -- they remind me a lot of bands like Fuel, Oleander, 12 Stones, or Our Lady Peace. For the most part, that's not necessarily a good thing. Those are all bands (with the possible exception of Our Lady Peace) that seemed birthed of the clinical corporate rock machine in an attempt to give the "illusion" of rocking without really committing to it. It's almost as if these bands are only dabbling in a certain style to ride the gravy train; even the distortion on the guitars sounds artificial to me.
Foo Fighters they are most certainly not, but Slider's album isn't that bad of listen. It does seem calculated and processed, but the band is pretty good at what they do. If you own any CDs that could be considered "post-grunge" or "modern rock," or if you listen to any radio station calling itself "The Buzz" on a regular basis, then you could probably get down on Fame! Fame! Fame!. If you think corporate rock is a plague on society, and that Seven Mary Three was the first herald of the musical Apocalypse...then you might want to look elsewhere.
Here's the thing: I loathe country (well, most of it, anyway), but ever since my friend Ben got me listening to it in college, I like bluegrass. While the lines between the two often blur, admittedly, this probably partly explains why I find myself liking Richmond, Virginia-dweller Josh Small's new album, Tall. Bluegrass as a musical genre has always seemed to me to be more genuine, more "true," and while I'm sure it's at least a little bit of music-snobbery on my part, the bulk of country music has always seemed fake as hell to me, all marketing and cheese and little substance.
Of course, that sentiment seems a bit silly in this case, when you consider that Small's toured with true-blue punk rockers like fellow Virginians Strike Anywhere; how genuine is this guy, really? Well, don't let the friendships with Southern punks like SA or Avail throw you -- Small is about as backwoods and seemingly rootless a troubadour as you're likely to find. It's genetic, apparently; according to his record label, he comes from a family of music-loving gypsies. (Appalachian Travelers who've settled down, maybe?)
Beyond the background and genetics, though, there's the music. Tall is packed full of bleak-yet-beautiful, plaintive-voiced, Appalachian-sounding folk songs all about hardship, sadness, death, and religion, which automatically brings it closer to the bluegrass canon than the country (somebody once explained to me that every good bluegrass song includes a murder and a river in it somewhere). Think Ralph Stanley or William Elliot Whitmore, with their gravelly, brown-as-the-dirt voices and down-to-earth stories, but laced maybe with a bit of indie sense swiped from, say, Kind of Like Spitting's Ben Barnett (especially on "Say Hello").
Songs like "Come Down" are slow and melancholy, sounding for all the world like Small's just sitting on his big front porch in the dark, listening to the crickets chirp while he plays. "Knife in My Belly" is another highlight, a bit of gentle hillbilly gospel that manages to link Jesus and King Arthur, and a third, "Arc de Triumph," starts out delicate and literate but turns into a piano-heavy boogie number at the end, the kind Elton John would be proud to play. There're some elements of '70s pop here, too, like the keys and funky drums on "$5 in Hand" -- both of which kind of irk me 'til the easy grace of Small's lyrics pull me in -- or "Who's Foolin' You," which suffers a bit in the words department. There's even a little Nawlins jazz in there, on "Moses" and Move Your Hips."
Most of the songs on Tall unfold themselves at a fairly moderate pace (the one exception being the fast, frantic, excellent "Peek Out the Windows"), played by Small like he's just showing 'em to his friends and doesn't really want the attention. As a whole, the album just sort of ambles on by, heading down the road with a shy smile and a sheepish wave, not sure where it's going but absolutely certain of where it's been. And, of course, you're welcome to come along.
[Josh Small is playing 9/26/07 at Walter's on Washington, with William Elliot Whitmore & Tim Barry.]
If you're into different styles of music rolled into one album, then you will definitely fall for this band. Teedo, which is made up of Teedo Bilecky (lead vocalist), Saeko Terano (keys and backing vocals), and Oweinama Biu (bass and backing vocals), have recently released their first full-length album entitled Luvatomic. With influences ranging from David Bowie to Bob Marley, Teedo seems to deliver quality music with passion and soul. Teedo starts it off with "Too Far," full of old school punk rock that ends in less than three minutes. "Blue Heaven" has a seductive feel to it, with sexy low vocals added to funky keys and guitar make this a real catchy tune.
On the downside, the mix of music genres almost makes this album unbearable to listen to. At one point it feels as if Teedo does not have any motive behind their music -- they just play music for the sake of playing music. It seems to work for this album, but eventually Teedo are going to have to decide exactly what they want to be known for, not just as a mix of influences but as a mix of their own creativity.
Hands Across the Void
Tiny Vipers is the nom de plume of Jesy Fortino, a singer-songwriter from Seattle. Hands Across the Void is her first full-length album, the focus of which is on her voice and acoustic guitar, but that doesn't mean it's folk music. Most of the songs are haunting, minimal drones with repeated picked melodies or strummed chords.
The songs here are as much about mood as anything else. On "Shipwreck," she sings, "We know that life it's beautiful / though surreal at times," and the album explores this idea. "Forest on Fire" uses a rising electronic hum and squalling electric guitar that starts about three minutes in; no folk song would allow three-and-a-half minutes of music to go by without any singing, but she does it here. "On This Side" throws in some odd extra beats between verses that help unmoor the song. "Swastika" is a soft song with a very intense intense delivery -- it works just as well when played at a very high volume.
The fact that most of the melodies are beautiful also helps sustain the drones. Fortino uses harmonies sparingly but effectively to add extra layers to songs. The one harmonized syllable in "Campfire Resemblance" is perfect -- because the song doesn't move quickly, that one syllable has the impact of an entire chorus. She also helps the pacing of the album by including a couple that are regular songs, like "On This Side" and "Shipwreck."
Hands Across the Void is impressive, especially for a first album. And Fortino/Tiny Vipers has her own distinctive sound. Her cool and cerebral take on freak-folk is a dose of fresh air. If she had recorded with a band, the music might have lost a lot of its ethereal quality, but with just the few details she added, it became something else entirely, something otherworldly. Hopefully she continues in this vein, because this is a very promising beginning.
[Tiny Vipers is playing 10/20/07 at Numbers, with Minus The Bear & The Helio Sequence.]
Anyone starting a listen of X27's Antilove at the logical place, the beginning, could be forgiven for underestimating the Brooklyn trio, as opener "Da-Na-Do" is the worst song on the album by a long shot. The band spends a lot of time walking the razor's edge that separates the unstudied, naturalistic charm of pure punk rock from slapped-together junk, and "Da-Na-Do" falls decidedly on the wrong side. It's a strange misstep, considering how nimbly and with what self-assurance the band walks that line on the rest of Antilove. Happily, though, it's also easy to forgive once the band launches into Carmen X's brash, swaggering "Come On Down."
The band's simple punk often sounds like rock and roll spiked with L.A. nihilism, and thus suggests another male and female-fronted punk band whose name begins with "X-". A more direct musical comparison would lead to early Sonic Youth, especially in the case of the spooky slow burn "It's All For You," on which Carmen's double-tracked vocals evoke a menacing spirit while guitarist Rikkeh Sutn and drummer Massey whip up a demonic ceremony. The band's sound suggests influences from D.C. and Chicago as well, coming across like a female-fronted Fugazi on "Inside Out World" and something resembling Girls Against Boys or the Jesus Lizard on Sutn's "Red Is Green."
Most of all, though, the band always sounds like itself, and as satisfying as some of this material is, X27's biggest achievement may be an ability to step into someone else's idiom for a few minutes without losing a sense of themselves. That's the only way the band could pull off a song like "Antilove," which hinges masterfully on an exquisite tension between whisper and roar, violence and sensuality, and which could have gone terribly wrong. That hair-raising balance is one of the simple pleasures that Antilove offers to punk connoisseurs -- assuming they aren't afraid to use their "Skip" button.