Dark with lots of electronic layers, I initially had a difficult time getting to know Help Wanted, the initial offering from former Jane's Addiction bassist and founding member Eric Avery. After several attempts and an accidental shady parking garage, I found the right medium in which to truly enjoy this CD. Listening in the dark, all the nuances of the music and vocals become crystal clear.
The sound is a bit sci-fi and disassociated, and the lyrics are far away from the usual emotional subjects that one finds in mainstream radio fuzz. The vocals are enveloped by the music, almost like Avery is falling into the waves of an ocean, but they're not overpowered; his role of storyteller remains intact. Avery's monotone vocal style has good timbre and works very well with the subject material. Overall, the CD is hugely visual, and this is the reason it's best to get acquainted with it in the dark -- without the usual distractions.
Each song stands well on its own, yet works in harmony with the others. The lyrics are all Avery, with the exception of "Maybe," which is co-written and performed with Shirley Manson and is absolutely beautiful. Other artists adding their talent to Help Wanted include Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Flea plays trumpet on the delectably delusional "Song in the Silence (The Man Who Can Fly Pt. 7)".
Opening song "Belly Of An Insect" introduces the listener to the uniqueness of Avery's dark, cold lyrical style and paves the way for the rest of the CD. "All Remote And No Control" is one of my favorites and has an end-of-the-world imagery -- there is catastrophe in the sound; you'll know it when you hear it. "Walk Through Walls (The Man Who Can Fly Pt. 5)" is pure fun with a funky retro sound, and "Suns Gone" is the progressive-y final track that brings things to a quiet but oddly hopeful close.
Help Wanted is amazingly good, well-produced album and would be the perfect soundtrack to a futuristic science fiction movie. It is definitely worth picking up if you enjoy dark, depressive music -- oh, and don't forget to turn out the lights.
Saints of Los Angeles
Mötley Crüe is a brand, like Apple or Harley Davidson. Like the biggest bands in the last fifty years, Mötley Crüe exists in our minds as part of a universal consciousness, a shared history. If you are between the ages of thirty and maybe forty-five, you were coming of age smack in the middle of the '80s hair metal explosion in LA. You can roughly map this explosion starting with Twisted Sister (New York, natch) and the earthquake that was Quiet Riot, watch Mötley Crüe lead the rise of the era through the mid- to late-'80s, mortally wound it with the ascension of Guns 'N Roses for that insane run between 1988 and 1993, and finally kill it off with a tiny album by an unknown of band from the southern backwaters of Seattle. Many of these bands still exist in workable form today; if you'd headed down to the four-day festival "Rock the Bayou" this past August, you would have seen the LA metal scene in all of its daft glory. All except the Crüe.
If pressed, I don't think I could name a better hair metal band from that era, all things considered. The Crüe sold upwards of 80 million albums worldwide, had a number one album, toured everywhere, and unleashed more insanity than there is room for in the Halls of the Hair Metal Hall Of Fame. I still remember seeing a Time (or was it Newsweek?) on the newsstands with them on the cover in 1985 or thereabouts, with the headline, "Is this band worth $40 million?" At the time, it was an outlandish amount of money to pay a rock band. Now, it just about covers the budget for Chinese Democracy.
Why? Why has Mötley Crüe survived intact, successful and, er, healthy? I can't definitively say. It seems to be equal parts music, mayhem, and media, and Mötley Crüe has leveraged each of these facets perfectly, either by releasing three bona-fide classics (Theater of Pain, Girls, Girls, Girls, and Dr. Feelgood) and drinking, drugging, and killing through nearly two decades, or by constantly appearing in solo projects or on reality TV. No other band has controlled their image nearly as well or worked so hard to make sure that there were no cracks in the outer wall of their created world, even when all hell was breaking loose inside.
Musically, the band is in pretty good form. Mick Mars stretches out more sonically than I've heard before. Believe it or not, Mars was a real-live guitar god in the '80s, scoring covers of Guitar Player with regularity, and it shows here -- interesting wah parts, a large palette of amp sounds (from thin and buzzy to full Mesa roar), and very inspired playing, especially considering it's coming from someone who can barely stand up by himself. Tommy Lee's drums sound great, especially his classic bass drum thump. Lee has always been much more solid musically than the rest of the band and is probably the main appeal for musicians.
Nikki Sixx is as solid as ever and pretty much wrote the entire album. Vice Neil's voice you either love or hate, though, and it hasn't stood up well through the years. He's always been pretty nasally, but he sounds pretty weak here, and I think I hear auto-tune. But Neil was always more of a showman than a singer; even Sixx has admitted that he never really liked Neil's voice, especially in the beginning. But so what? It's instantly recognizable. Sonically, the album is crushed in mastering, as usual. You can't really even EQ it, as tweaking the bass or lower mids immediately introduces distortion. Sign o' the times, I guess.
While not mind-blowing, the songs are pretty solid. "Saints of Los Angeles (SOLA)" is classic anthemic Crüe, pinching the main riff from "Wild Side" off the mega-classic Girls, Girls, Girls. "SOLA" reads like a historical biography, a clear pronouncement that the Crüe stands tall over the remnants of the LA metal scene and the pretenders at their feet. "Welcome To The Machine" is the standard middle fingers to the industry that made them rich but extracted so much flesh. "Goin' Out Swingin'" and "White Trash Circus" paint the Crüe as the embodiment of their 25 years of mayhem, bruises and all. "Just Another Psycho" starts of vanilla, but (seriously) has a really cool funk section in the middle (well, "funk" by Mötley Crüe standards). "Chicks = Trouble," "This Ain't A Love Song," and "Down At The Whisky" are all typical tongue-in-cheek misogyny, but this is the most blatant they've been about it.
So, is Mötley Crüe really a band anymore? Each member has his own, separate Website listed on the liner notes. There were years they didn't speak to each other. Hell, they had John Corabi as a singer for an album and Randy Castillo on drums for a tour, and Lee and Mars hardly played on their last compilation, Red, White & Crüe. So I don't blame you for being cynical about this album. Overall, SOLA is thirteen pretty good new songs, but not one matches the high-water marks of the past. This album isn't about respect, though, or topping their past, or showing that they still have "it," or silencing critics. Oh, it sounds great, and the requisite sleaze is dripping from the lyrics ("Animal In Me" as a ballad? just listen to the first verse...), but while the "fuck you" attitude is still here, the "fuck it" attitude is gone. We get four anti-heroes telling us their early story in the only way the they know how. It isn't nostalgia, and it isn't apologetic, but the songs here carry a kernel of time that those of us who lived it secretly long for, even if we would never admit it.
A friend of mine tried to convince me once that creating good pop music is practically science. Not that you have to do A, B, and C to make a perfect pop song, but more that there are things you just don't do if you want it to work right. There are rules to it, and while they can be bent or broken, they really shouldn't unless you know what you're doing. Is he right? I dunno; I'm more of a "feel" person when it comes to music, honestly -- if it makes me smile, makes my heart skip a beat, makes me so melancholy I want to jump off a roof, it's done its job. That said, I've found that I do have a handful of "rules" (okay, "guidelines") that I unconsciously use to evaluate all things musical, so I guess maybe he's got a point.
Bands like Redcast also make me re-evaluate my view of the whole "rules" thing, because whether they meant to or not, with their debut self-titled EP, they've made a small pile of picture-perfect, sunshiny-day pop, the soundtrack for a perfect world where the birds are singing (all in the same key, of course), you've got your girl by your side, there's not a cloud in the sky, and everybody you see around you is smiling. The music's jaunty and endearing from the start, with first track "Beside Myself" a sweet, keys-heavy, heart-on-sleeve declaration of love that brings to mind Moods for Moderns, Ultimate Fakebook, or Semisonic's Great Divide. Which is no mean company to be in, believe me.
Redcast cruises on from there, focusing on a more retro-'80s pop sound on "Hopeless?", where the guitars get more electrified but still remain relatively low-key, and "When You're Falling," a bit of melancholy, understated acoustic pop that reminds me oddly of Tom Waits' "I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You" (and not in an "oh, God -- how dare they rip off Tom Waits?" way, which is a good thing). "Soap" veers very close to Barenaked Ladies territory, which isn't somewhere you really want to be with me, personally, but even then the band pulls it off. This track's a bit of an accomplishment, really; Redcast (band members are apparently brothers Seth, Jarrod, and Darren, but build a goofy metaphor for something ("rationality," I guess?), then never really talks about it, instead spending the length of the song basically apologizing for the goofiness of it. And against all odds, y'know, that works just fine.
The band finishes up the EP with an amalgam of all of the above -- "A Thought From You" draws in the aforementioned Ladies, Semisonic, and Ultimate Fakebook influences, melds 'em together with a heavy glob of youthful insecurity and doubt (which is definitely understandable; the three brothers look like they're barely of drinking age in all their photos), and hangs it all on a wide-open smile so unashamed and un-cynical you can't help but smile back. These kids may not realize it, but they've apparently taken that whole pop rulebook thing and grafted it onto their musical DNA. Given that, how could they not hit the mark?
Roedelius/Story is a side project of Cluster's Hans-Joachim Roedelius, who's been collaborating with Tim Story, an American synthesizer experimentalist and composer. Their third album, Inlandish, combines classical-sounding keyboard parts with a variety of processed instruments, creating a pastoral minimalist soundscape.
The album focuses on diferent droning piano or keyboard melodies, accompanied by a host of real and alien-sounding instruments. Everything on the album is of a piece -- the sounds all complement one another. Unfortunately, too much of it is processed in the same way for it to sound very distinctive. Each track is pretty, and some of the melodies are strong, but over the course of an album, it starts sounding the same.
There are a few interesting moments here -- on "Trouve," one of the instruments continually shifts its quality, from something with a sitar-like sound to harmonium to vocals. The atmospheric sounds in the background in title piece "Inlandish" shift from biting to distorted to soothing. "Ripple and Fade" begins with a wash of ambient sound behind a skipping alien turntable.
Again, the album is pretty, and there are some interesting sounds on there, but overall, it seems slight. Considering that most of the overdubs and processing was done by Tim Story, it might have been different if Hans-Joachim Rodelius had more of a hand in the album. As it is, it's ultimately not that interesting.
The Silver Jews
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
In a musical landscape where record reviews tend to devolve into name-checking, genre-hyphenating, deconstructionist vacuums, it's refreshing to get the chance to review a record where this is practically impossible. Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is just such a record. Silver Jews frontman David Berman has always been able to straddle the lines between genres without ever tying himself to one or another. Berman never gives the impression that this is done intentionally, or even consciously, but simply that this is the music he makes. And that's just it; he makes music.
Silver Jews don't make country records; they're not an indie band; they can't be labeled as a rock act, even, though all of these elements are present. David Berman simply writes the songs he wants to write and plays them as he sees fit. Rarely has this been more evident than on Lookout Mountain, whose brief 33 minutes flit across rollicking ragtime piano numbers, plaintive country-blues, jangly guitar rock, and one very self-aware film noir satire in song. Throughout, Berman's signature storytelling, complete with larger-than-life characters and highly improbable situations, highlights his unique ability to seem at once incredibly jaded and strangely innocent. Resignation pairs quite well with whimsy in Berman's song-craft, leaving the impression of a man firmly in control of the facts of the world yet perfectly incapable of losing his sense of wonder. Just be thankful he's willing to share a piece of it with you.
[The Silver Jews are playing 9/18/08 at Walter's on Washington, with James Jackson Toth.]
Blinded By The Sound
Formerly known as Harrydash, the newly named Tenspoke Indies released their debut album, Blinded By The Sound, in March of 2008. With a music makeover to go with the name change, I expected a lot from this charming quartet from Tampa, Florida. Sadly, not many of these expectations were met. Although each band member showcases an exorbitant amount of talent and musicianship, it sounds as though they each play to the sound of their own drum, so to speak.
Each instrument (including weak and rather inconsistent vocals by frontman Richard Wise) plays out as though each of them is from a different band altogether. Dressed with guitar rifts that are at times reminiscent of AC/DC and vocal performances that can rarely keep up with the actual music, the beginning tracks on Blinded By The Sound are as disjointed as can be. With a combination of several genres pouring out of the guitar, bass, and vocals, it almost feels like they're competing with one another to be heard. Musically, with songs like title track "Blinded By The Sound" and "Give To Get," there isn't a clean or clear melody to reach your ears, and you start to feel as confused as the music itself. The result is a toxic mess of sounds that comes off more chaotic than anything else.
Now, with that said, I feel the need to mention that there do exist perhaps some redeeming qualities behind the mess. See, just as I was about to dismiss the sound polluting my ears, Tenspoke Indies surprisingly changed things up toward the end of the album. If any accolades are to be given, they lie in songs like "May Day," "Starlighter," and "Dream River." On these tracks, there's a change of pace and a different taste. Slowing to a sway, these songs allow you to hear the boys from Tenspoke Indies working together as a whole. Their niche truly lies in their folk-like ballads, with Wise pushing his voice (as well as his songwriting) to finally meet the melodies of his bandmates.
Somehow, though, despite my continual cheerleading for the songs to exceed or at the very least meet the potential that bleeds out of every courageous beat and riff, I couldn't get over the intial vomitous reflux that the beginning tracks caused in my gut. If only the boys from Tenspoke can cling to what they are so devilishly good at, there lies the potential for them to pollute the air waves.
Vacation Bible School
Vacation Bible School makes nihilism sound fun. For whatever reason, the best (and the happiest) songs are the ones about life being meaningless. On their Unlucky EP, they sing about other subjects, but nihilism inspires their best work.
They like to make statements like, "It doesn't matter cause we're all going to die" ("Back of the Bus"), but then they temper it with "someday," which makes it feel less depressing and more human. The singer's style is also excited enough that he doesn't sound like he's unhappy, and he's not. Or at least not about the big questions -- the darkest songs here are about people, not philosophy.
The songs are mostly good songs, with a few really bad ones thrown in. "St. Petersburg," with its overly busy melody and swing-y bridge, is one of the worst songs I've heard in a while. Most of the songs here are good, however -- "Back of the Bus" and "Song to Kill Yourself To" are the nihilistic keepers here, with the catchiest melodies and efficient arrangements.
Vacation Bible School has a lot of potential. They have their own sort of style -- the closest touchstone would be the snottiness and catchiness of Screeching Weasel, but they have their own distinct way of doing things. And as long as they do a little more weeding out of their songs, they should have plenty more good ones.
Take Action 7
Hopeless/Sub City Records have decided to audibly bash, melodically sweep, and musically cock its feathers with their latest jaw-dropping punk rock compilation, Take Action 7. With yet another stunning lineup that includes the likes of All Time Low and radio darlings The Spill Canvas, the seventh volume of the Take Action series fills the oh so large shoes that its forefathers of have left behind. More than merely a simple mindless track of songs, this album takes you on a ride, complete with feelings of excitement, liberation, and release that almost makes you want to be cuddled after it's all over.
Rather than start with a mildly catchy tune to ease you in, Take Action kicks off with the ferocity of alternative rock (Every Time I Die and Chiodos), and then gathers a steady pace of punk led by artists like Meg & Dia, May Day Parade and Cute Is What We Aim For. The continuous flow of songs speeds up to cap off the album with Thrice and Haste the Day. Having come to the end, and as the disappointment begins to erupt, you are thrust into the mind-blowing discovery that there exists yet another disc that offers up a visual display of videos and performances from 20 more different artists and that will force you to succumb to the uncontrollable urge to play it all over again.
With that said and done, if you are still a bit shy and apprehensive in your decision to purchase such a maniacal and genius concoction of music, then perhaps the idea that any investment in Take Action will also be an investment in helping to save the world. As it turns out, Hopeless/Sub City Records donates proceeds to various non-profit organizations and charities. Sub City, with all Take Action releases, offers audiences a multi-disc set of music and a tour to accompany it, resulting in over one million dollars raised for such charities as The Foundation Fighting Blindness, H.E.A.R., A Place Called Home, and the Women's Justice Center.
So let's review, then: wicked tracks? A visual feast of music videos? A place given for your ears to internally fist pump their way into an orgasmic punk rock heaven? Do you really need me to keep convincing you? If so...how about just doing it for a good cause?
At Mount Zoomer
I wasn't sure how I would feel after listening through At Mount Zoomer, but I wasn't expecting to be pleased. Maybe I'm too pessimistic, but sophomore albums have let me down enough that I've come to fear and almost expect the "sophomore slump." And I felt Wolf Parade, bulletproof as may be in my mind, were still susceptible to this.
You see, the band's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, was a terrific, anthemic indie-rock album that made several best of lists in 2005, a year that saw many other Canadian bands also making great albums and thus keeping the media's eyes focused northward. And it was a Mr. Isaac Brock who helped record Apologies, adding even more size to the already large waves the band was making at onset of their career. So the pressure such a flashy entrance creates combined with Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner's creative commitments to a total of five other bands over the past three years seemed to spell out second album woes. To me, anyway. Like I said, maybe I'm too pessimistic. But as I also said, it's not unfounded. And the most worrisome thing about a middling sophomore record is that it can become a slope towards mediocrity.
So, as you can see, the arms with which I received At Mount Zoomer were less than open. In the end, though, I found myself more satisfied than mortified, as the album is another step in the right direction for Wolf Parade. Not as broad a step as Apologies, by any means, but the band is still full of ideas, and most of them are relatively good ones (relative, of course to the high standard of their first release).
Arlen Thompson's drumming on Wolf Parade's debut was a driving force, guiding the songs with punk rock gusto and adding integral punctuation throughout. So with him behind the sound boards for Zoomer, I expected at the very least that the drums would again be a source of dynamics, if not more so than before. This is curiously not the case, however, and with the exceptions of the machine-gun snare beat of the fantastic opener "Soldier's Grin" and the swiftness of album highlight "Language City," the drumming on the record is pushed to the back of the mix, serving more as a metronome than an exclamation point.
"Call It a Ritual" plods along with a mundane waltz beat and thick, ominous piano chords. "Fine Young Cannibals" is similarly clunky, the drums an afterthought here as the song is guided instead by a palm-muted guitar riff and Boeckner's vocals. This track brings up another of Zoomer's most glaring flaws, which is the band's over-indulgent tendencies. Since vocals are a main focus on "Fine Young Cannibals," the two instrumental minutes at the end of the track come off as awkward and meandering. Likewise, Zoomer's epic, near-eleven-minute death march "Kissing the Beehive" overstays its welcome by about five minutes, making the song more tedious than compelling.
The other noticeable change on their second release is how Wolf Parade use their keyboards. Much like drums on the album, the synthesizers have been pushed to the back, used for ambience more often than hooks. When keys do lead the charge, they are much more traditional, with the rollicking piano lines found at the beginning of "Language City" or the Rhodes piano on the prog-disco dance of "California Dreamer" serving as some of the better results of this transition.
I am still a far cry from losing my weariness towards sophomore releases, but Wolf Parade has aided the healing process with At Mount Zoomer. While the album's departures from its predecessor end up being more harmful than not, causing it to drag in places, Zoomer has enough well-executed moments to make it a worthwhile listen and has proven that Wolf Parade are more than just one-album wonders. But I never had any doubts about that.