Take a listen to Alexisonfire. No, not "Alex-is-on-fire"; the band's name is Alexis-on-fire, taken from the world's only lactating contortionist. And yes, you should be able to milk their new album for a few good tunes. I haven't heard any of the albums before the band's latest, Crisis, but I'm guessing that this album is probably more radio-friendly than any of their previous albums. For those who haven't heard, Alexisonfire is one of those post-hardcore/punk/emo/alt bands who immerse themselves in the category so well they almost drown -- almost, but not quite.
At first sound, I could definitely hear the similarities between this band and Rise Against, Thrice, and Yesterday's Rising. The first song was the obligatory emotive anthem appealing to the hardcore fan in all of us. Not wanting to pigeon-ole the band, though, I kept my mind open to the rest of the album. The album is chock full of heavy, pounding choruses, drop-tuned power chords, crashing drums, and hammer-pumping verses.
If at first you can't decide whether you like it, of course, pump the volume up in your car and take a drive. The next few times I listened to the album, I noticed that the band can actually step back from the energy and aggression in the sound and balance it with melodic mellow parts. "Look Around" is a good example; download that, or iTune it, or buy it, or whatever it is you do.
I admit that the band having two singers is a little wearing. They both do a good job, but you still tell there are two of them dueling for attention. It was kind of like a watching a ping-pong ball go back and forth, only with your ears. It works, but I felt like every song had an expected screaming part and an obligatory harmonic part. Alexisonfire does a good job of balancing them in every song, but doesn't have a song that commits to being completely hardcore or completely melodic. Overall, this album will find itself in a semi-regular rotation in between my Autopilot Off and Silverstein albums. Crisis isn't anything I haven't heard already, but it fits quite nicely in the niche that's already been made by the bands before it. They do the melodic hardcore scene proud.
The last time I heard Aloha (prior to listening to their newest album, Some Echoes), I was making my babygirl a mix-tape and I pulled out Sugar, from like 2002. I scanned through it, however, and realized that all of the songs sounded the same to me and none were comp-worthy.
Some Echoes, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise, kind of like finding a jelly bean in your wallet or something. This is a band that has evolved into something great while living in separate states; they've moved in the right direction, getting better with more creative songwriting.
The additional instrumentation is especially pleasing to my bird holes-for-ears. The keyboard sounds are well-chosen and add strength to the original marimba -- at least, since that's what drew me to the band several years ago, I'm assuming that the marimba and vibraphone have been involved since the beginning. Drummer Cale Parks, in particular, is deep. Between the interesting rhythms and well-picked synth sounds, some songs sound straight out of a '73 Yes show. Singer/guitarist Tony Cavallario's vocals are quite unique; I can't really place them in comparison with anybody else except maybe Karate at some points.
My favorite track is "Your Eyes"; check it out or don't, I couldn't care. Either way, it's nice to see that Polyvinyl is still putting out some quality records.
For Blood and Empire
I've tried to write reviews for both of these discs, Anti-Flag's For Blood and Empire and Strike Anywhere's Dead FM, for a while now, and it just hasn't worked. I keep finding myself viewing them both together, rather than separately. And given the similarities between the two bands, that makes some sense -- both are deeply, ferociously political, both come from a punk background, and both are, well, bands that I've tried unsuccessfully to get into in the past. With the exception of a few standout Strike Anywhere tracks ("Infrared," for one, off of 2003's Exit English), I've just never really been able to like much of the music either band has made in the past. Which is nuts, since I definitely empathize with both groups and recognize the impact they've had on the punk scene as a whole -- I've always listened to their stuff thinking, "y'know, I wish I could say that this is great music, but..."
Luckily, For Blood and Empire and Dead FM have another similarity, in that they've each forced me to revise my opinion of their respective bands. From where I sit, these two albums blow the bands' previous work out of the water, and given the cult-like status each group seems to hold in the scene, that's no mean feat. For starters, Anti-Flag's latest is a barnburner of an album that rages against any injustice or horror you can think of, from genocide to bulimia (no, seriously). The band tackles roughly an issue a song -- although yes, the Iraq War and the President do dominate the proceedings -- ripping it apart and dissecting it in verse-chorus-verse punk rawk that would make Joe Strummer proud. (Note to Fox viewers: this album is not going to be something you'll enjoy listening to. Go watch O'Reilly instead.) They don't always hit the mark, admittedly, as on opening track "I'd Tell You But...," which seizes as its klunky premise the idea that the song's being sung from the point of view of an Iraqi civilian who's been killed by American bombs (meaning that yes, he/she is dead; like I said, klunky). There's also "1 Trillion Dollars," which is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek jab at the ridiculousness of military spending done as a folky protest song; unfortunately, it's more Green Day Unplugged than Billy Bragg.
When Anti-Flag's on, though, they're on. "The Press Corpse" is hands-down the best political song I've heard since Steve Earle's "The Gringo's Tale," tearing the complacent "biased liberal media" a new one for blithely smiling and nodding as crime after crime zips by on the television screen. Oh, and the music behind is almost jaunty and Jam-like, with a poppy, catchy tinge to it that almost lets the sharp, smartly bitter lyrics slide by unnoticed. And of course, like any good politico-punk song, it's yell-along catchy. "Emigre" follows up with a fiery blast, channeling the fury of Scandinavian anarcho-punks Refused (albeit with somewhat smoother usage of the English language) and marrying it to a Warped Tour-worthy punk chorus. "Hymn for the Dead" is sweet and painful at the same time, nailing home the point that in death, everybody's equal. "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" and "The Project for a New American Century" hit Alkaline Trio-style rock and old-school punk, respectively, while "Cities Burn" could be a long-lost Clash (or at least Rancid) track -- the latter's poignant and melodic, a reaffirmation that hope still lives.
The most intriguing part of For Blood and Empire, when you get down to it, is the utter specificity Justin Sane (guitar/vocals), Chris Head (guitar/vocals), Chris #2 (bass/vocals), and Pat Thetic (drums/vocals -- woo-hoo, everybody sings!) bring to the tracks. There's no mumblemouthed ranting about The Man on here (okay, not much, anyway), no mindless "punk anthems" that really aren't any more substantial than a night of hanging with your bros and bitching about chicks. These guys name-drop so much you'd think this was a Beastie Boys record, seriously.
"The Project for a New American Century"? Yes, that'd be a punk anti-anthem about a now-notorious neoconservative think tank. "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" is loosely based on the book of the same name, written by former World Bank/U.S. Agency for International Development consultant John Perkins, and in the lyrics the band rattles off the names of former foreign leaders like Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (Guatemala), Mohammed Mossadeq (Iran), and Jean-Bertrand Aristide (Haiti), all duly-elected folks whom the U.S. has kindly either helped or pushed out of power. "Emigre" uses Pastor Niemöller's famous "First they came for the communists..." poem about German complacency in the face of the rise of the Nazis as its jumping-off point. "State Funeral" slams Bush for his Yalie Skull & Bones connections. "The W.T.O. Kills Farmers" name-checks agribusiness giants Monsanto and Syngenta (the latter of which I've never even heard of), and then closer "Depleted Uranium Is A War Crime" incorporates a chilling interview Sane did with Rep. Jim McDermott into the song itself.
Oh, and then there's the liner notes. Sane and company have assembled a veritable primer on the progressive/"radical" causes they're fighting/singing for, complete with essays by folks like Medea Benjamin, Peter Hart, and Dahr Jamail, quick little history lessons, political diatribes, and addresses for resources on everything from bulimia to war profiteering to genocide. And y'know, I have to respect the work the band put into this -- rather than simply telling their listeners "Fuck The Man!" and leaving it at that, they offer listeners a detailed look at the issues and problems behind the red-white-and-black artwork and punk haircuts. Hell, I consider myself to be fairly up on stuff like this, and even I found the booklet pretty informative. It's hard not to respect Anti-Flag for putting all their cards on the table and trying to inform the kids at the same time.
I don't mean, by the way, to demean the Strike Anywhere disc in this duo. Dead FM is also a highly political, highly charged album, albeit in a different way. Where Anti-Flag go head-on, delving into polemicism and statistics and pointing to history and the often-horrifying reality to make their case, Strike Anywhere goes for the gut. I know, I know -- right there above I made fun of bands who crank out vague punk anthems with nothing to back it up, but as with anything, there's a bad and a good way to do it. Strike Anywhere, happily, have hit on the latter.
When I first heard about the new album, I remember something about it being a "more personal, less political" effort. At the time, I laughed. There's no way these guys -- hardcore vegetarians, longtime promoters of women's rights, fighters against globalization -- are going to soften and get all Dashboard Confessional on us. Right? Short answer: well, kinda. What Strike Anywhere have done with Dead FM is nearly the reverse of what Anti-Flag have done with For Blood and Empire. They have toned down the politics a bit, in order to personalize it.
On tracks like "Allies" (which features the most poignant lyric on either album: "Don't let them tell you who you cannot love"), "Iron Trees," and "How to Pray," the band takes a personal look at the fight both bands are waging. Strike Anywhere aren't that interested in dissecting the various crimes committed during the Dubya Regime but are instead trying to step back and view it all on a more ground-floor level, touching on the ways in which all this bad shit affects us directly, not some random other person out there in the world. And hey, after all, we're all selfish bastards at heart, right?
"Speak to Our Empty Pockets" sums the whole thing up, really. Dreadlocked singer Thomas Barnett rails beautifully against the "preachers from the pulpits of power," talking-head pundits and politicos that use our own shrinking wallets to turn us against one another, and it's not about how people who are in the minority in this country only get blah-blah percent of the jobs or how crime rates rise across the board when wages are low. There are no statistics here; instead, the song's about, dammit, The Man using our own pettiness and bitterness to distract us from the people who could actually fix things if they wanted to. Who can't relate to that? Is there anybody out there who likes the idea that they're being swindled or lied to? If so, I've never met 'em.
"Speak" is probably the standout track here, but there are several other highlights, including "Prisoner Echoes," which is jaded and ragged but sing-song-y, like a punk drinking song, the aforementioned "Allies," and "The Promise," a defiant meditation on the often-unfulfilled promise this country holds out to us. "Sedition" actually veers close to Anti-Flag territory when it talks about the Bhopal disaster, but even then Barnett puts a personal spin on it, reaching back to his grandpa's life to channel his fury and shame at the way even not doing something can wreck the lives of others. "How to Pray" spurns the hypocrisies of so much of organized religion, while "Instinct" is a sorrowful memory of a friend's abuse at the hands of a parent.
Taken all together, where For Blood and Empire is the more clinical, let's-lay-the-facts-out-and-prove-it-to-you disc, Dead FM is about that sick feeling you get in your gut when you hear stories about prisoners being tortured or families killed. It's not about the reasoning, but about the bare-bones human reaction. With their new album, Anti-Flag are standing on the street corner with their arms in the air, telling you what you need to know; Strike Anywhere, on the other hand, are sitting with their buds at the bar, watching the TV and talking about how their dad just lost his job at the factory or their sister's kid will have to breathe through a tube for the rest of his life. And from my standpoint, there's a place in the world for both those kinds of punk rock radicalism.
Arms of Kismet
Cutting Room Rug
Mark Doyon, the sole force behind Arms of Kismet, describes his new album, Cutting Room Rug, as a jigsaw puzzle. "Sometimes the puzzle falls off the table," he says. "You can put it back together, or you can do something else with the pieces." The pieces to Arms of Kismet's newest release are interesting, to say the least.
The first listen through wasn't anything special; the instrumentation felt dated. Every other song, I found myself wishing I were listening to the Talking Heads. Beneath the surface, though, there's a unique style of songwriting that Doyon has made his own. Luckily, Cutting Room Rug doesn't take that style too seriously. There's a smile in the beat when Doyon asks, "Who's to blame / For a world that runs on fission?" He wants to be taken "to your sweet soul goddess." That playful songwriting keeps the momentum rolling on the album, and I feel like there's a brooding quality to the record that gets lost. There's a thin, thin layer of dark to the record, but it gets obscured in the playful mood. Not that that's a bad thing.
Doyon's vision is all over the place. Cutting Room Rug moves from a honky-tonk guitar riff ("Outbound train") to a classic ballad ("Coil") to a dance club-inspired groove ("Pinnacle of Same"). Inside the mishmash of the arrangements, Doyon's voice helps pull the album together; he has a classic '80s wail. His voice is so familiar, but it feels like it's legitimately unique, even still. Unfortunately, while Doyon's singing works well on certain tracks, I'm not sure it can manage to hold all 11 tracks together.
Beyond that, some of the puzzle pieces come off a bit too easy; they don't feel like anything innovative. The dance beat on "Pinnacle of Same" feels like it was cut from the starter loops in GarageBand. The piano parts sound too thin sometimes, but Doyon mixes them well-- especially on "Listen to You."
Ultimately, it's Doyon's simple arrangements that keep the album solid. Cutting Room Rug is a strange example of new pop; it's leaning toward the "acquired taste" pile. All in all, it's a decent listen, but I'm afraid it's not going on any of my playlists soon.
Comets on Fire
This album should come with a sticker: "Only play loud." Played in the background, Comets on Fire's Avatar sounds like a melange of various psychedelic bands, with a potpourri of Blue Cheer, a sprinkling of 13th Floor Elevators, a trace of Grateful Dead, et cetera. Pleasant enough, and probably mind-blowing to the average psych fan, but not worth calling special attention to.
And I wrote a review to that point, but there's so much hype around these guys that I wanted to be fair, so I gave it one more listen with the volume cranked, and about eight seconds in the sky split open and a supremely fucked free fall began. It's with volume that the band's idiosyncracies come out, the proof that Comets on Fire are unique and insane and not really concerned with listenability at times but nonetheless able to create an entrancing soundscape -- moored on the shores of psychedelic rock, yes, but looking out to an alien land without borders. I won't go so far as saying it's a land everyone wants to visit -- in fact, there are moments that are profoundly annoying -- but Avatar is a record that anyone vaguely interested in this kind of music should try to engage seriously and wholeheartedly at least once, full-on. You still may not like the scenery, but you won't forget it.
Catch As Catch Can
It's always been my sincere belief that Music can work as a unifying medium that brings two or more opposing forces together in harmony, even if said unification is temporary. With the world changing in rapid and unsettling ways, people look in all sorts of places to find truth, inspiration, and assurance. We look for connections in unlikely places, especially if we happen to be musicians (well most musicians, anyway...).
It's been a long time since I've listened to an album that made me remember why I loved music so much in the first place -- why I nestled myself confidently into deep bass chords, erratic drum beats, candid lyrics, and vocals. Glue made me remember. Their most recent release, Catch As Catch Can, is a genuinely refreshing change of scenery, not just for independent music, but for music culture in general.
Glue has put their collective foot into the ring and produced one of the best, as they put it, retro-progressive albums in years. You can literally hear the hard work and innovation being pumped through your speakers in almost every song on here. The lyrics are heartfelt and raw. Glue, consisting of emcee Adeem, djdq, and producer Maker, combine to bring a unique and believable mix of rock and hip-hop to the table. Don't be turned off by the rock/hip-hop combo, by the way; the rock tint is subtle yet integrated so intelligently that you can't help but shake your ass a little to the beats. I assure you that with songs like "Truth or Dare" and "Beat Beat Beat," I won't be the only one getting turned on by the sounds. Precious few have successfully woven rock and hip-hop together as profoundly and honestly as Glue does.
What makes the album even more exciting is the freshness of their work. We've heard plenty of retro bands lately, but very few have incorporated a new vibe. Glue, on the other hand, has brought an old school hip-hop sound back, but in a way that makes you melt a little remembering how much you missed the way music used to be. Songs like "Glupies," "In Between Her," and "Never Really Know" showcase djdq's chilled out sampled mixes and Adeem's poetic verses.
While very few of the songs faltered, there were times throughout Catch As Catch Can where the lyrics got a wee bit long-winded and cheesy, of course. On "Hometown Anthem," for one, the song flowed but the rhymes were more like a chronological retelling of the emcee's history than a lyrical showcase. The song felt forced and mismatched, even if the content was genuine and sentimental. Overall, though, the album rocked and hip-hopped in a beautifully rare form. Glue saw that music fans out there were reaching to find real music again and they filled that need with integrity and heart.
Much like independent film, indie music seems to have fallen into a pretty predictable pattern over the years. Just like everything else, what once was distinctive quickly becomes banal, and we struggle to wade through the paper cuts to find someone willing to push the limits of soul and sound. Glue is the bridge bringing us back to days where musicians played music because they couldn't imagine doing anything else. (Glue will be performing at Emo's in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, October 17.)
Kill Them With Kindness
Over the years, the definition of "pop music" has changed dramatically in my eyes. For a long time, I genuinely believed that announcing that pop music was your primary music drug of choice made you appear to have no taste in music whatsoever. Thus, I would clarify my musical love of pop by saying I loved "Britpop" or "indie-pop," because those qualifiers might somehow make you forget that I was still listening to pop music.
Perhaps my initial misunderstanding of the pop genre stems from the fact that in my formative years I would lump together all subcategories of pop into one big soup bowl. Therefore, admitting I loved The Charlatans was also like admitting I had a thing for Debbie Gibson. Thankfully, I can now clearly see that the two have nothing at all in common. I have been purged of my silliness and can now admit to you, my dear readers, that I am in love with an incredible, new-ish pop band named Headlights.
I adore Headlights and their new LP, Kill Them With Kindness, for the same reason I can't get enough of bands like The Smiths, Ride, and The Sundays: the band writes the most melancholy, frank lyrics in such a gorgeously poetic way and then sets it to music that makes it feel almost happy. Kill Them With Kindness is stunning from start to finish.
You know you've gotten your hands on something incredible when you can listen to the album all the way through without ever needing to or wanting to skip over a song, and Headlights never let me down. Starting the album off with "Your Old Street" was an excellent choice; the combination of Erin Fein's siren-like voice and Tristan Wraight's calming and soothing vocals lays the groundwork for the shoegaze-iness of the song. Throw in the gentle lull of perfectly placed string instruments, keyboards, and guitar, and you have the ultimate in pop goodness.
I was simply mesmerized with the maturity of the music. The songs just got better and better as I progressed through the album. Songs like "Lullabies" and "Put Us Back Together Right" exemplify the reasons why good pop music really should be the music for the indie masses: lyrics that let you ponder and relate your own experiences and energetic music that makes the sort-of-sad lyrics fun to dance to and sing along with while driving in your car.
The best thing about Kill Them With Kindness, though, is that it's a great album to listen to regardless of your current mood. It makes you feel happy, sad, silly, energized, and emotional all at the same time, while also providing you with fine quality music. Headlights has created an album that is not only relatable for a lot of listeners but also one that could very well stand the test of time and be just as good ten years from now as it is today. (Headlights will be performing in Houston on November 14, 2006 at The Proletariat.)
J Dilla's album The Shining was released after he passed away from lupus, completed by his friend Karriem Riggins after J was gone. Needless to say, the rappers that performed on the record perform with obvious love for J Dilla, and the album has something of an old-school vibe -- many of the beats have the minimum required to keep your body moving. J Dilla played most of the instruments on the record, which makes the album feel more like a live band more than a bunch of samples (although there are plenty of those, too).
J and Karriem use the rapping in interesting ways. Common raps less on "E=MC2" than he normally does, and they create a call-and-response feel between the rapping and the samples. The beats behind the song is pretty minimal, with a great bass drum sound (which J uses throughout the album) and other sound effects. There are some other interesting beats -- "Jungle Love" is made up almost solely of percussion sounds,, with an occasional keyboard fill to give it some melody, and "Geek Down" features a crazy melody line that sounds like a distorted trumpet, along with some other distorted keyboard parts, all of which match Busta Rhymes' frenzied rapping perfectly.
The song "Love" sums up the theme of the album. Beneath a soulful beat, Pharoaoh Monche says you got to "put love in the music," and they put love in this one. Appropriately enough, it's the best beat here, with a pretty backing female chorus and great horn and string samples you just want to listen to over and over. And it's also about love for J Dilla; "Jungle Love" isn't actually about jungle love but, as the chorus goes, "J D to the I to the L L A," one of many heartfelt shoutouts to J on the record.
Much credit, however, goes to J Dilla himself or Riggins -- the album is strong largely thanks to J's beats, as well as the rappers that contributed lyrics. It's good to see J Dilla going out on a high note. Or, at least, a funky bass line.
Just A Fire
"Produced by J. Robbins." At this point in the indie-rock game, you can almost guess what a band's going to sound like just from that one sentence fragment. That's not a dig at either Robbins or the bands he's produced -- he's produced and played on some of my favorite records of all time. With that said, though, I think that any time a Fugazi-ish, DC-sounding band decides to make an album, they just feel it natural to seek out J. Robbins to work his magic for them. It's almost a foregone conclusion.
On Spanish Time, Just A Fire is pretty much that -- a three-piece outfit from Chicago that explores the sonic territory of Jawbox, Fugazi, Hoover, et al. The band even includes Hoover's Fred Erskine on bass (along with Chris Daly from Sweep The Leg Johnny on guitar and Scott Adamson from Son of Adam on drums). As you'd expect, Spanish Time delivers some good rocking moments, and songs like "My Baby Is Your Baby Too" and "Runaway" feature some nice manic guitars and rough-throated vocals. Overall, the whole affair is very listenable; I just didn't find anything on the album to get me really excited. I'd definitely check out Just A Fire, however, if they came through Houston anytime soon. Maybe that could sway me.
This is the self-titled debut album for Vancouver-area band Ladyhawk, and it starts off slow. Not slow in tempo, but slow in terms of quality. The first full three songs ("48 Hours," "The Dugout," and "My Old Jacknife"), unfortunately, are indie-rock clichés. Usually a band -- especially a new band -- will put its strongest material first to reduce the chance that somebody not familiar with the music will walk away after only a song or two. With that in mind, it's hard to imagine that Ladyhawk thought their first few songs were the strongest ones on the album. Really, if I weren't reviewing the thing, I'm not sure I would have stuck around long enough to get to song number four. So it's a good thing I'm reviewing it.
It's at song number four that the album starts to pick up, although again, not in tempo. "Long 'Til the Morning" is a slow, dirge-y number with a "woo woo" bit that conjures up a far-off train whistle. Its loneliness is worthy of Hank Williams himself. Maybe I'm just a sucker for the slow songs, but this is the one that I would have kicked off the album with. Well, alright, it wouldn't so much "kick" the album off as "slink" it off, but no way would it drive anybody away.
The tempo goes back to mid after track four with "Came in Brave," and here Ladyhawk start to sound like Neil Young or Silkworm. Not only are the vocals a dead ringer for Silkworm's Andy Cohen at times, but so also is the snaky guitar work. And that's a good thing.
Overall this is an uneven album, but it is Ladyhawk's first. Hopefully given time, they won't feel compelled to include the mediocre songs on further releases. Or at least maybe they won't load it all at the beginning.
Okay, so I hate giving bad reviews for anything, but I'm going to be honest here because I believe that's my duty as a reviewer: Millionaire's latest EP, Paradisiac, is not good. I'm not going to use any inappropriate words, but just know that as I type this I'm thinking of every word that is related to the phrase "not good."
So, on that note, let me explain my rationale. First, as an entire piece of work, the album doesn't flow. Every song is different; some good and some not at all, although one song in particular was fantastic. The lone survivor of my wrath upon this album is the song "Ballad of a Pure Thought." Everything, from the lyrics to the melody, even the vocals, is gorgeous. You can find Millionaire on iTunes, and I'd highly recommend buying that track and only that one. Unfortunately for Millionaire, "Ballad of a Pure Thought" was their only pure thought. The rest is just muddled in comparison.
Second, Paradisiac is not only mismatched, but it seems that almost every track other than that one exception is a ripoff of some other band. "For a Maid" is totally influenced by the guitar work and vocals of the Pixies. "A Face that Doesn't Fit" is a total Radiohead rip. Also, I could've sworn that I've heard the song "Wake Up the Children" on one of the Liars' CDs. It's one thing to be influenced by someone, but it's another thing to steal his or her style and say that it's an original.
Third, maybe the real reason that I don't like it, other than every track not corresponding to the next and that they ripped every successful (or even semi-successful) band's style, is the fact that it sounds like something I would hear on a Top 20 rock station. I feel that my third and final point is the biggest blow that I could give to any band. To those who want to make billions of dollars and have tons of hot chicks all around, Top 20 can be considered a good thing for them because they know that the cash and girls are soon to follow. But for those who are into the art of music, "Top 20" is the harshest statement that anyone could make about you music. And bad as that is, I'm afraid that I have to take it a step farther and say that Paradisiac is worse -- it's a failed imitation of Top 20.
Klunk, Motor's first release, is brought to you by French drummer Mr. No and Minnesota native Bryan Black. They apparently met when Black watched one of Mr. No's shows and became fast friends because of their mutual love of Prince. They originally co-founded the electro-techno project Xlover (check out the album Pleasure & Romance) with frontwoman Nina Rai, who, believe it or not, is a self-proclaimed female version of Prince. Soon after Xlover's first release, both men decided that experimenting exclusively with techno would be their next move. Such was the beginning of a collaboration that not only reflects but satirizes this country's continually darkening political climate.
The best aspect of this album is the fact that neither man is fluent in the language of techno music, yet it is interesting to note that this rather neophytic vantage point can result in a refreshing and provocative leap in their brand of industrial electronica for the masses. Take album opener "Black Powder," for instance. Let's say the apocalypse decided to rear its ugly head and wreak havoc on humanity as we know it. "Black Powder" would be the soundtrack to this catastrophe, with Mr. No and Black snickering all sinister-like in the shadows. The track is reminiscent of low-flying planes, gunpowder, and flesh wounds stuffed with shrapnel and empty shells.
The abrupt ending of "Black Powder" may seem like a cease-fire, even if only temporary, but it picks right back up on the third track of Klunk, "Stuka Stunt." Part two of the end of the world brings to mind images of army boots stomping in sync and horns wailing and warning the people of impending disasters that have already occurred. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. "Botox," another treat, conjures up this scenario of a dilapidated factory located in the warehouse district of some forgotten industrial town in Europe; think of the movie Hostel. Women from all over go to this place in secret to get major work done for cheap. I envision these women lying supine and stark naked on this conveyor belt while robotic arms with lasers pinch, snap, zap, and cut their way to perfection, while the recipients stare off blankly with Stepford-like smiles pasted on their faces. Think Joan Rivers.
"Sweatbox," an unlikely dance hit, sounds like what strobe lights look like. It has that ability to thump through one's ears and into their chest, pumping one's heart to submission and taking over the person's body. If one were to visit Motor's official website, they'd notice the link for the band's own mini-videogame featuring "Sweatbox." I'm not making this up: you get to drive this beat-up van on a road filled with various gasoline tanks (these are good, you need more gas), while trying to avoid other cars, people, and animals. You rack up points for safe driving and you get to listen to your new favorite song. Now, tell me, what could be better?
There is something to be said for the freedom that comes with doing music for yourself. There is a luxury a band out working for a label will never have, the ability to create a picture much like the individuals who make up the band. There is no having to stick to a preset formula or hold to an idea of what is expected. On All Over, Organ Failure grasps the idea of non-conformity and runs with it.
The first song, "What We Really Want To Do," begins with a touch of funk, while the next song, "Devil Why Must You Pursue Me," borrows from folksy, Celtic influences, and "Worms" sounds like something from an old jazzy swing club. This is the mood that follows the whole CD: the utmost expression of whatever crosses the minds of the musicians that make up the band.
Nothing is left untouched. Music reminiscent of children's television shows are in abundance. The ability of this band to explore every avenue of music makes it all come together perfectly and somehow make sense.
Considering that the members of this band are the minds behind local club Super Happy Fun Land, there should be little surprise at the eclectic nature of the music in the CD. Night after night of watching bands and performance artists of every genre and idea set play on the same bill will definitely open up your mind to any possibility under the sun. That's what you'll find on this CD, a full view of what the band wants to do.
Oh, yeah, and there are some covers on the album. A heart-wrenching version of "Folsom County Blues," recreated by Cookie Monster and titled "Cookie Prison Blues," pulls you near to tears of mixed laughter and sorrow. A folksy/Celtic-sounding recreation of The Clash's "Rock The Casbah" gives the old standard a fresh sound while making the song sound great. Then the cover of "Boom, I Got Your Boyfriend" just has to be heard -- there's nothing I can really say to do it justice.
If you're a fan of produced rock bands that follow a specified path, this album is not for you. It will leave you confused, afraid, and possibly bummed out. If, on the other hand, you enjoy music that's made for the love of music and doesn't spend a lot of time trying to be polished, clean, and produced to no end, this album will get your motor running. Sure, there are a few spots where the insanity reaches uncomfortable levels, but the balance is good enough to earn high marks.
There is nothing flashy about Cale Parks, but he makes geek look good. In between albums for the indie band Aloha, Parks decided to take it upon himself to release his first full-length debut, Illuminated Manuscripts. Yet even with this decidedly ballsy move, he still manages to slink away into the background while letting the music do the talking. The album's infinitely crisp ambience flirts with the idea of delving into the emotions, though it doesn't quite get that deep. In his "About Me" section on his MySpace page, Parks describes Illuminated Manuscripts as "intimate but intricate bedroom" music.
This statement, though succinct, fails to describe the bedtime action accompanying the album. I would imagine the bed having Egyptian cotton sheets (ironed, of course) in taupe and involving two politically-correct, straight, condom-and-diaphragm-wearing recipients. In other words, this album is clean and safe, without even a hint of raunch; it's more sparkling and sanitary than Thievery Corporation. But, no matter -- one can still appreciate Parks's brand of understated and subtle electronic loveliness. They can also take interest in his year-long journey recording Illuminated Manuscripts. Apparently Parks was living in and out of other's homes, borrowing computers and 4-tracks and whatnot and scraping this album together, piece-by-piece.
These songs have a way of creating cool and relaxed moods. "Tiny Theme" brings to mind a scene in a movie where a man frantically searches a train station for his love, a love he nearly lost but with whom he's determined to reconnect and begin again. "Halls of Avalon" has an infectiously swanky beat that prompts one to wear silk and sip a cosmo. I see utopian skies, complete with the occasional spring shower and endless dewy grass, where "Late Show" plays softly in the background. The last song of this album, which is, incidentally, secret and simply called "Cale Parks SS2," is a hybrid of quick cymbals and what sounds like a vibraphone, one of the many instruments Parks plays with Aloha.
These are the songs that people who live in lofts listen to. You know them: they buy their furniture from Pottery Barn or West Elm after jogging at Memorial Park and getting Sumatra coffee afterwards at Starbucks. I envision these people cooking their well-balanced Sunday brunch with Illuminated Manuscripts gracefully emanating from the many meticulously-placed speakers provided by Tweeter.
Is this the state of punk? I hope not. Pretty Flowers' three-song EP has all of the romantic trappings of old-school punk but none of the guts. It's as if the band knew they should include every attribute of the best punk albums of the late '70s (anti-social lyrics, rough tuning, amateurish recording, bad sound), but didn't really know why. It's like doing physics homework with the class notes: you can get the problems done, but the grader will instantly know you have no clue why you did what you did. Pretty Flowers is what you get when this happens in music: '80s post-punk pop played without any real talent into the microphone on a boombox. Terrible lyrics straight off of my middle school Trapper-Keeper. But, hey, they drop the F-bomb, so they're edgy. Easily the worst sounding album I've ever heard (and I own Out of Step by Minor Threat on vinyl). Usually, attitude makes up for technical deficiency, but there's no attitude here. What the band thinks is "apathy" or "attitude" on the album comes across as "lazy" and "contrived." The most telling example of Pretty Flowers' ineptitude is on "I Got Your Love," when the drummer counts in the last four measures of the song about twice as fast as they eventually play it. But it's punk from New York, so it's OK, right? Sorry, lil' Flowers -- you aren't fooling anyone.
To the Confusion of Our Enemies
After 2003's Something to Crow About demonstrated their balls, charm, attitude, and sense of humor, Denton's Riverboat Gamblers were poised to become one of the country's best garage-punk bands. Instead, they chose to move to Austin and release To the Confusion of Our Enemies, which does for them what Caution did for Hot Water Music and Relationship of Command did for At the Drive-In -- namely, turn them into a squashed-down, cranked-up, spit-polished, and radio-friendly version of their old punk selves, presumably so that they can have a reason to break up a couple of years down the road when they realize they don't enjoy what they're doing anymore.
Recording engineers want to make records sound good; that's their job. Unfortunately, due to convention, they sometimes take "good" to refer to a sound with that maximizes clarity and consistency and minimizes noise, bleed, uncontrolled distortion, and other errors, regardless of whether this is an approach that makes the record fun to listen to. It is a mistake for a band like the Riverboat Gamblers, or almost any garage-rock or punk band, to make a record that sounds this way, because the ugliness of the music is part of what makes it interesting. The whole point of garage rock is to for the musicians to lose control, not to demonstrate it.
On Confusion, the clarity of the recording does succeed in highlighting brash motormouth Mike Weibe, whose blink-and-you-missed them lyrics are unexpectedly contemplative (especially considering the band's reputation for derangement), but it also highlights the band's total lack of interesting music. This isn't a problem when they're balls to the wall and three sheets to the wind, which they hopefully always will be when they play live. The old fun Gamblers are still there under all the studio polish; you can take the band out of the garage, but you can't take the garage out of the band. The question is now is how to get the band back into the garage.
Whatever's Got You Down
I can remember that the first time I came across Samiam, back in the early '90s, they were labeled a punk band, and the tag threw me off right from the start. For one thing, vocalist Jason Beebout actually sang, something I honestly didn't expect from a punk band (at the time, at least), and beyond that, the guitars, while distorted, still sounded surprisingly clean. At their core, though, what really made the band stand out was the fact that their songs really weren't "punk" songs -- they were pop songs with a lot of distortion and a fair dose of testosterone, which is to say that they pretty much anticipated the emo explosion of the late '90s by a half-decade or so. Along with fellow Bay Area-dwellers Jawbreaker, Samiam was one of the few bands of the post-Green Day pop-punk frenzy with songwriting abilities to match their overall energy level, earning comparisons not so much to their contemporaries as to classic '80s punk bands like Hüsker Dü, Fugazi, or the Replacements.
The songs on the band's major-label debut, Clumsy, were raw and angry but still sweet and heartfelt, and despite some broadening of the stylistic palette, their latest, Whatever's Got You Down, doesn't stray too far from that blueprint. The anthemic opener, "When We're Together," blasts in with authority, combining Sergie Loobkoff's crunchy-but-smooth guitars with Beebout's cigarette-shredded vocals, and the album chugs along from there, careening (sweetly) through eleven more burning, impassioned pop songs slathered in distortion. There's the somewhat reassuring "Take Care," which features a nicely gentle prechorus, "Get It Right," which chimes and shines like Jimmy Eat World's most gorgeous, most crystalline moments, the pleading "Do You Want To Be Loved," "Are You Alright," which is probably the closest kin to Samiam's pop-punk cousins (like Pennywise or Green Day), and the sharp-edged, bitter "Holiday Parade."
Throughout, Whatever's Got You Down sounds up-front and immediate, with a head-bobbing, toe-tapping, gotta-do-it-right-now urgency propelling both the music and the lyrics headlong down the path. Some of the tracks ("When We're Together," in particular) sounds so live it could've been taken from a sweaty, frantic live show somewhere out on the road.
Be warned, by the way, that on the first few tracks, Beebout's voice may take a bit of getting used to. His adenoidal yelp has gotten rougher, if anything, since the band's major-label debut, Clumsy, these days coming across like The Outfield's Tony Lewis (Play Deep is a good album, dammit...) fronting, well, a pop-punk band.
Now, while the album's good throughout, I should note that a few tracks still manage to stand head and shoulders above the rest. "Storm Clouds," for one, is intense and distinctly Smiths-esque, with its droning guitars and warning lyrics, and "Anything" comes off like the best possible marriage between candy-sweet '80s pop and Jawbreaker's Dear You. "Come Home," on the other hand, is softer, a drifting, chiming, heartfelt plea that slows things down a bit, as does "Lullaby" when it swings near to Foo Fighters territory. Best of all, though, is "Believer," which lunges from melancholy, contemplative pop into a stadium-sized roar worthy of The Who, dissecting in the process Beebout's inability to quit trusting people.
God damn, I'm glad these guys are still together. Everything I loved way back when is still firmly intact: the soaring, swooping, impassioned vocals, the raw, punkish-but-still-melodic guitars, the driving rhythms, the solidly-constructed songs, all of it. I have a sneaking suspicion that this disc will be residing in the car stereo for a good long while.
There is another sun clouded over with meticulous care
((sounder))'s There is another sun clouded over with meticulous care is jammy, drone-y, and long. It drags in the middle under its own ponderous weight. The album and song titles are cumbersome, and most of the songs could be cut down by a third and none would be the wiser.
I love it.
((sounder)) is definitely a mood band. You have to be careful and in the proper frame of mind to launch into this album, and more than once I shut it off before I got to the end. But those times when you are willing to put the effort into it, There is another sun... rewards the listener. Built to Spill, old Modest Mouse, and Mogwai are all in evidence here. The percussion especially sounds good, and the entire recording has a very live feel. The electronic beats, stabs, and loops are never the focus of the songs, adding texture without being overbearing or sounding trendy. One of the most difficult things in the folk-electronic mash-up world is to find sounds and loops that actually sound good with an acoustic guitar.
Highlights include the first song "Untitled/It's Just A Sound Like Any Other Sound" with a Squarepusher(?!?) intro that morphs into an acoustic-driven alt-rock piece with distorted vocals and electronic bits and keys providing an interesting layer underneath. At the other end of the electronic-acoustic spectrum, "Ssnnddrr" incorporates the acoustic guitar as part of the rhythm while the melody and hooks are provided by cool loops of feedback. Unlike many bands, where the electronic parts are on equal footing with other instruments in the band, ((sounder)) creates interest and impact by using them only when necessary. A great album to fall asleep or veg out to.
Jeff Walker und Die Fluffers
Welcome to Carcass Cuntry
I've been hearing a lot of noise about grindcore lately, and I have to say that there's nothing wrong with the genre; if you like screaming and guitars that sound like grinding metal, then it's gravy. Jeff Walker pioneered the genre with his band Carcass, and thanks to H.I.M., Napalm Death, and other bands like them, grindcore has since come into its own as a distinctive genre within the milieu of hardcore music. That same Jeff Walker has taken a break from the grind to release a new album, Welcome to Carcass Cuntry, that's crammed full of spankin' new covers of ancient country hits, including "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "Rocky Mountain High," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
Unfortunately for Walker, however, the album is weak and sad like the country songs that he tries to reproduce. Sometimes people should just not cross genres. Despite a list of guests that includes members from Faith No More, Amorphis, Napalm Death, and more, the songs are slow, plodding, artless, boring, unemotional, powerfully overproduced, and overstocked with zombified guitars. Delicate songs are pompously textured with coarse distorted guitar, matched by Walker's own brusque vocal style, which reminds one of Dwight Yoakum's character in Sling Blade twenty years and a million hangovers down the line. As the singer himself puts it, "the recording ranges from some of the best vocals I've probably ever done, to the worst, but it's all about the spontaneity..." Anyway, I don't hate or love this album, but I'll probably never listen to it again, if that tells you anything.
A good indication of whether I like an album or not is whether I choose to listen to it outside of my reviewing duties. Many a reviewed album gets spun only a few times, then relegated to a pile that reminds you that "getting to keep what you review" is sometimes not such a great motivator. On the other hand, you get to hear a bunch of music you might not otherwise be exposed to, and occasionally, you catch a gem in the massive pile of mediocrity. One of those gems is White Whale's WWI, a sprawling seafaring epic of love (for both woman and vessel) and devotion to the sea. The goofy press release aside, White Whale has something here, an album that is spellbinding in both talent and imagery.
It must be incredibly difficult to pull off a concept album like this. My guess is that most who try get bored long before they get done: the story gets stale, the band chemistry goes bad, or the music morphs in a direction different from the original vision. This is especially the case with lyrics: they all have to go together, or else the listener gets confused. Luckily, this is never the case with WWI; the album gets stronger and more vivid as it sucks the listener.
It's difficult to describe the style or sound of the songs overall, as they evolve as the album progresses, and lead singer Matt Suggs seems to get more comfortable singing and living in the characters that he is portraying. "Nine Good Fingers" is a good start, typical alt-pop, but doesn't have the same feel as the rest of the album. "O William, O Sarah" really starts the epic, with William the captain leaving his love for the Academy and the open sea, and ends with a driving electronica groove over acoustic drums and distorted vocal stabs and slices. "The Admiral" is the first truly thematic song, with naval marching drums and a traditional rhyming limerick scheme building to a bombastic, movie-soundtrack ending. "I Love Lovely Chinese Girl" is meant to sound dirge-like and Eastern, with lyrics and phrasing similar to that of a non-native English speaker, subtly expanding the song's imagery.
"What's An Ocean For" is a bit of The Cure, while "We're Just Temporary Ma'am" is the emotional center of the album, an angry song of loss and the seemingly callous lack of commitment by the Captain as he leaves his love to find his sacked ship, describing both himself and her as "temporary." The album slows down for a breather with the beginning of "Forgive the Forgiven," electronic beats under a slow, dreamy rhythm part, reminiscent of that song with the chick on the beach by Chris Isaak but building to powerful climax. "Fidget And Fudge" starts the final third of the album, reflecting on "what parasites we are" as bells play in the background. Some of the best writing on the album would be at home on a Pink Floyd or Radiohead album, with nice turns of phrase like "Telling us you are all ears / When we know you are all thumbs" paired with a fun, scattery electronic drum part underneath and climbing to a layered guitar wash held down by bludgeoned acoustic drums. "Yummyman Farewell/Kings Indian/One Prayer" is a fitting, glorious end to the album. Pretty amazing stuff from land-locked Kansas. Highly recommended.
Greatest Apes EP
Though the dog days of summer are past, there's a certain musical reddening still available to us -- the Wiggins' Greatest Apes EP is a summer record in the best of ways: it's loud, euphoric, and indifferent to taste. The production is a black junkyard of sound, the prevailing sentiment, celebratory.
That being said, this isn't that great a record. The tricky thing is, that's what makes this a great record. In an age where rock has had its every edge rubbed smooth, it's nice to see some inconsistency, some roughness -- a sensation more interesting than pleasant. There's something to be said for imperfection, something to be said, even, for a tribute to it, a murky slop of a record, a testament not to how we want things to be (carefully constructed) but to how things actually are: uncontained, pretty, and vicious.
The Wiggins (the one-man anti-symphony of Jon Reeves) start things off with kinetic fuck-all force -- "Lying" is a Dionysian shriek, a well of complete excess. We never know, really, what's going on, only that there's too much of it, that it exceeds, that the music spills over whatever container (whatever, say, structure) was meant to contain it. This is glorious, not nonsense, but non-sense, not insignificant but irrational, and not just irrational, but overwhelmingly so. This is the sort of go-ahead "Louie, Louie" action punk rock is made of; it's simplistic, it's over the top, and it's carnal to the point of bestiality. Not a single lyric is (ultimately) decipherable, but the force of the nasal, bombastic delivery ("a metallic scrape" is how my girlfriend grudgingly characterized Jon's voice) is undeniable. There may be additional meaning, but there is no greater meaning than force. That is, it's not about what causes displacement, it's about displacement itself, the great, dark shoving aside.
The record's nasty, is the thing. It makes me want to fuck underage girls and watch mind-numbing amounts of television. This is an adolescent record, which, let's be clear, is often used as a pejorative term but here is used to denote the uncertainty and menace of beginning, of all beginnings. This is an adolescent record too in the sense that it celebrates possibility above desire; it's not what you want to happen, it's what could happen, it's what can happen, in musical form. Like I said, this is an adolescent record. Who knows what, exactly, is being said. The only thing that's clear is that it matters, even if only to me, even if only for an already passing moment... Adolescence as an emotional thunderclap; no meaning except in volume and no meaning, needed. Rock you like a hurricane.
Unfortunately, not all of the record lives up to these low standards. Even if you are, like yrs truly, a fan of inconsistency, this is a record that can be painfully inconsistent. Too many tracks ("Cold," "Johnny") devolve into undifferentiated sludge. The drum machines become less playful, increasingly more routine. No matter how aggressive, the guitars often fade into general, anonymous sound. There's not much else. The record's dirty but it's not always raw (which it needs to be). Tracks moving on dark, insistent grooves bottom out, their pathways shrivel. It's not that the songs are fucked up, it's that they're not fucked up enough; they're inconsistent, true, but no longer in an interesting way, now they're merely vague and if menacing, only comically so. The high wears off, and what's left is bothersome, busy with inanity, and tired, even, of itself.
But there's plenty to admire here. There's the sudden segue into "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," full of dumb, bellowing passion. There's "Hill" (arguably the album's best track), and the liquored-up caution of its delivery, the teenaged non-tedium of it, simple in concept, but actually earned: there's a hill, there's a boat, there's a certain difficulty saying. Even the teenage boasts ("You'll be happy when I'm gone / I was wrong / You can hear it in my songs") ring true. The genuine sulk of this, the sunny fatalism of it.
But mostly, there's track one bravado (and it's well worth the price of admission). And if you're not taken in by the everything and the kitchen sink aggression of it, there's always the call/response aspect; I myself have spent several hours deciding which lyrics I will shout, out loud, all hours of the morning. "I know you're sad somehow," or alternately, "I know you're sad, somehow," or the way it actually sounds, "I know you're SAD SOMEHOW." "I'm fucking MAD NOW." "Because you won't share with me / I have to take a HAND OUT." This is more rewarding than you might think. "You're just a LET DOWN / I'm fucking MAD NOW." Isn't this how I want to feel? "GET OFF THE SKY / GET OFF / GET OFF / GET OFF." Like a bull in a china shop.
Firstly: Wolf Eyes should be commended for their brevity. In the world of noise music, where the 80-minute capacity of the CD is often mistaken for the ideal run time, it's great to have an album that clocks in at a sprightly 33 minutes and change. (This, by the way, marks the only time that the adjective "sprightly" will ever be used to describe this album.)
Secondly: I used to love noise albums, which automatically puts me into an uncomfortable minority. Then I discovered that with a few pedals I could easily create on my own sound that, to my ears, sounded pretty indistinguishable from a lot of the records I bought. (Try it yourself sometime if you're bored. It's almost as easy as writing emo lyrics.) So I gradually drifted away from the genre.
If you're like me, then, it's a meaningful commendation as well that Wolf Eyes, at least on this album (color me ignorant on their earlier work) make a sound that you can't easily make by yourself, even if you have understanding neighbors. What is even more meaningful, though, is that this isn't just an undifferentiated wall of noise but is actually quite compositionally varied, and even more surprising emotionally affecting. I say this because getting the shit scared out of you is as valid an emotional experience as being sad about losing a girlfriend, and this is one fucking scary album, from the sparse mechanical hell of the opening track "A Million Years" and the high-frequency squalls of "Rusted Mange" all the way to the shortwave radio-damaged screaming of "Noise Not Music." All throughout, there's enough shifts in the texture and formula that you never get comfortable with one form of sonic assault, but find yourself bandied about from one unexpected discomfort to another. This is true uneasy listening, and hey: Halloween's just around the corner. Buy a copy, blast it out the windows, and it'll scare kids way more than that stupid haunted house sounds tape ever did.