Bright Colors that Fade
The school of "Quiet is the new loud" has become increasingly popular lately, having started with Nick Drake and continued through Elliot Smith to today's artists like Jose Gonzales, but the genre unfortunately suffers from a lack of innovation -- or, at least, the ability to make one song distinguishable from the last.
This is where we find Brandon Adamson on Bright Colors that Fade. The songs, most featuring Adamson's vocal lines doubled only by single note keyboard lines, fail to distinguish themselves from one another. On the positive side, Adamson recorded the album in his bedroom, and the lo-fi quality of the album (whether intentional or not) gives it a personal quality much like the majority of Lou Barlow's post-Dinosaur Jr. career. Songs like "Alternate Ending" and "Brandon and brandie" borrow a few notes from classical or well-known melodies, as well. When songs like "The Last Coup Fourre (pop version)" and "Partner in Time" feature simple drum tracks added with Adamson's keyboard, but it's amazing the difference the minor addition can make to the otherwise dull arrangements.
Back when I first heard Seattle quintet Aiden's much-lauded debut, Our Gang's Dark Oath, I had pretty high hopes. "Finally," I thought, "maybe somebody can convincingly combine all that emo-modern-rock stuff with the kind of old-school gothiness the four 'subversive' kids who went to my high school continually got beaten up for. Now that would be something to hear..." Sadly, the album didn't live up to its promise, instead shoehorning textbook screamo caterwauling into those enticingly dark goth-rock songs. Throw in all the annoying samples, and gah... The combination just didn't work, at least not for me.
This time out, though, singer Wil Francis has dumped the hardcore growl in favor of a much smoother, more emotive style and eschewed the fanboy movie quotes to focus on actually playing the songs, and y'know what? It works. Where Oath felt like a bunch of hardcore kids pretending they were vampires and werewolves and whatnot, Conviction dives headfirst into goth, and not just in terms of visual style (which the band's pretty much always had, tattoos notwithstanding) but in terms of the music itself.
From the piano-inflected melancholy of "The Opening Departure" onward, there's a gloomy, murky resignedness to the whole damn album, a genuine feeling of hopelessness that makes me want to go dress all in black and wander the streets by my house late at night (oh, wait -- I do that already; whoops...). Conviction, as a whole, makes me think of the Sisters of Mercy or The Cure in their heyday, if their tourbuses were hijacked by a band of time-traveling, Anne Rice-loving emo kids from the late '90s and driven off to somewhere where the sun never really rises in the morning.
It helps, by the by, that Francis and his compatriots (guitarists Angel Ibarra & Jake Wambold, bassist Nick Wiggins, and drummer Jake Davison) have obviously been working on the songwriting this time out. The themes are pretty much the same, of course -- doomed love, hopes dashed, suicide, darkness, lies, neglected kids, etc. -- but it sounds like the band spent a heck of a lot more time making the songs flow together nicely. Because of that, tracks like "One Love," "Darkness" (which includes some truly epic guitar in the chorus), "She Will Love You," "Teenage Queen" (which sounds like the Subways' "Rock & Roll Queen" tarted up in makeup and dragged to a blacklight rave), and "Moment" suck me in even when I don't want 'em to.
The crowning moment comes partway through "Son of Lies," which finally does what Our Gang's Dark Oath hinted that the band could by uniting the hardcore and goth-rock sides of Aiden's personality. The drums pound mercilessly, the guitars carve shards out of Francis's half-sung/half-muttered vocals, the howling gang vocals erupt out of the speakers, and guest vocalist Howard Jones of Boston metal gods Killswitch Engage briefly lends his trademark near-operatic swoon, all of which makes the track an out-and-out masterpiece of darkly imagined rock.
Destroy Their Future
Okay, so this is a little weird. Here you've got a band called American Steel, but almost every damn comparison I can come up with is to bands from the now-former British Empire. Like I said, weird. Large chunks of Destroy Their Future remind me strongly of oft-overlooked pseudo-punks New Model Army, especially tracks like lead-off song "Sons of Avarice" or "Razorblades," politically-minded punks like The Clash or Stiff Little Fingers (particularly in the raw, bright-sounding guitars), old-school pub-rockers like Cock Sparrer, and even whiskey-raw Irish folk like The Pogues.
Oh, and then there's the nostalgic punk-folk of "Old Croy Road," which swipes a riff almost intact from Billy Bragg's "Help Save the Youth of America" and uses it to anchor an affecting story of a childhood lost. Not that Billy'd probably mind, though, considering the band's political bent -- the bulk of Destroy Their Future is an angry, bitter condemnation of the short-sighted stupidity of our current crop of leaders. Take "Sons of Avarice," for example, which includes cutting lyrics about "Poor boys fighting peasants / In foreign lands," while encouraging all those armchair generals out there who back the Iraq War insanity with "Darling, be a sacrificial lamb."
There's also "Love and Logic," which posits (rightly, I think) that the only two things that can save the world from our self-destructive nature are love and logic, both of which seem to be in short supply of late. It's a nicely hopeful moment, particularly following both "Dead and Gone," which declares, "It won't be long / 'Til we're all dead and gone / We're singin' everyone's swan song," and "Mean Streak," which is a delightfully confrontational, unapologetic ode to good, old-fashioned misanthropy. Throughout the album, the American Steel boys seem to waver between fiery fist-pumping and bleak, fuck-it-let's-get-shitfaced nihilism.
Which makes sense, honestly -- I mean, hell, look around. In a world where cowboy mercenaries can blow away a couple of Iraqi women without provocation and still not bump Britney Spears from the headlines, I myself can sure feel the pull between "let's change things!" and "screw it; I can't care anymore" It's human nature, of which there's quite a bit on here; it's a very "human"-sounding album, to be sure, more akin to The Explosion or Strike Anywhere than more dogmatic politically-focused bands like Anti-Flag.
Let's take a step back for a second, though. Politics aside, the best part of Destroy Their Future is the actual sound American Steel has going. Like I noted above, there's a distinctly "British" feel to it, along with a heroic, almost tragic sense of melody and showmanship. Simply put, American Steel is freakin' incredible when it comes to those choruses. Tracks like "Smile On Me," with its impassioned, almost desperate howl, or the New Romantics-esque "Speak, Oh Heart" practically demand that you sing along.
And unlike a lot of punk bands, singer/guitarist Rory Henderson can actually belt it out without getting either all emo-sensitive or sounding like he's pretending to be The Hulk. The closest Stateside analogues, really, would be Samiam's Jason Beebout or Alkaline Trio's Matt Skiba. The Alkaline Trio resemblance extends somewhat to the music, as well, especially in that while this album was released on a punk label by a band generally deemed to be punk, it's not really all that "punk," y'know? It's a heck of a lot more, well, dramatic, for lack of a better word. What Destroy Their Future is, instead, is just a truly great rock album with punk roots, akin to the Trio's Maybe I'll Catch Fire, Avail's Over the James, or Jawbreaker's Dear You.
I feel like I need to note, by the way, that Destroy is something of a return to form for American Steel as a band. After releasing a handful of 7"s and albums back in the mid-to-late '90s, the band switched gears pretty drastically and mutated into nu-New Wavers Communique, dumping most of the punk guitars in favor of stylin' suits and Interpol-esque keys. And I'll admit that no, Communique aren't/weren't bad, by any means -- I enjoy the hell out of "My Bay," off 2004's Poison Arrows, in particular.
That said, if Destroy Their Future is an indicator of what these guys -- Henderson, guitarist Ryan Massey, bassist John Peck, and drummer Scott Healy -- can do as a rock band, I hope they either shift Communique off to the side or retire it completely. An album this magnificent, varied, and self-assured surely can't just be a one-off, right? I hope to hell not.
[American Steel is playing 10/30/07 at Walter's on Washington, with The Lawrence Arms, The Falcon, & Sundowner.]
The Anthem Sound
The Anthem Sound
Meh. That's been my response whenever I had this album playing. I listened to this a couple times on my way to work the past few weeks and, honestly, nothing stands out here. Good production and all, but nothing new. It's basically a mix of No Knife and Static Prevails-era Jimmy Eat World. Not a bad thing, per se -- it's just that those wells have gone dry a long time ago. (Side note: have you listened to the new Jimmy Eat World? Egads, that shit is cheese-tastic).
I feel like I should say something more. Hmmm. So, right now my fantasy football team is 4-0. Not bad, eh? Yeah, Tony Romo is really kicking ass for me right now. But goddam, what is going on with the NYG running backs? I mean, Jacobs is out, then Ward is in, then ESPN reports Ward's out and Droughns is in, then five minutes before the game, Ward is back in? You're killing me, Coughlin.
Hey, so The Anthem Sound -- not bad, not good. But if you have $10 to spend and you wanna check out the band these guys are lifing, go pick up No Knife's Fire in the City of Automatons. And good luck this season in fantasy football. Steer clear of the New York Giants running backs.
Between the Buried and Me
Back in the day, I can remember waging fierce debates over what was and wasn't metal. Each of my friends had their favorites, naturally, and we all went back and forth over tempos, vocal styles, guitars, songwriting, the whole mess, and classifying some bands as being "real" metal (Metallica, Anthrax, Iron Maiden) and what really wasn't (Poison, for one). I even remember one guy, this crazy older metalhead named Brian who claimed to be an Eagle Scout and bragged about killing his dad's cat, going off on how Guns 'N Roses really weren't metal, just hard rock. Despite essentially being a bunch of slackers who concentrated on getting by by doing as little real work as possible, we became experts at splitting hairs.
Obviously, things have changed a hell of a lot since. Some days it feels like we're living through the third (or is it fourth?) Golden Age of Metal, what with all the innovative, groundbreaking bands out there right now bending/breaking the rules. The world of metal these days is one gigantic free-for-all, to the point where arguments over what is and isn't metal seem pretty damn academic. (Although yes, I'm absolutely positive somebody somewhere out there is having that exact argument right this second.)
With Colors, Between the Buried and Me -- who were already one of the leading lights of this new Third Wave of the genre -- have not only discarded the rulebook, they've attached plastic explosive to it and dropped it into some abyssal oceanic trench. Kiss your preconceptions goodbye, metal fans. The album's apparently one 60-plus-minute epic, and while I haven't got a clue what it's about (sure would be nice if the CD had come with lyrics, 'cause I can't understand about 90% of what vocalist/keyboardist Tommy Rogers is snarling/bellowing), "epic" is definitely the word.
Honestly, there's not really much delineation between tracks for me -- I can't help but listen to Colors as basically one gigantic song. From the first few delicately Floydian guitar chords of "Foam Born (A) The Backtrack" on, the album's a swirling, sweeping encyclopedia of alternately grandiose and brutally crushing rock, metal, and pop. There's standard-issue metalcore, growly vocals and breakneck beats and all, there're Avenged Sevenfold-style dual-guitar melodies, there're exotic-sounding, vaguely Middle Eastern lines, there're little bits of Mr. Bungle/System Of A Down-esque weirdness, there're flashes of sunshiny, trippy psych-pop, there's delicate, nimble jazz that wouldn't sound out-of-place on an Al DiMeola CD, and there's a shitload of heavy-duty prog-metal (think Voivod, or maybe a much cooler Dream Theater). Oh, and there's some, um, polka thrown in there, too. (No, seriously.) And a bit that sounds like a bunch of hillbillies eating dinner. The hell?
Astoundingly, it all flows, like the inexorable crawl of lava over the rim of a volcano. The pretty melodic bits morph seamlessly into sledgehammer-heavy metal, the metal morphs into grand arena-rock Brian May would feel proud of, and then the rock transmutes into halfway-cheesy jazz, and so on, and so on. It's an incredible, immense thing to behold. If there's a problem with Colors, it's that there's so much here that it's near-impossible to deal with. But as I type, that dizzy sense of being overwhelmed is starting to pass, replaced by a sense of awe at what these guys can do.
[Between the Buried and Me is playing 10/2/07 at The Meridian, with Horse The Band, Animosity, The End, & Scale The Summit.]
Oh, baby, this is one hot smoking turd of an album. First of all, the press release for this "rock and roll" band touts the lead singer's (John Cusimano's) credentials as being "husband of talk show host Rachael Ray." That is so punk rock. Wanna taste of the super-sweet lyrics? Here you go (this is from "Undone"):
Staring at the paint dry sitting on a red eye
Wishing I was home alone
Stretching in the aisle fly another mile
Drinking till I'm good and stoned
WOW!!!! That is some deep shit, right there. Reminds me of early Bruce Springsteen. It really highlights just how hard John Cusimano's life must be. I imagine after Rachel gets home and cooks him a big plate of pan-seared sea bass, John and the boys like to hang around the Olympic-size pool (while fellating themselves) and wrack their brains as to what their next album should be about. War? Death? Workin' for a livin'? Pan-seared sea bass? It's gotta be a hard gig.
My only question is: what fucking A&R guy, upon hearing "the husband of Rachel Ray wants to talk to you about a rock album he wants to make," responds, "umm, okay?" The only redeeming qualities of this album are the uproariously (and unintentionally) bad lyrics and the photo of the band looking like total pole-smokers. Yes, indeed -- you will cringe.
Supracenter Evidence of Palms
At first, the music on Elcifasu's album Supracenter Evidence of Palms sounds like an electronic composition. But when you listen to it, it sounds like much less than that. The band uses lots of electronically processed instruments and vocals and other sounds. The first problem, though, is that they use the same processing technique, which is something similar to a noisy distortion pedal, on the entire album. They should have turned the distortion all the way up, because the music sounds a recording of a third-grade class with ADD trying to annoy their teacher. Needless to say, this is not a promising combination.
The members of Elcifasu describe themselves as "complex pop," but it doesn't come off as complex -- it sounds like they spent 22 minutes screwing around in the studio. And there's nothing "pop" about it. Pop puts the vocals front and center, and even "complex pop" should offer an interesting melody. But here you can barely hear the vocals half the time. Which is good, because when you can, by pop standards, they're terrible: they waver around and have no presence, and the melodic content is zero. The vocals sound less like singing and more like someone with no sense of pitch humming to themselves.
Certainly the way that an artist conceives of their work has nothing to do with the way it's perceived, and if the album worked as a piece of electronic music, that would be fine. But it doesn't work as either, or as anything else. It's nowhere near being catchy enough to be pop, and as some kind of composition, it's boring and banal. And it's so irritating that even if there was something interesting, no one could bother anyway. They could sell it to the military psy-ops to scare out the next group of terrorists holed up somewhere, maybe -- but they'd have to be careful, because extensive exposure to this album could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.
Makin' the Sound
The Goods claim to be "post-grunge," and I'll be damned if Makin' the Sound isn't all that far off. There's the sound, sure -- the band resembles its grunge-y forebears in that the band members seem preoccupied with taking pretty melodies and dragging 'em through the mud(honey?) 'til they sound dirty as hell, with a coating of rust and feedback you could cut with a knife. There's some Nirvana here, some Pearl Jam classic rock-ism there, and a little bit of the desperate hysteria the Afghan Whigs used to channel back before they became crooners, among other things.
It's the guitars that really make this disc for me, I have to say -- they're loud and abrasive in the best possible way, with a loose, raw-sloppy feel that makes me think of the Grifters and Sonic Youth. Guitarists Jesse Flores and Trevor Wehrle scratch and scrape in tandem across the surface of each and every song, overloading the headphones with so much honest-to-God sonic force that it makes Wolfmother sound like a bunch of pussies. Then on "Unzip Myself," bassist Alton Hawthorne outs himself as the band's secret weapon, taking his grimy, dark, distorted bass and nailing it to the floor as the essential underpinning of the song while the guitars literally dance along over the top.
This is a gritty, dirty, don't-give-a-fuck kind of rock that's probably most at home on a stage in some hazy, beer-soaked dive where there's as much Fugazi and Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the juke as there is the Stones or Elvis. The songs stagger and lurch from time to time, like a drunk trying to make it down the stairs without spilling his drink, but there's also a hint of OK Go's smart-assed songwriting sense and bumping rhythms. Call it grunge, or "post-grunge," whatever you want; any way you look at it, the Goods ride the line between rock swagger and indie storm-of-noise, and they do it with style.
[The Goods are playing 10/19/07 at The Engine Room, with Anamalis, Sepsis, Splinter, & Out Of Reach, 10/20/07 at Fuel in Humble, with Together In Pieces, Hear You Me, & Overlayden, and 10/23/07 at Super Happy Fun Land, with Old Growth, Science of Yabra, & Hear You Me.]
Out of Our Mouths
On Out of Our Mouths, Philly's illuminea come off like three different bands all kind of playing in one room, like a bunch of friends who each have their own musical ideas and who're all talented enough to play off one another's songs. Which, when you look at it, is pretty much the case -- started by college friends Jen Appel (vocals/guitar) and Marc Goodman (vocals/guitar), the band has since swelled to encompass seven highly skilled musicians (not to mention all the guest stars on the disc, folks like Tony Maimone or Zeena Parkins), but they've never lost that friends-just-playing-around feel.
And no, that's not a bad thing, since all three songwriters who toss their hats into the musical ring (Minna Choi, on vocals/keys, rounds out the trio) have some interesting ideas. Each has their own specific style, so much so that after a few tracks I was able to pick who wrote what fairly accurately (okay, it helps that they each sing their own songs, but still).
Appel's beautifully clear, unadorned voice makes me think of Aimee Mann or Sarge's Elizabeth Elmore, and she creates some quiet, melancholy, delicately affecting pieces of indie-chamber pop. Goodman, on the other hand, swirls towards psych-pop, channeling Lennon on the swooping, gorgeous, Spiritualized-esque "Living In Sin" and layering sound upon sound upon sound on the more uncertain "Build Your Own"; his one oddball track is closer "I Can't Wait," which makes me think of '50s doo-wop. Choi's a little harder to pin down -- she starts off sounding like the Cardigans or Peter Bjorn & John with the funky, candy-shiny "Homewrecker" (which also has what sounds like the coolest, tiniest piano ever), then kind of fumbles through "To Lose You As A Friend" and turns in a deranged showtune with "Sleep It Off."
Now, considering the three songwriters are basically each doing their own thing and dragging the rest of their Polyphonic Spree-ish orchestra along for the ride, it's surprising that illuminea's music holds together at all. And yes, it does. I've got my favorites, naturally -- "Homewrecker," "Done By Hand," "Living In Sin" -- but as a whole, the album's a nicely warm collection of pretty pop tracks, most of which would sound pretty good played on a quiet, comfortable autumn evening when there's nothing much to do but hang with friends.
Gordon B. Isnor
Creatures All Tonight
Remember that one episode of Alf when Lynn got dumped by her rocker boyfriend or something, so Alf wrote her a song called "Out of This World" and they made a faux-music video to go along with it? Well, that has nothing to do with Canadian Gordon B. Isnor's Creatures All Tonight. Or maybe it does, I'm not sure. I can easily picture Alf making this album, an album I think I just ruined for myself.
Anyway, even though Creatures All Tonight sounds like it was made on a high-tech Casio, it's well-executed. The man's a talented musician and whoever drew the cover art is a talented artist. Either that, or they're all on drugs, which is probably the case. The songs are catchy and drum machine-driven throughout.
Nasally vocals warrant critics to call it nerd-rock, but I don't see it. Although said vocals tend to get old over the span of seven songs that Isnor gives us, they mesh well with the music, which switches tempos at just the right moments. Like I said, he's a talented musician. The music arrangements are unpredictable and rich enough. The only help he gets on the album is from flautist Candice Lin; the rest of the music was one-man-banded. I bet Isnor and Aqueduct would get along.
Even though there are only seven songs, we still get a good 30 minutes' worth of music, which is almost as long as modern albums are anyway. "Notorious Double Dippers" is a standout on the album, and the title track is the perfect closer, slowing everything down to a quiet, drawn-out finish. For a man who's been making music since 1993, you'd think this would be a full album, but the fact he's been making music for so long might mean he knows what he's doing.
The Midnight Room
I recently caught Jennifer Gentle live at the Proletariat. They sound nothing like their albums, and this is maybe a good thing. Radiohead does this, as well, with arrangements for live shows that differ substantially from their recorded music. Frankly, I was blown away by the difference: I had been listening to The Midnight Room quite a bit, not so much because I had fallen in love with it, but really just trying to figure out what the hell it was.
The spiritual and songwriting core of Jennifer Gentle is Marco Fasolo, a hermit isolated in an abandoned schoolhouse in northern Italy, giving birth to a sound and songwriting sensibility that is nothing like you have probably heard. The Midnight Room sounds like, well, Munchkin music. Guitars play melody-following single-note riffs to reinforce the reverb-soaked pinched-nose vocals, jazzy drums follow along with echo-y, light fills, and myriad other instruments swoop in and out to create a dreamy lushness that is equal parts screwy and hypnotic. From the kazoo intro of "Mercury Blood" that devolves into almost '60s psychedelica (complete with meandering guitar noodles) to the atonal backyard percussion of "Granny's House" to the frightening march of "Telephone Ringing," Jennifer Gentle has managed to create a wholly unique sound that is both interesting and, frankly, a bit unnerving.
For all its strangeness, however, the songs are surprisingly listenable, feeling more like the soundtrack to a middle-of-the-night wacked-out late-'70s sci-fi television program (how about those hyphens?) you might find on the BBC than songs with any modern pop sensibility. Fasolo reveals more in his music with each listen, and the album continues to satisfy long after the shock wears off. Highly recommended.
A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology
With a name that sounds like they should be either a ska band or a messy/chaotic noise band, on A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology Scranton's Menzingers instead manage to craft a decent little chunk of bright Bay Area-style pop-punk. The songs (and guitarist/singer Tom May's vocals) bring to mind Green Day back in their pre-MTV days, with a bit of a Rancid resemblance in the way band members May, drummer Joe Godino, guitarist/vocalist Greg Barnett, and bassist Eric Keen effortlessly incorporate their ska-punk roots (three out of the four used to play in a ska-punk outfit called Bob and the Sagets) into the pop-punk whole.
What with the crunchy-but-not-abrasive guitars, gang vocals, and yell-along choruses, Lesson makes me think of a ton of those old Lookout! bands, but the Menzingers here prove themselves to be smarter and more broad-minded than some of their predecessors, forgoing empty sloganeering for some interesting song-stories about family and war ("Sir Yes Sir," the WWII-themed "Cold Weather Gear" and "Clap Hands Two Guns") and odd neo-Luddite meditations on modern society ("No Ticket," "Even for an Eggshell"). They're surprisingly literate, writing one song based on an Edwin Arlington Robinson poem ("Richard Coury") and in another somehow tying Hamlet to our consumerism-obsessed culture ("Even for an Eggshell"), and hell, I can't hate a band that's brave enough to cover a Clash song ("Straight To Hell") and do it both reverently and well.
Be warned that the album's a soft sell -- a week or so after my first listen, I was totally blanking on what it sounded like. The second time through, though, I'd catch a stellar melody or chorus ("Sir Yes Sir," "Ave Maria," "Keychain") and go, "oh, yeah, I remember now; I liked that bit the first time..." It may not break a whole lot of new ground or knock you flat on your back, but it'll seep in around the edges, even still.
First off, I've got to give Houston garage-rockers The Monocles credit for knowing which the absolutely perfect song to start with. While all of the band's brand-new 7" is good, A-side "Out of Your Mind" is downright excellent, a door-kicking blast of streetwise rawk that owes equal amounts to Spirit of '69-era streetpunk and bands like The Sonics or Gas Huffer (with a little surf-rock as a chaser, to boot). I'm still a little hazy on the lyrics, even after repeated listens, but that stomping, heroic lead-in has been stuck in my brain for days, proving harder to dislodge than even some of the insanely catchy kid-music my daughter listens to.
On the flip, "Tonight" is slower and more delicate, sort of like a less-peppy Hives track, but it runs into the same problem I seem to have with the Hives themselves: when the band slows things down, the energy just gets sucked out of the song. I know, I know -- playing fast is no substitute for a good song. Sometimes, though, it sure helps. Luckily, the Monocles pick the pace up again with the sharp Rocket from the Crypt-isms of "Darken Your Door" (love the frantic part at the end with the grunting) and after my feet catch the tempo again, the world seems right as rain once more.
[The Monocles are playing 11/21/07 at Rudyard's, with Born Liars, Welfare Mothers, & Black Black Gold.]
No Second Troy
"Thank you, Coldplay."
"You're welcome, No Second Troy."
"Hi, is this Snow Patrol?"
For their second album, Qui were ballsy enough to ask David Yow to join the band. They must have been extremely excited when he agreed -- Yow's such a strong presence that it couldn't not change the band. Bandmates Paul Christensen and Matt Cronk may be afraid of being overshadowed by Yow, but on the other hand, their first album went pretty much unnoticed, so they shouldn't feel too bad. On this new album, Love's Miracle (great name, by the way), they have something much more powerful going.
You could see why Yow might decide to join them -- Qui presents different challenges for him from the Jesus Lizard. Their sound is more complex: some songs are busy and metrically tricky enough that he can't do his regular thing. Qui also uses lots of harmonies, which is definitely a new thing for Yow. The guitar parts range from pure power chords to more dissonant, hammering sounds, balanced by some twisted chromatic lines. So this would be an interesting situtation for someone like him.
"Gash" is probably the song here that works the best on its own terms; the big riffs are balanced with more open moments where Yow can rant and rave. The other songs that work ("Belt," "Freeze," and "Today, Gestation") have a structure that's more in the traditional punk vein -- it's very effective, but not very different. The rest have different kinds of structures and some interesting moments but aren't fully formed, and Yow doesn't quite find anything interesting to add.
Qui's style of music makes it difficult for vocalists -- the guitar and drum parts are so big and odd that they take center stage -- so it's interesting getting to see Yow here where he isn't the focal point. If he's happy with his reduced singing time, these guys could have something really different that's as good as his Jesus Lizard stuff.
[Qui is playing 10/19/07 at Walter's on Washington, with Dizzy Pilot, & Rustler.]
The album art for subHuman, the latest album from ex-Depeche Mode man Alan Wilder's Recoil "project" after a six-year hiatus, is about as ill-suited to the music as it could possibly be. I mean, what are listeners supposed to expect when they see the blank, sleek parts of fashion mannequins sticking out of some kind of sports car or draped across shiny, clean home interiors, but some kind of slickly-produced dancepop, right?
What they get, though, is a whole different ballgame. With this disc Wilder has grafted dark, foreboding electronic ambience onto gritty, murky swamp-blues, and the result is impressive. The songs are like Louisiana swamp-blues filtered through a sampler and spat out the other side to land at a muddy crossroads where the Devil waits to barter for souls. Raw, dirty guitars slide in and around and Massive Attack-ish beats skitter across, while Wilder's main compatriot in crime, Austin-by-way-of-the-Atchafalaya-Basin bluesman Joe Richardson (who also happens to play all the guitars, it seems) shouts and grumbles.
Richardson's big, earthy blues-shouter vocals fit perfectly with the gritty guitars and (mostly) understated electronic parts -- the album may be Wilder's, but Richardson's the star, his voice and playing lifts subHuman above mere soundtrack and turns it into a bona-fide soul-shaking experience (although I have to say that the resemblance at times to Ry Cooder's soundtrack work isn't a bad thing). It's no accident that the best tracks on here are the ones that feature the bluesman the most prominently. Take "Prey," the album's first track and the one that establishes the blueprint for most of the rest; those guitars skate across the swamp muck, dodging in and around deep, dark keyboard trickery while Richardson spins a bloody tale of voodoo and murder.
"The Killing Ground" takes things in a more country-blues direction, melancholy and methodical 'til about a third of the way through, when it cranks up and turns into an electro-blues stomper. Oh, and the song's about Jesus being crucified, so there's that to keep things cheery. "5000 Years," for its part, is a grim warning of a song, admonishing the listener to heed history when it comes to war, hate, and fanaticism. The crunching, stomping rhythms bring to mind Mr. Bungle, switching out the scatalogical bits for samples of right-wing demagoguery and drilling soldiers.
The gears slip a bit on the more delicate, less bluesy tracks, but even then it works most of the time. "Allelujah" trades Richardson's rough growl for Carla Trevaskis's almost wordless, Dead Can Dance-esque vocals (just about all she says is "Allelujah" over and over again for most of the song), gliding over stark, whispery guitars for some Mezzanine-style murkiness. "Intruders," on the other hand, also goes for Massive Attack territory but doesn't incorporate enough variation in the beats or enough lyrics to really pull the song through (and no, it doesn't help that the track's 11-and-a-half minutes long). "99 To Life" misses the mark, as well, getting noisier and more explicitly "rock" but sounding scattered and chaotic, like a should've-been-lost Hendrix outtake.
Thankfully, the album closes with "Backslider," which is the perfect soundtrack to a restless, heat lightning-cracked Southern night like this one; when the thunder rolls across the sky, I can almost hear the hellhounds baying. Richardson rumbles his way through a story of an addict who fights his demons but doesn't truly want to win before the song crumbles to a mournful -- but not truly repentant -- finish of harmonica over fading guitars and metallic beats.
Keep It Real
Shangoband is a reggae group from Washington, DC. You'd think that being in Washington would give them no end of inspiration for songs, but unfortunately, inspiration can only take you so far. There are a few inspired moments on the record, but overall, it's lacking. Shangoband contains 19 relatively short (by reggae standards, anyway) tracks -- there isn't much pure grooving on the record. But since both their groove and their songs are somewhat shaky, they're probably doing us a favor. The vocal quality also varies depending on the song -- mostly it's fine, but there's one guy who sounds like Roy Orbison who's particularly bad (the singer, not Roy Orbison).
Lyrics seem to be their prime failing. There are a few decent melodies, but their exhortations are mostly tedious, which is the last thing exhortations should be. "Eyes Are On The Window" tries to expand on the old proverb, but the lyrics are so banal that it makes the melody less interesting -- and the melody itself isn't particularly strong, certainly not strong enough to support such trite lyrics.
Another problem the band has is the keyboard effects or samples or whatever that they're using. These get really irritating at times -- "Ban-Ga-Rang" has a decent melody (aided by the fact that you don't know what the guy's singing about), but they use this sample or keyboard accent periodically that gets irritating really fast. If this were indie-rock, the cheesy tinny keyboard sounds and samples would be de rigueur, but here it just sounds cheap. When they do it to the weak songs, it's punishing. "Sine" is already weak, but it's hurt by the effects they add (and finished off by the singing).
Their reggae is weak but not very bad. So you wouldn't expect that it could get as bad as it does on "My Party," an odd attempt at a lite-R&B song. The Roy Orbison guy sings on this one, and it's embarrassing from start to end. The song is about the singer being turned on by a woman's dancing, but the way he sings makes him sound like he's looking at his watch, not the woman. The melody is boring, the arrangement is predictable, and the lyrics are irritating. If you're going to sing a song about having fun, the rule is you've got to sound like you're having fun yourself. They don't. So whatever party he's talking about, I'm staying home.
There are a few songs like "Day and Night" and "Jah is On Your Side," where they get the balance right, but there just aren't enough of them. Hopefully they'll get better, or at least fire that one guy.
A Different Light
Try as I might, I can't dislike these guys. I've gotten a little tired of this whole style lately, just because it seems like every other damn disc I pick up does this same kind of Jimmy Eat World-style emo-pop -- impassioned, sensitive-guy vocals, crystalline harmonies, and roaring rawk (but not too raw) guitars. And yeah, the operative word here is "pop," for sure; heck, "Alive" even milks the bassline from "Stand by Me," for crying out loud. The lyrics are sincere, the voices are sweet, the arrangements are impeccable -- at its heart, A Different Light is just a flat-out well-done pop album, all gorgeous melody and swooning guitars.
And trust me, I know how bad this stuff can be -- even the sweetest, prettiest emo-pop stuff out there can get cloying in a hurry, and listening to some of it when I'm in a bad mood can make me grumpy and antisocial enough to want to go out and steal candy from toddlers or something. With Sherwood, though, I get the opposite effect; when I first put the CD on I felt sick and tired and worn-out, secretly hoping to make myself feel a little better by tearing into some hapless band of wannabe emo kids who sound less like Sunny Day and more like Gin Blossoms (and yep, that fits), but dang it, listening to this album makes me happy.
Seriously, tracks like "Song in My Head," "Middle of the Night," or "The Only Song" make the sun outside the big glass windows seem brighter, the clouds seem less oppressive off in the distance. It makes me feel that teeniest bit, well, innocent again, like when I was a kid and didn't have to worry about mortgages and busted sewage lines and massacres and rapists. Which is funny, because beneath the Jimmy Eat World-isms I'd swear I can hear a whole heck of a lot of mid-'80s pop, bands like The Outfield (esp. on "Middle of the Night"), The Call, Glass Tiger, Big Country, or The Church. Beyond the pure pop melodies Sherwood shares with those bands, they also had a sense of wide-eyed wonder, back before the whole world got jaded and cynical and you could still sing a song about being in love without making it self-referential and ironic.
Come to think of it, that's really a shame. How sad and boring have we all gotten when we all snicker in unison at a well-written, poppy, heart-on-a-sleeve love song? Have we really become a nation of self-hating hipsters? Catch me on a more cynical day, and I'd probably swear we already were, just a nation of critics ready and willing to snipe at anybody we can (and don't worry, I get that I'm feeding The Beast by doing my little critic thing, too). Today, though, after spinning A Different Light for most of the afternoon, I don't really give a shit. I just want to get out of this building and out into sunlight, to slap the CD into the car stereo and head the heck on home with a grin on my face.
[Sherwood is playing 10/3/07 at Warehouse Live, with The Academy Is..., Sleeping with Giants, Armor for Sleep, & The Rocket Summer.]
Sleeping in the Aviary
Oh, This Old Thing?
You can't compare Sleeping in the Aviary to anyone, really. You could try, but by the time you explain yourself, a new song has started, and SitA sounds like something else. Oh, This Old Thing? is primarily a punk rock album, given to us in short bursts of uneven tempos and spastic vocals. The band changes the format here and there, however, with the occasional slurred ballad.
The album stands on the fringe of brilliance at some points. At other points, it comes across as typical post-hardcore meddling. Part of Sleeping in the Aviary's brilliance lies in the shortness of said songs. If you don't like a song, simply wait a minute or two, and it's finished. The two longest songs last a staggering three minutes. The album races by at about half an hour, give or take a song. And there are thirteen tracks, so you do the algebra.
"Love Song" and "Sign My Cast" are nearly identical in their executions. Both are sing-along drunk songs with drawn-out vocals and slower tempos. "Pop Song" says, "On the floor in Tennessee / You married me / I can't hate you but I can hate myself / How did I change you and your mind? / You were bored in New Orleans / You married me / If I saw you 'd walk you home / How did I change you and your mind?" and that's it, that's the song. The lyrics to "Maureen" are as follows: "Maureen doesn't like me anymore," repeated until the 33-second song is finished. "Another Girl" and "Gloworm" are the best songs on Oh, This Old Thing? by far. Then there's the Nivrana-esque "Getting Thin," the best-written song with the most lyrics of all the songs.
Some may find Elliott Kozel's vocals a bit grating and I don't blame them. They shine in "Only Son" and "Lanugo," however. It seems like he's taking what bands like the Hives and Jet are trying to do, only he does it much better. Elliott and the band know how to draw from their influences without mimicking them. Sometimes they sound like Nirvana, sometimes like the Buzzcocks, sometimes like something else. And that something else is pretty interesting and sublime. (No, not the band Sublime, the adjective sublime.)
Sometimes it's bitter, sometimes it's smarmy, but at the end of the album, who really cares? Might as well listen to it again; you'll have the time, I'm sure.
State of Ohio
State of Ohio
This CD made me want to punch myself in the face. There's nothing in this little piece of plastic that remotely resembles anything new. I've heard this speak/yell aggro-punk stuff before in countless previous bands -- Hot Water Music, Jawbreaker, etc. Honestly, I started laughing when the second song came on. I mean, I don't want to be a dick or anything, but these guys should probably go get a degree or something and hang it up. Hasn't Ohio suffered enough?
Anyway, the pamphlet that came with the CD instructs you to give it to someone else if you didn't like it. So I gave it to this homeless guy in front of my apartment. When I came home later that day, I saw him punching himself in the face. Then his buddy punched him in the face just on principle. Then I punched both of them in the face and we all started laughing. Then I shaved off my eyebrows and loudly proclaimed, "There is no God!" Whoa -- where am I?
Verona Grove EP
Verona Grove's new EP of songs included on the recently released full length The Story Thought Over is pretty typical of recent releases in the modern radio-ready rock genre: it sounds great, great engineer, great mix, mastering, the songs are comprehensively written, perfectly arranged, bright, emotive...but on the whole, it's predictable and formulaic. That said, it's no different than ninety-five percent of the modern rock out there, so you have to take it for what it is, a solid, safe, "state of the market" release by a band (and a label) clearly interested in them making it in the music business. Nothing wrong with that, but it does make for pretty light listening.
"Everything You Dreamed" starts the EP strongly, with a clear vocal priming the listener for the Jimmy Eat World/American Hi-Fi basher that follows. "No Words To Say" is a nice mid-tempo rocker, with the typical quiet-verse-loud-chorus structure save for a sappy breakdown in the middle. Not bad, though, other than the lyrics being a bit light in the trunk (a reoccurring issue, but again, standard for the genre). "Revolution" is the most surprising song of the bunch, not only because it's a relatively strong ballad, but because I found myself humming "6th Avenue Heartache" by the Wallflowers over the verse chord progression. It also sounds like some pretty serious auto-tuning in the chorus; if not, I commend Tony Anders and Charlie Wilhelm, credited with vocal duty. Pop in a gratuitous drum loop between song sections and a nice swirling echo effect on the guitars, and you've got a ready-made radio hit. "Goodbye Surrender" seems to stretch Verona Grove's formula the most, with a cool '80s retro keyboard riff intro into a solid rocker to finish everything off.
Since I mentioned American Hi-Fi, by the way, I should also note that Jason Sutter, late of that band and Smashmouth, played all the drums on the album. Interesting, as the drumming is probably the most noticeably strong part of the band's sound. Overall, little urgency, pretty generic, but right in line with the current competition.
[Verona Grove is playing 10/25/07 at Verizon Wireless Theater, with Plain White T's & Cute Is What We Aim For.]