In the search for a photo of Blitzen Trapper, the first stop was obviously their artist page on Sub Pop. The tagline next to the Sub Pop logo read, "We're not the best, but we're pretty good." Coincidentally, this is exactly how I feel about Furr, the band's first release for the acclaimed label.
Since forming in 2000, Blitzen Trapper has garnered plenty of attention with their loaded psychedelic-rock-country sound, a sound that carries over to Furr. The album embodies an unusual sort of aggressive harmlessness, lined with songs as equally in-your-face as they are delicate. The first forty seconds of opener "Sleepytime in the Western World" starts out with a charming, singable melody that doesn't last long enough, quickly disintegrating and becoming impossible to follow as the chord changes get weirder and weirder. But somehow Blitzen Trapper makes it seem sensible, blasting a wall of jangle that comes across as neither muddled nor overwhelming.
The rest of Furr's songs adhere to that same song structure, with hit-or-miss results. Too often the stunning instrumentation gets buried under hurried lyrics, which seem to pour out a bit excessively. The songs are likeable but also come off as lacking restraint. By only the fifth track, "Fire + Fast Bullets," the songs seem a little too familiar. On the other hand, when the music is minimized, Eric Earley's surprisingly rich voice really shines, adding an element of tenderness and grit that the busier songs don't capture as well. A prime example is the folky, Dylan-esque title track, which may be the most memorable on the album; Earley also sounds quite striking on the soulful but poppy "God and Suicide."
Though on the whole there are some lovely moments on Furr, it falls slightly short of becoming a repeater. As a talented sextet, it's probably easy for Blitzen Trapper to get sucked into adding layers and layers onto already-pretty music, but perhaps stepping back and scaling down might allow more of it to be heard.
The Diplomats of Solid Sound
The Diplomats of Solid Sound Featuring The Diplomettes
Horns. That's what been missing from my life. Well, horns and chicka-chicka guitars, anyway. And maybe some Hammond organ.
Seriously -- listening to the Diplomats of Solid Sound's eponymous full-length has been like suddenly hitting the light switch in a darkened house and illuminating a room that's been dark for a few days (which, given the recent circumstances here in Houston, is actually closer to reality than you might think). Damn, I've needed some horns, and the thicker, dirtier, and rougher-sounding, the better.
Thankfully, the Diplomats can bring me what I need, and then some. Putting aside the whole retro-soul revival going on right now, the key thing is that these guys are master musicians, heirs to the mostly-instrumental funk-soul kingdom ruled in days gone by by the likes of The Meters, Booker T. & the MG's, The J.B.'s, the Ohio Players, and Maceo and the Macks -- they know their instruments, know how to kick a funky beat, and play like they've never dreamt of doing anything else with their lives.
"Plenty Nasty" kicks off the album like the long-lost B-side to "Cross the Tracks," and it's a hell of a way to start; like its title suggests, it's funky and dirty as all hell, and the album rolls on from there like a pimp-daddy caddy cruising the boulevard. There's a heavy, heavy jazz influence, obviously, but these guys aren't going for anything real cerebral here, instead trying to appeal to the gut-level instinct to get out there on the dancefloor and cut loose. Think of the aforementioned artists, plus James Brown's backing band and more recent cohorts the Dap-Kings, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what the band sounds like, if you don't already.
This isn't the Diplomats' first time around the block, obviously -- I think it's the band's fourth full-length, which somewhat explains the way they effortlessly throw this stuff out -- but this time out they have tried to mix things up a bit by adding their own singers, vocalists Abbie Sawyer, Sarah Cram, and Katherine Ruestow. Which is good and bad for Diplomats, in almost equal measure. On the good side, the vocals give you something to latch on to while listening, allowing the band to dodge one pitfall a lot of instrumental groups fall into, which is that, well, instrumental music tends to turn into background music if you can't grab a hold of it somehow. The sultry, Ronettes-esque girl-group vocals give the sounds a sometimes much-needed focus.
On the flip side, I have to say that I think the Diplomettes are best when they're not singing throughout, but rather when they're acting, effectively, like backup singers to the true stars of the show -- namely, the instruments. The vocals here shine when they're used as instruments themselves, to color and accentuate the funky-ass grooves the Diplomats are laying down. "Budget Fro" is the perfect example, here; the band sizzles and churns brilliantly on a desperate-sounding groove, while the Diplomettes lay back for the bulk of the song, only stepping up occasionally to add the explanatory refrain, "Got no mo-nay!" When the Diplomettes do step up and take the spotlight, as on "Come In My Kitchen," which isn't really a bad song to begin with, they occasionally sound over-rehearsed and somewhat flat. The track's not a loss or anything, mind you, but it's not nearly as good as the songs on the album where the singers take a step back.
When both sides of the equation work, though, it does come off nicely. On "Hurt Me So," for one, the horns roar like the best sounds off Back to Black, and the vocals don't overwhelme but instead sort of drift and shimmer around the edges. Where Winehouse teeters on the brink of collapse, always sounding (fairly accurately, it must be said) like she's about to crack, the Diplomettes are polished silky-smooth -- it's like the difference between Bessie Smith and The Supremes. Both Winehouse and the Diplomettes are amazingly good at what they do, but one lives the hard-luck stories to the hilt while the others sing about the heartbreak and despair but manage to stay above it.
There's also the cover of Carla Thomas's "B-a-b-y," an awesomely playful song that fits the Diplomats/Diplomettes sound like a glove and makes me grin a big, goofy grin (love that half-muted guitar strutting along beneath the lyrics), the short-and-sweet "Trouble Me," and the laidback, R&B-ish "Soul Connection," all of which further prove that the band loves what it's doing and does it as close to perfection as they can. And hey, then they throw in the "Lack Of Afro Remix" version of "Hurt Me So," right at the end of the disc, and I find myself liking it even more than the standard version -- the sliced-up beats, dancehall toasting, and funky congas add a sense of urgency to the whole thing, making it practically a brand-new song when set side-by-side with the slinky, low-to-the-ground original. Not bad for a band that started out as not much more than a one-off side project for a bunch of guitar-loving garage-rockers from Iowa, in my book.
Through the Seasons
My life could be this band. No, really -- listening to Evenstar's Through the Seasons is like remembering what the long-dead band I used to be in sounded like in my head, before the involvement of actual people and instruments. Whichever of you swiped my record collection, you'd better return it right damn now. I'm serious. Well, sort of.
This album's like a distillation of all the old-school emo I listened to in my post-college youth, back when the term meant something, at least, even if nobody could really agree on what it was. It's like the guys in Milwaukee's Evenstar fed copies of the first four or five Emo Diaries comps through a food processor, then melted 'em down into a black, oily-sheen paste, and mainlined the whole mess in one shot of loud, tuneful, punkish rock.
Think Samiam, a less-nasal Camber, early Appleseed Cast, early-early Jimmy Eat World, Brandtson, Mineral, The Get Up Kids, Pop Unknown -- all those Deep Elm, Doghouse, Crank! bands I (and maybe you, who knows?) loved back in the day. The best tracks on here -- opener "Sixela," "Full Count," and closer "Tarantula," for three -- are all blazing guitars, shout-along choruses about pain and time and loss, halfway-audible vocals, and thundering drums -- the furious sound of shy boys with broken hearts.
The resemblance to emo bands of yore extends to the production, too; much as I love Jimmy Eat World, when the whole damn rock world shifted to their shiny-clean style of production, I think something raw and real and beautiful got lost in the transition. Evenstar's regained some measure of it, though, sounding rough and unpolished while remaining melodic and heart-on-sleeve emotive.
There's not a whole lot new here, of course. At this point reinventing emo is roughly akin to reinventing the microwave -- there ain't a whole lot that can be done to improve, or even change, the way it does what it does. In spite of that, though, Through the Seasons is enjoyable as hell, a nostalgic trip backwards in time to more innocent, idealistic days.
Flight of the Conchords
Flight of the Conchords
My, how the mighty have risen. I remember seeing Flight of the Conchords at SXSW way back in 2006 and thinking to myself, "why am I the only one here?" Because there was literally almost no one at their shows, most likely due to a combination of the sparse crowds comedy acts (though I'm not sure these guys can be put into that pigeonhole; they're a full-on two-person indie music supergroup) typically get at that festival, as well as the fact that they had not yet been formally introduced in America. But thanks to the ubiquitous exposure HBO provides (as well as various live dates scattered here and there, particularly at large music festivals like Bonnaroo and Sasquatch), Flight of the Conchords seem to have secured their spot as the next big thing in the minds of the cult-erground (bye-bye, Tenacious D; so long, Sarah Silverman).
Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, the two men behind the group, released The Distant Future in 2007 in America, and it rose no higher on the charts than number 116. Then HBO called (remember, it's not t.v.), and this group turned from "New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy-folk duo" into Grammy-winning, Sub Pop-signed media darlings. And why not? It's brilliant stuff, and it might just be the next step in indie music-self-referential anti-music set to the sound of prototypical comedy, all contained inside the discursive language of politics and love.
Their self-titled full-length contains songs that will sound familiar to people as sketches from their HBO show (also called Flight of the Conchords). On them Bret and Jemaine tackle all the -isms you could dream of in a mere fifteen songs. Sexism is here -- see "Leggy Blonde," (where they sing, "I'll never get to tear your clothes off on the photo copier"), "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," ("And when you're on the street / depending on the street / I bet you are definitely in the top three / good looking girls on the street") -- speciesism is here -- listen to "Robots" ("There is no more unethical treatment of the elephants / well, there's no more elephants, so... / but still it's good") -- and nationalism is here -- in "Mutha'uckas," they sing "The mother 'ucker runs a racist 'uckin grocery; the mother 'ucker won't sell an apple to a Kiwi." The lyrics, along with how Flight of the Conchords deliver those lyrics, seem silly at first -- sophomoric, even. But listen again. There is something very different about these guys as compared to other comedic musicians.
This is Mitch Hedberg set to music (and before you say anything -- I know, Mitch Hedberg has already set himself to music; just go with it). Like Mitch, they don't take themselves too seriously, they seem to have their lyrics set to the beat of the zeitgeist, they are deconstructors of the mundane, and, oh yeah, they're fucking hilarious.
In These Walls
Back in 2004, three local Houstonians were fortuitously brought together in one of their personal homes to experimentally mesh their musical talents for the day. As a result, the band Jadewood was born, and the group has kept this name ever since then to remind them of the humble beginnings on Jadewood Street in Houston's rough-and-tumble, humidity-infested atmosphere. After a couple of attempts at recording and marketing self-released EPs, bandsmen Elias Sanchez (lead vocals/guitars), Saul Sanchez (backup vocals/bass), and Lee Cerda (drums) returned to the studio to produce their first full-blown album in 2008, In These Walls. The CD title is meant to symbolically envision the close-quartered room that they initially practiced in, and what transpired within those walls is showcased in the band's debut.
The compilation of songs joined together on this CD is a full-dozen quality set worthy of your listening time. Characteristically, the band's influences range widely, from alternative grunge to classic rock to even moments with a somewhat seventies-accoustic-folk-pop feel. For the most part, the combined album comes across with a sound reminiscent of Lifehouse, a favorite band that the group often pays tribute to in cover songs during live performances. It's a thoroughly melodious offering, filled with light-to-moderate acoustic-based alt-rock leanings and garnished with a considerable amount of catchy lyrical phrasing.
The harmonies cast in this mix are truly beautiful. Elias Sanchez performs many vocal sections in very talented fashion. Despite a slightly pinched-off, relatively nasal quality throughout, his voices combines with that of Saul Sanchez to form a unique meld, kind of like Seals & Croft did years ago. It all comes off sounding a bit different, but with a magnetic sort of uniqueness. Hey, if slightly different voices worked for Tom Petty, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, then why not Jadewood? Both vocally and instrumentally, the band exudes a wonderful chemistry together.
The first two songs on the album, "All Along" and "Beautiful," are radio-friendly cuts seemingly targeted toward alternative-pop audiences. As with most of the tracks, the lyrics are geared either toward upbeat, positive-attitude themes or explorations of the timeless lover's lament. The latter of these two definitely displays the group's penchant for taking a smooth and rudimentary legato style and dressing it up masterfully with simple but intuitive poetic thoughts. One of the most attractive elements of Jadewood is the way they creatively capture and describe a combination of natural human instincts and retrospective insights in very open, unguarded, and almost adolescent purity of terms. They use an unabashed, unveiled naïveté to stylishly exhibit many of the more secretive qualities subconsciously masked within each one of us. I really admire their ability to tenderly open up the chamber of the soul and poetically reveal the affairs of the heart and mind.
To my ear, the best stuff comes a bit past the mid-album point. "Stranger" is an acoustic-backed piece with a great chorus section, one that I found to be the most memorable from the collection. The addition of an extended bridge and atmospheric supplements of instrumentation give it a very pleasing, lighter-sided Creed resonance. Its companion number, "Survive," veers slightly more toward a Three Doors Down string-picking base, embellished artistically with wafting two-part harmony and virtual orchestration in the background.
My personal favorite, though, is "Misery." It's one of the songs on the disc that departs markedly from swathing soul-soothes to produce a set of rather haunted strains of minor-effected chord patterning that gradually builds into a percussive chorus filled with yearning-soaked vocals. The lyrical theme involves a self-realization of the effects of a destructive relationship and how its possible unintentional nature on one side doesn't necessarily quash the questionings of sanity in view of the resulting misery produced. The intro wording is impeccable: "Just once I'd like to hear the sound of my own voice / Instead I'm overwhelmed by the noise / This darkness is upon me and I'm right within its sight / It's killing me inside / I'm not ok, I'm not ok / With what you've done to me."
If your taste includes lighter alternative or moderate alt-pop and runs to the likes of Lifehouse, Vertical Horizon, Three Doors Down, or many of the '90s groups like the Gin Blossoms, then you'll probably enjoy giving Jadewood a listen.
There's something warm and genuine-sounding about this disc that really gets me in those interior spaces I don't think about too much most of the time. I mean, it's hard to mine the roots-rock thing and not throw off a Mellencampian, small-town-homesick vibe, sure, but Jr. Juggernaut manage to go above and beyond roots-by-numbers and come up with something real on Ghost Poison. They meld together the fuzzy-edged pop/rock of the late '90s (think Gin Blossoms, or occasionally Buffalo Tom) with the out-and-out alt-country sound of Lucero or Son Volt and graft the whole thing to some Springsteenian lyricism and Replacements-ish swagger; it's all Neil Young guitars, imperfect (yet tuneful) sing-along choruses, bitterly sweet melodies, and comfortingly familiar rhythms. There're echoes of Old 97's here, as well as indie roots-rock barnburners Blackpool Lights, who are probably Jr. Juggernaut's closest contemporary musical cousins.
The best tracks on Ghost Poison are the ones that grab hold of the roots-country rock anthem motif and just don't let go. There's album opener "Lit By Winter," which is jangly and warm like the best things The Jayhawks ever did and the chorus of which practically begs you to add your own harmony vocals. It's jaw-dropping, despite the fact that it's pretty much the audio diary of a kinda-creepy (if admittedly romantic) stalker; it's possibly the most endearing song about stalking since "Every Breath You Take." The song's actually kind of a microcosm of the band's whole appeal -- it's sweet but rough around the edges at the same time, with an anthemic, impossible-not-to-sing-along-to chorus, a downhome feel, and a warm, gentle cheeriness about it, in spite of the somewhat odd story that unfolds in the lyrics.
The same holds true for "Gone Before You Start," which is rolling and country-tinged rock that's heartbreaking once you listen more closely to the lyrics and realize what the song's about; after you've hit that point, it becomes both beautiful and crushingly sad. "Believe In Something" starts off a little preachy and born-again-y (and yeah, there's a bit of talking 'bout the Big Man Upstairs on this disc) but builds to an impassioned roar, and "Coming In Backward" makes me think (favorably) of Teenage Fanclub's rootsiest moments, grafted onto guitars from Blackpool Lights' "The Truth About Love." All the tracks mentioned above, incidentally, pretty much drop me where I stand, as does oddball acoustic instrumental "Midnight Mass," which is more meditative and peaceful than I honestly thought the blues could ever be.
Ghost Poison's not perfect, of course -- there's a handful of missteps on here, like the dirty grind of "Early Morning Blackout," which is actually a decent song (and probably the most "rock" song of the bunch, with seriously crunchy distortion and honest-to-God solos) but which drags on without a whole lot to propel it forward. At 6:08, it's the longest track of the album, and I hate to say it, but you definitely feel it.
"Breathing, Grieving" and "The Beehive," for their part, are both just kind of "eh," breezing past without making much of an impression and making me want to skip back around to the beginning to listen to "Lit By Winter" one more time. With songs like that one to go back to, I'm not real bummed about a few clunkers in the pile.
Ride With Me
My initial kneejerk reaction to Kingen's Ride With Me was, well, pretty negative. I fully expected to be snickering within a few minutes of putting the disc in the player; I mean, Kingen (aka Torgny Karlsson) is a Sweden-born/-bred singer, pianist, and songwriter who steps and strolls backwards to the era of Elvis, James Brown, and Chuck Berry, all while singing with a funny accent and looking kind of like one of Santa's elves (he's apparently fairly short). It's like a ready-made SNL sketch.
After listening a while, though, I realize that, holy shit, this guy is good
. And I, of all people, really shouldn't be surprised. Everybody knows these days that Sweden's a hotbed of music, and hell, I've even got family ties to it myself -- my own father-in-law is a Stockholm-born jazz fan and talented bassist, and his
father was an accomplished jazzman who supposedly played with Stan Getz. My wife's cousin Viktor is a burgeoning hip-hop artist and talented producer
, for crying out loud.
So I'm having to look past my own stupid, America-centric musical view to get to the heart of Kingen's Ride With Me. And what that is is a guy who really, truly loves the retro sound of the music he plays, all the way from the Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano boogie of "Mary-Ann" to the Godfather of Soul-esque sweet defiance of "She's Mine" to the more countrified, "Honky Tonk Woman"-sounding "Misery."
Luckily, he can pull it off, too. "Mary-Ann" is nicely rough and pleading, "Ride With Me" takes an Otis Redding groove and gives it new, electric life, "Be-bop Street" does a cool, Elvis-y roll, and "She's Mine," the best track on here, is sweet and soulful and fiery, all at the same time.
In spite of my misgivings, I find my toes tapping, my head nodding, and a smile creeping onto my face. Sure, the accent gets in the way some of the time, but honestly, it winds up not being that big a deal. The only track I'm not real big on is "Someone New," a slow-moving song that painfully evokes Kenny Rogers' '70s cheese, but one out of eleven ain't bad.
And so what if Kingen's several decades out of time? It's not like the U.S. has a monopoly on rock 'n roll -- if we had, the Beatles, Kinks, and Stones certainly never would've happened. And while it is a little odd to hear somebody so passionate about a musical style that seems so far removed from their environment, both in terms of distance and time, what makes this any different from, say, Amy Winehouse's fractured re-do of soul? Sharon Jones? The Diplomats of Solid Sound? Brian Setzer? For that matter, Rancid's Clash-adoring retake of street-level punk? Are either of those somehow more "worthy" of serious attention because the people making the music are in the U.K. or U.S.? Nope. As long as Kingen's got it where it counts, who cares?
Lords of the North
Lords of the North
Emerging from the "steam caves" and "swirling ice storms" of the Pacific Northwest come Lords of the North...wait, what? Steam caves? Ice storms? Wait, Iceland is part of the Pacific Northwest, right? Yep; as far as Washington's Lords of the North are concerned, it most definitely is.
This is exactly what I've always imagined the darker side of the 1970s music scene to be. It's as if Lords of the North are still pissed off about the whole love-and-peace crap of the 1960s. It's the kind of music that would cause Midwest parents to organize protests. It's not real complicated: an overly distorted guitar, an angry drummer with some huge ride cymbals, and a singer with the voice of Nordic Barbarian. Don't mistake simplicity, however, for a lack in talent. Guitarist Tony Thorpe throws down some pretty sweet solos in "Loyal Legion" and "The March," Jim Roche knows his role as a drummer and holds Tharp and singer Pat Kearney together with fist-pounding, psychedelic beats, and Kearney's hard-edged vocals bring it all together, with confrontational and biting lyrics that sound especially good when seemingly recorded through a homemade microphone.
While it's quite enjoyable, though, Lords of the North fits a little too well into the Sabbathesque metal genre. This isn't a bad thing, really, because Sabbath rules, but it's been 30 years since Sabbath and maybe we need something more? I'm not sure if this is true, but it certainly kept me from thinking this was anything beyond a very good first album. Either way, drop some acid, plug in your lava lamps and smoke machines, and prepare yourself for Lords of the North.
Machine Meets Land
Forgot About the Whistle Industry
The music on Forgot About the Whistle Industry starts promisingly, with distant, Radiohead-ish guitar and funky drums, but man, when guitarist/vocalist Jeremy Vanecek starts singing...it's all downhill from there. It's not the voice, mind you, but the words Vanecek's singing that make me cringe -- the lyrics for lead-in track "Shot," for example, ramble repetitively about how somebody named Katie is so beautiful and wants a shot and the singer doesn't know how Katie feels about him. Similarly, "Meat" is about how some unnamed woman is going to keep the meat red while the singer rocks. Sing about how she keeps the meat and brings the flesh, then repeat 'til the song ends.
And that's basically how Forgot About the Whistle Industry goes, all the way through: lackluster lyrics, repeated ad infinitum. Which is a shame, because the music isn't bad, really. It's fairly standard late-'90s indie-rock, with drifting guitars, solid drums, and Pixies-esque melodies, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Paired with lyrics about how the vocalist is already dating the subject of the song in his head (which I'm guessing is not what most girls want to hear from a guy they're not actually in a relationship with), though, and the whole thing sinks.
After listening all the way through Forgot, Machine Meets Land makes me think of a college-age band of enthusiastic friends that's got some good musical ideas but needs to step back and take a long, hard look at the lyrical side of things. 'Til they do, this one's not going to cut it for me, sorry.
Reinvention is a bitch. I'm guessing the guys in Richmond, TX's Mechanical Boy have been finding that out the past year or three. When last we saw (er, heard) the band, on their self-titled EP from a handful of years back, they were full-on members of the heavy, post-emo nu-metal scene; the debut EP wasn't great, but it wasn't bad, either, just somewhat on the generic side. I liked it okay, although fellow reviewer Shawn R. wasn't quite so kind -- them's the breaks, unfortunately.
So, when bassist Chris Applegate emailed me a while ago and asked if we could check out the band again, claiming that the band had totally changed directions, I shrugged and said "sure," figuring "totally changed directions" meant they were now listening to more Taking Back Sunday and less Deftones. Turns out, though, that he wasn't kidding. They've done a hell of a lot more than just drop the "The" from their name -- the heavy guitars and stomping rhythms have been replaced with heavily retro-sounding pop-rock that brings to mind, well, Duran Duran more than anything else.
No, I'm totally serious -- it's due in large part to vocalist Tim Anderson, whose voice draws heavily from both Simon Le Bon and The Cult's Ian Astbury, but the guitars and drums have also abandoned the metal for quasi-funky, danceable melodies, like The Rapture minus the world-hating cynicism or The Bravery minus (thank God) the flat-footed attempts at cleverness. It's slick and polished to pop-sheen perfection, alternately stomping rock and hip-shaking pop, with soaring/yelping vocals, so sharp and well-made that it seems unfathomable it isn't already on the radio somewhere.
On Play Along's best track, "All Alone in the Bering Sea," the music has this big, open feel that brings to mind (favorably, mind you) epic Brit-rockers The Music, as well as moody, raw guitars, and some nice atmospherics. It's complex without being overbearing, occasional skirting the edges of post-emo but never losing its New Romantic roots (think Jets To Brazil). Anderson's vocals are desperate, Michael Regino's guitars roar and drive skyward, and drummer Matt Wheeler thunders like he got lost on the way to his metal band's rehearsal space. Heck, I can even forgive the "this little light of mine bit" on this one. It's just a great song, period.
Much further on, "Lydia" rides a similar line, merging retro-pop and elements of emo to good effect and using the Rapture-ish rhythms nicely, to boot. Album opener "Tabloids" nears the top of the pile, too, albeit with a more "rawk" tone to it, and "The Who's Who of My Youth" does nicely, straight-up pop-rock with a surprisingly addictive chorus. Things don't fare as well when the band aims for a funky, dancefloor-filling groove, with tracks like "Swing Low & Carry Me Home" and the Killers-ish "She Does" making me scratch my head and wonder what the heck the band's trying to do.
Really, though, where I hit a wall is with the lyrics. A third to half of the album seems to be about getting with somebody, and the over-the-top confidence with which Anderson sings lines like "Do you think you got what it takes to love me?" makes me twitch like I've just been shown pictures of somebody's grandma naked. It just comes off...weird, somehow.
See, the thing about the whole lothario thing that bands like Duran Duran did (and that Mechanical Boy appears to be trying to do) is that it only really works for if you can sell it right -- being suave and British and fashion plates and shooting videos on yachts with unattainable women somehow make the songs about seduction and sex and swanky/sordid stuff like that seem totally plausible, even if it's just the image. With a bunch of guys from suburban Texas, though...it's a bit difficult to imagine them as hard-partying sex symbol rockstars, y'know?
So, while songs like "The Bachelor" or "Could Be a Magical Night" are (I'm guessing) not quite autobiographical, the whole "seducer" vibe just doesn't work for me. (This is where I've occasionally had problems with The Killers, too; oddly, it works better for them now that they're bona fide rockstars and not Las Vegas bellhops...) Besides, that whole thing's been done to death by this point, honestly. When the lyrics on the album are a bit more down-to-earth -- or at least less clichéd -- Mechanical Boy prove that they can be really, truly good.
I think they're finding themselves pulled in multiple directions, which is understandable -- any band is a collection of separate people, obviously, each with their own tastes and goals. For now, though, I'd suggest shelving the loverman songs in favor of something real. 'Til then, well, I'm reminded of "New Persuasion," towards the end of Play Along, where Anderson sings "Well, I've finally found a niche, baby" -- no, not quite. Almost there, though; it's a good step in an interesting direction. More songs like "All Alone in the Bering Sea" or "Lydia," and I'm sold.
[Mechanical Boy is playing its CD release show 10/24/08 at Fitzgerald's, with Thee Armada, The Last Place You Look, Veloura, & The Tastydactyls.]
The Panic Division
Songs From The Glasshouse
I loved this CD from the first time I shoved it into the player. San Antonio's The Panic Division hooks you right away with a massive familiarity that you can't quite put your finger on. Songs From The Glasshouse is very enjoyable throughout, although the intro to "Your Satellite" does sound a little too much like Van Halen's "Right Now." There is, however, a lot of ear candy for fans of alternative music who like more rock-ish guitars than usual.
The Panic Division consists of Colton Holliday on vocals and guitar, Daniel Stanush on guitars (he's since left the band), Tavis Wilson on bass, Jesse Garcia on drums (most of Glasshouse was tracked with electronic drums), and Diego Chavez on keyboards and programming. Holliday's vocals have amazing depth, and there's not a hint of Texas accent anywhere.
The music is a mixture of electronica with guitar backups. One of the best tracks on the entire album (to me, anyway) is the completely electronic dance instrumental "Legacy," which is one of those songs you keep tracking back to for a do-over. The almost ghost perfect cover of Mr. Mister's "Broken Wings" is a nice addition, as well.
There are some downer songs on the disc, especially "Big Day" and "Day You Left," which deal with loss and are subsequently a bit depressing in spite of the sound being rather upbeat, but that brings us to the main summation of Songs from the Glasshouse. Each track has a dual feel to it -- although the subject matter can border on heartbreaking, the music remains light, causing a veritable clash within each song. I like that; it makes for a nice conundrum.
Now that I've been introduced to this band, I'm in angst over whether or not these guys will stay together. The latest news is that Holliday is working on a side project, which is usually never a good thing for a band, and the most distressing bit is that The Panic Division is on hiatus -- possibly for good. Things are looking rather dreary...damn.
Acid or Blood
Race Bannon was the loyal "partner" to the unmarried Dr. Quest from the Adventures of Johnny Quest, but namesake band Racebannon is an Indiana band that has more mood swings than Britney Spears. On Acid or Blood, their first release in four years, they show a manic-ness that has to be appreciated even if you don't like it. Have you ever tried the new Sour Skittles? They're extremely sour, cause you to make disturbing faces, forces your body into near convulsions, and yet you finish the pack. Like that candy, there is something repulsive yet engaging about this band.
Sonically speaking, they take the Melvins, Dead Kenedys, and Mr. Bungle and throw them all in a blender. It would be near impossible to single out a specific track, because each one seems like four songs in one. Tempo and atmosphere changes are the norm, so much so that you have to look to see what track the player is on. After listening to Acid or Blood several times, I still don't know if I like it or not. You have to admire a band that can do that. Or can you?
Reggie and the Full Effect
Last Stop: Crappy Town
What the hell happened here? Granted, it's been a while since I checked in with the band, but the last time I checked, Reggie and the Full Effect was a whip-smart, self-referencing, sarcastic-ier-than-thou cold shower of a "project" that didn't take itself (or the music it appropriated) at all seriously. And that was the beauty of ex-Get Up Kid James Dewees's music, in large part -- it jabbed a vicious stick into the self-important windbag of emo/post-emo rock and deflated the overblown thing a bit, at least.
This time out, though, the sarcasm's been leashed, the grinning, electro-emo slaps at the cheesiest of the alt-rock set are under wraps, and things feel a hell of a lot more, well, serious. Last Stop: Crappy Town is no ball of fun, but rather a bitter, loud, angry blast of post-hardcore rock -- it's about halfway in the screamo camp, with the growly vocal thing and snarling guitars, a bit math-y, with some nicely jagged rhythms (drummer Billy Johnson probably deserves the credit for being the best part of this disc, by the way), and a third or so real-live emo. I'm admittedly not the biggest fan of stuff like this, but it's honestly nothing special, just more loud rock to throw on the too-high pile.
Weirdly, the softer stuff is what I'm finding the most appealing (okay, I am an emo cheeseball at heart, so maybe it's not all that weird). The tracks I like best are ones like "E," which is sweet, Weezer-meets-Mae melodic rock that's got an endearing, Jimmy Eat World-ish earnestness that I can't help but smile at. There're also some nice moments towards the album's end, where Dewees and company apparently decide they want to be Muse and channel their inner Freddie Mercury for some dark, arena-level rock ("N," and to a lesser extent, the Nine Inch Nails-esque "V"). Most of the rest of the album is dominated, though, by the aforementioned heavy-ass hardcore, which makes me wonder if Dewees is really hankering to return to his Coalesce roots.
The one throwback to the old Reggie and the Full Effect is "J" (or is it "J Train"? can't tell...), which does a pop-punk thing for a while before dropping back into crushing volume, but there's still a fairly big problem, one that affects a lot of the songs on Crappy Town: the lyrics are horrible, just flat-out awful. Which could be okay, if this were, say, Promotional Copy. It's not. And they're just not working for me. Put it all together, and I'm left with an album that's not great, occasionally good, and mostly just okay.
There's a part of me that wants to think I'm just missing the joke, that this really is the same band/whatever and Dewees is having a big laugh at my expense for me bothering to listen to this set of just-okay alt-rock. Sadly, I think that's just me trying to rationalize a lackluster album. I mean, c'mon: the pretty classical interludes? The lack of real song titles? The lyrics that sound like they were written by a mopey high-school kid? For whatever reason, it looks like Reggie & friends have finally drunk the Kool-Aid and become the very band they used to make fun of.
Don't let the cover of the Clash's "White Riot" tacked on at the end of this album fool you; Room 101 is a far cry from '70s-style punk. In recorded form, at least, self-described one-man-band Roburt Reynolds' Room 101 project owes a hell of a lot more from late-'80s NYC noise-rock like Cop Shoot Cop, Unsane, Barkmarket, and Foetus. Demo is a tightly-wound squall of noise and bottom-heavy thunder, with scraping, shrieking guitars that feel like the aural equivalent of shards of broken glass under bare feet, snarling/yowling vocals, and turgid, NoMeansNo-esque bass stomp.
Reynolds' Room 101 is at its best when he mines a slinking, mechanized, fuzz-heavy groove, rather than veering into the full-on "punk" realm (like on the pounding "Plastic Bag Hat"). On tracks like "Living Dead Man," "Human Skin Shawl Sweater," and "Unfranchise My Heart," Reynolds drives his machine forward relentlessly, channeling raw, misanthropic fury, and it's a beautiful thing to behold. The tracks are like Gang of Four getting knifed on the NY subway, except in a good way. Surprisingly, in spite of the inherent chaos of the music, the whole skronking, jagged-edged mess is tight as fuck, as focused and frighteningly coherent as some kind of flesh-destroying death ray from the future.
There's some kind of underlying theme of control and domination going on here, I think, but to be honest, I'm not paying much attention to the lyrics, although the "project" name refers to the Ministry of Love in 1984, and the songs are apparently harsh critiques of modern society's materialism and all that. For my part, I'm content to just wallow in the miasma of noise and the generally apocalyptic feel of it all as my brain melts.
(Oh, and for the "White Riot" cover? It's the real oddball on the album, a fairly straight-up version of the Clash classic, played kind of bland and incorporating even a Joe Strummer-esque Brit accent and the handclaps from the original. It's fun and all, but it just makes me want to go grab my Clash albums off the shelf. But don't let that dissuade you; the rest of the album's pretty fucking great on its own.)
[Room 101 is playing 11/1/08 at Rudyard's, with The Hates, The Delta Block, & Anarchitex.]
America Is Dying of Wetnurse
In a weird way, I wouldn't be here without Sprawl. No, I'm not going to spin some sappy-yet-strange story about being conceived while my parents listened to The Man With The Yellow Hat -- I'm nowhere near that young, and sadly, my parents are nowhere near that cool -- but seriously, I wouldn't be living in this city if it weren't for this one particular band.
See, back when I was a Hill Country-dwelling high school kid, my mom dragged my lazy ass down to this little college in Houston. It was (and is) a beautiful campus, with tons of trees and stately-looking buildings, but I was more intrigued by how carefree and strange all the people we saw hanging around seemed to be ("strange" in comparison to the denizens of a mid-sized Army base town in Texas, mind you). I remember laughing out loud as we watched an official-looking guy in a suit lead a crew of prim-and-proper elderly folks through the entrance to the main Quad of the place, just as a trio of guys yelled "Fore!" and started whacking tennis balls from one side of the "U"-shaped area to the other. Kids were crashed out on the grass seemingly at random, just hanging out or with their noses buried in books.
What made the biggest impression, though, was the yearbook in the Admissions Office. While we sat and waited to talk to the Admissions person we were there to see (about whom I remember zero, sorry), I picked up the previous year's yearbook and flipped through it. Right in the center was a big section devoted to what sure looked like a band, one apparently made up mostly of students. And they looked like a big deal; all the pictures I remember were live shots, either of the guys in the band all sweaty and crazy and smiling or of the crowd going absolutely nuts. The artwork was pretty wild, too -- keep in mind that I was a full-on metalhead (dabbling in hip-hop) at the time -- all bright colors and psychedelic shit. But most importantly, it was clear that the band was part of the school, and a respected, loved part of it, no less. Simply put: this college had its own fucking band. Wow. And yeah, when we left that day, I'd pretty much decided I wanted to go there.
So there it is -- if it weren't for Sprawl, I might've ended up in Miami or El Paso or California or something, instead of coming here way back when and then staying and building a life and all that. I find it kind of fitting, then, that listening to America Is Dying of Wetnurse, the band's "new" album (which is really a release of stuff they recorded back in the day), feels like cracking open a time capsule of my quasi-misspent youth, 'cause these guys were partly responsible for it. I missed out on the band's glory days, sadly -- although my wife didn't, being a hardcore fan, which was how we bonded when we first met (see? another way those Sprawl guys manipulated my life...) -- so this is actually a fascinating glimpse into what I was only able to glimpse in the short time before the band fell apart and moved on to other things.
I'll be honest: even after repeated listens, a lot of the tracks on the disc tend to blur together for me. It all merges into one sweaty, dirty-yet-rainbow-colored, half-stoned, tight as hell, murky, bizarre-yet-listenable, badass mashup of ska, funk, punk, reggae, and hip-hop, with odd chunks of spy music, disco, jazz, metal, and klezmer surfacing from time to time, to boot. All the players jump and churn like the pieces of a well-oiled machine, seemingly never missing a beat, always popping up exactly where they're supposed to be. Swear to God -- even when these folks fuck(ed) up, it sounds like they meant to do it. Add to that singer Matt Kelley's crazed vocals, which find the heretofore-undiscovered sweet spot at the center of the triumvirate of Jay-Z, Bootsy Collins, and David Byrne, and I'm content to just sit back and let the whole damn thing wash over me.
I'll admit to a preference for the faster stuff -- I love "Rubbit," for one, especially since it's one of the few tracks I can pick out the intro to when listening in my car (and the funkdafied spy groove and horns beat the heck out of any recent Bond theme I can recall), the funky whacka-chicka guitar in "Shum" blows me away, and the skank-heavy beginning of "Mold/Path of the Righteous Gentile" always gets my head bobbing. But really, that preference doesn't mean a whole lot when even the speediest tracks on here morph into jazzy/funky jams and vice-versa. Again, to me this works best all as one massive piece of punk-funk-ska mess.
It's worth mentioning, by the by, that this is primarily a live disc, culled from shows Sprawl played in '93 and '94, which makes the tightness and right-on focus all the more jaw-dropping (the only non-live cut, actually, is studio track "Rubbit"). More than anything else, Wetnurse proves once again that the Sprawl crew were the collective heart, soul, and overlord of the whole funk/ska scene that gripped Houston in the mid-'90s. See, it's been a while since I've listened to the band, and when I opened the jewel case I was seized with a sudden fear that maybe I'd been wrong -- '94 was a long time ago now, 14 fucking years, and I was a kid still finding his musical legs.
Was that it, then? Had I slipped on the rose-colored headphones when thinking back fondly on the band? Nope. Rather, I find myself feeling once again like I felt the first time I heard these folks, before I really had any clue what music was about -- a decade-plus on, and Sprawl still fucking knock me down and leave me wondering where the hell it all came from. Damn shame it had to go back there before too long.
Theories of Delusional Origin
Improvised (or even improvised-sounding) music makes my skin crawl. Okay, so that's a bit of an exaggeration -- I don't really find it creepy, per se, but it just kind of irks me, in the same way that, say, driving around town aimlessly or running in circles irks me. I'm not a particularly goal-oriented person, but I get really fixated on at least having a destination of some sort in mind; this is essentially why I badgered our cross-country coach in high school to let us run from the school down to the local mall, rather than re-running three miles' worth of laps for the millionth time and letting me slip into batshit fucking craziness. (Well, that and the fact that two of the other guys had a harebrained scheme to swipe some new shoes from the Foot Locker and make our speedy getaway on foot. Thankfully, the mall cops had eyes on us the second we set foot inside, so the plan went nowhere...)
Improv-based music, including most forms of jazz and noise, bugs me for the same reason. The aimlessness, the circularity, the whole idea of playing just to play -- none of it works for me. I enjoy playing in a jam session with friends as much as the next half-assed quasi-trained guitarist, sure, but watching/listening to somebody else do it is about as entertaining to me as watching Sunday AM politicos blather at one another. Fun to do, sure, but not so fun to listen to.
All that said, there are ways to take the improv form and make it work, at least for me -- that's where a band like Tambersauro comes in. The trio (Mike Blackshear, Lance Higdon, and Jeff Price, plus several special guests on various tracks) takes what sounds like some seriously jam-inspired grooves and nails them viciously to the half-rotted floor of some abandoned loft with spikes crafted out of pure Chicago-style post-rock. They infuse the meandering, go-nowhere instrumental passages with math-y busy-ness, spiky guitars, and thoughtful, Slint-esque spoken/shouted vocals, and the addition gives the music purpose, seemingly hinting at a reason behind it all, however unfathomable it might be to mere mortals like you and me.
As a reference point, Slint is probably the most apt, really; like that band, Tambersauro creates obscure symphonic movements in miniature, mini-symphonies that are constantly shifting and mutating into something else, often so fast I can't quite keep up and find myself wondering what the hell track I'm on now (answer: it doesn't really matter, trust me). They're murky and dark and meditative, almost hypnotic at times, with stylistic jump-cuts from post-rock angularity to atmospheric strangeness to spiraling jazz, sometimes within the span of a single song ("Take This and Leave," "Make Water Sand," etc.) The band grabs some Polar Goldie Cats from there, some Jonx from there, some Eno from there, some Tortoise from over there, some Fugazi from this shelf right here, and so on.
And yes, there are some truly Jonx-esque moments here (see "People Impart," in particular); heck, the band almost comes off like the bastard child of turbulent math-rockers The Jonx and fellow Houstonians Sharks and Sailors, with the bitter energy and nimble-fingered structures of the former and the meditative-yet-still-ass-kicking feel and seriousness of the latter. (If you don't know those bands well enough to use 'em as a reference point, well, believe me when I say you need to work on that.)
I particularly like the tone-poem-style vocals, flat and declamatory on tracks like the excellent, all-over-the-map "Make Water Sand" (which is probably the album's centerpiece); they give the obtuse lyrics some heavy-ass weight. Hell, that part in itself can fall flat -- it'd be real easy for Theories to become overindulgent and top-heavy, taking itself too seriously for its own good, and there's really nothing worse in music than some self-important shmuck who's convinced what they do is capital-a Art. Tambersauro dodge that trap, though, at least with me. As ultra-serious and quasi-poetic as the vocals and lyrics get, it never gets under my skin, possibly because these folks really, truly have the chops to back it up. That's the silver bullet for self-importance: if you act like you're making Art, you'd better actually fucking be making Art. And with Theories, Tambersauro is.
There's never a point on Theories of Delusional Origin where I find myself thinking, "right, right, you're a fucking poetic genius; let's move on, alright?" There's a passion lurking behind the flat monotone, erupting occasionally in vehement, howled fury as on album closer "Over and Down," and it makes it feel like the band's reserve has cracked somewhat, exposing the fire underneath. Even the improv-y stuff doesn't rub the wrong way, here, because it feels purposeful, like it at least has a place. The skittering drums and plucked guitars that kick in about halfway through "Mitties" work where they are, because they deconstruct the tightly-wound math-rock that comes earlier on, pulling it to pieces and setting it free to roam, damaged and chaotic.
Similarly, the band slowly disassembles the drums on "Blue and White Fragments," gently electronicizing them and stripping them down to bare metal, 'til they sound like beats straight off some mid-catalog Underworld album. In fact, if you look at Theories as a whole, assembly and disassembly might just be what it's all about: the music evolves to its farthest point, then it falls apart, and in falling apart, it turns into something else. I can't think of too many bands that can pull off that particular trick.
[Tambersauro is playing its CD release show 10/17/08 at The Mink, with listenlisten, Eat Grapes, & Hollywood Black.]
Rhythm Amongst the Chaos
There's not a whole lot groundbreaking on Rhythm Amongst the Chaos, but really, I don't really mind. There's something in the band's tried-and-true brand of thrashcore that gets the blood pumping, even when I know full well I've heard this a million times before. The Metallica-style old-school thrash guitars, the hardcore bellowing, the pounding drums, the low-as-the-ground bass, the gotta-sacrifice-for-your-freedom lyrics -- it's a template, sure, but Terror do it pretty well, throwing themselves headlong into burners like "Vengeance Calls On You," "Disconnected," or the seemingly straightforward "Arms of the Truth," which I think is actually some kind of statement of faith.
"Vengeance" is probably the best song on here, all things considered -- the guitars cut like buzzsaws, the band's locked tight into the beat, and the vocals are raw and open. Even when the band shifts gears and slows things down, it doesn't feel contrived, which is a pleasant surprise. My head's banging along unconsciously, and that's a good sign, as is the fact that when the too-brief EP's done, I kinda go, "wha? where'd it go?" (The whole thing, all five songs, clocks in at just over nine fucking minutes, no lie.)
That's the good part, the part I like and will probably be checking out again. The bad part? Well, it's not bad, but it's definitely a bit of a letdown -- I was psyched to hear Jedi Mind Tricks rapper Vinnie Paz cut loose on the EP's final track, a cover of Breakdown's "Kickback," hoping for some crushing hip-hop/hardcore crossover. But nope, sadly not; Vinnie pops up in the intro to the song giving a shoutout to the band, and that's about it. If he does show up again, then he's a bigger fan of hardcore than I'd realized, 'cause I swear I can't tell his vocals apart from Scott Vogel's raw-throated yell.
The track's not bad, again, but it's a bit disappointing, probably the weakest of the five songs on Rhythm. But eh -- I can always skip that one and get back to the other seven minutes of relentless pummeling on here.
This Year's Tiger
This Year's Tiger EP
Recorded as a four-piece at Dead City Sound, This Year's Tiger's self-titled EP demonstrates that they're a band Houston should be proud of. Even scaled-down to a three-piece live, they're both raw and powerful, and this sound translates well to disc.
Singer, guitarist, and Illinois expat Justin Blumenstock draws on his personal experiences, both with past bands and his personal life, for subject matter. No rookie to the music scene, he graduated from the same school of rock as members of Peralta, Planes Mistaken for Stars, and Minsk, and his past bands include Dismiss, Mingus Council, Cherry Lane, and Fairmont, to name a few. The rhythm section is made up of Jerry Wilcox, formerly of Ta'nari, and Scott Johnson, formerly of Last Surprise, who are both technical and precise, giving the band a full and even timbre.
This self-titled and self-released EP gives us some standout songs, including "Bullet for You," referencing the brotherhood Justin shares with members of bands past back in Illinois, with the chorus proclaiming, "When I look at the tattoo on my arm / I think of you, think of you / Some things you never forget / I'd take a bullet for you then / I'd take a bullet for you now." Blumenstock powerfully writes someone off in "Your Face Has No Melody," a song that makes me fairly certain I'd like to stay on his good side. This release has a good rhythm to it; all the songs are really strong. It's not one of those "let's hurry up and get an EP out" kind of releases. The quality shows all the way through the mix.
This Year's Tiger's sound isn't new -- it's that comfortable sound of guitar-driven rock with roots entrenched in post-punk that will always have a place in the music scene, no matter the time period. For some reason, though, Houston's scene has been missing this sound on this level. This Year's Tiger can fill that void for our fair city, hopefully giving it a chance for some more of the camaraderie that tends to go along with bands like this. And it may even give us more opportunities to see touring bands stop in Houston who have that No Idea sound or label, whatever the case may be.
Both of these contentions depend, though, on the music fans. This Year's Tiger definitely give performances and a release that warrant a solid local fan base. They put it all out there -- hopefully it will be well-received. The EP leaves me looking forward to both a full-length record and their next live performance.
[This Year's Tiger is playing 10/21/08 at Walter's on Washington, with Jordan, Barkus, Sly, and the Golden Egg, & Fire Team Charlie.]
Young Agent Jones
We Know Who You Are
I looked forward to giving another mindless modern rock band a literary ax-hug. I wanted to hate this album. I really did. But I just can't. The only way to describe this album is as if the garbage that's currently rotting in the airwaves wasn't garbage. Turn on your radio and dial through the FM dial. Ignore the sounds of your teeth gnashing and your women weeping and just pretend that someone with an actual soul was playing these "rock" songs you hear. Playing them the exact same way, but without the artistic emptiness that rattles like an empty brand-name soda can.
That's what Starkville, MS, natives Young Agent Jones invoke with their third album, We Know Who You Are. Now, I'm not calling them the saviors of modern music -- they probably won't make the next music messiah's apostle list -- but not everyone has to be the next big thing. Some bands, like The Ramones or The Smithereens, are just there to be the soundtrack of our lives, not necessarily change everything we believe.
This album is actually YAJ's second try at it. After being thrown out of a professional recording studio (which I encourage everyone to try and do at least once in life), they built their own recording set-up in drummer Mike Yeager's kitchen. That, I think, is what makes all the difference. The DIY ethic forces you to eschew the mechanical manipulation of emotion and over-over-production that seems to be the goal of most studios. In other words, the music industry's goal for some kind of audio Camazotz is as absent on We Know Who You Are as it is apparent on the Top 40 rock chart.
A comparison has to be made to The Smithereens' Especially for You, that wonderful bit of rock that gave us "Behind the Wall of Sleep," "Blood and Roses," and "In a Lonely Place." It's, in a sense, too humble to be an American Idiot or something like The Offspring's Smash, but its very understatedness lends a tremendous amount of clout to the songs. You never doubt a word that Young Agent Jones has to say.
YAJ is apparently a big fan of H-Town. Having toured here with their first album, which did fairly well on the college charts, they were immensely pleased to play for a lawyerly crowd who expressed their appreciation in good booze. Following a suggestion from one of our residents, YAJ followed them to some creepy house, where the magic word "notsuoh" gained them access into Houston's underground. They certainly deserve all the good ju-ju and alcohol that Houston has to offer.