And The Moneynotes
On The Town, On The Vine
Depending on who's singing, And The Moneynotes sounds like two different bands. Their EP On The Town, On The Vine consists of four songs, half of which were written by each of their two singer-songwriters. Half of the album, therefore, sounds like an acoustic Gogol Bordello, while the other half sounds like Gram Parsons. The problem is, though, that their two sounds don't completely work together.
The songs are good -- both songwriters have catchy songs, and the band is tight and adds interesting accompaniments to the songs, despite the difference in their styles. "On The Town" and "On The Vine" have a big Gogol Bordello feel to them, with a pretty violin part and raucous harmonies on "On the Town" and a goofy, cat-on-piano-keys-style piano part in "On The Vine." The other two songs, "Magnetism" and "Sourania," sound more like a folky Gram Parsons, with an interesting, almost Romanian violin part on "Magnetism" and a beautifully simple acoustic-and-harmonies arrangement on "Sourania."
Sadly, it doesn't completely cohere as an album. The differences in their styles are too great for it to sound like a "real" album. Their voices sound very different -- the Gogol Bordello-sounding guy sings with an accent and everything, whereas the other guy sings with a regular American accent. And the styles and feels of the songs are completely different, too, with the Gogol Bordello-esque songs having a humoresque swing feel to them and the others a typical folky acoustic groove to them. They have some great songs, so they definitely should be putting them out in some form. But the way they're doing it now doesn't quite work.
Song of the Pearl
I can't entirely put my finger on why, but it always seems to take me quite a while to fully wrap my head around an Arbouretum album. With 2007's Rites of Uncovering, I found myself compelled to listen and re-listen and re-listen to the disc before I felt like I could even talk about it, and it's turning out to be somewhat the same deal with this year's followup, Song of the Pearl.
In a way, I guess it makes sense, as the two albums run parallel in a lot of ways -- at its core, each is really about a journey, about traveling and the discovery that occurs in that process. The principal difference here is that while Rites of Uncovering came off as an out-of-time, backwards-looking tale of a lonesome, forlorn rider across the dunes and steppes of some distant (in space and time, maybe) landscape, Song of the Pearl feels more modern, more contemporary, a humming, non-stop cruise down some desolate highway through nowhere.
The music fits the mood admirably, as well. The album starts off with "False Spring," a hypnotic, circular-sounding track that rolls onward at a steady, methodical pace, all sun-baked and dusty and road-worn, setting the tone for the rest of the songs, while dark, introspective "Another Hiding Place" sounds like it could've fallen straight off '70s AOR radio, with guitars that remind me of Neil Young (or Young-follower Joel R. Phelps) in that they meander across the terrain of the song, never really repeating but instead continually evolving and shifting subtly.
Things take a noisier turn further on, with raw, rocking "Thin Dominion," which retains that slow deliberateness even as it cranks up the volume, and the jaw-dropping grandeur of "The Midnight Cry," which sounds to me like one hell of a Parts & Labor outtake, with roaring guitars that step in and out of the song like shifting walls of melodic noise. It melds the forward-looking, thundering spacerock sound with Heumann's understated, slightly country-tinged vocals, and holy shit does it work beautifully.
"Down by the Fall Line" is softer and less fuzzy-sounding, just shuffling along gently and quietly unfolding like a flower opening to light; the title track is similarly low-key, spiraling out a convoluted, half-seen story about "the Brown Times," whatever the hell those may be. I love Heumann's songwriting, by the way, partly because he possesses a writer's sense of tension and restraint, knowing that hinting at something and not spelling it out can suck the listener/reader in more than flat-out telling them what you're talking about. I've got no idea what "Down by the Fall Line" is about, but it's mesmerizing nonetheless.
In fact, the only truly "obvious" track on here is closer "Tomorrow is a Long Time," which is a broken-hearted, melancholy folk song draped with distorted chords and stoner-rock ambience -- strip away all that, and what you're left with is remarkably similar to "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," all raw emotion and sadness and solitude. This time the sun may not beat down as hard, but the loneliness of The Road is still there, in full effect.
Or is it? Upon closer listening, Pearl sounds almost like Arbouretum mastermind Dave Heumann has, well, finally found somebody to make his journey with. Rites was unrelentingly bleak and mysterious, without much of a gleam of hope over the horizon, but while Heumann is, for all intents and purposes, the core of the band, Pearl is more like a tour diary, notes from travels with a handful of unwashed, laconic, similarly-obsessed friends/acquaintances through that same blasted landscape. On "The Midnight Cry," in particular, Heumann seems to be referring to multiple people traveling along together, even if he never lets you look at their faces directly.
With Rites, Heumann was lost and utterly, totally alone, a solitary wanderer in search of...something. With Song of the Pearl, it sounds like maybe he's finally found it -- or at least, he's learned that the seeking can be an end in and of itself, and this time he's bringing fellow wanderers along for the ride.
Art Brut vs. Satan
At the end of the day, Art Brut just wouldn't work without Eddie Argos. I mean no disrespect to the other members of the band, because they're all fine musicians, and Art Brut vs. Satan is musically a finely-crafted pastiche of everything I love about Britpop from the past three decades or so, from the Elastica-ish start-stop rhythms to the excellently Clash-y guitars to the raw-yet-shiny Pulp sheen that covers everything. In terms of musicianship, Satan far outstrips the band's previous releases -- they may've recorded everything for this album in two weeks, but they sound like they worked their asses off to make it perfect.
That said, though, without Argos's flat, spoken/muttered/yelped vocals and unashamedly neurotic lyrics, they'd be just another good Britpop band, instead of the jaw-dropping monster of a band they are, at least to me. Sure, his voice -- he only rarely ever approaches "singing" in a traditional sense, coming off instead more like an across-the-pond Craig Finn -- is probably a love-or-hate thing, and it definitely takes some getting used to, but the way he uses it just works the way it needs to.
For me -- and, I suspect, a lot of other music lovers -- Argos's songs hit me right where I live, from the awesomely catchy celebration of childhood that is "DC Comics And Chocolate Milkshake" to the intensely sweet OCD-crush song "Am I Normal?" to the half-apology for singing a song under your breath in public, "Twist And Shout." I mean, who hasn't gone through their day with a song in their head, barely able to keep it from coming out -- or, worse yet, unconsciously started to sing it aloud while riding up in the elevator, earning curious glances from fellow office-dwellers?
More than anything else, he's a music fanatic who resembles a friendlier, less Comic Book Guy-ish composite of Dick and Barry from High Fidelity in his zeal (on this release, taking aim at bands that ape the U2 sound, the people in charge of charting record sales, and bands for whom music's just a pose) and wonderment about bands and the songs they play. On top of that, though, Argos is seemingly also one of those people who's got a set of distinct, immutable rules for everything, particularly music. See "What A Rush," a morning-after song where he practically smacks himself in the forehead for brushing off the whole Stones vs. Beatles conundrum just to get a girl in bed, for proof.
He's mawkishly intense and too thoughtful, obsessing and driving himself half-crazy with "what ifs" about everything under the sun. Argos is the kind of guy who's so intent on seeing a crush that when he overhears her saying she's going "to town," he rides the bus to both towns nearby, in the hope of spotting her out shopping...but then he's too afraid of the heartbreak to follow through.
Essentially, Eddie Argos is...well, he's me. Or somebody like me, at any rate (and possibly somebody like you, too, since you're reading this music-obsessive e-zine). He's somebody who lives and breathes music, loves things he probably should've given up well before he hit the whole thirtysomething range, has a set of fairly fixed ideas of what good music should and shouldn't be, and struggles with a crippling fear of being turned down by members of the opposite sex.
Put it all together, and Art Brut vs. Satan resembles the album you and your friends might create, given some musical talent, stitching all the things you care about into one big, messy, endearingly earnest, sometimes incoherent but always brilliantly personal ball of youthful fire and fury. Art Brut is a band of music fanatics, for music fanatics, with songs about music fanaticism, and they've hit their stride beautifully. To steal one of Argos's own lines, from "The Replacements": "I'm glad I've finally found a / band that's not gonna let me down." Amen.
[Art Brut is playing 10/24/09 at Walter's on Washington, along with Princeton & Ghormeh Sabzi.]
The Black Crowes
Before the Frost...Until the Freeze
The Black Crowes have just released Before the Frost/Until the Freeze, a double album -- sort of. This innovative release is the hard copy of Before the Frost..., with an online code for ...Until the Freeze. The band did this as a thank-you to their fans for a 20 year career (so far).
Both albums were recorded live in studio, in front of a small crowd. This really gives the songs a great natural sound, augmented by the smattering of sounds from an appreciative audience. What's interesting is that when I added both albums to iTunes, Before the Frost was labeled "blues," while Until the Freeze was "rock." There is no split personality on these albums, however, just the same high-quality -- pun intended -- blues-based rock with an ever-increasing acoustic sound.
That's not to say that their jam-band appeal is gone; that's evident on "Been a Long Time." Now the 7-minute jams are sharing space with a more acoustic/country sound on "Appaloosa" and "Houston Don't Dream About Me." The latter's a beautiful ballad, very reminiscent of the driving country songs of the '70s. Another interesting track is "Aimless Peacock," a 7-minute instrumental that's a cross between Appalachian folk and "Norwegian Wood."
The most curious, surprising, and arguably the best track is "I Ain't Hiding," a disco song. Yes, I said a disco song. While the chorus does have a rock feel to it, this is a disco song, and it is fucking awesome. I dare anyone to not start dancing in their cubicle, car seat, couch, or whatever, when they hear this track. I don't know where the inspiration for this came from or why it took the band this long to record it; I'm just glad that they did.
There will be many griping that this is a good two-disc set with only one disc's worth of great music, and that may be true. Since the second disc is essentially free, though, and since a "good" Black Crowes CD is better than most, all is well.
[The Black Crowes are playing 10/14/09 at the House of Blues, along with Truth & Salvage Co.]
I'm going to be honest and lay the facts on the table. This review has been over due for about two months. Okay six, but who's counting? Well, okay, maybe my editor is, but that's beside the point. This review is late partly because I became overwhelmed and put too much on my plate, getting greedy and wearing myself thin, but part of the blame can also be handed out to Buddahead and their infectious melodies and tunes.
Ashes, the second full-length release from Buddahead, a band hailing from New York, was my Kryptonite after only one listen. For a while, I was unable to start the review, let alone take notes. I could barely hold the CD in my hands; it just lay there on the dashboard of my car, taunting me to give it one more listen time and time again, and when my will subdued the fear and I finally took another listen to it again, it was just as I had suspected. Nothing. With each new listen to the album, a new idea formed inside my head. The gears that turn my brain would flood my mind with words and ideas, a new intro or ending, a different angle to take the story in, and it all stemmed from whatever mood I was in.
I was at my wits' end, not being able to decide which direction to go. Every angle would change the mood of the review, maybe portray the band as a different entity. This was my dilemma. So I came up with the only solution that I could think of, given the allotted time. Throw bits and pieces of all my intros, endings, and angles and make one review that would lead the reader into many different roads. Which isn't a long shot from what Ashes really is, since it's an album full of twists and turns. So, follow along as I try and make sense of Buddahead...the best band not being played on the radio.
Ashes consists of nine tracks that take the listener into the psyche of lead singer Raman Kia, the vocalist and lyricist for the band. And don't be surprised if after the first track, "Ruin," your ears are startled by the voice coming through the speakers. Kia's voice travels the scales of musical notes, hitting each one perfectly. His vocal prowess will have you questioning yourself, wondering why you've never heard his name or, more specifically, his voice before. Kia has the kind of talent that will more often than not find him in the hands of American Idol producers, who'll try to shove him down your throat as the next great pop artist of our generation.
Kia has gone through a long journey to get to the point he is at right now. As a young boy, he witnessed the violence of the Iranian Revolution, which led him and his father to flee from their homeland of Iran and migrate to London. While in London, he finally met the mother he had never met, she having left while Raman was only a tiny infant for London. He found the schooling of British Military School a bit harsh, so he needed an outlet for his frustration, and music was it. He was so intuitively skilled at this creative channeling that he attracted the interest of a major London music publisher; Raman decided instead to flee once again, however, this time setting his sights on America.
After making the rounds in New York City and Los Angeles, he signed a deal with Interscope Records. But the joy would be short-lived. He soon learned the direction the label wanted to send him in and, not satisfied with the mold they were trying to fit him in, he walked, opting to do it on his own, whether that meant failing miserably or succeeding gracefully. Many accolades can be given for this decision, leaving potentially millions on the table and taking a very punk, D.I.Y attitude in the process. The decision proved to be wise. On his travels as a solo artist, he would meet the future members of Buddahead, bassist Toby Evers, guitarist Simon Gibson, and drummer Richard Scannella.
As a band, Buddahead play just the right notes to compliment Raman Kia, who himself dons an acoustic guitar for the album. Gibson plays his lead with just enough dexterity as to not overpower or steal the spotlight. Scannella keeps the band on beat, keeping the pace of the song like a steady heartbeat, his fills not overstaying their welcome, and the same can be said for bassist Evers, his steady rhythm playing following the kick drum to perfection.
"Brakes," the second track on the album, is a tribute to that, as they all play clearly and with just enough force, leaving room for Kia to sing about ashes of torched relationships. The first line that opens the song -- "For crying out loud / these are the physics of goodbye" -- breaks the emotional roller coaster of the relationship into a science, and the chorus, "I can see / that I'm crashing so fast into you / I'm too late it's now time to brake," simply finally giving up on the love that was once shared.
It should come as no surprise that while in London, Kia took hold of the music that inhabits the region. Tracks like "Sour Grapes" and "Strangest Most Beautiful" do their best imitation of a pre-pubescent Radiohead and an up-and-coming Muse all rolled up into one. His vocal work on these two songs recalls a young Thom Yorke.
In "Sour Grapes," the music is dark and invigorating, fitting the mood in which Kia delivers the lyrics. The music behind him is tragically played in bits and pieces from the beginning before unleashing a full-on chorus and breaking down with a semi-electronic drum break. The guitars are fuzzy and trashy, they're dirty yet fully beautiful. In contrast, "Strangest Most Beautiful" begins with painfully stricken guitar picking. Kia soon follows with a tearfully felt swooning vocal line, but the song picks up the tempo, and so does Kia, doing a 180 and altering his vocal pitch to a higher octave.
On songs like "If I Tried," "Standing Still," and "Story of Our Lives," Buddahead shift from their dark Radiohead-esque tunes to take a stab at pop songs, and they do a great job. These three songs can easily be heard sandwiched in between Coldplay and The Fray, or even next to Nickelback on any Top 40 radio station. Raman Kia clearly proves what the labels already know: the man can sing and write catchy pop songs that stay with you long after the songs end.
With Ashes being their second full-length, it's clear that Buddahead has hit their stride in this album. Pressing but less frantic, Ashes is the union of a band that is maturing, fully embracing the influences that brought them together in the first place. While their first album Crossing the Invisible Line had artful tracks, it barely hinted at what was to come. Ashes is the fruition of the roiling emotions that lay beneath their smooth surface and the truly dramatic stories Kia is finally able to tell.
The Conquest of Tomorrow Today
Remember when two-piece bands were a novelty and seemed so exciting and new? Now they're as commonplace as the acts that they pretend to be superior to. Chinese is a two-piece instrumental act from Seattle that's just released a "noise-rock" adventure about a post-apocalyptic Earth, entitled The Conquest of Tomorrow Today.
First things first: they refer to themselves as "noise-rock," but there's nothing noisy abut them. Musically, they're more of a cross between punk and surf-rock -- the guitar maintains the same consistent tone all the way through, very unbefitting of songs that are supposed to elicit actions a la an instrumental. Plus, the arrangements are very lacking, as in "lacking another musician."
Take "Ajax," for example -- it has a nice, semi-distorted riff going on, but it's so simple and bland that you're left waiting for something else to come in to flesh it out. About the only time the band earns their "noise" moniker is where halfway through, there's this strange buzzing sound. It sounds like when someone has a guitar plugged in with the amp turned on. Just like that. At first, it's a little curious, but then it moves onto distracting until it becomes downright annoying.
What's most disappointing, though, is that Chinese showed promise right out of the gate. On "Fingertraps," they start off with a nice simple riff and then they start to add a little and a little more and start switching tempos. It's very cool but, unfortunately, very fleeting.
Class of 1984
Class of 1984
For all of you beginner students: Class of 1984 will be on the exam, so now's the time to become learned in class-speak. Jon and James, (fine Irish brothers) have been jammin' "backwoods filthy rock" in and around Eire since early 2006. These boys are every good little girl's guilty pleasure and her mother's worst nightmare.
The raucous rhythms first permeated their way into my repertoire via a rogue Class broadcast found in my mother's inbox -- a black & white photograph entitled "Diane's New Jacket" that featured current and former band members caught my eye, piqued my curiosity, and demanded that I explore this dark underworld further. Droogs with influences consisting of George Orwell, MC5, The Doors, Zeppelin, and Hendrix are a sure sign of something that mustn't be ignored.
Hidden amidst the uncertain, wavering, deep, dark, sexy Morrison-style vocals and gritty rock is a certain sweet sincerity and an underside which allows fans to follow along with their lives through regular "Top 10" blogs keeping us entertained with a mix of poetic, eloquent Irish and international street slang. From apocalyptic to pornographic with songs like "Rapture Ready" and "Big Time," the band's on the brink of being stamped "explicit," yet are somehow able to charm us and unapologetically get away with it.
Intelligence is sexy, and these guys have not only the brains and talent behind it all, but the looks that complete this rock-n-roll package, no pun intended. The recent first self-titled release, on 7" vinyl, includes titles "Honey," "Big Time," and "X It Out," each perfected during a summer trip to Jersey's Big Blue Meenie Studios (the entire process recorded on video). For a mere 3.99 Euros, the record comes complete with an autographed photo, MP3s, and CD, so help fill the pockets with pennies.
Give 'em a listen or two -- it'll grow on you, I swear. I see an ultra-bright future ahead, as I wait for the album in its entirety, along with the many trips to Texas which will hopefully accompany. "Through gilded light and lunacy."
Letters From My Dreams
Digable Cat spent two years working on Letters from my Dreams, and it shows, but not everyone may be able to handle the emphasis on the singing. This band originates in Illinois, but singer Alina Giurgiu is Romanian, and she packs a punch. Letters from my Dreams is full of long songs, a powerful, husky-voiced female singer with lots of vibrato and a wide range, jangly guitars, violins, and a synthesizer. The mood is mostly somber, with a few more upbeat tracks. Personally, it didn't entirely suit my tastes, but others may have a different view.
The subject matter here ranges from a song about watching TV to a song about being a soldier. "The Inquisitor Wore High Heels," which details a woman who asks "do I have you attention now, as I crush your flesh beneath my heel?", captures the band's attitude, displaying their feministic side, while "Home" emphasizes the importance of feeling safe. Thrown in the middle is a cover of "Stayin' Alive," which shocked me more than anything else, as it goes with a more funky feel, equipped with a rap in the end.
The songs all last about four minutes, which may be too long for such in-your-face vocals. It sounds to me like something from a teenage movie, played in the background while some sort of mischief is taking place. Most of the tracks are relatively slow and detail the singer's beef with the opposite sex, which can become obnoxious. Giurgiu holds her sustained notes to a point that if you listen to more than two songs in a row, it becomes grating to the ears because of the raspy quality and wavering tone.
Since her voice is so low, at certain points it blends in with the guitars as they approach the same notes and come out on the same level. She has a lower register than Janis Joplin, so I would not compare them, but on the other hand, her voice also takes precedence over the rest of the music, except during the occasional guitar solo. This CD does seem to have an old-fashioned rock style, borrowing more from the 1960s and 1970s than today with its drawn-out notes on the guitar and simple drumming. The bass plays a bigger role than the other instruments, if only because the deeper notes stand out on their own against all the mid-range ones. I would suggest this CD to anyone who likes rock bands from the Baby Boomer generation.
Time To Die
I hope that when it's my time to die, the new Dodos album will be playing in the background for my last 45 minutes. The indie group released its fourth album, Time To Die, on September 15, and I like it a lot.
The first track of the album, "Small Death," opens with the tranquil, calm strumming of a guitar and soft vocals, reminding me of earlier folk-rock performers from the '60s and '70s. Then the drums kick in, and you realize this isn't the same music your dad listened to when he was in high school.
One unique thing that I really enjoy and appreciate about the album is that instead of using the traditional pick, which creates a cleaner sound, you can actually hear the sound of the guitarist's fingers changing chords as he moves along the neck of the guitar. It's just a personal thing, but I love that aspect. It feels more real to me, more impactful.
Several of the tracks on the album feel like they could be divided into several songs. I actually had to check my iPod various times as I listened to "Small Death" to see what track I was actually listening to, only to realize it was still on the first track. Time To Die has only nine tracks but lasts 45 minutes; each song changes directions and speed a lot, making every song unique and interesting. I think the Dodos do a good job of adding just enough variety on the album to not bore listeners.
I wouldn't describe the Dodos as "experimental" in any sense of the word, but the album reminds me a little of some experimental bands. For some reason, The Appleseed Cast comes to mind, but a more folksy version. The Dodos have lyrics but also don't feel the need to fill every second with vocals, so a lot of the songs have long periods without anyone singing, creating an almost trippy feel. I normally don't like too much music without vocals because I lose focus, but on this album I really like the balance the band provides. It actually allows the listener to pay closer attention to the music and not focus solely on the vocals. It provides a whole new listening experience, in my opinion.
I love the third track, "Fables." I think it's a beautiful song, probably my favorite track on the album. The harmonies the group uses in this song are awesome, combining with the steady drum, the acoustic guitar and the xylophone to create something great. "This is Business" is probably the fastest track, the drummer sounding almost like Travis Barker as he pounds away at the drum set.
"Time To Die" is also the name of the last track, and it's catchy, like one last hurrah on the album -- almost like the final encore that tops off a great show.
[The Dodos are playing 10/3/09 at Mango's, along with The Ruby Suns.]
Johnny Goudie & The Little Champions
With El Payaso
, it should come as no surprise that Texas' legendary Johnny Goudie (of Johnny Goudie & The Little Champions) is still rock'n along and just as prolific as ever, albeit this time with a twangy country tinge, happier, pop-rocky explosion, more introspective tunes about love and rejection. "You Can't Pretend Forever" is the hit of the album, with hard-hitting lyrics like, "You can't pretend forever that you'll never have to say goodbye," and "You're much more fun when you lose control." I tracked down the super
cute video for the song, by the way -- you can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_i4AH-wT4Uo
I don't know what it's called in "official" musical terms, but I love the little unexpected stop and change there near the end...you'll know what I'm talking about. Johnny will need to explain the Whitney Houston reference to us, though. It looks like he and his friends and family had a blast making the video.
Back to the album itself, "Too Beautiful to Believe" is a lovely title that would get a girl all dreamy inside, until she listens closely to the hidden back-handed message: "You're just too beautiful to believe / I like you a whole lot more when you leave." But then, I guess we've probably all come across this kind at one time or another. "All the Tea in China" is the only song I'm not crazy about; it's a slick summary of Johnny's upset in not scoring some "golden" va-j-j outta "dreamy Marie."
"Get Out" has a more melancholy country vibe going, with my favorite instrument, the steel guitar, crying sweetly in the background. It's my personal high point on the album and has the makings of a theme song for any of us who've suffered through divorce or the bitter, stinging breakdown of a serious relationship. "With your heart torn and on the floor, you make your way to the door / You get out, you get out, you get out / and then you run." The last song on the album is classical-meets-pop track "Listen to Me," which starts out and ends softly with the beautiful Tosca Stringed Quartet (which, according to the press release, has also accompanied David Byrne).
The creative album artwork by Alexandra Velenti features pictures of Johnny as a child, along with his mom, dad, and other family members. I can't help but want to see the guy succeed -- after all, I've known him for a decade now. He even has a pet name for me: "Malice." I hope I live up to it.
Sick of Wasting
It's hard to know at first if Sage Francis wants to be taken seriously on his latest mixtape, Sick of Wasting, with song titles like "Masterbate Your Brain" and "Who Farted_pt 1." Then he comes at you, though, with a purist, traditionalist interpretation of hip-hop, lyric-oriented with battle-rap cleverness and stripped-down beats, that suggests that Sage Francis is anything but a joke.
Sage Francis has been around for awhile now, building himself up from obscurity in the hip-hop underground circuit to earn the distinction of being the first hip-hop artist signed to Epitaph Records before going on to make his own label, Strange Famous Records, official.
The best part of Sick of Wasting, which is his first mixtape in five years, is the production. The beats hark back to the roots of hip-hop, when it was just a sample and a drumbeat, the DJ was an integral part of the song process, often scratching in choice tidbits and quotes that integrated seamlessly into the MC's flow, and the music was a platform for the lyricist to showcase his talent, not an over-amped production designed to conceal the lyricist's deficiencies. While you won't be dropping it like it's hot or doing the stanky leg, you will be consistently bobbing your head throughout.
The opener "Strange Fame," which includes a sample from David Bowie's "Fame," left me lukewarm. Sage Francis' attempts at being humorous and self-effacing are less effective than when he's in battle mode, politically charged and aggressive. I'll admit, though, that I was impressed when he rapped he'd rather give the music away for free than have to clear the samples and then followed through by offering Sick of Wasting
as a free download at http://www.strangefamousrecords.com/store/sage-francis-sick-of-wasting-free-download-p-294.html
. (Sorry, Sage, but I don't think that's going to be enough to indemnify you if David Bowie decides to sue your ass.)
Halfway through the mixtape, at "If I Go to Hell," is when Sage really begins to shine. The songs take on a gritty feel, the production value isn't as lush, and conversely, the lyrics are more biting and poignant. As far as the ending track, "Who Farted_pt 1," I'll let you be the judge of that.
The Snake Charmers
Been Gone Too Long
If music is aural communication with the spiritual, then the blues would be its sacred book of hymns. That's just what the Snake Charmers' sultry release Been Gone Too Long personifies in spades. As lead singer and songwriter Marie Angell seductively sings on Too Long's opening track, it "ain't nothin' but the blues."
The Snake Charmers take great precaution in preserving the blues/rock/soul fundamentals that propel the listener through giddy twelve-bar numbers such as "No Mercy" and "Big Big Love" and slide them gracefully into the alluring "Half A Cup." Unfortunately, their precautions tend to compromise their inventiveness. The blues genre has been reproduced so many times that in order to be viewed as anything other than a standard blues group, musicians must re-invent and, often times, re-create ways of making blues sound fresh again. For the Snake Charmers, this comes in the voice of Marie Angell.
She sings, she seduces, and it's her velvety, baritone, Joni Mitchell-esque warbling that keeps the Snake Charmers from completely sounding like a cheap blues redux. She's at her best on the slower numbers -- like the aforementioned "Ain't Nothiing But the Blues" and "Half a Cup" -- where the band creates space for Angell's voice with jazzy, lingering variations of twelve bars.
The Snake Charmers seem to falter at certain points, particularly when they try to be a cheeky and entertaining blues band. Songs like "Big Big Love," with its Latin-inspired groove, inevitably sound flat, despite the presence of mouth harp legend Dr. Otis Futhermucker. Then there's the whimsical "(I Wanna be a) Hoochie Mama," which probably sounds good in performance but almost eliminates the class with which the rest of the album was composed -- and closing an album with shave and a haircut, two bits doesn't exactly help.
There are times when the band is able to straddle the space between their soulful disposition and their taste for twelve-bar whimsy, to the benefit of the music. "Can't Trust a Heart" shows the Charmers' ability to write and play with a "bigger" sound, displaying an anthemic quality akin to (dare I say it?) Pink Floyd, while the title track does well working with Doors pastiche.
Taken at face value, the Snake Charmers sound like a straightforward, uncompromising blues band. Been Gone Too Long has enough blues guitar and twelve-bar sequences to last a lifetime, but at certain, seemingly insignificant, moments, it sounds like the Charmers are striving for something more. Most of the album, though, revels in convention. It's not so much a knock to their ability to create but more of a testament to their restraint -- which is great. So great that it works to their disadvantage.
[The Snake Charmers are playing 10/10/09 at Clifton's Seaside Diner's 2nd Annual Fall Music Festival in Bacliff, along with a bunch of other bands.]
The Sorely Trying Days
Too "indie" to be punk... Really, I can't understand this mentality; it's the fun, happy "go out and party!" attitude and approach to making music, and I just don't understand. Sure, some of the songs on Survival Mode are okay (at best), but that isn't it, because it's like if you label yourself a certain way, you'd better be able to follow it up. These guys need to sit down and take notes from other sucessful hardcore bands; they need to learn their history and study it well. Come on, really -- do I really need to spell it out for you? Do I really need to tell you that you're wrong? These guys suck; it's the truth. Dont buy this record unless you like recycling...early.
Springfield Riots' debut EP, Say When, is a bit of an odd duck of an album, in that it rides a line between sweet, Pet Sounds-esque melodies and murky, downcast melancholy; you'll get a track like opener "Hope and Envy," which is sweet and languid, with an awesomely shy romanticism to it, and you'll be bobbing your head along and singing with the repeated verses until about halfway through the song, when it hits you how damn sad the whole thing is. Vocalist/guitarist Pedro sings that one day he and the object of his crush will be together and happy, but there's an undercurrent of depressed resignation beneath the words, like he doesn't truly believe that that's what'll eventually happen.
Really, that happy/sad dichotomy defines most of Say When -- it mashes together beautiful, masterfully-crafted melodies and warm, scruffy, occasionally retro-Floydian guitars with sometimes-elegaic keys and Pedro's echoey, across-the-room vocals for music that's both bright and uncertain, hopeful but afraid, and romantic as hell throughout. The vocals, in particular, give Say When a strange watery feel, kind of a bubbling, distant vibe, like you're moving through a warm, gently bobbing ocean and listening to the sound come out of the water. The combination of sounds works wonderfully on most of the album tracks, and even on the ones where things stumble a bit (see the verse of "Mixtape Melody," which gets a bit clumsy; when the chorus slams in, though, I forget all about it), it's never catastrophic. These guys definitely know their way around a pop song.
I will admit, though, that one of my two favorite tracks here, "Hollow Romance," sounds nothing like any of the rest of what I've heard by these guys. It staggers and lurches beneath an overarching canopy of somber organ and ethereal "woo-oo" backing vocals, like a weepy drunk crashing the doors of a church to pass out on the hard, cold stone floor in front of the altar. The track's weirdly psych-gospel, more reminiscent of something on a Paris Falls album than what you'd expect to find here, but holy fuck is it good. Pedro sounds perfectly tortured and bitter (yet still resigned to his fate), the rhythm section stutter-stomps along, simultaneously loose and woozy and tight and driving, and the guitars are fuzzed-out and low-key, only stepping to the forefront when absolutely necessary.
Just when I'm starting to feel uncertain of my initial impression of Springfield Riots, of course, they swing back towards the poppier, janglier side of things with the sweet, swooning "Last Night," and close out with my other favorite track, "Party Violence," which cribs part of the melody from "Hope and Envy" and grafts it to a xylophone-accented melody and nicely shoegazer-y feel. The drums take center stage briefly here, propelling the song forward in the choruses, while Pedro's Britpop-ish vocals soar above, the keys dance off to the sides, and the guitars both roar and surge distantly and jangle up-close 'til it all crumbles to a close.
[Springfield Riots is playing 10/30/09 at The Mink, along with Ringo Deathstarr & The Factory Party.]
In a way, I should've seen it coming. I mean, looking backwards now, with the dubious benefit of hindsight, it's like the Teenage Kicks guys wrote it all out in the songs, telegraphing their own demise. And with Uptight, they've assembled it all together in one place, effectively writing their own elegy with what fans like me had hoped would be only one full-length of many.
I'd heard about half of these songs before now, both on the band's unreleased(?) Aesthetic vs Substance EP and (in the case of "I <3 Lora Logic," which shows up here as a front-end for new track "Everything You Said") the band's excellent self-titled debut EP, but 'til now I hadn't really grasped the bitter, resigned, fuck-the-world nature of a lot of the tracks. The warm, ragged-edged sound and smart melodies mask a hell of a lot of bleak, misanthropic venom, and it's kind of surprising to make that discovery at this point, with the band already imploded and buried.
I mean, what am I supposed to think about a track like "I <3 Lora Logic/Everything You Said," which grafts about half of one of the band's earliest songs to what's probably one of the best, most polished, best-executed songs Teenage Kicks ever pulled off...but which is all about the death of a deep, forged-in-youth friendship, once hopeful and solid but now meaningless? Or followup track "I Wanna Be Your Enemy," which flat-out declares, "I know I'm not bound for glory / Ten years in this dead-end story," putting the lie to the forward-facing roar of another of the band's oldest songs? Or new-ish track "All the Kids," where singer Kirke Campbell shakes his head and sneers, "I don't know you any more"?
Even the less personal, more political stuff feels raw and unfocused, like "No More Good Intentions," which seems to be a prod at folks who continually mean to work at making things better but never seem to get around to it, or "I'm Not Surprised," a snarling, bitter rant that's excellent but vague, with a bloody finger pointing straight back at the listener for...what, exactly? Not only is the band resigned about the friendships and scenes that surround 'em, but they're disillusioned with the state of the world in general.
Sadly, some of the best things on here are the newest, like the aptly-named closer "Our Last Song," a fist-pumping, clear-voiced track that owes as much to Cock Sparrer as The Clash and seems to point away from the band's earlier, more punk influences and towards a sleeker, more balanced brand of straight-ahead, punk-inflected rock. Same goes for "I <3 Lora Logic/Everything You Said," which finishes things with a solid, head-snapping Northern Soul backbeat (and does it beautifully, I have to say). Listen to the stuttering "Genocide" and either of the two later songs side by side, and you could be forgiven for thinking this was a totally different band.
Not that things totally changed near the end of the band's life, mind you. The Teenage Kicks boys still hold tight to their late-'70s Brit-punk sound, sucking in The Clash and Stiff Little Fingers to The Boys and The Jam and making something wholly their own out of it. Best of all, they play it like they just stepped out on the London streets, side by side with Joe Strummer, ready to fight the cops and bleed vinyl.
Even in the midst of "Our Last Song," though, it's clear the writing's on the wall. When singer Kirke Campbell declares, "Stomp and shout, hoping for a reaction / Look out to the crowd, but I feel no connection," the band doesn't seem long for the world. It's a bit ironic, of course, to hear Campbell warn in the same song that "I don't wanna be / another Houston story / No, I / No, I don't," when that ship's definitely already sailed (sorry, guys...).
Uptight is the sound of a band crashing to pieces, burned out and possibly even hating one another (although the guys in the band have been close-lipped about how things ended), and for that, it's utterly compelling. Now that the smoke's cleared, what we're left with is some truly great songs and a brief glimpse of what might've been. Damn.
To The Waves
To The Waves
This band has potential; trust me, a lot of potential. This record could signal a decision point, because they have two sounds going: a punk approach like that of At The Drive In, and a post-hardcore, early Drop Dead Gorgeous kind of vibe. You get both with this debut album, but when they mix, it sounds different -- if they want to be a serious band, they need to find their own sound and stick with it.
I feel that this record is a cool one primarily for those who are already fans. I guess it won't make or break any others -- actually, I have no idea why they got signed, because to be honest, the lyrics aren't that good, the 20-something singer sings two pitches above his natural range, and the sound is way overdrawn from too many places. Even their own local "4 star reviews" say that "something sounds familiar," meaning that it's a cool idea to mix the current sound of screaming pop over chessy vocals with the fairly recent punk sounds of the '90s, but it feels like an experiment, almost an exploit, not really worth your attention. Please listen for yourself, though...off the Myspace.
New Life Behind Closed Doors
When you name your band "Unholy," you have something to live up to. People are going to expect the most demonic, violent, wretched, and evil sound ever. Or, at least, a really good metal band. This quintet from Syracuse, though, is sadly neither. They play is now referred to as "groove metal." I do realize that we really do not need another metal sub-genre, but too late. What this style consists of is the heavy groove riffing of Pantera combined with the shouty vocals and no guitar solos of metalcore.
New Life Behind Closed Doors has the lyrical theme of the last days of humanity. While the band may've written some of the most brilliant lyrics ever, one would never know, because Billy Price's barking delivery makes even the most diehard metal fan strain to understand what he's singing. And this is coming from someone who can decipher Cannibal Corpse.
Add in the "at first enjoyable but soon tiring" riffs, and this album becomes one long song. Most tracks have a mid-tempo pace to them with sporadic tempo changes, but after track three, it sounds formulaic. It's a shame that some of the nice riffs get squandered because they're driven into the ground -- since Unholy doesn't have guitar solos, the riff becomes the spotlight and soon wilts beneath it.
In this day and age, bands that sound like this are a dime a dozen, and plunking down $10-$15 for this album would surely signal the end of mankind. Okay, probably not, but you may feel like it afterwards.
[Unholy is playing 10/20/09 at The Meridian, along with Evergreen Terrace, For The Fallen Dreams, Asking Alexandria, & Acora.]
The Whore Moans
Hello From the Radio Wasteland
The Whore Moans' Hello From the Radio Wasteland is an energetic little piece of music from Seattle that sounds ready to take on the world. It consists of passionate singing that leads to screaming by the end of the line, lots of backup vocals to carry on the intensity, and that fast-moving bass that is so common in punk music. It doesn't feel too familiar or clichéd, though, because they bring many original aspects to the table, mainly out of the pure unpredictability of each individual song. The vocals slide up and down in a warbling fashion, and the songs fade out rather than conclude on a set note.
The music itself doesn't follow the sexual imagery of the band name, possibly because the band took the name from the Sonic Youth EP Whores Moaning to pay homage to them. The Whore Moans' songs in general are pretty versatile; they go in different directions, not necessarily heading down the typical path of a garage-punk song. There are some more subdued, mellow songs, and then of course many faster, louder, guitar-driven songs. Percussion plays a large role, since they rely on clapping alongside their drums more than once.
"Fingers and Martyrs" ranks as one of my favorites, with its repeated, desperate plea: "Save yourself if all else fails tonight / Save yourself or at least put up a fight." "White Noise Melody," however, starts with the singer's voice wavering in a soft-spoken way, reminiscent of Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes, and picks up to epic proportions only to be reduced back down to handclaps and chanting. "Rise and Shine" truly surprised me when it suddenly breaks off into a piece of "Be My Little Baby," and "Dead Man's Drink" is an ode to pirates, proving that they obviously planned on making this CD as unusual as possible.
This album is great for rocking out or waking up in the morning. At times it sounds like Rancid minus the psychobilly/ska feel, probably because of the Lars-esque vocals and style. I want to say that this could be found on the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack -- think The Wylde Ratz. In fact, I would definitely suggest this for fans of Iggy and the Stooges and Against Me! This music is meant to be cranked up to extreme levels. I had it so loud I didn't even hear my phone ringing.
From August 14-16, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston screened a beautifully restored 35mm print of Z in the Brown Auditorium to sell-out crowds as part of their ongoing Revival Series. Constantin Costa-Gavras' 40-year-old procedural about an investigating judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who exposes the cover-up of a pacifist leader's (Yves Montand) murder is touring in advance of a Criterion Collection DVD release this fall (October 27).
Upon its initial release in 1969, the film's blunt indictment of the Greek junta caused a reaction almost unimaginable in today's over stimulated media environment. Coming only six years after the murder of Gregorios Lambrakis, it's difficult to believe that a message movie with such a clear point of view could ever have been financed and distributed by a studio, and it probably couldn't be done in the U.S. today at all. It's just that inflammatory. It is so unsubtle as to leave audiences fearful for its maker, and yet Costa-Gavras is deft enough to retain a warmth and humor rarely, if ever, achieved in today's action genre. The title Z means "He Lives" in Greek, and became a rallying cry for a generation of anti-fascist activists.
Running Time 127 minutes; Rated PG. French with English subtitles. Starring Yves Montand as The Deputy, Irene Papas as Helene, the Deputy's wife, Jean-Louis Trintignant as The Examining Magistrate, Jacques Perrin as The Photojournalist, Charles Denner as Manuel, Francois Perier as Public Prosecutor, Pierre Dux as The General, Georges Geret as Nick, Julien Guiomar as The Colonel, Marcel Bozzuffi as Vago, and Renato Salvatori as Yago. Directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras. Produced by Jacques Perrin and Hamed Rachedi. Screenplay by Costa-Gavras and Jorge Semprun, based on the novel Z by Vassilis Vassilikos. Music by Mikis Theodorakis. Cinematography by Raoul Coutard.