Waiting for the Sun
Anthill has been growing on me. One of the difficulties with reviewing a bunch of stuff at the same time is that it's easy to get hooked on the album that creates the biggest splash or makes the strongest first impression. This framing effect is even stronger when the other albums are less accessible, more complex, take longer to grow on you, or just suck. Waiting for the Sun doesn't suck (not even close), but it is a slow grower. It took me a good ten or so listens before I really started to get it. After about the fifth listen, I was enjoying the hooks, and by the tenth, I had included it on my daily listening playlist.
Anthill is fun alt-country with the hint of a harder edge, as much John Mellencamp as it is Oasis or Travis. Singer-songwriter Mark Oshachoff clearly has dug into the vein of Wilco but is not as depressing or lacking in lyrical content. Musically, you could stand Adam Duritz in front of the band and one might never realize that it wasn't the Counting Crows. That isn't a negative, by the way, just an observation. I also hear Toad the Wet Sprocket and a bit of Matthew Sweet. "Sleepers" is the weakest song on the album, turning on the lame phrase "dreaming is only for the sleepers," and reads like a teenager's first trip to a hotel hook-up with his girlfriend. It does recover with a nice vocal counterpoint at the end, however. "Symbotic Sun" has an REM "The One I Love" vibe, probably the most obvious nick on the album. Overall, a good EP from a band that shows a ton of promise as they mature.
Aspen It Is
Release Me! From the Weights of Gravity
Just like the infamous line from Dumb and Dumber, Aspen It Is reminds me of my adolescent days spent shooting Nerf guns and dueling it out on Nintendo-64. Their album Release Me! From the Weights of Gravity deals with complex everyday issues of my childhood -- mostly involving G.I. Joes, Nintendo, and Fraggle Rock.
Aspen It Is has that Saves the Day pubescent angst that has popularized emo music. The warm, homey vibe and the adolescent enthusiasm the band displays, however, add a certain appeal, an endearing quality that you don't normally see in emo music. I'm tired of seeing Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carraba cry on TV. I want to see a band enjoying themselves and putting out music that does more than make you feel sorry for them. I mean, if I wanted to see a baby cry, I'd go to a nursery, right?
I liked the album's transition from clean studio songs to a hidden track of rough recordings of a sing-along they made with their fans and friends. You can hear the band and their friends laughing, joking, and filling in choruses for the singer. The album is moody, introspective, energetic, playful, and bouncy all at once.
Aspen It Is brings back the old days -- the days before you knew what self-loathing and sadomasochism were, the days when you could just fly kites and play Goldeneye and not worry. Release Me is an album that will appeal to the adolescent in all of us.
Bright and Certain
Judging by the song "Perpetual Leather," Blued is comprised of a bunch of cheeky buggers, but you know what? It's cool. That song is all about making it big and being able to say, "Yeah baby, that's right, that's right it's for real." It's fun, and if you're a dork like me, it's one that you could easily sing along to in your car or the shower, whatever your preference.
If I had to try and categorize this band -- which, by the simple fact that I am writing a review about them, I kinda do -- I'd say they're Irreverent Hipsters. There seems to be an ease and a comfort to Bright and Certain, one that makes you feel as if they aren't taking themselves too seriously and are doing this for the joy of the music they are creating. The songwriting is honest and real and allows for a really strong connection -- you can put yourself in that place, in that time. You can understand and empathize or laugh or cry. "Exodus for Girls," for example: " I could only pass you by / Never said two words to you but I played them in my mind / Response, then rewind." Who hasn't been there? Painful and eloquent.
Overall, there's that certain quality that screams "cool indie flick soundtrack," which in large part can be attributed to the sound of James Escamilla's vocals but also, I think, to the rawness of the instrumentals. I get a White Stripes vibe from some of the tracks, which I quite like. I don't feel they are trying to be Britpop, like most bands seem to be doing nowadays; what they're doing just works, and that's good enough for me.
Cheer-Accident is a long-running Chicago band that's known for complicated, intense music which embraces a wide range of abrasive sounds. What Sequel?, however, is not like most of their records, in that it's made up of relatively ordinary pop songs. These songs do have the occasional odd detail, but nothing like what they normally do. Thymme Jones sings somewhat operatically in his usual falsetto, reminiscent of Freddie Mercury's, but on What Sequel?, Cheer-Accident shows off other influences which aren't usually nearly as obvious.
"You Know, You Know" has an orchestral sound, with lots of horns, keyboards, and other instruments; the whole thing sounds like the Flaming Lips playing a Billy Joel cover (fortunately, it's better than that sounds). "Simple Life" is their big, catchy '80s-style dance song, complete with hyper-echo on the vocals, lots of spacy effects, and the delayed, multitracked outro inspired by the synthesizers in "Baba O'Reilly." There are also a few Zappa-esque moments throughout the album, as well (melodic touches, not lyrical touches (which is OK with this reviewer)). "Crisis Management" features a piano line that borrows heavily from Frank Zappa's "Dog Breath Variations," and in "Keep In Touch," the chorus melody sounds like something from a Zappa record.
One of the big problems with the record is the singing. Thymme Jones' falsetto isn't incredibly expressive, and since he sings exclusively in falsetto throughout the record, a lot of the songs start to sound the same. On Cheer-Accident's "normal" records, the vocals are just a part of the sound, but on a pop record like this, the voice is the focus, and that's where the problem is. He also occasionally overdoes his vocals, such as on "Keep In Touch," where some of the parts sound showy rather than interesting. Again, on a normal Cheer-Accident record, they might serve a real purpose, but here the songs are too normal to need vocal acrobatics.
It's certainly an interesting record, and undoubtedly, fans of Cheer-Accident will enjoy the album. It does have some good songs -- "A Simple Life" is fun and catchy (and one song where the falsetto works), and "Keep in Touch" is a heartfelt (and surreal) letter to long-lost friends. "You Know, You Know" is a majestic, anthemic rock song (and where the falsetto also works). All together, though, they start to sound alike. If they had been released as singles, they might be interesting, but together they weigh each other down.
About the band's new album, Phantasmagore, Deadsy frontman Elijah Blue says, "We just wanted to make a rock record in the spirit of [Lou Reed's] Transformer." Sorry Mr. Blue -- not even close.
Instead, Deadsy do another doomy, gothy, pop/metal-like number. Similar in forms to '80s pop freaks like Gary Numan and '90s creepos such as Marilyn Manson or the au courant, My Chemical Romance. There's definitely a softer side of the influences here, though, a gentleness, but it's only a hint -- and it's barely discernable. Deadsy are scary, they're mad as hell -- not all the time, of course -- but remember...they're still mad as hell!
The singer groans (and moans, to boot). The guitars are saturated with distortion so that they really don't sound like guitars anymore but more like alien cousins, a synthesized dilution. The drums, however, are nice and punchy, and the keyboards and synths figure heavily in the picture. The songs have such a pleasant flow to them that you don't notice one from the next.
Acoustic guitars? This shocker catches me off-guard and can only signal the gathering dark clouds of a huge chorus onslaught. And so it comes to pass. Back to the sentimental acoustic sweetness and then finish off with some more true anger -- grrrr!
I waited for the cover of "Paint it Black" with plenty of hesitation and hope, and while Deadsy certainly updates it and "make it their own," its delivery and execution is still predictable. "Paint It Black" is kinda dark to begin with, isn't it? Not unfamiliar territory for these gents, I'm sure.
Deadsy are dead-efficient. Each song is perfectly orchestrated and executed and EQ'd in a laboratory (with state of the art equipment, of course) for your listening pleasure. But what's the solution to such an equation?
It's all dark with no light to complement. It's all too perfect, with no "realness" to make it real. It's all too staged with no wink-and-nudge to really draw you in. It's all posing and posturing with only makeup and not much substance. Yet, if that's your poison, then Deadsy's Phantasmagore is a perfect poison indeed.
Night Trrors. Shock!
Allow me to name a new genre: obstacle-core. In obstacle-core, every band member comes up with a complicated part, and then they all play them at the same time. The parts interlock, maybe, sort of, but don't really have any particular musicality. Doesn't matter -- they just get repeated until the next part of the song. You've probably seen obstacle-core bands before; I know I've seen plenty. They can be fun to watch, because the players are generally having fun, and because of the complexity, there's usually a bit of energy, too. But somehow, when you take the records home, they never seem to have quite the same appeal.
Dmonstrations are definitely immersed in the obstacle-core style. To be fair, on Night Trrors. Shock! they do push their limitations every now and then, trying to give some atmosphere with broody horror-show screeching vocals, and some of their more abstract moments recall U.S. Maple, which isn't a bad thing. And as with all obstacle-core bands, you can never fault them for not trying hard enough. But at the end of the record, all I can say is: "Well, that happened." Live, I bet they kill, and if you haven't heard as much of this stuff, it just might blow your mind. But this old bastard has heard enough.
The East Village Opera Company
The East Village Opera Company
Over the years, musicians have collaborated to bring their listeners fresh new sounds with an edge. The first time I ever remember such a commingling of musical genres was back in the '80s, when Run DMC and Aerosmith brought us their rapping/rocked-out version of "Walk This Way"...and it was actually pretty darn good. Many bands would attempt to follow this ingenious union and many, many of them would fail (Limp Bizkit and Method Man immediately come to mind).
It's not easy to bring diverse sounds together and create something that people actually want to listen to, but The East Village Opera Company has managed release an album that fuses together rock, pop, and -- wait for it -- opera in a really fun and musically superior way.
Let's face it, opera can be really boring. I recognize opera's musical integrity and all the lyrical beauty it possesses, but come on, it can (and has) put a person to sleep. That is why I have so much respect for the East Village Opera Company's well-executed vision. Lead singer Tyley Ross and arranger/multi-instrumentalist Peter Kiesewalter have a real love for opera and have found a really cool way to bring it to the masses: they combine it with a rock/pop/new age sounds and do it all with soul.
(The East Village Opera Company will be performing at Warehouse Live on Saturday, Nov. 18 at 7PM and 9:30PM, courtesy of the Society for the Performing Arts.)
Within seconds of hitting the Play button, Elevator Action has the hook: thick guitars and good melodies with grit and crunch. "Surely You Know," the lead-off on the band's new album, Society, Secret, has a quivering vocal which is quite Bowie-esque, yet more angular and rough which dangle nicely from the rough-and-ready riffage. When you think that you've got the band's angle, though, they change to another clever direction. I follow unopposed.
The second cut, "Nuvo" sounds like the singer has changed his approach. Is it the same singer? I dunno, but I'm liking it; the Bowie is exchanged for a more angled, Joan Jett-style throaty yelp. Not to worry, because the guitars, the hooks, and the keep-'em-guessing approach is all still firmly in place.
Further along, the feel starts to veer into a more angular, punk template. There's not a discernable treasure map here that dulls out (a la Jet, for instance). The playbook and styles are dabbled in, studied, and pulled off with finesse. There're still the flavors of Bowie and Joan Jett, but it's becoming more complex -- I also hear Luke Steele, Ray Davies, even some Todd Rundgren.
The production is solid, the riffs are solid, and, most importantly, the songs are solid. There are harmonies, there are fantastic solos, great instrumentation, subtle touches and tones, flavors and nuances. I don't love every song, I don't even like every song, but every song will find its listeners. Each of these songs has its own glories and triumphs. This is an enjoyment for dedicated rock n' rollers and casual spectators alike. Listening makes you want to see this band, have a drink with them, and be their friends.
Griddle has the potential to completely rock out, as the band demonstrates on the first track of Klimty Favela, "City Made of Teeth." Starting out with a dark, indie-rock sound, the song quickly erupts with ridiculous falsetto vocals and theatrical, arena-rock riffs. Unfortunately, Griddle isn't interested in rocking out but rather in exploring the depths of improv-psychedelic jams.
Klimty Favela was created by the members of Griddle recording hours of themselves jamming, poring over tapes, and selecting the best segments. The selections then had additional instruments and vocals layered over them; creating 12 songs on the album. It's a novel way to go about recording a record, but as can be expected with such experimentation, the success of the songs vary wildly. Decidedly bad are songs like "Jobsite," which is little more than a staticky cellphone conversation spliced over a distant guitar. The majority of the tracks falls into the range of decent to somewhat enjoyable, but the album lacks the coherence of music that someone thought out and composed. The "jam band" element is always in the background to some extent -- the only song that really manages to break free and truly catch your attention is the aforementioned "City Made of Teeth".
Unless you're a diehard fan of odd, improvisational psych-rock, you won't dig Klimty Favela. Griddle attempted to record the album in an inventive and original way, but in the end it's an experiment that failed. It's unfortunate, too, because Griddle definitely has potential. Hopefully on their next album they'll focus more on the rock side of the music and a little less on the improvisational aspect.
On Invasive Exotics, the first full-length effort from the Indian Jewelry incarnation of Tex Kerschen, Erika Thrasher, and Rodney Rodriguez's musical experimentation (they also pop up under Swarm of Angels, NTX + Erika Thrasher, and a dozen or so other names), the overall gist of the album is established pretty much within the first few seconds of the opening track. "Lesser Snake" starts with uncertain, quiet guitar, but then the stomping drums and jagged noise-rock distortion comes in, with the David Bowie-on-acid vocals drifting out over the top, and things get strange and scary real quick. To top things off, the synth-y bassline burbling along beneath it all is off-tempo just the right amount, enough to make the listener feel a little bit off-balance.
Which, when you get right down to it, is what Invasive Exotics is all about. This isn't an album that's pleasant to listen to, by any means. But hell, since when is "pleasant" the only way music can be to sound good? Over the past few years, the murky folk behind Indian Jewelry -- the three mentioned above are generally the core "band," but other members flow in and out like water -- have honed their practice of crafting uncomfortable, strange, darkly psychedelic music to a fine art.
The album's spooky as hell throughout, with gloomily atmospheric electronics, fucked-up-sounding guitars, drums that sound like they were recorded back in the '60s in somebody's basement, and processed, ghostly vocals. The end effect is occasionally reminiscent of Underworld, weirdly enough (particularly Kerschen's distant, intensely obscure vocals; see "Dirty Hands" or "Health And Wellbeing"), albeit an Underworld that's darker and much more claustrophobic than the electronic pioneers generally tend to be. When Thrasher sings, things shift a bit, with her gentle, atmospheric-yet-robotic voice evoking the Velvet Underground and Nico gone horribly, horribly awry (see "Come Closer" or "Lying On The Floor").
Of course, like I hinted at above, this also isn't an easy disc to get into. For yours truly, it's up there with the Paper Chase's God Bless Your Black Heart in terms of Uneasy Listening Albums, in that when the disc stops spinning I have a slightly queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and can hear my own breathing like I'm underwater or something.
By the time the unprepared listener gets midway through the 10:13-long opus "Going South," they're bound to have a killer headache and feel pretty off-kilter besides. I leave it to you to decide whether or not that's a good thing.
(Indian Jewelry will be performing at Walter's on Washington on Thursday, Nov. 30, along with The Kimonos, A Pink Cloud, and Inoculist.)
If Thine Enemy Hunger
Since the invention of recorded music, engineers have struggled with the challenge of hearing the sound of a band playing in a room and replicating it using only small paper cones. No artist exemplifies this challenge better than Athens duo Jucifer. With a wall of amplifiers ten feet high and twenty feet across, guitarist Amber Valentine produces so much sound that audience members can feel their clothing vibrate. It's an experience that is extra-musical, almost extra-sonic, and obviously impossible to duplicate at home, unless your boombox is the size of a barn. And so, on CD, Jucifer has to rely on something besides punishing volume to make their point.
On If Thine Enemy Hunger, it turns out that their reliance is on Valentine's voice, an unexpected but not unwelcome decision from an act whose vocals are often inaudible live. And if that decision distinguishes Jucifer records from Jucifer concerts, it does the same from records by other bands: Hunger borrows heavily -- pun intended -- from the bluesy mid-tempo metal of the Melvins, but with good singing in place of the Melvins' effortless badassness.
The middle section of the record displays this well. As drummer Edgar Livengood shows off his Stewart Copeland impression on "Hennin Hardine," Valentine purrs and warbles fetchingly. "Antietam," meanwhile, finds Jucifer playing stripped-down Sonic Youth, but where Kim Gordon's voice breaks into a roar or snarl, Valentine's becomes a terrified wail, almost like an adolescent girl, which is all the more disturbing for its vulnerability. Most unexpected, though, is the stomping rock of "Lucky Ones Burn" and "Pontius of Palia," on which Valentine's crisp self-harmonization recalls the mid-'90s alternarock of Elastica or Veruca Salt, albeit rawer and heavier. In an odd coincidence, as Elastica was rightly accused of stealing a riff from Wire's "Three Girl Rhumba" for their hit "Connection," Hunger's thirteenth track, "In a Family Way," shares its opening chords with "Low" by fellow Athenians R.E.M., who counted among their chief influences: Wire.
After being subjected to wave after wave of pseudo new wave/indie rock/'80s inspired (Note: As I am sure half of said bands were barely born in the '80s, I feel compelled to inform you that this reference to the '80s sound is merely a reference point and in no way implies that I believe these bands sound anything like good music) pop bands, I could not be more ecstatic to inform those of you who didn't already know that The motherf-ing Lemonheads are back on the scene!
Their first release in over a decade, The Lemonheads proves that Evan Dando still has what it takes to make a pretty darn good record. To anyone who has followed Dando's career for the last 20 years, you know that he's been all over the musical map. I have to say, it's really good to see him coming home to his Lemonheads roots and stirring things up a wee bit.
There should be rules drafted up on how to approach listening to a newly released album of a band you grew up listening to and haven't heard from in a really long time. Do you listen to it hoping you'll hear exactly what you used to love about the band? Do you listen to the album and wish for a new and well-executed vision? One of the worst feelings a music lover can have is the one s/he experiences after popping in a new album from a beloved band and having that album suck pure arse.
With all that in mind, I was excited but apprehensive about taking a listen to The Lemonheads. You see, I have a lot of love for the band and a great deal of respect for Dando as a musician. I wanted to fall head over heels for the album. Actually, I just really wanted to be vindicated for saying that The Lemonheads has always been and will continue to be a really great band. Praise something holy-like for Dando & Co. making me not have to eat crow!
There isn't anything terribly unique or altogether stylistically new for Dando or the Lemonheads sound, but The Lemonheads is a spot-on throwback to the old days. Dando's random, rhyming (at times) lyrics and dreamy voice takes me back to the days of Reality Bites and flannel shirts. The addition of Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson and bassist Karl Alvarez gives The Lemonheads that pop-rock edginess that makes songs like "No Backbone" and "Let's Just Laugh" so good.
The trio's collaboration really works. The music complements Dando's seasoned voice and style remarkably well. One of the things that made the old Lemonheads records so awesome was how silly and strange the lyrics were -- yet how they somehow managed to make a statement every now and then ("Big Gay Heart" off of Come On Feel The Lemonheads comes to mind). The Lemonheads definitely stayed true to that concept and this time around even showed a little insight. "December" is my personal favorite song on the album. The music is fast-paced (you can really hear Stevenson rocking out) towards the beginning and then just sort of decrescendos in the middle and chills while the band jams out and lets you soak in the sounds.
Overall, The Lemonheads couldn't be a better reintroduction to the band. The album proves The Lemonheads' timelessness, as well as Dando's ability to continue making terrific music with pretty much anyone who's willing to play along.
Les Georges Leningrad
Post-punk, aka electro-punk, aka avant-garde rock. Who the hell is Les Georges Leningrad (not to be confused with the notorious gypsy punk band from Russia, Leningrad), and what the hell are they doing to my headphones? Self-proclaimed "petrochemical rockers," Les Georges Leningrad are a trio of bohemian all-stars from Montreal who, on their latest album, Sangue Puro, have adopted a largely unexplored genre of electronica that sounds like it was conceived as the bastard child of Blondie and Fugazi at a Bad Boy Bill concert.
With a radical percussion attack, the group throws down hardcore beats on almost every track on Sangue Puro and matches them with psycho feedback, chain-saw guitars, and fax machine/Matrix-y sounds, to boot. Meanwhile, lead singer Poney P. growls and shrieks over the loud, gritty chaos composed by the other two members, Bobo Boutin and Mingo L'Idien. Between progressive post-punk songs of filth and fury, however, Sangue Puro offers sophisticated experiments in world beat rhythms. Songs like the African-oriented "Eli Eli Lamma Sabachtani" and the old-school, punky hip-hop groove of "Sleek Answer" provide interesting forays into roots music, giving listeners a view of where the band is going based upon its influences.
Despite lyrics unintelligible and music that's as frantic as it is weird, this album really does hit the mark as far as what makes interesting music interesting. Sangue Puro provides a unique energy without losing its frame of reference, giving it an especially fresh sound. I like the album because, much like the modern world, despite the violence, despite the eccentricities, through it all blindly, it almost actually makes sense in the end.
Parts & Labor
At first listen, I didn't care much for Brooklynites Parts & Labor's latest album, Stay Afraid. It kicks off with a heavy dose of skronking feedback and noodly guitars and, well, pretty much keeps right on going that way. Then there's the reference to "the bluster of the Boredoms" in the press materials; thanks, but no thanks. Going by initial impressions alone, Parts & Labor looked to be a deadly serious bunch of bearded guys (to make matters more worrisome, drummer Christopher Weingarten writes the "Skzzz!" noise music column for CMJ) playing utterly meaningless, barely listenable no-wave.
And that first impression's not entirely off the mark. Stay Afraid is at its core a noise-rock album, to be sure, and it's got enough screeching guitars and snarling electronics (it took me five tracks to realize that there's a keyboard in there somewhere -- it's a fucked-up, overdriven, Magnetic Fields-gone-insane keyboard, but still, it's there) to deliver a king-sized motherfucker of a headache if you're not ready for it.
But then there're the hooks. Unlike noise purveyors like The Locust or Wolf Eyes, here the pummeling, punishing, unrelenting drums, distorted vocals, and barely-controlled guitars mask a subversive sense of melody and dynamics lurking just beneath the surface. Tracks like "Timeline," "New Buildings," or "Drastic Measures" owe as much to the fiery punk anthems of Hüsker Dü as they do folks like Melt Banana or Black Dice. Think the live version of "New Day Rising" off of The Living End, and you'll get the picture -- ferocious, dangerous, and pounding.
And against all odds, the songs work -- "A Great Divide" and "A Pleasant Stay," in particular, are heady blasts of rampaging indie-noise-rock glory, mashing up crazed guitars, raygun sounds, and defiantly shouted/sung lyrics about alienation and disenfranchisement. And the songs (which recognizably are songs, and even stick to a decent length) are majestic, roaring and blasting along fearlessly like music crafted by lions. It's crazy, but it definitely works. And then somehow, I find myself smiling like an idiot. Go figure.
(Parts & Labor will be performing at The Proletariat on Saturday, Dec. 2, along with Ume and The Skullening.)
I recently watched Martin Scorsese's fascinating, very nearly illuminating Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, and between the clips of British fans denouncing him, the chaotic and mythical Newport Folk Festival performance, and the withering disdain Dylan seemed to have for the press that attempted to turn him into the story they wanted to tell (rather than reporting the story as it actually was), I found myself wondering whether it would even be possible for a modern musician to provoke the same degree of anger, the same sense of betrayal. (I'm talking through nothing but music; the Dixie Chicks' supposed transgressions were entirely behind the scenes.) We're pretty open-minded these days, and if Jay-Z wanted to make a country CD or Dashboard Confessional released a collection of booty-shaking jams, it might provoke apathy or mockery, but it would hardly be cause for generational alarm. Selling out still certainly happens and is disheartening (as I write this, I hang my head in embarrassment for Nelly Furtado), but it's generally viewed as personal weakness rather than an act of aggression.
But then I remembered: Liz Phair. The howls of disdain for her homonymous last album were so assaultive and widespread that I confess to being somewhat surprised when, on seeing her live in support of the thing, nobody replicated the legendary moment (captured in No Direction Home and on Dylan's Live 1966) when, between songs, a bitter British Dylan fan screamed out, "Judas!" Maybe it surprised Phair, too; she followed up the sexually explicit "Flower," one of the songs that established her persona and approach, with the glossy and Billboard-targeted "Extraordinary," which had been held up as emblematic of her traitorousness to a scene that, if anyone had bothered paying attention, she already spent her entire first album subtly taking swipes at. That sequence was a deliberate decision, one designed to force her audience into making a choice, and it was, in its way, as much of a middle finger to her detractors as was Dylan telling the Band to "play fucking loud" right before tearing into damn near the most caustic version of "Like A Rolling Stone" imaginable.
Picking up right where Liz Phair left off, with "Leap Of Innocence" continuing the rootsy, organ-laden pop of "Good Love Never Dies," Somebody's Miracle finds Phair in a less combative mood. It's quite possibly the most unabashedly joyous album of her career. If Liz Phair was a fine album wrapped in a package that most of her fans wouldn't even open, it was still moderately disjointed and maybe even a little tentative, as though Phair knew that she was walking into a snake pit as she was recording it. Not so for Miracle, which takes the frisky ebullience that she applied to her sex life in "Supernova" and sets it loose on a wider experiential map. "Everything (Between Us)" ends up both soothing and soaring as a result, while the effortlessly ecstatic "Stars And Planets" owes a debt to the psychological uplift of "Instant Karma." "Lazy Dreamer," meanwhile, skitters across the sand so quickly and so smoothly that while you know logically that it's just the waves of heat radiating from the surface, you could still swear that you can't see the thing actually touching the ground.
The other great revelation of Miracle is in just how accomplished a record-maker Phair has become. Where her early work was distinguished by an offhand approach that seemed to prefer a distinct lack of fuss, Miracle builds on the more involved productions of Liz Phair to showcase a performer unafraid of actually using the versatility that a studio provides. It comes through in elements like the string section that sweetens the choruses of "Everything To Me" and "Everything (Between Us)" without smothering them, but it's most invaluable in the songs that rely on nothing more than a straightforward band. There's a nice balance between organic and professional all over the record, with a feel like underground Memphis or Nashville (especially pronounced on "Leap Of Innocence," "Lost Tonight," and the title track), where there are subtle country inflections but with more edge.
With increasing mastery over the studio and a palpably upbeat approach, Phair has produced what sure sounds like her most intimate album to date. And not intimate in the sense of getting a glimpse of her most private moments, either, but intimate in the sense of her private moments being our private moments as well. It comes through ironically enough in "Table For One," an otherwise closed-off portrait of an alcoholic where the music acts as a lifeline, and in the Stonesy "Why I Lie," where it's lovely to hear Phair's voice, and the melody it's singing, in full bloom. But it reaches its zenith during the chorus of "Everything (Between Us)," which may be the first time Phair has used sex in the service of love, rather than just screwing.
The album isn't perfect: the soulful Telecaster-sounding guitar licks and Garth Hudson-style organ of "Wind And The Mountain" go on at least a minute too long, and the respectable "Everything To Me" is less interesting than the reviled "Extraordinary" despite being, arguably, an objectively better song. And there's an argument to be made that the album might be her most lyrically inconsequential, with a few slogans cutting through the clutter but nothing really demanding examination the way that Exile In Guyville did, constantly and with malice aforethought.
Even so, Miracle shows that Phair is capable of making the music she wants under her own terms. It's possible that her fans would have accepted something like "Giving It All To You" as her dedicated assault on the pop charts instead of "Why Can't I," but she probably couldn't have done the former without Liz Phair paving the way. Even if her last album is dismissed as a pure head-clearing exercise, Miracle puts it in context, showing that both are a part of the same progression. "Can't stop thinking about all the crazy possibilities," sings Phair on the last line of the album, and if she ever did, her songs would still be stuck in Guyville. And Liz Phair would be worse off for it.
Be Still Please
As huge of a Superchunk fan as I am, I've never really jumped on the Portastatic bandwagon. (Obligatory explanatory digression: Portastatic is the side-project of Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan. We now return you to the review, already in progress.) After a few albums of widely divergent style and quality, I didn't pay much attention; from most reports, further albums went even farther afield, including film scores and an EP of tropicalia. But new Superchunk releases are harder to find than bin Laden these days, and when I heard the surprisingly Superchunk-esque "Through With People" off of last year's Bright Ideas, it seemed like, just maybe, Portastatic could fill the large Superchunk-sized hole in my heart. (Or ears. Not sure how that metaphor should play out.)
Sadly, though, Be Still Please is two sizes too small to fill that hole. There's some moments of very un-Superchunk-y quiet but lush beauty, such as "Like A Pearl," and there's no question that Mac can dig out a catchy chorus when it pleases him, as in "I'm In Love (With Arthur Dove)" or "You Fuckers." (Okay, it's called "You Blanks," but it's clear what the title should be from the song. What, was there a worry about Wal-Mart not carrying this?) But more often than not, Be Still Please betrays a musical tourist of sorts, playing around with a bunch of different styles without concern for the overall experience. "Sweetness and Light" digs out a tropicalia groove, while other tracks seem indebted to acts on his label, Merge Records -- "Black Buttons" evokes Lambchop in parts, while the epic "Getting Saved" mines a heavy Crooked Fingers vibe. (Although they might both just be referencing Bruce Springsteen.)
Unfortunately, the variable approaches aren't always ones that fit McCaughan equally well; the raspy debauched persona that fits Eric Bachmann so well in Crooked Fingers, for instance, is almost comically out of place here. Don't get me wrong -- there's an overarching laidback vibe and yearning for beauty that (along with copious strings) loosely ties the album together, but it still feels like a rambling, unfulfilling walkabout to me. The liner notes mention a dedication to the Go-Betweens, who I'm not particularly familiar with, so perhaps they're the secret key to putting this album together.
But not every record is going to be No Pocky for Kitty or Indoor Living, and you have to let your heroes go on these sort of walkabouts. And I suspect it's an album that those less blinded by history than I will find much to admire in, perhaps an album that with time I'll find myself much fonder of. So I will remain patient and optimistic, and hopefully someday I will be rewarded for this patience. Stranger things have happened.
I've wondered for years that what would've happened if My Bloody Valentine had followed up 1991's Loveless with some further step in the evolution of overdriven, fuzzed-out shoegazer rock; now I think I know. With Carnavas, California's Silversun Pickups steals Kevin Shields' amps and throws them into the back of a beat-up Dodge Charger, driving them way out into the desert and proceeding to blanket the sunbaked landscape with a sound that rides the line between stoner-rock and MBV's shimmery, candy-like sheen.
On tracks like opener "Melatonin," "Rusted Wheel," and "Checkered Floor," the band plays swirling, overfuzzed, noisy-as-hell pop-rock that hovers on the edges of dreampop territory, orbiting somewhere near to the Jesus and Mary Chain, Ride, or other early Britpop cohorts. "Floor," in particular, sounds like nearly a direct rip from Loveless, but to the band's credit, it feels far more like a tribute than a ripoff. The track is like the ethereal majesty of MBV heated up and made solid, coalesced into something far meatier and (yeah, it hurts just to type this; I may have to kick my own ass later) substantial than Shields and co. ever came up with.
Silversun Pickups' closest contemporary musical kin are probably Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Secret Machines -- both make music that's moody and shimmery but that you can blaze down a darkened highway to. "Waste It On," in particular, brings to mind Secret Machines; it starts off quiet and meditative, but builds hypnotically and gets more and more elaborate until it practically explodes into orbit. There's also "Dream at Tempo 119," which sounds like a Death Cab For Cutie track if Ben Gibbard were to suddenly develop a major Sabbath obsession. It's sludgy and relentless, not to mention dark as all hell. "Three Seed," on the other hand, is gentle and quietly melancholy, with spiraling guitars that sparkle rather than hum and a melody that sounds a heck of a lot like the Get Up Kids' "Lion and the Lamb" (the intro, at least). "Future Foe Scenarios" takes a darker turn, remaining menacing and tense throughout and climbing to a climactic heavy groove with Aubert howling Jeremy Enigk-style over the top.
Beyond those disparate influences/resemblances, though, the real touchstone for this album is Smashing Pumpkins' underrated pre-breakout disc Gish. "Lazy Eye" is nothing but Pumpkins-esque, restrained but still driving, with Aubert sounding vocally a heck of a lot like Billy Corgan. The whole thing chugs along until the halfway point, when it switches on the turbo boosters and rips into an extended psych-rock jam, blowing the band's erstwhile progenitors out of the water. On the flip side, "Little Lover's So Polite" is a slinky, propulsive pop-rocker with lilting, Giant Drag-esque vocals, and it bears a resemblance to the Pumpkins mostly in its complete and total catchiness; the song sinks itself into your head like the hook Billy Corgan forgot how to write back in, oh, 1992 or so.
The album's absolute highlight, "Well Thought Out Twinkles," surges and stomps, grooving along at 100 mph while radiating a warm, beatific glow. Singer/guitarist Brian Aubert's high-pitched, almost girlish vocals (seriously, before I read the band's bio, I would've sworn to you that bassist Nikki Monninger was the one singing, not Aubert) lilt and sway between the chunky, thick-sounding, "Third Stone From the Sun"-esque guitars with a nearly somnolent grace 'til the song's climactic moments, when his voice becomes a desperate, defiant roar. What's he singing about? Not a clue, and frankly, I could care less -- with Carnavas, I find myself far more interested in the overall mood than in the lyrics.
Taken as a whole, Carnavas is possibly the coolest slab of neo-psych-rock I've heard in quite some time. It's trippy and strange, alluring and hypnotic, but at the same time unafraid to be full-on rawk-n-roll with the amps cranked up as high as they'll go. It's been a long time since I saw somebody take something as delicate and fey as late-'90s shoegazer pop and inject it with this much balls and ferocity, all the while maintaining that heavy-lidded cool detachment. Let's hear it for beating your idols at their own game.
(Silversun Pickups will be performing at The Meridian on Tuesday, Nov. 28, along with Wolfmother and Dead Meadow.)
Revenge of the Killer Slits
The Slits are back! After making us wait for 25 years, they've rewarded our patience with a new record. The Slits' new EP,Revenge of the Killer Slits, shows them in fine form. With two new songs and one unreleased old one, Revenge is a look at where they've been as well as where they're headed, showcasing a heavy hip-hop feel to the new songs and showing the Slits moving in yet another new direction.
Fortunately, they justify their return with this album. "Slits Tradition" extends the Slits' previous dub reggae and Afro-pop explorations with a full-fledged hip-hop track featuring quavering, out-of-tune keyboard samples matched perfectly by Ari Up's slightly dissonant vocals. When singers decide to reinvent themselves as rappers, they're usually not able to pull it off. Given that, we should naturally be worried when someone who hasn't recorded in 25 years does it, but here she really pulls it off -- she's exciting, dancing and dodging around the words. Maybe she took the time off to listen to hip-hop records?
The other songs are good, too. "Kill Them With Love" is a dancey, keyboard-heavy, almost '80s-style track (and before you think "oh, how retro," consider that for this band the '80s would still be a step forward, chronologically speaking) with a big drum machine beat and rapped interludes. Every one's having fun, Ari in particular -- she gets to do her old thing during the choruses, which keep getting bigger and bigger. Tessa contributes a springy dub bass line that complements the dance beat. "Number One Enemy," dating from 1976, starkly contrasts with the rest of the record, although not in a bad way. It's solid energy, an old-school punk rock tune that's probably one of the most straightforward songs they've done. And yet the driving groove and intense bass line anchor the songs in classic Slits style.
Another interesting development is that here Ari uses her vocals to complement the songs more than on previous records. Her free-floating vocals serve each song more than before, when she'd use them to break the songs apart. Her vocals here help make each song distinctive. Those who were looking for her old soaring vocals, though, will be somewhat disappointed with Revenge. On "Slits Tradition," she sings some of the background vocals, but the rest is almost entirely rapped, and "Number One Enemy" is three solid minutes of sneering. We do get a taste of the "soaring" stuff on "Kill Them With Love," but even there the singing is mostly straightforward.
If they were going to make a comeback record, they couldn't have done much better than Revenge of the Killer Slits. It's a remarkable record. Here's hoping we won't have to wait another 25 years for the followup -- of course, if it's as good as this one, it'll be worth the wait.
Fading American Dream
With a heavy-duty Boston punk pedigree (singer Mike McColgan used to front the Dropkick Murphys before quitting to be a firefighter, while drummer Joe Sirois used to be in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones), tough-looking guys in black t-shirts, and a name like "Street Dogs," it shouldn't really be too surprising that Fading American Dream is a hard-edged, fiery blast of Dorchester-bred streetpunk. On tracks like "Common People," "Sell Your Lies," or "Tobe's Got a Drinking Problem" (which is a friendly-but-firm warning to guitarist Tobe Bean that he's headed for trouble with the bottle), the Street Dogs blaze away like they're channeling Sham 69 and Stiff Little Fingers, with a bracing shot of Southie pride and fury added to the mix. Good stuff, yes, but again, it's not hard to figure out how they got there.
The real surprise, then, is that Fading American Dream also happens to be a smart, heartfelt ode to the death of the middle class. A lot of the tracks, particularly "Common People" and the two pro-union songs, a reverent cover of "There is Power in a Union" (which sticks remarkably close to Billy Bragg's classic version) and defiant closer "Katie Bar The Door," show a seriously populist streak. The band may be blue-collar to the bone, but its members are fiercely political.
It's a little odd, by the way, to hear a bunch of blue-collar South Boston Irish punks bemoaning the death of the middle class. Not that I disagree with the sentiment, mind you, but that what once was the music of the disenfranchised underclass has essentially transformed into the music of the bourgeoisie. Now that I think about it, though, does that shift mean that the music's moved upward, or that the middle class has become the disenfranchised underclass? I'll leave that one for the pundits to hash out.
At any rate, beyond the politics Dream is also nicely intelligent and lyrical in the vein of the Pogues or Tom Waits (or the Dropkick Murphys, for that matter) -- despite the streetpunk bent, this isn't music for meatheads who can only remember a few words of each song. The speeding, urgent "Not Without A Purpose" harnesses some of The Clash's spirit for a vibrant rallying cry to all punks everywhere, while "Shards Of Life" is rollicking Celtic folk-punk with its heart tattooed on its sleeve. A few of the tracks are reminiscent of more recent punk icons Rancid (the catchy "Rights To Your Soul"; nice sing-along chorus, there) and Social Distortion (the furious, impassioned title track), and "Fatty" and "Hardluck Kid" remind me of Texan pop-punks Dynamite Boy.
The real "experiment" of the bunch, though, is "Final Transmission," a countryish, almost Johnny Cash-like tune sung partly from the point of view of a young G.I. killed by an IED while on patrol in Iraq. Which is weird, because politico-punks Anti-Flag attempt nearly the same conceit on their latest album, and it didn't fly, at least not for me -- it felt somewhat ham-handed and ridiculous.
Here, however, it works; maybe it's the utter sincerity with which the band tackles the song, the gentle country lilt to it, or the fact that Mike McColgan himself is a vet of the first Iraq war and knows what the hell he's singing about, but whatever it is, it's actually pretty touching. Congratulations to McColgan and company for making me view Boston punk in a whole new light.
(Street Dogs will be performing at Numbers on Sunday, Dec. 3, along with the Bouncing Souls, Whole Wheat Bread, and Left Alone.)
Tokyo Police Club
A Lesson in Crime
A volatile musical adventure through interplanetary influences such as David Bowie and Radiohead, Tokyo Police Club makes their first mark on the new millennium with their new CD, A Lesson in Crime, making futuristic indie-rock hip once again. Listen to the Tokyo Police Club, and they might remind you of the Decemberists, Arcade Fire, or The Killers. Hell, they might very well be almost inseparable from the multitude of indie-rock bands that have capitalized on the trend of new millennium rock. I mean, with all of the ingredients here in such good measure, buy A Lesson in Crime and you might as well be buying a modern-day Clear Channel Big Mac.
Tokyo Police Club's four members play in perfectly measured synchronicity, balanced between mellow atmospherics and excitement. Singer/bassist Dave Monks splits the two sides of the band between his vocals, which he drones in disenfranchised wonder, and his bass playing, which seems relatively aggressive. Meanwhile, guitarist Josh Hook interweaves slow, progressive melodies through the tapestry of Graham Wright's atmospheric keyboards like a fast jet flying through low-lying smog. The drums, played by Greg Alsop, are balanced between a kind of Britpop staccato and simple rock riffs, creating a mixture of suspense and propulsion. All together, the group's subtle and refined style brings with it many explosive moments on A Lesson in Crime.
Unfortunately, this album lacks individuality and daring. While Tokyo Police Club rides the waves of fortune that have brought numerous indie-rock bands to the forefront over the past decade, with A Lesson in Crime, they have stolen too much from their predecessors and contemporaries, creating an amalgam of benign indie clichés.
Hair: Chicago Punk Cuts
Hair: Chicago Punk Cuts, as you would expect from the title, compiles fourteen unreleased songs by different Chicago punk bands, spanning the range of punk and hardcore. From Explode and Make Up's '90s pop-punk, to The Killing Tree's hardcore thrash to the Felix Culpa's soundscapes, the compilation covers a lot of territory, even though it's a relatively narrow niche to begin with.
There are some good songs here. The Bomb's "Spaceman," buried near the end, is a fun, catchy, song about a total space cadet who shouldn't deserve any sympathy, but they give it to him anyway in the form of a great song. Explode and Make Up's "Lion in a Cage" switches effectively between a shouted verse and a great melodic chorus, all at top speed. Ryan's Hope presents "Condemning Race," combining a great ragged vocal and melody with some great guitar parts. Much the Same, on "The Greatest Betrayal," combines a thrashy feel and blistering tempo with a great chorus and some of the best drumming here (though the one thing none of the bands lack are good drummers).
Unfortunately, the good songs are outweighed by the bad ones. "West Palm Sand," by Split Habit, tries to be big and grand, but the melody is clichéd, and the singer puts in one of the most pretentious performances I've heard in a long time. Cougars, on "We Blog the Hardest," are irritating all the way from the guitar parts to the changes in texture to the singing. The Killing Tree's "Dressed to Fuck" adds a melodic chorus to a Rage Against the Machine feel, but nothing can redeem a Rage Against the Machine feel. "Give Me a Tropical Contact High," by Colossal tries to be amusing, with its cross of calypso and punk rock, but it doesn't really work -- the idea's good, but the execution falters.
One particularly disappointing thing about the bands on the CD is that there is exactly one female on the entire record -- Emily Schambra of Holy Roman Empire. (I should note that there's one female backing vocal on one other song, and Schambra does that one, too.) Fortunately, Holy Roman Empire's "Hail Mary" is a great song; Schambra sounds something like Corin Tucker without the vibrato or Elizabeth Elmore without the helium. The band sounds like your standard soft-to-loud punk rock, but the song has a great melody, and her singing is beautiful. Plus, they have the best credits in the insert.
True to the nature of compilation albums, there are some good songs on Hair: Chicago Punk Cuts and some bad ones. If you haven't heard any of these bands before, this isn't a bad way to hear them, both the good and the bad. And because the songs here aren't on any of the bands' own albums, it may be worth picking up, especially if you're a fan of one of the bands. But considering that less than half the songs here are good, I'd be wary of this album.