Tom Alford's Second Foundation combines great beats and catchy lyrics with a rockabilly twist. This man definitely understands the meaning of a hook and doesn't hesitate to use that knowledge.
Alford gets our head bopping right from the start with "Yes It's You." This is a song about being happy and in love, and really, who could resist such a thing? It's short, fun, and sweet, a perfect tune for Alford to showcase how much talent he has to offer. The whole album embodies the meaning of "pop."
"Shiloh" has an early-'90s vibe reminiscent of the Gin Blossoms. The melody and song structure are simple yet entertaining at the same time. The message, however, is more than simple, which is what makes Alford a talented musician: he has the ability to make a pop song with an underlying message. He seems to know exactly who he is and is fully aware of what he's capable of doing.
Overall, Second Foundation is ideal for laying back, relaxing, and thinking about old times. There is no doubt that Alford delivers a quality piece of work.
Something to Cry About
Something To Cry About begins and ends with what sound like European cowbells; ocean sounds, city soundscapes, and nocturnal insects float in and out, connecting the songs. Auralift's co-founder Ben Hargrove suggests that there is no overarching theme but that "the music still flows with a deep sense of continuity and connection." One of the strongest songs is the first, "Meaning For," with its joyous chorus harmony. Night-driving sounds coast into "Long Time Sigh," musically rocking and fun but paired with uninteresting and tuneless vocals. Native American chanting introduces "072904," the first of a few instrumentals featuring vocalist/guitarist/bassist Jason Meador on drums (I'm assuming this, mind you; if the guitar is supposed to be the featured instrument, they should've removed the obvious strumming mistakes and blown notes). "Whisper" floats along nicely, with a wobbly Leslie-sounding guitar riff holding things together admirably until the vocals start. "This Island's Shore" comes straight from Ben Folds's notebook (is that the bossa nova or the cha-cha?), but with a brutally out-of-tune chorus. "Benterlude" is a nice, Moog-y instrumental, interweaved with seagull sounds and water lapping on the shore, sliding into "Forever Girl," a grimy acoustic dirge reminiscent of early STP -- then the vocals come in. "Silence Now" is more of the same, and "Something to Cry About" starts out strong but devolves into poorly-mixed echo-panned guitar soundscaping. And more cowbell.
Auralift is a studio project, and it unfortunately sounds like it. The musicianship is interesting, although there are numerous self-indulgent drum parts and way too many instrumentals. The singer sounds out of tune on many of the songs, especially at the top of his range; I'm guessing that's why his vocal is deeply buried in the mix. I'm not a fan of vocal tuning in general, but in this case, I may have to change my mind -- it's that rough. Finally, although the songs are competent, there is little sense of urgency; there is no style. It doesn't seem like Auralift has much to say or is really compelled to say it.
Hammer of the Gods
I've fought with it and I've fought with it, so now I'm just gonna say it: Bottomless Pit sound a heck of a lot like Silkworm. And I mean, seriously, how could they avoid it? With two out of four ex-members of that band onboard, Tim Midgett and Andy Cohen, who were both partly responsible for the sound of that band vocally and guitar-wise, it's pretty much a given that the new band's going to sound at least somewhat like the old. It's unavoidable. Right?
Well, sort of. Bottomless Pit do bear a resemblance to Midgett and Cohen's much-beloved old outfit (less so to drummer Chris Manfrin and bassist Brian Orchard's respective bands, Seam and .22), particularly in those half-yelped/half-spoken vocals, the moody, not-too-fast tempos, and sharp-edged-yet-warm guitars that eschew simple power-chord rock in favor of more complex, occasionally nonrepeated, sometimes sparse guitar lines. But hey, so do a ton of other bands -- for me Silkworm will always be one of those unassailable archetypes of mid-'90s indie-rock, and you could apply the description above to any of three dozen or so bands from the same era.
What's really different here, though, is the mood of the music as a whole. Where most Silkworm releases wobbled between being downtrodden and melancholy and saying "screw it" and good-naturedly/drunkenly giving a finger to the whole mess -- a la the Grifters, the band made music that always made me wish I drank so I could appreciate it better -- Hammer of the Gods is unrelenting and bleak. To these ears, at least, it's a dark, dark, down-in-the-depths album, made by a crew of musicians who've seen a significant chunk of their lives ripped apart in some way or another.
Songs like starter "The Cardinal Movements" (which, by the way, is probably the album's highlight, largely due to that recurring gorgeously distorted guitar melody), "Dogtag," and "Greenery" carry an undercurrent of menace and resignation, like the sound of doom, indie-rock-style. "Greenery," especially, is misanthropic as hell, an apocalyptic meditation on the pointlessness of everyday life at the end of the world, and comes off like close kin of British post-punk acts like The Fall with it's determined drumbeat, sporadic and flat vocals, and screeching, gouging guitars. It's the sound of a man who's decided it's all going to be over soon, so why bother?
Even the more hopeful-sounding tracks on here, like the U2-esque "Leave the Light On" or the almost life-affirming "Human Out of Me," where the narrator marvels at the fact that somebody close to them was able to teach them how to behave like a normal human being, still leaves the listener aware of the loss behind the words, the hole revealed when that person went away unexpectedly. Cohen and Midgett's lyrics have always been the obliquest of oblique, daring you to decipher them or re-envision them to fit what's living in your own head, and Hammer is no different. There's a subtext here, I think, whether conscious or not, and the album takes on an elegaic feel because of it.
The elephant in the room that I've been trying somewhat to dance around, of course, is the sudden passing of Silkworm drummer Michael Dahlquist in 2005. With his death, surviving members Midgett and Cohen ended Silkworm, knowing full well that there was no way they could possibly replace Dahlquist either as a friend or bandmate. And while I certainly can't claim to know what Midgett and Cohen have gone through over the past two years, I think Hammer of the Gods is a rare glimpse into the internal world with which the two musicians have been trying to come to grips since that fateful car crash (which may be mirrored in the grungy, grimy pseudo-boogie of "Dead Man's Blues").
There's anger, hopelessness, pain, nostalgia, bitterness, love, and even a little joy in there, all vying for dominance. And while it's tragic as hell that Dahlquist is gone, it's fitting that the sound of two of his best friends attempting to deal with his loss sounds this absolutely, heart-breakingly incredible.
[ED. NOTE: After writing this review, it came to our attention that Broken Land is actually made up of the leftover members of a broken-up band called The Wails...who we'd had a review of from a while back that never ran (since, y'know, the band broke up & all). At any rate, with this new effort now out there, we thought it'd be interesting to run both reviews at the same time. Refer here for the review of The Wails album...]
It's a weird thing to say, I know, but maybe it's the throwback sound that shrouds all of Audio Postcard that keeps it afloat. I mean, if I looked at these songs as coming from just some random mid-tempo rock, they'd really be pretty unremarkable, just the usual bland, same-old-thing-sounding thing. On this album, though, Broken Land manage to sound like they stepped out of The Wayback Machine from the tail-end of the '60s, when Indian instrumentation had already spent a while steadily creeping into psychedelic music of all kinds.
It's hard to get away from the distinctive sound of the tablas (there's also something called a "tanpura," but I've got no idea what that might be), especially on tracks like "Dervish," "Priest," or "Obfuscate"; the overall effect at times is that of a more overtly mod Cornershop. Not to worry, mind you -- apparently the three members of Broken Land are aiming for that sort of stylistic collision, even referring to themselves as "Hindie-rock" on their CDBaby page. (Yeowch. Um, yeah, I guess that works...)
The bulk of the disc feels like it wouldn't be out-of-place on some British Invasion comp somewhere, wedged in-between The Dave Clark Five and The Troggs. There's a nicely warm sound to it all, sort of a light fuzz coating everything that keeps it from sounding too modern and hyperprocessed (and that's a very nice change of pace, lately). The songs are sometimes funky, sometimes strange, and occasionally silly (and yes, "Grey Men" does indeed seem to be about E.T.s), with the pseudo-British accent on the vocals heightening the whole Brit-rock resemblance, but I find myself liking it, especially on the tabla-heavy "Obfuscate." Even when Broken Land slip and betray a hint of more modern (relatively) influences here and there, like the Mission of Burma-sounding guitar figure that drives "My TV" or the jangly '90s-indie feel to "LZ," thankfully, the adulteration actually seems to make the songs sound better and not worse.
So, the final analysis? Audio Postcard ain't bad, especially considering how bad it truly had the potential to be. (Memo to musicians: when you throw tablas into the mix, you immediately start walking the tightrope between Cool Cultural Appropriation/Homage and Ridiculous Crap Your Ageing Hippie Uncle Wouldn't Even Listen To. Just a helpful warning.) Hat tip to Broken Land for making it work.
King in the Dark
Camarada should be charged with the crime of Attempted Emo. Or maybe Assault with a Deadly Weapon, 'cause listening to it nearly killed me. On King in the Dark, the band's debut album, the singer thinks everything is a big power ballad and sings accordingly. There aren't many strong songs here, and Camarada gets too ambitious with the production, to boot. They're just trying way, way too hard throughout the album.
The biggest problem is that their melodies try too hard to be catchy, and the result is a bunch of mush. Most of the songs are just tedious, but some of them are really bad -- the bridge of "On the Fire Escape" has this really stupid call-and-response and harmony bit. "Love Yer Lover Too" tries to be this stately high-school graduation piano anthem, but the melody is sappy and obvious and terrible (of course, so are a lot of high-school graduation anthems). It should be a sign when even your title song ("King in the Dark") is bad.
As I said, the production doesn't help, either. "Patience" features this strange vibe sound with way too much vibrato and this annoying scratching sound which distracts from the song. "Overtime" has a big Cure-style keyboard part with way too much chorus on it and which sounds pretentious. "No Se" has this weird triplet riff thing that throws the song off, and in "Love Yer Lover Too," the band mixes the lead guitar part so loud so that you can't hear the song (although, all things considered, it's not much of a loss).
The one redeeming part of this album is the song "The Ballad of Blue Collar." It's got a good melody and minimal arangement and even a sadly funny line: "Dead on the 10 in the afternoon light / All just enough to make rent and get high." The singing is still overwrought, but the song is okay. It's too bad that they went overboard on the others, 'cause it just made everything worse. Not that the songs are that good to begin with, but at least they'd be listenable. If they have one decent song, then in theory there's a chance they might grow out of it, but this album doesn't give anyone much hope.
The Cape May
Glass Mountain Roads
Calgary's The Cape May is part of the current Canadian Invasion that's sweeping the US, and their sound on Glass Mountain Roads is like Slint or Rex fronted by Will Oldham. They have an interesting combination of songwriterly melodies and indie-rock backbone and, most impressively, they use their additional instrumentation tastefully, with arrangements that feature the song rather than overwhelm it.
The most immediate songs come at the end, when they start slacking on Indie-Rock Rule #43 ("Vocals Shall Always Be Just Louder Than Guitars"). "Little & Hook" is a slow lament with a great chorus and an added slide guitar part enhances the desolation of the song beautifully. Ingeniously, they only get loud once, three minutes into the song.
"Still Island" is another slow song with a beautiful melody; the violin and cello accompaniment highlight the moodiness of the song. At one point the violin plays this crazy and cool part that's slightly off-key and dissonant, which really adds to the atmosphere. It's also very dynamic - on the choruses it gets only a little louder, but waits till the bridge to really blast off.
The other songs are interesting as well. With good songs, a unique sound, and a solid band (some nice drumming, in particular), The Cape May pulled off something good on Glass Mountain Roads. Hopefully they'll continue in this direction, because they have a lot of potential.
The Challenger Deep
The Challenger Deep
"Where did you go when I needed you most?" -- it's a fitting lyric from The Challenger Deep, a post-punk/sludge band from San Diego who recently released their self-titled debut EP but then had to split up when family responsibilities called their guitarist/vocalist back home to the East coast.
The Challenger Deep's self-titled EP is a collection of five strong songs that leaves you wondering what the band could've accomplished if they were able to continue on. The songs are noisy, full, and hard-edged, and usually have a strong central riff to come back to after exploring a variety of musical tangents. Their sound is in the same vein as Drive Like Jehu and Fugazi. Drummer Gregg Geradi does a fine job of keeping everyone together, while bassist Andy Kondrat adds interesting low tones that are perfect companions for Rob Trout's guitar riffs. The songs are mixed so all the instruments can be heard and they take turns coming to the forefront. The lyrics and vocals, however, are by design in the background and pretty minimal as to not distract from the music but instead to add just enough feeling and emotion.
The EP's intro song, "Historian," is short and intense, grabbing your attention. Then comes "Convent Station," which is quick-paced, too, but winds all over the place and gets right into the vocals, with the drums accenting all the changes. The next song, "Bad News," is more pensive and relies on the bass during the verses before kicking into a big hook on the choruses. The fourth song, "3-5-3," builds instrumentally with a staccato, regimented feel, then bursts into a few lines of lyrics shouted at the end. The EP ends with "Cipher," which repeatedly steps on the gas throughout, with a maniacal riff that the whole band follows skillfully through crazy hairpin turns.
The recording of this EP from The Challenger Deep shows musicians who are talented and mature and who really play off each other well. In interviews with Jim Ruland at Razorcake and McHank's Perpetually Twelve Internet Show, the band seems surprised by the attention they've garnered and say they just started playing music together "for fun." They also kind of shunned the lyrical and vocal responsibilities, but Trout took them up when they couldn't find a front man. Personally, I think he should own them, as the lyrics that are discernible are interesting, showing there is some thought process going on. Just with that, they've got most bands out there beat.
The Challenger Deep has here a quality five-song debut EP that I'd recommend. Just be warned: like they sing on their song, "Convent Station," they'll leave you asking, "Where did you go when I needed you most?"
Dressed Up & In Line
Okay, so I caught an abridged version of Copeland this fall when they opened for The Rentals, and I could've sworn frontman/songwriter/main guy Aaron Marsh said the band would have a new album out very soon. Now that I've got Dressed Up & In Line in hand, I'm not sure this is it. Rather than a "real" album, Dressed Up is a collection of B-sides, outtakes, cover versions, and left-behinds that span Copeland's seven-year history.
Given that, it comes as no surprise that the album suffers from the problem that, pretty much by design, afflicts any B-sides/covers release: it doesn't really sound like an actual "album." Which is understandable, since it's not -- it's an odd-and-ends mix of different songs from different albums/periods in the band's life, so how in the hell's going to all hang together like they kicked it out in a week at some studio? I'll give the band credit for trying, mind you -- they apparently went back and reworked some of the really old stuff, retooling the tracks so die-hard fans won't feel ripped off and so they at least sound somewhat similar.
That's a good plan on the face of it, but Dressed Up & In Line misses the mark; it sounds like what it is, and because of that listening to the album is a bit like listening to somebody's mixtape of their favorite band, except that in this case the songs aren't the band's "hits" (mostly) but are outtakes and such. This is kind of a problem, especially for a relative newbie to the band like myself. About the only Copeland I've heard 'til now (barring the band's live performance) has been 2003's Beneath Medicine Tree, with parts of 2004's Know Nothing Stays the Same all-covers EP thrown in for flavor.
Speaking of covers, by the way, I was a bit surprised at the two the band picked to showcase -- Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" and The Police's "Every Breath You Take." They play the former straight, if anything injecting a bit more "rock" into the original's swirly trippiness, and for the most part it does the job, even if Marsh can't pull off Chris Cornell's trademark shriek. The only bad thing about the track is that it sounds so much like the Soundgarden version that it ends up being fairly nonessential. If you've heard the song, Copeland's take on it isn't going to surprise you much.
"Every Breath You Take," on the other hand, is interestingly re-envisioned as a soaring, melodic ballad, but that in itself is a bit of a misstep. Back in college, a friend happened to put this on a mix tape she gave to her boyfriend at the time, and I didn't think much about it 'til another friend pointed out, horrified, that the song's about the unrequited love of a stalker. There's a hint of the sinister to Sting's delivery on the song, but that's totally absent here -- the boys of Copeland instead make it as undeniably gorgeous as the rest of their songs, with minor-key piano, echoing vocals, and wonderful strings. Which kind of says that they're just as oblivious to the song's underlying meaning as my college friend. Not a love song, guys, but a creepy-ass stalker song, which means that it's made even creepier (and not in a good way) to hear it done ballad-style.
I don't mean to beat down the band solely for their interpretations of somebody else's songs, by the way. I'm just a bit disappointed, is all, given that Know Nothing Stays the Same saw Marsh & co. tackling everybody from Phil Collins to Stevie Wonder to the Top Gun love theme and doing it with style. Hell, their version of "Take My Breath Away" pretty much erased the imaginary line separating over-the-top '80s pop from '00s emo, and I salute them for acknowledging how close their music veers to that old-school schlocky stuff. With that in mind, when I put Dressed Up in I fully expected to enjoy the heck out of "Black Hole Sun" and "Every Breath You Take"; didn't happen.
(Spoiler Warning: In the interests of your sanity and overall love of music, dear reader, I strongly urge you to forego listening to the "hidden track" stowed at the end of the disc. All it is is another version of "Black Hole Sun," except that whoever's singing apparently doesn't know the words and they can't sing. Ouch. I swear to God, it's like really bad karaoke. Save yourself the pain and just hit "Stop" after track 15. I'm only blowing the "surprise" 'cause I love you, man, and I don't want to see you hurt.)
But hey, I can't complain, overall. In spite of all my qualms about this disc, there are some shining moments. Opener "Your Love To Sing (Slow Version)"'s one, a sweet, gentle, celebratory paean to the way a lover genuinely loves to sing, and Marsh's vocals fall somewhere in between Coldplay's Chris Martin and Zookeeper/ex-The Gloria Record's Chris Simpson. Another, "Chin Up" hooked me in quick with it's quiet, low-key-but-insistent feel, coming off like my favorite Death Cab for Cutie songs.
Oddly, though, the show doesn't really start 'til after the band muddles through both covers (and a handful of acoustic versions and a "premix" of In Motion's "Sleep"; what the hell's a "premix"?). When "May I Have This Dance" comes crashing in, it's immediately apparent that the band, for whatever reason, back-loaded the album -- that track sounds like Jimmy Eat World circa Bleed American/Jimmy Eat World, and the followup, "That Awful Memory of Yours," is similarly hard-charging.
At the album's absolute peak, Copeland pulls out all the stops for "Second Star To The Left, Go 'Til Morning," which blows the first half of Dressed Up right out of the water. The song roars and rages like the band forgot to bring the acoustic guitars and string section to the rock show, and thank God for it. Listening, it's like I'm back in the "glory years" of emo all over again. And actually, that makes sense, since the song's apparently from back then -- come to think of it, all three of the best rock tracks on here are leftovers from back then, rebooted for 2007. Weird.
Weirder still, the band follows up that blast of energy with two awesome versions of tracks from Beneath Medicine Tree, an acoustic rendition of "Brightest" and an "alternate" take on "When Paula Sparks" (which is, admittedly, one of my favorite tracks from Tree). The latter is chiming and pretty, with a great, addictive, sing-it-under-your-breath chorus (and yeah, it's not that different from the original, but the original's great enough that I don't care), and the former is awesomely melancholy and crushed. Even though the lyrics sound happy, the stark instrumentation and Marsh's beautifully broken-down voice puts the lie to 'em, making you wonder how sure he is that things are really perfect.
The original version, to my ears, is more confident, a narrator who's moved on from a past relationship laying the facts out for an ex-lover who's come back around -- not the Dressed Up version, though. And that, ladies and gents, is how you do an alternate version of a song -- you mess with it, so much so that you change what the song means. (Hrm. Come to think of it, maybe that's what the band was attempting with "Every Breath You Take," too. Sorry, y'all, but that one just didn't pull it off.)
Now, it may be that I'm still flying from the joyous roar of "When Paula Sparks," but I find myself enjoying the DJ Cakeface (gah, what a name...) remix of "Thanks To You." While the "original" version earlier on the disc skipped past me without leaving much of an impression, the remix makes the track seem more deliberate and thoughtful, more grateful, even. The slight processing on the vocals and the warm, echoey, Dntel-but-not-as-hyper beats really emphasize what the song's really meant to be, which is a heartfelt word of thanks to a friend/lover.
In the end, I guess it doesn't matter that much that Dressed Up & In Line doesn't "hang" like a real full-length -- we do live in the age of the song-as-digital-single, after all. Buy the album for the second half and the couple of good tracks near the beginning, and then you can put just those on your MP3 player. When you hit "Shuffle" and "May I Have This Dance" comes on, who cares if it really fits with the rest of the disc it's on, right?
The Great Awake
The Flatliners are a Canadian group that plays '80s-style punk, with some hardcore and reggae thrown in to change things up and the singer using that standard punk-style shout. They try to write big catchy melodies, but they fail more than they succeed, unfortunately. Though many excellent bands have come from Canada recently, this band's not one of them.
They're excellent, in fact, at inserting irritating moments into otherwise unremarkable songs. The first song, "July! August! Reno!," gives you the first clue during the bridge part -- all of a sudden you think somebody switched the station to the power-ballad station. "This Respirator" has a verse that's again okay, but the bridge takes the song to places it doesn't deserve. The chorus on "Hal Johnson Smokes Cigarettes" is merely banal, but the bridge takes off on this overdone break section that shows off their technique but not their taste.
A couple of the songs here are truly bad. "Mastering the World's Smallest Violin" is a slow, reggae-style ballad with one of the cheesiest melodies ever; it sounds suspiciously like some terrible '80s anthem I'm better off not remembering. And clichéd lyrics about being heartbroken: "I've never been this cold / I've never felt this way before." Try again, guys. And anyway, don't tell me you've never been that cold -- you live in freaking Canada! "And The World Files for Chapter 11" starts out with the chorus to charge you up, but it does the opposite. The verses have this half-time ska feel that is okay at first, but the backup vocals wreck it, and the anthemic melody of the bridge sounds even sillier on a song which isn't really that catchy to begin with.
The band itself is tight -- they've obviously been working hard. It's too bad that it's wasted on such terrible music. Although it is kind of impressive to see so many crappy moments on the same album. Maybe if they work harder, the next album will be complete crap.
Flight of the Conchords
The Distant Future EP
One of the reasons people buy music is to listen to it over and over, because it provokes an emotional response. Often that emotion isn't even related to the song and is, instead, something that was attached to the song during a particular time and the sense memory of hearing the same sounds again brings those feelings back. We humans are suckers that way.
Comedy, on the other hand, relies on novelty. A joke is only funny a handful of times before it starts to get stale. Can you imagine going to a comedy show to hear the old jokes? "C'mon, tell that bit that I already know the punchline to. I want to laugh like it's 1999." This is why people don't rush out to buy comedy albums.
Musical comedy, then, has two diametric elements -- one that makes you want to listen repeatedly and one that makes you want to listen once. So if your stock-in-trade is playing funny songs, you want to maximize the former. The trick to repeatability would seem to be good music. There's nothing more annoying than a comedian with little musical ability trying to sing a funny song. In that case, the song is little more than a prop. And nobody likes prop comedy. Just ask Gallagher.
But there's more to a funny song than just the song and on their latest release, Flight of the Conchords walk the delicate line and manage to pull off the musical comedy. Few have made it to this land and lived to tell the tale. Here, in list form, is how the FOCers pull it off:
Well, it's funny. Duh. You're not going to get very far as a comedian without good material.
And it's not just funny; it's layered. You may not catch everything on first listen, so you better go back and make sure you caught it all.
They include live bits. There is something in the reptile areas of our brains that provokes us to laugh when other people are laughing. This phenomenon leads to what is possibly (reality shows aside) the most annoying thing about watching television: laugh tracks. You hear other people laugh and then you laugh along with them. And then you feel dirty for having been such a chump. But you would never add a laugh track to a comedy recording, right? That would be too obvious. Instead, you would include things that were performed in front of an actual laughing audience. That way you include laughs without seeming so cheesy.
There is light social commentary. When Bono sings about issues, it lends the music some gravity that makes listening to a song almost like learning something. Same with Flight of the Conchords, except instead of singing about war or Martin Luther King, they sing about how hot it is to have a planned sex night, because there's nothing on TV Wednesday nights. It works out about the same.
The music is something that you might listen to even if it weren't funny. These guys are actually musicians, so you get music that is much more interesting than, say, something you'd hear Adam Sandler do.
There you have it. Now you have the formula, so you can make your own musical comedy album. Be sure to credit me in the liner notes and have your lawyer contact mine to set up the royalty payment. I look forward to your checks.
When It's Over
Jon Fritz's When It's Over begins with relaxing acoustic melodies and flows into pieces that have a bit of a soft rock feel mixed with a country flavor and a coffeehouse aftertaste. The first song might pack a little more punch if it were a bit shorter, as it's very enjoyable but doesn't quite end in time. With the song "Bitch," When It's Over seems to take a major leap in style, exposing this band's ability to rock with an alternative sound -- until the vocals begin, and suddenly it's all country for the rest of the song (but not the rest of the set). This CD was obviously produced well and it certainly keeps the listener guessing from track to track as to what's going to come next. It has a fun ending as well, so make sure that you listen to this one all the way through track 13. I have a feeling that this is a band that I'd definitely enjoy seeing live.
Richard Hawley has been around for longer than you think. Richard's been here the whole time, in the corner of your mind, in the corner of your room. It's easy to see, though, why artists such as Hawley are quickly looked over are passed over. We're not talking about some hunky white guy who does lots of sit ups and tries to act like a rapper. We're not even talking about someone who "dances."
No, Mr. Hawley wears suits and plays huge guitars and writes songs with so many hooks that there's no possible means of escape without your mind changed. Mr. Hawley carries a torch, carries a tune, and will sweep you away with lush string arrangements, bittersweet melodies, and a voice richly characterized by cigarettes and late nights.
Take the title track, "Valentine," which is slowly strummed and gently crooned until the chorus crashes in and crescendos into a heart-crushing dose of loneliness: "I don't need no Valentine's, no, no / I don't need no Roses / 'Cause they just take me back in time, no, no / Now you're not here." Ouch. Hell, yeah! There's a tenderness and maturity here that's, for some strange reason, all too rare. More! More!
"Roll River Roll" -- are you kidding? A song about rivers? Yes, and so beautifully done. Tinkling piano, brushed drums, blues-runs, and sizzling cymbal crashes. Quite unlike the production quality of the previous cut, there's now an open-air quality before the tears dry and it gets "serious." Now we're getting into the boppier, clicking of the swingin' double bass and that old rock n' roll sound. A danceable number with equal amounts of musical muscle and sparkling hope: "Take her in your arms and never be afraid." Indeed.
"Dark Road" has a bit of an ambling, country flavor, with echoes of lonesome guitars carrying cursed men away from their past/present/futures. Still, these sentiments and heavy burdens will be one day laid down and forgotten. "The Sea Calls" is a similar portrait of a man that's moving on (but for different reasons this time). It employs an enchantment and story that's in waltz-time, with subtleties of instrumentation and where Hawley's voice clings to notes like he's being reluctantly being torn away from them.
Though there's familiarity here, there is also comfort here. This is a piece of work that's varied, with moods and colors that never allow interest to wane. Tenderness, honesty, and songcraft abound and are equally at home. These are the types of songs that never age. And with Lady's Bridge, like with his previous albums (all highly recommended), no stone is left unturned for the listener.
Iron and Wine
The Shepherd's Dog
With most artists, as they develop, their subject matter and the tone of their songs usually becomes more serious. Sam Beam, on the other hand, has taken the opposite path. The new Iron and Wine album, The Shepherd's Dog, is actually less serious in tone than previous albums. Beam says that this album was an attempt to discover a more true and personal sound for himself, like Tom Waits did with Swordfishtrombones -- although I should note that where Tom Waits was looking for something that was significantly less conventional on Swordfishtrombones, the sound of the new Iron and Wine is significantly more conventional.
First off, the material on the new album is much poppier than the original stuff. Where before the melodies seemed shaped by the words, now it's the other way around, with soaring melodies and harmonies that carry the songs to new places. "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car" has a catchy melody and an vocal arrangement that adds a lot to the song, and "Carousel," a ballad with processed vocal and electric piano, could almost be a less-pretentious Pink Floyd song. The melodies and harmonies in the old material weren't as developed, and the sound and feel was darker and more lonesome. Which is not to say the older songs were worse, by any means -- they were just different.
The presence and power of the band does a lot to change things, as well. The sound of the band and the arrangements are much more positive and uplifting than before, with a wider range of instruments on the record. They even groove, which is a rare thing for a singer-songwriter to have in a band; the band sounds like a alt-rock Greatful Dead. On the earlier stuff, the focus was on the voice and the song, not the accompaniment, but here the band adds as much as the songs.
Sam Beam has made an impressive transition; it took Jeff Tweedy nine years to make the transition that Sam Beam's gone through in only about five years. Some people will undoubtedly want the old Iron and Wine back, but undoubtedly more people will enjoy the new, confident, poppier Iron and Wine.
Linus Pauling Quartet
All Things Are Light
Damn. I'll admit it: I may've been a bit hard on the Linus Pauling crew over the years. I've always liked the guys, definitely, they've always seemed nice and friendly and all that, and they've been supportive of the Houston scene since before I even came here. But I could never really get into the music -- it always seemed a bit overlong, a bit too goofy, a bit too weird-for-weird's-sake, y'know?
These days, though, I find myself warming to the band's laidback-but-still-roaring psych-rock sound, and I can't quite put my finger on why. Is it that I'm growing to appreciate this sort of psych more as I get older? Nah; I still rarely have the patience to sit through an album's worth of noodly, blunt-worthy jams. Heck, if anything, I was more into the spacier, more psychedelic stuff back in college, when I could just bliss out on the dorm-room floor for a few hours at a stretch.
Could it be that the LP4 have gotten that much better over the years? Maybe, but they've always been a talented bunch of folks; when they play something that sounds fucked-up and bizarre, odds are that they meant it to sound that way. At the same time, there could be something here -- maybe the reason I'm enjoying the hell out of the band's latest release, All Things Are Light, is because while past releases have been hit-or-miss with me, Light knocks the damn thing out of the park.
Seriously, the album's an absolute jaw-dropper, from the full-on fuzz-rock stomp of "Alien Abduction" (which makes me think weirdly of Silversun Pickups at points) on through the dirty blues of "She Bad, She Thowed" to the epic sprawl of "Waiting For The Axe To Fall." Each track on here blazes with a warm, liquor-fueled energy, all sludge and scrape but without the sinister undertone of, say, Federation X -- even at their darkest and gloomiest (like in the alternately narcotic and fiery "Southern Pine"), the Linus Pauling Quartet boys all wear sneaky, snarky, in-it-for-the-fun-of-it smiles.
That's probably partly why I like All Things Are Light so much, really -- I know I grumped about their past stuff being too silly, I'll admit that there is something endearing about a band that'll pen a sweet, countrified ode to that wonderful beverage that is malt liquor ("40 Oz."). Plus, there's the strange, bluesy H-town shoutout "She Bad, She Thowed," which namechecks both the soon-to-be-destroyed Proletariat and local brew St. Arnold's (and no, I've got no idea what "Thowed" means, honest), and the grungy, horn-laced stoner-garage rock of "Enchirito," which proudly professes the band's love of those godawful-looking Taco Bell concoctions.
And hey, I can't forget the over-the-top Dungeons & Dragons-isms of "Waiting For The Axe To Fall," a thundering, snarling story of a valiant warrior who is stabbed in the back and comes back from the grave, an unstoppable force of vengeance bent on destroying his killers. Done by a lesser band, it'd be flat-out ridiculous, but the Linus Pauling boys handle it with such straight-faced honesty that it flies in spite of itself. Not that they take themselves seriously, mind you -- probably my favorite part of "Southern Pine" is at the very end where the band throws in left-right calls of "Oh, yeah!" and "Alright!" It's like they're ordering you to rock the fuck out, man.
I must confess, as well, that part of why I'm liking Light more than LP4's previous releases is because they seem to've tightened things up somewhat, songwriting-wise. Where tracks on past releases (what I've heard of 'em, anyway) have noodled on past the 10-minute mark regularly, the band has knuckled down on this release and pared down their psych-operas to much more digestable "song"-sized chunks that you don't need to be stoned to enjoy (the whole thing clocks in at 34 minutes or so, with seven whole songs packed into that time). Which helps folks like me, who have to listen to LP4 while sitting at their office-job desk and can't really get baked while doing it.
The end result is a truly badass rock album that hits on psych, garage, and early metal pretty much equally, grabbing pieces from each genre to create a Frankensteinian monster that's coated with a thick layer of fuzz, is lit up from the inside by a thousand or so TV tubes, and bleeds a thick, messy mix of motor oil and rotgut whiskey. The sludgy, crushing rock power of the band's sound brings to mind Sabbath and Blue Cheer, not to mention more contemporary bands like Priestess, Federation X, or Early Man, and beats the hell out of the million or so pretenders crowding into the whole garage-rock stable.
All of which is to say: it's good. No, scratch that: it's great. All Things Are Light is the best damn thing I've heard yet from the Linus Pauling Quartet; it's an album that makes me want to go back and reevaluate all their older stuff, too, to see how I could've blown 'em off for so long.
[The Linus Pauling Quartet is playing 11/10/07 at The Proletariat, with The Mathletes, The Jonx, & Jenny Westbury.]
Keep It Going
The Mad Caddies play ska and reggae with a Clash-style punk core, and Keep It Going is their fifth album (although, if the world were fair, they wouldn't have any). Their songs carry on the Fat Wreck tradition of irritating and sappy attempted-anthems (again: if the world were fair and all that).
Their singer sounds like he's doing a bad Dave Pirner imitation. If they're lucky, their melodies sound like Soul Asylum imitations, too, but most are much worse. "State of Mind" may be the worst one here -- the melody sounds like Eye of the Tiger," which is even more peculiar in combination with this band's sound. Anyway, one "Eye of the Tiger" is enough; we really don't need another. The band's saddest achievement, though, is the total evisceration of a Delroy Wilson song called "Riding for a Fall," which they manage to turn into a sappy, reggaefied power ballad. It's an amazing accomplishment, but not the kind they had in mind.
They're responsible for some terrible lyrics, as well. "Reflections" beguns with "Once again I'm out on the highway / Searching for answers that i fear / And it couldn't be much clearer / When objects in the mirror / Are closer than they appear," which is forced as well as trite. Even Meat Loaf did more with the "objects in the mirror" bit! "Today" begins "Woke up this morning at the end of another bottle, I don't really know what's going on / My hands are shaking, my head's reminding me that last night I must have had some fun." But his singing sounds like he's never been in any pain in his life -- it's too self-assured to convey anything but how much he likes himself.
About the only interesting thing about these guys is their woozy horn section. When all you have to offer is a horn section, though, that's bad. They've playing on the Warped Tour multiple times, which is too bad, 'cause they're taking up somebody else's 15 minutes of fame. If the world were fair, these guys wouldn't touring the world -- they'd still be playing in their mom's basement.
Okay, I'm impressed. With their second effort, Austin's Meryll have created an album that serves pretty damn effectively as the soundtrack for an '80s childhood, back when life still seemed innocent and free (to us kids, anyway) and you could roam the neighborhoods without an adult care in the world. The music is gentle and rough-edged, with a not-quite-country-but-rural tinge to it, alternately chiming and roaring guitars, earnest vocals, and midtempo drums; the comparison I keep coming back to, more than anything else, is to Mark Kozelek's Sun Kil Moon band/project. There's the same delicate beauty to it all, the same Neil Young-esque guitars, and most of all, the same kind of high-pitched, nearly falsetto vocals.
The singing, by the by, is probably not everybody's cup of tea -- it's a little flat at points, not to mention a little girlish, but it's still endearing as all hell. The occasional awkwardness of the delivery, in fact, accentuates the innocence of the whole of Happened and emphasizes the teenage-diary feel of it and makes me ponder the lyrics on repeated listens, trying to draw meanings out each time. The songs amble warmly through the headphones like long-lost Buffalo Tom outtakes (think Big Red Letter Day-era BT, especially "I'm Allowed"), while the guitars swing neatly between Son Volt distortion and Gloria Record atmospherics.
There's only one low point on here, the ill-advised faux-lounge of "You Broke Up The Fight," and even that's not bad; it's just a serious tempo/style shift, and it pretty much kills the momentum of the album. But hey, I've got no problem skipping a single track, especially when the other nine are slowly-unfolding little gems. I particularly like "Brother The Hunter," the baseball story of "278 In Left Field," the Saves The Day-ish "You're Not Hurt," and, best of all, burner "Lightning Threatens." The latter track starts with strummy guitars and soft, matter-of-fact vocals and steadily builds and builds 'til the distorted guitars come in and the drums are pounding like a runner's heartbeat. By the end, it's captured the fear and anxiety and the faith that everything's going to be okay.
It's weird, but even though I grew up in Killeen, Texas, rather than in Hemlock, Michigan (where it sounds like most of the songs are set), the songs on Happened still feel as familiar as old friends. The days of building forts in the woods, knowing all the neighbors, playing sports with the kids down the block, and hanging out with siblings -- yeah, I can still remember those days, too, although at the time they didn't seem like much. Funny how the distance time and knowledge creates can make something you always thought was boring and dull seem heavenly in retrospect. Thanks for taking me back, guys.
[Meryll is playing 11/2/07 at The Loft in The Woodlands, with The Church of Philadelphia & Buxton.]
Fresh off the heels of recently winning Best International Rock EP from Toronto Exclusive Magazine, New York-based rock group Moment Theory and their self-titled mini-collection of original songs was truly an award-winning listen in my book. Though currently recording their first full-length album, lead vocalist/guitarist Joe Salvatore, bassist Bobby Bello, and drummer Mike Bambace continue to exult in the rave reviews surrounding the initial EP and the growing nationwide exposure it's garnering for the band.
This first-disc offering contains six definitive slices of progressive/alternative rock -- the band's mainstay genres of choice -- and hints of substantial influences from many groups within the alternative category. The musical dimension ranges from hard-hitting rock styles to delicately-raked acoustic progressions, sometimes all within the same song. Foo Fighter's "Everlong" and A Perfect Circle's "3 Libras" are pretty good comparison pieces to a great deal of their material. Most of the vocals are smoothed-out legatos, but some of the rhythms and chord arrangements effectively call for switch-hitting between flowing and more punctuated movements.
The very first track unleashes "Calling Shotgun," already a low-flying East Coast airplay magnet, with its hard-driving, guitar-laden beat, superb vocal presence, and catchy lyrics. The rest-and-fermata-filled "Era Of Let Downs" comes later, with an initial easy-going sound that climbs disjointedly, yet stalwartly, from an early non-reggae Police ambience to a repetitively-hammering chorus that finishes the song in a splash of intense lead guitar work. Though all six numbers have their individual merits, my personal favorites are "Regrets," with its eerily-acoustic Days Of The New feel, and "Reaction Time," a real standout song that reminds me of a relatively-dialed-back version of Institute.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Moment Theory's artistry is the lyrical content, and the way they poetically use words to further one of their underlying chief objectives -- the prospect of self-exploration. Indeed, the band name itself bespeaks the group's self-admitted purpose of leading listeners into a fruitful, yet enjoyable, examination of the evolving personal theories we all subconsciously entertain through life...in any given moment, as it were. True to form, they don't really produce concept songs or albums. Instead, Moment Theory functionally postures itself as somewhat of a concept band.
This idea plays out very well for them in this collection. The lyrics are not only hook-filled but are actually thought-provoking. I personally came away with a rather haunted, yet strangely satisfied, feeling of having had a very fulfilling introspective session. Of course, even though this is much more than merely a psyche-job set to music, the band members freely confess that their creations are intentionally designed to serve as an expose of sorts into the conflicts people often struggle with between mind and heart. In essence, this is the soul of Moment Theory: an invitation to attend a voluntary internal journey, set against a beautiful array of excellent music as an external media conduit. In my opinion, it's a trip well worth the price of admission.
If a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, then Moment Theory has certainly put their best foot forward in this abbreviated Sleep Over Music label release. It'll be interesting to see whether they can maintain this momentum with their next project of a first official album proper. This may indeed be their defining moment. Well, that's my theory, anyway.
Jealous Me Was Killed By Curiousity
I guess in this age of everything-anytime, I shouldn't be real surprised that a band from deep-rural Georgia (Acworth, according to the Myspace) sounds so, well, urban. Moros Eros's Jealous Me Was Killed By Curiousity betrays only a teeny-tiny hint of the band's Southern upbringing (on the disjointed, kinda odd "Old Friend"), instead aiming for a hybrid of Nu-New Wave electro-pop with emo dynamics and frantic energy.
It's a bit of a split-personality disorder, really -- on tracks like "Wake and Wait," Moros Eros is a dead ringer for the Killers, right down to the Duran Duran-esque whoa-oh-ohs in the background, while album kick-starter "Quit, You're Being Thoughtless" pulls out a chiming guitar and defiant, yelled vocals that sound like they're right off Braid's Frame and Canvas (I mean that as a compliment, by the way).
Sometimes they blend it nicely, like on "Pride And Joy," which combines both sides of the band's style -- post-rock guitars and Rapture-ish electronics -- into a bitter, acidic fuck-you of a song. At other times, though, like on the aforementioned "Old Friend," it just doesn't fly, sounding repetitive and not particularly captivating. But hey, the band definitely hits the mark more often than not; on top of "Wake and Wait," "Pride And Joy," and "Quit, You're Being Thoughtless," you can also add "On My Side" (love that organ, y'all) and "Choices" to the "win" column, and that ain't bad.
Oddly, the band these guys remind me the most of aren't anything like them stylistically. They sound like all the above people, certainly, but I keep coming back to To the Confusion of Our Enemies-era Riverboat Gamblers. Which is weird, yeah, 'cause these guys definitely aren't what I'd call punk rock. Moros Eros do mirror that band's exuberant rawness and smash-it-all-to-pieces attitude, which, heck, probably makes them more genuinely punk than a ton of "real" punk bands.
[Moros Eros is playing 11/20/07 at Javajazz Coffee House in Spring, with The Stiletto Formal, & The Ax That Chopped The Cherry Tree.]
Somebody somewhere is in their room with mt.st.helens' latest CD Of Others just playing on repeat, and they're thinking, "mt.st.helens is the greatest," in typical cult follower, rabid fan fashion. And then they're scratching their heads and wondering why the rest of the world isn't getting it. If you're looking for instant gratification and accessibility, move on -- this CD is not for you. (Consult your FM dial for your area's conglomerate-owned stations polluting your frequencies. Sorry, that's some Houston bitterness seeping out.) But if you want something to dig into and study and even broaden your musical horizons, grab Of Others , because there's nothing like it stored on your iPod.
At first listen, it's interesting and mysterious but not graspable for me. But give this CD, say, three listens, and you'll be hooked and unfolding the CD cover trying to figure out the lyrics, wanting to know more about what you've just discovered. mt.st.helens is not easily classifiable; in fact, they tend to get lumped in with other bands that aren't easily classified, like Shudder to Think.
For one, the songs are free-form, going where they want to, disregarding the memorized rock formulas. And yet, the songs are still normal length, with most songs around four minutes long. The sound is dark and murky, with echoing, flange-effected guitars that seem to be emanating out of some mysterious canyon. The guitar work is excellent, and is backed by the solid, deep rhythms of the bass, drums, and percussion. Add to that some occasional keys, melodica, and a cello on a few tracks. The vocals range from calculated yelps to smooth singing by vocalist/guitarist/lyricist Quinn Goodwillie, who is the perfect guide to (or perhaps "person to be held responsible for") this trip to an almost different dimension.
Honestly, I've grown to like every song on the CD. "Seething is Believing" became my favorite track early on; it's haunting, with smooth vocals, foggy guitars, and a turn-around bassline. The song references some old Chicago lore with the lyrics, to boot: "I took the hand of fragile Inez Clarke / and she walked beside me / Unaware of life lost long ago / Dead in 1880." For the trivia-lovers: Inez Clarke
, a six-year old buried and memorialized with a statue, has been rumored to haunt a Chicago graveyard and scared the bejeebers out of a night watchman one night.
I came to realize, though, that the culmination of this CD is the song "The Drink," which may in fact be where the odd album cover comes from, but in the song itself, "the drink" seems to be meaning "lake." I say that because the song calls on another Chicago tale about the stormy shipwreck of the Material Service
barge in 1936. The guitar work channels up the feel of fog rising up off Lake Michigan in anticipation. Then, at the peak of the song, guitarist Mike Sprague launches into an anthemic riff that's like bagpipes echoing over the stormy lake that's just finished claiming the vessel. Freakin' gives me chills every time I listen. And Goodwillie deftly paints the whole picture lyrically: "You really should be running straight out of here / Make like a sad apparition and disappear / And sink like Material Service into Great Lake sand / And take a ride up to Foster and get washed in / To the drink / I guess the basic idea was to disappear / Put on maritime camouflage and reemerge / A freshwater specter of a man long past / Risen from steely submission and a captain's commitment / To the drink."
If they get you on those those two songs, then mt.st.helens has you onboard for good; after that, the CD then launches into the thick-grooved, quickly likeable song "City Of," rolls along with "Strange Navigation," and makes a savage assault as the band slays and conquers with the song "Centicorn" (with songs like this, MSH should have a devoted following with the comic book/RPG crowd). Then the CD concludes with a sorta-murky samba on "Interruption," which MSH makes its own before charging into an amped-up, mosh-worthy ending.
Needless to say, I really like this CD. It's brilliant, heady stuff. Of Others is mt.st.helens' third album, and they've been around for nine years, sticking it out and letting their sound mature; it makes you wish more bands would do the same. But perhaps most bands aren't gifted with abilities quite at the heights of mt.st.helens' (sorry, I had to do it!).
On their debut album, Epic Fits, PRE plays an abrasive strain of noise-rock that nonetheless still rocks. They play songs in post-Daydream Nation fashion, but with the energy of a hardcore band. The band uses two basses in addition to guitar, drums, and a woman having a fit -- they use the extra bass as another source of noise than to hold down a groove. (Is it fair for a band to have two bass players, when so many bands today can't even get one?)
Despite the screaming, some of the songs are almost catchy in an odd sort of way. The best songs here have a minimal melody that complements the noise from the instruments without completely letting go of it either. "I Met Her in the Bin" finds just enough of a melody to carry it without making it too pretty, and "Know Yr Teachers" is the noise rock-equivalent of a Loretta Lynn-Montgomery Gentry duet.
As a result of the screaming, the words of the songs are completely unintelligible. All you really know about the songs are the titles, but even those don't say anything in particular - there's absolutely no theme among titles such as "Ace Cock," "Nope Fun," and "Know Yr Teachers." The only thing you get from the vocal is that the singer is really pissed off. But that's all you really need on songs like these, anyway.
A number of songs here work well. The band comes up with some interesting sounds and riffs to complement the singing. But because the songs are mostly the same tempo, unfortunately, they start to sound the same. The melodies are enough to make the better songs go, but not quite enough to drive the songs on their own. If they can come up with way of varying the sound, they might have an actual album, rather than a collection of songs.
Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra
Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra
First off, let's agree that it's dangerous to build a full-length album around a joke. Even when it's a good one. Given that, then, it's bound to be four freakin' times as dangerous to build a four-CD box set (five, if you count the bonus Unplugged disc, which, ah, you really shouldn't) around said joke. Gah. The duo that supposedly makes up Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra, robotic vocalist SPO-20 and music-maker Professor B. Miller, grab hold of their single conceit -- music sung by a robot! -- and run, Forrest Gump-like, from one end of the field to the other and then burst through the gates to head on down the road to nowhere. The only problem is that they're running the wrong direction.
Now, I'm going to admit something dangerous: I have yet to listen to all five CDs of Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra
. God help me, I just can't subject myself to any more slow-paced, Nintendo-style electro with robot-"read" vocals that all sound like a super-extended version of Radiohead's "Fitter Happier"; two CDs out of five (The Comeback
and Sold Out
, to be precise, along with part of B-Sides and Covers
) is brain cell-destroying enough, folks. A man can only take so much. I mean, c'mon -- not even Strong Bad Sings and Other Type Hits
would've worked at all if people didn't already know and love Homestar Runner
The saddest part of this whole debacle, really, is that the lyrics are actually pretty entertaining, in a Talking Heads-/Andy Kaufman-esque fashion. Heck, I even enjoy their "cover" of The Cure's "Boys Don't Cry" (and the roboticized "It's Still Rock'n'Roll to Me" sounds surprisingly like the original). I have a feeling that culled down to a handful of worthy tracks, Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra would've made a darned decent EP.
Laced Up Tightly
Based on a cursory pass through Laced Up Tightly, it'd be easy to dismiss Schmaltz as just another indie-folkie left high and dry in the post-Lilith Fair America, but that'd be a mistake. Beyond the easy labeling, Schmaltz is a fine, emotive, heart-on-the-sleeve songwriter, on par with somebody like Kind of Like Spitting's Ben Barnett or Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst (in his less-egomaniacal moments), while dodging most of the teenage-diary pitfalls to which similar songwriters fall victim.
The five-song EP's highlight is "Fire For Wings," a gently yearning track that was already one of my favorites from the Mia Kat Empire sampler disc released early this past spring. It's got some nicely subtle, deliberate guitars and understated, almost jazzy drums, but the real star is Schmaltz's unaffected, honest voice, a voice that pretty much drips with sincerity. When she sings about wanting to fly, despite all the clichés tied to the whole lyrical conceit, heck, I believe it. Which, to my cynical ear, immediately elevates her far above the pack of coffeehouse singer/songwriters doing their thing in every boho cafe in the country.
Second track "Learn to Be Pragmatic" strikes a bit of a different chord, coming off like sweet country-pop with its jangly guitars and yallternative rhythms, but it still works, as does the beautiful, Azure Ray-esque "For Days," where Schmaltz demonstrates that she can easily reach Sarah MacLachlan-style heights when the song requires it. "Danang Bones" is murky but pretty, reminiscent of Rosie Thomas in her quieter, more melancholy moments, with even a few blues/gospel touches to liven things up. The one downturn is final track "The Guards," which is jauntier and fast-moving but isn't all that memorable, unfortunately -- it's a decent song, but it whizzes by without making much of an impression beyond, "hey, that sure sounds like Bright Eyes..."
The complaint I have for Laced Up Tightly is pretty much that it just isn't long enough; the songs slip by demurely without fanfare or bravado, escaping from the stage when they're done like a shy karaoke singer who can really belt it out but is afraid of the crowd. And that's a shame, because Schmaltz has crafted some truly intriguing songs here; she'd do well to grab this thing by the horns next time 'round and put together a full-length album.
Change of plans, we're coming home
Ah. Thank God for that occasional compulsion I get to do at least a little
bit of research, 'cause now all the pieces have fallen into place in my head. I knew the four guys in H-town's Stadium -- guitarist/vocalist Jeff Stilwell, bassist Stephen Henderson, guitarist/vocalist Ramzi Beshara, and drummer Clay Jasper -- had been in bands before now, but I hadn't realized 'til just now that they'd all (or almost all; not sure about Jasper) done time in indie-rock heroes Little Compass, who were one of those damn few local bands that've really made people outside our sweaty city sit up and take notice. Hell, they were even signed to Negative Progression
, for crying out loud, before they imploded (for reasons I'm not privy to).
It doesn't stop there -- before Little Compass, Henderson and Beshara happened to play in one of the top-flight emo bands in town way back in the day, The Record Time, whose "A Girl a Rose a Stage" still lives on on my iPod. And Beshara and Stilwell also happened to play in The Maria Project, after which Stilwell went on to be in The Shallow Tide. Oh, and it turns out my ears weren't deceiving me after all -- towards the end of the cool, murky "Crown," the Stadium boys do in fact namecheck hometown pop-folksters Papermoons...whose Daniel Hawkins used to play in Little Compass, too. Ah, what a tangled web we weave.
Of course, it's nowhere near fair to judge Stadium on the strength of the band members' past endeavors, but luckily, with Change of plans, we're coming home, I don't have to. While I did indeed like The Record Time and Little Compass, they never seemed to really hit their full potential -- Stadium, on the other hand, grab the brass ring and don't let go. The band carves out its own specific niche of post-emo rock, evoking Jimmy Eat World, The Get Up Kids, The New Amsterdams, and Taking Back Sunday but with tinges of somewhat more challenging stuff thrown in.
The whole damn thing's good; let me just throw that out there. The melodies swoop and soar like the best parts of Mae's Destination: Beautiful, the guitars blaze nicely, and the vocal harmonies don't miss a thing. The more I listen to tracks like "Fairweather," "124," and "Ground Zero," the more I wish I was in my car at night with the windows down (aren't all emo-rock songs best listened to like that?). And I've got to give credit to the band for "Coming Clean," to boot, which has got to be one of the few post-breakup songs I've ever heard that's sad while not bitter or recriminating; it's just the sound of regret and loss, pure and simple. (And yeah, it helps that the vocals remind me of my perennial '80s-romantic-pop favorites The Outfield.)
Out of all seven tracks, "Nine Twelve Twenty-One" marks the album's apex, simultaneously anthemic and jagged and leaping deftly between Jimmy Eat World prettiness to Burning Airlines-style post-hardcore. It comes off like No Knife or Edsel in the end, neither of which is a bad thing. And I can already tell the chorus is going to be stuck in my head for a week or three. Which is no bad thing, either.
[Stadium is playing 11/23/07 at Fitzgerald's (downstairs), with The Mechanical Boy, Ethan Durelle, & Earnie Banks, and again 11/15/07 at Fitzgerald's (upstairs), with Thee Armada, The Mechanical Boy, The American Masquerade, & Sydney Harbour.]
Music for Moving Images
Can you believe all the amazing bands these two little labels have? I mean, just on this comp alone you can find: Antony and the Johnsons, Danielson, Okkervil River, Magnolia Electric Co., Jens Lekman, and Black Mountain. These two little labels are turning into the Sub Pop of new Americana indie-rock.
But let me ask you a question: if you were to buy a label comp, in this iTunes day and age, what would you want on it? Maybe it's just personal preference, but I would not be too stoked to put money down for Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian's Greatest Hits; it seems like kind of a lazy idea for a CD. Really, if you're familiar with these bands, there is virtually nothing here that should interest you beyond what you've already heard. For God's sake, the song "Druganaut" alone is already in Gap ads (okay, not really, but I imagine it will be soon). Maybe this thing was meant to be handed out at festivals or something.
Anyway, here's what they should have done: have the bands on the one label cover the bands from the other label. Or hey, make it all B-sides and rarities or something. Otherwise, buying this CD is on par with buying your team's championship video from Sports Illustrated when you already have it on Tivo at home.
[ED. NOTE: Here's Part II of the sorta-kinda dual review of The Wails/Broken Land. Refer here for the review of the band members' newer stuff.]
Recorded in Brooklyn, Via is the only album The Wails will ever make, since they are no longer a band. Now, this is a relatively everyday occurrence in music. People get together, they mash up their ideas into a solidified medium, and then they part to pursue other interests. The whole break-up-before-the-band-makes-it-big schtick is pretty uneventful, these days.
I was upset, though, when guitarist Tom Hagen confirmed the fact for me. Via is a good album. Not great, no, but good. It has its imperfections, for sure. Simply put, Via makes its listeners think; it prompts the listener to ask questions. Here's what I don't understand: why not make the album entirely conceptual (see the descriptions of "Highway Pirates" and "Intermission" below)? The songs start out fairly bland and uneventful, yet towards the end, vocalist Caroline Edelen's howls are layered, the music climaxes and, just when the band is getting comfortable, when they begin to really let it all out, the song ends and the feeling passes. Why is that? Case in point: in "This Is All A Lie," Edelen sounds like Belinda Carlisle, "Mad About you"-esque for the first half, and then the cymbals pick up and she begins wailing. Layers of her voice weave in and out of each other, like the vocals of Lucia Cifarelli from Drill. Her voice is unmasked and raw, and her rather chilling cries echo on and on and -- sigh -- she takes a breath, and the song is over. Same thing occurs in "Schadenfreude." When Caroline sings "Schadenfreude / And taking it back / What about when I'm old," I want to scream "Why? Let it out -- you've got the pipes! Be bad!" Another small problem I have relates to Hagen's part in this band. He wrote most of the words and music for this album, and yet his guitar plays a very minor role in Via. It sounds hollow, and the music lacks fullness in sound.
For those who've read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, they'll remember silly Alice jumping into a hole after the crazy, watch-wearing rabbit. They'll also remember that her fall involved confusion as to whether it adhered to the laws of gravity. Was she hurtling downward or merely descending lackadaisically? At any rate, "Intermission" could be what Alice hears during her journey to the center of the earth, or Australia, or wherever. One can envision the growls emerging from her surroundings, as Alice drifts into other dimensions. Smith's tabla drums add a prehistoric, worldly freshness into the dank, stale depths of this magical abyss. All the while, Edelen (as Alice) is heard, reverberating gasps aplenty. I mean, seriously, would a little girl who may or may not be floating toward her demise really be remarking upon her missed tea-time or some such? No, she's concerned, she's worried about her current predicament.
"Highway Pirates," another experimental sound-fest, features Edelen's meek squeaking: "Long, blonde hair / Deceiving smile." This could be a song about fake women who try too hard, or it could just be a mass of words that sound good together. (Regardless of all of that, Edelen used to model, and she's also a brunette.) Her voice is eerie and seemingly everywhere, as she breathily utters, "Warped sense of reality / The talented with lies." Is she to the left? The right? Or in my head? Definitely creepy.
Here's the problem I have with the disbandment of The Wails: they showed only a modicum of their collective talent on Via, and they won't be able to develop their sound into a cohesive whole. Yes, the majority of Via is a bit generic and, on occasion, the timing may be off, and Edelen's vocals may come off as sounding contemporary soft-rock, but that doesn't discount their potential. It takes a substantial amount of time and effort for four people to get it right, and, for whatever reason, The Wails decided to expend upon their creative energies separately. In any case, you can do whatever you want with this information; I'm just going to go stick my head down a rabbit hole.
Genuine Sense of Outrage
On Genuine Sense of Outrage, Oxnard, California's The Warriors have let the Rage Against The Machine-isms drop (for the most part; there're occasional throwbacks, like "Life Grows Cold") by the wayside and have instead focused on straight-ahead metalcore a la Snapcase. Unfortunately for them, they maybe shouldn't have made the switch.
Not that there's anything inherently wrong with the music, really -- the guitars roar in lockstep like Killswitch Engage or Darkest Hour, the drums and bass pummel and crush, and musically, the whole of Outrage is a nicely-crafted aural assault. On top of it all, vocalist Marshall Lichtenwaldt snarls and screams, thankfully eschewing the death-metal gurgle and spitting venomous lyrics about pain, brutality, and self-reliance (I think, anyway; not having a lyrics sheet kinda hurts). There're some fine metalcore tracks on here, particularly "Price of Punishment" (more on the reason for that in a minute, though), "Life Grows Cold," "Your Time Is Near," and the stomping juggernaut of a song of "New Sun Rising."
The problem is that there're so many bands out here doing this type of hardcore-influenced metal that it takes something extra to differentiate a band from the host of sound-alikes out there. The guitars sound awful familiar to anybody vaguely familiar with the metalcore genre, and the vocals sound like they could be off any of a half-dozen Victory releases. I think it's telling that when guest vocalists Lou Koller and Lemmy Kilmeister pop up on the album (on "Mankind Screams" and "Price of Punishment," respectively), I find myself sitting up and paying more attention.
[The Warriors are playing 12/14/07 at Javajazz Coffee House in Spring, with As Blood Runs Black, Walls of Jericho, Born of Osiris, Belay My Last, & Dead Before Dusk.]
Destroys All Monsters!
The Alaskan youths of What Remains have put together some impressive songs on their debut full-length album Destroys All Monsters!. All DIY and recorded in one of the band member's studio/bedroom, the CD shows promising music, engineering, and production skills.
Musically, the CD is very poppy punk, with those familiar sung harmonies over power chords and quick changes reminiscent of Blink-182. What Remains serves up lots of sensitivo lyrics about the girl(s) next door, but plenty of good energy, fun, and musicianship abound. Standout songs for me were the breakneck-paced opener "Gone for Good," the catchy but way too personal "My Favorite Vowels are E & I," the sing-songy "Harbingery," and damn, that song "Mykel & Carli" got stuck in my head, where the band sings to some friends during the bridge portion, "I never thanked you for brownies and mix tapes." I liked too the awesomely-titled "Chevy Chase Chin" and "An Audrey Hepburn Dress."
You can't help but like these young upstarts (except if you're the neighbor that lives across the street from their drummer, apparently, who gets a big f.u. in the liner notes). While the production quality is a bit low, stealing some of the extra punch the songs might have had, you gotta give it to the guys in What Remains for tackling it all themselves. Reading about the band, they remain loyal to their local scene and local causes, while also starting
to do some touring. The guys in What Remains says they hope to tour through Texas someday; judging by their work ethic and early sounds, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them.