Follow Your Saint
There's a sticker on the front of Follow Your Saint that says "think: radiohead, portishead, danny elfman." And how correct they are, sir! Opener "Toll for the Brave" starts with an oblong electro-beat that seems strangely familiar but that I can't quite place. With the vocals being lined up and mumbled (gently), it's kind of exciting because you have no idea where this could lead. Are these guys complete weirdos, locked in a studio in Denmark somewhere, where lack of daylight/moonlight stirs up strange muses only known to distant, Northern folk? Not so fast, because here comes the "Radiohead" dynamic: quiet & dour -- loud and anguished -- back to the quiet and dour.
The next cut (a recommended one, via the front sticker) starts off weird and promising. Another "off" beat with a wobbly synth walking alongside. The chorus carries much the same formula as the first, except with analog blasts of fuzzy static. I've begun to focus on the production techniques rather than the songs themselves -- a good thing, if that's your bag.
"If Ever Any Beauty" has my full attention with its great pop hook and gentle, melancholy use of the harpsichord. The well-crafted song is displayed with the interesting production used as a complement rather than a centerpiece. Now I'm hearing touches of Zita Swoon and the Beach Boys.
"Pilgrimsage" starts with the distant, scratchy-record sound made popular by Portishead. The vocals are sort of barked out like one of the cookie-cutter L.A. bands but then descend into another wind-tunnel, breathing machine, organ-pulsing chorus. Drop in the odd analog sounds, and the Ave sound is established. "Endless Light" starts with a typewriter clicking. Fantastic! There're some nice-sounding guitars, plus another aching chorus that soars.
Everything is in place here -- the sounds, the songs, the production, the salesmanship. Follow Your Saint is brooding, incorporates modern touches with strange noises, yet doesn't abandon guitars nor their influences. If your poison is melancholia set off with analog bleeps and artsy melody lines, these Scandinavians will be a safe, familiar addition to your collection.
I'm running out of space on the iPod. Therefore, I rarely put new music on it these days; for your band to get a coveted piece of my remaining 200 MB, you'd better impress me enough to click that "Import CD" button. I was ripping Transporter, however, by the third song, mainly due to The Downfall's no-nonsense approach to loud, bombastic rock. Hints of the Foo Fighters ("Yourself and No One Else"), Shades Apart ("Domeshi Guri," "The Obvious Absence"), The Revolution Smile ("Sorry Situation"), and even Silverchair ("Undone") are all evoked at various times throughout the album -- not a bad group of touchstones to draw from, in my opinion. The Downfall delivers melodic vocals that venture into screaming territory once in a while, propulsive drumming, nice low end, and lots of thick guitar riffs. I was also very impressed at the album's production -- these days, more often than not, power-trios that play loud rock come off pretty flat. The chunks and bombast of the guitar tend to get buried in the mix, or you lose the power of the drums. Not the case with Transporter. This is an album that you won't have to crank up too loud to fully enjoy -- although you may want to anyway.
Form Of Rocket
What's not to like here? Crazy liner notes composed of hand-scrawled lists of the hierarchies of scents and angels (uh, kinda; I'm guessing the Church doesn't recognize "The Grand Universe Eventuals" as members of the heavenly host), song titles like "Teapot Dome, Bitch" and "You'd Look Cute in the Trunk of My Car," lengthy, abrasive math-rock song structures, bottom-heavy bass that lurches and thunders as it pulls the whole mess steadily along like a locomotive, scraping, menacing guitars with a layer of grime so thick you can only cut it with a steak knife, and half-strangled/half-yodeled vocals that come off like The Jesus Lizard's David Yow if he were a NASCAR-watching redneck. Hot damn, Form Of Rocket's Men is fun -- albeit a brutal, rough-edged, dead-end-life kind of fun. The whole thing, all the way from the loud, violent, Fatal Flying Guilloteens-ness of "This Is Occupation" through the slow-stomping rock of "Go Get Your Buck" and the slightly more melodic "Gearth" to album closer "Peter Makowski Had an Aneurysm," comes off like June of '44 playing a backyard barbecue somewhere in the far-flung hillbilly sticks after doing a whole lot of desert-biker meth. It's loud, it's dissonant, it's hypnotic, it's sarcastic-smarty-pants intelligent, and it makes me wish Amphetamine Reptile was still putting out records.
Goons of Doom
The Story of Dead Barbie and Ghost
This Australian quintet's debut full-length is reputed (by them) to have been recorded in only four days, but to have taken eight months to be released, an auspiciously skewed relationship of creative fire to business sense that matches the comical unsavvy of the record itself. Packed with weird inside jokes ("Bikey Zombie Surfin' Club"), drug-addled anti-songs ("My Song"), and incompetence-on-purpose (take your pick), The Story of Dead Barbie and Ghost doesn't yield comedic hooks so much as endearing annoyances, like a Dead Milkmen record without the brains. It's obvious that Dead Barbie won't earn the Goons a place in the punk pantheon, but they seem to have the right attitude, and when their songwriting develops they may achieve greater importance. Not to ruin the magic, but it might help if they took themselves just a little more seriously, which surely they are capable of doing. Singer Bang Bang Bunny Fang (ugh), for example, speaks at least two languages. Then again, perhaps the low road will serve them better; it would be a shame if the world never saw another song like "The Ass Kisses the Face."
Helmet's sound was distinctive when they released their first record, which was both good and bad. Good because their sound was original, but bad because they sowed the seeds for nü-metal, progressive metal, and the metal revival in general. Thanks, guys! The band's sixth album, Monochrome, is a return to its roots -- the overall sound is similar to their first couple of records. They also enlisted the producer that worked on those records, as well. Of course, if you've heard Helmet, you know what to expect. If you haven't, they mix metal with dissonant chords, instrumental lines, and different time signatures.
There's a lot of interesting guitar playing on the record. Band leader Page Hamilton has a dissonant, chromatic quality to his riffs and solos that's distinctive, and he plays a bunch of them here. "Brand New" has some cool thrashy, odd-metered guitar riffs and a solo that sounds like Stevie Ray Vaughan getting beat up by Steve Vai. "Howl" is a one-minute Derek Bailey-esque guitar instrumental. His solo on "Almost Out of Sight" is almost psychedelic, although the solo itself is Hamilton's usual cutting style.
A lot of the magic is gone from their first records, however. The original rhythm section was almost dance-y despite its precision and ferocity, and while the new rhythm section is good, it still doesn't compare. Hamilton's voice has also deteriorated -- it used to be much more flexible and precise. In other types of music, his voice wouldn't be a problem (if he sang blues, folk or country, it would even be an improvement). But Page Hamilton is playing a young man's game, and it's starting to show. And the songs are more straightforward than they were on the old records, which is another disappointment.
If you've never heard Helmet before, Monochrome isn't a bad place to start -- there are some decent songs and interesting guitar playing. But if you're familiar with the band, it just doesn't match up to their best stuff. Diehard fans (if there are still any out there) will undoubtedly enjoy it. The disc is much better than their previous record, and it may be a sign that Helmet is on an upswing. But that doesn't make Monochrome any more worthwhile on its own.
Only listen to this record on a rainy, or at least overcast, day. Seriously: it doesn't make sense when the sun is out. I've tried it, and the lyrical roundaboutness, the pretty but unremarkable musical backing, and the clipped baritone vocal stylings just come off as a stilted joke.
But I've listened to it twice on overcast days now, and I'm tempted to think when I hear it on those days that it's something closer to a masterpiece. The bookends to this album are what hold it together, and probably suffice as a litmus test for the uncertain. "Paperback Bible" is a song that seems to be about shopping for random bits and bobs, and it's one that is so arbitrary and specific in its details that a casual listen could mistake it for a complete pisstake. But if you're feeling it, the title truly resonates -- it's the story of a lonely and, well, damaged person who's holding together their days with whatever they can.
"The Decline of Country and Western Civilization," meanwhile, might only work if you've had the previous 40-some minutes of sublimated tension to explode with disgust, as the narrator surveys pop culture only to dismiss everything repeatedly with "Damn, they're looking ugly to me." But the tone is one of self-disgust -- a person who can no longer see beauty anywhere. I can't blame somebody for not wanting to spend this much time with someone this damaged, but Lambchop deserve their kudos for being this self-lacerating, and making music that befits a cloudy day.
Maxime de la Rochefoucauld/Automates Ki
The Automates Ki, in this incarnation are 40 automatons that play drums, strings, and cymbals. It's certainly a novel approach to the one-man-band, but the question is: is it worth listening to? The answer is yes: the resulting music, at least as much due to programmer and accompanist Maxime Rioux as to any intrinsic qualities of the automatons, is an engrossing textural odyssey, skirting up against various world music and ambient exploratory sounds without ever feeling firmly entrenched in any specific genre. Percussion-heavy, of course, but with ambient winds and strings and other sounds floating through, it's a great all-purpose roaming soundtrack. If it has a failing, it's in a lack of structured necessity: even after half-a-dozen listens, none of these tracks particularly distinguish themselves to me, and certainly there's never a change I anticipate, a moment I look forward to. But even if it just drifts along, it's an obscenely pleasant drift, and definitely recommended for lovers of percussive, textured music.
So, when I first came across Paolo Nutini's inaugural Live Sessions EP, I had to ask myself: does the world really need another young guy who sings like an old guy? I mean, it feels like the music world's seen several of those over the past couple of years, ranging from the geeky redheaded kid from American Idol to more mature revivalist heartthrobs like Michael Bublé and Jamie Cullum -- haven't we had enough?
I don't mean to disparage Bublé or Cullum, by the by -- having missed out on Frank Sinatra when he was alive, I myself enjoy Bublé's is-he-serious-or-not? take on the Chairman's schtick, and I caught Jamie Cullum's live show not long ago and came away very impressed with his showmanship. It's just that the pretty-boy singer (on Live Sessions, Nutini only sings, leaving the guitars to Donny Little and Ben Parker) who gamely steps into the limelight out of nowhere and whose voice quaintly reminds us of the music our parents used to listen to seems like it's been done, by this point. It's like the whole skinny-white-girl-belting-the-blues thing -- out of all of the Joss Stones in the world, only a small, small handful are truly talented enough to be a Fiona Apple.
Luckily for Paolo Nutini, he makes the cut. I put on his Live Sessions EP as a scornful skeptic, figuring to have a cursory listen and then throw the disc on the pile, but then I found that I wanted to keep listening to it, over and over again. And sure, there's a heavy dose of "hey, this is like what Dad used to force us to listen to in the car!" feel to the music -- Nutini croons like a less-spaced Van Morrison or like Rod Stewart back before he looked leathery (which, yes, has been a while now), with a somewhat nasal, cigarette-cracked wail/murmur -- but it works nonetheless. His vocals are expressive and unique enough that they suck me in every time, and that's quite a feat.
More than the rough-edged nasal voice, though, the overall attitude is where Nutini shines. The kid (he's apparently only 19) channels the spirit of the soulful crooners of yesteryear ridiculously well, managing to be both loose-limbed and tight at the same time. He's laidback and relaxed, with an almost reggae-sounding delivery at points, but still slyly confident and brazen, whether he's demanding that an older woman stay after learning how old he is ("Jenny Don't Be Hasty") or pleading gently with a lover ("Last Request"). Even when he's low-key, as on "These Streets," a rambling, folky, homesick ode to leaving the town you've known your whole life (Nutini's Scottish, from Paisley, but relocated to the sprawl of London when he decided to give the music thing a real shot), he sounds less nervous than bemused, affirming at the end that yeah, he'll get it eventually.
I should note, by the way, that Live Sessions is apparently just a quick first taste; Nutini's debut full-length, These Streets, has already hit gold in the U.K. but won't be released stateside 'til early in 2007. I'll be keeping my eyes out for it, personally, because while some of his erstwhile peers are doomed to remain what they currently are, now and forever -- Michael Bublé's never going to release a drum-and-bass album, and really, that's fine -- Nutini is talented and lyrical enough that it feels like a big wide road's opened up in front of him. After the third or fourth spin of this disc, I caught myself thinking, "damn, this kid could go anywhere."
Remember the Night Parties
Not to be confused with the Oxford Set (from Los Angeles, who rock), the Oxford Collapse (from Brooklyn) are hard to peg -- but they're good. Not as good as Pitchfork proclaims them to be, no, but they still deserve to be checked out. After a few listens, the most obvious comparisons I can think of are mid-'90s alterna-rock such as Slint, Inch, Rust, and Sponge. Shit, the second-to-last song ("Forgot to Write") sounds like it could have been an early version of Sponge's "Molly (Sixteen Candles)."
The CD artwork even busts out a nostalgic pictorial of a bunch of guys dicking around in someone's backyard. It's like the guys in the artwork could've been your older cousins who first introduced you to all those '90s bands, and Oxford Collapse are taking you back with the sounds, back to before shit got all disco-punk. Yeah, I have no idea what I'm talking about, but if you want to impress your friends with the best new Sub Pop release, fire up the Oxford Collapse.
The Relief Effort
At Your Mercy
First, let me give you some context. My friend and I drove to New York last month, and that's when I decided to do most of my CD review listening for the CDs in my current pile. As soon as I read the one-sheet that came with At Your Mercy, though, I knew that we were in for trouble. Frankly, it makes lead singer/songwriter Steven Wolfe sound like a bit of an asshole. Asshole-iosis in rock is totally okay, but you have to have the band to back it up. Unfortunately, The Relief Effort is not that outfit.
It's not that the music itself is bad; it;s passable "alternative" radio rock with a slightly rootsy angle to it. What really drives the band into the ground are Wolfe's vocals -- the guy wants to be Springsteen, Waits, and (shiver) Scott Stapp all rolled into one and fails miserably on all counts. Yes, even Stapp. To add insult to injury, the vocals are way up in the mix, which brings the sub-par performance to the forefront. One song in particular, "Save The Radar," drove my travel buddy and I so crazy with its repeated nails-on-the-chalkboard refrain that we almost took the CD out. Somehow we got through it, and from that point on we would warble "SAAAVE THE RAAAADARRRH" out of nowhere during the entire trip as a joke/annoyance to one another. So yeah, if you're looking for cannon-fodder for "shitty lowest-common-denominator rock" jokes, then by all means this is the album for you. Otherwise, stay far away.
Bite Your Tongue
What happened to '80s glam punk rock, you ask? Well, I'm going to tell you: it came back as a band called Sex Slaves. I know, I know -- how could a sneering, leering, punk band with the moniker Sex Slaves be any good? Believe me, the name's not just a gimmick. The band sings most of their songs about drinking, girls, and nocturnal emissions. You get what you'd expect, but surprisingly, the Slaves also give you a little more.
There are a few particularly impressive songs on Bite Your Tongue, and I'd advise checking these out somehow before you buy the album. "Kiss Me" is an acoustic ballad that has a punk attitude and a Guns 'N Roses feel, and "Going Out Tonight" has that mawkish Oi! feel to it that makes you sentimental for circle pits, stage dives, and Operation Ivy T-shirts. My favorite track, though, is "Thank You Lord for Jack Daniels," although I'm not sure I like it more because I drink a lot of Jack, or because I like the down-home feel of the bluesy punk-style anthem. I was surprised by this curveball track's presence on the album, really -- the band incorporates a blues harmonica that gives the song that bluesy feel of an old bar, and the chant vocals add to the drinking song vibe of the track. This song transcends the liquor-versus-beer barrier. Even if you're just a gin and tonic person, I think you'll enjoy the simple and endearing message of "Thank You Lord for Jack Daniels." The lyrics pull you in, and the singing hits all the right notes.
As for singer/guitarist Eric 13, he reminds me of Tim Armstrong of Rancid. He's got that "chortle" down (is that a word?). All I'll say is that smoking two packs a day will definitely do some work on your vocal chords. Although I should ask the reader to remember that this album is by a band called Sex Slaves. This isn't opera. You get the classic, raw punk rock voice and, of course, don't forget the attitude and obvious self-indulgence.
Beyond the standout tracks, unfortunately, I'd have to say that as an album, Bite Your Tongue is a tossup. "Contagious," for one, is a cheesy Bon Jovi-style song -- when Eric 13 sings "Your love is contagious," I almost lose it. It's so cheesy I'm not sure whether the band did it for the cloying affect or because they really are that cheesy. In any case, most of the songs are exercises in hyperbole -- if they do a song like Kiss, Buck Cherry, or Rancid, it sounds like they're trying to outdo the former bands. I know Sex Slaves are purposefully self-indulgent, and I know they know that I know that. It makes me hate them a little but also admire them for the fact that they could care less. They're coarse, promiscuous, and rowdy, and they want to tell you all about it. They're Sex Slaves.
Living Out Of Time: Live
Robin Trower might be the best guitar player of the blues that I've heard since I last watched my Stevie Ray Vaughan Live At Austin City Limits DVD. Without pop pretense or political messages, Living Out Of Time: Live will transport you to the furthest, funkiest regions of electrified transcendence possible via mere guitar work.
Stratocaster in tow, Trower has been doing his Fender funkiest since1973 (nope, he's not exactly a newcomer), and on this album, he and band members, Davey Pattison (vocals), Dave Bronze (bass), and Pete Thomson (drums) measure out the experience and sounds of the deepest legends of electric blues. With creamily distorted guitar, Trower's psychedelic solos incorporate genuine and innovative blues riffs, marking him as a gifted guitarist brimming with originality in the Jimi Hendrix vein of blues rock.
The spirit and energy of his live performance on Living Out Of Time is uncanny, and Trower's technique enhances the album's pace with smooth precision. The album's title still rings true, in spite of his brilliant timing, as the album eases the listener into an extrasensory dimension outside of time and space. I don't smoke pot, and Robin Trower's one of the reasons why.