Band of Horses
Cease to Begin
Between their last record and their new one, co-songwriter Mat Brooke left Band of Horses. This left guitarist/vocalist Ben Bridwell with the challenge of continuing the band on his own. On their new record, Cease to Begin, the overall sound of the band hasn't changed -- there's still lots of heavy reverb, and the vocals are still front and center. The biggest difference is that there's less of a variety of songs than there was on Everything All The Time.
The best song on the record is "Marry Song," which is a countrified hymn with beautiful Band-style harmonies. The melody is set off by a simple electric piano part and drums, providing just enough to buoy the song. Bridwell's voice works better on this song than on the others -- the reverbed vocals and anthemic quality of the melody complements the spiritual quality of the melody. "The General Specific" is another good one, a '60s-style song with more great harmonies, but it also sounds the least like the rest of the songs on the album, with the reverb turned down and a fun quality that's absent from the rest.
The rest of the album, unfortunately, isn't nearly as good. The other songs try too hard to be big anthems and fail, and they're all the same kind of anthem, which makes the whole thing tedious. If there were less songs of that style, it might have made the remaining songs better -- "Is There a Ghost," for example, the first song on the album, is okay when you hear it alone, but after hearing the rest of songs, it becomes much more annoying, as well.
Bridwell is obviously trying to find a new path for Band of Horses after Brooke's departure, and he's found a couple of ideas that work. Unfortunately, far too many of these don't. It's too bad that the variety and casual inspiration of Everything All The Time has disappeared. It's possible that with time, Ben may be able to be able to regain the facility and range of Brooke's contributions, but right now he's not able to go it alone.
Even if you change your mind
Caalma is the stage name of Mark Steven McCraw, a one-man show from our very own Pasadena, Texas. Even if you change your mind is his first full-length release, and he also has some acoustic stuff available on the Caalma Website. He's currently recruiting band members while working on his next album and plans on releasing a poetry album shortly thereafter. Also, Caalma's Myspace page is rife with ladies, so drop him a line if you're in it for the chicks.
A pretty little piano ditty opens the album, and it's a good intro...but a bit too reminiscent of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and frankly, it reveals more than intended. This type of clumsy homage pervades the rest of the album, so put your surprise-face away. If you went to your high school's battle of the bands and saw the metalhead's band play, then this album will ring a few bells.
There are two flavors of the remaining nine tracks: downstroke-ridden rock thrashes and poppy electroacoustic ballads. The former all sound pretty similar to each other, so if you still dig Judas Priest riffs, you can go nuts for about half an hour -- punch-punch-punch, bang head, repeat. The non-metal tracks are all pretty similar, too, with upbeat strumming and happy lyrics about nothing in particular. Basically, college coffee shop white noise designed for landing chicks (see paragraph one).
The lack of variety is distracting, and one gets lost pretty easily listening to Even if you change your mind. Even though it was three years in the making, this album sounds a little rushed, and would have played much better as a shorter EP release. Less is more.
Rhymes and Beats
By calling his album Rhymes and Beats, Gnotes sets himself to a higher standard by putting the emphasis on the musical material of the album. (If he'd called the album Dollaz and Hos, for example, he might be able to slack off a bit.) Gnotes (a.k.a. Sean Dwyer) wrote the rhymes and produced or co-produced most of the beats (as well as playing some of the instruments), so the title is appropriate. The album doesn't entirely live up to its title, mind you, but it's enjoyable enough.
There are some good beats on the record. The beats range from live-sounding rock to Meters-style funk to more typical hip-hop/R&B beats, and Gnotes produced most of the best beats here himself. The best one is "Dodgey Bullets," which is a giddy combination of big drum loop and cool slide guitar with a cunningly deployed delayed guitar part and a break that just adds to the fun. "We Can Roll" is a slower, stripped-down R&B beat with a strummed guitar and a beautiful female vocal part. "Promises [Remix]" sounds like a slow, tense, low-rent Meters groove with a synth stolen from Bernie Worrell, plus a distorted rap that increases the tension.
He sounds a lot like POS, but his rhymes aren't that good -- they're serviceable at best, and ponderous. You might not notice, except that he calls attention to them with the lyric excerpts printed in the liner notes -- for "Tower of Babylon," his selection is "Running circles around the circus of clowns / So when the sun surfaced the clouds, a purpose was found / So put it down like a foot to the ground / Or an axe to grind, it's been past time / Take a look around," which won't be getting quoted anywhere else besides by his mom. "Change for a dollar? That only makes senseless," in "Belly of the Beast," is better, but could be tightened up further.
Rhymes and Beats certainly lives up to the beats part, as Gnotes produced a considerable variety of beats on the album. Some of them are really good, and there aren't any straight-up clunkers here. But his rhymes need help. As long as you don't pay much attention to the rhymes, it's enjoyable. Maybe he should have called it Beats and Rhymes?
Tire Fire (Grey Ghost #42)
BDM (Grey Ghost #43)
Linus Pauling Quartet
Hawg! (Grey Ghost #48)
Okay, so this is going to be a little weird. I'm sitting here reviewing three CDs that you're not real likely to ever be able to hear or find, in spite of how good
they are, because, well, they were released in super-limited-edition sets of 13 (I think?) and only sold for a week apiece at the Domy Bookstore
here in lovely, mosquito-infested Houston, Texas. Meaning that if you missed that one week window or showed up after the store sold all its copies, you're shit out of luck.
What's the deal? Well, H-town "record" label Grey Ghost has been releasing a series of weekly CD-Rs, each by a local musician/band playing songs you can't find anywhere outside of maybe Myspace, each with hand-made/copied cover art, and is selling each one as described above for a measly $2. John Sears, the guy behind the label, seems to be some kind of cracked genius, in that he's been steadily putting out stuff by the obscurest of the obscure for years, a lot of which has ended up turning out to be more "real" than anybody had expected (for example, the first release I saw by the label was the Fatal Flying Guilloteens' debut tape, still a classic).
This time he's gathered tracks from the best and brightest of the current Houston indie crew to put out in super-limited fashion, and the result is pretty great. Of course, all the limited-release-ness wouldn't matter much if the music sucked, and going by what I've heard, it certainly doesn't. The bands he's released to date have covered a wide range of styles and formats, from one-song rock epics (keep reading) to intense prog-rock to raw, scratchy garage-rock demos.
I've managed to snatch up three of the Grey Ghost series, the first of which is Hearts of Animals' Mlee Marie doing a(nother) solo thing, albeit one that's significantly less electronic than her "main" project, even if the songs themselves are kissing cousins. This is bedroom folk by definition -- i.e., it sounds like it was recorded in a bedroom -- but there's such a dark, gloomy tinge to it that it feels like Marie's going to slit her wrists by the time the EP's finished. There's "Chapter," a soft-voiced and sad little track that makes me think, weirdly, of both The Secret Stars and Jewel at the same time. Then there's "My Shoes," the slightly awkward lyrics of which made me cringe just a bit at first but which now makes the song that much more endearing (love the "ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh" bit), and the gorgeously sweet closer, "Break My Heart." All three tracks whip on past so quick that if you blink, you've missed it already and have to go hunting for the "Play" button again. Which is no bad thing, considering.
Next at bat is BDM, the acronymization of local music scene fixture Ben Murphy, who's done time in bands from Pop Deflation to Bright Men of Learning and beyond. He's a talented songwriter, guitarist, and singer in the indie-rock vein, and this CD-R's been an especially cool surprise, seeing as I'd only been able to hear some of the songs as MP3s before now. I'm happy as hell that this stuff's finally seeing the light of non-Myspace day. Opener "Crazy Susan" is quiet, demure guitar-pop that brings to mind Austinites Silver Scooter, while "Make 'Em Like They Used To" comes off like a weird cross between Crooked Fingers and the gentler side of The Replacements, with nimble, Blackpool Lights-ish guitars.
Then there's "The Bigger the Heart," which is personal as hell but still beautifully poetic; honestly, it's a bit sad when you're waking up and can tell what time it is by how bad the hangover is. Murphy then stabs right to the heart of it, condemning the state of New Mexico "for keeping you there," and it becomes pretty clear how he ended up so foggy-headed. "The Grey Call" is one of my favorites on here (and one of the songs I'd heard previously), reminiscent at points of Guided By Voices and with a nice, thick bass and echoing drums -- my one complaint about the track is that it ends too soon.
The disc's highlight, though, is "Weather King," which is practically a Silkworm song, sucking in the essence of that band's understated, melodic, gloomy-in-the-rain glory. The limber guitar lines and the solid thrumming of the bass underneath bring to mind those erstwhile Seattle/Chicago sons. And by that point, it makes perfect sense to follow it all up with a cover, a great version of Big Star's "Thirteen" that's sweet and melancholy and defiant all at once.
Finally, there's the Linus Pauling Quartet's contribution to the series, the epic-long "Hawg!," which was reportedly left off the band's recent All Things Are Light due to reasons of length and, uh, overall sanity. It's not hard to see why -- it's a monster of a "song," one that starts off with fucked-up, distorted guitar and slowly staggers to its feet to become a heroic ode to a beloved Harley. The track's stomping and messy, all slobbery, gloriously sunstroked fuzz-psych-rock. And it's badass. When it crashes and trudges to a close, there's a quick clip of one of the guys in the band explaining how it felt near the end of the song, and it fits pretty much perfectly: "I wanted to keep going; it seemed instinctual at that point. But you can cut it--" Okay, yeah, I get that. It's like the neverending stoner-rock groove; if you let it, it'll just go on forever.
Looking at all three releases, though, I keep coming back to the problem that you, dear reader, won't ever get to hear 'em. So why the hell am I even bothering with this? It's a fair question, and it leads me to the conclusion that what I'm really reviewing, at the heart of it, isn't so much the music -- although I've hopefully done some of that, too -- but the idea behind the whole Grey Ghost CD-R series.
To me, what Grey Ghost is attempting with these releases is to essentially make music special again. Not that music's all shit now, mind you, but just that the immediate-delivery nature of music today is a double-edged sword: if you can pop online and purchase a CD's worth of MP3s at the press of a button and listen to the "album" a minute later, where's the challenge to it? You've reduced the music-listening, music-purchasing experience to the equivalent of, say, paying your credit card bill online. You know what you're getting, you can get it whenever you want, and it'll still be there tomorrow if you decide you can't be bothered to get it right now. There's no urgency to it.
I've griped before about how hard it was back in The Good Old Days to find some obscure metal band you heard once on the radio -- now you can Google 'em and then download their entire catalogue straight to your hard drive -- but there's a part of me that misses that, even still. It's the thrill of the hunt, so to speak. True story: I caught part of Van Halen's "Love Walks In" on the radio one afternoon when I was in middle school, and I was totally bowled over (no, I have no clue why), but I missed the name of the song. After that, I was smitten with the damn thing. I searched the shelves at the record store, sang snatches of the lyrics (what I'd caught, anyway) to record store clerks and friends, the whole thing; the best I got was shrugging and occasional uncertain responses of, "Iron Maiden, maybe? The thing with the master and the slave, that sounds like Maiden..."
I don't remember how I finally found 5150, unfortunately, but when I did, I was over the moon. I listened to the damn tape for years, I swear, 'til college and I discovered the wonders of CDs. Even now, though, in spite of growing somewhat out of the collected works of Messrs. Van Halen, Hagar, Anthony, and Roth, there's a part of my soul that still loves that fucking album, because I had to fight for it, struggle for it. And it's not about elitism, not about "ooh, I liked them first," but rather about being part of a club that anybody can be in, if they just make a little effort.
What Grey Ghost (and, in a different realm, the Secret Saturday Shows crew here in Houston) is doing is bringing some of that sense of wonder and risk back to music. You never know what you're going to get beforehand, you can only get it for a limited amount of time, and if you miss it, it's gone for good, probably never to be seen/heard again. Which, at least to me, is pretty damn awesome.
My Education vs Dälek
On this single, Austin space-rock band My Education takes a piece of music originally written for piano and strings in the late 1970s and puts their own, updated -- albeit somewhat traditional -- spin on it. The result, "Spiegel im Spiegel," is a peaceful, melodic song that ignores the traditional quiet-loud-quiet formula of modern post-rock and instead meanders along quietly and ends way too quickly. If the single's title is indication of an actual competition, My Education easily wins. Dälek's take on My Education's version of "Spiegel im Spiegel" is a monotonous blunder that plods along far too long. In comparison to My Education's soft viola, pedal steel, and piano blended with low-key basslines and guitars, Dälek's repetitive beats overpower the beauty of the original track and ruin what could have been an interesting remix. Sometimes it's best to leave well enough alone.
[My Education is playing 1/5/08 at Rudyard's, with Alkari & Hymn Six.]
1000 Miles From Home
Collusion, a recent six-cut EP from Dallas-based band 1000 Miles From Home, features Zac Carrington (lead vocals/guitar), Jeff Widman (guitar/vocals), Eddie Castillo (lead guitar), Chris Bender (bass), and Keith Mitchell (drums). The bandmates originally hail from different US cities in all geographical directions. This group itself, like their current city of choice, functionally exists as a veritable hub that has brought together a very impressive pool of day-job-working musical talent. They regularly describe themselves as just five regular dudes playing regular music that you can really get into. Humility aside, if you actually buy-into this idea pre-listen, then get prepared to be greatly surprised. I found very little about the band or their music that I would consider all that plain or (ugh!) usual. In fact, I would dare say that they're probably one of the better unsigned bands I've heard in quite a while. Their six-pack of a preview collection should prove to be a real gem for hard rock music fans who enjoy tunes that skirt the area between very early grunge and post-alternative content.
The album pretty much explodes into motion like a Texas thunderstorm with "The Man," a double-bassing, heavily back-beated hard rocker that jumps right out at you in a hefty, Nickelback-ish barrage. It includes a slice of great lead guitar work, reminiscent of steely-edged '70s arena rock frettings. This first track, seemingly alluding to stalking voyeurism or a close cryptic facsimile, excellently sets the tone for the rest of the album. As maintained throughout all of the remaining material, it also introduces the group's inclination toward mixing upbeat instrumental scoring with rather angst-filled lyrical focus. This curious combo, as contradictory as it sounds, invokes a weird sensation in effect: you're pumped-up by the pounding tempos, but somewhat sympathetically and subliminally heart-string-tugged by the vocalized poetry at the same time. Such a contrasting element would be a rare move for any band, yet stylishly pulled off here.
Another rather odd characteristic of 1000MFH is the way they meld the presence of vocals and instruments together in the mix. In essence, while the instrumentation is belting you in the face like a punching bag, the vocals are elegantly soothing out your blow-wearied brow. Even when singing loudly, the melody comes off as a relatively smoothed-out compression of energy. The total sum of all of these contrary aspects actually fits together very nicely, like the top and bottom reaches of a sine wave form; in this case, creating a sonic sample that's quite pleasing, though perhaps a bit unconventional. Somehow they've managed to round-up all this non-conformity into a fairly universally-patterned, multi-song motif.
The next installment, "Explain The Explanation," my personal fave, charts a slightly different course, kicking-off with a moderately rolling, flowing rhythm, offset by twinned guitar riffs acting as a musical metronome in the background. By the time you're wafting along with an acoustic that strums in to carry the verse, you're abruptly ushered right into a relentlessly-hammering chorus. I still find myself mentally replaying the catchy melody in it, even now. The words are etched-in too: "All that's left in my head / I remember one thing, I missed what you said / All that's left to be said / Was her faint breath misread." Be warned: if this gets airplay, the whole country could become thusly affected by this hooky song.
The band rounds out the EP with "Betrayal," with repetitive intro-riffs that exude a softened punk/power pop chemistry, the even darker-emoted "Confiding In Pylons," with its cadence-filled percussion under-girtings , "When You Go," a very interesting cross of Green Day-type arrangement with pseudo-emo sounds, and "Long Drive To Texas," apparently a sonic-poetic take on vacant mind journeys taken during boring highway travels.
1000 Miles From Home may have a bit more of a trek ahead of them before they can officially say they've actually arrived home. Be that as it may, they already display an amazing array of talent and songwriting ability for a group of musicians in the entry-level trenches. I have a sneaking suspicion that they have far more musical range under wraps than what is displayed in the narrow groove of rock content that they've shown so well on this first recording showcase. We'll see. I've marked my calendar to hear them when they come to Houston, and I recommend you do the same when they're in your neck of the woods. In the final analysis, I just couldn't help it. I found myself hopelessly becoming an unwitting party to this band's musical "collusion."
The Story Of
The World's Affair
I reviewed The Story Of's 2006 EP, foothill highway appalachian road, falling in love with it while travelling in Europe last summer. The album fit perfectly with the wonderful freedom and self-awareness I was enjoying: I was living life, unrestrained by work or the real world, exploring my own giddiness in being alive and unworried. Foothill highway appalachian road was an affirmation of everything that was good and pure in life, a joyous presentation of art and expression from five guys from Austin.
What two years of our current history can do to a band.
It is with great sadness that I must report the joy is gone. Not gone; taken. There is a weariness to The World's Affair, as if the band aches, not in the heart, but in their bones from dragging the weight of the past half-decade of our country's history behind them. One can't help but notice on first listen, even without contemplating the lyrical content, that the band is frustrated, not with the process of making music, but with the posture of the world. The listener feels it so strongly I have rarely ever encountered a more honest translation of emotion onto tape.
That The Story Of is able to do this so effectively suggests a band perfectly in tune with their craft, able to tap this honesty without any worry of the typical barriers to musical creativity. Every song is a self-contained ecosystem, with details and sounds and quirks unique to that world, but connected to the other songs in a loose narrative, not of a story, but of a state of mind, a headache sourced to the current mess we are in, mostly of our making. There is a meanness in songs like "The Privateer" -- where the marching beats on the last EP reminded one of rousing drinking songs, they sound here like Gestapo brownshirts or jack-booted thugs. I would never have believed that The Story Of could create such an angry album, and even after repeated listening, I am still shocked at what they've managed to record here.
It is almost useless to try to describe the individual songs on The World's Affair; they are so rich, so complex, and so outside traditional song structure, yet still instantly familiar to fans. "Carry the Horizon" is one of the many standouts, a lazy loop and acoustic guitar intro build to a gorgeous wordless sing-a-long chorus followed by The Story Of's patented vocal slides and harmony. The quirky programming and keyboard parts on "The World's Affair" are better integrated, more musically interesting, and add a texture and lushness only hinted at on previous works.
"Wonderlust" is yet another right turn in The Story Of's sound and writing. A groovy, bass-heavy synth riff propels the song over a gibberish call-and-response chorusy bit that could be a revolution or a rally. Led by a young girls voice. Really. "Pinwheel" is maybe the most obvious nick that listeners might notice, but it doesn't matter; it's the best song on the album, a jaunty, easy-driving rocker that hides the bitter thread that runs throughout. This juxtaposition of poppy, hoppy music driving a downtrodden message is fascinating. The intro to "Armada" could be a mash-up between Duran Duran and Sigur Ros, growing more powerful before it erupts into a falsetto chorus, followed by one of The Story Of's quirky route-changes.
Listeners would do well to wear headphones while deciphering the lyrics, especially in the more lush passages (I have purposely refrained from translating much of the content here, as one of the pleasures of this album is exploring the message and meaning within the lyrics). In another nod to the band's mastery, there is a conscious effort to match the content of the lyrics with the surrounding music. The most obvious messages are stuck right out front, while the more obscure passages lie deep in the mix, surrounded by layers of complex melody.
Some of it does come across a bit ham-handed, like the rickety "Save US," for the most part an unambiguous and clumsy diatribe against the current government from the point of view of another country. "America, it's all on you / to bring her back" is an actual lyric, complete with laughing children in the background. Sentimental, yes, but way too obvious for a band of this caliber. Whimsy and obfuscation suit The Story Of much better; vague lyrics coupled with their floating, airy music. There are very few missteps, however, and those that do exist are easily overlooked within the context of the album.
"Recall The Winners" ends the album with the comforting, hypnotic voice of Mr. Rogers testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969, speaking for the emotional and social needs of children before chairman John O. Pastore. In six minutes, Mr. Rogers renders the gruff Senator to near-tears, an even-keel voice pleading for alternatives to the violence and upheaval children are exposed to every day. Those words from nearly four decades ago are both a metaphor of the mess we are in and a symbol of what we have lost; in releasing The World's Affair, The Story Of quietly give up on us, with a heart-felt sadness that fades away in a wash of echoes.
Tempo No Tempo
The band Tempo No Tempo from Oakland, California, walks the line between rock music and dance music, which is a noble but tricky frontier. To me, being a fan much more so of the rock side of music, it just gets dangerous when the synthesizers start to take over. And adding to that, dance music lyrics are usually the kiss of death (done with black, cheesy, goth lipstick, of course).
Tempo No Tempo's Repetition EP starts off strong with its title track, which has a catchy guitar riff and steady piano pounding that'll get the people moving to the dance floor. Then my favorite track on the EP, "Irregular Heartbeats," kicks off, with a bassline that turns in and out and drives the song. The drums and percussion have some maniacal hi-hat shuffling going on in this quick-paced song, too. The singing is frantic, and the singer even lets out a few Guy Picciotto-type yelps with the line: "Makes me wonder if there is a heart beating at all..." Then it's back to that bassline turning over and that hi-hat working -- the dance floor will be at fever pitch.
Just as I feared, though, track three, "Narrowed Scopes and Sharpened Knives," gets too synthy for me, and the vocals go deep, monotone, and '80s-ish. The dance floor will be robotic and laden with Euro-drowsiness on this one. Have hope, though; the EP travels upward a bit with afterwards, "Sleeping on Airplanes," which has quiet verses and a keen guitar riff working. The vocals are melancholic at first but work into a yell for the choruses. Unfortunately, the CD then crash-lands for me with the song "Headlights," which returns to the synthy form of track three. It is slower and more thoughtful, however -- perhaps meant to be used as a last-song slow dance?
Tempo No Tempo is a good band. The lyrics on Repetition are okay, but typical to any kind of dance music; the words are not too thought-provoking. Tempo No Tempo is trying to fuse many musical worlds together, and when they get it right, like on "Irregular Heartbeats," they may even see my lame no-dancing self on the dance floor.