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REVIEWS (December 2008; Updated 12/19/08):
AIDS Wolf
Cities of Glass
AIDS Wolf pic
Like many other completely annoying Canadian artists/bands (Nickelback, Bryan Adams, Celine Dion), with their lates release, Cities of Glass, Canadian noise-rock band AIDS Wolf is hardly even worth taking the╩time to write about. The only hope is that someone who is on the fence about the band will read this and decide not to listen to them -- if you can even call "them" a band.
Perhaps╩if this was their first release, and they were still trying to figure out their "sound," one could at least be a tad more lenient. Unfortunately, the band has released a string of albums since their formation in 2005. Apparently anyone who records a bunch of noise with no songwriting skills whatsoever can have a career working with Skin Graft Records, the label crazy enough to actually sign these guys.
Even listening to the album with an open mind (perhaps there would be some hidden talent...somewhere?) is fruitless -- there is not one song on this album worth listening to. It leaves you wishing for those precious moments of your life back and yearning to listen to someone from Canada with some kind of substance. Even Snow would bring me endless moments of joy after this. "A licky boom-boom down" makes more sense than anything from AIDS Wolf. And that's quite depressing. If you happen to be one of the 21,968 friends on their Myspace, do yourselves a favor and delete them now.
(SKiN GRAFT Records -- P.O. Box 1543, O'Fallon, MO. 63366; http://www.skingraftrecords.com/; Aids Wolf -- http://www.aidswolf.net/)
BUY ME:  Amazon
The Born Liars
"Don't Tell Me, I Know"/"I Don't Know Why"
The Born Liars pic
Loud. No, really -- loud. I'm discovering that if you don't listen to the Born Liars' latest 7" with the volume cranked to levels likely to piss off the people around you, well, you're honestly missing out. You're missing the scraping, raw, garage-rawk fury that boils through the brutal tell-off A-side, "Don't Tell Me, I Know," the bitter vitriol channelled through Jimmy Sanchez and Scott McNeil's guitars, Bill Fool's thudding bass, and Josh Wolf's snapping drums. And if you can't dig your way through that, you're also missing the wonderfully-crafted, Romantics-esque pop song lurking beneath. It's a sour little anti-love grenade of a song, thrown with cynical carelessness at its subject.
The B-side cover of Stevie Wonder's classic "I Don't Know Why," on the other hand, takes a lighter to a picture of the girl in question and lets it burn slow, the perfect downtrodden companion to the Liars' own more upbeat track. Where Wonder always seemed to be trying to deal with his pain and move on, Sanchez and company sound like they could give a fuck about working through the loss, instead wallowing at the back end of a glass 'til the hurt stops on its own. Hell, you can even hear somebody pop open a can of beer at the start of the song; fucking brilliant.
[The Born Liars are playing 12/27/08 at Rudyard's, with No Talk & The Wrong Ones.]
The Eastern Sea
The Eastern Sea
The Eastern Sea pic
There's a sweetly pastoral, serene feel to The Eastern Sea's debut(?) EP that I can't help but love. The songs all sail along like musical interludes in an intricately-plotted play, probably set in a bedroom somewhere -- for some reason, these songs have a dreamlike quality to them, like Peter Pan's going to swoop in through the window any minute now and whisk everybody off to Never-Never Land. The music's warm and gentle and gorgeous and lush, all of it, and the band weaves deftly in and out, everybody stepping just where they should at the exact right time. As the EP unfolds, the delicate, wintery-sounding "The Night" and countryish, almost gospel-like "The Menu" roll on, I feel myself being lulled into a kind of stupefied coma of wonder.
I dearly want to compare The Eastern Sea to Bright Eyes and ringmaster Matt Hines to Conor Oberst, and there's some merit to the comparison, I think -- both this EP and Oberst's best work are bedroom operas of a sort, intricate and beautiful and fragile, both are gentle and melancholy, both weld folk and country with the best, prettiest elements of indie-pop, and both songwriters are geniuses when it comes to making all the pieces fit together perfectly like a well-tuned clock.
The comparison falls apart, though, when you listen to the lyrics and let the sound of Hines' insistent, earnest voice wash over you. Where Oberst is all about wallowing and self-destructing and pulling apart the works to figure out where the pain comes from, Hines is about, more than anything else, open-mouthed awe. Even when he's quiet and murky, as on the claustrophobic "The Floor," with its subtle (and then crashing) guitars and nearly sinister-sounding electronics, there's an implied promise of the next sunrise and a new chance to start again.
If it weren't for the music itself, maybe a better comparison would be to Peter Gabriel. No, seriously -- "The Snow," in particular, with its humble, uplifting majesty and faster, more desperate rhythm, makes me think of Gabriel's best "moody" moments (think "Red Rain," "Don't Give Up," or most of Up). And I mean that comparison as a compliment; the songs on The Eastern Sea are sweeping and grand while staying ground-level, and I swear I can feel my heart turning and climbing into my throat when I listen, the same way it does when I listen to Gabriel.
Finishing out this five-song indie-country-pop operetta of sorts is the longer, sun-is-rising coda of the bunch, "This Is Holborn," which distinguishes itself not only by breaking from the naming convention (i.e., "The Night," "The Menu," "The Floor," "The Snow") but also by chugging cheerily, low-key-ly along to the halfway point, after which it explodes into a cascading, joyful, nearly psychedelic raveup. It's fucking awesome, incorporating a full choir of friends and family to turn the track into a celebration of staring up into the skies and asking what the world's going to be like once our children inherit the damn thing. The interior of Hines' head must be one heck of an interesting place.
[The Eastern Sea is playing the Annual Free Press Houston Celebration of the Christ show 12/20/08 at Helios, with Satin Hooks, Piano Vines, Ozeal, Chase Hamblin, Nick Greer, & Female Demand.]
(self-released; The Eastern Sea -- http://www.myspace.com/theeasternsea)
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Fight Bite
Emerald Eyes
Fight Bite pic
Fight Bite, who currently calls Denton, TX, home, is an ambient-ish duo composed of Leanne Macomber of The Snowflakes and Jeff Louis of Teenage Symphony. Their debut album, Emerald Eyes, is...something else. If you're one of the lucky few who's seen David Lynch's Industrial Symphony No. 1, mostly starring Julee Cruise, then you can somewhat imagine the dark and sad tragedy that these ten song are capable of making you feel. If you haven't seen it, then go stand in the mirror and say everything mean anyone you've ever loved has said to you.
The look on your face when you're through is the basic gist of Emerald Eyes. Recorded, re-recordered, and re-re-recordered on numerous 1/8 tapes, the album is somewhat of an homage to Phil Spector's wall-of-sound technique. It reverberates and echoes and pulses through your speakers and directly into the part of your brain that only comes alive when you're alone at three in the morning.
It's a quiet scream of a work, and you're constantly straining to catch exactly what is going on in any given song. The rewards for your patience are there, though, in the broken beauty of tracks like "Swissex Lover" and "The Accident." Here, as everywhere on the opus, Leanne's voice is enough to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. Emerald Eyes treads many boundaries between pop, Goth, jazz, and classic Americana. Whether the claim made on their Myspace of being a religious band is valid is debatable, but their music is undoubtedly straight from somewhere beyond the mortal coil.
(self-released; Fight Bite -- http://www.myspace.com/ilyushindove)
BUY ME:  Amazon
Gospel Gossip
Sing Into My Mouth
Gospel Gossip pic
Sing Into My Mouth, by Saint Paul, Minnesota's Gospel Gossip, begins, in classic Butthole Surfers' style, with ambient guitar strums and jangles as parentheses around a series of recorded samples. It's nothing new, I'll admit, but neither is the "Star Spangled Banner" before a baseball game. It doesn't matter how important or momentous the game that follows is, it always has the same preamble. Here, it's "Home is Where the Hibah* is," and it whets your appetite perfectly for the coming opus. It's like the perfect wine for your entrée.
I've heard guitarist/singer Sarah Nienaber compared to Siouxsie Sioux before, and the comparison is well justified on tracks like "Revolution is Physics" and "Wire." They have that wonderful punky feeling that the Banshees and the Cure were so revolutionary in creating. It's a total absence of regard for boundaries but still very defined in what it is. That's the overall feeling of Sing Into My Mouth, that it defies its own shoegazer label to be something that can be truly awesome.
There's a wonderful little experiment done throughout the album in the form of a poem song called "(Maybe Next Fall)." The song is broken up into three almost equal units as tracks 4, 7, and 12, each totally separate but completing the trilogy nicely. Placed as they are, each piece is perfect in its position in the listing, with "(Next)," in particular, giving a nice low after the incredible instrumental havoc wreaked in "Lucky Lemmings."
And while I wouldn't expect to see Gospel Gossip featured in Guitar Hero any time soon, Nienaber easily shows her incredible skills with both apocalyptic thrashes and low whispers. She's one of those truly gifted guitarists who know both when to burn through your pick, and when to shut up. Blessing upon every single one of them.
Sing Into My Mouth, is a worthy addition to any CD collection. From start to finish, there is a never-ending set of tricks to keep you plugged in and turned on.
*Hibah is an Islamic term meaning "the giving of a gift."
(Guilt Ridden Pop Records -- P.O. Box 11894, Saint Paul, MN. 55111; http://www.guiltriddenpop.com/; Gospel Gossip -- http://www.myspace.com/gospelgossip)
BUY ME:  Amazon
Halcyon High
to be infinite
Halcyon High pic
Like Kevin Shields going acoustic, singing campfire songs about the end of the world. This is the soundtrack to bad things happening in the distance; it's pretty, and it makes you nervous. It should be the soundtrack to the movie version of The Road. Portland's Halcyon High is a rare re-interpretation of J. Spaceman through the hands of a bold West Coast brand of shoegaze.
One thing that actually works really well here is the use of recordings embedded in the songs. In my favorite song off the EP, "Iris," a recording of Col. Kurtz's "horror" monologue plays in the background as a somber gust of guitar noise waves in and out. Listen closely: "Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies."
This isn't nod-your-head rock-and-roll, but it's definitely a good listen as you roam the city at night by yourself. A good soundtrack to uncertain times, for sure.
(Vibraphone Records -- http://www.vibraphonerecords.com/; Halcyon High -- http://www.halcyonhigh.com/)
The New Frontiers
Mending
The New Frontiers pic
So, it appears that I'm once again too late. The New Frontiers, the quintet out of Dallas, has disbanded and frankly, it's a shame. Another promising band calling it quits too early -- and not just too early, but one week before I listen to their album. Think of this less as a review and more as a eulogy; besides, the good ones always die young, right?
Mending is a wonderful bit of nostalgia, at least for those who grew up in the late '90s. The opening track, "Black Lungs," is a time warp straight back to the days when the Wallflowers, the Counting Crows, and Ben Folds Five topped the charts. Every member knows his part and has obviously studied the style and tools of their predecessors. The New Frontiers crafted a sincere and honest album without coming off as overly emotional or sappy. Songs titles like "The Day You Fell Apart" and "This is My Home" might bring up thoughts of an emotional high school girl but really are great examples of the musical maturity of New Frontiers.
So much of Mending is carefully executed and precisely arranged -- never too much dobro nor too little piano, everything is where you expect it to be. Even songs like "Strangers," the one song I might consider overly emotional, manages to do nearly everything right: an acoustic guitar opening that builds and swells into a piece of musical Americana that requires the full participation of every band member.
It's strange to talk about music in these terms, but it's so rare that you find music that can elicit this kind of emotional response, and Mending does such a fantastic job of coaxing out those memories and making them new. If you remember fondly the days of Friends, coffee shops, and anything else that defined the late '90s, then you'll feel right home with Mending.
It's indie rock for the people who grew up on Dylan and Alison Krauss. It's the home cooking after being away for college. It's the road trip you took after you got your license. It's thinking about your first love, and it's wonderful. It's hard to not feel nostalgic about Mending, but it's almost unavoidable. It's almost an experience, one that everyone can relate to because it's a defining moment in their life. It's music that people will understand.
(The Militia Group -- 235 E. Broadway Suite #708, Long Beach, CA. 90802; http://www.themilitiagroup.com/; The New Frontiers - http://www.thenewfrontiersmusic.com/)
BUY ME:  Amazon
News on the March
Glory Be! (the EP!)
News on the March pic
At its core, Glory Be! (the EP!), the latest release from quintet News on the March is, well, backwoods bedroom-pop. There's countrified sincerity dripping from every note, alternately echoey and jangly, rough-yet-pretty guitars, down-at-the-heels lyrics that're perfect to mumble along to while crying into your beer, and deft rhythms. At the same time, though, the gorgeous harmony vocals on tracks like "Hey Operator" or "Holdin' Hands 'n' Texas Sunshine" are less high-lonesome and more Pet Sounds, all beautiful, boyish melody and sincerity. The structures, instrumentation, and even subject matter are very much in the country realm -- see the dark undercurrent to "Operator" and "A Song for Your Sweetie" -- but the embellishments, voices, and production are totally Songs From Northern Britain.
Honestly, this EP's like a bunch of kids from the sticks took every single Parasol, Drive-In, and Sarah Records release ever made, threw in every Teenage Fanclub and Posies record they could find, ground them all up into powder, and inhaled the whole damn thing right before picking up their instruments for the first time. You almost expect the five members of News on the March to have sprung, fully-formed, out of some idyllic backwoods paradise, like a gentler, sunnier Kings of Leon.
(Okay, so that's pretty far-fetched, right there -- the members of NotM have in fact been floating around the Houston scene for quite a while now. It blows my mind that at least one member of this band used to play in iconic grindcore band Humanicide, undoubtedly News on the March's polar opposite...)
A fair amount of the time, Glory Be! comes off like Dubliners The Thrills, who craft a similar melding of country and retro-pop, except that where the Irish gang are/were somnolent and mopey, News on the March are (thankfully) smiling and vibrant, like an old, well-loved picture come to life. There's definitely still that sun-soaked sound that evokes the Beach Boys and The Mamas & the Papas, but the music's less about lazing around on the beach than it is getting outside and actually enjoying the sunshine. (Since, you know, Houstonians have a fair amount of that, too.) The songs swing and sway nicely, understated in all the best ways, and even when things get a little bitter, like on tell-off song "Wisconsin, Pt. 2," they're subtle and world-weary and genuine.
The one oddball of the bunch is "A Song for Your Sweetie," which is simultaneously old-timey cheery and grimly bleak, like Murder By Death covering a barbershop quartet. This wouldn't sound out of place coming from a bandstand back in the other seriously economically-depressed era, albeit the sepia-toned one. Where the rest of Glory Be! is sweet and rustic, beach-front pop with leather fringe and worn-out boots, "Sweetie" is a story-song worthy of some musical lurking in the News on the March crew's head.
Despite it's dissimilarity from the rest of the EP, though, part of me suspects that this song is actually the style these folks are leaning towards, at least some of the time. And whether it's the barbershop quintet from Hell or Teenage Fanclub-meets-Son Volt, News on the March does it damn well.
[News on the March is playing its EP release show 12/6/08 at Rudyard's, with The Unbearables, Elaine Greer, & Phillip Foshée.]
(Ghost Heart Records -- http://www.myspace.com/ghostheartrecords; News on the March -- http://www.myspace.com/notmband)
Eivind Opsvik
Overseas III
Eivind Opsvik pic
Eivind Opsvik is a Norwegian bass player currently based in New York, and he's assembled some excellent sidemen for his "Overseas" jazz project. His latest album, Overseas III, features Tony Malaby on tenor and Kenny Wolleso on drums, as well as pedal steel player Larry Campbell, and this instrumentation gives the project a unique sound. The pieces here cover a range of musical ground, but most revolve around Opsvik's obvious love of pop music.
One unusual idea is the song "Neil," inspired by Neil Young's Harvest album. Neil Young is not an inspiration commonly mentioned by jazz artists, particularly when it comes to his folk side. Ironically, the song sounds more like Frank Zappa than Neil Young, with the heavy use of keyboard and that Zappa-esque triplet feel. The song itself comes off as somewhat trivial and light.
"Silver" is a pretty tune that more successfully bridges the folk feel and the jazz ideas. The melody is perfect for the pedal steel featured here. The trading of melody between the saxophone and pedal steel would not be an obvious combination, but it works perfectly. Tony Malaby's restrained solo matches the grace of the tune, while finding harmonic ideas in the tune that might not be obvious.
"Breath of Bark" is a faster rocker, with heavy drums and another beautiful pedal steel melody. The steel takes hold of the melody and doesn't let it go, repeating it hypnotically for the entire song. Underneath it, everybody else goes wild, including Opsvik's driving bass and saxophonic hysterics from Malaby. It keeps everything simple, which is exactly what the song needs.
Less successful are the more abstract pieces. "Everseas" is a long, slow-moving drone with some interesting ideas, but since the whole thing remains at the same sort of dynamic level, there isn't nearly as much development. It might make a good movie score, though. "Ginger Rogers" and "Whiff of Wood" are more open-ended pieces that sound like Philip Glass outtakes. Some of the instrumental pairings are pretty, but not enough by themselves.
Opsvik obviously put a lot of thought into Overseas III, from the instrumentation to the music to the arrangements. Not everything here works, but there are a few interesting songs. There aren't very many precedents for this sort of thing, so he doesn't have too many examples to follow. Nothing here is boring, which is a good sign. With some more work and focus, he could turn this project into something killer.
(Loyal Label -- http://www.loyallabel.com/; Eivind Opsvik -- http://www.eivindopsvik.com/)
BUY ME:  Amazon
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Oxford Collapse
Bits
Oxford Collapse pic
Oxford Collapse has got to be one of the happiest bands out there. Everything about the band is upbeat -- from the happy vocals to the not-too-agressive guitar to the groovy drums. Even when the singer is shouting and the drums are pummeling, the band still doesn't sound intense. The band sums up their M.O. in the last song, which is called "I Hate Nobody."
On Bits, the band's fourth album, they've tightened up the songwriting. Gone are the extended experimental songs, and in their place is an album of standard pop-length songs. They can still write big indie-style anthems, though, coming across like My Bloody Valentine or a more pop-oriented Pavement a lot of the time.
Bits has some good songs. The best is "The Birthday Wars," a simple and efficient song with the dense feel and groovy drums of My Bloody Valentine and short harmonies at the end of the verses that kick the song up a notch. Another great soft-to-loud anthem is "Young Love Delivers," which provides a digest of young male life: "My love came back from Sweden / Brought me some bathroom reading." And the harmonies make the song even more amusing. "Electric Arc," which opens the album, is a cool, fast anthem with a nice guitar riff that complements the vocal. The one annoyance is that the production masks the sound of the album -- if the sound was a little grittier, the songs would sound more distinct from one another. As it is, some of the songs start to blend into one another.
The guys in Oxford Collapse should have a solid career before them. They have their own sound -- it's reminiscent of a lot of '80s and '90s college rock, but not like anyone in particular. Apparently they put more effort into the songcraft for this album, and it shows. Bits is a solid album with some really exciting songs. They should be proud.
(Sub Pop Records -- 2013 4th Ave. 3rd Floor, Seattle, WA. 98121; http://www.subpop.com/; Oxford Collapse -- http://www.oxfordcollapse.com/)
BUY ME:  Amazon
Second Day Red
Gallery of Strangers
Second Day Red pic
After roughly five years of playing and performing together, Austin-based band Second Day Red has released a new bevy of engaging songs under the album heading Gallery of Strangers. Fronted by singer/songwriter Stephen Clarke, this five-piece group interacts marvelously with one another to unleash some very inviting and appealing material throughout. Brimming with acoustic guitar-based structuring and moderate-tempo rhythms, the additional backing of Drew Shafer on violin, Todd Wilson on keyboards, Roel Martinez on bass, and Frank Favacho on drums combines to deliver an extremely full, rich sound that immediately captivates listeners and masterfully compliments the sweeping dynamics created by Clarke's primary, chord-strummed laydowns.
Somewhat reminiscent of groups like the Dave Matthews Band or U2, Second Day Red invokes a solid alt-rock basis, upon which they build a variety of numbers dressed-up with creatively-injected runs and inter-marriages of keys and violin. The end result is a wonderful mixture of ear-catching melodies with emotionally-charged harmonies. Driven by the consistently-tight attacks of a pervasive bottom end and percussive treatment, the entire overall effect is further underscored by the gliding, yet sometimes syncopated, overtones of Clarke's stylish lead vocals.
As a singer, Clarke also possesses the unusual ability to jump back and forth between lows and falsettos like a Texas jackrabbit, sliding smoothly between straight-open and breathy releases. All this he accomplishes not only effortlessly, but also quite pleasingly. In fact, it would have to be these falsetto spikes that will probably best earmark the band's set-apart sound for future reference. Add to these features the smart and meaningful lyrics attached to most songs, and you have a pretty cool combination...one definitely deserving of a major listen.
My personal dubs from the album are "Something To Breathe," one of those bookin' kind of acoustic-driven beat-back tunes that makes you just want to put the car on cruise control and truck on down the highway, and "I've Been Out," a fantastic market-targeted song that wraps freely moving vocals and harmonies around prevailing guitar riffs and violin backing. "Phoenix Tonight," my personal favorite, paints lyrical traveling-destination metaphors against a sonic canvas of impassioned singing and steadily-moving instrumental interactions. "It's Up To You," another simple, yet earnest cut that begs for foot tapping, excellently plays off of a held-out, eight-beat chord change progression that gradually slides right into a relaxed, naturally-resolving chorus, all the while lyrically nudging the need for an initiated response; solicited, but not as yet received.
At a recent and somewhat rare outing in the Houston area, the band opened for Joe Bonamassa and gave locals a taste of their onstage presence. Frankly, it didn't take long to realize that they had something really special. They're all very talented musicians, sure, but they also know how to work a room, and they impressed a lot of people that night with the way they played directly into the audience with attention-grabbing forthrightness.
Churning out cut-after-cut from Gallery, they displayed a real proximity and empathy with listeners, almost a communal type of rapport that exults confidently from being on the same wavelength with the common interests of an audience, artistically inspiring differing emotive responses from each of the various styles and strains unveiled in successive songs. To put a fine point on it, Second Day Red is even more captivating in live performance than what comes across on their studio work...and that's actually saying a fair bit, mind you.
So, if you like mid-tempo alternative rock sans any hint of shocking sonic belts or layers of distortion, and your taste in music runs more in line with melodious, rhythmically acoustic-driven content that leans a tad more toward adult contemporary than harder fare, and you enjoy keyboards and violin as additive rather than mainstay elements, then you would do well to give Second Day Red a little test drive in the near future. If you're ever in Austin, you can catch them pretty regularly at Momo's, but you best hurry. I have a sneaking suspicion that a bigger spotlight just might be heading their way soon.
(self-released; Second Day Red -- http://www.seconddayred.com/)
BUY ME:  CDBaby
Something Fierce
There Are No Answers
Something Fierce pic
It may sound crazy, but when I listen to power-pop/punk crew Something Fierce's new full-length, There Are No Answers, I feel like I'm getting a peek at the heart & soul of guitarist/singer Steven Garcia; everything's laid bare, raw and bleeding and heartfelt. And while it may make me a creepy-ass voyeur to admit it, it's great. There's no fake punk-rock posing here, that's for damn sure. Garcia and his cohorts bassist/singer Niki Sevven and drummer Andrew "Red Rocket" Keith pound away at their guitars and yell themselves (tunefully) hoarse not because it's cool or they want to make some cash, but because it's the way they know how to comprehend the world and make themselves heard.
So, in that sense, There Are No Answers lives up to its name. It's like a series of glimpses into the workings of Garcia's brain/heart, exposing all the doubts, uncertainties, questions, beliefs, the whole ball of wax. And in the end, no, there aren't any real concrete answers; there never are. That's the big trick of Life -- if somebody ever tells you they know the answers, they're probably trying to sell you something. This album's all the stuff we, all of us (me included), think and worry about all the freakin' time but never say, and it's all camouflaged in some of the coolest '70s UK power-pop-influenced punk rock you're likely to hear in this decade. Think Buzzcocks, think Stiff Little Fingers, think The Adverts, think Wreckless Eric, and then throw in some Ramones for good measure, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what these kids sound like.
The camouflage works brilliantly; take "Aliens" for an example. It's an odd, touching, self-deprecating sort of love song coated in a shell of fuzzy, thick-sounding guitar buzz and thumping rhythms, with a melodic guitar calling from behind the wall of distortion like a trumpet off in the distance, and it's all about declaring solidarity with a kindred "alien" soul. Companion song "Pretty Face" is similar, a morning-after musing on loving somebody with that same lonesome guitar calling out but with more laid-back, almost Bowie-ish vocals that come off as coolly detached and tender at the same time.
The band's conflicted, too, or at least Garcia is. On the one hand, there's the in-your-face, flag-waving challenge of "Hey Houston," where Something Fierce throws down the glove to the H-town scene to quit screwing around and engaging in petty bullshit and get serious about playing, recording, and being proud of the place, but on the other, there's the more personal "I Can't Tell," which is a resigned-sounding cry of discontent with the current state of life in this city. And weirdly, I totally, completely get that.
Despite the above, I have to admit that my personal favorite track is a song that's not all that introspective or philosophical. I've raved about "Teenage Ruins" before, I know, but fuck it, I'm gonna do it again: Best. Punk. Anthem. Ever. Raw and fiery, a big middle finger right in the face of the too-cool, too-hip poseurs, this song is everything I like about music in Houston distilled into just under four minutes of freight-train punk rawk. It's literally my H-town anthem; these days when I feel the need to demonstrate how fucking incredible bands in this city really are, "Teenage Ruins" is the song I whip out.
I should warn, by the way, that if you're a fan of the band, some of the song titles are going to look pretty familiar. "Teenage Ruins" and "On Your Own" (one of my fave "sleeper" SF tracks, I should note) were both on the Something Fierce/The Hangouts split-7" released a while back, "Aliens" and "Pretty Face" appeared previously under Garcia's Les Veines side project moniker, and "Hey Houston," "Why Can't I," and "Modern Girl" were all given away for free on the HoustonPunk.com site when it looked like the Modern Girl 7" wasn't going to ever see the light of day. (Thankfully, it now has, and the band's throwing in copies of the delayed vinyl release when you buy the Answers CD.)
Even knowing that I'd heard a large number of the songs on Answers, though, it doesn't feel like a quick-and-dirty collection of outtakes. The songs fit like this was the way they were meant to go, including the Les Veines tracks. Second-to-last song "Where You Goin Man" pulls things together even more, anthemic and wide-open, a Clash-esque story of reconnection with a long-gone friend who'd gone off the rails: "Did you kick the drugs? Did you make amends?" This time it's Garcia looking at somebody else from the outside, wondering what the hell went wrong and how they made it through. From either angle, There Are No Answers wins.
[Something Fierce is playing its CD release show 12/19/08 at Walter's on Washington, with Teenage Kicks.]
(self-released; Something Fierce -- http://www.myspace.com/somethingfiercehouston)
The Starlite Desperation
Take It Personally
The Starlite Desperation pic
Was it around 2003 when there was an explosion of bands reviving the '70s bluesy garage-pop thing? Well, the Starlite Desperation has that sound down to a T, and if they had released Take It Personally five years ago, they would have been at the forefront of that movement. Today, though, they just sound late, part of the remaining traces of a limp musical pulse that probably shouldn't have flourished as long as it did.
It's pretty difficult to get past the album's utter genericness. ╩The obvious dirty riffs and handclaps on "Spirit Army" would have made the song a perfect substitute for the horribly overplayed Jet song on that iPod commercial with the spastic silhouette, and you'll swear you've heard the main hook to "My Favorite Place" before because slightly modified versions of it can be found just about anywhere.
The Starlite Desperation does find some redemption, however, in their creepier-sounding songs. The macabre punk-plucking of "My Violin" is intriguingly sinister, and "I Lost my Bees part 2" has sort of a dizzying effect, a perfect soundtrack to someone's downward spiral. The chaotic closer "Don't Wait Till After You Die" blends together sprawling, abrasive guitar and flat-out danceable bass lines into something genuinely admirable. ╩Though Take It Personally's high points aren't enough to enthusiastically recommend the album, the glimpses of substance should at least keep the band on people's radar.
(Infrasonic Sound Recording Co. -- http://www.infrasonicsound.com/; The Starlite Desperation -- http://www.myspace.com/thestarlitedesperation)
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Tiger! Shit! Tiger! Tiger!
Be Yr Own Shit
Tiger! Shit! Tiger! Tiger! pic
Tiger! Shit! Tiger! Tiger! moves fast. The Italian post-punk trio has been together for just over a year and already has an album to show for it. Be Yr Own Shit is their unimpressive debut, sounding like a senior thesis project at The Rapture School of Music. Whiny, abrasive yelping? Check. Discordant rhythm guitar? Check. Funky disco beat? Check plus. And on that note, I don't know whether or not the ironically-titled track "Insert Disco Beat Here" is supposed to be a playful acknowledgment of their own formulaic style, but it doesn't make the music any less banal.
Fine, credit where credit's due: T!S!T!T! keeps their beats consistently tight, and if you're in the mood for something loud and danceable, almost everything on the album fits the bill. Where the songs deviate, the results can be surprisingly pleasant. "Last Gang in Town" captures a kind of dreamy-sounding discordance, as does the attempt at something pretty-ish on "The Architects of Despair."
While there's nothing terrible about most of the songs that populate the album, the style has simply been overdone to death, and done much better at that. Unfortunately, Be Yr Own Shit is mostly noisy for the sake of noisy, and T!S!T!T! makes little effort to cover that up.
(To Lose La Track -- via dei Gerani, 10 Umbertide 6019 PORTUGAL; http://www.toloselatrack.org/; Tiger! Shit! Tiger! Tiger! -- http://www.wearetigershit.tk/)
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Trapt
Only Through The Pain
Trapt pic
Very rarely do you run a cross an album title that perfectly sums up your feelings about the music. The latest from Trapt, Only Through The Pain, though, fits the bill. The only way I was able to finish this review was to persevere though the pain. And let me tell you, there was lots and lots of pain involved in this process.
Pain is the band's third album and follows in the post-grunge, alt-rock, pop-metal vein of their previous releases. If that Wikipedia-inspired description doesn't help, the band plays a bunch of "sensitive/sad bastard" pop songs. The album consists of 11 songs, with all but one sounding exactly the same. Trapt follows a formula that seems to have been created in a boardroom.
The repetitive lyrical content is singer Chris Brown lamenting that he is sad because his lady is gone or dead or something. Every songs seem geared towards 12-year-olds who are trying to show how sensitive they are. The rhyming pattern in the "Wastleand" is so laughable you'd think the band wrote it in junior high. Generic guitar riffs accompany the words in a way that lulls you into a deep sleep, only to be woken by Brown's off-key singing.
As the album progresses, the numbers on the CD player slowly tick by in much the same way that the days on a calendar do for a prisoner. Then out of nowhere comes "Cover Up," the proverbial needle in the crappy haystack. The song breaks from its ball-less predecessors and shows some anger. Instead off crying over some girl, again, she is getting called out for being two-faced. Wait, is that the lone guitar solo on the album I hear? Yes, it is, and you wonder why they didn't do more. Sadly, the song seems to be the lone exception to the rule.
There was a period of time that the sensitive man was in vogue. If that guy was ever trapped in an iceberg and needed to be slowly eased back into modern society, then Trapt's collection of whiny, crybaby, pussy songs would make him feel right at home.
(Eleven Seven Music -- http://www.elevenseven.net/; 10th Street Entertainment -- 700 San Vicente Blvd., #G410, Hollywood, CA. 90069; http://www.10thst.com/; Trapt -- http://www.onlythroughthepain.com/)
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Ume
Ume
Ume pic
This one was somewhat of a surprise. Based on Austin band Ume's past releases and live show, I went into their new self-titled EP fully expecting to be knocked out of my chair by the sheer sonic force coming out of the speakers. They have a well-deserved reputation of being a heavy-ass band, the kind that rattles your fillings loose live and leaves you with your mouth wide open.
With Ume, though, their first release since 2005's Urgent Sea, the band appears to be more interested in introspection than in shredding the paint. The title of closing track "Pendulum" says it all, really -- the songs here tick back and forth, hypnotic and trance-inducing in a clockwatching type of way, particular on the aforementioned track, the beautiful "Sunshower," and "The Means," which incorporates a more sinister feel. Where Urgent Sea was a raw howl of frustration and pent-up rage, Ume is a measured, restrained meditation, the band standing and swaying while the instruments keep time and pull them (and you) down into the rabbit hole.
The tiger's not completely locked in its cage, of course. "East of Hercules" is a nicely brooding, straightforward rock track -- more straightforward than I'd expected it would be, actually -- with reverb-y guitars and thumping drums cradling singer/bassist Lauren Larson's half-sensual croon/roar. The song comes off like a sleepy-eyed Distillers, maybe, or one of Courtney Love's better, more focused, understated songs.
Then there's "The Conductor," which also mines some Courtney Love/Brody Dalle influence in its delivery but manages to be both more fiery and more melodic. It's the highlight of the EP, no question, not to mention one of the best female-voiced rock tracks I've heard since Veruca Salt's Eight Arms to Hold You. While Ume may be a new direction for the band, it doesn't feel so much like a random detour as a secret, beautifully transcendent side road that gets you to the same eventual destination.
[Ume is playing 12/19/08 at Rudyard's, with Linus Pauling Quartet & Red Leaves; free show!]
(self-released; UME -- http://www.myspace.com/umemusic)
XX Teens
Welcome to Goon Island
XX Teens pic
Listening to XX Teens' debut album, Welcome to Goon Island, it's quite obvious that they're British. This five-man band of London college friends have crafted a collection of songs so delectable that you want to call your travel agent and book a trip to Goon Island yourself. The soirée kicks off with "The Way We Were," a song that will satisfy your inner Christopher Walken with its abundance of cowbell.
Bovine-inspired musical instruments aside, what makes this a good album is the band's willingness to do what they want. The songs change course more times than Oprah's weight loss. They channel Iggy Pop on "My Favorite Hat," and "Darlin" combines steel drums with big horns and James Brown's "Funky Drummer." The odd duck in this menagerie is "Sun Comes Up," a sitar-laden trip fest that feels more suited for a rave.
One peculiar aspect to Goon Island is that there are no choruses. The band has been able to circumvent the traditional song structure while still rockin' out. One other aspect that needs to be given credit is producer/engineer Ross Orton, who lets the band's frenetic sound come to life. He is also credited with the off-kilter drumming that punctuates each song.
(Mute Records -- 101 Avenue of the Americas, 4th Floor, New York, NY. 10013; http://www.mute.com/; XX Teens -- http://www.myspace.com/xxteens)
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