June 30, 2003
I guess making such grand, beautiful, wind-blown music comes natural to natives of Oklahoma. While I normally shy away from arguments that link a band's sound to its natural habitat, in the case of Ester Drang, I have to make an exception. If you drive through the Oklahoma countryside, you'll encounter a lovely variety of hills, trees, and flatlands. Basically...it's barren. Sure, there are some cities here and there, but Oklahoma seems to be a bit, well...desolate. It's kind of like Utah with more tornadoes. I remember driving through the state and thinking, "I'm glad I don't live here...it's so....flat."
Infinite Keys is an album that's most definitly sunburned and wind-blown, and though their sound may seem a tad familiar (especially if you own records by Coldplay or Radiohead), Ester Drang never fall guilty to the charge of 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.' Though Infinite Keys is cold, cool, and distant, it is by no means perfect. Ester Drang hit a melodic, stoned-out groove (thanks in part to the loving hand of Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel's Matt Pence, who knows a thing or two about stoned-out grooves) but they never leave it, and as such the songs tend to run together; if you don't pay attention, you won't notice that they've changed songs, and singer Bryce Chambers sings so lightly, it's occasionally hard to understand what he's saying. It's a bit problematic, too; you'll hear really pretty music, but it would be easy not to notice, as Infinite Keys just floats away into the air and just doesn't leave much of an impression.
Despite the fact that the music runs together so seamlessly, Infinite Keys is certainly far from a bad record. True, if you've spent any time with Parachutes or OK Computer, you'll understand at least part of where Ester Drang is coming from. Even though the album's kind of slippery, songs such as "All the Feeling" and "One Hundred Times" shiver and sparkle so nicely, it makes you wish that 'modern rock' radio wasn't such a closed-off world, for both would make wonderful summertime radio hits. All in all, Infinite Keys is a wonderfully pleasant, chilling, cool listen.
June 28, 2003
This evening I took one of my best friends with me to see the amazing
Swirlies. They weren’t the headliners, but as far as she and I were
concerned, any bill that the Swirlies play on is a bill that they OWN. We’ve been listening to them since we were sophomores in high school. The mix tape that I made for her of their first two proper albums, 1992’s Blonder Tongue Audio Baton and 1996’s They Spent Their Wild Youthful Days in the Glittering World of the Salons, remains one of the totemic items of our friendship. Unfortunately, we were too young to see the Swirlies play live in the early ‘90s, and by the time I first heard their music, they were virtually defunct. Thank God for second chances,though, because Swirlies auteur Damon Tutunjian finally managed to get together a comparatively stable touring lineup and release some new material. Their most recent mini-LP Cats of the Wild Volume Two is their first proper release in seven years, and it’s wonderful. The Swirlies’ fusion of My Bloody Valentine whammy-bar delirium, Stereolab’s synthesizer droning, and Sentridoh’s low-fidelity confessionals is still as tuneful and disjointed as it was ten years ago. This performance was the second time the band stopped through Austin this year (the first time was for a criminally brief showcase at the South by Southwest festival in March).
The first band, the Apes, was extremely fun to watch. I remember listening to their first album a long time ago and not liking it at all, but this performance left a much more positive impression on me. They’re a guitar-less quartet consisting , of organ, bass, and drums. Don’t let this instrumental configuration fool you into thinking that the Apes can’t ROCK, because they do. Every song of theirs takes two or three cool riffs and blows them up to seismic proportions. The bass is run through a distortion pedal, which easily compensates for the lack of electric guitar, and the drummer plays so hard that every time he hits the snare it sounds like a gunshot. The organ wasn’t loud enough in the mix, but I could tell that the organist could play quite well (and she was also very cute). The singer, a longhaired twig who moved like a woman and screamed like a man, took lots of cues from Mick Jagger when he wasn’t doing lascivious things like sticking his butt in the air and humping the stage. He spent most of the time offstage singing in people’s faces and playing with their hair (no, my friend and I weren’t exempt). I’d definitely see them live again.
The second band, Need New Body, cracked my SKULL open. I remember telling one of the members that their music was “a soundtrack to a movie that will never exist because life is unfair,” and I still stand by that assertion. Picture Danny Elfman and the Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 making a record together and you’re not even close to the cinematic cacophony that this quintet cooks up. There were lots of repetitive bursts of junk percussion, goofy voices, skittering bass lines, keyboards played so staccato that they almost sounded like loops, and banjo strummed like a rhythm guitar. They jumped from one idea to the next without a single moment of silence. They shifted from skronk to jazz to country and back seemingly every couple of seconds. One song sounded like a bulldozer being driven through John Tesh’s house during piano practice. Two members jumped off stage to dance to their own music, and some of the other members broke down laughing in the middle of their own “songs.” Need New Body definitely subscribes to the Frank Zappa School of deceptively “stupid and untalented” music that could only be played by exceptionally smart and talented people.
The Swirlies completely exceeded my expectations this night. At SXSW, they played a set that held everything together just enough to remain on the right side of the divide between “shambolic” and “sh*tty.” It was the same kind of sensation that people used to get from watching the best Pavement shows, in which they were always on the brink of falling apart but never did. This time, though, they were TIGHT. They returned to Austin with a different bassist and female vocalist than they had at SXSW, and both of them were much more confident on their instruments. They nailed every transition perfectly, half of the time without even looking at each other to do it. Last but not least, they were extremely LOUD. From the opening strains of “Jeremy Parker,” the second song of their set (and the only one that they played from Blonder Tongue), there were people sticking fingers in their ears and stepping back from the front of the stage. Even the soundman begged them to turn their guitars down: “I can’t hear a thing from back here!” Fortunately, they didn’t listen to him. They didn’t even take forever and a day to tune their guitars in between songs. Tonight, the Swirlies OWNED. Then again, they are my third favorite band on the planet, therefore they can do no wrong.
The Lilys were supposed to play after the Swirlies, but only
singer/guitarist Kurt Heasley made it to Austin in time for the show because the band got into some trouble with the law. Needless to say, he played a solo set that night. The Lilys have a habit of changing their sound drastically every other album: their first two albums were pure shoegazer, whereas their next two were slightly diffuse 1960s psychedelic pop. I didn’t know what to expect from Heasley tonight. He began with a very slow and plodding version of “Claire Hates Me” from the Lilys’ 1992 debut In the Presence of Nothing. For the first few songs, his voice kept cracking and his guitar playing was extremely clumsy. He was definitely suffering from the absence of his band. However, as the set progressed he became more comfortable, and the songs experienced a dramatic upswing in quality as a result. The crowd began chanting, “Free the Lilys,” which was fair enough: if they can free Ol’ Dirty Bastard, surely the Lilys could’ve been spared the indignity of rotting away all week in a Texas jail. Fortunately, the rest of the band was bailed out in time for the next evening’s show in Dallas, and they performed a superb set. This evening, though, Kurt didn’t do too badly by himself.
Statistics is one fellow, Denver Dalley. You don't know the name, do you? Probably not. But I'm pretty sure that if you know anything about indie-rock, then you'll know that the band that he's in, Desaparecidos, is led by indie-rock pretty boy and growing-older boy wonder Conor Oberst. Yeah, that's right, Statistics is a band from Omaha. Forgive Dalley of that, simply because he's actually good. It's a good thing, too, that this record isn't on Saddle Creek, because it's certainly deserving of a better fate than that. What do I mean? Well, if this record were on Saddle Creek, it would never really rise above being anything but a "Bright Eyes-related side project," which would TOTALLY sell Dalley short. He deserves better, and hopefully he'll get it with Jade Tree.
"Okay, okay, we know how you feel about Omaha, Joseph, but how does Statistics sound?"
Oh, I'm sorry, I got a bit off track there. Let's get back to the subject at hand. If Oberst is magically turning into Rivers Cuomo as his audience grows younger and less interesting, then Dalley has deftly turned into Matt Sharp. Statistics is a dance through an electronica-based rock landscape, yet he's clearly more ROCK than beats. He's not trying to be the Faint or Broken Spindles; he's working on a whole other sound. A sound that's...um...how shall I say this...complicated yet commercial? Radio-friendly rock that's complicated but has a new-wave streak yet is more in tune with what the kids, the target demographic is fond of? Just listen to "Another Day" or "Hours Seemed Like Days" and tell me that we're not talkin' college-rock radio hit here, folks. And, better still--this is the sound I have waited to hear, Dalley's making cliched music GOOD again, and he's doing it by actually focusing on the MUSIC, as opposed to being the pin-up model for the disenchanted high-school girl rebel and the college sophomores who love them. Who'd have thunk it?
This is a well-written, seamless little quarter-hour of moody, introspective and intelligent rock music, made by someone who is going to make a name of himself by stepping out from the shadows of Winona's latest fling (not Dave Pirner--she only dates the current one-hit wonders). I'm eagerly awaiting Statistics' debut album; if it's anything like Statistics, then the days shall be worth the wait. Record of the year? Let's hold off on that for right now, shall we? Best new band of 2003? Could be, kid, could be...
See, the Clark brothers may not be household names, but if you're a lover of literate indie-pop, you may be quite familiar with their work. They've produced wonderful records by the Chamber Strings, June & The Exit Wounds, and, most notably, Kevin Tihista's Red Terror's critically acclaimed Don't Breathe A Word. With an extensive resume of studio productions, you've probably heard their work before, and if that's any indication of their abilities, then you'd expect Swirl to be similiarly wonderful, right?
Yeah. And, for the most part, you'd be right.
Apparently, Epicycle's a project that they don't mind waiting on, and we certainly don't mind the wait, if it means that they're too busy producing other wonderful records. I really don't have a problem with that, if it means that the world is blessed with another Don't Breathe A Word, then waiting is just fine. As you'd expect, Swirl tends to lean on the side of light, bright, literate pop, drenched with a heady dose of melody, a heapin' helpin' of harmony, and a dash of prog. Yeah, it's like that. And it's really, really good, too.
Swirl opens with "Rings," a song that has a chorus that sounds a bit like Super Furry Animals' "Rings Around The World" (but as the song dates from 1981, you can't accuse them of rippin' off SFA), which gives way to a very odd song, David Bowie's "Rubberband." The weirdness flows into pure proggy pop pleasure of "Crash," followed up by the jazzy baroque Smileish pop of "Sunday Girl"--not the Blondie song, but I bet that they could really do it justice, too. That's pretty much par for the Swirl course, a wonderful mix of the awesome and the absurd, the silly and the sweet, the weird and the wonderful.
If anything, Swirl is an excellent catalog of the Clark brothers' abilities. If two fellows can be this odd, this wild, this diverse, at the very least, Swirl makes an excellent case for why you should choose them to produce your album. It would be lazy of me to say, "I cannot fully do this album justice, you really have to hear it to appreciate Swirl's countless nooks and crannies," but I've always been a bit of a slacker. So, I'll admit right now that I cannot fully do this album justice, you really have to hear it to appreciate Swirl's countless nooks and crannies.
June 27, 2003
Opener “White Keys” begins with a low rumble that recalls the honking of a tugboat. This honking gives way to screeching feedback, garbage can bashing, and maniacal marble-mouthed screaming. Vocals appear sporadically throughout Absolutes, but they go way beyond unintelligible and into the realm of autism. The sonic undercurrent of “Infinity of Stops” resembles the whir of a helicopter. On top of this whir are various gear-grinding sounds, which are further punctuated by heavy breathing and even more screeching feedback that sounds like a slowly derailing train. “Anna Mae Wong” is a deceptively random assortment of buzzes and percussive interjections. When these interjections have an actual rhythm, they sound like the galloping of a horse; when they don’t, they sound like boxes being thrown down stairs. All of the songs on Absolutes do away with the concept of melody, but “Stops” and “Wong” go even further than that, abandoning meter in favor of pure musique concrete. The echo-drenched “Canadian Money” sounds like a chain gang starting a drum circle at the bottom of a well. The next two songs, “Right Side of the Hall” and “E.E.,” sound like a hardcore punk band practicing in the middle of a tornado. Absolutes’ closer “Reduction” is little more than tick-tock drumming bracketed by indescribable harsh, high-pitched sounds. If Lou Reed didn’t already make an album called Metal Machine Music, Sightings could have used the title for themselves.
Almost everyone reading this review has probably already dismissed Absolutes as unlistenable noise by now, and they’d be right. What makes this album so incredible, though, is the fact that it was created by a guitar/bass/drums trio recording onto a four-track. The guitarist uses pedals and inserts objects into his strings to prepare his noises; the bassist de-tunes his instrument until the strings sound like rubber bands; the drummer augments his kit with various electronic triggers. However, altering their instruments just isn’t enough for Sightings. Through running the recording levels completely into the red, Sightings turns the inevitable hiss and distortion of their four-track into a fourth member of the band. The over-modulation adds overtones that wouldn’t have been possible had they recorded the album in a “professional” studio. Of course, this trick doesn’t always work for Sightings; their last album, Michigan Haters, was a comparatively undistinguished blur. However, when the trick is done well, as it is on Absolutes, the results can be staggering. Regardless of whether one would listen to something like Absolutes for enjoyment --- or even if they would consider it actual “music” of any sort --- the amount of thought and effort that went into making it is palpable upon close listening. The noises assembled here are artfully employed and undeniably evocative.
June 25, 2003
Turns out, all he needed was a good backing band. For Prospect Park, Hindle enlisted the talents of the Ladybug Transistor army, with Jeff Baron, Sasha Bell, Gary Olson assisting, as well as Aden's Kevin Barker, The Sunshine Fix's Neil Cleary, among others. This soft-rock wrecking crew add the melodic dimension that was sorely lacking from his debut. Their arrangements don't differ too much from the rewarding Ladybug Transistor/Essex Green formula, and Hindle's voice really suits their homespun pickin' and grinnin'. Luckily, though, they never sound terribly retro, and songs such as "The Great Woodland Summer" and "Shadows Cast A Lie" are wonderful examples of modern folk-rock. The entire album has a breezy, West Coast summer feel to it, making it pleasant listening for parties and lazy rainy days; occasionally, there's a bit of sameness in the songs, but it's nothing that would make you turn it off.
Though James William Hindle is still growing as an artist, he's certainly a talent that will, over time, become a stronger, more consistent songwriter. Prospect Park is a major step forward for Hindle. Let's hope that this improvement isn't too heavily reliant on his backing group, because at the rate he's going, greatness is but one album away. A fine summer day album from a young but daily growing talent.
June 22, 2003
See, instead of the full-out band rage, Carson and Blanchard don't really use--or need--guitars for their freak-outs. They opt for the use of keyboards and loops and things of that nature, and in the process, they rock much harder than you'd expect. Blanchard is a screamer (in fact, they sounds like the Screamers), Carson is a pounder, and together these guys are total spazz-outs. In a good way, mind you. Their cascading sheets of minute-long walls of noise are actually danceable; their rhythms are terribly, terribly addictive, and you'll find yourself shakin' yer ass. "8-Bit Graveyard" and "Code: Decode" are the sounds of the new funk, the new new wave, and stand in stark contrast to everything electroclash. All of these songs just flow by, in and out of each other, and I don't think I'm wrong in saying that you really won't bother looking for indvidual songs. Thirteen songs in 33 minutes? Nah, let's not bother with names...let's just GET DOWN.
Point Line Plane--with their weird computers run amuck sound and oddly futuristic-looking artwork--are not a joke; they're something new. And, like new wave pioneers Devo, they're going for a weird look to make you forget about the fact that they're actually challenging you musically. Point Line Plane is a blast of synth-driven fresh air. Are you listening? Or are you too busy banging your head? I hope for the former, but excuse you if you neglect it for the latter. I know that I've totally dug every second of this album, and considering how I don't particularly care for this kind of thing, that speaks volumes in Point Line Plane's favor.
Well, after years of only releasing two or three songs here and there, on various EP's, cassette singles, and split releases, Turrell has finally released her proper debut solo album. If you liked her previous band, Rabbit in Red, or her solo work, you won't be terribly disappointed with One Night.... If you miss her punk-rock singing from either Rabbit in Red or Boyracer, or if you loved the hug-me folkie stuff, you certainly won't be disappointed, but if you don't care for the folkier-style she's often recorded by herself, you'll certainly be pleasantly surprised.
If there's one great influence on One Night, it's her husband, Boyracer leader and 555 Records owner Stewart Anderson. Turrell's album owes more than a great deal to Anderson's other major project, the lo-fi electronica Steward. With Steward, he'd mold sensitve, sad songs over interesting electronic bleeps, blips, noises and found sound. One Night isn't Steward Part Two, though naturally many of the ideas are certainly the same...but let's not dive into a semantic argument, okay? We're not talking about a whole Hole/Nirvana thing here, mind you. Turrell's nicer, Stewart's a bit more together, and they actually love each other. (Indie-pop Wings? There have been worse things.)
The album is a heady mixture of the soft, the sad, the happy, and the upbeat--and it never lasts from song to song. Just when you're feelin' blue on "Escape," Turrell turns up the rock on "Reindeer Games." Just as you've started to cut a rug in your bedroom during "Proposal," she gets all introspective and slow on "Hope," but as you're startin' to get teary in your lonely bedroom, up come the beats in "Go to Portland." Turrell never sits still, and that's great. The album flies by--fifteen songs in thirty minutes--and that's perhaps my one complaint. I'd love to hear some of the songs expanded on or maybe drawn out a little. It's a beat-driven folk record but it's also a folk-driven beat record, and I like that it never really sits still. My favorites are the closing "Oranges" and the six minute epic "Meteor Shower," which are moody, a little sad, and a lot of pretty.
All in all, I can't complain about One Night The Stars Began to Fall and Would Not Stop. It's not really what I expected, and when you get what you don't expect--and when that's better than your expectations--that makes everything even better. Turrell, like her hubby and their band and label, never sit still for one second, so who knows what she'll sound like next album. Bet it'll be interesting, and I'm sure it will be just as good!
When I listened to it again a few days later at home, though--something changed. It didn't knock me out like the first time. In fact, I couldn't really sit through the first two songs--"Rising for You" and "The Next Ones," because both of them are sooo long (7:34 and 9:44, respectively) and sooo...glacial. Thank goodness for their doped-up-yet-quite-faithful cover of Them's "I Can Only Give You Everything," or I would have probably fallen asleep. Their three-part closing epic "Send You Home" is also pretty wonderful--and rather rockin', too. You shouldn't try too hard to listen, because in so doing, you really miss the point, and you won't be able to appreciate their simple genius.
Let's not take away anything from Suntan, though, because it would be wrong to dismiss them so easily. Send You Home is definitely mood music, and you better be in the mood, or you won't enjoy or appreciate the music. "Every Night" is a beautiful ballad that would probably suit you well if you were making a mixtape or CD for those more romantic moments. I do have this feeling that they're an excellent live band, because the songs on Send You Home have a definite energy, even if it seems a bit restrained. Send You Home is definitely not a sit-at-home-and-listen kind of record. Unless, of course, you're, erm, medicated, and then I'm sure it sounds wonderful. Pop it on for your next road trip or your next romantic evening; it's certainly a moving record, in the most literal sense.
This release makes perfect sense, simply because many of the single bands were one-offs, one-single-wonders, or would not be of interest now. I mean, would Joe Green Hair rush out to buy a discography compilation of a little-known band who self-released an album and broke up three years after he was born? Idealists say yes, but reality says no. Still, it's kind of amazing listening to several of these singles again. I've got a few of these myself, and I haven't really listened to them in ages, so this was a nice little trip down memory lane.
It's pretty amazing, listening to these records now, because these bands sound far, far removed from the whole "pop-punk" image that has haunted Lookout! for years. From the amazing thrash of Plaid Retina, who fly through twelve songs (proving Slayer was already an influence and providing a legacy that still exists to bands like The Locust and Black Dice) to the poppy and forgotten punky Blondie-ish Kamala & the Karnivores, this is a forgotten side that deserves to be documented. About the only record on here that should be forgotten is the Yeastie Girlz, an acapella girl group who sing about masturbation and other lovely things. It wouldn't be so bad, really, were it not for the fact that it's basically the same melody line with different words. It's certainly a historical document of that era, but does it stand up on its own merits in 2003? Not really, no. Sometimes the joke just isn't funny anymore. The other bands on this collection are Isocracy, Surrogate Brains, and Corrupted Morals, and all are pretty darn good, too.
There's a lot here to digest--47 songs--but if you listen to them as individual records, you'll really enjoy it, and if you're old like me, you'll probably remember some of these records, too! All in all, a fun stroll down memory lane; kudos for Lookout! for not only remastering these songs but also for reproducing the sleeves in their entirety. (One complaint--where is Isocracy's cover of "Freebird"? Was it cut for legal reasons, or was it just a joke?)
It's also a known fact that Wilson was obsessed with the obsessive producer Phil Spector. Unlike Spector, Wilson's own productions were secondary to his own career. Also, unlike Spector, almost everything that Wilson produced..failed. Miserably. None of his would-be hits ever even came CLOSE to being hits. As shocking as it may seem, it's not for a lack of quality talent, nor is it for a lack of quality Wilson production, and it's CERTAINLY not for a lack of quality material. Why did these songs fail? I can't tell you.
Pet Projects: The Brian Wilson Produtions gathers up many of Wilson's more notable production efforts--all of which are extremely rare, by the way--though the extensive liner notes statses that they would have loved to included all of his productions but couldn't get the legal clearance to do so. Bummer. Thus, songs such as "I Do" by Bob & Sheri or his Jan & Dean productions (the only hits he produced, but this outside production isn't quite the same as the rest of his outside projects) don't appear here. (Maybe there will be a volume two of this series, or at least an appended version of this record?)
Of course, it's fascinating to note that many of his productions were of girl singers. He was obviously envious of Spector's sound--which, more often than not, featured girl singer--and it seems as if he wanted his own prestigious girl group or singer. One of his first productions, before he was even really an established artist, was a one-off called Rachel & The Revolvers. "The Revo-lution" practically a rip-off of Little Eva's "Loco-motion," and though the song's not that great, it's certainly got a red-hot dance rhythm and beat. If the experiment failed, at least he couldn't be accused of not trying.
He did find a girl group of his own, The Honeys. Of course, the Honeys were the band of his wife, Marilyn Rovell, and many of their singles are found on here. He shows his more traditional side on one of their first sides, a bizarre yet interesting song entitled "Surfin' Down the Swanee River." Their other singles were also fine, especially their late 60s side "Goodnight My Love"/"Tonight You Belong To Me" (a wonderful production and a nice slice of Bacharach pop), as well as their 1971 single as American Spring "Shyin' Away"/"Fallin' In Love," which is also a wonderfully-produced number. "Fallin' In Love" is also worth noting as one of brother Dennis Wilson's most beautiful compositions.
Most of the songs on Pet Projects are Honeys related, but there are some other, really fine recordings as well. Personally, I'm fond of the Sharon Marie sides. Sharon Marie was a two-single wonder by a girl probably only got a record deal through her relationship with Mike Love. Still, "Run-Around Lover" is an excellent song; it's puzzling why her husky voice and the red-hot production didn't at least see some chart action. Her other songs are good to OK, but it's worth noting that "Thinkin' About You Baby," a side from 1964, was rewritten a few years later as one of the Beach Boys' last excellent singles, "Darlin'." "Pamela Jean" by The Survivors--which is actually Brian and friends--had actually appeared in different form (mainly a different set of lyrics) on Little Deuce Coupe as "Car Crazy Cutie."
Then there's The Laughing Gravy, which is something I'd never heard about. This was a version of the Smiley Smile track performed by Jan & Dean's Dean Torrence and Brian, recorded after Jan Berry was nearly killed in a car accident. I never knew it existed, and it's actually a really fun track--highlighting the humor that got lost as Brian slipped out of reality into his drug-induced state
. It wasn't uncommon for Brian to turn around and thank his friends by giving them songs or recording with them; his work with Gary Usher is pretty good, if not a little dated, as is the Paul Petersen "She Rides With Me." The one track I most looked forward to hearing on Pet Projects was Glen Campbell's long-lost single "Guess I'm Dumb." It's a missing link for those who are interested in the Brian Wilson saga; though the production is surprisingly flat, it is a MOST complex song; perhaps his most complex composition up to that time, and its lyrics? Well, you don't have to be Dr. Landy to realize they are a sure sign of a young man in need of...well, some simple guidence.
Pet Projects is a magical (if not a little sad) collection. It's full of great liner notes, wonderful pictures of many of the ultra-rare singles and the artists, and it's just a well-done compilation. If anything, it will leave you wondering why these releases failed, and it will leave you asking further questions. Was Brian's collaborations with female singers an attempt for him to develop an outlet for his more feminine side? Did Brian use these other people as an experiment for ideas, regardless of whether or not anyone heard them? Were these failures the outlet for his lesser songs, allowing the Beach Boys to have nothing but hits? Did producing outside artists and experimenting with these ideas make him a better producer? The world--and quite possibly Brian himself--will never know. Still, the evidence is stunning. Pet Projects: The Brian Wilson Productions is essential for all fans of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.
Although the Pavement influence is inescapable, the Rotary Downs are
definitely their own band. Lyrically, Marler has a MUCH higher
signal-to-noise ratio than Malkmus, and his flights of fancy are used in service of conceits that everyone can relate to. ìCímon, Take a Hitî urges listeners to take the time to recuperate and learn from the mistakes of life: ìGo slow, youíve got to breathe.î He follows such simple advice with more cerebral commands like ìRemind me to rinse my conscience and rub it up under the sun.î ìHole in the Heart of Bamaî recounts the last moments of a man on death row, paying close attention to the indifference of those around him: ìA final feast with the guards and the priest from home/The governor sleeps and is nowhere near his phone.î The protagonist in ìRunaway Cowî has a hard time adjusting to the absence of his lover: ìFell asleep with the radio on/Iíll wake up when the batteryís gone.î Throughout Long After the Thrill, Marler uses his surreal yet incisive wordplay to tackle topics such as the universality and permanence of grief (ìBleedersî), the wanderings of a homeless unemployed drunk (ìJasperî), hypocritical Christians (ìRev. Percyî), and lonely musicians running from the law (ìStatue of a Drinkerî).
Musically, the band has struck a veritable gold mine by realizing that pedal steel sounds surprisingly good next to alternately tuned electric guitars. On this album, the pedal steel is not just a sporadic ambient accessory (which definitely canít be said for Scott Kannbergís post-Pavement band Preston School of Industry). Itís a crucial component of the songs, and dances with the guitars through gorgeous note clusters, chromatic runs, and ascending/descending riffs. The band also employs cello, Moog, and mellotron at various points on the record, with commendable taste and subtlety. The Rotary Downs also have Pavementís tendency to seriously obfuscate their music every once in a while. ìBleedersî ends on an extremely random note, with Marler counting from twenty-one to twenty-six until the tape abruptly stops. The albumís final song (ìCotton Fieldsî), which also happens to be its catchiest, has the recording fidelity of a low-quality MP3, and the music on the left speaker is a few milliseconds delayed from the music on the right speaker, which creates a sort of slap-back echo effect. Whether this is the result of intentional studio trickery of just plain poor mastering, the effects actually HELP the song instead of hurt it. Youíve got to love a band that can make even their mistakes sound cool.
Hereís the final verdict. Not only have Rotary Downs taken all of
Pavementís best traits (smart lyrics, cracked vocals, dissonant guitars, flighty lyrics, catchy songs) and left behind their worst (lapses into poor musicianship and lazy writing), but theyíve also added enough of their own ingredients to transcend ìtribute bandî status. The result of this amalgamation is an album of lush, tuneful, and weird Americana that will definitely make my Top Ten list this year.
June 21, 2003
Luckily, Cex is much more interesting than that, and I doubt that he's going to go straight for the bling-bling to spite his talent. True, songs like "Earth-Shaking Event" and "Not Working" betray a slick sound that recall the best parts of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and De La Soul. These two songs prove that Kidwell has the potential of becoming the Next Big Thing in Rap, but I really can't see teenagers and/or MTV embracing him, simply because he's smarter than that and, ultimately, too smart for them. Sure, he's funny as hell, ("middle finger to the indie-rock singer/middle finger to the wack mc/middle finger to the uncreative underground" is one line that I simply love) and I can't help but laugh every time I listen to parts of Being Ridden, but would kids really go for the more challenging moments--such as the acoustic guitar-based "See Ya Never, Sike," "Cex at Arm's Length" or "The Marriage"? I really don't think so.
The one complaint I've heard about Being Ridden is Kidwell's singing. They say he can't sing. They say his sining's flat. Personally, I can't see it; he's an interesting musician, and he writes good songs, and this complaint is tied into one of the main complaints made towards rap music. It's not that he can't sing; it's just that it's uncommon for him to be heard singing, and it's even rarer for rap records to have an artist actually SING on them, too. I have heard some say that when he sings, his songs have a Trent Reznor vibe to them, and on songs like "The Wayback Machine," it's easy to understand where the critics are coming from, even though I think they're wrong.
It's a good time to be Cex. He's at the crossroads; he's stumbled upon a sound that could easily make him a larger name, and whether or not he chooses to continue to follow that path is perfectly fine with me. No matter what he does, it's assuredly going to be fun and interesting, and I'd hate for him to sacrifice past glories for one fleeting moment of fame. Luckily, I think he's smart enough to realize that. Next big thing in hip-hop? There are better things that you could do with your time.
For those Cex-heads who might balk at the lack of electronica brilliance of the past or the rapping on Being Ridden, don't worry; Cex has thought of that and will take care of you. Being Ridden (Instrumentals) is, as the name suggests, an instrumental version of Being Ridden. Not to fear, though; this album is not exactly all of the songs from the album stripped of their vocals, though many of them are the same. I really don't need to be convinced of Cex's brilliance, and think that Being Ridden (Instrumentals) is a bit redundant, but that's just me.
Part of what makes this disc such a collage of different textures is the instrumentation. Starting out with "Too Soon," a minute-long wash of synths and breathy vocals with no drums, the record dives immediately into a live drummer and fuzzy, upbeat guitar on "Where Damage Isnít Already Done." The following three songs mash together noisily distorted guitar with Casio-style drum machine beats and organ sounds. All the fuzz clears up for "1995," a song with a sneaky way of getting stuck in your head, before moving on to piano-heavy tracks "Strange Things Will Happen" and "Your Father," two songs that seem more informed by Belle and Sebastion than Slowdive. Then the final two tracks crash back in with the harshest guitar sounds on the record, a moodiness that is only offset by Johan Duncansonís relaxed voice.
The lo-fi production, with its fuzzy vocals, tends to obscure the lyrics and thatís unfortunate. For a lot of bands that may not be so important, but when I got a lyric sheet from Shelflife (The Radio Dept.ís stateside label) I realized that words are one of Duncansonís strongest points. With lines like "You are raining inÖ / youíre dripping into the buckets I have placed / where damage isnít already done," ("Where Damage Isnít Already Done") Duncanson spells out some smart metaphors that usually donít find their way into the song lyrics of a rock band. Itís a shame you canít understand them on listening alone. "Strange Things Will Happen" is the lone exception, maybe because itís sung by Elin Almered, whose painting ended up on the cover. Her voice is the kind thatís easy to have a crush on, mellow and understated, and it sounds perfectly in place between the songs sung by Duncanson.
Lesser Matters is all the daydream and soundscape youíd hope for from any shoegazer band, but in an unassuming package. Even the video for "Where Damage Isnít Already Done" (you can watch it at www.labrador.se) just looks like a hand-carried camera followed the band members around, from a recording session in a living room to a nearby bar for a pint. This is a band that realizes that sound is more important than image, that hypnotic music doesnít have to be monotonous, and that a three-minute pop song can be as ethereal and moving as a ten-minute linear space rock jam. This is a disc worth owning from some Swedes who just broke into the American market. I imagine there will be more to come from them in the next several years.
talking about albums that halfheartedly rehash tried and true formulas simply because the last albumís experiments failed (see Girls Against Boys). Iím talking about albums in which the band learns from the previous albumís mistakes, and uses these lessons to raise their new material to the quality of their best earlier works. Not only do these albums remind me why I liked the band in the first place, but they also give me a new perspective on the albums that initially disappointed me. You canít get back up without
falling first. Sonic Youthís return to melody on Murray Street
couldnít have happened if they didnít first stumble through the atonal grinding of NYC Ghosts and Flowers. Likewise, Canadian quintet North of Americaís fourth album Brothers, Sisters could not have been made if they didnít get their previous album This Is Dance Floor Numerology out of their system. Although by no means did Numerology suck, it was a slight lapse in the bandís otherwise stellar catalog. It was a phenomenally angry album almost entirely devoid of vocal melody. Granted, some of the songs were too dissonant to really sing along to, but the rest of the record sounded as if the band was either too angry or too lazy to do anything BUT shout. Not only that, but for the first time ever, North of Americaís attention deficit disorder got in the way of their arranging skills. They never sat still on an idea for too long, but on that album they occasionally discarded their good ideas too soon, while letting their bad ones linger longer than necessary.
Traces of the anger that fueled Numerology still remain on the new album. One of Brothers, Sistersí main lyrical themes is betrayal and dishonesty. ìAll Actors Are Liarsî finds a group of people getting collective revenge on the unscrupulous person who wronged them. ìVoting ëNoí on the Warming of Antarcticaî contains the couplet ìThey always said that they had our backs/Now we swing back against their attacks.î In the very next song, ìYes to Yes, Cursed to Cursed,î the antagonist in the lyrics is accused of having ìa talent for changing [his] look from picture to picture.î Last but not least, ìLetís Get Sick to Our Stomachsî is an admonition to those who just canít stop sipping Hater-Aid, climaxing in the mantra ìWe will not hate it when our friends become successful.î Overall, though, Brothers, Sisters functions as an album-length call to arms. The first song, ìKeep It on the Download,î paints a picture of a power failure during a storm: ìThere is ice on the ground and all the phones are downÖthe wire is a line until itís struck, and weíre going to strike it now.î Thereís chaos all around us, they seem to be saying, therefore take advantage of it and make something exciting happen! From the albumís title to the lyrics to the music itself, the band makes a strong plea for collective action. Such sentiments are expected from a band in which everyone take turns singing, and two of them switch guitar and drum duties depending on the song. The liner notes never specify who does what, giving no information about the band except their head shots and surnames. It doesnít really matter, though, because vocally, they all sound similar and instrumentally, they all manage to keep themselves busy without veering into ìsoloî territory. They frequently take turns singing or shouting from line to line, and occasionally the rest of the band does a sort of Greek chorus behind whoever happens to be singing lead. When the aforementioned couplet from ìAntarcticaî is sung, the rest of the bandís punctuation (ìNOW! WE! SWING! BACK!î) makes it sound like theyíre all really, truly about to kick someoneís ass.
Brothers, Sisters is a return to form in two ways. First of all, the band has finally started singing again. This is indie-rock, so you know that none of them have the kind of voice that would land them on American Idol. However, the bandís decision to reintegrate vocal melody into their sound makes their songs much more accessible, and will keep listeners from getting exhausted over the course of a full-length. Secondly, North of America have managed to make their songs longer and less boring by both trimming away excess jamming and letting their hooks repeat more than once. The band also keeps its songs interesting by adding keyboards and female vocals (a first for the band) at exactly the right moments. Some people may complain that the band isnít really doing anything new on this album. However, anyone who reads my reviews knows that originality isnít necessary for me to like a band. North of America does indie-rock so well that I hope they NEVER get out of their back-to-1996 time warp. ìThe Fix Is Inî is the best song that the Archers of Loaf never wrote, and ìDonít Ask Me How I Did It (Iím a Young Turk)î crams the best ideas of every decent Chicago ìpost-rockî band into one song. Last but not least, for a band that is so often compared to Pavement, North of Americaís lyrics are much more literal and emotional than one would expect. Album closer ìLetís Get Tightî finds the band in a tug-of-war between optimism and desperation. One person sings on the chorus, ìRecognize that this is our last chance,î while another rebuts, ìBut it all comes back!î The albumís final command also happens to be its most direct: ìSing and dance with abandon --- discard pretension!î Could you EVER hear those words coming out of Stephen Malkmusí mouth?
Though this is touted as being "darker" than their usual fare, it's really not that different from their last album, the underappreciated-yet-really-good Open Up and Say Awesome. Ultimate Fakebook aren't emo, either; they're straight-up Elvis Costello-inspired rock, and I have no problem with that! They've also taken the time to seam the record together into a non-stop, relentless WHOLE, which also serves them well. (They accomplished this by throwing in two electronica-style instrumental passages, ìThe Cobraî and ìSlickís Themeî)
Before We Sparkís strong point, though, would have to be the songs. You really cannot go wrong with Ultimate Fakebookís brand of poppy new-waved-out indie rock, even if they might be labeled by some as ìemo.î Like The Deathray Davies, Iím probably safe in assuming that these guys own not only own the Ryko reissues of Elvis Costelloís discography, but theyíre probably buying up all of the new Rhino reissues as well! Just listen to ìWeíll Go Danciní,î and then try convincing me that they werenít listening to Armed Forces before the recording session! "Record Release Party" is a pretty funny little number recalling part of the bands woes, and it'll put a smile on your face when you listen closer. Perhaps the biggest surprise is hearing "Inside Me, Inside You" turned into an electronica-style dance number. It's a pretty good remix, and it certainly takes their music to another dimension.
Before We Spark should spark a fire under your feet, and if you've never really heard Ultimate Fakebook, now would be a great time to start, because this is just a fun, interesting, and surprisingly strong little release. (For those of you who have those fancy computer-type things, you should pop this CD into your harddrive, as it contains two music videos (for ìWhen I'm With You, I'm OKî and ìInside Me, Inside Youî) as well as two additional remixed versions of ìInside Me, Inside You.î My computer wonít tolerate such things, but Iím pretty sure that these goodies are wonderful little additions to this already great little EP.)
June 20, 2003
The Sound Is In You is actually a reissue of The Grip Weeds' second album, released in 1998, and more than likely reissued due to the popularity of "Every Minute" on Little Steven's Underground Garage radio program. The album has also been remastered, and it includes two bonus tracks. As an album, it's pretty good stuff, even if it is a tad too long; after all, seventeen songs on an album that's not a greatest hits is a bit much. Thus, some songs are better than others, but The Grip Weeds are very much a band with a simple genius--and that is to rock.
While their look may be retro, and their music may attempt to be retro, they're anything but a typical retro band. If anything, they're a retro-retro band, recalling the parts of Jellyfish and The Posies where they were recalling the Raspberries, Flaming Groovies, Badfinger, Byrds...you get where we're going with this? As much as the music is indebted to past sounds, The Sound Is In You is actually a wonderful mix of sounds and styles, which in turn makes a record that rarely sounds dated. When they kick on the three-part harmonies--such as the "Paperback Writer"-inspired "Games," "Ready and Waiting," and "We're Not Getting Through," The Grip Weeds really win you over with their charm. Personally, I'd like to hear more vocals from Kristin Pinell, whose vocal turn on Neil Young's "Down to the Wire" is really quite good.
It's not hard to enjoy classic rock, and that's all The Grip Weeds are wanting to do--make enjoyable rock music, free of complications, bombast, or all those things that occasionally (read: always) make some (read: most) indie-rock music so tedious and unpleasant. While I'm not sure of the current status of The Grip Weeds, I'll admit that The Sound Is In You is a wonderful grower, proving that New York and Rock and Roll music existed way, way before 2001, and that there were good bands making music well before some yeah yeah yeahs decided to give guitar rock some strokes.
while critics/labels/the rest of the world fails to see them as anything more than a geezer on a nostalga trip. What makes this even more disturbing is that this stands in contrast with the idea that if a band struggles, works hard in the studio, and tours a lot, then the experience makes them a better band. After all, would you rather hear a tight band or a loose, not-very-together band?
Truth be told, there's good reason why critical eyes kind of roll when an older, more established artist returns with a new record: consistency. Sure, that might not seem like a valid complaint, but does anyone really look to the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Mike Love's Beach Boys--or, heck, Pet Shop Boys, Elvis Costello, or New Order--for innovative new ideas in music? Sad to say, but they don't, because these acts all have a long and winding history, and it's one that the fans expect. If they differ too much from their natural paths, the fans get restless and the critics are often merciless; if they stay too much on the same road--then, really, is it an artistic statement, or is it one that's done to satisfy "the fans?" Dicey issue, isn't it?
Ian McCulloch's third solo album, Slideling doesn't offer you anything you wouldn't expect from an Ian McCulloch solo album. Perhaps that's the best approach, and it's one that certainly serves Slideling well. Considering the fact that Echo & The Bunnymen is considered one of the influences of Britpop, there's really no need for McCulloch to try and prove anything. Heck, thanks to the success of bands such as Coldplay, Travis and Pulp, it's really no surprise that the tried-and-true sounds of Slideling actually sound very modern and quite contemporary. It's as if the newer generation of musicians who were influenced by McCulloch have, through their own success, have paved the way for him to enjoy a new chapter in his already stellar career. Of course, when you're one of the best underrated songwriters of your generation, then your writing capacity is not really an issue.
Slideling finds McCulloch looking back on life, but not with a real sense of regret. He's not particularly sad; he's not happy--he's a man at peace with his lot in life. As a young man, he was extremely successful; while the past few years haven't been quite as successful, they've not been a real disappointment, either. While the album occasionally hints at lost youth (especially on "Seasons"), McCulloch doesn't dwell on the subject. When the album kicks off with the excellent "Love in Veins," you realize that McCulloch's not making the missteps of Candleland and Mysterio--and the inital strength of Slideling never weakens, either. McCulloch sounds upbeat, excellent, and in fine form--especially on "Slidling," which features Coldplay's Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland. Indeed, it's almost as if his friendship with Coldplay--aka a friendship with youth--has given McCulloch a creative second wind--and in a way, I'd love to hear a more direct, obvious collaboration between the two.
It's good to hear McCulloch again; he's certainly an artist who still is years away from being past his prime. If anything, he's doing better now than he did for most of the 1990s, and that's saying a lot. Slideling is one of the most intelligent and relaxing Britpop albums of 2003. Not too heavy, not too dark, not too light, not too pop--just like always. Slideling is one of the better pop albums this year; it might not be the hippest anymore, but when you grow older, who cares about being hip?
June 19, 2003
Gold Chains (also known as Topher Lafata) initially puts on an intellectual pretense. He describes himself as a ìpunk rock MCî and inserts signifiers such as ìundergroundî and ìcommunityî into a couple of songs. On ìSeveral Times Defined,î Chains urges the girl heís interested in to quit her job and make art instead. ìMuch Currency Flowsî is a condemnation of avarice: ìI donít see what this is trying to accomplish in the larger scheme of things. What about community and the love that it brings?î Lafata even slows the traditional hip-hop chant of ìmake money make moneyî down to a sinister sneer to emphasize his point. That song is immediately followed by ìNada,î another ìmoney canít buy loveî screed. However, his attempts to be profound are few and far between, and more than outnumbered by his pleas for booty. A song called ìRevolutionî proposes no actual plans for revolution: just a ìf**k youî to ìhatersî and a fantasy about making love in the White House. Chainsí pickup line in ìThe Gameî (ìYou look so cute in those Gucci boots/Prada shirt wrapped around that Cali coochî) isnít that far removed from Chingyís ìI like the way you do that right thurr.î Later on in the song, his promise of ìnothing but kicks to the curb for the absurd persona of a stuck-up bitchî sounds like a more verbose, less sinister version of Dr. Dreís ìIf a woman wanna trip, Iíll have to lay the smackdown.î On ìWhat Are We Looking For,î Lafata tells a girl that he wants to do cocaine off of her behind. ìBreak or Be Brokenî is a declaration of sexual prowess in which Chains vows to ìmake you singî in a ìfive octave range.î
If Gold Chains is a ìpunk rock MCî itís only because of the medium he
chooses, not the actual message he delivers through it. Basically, heís crafted a rap album just as horny and mindless as any record from the West Coastís early-nineties G-funk heyday, which isnít necessarily a bad thing. The ìkicks to the curbî line notwithstanding, Lafata avoids the misogyny and ultra-violence that plagued those records. On the title track, Chains asks, ìWho needs a bitch when you have a lover?î Itís a question that the many emcees lack the maturity to ask. Lafataís beats arenít very funky, but theyíre very melodic and diverse. ìSeveral Times Definedî is driven by garage-rock organs, ìThe Gameî does a nice imitation of Afrika Bambataa-style electro, ìNadaî sounds like a collision between Bollywood and Broadway, and many other songs have stiff four-on-the-floor rhythms that Todd Terry would kill for. Last but not least, Chainsí voice, a gruff, lisping instrument that stretches syllables to nearly intolerable lengths, has an inherent machismo that many white emcees still lack. Although I can definitely imagine Lafata getting a more play than Cex (and much more play than ANYONE in Anticon), heís still a dork at heart. On ìBreak or Be Brokenî he compares the sexual act to computerized sequencing. Will the word ìquantizeî EVER pop up in a Ludacris song? I think notÖ
Settlefish sound just like what you'd expect from a band on Deep Elm, and considering their recent string of excellent releases, this little band from Italy are an excellent score. Led by Jonathan Clancy, Settlefish are a band to be reckoned with, and Dance A While, Upset is a most pleasing debut. While there are moments that seem to come straight out of the "how to be emo" book, all in all Settlefish really don't play that game. They make smart, literate rock music, with a large dose of atmosphere and a bit of passion thrown in the mix. At times they seem to sound a lot like Archers of Loaf circa All the Nations Airports, but minus the whole indie-rock thing--though at times Clancy sounds a bit like Eric Bachmann. When they bring out the epics--and many of these songs go well over the five minute mark--they really shine, because their music is deep, and extended thoughts and ideas really suit them well. I'm rather fond of "On Symmetry Pebbles," and "Northern Town," as they're extremely moving songs.
Dance A While, Upset is a most promising debut; given time, I'm sure that Settlefish will grow more comfortable into a style that's fully their own; the cliches will slip away, and Deep Elm will have yet another awesome band in their stable--all of their other bands did, so why not these guys? It'll be interesting to see what Settlefish turn into over the next few records, because I'm hearing excellence.
June 17, 2003
At its core, South San Gabriel is a Centro-matic record in all but name. Though the band members are the same, they are joined by a few friends: Brent Best (Slobberbone) plays acousitc and slide guitar, Joe Butcher (Pleasant Grove) provides some pedal steel guitar and organ and Brian Vandivier (Wiring Prank) provides baritone guitar. The name South San Gabriel stems from their 2000 release, South San Gabriel Songs/Music, which was a darker affair compared to the crunchy, Archers Of Loaf-style indie rock of All The Falsest Hearts Can Try. In Europe, the album was released under the name South San Gabriel. Apparently happy with the distinction, they decided to adopt an alter-ego moniker for their slower, darker material.
If you've listened to any Centro-matic record, you're aware that Johnson and company have a love of both loud, hard rockers and slower, stoned-out ballads. With the new distinction between the two, South San Gabriel is Johnson and company's exploration of darker, more experimental music--thus allowing Centro-matic to grow and not be smothered by experimentation. Thus, they are allowed the comfort of experimentation without the loss of reputation--a wise move, certainly; a welcome presence, definitely. At any rate, it smacks of appreciation for his fans, and that's to be respected, too. There have been hints--most notibly Navigational--but the direction that they take on Welcome, Convalescence is most welcome; Johnson's singing holds up quite well in music, regardless of whether it's a loud rocker or a soft, mellow ballad.
It should be understood, though, that 'softer' and 'mellower' does not mean 'weak'. Though Welcome, Convalescence is of a calmer nature than the frantic rock of Centro-matic, it should not be regarded as anything lesser. This is not 'traditional' music, nor is it 'folk' and it's only vaguely 'country.' In fact, I'd go so far as to say that South San Gabriel defies those genres and borders on electronica and experimental, because underneath Johnson's sad, soft singing is an electronica heartbeat--one that plays off of found sound, field recordings, and the occasional keyboard and drum loop. At times, Johnson's singing is accompanied only by static ("Ariza/284"), and other times he's accompanied only by acoustic guitar and a tape of found sound, such as on "The Splinter Angelic." Interestingly enough, Welcome, Convalescence starts off with "New Brooklyn," a song that sounds not unlike Centro-matic's cover of Vermont's "Old Blue," from a split CD release with Vermont from a few years ago.
The most striking number on Welcome, Convalescence is the epic "Everglades," which starts off with Johnson's quiet croon accompanied by an occasional drum machine beat and a haunting pedal steel in the background, which then fades into a noisy drone. After about a minute of drone, Johnson starts singing again, the drum pattern returns, but an utterly hyper drum-and-bass rhythm keeps getting louder and more manic--while Johnson's singing becomes more catatonic and detatched, and by the end of the song, he's singing acapella. It's certainly like nothing Johnson's done before, and hopefully it won't be the last.
Will Johnson's reputation as an excellent songwriter and hard-working musician is certainly well-deserved, but South San Gabriel certainly proves that he and his coharts are capable of producing more than just quality rock music. It's a sign of their genius that they can pull off such a unique record, and it's even more telling that they can do so without staining their already exemplary track record. Welcome, Convalescence is a rare album that is both extremely challenging AND quite enjoyable. Welcome, Convalescence is an album worth seeking out, for it will most assuredly be seen again on many 'best-of' lists this year.
It's also true that a few bands here and there have often employed orchestration, but it's been a bit rare for the band itself to be the orchestra. Over the past few years, I've been enthralled and fallen in love with The Polyphonic Spree, Plush, Pearlfishers, Sarah Shannon, Divine Comedy and Paula Kelley, simply because their music is primo orchestra-pop. I'd like to add another name to that list, New York's The Sharp Things. Though they've been around for a few years now--having formed as a concept in the mind of mastermind Perry Serpa well over a decade ago, and they also recorded an album's worth of material in a one-night session two years ago--this is their debut album, and one thing is quite obvious: the wait was worth it. The Sharp Things spent years working on their songs, and in so doing, they pretty much guaranteed that their first album was going to be one heck of an impressive debut.
Mission accomplished, then. Here Comes The Sharp Things is one of the jaw-droppingly wonderful pop albums of the year, bar none. This eleven piece (plus numerous friends, including Grasshopper from Mercury Rev and Mike "Sport" Murphy) orchestra-chamber pop group makes lush, pastoral music that's lovely, lush and quite moving. The music is a nice balance of heady folk and lighter rock music, but it's both darker and lighter than that description I just gave you. You'll easily be reminded of the better parts of Scott Walker, Left Bank, and even Simon & Garfunkel. It's also worth noting that Serpa often sounds like a dead ringer for David Bowie, too.
Unlike most pop albums of this type, Here Comes The Sharp Things is perhaps the first time I've ever wished that a wonderful singer would SHUT UP for a song or two, because the backing music deserves to be heard. Don't get me wrong, Serpa is never anything less than wonderful, but on songs like "Vacationing" and "Precious," the accompaniment is so dreamy and melty, vocals are intrusive--even though both songs have some of the most intelligent lyrics you've heard all year! I'm telling you, man, Here Comes The Sharp Things is the total package of pop. The music's tight, the musicians never miss a beat, and the only thing that is better than Serpa's singing are his lyrics. Never too obtuse, never too heavy, Serpa's singing and songwriting evoke a different, more literate time, where Serpa croons to an audience wearing his Ray-Bans, and rushes off after the show for a midnight drive through the city in his XKE.
If it means anything, I can't name a favorite song on the album, because every song on is equally mindblowing. If I have to, I'll say that I'm partial to "Lament/A Million Things," "Vacationing," and "Missing the Daze," though that's only my opinion right now. I'm sure it will be three different ones the next time I listen to it. All of the cuts on Here Comes The Sharp Things are brilliant, and it's been a long time since I've been able to honestly say that.
June 16, 2003
Knife was an appropriate name for this follow-up to Aztec Camera's still utterly wonderful debut, High Lands, Hard Rain, simply because at the time, it was seemed as an egregious stab in the back, a sellout of the highest magnitude. I always feel a little bad for bands who release home-run albums on their first step up to the plate. It almost always insures that the band will suffer from the dreaded Second Album Syndrome, and often what could be a promising legacy is torn to shreds because the band is expected to better their already-best work. How many wonderful bands have been ripped apart because they simply couldn't deliver, either in terms of material or label/fan expectations?
It almost happened to Aztec Camera--and some might argue that indeed it did happen to Roddy Frame. For Knife, the young (and we mean young) Frame inexplicably hired the older and (not necessarily) wiser Mark Knopfler (!!) as producer. When the album appeared in 1984, the first thing fans noticed--and couldn't help but notice--was how utterly different it was. The jangle-pop of High Land, Hard Rain was replaced with slick, well-produced pop-oriented songs that would certainly scream "sell-out" if you loved the debut. Reading reviews and fan reaction, you'd swear that Frame had committed some great atrocity. People took his change in style personally.
Nineteen years later, it's glaringly obvious why the fans hated it. The knee-jerk reaction and rejection--especially in the face of greatness--might seem quaint now, but they did have a point. Knife is a slick-sounding record, and several of the arrangements sound terribly dated, and even though the songs are good, I dare you not to cringe at places. "All I Need is Everything" and "Still on Fire" are the worst offenders, and if I were a fan back then, I'd have been shocked and slightly upset about how generic it sounds. Personally, I can't listen to those two tracks without cringing.
But is Knife really that bad? No, not at all. There are certainly some really wonderful songs here; heck, even the flawed "Still on Fire" is good--it's just killed by overproduction. Good songs rise out of bad arrangements, and "Just Like the USA," "The Birth of the True," and "Backwards & Forwards" still rank among his best work. Personally, I'm fond of the epic, nine-minute title song. It's a sad, beautiful ballad, and in a weird kind of way, it really reminds me of another great album-closing epic from that era, "Purple Rain."
I've already reviewed the Aztec Camera EP, but let me add that the stripped-down arrangements that were performed live really highlight the fact that Frame had not lost the plot, and that the songwriting was still extremely strong. (This version adds a track left off of the American 10", "The Boy Wonders," but it's really not essential.) I'd like to see someone come along and release some live shows from this era--or any Aztec Camera era, really--because it's been said that he is an excellent live performer, and can easily bring to life his weakest studio recording, and the live songs on Aztec Camera really prove that point.
For those that are curious about Roddy Frame and Aztec Camera, the double-header of Knife and Aztec Camera is the second-best place to start. Go get High Lands, Hard Rain, and then this one, and you'll certainly be rewarding yourself with music from one of the best artists of the 1980s--no matter how flawed they might have seemed at the time.
June 15, 2003
These things are indeed wonderful, but there's one major flaw with Time Shapes the Forest Lake. The only problem I have with them--and this is hard to say, because I'm criticizing one aspect of the record, and not the band itself--is the singing. They've made some really wonderful music, but the singing just takes away from their music. I've never suggested a band go all-instrumental, but Pothole Skinny probably would be better served in considering the change. The vocals just seem to be a bit out of place among the lush accompaniment. For instance, "Antique Gasoline" would make a wonderful instrumental piece, but the singing makes it so...common, so been-there, done-that, and it's disappointing, too, because I can tell they're much better than that. Indeed, it's no surprise that the instrumental numbers--such as the lovely "When Morpheus Calls For Slumber," and the downright beautiful "May-Gun Explosive Flower"--are the album's strongest songs.
As this is a debut record, some flaws are to be expected, and aside from the problematic vocals, Time Shapes the Forest Lake is a peaceful, quiet, tranquil record, one that owes more to Windham Hill or Hearts of Space than it does with Olivia Tremor Control. With a little change of direction, Pothole Skinny could produce really, really beautiful music.
In Poor Rich Ones, Hut's voice is a shivering-cold Britpop-influenced castrado that soars high over loud guitars and a rock melody, but on Road Star Doolittle, he's pretty much by himself. Good thing, too, because it's about time that he took the time to highlight what's clearly his strongest asset. At times, songs like "Scarlet, "Belonging" and "Dulcinea" don't sound like they'd be too out of place on a Poor Rich Ones record. Other songs, such as "Wood Floors," "A Better View," and "Country Hut" are downcast, melancholy country songs not unlike Mazzy Star or Stoned and Dethroned-era Jesus and Mary Chain.
Road Star Doolittle is a lovely, albeit brief, little collection of songs from an artist who deserves to be more than obscure. William Hut has, without a doubt, one of the best voices in music today, and it's a shame that he's gone unnoticed for so long. Road Star Doolittle might not be the record to make him a superstar, it shows that his singing voice is no slouch. Whether or not there's another Poor Rich Ones record in the future, it's good to know that Hut can easily cut it on his own.
Surrender to mixed results? Well, this album is WAY better than
that. Picture a modern-day rave kid time traveling back to Woodstock with a camcorder, and discovering there that a drum circle is not that far removed from the techno he currently listens to. Manitoba’s Up in Flames would be the perfect soundtrack to his home movie. There would be loads of people dancing, but the flash and the sun would be so overwhelming that it obscures all but the contours of their bodies. Nonetheless, the video would be beautiful, and the fun everyone was having would definitely be palpable to the viewers. This scenario isn’t that far-fetched if you look at the CD’s artwork, which is full of Day-Glo backdrops awash in colors bright enough to render the objects of said backdrops a near-total blur. The music follows suit, built from a core of stomping live drums, jangling acoustic and electric guitars, and breathy, often wordless, vocals. Although Manitoba guru Dan Snaith has roots in IDM, this record barely qualifies to be cast into that genre. The lopsided drum programming, computer glitches, and sonic cut-ups come second to the woozy, rocking atmospheres evoked by the actual singing and playing.
Like every other song on the record, album opener “I’ve Lived on a Dirt Road All My Life” is a veritable feast of sound. It begins with what sounds like an orchestra tuning up, which is then completely elbowed out of the mix by Smith’s vocals. His first words are “I’ve lost track of all the time,” and his voice is drowned in enough reverse reverb that it really DOES sound like he’s stretching time itself as he sings. Chicken scratch guitar, Rhodes piano, horn and woodwind solos, and animal noises ricochet from speaker to speaker until the song is hijacked by an extremely funky stop-start drum solo. Manitoba gets off on this kind of sonic density, adding elements one by one to a song until the results are just shy of overkill, only to strip everything away to reveal one or two layers lying underneath. The last couple of minutes of “Dirt Road” sound nothing like the rest of the song, its pitter-patter drums and coy keyboards sounding like an extremely shy version of Boards of Canada. The next track, “Skunks,” adds a little free jazz to the mix, courtesy of a series of atonal saxophone bleats and intentionally offbeat drum fills. “Jacknuggeted” begins with a sung four-word mantra before launching into a cacophony via garishly loud organ and hissing cymbals.
An orchestra of spastic music boxes drives the music on “Bijoux,” and the song’s gliding vocal fanfares suggest a choir of heavenly eunuchs after inhaling a potent dose of helium. “Crayon” is equally percussive and flighty, overlaying tapes of giggling children on top of a childlike symphony of bells that DJ Takemura would kill to call his own. The amazing “Twins” succinctly sums the entire album up by cramming a monster guitar riff, a dexterous drum solo, and a field recording of a hippie jam band into a time frame of less than two minutes, running everything through just enough computer manipulation to make everything sound otherworldly. Album closer “Every Time She Turns Round It’s Her Birthday” does “Twins” one better by turning these aforementioned elements up to ten and not letting up for nearly eight minutes. The only track on the album that feels superfluous is “Why the Long Face,” which is merely a forty-five second snippet of trumpet beats and swirling keyboards. It’s cheery enough to live up to its title but is otherwise insubstantial. On the whole, though, Dan Snaith constructs Up in Flames as a whole in the same manner that he constructs its individual songs. For almost forty minutes, the music only gets more and more intense, only to stop just as the listener is close to complete exhaustion.
I read something that described them as kinda like East River Pipe, and though that's not a particularly true statement for most of Promise to the Refrigerator, it is a fitting comparison. I don't really see the Elliott Smith comparisons though, unless you want to say that they also play an acoustic guitar. Their music's much more interesting than his, simply because they're never really as minimalist as he was, and they're much more atmospheric than he ever was. (Goodness, is it appropriate to refer to him in the past tense now?) On "Red and Whites" and "View from 300 Million B.C.," they do appear to owe more than a passing debt to Radiohead, too. Thankfully, they pull it off.
The songs on Promise to the Refrigerator are delicate, sensitive, and, unlike many other acts doing the same thing, are interesting. Yeah, that's right, interesting. Unlike the many others bands who apply the same kind of postmodern-rock formula to their music, I actually wanna hear the songs again. And again! How often is that, especially for a particularly bland, dry, boring musical style? It's been a while since I've heard a Britpop-influenced band that's made me want to listen to their record instead of reaching for A Different Class or OK Computer, but that's certainly happened here.
Over the course of dozens of listens, I've only found one tiny little flaw with Promise to the Refrigerator. Avoidance Theory avoid being too "aggressive" with their music, except on the "Bells Revenge" instrumental passage. It's kind of a shame, too, because I'd like to hear something a little more upbeat from these two. Still, I'm not complaining too much; Promise to the Refrigerator is a promising debut, and I'm certainly gonna look forward to hearing what they do next.
June 14, 2003
What makes Tiara so wonderful is that it sounds exactly like you'd want a British pop group to sound. It's lush, exotic, extremely intelligent, yet it's poppy, clubworthy, and quite enjoyable. If you want it to be mellow, it's the mellowest, if you want something more upbeat, it certainly provides a nice little tempo. It's never too fast, it's never too slow--it's just right! Tiara has some of the stylish sounds I've heard in ages, too. Heck, if I were to open up a clothing boutique or a hair salon, it's almost certain that Tiara would be in constant circulation.
And why not? The delightful bossanova instrumental "Glance Across the Room" and the delicate jazz passages of "Marian" and "Meantime" would provide the customer with a soothing, relaxing shopping experience, and your store would certainly sound hip with the latest pop hits of "Friends in Flares" and "En Pleurs." And if you want pure dancing in the aisles, all you need to do is play the utterly impressive club-ready hit "Club Class." All in all, these songs really do make you feel wonderful, and they certainly do provide a wonderful ambience. There's also a wonderful little remix of "Friends in Flares" hidden at the end, too.
Eight songs? Too short! Beaumont's masterminds Paul Stewart and Keith Girdler know the value of time and can make a three minute song sound like a ten minute symphony, and though Tiara may be a short little record, it certainly feels like an evening in the coolest lounge in New York City. Tiara is certainly a record you should take the time to seek out. It's a record that will certainly cool you down during this hot hot heat. At the very least, it'll help cure your disappointment in the last Saint Etienne record.
On their second album, In One-Hundred Years the Prize Will Be Forgotten,The Potomac Accord might easily be dismissed as yet another band at the artsy-fartsy trough, but such accusations would be unwarranted and unfair--considering there are plenty of bands who are ten times more derivitive. Instead of loud bursts of noise undercoated with some sort of sociopolitical ranting or polyrhythmic funk, Potomac Accord play it fairly cool; their music is predominantly piano-based; there's an unnamed singer--obscurity seems to be the lifeblood of this style of music--who apparently understands the concept that if you sing low, people have to listen harder, making your music much more powerful. Then again, he sings in such a flat, mumbled manner, making most of what he says rather incoherent. (Then again, listening to the words of "The Empty Road," perhaps it's best that we not know.) After all the times I've listened to "Ghost of Kalamazoo" and "Newly Fallen Century," I have yet to really understand the words. Maybe that isn't the point, though--after all we're dealing in sweeping, overwhelming atmosphere--not the small details.
Minor quibbles aside, In One-Hundred Years... is still a lovely, affecting record; it's definitely pretty, and if you're going for a sad, quiet atmosphere, you could certainly do worse than listening to The Potomac Accord. While this style of music may be mutating--it would have to in order to survive--The Potomac Accord are quite capable of surviving any changes that might sweep them under. Or, maybe, they'll be submerged and come out sounding like something else. Either way, survival is theirs, if they so desire, and they've made a wonderful record--even if Joe Music Snob dismisses them as being "too generic."
Let's forget everything from 1996 and beyond. Let's forget about how OK Computer became one of THOSE albums, one that will always be a notch in pop culture's bedpost, the John Holmes of the 1990s, giving everybody an emotional orgasm, leaving listeners all over the world spent, gasping for air and moaning "genius...genius..." That album seemed to change everything in the music industry. All of a sudden it became fashionable to compare other albums and bands to OK Computer, and I'll even admit that I've been guilty of that particular crime. On the day it was released, millions of high-school guitar students and fratboy college bands decided they no longer wanted to be the next Nirvana or Pearl Jam--and the world has never been the same.
Apparently, this utterly-worldwide success really stuck under Thom Yorke's craw, and rightfully so. He became hyped as a genius in a frenzy not seen since Brian Wilson, and from the reports and his apparent "attitude," this did not make him happy. He's merely mortal and he didn't like the godlike stature. Understandable. In an extremely smart move, he decided to do what I'm sure nobody else would have done--refused to try to make an album that would follow-up or continue down that OK path. Hence, Kid A, a record that was just so un-Radiohead that it confounded people--myself included. It just wasn't very good. It could have been saved, if it wasn't for the fact that Thom didn't want anything to do with guitar music. It was an utter bore, and a disappointment. Amnesiac was released a little bit later; recorded at the same time as Kid A, it was said to be the "pop" album that would have been the natural follow-up to OK Computer, but it too was most definitely Kid A's sister, and suffered from the same boring gene. (A puzzling live album, I Might Be Wrong, featured live renditions of songs from just those two albums, and it surely shows that the band could've done something totally better with these albums).
Well, my friends, it's 2003, and Hail To The Thief is here, and it's about time that they released a decent follow-up to 1995's The Bends. Much like their past two efforts, this isn't a follow-up to OK Computer. Methinks that Yorke has realized that he's never going to make a decent follow-up, and so he's simply stopped trying. Good for him, because I'm sure that such an attempt would destroy him. It almost did. It would be wrong to compare this one to that one, anyway, because it's three albums ago, and you gotta move forward with your life--and Radiohead have clearly moved on. Why haven't you?
It's quite obvious from listen number one that Yorke's over his Warp Records fascination. While there certainly are moments of spicy electronica (such as the lovely "Backdrifts"), they never really fall guilty of imitation. Oh, the guitars are back, too, and they've reunited with a little something I call "melody." Good thing, too, because I was starting to worry that they'd become addicted to the indulgence of self-loving. Besides, I was beginning to wonder if Ed O'Brien and Philip Selway would ever get to play their instruments again. I'm perhaps most fond of the lovely, sad "Sail to the Moon," because of the lovely way that the pianos and guitars combine--it sounds like a long-lost Cocteau Twins riff, and Yorke has never sounded better, too.
See, Radiohead shine brightest when they actually sound like a band--and it's been a long, long time since they've sounded so...united. They sound like a band again, and that's perhaps the greatest thing to say about Hail To The Thief. They've been working out, too, because every song on here is a lot stronger and tougher than...well, you know what. Yorke still sounds like Thom Yorke, and it was certainly nice of him to allow his band to sound like themselves, too. After listening to their last two records, I never would have guessed that they would have produced such wonderful numbers as "We Suck Young Blood" or "2+2=5."
None of the songs on Hail to the Thief really contain any of Radiohead's super-catchy hooks, and that's okay. Perhaps this is a concession to their previous experiments; maybe they didn't really intend on making hooky music, because they're afraid of what happened in the past. It's okay, because the music is still wonderful, even if you have to accept it on the band's terms, and that's not to say that their music is purposfully difficult, either. Somewhere along the way, they realized that they needed to let the fans come to the music, instead of making music to bring in the fans. In an odd way, the one song that does have the overt hook, "There There," seems to reek of effort, and it's the only low point of the album.
Is this a concept album? Who knows. Better yet, who cares? Sure, there are moments that make you go, "Hmmmm, I really wonder what old Yorkie's talkin' about here," but is it really our place to judge a man's music and his words? Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm supposed to be a critic and judge these things on their merit, but, hey, sometimes a cigar is only a phallic symbol, you know. And, yeah, I'm aware that "Myxomatosis" has a line that should be commented on: "'Now no one likes a smart arse'/'But we all like stars'/That wasn't my intention/I did it for a reason." I'm just gonna let you decide and form your own opinion on that one. But, really, could you blame Yorke for saying what he's saying?
Radiohead is still one of the best bands around, even if it took them eight years to properly release a follow-up to The Bends. Stop whining about how it doesn't sound the way you'd like it to sound--it's their band, not yours, and this is the record they made. Deal with it. Love it. Don't download it. Enjoy it, it's beautiful. It's a wonderful experience, holding this record in your hands, putting it on your stereo, and looking at the wonderful cover art. (I'd recommend going for the limited edition, with the big booklet and poster. It's pretty, well, you know, typical Radiohead cover art.) In the end, tt's good to know that Yorke and company still have it in them. Not many bands from their era still do, you know.