October 26, 2003

The Blow "The Concussive Caress"

This is the first indie-pop record I’ve heard that betrays a direct hip-hop influence without sounding either corny or ironically racist. Whenever I hear someone in a band trying to rap in one of their songs (and this happens more often than most people would know or admit), it reeks of shtick. The humor is almost always found in the performer’s acknowledgment of his or her inability to rap. Even at its best, it’s a joke that gets old quickly. At its worst (see Kleenex Girl Wonder’s last couple of records), it’s just a couple steps shy of modern minstrelsy. When I first heard Graham Smith utter the words, “Ain’t a damn thing changed, muthaf**ka,” I thought to myself, “If all he’s getting out of the music is the posturing and cursing, he’s either listening to the wrong kind of rap or he simply isn’t paying attention.”

On the other hand, when I listen to The Concussive Caress, I get the feeling that Khaela Maricich (the woman behind the Blow) is sincerely trying to make her version of a modern R&B record with limited resources. She couldn’t get a troupe of gospel-trained background singers, so she overdubbed her own slightly out-of-tune vocals on top of each other to make similar multi-part harmonies. She couldn’t buy a TR-808 for herself, so she programmed the beats by hand on whatever dinky keyboards she could find. Khaela’s casual, yet confident, sing/speak vocal style that would sound just as good on top of an honest-to-goodness hip-hop beat as it does on the minimal DIY concoctions found on this record.

Look no further than “What Tom Said about Girls” for proof of the Blow’s R&B ambitions. The instrumentation is little more than a drum kit, a beat box, and a distorted bass line. Every once in a while, high-pitched synthesizer leads seemingly borrowed from a Dr. Dre record pop up. On top of this backdrop, Khaela sings and speaks from the point of view of an inarticulate male who is more concerned about his car than he is about his girlfriend. He recounts a night under the stars with her, during which “she’s like, ‘Tom, do you ever realize the space that’s in between the stars?’ And I was like, “Well, you know…uh…’” Little spoken-word interjections like this add spice and humor to an already funky and catchy song. Khaela imitates the guy’s lame pickup lines later on in the song in an exchange that is too funny to spoil in a review. This song is par for the course on an album that examines love and lust from all kinds of creative angles.

The majority of the album seems to be a narrative revolving around two lovers, Amy and Pauline. Now would be a good time to mention that Khaela has a fascination with sex that could make R. Kelly blush. The first song on the album is called “How Naked Are We Going to Get,” and during the song she asks, “Will you still know the way to her heart through her thighs?” During a later untitled snippet, she laments over a guy who sweet-talked her only to drop her like a bad habit. The chorus of “Where I Love You” goes “I love you/Yes I do/You know it’s true,” which would seem trite if not for the fact that she sings “my hands are free to say” right before those words. “Who watches you from below when the breeze blows up your skirt?” she asks in “Gravity (Pauline’s Response to Amy).” On “Come On Pauline (Amy’s Cassette for Pauline),” Khaela repeats the “I” in “I kinda need you” with a rhythmic stutter that would make Missy Elliott jealous.

Not every song is a Jeep classic, though. This is a K Records release, after all, so you have to get your daily dosage of twee, timid “love rock.” “Night Full of Open Eyes” is a two-minute guitar-and-drums ditty that recalls early Spinanes. A couple of tracks are super-brief sketches that Khaela didn’t bother to develop any further, and could have easily been excised from the record without any damage done. One of them, though, “What Amy Heard in Her Mother’s Voice Played Backwards,” is probably the first attempt at back masking I’ve heard that actually manages to sound sinister. After one or two listens, the voice is deciphered as saying “Keep away from love; it will f**k you up.” I guarantee that if you played this track in a dark room in the middle of the night, it would scare the crap out of somebody. Then, there are baroque moments like closing track “The Warrior’s Hearts,” in which Khaela sings of the similarities between love and war atop a swell of pianos and trumpets. For the most part, though, Khaela’s booty hounding is backed by the proverbial boom-bap.

I’ve been waiting for this record since I saw Khaela open for the
Microphones during their Paper Opera Tour a year or so ago. She did a solo set that was little more than her voice accompanied by an archaic drum machine. That was all she needed to charm the pants off of the audience, and I still remember the words to nearly every song she sang that night. It also helped that Khaela is really cute; if she ever asked me how naked we were going to get… (Transmission interrupted) The mini-EP she released last year was named Bonus Album, and appropriately so; as good as it was, it still sounded like leftovers from a kick-ass album that wasn’t released yet. Folks, The Concussive Caress is that kick-ass album. Buy it, and get your indie-pop swerve on with a clear conscience.

---Sean Padilla

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