October 30, 2003
Starting off with the epic "The Curious Thing About Leather"--which starts off with the tinkle of windchimes, then turns into a jangle-pop ditty, and then ends with twom minutes of a joyous choir singing "ba-ba-ba's" over some of the sunniest horns you've ever heard. They've easily and deftly out-spreed the Polyphonic Spree, and they did it in exactly two minutes. When they hit that groove at the end of the song, I can't sit still; I find myself dancing around the room, waving my hands up in the air. I can't sit still, and those last two minutes give me the warmest feeling inside, and when the song (sadly) ends, I'm left with a big fat smile on my face.
What makes this record better is that it's not just another baroque-pop affair--far from it! Indeed, their sound is a weird mixture of Grandaddy/Polyphonic Spree/Byrds/Turtles/New Order/Boyracer. Think I'm being lazy and/or too generous with the comparisons? HECK NO! You really, really have to hear this to appreciate it. They have the jingle-jangle harmony sound that's pure Roger McGuinn (listen closely to "White Hot"), a beat and rhythm that's totally Peter Hook on "The Guns From Here." Though the Boyracer may seem a bit of a stretch, but the fact is that "I Can't Fall in Love" and "Please Give Me your Heart, Is all I need" are boyracerfare, if ever you've heard it. They even do a duet with KaitO's Niki Colk, and it all sounds real good.
Really, though, how could I Hope You're Feeling Better Now be anything less than an utter treat? Everything is just right, everything is totally perfect, and the sound will win you over from listen numero uno. It's hooked me immediatly, and Irving is definitely a band that's worth keeping an eye on for 2004. I wonder where they will go from here--but I don't really worry about it too much, simply because I have faith that their next album will be a total, utter killer.
If you're gonna give the gift of music this year, DO YOURSELF AND YOUR LOVED ONES A FAVOR AND GIVE THIS EP!!!!! I cannot begin to stress how utterly awesome it is!
October 29, 2003
After the hype surrounding it, the long search for the right label to
release it, and the subsequent leaking of it all over the Internet, the staid reception that Echoes has received since its domestic release is surprising. Not only that, but itís downright disappointing, especially considering that itís a pretty good record after all. The album finds the Rapture focusing on the two tricks that they know and milking them for all that theyíre worthÖand yes, they finally invested in tuners!
The first trick is to fuse the hard, stringent rhythms of 1980s Todd
Terry-style house music with the arty, postmodern panic of Public Image Limited. That last sentence was just critic-speak for the following equation: four-on-the-floor drum programming + two simple keyboard lines + a guy shouting like heís got a hot poker shoved up his behind = instant dance-punk to get your swerve on to. A saxophone occasionally pops up, but itís used more as a sound effects device than as a melodic embellishment. In ìOlio,î the crack in guitarist Luke Jennerís uncontrollable wail of a voice becomes as rhythmically insistent as the drums and bass. When Jenner shouts, ìI need your love,î in the song of the same name, it sounds more like a frightened cry for help than a come-on. Heís so consumed by fear that he canít even enunciate his words: on the same song, ìVisions of you orî sounds like ìThis is a new world.î The lyrics are printed in Echoesí CD booklet, which is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you get to make out what Jennerís actually singing; on the other hand, you discover how facile the Raptureís lyrics are. Theyíre at their best when theyíre little more than repetitive catch phrases. Overused metaphors and forced rhyme schemes sabotage all attempts at deeper meaning.
The second, and slightly more impressive, trick is to take the same paranoid funk frenzy and transpose it to the context of a live, four-piece rock band. The songs mentioned in the previous paragraph (along with ìKillingî) rely heavily on synthesizers and programs, and there is very little sonic variation in these songs from one minute to the next. On the other hand, songs like ìHeaven,î ìThe Coming of Spring,î and ìEchoesî use primarily organic instrumentation, which gives the musicians opportunities to add melodic, dynamic, and tempo changes whenever they see fit. All of those songs start out as standard ìdeath disco,î only to mutate into something else. The coda of ìHeavenî slows the music down for a climax of hollered harmonies, splashing cymbals, and irritating saxophone squeaking. ìThe Coming of Springî inserts bursts of clipped white noise taken from a low-quality recording of a live show. ìEchoesî shifts into a double-time punk screech that will turn any dance floor into a mosh pit within seconds. These transitions give the songs real staying power.
The album is expertly sequenced so that the program-driven songs alternate with the guitar-dominated songs. Each song sounds different from the one before it, and no song overstays its welcome. In a stroke of genius, ìHouse of Jealous Loversî is placed right in the middle of the record. Itís the only song on the record in which both the organic and electronic sides of the Rapture seem to function simultaneously and interdependently. When the Rapture strays from either one of these tricks, though, the results are more miss than hit. Their imitations of 1970s Philly soul (ìOpen Up Your Heartî) and Rolling Stones pub-rock (ìLove Is Allî) are terrible, and they only serve to showcase the limitations of Luke Jennerís voice. Frankly, he canít hold a note if it had Velcro attached to it; heís at his best when heís losing his marbles, NOT crooning. The one exception to this is album closer ìInfatuation,î a ballad so quiet and creepy that it sounds as if the band is afraid to touch its instruments. Jennerís choked whispers suit ìInfatuationî well, and the song overall serves as a perfect comedown from the long and thrilling ride of the albumís first ten tracks.
Hereís the final word. No, the members of the Rapture arenít saviors of rock. However, the Rapture knows its strengths, and showcases them well. Theyíre distinctive, and theyíll make you shake your butt in no time. At press time, Echoes is being sold for ten bucks at your local Best Buy. HOP TO IT.
October 28, 2003
Another day, another new band, another nice little EP. Surface is a New York trio of classically trained musicians has a sound and an atmosphere that I really have enjoyed. Mixing up the sounds of modern rock and jazz, their sound is inspirational in the sense that it’s always a bit of an inspiration to hear a young band find a groove that’s all their own. I’ve said it before--an EP is a good format. It’s a good way to be introduced to the world, and it’s a great way to
work out the kinks that come from being a brand new band.
The five songs that constitute this EP (titled EP--heh!) are
all cut from the same cloth. They have a jazzy feel; mixed with a little bit of Britpop, these songs all have a light, airy feeling that is very friendly on the ears and is always a pleasure to listen to. They mix up jazz and pop quite naturally-and for good reason; all of these fellows are classically trained and educated musicians. Sometimes that’s not a good thing; technical skill can occasionally overwhelm the music itself, leaving the music feeling bland and
passionless. Luckily, Surface doesn’t have that problem.
Starting off with “Control Freak,” lead singer Sean Han impresses quite quickly with his not too sad yet not too happy vocals. He has a flare for the dramatic that’s not unlike Jeff Buckley or Chris Martin, and even though he doesn’t quite reach up to Buckley’s angelic heights (then again, who can?) he’s not a weak singer at all, and he doesn’t fall flat into the pit of imitators-and believe me, there sure are plenty of them these days! “Move” is a number with a wonderful jazzy instrumentation-and could just as well be an instrumental. “Hard to Believe” and “Forget Your Blues” are also nice, radio-friendly ballads, and the final track, “Pulling Teeth,” is perhaps the weakest of the bunch; it sounds older than the rest of the songs, but after a few listens, it grows on you.
Perhaps the only problem I have with EP is the fact that their sound, while good, doesn’t have the strength of experience. Their songs aren’t weak; they just sound like those of a new band who are young but daily growing. I have a feeling that won’t be an issue for much longer. Growth fixes these things, and Surface have nothing but time, and with the time spent playing out, I’m positive that Surface will make a stellar, strong debut album. Surface is a fine debut for a band well worth paying attention to.
October 27, 2003
On first listen, it's pretty clear that Meeting Places take their inspiration from the British musical trends of 1989-1994. True, their sound owes much to the dreampop/shoegazer world of yore, but don't let that put you off. Their sound may be rooted in the past, but Find Yourself Along the Way is a very forward-thinking record, so at least they're not going to give you Loveless, pt. 2. Even more importantly, you really can't find any moment that reeks of one particular band, either. Besides, you really can't go wrong with Find Yourself Along The Way. Big guitars? Yup, they've got 'em. Haunting melodies? In spades. Blissed-out crooning that could easily lull you into a deep, deep sleep? Yeah, there's plenty of that as well. Heck, you could package lead singer Chase Harris' voice as a narcotic sleep aid and nobody would be the wiser.
Throwing all of these styles together produced some really, really excellent songs. From the pulsating beat of "Take To The Sun" and "Blur the Lines" to the slowed-down drone of "Where you Go" and "Freeze Our States," Meeting Places takes you through their foggy and possibly drugged-up musical world, and you're all the better for it. That they do so without ever looking up from their shoes is even more impressive. They even make you momentarily forget about all of those bands who came before, whose names become mythical with each passing year: Ride, Chapterhouse, Pale Saints, Adorable...
This leads me to my one concern: the future. Find Yourself Along The Way is an impressive debut, but how will they top it? Surely a continuation of these ideas would be good, but would it? Now is the time for personal growth and for discovery of the depths of your muse, guys. I'd hate for them to get caught in a lull and drown from the pressure of doing something new. But, then again, I shouldn't worry; they'll come up with something, and if it's anything like the majestic heights and blissful flights of this album, then we will definitely be in for a major musical treat.
October 26, 2003
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.
October 24, 2003
In many ways, The State Line is exactly what you'd expect from a debut record, especially considering the overwhelming brilliance of the follow-up record. The State Line is a rough, raw recording, with only the smallest hints of what they would deliver with Westernaire. The overwhelming atmosphere mixed with country twang and singer/songwriter brilliance that was so impressive isn't quite as developed here, but Vanderpool and company certainly did start off strong. Westernaire proves that they were able to deliver on the promises and hints that they dropped on here.
That's not to say that The State Line isn't charming. In fact, it's a really wonderful little record. It's all so fascinating, hearing Vanderpool's budding songscraft. While "Down By You" is a discordant little rocker (and perhaps the record's only true weak spot), for the most part The State Line is a collection of singer-songwriter country rock that occasionally is similar to Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, though it's obvious that they owe a little bit to alt.country bands such as Old 97s, especially on songs like "The Elusive Goldmine." Personally, I'm really impressed most by "Lubbock," because it's the first song that I've ever heard about the city that truly captures the hopelessness of a windy winter day in that dusty West Texas town.
While the world should certainly pay attention to Milton Mapes' Westernaire, it's nice to go back and look and see where they came from. A charming little record from a band who have just begun to make waves. The State Line is a wonderful little compendium to this year's best record, and is a nice little record to boot.
Thank god The Lawrence Arms aren't about such things. Instead of being the bearers of the boring punk-rock cliches, The Lawrence Arms are...different. They're special. They're beyond that sort of thing, because there's more to life than playing that part for hours, and though the title of their new album may seem a bit cocky, it's not, really. The Greatest Story Ever Told is a wonderfully refreshing slab of rock music tinged with that whole 'punk' sound and mixed with a sensitive, emotional side that's quite refreshing and rewarding. Yes, my children, people might call this 'emo.'
Those people are idiots.
Now, don't get me wrong, The Lawrence Arms have that whole crunchy punk sound, and they're experts at it. They've been touring the country and winning the hearts of punk kids since the late 90s (aka the pre-emo hype years), so you'd expect them to sound good. It should be noted that The Lawrence Arms are very reminiscent of another great punk-rock trio, Jawbreaker. Indeed, the two lead singers, Brendan and Chris, sound like two halves of one Blake Schwarzenbach. Don't think they're mere copyists, though; their sound is clearly their own, and The Greatest Story Ever Told is evidence of that.
Though the cover art may fool you--they've dressed it up in a gimmicky, 1890s style packaging--the Lawrence Arms have made a very youthful record. Invigorating, to say the least. Packing a punch of driving, melodic songs in barely thirty minutes time, these guys don't waste any time getting their point across. Songs range from the hard and the fast and the raw to the slow and soft and lush, and it's to The Lawrence Arms' credit that they can cover such a wide range of sounds so seamlessly. From the rock punch of "The March of the Elephants" and "On With The Show" to the introspective confessional of "Fireflies" and "The Revisionist," The Greatest Story Ever Told is never less than a powerful punch to the soul of rock and roll, and it's never ever boring, cliche, or emo.
I know some of you out there turn your nose up whenever the terms 'pop-punk' or 'emo' creep into a record description, but I implore you to set aside your preconceived notions when it comes to The Lawrence Arms. They're a fine band who do not fit into those little prejudices and stereotypes you might have about them. They make very good, interesting and well-written pop songs that contain a lyrical bite in the ass that you'll appreciate. If you like well-written songs, that is. The Greatest Story Ever Told may be a boastful title, but it's certainly not much of a boast.
October 22, 2003
Well, of course there is! It would take a historically untalented group of plagiarists to make an album whose sound can be succinctly described by mentioning the band’s hometown and record label. Although it can’t be denied that Del Rey likes its post-rock and its drop-D guitar tunings, Darkness and Distance is more than a mere genre exercise. This band has just enough distinction to separate itself from the thousands of Tortoise-paced and Slint-sational groups cluttering the scene. However, like most bands of their ilk, they have an Achilles’ heel that keeps them from ever reaching the heights of the seminal bands they imitate.
It’s too bad that the album opens up with its weakest (and longest) track, “Asimov.” It begins with a snippet of ambient droning run backwards. Once the drums and guitars come in, the song becomes a more metallic version of Stereolab’s one-chord motorik chugging. Then, it abruptly switches to a bongo-driven Latin-tinged vamp that screams for a Carlos Santana guitar solo. The song grinds to a halt at the five-and-a-half-minute mark, and if it had ended there it would be brilliant. Unfortunately, the band tacks another section on to the song, a New Age beat that sounds like the kind of music the Knight Rider would listen to while cruising. This segues into ANOTHER tangent, this time consisting of Sonic Youth-style dissonant grinding. Then, they go BACK to the Latin vamp before finally letting the song end at the nine-minute mark. It’s not that any of these ideas are bad ones; it’s that they don’t really make sense together, and the transitions are very awkward. It sounds like a haphazard edit of the best parts of four or five separate jams.
The rest of Darkness and Distance proves that Del Rey are a much stronger band when they use slightly fewer building blocks to construct their songs with. Most of the other six songs share two common characteristics. One is that the guitars and bass play slow, spare, and syncopated riffs while the drummer(s) go berserk. You probably won’t hum any of these songs while on your way to work, but you might beat-box the drum parts of the songs (if you’re as much of a dork as I am). For instance, “Dust Huntress” positions one drummer on each speaker. The drummers fall slightly out of sync with each other, which produces a delayed stereo effect. You’ll spend most of the song listening to see if one of them will screw up (they don’t, though).
Another common feature of these songs is that the instrumentation alternates between programmed drums and live kits, and these transitions often set atmosphere and delineate significant dynamic changes. “Staph and Strep” begins with a sheet of pretty guitar harmonics draped on top of soft drum programming. The guitars get louder and louder, building up to a climax in which the bass and live drums come in and announce a crushing drop-D riff. “Dual Sun System” makes a similar transition in a subtler fashion: the “real” instruments slowly fade in while the programming slowly fades out. “Deploy” takes the opposite tack; the song switches from electronic to organic and back again quickly and frequently.
Ironically, the best song on the album is its closer, “Vega.” This is
because the guitar actually plays a memorable melody, and when bagpipes unexpectedly arrive at the song’s end, it forms the album’s only non-rhythmic hook. All of the instruments are treated with dub-style echo and reverse effects, and the real and programmed drums play in tandem until you can’t figure out which is which. It’s the best song that Tortoise didn’t write, which brings me to my final point. The band’s tendency to cram too many ideas into a single song only pops up once on this album, so that’s nothing major. Del Rey makes good records, but what keeps them from being GREAT is that they focus much more on rhythm than they do on melody.This, more than anything else, is their Achilles’ heel. If they find a more equitable balance between rhythm and melody, their best work will certainly be ahead of them.
the better producers of the late 20th Century, he is
responsible for many excellent albums. He has worked
with bands and artists such as Brian Eno, U2, and Bob
Dylan, and his work with them has often been hailed as
some of their best work. On the side, he has released
a few solo albums, including the critically acclaimed For The
Beauty of Wynona, but Lanois is not considered a solo
artist. Shine is his first new solo album after ten
years, and though he’s not someone anyone really waits
for, it’s a wonderful little record that’s worth
Luckily, Lanois doesn’t fall into the trap that so
many producers/solo acts fall into-studio wankery.
Just because he’s responsible for some really
wonderful music doesn’t mean he has to get all weird
on you, and he doesn’t. Shine is an album that’s
moody, atmospheric and a little bit sad, but it’s also
an expertly recorded album that doesn’t let you forget
it, either. Deftly blending together country, folk,
and rock music into this one long sad, dusty road,
Lanois has made an album of dusty songs that will not
let the hurt in your heart go away.
From the first song, “I Love You,” Shine’s sadness is
stated plainly. It’s a lovely, plain duet with Emmylou
Harris, mixed with a dark, melancholy beat and Lanois’
sleepy, sad singing-at times very reminiscent of
Bono-makes for an unforgettable shot of atmosphere.
(Speaking of Bono, he makes an appearance on the next
song, “Falling At Your Feet.”) Shine never really
changes direction from that; it stays pretty much that
way-which, of course, is a very good thing. At times,
I’m reminded of Brian Eno; Lanois sings in a style
that’s somewhat detached yet impassioned-listen to “As
Tears Roll By,” which sounds like an outtake from
Another Green World. While Lanois’ voice is not
particularly strong, it’s not weak, either. “Power of
One” is a good example; it’s a hopeful little number,
made better by the fact that Lanois isn’t a
What makes Shine wonderful, though, are the
instrumentals. These tracks blend electronic
atmosphere with perhaps the saddest instrument known
to man: the pedal steel guitar. When blended with the
sonic atmospheres, songs such as “Matador” and “Space
Kay” provide a haunting refrain from the other moments
that come between. Indeed, the album is seemed
together so well, it would be easy to consider Shine
as some sort of concept album that should be listened
to as a whole. These instrumentals really do make you
feel emotional; the closing “JJ Leaves LA” leaves you,
the listener, feeling quite sad; much like “Pet
Sounds,” the sad, slowly-fading out refrain leaves you
feeling sad, as you watch the album slowly come to an
end. But it’s not a sad album, really; all of the
‘sadness’ works together and is somehow uplifting;
‘it’s darkest before dawn’ seems to be Shine’s
Shine is a beautiful album, plain and simple. Heck,
anything Lanois does is going to be good; that he’s
done it so masterfully as this only makes Shine even
more of a jewel. Shine is an album that will get under
your skin, will leave an impression on you, and will
leave you hitting the repeat button. This is music for
late-nights and early mornings, and will leave you
wishing the day was a little bit darker, simply
because the sunrise is such a beautiful thing to
Elliott's decision to split up is a bittersweet one. While it's true that they've been around for several years now, their ending comes hot on the heels of one of the best records I've heard in ages. Song In The Air is a particularly somber, downbeat kind of record, owing much of its large sound to the ambient tendencies of electronica (think Kid A), yet it's made almost entirely by a traditional band lineup. Augmented occasionally by strings and keyboard, they stick pretty close to their four-man arrangement, and in so doing, they push the limits of what it means to be a band.
When they really push their sound to the breaking point is when things get most interesting. After all, this is a rather new sound for them; when Elliott changed their sound, they really changed their sound; as shocking as it may seem, they used to be compared to the Get Up Kids--yes, you read correctly! Instead of that bland emoish sound, they've looked inward, and have created a record that both looks and sounds as if it should be the proud owner of a Projekt logo. At times it owes a great deal to bands to not only Radiohead, but also to the atmospheric brooding of Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie, Pygmalion-era Slowdive, and the flawed This Mortal Coil followup project, The Hope Blister. Indeed, their sound is much different than their back catalog.
The only problem with this new sound is the fact that Elliott had yet to really make it distinctive. At times, Song In The Air just flows together as one long song, with no real distinctive difference from one to the other. Chris Higdon's vocals are buried underneath the sonic greatness; his voice at times seems to be no match for the power of the rest of the band, leaving only a feeling that he's aping the stylings of Thom Yorke. Not that they're really wanting to be Radiohead, but because his singing is overwhelmed, you only hear his voice and not his words. This is a minor quibble, especially for a band who have produced such a radically different record. The times his vocals do come through, it's pretty damn powerful; "Carry On" sounds almost as if the band knew the end was near; his faint "Carry on without me" seeping through the loudness, producing a quite haunting effect.
Still, this is a minor quibble, because as a whole, Song In The Air is an overwhelmingly beautiful record, full of deep atmospheres, swirling guitars and a truly haunting sound. True, it may seem as if it runs together, but isn't that just a negative way of saying that the album is seemless? Yes, it is. It's just a shame that they had to come to an end at such a critical point--after releasing their masterpiece. I would love to have heard what they would have done an album later; how would they blend together the tender moments like "Blue Storm" with the epic rock of "Drag Like Pull?" How would they have incorporated more strings and shimmering guitar, like on the excellent "Believe?" Would the vocals have come to the forefront? What would they have incorporated next?
While we'll never really know what could have been, Elliott's demise was indeed on a high note. Song In The Air is an amazing record, and if it leaves more questions than answers, so be it. Sometimes it's best to be left scratching your head and wondering "what happened?" Besides, it's been my experience that when bands break up on the heels of a great record, they often form new bands which also produce great music. So we bid adieu to you, Elliott...here's to your future, may it shimmer as highly as it did on Song In The Air.
October 21, 2003
That's one of the charms of Pretty Monster. On the surface, this British duo seem to be quiet, thoughtful folkies, yet underneath all of that, you'll find two men who have a distinctive taste for classy songwriting, and they temper their songs with a post-electronic bent that souds really damn good. It's also reassuring to know that not everybody listens to and emulates Thom Yorke these days, too. When you throw in some pretty nice, rockin' moments like "As A Boy" and lovely dance-beat rants such as "May The Scene Last A Thousand Years" and we're talking about a rethink of all the things we've known and loved about that we called Britpop.
Thankfully, Fort Lauderdale never really try to redefine anything; they're not taking themselves too seriously, and they simply go about making pretty music. And pretty it is! With a hint of what made both Beck and David Bowie utterly wonderful, Pretty Monster simply wants to come into your heart and soul and mind and give you some sweet relief. They never get too raucous, too rowdy, or too loud. They simply go about making music, and whether they're playing a piano on "Silent Ways" or getting kind of racy on "The Chilling Place," they do so with such grace and charm, it makes you wonder why England hasn't fallen to their feet and embraced these two blokes with loving, open arms.
The only flaw to be had with Pretty Monster is more of a technical issue. At times, the songs seem to be slightly muffled; when listened to on a car stereo, the muffled sound is obvious; on headphones, these things don't really stand out. Even though this is a bit of a problem, it's not my main complaint. The occasionally muffled songs seem to lead the album into a bit of a monotonous sound, which really shouldn't mean much, because all of these songs are really, really good by themselves. Still, it's worth noting, because at times it makes listening to Pretty Monster a bit of a drag.
Despite that, Pretty Monster is still a pretty, interesting album by some seriously talented fellows. Perfect for those after-hours parties, suitable for chilling out and coming down after a night of ecstacy and too many pints, Pretty Monster is post-everything music for the free-thinking masses. Just let the pretty monsters in Fort Lauderdale take you by the hand, take you out, and take you to heaven.
It must be extremely nice to be Stuart Murdoch. Seven years of critical acclaim has certainly cemented his career, and it's safe to say that Murdoch has reached the Vegas-era Elvis stage of his career. Much like the King of Rock and Roll, to the rabid, devoted fans, Belle & Sebastian can do no wrong. They've made some disappointing records over the past year or two, yet they've survived the bad reviews with the ease and comfort of a well-established star. If Murdoch and his (apparently) ever-changing cast of Sebastians were to do nothing more than retread previous albums, nobody would really complain; after all, blind devotion thrives on the repetition of past glories. Stuart Murdoch could then rest a bit easier at night, as he would not have to worry about what kind of record he should make.
Of course, when an artist reaches that point in their career, one should worry about them. If history has taught us anything, it's that complacency kills: it kills great bands, it kills creative growth, it kills the spark that once made a great band/artist special; on rare occasions, it actually kills the artist. Of course, every band who establishes themselves in the public eye is faced with a frustrating catch-22, and it's one that must be maddening for those who have to face it. While it's true that an artist who turns their back on their fans in the name of 'creativity' is guilty of artistic self-importance, it's equally wrong for an artist to do nothing but give their fans the exact same thing over and over, in order to 'please the fans.'
On one level, it's obvious that Murdoch didn't want to mess much with the Belle & Sebastian formula, and that makes Dear Catastrophe Waitress an extremely complacent, sterile, risk-free record. Think they're not being complacent? Just listen to the chorus of the utterly revelatory "You Don't Send Me": "Listen honey, there is nothing you can say to surprise me/Listen honey there is nothing you can do to offend me anymore." Is he making some sort of cute commentary about a dull relationship, or is he looking in the mirror and commenting upon the fact that he's not going to give you, dear listener, nothing you wouldn't expect from Belle & Sebastian? Personally, I think he's telling all in song. And what excactly does it say about a band who never mentions who is in the band? Nowhere--nowhere--is a band lineup given; I am assuming that by this point, we should know who is in Belle & Sebastian. Then again, maybe Murdoch couldn't spare one line from his five-page diary entry/liner notes/waste of time. I guess such pretension is to be expected; let's not forget that we are talking about Belle & Sebastian here. ( It could be worse; he could have given us six pages of rambling, unintelligible babble, complete with even more name-dropping, and for once, I'm happy that Roddy Frame's name wasn't brought up in discussion.)
What makes this even more frustrating, though, is that I really can't believe that Trevor Horn was hired to keep up the Belle & Sebastian status quo. After all, this is the man who produced Frankie Goes To Hollywood, The Art of Noise and The Buggles, so it's hard not to think that the collaboration would produce something neat. (Then again, Horn also produced Seal, Paul McCartney and taTu, so such a thing could be a mixed blessing, but let's not go there.) For this, I must give Murdoch credit; the combination of Horn and Sebastian is certainly interesting. Of course, seeing as the combination seems highly unlikely, Horn's ideas and production gimmicks are terribly obvious; Dear Catastrophe Waitress has a driving, upbeat and pseudo-happy pulse that cannot be overlooked, and at times it sounds terribly unnatural. The end result? Horn's made the premier conjurers of the ghost of Nick Drake sound painfully like a folkier, feminine-sounding version of Stereolab. Think that comparison is a half-interested music writer grasping at straws for a comparison? Imagine Laetitia Sadier and the late Mary Hansen singing "Step Into My Office, Baby," "You Don't Send Me," or "If She Wants Me," (to name but three songs as examples) and the resemblence is disturbing.
It certainly piqued my curiosity to learn that Trever Horn would be producing their album. If anything made me a bit more receptive to their new record, it's that. When I first put Dear Catastrophe Waitress in my stereo, there were many, many times I wanted to take it out and listen to something that was merely mediocre, because I wanted to listen to something better. I can't explain why, but just as I reached for the eject button, some little hook or Hornism made me stop and listen, as if some sort of subliminal message was saying "please keep listening! please keep listening!" To be fair, Horn has added some wonderful hooks; though I haven't really listened to most of the album, "Step Into My Office, Baby," "You Don't Send Me," and "I'm A Cuckoo" are certainly hook-filled numbers that will make you smile and will make you want to hit the repeat button. I can't help thinking, though, that it's Trevor Horn's magic--and his magic alone--that makes this album pleasant. Nice, even. Am I listening to Dear Catastrophe Waitress because Belle & Sebastian made a great record, or am I listening to it because Trevor Horn made it listenable? I'm gonna have to live with that one for a while.
What, then, should you take away from this record? If you're a fan, there's nothing here that will offend you. They don't want to put their career on the line; after all, you can't charge fifty bucks a ticket if nobody wants to see you. If you're not a fan, then you might like this record. You might not, though. It all depends on how you feel about self-aware Scottish pop songwriters who think they're smarter than you. Belle & Sebastian make music to appeal to college professors and their sullen teenage daughters who want to feel validated in their tastes, and their latest offering simply gives the dour, sourpuss types a reason to dance and crack a smile. (Maybe that's why they hate it so!) Dear Catastrophe Waitress hasn't made me a fan, but I haven't been utterly repulsed by it, either. It's nice, inoffensive pop music, how could I possibly be repulsed? I doubt it's something I'll listen to very much, because records by Camera Obscura and Would-Be-Goods are so much better and are much more satisfying, even though the one or two highlights are really enjoyable. Ultimately, though, Belle & Sebastian have risked nothing and, once again, have given us a new album that contains absolutely nothing new.
I'm sure Elvis would be impressed.
October 20, 2003
I bought this record for two songs (Magnetic Fields' obscure "I Don't Believe You" and the new Pines scorcher "Kisses and Fog") and was stricken smitten by nineteen others. If you've never read the magazine, and you want a taste of what kind of music they like, then this is THE compilation for you. All's Fair... contains some wonderful pop music from such luminaries as Stuart Moxham, Would-Be-Goods, The Clientele, The Legendary Jim Ruiz, April March, Aislers Set, The Pacific Ocean, amongst others. My personal faves were the sprite pop of Pipas, the bouncy April March's "Mon Ange Gardien," and the foggy Pines. Personally, it's always nice to have Flare make me weep, and LD does an excellent job of inducing quiet soft tears with his new weeper "Where's the Boy That I Once Knew?"
What really makes All's Fair in Love and Chickfactor excellent is the programming--a lost art that really needs to be studied, for a record full of wonderful songs can still be boring if it's not programmed right. Kudos for that! If you really want to know how excellent the record is, though, just look at the smiling ladies on the cover--Gail and the lovely Pam Berry! You'll be smiling that way after one mere listen.
All's Fair in Love and Chickfactor is the magazine's first compilation, and after listening to this little pleasure, I'm left with two questions: 1. Why wait so long to put out a comp record, and, more importantly, 2. When are you putting out the next one, Gail?. So the next time you have a rainy grey Saturday morning, I'd suggest snuggling up with your favorite cat or chihuahua, fix yourself a hot cup of coffee and some coffee cake, and curl up with the new issue of Chickfactor, with All's Fair In Love and Chickfactor on your stereo. You'll quickly be sent on a swooning trip to pop heaven!
October 18, 2003
Too bad for Mike Ireland. Try Again is an awesome record, but nobody's gonna hear it, save for the occasional playing that it'll get on stations that are usually affiliated with NPR. While I'm not saying that's not good enough, for an exceptional talent as Ireland and his beautiful record, NPR IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH. I've been rather moved by the simple, twangy singing and the lush background, and I'd like to take this time to say something that damn well needs to be said. IF IT WASN'T FOR THE FACT THAT YOU, MR. COUNTRY RADIO PROGRAMMER, HAVE MADE UNCLE FESTER WITH A COWBOY HAT AKA GARTH BROOKS THE NEW HANK WILLIAMS AND THAT YOU'VE CREATED A MOST MEDIOCRE BEAST, AND WHEN PETER JENNINGS CAN GO ON TV AND DIS ON YOUR INDUSTRY AND RECOGNIZE THAT THERES A PROBLEMS AND SAYS "WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO COUNTRY MUSIC" THEN YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT THERES A PROBLEM. AND DONT SAY THAT SINCE THE DIXIE CHICKS DO GOOD "BUSINESS" THAT SUCH THINGS ARE WHAT THE REST OF THE WORLD WANTS TO HEAR. IF I WANT FAT BLOATED AND BLONDE I'LL PULL OUT MY STEVIE NICKS RECORDS, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, ITS NO ACCIDENT THAT THEY COVER "LANDSLIDE" NOW BECAUSE THE ONLY MUSICAL TRADITION NATALIE MAINES IS CARRYING ON IS THE COW-SIZED FRIZZLED HAIR HARPIE TRADITION THAT STARTED OH SO MANY YEARS AGO WHEN THAT FLEETWOOD MAC SHIT WAS UBIQUITOUS AND COUNTRY MUSIC WAS STILL GOOD. THE DIXIE CHICKS ARE AS MUCH "CARRYING ON THE COUNTRY TRADITION" AS MADONNA IS CARRYING ON THE WHORE OF BABYLON TRADITION, DONT THINK YOURE FOOLING PEOPLE, MY FRIEND, BECAUSE YOURE NOT, UNLESS YOU REALLY THINK YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT MIDDLE-AGED HOUSEWIFES AND THEIR PERMED-HAIR TEENAGE DAUGHTERS REALLY LIKE.
I hope that Mickey Newbery, god bless him, was blessed enough to hear this record shortly before his death, for Ireland's carrying on the tradition of singers who mix lush background music with words that I believe. Yeah, when he sings of heartbreak like "Mr Rain" and disappointment like Charlie Rich's "Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs" to the statements of his love such as "I'd Like To"--I believe the man. SEE, MR. COUNTRY RADIO PROGRAMMER, UNLIKE RANDY "DIG MY HAT" TRAVIS AND MANY OF THE OTHER SO-CALLED "MEN" WHO ARE CLOSER TO MICHAEL JACKSON THAN JIM REEVES WHEN IT COMES TO THE SENTIMENT OF THE MUSIC THAT THEY SING, MIKE IRELAND IS A REAL FUCKING SINGER AND HIS MUSIC COMES FROM THE HEART AND SOUL THAT ONCE USED TO BE COUNTRY. NOW THAT YOUVE KILLED COUNTRY MUSIC WITH MEDIOCRITY FOR NEARLY TWO DECADES, ITS TIME FOR YOU TO MAKE AMENDS, OR SIMPLY DIE SO THAT WE CAN GET THE NEXT BORING ASS COUNTRY "TREND" OVER WITH. IF YOU HAVE ANY SEMBLENCE OF A CLUE YOU WILL SEE THAT IRELAND IS BEYOND THE SCOPE OF YOUR JV-FOOTBALL LOVING ASS AND APPEALS TO, OH I DONT KNOW, THE INTELLIGENCE AND THE SOUL OF THE LISTENER. STOP PRODUCING SOULLESS MUSIC FOR RURAL JAILBAIT, UNLESS YOU THINK THAT'S THE ONLY PEOPLE WORTH FOCUSING ON, WHICH IN THAT CASE I HOPE YOU ARE TORTURED IN HELL UNTIL THE END OF TIME SERVING AS THE CROTCH-BOY FOR THE TORTURED SOUL THAT WE KNOW AS BILLY RAY CYRUS WHILE HANK WILLIAMS, CHARLEY PATTON, IRA LOUVIN, AND SPADE COOLEY COLLECTIVELY SHOVE EVERY SINGLE COPY OF EVERY SINGLE SOLITARY GARTH BROOKS, DIXIE CHICKS, WYNONA JUDD, AND GEORGE STRAIT ALBUMS EVER SOLD IN THE WORLD UP YOUR ASS SIDEWAYS IN ORDER TO PUNISH YOU FOR THE WRONGNESS THAT YOU HAVE CAUSED COUNTRY MUSIC AS A WHOLE.
I love Try Again. It's the first honest statement that I've heard. It's also the first country music I've heard that should be played in Flying J's and Rip Griffiths across this fine country, and it's sad to say that such things aren't gonna happen, you know it, and I know it. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm cynical, but Try Again is the first record that I think should be ubiquitous. Austin City Limits is where this man needs to go next. Come on, people, go and buy the damn record already!
Lyrically, a lot of songs on Submariner read like attempts to be as gross and verbose as humanly possible. “White Train” is a drug song with a very confusing use of feminine personification. You can’t really tell whether Bischoff is singing about a lost lover or choking on barbiturates. Either way, “Asphyxiate on her convection/Barbiturate reanimation” is a terrible lyric to use for a chorus, and it’s a credit to Bischoff’s singing that it actually sounds smooth coming out of his mouth. “Below” namedrops Islamic fundamentalist assassins for no particular reason. “Batty” spends a verse each lamenting a baby who died of heart failure and a two-year-old who was blinded by an incompetent optometrist. Too many of these songs simply throw grotesque images and SAT words against each other without any sort of logic. They may sound ominous when Bischoff sings them, but they don’t hold up well on paper.
Musically, though, the Dead Science is excellent at setting atmosphere. The ex-lovers portrayed in “White Cane” slowly forget each other day by day, and the transition from verse to chorus reflects this progression well. A swell of keyboards and guitars play chromatic runs in the chorus, sounding like a procession of broken music boxes. The music gains clarity once the swell ends in the second verse, only to slip back into haziness when the swell returns for the next chorus. It’s a perfect musical illustration of how slippery memory can really be. “The Ghost Integrity” starts off as a finger-picked acoustic shuffle, but ends in an explosion of free-metered drumming and droning strings. In this song, Bischoff urges the listener to carry on his good reputation after he dies: “My name, please contain/It’s all that will remain/the ghost, integrity.” If it weren’t for the diabolical songs that surround it, “Girl with the Unseen Hand” could almost be interpreted as a love song. Regardless, it’s the mellowest and prettiest song on the entire record, with exquisite string arrangements ushering Sam Mickens’ falsetto to even higher heights.
More often than not, the songs with the best musical arrangements also have the sharpest lyrics. Obviously, there are exceptions. For instance, “Batty” may be lyrically muddy, but it has the most bonkers slap-bass playing I’ve ever heard in my life. However, the lyrics remain Submariner’s biggest stumbling block. Second place would go to the band’s occasionally tendency to let songs go on too long. Did “Unseeing Eye” and “Tension at Pitch” really need to run seven minutes a piece? Then again, I’m a Guided by Voices fan, so that might be my attention span speaking. Overall, this is a good debut album from a band I’m looking forward to hearing more of. All three members are great musicians, both Bischoff and Mickens have superb voices, and by positioning itself right at the intersection between rock, jazz, and classical, the band has already carved out a distinct sonic niche. With a bit more editing and a LOT less Gothic pretension, the Dead Science could make an even stronger impression the second time around.
October 17, 2003
In essence, BMSR is just two Pennsylvanian brothers and a friend using guitars, keyboards, samples, and electronics to make their own psychedelic stew. Yes, they use guitars and vocals, but these instruments aren’t prominent enough to place the music squarely in the rock genre. Yes, they use samples and electronics, and they run EVERYTHING through Boards-style vibrato, but that’s where the similarities to current IDM end. There isn’t much DSP involved, unless you count the weird cello sounds in “Dandelion Graves.” The textures are warm and nubbly, as if it the songs were recorded to analog four-track. The samples are out of sync with each other, just enough to suggest that they were triggered manually. All of this suggests that BMSR hover around the gray area between lo-fi indie-rock and soft IDM --- unless you want me to be like your average rock critic and make up a genre of my own, such as “melancholy pastoral funk.”
Honestly, though, “melancholy pastoral funk” describes the record to a tee. The drums on these songs, whether real or programmed, are consistently retro and funky. Whoever was responsible for the rhythmic elements of this record undoubtedly has a nice collection of “rare grooves” in his library. When the vocals do come in, they sound like the croaking whispers that Dean Wilson contributed to his Illyah Kuryahkin recordings (speaking of such, if you haven’t bought his Arena Rock Recording Company album Count No Count, do so; it’s a long-lost “lo-fi” classic). The vocals are even more despondent than Wilson’s are, though; it’s as if the singer doesn’t even have the energy to project his voice in order to hit the notes. When you can make out the words, they’re usually lamentations like “I don’t want to live through winter/I can’t stand to see everything ending” (from “I Think It’s Beautiful That You’re 256 Colors Too”). Otherwise, the vocals are run through so much hiss and compression that they sound like they were recorded in the middle of a traffic jam. They work nicely as sound effects, but I’m glad that they’re only employed every three or four songs or so.
Otherwise, Black Moth Super Rainbow gets most of its musical mileage from the art of contrast. Unrelentingly bouncy music is juxtaposed with depressing lyrics, and the synthesizer sounds range from cute and dinky to harsh and distorted. On songs such as “Your Doppelganger” and the appropriately named “Last House in the Enchanted Forest,” instruments fade in and out at random, as if the songs are holograms being shifted from left and right to view different angles. One minute the drums are up front, the next minute they sound like they’re in the next room as the keyboards assert themselves. This attention to detail, as well as the brevity of their songs (most are under three minutes) keeps BMSR’s music from getting boring over the course of a full-length, despite the admittedly limited sonic palette.
If you ever wondered what a collaboration between Illyah Kuryahkin and Boards of Canada would sound like (though I’m pretty sure that no one has), Falling Through a Field is it. This is the first I’ve heard of them, but apparently they’ve been self-releasing material for years. You can obtain some of it directly from their website, and I definitely encourage you to!
October 16, 2003
Still, I like An Effort To Do Good's quirky and quarky take on indie-pop and new-wave pop; it's charming, pure and simple.
One issue stands out, though. When a band covers a great song, it's usually a tell-tale tribute to that band, and it's also pretty safe to assume that said band is an influence. Now, when a band covers two songs by the same artist, it's a different story. That said, there are two Stephin Merritt covers. Interestingly, though, Pesky doesn't really sound like they're influenced by Merritt, and their covers don't sound much like the originals. Well, the first one, "Candy," does, simply because of the unique melody/vocal line of the original. The other cover, "No One Will Ever Love You," sounds like a long-lost Blue Oyster Cult outtake, with killer harmonies and a melody line that's reminiscent of "Don't Fear The Reaper."
Sadly, though, the rest of the album's not quite up to Merritt's standards. While several of the songs are good--in fact, most of them are--it just seems as if Pesky's not quite strong enough to give the songs the extra kick that would make the hooks stand out, and there's a sameness that's quite obvious. Still, songs like "30 minus 31," "Building Houses" are nice, and the closing ballad, "In Our Heads," is a real keeper, too. Though these songs might not be technically great--a little more experience would tighten these songs up quite quickly--they're poppy and fun and charming and at the end of the day you can't help but like Pesky.
Even though Pesky's not fully grown yet, they're pretty cute right now. Give them time, a few tours, and maybe hiding that Stephin Merritt fixation, and the future could look quite bright for these Pesky kids. I'm sure that their next record will make this one pale in comparison. Still, props are to be given for one thing: they're an interactive band; go to their website, www.closed-system.com and you can download and polish and remix and make these songs to your order. You can have fun with Pesky on your computer, and I'm sure they wouldn't mind!
Kiddo may be simple in nature, but that doesn't mean that their music is simple. They never hold back from using all of their power, never stopping once to catch their breath, giving their all for the sake of the song. Their boy/girl dynamic is really super-special, too--which makes Kiddo even more rewarding. See, I'm a sucker for such interplay, and when they sing together on songs like "Amy" and "You're Not Who You Say You Are," it's really nice.
Indeed, Kiddo reminds me of a simpler time for music: 1995. Funny, but both gutarist Christian Doble and Liz Wittman sound like two Chicago-based alternative-rock star types. Doble has a vocal style that at times makes him sound just like Smoking Popes' Josh Caterer, and I have a feeling that Wittman spent more than a few hours dancing around her bedroom and singing into her brush while listening to Veruca Salt's American Thighs. In fact, I'd be willing to say that Kiddo's the kid sister to The Like Young. Kiddo is cutesy alternapop-rock made by--and for--twenty-six year old teenagers of all ages.
Kiddo is a scrapper of an album. You really can't help but be charmed by their simplicity, their cuteness and their wit. You could have a lot of fun listening to Kiddo by yourself, but why would you? This is a party record, put it on and have instant fun! Smart, sassy, silly, fun--and I bet their live show's a hoot, too!
October 14, 2003
That's certainly true in the case of Portland, Oregon's The Planet The. This trio's new album, Physical Angel, marks their change from a raw, garage rock sound to a frantic, new-wave crazed funk. I saw them several days ago, and I have to admit that The Planet The does not do them justice. Live, this trio channels the spirit of Brainiac--not hurt by the fact that synthman Dave Huebner bears more than a passing resemblence to John Schmersel--and lead singer Charlie Salas-Humara's antics onstage are very Timmy Taylor. Onstage, they're a powerhouse; they've got personality, they've got presence, and they're quite captivating. If anything, they're quite entertaining.
Sadly, if you've never seen them live, then Physical Angel doesn't quite capture the magic, at least it didn't do it for me. True, it's a pretty fair representation of how they sound, but there's a flatness to the recording that can't be denied. For instance, the swilry guitar and synths of "Man Called Wife" are merely OK on record, but in the live setting, the song is a nonstop new wave raver. Don't get me wrong; the studio versions of songs like "Toledo Vader" and "Marc Artery" are excellent, and the best song of the album "Arty Movie," is worth the price of admission. It's a vocodered-out track that's just a whole lot of fun both live and in the studio. (Still, you're missing something by not seeing Charlie run about like a madman, and no record can capture that.)
Ya know what? I'm not worried about it too much. After all, many awesome bands had debut albums that weren't quite as spectacular as later releases or their live show, and The Planet The's an excellent band. Give them some time (this is but their debut, after all) and I have a strong feeling that they'll put out a record that fully captures their magic. The Planet The's a band that's certainly worth watching out for--and if they come to your town, do not--I REPEAT, DO NOT MISS THEM LIVE. You'll regret it.
October 13, 2003
Skywatching is Droge's newest album in five years, and it's almost as if the slate has been wiped clean. Nobody heard Pete Droge in the 90s, save for that one novelty song, and the three records that he released were all released to diminishing returns. Heck, they're so obscure, they're rare. Droge could easily have been dismissed as yet another disappointing hangover from the days when people thought 'alternative' meant something. Thankfully, Droge isn't washed up, and Skywatching serves as a great (re)introduction to this neglected talent.
For the first time in his career, a Pete Droge record actually sounds like Pete Droge. Not that the other albums were bad, mind you--but with the pressures and interference and whatnot that are par for the course when you're signed to a megamajor label, it was easy to get the feeling that Droge was either restraining his talents, or was being held back due to production and label insistence. Skywatching is a record that is not held back by anything, and in a way, Droge sounds utterly liberated. His songs have an air of freedom to them, and he's allowed to breathe in song. More importantly, Droge sounds focused on the songs. Not that he wasn't before, but the emphasis now seems to be "How can we make this song excellent," as opposed to the unspoken "How can we make a commercial hit?"
While Skywatching might feel like a debut album, it's to Droge's benefit, as the past ten years have not gone to waste. He's certainly blossomed into a fine songwriter, and the songs indeed speak for themselves. From the opening "Small Time Blues," Droge makes it clear that just because he was gone, didn't mean he had given up. It's always a good sign when an artist puts the best song of their career first on their new album, and it's even better when you discover that the opening song isn't the strongest one on the record! That's pretty much what Skywatching does; it leads you in with a great song, only to reveal an album's worth of great songs. From the classic-rock (as in Fifties) "She Got the Potion" to the baroque-pop of "Things Will Change and Go My Way," Droge is in fine form throughout, and his voice is as strong as his songwriting vision.
So let's welcome Pete Droge back to the music world. He's doing it right this time, and he sounds fabulous. Skywatching is a strong record, and here's hoping that his next albums only improve upon this strong return to form. After all, the world needs intelligent songwriters, and do they get much smarter than Droge? Well, that may be, but do they sound as good as Droge? I bet not.
October 09, 2003
Label Website: http://www.the-ios.com
October 08, 2003
Autumn Was A Lark, then, serves as a nifty little bootleg partner for Summer of the Shark, highlighting the band's touring activity after the album's release. Though the album is being sold as a budget-line price normally reserved for EP's, Autumn Was A Lark is actually a full-length, and it's certainly worth every penny. As an album, it is divided into two sections; the first five songs are studio recordings, and the rest of the songs are all live recordings from radio broadcasts during the Summer of the Shark tour. (Okay, so 'NYC, Raining, 5am' is a found-sound answering machine recording, but it serves as a nice transition.)
The first five songs were originally going to be an EP release, much along the lines of Crooked Fingers' Reservoir Songs, in that it features live covers performed in the live set. To these covers, the band also added a new song and a full-band reworking of Summer of the Shark's "In The Lines." Not surprisingly, these five songs could have easily stood on their own. Kicking off with one of Mac's best songs ever, "Autumn Grew Dark," it effectively continues where Summer of the Shark left off: "So much for the summer of the shark/The autumn got dark so fast I know," sings McCaughan, as if to serve as a reminder that Summer of the Shark was, in essence, an album about 9/11. "Autumn Grew Dark" is a pretty hard rocker, too, but it's what comes up next that shows Mac's devotion to rock. The three cover songs--all from the early 1970s--are all excellent, and they make Autumn Was A Lark worth the admission. Badfinger's lost classic "Baby Blue" is a great update of a song that should be a standard, with country crooner Tift Merritt on backing vocals. (I guess Stephin was busy, Mac?) "Growin' Up," from Bruce Springsteen's debut album, is an interesting take on the Boss, especially considering the obvious differences in the two singers' voices, and "One More For the Road" is a pretty good bar-rocker from Ronnie Lane.
The rest of Autumn Was a Lark is excellent, though it's different. With acoustic recordings of three songs from Summer of the Shark ("Clay Cakes," "Don't Disappear," and "Drill Me") and a few classic Portastatic songs ("A Cunning Latch," "San Andreas," "You Know Where To Find Me," "Isn't That The Way"), Mac really brings a new dimension and wisdom to these slightly sad songs. He also offers another Springsteen cover, "Bobby Jean" from Born In the USA. This is Mac by himself, and he's just as tough by himself with a guitar as he is with a full band backing him.
Autumn Was A Lark is a fun little record; it certainly shows you just how talented Mr.Mac really is. Not that you really needed any convincing, you know, but it's nice to know there's more to him than being Mr. Superchunk. A fine collection for those of you who might have missed him on this tour. At the very least, with this and Reservoir Songs, we know that he and Eric Bachmann could just give it all up one day and form one helluva bar band.
While I have a strong feeling that will never happen, it's always good to have backup plans--and, from my point of view, those backup plans could be a winner, too.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Scott Niblett!
Oh, I’m sorry. I initially did pronounce it like “Scout,” but when
you introduced yourself on stage it sounded like “Scott,” so I…
It was probably my accent.
Where are you originally from?
I’m from Nottingham, England.
Have you lived there all of your life?
I lived there for about nine years, but before that I lived just north of Birmingham, which isn’t that far away.
Is this your first time in America?
I’ve toured here twice before.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen while I’m in tour?
Well, it wasn’t as strange as it was scary. I was at a truck stop, and when I went to pull out in my car, I saw a man getting into a pickup truck. His truck was parked in front of me, and I was approaching him. He looked like a real Midwestern redneck, with a baseball cap on, a plaid shirt, and ripped jeans. When I drove past him, he was looking really weird at me, kind of sneaky. I looked behind in my mirrors, and he had his trucker outfit on, but on his feet he was wearing really high painted stiletto shoes. It really freaked me out. I got really scared and drove off fast. It was on the road in between Chicago and Indianapolis.
On a couple of songs on “I Am,” such as “In Love” and “Texas,” you sing fondly about America. Have you always had a fascination with this country, or did it just recently develop?
I’ve always had an obsession with America. I’m kind of in love with it.
Would you ever live here permanently?
Scout: Yes, definitely. In fact, I’m going to, probably.
As long you keep your accent, that’s fine with me.
How long have you played your instruments? Can you play anything other than guitar and drums?
I can play the recorder, the violin, and the ukulele.
I completely forgot about the ukulele! I remember that you play the
instrument on “I Am.” Do you have a specific tuning for it?
Yeah. I can’t remember what it is, but it’s written on my ukulele. It’s a weird tuning.
How long have you been playing drums?
About a year and a half.
When was the “I Conjure Series” EP recorded?
Around May of 2002.
I ask these questions because my friend Sandra wants to learn how to play the drums. I brought her to your show because of it. She hadn’t heard your music before, so I hyped it up for her --- “Look, Scout Niblett plays drums and sings! You should go see it!”
Yeah, it’s fun! (She looks at Sandra) You should just do it! Play the drums.
Is that your favorite instrument to play?
Who are the other musicians on “I Am”?
The drummer on some of the songs is Pete Shriner, who used to be in a band called Panoply Academy. They were also on Secretly Canadian, the American label I’m on. Now Pete drums for Songs:Ohia, who are now known as the Magnolia Electric Company, and are also on that label. The other guitarist on the album is a guy named Chris Salago, who plays in ANOTHER Secretly Canadian band called Racebannon, as well as an amazing band called Rapider than Horse Power.
Rapider than Horse Power? The name is amazing in itself! What ideas inspire your songwriting the most, and how do you manage to turn these inspirations into songs?
The initial ideas come out of the blue, but then I spend time working around those ideas that come out of nowhere. It feels kind of random, as if I’m not really aware of what’s going on when these ideas come, but once they’re here I consciously work on them.
Do you ever occasionally feel as if the songs have always been there, just waiting for you to pull them out?
Yeah, the energy in the songs is there, and I’m the person who’s allowing the energy to come out.
How long did “I Am” take to record?
It only took four days.
Were the solo songs on the record recorded live?
The reason why I ask is that I notice the strangest differences between the versions on the record and how they sound live. On record, the tempos are comparatively strict and orderly whereas live you speed up and slow down almost randomly.
Well, there are a couple of songs on the record that I made up that day in the studio, so they were really fresh in my mind. I think “Miss in Love with Her Own Fate” and “It’s All for You” were made up on the spot. I’ve been playing those songs for a year now. I’ve gotten more used to playing them, so I can just adapt the songs to whatever’s going on that night. When I recorded them, I was more worried about getting them down right. It was quite nerve-wracking, and it made me play faster. The songs seem really tight on the record, but I play them looser now because I know them now.
What’s next for you after this tour?
I finish touring around Christmas, and then I’ll probably just rest and write songs for about three months. I’ll start recording again probably in the middle of next year.
Are you able to make a living solely off of your music?
When I’m touring, yes. When I’m not touring…well, I’m kind of permanently on tour at the moment ‘cause there isn’t anything else I can do to survive at the moment.
Did you do the drawings on your T-shirts?
Was that a one-time thing, or do you draw on a regular basis?
I just draw when I need to do something for, like, a record cover or a T-shirt. I don’t make a habit out of it. When I do draw, it’s just instantaneous, not thought out. I just see what happens and it’s like automatic drawing. The best things seem to come out that way. They don’t make sense a lot of the time. Again, it’s a lot like my songs. I don’t know where they come from. For the T-shirts with the signs, I do the drawing first and leave the sign blank and wait until I figure out what they’re supposed to be saying to fill it in. It’s good fun.
Do you get a similarly favorable response to your music in England?
Yes, but it’s taken a lot longer because it’s harder in England. There isn’t really a music scene in England. There are amazing bands there, but there’s so few of them. The problem with England is that the press there is really based on weekly papers, which generates a lot of hype. Things blow up fast and get trashed easily. That doesn’t really help people who are constantly making stuff, or want to make music their career. It’s just a really trashy way of presenting music. There are a few exceptions to this; for instance, this amazing magazine called ---
Sean and Scout (in unison): CARELESS TALK COSTS LIVES! I love that magazine! I know Stevie Chick (one of CTCL’s writers) because he and I are on the same mailing list together. I’ve met him in person once a couple of years ago.
Yeah, he’s lovely. They’re my champions right now! That, to me, is the best thing that’s happened in Britain for music in a while.
What music are you digging the most right now?
I’m actually listening to a band called Centro-Matic. They’re from Denton, actually, and I’ve been listening to their new album the most while on tour. I used to be really into heavy rock, like the Rollins Band. There’s an English band called Todd who is amazing. The band is two couples and another guy who are just really LOUD and intense. It’s almost like heavy metal, but some of their stuff is even crazier.
At first, you mentioning the Rollins Band was shocking, but after watching you play live, I can understand it. It’s not the same sound, but the same kind of energy, as if you’re saying “This has to come out now, and you MUST listen!”
I really do listen to stuff that’s heavier than my own stuff, which surprises some people.
“Drummer Boy” is a good song for jumping around the room, especially the parts where you scream.
Thanks! That’s flattering. It’s all about energy and excitement, and I’m glad that it translates to the people who hear it.
Yes, it does. Thanks very much, Scout. I hope that the rest of your tour is safe and productive, and that many more people come see you and feel the rock!
(thank you, Sandra, for filming the interview)
I'm sorry, I just had to get that out of the way. Every time I look at Building a Building, I can't help but think of that little lyrical gem. It's one of classic rock's best lines, and it also describes the philosophy of Seventies rock, doesn't it? You bet. And, in a weird way, it really describes Slowride's new album. This Dallas band really doesn't mince words when it comes to their rock and roll attack, yet they're extremely cool about the whole affair.
At first, you could be easily deceived into thinking that these guys had mellowed out, because the short album opener, "Solitary Man," is a acoustic country-like number, but it quickly gives into the brutal hard-rockin' "Smoke Cigarettes," and that brutal onslaught never stops. Sure, they occasionally get a little bit mellow on songs like "Sacrifice vs. Apathy" and "Quitting Again," but those moments are few and far between, and though they're both excellent numbers, it's the things between the few and far between that really makes Building a Building an utterly wonderful album. In order to comprehend what makes Building a Building special, you need to understand where Slowride come from.
Texas is a big state. No, really, it is a HUGE state. If you've never experienced the pleasure of driving across Texas, then you can neither appreciate nor understand the serious of that first sentence. Coming from Texas, it's obvious that Slowride understand and appreciate the vastness of their homeland, because their album is, at the end of the day, pure Texas. Only a band who has travelled across this great land could really reproduce the feeling of driving west of Dallas on I-20 or South to Austin on I-35--places where there's a whole lot of nothing but flatness and big sky.
Though their sound owes to punk, it's firmly rooted in classic, modern and road-trip worthy ROCK MUSIC. Did they set out to make a record for Texas road-trips? I do wonder about that, because every time I listen to it, I'm on the highway, I'm about to be on the highway, or I'm wishing I was on the highway. I mean, "Panther 1" and "Building a Building" make me want to put the pedal to the metal, and really don't seem appropriate for idle, inactive listening.
Like their rock neighbors Centro-matic--whose producer, Matt Pence, produced Building a Building--they understand that there's nothing better in life than listening to fuzzy, kinda stoned rock music on the car stereo. Sure, some folk might be snarky about it and say that Slowride sound an awful lot like Stone Temple Pilots or Foo Fighters, but let's not forget that both bands had some really great moments in their day.
So for your next road trip, you really should seek out Building a Building; pop it in your stereo and you'll be glad you did. The road will seem shorter, your driving will be faster, and if you're with friends, you're guaranteed a good time. Slowride have broken out of the emo pigeonhole and have made a hard-rock record that's totally wonderful.
October 07, 2003
Two years later, and The Sand and The Stars is a bit of a puzzler. The lush instrumentation of the past records is barely around; on first listen, you'd be tempted to say that it was a rough, disjointed affair, hardly up to the heights of their previous work, and that it only occasionally soared as high as previous albums. While it's true that there is a significant change to the sound, it's one that's not for the worse. The Sand and The Stars is indeed a rougher-sounding record, but it's no less of an atmospheric record than before. At times, Movietone seems almost painfully self-aware; a clarinet here, a violin there, a cello over here--you could easily get the feeling that you were listening to a band going through a warm-up, that there wasn't any real organization to what was going on.
It's interesting, because it's obvious that Movietone mastermind Kate Wright has traded in her winter clothes and gloomy English weather for a cottage on the beach. How is it obvious? Well, considering that the album's artwork is done in a lovely sand/beach motiff, plus the occasional song reference to beaches and water and oceans and Mexico and places that are a bit warmer than a working town. Still, it's not a complaint, but it goes a long way in explaining why The Sand and The Stars sounds so different. And, really, Movietone doesn't sound that different than before, it's just that--priorites have changed.
The Sand and The Stars has this gentle, shambling sound--one that doesn't sound particularly organized on first listen--that fits this new style quite well; at times, it even feels a bit Velvet Undergroundy, but without the heroin. If anything, it's more folk than previous records, and the touches of clarinet and banjo and cello and all the little things that don't sound right makes it more precious. Songs like "Let Night In" and "Red Earth" are all so natural sounding. Less is more, and they've stripped down their sound. The real winner here, though, is "Beach Samba," which sounds like a fun little folk hoot on a warm summer night on the beach. Heck, they could have made it a singalong had they really wanted to.
While it may take a listen or two for Movietone's sound to really open up, when it does open up, it's a really nice feeling. They've made the perfect sunny summer album--just in time for grey winter days. The Sand and The Stars is a different record, for sure, but it's a surprisingly good change, and though their previous elements might be missed, they more than make up for them in charm. Yes, that's the best adjective for this album: charming. You will be charmed by this simple, pretty little record. I know I was.
Small Man, Big Mouth
Guilty of Being White
I Don't Want to Hear It
Damn. Good. Stuff.
Though Levers and Pulleys is a pretty traditional sounding alt.country record, there's something a little bit more to Magnolia Summer. The spaced-out atmospherics of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot certainly seems to have sent shockwaves through the music world. Even though such influence might not be entirely evident on Levers and Pulleys, listening to the haunting "Pushing The Needle Too Hard" and "Canary," it's hard not to think that they didn't hear that album at least once while recording. Many of the songs--such as the lovely "Breaki In" or "Baton Rouge" stick to the traditional singer/songwriter style, but on such as "Standing Still" and "Maybe Someday," you realize that there's a dark, almost electronica-based heartbeat underneath the surface of Magnolia Summer's seemingly simple roots-rock.
Don't worry, though; Magnolia Summer's leader, Chris Grabau, is no mere Wilco copycat, and it's probably a bit lazy of me to even mention Jeff Tweedy, too. If anything, Grabau owes as much to Morrissey as he does to Ryan Adams or Tweedy. Grabau has a passion in his heart, and when he starts to sing his words to music, he takes on a midwestern countryfied style that does, in its own way, remind greatly of the Mozzer. It's a mixture of passion and pain and heartbreak and hope and bitterness that seems quite British. If he tried to experiment any harder, he could be mistook for any number of sadsack Britpop singers.
See, that's another great thing about Levers and Pulleys--it's an album that teeters on the edge of experimentation. True, you'll not mistake it for Radiohead, but you'll be hard-pressed to consider Magnolia Summer's country roots, too. While all of the songs are pretty--if not a little bit similar in places--it's this overwhelming feeling that the calming sounds of Levers and Pulleys are merely the calm before the storm. Grabau and company (featuring bandmates from Waterloo, as well as friends from other established bands as Nadine and Hazeldine) could really make an interesting blend of electronica-tempered country-folk that could send Neil Halstead running back to the barn with bong in hand. For a debut, Levers and Pulleys is a nice little start; over time, I'm expecting greatness.
October 06, 2003
You can see where this is going, can't you?
Milton Mapes is a band clearly poised to break out of the Austin city limits, and their first full-length album, Westernaire is clearly the vehicle they need to make their escape. My first listen left me sitting in total awe; my ears have always wanted to hear a record like Westernaire, yet no band was able to take me to such heights, and very few bands soar to such heights, especially on a debut album. (Their previous record, The State Line, was released about two years ago and is essentially a mini album, and has recently been reissued and remastered with bonus tracks.) I was immediatly struck by Milton Mapes mastermind Greg Vanderpool's voice: it's haunted by the ghosts of the desert and wounded by the arrows of love, he sings with the wisdom of the ages.
Like all innovative bands, they escape from that trap we call categorization. Instead of getting weighed down by the different stereotypical 'alt.country' trademarks, Greg Vanderpool and company have deftly submerged their songs in several different styles and influences, and what has emerged is an album of songs that sound familiar, yet are completely new and fresh. You'll scratch your head and you'll think "that's gotta be a cover" and when you check the credits, you will be pleasantly surprised upon finding the phrase "all songs by Greg Vanderpool." Of course, Milton Mapes isn't a band to defy easy categorization; my first introduction to Milton Mapes was on a sampler of emo bands, where they were easily the best band of the lot. Even from that point, I knew that Milton Mapes was a band that was special; the song "Big Cloud, Big Sky" was 'emo' all right; sounding like Springsteen fronting Radiohead, I knew that this album was gonna be special, and I was right.
You would think that such a mixture of styles and sounds would provide for a bit of a disjointed listen. Yeah, well you would think that, but you'd be wrong, and Milton Mapes never sounds like more than one band. From the country-rock of "Maybe You Will, Maybe You Won't" and "This Kind of Danger" to the singer-songwriter fare of "A Thousand Songs About California" and "The Only Sound That Matters," Milton Mapes is all over the map, never giving you pause to classify them in one genre, switching things up enough to where the comfort levels change, and you don't know what to expect. The only thing that is constant, though, is the overwhelming atmosphere and feeling of isolation that runs throughout Westernaire. If ever a band has captured the despair and emptiness of West Texas, it's Milton Mapes.
Whether you like the loneliness of life ("The Sad Lines") or the sound of a Saturday night gone right ("Some To Reap"), Westernaire travels down the lonely highway of this thing we call life, and it looks an awful lot like Highway 84 from Sweetwater to Lubbock: ninety-five miles of nothingness, with nothing but flatlands and big sky around you. Milton Mapes' take on such isolation, though, will ring true to you, no matter what style of music you might like; Westernaire fits comfortably enough between OK Computer, Wreck Your Life, Unknown Pleasures and The River that you wouldn't really notice the difference, because Vanderpool has tasted the magic, the blood and the tears that make those records classic. Westernaire is a temporary classic; it will suffice nicely until their next album, which will most assuredly overshadow this near-perfect album.
Seek it out at your first opportunity; ignore it at your own peril.
One of this year's "Albums of the Year?" You've got six weeks to prove otherwise.