January 29, 2004

Dizzee Rascal "Boy In Da Corner"

I hate to begin a review with such a sweeping statement, but it has to be said. Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner should do for British hip-hop what the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die did for East Coast hip-hop. It’s a standard-bearer that should instill pride in the denizens of East London, the region that Dizzee Rascal calls home, just as Biggie’s first album does for Brooklyn natives like myself. This assertion isn’t meant to imply that Dizzee is just as good as Biggie because he isn’t…yet. Dizzee lacks Biggie’s command of simile, metaphor, and internal rhyme, the kind of linguistic panache that suggests he could write a hundred-page novella as easily as he could a forty-eight-bar flow. However, Dizzee displays enough potential on Boy in da Corner to convince me that within an album or two, he will. Until then, there are enough artistic similarities between the two MCs to explain how this album could have as much of an impact on the genre as Ready to Diedid ten years ago. Dizzee and Biggie cover the same topics with the same conflicted and contradictory mindset, the same provincial devotion to their neighborhoods, and the same fetish for utterly, completely SICK beats.

Dizzee’s lyrics position himself simultaneously as an observer and a
participant in the criminal life; “a problem for Antony Blair,” as he boasts on “Hold Ya Mouf.” By the time that album opener “Sittin’ Here” ends, the cycle of poverty and violence that his life is stuck in has left him so emotionally numb that all he can do is sit, stare, and wonder what happened. The next song, “Stop Dat,” is a paean to “screw face,” Dizzee’s slang term for extreme misanthropy. In “Brand New Day,” he openly ponders whether he and his friends will be able to grow out of the gang violence of their youth before it kills them first. “2 For” is a deceptively profound screed against authority figures. Dizzee disobeys the police not necessarily because they stop him from satisfying his own desires through illegal means, but because “they forget they’re human and get excited quickly.” Especially in this post-Rodney King climate, this is definitely a more sober outlook on the situation than, say, NWA’s “F**k tha Police” could muster. Two songs later, though, Dizzee is caught up in the same violence he wishes to outgrow: “Kick off your door, I ain’t got a 44/I’ll have to settle for a long metal bar” (“Cut ‘em Off”). He ends the album on an optimistic note with the song “Do It,” whose hook is one long pep talk to himself. “The end of the night will be the day,” he assures himself, “so just pray that you see it.”

Unfortunately, Dizzee’s lyrics also display a voracious sexual appetite, minus any sort of personal responsibility for the consequences of his exploits. This makes him not only similar to Biggie, but also to the majority of lyricists in mainstream hip-hop. “I Luv U,” recorded when Dizzee was only sixteen, finds him on one hand dismissing a pregnant girl as a whore out to get his money, on the other hand bragging about his prowess with the ladies. This sums up his general attitude towards women quite nicely, with only two instances in which he backs away from easy misogyny. The first verse of “Round We Go” is a third-person chronicle a series of breakups and love triangles, but just when things are about to get truly interesting, Dizzee goes back to standard first-person sexual braggadocio. The main character of the unsurprisingly named “Jezebel” is a teenage single mother “wishing she could take it back to the old school and make better choices.” This lapse into moral judgment would be more convincing if the first three minutes of the song weren’t spent gleefully discussing what a slut she was. Although grown folks know that sex is a two-way street, at no point on Boy in da Corner are the men implicated in any way for sleeping with these allegedly loose, greedy women. However, we can’t really expect a nineteen-year-old man to have a clear perspective on these things.

In fact, Dizzee’s youth is one of the three things that make him so much more than just a British Biggie. Whereas Biggie truly sounded like a man-child who grew up way too fast, the youthful exuberance in Dizzee’s crackly, high-pitched voice proves his claims of forced rapid maturity a bit false. On “2 For,” he imitates the chastisement of his fitness instructor (“It’s time for some exercise…Shut up! No more cussing”) in the same chipmunk voice that pimply geeks will use to tease their teachers once high school begins later on this month. On “Seems 2 Be,” he even boasts, “I smoke weed ‘til my mum finds out.” These brief bursts of levity don’t seem to come from the same guy who seems hell-bent on f**king and fighting himself into utter oblivion. The second distinctive trait of Dizzee’s music is his fondness for extended rhyme schemes. He often spends entire songs rhyming in limericks or AAAB rhyme schemes. The final thing that puts Dizzee in a class of his own is his beats; he produced or co-produced every single track on this record. His sound is a blend of two-step, gamelan, and dub that would sit well with Missy Elliott fans, yet is still a bit too dissonant and harsh to gain serious radio air play. The electric guitars and operatic singing on “Jus’ a Rascal” make it sound like a lost Eminem track, and the fast-paced internal rhyme that Dizzee lays on top only cement such an impression.

Boy in da Corner announces the arrival of a major talent who hasn’t even close to realizing his full potential, yet still stomps the living crap out of almost everyone who came before him (especially all that So Solid shite). Unfortunately, both Biggie and Dizzee blur the line between art and life, forcing their fans to consider which is imitating which. Shortly after this record was released in England, a member of a rival rap group allegedly stabbed Dizzee. Although Dizzee seems to be recovering from the injury, there is still fear that the ghosts of his past won’t allow him to live long enough to see the brighter future he rhymes about in “Do It.” Cherish this album now that it’s here, and pray that Dizzee will be able to make many, many more.

--Sean Padilla

Verona Downs "I Listen Thru All Breaking Oceans"

In the average indie record store’s cutout bin, you’re likely to find more releases from Zero Hour than from any other record label. It seems that during the mid-‘90s, this label cornered the market on vaguely dissonant yet pleasantly indistinct jangle-rock injected with liberal doses of estrogen. Although there were exceptions (the scattershot low-fidelity experiments of Space Needle, the lovesick noise-pop of the mighty Boyracer), the music that Zero Hour chose to release fit into a narrow niche that was already going out of style. Couple that with its rich owners’ horrible business sense (after all, this WAS the label that gave Stewart Anderson a gold card for Boyracer’s “expense account”), and what you have is a roster full of bands that even the most enthusiastic indie-rock train-spotters managed to forget about. Do the names Kittywinder, 22 Brides, Grover, and the Dirt Merchants mean anything to you? My point exactly (although I still believe that the Merchants’ lone album Scarified is quite underrated). The reason why I’m telling you all of this is that upon first hearing “Isn’t That the Way,” the second track on Bostonian outfit the Verona Downs’ latest album, I thought to myself, “This is the kind of thing that Zero Hour would have put out back in ’95.”

All of the ingredients are firmly in place: a steady yet understated rhythm section, clean and leisurely strummed guitars, a weepy violin, and sweet ‘n’ sour coed harmonies. The guy does his best Lou Reed sing/speak while the girl sings like she spits out honey instead of saliva. Before you think I’m damning the Verona Downs with faint praise, let me say that this band has what most of the Zero Hour bands lacked: solid hooks. There are at least three of them on “Isn’t That the Way,” one of them a beautiful breakdown that slows the song down to a crawl in order to showcase guitarist Greg and bassist Lori’s vocal chops. Almost every song on this record has a chorus that will get stuck in your head, although occasionally it’s for the wrong reasons. Repeating the same sentence over and over again, as the band does on “The Anti-Dance Death Song,” can make a song more annoying than catchy, but fortunately this mistake isn’t made very often.

The jam snippets that the band occasionally inserts between tracks are as compelling as the proper songs, and they give a very necessary window into the band’s creative process. “We believe in the power of the demo,” they proudly assert on their Web site, and it shows. Although far from a jam band, the Verona Downs are more than willing to let an idea or riff linger longer than most bands would. The longest songs are grouped toward the end of the record, a strategy that didn’t work very well for Mandarin, but reaps major dividends here. This is because the band has a sound pretty enough to get lost in. At their most upbeat (“Blue Noon”), they’re as propulsive and
angular as Versus. At their most mellow (album highlights “Feelers” and “Salma”), they resemble a male-fronted version of the greatly missed That Dog. (By the way, Anna Waronker, as pleased as I am to have a solo album in which you pose nearly nude on the cover, I would still trade all 500 copies I bought of it for another That Dog album. Please, gorgeous; I’m BEGGING you.) At their most meandering (“Green Yellow Red,” which instrumentally is little more than one shimmering layer of guitars on top of another), they’re like Yo La Tengo improvising a soundtrack to REM sleep. They know their mid-‘90s alt-rock well. Who NEEDS trendy Pitchfork “dance-punk” when the music sounds this good?

Lyrically, the Verona Downs touch on love and all of the confusion it brings. “Isn’t That the Way” rebukes people who get off on breaking other people’s hearts. “Blue Noon” gets even more specific regarding a lover’s lack of commitment: “You act like you were 24 going on 7…I want you to know me like you know your own shadow. A couple of days, and you’ll be running off.” On “Feelers,” Greg wishes to be the center of someone else’s life, only to acknowledge later on that his wish is having the opposite effect: someone else is becoming the center of HIS life. “Orbiting shapes my life,” he sings; “It’s all I can dream of.” In “Salma,” a new relationship isn’t a cause for celebration, but instead a source for boasting: “Let that be a lesson/Do not go to them/Let them come to you.” I read one review of this record in which Greg’s singing was described as joyless, but I disagree. He definitely doesn’t sound like the most excitable man in rock, but his slightly flat singing perfectly expresses how truly mundane these romantic dilemmas can become in people’s lives. Besides, Lori’s sprightlier voice jumps in often enough to keep the music from sinking into doldrums.

It’s probably a good thing that I Listen Thru All the Breaking Oceans is a record out of its time. There aren’t as many bands out there making music like this now as there were ten years ago, which enables the Verona Downs to stand out a bit more. Also, I’m giving Rhubarb Records the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they have better business sense than Zero Hour. This album is too good to linger in the back of some cutout bin five years from now.

---Sean Padilla

Ben Folds "Sunny 16"

Ben Folds. I like him. He's quirky, intelligent and always funny. This is a man who could release a record that, though not very good, will still leave you smiling. Some people I know think he's smug. Those people need to get a sense of humor, because there's nothing wrong with humor. Though I would not say that Folds is a comic writer--some of his songs are quite poignant--it's the humor which really stands out. A twist of the word, a turn of a phrase--Folds has very few equals when it comes to songwriting.Apparently he's doing things on his own now, and that's okay. He's stated that putting together and releasing Sunny 16 made him feel as if he's starting over again, and that it feels like a demo tape.

Though he may say it feels like a demo tape, you should be reassured that does not mean that Sunny 16 sounds like a demo tape. Heck, even a moment or two on this little self-released record could easily stand higher than some of Ben Folds Five's highest moments. As Folds has always had a 'you aren't so hip and neither am I' attitude, then the opening salvo of Sunny 16, "There's Always Someone Cooler Than You" is no surprise. It's a fun jab at hipster attitudes, much in line with "Underground" and "Your Redneck Past." When he sings "Yeah you're the shit but you won't be it for long/Cuz there's always someone cooler than you," you can hear the naughty little grin in his face, and you can't help but love him for it.

Of course, when you start a small record like this with an excellent song, the rest of the record tends to pale in comparison. Still, when the songwriting is as high quality as Folds', 'pale in comparison' is a relative term. "Learn To Live With What You Are" is a nice, soft piano ballad, with some of Folds' sweetest vocals. "All U Can Eat" is a funny commentary about the selfishness of upper middle class American society. It's nice to see someone pointing the finger at the wealthy of this country, and Folds is the right man for the job. "Rockstar" is a merely OK follow-up to "Boxing." The final song, "Songs of Love," is an excellent cover of a Divine Comedy classic.

I like Ben Folds, and Sunny 16 is more evidence as to why you should like him, too. He's still got the magical lyrical and musical touch. Now, could we have a new full-length, please?

--Joseph Kyle

January 28, 2004

From Ashes Rise "Nightmares"

I was a teenage metalhead poseur. It's hard for me to admit it, but it's true.

I wanted to be like my friends, who all smoked (cigarettes and other things) and listened to such wonderful bands as Megadeth, Metallica, Venom, Anthrax, Slayer, and Helloween. It was the rebellion of choice. Punk? Wasn't even an option. This was 1986 in east Texas...and it wasn't an option. (You kids today don't understand.) There was 'college rock' but I didn't really get it then; some of those bands just seemed so....dorky. I latched on to heavy metal like a leech. I wasn't cool enough to be popular, so the Flying-V guitars, big hair, spandex, G'n'R T-shirts, badly-drawn sketches of Eddie and pentagrams looked to be my option, my choice of cultural revolution, my brand of lashing out at society.

Unfortunately, I wasn't accepted by the metalheads. I made good grades. I didn't have acne. I didn't have long hair. I didn't have a horrible home life. If I was too dorky and weird for the 'cool' kids, then those metalheads most certainly weren't going to go for me, either. I lucked out not too long after this rejection when I discovered Re-Flex magazine, and little did I know it, but that magazine would change my life. After that, I started to discover a whole new world of music, I took it all in, it was MINE and MINE ALONE, and jocks, heads, hippies--they could fuck off and do their thing, I was off on my own little world, on a lone journey, discovering music all on my lonesome. (I wouldn't come out of my heavy-metal closet until years later when I first heard KARP, but that's another story.) In the end, I get the last laugh; the ones who rejected me and my metaldom and my ability to like 'cool' music lost touch with music in general when they had their first kid, first fifteen-year jail term or first death. Me? I stay hooked to music like it's heroin, but because of their lessons and rejection, I share it like I'm Moses.

If they had been around back in 1986, then From Ashes Rise's debut album, Nightmares, would have been my 'fuck you' record. It would have been the fuck-you rebellion record every teenager needs. Better still, it would have been my fuck you to the metalheads who dissed me, because these guys are totally, utterly heavy metal, but yet they're also carrying on the hardcore tradition, which would have been enough to piss off the diehards. Those guys, man, I'm tellin' ya, they woulda looked at that cover and said, 'duuude, these guys are total Satan worshippers,' they would have put it on, heard the first chords of 'Reaction,' thought, 'whoa, shit, this is heavy,' and then, by song's end, would have been freaked out, because they'd just been punk-rocked. I don't know why the heavy metal folks were so opposed to punk back then; I thought rebellion was rebellion, regardless of what it looked like? And that cover art is just asking to be put on the back of a leather jacket.

Still, this debut is pretty good stuff. It's a nice blend of heavy metal and hardcore--which, as one punk purist said on a webboard I frequent, 'what the fuck is wrong with hardcore? it's just heavy metal shit! It's good to see that rock and roll hasn't settled for anything, that purists are still receiving the fuck-you's they deserve. They play around enough with the styles of both just enough to be deceptive, which I like as well. The slow, bubbling guitar riffs and the high-pitched screaming actually works here, and it only adds to the confusion. There are some really interesting moments, such as the heavy, plodding "The Inner Beast" and the awesome shoulda-been-the-album-closer "The Mandate," where they just pour all of their emotion into song. Nightmares is a nice little record that coulda kicked major ass in my youth, but at the end of the day it reminds me that though I might have lost those battles seventeen years ago, I ended up winning the war.

--Joseph Kyle

January 27, 2004

Hella "The Devil Isn't Red"

After releasing 2002’s Hold Your Horse Is, an album that shoved a hand grenade up the arse of math-rock and filled the void that the breakup of Don Caballero left behind, Sacramento duo Hella spent most of 2003 flexing their stylistic muscles by releasing two EPs that augmented their usual guitar/drums setup with varying degrees of success. The first EP Bitches Ain’t Shit But Good People had the funniest title of the year, but its explorations of unstructured noise left me quite cold. It didn’t bode well that its best song was merely a reprise of a Hold Your Horse Is song with whiny vocals added. The second EP Total Bugs Bunny on Wild Bass, on which guitarist Spencer Seim trading his main instrument for a variety of synthesizers and DSP gadgets, fared much better. This trade unexpectedly resulted in Hella’s most tuneful and accessible work to date, but it still didn’t rock quite as hard as their debut album did.

Judging from their excellent sophomore album The Devil Isn’t Red, Seim and his drumming cohort Zach Hill obviously learned a couple of useful lessons from these EPs. This album finds Hella retreating back to the comfortable territory of their debut album, yet taking the best ideas of their 2003 material with them. Two songs are remakes of Total Bugs Bunny songs. “Brown Metal 2002” begins with what sounds like Spencer playing a video game while Zach beats on pots and pans with the same intensity that he would a proper kit, but the song abruptly segues into a full-on white noise blowout. “You DJ Parents” is a brief and dinky synthesizer-only remake of “You DJ Children.” Another track, “Except No Subs,” is ninety seconds of shoegaze-meets-IDM heaven, with heavily reverberating piano and gorgeous chimes layered on top of a head-nodding break-beat. The rest of the album, though, is just Spencer and Zach plowing through three-minute collages of riffs, stitched together with the same logic that Carl Stalling would employ to score a Looney Tunes cartoon, and played faster than a Mahavishnu Orchestra vinyl side on 45 instead of 33.

The Devil Isn’t Red boasts slightly dirtier production than the first album; Zach’s kit is recorded pristinely, especially when listening on a good set of headphones, but Spencer’s guitar occasionally sounds like it’s half a room away (though you can still make out what he’s playing). Those of you who read my review of the Nervous Cop album know that Zach Hill is one of my Personal Drum Gods, so I don’t need to tell you that this man’s playing makes Damon Che sound like Meg White in comparison. Zach plays behind, around, and ahead of the beat so much that you’re afraid he’ll NEVER get back on the one, but he always find a way to get back in sync with the music, even if it means that he has to hit the drums three thousand times faster to make his fills fit.

However, Mister Seim must receive his props as well. He more than compensates for Hella’s lack of bass through using every trick he knows to flesh out the chord progressions with little catchy melodies. Alternate tunings, elaborate finger-tapping, bluesy string bends, and pinging harmonics are employed on almost every song, not as a means of showing off, but simply to ensure that the melodic components of the songs are just as complex and interesting as the rhythmic components. BOTH members of Hella can play the hell out of their instruments, but they have a synergy that makes the concept of “soloing” in their music almost obsolete.

At one moment, a barely audible trumpet enters the mix on album highlight “Suistyle,” pushing the music a few inches closer to a collective improvisation dynamic more often found in free jazz. As tight a ship as Spencer and Zach run, there’s always the possibility that the music can fly apart at the seams at any given moment, and though it never does, this tension keeps Hella’s music from sounding sterile or stale. Math-rock is becoming a crowded field (in a way, it’s nice to know that indie-rockers are finally learning how to play their instruments), but with The Devil Isn’t Red Hella manages to stay a couple steps ahead of the pack.

---Sean Padilla

Prefuse 72 "Extinguished"

2003 was a great year for Scott Herren, the mastermind behind Prefuse 73. His second album, the glitch-hop electronica masterpiece One World Extinguisher, established him as a man to watch, as well as one of the true innovators of the genre. Coming out of leftfield and catching everyone by surprise, Prefuse 73 became one of the year's most talked about groups. In order to fully sieze the moment, Herren compiled Extinguished, what on the surface appears to be a filled-to-the-brim collection of songs, giving you more bang for your buck.

Looks can be deceiving, though.

You shouldn't pay attention to the track listing, because it's a really moot point. Twenty-three tracks in thirty-seven minutes, you do the math about what the album is. Indeed, Extinguished's subtitle, "Outtakes, Alternate Takes and Beats" pretty much sums up what this record is about. In fact, I'm willing to say that it's erroniously titled, as it should be called "Beats, Some Outtakes and Nothing More, All Blended Together In One Big-Ass Mix." The album is sequenced so well In actuality, I'd be more than willing to call Extinguished a Modern Electronica Classical symphonic movement. You could take away all of the cutesy little song titles and simply listen to this from beginning to end and you wouldn't feel any lack of continuality.

While some moments, such as the rap on "Pase Rock's Freestyle" or the opening "Suite For The Ways Things Change" do stand out as really excellent songs, the smaller snatches of sound, such as 'Whisper In My Ear And Tell Me You Hate Me," "Robot Snares Got No Cadence or Balance" really hint at any number of different directions that Herren could take with his follow-up records. No matter which one of the 787890724346 directions that are offered on Extinguished Herren chooses to take, you can rest assured of one thing: that direction will be interesting. There's no way you could listen to Extinguished and think of it as an album, and perhaps that's the point. Consider Extinguisher a promisary note on what will hopefully be a long and rewarding career.

--Joseph Kyle

Brief Candles "Brief Candles"

I can’t listen to this CD without daydreaming the same scenario every time. I’m visiting vocalist Jen Boniger’s house. The walls are blanketed with Ride, Mercury Rev and Swervedriver posters. Nothing about the house-- the furniture, the clothes in the closets, her friends sitting on the couch-- looks like it’s changed since the mid-1990s. As I look through her CD collection she stands behind me and by explanation half-apologizes, “Yeah, I’ve never really fully recovered after Kevin Shields shelved the final My Bloody Valentine record 9 years ago. I just can’t bring myself to buy anything recorded or released since then.”

While it’s instantly obvious that Brief Candles, who hail physically from Illinois and Wisconsin, hails sonically from early 90’s British dream pop, it’s by no means a bad thing. In fact this particular trip back in time for the ear is pretty refreshing. Even the production style sounds outdated. You get the idea that their sound engineer has never heard of Pro Tools. There were definitely some production choices that were poorly made-- you should never, ever, ever put a flange on a bass guitar, for one-- and it couldn’t have hurt to skip out on, say, the color traycard and put the same amount of money toward a better mastering job. But the over-all feel of the production is well-suited for reminiscing about the blurry videos of the early ‘90s shoegazer scene. Ah, those were sweet days.

Though Brief Candles’ self-titled debut sounds deceptively old, there are also many ways it sounds exactly like what it is: the first offering from a young band. A short scan of the biography on their website reveals a change of cast members that must eclipse even the turnover rate at a downtown McDonald’s. This explains the blurb in the liner notes that says Jake Bohannon is the new drummer and Kevin Dixon, who played drums on the album, is the new guitarist. Perhaps this lack of solidity in personnel is the cause of the sometimes sloppy playing on the album, but the slip-ups are never extreme and sometimes even add charm to the songs. It’s just obvious the band has room to grow.

What’s really important is the songs themselves, and they are great. Brief Candles wins points for dynamic contrast, sometimes in sudden bursts and sometimes in subtle swells. The songs are long but structured well. Instead of dragging on repetitively the changes are staged in such a way to keep the ear’s interest at all times. The guitar tones vacillate between angry storms and dreamy sound washes. The vocals are tastefully recorded low, because if nothing else the engineer knew that’s how you mix a shoegazer band. The occasional stumble on the drums or out-of-tune guitar or vocal note is forgivable. This is a budding space rock band whose potential is louder than the actual sounds on the record. Let’s hope their career is anything but a flitting shadow. Let’s hope that they forcibly seize the bassist’s flange pedal and destroy it, that their drummer stays on, and that we will get to hear them mature on future releases.

--Jeremy Yocum

January 26, 2004

Heavy Blinkers/Orwell "Intercontinental Pop Exchange, Volume 3"

Talk about an original idea! Canadian label Endearing, who are obviously endeared to excellent pop music, came up with a most original idea: a series of split EP's with bands from different countries, serving to highlight great young pop bands who might not be heard by fans of the other bands. It's all about gaining a new audience, and previous volumes have included bands such as Wolf Colonel, The Paperbacks, Paper Moon and the Leslies. This third installment of the Intercontinental Pop Exchange series offers up three selections by two really wonderful, underrated pop groups, Canadian baroque-poppers Heavy Blinkers and French popsters Orwell.

Halifax's Heavy Blinkers are a classic pop band who take their influences not only from classic 60s pop geniuses as Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach, butals late 70s/early 80s Adult Contemporary. We're talking pop made between 1977 and 1982, and, to be even more specific, I'm hearing a heavy dose of Michael McDonald and Christopher Cross. Not to fear, though; The Heavy Blinkers have actual songwriting talent, so their songs are never less than excellent. "Maplewood" is the real winner here; it should have been a hit in 1981, yet it sounds like it should be a radio hit now. The other two songs plunder Brian Wilson's "Cabinessence," and while the sound is somewhat old hat, these Canadians are talented enough to pull it off without sounding terribly cliche.

Though Orwell hail from France, they most definitely share the same musical influences and inspirations as the Heavy Blinkers. "Everywhere" is an alternate version of a song from their forthcoming album, though it sounds perfectly fine in this state. Instrumental "Attic's Ballad" is more of an electronica affair, and it sounds like a long-lost outtake from Air's Virgin Suicides soundtrack. "Monorail," sung in French, is a new version of one of their older songs, and it also sounds quite nice.

This is a fun little series, and Volume Three is certainly worth picking up. Not only does this record serve both bands extremely well, it also stands quite nicely on its own, and I'm sorry, but "Maplewood" is one of those classic pop songs that will make you neglect the other five tracks on the record. Fun!

--Joseph Kyle

Interview: 23 Skidoo

The early Eighties were a fertile time for music. Bands were pushing the limits of modern music; sometimes they'd produce really excellent music....other times, they produced crap. Regardless of genre and, more impressive, regardless of whether or not the results were crap, it didn't matter if the music was noise, dance, punk, heavy metal, rap or pop--a lot of people were indeed messing around with the forumla, and sometimes the results were fascinating. One such group was 23 Skidoo. While their role in the industrial/techno/dance world has been well documented, what has been ignored has been their extremely edgy, challenging side. It's really rather easy now to look back on those years with a bit of sympathy for the artist, but at the time, such innovations were often met with blank looks, indifference, and sometimes outright hatred. Stepping out from behind their then-developing reputation in the newly-formed industrial world, 23 Skidoo released a most challenging record, The Culling is Coming. One side of the record was a beautiful collection of improvisational recordings made on gamelan instruments, entitled "A Winter Ritual." The other side of the record was a lo-fi recording of an extremely harsh live session recorded on a Sunday morning at the WOMAD festival, when the band took to the stage with sheets of metal and tape loops. (On the CD version of The Culling Is Coming--recently reissued by Boutique--a third, even harsher live session is included, entitled "An Autumn Journey.") To call this record confounding is putting it mildly. 23 Skidoo mastermind Alex Turnbull sat down for a few minutes to discuss what Skidoo were up to back in 1982.

"A Winter Ritual" sounds like it was the result of a fun weekend. How did this session come about? What is your fondest memory of that weekend?

It was actually quite bleak. Wintertime in Devon. We hooked up with the mobile 8 track that recorded us at WOMAD and went to Dartington Music college where we were allowed free range to the Gamelan Instruements. We made a lot of the stuff up as we went. The last two pieces are multi layered loops which we created with Ken Thomas who engineered the mix down at Jacobs studios. He also engineered Seven Songs.

"A Summer Rite" is certainly an eye-opening set. Was the harshness of your performance a reaction to going onstage at such a sublime hour?

We wanted to try something different. People were expecting us to come with some happy conga-funk shit and we instead flipped the script using the performance as a ritual but disgarding traditional instruements and replacing them with scrap metal and tape loops. It was sort of a live exorcism the band having gone through some personnel changes.

With the nature of WOMAD, was your set intentionally planned to be a reaction towards the more organic aspects of the WOMAD idealogy? It seems like the mixture of tribal sounds in conjunction with more electronic elements of your set would stand in conflict with the multicultural elements of the weekend.

What?!? That¹s the point

Both of these tracks indicate something that not a lot of people really seem to get--the fun factor. It seems like you were having a great time on stage and playing with exotic instruments. I mean, it seems as if people don't really seem to understand that it would be really fun to have a weekend with a bunch of Balinese instruments at your disposal.

Absolutely. The WoMAD gig was better. However we were stern fuckers in those days.

How did people react to such live appearances? Did you clear out the halls? At the time, did you have people come up to you and say "what a bunch of shite?"

Both pieces are definitely a one off never to be repeated. We never performed the gamelan stuff only our own Urban Gamelan. As for the live set, when we started one third of the bleary eyed crowd fled in panic and consternation. Those that stayed seemed to really enjoy it. I can say with my hand on my heart that it certainly was not like anything else before or since.

Do you think that, at the end of the day, the music world now is more accepting of such music experiments, or is 2003 just as dire and drastic as 1982/1983?

Early eighties was far more progressive. Much more open minded, hungry, anti commercial. Nowadays everybody wants to sound like someone else. All the avant garde stuff is a bit anal for me. I guess it gets harder to push the envelope when one is this bombarded with non stop information. The Culling came just as the tide of commercialism that has resided for the last 20 years was arriving.

Looking back on your career, how do you consider your experiments on The Culling is Coming? How do they fit into the overall picture? Did the things you did on this record have a direct impact on your future recordings?

Youthful naivity. It really screwed us up! People wrongly assumed that this was how all our performances and music would be instead of seeing it for what it was- a couple of experiments. People would run from us for years.We had to set up our own record company. We recently reissued the rest of the back catalogue and it seems people are still feeling it.


January 23, 2004

The Poster Children "No More Songs About Sleep and Fire"

For a rock band as long-lived and prolific as the Poster Children (nine releases in sixteen years, as well as a couple of dance records under the pseudonym Salaryman), you’d think that I’d have heard their music more than twice before listening to this record. My first exposure to them was in 1995, when I saw their video for “Junior Citizen” on the much-missed MTV program 120 Minutes. The band released an album of the same name that year, and although few of its songs were as bad as the mediocre “cyber-punk” of its title track, it still wasn’t essential. My second exposure to the Poster Children came in 2002 when they opened for the Breeders in Austin. They didn’t play any songs from Junior Citizen, which wasn’t a surprise considering how old the record is. What surprised me was that the newer numbers they played were faster, louder, and leaner than anything on that record was. It’s definitely a rare thing for rock bands to, instead of mellow out, get more abrasive as they age. Watching bassist/singer Rose jump around with a mile-wide grin on her face like a sugar-fueled tomboy should be a breath of fresh air to anyone who’s seen one too many performers act like they don’t want to be on stage. A diehard fan of the band spastically danced in front of the stage in the same manner that I do at Guided by Voices shows. Although I liked the Poster Children’s set, I still didn’t think they were worthy of my devotion yet. WhenNo More Songs About Sleep and Fire arrived in my mailbox, it kicked me in the behind as soon as I put it in the CD player.

The first thing I noticed was the airtight instrumental interplay. None of these songs have more than four chords, but they never sound simplistic. This is because every member of the band knows how to use space and noise to their best advantage. Most of the songs sound as if they’re built from the rhythm section upwards. Even when the rhythms get complex, Rose and new drummer Matt stay in the kind of sync that most bands would need years to develop. Whether strumming power chords, playing nimble single-note riffs, or not playing at all, guitarists Rick and Jim do nothing more or less than what is truly best for the song. It’s almost as if the Poster Children have taken notes from the entire history of post-punk, from Wire and Gang of Four to Talking Heads and the Pixies, and constructed their own lesson plan. “The Floor,” arguably the album’s catchiest song, could have easily fit on the latter's Trompe Le Monde.

The lyrics are just as strong as the music. The opening track, “Jane,” extols the virtue of a teenage friend that Rose practices martial arts with. The smart, independent, and self-sufficient girl described in its lyrics could provoke budding young feminists to adopt the song as an them of their own, and I hope it does! Under a backdrop of hyper-kinetic disco-punk, “Flag” concisely chastises people who confuse political disagreement with treason; the flag “belongs to me as much as it belongs to you.” “The Leader” could be viewed as an attack on mainstream America’s unquestioning support of President Bush, but the lyrics keep things general enough for the song to apply to all of human history, ensuring that the song will remain timeless. In “Now It’s Gone,” Rick observes how tragedy only manages to bring people together for a short time before they divide themselves once again, with no lessons learnt. Again, though, the lyrics are general enough to apply to situations other than pre- and post-9/11 America. Not all of the songs on this record are overtly political: other subjects tackled include fair-weather friends, shyness, alcoholism, movies, and the quietude of the suburbs. No matter what, though, the lyrics avoid both vagueness and sanctimony in a manner similar to the Intima’s Peril and Panic, the best political agit-punk record of LAST year.

The Poster Children are also to be commended for their multimedia savvy. The CD version of No More Songs About Sleep and Fire come with an album-length commentary track from Rick and Rose, as well as a video for album highlight “Western Springs.” The commentary track is particularly enlightening, as it reveals many things that I already suspected from listening to the music. “I’m a riff guy,” Rick admits at one point, and I thought to myself, “No s**t, Sherlock.” Rick and Rose tell you which songs on the record were built off of bass or drum parts (almost all of them), and make self-deprecating jokes about using too few chords in their songs. Rick discusses his frustration being constantly compared to the B-52s’ Fred Schneider (which is why I hate to admit that I think he sounds like him too). Rose even admits to sequencing Poster Children records according to which songs she likes the most, which might have something to do with why the first five songs RULE and the last three songs are just okay. Unlike many bands, The Poster Children don’t use multimedia to compensate for wack music. They use it as a way to enhance music that holds up well enough on its own, as well as a way to extend a hand of fellowship to their fans. Rick and Rose even encourage listeners to e-mail them at the track’s end. I don’t know about you, but that just warms my heart.

Put simply, No More Songs About Sleep and Fire is a powerhouse of a record that definitely taught me a lesson. In their second decade of existence, at a point in which most other bands get either complacent or just plain BAD, the Poster Children are just getting started. Rick and Rose recently had a child together, so I’m pretty sure the band won’t hit the road for a while. If and when they do, though, the spastic diehard in Austin will definitely have a dancing partner.

---Sean Padilla

January 21, 2004

Camera Obscura "Underachievers, Please Try Harder"

Falling in love with Camera Obscura was soooooo easy. Their debut album, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, was an utterly wonderful collection of shimmery sweet indie-pop. It impressed many a listener on first listen (myself included), and to say that I've been eagerly awaiting Underachievers Please Try Harder is an understatement. After all, there was some speculation as to the band's mere existence, as the silence surrounding the band grew deafening. Their old label website was not updated for a year, and there was simply no news. All signs pointed to a bleak reality that is all too common in indie-pop: that this really great band had only one shot at glory.

Luckily, their demise was not to be. They broke their deafening silence last year with the "Teenager." a wonderful little song that showed a major growth from their previous records that raised people's hopes--mine included. Underachievers Please Try Harder all of a sudden became a most-anticipated record, and when it appeared, it didn't disappoint, making many a best-of list. (Though it was released last year by Elefant, Merge picked it up for US release, and added the songs from the "Teenager" single and a video to their version.) Tracyanne Campbell's voice has grown stronger; on songs like "Suspended From Class" and "Number One Son," she's belting out lyrics harder than anything she's done before.

Thankfully, this growth does not come at the expense of their previous sound. Instead of growing beyond the styles laid down by their singles and Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, they have deftly refined it, and in so doing have surpassed their own standard. While the jingle-jangle acoustic pop may recall fellow Scots Belle & Sebastian (as well as 80s-era indiepop), for Underachievers they've tapped into a poppy, sunny Sixties vibe. In some instances, their inspiration is thinly veiled; "A Sisters Social Anxiety" recalls "Surfer Girl"/"Warmth of the Sun"-era Beach Boys. "Let Me Go Home," however, is an undeniable plundering of the Supremes' "Baby Love," but it's okay, because the song references/pays tribute to Motown.

I only have two complaints with Underachievers Please Try Harder, but these are aesthetic ones that don't hinder the overall record. First, Underachievers seems to lose steam towards the end. They throw all of their wonderful, fast-paced numbers at the beginning, but the album merely tuckers out by the ending. Not that it's a real problem, because if you're like me, it will take you time to get that far, as you'll be busy hitting 'repeat' after the first few songs. I'm also not terribly keen on the lead vocals of John Henderson; while he's a good singer, and sings on one of the album's strongest tracks, "Let Me Go Home," the Camera Obscura spotlight is clearly focused on Tracyanne.

Underachievers Please Try Harder is a great kickoff for 2004. Minor quibbles aside, this is one of the strongest indie-pop records I've heard in ages. Hopefully, they won't wait too long to follow this one up; the silence was too much to bear. The underachievers of Camera Obscura have tried harder, and they've done it quite well. A great record from a great band. What's better than that?

--Joseph Kyle

Sonna "Smile And The World Smiles With You"

If you hated Dead Man because it moved too slowly, get itchy feet
between jokes on American sitcoms, don’t understand Music for Airports, constantly check your Steve Reich CD to make sure it’s not skipping, think that instrumental music is only good for soundtracks and making out, or have trouble paying attention to an entire two-minute punk song then you should run away from Sonna. If you see one of their discs in a record store, don’t even look at another thing. Cover your eyes and flee screaming to the street.

If, on the other hand, you can appreciate music that takes more than four bars to make its point, take Smile and the World Smiles With You into your home as a respected guest. Serve it tea and buttered scones. Let it spin merrily in your stereo like a mechanical ballerina, because it’s every bit as graceful and reserved as a dancer. It speaks gently and folds its hands over the napkin in its lap, then holds out its pinky while it sips its tea and compliments you on your curtains.

There is a strange symmetry to the six songs on Smile, resulting from the shared drum beat that appears both on the first and third tracks (“Frone Taj” and “The Right Age”). These are by far the catchiest tunes on the record. Though instrumental, the guitar melodies invade your head like the best vocal hook in a pop song. The variety of sounds sprinkled over this CD make it obvious that the drummer is not lacking in imagination, but is intentionally making a compositional point, taking the record beyond the status of just another collection of songs and establishing it as a larger work all of its own.

The upbeat indie-pop jangle of both songs emerges like iceberg tips from the murky ambient ocean blanketing the rest of the CD, a marked departure. Two other tracks, “One Most Memorable” and “Smile,” have no drum beat at all. Instead they feel like they’re constantly about to erupt into one. On the first several listens I found this vaguely annoying, wishing the song would go somewhere, but I slowly became convinced that the songs knew right where they were supposed to be. This tension in the absence of motion was the point.

But where would a CD be with two extremes and no middle ground? The Switzerland of this disc is “Open Ended,” a track that features a subterranean drum sample in lieu of a live kit, glazed over with ambient guitar swells and sparse melodies. The song stretches the limits of what your ear expects, only introducing a change right as you’re beginning to think the track’s not going anywhere.

If, by the fifth track, Sonna has established a pattern of upbeat songs, ambient soundscapes, and one in-between, then the sixth track breaks the mold by combining the three. “And the World Smiles With You” begins by whispering a six-note melody that dances in and out of synch with the rest of the instruments. Layer by layer, ambient chords are draped over the song. The beat I was longing for in “One Most Memorable” and “Smile” bursts through the gauzy curtains of this soundscape three minutes into the song, moving your butt with its all-too-appropriate unexpected entrance. In this song you find the entire frigid ocean that is Smile, icebergs and all, pushed off the edge of the world in a brilliant cascade. Over the next seven minutes the jangle of the guitar gives way to the first real crescendo of noise on the whole disc, replete with actual distortion. It quiets down to a trickle-- is the ocean almost emptied out?-- and whistles a few more notes around a dusty upright piano before breathing its last sigh at a brief ten minutes and forty-six seconds.

This record came out of Austin, but sounds inspired by Chicago label Thrill Jockey’s team of instrumental prodigies. If you are patient and attentive, Smile and the World Smiles With You has a Texas take on this genre and would like to share it with you. If you can’t pay attention because you’re too busy looking for vocals, or some verse-chorus-bridge song structure, then oh well. It’s your loss.

--Jeremy Yocum

James Yorkston & The Athletes "Someplace Simple"

It's hard not to like James Yorkston. He has released some wonderfully beautiful records over the past two years, all of which blend traditional folk music with swatches of electronica and dark atmosphere. Though his debut album Moving Up Country was a nice slice of modern folk, Yorkston really excells in small doses--witness his 10" singles, which offer up one long song and an electronica remix on the flipside.

Someplace Simple arrives in advance of a new album due this spring, and it finds Yorkston holding steady to the things that made his previous records excellent. Yorkston sings with a soft, gentle croon, one that's naturally a magnet for Nick Drake comparisons, and the songs on here are no exception. "Someplace Special" is a sleepy-headed song, with Yorkston accompanied with banjo, accordian and backing vocals. His drowsy, narcotic-style singing is ace, drawing you into his sonambulistic song.

I'm really most fond of the B-sides. "Scarecrow" is more of the same, and the last three songs, "Rosemary Lane," "False True Love" and "In Dessexshire As It Befel," Yorkston and company are all traditional folk songs, rearranged in Yorkston's style. It's nice to hear him tackle traditional music; as he's proven himself capable of writing excellent songs, it's good to see that he is also good at the classics.

Someplace Simple is a small, brief affair that really whets the appetite for his new album. From the sounds of the songs on this little record, that album really should be worth waiting for. A nicer little record I couldn't ask for.

--Joseph Kyle

The Flying Luttenbachers "Systems Emerge From Complete Disorder"

For the past ten years or so, Weasel Walter and his ever-revolving musical motley crew have been playing a frenetic brand of dense, eclectic, meticulously organized avant-garde jazz-rock that can only be characterized as mind-bending. Even after pairing down the Luttenbachers to a one-man operation, Walter continues to create some of the most compelling, inspired music the underground scene has seen (Luttenbachers live shows are legendary) or heard. For those unfamiliar with the maniacal stylings of the Luttenbachers, the adventurous nature of their music could be likened to John Zorn’s explorations with Naked City but, at the same time, has a surprising amount in common with composers like Harry Partch and John Cage. Such comparisons are more than a bit insular as the Luttenbachers manage to seamlessly incorporate such dissimilar genres as free jazz, hardcore, death metal, contemporary classical, and electronica into the mix.

On Systems Emerge From Complete Disorder, their latest opus for Jersey schizophrenics Troubleman Unlimited (home to Black Dice, Orthrelm, and Erase Errata, among others), the Luttenbachers capriciously shift between and merge off-kilter melodies circa No New York, violent, dissonant bursts of guitar fury, piano work reminiscent of the aforementioned composers, and the spastic, cacophonous drumming of Mr. Walter himself. This time around, Walter has, for the most, rid himself of the saxophones and such that have been such integral parts of past releases, and focused more on creating- quite successfully, I might add- a much more layered, much more concentrated, though no less brutal, sound.

Systems Emerge… begins, appropriately enough, with a torrent of teeming white noise. For the first half or so, “Entropic Field/Total Disorder/Cellular Chaos” escalates further and further into the realms of sonic calamity, but as the track draws to a close, the frantic sounds slowly begin to dissipate into a darker, singular static hum suggestive of Japanese noise terrorist Merzbow or, more pragmatically, television snow. Things really start to get going on the curiously titled second track, “Kkringg Beyond NGGGGG” as layer upon layer of guitars grind, whine, and create an opaque, melodious ruckus all the while Walters hammers out a mechanical beat on his kit. As the track progresses, a drum machine emerges, firing rapid jack hammer beats as electronic gadgets go off in an assortment of directions.

“Kkringg Beyond NGGGGG” quickly segues into the next two tracks, “Kkringg Number One” and “Kkringg Number Two”. “Kkringg Number One” vaguely resembles a deranged nursery rhyme at times and a dizzying ride through a sadistic carnival at others, while “Kkringg Number Two,” with its Contortions-on-speed skronk and percussive guitar jabs, bursts with a nervous tension that’s rather overwhelming. The next track, “Thrumm’d Hte (For M)” appears to mine more electronic territory, prominently featuring swirling synth lines and an angular, ever shifting programmed beat juxtaposed against what sounds, quite literally, like a battle between a man and his guitar. The result is something that recalls cartoon composer Carl Stalling being attacked by a pack of unhinged cannibals.

The closing track, the twenty-minute-plus “Rise of the Iridescent Behemoth”, is the apex of Systems Emerge... Beginning unassumingly enough-for a Flying Luttenbachers record, that is: a piano playing an off-kilter melody, cascading waves of bass fuzz, primordial drum rolls. The mix briefly becomes clouded with a profound sense of doom and, soon afterwards, the track detonates: lightning-fast drum rolls, out-of-tune fusion guitar lines, wave after wave of bass static, piano keys hammered relentlessly- a veritable explosion of cataclysmic proportions. Just as you regain control of your senses, Walter slows it down: wailing guitars, a twinkling piano melody, the ever-present bass static, and…Latin percussion?!?! The track builds up again, continues to build, the tension escalating- overpowering amounts of anxiety hang over the proceedings as things continue to intensify, and just when you think the entire mass is either going to collapse or rupture, it stops. The listener is subsequently left dazed, confused, and violated. Strangely enough, it feels good…really good.

With each new release, the Luttenbachers have evolved, delving ever deeper into their own genre-defying blend of exponentially psychotic sonic mayhem. With Systems Emerge From Complete Disorder, Weasel Walter has managed to single-handedly create a behemoth of an album that succeeds in encompassing everything this writer loves about music: innovation, insanity, and the inability to rest on one’s laurels. I suppose if one were to equate the experience of listening to a Flying Luttenbachers record with something, imagine being bludgeoned unconscious, and waking up to a rather sizable gentleman standing over you, his steel-heeled boot pressed as hard as possible against your chest, laughing defiantly as you attempt to squirm helplessly from underneath. Simply put: a positively exhilarating listening experience.

- Jonathan Pfeffer

January 20, 2004

Paula Frazier "A Place Where I Know"

Paula Frazer has one of those voices. You know the type: deep, soothing and disturbing, her singing has a voice that's tender and yet worrying. Her band, Tarnation, released one of the best records of the 1990s, Gentle Creatures, but because of label issues, an ever rotating band lineup and general apathy of the music world, she's languished in obscurity, coming out to play only infreqently. In her ten year career, she's released exactly four records--three with Tarnation and an excellent solo album, and that's simply unfair. On the surface, Frazer's new record, A Place Where I Know, isn't really a new record at all, as it consists of demos of previously released songs from all stages of her career.

While it may seem a bit redundant for such a record to exist, if it serves any purpose, it's to highlight Frazer's powerful singing. Stripped down to just voice and guitar, it becomes quite obvious that the dark atmospheric production of her albums actually restrained her powerful voice. True, the Morricone-style spaghetti western stylings of Tarnation were wonderful, but Frazer was always the focus of the band and it's clear to see that all of the accompaniment wasn't really necessary. I'm not complaining, mind you; Gentle Creatures is easily a lost classic, due in part to genius production from Warn Defever.

If Frazer had simply forced the issue that she was Tarnation, or if she had set out under her own name with nothing more than her demos to release, the world wouldn't have blinked, and, really, would they have been any wiser? Listening to "The Hand" and "Halfway to Madness," I'm hard-pressed to say that you would. In fact, with the stripped-down, haunting sounds of natural echo and acoustic guitar, Frazer sounds like a ghost--her voice is utterly chilling and haunting and disturbing---in the most beautiful of ways. I'm most fond of "Like A Ghost," because when she sings "Follow time/Like a ghost I long to wander," I believe her.

Still, the one quibble I have with A Place Where I Know comes not from the music but from my own love of Frazer's back work. I'd love to hear more demos from the Tarnation days, especially Gentle Creatures. At this point in her career, I'm simply happy to hear anything new from her, so I won't really complain too much. For those wanting an introduction to Frazer, it's perhaps best to hold off on A Place Where I Know and head directly to Gentle Creatures. It's a grand, epic collection of songs, and it really holds up well over time; you should hear that before getting overwhelmed with the full-strength dose of her voice.

(The CD also features video of her singing three songs, none of which played on my computer, and all of which are new. Frustration! But from what I've heard, they're lovely, and the fact that they were left off the audio portion is even more upsetting. Oh well, I'm still waiting for a new record!)

--Joseph Kyle

January 19, 2004

Grand Ulena "Gateway to Dignity"

Touted by the Flying Luttenbachers’ Weasel Walter as, “totally insane and frenzied hyper-math rock overload”, St. Louis instrumental trio Grand Ulena play a unique brand of complex, disorienting math rock not unlike the algebraic melodies explored by Hella, Ruins, or U.S. Maple. Comparisons- as they usually do- sell the group short, as capricious time changes, erratic starts-and-stops, deliciously angular guitar, dizzying basslines, and jazz-inflected blast beats temper the distinctive sound Grand Ulena brings to the table.

The most remarkable aspect of Grand Ulena’s music is how the group manages to forge an undeniably cohesive sound from the organized chaos. In other words, the effect of each member playing three distinctly different parts isn’t a disconnected jumble of various unrelated jingles and thuds, as one might expect, but rather a consistent, unified entity. Songs like “Crowbar at Crescent and Cricket” and “Grand Arsenal” illustrate Grand Ulena’s formidable skills as musicians (check out the awesome groove the band falls into around the 1:15 mark on “Crowbar…”), but the only qualm I have with the group is that it appears, at least on the surface, that their music is devoid of any feeling. What I mean is, the record feels at times like one giant showcase for the group’s chops. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but issues such as these are more or less ubiquitous when discussing the exploits of many instrumental bands.

If there’s one track that I believe sums up the Grand Ulena sound, that track would have to be “Total Joplin”. Beginning with a single, fragmented, ominous burst, the group pauses for an extended moment to allow the sinister ambiance to linger. The track quickly launches into a staccato groove propelled by the frenetic drumming of Danny McClain. The trio promptly grows weary of the groove and sporadically instigates another one. Anchored by McClain and the nimble fingers of bassist (and former Dazzling Killmen member) Darin Gray, guitarist Chris Trull is left to his own devices, creating spastic, jagged bursts, often coming across like he’s trying to get answers from his instrument by pummeling it into submission.

Grand Ulena could best be likened to a large, anthropomorphized boulder tumbling down a steep hill, crushing everything in its path, pausing every so often to dwell on the carnage it’s wreaking. All in all, an impressive debut from a group that seems destined for big things in the experimental rock community.

--Jonathan Pfeffer

Marvin Gaye "I Want You" (Expanded Edition)

I've always had a little bit of envy of music writers of the past. I just wonder how wonderful it was to have a Pet Sounds or a Blonde on Blonde or a Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols record to review. I always wonder how some records were misaligned at the time, hated by critics yet eventually realized to be classics--what were these reviewers thinking at the time? Were they on dope? Cough syrup? Stupid pills? I've always wanted to review so many classic albums, but there's no real market for reviewing the oldies of the past, especially when I've got a whole box full of tomorrow's classics waiting for review today. When a reissue series like The Delxue Edition appears, it makes my day--because it gives me an opportunity to talk about really great music.

It goes without saying that Marvin Gaye's album, I Want You is a classic. With it, he achieved what so many artists have failed to do: a sound change. While his music had always been a mixture of deep R&B and soul, with I Want You he incorporated the then-popular disco style into his music. Throw in the fact that he had fallen in love, his new style reflected both the romance in his life and the changing sound of music. His incorporation of pop, disco and R&B rhythms is a very subtle one; he obviously had the sense to realize that making a record that was heavily indebted to popular styles was unwise. Indeed, I Want You sounds remarkably like a slow-dance on a Saturday night--and the hours afterwards in the bedroom.

Though I Want You only produced one true 'hit,' and commercially speaking it did not do as well as the previous hit albums of the early 70s, Let's Get It On and What's Going On (both also available in this reissue series), I Want You is perhaps the most cohesive of the three. In fact, it is indeed perhaps R&B's greatest concept album, in spite of the fact that there is no overt 'concept,' other than the fact that 'The Dance' is seen as an act of foreplay. Indeed, all of the songs are quite romantic; several of them are quite erotic, and one or two are simply too risque to reprint here. If his intention was to make a symphony to lovemaking, he succeeded; not since Bolero has such a composition been so passionate, so moving, so erotic.

The device that makes I Want You so cohesive could easily be seen as its biggest weakness: repetition. "I Want You" appears three times; once as a full song, twice as segues throughout the album; "After The Dance" appears twice, both in instrumental and a vocal, and it also is the basis for the brief hidden track, "I Wanna Be Where You Are," and the rhythm and melody of both songs runs through the rest of the songs. Had Gaye not already proven himself time and time again, such a move might easily be viewed as the results of an artist who was not particularly inspired, or that it was simply an album that was pieced together from outtakes. But because of his deft production, I Want You never sounds like it actually is--an album based around two or three core musical ideas.

In an unusual twist, the compact disc format actually enhances the already-brilliant album in that it finally presents it in a continuous-flow. When played straight from beginning to end, I Want You--which is a rather short album, running less than forty minutes--is a smooth, sensual symphony dedicated to out-and-out lovemaking. (Three bonus songs, a single mix and an instrumental mix of "I Want You" and an instrumental version of "Feel All My Love Inside" (titled "Strange Love) are tacked to the end of the first disk, and surprisingly, they aren't repetitive; in fact, they enhance the first album quite nicely.)

The second disk, however, is both a revelation and a confirmation. While these outtakes merely present I Want You again, in alternate-take form, they do help highlight the creative process that resulted in such a masterpiece. The vocal overdub sessions for "I Want You" makes an already-erotic song even more seductive; "I Wanna Be Where You Are," his loving shout-out to his wife and children, is presented in full, six minute instrumental jam form, and it appears again as part of an early version of "After The Dance," which highlights how Gaye had intended to make the album a seamless record from start to finish. Though there are not many truly unreleased songs from I Want You, one true outtake appears here, "Is Anybody Thinking About Their Living?" This song is primarily an instrumental session which Gaye played around with. Though interesting, it's not really essential to the rest of the I Want You set.

I Want You is a neglected classic, and this expanded edition certainly proves that it should receive as much respect as What's Going On and Let's Get It On. Though others might disagree with me, I would even say that this record is Gaye's true masterpiece. A beautiful, astonishing work of art, I Want You is one of the few records to truly capture the passion and joy of seduction, lovemaking and The Dance we call 'life.'

--Joseph Kyle
Some funny-bunny sent me a copy of Marvelous Things, the latest record by Tyler, Texas family act Eisley. In my review of their tepid debut Laughing City, I quite reasonably stated what I believed to be Eisley's faults, flaws and the general reason I do not like them, and I thought that was the end of that. I guess someone decided to have a bit of fun with my review policy. So here I am, listening and writing about a record I had no intention of ever reviewing by a band whose future seems so predetermined.

Marvelous Things illustrates my point quite nicely. First, any semblence of life within these songs have been glossed over to the point of sterility. When you're transparent, people see through you, and their songs are too precious to be taken seriously. They sound as if they were ripped out of the pages of a velvet-covered diary that belongs to A Very Serious Teenage Girl Who Is Misunderstood By The World. To be fair, they're trying to sound arty and deep and lyrical, but they fail--not because they're not trying, but because 'wisdom' is not something most fifteen year old girls possess. It doesn't mean that they should be condemned for trying---here's your gold star, Eisley, go get a cookie--but it doesn't mean that we should play the Let's Be Fair To Everyone Just Because They Tried game, either.

Someone convinced Eisley's people that it would be a really good idea to put the DuPree sisters' vocals SO FAR IN FRONT OF THE MUSIC that any and all instrumentation is overwhelmed by their vocals. Not that they've got bad singing voices, mind you--they're not bad, but they're not quite good enough to be put so high up in the mix. Highlighting the vocal abilites of your lead singer is one thing, but forcing your audience to hear really inane lyrics is another, and that sin's not so easily forgiven. Actually, Marvelous Things proves my point by the inclusion of a really excellent, non-big-budget-produced number, "The Winter Song." All of the things that make their other songs so bland and lifeless---mainly Big Corporation Money--are nowhere to be found, and it's here, dear readers, where Eisley is truly beautiful and worthy of the temporary hype.

I am going to step away from you, dear readers, to address Eisley for a moment. Folks, growth doesn't come from being pampered and sheltered and protected from the world. You may hate me, Eisley, but I don't speak these things out of hate. You really, truly need to consider who you're getting in bed with, because I feel your handlers are misguiding you. Do you think you'd have the big press if you three were boys? Doubt it. Because of this, your music is being altered in ways that suck the life out of it. I'll just say right now that the one song on here that I actually like is "The Winter Song."

I want to like you, Eisley, but your production simply keeps me from it. I still haven't felt as if what I'm hearing is really you. You're like that really nautrally beautiful girl who uglies herself up when she puts on make-up. I want to see you without all the makeup, without all the fakeness, without all the pretense--because maybe, just maybe, there's something there. But if wanting to be big is your thing, I can help you with that, too.

My suggestion? Call your new record Are You There God? It's Me, Eisley and you'll be a smash. Just be prepared for that big let down.

--Joseph Kyle

January 16, 2004

Interview: Roy's Brian Cook

Considering how much of a change Roy is from your other projects, how has reaction been from fans of your other bands? Shocked? Offended? Still under your hypnotic spell to accept anything you do as automatically brilliant?

The pie throwing hasn't begun yet anyways. I think that our previous bands, though much heavier, attracted a lot of music fans that don't cater to strictly heavy stuff, so those people are interested in what we're doing with Roy. I don't think that there's anybody at the shows waiting for the mosh part.

Was there a point of realization where you decided, 'let's do Roy?' What was that point? Was it an album? Was it wanting to just do a complete 180 from your other bands?

It might have been in 2001 after a string of Botch and Harkonen tours playing shows with a bunch of other heavy bands. Maybe we just temporarily burned out on that stuff. Roy felt really refreshing when we started to play together. I think all of us in the band have always been really into the kind of stuff that we play in Roy.

How has Roy affected the songwriting process for your other bands? Has it

Not really. They remain totally different gigs. It's kind of cool to play with roy and then play with harkonen and kind of change gears.

Wish you'd started Roy a long time ago, or is Roy something that couldn't have happened without going through your past?

Probably not. If we tried to start this band when we were 16 it probably would have had a totally different feel than it does. The fact that we're musicians from a heavier background trying to play more melodic catchy stuff gives the band a novice feel that I think is more interesting. There are too many people that are good at playing that kind of stuff.

Thanks, Brian!

--Joseph Kyle

January 13, 2004

Live Report: Broadcast and Manitoba, The Parish, Austin, Texas, November 11, 2003

Unless I suddenly remember a better show I’ve attended while combing through my archive of show reports for this year’s Top Ten list, this show holds the title as the best I’ve seen all year. Both acts on the bill put on amazing performances to promote amazing records in an amazing club with an amazing sound system. Did I already tell you that the show was amazing? Anyway, the Parish is in all but the name the same club as the Mercury, which was supposed to close its doors this past May, but got a renewed lease on life (emphasis on “renewed lease”) right in the nick of time. Thank God, because while I love Emo’s, its sound system simply wasn’t good enough to support Broadcast when they performed in Austin a couple of years ago. Plus, the grungy bathrooms and tattooed bouncers of Emo’s don’t create an atmosphere sophisticated enough to put this music in its proper context. In a better world, Manitoba and Broadcast records would come with their own strobe lights and martinis, and the Parish has both.

Manitoba walked on stage to a prerecorded backdrop of deafening bagpipes. It was the kind of roar meant to warn an audience that it was about to get their butts royally kicked by the music. The band definitely lived up to such a bombastic introduction. Followers of this site already know that I love their latest album Up in Flames, as it does psychedelic big-beat much better than the Chemical Brothers ever did. The record doesn’t sound like it could be pulled off convincingly live, and Lord knows I don’t need to see another IDM set consisting of a shy guy staring into his laptop. Fortunately, Manitoba delivered the goods by augmenting their backing tracks with live instruments and stunning Day-Glo visuals. Flowers, aliens, teddy bears, you name it --- anything cute and surreal, the band put it on the screen.

The trio of musicians rotated between guitar, keyboard, melodica, pennywhistle, and drums. Two of them frequently played drums simultaneously, which simply took the music through the roof. There’s something inexplicably primal and cleansing about the sound of two drummers playing together. The Boredoms understand it, the Microphones understand it, and Manitoba does too. The drumming turned a song as light on record as “Jacknuggeted” into driving indie-rock live, and a song as twee as “Crayon” into a powerful punk blast. For a band that wears animal masks on stage to maintain anonymity, they’re awfully charismatic. You can tell that main man Dan Snaith enjoys playing live just by hearing him sing along loudly to his own songs even when he’s nowhere near a microphone. Eventually, they took off their masks and urged the audience to “make some f**king noise!” Manitoba definitely earned our compliance.

At this point, there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it: Broadcast’s Ha Ha Sound is the album of the year. No other pop band on the planet manages to make music this experimental and hypnotic while still retaining a strong emotional and melodic core. The band would have had to absolutely suck live not to live up to the expectations I held for them after listening to their latest album. Needless to say, they didn’t disappoint.In the last couple of years since I last saw them play, Broadcast have grown more confident as musicians, performers, and arrangers.

For their Emo’s show, singer Trish Keenan wore a simple sweater and slacks and stood stock still. At the Parish, she was a gorgeous chanteuse straight out of an Austin Powers flick, dancing and gesturing to the audience while playing keyboards and singing in a clear and pitch-perfect croon. Their new, comparatively aggressive drummer sprinkled tom-tom and cymbal splashes all over the place. The guitarist played only the barest sketches of melody when he wasn’t slicing and sliding chromium gashes all over his instrument. The bassist and keyboardist did most of the melodic work, ensuring that the music never got too abstract for its own good. The near-darkness the band played in added even more tension to the performance. Even their interminable one-note vamps were charged with all manner of harsh and squiggly noises. I have to give props to a band that played well enough to distract me from a woman as beautiful as Trish. If you fuse Stereolab’s motorik fetish with the noise of early Jesus and Mary Chain, and add large portions of ‘60s obscurity the United States of America, you still wouldn’t have a cocktail as potent as Broadcast. They have a sound you can get intoxicated off of, and I definitely had trouble driving home after the show.

---Sean Padilla