March 31, 2004

Fire Divine "It's All A Blur"

Fire Divine is one of Deep Elm's latest signings, and from this brief little EP, there's plenty of reason to have some hope in their future. Considering the mellower sounds of some of their releases last year, Fire Divine sounds a bit more traditional rock. While It's All a Blur may be too short to make a good impression, I've got to say that there's plenty of promise in this young group. While their blend the loud screaming vocals with the soft, tender crooning might be a little too 'emo', it still works quite well. "Clark and Rightwood" and "Reputation Outlives Application" are good examples of this; the guitars are loud, the emotions are on the sleeve, and everything just clicks. Thankfully, they don't rely on this formula too much for the other two songs, and are willing to play around with what they're doing. I'm most fond of "We Ride on Sunbeams," because it just has that summertime vibe that I really like (note to joseph: well, DUH, the song's called "We Ride on Sunbeams!). When they do the harmonies--you can hear 'em in the background just a little on "Sunbeams"--it sounds good...and hopefully they'll do more of that on their upcoming full-length debut. "Smoke And Mirrors"--NOT the Magnetic Fields song--sounds like Cave In. (Lead singer Ian Musgrove sounds a bit like Stephen Brodsky, too.) That's a good thing. An overall promising debut from a young band--what's better than that? Nothing, my friends, nothing. (Just don't let's not get caught up in that heavy screaming/soft singing thing too much, okay?)

--Joseph Kyle

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Interview: TV On The Radio

How’s the tour going?

Tunde: Pretty good. It’s better than the last tour.

Any interesting stories from the road?

Kyp: Nothing that can really be translated into words.

Tunde: We thought we forgot Kyp at one point [laughs]. He was sleeping on the floor of a venue [laughs] He was sleeping beneath a very beautiful singer. We thought we left him in Tampa, somewhere in the South [everyone laughs].

Were Young Liars and Desperate Youth… recorded separately? What were the underlying differences between the two?

Tunde: Desperate Youth was recorded… [asking Kyp] was it 5 months? 5 months after Young Liars.

Kyp: I wasn’t on Young Liars.

Tunde: I guess they’re different mostly because in just the way we worked on Desperate Youth, taking a lot of stuff just from improvisation. Like, we’d play 5 or 6-hour jam sessions and then put that somewhere and then extract maybe a minute from one of these and we’d say, “hey, we can make a song out of that!” The music would inspire lyrics and the lyrics would kind of affect how the music was produced around it. I guess the major difference between the two was just that we were feeling different.

What were some major sources of inspiration?

Kyp: We watched a documentary on Malcom X- I can’t remember the title of it. It featured speeches, photos, and film clips. [It] detailed his life after his induction into the nation of Islam up until the period of his death. Really fantastic, inspiring piece of film. I was also reading a book called “The Time It Takes Falling Bodies To Turn To Light”. We also listened to “The Love Below” in the studio.

Tunde: Yeah. And just the normal other stuff: life slapping you around, lifting you up, or putting you down. All turns into songs. It’s nice to have a venue for it besides just going completely insane.

What spurred the decision to go with a full band for the tour?

Tunde: Well, it just sort of started with Dave and I doing improv shows. He’d have a sampler and I’d have a microphone and we’d ask the audience for song suggestions. Then we realized we could fill up an hour and a half of basically nothing, you know? So, that gave us the courage to get more members and, after we started writing actual songs, we just decided if we went out on the road, it’d be more fun and more interesting to have the live set up. Jaleel and Gerard are both just phenomenal musicians and friends we’ve known forever, so we just said, “c’mon, let’s all go and do it!” It’s been easier dealing with being in New York.

How has the reaction been to the live show- because it’s obviously very different- different in a very good way- from your records?

Tunde: A lot of people were kind of expecting the CD when they come and I never really liked when I go and see a band- I actually just heard, for the first time, a Radiohead live CD and…it’s ridiculous and it made me feel really small and stupid. But, just the way they trick out songs or any band that can do that- like the Pixies. You’re on the road so much that you have to make it interesting for yourself and hopefully it’s interesting for other people. Most of the reaction has been really good, really positive. It’s working. I feel like it’s also a nice way to round out listening to the CD’s, too.

Last question--someone told me that David Bowie likes your record. Any thoughts on that?

[Everyone laughs]

Tunde: Yeah, apparently. It’s great. Really nice. I guess it would be much worse if he said, “I hate this band! Have them destroyed!”

Angelmark "Angelmark"

Angelmark is the project of Canadian artist and musician Michael Turner, whose main project is a band called Titania. It's a bit odd to think of this as a different project, because the two bands are definitely cut from the same cloth. Where Titania relies on heavenly female vocals, Angelmark is strictly an instrumental affair, and these songs sound like--you guessed it--an instrumental version of Titania. It's okay, though, because the vocals really aren't the focus here--what's most important is the atmosphere of the record.

Instead, we're given an intimate taste of Michael Turner solo, alone. Angelmark's instrumental landscapes are as cold and as grey as the mental picture you might have of Canada, and all twelve of these songs never fail to invoke a chilled atmosphere. When Turner's primary instrument in the song is guitar (such as 'The Golden Mean') and it invokes Cocteau Twins' mastermind Robin Guthrie and occasionally Durutti Column's Vini Reilly. When the songs are more keyboard-based (such as "Brighter Days" and "Low & Slow") it's very similar to Brian Eno and Harold Budd. Turner varies the style quite nicely, creating a nice, steady atmosphere that never becomes dull.

Angelmark is a very pretty record, one that's perfect for those hazy evenings at home or those late nights when you cannot sleep. There's nothing more charming than simple beauty, and Angelmark is simply beautiful.

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Sekiden "Junior Fiction"

In his review of their EP 1+1=Heartache, Joseph compared Sekiden to Weezer, and I must disagree with that. Sekiden sounds too much like mid to late ‘90s Brit-pop rock and rocks too hard to be like Weezer. Actually, they sound a lot like the band Ash did at their artistic peak. The guitars and “Ooh” and “Aah” vocals sound like they could have been taken straight from Ash’s album, 1977. Sekiden is not a complete Ash clone, though, since they have two things that Ash didn’t have during their glory days: Moog synths and a female vocalist to do backing vocals and a couple turns on lead. (Yes, they do have a woman in the band now who does some backing vocals, but I’m talking about Ash when they were at their artistic peak.) The synth parts either sound very new wave (like on “1+1=Heartache") or crazily Moogified, like on a Rentals album. They’re mostly background, though, and the music is mostly guitar-centric.

Really, if you want to go crazy with the band comparisons, I’d say that Sekiden sounds like the supergroup that might have ensued had the members of Ash joined forces with the keyboard player from Pulp. If you’re an Anglophile, you will love this album. Sure, they’re Australian, but you won’t be able to tell (especially if you’re from America). Didn’t most of those Brit-pop bands pretty much lose their accents when they started singing? Sekiden loses their accents, too. As for the lyrics, most of them are about relationships. Nothing too deep here. But you never did turn to Brit-pop for deep ruminations on the nature of existence and the global power structure, right? This is almost totally upbeat, rocking love music here.

And hell, the lyrics could have been lifted from an Ash or Pulp record, too. Don’t be frightened away by my comparisons, though. Sekiden has an advantage that Ash and Pulp don’t have. You see, those two bands are well past their respective golden ages, which they weren’t really able to maintain for a long period of time. Ash had only one really good full-length, and Pulp… well, I personally only like a few of their singles here and there. Sekiden, after releasing two EPs, has just reached the heights of pop greatness with this album. Here’s to them maintaining that for at least another album or two.

Oh, and there are a few interesting quirks to the record that I should mention before ending this review. Some of you might be thrilled to hear it when Sekiden puts a Speak and Spell to great use on the song, “S-T-A-Y”. They also have an authentic Game Boy “ping” to start off the album’s final track, “Pulsewidth”, and for the first few seconds of the song, they use a Game Boy to play the song’s melody before kicking in with the Moog and female vocals. Very cool. Speaking of the last track, it’s actually 46 minutes, 6 seconds long (the total album length is 73:48), and the what might be considered the actual song itself lasts for only 3 minutes. The rest of the track is just atmospheric Moog tweaking. It sounds just like the IDM that would have been trendy a couple of years ago. I don’t know what the motivation behind that is, whether it’s some sort of joke or they thought they were doing something interesting, but I just think it’s funny that they’d fill out the album that way. It’s kind of reminiscent of the extended ending to “Diamond Sea” on Sonic Youth’s album, Washing Machine. You can either keep listening or just press stop knowing that you’d feel satisfied either way.

So there you go. I don’t think those quirks really make the album (the great, fun pop songs do), but I thought you’d like to know about them. So, if you’re like me and find yourself wishing that Ash could have just held onto their full greatness for just one other album, you’ll want to give Sekiden a try.

--Eric Wolf

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The Beauty Pill "The Unsustainable Lifestyle"

Give it up for Chad Clark! Over the last seven years, he’s positioned himself as Dischord’s latest Renaissance Man, following in the footsteps of J. Robbins as a man who does consistently excellent work both in front of the microphone and behind the boards. In 1997, Clark’s previous band Smart Went Crazy released Con Art, a near-masterpiece that set his bitter relationship screeds and sarcastic social commentary atop a Fugazi-gone-baroque hybrid that bands like Cursive would take to the bank a couple of years later. Since then, Chad has been doing production and/or mastering duties for some of the finest records to come out of Washington, DC, most notably the Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency and I. If you’re a regular reader of this site and you don’t know about Emergency and I, go to the All Music Guide web site right now and come back once you’re done. I can’t explain EVERYTHING for you! :-) The point is that if you’re a rock band in the District of Columbia and you want your record to sound really good, chances are you’re gonna have to go through Clark at some point. I’m not ashamed to admit that I admire Chad for being one of the few black men in independent rock to establish himself as a crucial component of his local scene, with no traces of tokenism in sight. However, he could be a Martian with polka-dot skin, and that wouldn’t change the fact that he’s got the sonic Midas touch.

While making other bands sound good, Clark intermittently released EPs of his own material under the name the Beauty Pill. More of a loose conglomeration of like-minded creative friends than an actual band, the Beauty Pill found Clark’s music changing gradually in many ways. His lyrics stopped focusing on specific targets like ex-girlfriends and politicians, and his pointed indignation started giving way to a more general sense of world-weariness. His music became paradoxically more stripped-down AND more florid; the backdrops weren’t as cluttered or intense as those of Smart Went Crazy, but Chad was increasingly eager to dabble with other genres and show off the new tricks he learned while producing other bands. Disco rhythms, IDM trickery, and found sound were just as likely to end up on a Beauty Pill record as traditional indie-rock. The Beauty Pill’s two EPs, Cigarette Girl from the Future and You Are Right to Be Afraid, promised great things, and the expectation was only compounded by the length of time it took for this material to surface. A discography consisting of ten songs in three years isn’t exactly prolific, and the world really doesn’t need another Kevin Shields. Fortunately, Chad didn’t take too long in assembling the Beauty Pill’s long-awaited debut, The Unsustainable Lifestyle, and its arrival definitely signals a complete transformation from the Chad Clark of 1997 to the Chad Clark of 2004.

The first thing I noticed about the album was that its back cover features the members of the Beauty Pill all sitting next to each other and SMILING. No longer a studio project, they’re actually a band…a band that seems to get along with each other, which should be refreshing to anyone who knows about the internal tension that turned Smart Went Crazy into Dischord’s own Fleetwood Mac. This newfound camaraderie may possibly explain why there is only one song on the record that examines a failing relationship. However, since that song is sung from the point of view of a man in prison (and by one of the WOMEN in the band, no less), I’m pretty sure that it isn’t based on personal perspective. This also might explain the ego-less democratization of vocal duties on this record. The Beauty Pill boasts two lead singers other than Clark. Rachel Burke sings on half of the songs, her clear alto sigh reserved wisely for the songs that are beyond Clark’s range. Drummer Ryan Nelson sings on “Drive Down the Cost,” which is unfortunately the album’s weakest song. The song drives a four-chord progression into the ground for too long, and although Ryan does an okay job on the microphone, it’s obvious that Chad could’ve sung it better. However, it does boast a line that sums up the loose concept behind The Unsustainable Lifestyle in a nutshell: “I worry that I may die poor.”

If the album title isn’t obvious enough, the artwork gives it all away. There are captions about imaginary people that say things like “knows exactly how much money is in his bank account at any given moment,” “doesn’t mind being lied to if it’s a good lie,” and “has successfully avoided the topic of poverty for 25 years.” This is an album filled with anecdotes sung from the point of view of people who make themselves miserable striving for things that they cannot have, and probably shouldn’t be striving for anyway. “Such Large Portions!” speaks of common yet suppressed desires that only get directly denied when people finally speak out about them. “There is a price for free speech,” Rachel sings, “[when] you want what you want and you can’t really say what you want.” “Nancy Medley,” a 15-year-old “girl genius,” does drugs in order to overcome social awkwardness. “Quote Devout Unquote” is a plea for the human race to simply accept the uncertainty of life, instead of treating religious doctrines or conspiracy theories as pure facts. “I’m Just Gonna Close My Eyes for a Second” nails the difference between pragmatism and pessimism in two lines: “I say ‘risk’ and you say ‘cost.’ You choose ‘trapped’ and I choose ‘lost’.” The album’s darkest moment comes in “Lifeguard in Wintertime,” when the protagonist dreams of someone dying by accidentally diving into an empty pool that they thought was full of water. This gruesome image serves as a metaphor for what the characters in the other songs do to their own lives. The soaring chorus only seals the deal; Rachel illustrates the omnipresence of such decay when she sings, “I have these thoughts in the summertime, too.”

Two songs merit more particular attention. First, there’s “Wont You Be Mine,” which examines race relations with a candor that I haven’t heard in independent rock since…well, since Con Art! The song is a vicious attack on mainstream hip-hop. Many rappers sell juvenile, one-dimensional images of black manhood to the mainstream, catering to stereotypes that many Americans already have about blacks. However, they’re making so much money off of it that they don’t even consider the social ramifications of what they’re doing. “The leash is loose enough to feel like autonomy,” Chad sings. “Money is here if you want it, and they love it when you flaunt it. Yes, you will find as you’re forfeiting all your power, the applause gets louder.” In the meantime, black men who want to be seen as three-dimensional human beings continue to get the short end of the stick. “If you could hear this,” he asks, “would you care that you made me theirs?” When Chad sings in the chorus, “Are you my nigger?,” it’s a criticism of both the usage of such a derogatory word as a term of endearment as well as of modern hip-hop’s failure to truly represent the people that it claims to. The opening sample of Mr. Rogers spelling out the word “friend” only reinforces this point. In fact, every single element of the song, both musical and lyrical, has some underlying racial subtext, from the samples of WWII-era music that form the song’s backdrop to Clark’s rap-like vocal delivery. Last but not least, the song is as catchy as it is vicious.

Then, there’s album closer “Terrible Things.” Musically, it’s the most naked song on the record, with little more than bass, drums, and Chad’s croaking voice ruminating on terrorism. He name-drops both Idi Amin and Mark David Chapman, both of whom seem like archaic targets in this post-9/11 era…but then again, that might be precisely Clark’s point. People have been committing nonsensical acts of violence against each other since the beginning of time, so instead of letting 9/11 give us a spirit of fear “permanent loan,” why don’t we simply “go outside and stop them”? Just like “Won’t You Be Mine,” this poignant (if slightly idealistic) sentiment is attached to a chorus that will remain in your head long after the record is

Please don’t let my emphasis on lyrical analysis give you the impression that the music isn’t equally detailed and compelling. “Goodnight for Real” begins the album in a half-awake state, with the guitars drenched in reverb and tremelo, the drums slowly panning from left and right, and Chad singing as if he’s still clearing the crust from his eyes. The song swells into a rousing climax that almost seems at odds with the subject matter: soulless bands playing to bored, irony-saturated audiences. “Goodnight for Real,” like many other songs on the record, has a light shoegaze patina that makes the songs sound otherworldly in spite of such earthbound subject matters. “Such Large Portions!” boasts pitch-imperfect guitars from the Swirlies handbook. On “Nancy Medley,” Chad runs his voice through a Leslie speaker cabinet for a hallucinogenic effect that nicely corresponds with the subject matter. Every song is fleshed out with just enough studio trickery or instrumental garnish (special kudos go to Rachel for her excellent Wurlitzer playing) to keep listeners on their toes, especially if they’re listening to the record on headphones. “The Western Prayer” is a particular aural treat. It sounds as if the rhythm section’s having its own party away from the rest of the band, with clanking percussion tumbling from each speaker, and muscular bass fighting the spaghetti-western guitar for whatever space that’s left.

“The Western Prayer” and “Won’t You Be Mine” are the most musically experimental songs on the record, and while The Unsustainable Lifestyle’s great as it is, it could have used a couple more songs like these (or at least one more to replace “Drive Down the Cost”). Nonetheless, it’s nice to see Clark getting older, wiser, and calmer without losing any of the things that made his earlier work such a breath of fresh air. From start to finish, The Unsustainable Lifestyle functions well as both pop music and sociopolitical critique. I think that I’ve just heard 2004’s first contender for Album of the Year. (He's not alone in thinking that--ed.)

---Sean Padilla

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Sunshine "necromancer"

A friend of mine was going through my CD's and he came across this reissue of Sunshine's Necromance.
He looked at it for a moment.

"What does it sound like?" he asked.

"Like a Eastern European version of At the Drive-In."

Though I came across as being funny, I spoke the truth. Sunshine, who hail from the Czech Republic, do sound an awful lot like At the Drive-In, but with a few more European influences, such as Joy Division and Belgium-based industrial rock. In fact, the indie world's first taste of Sunshine--myself included--was due to At the Drive-In. The two bands released a wonderful (and well worth seeking out) split 12" record that was pressed on clear purple vinyl, and, if I'm not mistaken, the two bands toured together a time or two. So, it's not unfair to compare the two bands.

It would, however, be extremely unfair to simply dismiss Sunshine as another At the Drive-In knock-off, because they aren't. While many of the dynamics are the same, and it's clear that they occasionally share influences, Sunshine have a much darker, dance-oriented vibe that ATDI never really touched. Listening to Sunshine, their second album, issued in 2001 and reissued late last year by GSL, I'm simply amazed by how great these guys are. The reissue cleans up the sound a little bit and tacks on four song from a GSL remix twelve-inch EP.

It's easy to understand why this record was reissued, because the band sounds great, and Necromance is an impressive little record. Stylewise, Sunshine cover a lot of ground, but they do so in a way that doesn't smother the music. From the brooding "Last Your Day" to the depressing "Daydreams about White Lines," the punk-rock crunch of "The Vertigo" and the Primal Scream-esque "Punk and Chic," Necromance is a dark, heavy record that's surprisingly melodic and oddly poppy. The four mixes of "Astral Love" show that these guys could do the dance-punk thing if they wanted to, and they'd do it well.

It's a bit sad to know that their exotic location has probably been their greatest hindrance. Had they come from England or America, they would easily be up there on the 'next big thing' list and probably would have been big upon the release of Necromance. Their Eastern European location has probably regulated Sunshine to a third-world novelty act, to be looked at as a band that's simply imitiating American indie-rock. Apparently they've signed to a major and have a new record coming out soon, and that's good to hear. Necromance wasn't the success it should have been at the time, but who knows what the future will bring? As Necromance proves, at least Sunshine deserve any success that comes their way.

--Joseph Kyle

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TV On The Radio "Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes"

TV On The Radio is another one of those groups. With a mere 5-song EP under their belts- released on Touch & Go no less-they’ve already amassed enough press to sink a well-proportioned yacht. They look cool in publicity photos. And having done production work with “hip” groups like Liars and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, they’ve got “roots” in the “happening” Williamsburg art-punk scene. Sounds like a recipe for success (or disaster, depending on whom you ask).

Even if TV On The Radio didn’t have a shred of talent, chances are you still would have heard of them by now. With their blend of gospel, IDM, doo-wop, and straight-forward indie-rock playing in tandem with a fascinating employment of electronics, TV On The Radio manage to slay the competition and, in the process, concoct an unmistakable sound. Add the powerful and often-moving vocals of Tunde Adebimpe to the jumble and you’ve got one of the most original groups working the American underground to date. Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes mines the same territory as the aforementioned EP and seems to come across more as an extension of Young Liars rather than a bold new direction. The songs remain simultaneously dense and inviting; with the instrumentation usually providing the backdrop with opaque atmospherics and resonant, electronic tones, while Adebimpe’s soulful tenor handles the frequently infectiously gorgeous melodies.

Nine almost unnervingly taut compositions comprise Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes and not a minute of these could be construed as filler. Equal parts vulnerable and detached, the first three songs on the record set the mood perfectly- not terribly upbeat, but at the same time, not utterly hopeless, the anxious shuffle of the album’s opener “The Wrong Way”, the infectious dirge of “Staring At The Sun” and the oblique “Dreams” (picture what might happen if the Pixies and Peter Gabriel- to whom Adebimpe has often been compared- started playing Spirit of Eden-era Talk Talk covers with Autechre’s equipment). “Ambulance” is a unique take on the familiar topic of a relationship set against an exquisite doo-wop arrangement. Adebimpe pleads with his subject, “I will be your screech and crash if you will be my crutch and cast” while he and his partners in crime- David Sitek and Kyp Malone- belt out poignant harmonies. Each successive song, while unquestionably wedded to the same style, somehow finds a way to bring something new to the table, whether it be the murky atmospherics of “King Eternal”, the hypnotic drone of “Poppy” or the incessant indie-soul of “Don’t Love You”.

After eight tracks of varying musical and lyrical intensity, the album manages to end on a comparatively lively note with “Wear You Out”. Beginning with a sparse melody hammered out on a clean electric guitar and shuffling digital percussion, Adebimpe and Malone implore in a moving harmony for a love interest to “break it down”, the track steadily escalates with electronic gizmos, percussion, and flute and sax all vying for breathing room. The proceedings reach epic heights as Adebimpe and Malone coo expressively, ‘let me wear out’ while the production becomes a dense muddle of fascinating textures. The song begins to slow down and, once it’s all over, I feel almost as if a catharsis of some sort was reached.

The underlying difference between these guys and most of the groups they might consider their peers is that TV On The Radio actually have something new and surprisingly potent to say. They take enough from the past 50 years of popular music to make their tunes sound surprisingly familiar, but TV On The Radio seem utterly resolute in refusing to allow the past consume them. Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes isn’t simply a promising release-- it’s a monster record that will prove difficult to follow--but I have a feeling these fellas won’t have all that much trouble doing so. In short, this writer’s prediction is that Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes is merely a taste of even better things to come.

--Jonathan Pfeffer

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March 30, 2004

Sing-Sing "Madam Sing-Sing"

Ah, Sing-Sing, it's been too long! For those of you who don't know, Sing-Sing is the project of Emma Anderson (ex-Lush) and Lisa O'Neill. It's been a bit quiet on the Sing-Sing front as of late (they released a ton of singles a few years ago, which we L-O-V-E-D) and this little four-song EP released on a tiny Spanish record label was a most wonderful suprise! It's good to see that these two are still making music, and these four songs show that they're only getting better. All four of these songs are a healthy blend of electronica and pop, and they seem to be a bit more on the pop side than previous records. O'Neill sings with a really sweet, innocent voice that gives the songs a slightly sinister edge. There's also a bit more of a dance beat here, too. "Every Day" and "A Modern Girl" are two songs that should have been hits years ago, because these songs easily give the Cardigans and Garbage a run for their money. For some weird reason, "I Do" reminds me of a modern-day Abba. The only Sing-Sing could be better is if Anderson took more lead vocals--she was awesome in Lush and just needs to sing more! Madame Sing-Sing may be a little bit harder to find, but it's worth seeking out, because this EP is wonderful.

--Joseph Kyle

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Loretta "The Translation"

I have got to hand it to 'modern rock' bands. It's a really brave game to play, making music that's indebted to bands who have a very distinctive sound. Most bands who wear their inspirations on their sleeve so openly like that often fail for a number of reasons: they sound too much like established bands, they can't build up a following because they're dissmised as clones, or--and this is so often the case--the bands just aren't very good. I mean, really now, if I wanted to listen to a band that sounded like Radiohead, why should I go to the imitators, when I've got a perfectly fine copy of OK Computer in my CD changer?

In order to survive, you've gotta be slick about what you want to do. You gotta play the game on your terms, you gotta build a shell up around you to protect you from charges of being mere imitators, and you've simply got to believe in yourself. If those accusations and comparisons stood in their way, would we respect bands such as the Posies, the Who, Coldplay, Rolling Stones, Buzzcocks, Nirvana or Wings? (Okay, some of those choices are up for debate, but you know what I mean.) All of those bands have been slammed with negative comparisons and have not only survived such initial negativity, they survived and thrived in spite of them.

Indianapolis' Loretta is a band who will suffer for comparisons. Their sound is a very slick, very tight radio-friendly sound that will be dismissed by many as 'too modern-rock' or 'alt-rock crap.' Comparisons to Radiohead and Coldplay are quick to follow, and it's easy to understand why--lead singer Jason Weidner's voice sounds an awful lot like Thom Yorke, that high falsetto swimming all over a brooding atmospheric rock accompaniment. It's impossible to listen to The Translation without thinking of Radiohead, but unlike most bands who remind me of that Oxford five, I'm more interested in hearing what Loretta does next instead of reaching for Hail To The Thief.

But don't deny yourself the pleasure of Loretta because of that. After all, this is their debut, so they're allowed to play their influences up a little bit, and, really, it's not something that should hold you back from enjoying their album. Their sound goes from heavy, hard rock on songs like "The Fire" and "Stolypin Neckties" to mellow, bleak Britpop on "Slow Down." The best moments of The Translation--the fast-paced "Adonais" and the heartbreakingly breathtaking "To the Knife"--belong on both modern rock radio stations and this country's best mixtapes.

The Translation is a great little record from a young band. It makes me happy to get a record by a young group who already sound this good--it's a rare day when that happens, it seems. While their sound may be a little bit derivative, it's not something you should hold against them. Next big thing? I won't turn my fickle nose up if it's Loretta. Neither should you. Here's hoping this already great sounding band will shed these things when they start work on that second record.

--Joseph Kyle

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The Smittens "Gentlefication Now!"

Gentlefication now! Sounds like the slogan for a bunch of wussies, doesn’t it? Well, screw you, you over-aggressive, testosterone-drenched frat boy! Just because you try to be nice to people and not put up some intimidating bullshit alpha male front.

And that sums up the philosophy of the Smittens. “Gentlefiction now!” is their battle cry, and their motto is “being nice IS a political act.” The Smittens believe that if we all just cut the bullshit and just try to be nice to each other, the world will be a much better place. Ah, but don’t think that the Smittens are total wimps. When faced with discriminatory political factions, they will lay the smack down! After all, discrimination is a big obstacle that keeps people from just being nice to each other.

Oh, what’s that? This is a music review site, not a philosophy review site? Okay, time to switch critical perspectives...

This debut by the Smittens is definitely one of most important albums to come out in the past year, at least in the indie pop world. This record has four qualities that make it a trail blazer in the indie pop genre. Those qualities are the gentlefication philosophy (already discussed), Max Andrucki, Dana Kaplan, and bisexuality.

First of all, lead male vocalist Max Andrucki might just have the sexiest male singing voice east of the Mississippi (the sexiest on the west side is Calvin Johnson). The best way I could describe it is that it has a bassy tone reminiscent of Calvin Johnson or Stephin Merritt combined with the flair and power of Morrissey.

Then, you have Dana Kaplan, the lead female vocalist. She’s got a high, pretty voice, matching the beauty and cuteness of Rose Melberg or Jen Sbragia. Just sugary sweet.

The other Smittens, Colin Clary, David Zacharis, and Holly Chagnon sing backup (and Holly, who’s mainly the Smittens’ drummer, sings lead on one song), but it’s mostly Max and Dana singing alone or together.

Bisexuality? Yes, bisexuality! You see, pretty much all twee/cuddlecore has been about boy/girl love. Sure, we all thought there might have been something going on between the Softies when we saw them close together on the back of It’s Love, but no, there was nothing there (and they’re both married to men, I know it as a fact). But the Smittens actually bill themselves as 50% gay, and it’s reflected in their songs. As for the music itself, it’s catchy guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums stuff, and it’s reminiscent of what a modern version of a ‘60s cartoon band might sound like. In fact, a couple Smittens are influenced by the Archies, so there you have it.

So, you want to hear about particular songs? Okay. Well, you have a title track, “Gentlefication Now! (the La La La Song)”, a peppy, catchy theme (and yes, it does have quite a lot of “las” in it) with a couple of funny self-referential verses about Smittens members. There's a great one about the drummer that goes “Holly’s getting a muscle here, we think it’s from lifting beer. She claims it’s from hitting the snare. Tell me now what you think about that,” and then there’s a reference to Colin Clary’s solo career that goes “Colin’s new album is really long. His new material is really strong, and if he swears don’t tell his mom. Tell me now what you think about that.” Great stuff.

There’s also “I Hate Vermont”, and the subject matter for that song is self-explanatory. The Smittens lament that “there’s no good record stores and no good bookstores. 55 frat bars and one crappy gay bar (reviewer’s note: There’s that bisexuality I was talking about). Why don’t good bands ever come to play?” Sure, it’s about Vermont, but any cool person from the middle of nowhere can relate.

The most blatantly bisexual song on the album is “Doomed, Lo-Fi and In Love”. First, Max sings about stealing Dana’s girlfriend for a short fling, and then Dana sings about stealing Max’s boyfriend for a short fling. How many other bands have you heard of doing a song like that? Certainly not any twee pop bands. If you want a positive homosexual twee pop song, there is “My Girl”, in which Dana sweetly sings about a girl she was in love with one summer. It’s a very cute, very twee song, and if you don’t pay close attention to the lyrics (and song title), you’d be primed to think that it’s just another boy/girl love song. But it’s not!

(By the way, I want to add here that I have no idea if everything the Smittens sing about is autobiographical. Just so you know.)

There are a few other great highlights, too. One of them is “Gin and Platonic”, which “borrows” some of its melody from “Vacation” by the Go-Gos. “Vacation, all I ever wanted...” is changed to “Relationships I never wanted. Relationships I have avoided...” Personally, I prefer the Smittens’ version because I think the lyrics are better and that song is probably Max’s sexiest vocal turn on the album. There’s also “Army of Pop Kids”, a call for pop kids around the country to defy the imperialist establishment “for just one minute” by joining hands and just dancing. Quite poignant.

I do, however, have two negative points to mention about this album. The most negative aspect of this album is “To the Enemies of Political Pop”. Now, let me emphasize that I do love this song. It’s a great anti-discrimination anthem. However, I’m embarrassed to play it for anyone completely unfamiliar with the Smittens. Why? Because for a large portion of the song, Max, with great enthusiasm, repeatedly belts out the line, “This is not faggot rock.” If a listener unfamiliar to the Smittens doesn’t listen closely to the other lyrics (“Whoops, I knocked down the churches. Whoops, I burned down the malls.”), it’s easy to see how he or she might get the wrong idea and think that the Smittens are homophobes. But no, “this is not faggot rock” is actually a sarcastic statement. I just dread trying to explain that to someone who’s easy to anger.

A smaller flaw is that “Gentlefication Now! (the La La La Song)” doesn’t have verses about Max, Dana, and David. I don’t know, I just wish they could have come up with funny verses about them and extend the song, since the song is kind of short and it is basically their theme. I do like the song the way it is because it’s very catchy and the verses about Colin and Holly are great, but I wonder what witticisms they could have come up with for the other three Smittens.

However, this is supposed to be a rave review, for what I consider to be a very important album, though, so I’d like to say something positive things to end the review. I just want to praise the Smittens for the great work they did with the cheap, dollar-store keyboard part on the album opener, “Twee Valley High”. It’s very inspiring to hear what can be done with those things in the hands of professionals.

So, to all you indie popsters out there, you must get this album. Embrace gentlefication, and embrace bisexuality! With the help of the Smittens, we’ll be the most liberal, yet catchy and fun musical genre yet.

--Eric Wolf

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Label website:

March 29, 2004

Live Report: The Decemberists, Dios, Clearlake, and Tom Heinl, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,The Khyber, March 24, 2004

After canceling a show with the Walkmen late last year due to illness, the Decemberists saw fit to reschedule for last Wednesday. I switched shifts last minute to catch this gig since I’d read so much elsewhere about Clearlake and Dios, and have an ongoing fascination with the Decemberists’ mystique, even if it has been somewhat overstated. Unfortunately, this show proved the old cliché that shit really does roll downhill.

Dios, a young quintet from southern California, played with considerable poise for a band seeking to prove itself and live up to the hype. Touring on a forthcoming eponymous debut, they went through their sunny set in workmanlike fashion, rarely talking with the audience, except to say how glad they were to be playing to adults, instead of the younger folks that populated the earlier shows on the tour. I was taken aback at how well their compositions held up in a venue known for its sometimes spotty sound. Keys, samples, and backing vocals all found their places. While it’s easy to notice their admitted Beach Boys fetish, this band doesn’t sound like so many now defunct Elephant 6 bands (contrary to Magnet Magazine’s prediction that E6 would take over the world). Dios eschew the lo-fi aesthetic that ultimately crippled E6 disciples as they grew more technically sophisticated and from listening to the Los Arboles EP, Dios sound like a young band that can only improve lyrically and realize their sound in due time.

Everything seemed out of joint after Dios’ set.

Tom Heinl, a solo performer who sounds like a country-western Jonathan Richman doing karaoke parodies of tears-in-my-beer/pie-in-the-sky songs, stole the show. His songs about his life in Eugene, Oregon, were hilarious, cracking the shopworn veneer of many hipsters’ self-image. Sometimes seated in a decrepit wooden rocking chair, sometimes holding onto his standing lamp for support, Heinl regaled the audience with tales of his youth, when not chronicling his ex-wives in song, occasionally reading from his fifth grade journal for interstitial humor. He was cheered back to the stage for a one-song encore, not only out of genuine love from the audience, but also because Clearlake hadn’t yet emerged from their dressing room.

And then things got weird and worse.

Heinl’s set was difficult to follow because he encouraged the audience to let down their guard and enjoy themselves. Clearlake, almost as a function of being from Britain, relies on a permissive indie crowd-how many British bands have been so happily received by different strata within the American rock press, only to peter out within a year from their stateside debut? Granted, their 2003 release, Cedars, sounds great on the stereo, but the crispness was lost in the sonic mushiness many rock fans have come to hate about the Khyber. An equipment failure and some frustrated banter with the audience didn’t help matters. The Khyber should publish a note to all U.K. acts-Caveat emptor: you will be rendered identical to British Sea Power by our soundman. Although they played energetically and didn’t alienate the audience, Clearlake didn’t win anyone over with their performance.

The night concluded with a letdown. The Decemberists played several numbers from their debut and Her Majesty, and Colin Meloy’s cloying and fey affectations were generally well-received, even if it was like watching The Trouble with Sweeney do a set of wharf-rock and Dickens/Kipling pop. But this voyage wouldn’t be complete until they embarked on the tedious and painful epic, The Tain. A five part song released recently, The Tain is a Weezer-gone-metal “interpretation” of an eighth century saga. While girls in their early twenties fawned over Meloy, and the Jethro Tull fans behind me oohed and aahed with each boring riff, I couldn’t believe I stood in the same place for almost four hours to watch hopelessly as this 30 minute piece of shit happened. The crowd, as if hypnotized, applauded and somehow swayed with the plodding tempo, encouraging the band to continue. Meloy returned to the stage for a one-off, and after bitching about nearly inaudible feedback, he did a half-hearted “cover” of “Radio On” before playing that song about the red right ankle, ending with the drummer in crocodile tears.

In the bar upstairs, a DJ night paid tribute to Jonathan Richman. Meloy remarked that Jonathan Richman attended a very early Decemberists show in California, only to tell them that they were too loud. Loud they were last Wednesday, and it seems they’ve gone tone deaf as well.

--JT Ramsay

Electrelane "On Parade"

Electrelane was 2001's answer to Broadcast, who were 1997's answer to Stereolab. I really don't why the hype around this band has grown, and based upon their new EP On Parade, it's not justified. This three-song single from this Scottish quartet find the band putting on the sheen for a 'hip' sound that's the collective sound of everything you've come to expect from these hip bands. "On Parade" is the big hit single, and I gotta admit it's got a nice sound. A danceable beat, some silly noises, and a detatched, artsy vocal that sounds like it was straight out of the UK indie scence circa 1994. "I'm On Fire" is a crunchy cover of the Springsteen cover, which doesn't sound as exciting as it does on paper. (The Planet The do a much better cover of this song, too.) The only real rocking number is "Teach the Sailor to Pray," the campy instrumental that's also the only song that doesn't have vocals or the farfisa--in other words, stripped of their gimmicks, they're okay. Let's hope the album is better, because this record is simply inconsequential.

--Joseph Kyle

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Artist Website:

Chubby "Is It Time?"

On one level, I was looking forward to this record. It seemed as if it was going to be a record that was going to kick my ass, rock my world and leave me wanting more, more and still more! The opening track, "Serious," was a really great start; the crunchy guitars, the loud vocals, the general in-your-faceness of it all seemed to provide enough evidence that Chubby was going to be some major players in the second wave of alt-rock onslaught. After all, Brockenborough's pedigree of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones also led me to think that these guys were gonna rock and rock hard.

It didn't quite work out that way.

Chubby is the new band from former Mighty Mighty Bosstone trombone player Dennis Brockenborough, but if you're expecting Chubby to give you ska-punk to skank at, you're going to be disappointed. Is It Time? doesn't recall or even hint at the Bosstones' glory days. Don't fear, for Chubby does sound like 1993--AKA the amalgam of hard rock/alternative-rock/grunge that seemed to be everywhere eleven years ago. Listening to Is It Time? reminds me of Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam and any other band that toured Lollapalooza back then.

What's most disappointing with Is It Time? is how bland it all is. Brockenborough's previous band was a very dynamic, loud and their studio recordings naturally had a live feel to them. I'm wondering if he's trying to make a record that captures a live feel. If such is the case, then that's what causes Chubby to stumble. Dennis sounds as if he's overreaching on his vocals; he's yelling over his bandmate's hard-rock riffs, making his vocals mumbly, monotonous and forgettable. When you're in the studio, you shouldn't have to fight to be heard over your band, and listening to "A Day & A Half" and "For What It's Worth," Brockenborough is struggling to be heard, which is a major annoyance.

What makes this misstep even more disappointing is that it seems as if several songs have a potential for greatness were it not for the straining vocals. Almost all of the songs on Is It Time? potentially sound good, if you like hard rock. "Seeing Stars" (and, heck, the rest of the record) could be awesome, if it wasn't for Dennis' struggling vocals. Considering that these songs already have a live feel to them, I have this suspicious feeling that these songs sound better live, because they already have a live feel to them. For the next record, though, I really hope they work on those vocals, because I can hear something much better than this.

--Joseph Kyle

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Artist Website:

The Microphones "Live in Japan, February 19, 21, and 23, 2003"

Ladies and gentlemen, indie-rock now has its own equivalent of Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged.

Before I support this assertion, let me backpedal a bit. Those of you who’ve read my novel-length review of the Microphones’ 2003 release Mount Eerie already know that Phil Elvrum is one of my musical heroes. Having said that, I do believe that in retrospect, Mount Eerie’s attempt at musical metaphysics was a near-miss. The album still boasts many stunning moments, and in a scene of proud underachievers, Elvrum should still be praised for shooting for the stars. However, Eerie’s ambition was both a blessing and a curse. It was Phil’s most singular and cohesive statement, but it came at the expense of the individual songs therein. Only one song holds up well on its own, which means that you have to listen to Eerie in its entirety for the maximum desired effect. Unfortunately, very few people turn to forty-minute epics about the inevitability of death for pure listening pleasure. Thus, I listen to each of the Microphones’ previous five albums more than I do Eerie, a shame considering the accolades I heaped upon it when it first came out. Rock critics are still allowed to change their minds, right?

Shortly after that album’s release, Elvrum took a number of overseas voyages, playing his songs to whoever would listen, and generally doing what most people would refer to as “finding one’s self.” Live in Japan is a document of the artistic fruits of this process, a collection of live recordings of all-new material from three separate shows, some of which are played with an honest-to-goodness backing band. (From what I heard, the album is also a way to circumvent opportunistic bootleggers, but I haven’t been able to back those rumors up with anything.) I am generally wary of live albums to begin with, and having sat through many patience-testing shows in which bands try out raw versions of new songs to unsuspecting audiences, Live in Japan initially struck me as a doubly dubious proposition. Then, I remembered when I saw Phil do a solo set during K’s Paper Opera Tour a couple of years back. He sang and played beautifully, and utilized backing tapes, costumes, and audience participation in very creative ways. If half of the charm and skill that went into the set trickled down to the Live in Japan recordings, I would declare the album yet another essential Microphones release.

As it is, though, Live in Japan veers wildly from brilliance to frustration, with Elvrum’s solo songs faring the best. Opener “Great Ghosts” addresses Phil’s recent travails candidly. It talks about the difficulty of starting one’s life anew when the past still haunts you, and how important it is to simply accept yourself for who you are. It’s one of the best songs that he’s ever written, and most of the other songs come quite close. “The Blow pt. 2” shockingly turns its back on the nature worship that previous Microphones songs dabbled with, as Elvrum demands nature to stop subduing him and give him back control over his own life. “We Squirm” admonishes us to embrace our fears, and “After N. Young” is an optimistic farewell to disappointment. With the exception of the four-minute “Great Ghosts,” all of these songs are brief, acoustic, tuneful, and urgently sung ditties that suggest Guided by Voices gone mellow and philosophical. The intimacy of the arrangements suits these confessional songs so well that most listeners won’t even miss the abrupt booms and crashes that characterize most Microphones recordings.

The full-band stuff, on the other hand, is an absolute chore to listen to. Phil’s cohorts, who include K founder Calvin Johnson on backing vocals, musically resemble a tired, barely competent bar band playing one final, listless jam before last call. When they employ ensemble singing on songs like “’I love you so much!’” and the endless 11-minute “Universe Conclusion,” it sounds like a chorus of off-key drunkards crying into their beer. I’m willing to wager that Phil assembled the backing band five minutes before the show with no previous rehearsal. The only person in all of music who should be able to get away with that is Chuck Berry. It would be one thing if these were well-written songs that just happened to be butchered in the live setting, but all of these songs are repetitive dirges that bear none of the melodic complexity or the lyrical profundity of the solo songs. Phil sounds like he’s just making up the words as he goes along (and he probably is). I don’t even think that these songs could qualify as “you-had-to-be-here” moments. Music this bad can’t POSSIBLY be fun to watch.

This is where the Lauryn Hill comparison comes in. Both MTV Unplugged and Live in Japan find their artists in periods of artistic and emotional transition. The lyrical content on both albums spell the transition out bluntly, and the musical arrangements on both albums are nothing if not naked and stripped-down. Both albums have enough flashes of brilliance to make them worth listening to once, but also have enough painfully bad moments to keep me from recommending paying full price for either one. Both albums also contain the faint whiff of labels cashing in on the popularity of these artists one last time before their relevance starts to fade. Here’s hoping that Elvrum doesn’t disappear completely inside his own head like Lauryn did, and instead uses the better material on Live in Japan as a template for even more great music.

---Sean Padilla

Label Website:

March 26, 2004

The Album Leaf "Seal Beach"

Jimmy LaValle's profile in the indie-rock world has increased greatly over the past few years. The Album Leaf is no longer considered the side project of indie-jazzers Tristeza, it's now a full-time band that's received tons of well-deserved critical acclaim. They've collaborated with such indie-rock innovators as Sigur Ros, Bright Eyes and Her Space Holiday. The Album Leaf recently signed to Sub Pop, and it's safe to say that the future is looking up for LaValle.

In the meantime, he has given us Seal Beach, released by the melancholy Spanish label Acuarela, and it's safe to say that these two parties deserve one another. Acuarala's specialized in releasing sad music for the past decade--most often in the EP format--and the Album Leaf's brand of dreamy atmospherics follow the label's aesthetic quite well. As usual, the five songs on Seal Beach are instrumental; they're very slow and dreamy, though they're often augmented with beats. On songs like "Seal Beach" and "One Minute," Seal Beach is very reminiscent of the work of Brian Eno and Harold Budd, though on more beat-laden songs as "Malmo" and "Brennivin," I'm reminded of artists like Bark Psychosis and Howie B.

One of my writers is also a new father, and I gave him my spare copy of Seal Beach. Its gentle waves of sound are perfect for relaxing children of any age. I hope he likes it. I'm sure it will help lull him and his father to sleep at 3 AM, and I think that's the true reward of such a beautiful record. Seal Beach is a wonderful little release that will satisfy your Album Leaf fixation and pacify your sleepless inner child.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website:
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The Close "It's A Secret to Everybody"

When I write reviews, unsolicited comparisons are things that I avoid. In fact, I think it serves as an injustice for a band to simply say, "Oh....they sound like (insert bigger band here)." Comparisons aren't a bad thing, mind you; it's a technique that's used to help readers understand what the band being reviewed sounds like. For instance, saying "these guys sound like Modest Mouse" might superficially describe a record, but it's lazy in the sense that it doesn't really say anything about the band. It's just an easy out for further explaination. However, if I were to say "the singer's drunken country moaning occasionally sounds like Issac Brock" is a good comparison, as it helps the reader
to understand a little bit better what it is I've just heard. As much as I hate to do it, I have to break this rule for The Close. I've been listening to their new album, It's A Secret to Everybody, and I just have to come out and say it.

The Close sound exactly like Death Cab For Cutie.

I've tried to find a way to pussyfoot around it, but I simply cannot avoid it. From the first time lead singer Brooks Meeks opens his mouth, I'm instantly thinking Ben Gibbard, I'm automatically thinking about Death Cab's albums, and I'm unfairly pushing them into that pigeonhole. One thing that makes this comparison difficult is the fact that they've been making music for just as long as Gibbard's band. They've been around for nearly a decade, so to say that they sound like Death Cab for Cutie is selling them short in the worst way, because I don't have their past records to compare this album to. But still, the similarities are so overt that you would be forgiven if you thought this was a brand new band with a heavy-duty Barsuk fixation. Think I'm joking? Just one listen to "Darkroom Dodger" or "Paper Trail" or any of the other seven songs on this record will prove my point.

Don't think that such comparisons mean that It's A Secret to Everyone is a bad record, though, because it's not. It's quite obvious that these guys know their stuff, and have the ability to write really great songs. They've got some really great melodies--I'm a sucker for "Code of Ethics" and "Bunny and Vermin"--and I really like the boy/girl vocal interplay between Meeks and Theresa Marie Fedor, too. The fact that the album's brief helps them, too, even though I found myself wanting to hear more, because I really got into their groove.

Death Cab-sounding bands might not be your thing, but if you like moody, slightly sad rock that's not too heavy on the atmosphere or the sadness, then you might find It's a Secret to Everybody the bees' knees. A fun record that doesn't really suffer for what some might see as their greatest flaw.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website:
Label Website:

Doug Powell "Day for Night"

Every decade has produced a rock and roll studio wizard, someone not only rewardingly produces music, but who has their own band or solo career--people who redefine music in the way they make their music. In the 60s we had Brian Wilson; in the 70s, we had Todd Rundgren, and though others will debate this, I'd say that in the 80s we had Andy Partridge and Thomas Dolby and in the 90s we had Dr. Dre and Steve Albini. Who, then, will make the double-zero decade worthwhile? Who will make excellent records on their own within the confines of their studios?

Ladies and gentlemen, I nominate Doug Powell.

Yeah, you've never heard of him. It's okay, I really hadn't heard of him, either, until hearing Day for Night his newest studio offering. He was in a minor supergroup called Swag, featuring members of Golden Smog, Sixpence None the Richer and Cheap Trick (even if their lawyers won't let you know that), but that's not the issue here. What is the issue, though, is the fact that, in 2004, you need Doug Powell's music in your life. You do. You really, really do.

Day For Night is one of those eccentric records that strikes your heart immediately. You're allowed in--everyone is welcome into Powell's world!--and it's a wonderful pop kingdom he's created. I'm half-expecting Powell to start singing "Pure Imagination" or some sort of song that sings the praises of his pure-pop paradise. You want sweet harmonies? You got it. You want intelligent lyrics? Not a problem. You want some silly bits of experiments in between some of the richest melodies you've heard this side of Something/Anything? Please don't feel bad, you're not asking for too much.

Though he's a real-life disciple of Rundgren, don't think for a minute that he's trying to be the second coming of the Runt. His music is much more XTC-like, and Powell's easily a dead ringer for Andy Partridge, it would be easy for you to think that 'Doug Powell' is another one of Partridge's sneaks on an unsuspecting audience. I could easily live with that, and it's hard not to think that after listening to "Now?" or "Stanislaw Smith," which sounds like a wonderful altrenate universe hit off of/outtake from their Oranges & Lemons. It's slick, it's radio friendly, it's complete with a wonderful cameo appearance from the devil himself, and I love every dang minute of it! (Go look at the thank you list in his liner notes. Count the associates to both XTC and Todd Rundgren. Does that tell you something? It should.)

Every single song on this album sounds like they were hits ten-fifteen years ago. In all my short years of writing about music, I have yet to find another record where I've thought I've heard every song on the radio before, but Day for Night has deceived me in that way. I'm happy for it; heck, I'm mighty grateful for the deception. And I'm going to use my lazy music reviewer card right now and say, "I can't properly describe the greatness of this record, go and buy it and you'll hear what I mean!" I 'm sure you'll love the hard rock of "Stanislaw Smith." I love the pop goodness of "Big Blue Sky." I think you'll dig the weirdness of "Circus Minimus." I know you'll love the mellow love sentiment that of "Shine," even if it borrows a bit too much from "My Favorite Things."

When I make my time machine, one of the first things I'm a-gonna do is go back to 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1988 and make sure every single song on Day for Night make it onto the radio.After all, in the studio Doug Powell's a wizard, a true star, and he deserves that kind of respect. He sure as hell isn't gonna get it in 2004, because this kind of music isn't respected any more. Once I get my time machine built, I don't think that's gonna be that hard of a feat. Hands down, Day For Night is one of the best records this year.

--Joseph Kyle

Label Website:
Artist Website:

Alien Skull "Goin' 2 Hawaii"

What's in a name? In the case of Alien Skull, not a lot. You shouldn't even think about their name, because that might lead you to believe that Goin' 2 Hawaii would be a sloppy punk record, an even sloppier thrash metal record, a hideous sci-fi loving heavy metal band or some really, really bad techno. Much to my surprise, this mysterious little record--there's no information on who plays on here, except that it's one man with his trusty 4-track and laptop--is anything but sloppy or hideous. Instead, what you'll get on this very brief record is some downcast, sad folk songs a la Elliott Smith, but tempered with an atmosphere only a Grandaddy could love and a weirdness that is all its own. On songs likte "Go Out Into the World" and "So I Could Be Happy," Mr. Alien Skull's voice sweetly sings like a melancholy angel, and then he tempers them with really impresive lo-fi instrumental experiments, such as the heavenly "Shaka Luau" and very pretty "Kava Kava." The best of the bunch is the closing "Goin' To Hawaii/I Want To Stay," because it just sounds so...hopeful. "Why do I feel so high? Because I'm going to Hawaii, and when I get to Hawaii, I'll see you" he sings in a pleading, echo-laden acapella that melds into the beautiful "I Want to Stay," both of which could easily make Jason Lytle AND Will Oldham impressed at their collective inspirational offspring.

I hope you go to his website, and I hope you do everything you can do to get this excellent record in your hands, because you'll be impressed. This is a great record, period.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist contact:

March 25, 2004

Harry & The Potters "Harry & The Potters"

I think Harry Potter rocks. I'm 23 years old, and I've read all the books and seen the movies. I guess that really isn't incredible, because these books, which got children to start reading again (an incredible feat for a series of books whose volumes last for over 500 pages), have been a crossover success. Lots of adults read them, too, including many indie kids. So, that's why I thought it would be appropriate to review the self-titled debut album from Harry and the Potters.

Yes, there really is a band called Harry and the Potters, and yes, they really play nothing but songs about Harry Potter. I always get the same reactions of disbelief whenever I tell people about this band, and I want to assure you all that this novelty record isn't a joke. Novelty record? Does that mean that it's worthless and not to be taken seriously at all? No, and it's not really a comedy record or just a dumbed-down children's album, either. I'm just calling it a novelty record because never in a million years would you have thought that there would be a band that dresses up like Harry Potter, writes and performs songs from Harry Potter's point of view, and goes out to play libraries. Yes, they do play libraries.

Enough disclaiming! I'm sure that your curiosity is piqued and you want details.

Well, basically, it's probably what the soundtrack an indie pop musical based on the first four Harry Potter books would sound like. Brothers Paul DeGeorge, head of the Eskimo Laboratories label (home to Alexander McGregor, Tristan da Cunha, etc.), and Joe DeGeorge, from Ed and the Refridgerators and other bands, take you through the Harry saga from the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone when he discovers that he's a wizard, to the end of Goblet of Fire when Voldemort returns from obscurity.

It totally works, too! Paul and Joe package their songs in a simple, basic guitar-synth-and-drums indie pop style, and deliver their lyrics in the same sort of semi-deadpan way that They Might Be Giants made famous. They put enough energy and spirit into their songs to make them fun, but not so much that they become melodramatic cheesefests. The most cheesy parts of the album are a couple of faux-rap parts in the final track, "These Days Are Dark", but since those parts are so short and only compose a small portion of the song (and I think they're kind of fun), those infractions are too slight to really spoil everything.

Want some sample lyrics? Okay. Check out this excerpt from one of my favorite tracks, "Save Ginny Weasley". "Are you scared to walk through the hallways? Are you worried that the spiders run away? Are you petrified of being petrified? Are we going to have to save the school again? We've got to save Giny Weasley from the basilisk. We've got to save the school from that unseen horror. We've got to save Ginny Weasley from the basilisk. We've got to save the school again." Simple, but not too simple that an adult couldn't enjoy them. Of course, you have to hear them being sung to fully enjoy them. Remember when I namedropped TMBG earlier? I guess you could put this album on the shelf next to TMBG's No! It's something that the kids can enjoy (no profanity, by the way), but it'll appeal to adults, too. Just like the Harry Potter books!

So, if you love the books, or you're looking for a present for an indie popster/Harry Potter fan, you need to go to the Harry and the Potters website and get the CD. However, if you haven't read all of the first four Harry Potter books, you should wait before getting it. The songs contain a lot of spoilers, and you just might not enjoy them as much if you haven't read the passages that they're based on. And if you don't like the books at all...well, I think it's obvious that you've lost touch with your inner child, and you'll hate this album

--Eric Wolf

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Tortoise "It's All Around You"

Tortoise. You either love 'em or hate 'em. They set the bar for the late nineties' post-jazz indie-rock, and they're the band that launched a thousand imitators--as well as one-hundred side projects. They practically defined the Chicago scene back in the day, and they've been the source of many a joke, too. Their sound has always been cool, relaxing, innovative and, yes, somewhat inoffensive jazz-rock. Chill-out music that's challenging enough for the jazz-musos to discuss, yet it's pleasant enough that you could play it in any Starbucks without having to worry about losing a customer due to the weird music.

It's All Around You, their newest record, gives you exactly what you'd expect from a Tortoise record. Breezy melodies? Yup. Awesome percussion? You got it. Great synth lines? Check. Nothing too different from their previous records? Yeah, no worries. Their adherenece to their sound is frustrating if you want it to be, but I personally believe that if you've got a great sound that works, then there's really no need to mess up the formula too much. See, that's the thing with Tortoise. They don't have to try. They have no equals. They don't have anything to prove, and that's perhaps their greatest strength: they make music on their terms and let the world accept or reject it as they may. This quietly uncompromising stance is not only impressive, it's admirable.

The press kit that came with It's All Around You states that this is the first time in Tortoise's history that they've had the same lineup for two consecutive albums. This is important, because it helps you understand the truth about why It's All About You is a great record. While it's true that it doesn't sound at all different from Standards, it does sound a whole lot stronger than that album. It's obvious that the five guys have bonded together musically, and songs sound stronger, tighter, more developed than before--something that only comes from time, practice, and a consistent lineup.

Because they've been together for several years and have solidified what it is they want to do with their music, they now have the added luxury of experimentation. There's nothing worse than a band getting new members every album and then changing their style dramatically because of their new member's ideas. Thus, the changes that they make are slight, if you even notice them at all. Tortoise sounds comfortable with their lineup, and what would have been noticable by a new member's addition-- a hip-hop beat here (such as "It's All Around You"), vocal experiments there ("The Lithium Stiffs")--is a sign of growth as opposed to suddenly new ideas.

Of course, that could be Tortoise's point; maybe they're trying to change their style of music by making you think that they've not changed one bit. Not only do I buy that, I'm pretty sure that's what they were going for with It's All Around You.The more I think about it, the more I start to believe that's Tortoise's reason for living: changing music so slowly, so gradually, that you'll never even notice that it's changed. Brings new meaning to their name, doesn't it? Yes, if you've heard one Tortoise album, you've heard 'em all--or have you? If you like Tortoise, then you'll find plenty here to love; if you don't like Tortoise, It's All Around You probably isn't gonna change your opinion. Still, a flawlessly lovely record is a flawlessly lovely record.

--Joseph Kyle

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John Wayne Shot Me! "Let Sleeping Monsters Sleep"

John Wayne Shot Me is a wonderfully fun little band from the Netherlands, and they mix pop with keyboards and a whole lot of that thing my grandpa used to call F.U.N. Yes, they've got a sense of humor, but they don't play the funny card because they've got no talent--they play it because they're REALLY GOOD. Anyway, Let Sleeping Monsters Sleep is the first single from their upcoming full-length album. The single "Let Sleeping Monsters Sleep" is a fresh blast of new-wave pop, not unlike the Rentals, and it's really good stuff! To make things fun, they recorded six covers, and these songs make the EP worth seeking out. These songs are actually quite diverse, from Jonathan Richman's "I'm A Little Dinosaur" and ELO's "Calling America" to Napalm Death's "Common Enemy" to the Carter Family's "There'll Be Joy Joy Joy" and Destiny Child's "Survivor." Best of the lot would be the very brief "Funeral Home" by Daniel Johnston. It's one of the better Daniel Johnston covers out there, too--even though it's barely a minute long! All in all Let Sleeping Monsters Sleep is a great little record. Look forward to that full length!

--Joseph Kyle

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March 24, 2004

Lil Pocket Kife "Pants Control"

“I’m the princess of this party, I command you to dance! No lazy motherfuckers will stand a chance!”

So begins one of my favorite singles of the year, “Disco Dancer”, and Pants Control, the 5-song debut EP from female electroclash rapper, Lil Pocket Knife.

Oh, did you groan when I said “electroclash rapper”? No, it’s really not at all as bad as that sounds, even if the trendiness of the “electroclash” label shoots your indie snob-o-meter into the red.

Anyway, Lil Pocket Knife is basically a geekier version of Peaches. Backed with drums, keytar and Atari-style blips and beeps, she raps about making people dance, Dungeons and Dragons, booty, and “pimping bros” so she can stay at home and play Atari.

“Disco Dancer” is by far the best track of the five. A perfect high-energy shout-along track in which Lil Pocket Knife raps alternately about getting people to dance and how she likes “D & D”. The most priceless part is where she says she’s “representing motherfucking halfling race”. You never thought you’d want to shout along to someone yelling, “You’ve got your four-sided die, you’ve got your six-sided die, you’ve got your eight-sided die, you’ve got your twelve-sided die, you’ve got your twenty-sided die, and you like to throw them down!”, but that’s just how much “Disco Dancer” will psych you up.

The EP just doesn’t quite regain the same energy and momentum later on, however. That isn’t to say that the rest of the tracks are a waste of time. They’re actually very good in their own right. “East Coast/West Coast” has the great “I got the bros on the corner making money for me, so I can stay at home and play my Atari” line. “Red Hott” is very catchy and upbeat exhortation to dance, but it’s just not as rousing as “Disco Dancer”. “5’2”” is a boasting number that has a vocoder voice saying things like “Yeah, Lil Pocket Knife singing the song, rocking your motherfucking ass”, which is quite amusing, but I think it’s my least favorite track on the EP. However, it ends on a good note with “A.D.D.”, the EP’s second geekiest track. It’s the slowest track, but it’s quite catchy and has some nice shout-along refrains, like “Eat sugar, eat sugar, stay up all night! Start this revolution, fight fight fight!”

Still, I find myself skipping back to “Disco Dancer” most often when I listen to Pants Control. It’s just an amazing single, and I’d even venture to say that it alone is worth the price of the EP.

And no, I don’t know if Lil Pocket Knife is actually geeky at all and if she’s ever played an RPG. Whether or not she has real geek cred is sort of beside the point and doesn’t really affect my enjoyment of her music, but I just wonder about that. All I can tell is that Lil Pocket Knife is not making a parody out of the geek lifestyle. I just wonder if there really are any RPG geeks who would go out and rap and dance onstage.

Whatever...just check this out for a fun, geeky time.

-Eric Wolf

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March 22, 2004

Natural Dreamers "Natural Dreamers"

Those of you who read my review of Stereolab’s latest album Margerine Eclipse know that I often have debates with Joseph about the records we write about, and this self-titled debut from the umpteenth Deerhoof-related side project Natural Dreamers is no exception. Joseph thinks that this album sounds like a bunch of rehearsal tapes spliced and edited together. “Now I know where all the angular bits that weren’t on Milk Man went,” he said. His sentiments aren’t entirely off base. After all, consider this band’s pedigree. Natural Dreamers consists of both Deerhoof guitarists (Chris Cohen and John Dieterich) with drummer Jay Pellici, who recorded Deerhoof’s last couple of albums. Most of the songs on this album could have replaced any instrumental on Deerhoof’s last three albums without producing any sort of aesthetic change. I will also admit that many of the “songs” sound like bits and pieces of four or five different jams stitched together. The track listing states that the album has 14 songs, but whoever did the track indexing could have easily divided them into 40. However, I view eccentricities like these in a more positive light than Joseph does.

In my opinion, Natural Dreamers is one of the finest examples of post-Beefheart guitar deconstruction I’ve ever heard, surpassing the Curtains and ESPECIALLY Nervous Cop in musicianship, compositional strength, and replay value. In Deerhoof’s music, the Captain Beefheart influence is mixed with traces of many other artists (Yoko Ono, the Who, Brian Eno, Blonde Redhead, et cetera). The Curtains manage to temper their Beefheart influence with liberal synthesizer abuse. On Natural Dreamers, however, the Beefheart influence is almost completely undiluted. If you took the Magic Band’s rehearsal tapes from the awesome Grow Fins box set and punched the bass out of the mix, the results wouldn’t sound that different from a Natural Dreamers song. Many of Beefheart’s most prominent compositional traits are here in spades. The traditional responsibilities of rock instrumentation are often inverted: the guitars spell out the rhythms while the drums play around them. Electric guitars play chords that are normally associated with piano. Riffs from one section of a song will reappear later on in wholly different contexts. Long stretches of songs go by in which each instrument plays in a different key and meter from each other, only to cross paths again at the most unexpected moments. Some moments sound as if the guitarists have forgotten what to play next, and others sound as if the whole band is imitating a vinyl run-out groove. It almost makes me want to do a Don Van Vliet impersonation right along to the music, barking out blues-like non sequiturs like “I’m-a gonna paint my tuna with a holographic fork!” It’s probably a good thing that the Natural Dreamers haven’t drafted me as a vocalist, though.

“Good Nights Days” seems to be in love with the sound of two guitars playing the same notes slightly out of sync with each other. Listening to it on headphones will mess your mind up. “The Singer” begins with squealing string bends and culminates in a frenzy of splashy drum fills and cascading harp-like arpeggios. “Diamond Mines” is unique in that it stays at a consistent tempo most of the time…you can ALMOST dance to it! On this song and many others, the Natural Dreamers bash a chord out and let it linger, tricking the listener into thinking that the song’s going to end…until they abruptly launch into another incongruent idea. This band’s love of false endings occasionally backfires, though, turning songs like “Fourth Man” into endurance tests. Intentionally clumsy strumming makes the guitars on “Alphabet” sound as if they’re being played with pliers (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing). “The Golden Pond” is a synth-driven ambient dirge that sounds like the Curtains on downers. “Professional Dreamer” is the most melodic song on the record, and even THAT one gets interrupted by a sh*t-storm of screeching feedback. Many of the songs are spiced up by mandolin, keyboard, and banjo overdubs, as well as some very creative miking techniques. One minute a guitar sounds like it’s half a room away and the next it feels like the tips of the strings are poking you in your eardrums!

In short, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and Joseph did the right thing by letting ME review this record. For everyone seeking a sequel to Trout Mask Replica, IT ISN’T GONNA HAPPEN, but this record may be as close as you’ll get.

---Sean Padilla

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Modest Mouse "The Moon & Antartica" (Expanded Edition)

On many levels, this is a pointless release. Considering that Modest Mouse's new album, Good News For People Who Like Bad News is released a month after this reissue--this 'remastered' and 'repackaged' and 'expanded' reissue--makes this record seem less than necessary. Besides, the ones who would be eagerly awaiting the new album would already have the original version of this release, which came out three years ago and was still in print.
One wonders about the logic that went into the release.

But let's not let the obviously puzzling semantics behind this reissue cloud our judgment, shall we? When it came out in 2000, The Moon & Antartica puzzled me. On one level; it was boring. On another level, it contained some of Modest Mouse's best songs. Having never been much of a Modest Mouse fan anyway, I didn't buy into the Issac Brock hype, and while I'm a little more ambivalent to him now, I'm still not convinced that he's the greatest indie rocker since Rimbaud. I certainly am not as obsessive about him as others are, and personally, I find their rags-to-riches story to be quite bizarre. I didn't see what Epic saw in them, to be honest. On the surface, the artwork and the additional tracks appear to be the only things new to this repackaged version of The Moon & Antartica. The album was 'remastered and expanded' and I didn't really expect anything to be that different.

Listening to this album four years later, it's quite obvious something's changed. The remastering job has cleared up the hazy mix of the original, and thus the album is a lot more aggressive than it was before. For instance "Third Planet"--one of my favorite Modest Mouse songs--sounds a whole helluva lot better now than it did then; Brock's singing is clear as a bell, and the instrumental strikes ring harder and louder than it did before. Because of this sonic clean-up, I'm more willing to sit down and listen to The Moon & Antartica all the way through without getting bored. Thus, I can say that I've really enjoyed this album again, and I've taken a liking to songs like "The Stars are Projectors," "Dark Center of the Universe" and "The Cold Part"--all songs that I skipped over to get to songs I liked before, namely "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," "I Came As a Rat" and "Paper-Thin Walls," the failed, should-have-been-the-single single which I actually heard a time or two on "you choose the playlist" radio station call-in programs. (That's actually test market research under a different name, but that's another story).

While I'm still not convinced of the magical greatness of Modest Mouse, I am definitely listening a little bit harder now. Apparently, some people are proclaiming Good News For People Who Like Bad News to be their masterpiece, and the song samples I've heard may prove the hype to be totally justified. Still, this isn't a bad record; it's just really, really long and occasionally plodding; that it received a reissue treatment like this is puzzling; the four extra songs aren't really that essential and the cover art's not that important of an issue, either. If you've not heard Modest Mouse, I'd suggest holding off for the new album, and then going back for The Moon & Antartica.

--Joseph Kyle

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Live Report: Sean P's South By Southwest 2004 Report: Three Days of Poverty & Tinnitus

At Guided by Voices’ most recent Austin show, front man Robert Pollard interrupted “Secret Star” with the following diatribe:

“F**k South by Southwest. The committee gets a whole bunch of money to break bands, but do the bands see any of it? No. You pay them money to break your band, but you don’t get any of it back and you don’t even get your big break. SXSW won’t let us play at their showcases, but f**k ‘em. We don’t need them anyway. We’ve already broken.”

Judging from the whoops and hollers that came from the audience in support of this rant, Pollard’s not alone in his hatred. Every year around SXSW time, an ever-growing group of people voice their complaints about how expensive, elitist, and pointless the festival is. Although these complaints aren’t without merit, I still can’t help but get excited once March rolls around. Sure, the wristbands are expensive, but if you love live music as much as I do, $105 (this year’s price) was a bargain for seeing at least 30 different acts, many of whom wouldn’t stop through Austin that frequently if it weren’t for SXSW. Almost every one of these acts plays at least one free day show during the festival, so you can catch them at SXSW even IF you can’t afford a wristband. Last but not least, if you plan ahead and get to the venues early enough, you can get into the venues even before the industry snobs do! Although SXSW 2004 overall wasn’t as cool as last year’s (that’s not saying much, though --- after all, THE SWIRLIES played last year), it still was the perfect way to spend my spring break. I had to pinch pennies to get into most of the shows and still have money left for dinner, but God truly is a provider!


On Wednesday night, I hit up Maggie Mae’s for the Devil in the Woods showcase. The first band on the bill was a Californian quintet named Loquat. They played competent yet indistinct indie-pop songs with the occasional synthesizer flourish. Every once in a while the front woman and the lead guitarist would engage in some slightly jazzy or dissonant interplay to liven the songs up, but otherwise there wasn’t much that distinguished Loquat from the thousands of other bands playing competent yet indistinct indie-pop songs with the occasional synthesizer flourish. I will say, though, that the front woman has a nice voice, like Chrissie Hynde with more range or a less nasal Gwen Stefani. Her voice was tremulous, but she had control over it and sung some pretty complicated melodies with it. Plus, she delivered amusing stage banter about the bassist’s obsession with Japan (the country, not the band).

I had been looking forward to seeing the next band, Minmae, play live ever since I was a high school student, saving up my lunch money to buy records from the Black Bean and Placenta Tape Club. Over what’s coming pretty close to a decade, Minmae auteur Sean Brooks has veered from no-fi noise experiments to introspective indie-pop. It’s almost as if Flying Saucer Attack and Death Cab for Cutie had a bipolar love child together. Both sides of Sean’s musical personality were on display when his current three-piece incarnation of Minmae took the stage. They began with three songs from their recent mini-album True Love, and filled the rest of their set with newer songs. Two of the new songs sounded jazzy and haphazard, like mellow Pavement. The other two were rollicking numbers that drenched three-chord riffs in feedback, noise, and delay. The last song even sported some Hendrix-style histrionics, with Brooks humping his amplifier until it coaxed out the orgasmic screeches he wanted. Sean’s singing, normally shaky on record, was surprisingly steady and sonorous, especially considering that he complained about not being able to hear himself through the monitors. The only complaint I have about the set is that Minmae's drummer thinks he's Keith Moon and he isn't. The guy played his fills WAY too fast, and it's a miracle that Sean and his bassist managed to stay in sync with him during the faster songs. The best part of the set was the end, when DB (singer/guitarist from the And/Ors, and former Minmae drummer) ran on stage to give Sean a big bear hug. Apparently, the two hadn’t seen each other for years, and the grins that such an unexpected reunion put on their faces were very heartwarming sights to behold.

Then, Californian trio Frank Jordan came on stage and OWNED me. I remember seeing members of the band at a SXSW three years ago, passing copies of their CD Enemies to anyone who didn’t have their hands full. Their eagerness made them obtrusive and annoying, so people took the CDs just to make them shut up, with no intention of actually listening to them. Lots of copies of Enemies ended up in the used bins of local record stores within the next couple of weeks (mine included). After seeing them play live at this showcase, I now understand why they were so eager to promote their music, and I spent the whole set kicking myself for not giving them a chance the first time around. Picture what Shudder to Think would sound like if Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood were their guitarist and Damon Che of Don Caballero were their drummer. The singer/guitarist had an unbelievable range, and his guitar parts were so busy that I couldn’t fathom how he managed to maintain his coordination and pitch. The drummer played so forcefully and skillfully that he accidentally knocked his cymbal down during one song and NO ONE COULD TELL THE DIFFERENCE. They’ve basically cornered the market on “prog-pop,” with tricky changes coalescing into indelible hooks at least once every song. If mainstream rock radio were half as adventurous as it was ten years ago, Frank Jordan would be on MTV right now. If Shudder to Think’s “X-French Tee Shirt” could garner heavy rotation on the channel in the mid-90s, why can’t ANY Frank Jordan song do that now? Basically, this band was the best thing I’ve seen at this year’s SXSW…and that’s COUNTING Mission of Burma! I left the DIW showcase after Frank Jordan played because I didn’t think the bands that came on after them would be able to equal (let alone outdo) them, and I wanted to see the Dirty Projectors play at the Hideout.

The Dirty Projectors is just Dave Longstreth, a young (for some reason, I think he’s around my age) guy from Connecticut who might be the 21st century update of the Microphones’ Phil Elvrum. Since Phil seems to be undergoing some kind of artistic meltdown, it’s nice to have someone else who can fill the void. Dave has musical attention deficit disorder, but he also has the talent and musicianship to justify it. His gloriously unhinged voice sounds like a prepubescent David Byrne in the middle of a seizure. The melodies he writes seem like they’d be too complicated for him to sing, but he handles the yodels, octave leaps, and obtuse chord changes with aplomb. His set at the Hideout consisted of himself, an acoustic guitar, a laptop, and the projection screen behind him. He alternated between solo acoustic renditions of songs from The Glad Fact, his most well-known album, and new laptop-based material that he composed for his upcoming fourth album. Supposedly, it’s a concept album imaging Don Henley as the missing third Longstreth brother (Dave’s brother James did the animations projected behind him), and tracing his life shortly before he moved to California and joined the Eagles. I highly doubt that Dave was being serious when he said that, though. The laptop-based compositions were his weirdest yet. It was as if he wrote solid pop songs, removed everything but his voice from the original mixes, cut up and rearranged all the instruments (mainly a string quartet, a women’s choir, and an assortment of bells), and put some booming hip-hop style beats underneath. You couldn’t tell what the chord progressions of the songs were until Dave started singing, and when Dave sang, he lurched and leaped around the stage like a man getting severely beaten up. However, his solo acoustic songs were rendered while sitting down and were as calm as his computer songs were spastic. Either way, the music was awesome.

I stayed at the Hideout to watch another act, the local free jazz duo of Walter Daniels (harmonica/clarinet) and Wade Early (drums). You guys all know that I have a very broad taste in music, but their set was easily the most trying thing I had to sit through during this year’s SXSW. The duo operated in two modes. There were the free improvisation pieces, which sounded like a cat being thrown down the stairs into a pile of kitchen cutlery. Then, there were the renditions of various blues, gospel, and punk songs, which were marginally better. However, after a while the improvised pieces started to sound the same, and shortly thereafter the actual “songs” got monotonous as well. Plus, the stage banter that Walter gave was absolutely intolerable. He had a stereotypical “middle-aged jazzbo hipster” voice. He said “yeah” a lot really breathily and slowly, and he referred to the improvised pieces as “free blow.” I just think that he secretly wanted to pretend to be Miles Davis and speak in jive. Whenever he said, “Yeah, we’re gonna do some free blow for you now,” I couldn’t help but think of cocaine. Wade’s wife danced along to the music, and she managed to beat Dave in the “have-a-seizure-to-the-rhythm” sweepstakes. Unfortunately, she was the only one who seemed to enjoy the performance. The rest of the duo’s friends looked like they were just there to provide moral support. It just all seemed really insular, pretentious, and boring.


My show-going activities began early when I drove to the Lucky Lounge at 3 p.m. for the free Kill Rock Stars/Fanatic promotion showcase. I missed the opening band, the Monolith, but made it just in time to see John Wilkes Booze. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing, though, because the only creative thing about this Indiana sextet is their name. They basically sound like the Make-Up in the middle of a nervous breakdown. The instrumental lineup consisted of drums, bass, two guitars, and Farfisa, with one of the guitarists occasionally switching from his main instrument to the saxophone. The music was an unsuccessful attempt at pentatonic garage-funk with a ceaselessly spastic vocalist doing his best prepubescent Iggy Pop imitation. I say vocalist because not a single word of his was actually SUNG, but instead shouted as if someone was pinching his balls with pliers. He jumped around the stage, knocking microphone stands down and getting all of the cords tangled up. He jumped off of the stage and onto the tables in the standing area, kicking audience members’ drinks off and leaving a mess of broken glass all over the floor. He then climbed under the tables and rolled around in the broken glass, surprisingly drawing no blood. However, I can’t help but think that all of these shenanigans were employed as distractions from otherwise boring music.

Unlike John Wilkes Booze, the next band had a terrible name and great music. Who in the world thought that HEAD OF FEMUR would be a good name for a rock band? Anyway, this Chicago sextet has received a little bit of hype from what sounds like an impressive pedigree to anyone but me, featuring members of Bright Eyes, Lullaby for the Working Class, and Mayday (all of whom I don’t really care for). Fortunately, Head of Femur have better vocal chops than Bright Eyes (although that really isn’t saying much) and stronger songwriting skills then Lullaby or Mayday. The main singer’s voice sounded like the Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz with a higher range. Come to think of it, I think Head of Femur could be best described as “early Counting Crows played at Boyracer speed.” The velocity and energy with which the band played their complex pop songs was amazing. They hopped around the stage like they had taken one too many yellow-jackets, but it didn’t come at the expense of sonic details like vocal harmonies and instrumental fills. One member was a particular jack of all trades, switching from drums to piano to violin with equal skill on all three. Not every member of the band is a convincing singer/songwriter; the second drummer doesn’t have the greatest voice, and the songs he sang sounded a bit like second-rate Elton John. Nonetheless, even most second-rate Elton John songs have a hook, and Head of Femur NEVER came up short in that department. I hope this band becomes more than a mere footnote in the Omaha scene.

KRS troubadour Jeff Hanson came on next with nothing but his acoustic guitar and his voice…and WHAT A VOICE IT WAS! If I had heard his music before seeing him play live, I would have sworn that it was a girl’s voice, or a tape of a guy’s voice sped-up to Alvin and the Chipmunks speed. It’s an extremely high and beautiful voice, made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s his real voice. He doesn’t sing in a falsetto or struggle to get the notes out; he is an honest-to-goodness soprano who can belt out the high notes in full voice, and his voice was just as high when he talked in between songs. He reminded me of Elliott Smith, both in his melancholy lyrics and his finger-picked guitar playing (and as overused as this comparison might be for other critics, I don’t use it often, and this time it really DOES make sense). His songs aren’t as sophisticated as Smith’s yet, but a couple of albums from now they will be.

The fourth act was local trio Volcano, I’m Still Excited! As many times as I saw their name appear on Austin bills over the last year, I never took the initiative to check them out because I erroneously lumped them in all of the other interchangeable local indie-rock bands. When I heard that they got signed to Polyvinyl, I took notice and thought to myself, “Wow, they might actually be good!” It makes me feel like a snobby hipster to admit it, but none of you can tell me that brand names don’t get your attention. Well, their self-titled debut album proved me right, and their live set only confirmed it. They’re a guitar-Casio-drums trio that sounds like the Cars updated for the “emo” set. Simple drumming, choppy guitar, and intentionally cheesy synthesizer lines back unceasingly lovelorn lyrics, often sung in surprisingly intricate three-part harmonies. The drummer throws spastic free-jazz tantrums, often plays standing up, and occasionally holds up hand-drawn yellow cardboard signs with words like “trust,” “hope,” and “faith” written on them. Come to think of it, the whole band had an element of showmanship that many similar-sounding bands don’t even bother to maintain. Their songs are great, but the showmanship might have been what truly caught Polyvinyl’s attention. The funniest part of the set was the choreographed routine at the beginning of “Trunk of My Car,” in which all three members played their instruments in slow motion.

I had been looking forward to seeing The Decemberists for a while, and judging from how quickly the Lucky Lounge filled up while they set up their equipment, I wasn’t alone in this anticipation. On record, the Decemberists are extremely precious and frilly. Singer/guitarist Colin Meloy sings in a pinched, nasal voice that resembles an effeminate Jeff Mangum, and writes historically influenced narratives about legionnaires, gymnasts, and mothers who turn to prostitution to make ends meet. The Decemberists’ (mostly acoustic) music sounds as if a bunch of Civil War-era troubadours took a time machine to the 1970s to record their songs. I wondered how well this sound would translate live. The band eased my fears the minute that they launched into the second song of their set: “The Soldiering Life,” a highlight of their sophomore release Her Majesty. The band managed to recreate their studio sound perfectly, and the added volume gave the band the extra oomph it needed in order to captivate in a live setting. The set was divided fairly equally between the band’s two proper albums. They did a long vamp in the middle of set closer “The Chimbley Sweep,” during which Colin Meloy played a bunch of intentionally bad classic-rock-style guitar solos that clashed with the otherwise jaunty music. Shenanigans like this betrayed the band’s sense of humor, which is almost all but absent on their recordings.

After catching a quick bite to eat at the seafood restaurant the Boiling Pot, I walked with some of my friends to La Zona Rosa for the Matador showcase. We got there a bit late, which meant that I missed the opening band, Seachange. I was looking forward to seeing them, so I was disappointed about that. I made my way to the front to catch the next band, Preston School of Industry. For those of you who don’t know, PSOI is the new band of Spiral Stairs, who is an ex-guitarist of one of my favorite bands ever, Pavement. Yes, Spiral’s indie pedigree is OFF THE CHAIN, but it doesn’t matter much because his sophomore album Monsoon kinda sucks. There are three songs on it that I like, but the rest of the album consists of repetitive, badly sung alt/country dirges. To PSOI’s credit, many of the songs on Monsoon sound better live, but that only partially compensates for the fact that they’re not as good as the songs on PSOI’s debut All This Sounds Gas, let alone Spiral’s Pavement songs. Also, no matter how great his backing band is, he still can’t play a decent guitar solo to save his life. His pedal steel player constantly upstaged him in the axe-slinging department. Last but not least, he responded to audience requests with nothing more than a curt “no” before launching into each song. I’d have thought that he’d be flattered that people were requesting All This Sounds Gas songs instead of his Pavement material, but NOOO…Spiral wanted to cop a Lou Reed attitude. However, the guest trumpeter Spiral brought on stage for two of the songs was a VERY nice touch, and the better songs on Monsoon give me a reason not to completely give up on him yet.

At first, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Seattle quintet Pretty Girls Make Graves, not because I didn’t like their music (I do), but because I usually reserve my SXSW experiences for previously unfamiliar bands. The last time I saw them live was at Emo’s, where they suffered from a sound mix that buried the vocals and rhythm guitar. Since that show, they’ve replaced their rhythm guitarist, and the improved sound mix at La Zona Rosa enabled new guitarist Seth to show off his skills and impress the audience. Before, the instrumental spotlight belonged to guitarist/keyboardist Jay, who crammed each song with so many incredible not-quite-solos that the rhythm guitar had no CHOICE but to take a back seat. Now, though, PGMG have two virtuoso guitarists who play off of each other like Television on uppers. All four instrumentalists in the band are busy players, so singer Andrea wisely stays out of the music’s way and sings comparatively uncomplicated melodies. She doesn’t get many opportunities to show off her range in these songs, but her stage presence compensates for it. The whole band’s got their rock moves down pat. Andrea reaches for the sky, Seth and Jay strut around the stage wielding their low-slung guitars like weapons, and the drummer never ignores an opportunity to wave his sticks in the air. Highlights of their set included “The Grandmother Wolf,” “All Medicated Geniuses,” and a danceable untitled new song that betrayed a very strong Gang of Four influence.

The next set I witnessed was nothing short of a historical event for anyone who gives a fifth of a crap about indie-rock (and chances are that if you’re reading this, THIS MEANS YOU). The headliner of the Matador showcase was none other than the recently reformed Boston punk quartet Mission of Burma. They released around two albums’ worth of material in the early 1980s, only to break up just as they were gaining momentum due to singer/guitarist Roger Miller’s growing tinnitus. Since then, it seems that every person who bought a Mission of Burma record started a band, and the band’s songs have been covered by artists as famous as R.E.M. and Moby. Thus, when MOB decided to reunite a couple of years ago for a series of sporadic shows, they garnered more attention than they ever did from their first go-round. Judging from the way the stage was set up, the band took great pains to preserve what is left of Miller’s hearing. Drummer Peter Prescott had plastic walls surrounding his kit. Miller wore a huge headset and played with his amplifier in front of him instead of behind him. I pitied the kid who had to stand right in front of his Marshall amp during their set. Bassist Clint Conley had a wide grin across his face the whole time. He’s probably the band member with the least to prove, especially after making a name for himself two years ago with his own great band Consonant. Tape manipulator Martin Swope was replaced by super-producer Bob Weston (who is second only to Steve Albini as King of the Whopping Drum Sounds), and his real-time manipulations of the signals that came through the soundboard formed harsh, grinding loops that kept our ears buzzing in between songs.

It’s amazing that after a 19-year hiatus, Mission of Burma can get back together and still sound EXACTLY like they did in the 1980s. Miller and Prescott had a bit more trouble staying in sync with each other due to the stage setup, but it wasn’t enough to make the songs sound sloppy. I’m probably the only one in the crowd who noticed it anyway. The band’s recordings always sounded as if the songs were a hair away from falling apart, but they never did, and the live set followed suit. Clint held everything together with his steady playing. Miller switched between slashing power chords and effects-driven string-strangling that made his instrument sound like an air-raid siren. I completely understand how the band’s earlier live performances could do such damage to his hearing. Of course, they played almost all of the classics that they’re known for: highlights included “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” “This Is Not a Photograph,” “Academy Fight Song,” and “Fame and Fortune.” However, the REAL revelations were the new songs, all of which are scheduled to appear on the band’s long-awaited album On Off On. The new songs were even more abrasive than their earlier stuff, and in some cases, they were even better. The band came back on stage for two encores. During one of them, they invited songstress Penelope Houston on stage to sing a bunch of raucous punk covers. Burma’s set was second only to Frank Jordan’s in my list of SXSW 2004 highlights.


Friday was undoubtedly the most exciting day of the week. I began my afternoon by heading straight to the 33 Degrees record store to see Canadian quartet Frog Eyes play a free in-store performance. They were, hands down, the most out-there band I’ve seen at this year’s SXSW. Vocalist Carey Mercer strummed his guitar so furiously that I thought he would pop all of its strings before the show’s end (he didn’t), and sang in a voice that fused the operatic fervor of Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart and the tremulous lisping of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. One minute, he hollered like an angry carnival barker, the next minute he leaped into a banshee falsetto that didn’t even sound like it came from the same person. Even between songs, Mercer looked as if he was permanently caught in a state of panic. His band mates gently berated him for taking too long to tune his guitar, or plugging the wrong cords into his instruments and pedals. The stage banter was so sarcastic that if you didn’t see the smiles on their faces, you’d think the members of the band hated each other. Drummer Melanie Campbell played basic rhythms on a kit that looked as if it were composed partially of scrap metal. The keyboard player seemed to have his instrument set permanently on the “merry-go-round” setting, and he looked and dressed like an uptight accountant. The bass player was so nonchalant that I can’t remember what he looked like for the life of me. Overall, the band sounded like a fusion of the surrealistic tantrums of Captain Beefheart with the sugary piano-driven pop of Quasi. Mercer’s voice plants the band firmly into the “acquired taste” category, but his songs are good enough to make Frog Eyes a taste worth acquiring. Their set had a low point, though. They invited Daniel Bejar of Destroyer up, and they served as Bejar’s backing band for two Destroyer songs. Bejar’s a decent songwriter, but his voice is extremely nasal and refuses to commit to a pitch. His off-key caterwauling sounded like an injured dog crying for help, and Frog Eyes left lots of wide open space in the music so that you couldn’t tune his voice out even if you tried.

Next up was Sufjan Stevens, one of my must-see picks for this year’s SXSW. Over the last year, he’s released two wonderful albums. 2003’s Michigan was an exquisitely orchestrated tribute to his home state, but 2004’s Seven Swans is even better. It’s the first explicitly Christian rock album I’ve heard in YEARS that manages to maintain its artistic quality without diluting his message or alienating non-Christian listeners. The fact that Swans is actually a collection of comparatively stripped-down out-takes from Michigan is bewildering, because NONE of the songs sound like second-rate castoffs. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to make it to 33 Degrees on time because he got held up at the airport. When he finally got here, there was less than 15 minutes left in his time slot. The fact that the store was still packed with people patiently waiting for him says a lot about how much hype his music has received. Nonetheless, he more than lived up to the hype. Armed with nothing but a banjo and a friend of his on trumpet, Sufjan sang and played three highlights from Seven Swans. Unfortunately, he wasn’t allowed to play longer, but he had made enough of an impression with those three songs to make the wait worthwhile.

After Sufjan’s set, I drove across town to the Caucus Club to see The Wrens play. Half of Austin seemed to have the same idea as me, though, so I stood on a line that stretched halfway around the block, full of people hoping to catch a glimpse of the band’s set. No one was happier about this turnout then the Wrens themselves. The last time they played Austin during SXSW was in 1996, and they weren’t even invited. The show took place in a bowling alley, and they didn’t even get paid for it. Thus, the reception they received at the Caucus Club was sweet justice for a band that’s been through a lot over the last seven years. The biography on their web site explains their trials more succinctly than I ever could, so I urge you to check it out. I do believe that the attention that the Wrens are currently receiving is partially driven by a desire to redress past wrongs. No one wants to be part of the generation that ignores another Van Gogh, but is their latest album The Meadowlands REALLY one of the “60 best records of the last 10 years,” as Magnet put it? No, but it’s still a wonderful record, a collection of loose, literate, and catchy rock songs that suggest what Pavement would sound like if they were middle-aged men working crappy day jobs.

The Wrens played a fun set that gave me a glimpse of what it might have felt like for people to watch the Replacements live at their peak. I say this because, by all means, the set should have sucked. The vocals were occasionally painfully off, the bass player did more jumping around than actual playing, and sometimes you couldn’t tell the difference between the improvised songs and the pre-written ones. I will admit, though, that the second improvised song in their set was a stroke of genius. The band built it off of the overheard sounds of another band at a nearby club. It completely ROCKED and was one of my favorite moments of this year’s SXSW. Any band that can improvise a great song out of almost nothing has GOT to have something going for them. The band’s enthusiasm more than compensated for their sloppy playing, and the crowd jumped and sang along to Meadowlands highlights like “Happy,” “Faster Gun,” and “Everyone Chooses Sides” just as raucously as the band did. When you write songs as good as the Wrens’, it would take a lot to screw them up, and the band wasn’t THAT sloppy. Each member of the band went out of his way to thank the audience personally for coming out to see them, betraying a gratitude that can only come from way too many years of being ignored. It’s always nice to see a good band finally getting its due.
In all the years that I’ve been to South by Southwest, I don’t think that I’d ever been to a showcase in which I honestly enjoyed EVERY SINGLE BAND…until I went to the showcase that Touch and Go held two Fridays ago at Exodus. Yes, Exodus is the same club where Ozomatli got pepper-sprayed by overzealous cops for having a conga line outside the club, but fortunately nothing crazy happened at THIS showcase. Anyway, the first group to take the stage was CocoRosie, two sisters who recorded an entire album by themselves in an apartment in Paris last spring. This album, La Maison de Mon Rêve, is unlike anything I’ve heard in a very long time, and their set definitely followed suit. Sierra sang in an opera-trained voice, played classical guitar, and occasionally played a droning organ. Bianca manipulated all kinds of toy instruments and sang in a pinched yet pretty whine that was as close to Billie Holiday as I’ve ever heard a white woman get. Both of their voices take getting used to, not because they aren’t easy on the ears (well, Bianca’s voice might be irritating to some people), but simply because you don’t hear those kinds of voices much in mainstream OR underground music. They also had a drummer with them, but she didn’t even play half the time, and what rhythms she did play were barely perceptible. The songs took any number of directions. One minute, they sounded like a classically-trained Cat Power, the next they immersed themselves in Nico’s ominous grandeur, and at other times they had a strange fusion of blues and hip-hop going on. The sisters sat side by side. They didn’t move much, but when they did, it was slow and sensuous, as if the music was making love to them. They’ve got an unclassifiable sound, they’re great singers and musicians, and they’re very easy on the eyes (I now have a GIGANTOR crush on Bianca). What’s not to like??!?

The second act was P.W. Long, a Dallas dude who’s been doing the White Stripes blues-duo shtick for a while, with better musicianship (Long can actually sing and his drummer can actually play) and a much less stringent dress code. Long plugged his guitar into two separate amps, one sitting at each side of the stage, producing one of the most trebly and abrasive rackets I’ve ever heard in a live setting. His voice sounded like a more muscular version of Varnaline’s Anders Parker, and his slide playing was absolutely lethal. The only complaint I had about his set (other than the tinnitus that it produced) was that the songs started to get samey after a while. Then again, I don’t have as much of a tolerance for bluesy garage-rock as most people, so if you play that style of music you’d have to be incredibly diverse to keep my attention after 20 minutes.

I was especially eager to see the third band, Silkworm. They don’t tour often because all three of them have serious day jobs (I think the drummer’s actually a corporate lawyer). I’ve been listening to their music for the past eight years, but every chance I’ve had to see them live was taken from me either by prior obligations or the lack of money. Their music has been the soundtrack to many a one-man mosh pit staged in my bedroom. They’re one of many bands that have taken the Mission of Burma blueprint (angular blue-collar punk rock by men who can almost sing) and crafted their own legacy out of it. One thing they’ve added to the blueprint is serious guitar chops: on promising new songs and familiar old gems like “Don’t Make Plans This Friday” from 1996’s Firewater (arguably Silkworm’s masterpiece), Andy Cohen let out rapid streams of notes that elicited bursts of applause from the crowd, which is a rare feat in a town so crowded with wannabe guitar heroes. Tim Midgett still boasts the best bass sound ever. One reviewer compared his bass playing to “a man thumbing a hot cable wire,” and I couldn’t possibly come up with a better description. When he switched to baritone guitar for songs like “Plain” (from 2000’s Lifestyle), his playing sounded even grimier. You couldn’t hear occasional fourth member Matt Kadane’s keyboard AT ALL, but that’s okay. He got his turn to shine later on in the showcase.

By far, the most hyped band at the Touch and Go SXSW showcase was Brooklyn trio TV on the Radio, and deservedly so. Last year’s Young Liars EP and this year’s Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes LP are documents of a band that have stumbled upon a distinctive sound at an alarmingly quick rate. Icy loop-driven atmospheres, blurry shoegaze guitars, and freewheeling gospel-trained vocals come together to make a noise that suggests a black Peter Gabriel fronting a less histrionic Xiu Xiu. I am sure that at least 75% of the packed crowd at Exodus came specifically to see how the trio (two vocalists and a programmer, all of whom sing and two of which play guitar) would recreate their studio recordings live. However, we all got something much better than that. We got a full-on five-piece ROCK BAND, with the core members augmented by a dreadlocked rhythm section. The drummer stayed in the pocket while the bassist conjured up the best distorted tone I’ve heard since seeing the Electro Group live. The lead guitarist ran his instrument through so much distortion and reverb that he sounded like a human whirlwind. It was nothing short of a miracle that vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone managed to sound BETTER live than they do on the album. The last thing that I expected TV on the Radio to do was rock and/or make me dance, but they did both and gave one of the best performances I’ve seen at this year’s SXSW. (This would make TV on the Radio the third best highlight.)

Dallas sextet The New Year couldn’t help but be a comedown after such an intense set, but I (and the rest of the crowd) loved them anyway. The New Year is the “new” (I put that word in quotes because even though they’ve only released one album, they’ve been around for three years) band of brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane, who used to front a band called Bedhead. Bedhead were known for playing slow, morose songs that sounded like they were played by a power trio even though the band had five members. The New Year have the same sound, but with a slightly sprightlier tempo and weirder time signatures. The Kadane brothers’ voices still operate in two modes: whisper and mumble. Even with FOUR guitarists, the music doesn’t sound cluttered. Usually two of the guitarists play the same chords while the other two play single-note harmonies with each other. The intricacy of the guitars is still the biggest selling point of the Kadane brothers’ music. The set was split evenly between the best songs from their debut Newness Ends and even better new songs. The fourth guitarist had a lot of amplifier trouble during the set, but that’s the only thing that kept the New Year’s set from being technically flawless.

The final band on the showcase, Calexico, was the one that I was least familiar with beforehand. I knew that the main members of the band (Joey Burns and John Convertino) were also in proudly burnt-out roots-rock combo Giant Sand, but I didn’t know much else. Now that I’ve actually seen Calexico live, I can now say with complete information that THEY RULE. Their music is a smooth blend of baroque pop, country, jazz, and Tex-Mex. During their set, they pulled off both a Love cover and a series of traditional mariachi songs (with the help of a friend of theirs from Tucson who actually sings mariachi music professionally). Singer/guitarist Burns oozed a calmness and command that I can only describe as “I’ve-got-this-martini-in-my-hand-and-I-can-pull-any-woman-in-this-club-if-I-wanted-to.” The closest analogue I can think of would be the late Mark Sandman of Morphine. Burns has a sweet voice, knows the right fills to play on his guitar at any possible point, and gets into his music on stage without any self-consciousness. It also helps that he leads a very tight band. Drummer Convertino is what Max Weinberg would sound like if he had any sort of restraint. Every time Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela rushed to the microphones with their trumpets, they ushered the music in new levels of crunk. There was an upright bassist and a pedal steel player, but they spent more time holding the songs together than actually showboating. (However, I may be saying this because I just couldn’t hear the pedal steel very well.) A double-bill of these guys and Grupo Fantasma would OWN YOU --- I promise.


Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any bands this evening because I had to drive to Houston to play a show of my own. I am not just an observer of the scene; I am also a PARTICIPANT! However, if someone could tell me how Dizzee Rascal’s and Cheer-Accident’s sets went, I would greatly appreciate it.

---Sean Padilla