October 31, 2005

Old 97s "Alive & Wired!"

Dallas' country-rockin' sons Old 97's have a reputation for being one hell of a powerful live act. Going to one of their shows is a fun time for new fans and old diehards alike, as the band never ceases to be less than entertaining. They've released six albums over the last decade, two of which are masterpieces (Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care). Each album is filled with at least two damn good songs, and even though their later work hasn't quite been as impressive; the last two records at Elektra found the band slicking up their sound and losing some of their magic. Last year, they came back with a brand new album on a brand new label, and all was once again right with the world; though the band has grown older and have mellowed out somewhat, they proved that they still had the ability to write some crunchy, raucous rockabilly. Unbelieveably, the band had yet to document the power of their live set. Sure, there was a limited-edition disc with 2001's Satellite Rides, but at five songs, it was too brief to satisfy.

Alive & Wired, however, serves the band justice. A two-CD, 30 song set, this collection captures the band at an appearance this summer at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, Texas. The set is a very balanced overview of the band's career, with no era left unrepresented. Alive & Wired also shows that for a band with no 'hits,' the Old 97's sure do have a lot of popular songs. Classics such as "Big Brown Eyes," "Stoned," "Wish the Worst" and "Barrier Reef" appear here, in fine form. The band is also extremely tight; Rhett Miller's voice sings these now-classic hits with the same pep and energy as the day he wrote them, and Ken Bethea's guitar work has only improved with age. Heck, even newer songs like "The New Kid" and "Smokers" fit in quite well with the older material, a sure sign of excellence.

Live, the Old 97's never disappoint, and Alive & Wired is no exception. While some may quibble that a few classic songs didn't make the final cut (the most notable being "Victoria," "Singular Girl," "El Paso" and "Nineteen") and some might think the sound quality's a bit on the rough side (this is a live show, mind you), there's not much to bitch about here. All in all, this is as close to a greatest hits package that you can get, and it's the next best thing to actually being there. So go grab you a cold one, crank up the stereo and rock OUT the Old 97's.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.old97s.com
Label Website: http://www.newwestrecords.com

DVD Review: Tub Ring "Optic & Sonics"

Chicago's Tub Ring is an underground phenomenon. They've been around for well over a decade, but it's only been within the past five years or so that they've really garnered any attention. It's understandable why they have such a devout following; their music is hard, but it's poppy; it's loud, but it's not overbearing; it's funny, but it's not stupid; it's weird, but it's quite enjoyable. They've released three excellent albums over the past five years, Drake Equation, Fermi Paradox and last year's masterpiece, Zoo Hypothesis. It's a blend of punk and funk and pop and experimental music that holds no quarter in any one genre. Their studio records channel the best part of Mr. Bungle, Naked City and Tripping Daisy, and their music's equally as engaging as all three of those bands. Live, they're an equally powerful band. There's no way the band can perfectly replicate the studio tricks found on their albums, so they compensate this reality with sheer power. Live, Tub Ring goes batshit insane, especially the relatively mild-mannered keyboard wizard Rob Kleiner. (Then again, their albums don't come close to capturing the band's frantic live intensity, so ultimately it's a fair trade-off.)

For those who have never seen Tub Ring, Optics & Sonics compensates nicely. It's a healthy collection of live videos, TV appearances, tour diaries, song videos. Some of the videos are downright hilarious, such as their appearance on Chic-A-Go-Go, where they appear dressed as aliens whilst lip-synching to "No More Refills," or when they appeared as crash-test dummies in "Faster." The DVD also includes a rather interesting short documentary of the band's career, with some truly funny video of the band's early years, as well as fan interactions. The most interesting and candid portion of the DVD, though, is the film diary of their tour with Mindless Self Indulgence. While a good portion of this diary consists of live recordings, also included are several minutes of the band travelling in the van, talking about their future. Would the band be willing to compromise a portion of their artistic integrity in favor of financial gain? Would finanacial gain necessarily be a problem if it meant the band could live on? The conversations are interesting, and it's really fascinating to see them talk about such manners as touring and label deals.

As a special bonus, Tub Ring's also included a CD of b-sides and outtakes. Whereas the band's studio albums are well-produced, well-programmed collections that ebb and flow with natural ease, this compilation is merely OK, and feels like what it is: a b-sides collection. Sure, there are some really good songs here, such as the cover of Johnny Cash's "One Piece at a Time," the loud, raucious "2Minus3" or the wonderfully swining "Farnsworth Road," but much of the material definitely feels lesser, and the album lacks the cohesiveness of their regular records. Though interesting on a collector's level, it's not the best Tub Ring album available.

Still, with Tub Ring taking backseat to two new projects, Super 8-Bit Brothers and 3,2,1 Activate!, Optics & Sonics might be the closest some might get to experiencing a live Tub Ring show. But all in all, it's a great reminder as to why some people simply fawn over Tub Ring. Plus, it's just a hell of a fun video, period. A fun collection from one of today's better bands.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.tubring.com
Label Website: http://www.undergroundinc.com

October 30, 2005

Live Review: Four Tet, Jamie Lidell, and Koushik, The Parish, Austin, Texas, Saturday, October 8, 2005

On a weekend in which I had absolutely nothing else to do, this show was an absolute godsend. Opening act Koushik had already begun his set by the time I walked into the Parish. I was hoping that the Canadian producer would showcase the original material on his debut album Be With. The songs on Be With pit dirty funk against psychedelic pop, with Koushik’s breathy, soothing voice placed front and center. In other words, it’s the album that Caribou’s The Milk of Human Kindness should’ve been. The fact that Koushik has contributed vocals to earlier Manitoba/Caribou tracks only makes the comparison more apt. Unfortunately, Koushik merely gave us an hour-long DJ set. He did spin a number of interesting rare-groove tracks (and he deserves special props for throwing a Poor Righteous Teachers jam in the middle), but I still would’ve rather heard him play his own stuff.

However, the second act, Jamie Lidell, was worth the price of admission alone! I tried to turn some of my friends on to his music, and it received a lukewarm response. This website’s very own editor sad that one of his songs sounded like “bad house music.” (Such opinions have changed slightly--ed.) If he saw the set that I saw Jamie play last night, he’d have changed his tune. The short version of Lidell’s story is that he’s a British IDM producer who has decided to step out from behind the boards as a blue-eyed soul singer. In theory, crossing over from an arguably soulless genre to make R&B sounds like a bad idea. Lidell makes it work, though. With a laptop, a mixer and a table of gadgets, he created backing tracks by looping and processing his own beat boxing. Once he was finished doing that, he walked away from the board and SANG HIS ASS OFF. He took the audience to outer space, and then he took them to CHUUCH (yes, that spelling is on purpose). He had a charmingly nerdy stage presence, jumping and writhing around the stage with a wide smile on his face. The second half of his set was plagued by equipment failures, but even that couldn’t stop him from wrecking shop. He drafted a teenager from the audience to beat box for him while he sang “A Little Bit More.” He closed his set with an acapella rendition of the title track from his latest album Multiply. He tried to get the audience to sing along with him on the chorus, only to laugh upon realizing that they weren’t that familiar with his music yet. Judging from the number of people that rushed to the merchandise table after his set, that won’t happen the next time he comes to Austin.

The technical difficulties that Lidell had to endure were NOTHING compared to the fiasco that happened at the beginning of Four Tet’s set. The power supply that Four Tet mastermind Kieran Hebden brought with him keep shutting off at random moments (I‘m assuming that it was because of a lack of functional foreign-to-domestic socket converters), and it took nearly a half-hour for the sound crew to find one that actually worked. One audience member got enraged and started shouting at the stage: “This is ridiculous! You guys should’ve had a contingency plan! This guy is the Beatles of electronic music! What the hell is going on??!?” I hesitate to give Kieran’s music that much praise. I will say, though, that what was originally supposed to be a side project away from his post-rock band Fridge has turned into an IDM field, thanks to a steady stream of increasingly brilliant albums. I assumed that once Hebden’s technical difficulties got sorted out, he would respond with a mighty set that vindicated the wait.

Unfortunately, my assumption was proven wrong. Kieran may be good at creating tracks, but he’s terrible at mixing or rejiggering them in real time. His idea of making the live renditions of his songs sound different from the recorded versions is to throw all of the instruments out of sync with each other and scatter a bunch of noise on top. At some points, it sounded like he was just pressing random buttons to see what would happen to the music. As soon as the music coalesced into a groove, he would do something to completely disrupt it. When Kid 606 does this, the results are often thrilling; when Kieran does this, it’s merely irritating. A drunk woman walked up to the stage, flipped him the bird and repeatedly shouted, “THIS SH*T SUCKS!” She had to be escorted out of the club by two of her friends. Shortly thereafter, Kieran‘s mixing and processing got much better, and we were treated to three or four great songs from his latest album Everything Ecstatic. By then, though, it was too little, too late: almost half of the crowd had already walked out. In short, while I will continue to buy everything Four Tet puts out, I don’t plan on paying to see him live ever again. BRING BACK FRIDGE!

--Sean Padilla

Interview: Her Space Holiday

Describe the recording process for The Past Presents the Future.

With The Past Presents the Future, I reverted back to a more traditional recording/song writing approach. Since I wanted the album to be more focused on lyrics and melody, rather than production, I sat down with an acoustic guitar and/or piano and banged out basic melodies. Once the lyrics were written, I then recorded the vocals with the simple instrument lines into the computer. I then added the beats and the rest of the arrangements from there.

What song on your album do you feel you put the most work into, and why?

I think the third track on the album, "The Weight of the World," took the most time because I used a lot of trial and error with the arrangements. I also worked with other singers on the track so that added a bit more time to the production process.

If someone were to ask you what song on The Past Presents the Future best represented your overall work, which song would it be, and why?

I would probably have to say the first song "Forever and A Day" best represents the overall album. That track has all the elements that are sprinkled through out the record. There are a lot of strings, guitars and the song is very lyrically based.

To you, what song on the new record is the most meaningful?

The final song, "The Past Presents the Future," is probably the most meaningful to me out of all the songs on the record. When I approached that track, I wanted to write a song as if it were my last i would ever make. I wanted to encompass the last ten years of my life into three and a half minutes.

If you had to describe the ideal setting for listening to The Past Presents the Future, what would it be?

I think the ideal setting for listening to the album would be in a quiet dark room. The record is pretty subtle so it really couldn't hold up in a loud party environment.

What's next?

I have a lot of touring, remixing, producing, short story writing, and clothing design to take care of over the next few months.

Silver Sunshine "A Small Pocket of Pure Spirit"

Silver Sunshine's self-titled debut suffered a bit from monotony. Sure, it was pretty and it had some good ideas, but over the course of an album, the band's sunny psych-pop rock style quickly ran out of steam, and the record ultimately didn't hold up to repeated listens. Had the band trimmed it down, it would have made for a stronger record. After all, if you're not doing anything radically different, the more tracks you have means the quicker your weaknesses show. This proved frustrating, because one couldn't help but feel that Silver Sunshine wasn't living up to its full potential.

Fortunately, the band's latest offering, A Small Pocket of Pure Spirit, is a lean, five song EP that quickly displays their talents, and they've toned down their retro-rock tendencies. Their songs are still glazed sugary-sweet psych-pop, but they've been tempered with a more contemporary sound. Sure, "Another Day" is a nice little acoustic Kinks-like ditty, but "She's The Reason" and "Waiting For The Sun" are more in line with bands like Spoon and Of Montreal. The final track, "Hiroshima Never Again," differes from both genres, as it's a wonderful little instrumental psych-rock jam that's recalls early 90s British bands like Primal Scream and Stone Roses. Although it's brief, the songs are definitely catchier than their debut album, and A Small Pocket of Pure Spirit bears--nay, causes repeated listening.

So maybe it's time to reevaluate Silver Sunshine--or at least forgive them for their debut album, because this little record finds them moving way beyond those awkward baby steps. A Small Pocket of Pure Spirit proves to a large cache of positive expectation for this young band's next record.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.silversunshine.com
Label Website: http://www.empyreanrecords.com

October 29, 2005

Espers "The Weed Tree"

Releasing a covers record can be a risky proposition, more often than not with mixed results. Like most folk artists, the Philadelphia trio Espers, which consists of Meg Baird, Brook Sietinsons and Greg Weeks, would often slip in a cover or two, just to make things interesting for the audience, as well as to pay homage to their influences. So they decided to take a little creative variation during the downtime while working on the follow-up to their critically lauded self-titled debut. They decided to record a handful of their more popular covers, as a treat for their fans--and who can blame them?

Thus was born The Weed Tree, and it was good. Their cover choices can best be described as "diverse," because it stretches from metal to post-punk to traditional folk to the indescribable category we call Nico. As one would expect, "Rosemary Lane" and "Black Is The Color" are traditional folk numbers, and the band perform these two songs with the gentle reverence that comes with the respect of the tradition. "Black Is The Color" is made beautifully mournful by the gentle yet subtle use of cello and quiet, twinkling chimes. "Blue Mountain," by Michael Hurley, is the only "folk" number of the remaining covers, but they don't hold the song to any traditional arrangement; the song starts out brooding, a distant whistler is overshadowed by some rather ominous strings and shakers--and some goregous singing from Weeks. The song then gets a bit weirder, with swirling psychedelic effects that crescendo to a quietly loud and gently noisy freakout.

The other three songs are a bit more varied in their origins. "Tomorrow," originally by Durutti Column, was one of Vini Reilly's better numbers; and Espers' take on it doesn't attempt to replicate his distinctive guitar work or his small, sensitive voice. Instead, they double up the vocals and follow his guitar lines with a cello and wind instruments, with gentle beating drum and shakers. (In an interesting twist, the combination of shakers and guitar sounds not unlike a drum machine.) "Afraid" is a Nico cover, and it's rather touching; Nico's distinctive singing has been replaced by a young, innocent voice--making the song even more haunting. (I thought Mercury Rev's cover from earlier this year was the definitive interpretation. I was wrong.) The final cover is of Blue Öyster Cult's "Flaming Telepaths." It's an amazing epic of a cover, one that starts out pretty, but gets progressively heavier and harder and louder and climaxes nine minutes later. After hearing five gentle songs, to hear them suddenly grow hard and loud is a bit of a shock. A very nice shock.

The Weed Tree ends with "Dead King," a new Espers track. It's a great way to end a covers record, as it leaves the listener wanting more. The song is lovely, and after hearing six interpretations of songs by the band's influences, it's easy to understand the direction the band's songwriting comes from--and where it's going. The Weed Tree is a nice introduction for those who've yet to hear them, and a wonderful treat for those hungry for more.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.espers.org
Label Website: http://www.locustmusic.com

Katy Mae "The Lightning and the Sun"

Very rare is it that I will compare a band to REM, and when I do, it's often not a favorable comparison. But after listening to The Lightning and the Sun, the debut EP by New York's Katy Mae, I have to rethink that policy. It's safe to say that the three fellows of Katy Mae have a soft spot for the rootsy music of the mid to late 1980s, most specifically REM and Uncle Tupelo. Katy Mae's music is so contemporary with that era, they sound as if theyjust mysteriously appeared out of 1985.

Though The Lightning and the Sun is quite brief, it's not devoid of strength. Lead singer Phil Doucet sings with a pained yelp that instantly reminds of vintage Michael Stipe, and drummer Mark Levy and bassist Brad Hill provide a powerful crunch to his pop stylings. Whether it's the country-rock ramblings of "The Brightest Star" or the jangling guitars on "Whirlwind," or the rolling bass on "I Could Crush You With The Weight of My Heart," the band's power is quite obvious, and it's damn near impossible to fall hard for this little band. Don't believe me? Well, if you still have your doubts, then don't listen to the powerful "Safe and Sound."

Katy Mae's a great young band with a great sound, and The Lightning and the Sun is a wonderful (but too damn brief) EP. Bring on that full length, boys!

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.katymaemusic.com
Label Website: http://www.maggadee.com

Wolf Parade "Apologies to the Queen Mary"

There's a lot of hype propelling Wolf Parade into the music world's spotlight, and it's easy to understand why. Herky-jerky dance rhythms and quirky singing that's been lovingly produced by Modest Isaac Brock--gee, do you think that such a combination would not be hyped? Okay, okay, let's put that cynicism aside, shall we? Sure, the album sounds extremely trendy and hip in that post-New Wave, post-Indie Rock Canadian pop kind of way, but that's not the biggest complaint.

Apologies to the Queen Mary is a rather frustrating listen. Why does this record frustrate and challenge? It's simple: it's essentially two records by two different bands--one's a very good band, and the other's not a very good band. The cause for this duality is quite obvious: the band has two very different lead singers. Having two different lead singers is not an inherently bad idea, but it becomes a problem when the band's songwriting approach differs in such a dramatic manner. Spencer King sings in a glammy style that recalls David Bowie, while Dan Boeckner sounds like a poor imitation of Isaac Brock. (Brock has not only championed Wolf Parade for many years, but he also helped them get signed to Sub Pop and he produced Apologies.)

If Apologies' track listing had been better organized, the stylistic differences wouldn't be so bad or noticable. Instead, someone decided to alternate between singers from track to track. This decision resulted in an album that feels quite disjointed, and, at times, it feels like two different records by two different bands. One band, led by King, produces gritty, glammy polished new wave-pop not unlike Hot Hot Heat. His songs, including the great "Fancy Claps" and "I'll Believe in Anything," are rather interesting; they're both complex and minimalistic,.and they're songs that you won't soon forget. Boeckner's is a bit more lo-fi and a bit more indie-rock; his style is a bit more forgettable, and his songs are a bit mellower, as heard on "Modern World" and "Same Ghost Every Night," but he's also got a pop sensibility, as heard on the excellent single "Shine a Light." If Apologies had been a bit more organized and not so diplomatically divided, the album wouldn't seem so damn disjointed--which, ultimately, is a bit of a shame.

Apologies to the Queen Mary isn't a bad record, it's just flawed, and these flaws make it quite frustrating. With a little better organization, it would be a stronger record, and it's quite clear that the band has some good songwriting skills and a keen pop sensibility. When it comes to programming, though...

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.subpop.com/scripts/main/bands_page.php?id=438
Label Website: http://www.subpop.com

October 25, 2005

The Clientele "Strange Geometry"

Having been spoiled on The Clientele's singles, their debut album, The Violet Hour was a bit troublesome. While it was a good record, the band seemed to neglect their pop side for moodier, more experimental fare; songs were longer, hazier, and a bit more languid. The Violet Hour felt quite a bit removed from the Clientele that made succinct, pretty pop songs that sounded great on a 45, and though a gorgeous listen, it didn't quite have the magic of their earlier work. Their new album, Strange Geometry, seemed to be a make-or-break proposition--would the band dive deeper into the atmosphere, would they take a turn back into melancholy pop, or would they find a way to masterfully combine the two?

Perhaps The Violet Hour was too ambitious of a step forward; one must remember that until that record was released, The Clientele had never recorded a full-length album. Their songs were succinct, but they were succinct simply because they had to be, in order to fit on the side of a seven inch single. Strange Geometry finds the band turning away from the longer, hazier moments of The Violet Hour and making a step back towards their more concise songwriting. The songs on Strange Geometry sound like they could be singles, and that makes this reviewer quite happy, as composing singles has always been and will always be The Clientele's greatest strength. Songs like the grooving "E.M.P.T.Y.," the organ-driven shuffle of "My Own Face Inside the Trees" and the gorgeous, shimmering "Step Into the Light" all deserve to grace a slab of vinyl.

But just because the band's reverting to a sound that's more Suburban Light than The Violet Hour, don't think that their songwriting hasn't matured, because it most certainly has. From the very first notes of "Since K Got Over Me," it's instantly obvious that The Clientele has become a powerhouse of melancholy pop. The glimmers of 60s-era pop illuminate their songs, but you won't mistake them for a 'retro' band at all. (Be on the lookout for nods to classic hits of that decade; "Since K Got Over Me" has a nod to "Be My Baby," while the intro to "K" is nearly identical to Elvis Presley's "Don't Cry Daddy.") The production is sparkling, and there are some excellent string arrangements, courtesy of French pop conniseur Louis Phillipe. Most importantly, Alasdair Maclean is still a mopey boy, and his songs still make you feel like you're walking down a cold, rainy London street at midnight--which is a very good thing, because it's what he does best.

Strange Geometry is The Clientele's best record to date, and it reaffirms everything good about pop music. The Clientele's been my favorite band for a long time, and this record is a wonderful little reminder of why I love them so. If you've never heard them, do yourself a favor and rectify this immediately. You really won't regret it.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.theclientele.co.uk
Label Website: http://www.mergerecords.com

October 24, 2005

Various Artists: This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles' Rubber Soul

Tribute records tend to be plagued with a number of flaws. Some tributes falter because they match unknown artists with excellent material. Some fail because the artists involved are well known, but their covers are either half-assed or simply remakes that match the tributed artists' songs with the covering artist's personal style. How boring. Then you get covers of obscure material that's difficult to make comparisons with, simply because the listener is probably more familiar with the artist covering the song than the artist being covered. Then again, some artists simply can't be covered easily, simply because the original songs are well-loved and revered with a quiet, religious devotion....you know, like The Beatles.

This Bird Has Flown:A 40th Anniversary Tribute to The Beatles' Rubber Soul is a simple, straightforward affair--young artists paying tribute to one of the better albums of the 1960s. As tribute records go, it's not bad; it's occasionally guilty of the problems mentioned above, but on the whole, it's quite pleasant. Most of the names are familiar to those who appreciate mainstream independent music (or Triple-A alternative radio), and thus the interpretations are fairly straightforward. A little variation on an arrangement, though, can make or break a cover version, as seen by Low's take of "Nowhere Man." Sung by Mimi Parker, it sounds pretty enough, and although the song retains a bit of the original's upbeat tempo, the band removes the "la-la-la" vocal tagline, and the song seems to fall apart. The Cowboy Junkies' otherwise beautiful cover of "Run For Your Life" is marred by the change of gender. (The less said about The Fiery Furnaces' horrid take on "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," the better.)

Still, those unsurprising flaws don't weigh down the album's highlights. It's a real treat to hear Old 97's frontman/sexpot Rhett Miller's rather straightforward cover of "Girl," and the typically dull Ben Harper's faux-reggae take on "Michelle" isn't bad, either. It's hard not to like Ted Leo's new-wave rock version of "I'm Looking Through You," and Ben Lee's melancholy take on "In My Life" is very touching and pretty. It's equally impressive how The Donnas' near-faithful cover of "Drive My Car" sounds both like the Beatles and The Donnas. But the overall winner of the set is Nelly McKay's breathy, seductive version of George Harrison's "If I Needed Someone." She turns it into a sexy jazz lounge number, and the twinkling piano and unhurried tempo makes the song feel like 2 AM in a smoke-filled jazz club.

This Bird Has Flown is a lovely record, in spite of occasional flaws, and it genuninely serves as a nice tribute. But if you really want to hear pop perfection, and you haven't heard Rubber Soul, don't buy this record--go buy Rubber Soul instead. Then come back here for some interesting interpretations.

--Joseph Kyle

Album Website: http://www.thisbirdhasflown.com
Label Website: http://www.razorandtie.com

October 20, 2005

Live Report: Mono, Bellini and Gorch Fock, Emo's, Austin, Texas, Saturday, October 1, 2005

This show was what I like to call an “Earplug Night.” I spent it at a show full of bands so excruciatingly loud that by the time I walked out of Emo’s, the insides of my ears felt like mush. The first act on the bill was Austin’s very own Gorch Fock. This septet got its name from a 1,900-ton three-masted tallship, and appropriately so --- with two drummers, three guitarists, a bassist and a singing trombonist, the band is just as titanic as its namesake. The drummers play facing each other, their kits positioned so closely against one another that the dudes can (and do) use each other’s tom-toms! Two of the three guitarists play wireless, so they spent most of the set wandering through the audience. (Not wanting to be upstaged, the third guitarist eventually stripped down to his skivvies.) The bassist plays through a distortion pedal and an amplifier that’s just as tall as he is. The singer stalks the stage in an all-white uniform, looking like a wayward sailor. The vocalist shouted unintelligibly into his microphone while swinging his trombone mere centimeters from the faces of nearby audience members. He eventually got frustrated because the slide on his trombone was too tight, and smashed it to pieces in mid-set. All tolled, these bombastic metalheads put on one of the most brutal sets I’ve seen all year. The very first sentence of their one-sheet states that they aspire to be “a group that people have to go see.” They definitely achieve that goal. While their latest album Lying and Manipulating is growing on me (it takes a while for discernible riffs to emerge from the murk), there’s no way that it could EVER approximate the fury of their live show.

The second act on the bill was math-rock near-supergroup Bellini. I knew about them because the octopus-limbed Damon Che (of Don Caballero) used to be their drummer, but he quit the band three years ago. In retrospect, it was probably for the best, as Che tends to steal the spotlight in every band he’s in. Although current Bellini drummer Alexis Fleisig isn’t as flashy as Che, his tom-heavy rhythms do a great job of supporting the REAL stars of the show: guitarist Agostino Tilotta and vocalist Giovanna Cacciola. The Italian husband/wife duo used to be in an old Touch and Go band called Uzeda, and Bellini doesn’t stray too far from that band’s sound. Agostino definitely has a distinctive playing style, full of fleet-fingered runs that make frequent use of open strings to generate dissonance. He’s a chubby, pug-nosed middle-aged man who dresses like an auto mechanic, but when he grabbed that guitar he turned into a rock MACHINE. He stood open-legged, screaming at his guitar as if it wasn’t making nearly as much noise as he wanted it to. Meanwhile, Giovanna’s Sprechtstimme pulled against the music. She occasionally gave us a brief melody to latch on to, but more often she let out a series of moans, sighs and wails that sounded as if they were drawn from a wellspring of rage and sorrow. They played every song off of their latest album Small Stones and a couple from their debut Snowing Sun (including “Marranzano”, which is still my favorite song of theirs). Bellini’s website contains the following mission statement: “We have all played music forever with other bands & are dedicated to playing music that is brutally honest with no compromise.” On stage, the quartet certainly gave off the impression that they were doing what they loved, and their passion was inspiring to me.

The headlining act was Mono --- not the British trip-hop outfit, but the instrumental rock quartet from Japan. When I saw them perform earlier this year at South by Southwest, I was slightly underwhelmed. Their fusion of Mogwai’s violent dynamics and Godspeed You Black Emperor’s orchestral weepiness isn’t groundbreaking in the least, and the truncated set time (the band was only allowed to play three songs) robbed them of an opportunity to stretch out and show the audience what made them truly distinctive. This time around, Mono had 90 minutes to do whatever they wanted, and they definitely rose to the occasion. They played all of the key songs from their last two albums, whose titles are so long that I won’t even bother to print them here. The build-ups took longer, the crescendos were louder, and --- most importantly -- the melodies were stronger. Guitarist Takaakira Goto served as the “de facto” conductor of the band. With a Jazzmaster hanging off of his shoulder and a T-shirt with the word “DESTROY” on it, he waved his hands along to the beat of “16.12” until it was time for him to obey his T-shirt’s command and bring the noise. Like last time, the bassist wasn’t loud enough in the mix, which is a shame considering that her playing often carries the entire band during their more volcanic moments. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to “Halcyon (Beautiful Days),” but the abrupt shift in volume that comes around the five-minute mark is ALWAYS a kick in the pants. Live, it felt like a layer of skin had been singed off when they stepped on the distortion pedals. The excellence of Mono’s performance compelled the audience to chant for an encore, but the sound man wasn’t having it. Thus, I walked out of the club at a shockingly early 1:30 a.m. --- nearly deaf, but very happy, and with a copy of all three bands’ latest albums in tow.

--Sean Padilla

October 19, 2005

Moonbabies "War On Sound"

In 2004, Swedish duo Moonbabies released The Orange Billboard, an album which stunningly blended their shoegazer past with a newfound breathy, sensual pop style. After years of undeserved obscurity, this husband and wife duo finally released a record that highlighted their musical strengths and abilities--Carina Johansson's breathy vocals fit quite nicely with Ola Frick's beautiful musical compositions. Not only did The Orange Billboardthrill listeners, but it also delivered the evidence that their future records would prove to be just as rewarding.

While the mini-album War On Sound is not a proper 'follow-up,' it does provide a nice taste of their forthcoming album, provisionally due early next year. The title track, taken from the forthcoming album, is a bit of a doozy. Less bliss and more pop, it's a straight up pop hit. Full of gorgeous singing, highlighted by a gorgeous and catchy male/female interplay, and thrown together with a rather catchy beat, there's no reason a song like this isn't a hit. The "ooohs" and "ahhhs" are tempered with musical passages that recall their shoegazing past, and surprisingly, this combination works. It's a sunny blast of warm pop that could melt the coldest of hearts.

Though such a distinctively wonderful song makes the rest of the record seem a bit anti-climatic, it's still quite lovely. The album includes four newer songs, but these don't quite give a hint as to what their new record might sound like, as all four are quite different. "A Perfect Passenger" is a lovely but otherwise quite inconsequential instrumental, "Ghost of Love" is a droning dream-pop number that recalls early Moonbabies; "A Minor Earthquake" is a stripped-down piano ballad, enhanced with Johansson's sexy voice, and "Don't Shoot The Ranger" is another instrumental, ad it sounds like an unholy pairing of "Crimson & Clover" and "Sweet Jane." The band also devotes four tracks to older material. Two of these four songs are covers--and quite diverse they are, too! One is a cover of Midnight Oil's "," while the other is a cover of Pink Floyd's early hit "Arnold Layne." Also included is a demo version of "The Orange Billboard," and hidden at the end of the record is a rough recording from a 2001 live show.

For those who are already in love with Moonbabies, War on Sound is an excellent stopgap release. For those who have yet to experience their magic, it's an excellent starting place. Either way, this is simply a pleasant, lovely release from a criminally underrated band.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.moonbabiesmusic.com
Label Website: http://www.parasol.com

Linda Perry "In Flight"

Way back in the late 1990s, I worked part time at a record store. One day, I opened up a package from a "hot rock" publicity firm. Inside was a bundle of records from their "hot rock" picks for that month. Normally, these bands were bad nu-metal or washed-up hard rock bands trying to regain their composure and/or credibility, so I never gave these packages much thought. The press sheet tauted the"amazing" new record by former lead singer of 4 Non Blondes, Linda Perry. I really didn't care that much, but as it listed Lisa Germano as a performer in her band, I had to acquiesce to my Germano-love. So I look in the pile of CD's and I pull hers out. The first thing I notice is the utterly horrid cover art. It was this grotesque, pseudo-gothy artwork of a hot air balloon and text written in really laughable handwriting. You know how they say you can't judge a record by its cover? In the case of In Flight, it was hard not to judge it. So I put the record in my backpack and took it home for a listen.

When I got home, it took me less than ten minutes for me to realize that I wasn't going to like it. The music? Let's just say that it was bombastic, overwrought with melodramatic singing. In my mind, she was trying to imitate Johnette Napolitano, and the music sounded like nothing more than bad blues-rock. I listened to it once, put it in a box with some other CD's, and chose to forget about it. (And apparently Interscope couldn't give In Flight away, so they decided to do just that: give it away. Over the next few months, our store received no less than a dozen copies of this record to give away or sell. In 2002, which was the last time I went in the store, those records had yet to sell.)

Jump to summer 2005, and the announcement that Kill Rock Stars would be reissuing In Flight. Talk about an out-of-the-blue announcement! Thoughts instantly raced back to 1996, when I heard that godawful mess of a record for the first (and only) time. Still, knowing that Slim Moon don't release no mess, the notion perplexed me: did the man actually hear something in this record? What was the logic here? Is it possible that I missed something the first time around? After all, I was just a twenty-something music snob back in those days. So, I thought I'd check it out. I tried to find my copy of the record, but to no avail--apparently my tendency to keep bad records lost had once again claimed another victim. When it came in the mail a few weeks ago, I opened my mind a little bit further than I did nine years ago. (The first thing worth noting about this reissue is that the horrid cover art has been replaced with a much more subtle design.)

I'm glad I did, because I discovered that In Flight is an amazing record. Unlike many musicians at the time--or today, as a matter of fact--Perry's singing voice rings with true power; it makes her sound like a weary old soul who had been through hell and back. This power is both good and bad; while it gives her songs an emotional depth and very gritty, real power, it also tends to weigh down the songs, as well as creating a sound that's not dissimilar from one track to another. It's easy to understand why some people dismissed In Flight because of this; there's only so much melodrama one can take, especially if the songs all tend to share the same tempo throughout.

Setting those quibbles aside is important, though, because in so doing, you'll discover some really fabulous music. And it's not that Perry can't sing--it's that she has a powerful voice but a seemingly limited range. Note the word 'seemingly,' though, because at various times throughout In Flight, she proves that she is more than a one-trick melodramatic pony. True, songs like the excellent "Fill Me Up" and "Freeway" start off gentle but then bring out her powerful, ass-kicking voice--backed with some excellent accompaniment--but both songs return to the gentle side. "Knock Me Out" is a dark, rainy blues number that features Grace Slick, but it's a testament to Perry's skill that it's nearly impossible to distinguish her voice with Slick's older, hardened voice. "Taken" is a quiet number with a hushed, understated synth melody and some downright gentle falsetto. Then there's the wonderfully grand "Too Deep," which features Perry singing painful words about disillusion about one's talents and one's self, while an orchestra builds the song up and makes it louder and bigger and powerful and painful, creating the sensation that one is falling into the pit of despair. The only time In Flight really falters is on the silly cabaret-styled "Fruitloop Daydream," but that's towards the end of the record, and Perry quickly compensates with two excellent songs, "Machine Man" and the gentle, hushed title track--a simple song about the risks of taking a risk and coming forward and flying out on one's own. It's a fitting finale to a complex, often heavy and emotionally draining listening experience.

In Flight is a powerful record that will put some people off. For others, it will draw you back for repeated listens. Yeah, she was in 4 Non Blones. Forget about them. Yeah, at times her voice is extremely over-the-top and can make songs sound alike--but you must not be distracted by the obvious, you must look past that and you must listen to everything. In Flight is a difficult record; it's not an easy listen, but for those willing to work past these difficulties, the reward is the same: discovering that In Flight is more than a mere alternative-rock anomaly--it's a stunning masterpiece and a lost classic.

And to you, Ms. Perry, I have but one thing to say: I'm sorry. I was wrong.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.killrockstars.com/inflight
Label Website: http://www.killrockstars.com

October 15, 2005

Various Artists "Weeds"

A TV comedy about a pot dealer? Hm, sounds...interesting. It's certainly an idea that wouldn't have flown a few years ago, but that's exactly what the hip show Weeds is. Not having cable, I've never seen the show, but it's an interesting premise, even if it's more than a bit...shocking. The idea of a suburban housewife becoming a drug dealer...and it's a comedy? Wow. The times, they are a-changin'. Naturally, it's a hip show, and a hip show requires a hip soundtrack, right? Right!

As soundtracks go, Weeds is a fun, varied affair. Though there are a few names that are familiar, the song selections tend to lean toward the quirky and the obscure--which is just fine! Otherwise, one wouldn't have experienced the smile-inducing joy of NRBQ's "Wacky Tobacky," the sweet power-pop of All Too Much's "More Than A Friend," the downcast Martin Creed's "I Can't Move," the zydeco-style busker fun of Hill of Beans' "Satan Lend Me a Dollar" and the vintage weirdness of Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes." The less obscure artists offer some good material, too; it's always nice to hear Peggy Lee, and there are excellent offerings by Flogging Molly, Sufjan Stevens, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Nelly McKay and The Mountain Goats.

So while the show may or may not last, Weeds is at least a fun...um...score? Yeah. Bad pun. Good soundtrack.

--Joseph Kyle

Series Website: http://www.sho.com/site/weeds/
Label Website: http://www.rykodisc.com

October 13, 2005

Interview: Harvey Danger's Sean Nelson

Ahhhhh, Harvey Danger! You may remember them from such pop hits as "Flagpole Sitta" and...well...nothing else. See, back in that heady year of 1998, they were part of a very brief Power Pop revival, one that included bands like Third Eye Blind, Semisonic, Fastball and Vertical Horizon. Yeah, yeah, if you're old enough, you remember those songs, and you'll remember how they were overplayed. But if you go back and listen to them now, you'll discover something rather shocking: these songs are excellent. These bands wrote great songs in spite of their one-hit wonder status--and Harvey Danger was no exception.

But like these other bands, Harvey Danger's post-hit story is a little bit messy, and as you'll soon see, it caused the band to split. After releasing
King James Version, an excellent record in every sense of the word, the band split, simply because...well, no one knew that they'd released a new record. But a well-received ten year reunion show prompted the band to consider reforming, leading them to record Little by Little.., the band's best record to date. It's a wonderful album--and to prove how good it is, they decided to give it away via download. It's a radical move, and one that's reaped them a great deal of attention--and rightly so. As you can see, Nelson has a lot to say, and it's an honor to present this brief but extensive interview with the man himself. It's insightful, it's telling, it's entertaining, and it's one of my favorite interviews to date.

If we could look back for a moment, what happened with King James Version? Could you describe some of the hassles that you had with the label at the time, and were these things responsible for Harvey Danger's break-up that followed?

The short answer is that the music business happened to it. Though I could tear open all the psychic wounds that have covered over that period in my mind, I think it best just to say that we signed up with the wrong label. Though, in all fairness, it wasn’t really their fault, exactly—not at first, anyway. Around the middle of 1998, when everything was going great guns with “Flagpole Sitta” and all we as a band could think about was how eager we were to get off the road, spread our wings, and make a new record (remember that Merrymakers was recorded in 1996, so by then it was very old for us), we started hearing about how some beverage company was buying some record company and how there was going to be some kind of merger or whatever. We thought very little of it because, frankly, we were too busy pretending that we weren’t really part of the music business because we preferred Pavement to Sugar Ray. But then, as we were making the second record, finally, in 1999, after 8 solid months of touring, the merger happened, our label was dissolved, and we had to spend almost two years wondering who owned our contract, which label would work with us, and, ultimately, how to get dropped so we could just put KJV (which we were and are fiercely proud of) out on Barsuk. It was a miserable time, easily the worst I’ve ever felt—all that success, tainted though it was by the cheapness of the inevitable one-hit wonder associations, felt like the big league dues we had to pay before we could drop what we felt like was a much more impressive and meaningful work on the world of “Flagpole” listeners/radio programmers/all-purpose haters. But it was not to be. By the time all the legal bullshit finally got sorted out, it was Fall of 2000, the radio and MTV had completed their transformation into Limp Bizkitry, and no one wanted to know about little HD anymore, industry-wise… which would have been fine if we hadn’t just spent so much time and effort immersed in that industry. It was just too heartbreaking, and none of us had the stamina to continue. We did a bit touring and got a lot of excellent press, but the prevailing sense was that the world had no idea KJV had even come out. Though it has gone on to be a legitimate cult record, and that is deeply gratifying, the anticlimax of its release was really what killed the band’s spirit. The body followed about seven months later. It was really sad.

What prompted you to rekindle the Harvey Danger torch? Was there a particular moment that made you think, "it's time...the world needs us!"?

I wish I felt like the world needed us! No, it’s way more like we decided that we needed the world, or rather, that we needed each other. There arose a shared conviction between me, Jeff, and Aaron that we still had work to do, that we could power through the angst of the past and make better music together than we could separately. That was all. I had worked with both Jeff and Aaron separately through the three years we were broken up, writing songs, sometimes doing impromptu performances with friends (I hosted a variety show called “All Things To All People” in Seattle for a couple of years, and we did a lot of stuff there). It was only a matter of time (and much, much hemming and hawing) before we all three tried to get some stuff going. Then, when I was in the throes of making my putative solo record (more on this below), we decided to take a couple of the songs we’d been working on into the studio, just for a day, just to get them down. They were “Wine, Women, and Song” and “I Missed It,” both of which wound up on Little By Little… (the latter is on the bonus disc). It just felt amazing and right, the way it hadn’t felt for years—either on my own in the studio or for the last few years of Harvey Danger. There was chemistry again. Ira from Nada Surf played drums. It was the day before The Long Winters were leaving on another tour, and I spent the whole time listening to those two songs. When I got back, I was pretty much resolved that no matter how we decided to do it, no matter what we called it or what form it took, the three of us were musically involved again. Fortunately, Jeff and Aaron felt the same. The 10th anniversary show we played in April of 2004 was what clinched it. It was an amazing sense of communion with the audience and each other, a line around the block, TV cameras, waterslides, laser tag, the whole thing. People flew in from all over the country. It was easily one of the highlights of my life. Though I’d met a lot of people while touring with the Long Winters who’d told me bashfully how much they missed Harvey Danger, and how much they loved King James Version, it didn’t really click until that night that there was a real audience out there who had a meaningful connection with the work we did, and not just the one song. Still, we decided to take it slowly. It wasn’t until we hooked up with Michael Welke, our new drummer, that it really made sense to get serious. The new record was an extension of the enthusiasm we rediscovered for playing together.

In visiting your fan forum, it seems as if your loyal and longtime fans are quick to dismiss 'the hit' and are even quicker to point out that there's more to Harvey Danger than that one moment seven years ago. Looking back, is it tempting to be dismissive or cynical about the success of "Flagpole Sitta?"

The fear isn’t that we’ll only ever be known for one song; that’s pretty much a certainty, since the circumstances that brought us to the national stage are unlikely ever to repeat themselves. The issue is that “Flagpole” belongs to the world (which, as The Smiths remind us, won’t listen) and the rest of the songs belong to us and the true fans. I think it’s the same with any band that has had a similar experience, but perhaps a bit more pronounced with us because “Flagpole Sitta” is kind of a stylistic anomaly among our other stuff—and certainly our new material. It’s always a little more satisfying when someone develops a relationship with the songs you know they had to seek out, whereas basically anyone in the world might have been exposed to “Flagpole.” With all that in mind, I’ve really come to terms with that song and its success. It’s well put together, catchy as hell, and it still makes me chuckle to think it was ever so freaking huge, since I still think the words are kind of subversive, at least for the commercial airwaves. And a surprising number of very cool people have expressed their admiration for what the song is really up to. Though I still have to leave the room most times it comes on the radio or jukebox or whatever, I’ve also started to enjoy playing it live—mainly because we now don’t have to do so every time we perform. There’s nothing like a hit to light up a room.

Have you been tempted to pull a Jacob Slichter and write a tell-all biography about your music biz experience? And, um, why haven't you? (Slichter is the drummer of Semisonic, who in 2004 published a very telling and often hilarious biography, So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star?)

It was actually Jake’s book that made me put away the 75 pages of detailed notes I had compiled with just such a project in mind. Not necessarily a tell-all, but a memoir. He did a great job with that book of his—though, it was really interesting to read his version of certain events at which I was actually physically present, and how different my perspective on them was (we toured with Semisonic for 3 weeks in ’98 at our mutual career peaks). I don’t know. It could happen. I sort of feel like making an effort to put all that stuff behind me rather than re-dredging it might be a more fruitful enterprise. Still, I appreciate the thought, and the tacit vote of confidence that comes with it.

From the very first notes of "Wine, Women & Song," it's obvious that Little by Little... heralds a new direction for Harvey Danger. Was it intentional that you made a mellower record--one with more intricate arrangements and a newfound prominence of piano--or were you just as surprised to find that this was the direction your muse decided to go?

It was definitely intentional on my part. I’d been trying to convince Jeff to play more piano for years, since “Pike St./Park Slope” had come together so nicely. He was reluctant, I think, because he associates it with his pre-rock period (childhood lessons and such). I just think he comes up with great, expressive piano parts, and that it would be interesting to try something different from what we’d grown accustomed to as a young band. It felt like a good challenge to confront. The main thing, though, in terms of the overall feel is that most of these songs were written in the living room of my apartment (where the piano lives), and therefore have a necessarily mellower sound—the sound of an apartment, where you can’t play too loud without pissing off the neighbors, as opposed to our previous records, which were written in basements and practice spaces, where you kind of want to piss off as many neighbors as possible. We’re just not like that anymore--though maybe we will be again. I know I’ve found myself reaching for This Year’s Model quite a bit lately, now that we’ve made our mellow, stately melodic record. The next batch of songs will likely be more rock.

The reasoning behind your decision to give away Little by Little is quite intriguing. At what point did you decide on such an unusual (at least for a much more well-known band like Harvey Danger) method of distribution? How has the reaction been so far; how many copies have been downloaded so far--and do you think this decision's helped?

The idea was hatched after we played a big successful showcase at SXSW just after we’d finished the record. We just couldn’t escape the conviction that none of the standard issue modes of being a band made sense to us. We don’t fit on majors and we don’t really fit on indies. We can’t do extensive touring, we’re not young and hot, and there’s weird baggage attached to our name. In addition, there’s the discomfort when working with labels of meeting other people’s expectations—even reasonable ones—and more to the point, their schedules. The main issue was that we wanted people to hear the record in a timely fashion, money be damned. We also reasoned that no matter what we did, we’d have to figure out some way of dealing with the—let’s call it skepticism (for charity’s sake)—that always plagues bands who try and make comebacks. The guys in Nada Surf dealt with it by 1) making their best record to date, and 2) touring their fucking asses off. We felt like we’d done #1, but for a variety of personal reasons, simply could not commit to doing #2. All of these factors were part of the decision. It also just feels weirdly right. And Jeff is a computer nerd, so he has really enjoyed masterminding the whole operation (with a little help from his friends). The key issue: We wanted to remove all obstacles to people hearing the record and developing a relationship with our music and our band. Working backwards from there, it wasn’t too hard to arrive at a free download model. Best of all, it seems to be working; by the time this gets printed, we’ll probably be sitting with around 100,000 downloads or so. And the hard copy version is also selling pretty well, especially in Seattle. We’ll be doing a bit of touring next year, so I guess that’ll be the real test, but for now, everything seems to be in its right place, to coin a phrase…

It's also rumored that you have a solo album waiting in the wings. What's the story behind that, who did you work with, and will it see the light of day any time soon?

In the three years that Harvey Danger was broken up, when I wasn’t busy touring with The Long Winters, I began no fewer than four solo or collaborative projects, all of which are in some stage of near-completion. They are, in no real order: 1) Sean Nelson and His Mortal Enemies—a collection of songs I’ve written alone and co-written with Peter Buck and Aaron from HD, and recorded with members of Centro-matic, Little Grizzly, and Okkervil River. Robyn Hitchcock also makes a cameo on one of the songs. 2) Nelson Sings Nilsson—an album of Harry Nilsson covers I’m making with Steve Fisk. 3) Society of the Golden West—a robot pop collaboration with Fisk and John Goodmanson (and just to give you a sense of how long we’ve been dicking around, this project actually pre-dates the Postal Service). 4) The Vernacular—me and Chris Walla making rock songs. I have no idea if or when any of this stuff will ever see the light of day. It’s complicated.

(At the risk of tooting my own horn, I’ve also been doing a lot of session work as a harmony singer. In the past few years, I’ve appeared on three Death Cab for Cutie records, as well as two by the Long Winters (duh), and one each by Nada Surf, The Decemberists, and Robyn Hitchcock. More to come. It’s really fun.)

Looking back over your experiences from the last eleven years, what advice would you give to young musicians and bands?

My/our experience is so bizarre that I kind of don’t feel qualified to give much advice. What I will say is that no force can destroy a band that knows what they want and who they are. It’s difficult sometimes to believe that the clichés of music can pertain to you, but they really can (and in many cases, they probably already do). My advice is to show up on time, keep challenging yourself, don’t ask/wait for anyone else’s permission to record or tour, and generally aim for self-sufficiency, because that’s the only thing that ends up being truly satisfying. And always bet on black…

Final question: so where have all the merrymakers gone?

Where, indeed! I think I saw them heading to your mom’s house…

Thanks, Sean!

Harvey Danger photo courtesy of Ryan Shierling

Mt. Egypt "Perspectives"

Mt. Egypt's second album, Perspectives, sure has annoyed me. The first time I listened to it, I played it on my stereo. I tried to listen to it while working on some other projects, but it bored me somethin' terrible. I was convinced that Mt. Egypt's Travis Graves was nothing more than a second-rate folkie singing pseudo-Neil Young songs in a Will Oldham kind of way. After all, such artists are a dime a dozen these days, especially with the whole "freak folk" thing being popular. So with such feelings in mind, I prepared to write this review. I put Perspectives on my discman, only to discover that this record wasn't nearly as bad as my first listen.

It only took one listen to "We Are Here" to realize that I'd been quite wrong about Perspectives. Graves sings with a hushed, quiet reserve, tempered with a gentle sensitivity that's rare for this particular musical style. Accompanied by subtle washes of guitar, piano and percussion , songs like "Yeah Man" and "Snow Through The Pass" are humble aural treats that come alive in a quite beautiful way in the headphones. "The Now Penguin" highlights this quite well--underneath Graves' singing, you'll find a beautiful piano and string arrangement--it's one that's missed if you don't listen to it without some concentration. The pace never changes; listening to Perspectives feels like a Mississippi porch on a humid Saturday night.

This highlights Perspectives' fatal flaw: the arrangements are subtle to the point of being nonexistent, and as such, it quickly gives the record a monotonous feel. It's unfortunate, though, because Perspectives is an otherwise lovely listen. One could say it's due to a poor mix, or one could say that Graves simply uses the same formula for his songwriting, but neither of those answers quite satisfy as to why Perspectives comes across the way it does. Still, if you can discern the differences, or you simply listen to it piecemeal, Perspectives is an enjoyable, touching listen.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.mtegypt.com
Label Website: http://www.recordcollectionmusic.com

October 11, 2005

Why? "Elephant Eyelash"

Earlier this year, ex-cLOUDDEAD member Yoni Wolf (better known as Why?) released Sanddollars, an EP that strayed from the Anticon template by emphasizing live instrumentation over murky, mechanized beats and shoehorning Wolf’s stream-of-consciousness rants into verse/chorus format. It was arguably the first Anticon release since cLOUDDEAD’s breakup that you could sing along to, and it felt like a new vista had been opened up in Wolf’s songwriting. The musicians that helped Wolf record Sanddollars (brother Josiah Wolf, Doug McDiarmid and Matt Meldon) have since gelled into an honest-to-goodness backing band and recorded a full album collaboratively with him. If the transition that Wolf’s music made between his first solo album Oaklandazulasylum and Sanddollars was like a black-and-white movie being colorized, then his new album Elephant Eyelash is like that same movie getting the IMAX treatment.

Whenever a critic says that an album “rewards repeated listens,” I usually interpret it as a sneaky way of saying that it sucks, or that I’ll have to force myself to like it. In the case of Elephant Eyelash, though, multiple listens on an excellent stereo system are absolutely necessary. Even though Wolf sings more than he raps, he still delivers his lyrics rapidly enough to induce whiplash. If you use this record merely as background music, you’ll think that he’s just spitting out nonsense when, in reality, he’s using surreal images and odd analogies to say relatable (and often poignant) things. Wolf’s backing band matches him every step of the way, supplying backdrops that are just as layered and indelible as his lyrics. On “The Hoofs,” he sings, “There’s something new in the foreground/in a poster of some Asian mountains/that says ‘patience’ in the funky italics,” and it makes complete sense. Such attention to detail is what makes this album great.

Opener “Crushed Bones” begins with brushed drums, mellow keyboards and finger-picked acoustic guitars. Like most emcees, Wolf lets out a few spoken exhortations before the first verse. Instead of rapping, though, he unleashes a gorgeous falsetto and starts singing about the changes his personality has undergone through the years, placed in the context of changing fashion trends --- from “navy blue hoodies and khakis” to “fishnet hats and canvas shoes.” Halfway through, the music changes key and gain intensity. At the song’s climax, someone starts punching instruments out of the mix, and Wolf briefly switches from singing back to rapping. When he resumes singing, the song quickly reverts back to the placid state in which it began before ending once and for all. The song’s parabolic structure is what makes it memorable, despite the absence of a strong hook.

“Yo Yo Bye Bye” is one of many songs on Elephant Eyelash that examines the decay of a relationship. It begins with Wolf talking to his girlfriend on someone else’s cell phone during a sound check in San Antonio. He laments her frigidity in one line (“you act like a slut but you‘re really a freezer“), only to point the finger back at himself in the next (“I’m f*ckin’ cold like a DQ blizzard”). The song reaches its apex, though, when he ditches the similes and simply speaks his mind: “We have to change if we’re gonna stay together.” The rhythm track switches from turntable scratching to live drumming, a tactic that underscores the confusion Wolf expresses in his lyrics; meanwhile, watery piano chords bring out the melancholy in his voice. Wolf addresses his grievances again four songs later on “Gemini (Birthday Song).” Against chiming guitars, wheezing synthesizers and weepy pedal steel, he laments the lack of physical intimacy in his relationship: “When I ask you to kiss my pulse/You offer to start the shower.” This time, though, he’s got a Greek chorus repeating his lyrics to him at crucial instances. Four songs later (“Whispers Into the Other”), he gets fed up and shakes off his dependency on her. In a strangely assertive and soulful voice, he issues his parting shot: “I don’t want to dance with your shadow no more!”

When Wolf isn’t venting about girl trouble, he’s pondering his own mortality. Elephant Eyelash closes with a particularly morbid one-two punch. “Act Five” revolves around the lament, “All the people who taught me card tricks are dying/I’ve been trying to get my pop’s good looks off from old snapshots.” Wolf wails against a backdrop of swelling drum rolls, piercing recorders and martial acoustic guitars. It’s a more dramatic and eloquent reflection on death than anything Phil Elvrum’s done since the Microphones’ Mount Eerie. Then, there’s “Light Leaves,” which Wolf spends planning his own funeral: “I don’t want no casket/No saddle/No see-through plastic mask!”

Although Wolf’s lyrics take center stage throughout the album, his backing band seriously upstages him on “Fall Saddles.” Wolf’s lyrics about listening to old audio letters from people he once knew are as vivid and reflective as ever. However, the music goes through SEVEN different permutations in less than three minutes: funereal horn blurts straight out of a Neutral Milk Hotel record, a brief homage to the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and a fuzz-rock blowout are just three of them. If Wolf had attempted to make a song like this on his own, it probably would’ve been a mess --- check out the album he did under the Reaching Quiet name if you don’t believe me. The only time the band’s arrangements falter is, ironically, on the remake of Sanddollars‘ title track, during which they tack on an extra verse that feels…well, tacked-on!

That quibble aside, Elephant Eyelash should completely silence anyone who doubted Wolf’s ability to find his own voice after the breakup of cLOUDDEAD. Not only has his writing become consistently incisive, but his singing has also grown by leaps and bounds. You’d never think a voice as thin and nasal as his could hit the notes that it does until you hear these songs. If you can appreciate hip-hop and indie-pop equally, and you need some good music to get over that former special someone with, this album was made for you. Get thee hence to the record store!

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.anticon.com/a-why.htm
Label Website: http://www.anticon.com

Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice "Buck Dharma"

I am going to be straight up and say that the Wooden Wand story makes no sense. In my humble opinion, it comes across like a put-on, and as such, it really doesn't have much to do with the actual MUSIC. This New York collective fits in nicely with the Devendra/"freak folk" scene, because certain characteristics certainly apply to Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice: a weird back story, odd music that's built on a folk foundation, but sung with, ahem, "unique" voices, odd musical arrangements and general weirdness. These bands often go to great pains to align themselves with psychedelic folk and rock, usually seeking inspiration with obscure folk artists and bands of the late 60s and early 70s.

Buck Dharma is Wooden Wand's latest release, but "latest" is a relative term. First of all, this band releaes alot of things, in the form of Cd-R's and vinyl-only records, as well as tour-only albums. Secondly, Buck Dharma is actually a reissue of a limited-edition two-LP set from a few years ago. It's easy to see how this record worked as a vinyl release, because it's somewhat of a difficult listen. Most of the nine songs on the album extend well over the five minute mark, with two of them being ten minutes long. On vinyl, there would be a nice division of tracks, to be appreciated in bite-sized listening portions, but on CD, it's just one long, hazy jam session. Sadly, songs like the pretty "I Am The One I Am & He Is The Caretaker of My Heart" and "Arisen From The Ashes" are buried treasures underneath a pile of less captivating, repetitve jam-rock numbers like "Satya Sai Scupetty Plays 'Reverse Jam Band'" and "Owl Fowl," long, monotonous numbers that simply test the listener's patience.

Though their live performances are much more traditionally folk-based, and they're capable of making pretty folk-rock, Buck Dharma is clearly a moment of free-rock experimentation for this 'freak-folk' band. Whether or not it's something you'll dig depends on your tolerance. Perhaps, though, Buck Dharma is a better on vinyl than a CD? Perhaps. Buck Dharma is a relic that's recommended only for the faithful.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://woodenwand.sinkhole.net/
Label Website: http://www.5rc.com

October 10, 2005

Explosions In The Sky "How Strange, Innocence"

Back in the summer of 2000, I took a road trip to Austin. While I was there, I ran into this kid I knew named Munaf. He lived in Midland, but I would often tap his band, Satori, as openers for some of the shows I booked, and when he was in town, he'd come by and hang out at the record store I worked at. But both the club and the record store closed down, and I hadn't seen any of those guys since. So it was a happy occasion for me to run into him. I asked him what he was doing, and he told me that he and some of the guys had moved to Austin and had started a band. He said they'd just released their debut album, and he just happened to have a copy of it. He proudly handed me the record, saying that he hoped I'd like it. He gave me a hug, thanked me for the support--again repeating that he hoped I liked his new record--and promised me they'd play Lubbock soon. I didn't have a way to listen to it at the time, but I put it on my pile of records from that weekend and anxiously looked forward to hearing it. Sure enough, I got home and listened to his record--How Strange, Innocence--and loved it. It didn't really sound like Satori--but what it did sound like was much, much better than what I'd expected.

I never understood why they chose to keep the record out of print. It seemed that they were embarassed by the record, which isn't really understandable. It's a great record, and it's not the tentative, embarassing baby-steps as they might think. Yeah, it's a debut record, and debut records do have a tendency to be embarassing, but that's most certainly not the case with How Strange, Innocence. True, the band's sound would become much more cinematic over the next year, and their second album, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever didn't seem like that much of a progression--it seemed to merely expand on their debut's strong points--strong points which, sadly, very few have actually heard. I've heard that so sought after was this record, it wasn't uncommon to find it selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay. I could never think to part with my copy--because, to me, it's worth so much more.

This reissue rights that wrong, and it's about time. For those of you who are experiencing this record for the first time, you won't discover anything particularly revelatory; though it's been lost for nearly half a decade, it fits in nicely with their other releases, and there are some great, beautiful moments of utterly breathtaking proportions. Personally, I've loved "Snow and Lights" and "Look Into The Air" for ages. It's on those songs that the band started to blend the emptiness of West Texas into something grand--the initial baby-steps of what was to come next. Explosions In The Sky was born a leader--at the time of How Strange, Innocence, the band had only recently formed--and these early recordings rarely, if ever, betray their young age, and it paves the way for what would come next. The only thing the album doesn't do is tell you just how far their music would--and could, and can, and will--take them.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.explosionsinthesky.com
Label Website: http://www.temporaryresidence.com

Richard Swift "The Richard Swift Collection, Volume 1: The Novelist/Walking Without Effort"

For the past year, some friends of mine have talked endlessly of the brilliance of Richard Swift. These people toured California with him, and ever since that mini-tour, they've sung his praises, always saying that he's one of today's top songwriting talents. An enthusiastic boast, to be sure--but it's also one that definitely piques curiosity. Of course, there's been one major obstacle in finding out whether or not this is so--availability. How can you prove your genius if no one can hear your music? The Richard Swift Collection, Volume One is a quick introduction for those of you (and by 'those,' I mean 99.9%) who might have missed him the first time around. The two-disc set collects his two previous efforts, Walking Without Effort and The Novelist. Though both records are somewhat brief, the decision was made to issue them individually, because they are two distinctively different records.

Walking Without Effort is a rather straightforward affair. Though not as distinctive or as unique as The Novelist, it is also a fine collection of songs. This album shows Swift's skills are indebted to musicians like Elton John and Randy Newman--clever and heartfelt, with a nice balance between lyrical style and musical accompaniment, simple songs with the barest of essentials. The songs are mellow, somewhat sad, and are highlighted by Swift's one-too-many-beers-and-cigarettes-last-night voice. Songs like "Half Lit" and "As I Go" are accentuated by excellent horn sections, but the arrangements never overwhelm the songwriting. So subtle are these arrangements that to listen to Walking Without Effort on headphones is a quietly joyous affair, because the album gains a new perspective from such a close listening experience. At times, though, on "Alone," "Beneath," and "Not Wasting Time," one feels that Swift is wanting to expand his music outward, into new directions, yet he's not quite sure what he wants to do next.

That experimentation would be found on his follow-up record, The Novelist. It's a brief affair, with eight songs in eighteen minutes, but don't let the record's brevity fool you. Swift is a masterful musician, and he is quite adept at utilizing every second of that brief amout of time, and The Novelist is a full-bodied collection that feels much bigger and much longer than it really is. An experiment of sorts, these songs are all buit around song structures and instrumental arrangements of the 1920s and 30s. It's an interesting concept, and it's quite rewarding. But it's not that he's making "retro" music--he's simply applying compositional ideas and arrangements from the past to more contemporary songwriting. "Lonely Night" has a jazz accompaniment, complete with ragtime piano, trumpet and gorgeous harmonies. Then there's the simply wonderful ukelele on "Sadsong Street." But it's not all a recreation of the past; "Lady Day" blends a drum machine with gorgeous Cole Porter-style songwriting,

The Richard Swift Collection, Volume 1: The Novelist/Walking Without Effort is an excellent introduction to the music of Richard Swift. Secretly Canadian has once again performed a great service by pulling him from painful obscurity and introducing him to the world at large. If these records constitute Swift making music on his own for a limited audience, the notion of what he'll do now that he has an attentive audience is quite appealing. A true talent, this Swift.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.richardswift.us
Label Website: http://www.secretlycanadian.com

The Life and Times "Suburban Hymns"

Somewhere in Kansas City, the city that Allen Epley calls home, there’s a coterie of hipsters who would look at me like I had three heads if I told them that my first exposure to his music was through his current band, the Life and Times. They’d probably have the same reaction that I had when I met people who didn’t know who Stephen Malkmus was until he formed the Jicks. However, there’s an advantage to not knowing much about their previous bands: it allows one to evaluate their current music on its own terms, rather than unfairly comparing it to the music they made during their so-called “glory days.” Thus, just as my friend Sophia is able to appreciate Malkmus’ Face the Truth as the worthy album it is without the scepter of Pavement hovering over her head, I can listen to the Life and Times’ debut album Suburban Hymns without being forced to compare it to Shiner. Frankly, I think people like us ought to be envied.

It must be said, though, that the music Epley makes with the Life and Times is basically a streamlining of the sound that Shiner began to crystallize on their final album, 2001’s awesome The Egg. It’s a sound that I like to call “shoegaze on steroids.” There are a number of other bands I would give this description to (Hum, Failure, Electro Group) but, since most of them are either defunct or take way too long to make albums, I’m willing to call the Life and Times its leading practitioners.

Opening track “My Last Hostage” serves as a sonic template for everything that comes after it. Epley’s guitar plucks out high-pitched arpeggios, so drenched in distortion and reverb that the notes quickly blur into each other. His slightly raspy croon draws out each syllable so slowly that his words literally pull against the brisk tempo of the song. Synthesizers lurk and swoop over him as he sings. While Epley gazes at his shoes, his rhythm section supplies the steroids. Eric Albert outlines the actual chord progression with a muscular bass line, while Chris Metcalf drums with the swagger and force of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. These two are the Life and Times’ secret weapon, ensuring at all times that Epley’s dreamy, diffuse songs rock way harder than they have any right to.

Although Suburban Hymns is consistent almost to a fault, a couple of tracks do stand out. “Muscle Cars” sounds a bit like Interpol gone dub: the verses ride a dark, five-note guitar melody, while the stop/start drumming is run through various studio filters at seemingly random intervals. “Thrill Ride” is the closest that the band comes to making a ballad; the lugubrious music sharply contrasts the excitement Epley sings about in the chorus (“blasting my way out/bombs fall around me”). On the verses of “Shift Your Gaze,” Epley’s voice blends in so thoroughly with his guitar that the music assumes trance-like properties. It’s the perfect backdrop for the lyrics, in which Epley selflessly submits to a distant other. Last but not least, there’s “Skateland,” which is my personal favorite. Not only does this song boast the album’s best bass line, but the lyrics catalogue adolescent memories with haiku-like economy (“these southern days/radio station/black rollerskates”).

This album isn’t perfect: a couple of songs are short on hooks, and “Mea Culpa” is too long. However, at 42 minutes, the Life and Times don’t give themselves enough time to make any major screw-ups. Suburban Hymns is a solid --- often excellent --- album by a band good enough to render its members’ pedigrees completely irrelevant. If their next album can maintain this level of quality and supply a bit more stylistic diversity, Epley will have another classic album in his hands.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.thelifeandtimes.com
Label Website: http://www.desotorecords.com

October 05, 2005

El Ten Eleven "El Ten Eleven"

Instrumental music is always a dicey proposition; you’ve got to be original, you’ve got to sound good, and, most of all, you better know what the hell you're doing, else you'll wind up simply being boring. Luckily, the LA-based duo El Ten Eleven excel at all of the above. Having played together in The Incredible Moses Leroy, guitarist Kristian Dunn and drummer Tim Fogarty have a long-standing creative relationship, and this musical bond really shows. The songs on El Ten Eleven, the duo’s debut album, harmonize in a way not unlike many vocal bands, and it's not hard to understand why the two chose to continue their collaboration.

While many instrumental groups tend to favor a "more is more" approach to their songwriting, El Ten Eleven have an easy, gentle style that's really quite charming--a style that's light and pretty, but never to the point of being lightweight or boring. Your might not fall asleep by listening to "Sorry About Your Irony" or "1969," but they will mellow you out and make you feel comfortable after a long day of work. Don't think that being easy on the ears means that the music doesn't contain impressive musical ability, because Dunn is an excellent guitar player; just one listen to the intricate work on “My Only Swerving” or “Connie,” and you’ll quickly realize you’re listening to a very accomplished guitar player. Nothing on El Ten Eleven is too complicated, though; it’s simply a pleasant-sounding record that’s a treat to listen to.

El Ten Eleven is a lovely little record; it’s brief, but in its brevity, it’s extremely succinct, and it proves that this duo’s long-term collaboration is one that can produce beautiful, pretty music.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.elteneleven.com
Label Website: http://www.bar-none.com

Xiu Xiu "La Foret"

Three years after its release, I still believe that Xiu Xiu’s Knife Play is one of the most lyrically depressing and musically creative albums I’ve ever heard. Frontman Jamie Stewart sang tales of boredom, alienation, disease and suicide in an unfathomably histrionic tenor, amid harsh and disjointed backdrops that borrowed from industrial music, gamelan and torch balladry. The album made me queasy the first time I heard it, but that didn’t stop me from listening to it again and again. Although Xiu Xiu’s subsequent albums were all worthy, they didn’t pack nearly as much of a punch as Knife Play did. Their sophomore album A Promise tried so hard to be minimalist that it just ended up sounding undercooked. Fag Patrol‘s acoustic remakes of previously released Xiu Xiu songs didn’t interest me much, as part of Xiu Xiu’s appeal was their unconventional approach to instrumentation. Although fourth album Fabulous Muscles was an improvement, it too boasted too many remakes, and some of its songs were marred by clunky arrangements. I wondered if Xiu Xiu would EVER deliver another album that was solid from start to finish. With their latest album La Foret, I no longer need to wonder.

A number of songs on La Foret come across as the products of the failed experiments on previous albums. With its insistent kick drum and jarring, out-of-tune piano playing, “Mousey Toy” sounds like a close cousin of “Walnut House,” my least favorite song on A Promise. Fortunately, “Mousey Toy” has a stronger melody and a much more discernible structure. “Rose of Sharon (Grey Ghost Version)” is rare in that it’s a remake of a previously released Xiu Xiu song that actually IMPROVES upon the original version. Its droning harmoniums stretch the chord progression out until the song seems to stop time itself, while Jamie’s wobbly voice slowly rises to operatic levels of grandeur and intensity. Last but not least, there’s “Saturn,” whose introduction alone sounds like it was recorded in a war zone: flat-handed keyboards produce jarring bursts of dissonance, while the drum programming imitates the blast of machine guns. Jamie’s tense whispers are barely audible underneath the cacophony. The lyrics refer to our President by name and include a veiled reference to the Abu Ghraib scandal, but the music and the vocal delivery is what truly makes the song a more effective antiwar screed than Fabulous Muscles’ spoken-word disaster “Support Our Troops.”

The songs on La Foret revolve around the themes of power and anger. Jamie spends opening track “Clover” begging his antagonist not to abuse the power that he/she has over him: “Please please please/don’t don’t don’t/walk like my single hope.” The next song, “Muppet Face,” is a lurid account of someone (possibly a child, if the youthful giggling underneath the rhythm track is any indication) being raped at gunpoint. “Mousey Toy” finds Jamie crumbling under an antagonist’s seductive spell: “How did I end up here curled up on this couch? Where did you learn such a bold wink, whisking me off to your bedroom?”

Subsequent songs find Jamie taking a more aggressive tone. On “Pox,” his voice sounds paralyzed by fright, but the force with which he strums his guitar underscores the hatred in his lyrics. “Jesus is wondering,” he sings in the chorus, “if even He can love you.” Later on in the song, he tells his antagonist’s “sickening daughters” that “community college is waiting for them,” as if such a fate is even WORSE than eternal damnation. I don’t know if the people Jamie’s singing to or about actually exist, but the vividness of his lyrics make the Ecstacy-fueled biker in “Baby Captain,” the fat gamer trying in vain to cuddle up next to her cat in “Ale,” and the “bag lady’s son/beating off to the escort pages” in “Yellow Raspberry” feel real to me. When Jamie asks these people at album’s end, “What has changed as you tell the mirror hello?,” I already know the answer…and it ain’t good.

Throughout La Foret, Xiu Xiu creates musical backdrops that are equally as evocative as the lyrics. “Bog People” is a pessimist’s anthem (the chorus goes, “Why ask? Is there any reason? Why ask if it will just let up?”) that pits Jamie’s bright autoharp against band mate Caralee McElroy’s hissing percussion. The result sounds like a Celtic jig performed in the middle of a factory performing at full capacity. “Dangerous You Shouldn’t Be Here” is a stark lament for a friend who died from drowning. Like the metaphorical witch who “has come from under the ocean and…snatched my baby by the crook of her jaw,” the incidental sounds on this song rise from underneath Jamie‘s catatonic voice and guitar, only to disappear when they reach full volume. “Ale” does minimalism the right way, using only clarinet, percussion and voice to create a song that feels complete despite the spare instrumentation.

It took longer than I thought it would, but Xiu Xiu has finally lived up to the potential displayed on their debut album. Every song on La Foret is fully realized and essential --- which makes this album not only their best work, but also the best starting point for people who haven’t yet been exposed to their music. I’m even willing to call it one of the best albums of the year so far.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.xiuxiu.org
Label Website: http://www.5rc.com

October 04, 2005

Boduf Songs "Boduf Songs"

One of the big flaws with the whole 'freak-folk' movement is that it seems more focused on the 'freak' part, and the 'folk' part is only incidental. The only thing worse than a fake hippie is the fake hippie's utterly boring record. To those who make such music--come on, people, a little variety, please! Make something interesting happen in your music. Don't just stick to the same formula. The people you're ripping off usually had some form of variety to their music...why can't you?

Though a folk-style heart might beat under Mat Sweet's music, he tempers his songs with unusual sounds, from clanging metal (on "Claimant Reclaimed") to bells with backwards-played tapes ("Our Canon of Transportation:), field recordings ("Lost in Forests") and understated drone ("Vapour Steals the Glow"). Sweet sings in the same gray, mumbling lilt as Elliott Smith, and though he doesn't emit the same painful despair as Smith, his songs are very downbeat and lonesome. Boduf Songs is a dreary, cold and rainy listen, but its beauty is also instantly apparent.

Word has it that Boduf Songs initially served as a collection of demos, but the songs were so impressive that the label decided to release them untouched. After listening to this all-too-brief record, it's not hard to understand the label's point of view. Minimalism never sounded so beautiful, and Boduf Songs is a promising, captivating debut record.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.bluebabyrecordings.com
Label Website: http://www.kranky.net

October 03, 2005

Amp "US"

A decade after the fact, I think it’s safe to say that none of the acts commonly affiliated with the Bristol, England “post-rock” scene came close to becoming household names. Out of all of them, though, Amp seems to be the most obscure of the bunch, despite arguably being both the most pedigreed and the most quintessential. Richard Walker and Dave Pearce played in a band together before splitting to form Amp and Flying Saucer Attack, respectively. Early Amp recordings were done with Matt Elliott of Third Eye Foundation and Matt Jones of Crescent. You can tell that all of Walker’s earlier collaborators left a major imprint on the music he’s doing now. The music on Amp’s fifth album US is perched right at the center of a musical triangle, with Flying Saucer Attack’s ambient guitar noise on one end, Crescent’s murky lo-fi rock on another and Third Eye Foundation’s sinister techno on another.

Creatively named first track “Opening” begins with a drone that sounds like the hum of a tugboat, atop which the pitter-patter of programmed hi-hats ricochets around the stereo spectrum. New instruments are added to the mix, one by one. The programming is augmented by live drumming, the tugboat drone is overtaken by a swell of queasy distorted guitars and a choir of disembodied female voices (courtesy of Karine Charff) moans on top of everything. Because the layering is so slow and subtle, the result ends up being simultaneously cacophonous and soothing. It’s a trick that Amp repeats frequently throughout the record. “Get Here“ is built off a bass-driven groove reminiscent of Snowpony, until droning saxophones and scorching guitars obliterate everything in its path. “You Say” begins with acoustic guitars and hushed crooning, but turns into a white noise blizzard by the four-minute mark.

Amp is also quite fond of sound collage. “Implosion” sounds like what happens when you play a cabaret record and an environmental sound effects record at the same time. Karine croons forlornly (“I don’t know how far our love will go”) on top of lazily played keyboards and guitars, while wind blows and water splashes behind her. Toward the end of the song you can hear a ticking clock slowly edge itself above the instruments. On the similar “Will You, I’m Lost,” the environmental sound is given more prominence; you can hear snippets of conversation and maniacal laughing underneath the guitars and voices. “Think Don’t Think” takes this found sound fetish to an extreme; it consists of nothing but snippets of radio and television static edited and mixed together for three and a half minutes.

Unfortunately, it takes about seven songs for Amp to run out of ideas. Their sound is an intentionally diffuse one, and there aren’t any deviations from it on this album to sustain the average listener’s interest over the course of an hour (the ultra-minimal trip-hop of “Lopsided” being the sole exception). By the time I got to the 11-minute “Endgame,” what was once disorienting had become merely dreary. Unfortunately, you have to sit through another seven-minute song that sounds exactly like it before the album ends. On US, Amp fails to transcend the scene that spawned them; greater stylistic variation (or at least more stringent editing) may enable them to do this on future releases.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.ampbase.net
Label Website: http://www.cargorecords.co.uk/label_zoom.php?labelID=9

October 02, 2005

The Posies "Every Kind of Light"

If any band deserves to win a prize for being the most passive-aggressive, it would rightfully go to The Posies. Even though they broke up several years ago, leaders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow released a number of vintage recordings, a box set, a record or two of newly-recorded versions of Posies classics and they even toured together playing Posies tunes--but none dared call it a Posies reunion. It seems as if the band had some kind of hidden reservations about fully returning to their past.

For many people, The Posies' defenitive statement was 1993's Frosting On The Beater, a loud, hard collection of really, really wonderful pop songs, including the sticky-sweet "Flavor of the Month," the mindbendingly beautiful "Solar Sister" and the powerful "Dream All Day." Later records Amazing Disgrace and Success were good, but didn't quite have the same powerful yet catchy punch. Every Kind of Light isn't as hard, either, but that's not a fault; "All In A Day's Work," "I Finally Found a Jungle I Like!!!" and "Second Time Around" fly high and punch hard just like the Posies of yore. It's to their credit that Auer and Stringfellow didn't get caught up in trying to imitate the band's past glories; how many reunions can you think of that have been ruined by bands embarassingly trying to recreate their glory days?

Instead, the band has deftly blended the mellower soft rock country-rock elements of their last album, Success, with the harder edge of previous years, and have succeded in making the album that Success should have been. Considering that Auer & Stringfellow's various Posies "reunion" shows were acoustic, and the previous "Posies" releases before this have also been acoustic, it should come as no surprise that Every Kind of Light is a mellower affair. As they've proven themselves to be quite adept in the songwriting department, this new focus on mellower music is an unsurprisingly excellent development. Considering that Every Kind of Light sounds not unlike Stringfellow's two recent solo albums, it's probably safe to assume that this is the direction The Posies were heading.

The Posies built their reputation with superior songwriting, and they've yet to lose their magic touch. Every Kind of Light is filled with excellent songs, period. Whether it's the mellowed-out balladry of "Conversations," the gorgeous soft-rock of "Love Comes," the bluesy "It's Great to Be Here Again!," the scathing political rock of "Sweethearts of Rodeo Drive" or the harder moments of "I Finally Found a Jungle I Like!!!," you're going to find the same wonderful guitar work, the same excellent lyrics and, as always, the gorgeous Auer/Stringfellow harmonies. Throw all of these together and you've got an excellent, mature pop record from a band who, at one time, could do no wrong--and who can still do no wrong.

So while The Posies might not pack the same punch as their earlier incarnation, it's also quite apparent that Auer and Stringfellow know that they're still badass songwriters. In fact, I'm kind of glad they didn't try to imitate their glory days. Every Kind of Light is a welcome return and, simply put, it's a great record. But, really, did you expect any less from The Posies? I know I didn't.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.theposies.net
Label Website: http://www.rykodisc.com