February 28, 2006

A new record from Mahogany!

If you know this band, then you know that this second record of theirs has been a *long* time coming. But in June, Darla will release their second album proper, Connectivity! This album is produced by the legendary Robin Guthrie, who also recently signed to Darla, and will release his second solo album, Connectivity, in May. As you can hear, these two songs prove that Darla has two great records forthcoming. I don't have song titles for these two numbers, though. The Mahogany number is a fast-paced, breezy new-wave number, while the Robin Guthrie song is simply classic Guthrie.

Listen To: Mahogany--Connectivity! sample
Listen To: Robin Guthrie--Continental sample


I’m genuinely excited about this...Sweden’s Surrounded have placed three excellent, unreleased songs that are (hopefully) from their forthcoming album, Safe Tomorrow Sun, on their Myspace. Their debut album, Safety in Numbers, was released way back in 2003 via Deep Elm, is a wonderful, epic-laden masterpiece, and it whetted the appetite for a follow-up. (I wrote a wonderful review of it, but apparently it was lost.) Anyway, these three songs are sad and grand and beautiful; these songs definitely place them in a league with bands like Flaming Lips and Grandaddy. “Terra Firma Legion Farewells” and "In Comforts Tight Clothes" are deeply beautiful and grand, more epic and less "rock," but that’s really quite okay. The third number, "Bolder Acrobat," is more of a traditional sounding number, but, again, it's also quite excellent. No word on when this wonderful record will be out--but these little tastes definitely prove that their album will, in fact, be quite wonderful.

Here are a few tracks from Safety in Numbers, so you can, like, catch up:

Listen To: "Exit Serenade"
Listen To: "On Top of the World
Listen To: "Diesel Palace"
Listen To: "Better Not Be So"

February 27, 2006

The Online Romance

Occasionally, some people send me their vinyl releases. Unfortunately, my turntable doesn't work. So it takes some time for me to get around to listening to such things--if I ever do. Case in point: last summer, I received a single from a Portland-based band called The Online Romance. I still haven't heard the single, but now I really, really want to, because...well, because the song from their single is really, really good! They compare themselves to The Shins and Saturday Looks Good to Me, and for good reason. The band, led by Jack Saturn, share that same sort of lo-fi baroque pop ethic that you'll find in both bands. Not that they're derivative; they're unique enough to escape the 'imitator' tag. Apparently, there are some songs on their Myspace page; if you like rainy-day and mopey indie-pop, give this little band a check-out.

(And if you happen to possess mp3's of this single's b-sides, "Fork Number Two" and "Leaves Know Nothing of Love," you could become my friend instantly if you sent 'em to me. Expect more love for this young band in the coming weeks.)

Listen To: "Hey, Abraham"

Why? "Rubber Traits"

Last year, Why? released their best work to date, Elephant Eyelash. It's an amazing record, and it's been the gateway release for a larger audience. For those who might like a further taste--or simply need a good introduction--the brief Rubber Traits might satisfy your needs. This four-song single, released on Anticon, contains three previously unreleased tracks, and though Why? has a history of excellent EP's, Rubber Traits feels a little thin. Don't worry, though, because there's magic to be found. As one would expect, the mellow "Rubber Traits" is a sublime yet lovely affair, but the three additional numbers certainly aren't slack. "Dumb Hummer" starts off with some tribal percussion--shakers, sticks, and bongo--but it then shifts into a beautiful, kaleidoscopic number that blends hip-hop lyrical acumen with gentle guitars and swirling keyboards. Though a b-side, by no means is it lesser material. Up next is "Pick Fights," a quite brief yet wonderfully succinct rhyme about touring. Set to a slow, morose piano melody, main Why? man Yoni Wolf delivers his tale of being in a parking lot where "the boys drink courage and the girls show their navels and toes, " in a voice that could, at best, be refered to as lethargic. The final track, "Decieved," is the only weak moment on the record, with Wolf and company throwing out lines over a hip-hop backing track. Though it might not be as cohesive an EP as Sanddollars, this is a fun, enjoyable EP in its own right.

Listen To: "Rubber Traits"

About the new Mundane Sounds

A bit of history, shall we?

I created Mundane Sounds in 2001. That year was a busy one: I published a print 'zine, Lois Is My Queen, I served as a hard-working news reporter for Pitchfork Media, and I collaborated with others on another short-lived website, the basis of which would become the site you nowknow. Mundane Sounds was born out of a desire to control my own destiny, but mainly, I just wanted to have a forum where I could discuss music. It started as a bit of a lark, but then it grew and grew, and more people started to pay attention. All I wanted to do was talk about music and share my opinion, and I think I did that pretty well. In fact, Mundane Sounds has far exceeded my initial vision--I don't think I could have imagined, way back in 2001, that it would grow into what it grew into. It's hard not to smile about that, because, well, success is something to be proud of, even if it's a small-scale success.

In 2004, we switched from a weekly format to a daily format. It was the right decision, and I don't regret it one bit. In 2006, after two years in the same format, I realized that the time had come for a major change. After all, two years is a long time in the internet publishing game, and it became quite obvious that the previous format was no longer viable for my vision of what I wanted with Mundane Sounds. It's a natural step, this; now, we're able to bring you worthwhile coverage of quality music on a 24/7 basis. Though our website's look has changed, our vision behind it hasn't.

So now, here we are, a new year, a new format! I hope you like it. With this new style, we can continue to bring you well-formed opinions of the music of today, with the added bonus of having the ability to introduce you to artists you haven't heard of...yet. It's an exciting new chapter in Mundane Sounds' history, and I'm glad you're here with us. Thank you for your readership--and the best is yet to come! Expect more positive growth as we grow into our new format, because, well, we're here for you.

Dolly Mixture!

THe lovely folks at Chickfactor discovered a wonderfully rare indie-pop treat...a Dolly Mixture video! Check it out!

ps. doesn't that guitar sound a bit like Nirvana?

And another rare Dolly Mixture treat for you:
Dolly Mixture--"How Come You're A Hit With The Boys, Jane?"

Interview: Dogme 95

Listen To: Salty Air and Devil's Toes

Dogme 95's latest effort, The Reagle Beagle, is a conceptual mini-album, based upon Charles Darwin's trip on the HMS Beagle. The brainchild of Nick Wright, these eight songs closely follow the formula of Dogme's debut album, the excellent Acradian Hymns. Listening to "Salty Air and Devil's Toes" and "McMillan the Villain," you realize there's not that much difference between a chain-gang chant and a sea shanty, and as such, Dogme's funky folky style proves quite appropriate for the subject matter of a sea voyage. Not unlike The Decemberists' experimental The Tain, and the story, while fictional, is still quite amusing. Wright still sounds like a more credible Beck, and it's not hard to envision these songs being quite enjoyable in a live setting.

We recently spoke to Mr. Wright about The Reagle Beagle:

What inspired you to write about Charles Darwin's voyage?

It is kind of funny, I actually just spontaneously started writing The Reagle Beagle about a general theme and "evolution" was the main thread. Darwin was the most iconic person to represent that theme. I have done songs with historic subtext before (i.e. Civil War) but I felt it would be more interesting to kind of plant myself in the story. Therefore, the image of me on the boat with Charles Darwin popped into my head. His voyage represents a lot for science, but I wanted to use "the voyage" as a backdrop for music. Maybe help music evolve...

Even though this is a fictional tale, did the concept prompt you to do any background reading and research about Darwin?

Definitely, but more after the fact. Since a bulk of the songs were written within the span of about 3 hours (much like a Jandek session), I really just trusted my previous knowledge of Darwin. But half way through the recording, a neighbor in my building told me about a research project they had done on Darwin. So songs like "Bring Back Pangaea" are written spontaneously off a Darwin poster board; which included facts, dates, and the route of Darwin's voyage. That provided a bit of security while recording. Since I finished the record, I have seen Darwin topics on the cover of Newsweek, Charlie Rose, and NPR. So the timing seems good for a record of this nature.

This is your second release, and it's also your second conceptual record. Is Dogme 95 intentionally a 'concept' band? If so, what's the next concept you will be exploring?

Actually I think this is the first conceptual record for me. Arcadian Hymns was more about how the songs were delivered; for instance, the vibe or flow of the record was very important. But, I never intended there to be a "true" concept with Arcadian. I also feel musical narrative can be really cheesy if it is too forced. Therefore, when I was working on The Reagle Beagle, I purposely tried to think of ways to incorporate "evolution" in a subtle way. As far as future concepts, there is nothing too concrete on the horizon. I have started working on the follow up to The Reagle Beagle and will be playing some of those ideas live this year. Dogme 95 is not intentionally a conceptual project either, but over the last year, I have certainly found many themes to harbor new material. I look forward to the next step...

You can catch Dogme 95 on tour this Spring!

Prefuse 73 "Security Screenings"

2005 was glitch-hop genius Scott Herren’s most prolific year as both a recording artist and a live performer. Under his Prefuse 73 alias, he released a full-length album saturated with guest spots (Surrounded by Silence) and a collaborative EP with the Books; under his Piano Overlord alias, he released a long-awaited singles collection. Herren also went on two worldwide tours to support Silence. Consider also the amount of interviews he participated in to promote the album, most of which he probably spent defending himself against those who panned it. An excerpt from one of these interviews appears as an interlude on the new Prefuse album, Security Screenings. Journalist Chuck Peterson tells Herren, “I’ve gotta be honest with you; I didn’t like it. Could you have had any more guest spots??!?” Adding insult to injury, he then forgets both the name of the album and the label that it was released on. In a mere 28 seconds, the interlude clues the listener in to how stressed out Herren probably was for most of the year.

I’m not going to lie and say that Silence was flawless — for one, the Wu-Tang collaboration was an abomination. However, if the album’s purpose was to show people how adaptable Herren’s production style could be to various genres (hip-hop, R&B, indie-rock, psych-pop), then it was definitely a success. If the vague messages that he’s peppered his official website and his MySpace profile with are to be trusted, though, the brouhaha over Silence has made him consider retiring the Prefuse 73 name for good. Whether or not Security Screenings is meant to be Prefuse’s last stand, I’m sure one of his motivations for making it was to prove to the haters that he is still at the top of his game. It’s telling that this album has only two collaborations: one with Kieran Hebden (a.k.a. Four Tet), and another with Babatunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio. Unlike the guest artists on Silence, Hebden and Adebimpe provide source material that’s not unlike the stuff that Herren picks out when he’s left to his own devices. Thus, Security Screenings can be seen as a “return to form”...even though he didn’t really stray that far from form to begin with.

Herren’s work as Prefuse 73 has never been an easy listen, but Security Screenings has more moments of unchecked sonic aggression than his previous releases. The “afternoon version” of “With Dirt and Two Texts” has a bass line so distorted that it made me think my speakers were blown when I first heard it. The industrial-strength percussion of “Weight Watching” sounds like two samurai having a sword fight. On the appropriately named “Creating Cyclical Headaches,” Herren smears thick clouds of distortion all over a bouncy Four Tet beat by violently flat-handing his Rhodes piano. “Breathe” sounds like Herren rapidly clicking through every sound file on his laptop, in an attempt to figure out which ones he’s going to use for his next song. Then, there’s the astonishing “No Origin,” in which micro-edited samples of horns and voices fly past my ears until it feels like I’m listening to an Akufen song at half-speed.

Of course, there are also moments of beauty. “Another One Long Gone” comes across as a musical twin of “90% of My Mind Is With You” (from 2003's One Word Extinguisher). Despite the hobbling drumbeat and gurgling bass line, the woozy keyboards and vocal harmonies bring the track very close to “Quiet Storm” territory. The second version of “With Dirt and Two Texts” is slower than Herren’s usual fare; the tropical drums and sampled flutes give the music a very wistful tone. “Matrimonoioids,” the album’s last proper “song,” is probably the album’s breeziest track. It’s got fewer micro-edits and more prominent keyboards than every other song on the album. It’s very telling that the song was recorded in 2000 (as indicated in the liner notes), way before he started receiving international acclaim. It’s a reminder of why we all started listening to Herren in the first place, and it’s a perfect ending to an album that reminds us why we should KEEP listening to him, long after he finally puts Prefuse 73 to rest.

—Sean Padilla

Artist Website: www.prefuse73.com
Label Website: www.warprecords.com

February 10, 2006

Dropsonic "Insects With Angel Wings"

Joseph and I don’t go to shows together that often (mainly because we don’t live in the same city...and because he’s a hermit), but when we do it’s always a memorable experience. I remember when we went to Austin to see Spoon at Stubb’s, shortly before they released Girls Can Tell. Joseph got a bit tipsy that night, and spent the entire drive back to southeast Texas ranting semi-coherently about how great their performance was. During this rant, he tried to classify their sound: “They’re not punk. They’re not indie. They’re...ALTERNATIVE!!!” At first, I thought it was the dumbest thing he’d ever said in the history of our friendship...and the fact that he repeated it about a trillion times during the drive didn’t help either. After a couple more years of keeping track of Spoon, as well as seemingly thousands of other bands of the same stature, Joseph’s statement began to make a bit more sense.

Every once in a while, I encounter an underground band that, while not necessarily better, different than its contemporaries, possesses the elusive X factor that makes them a bit more likely to receive mainstream acceptance. (No, I’m not talking about publicists, you cynical bastard.) It’s this X factor that separates Weezer from Pavement, Oasis from GBV, and Radiohead from Hood. It may be the strength of the hooks, the quality of the musicianship, or simply the polish behind the presentation. Regardless, when you hear these bands on college radio, they sound a lot bigger than everyone else on the playlist, even if they really aren’t. The steadily increasing popularity of Spoon is proof positive that they possess the X factor that Joseph was talking about. I’m saying all of this to you because when I heard Atlanta band Dropsonic’s latest album Insects with Angel Wings, the very first thing that came to my head was: “They’re not punk. They’re not indie. They’re...”

Dropsonic is the embodiment of the phrase “power trio.” Front man Don Dixon has a strong and flexible voice that combines the forlorn vibrato of Thom Yorke with the nasal snarl of Billy Corgan, and he is able to consistently wreck the mike while simultaneously playing brash power chords, chugging riffs and speedy slide solos on his guitar. Meanwhile, bassist Dave Chase and drummer Brian Hunter do their best Led Zeppelin impersonation by navigating syncopated rhythms and odd time signatures while never losing the cock-rock swagger that makes women move. Together, the three of them write catchy songs that nonetheless require an incredible amount of instrumental skill to pull off, and would sound right at home alongside any of the major alt-rock denizens of the ‘90s. The drop-D art-metal of “Spiders” is the best song that Soundgarden never wrote; the stop-start rhythms and playful riffs of the anti-televangelist screed “Everyone’s a Stranger” condenses Stone Temple Pilots’ entire Tiny Music album into one song; “The Big Nothing” is a slow, stately piano ballad that should pique the interest of anyone who’s been arrested by the karma police.

This album’s only weakness is that the lyrics flirt too often with banality. When Dixon wails, “One day I’ll have you down on your knees,” it sounds threatening enough; when he follows it up with the even more cliched “I hope it rains on your wedding day,” the threat is instantly defused. Album closer “Insane” begins with the revelatory (sarcasm alert) lyric, “When you’re insane, everyone thinks you’re crazy,” and spirals even further down the pit of suck with obvious rhyme after obvious rhyme. Then again, none of the artists I’ve mentioned in the last paragraph (except for Radiohead) were known for amazing lyrics, and Dixon is such a good singer that he makes even his crappier lyrics sound tolerable. Why Insects with Angel Wings isn’t on a major label is beyond me...and this is one of the rare occasions where that’s actually a COMPLIMENT.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.dropsonic.com

The Mae Shi/Rapider than Horsepower "Don't Ignore The Potential"

Split LPs often suffer from the same fatal flaw that compilations do: bands tend to use them as clearinghouses for substandard material. Don’t Ignore the Potential, on the other hand, does what a great split LP should do. It’s a “meeting of the minds” that gives the listener small portions of music by two aesthetically like-minded but musically distinctive bands operating at the peak of their powers. The Mae Shi and Rapider Than Horsepower (who are from California and Indiana, respectively) are both nerdy, spastic punk bands with vocalists for whom melody is clearly secondary. That’s where the similarities end, though. The Mae Shi has a technology fetish that enables them to update Brainiac’s sound for the new millennium, whereas RTH have more of a hip-hop influence (particularly in the vocals) and place more emphasis on instrumental virtuosity (particularly in the guitars). If you’ve heard of one, chances are you’ll like the other; if you’ve heard of neither, this release is a choice starting point for both!

Opening track “The Potential” is probably the most dramatic song the Mae Shi has ever done. It begins with a descending chord progression played on a burbling synthesizer, atop which vocalist Ezra does some barely audible humming. Eventually, the hums morph into full-throated hollers as the other band members enter the mix, one by one. Once the entire band is playing, the music gradually speeds up until it becomes a pogo-fest reminiscent of early Ex-Models. Then, the song is interrupted by a series of brief, piercing test tones and Ezra’s voice gets digitally chopped into bits. The final minute of the song finds the band slowing down and replaying the introductory chord progression on guitars instead of keyboards. If there’s one song that can adequately sum up the band’s entire discography, it’s this one. From there, the Mae Shi launches into a series of songs that boast more keyboards and drum machines than anything they’ve done before. “Heartbeeps” is a mangled take on Jamaican dancehall, with screaming from Ezra that’s so unhinged you can literally feel his vocal chords shredding. It’s tough to decipher what he’s screaming about, but listeners who can will find hilarious and occasionally poignant lyrics. One minute, he’s espousing the joys of playing old video games at the “Nickel Arcade,” the next he’s lamenting a long-lost friend who died (“Massively Overwrought”).

Despite the high quality of the Mae Shi side, Rapider Than Horsepower get the edge over them through sheer quantity - 11 of this album’s 19 songs are theirs. Considering that most proper RTH albums have a similar number of songs, Don’t Ignore the Potential might as well be the fourth RTH album with some bonus Mae Shi tracks tacked on. The band, however, took a more humbler approach. They begin their side with a song called “Split LP with Mae Shi,” during which vocalist Michael Anderson sends shout-outs to each Mae Shi member by name in the chorus. Other than that, it’s business as usual for the band. Mike Dixon and Chris Saligoe continue to compensate for the absence of a bassist by playing fleet-fingered staircase melodies and brash power chords on their detuned guitars. Drummer Rob Smith bashes his kit so hard that the microphones start clipping, which gives these songs the kind of distorted drum sound I haven’t heard since the Microphones became Mount Eerie. Meanwhile, Anderson whoops, hollers, raps and rants about God knows what. The funniest moment comes on “Radio Activity,” when he brags, “I know ain’t nothin’ on TV/I’ve got ‘Cool Hand Luke’ on DVD!!!”

There isn’t a single weak moment on this LP (the 11 minutes of silence that precede the unlisted bonus track notwithstanding), which makes this an essential purchase for fans of either band. Both the Mae Shi and RTH keep getting better and better with each individual release, and this LP finds them at their peak of their powers. It’s obvious that both bands’ best work is still ahead of them. Don’t Ignore the Potential, indeed!

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.mae-shi.com
Artist Website: http://www.rapiderthanhorsepower.com
Label Website: http://www.safrecords.com

Tetuzi Akiyama "Pre-Existence"

This CD begins with the most atonal acoustic guitar chord I’ve ever heard in my life. It sounds as if a toddler got a hold of the guitar five minutes before the artist started playing, and inadvertently re-tuned it to the key of Z. This chord is then dragged even further away from consonance by a bottleneck slide across the frets. I heard plucking and knocking noises that sounded like strings popping and nuts being wrenched from their bridges. The strings buzzed so hard that the sound caused discomfort to my ears. Everything the guitarist played was played very slowly, and usually between long gaps of silence. After almost four minutes, the song ended. The only reason why I knew this was because I stared at the timer on my CD player for its entirety. I then looked at the CD booklet and noticed that the song is called “Atheist.” It was appropriate, considering that the song had just dismantled my expectations of what an acoustic guitar should sound like with the same vehemence that an argumentative atheist would dismantle a Christian’s belief in Jesus. If you think I’m exaggerating, let me rephrase it: this song makes Jandek sound like Enya in comparison.

Tetuzi Akiyama is a guitarist associated with the Tokyo improvisational scene. He has been playing guitar for almost 30 years, and has formed various bands during the ‘80s and ‘90s. He played with the legendary Keiji Haino in the band Nijiumu, and at one point even took up viola to form a classical string quartet. Put simply, he isn’t some random charlatan who mangles his instrument and calls it “experimental.” Anyone who doubts his ability to play conventional music should seek out another of his 2005 releases, Route 13 to the Gates of Hell. During the first half, he plays pretty blues meditations on his acoustic; during the second half, he plugs in his electric and churns out fuzzy boogie-rock. Pre-Existence, the album from which “Atheist” is taken, is an entirely different story. Part of Locust Music’s Wooden Guitar series, it finds Akiyama playing an album’s worth of acoustic improvisations built almost entirely off of queasy dissonance, violent prepared techniques and ominous negative space.

On “Reinforcement,” Akiyama plays harmonics and solitary notes that ring out with the clarity of dulcimers, and then interrupts them with rattling noises that sound like the closing of creaking doors. The fourth song, “Fireside,” contains majestic open chords that have actually been played by other people before. The next song, “Hollowness,” briefly hints at meter before abandoning it mere seconds later. Portions of “Mutuality” sound as if Akiyama is hitting the strings with a random metal object. On “Condemnation,” unison strings are made slightly out of tune with each other to generate warbling beat frequencies as he plays them, a technique which is employed quite often by the guitarists in Sonic Youth. On the closing track, “Yearnings,” Akiyama actually repeats some of the riffs he plays, and it feels like I’ve just seen a ray of light peeking out of a dark cloud during an all-day thunderstorm.

I can’t lie...Pre-Existence was tough going for me, even though I listen to loud and dissonant music on a regular basis. This was my first exposure to Akiyama’s music, and I had to do research on him and listen to some of his other works before I had the desire to give it a second listen. Even now, it’s not something that I will frequently listen to for pleasure. However, I respect the thought that was put into it, and will continue to seek out more of his work, if only as a challenge to myself.

--Sean Padilla

Artist’s Website: http://www.japanimprov.com/takiyama
Label Website: http://www.locustmusic.com

February 09, 2006

Cat Power "The Greatest"

When I heard late last year that Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) had gone to Memphis to make her seventh album with a backing band that featured former members of Booker T and the MG’s and the Hi Rhythm Section, I awaited the results with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. A small part of me feared that this experiment would go awry, but once I reacquainted myself with Marshall’s previous releases, I realized that my fears were unfounded. Anyone who’s heard the covers peppered throughout her last three studio albums knows that she is able to refract any strain of American music through her own lens, while still remaining reverent to the visions of the artists she covers. Although I knew Chan’s next album would be a bit more soulful and countrified than her previous work, I highly doubted that she would use that as an excuse to perfect her Mavis Staples impersonation. Even so, if there’s any female singer in indie-rock whose voice has both the grit and the range to pull it off, it’s Chan. Besides, when you’ve got men who’ve played with Aretha Franklin and Al Green by your side, you’d have to be a dolt to completely screw things up.

The first half of The Greatest lives up to all of my expectations. You’d think that any artist who gives an album that isn’t a greatest-hits collection that kind of title (and let’s not forget the boxing-glove necklace that adorns the cover) would be suffering from Kanye-like narcissism. However, the first four lines of the title track lay this assumption to rest: “Once I wanted to be the greatest/No wind or waterfall could stall me/And then came the rush of the flood/Stars of night turned deep to dust.” This song is about the DEATH of ambition; the weepy strings and hesitant drumming only accent the resignation oozing from Chan’s voice. Although her lead vocal is husky and weathered, her background vocals repeatedly sing the title phrase in a soaring soprano register. This approach to multi-tracked vocals is employed in many of the album’s songs (“Could We,” “Empty Shell,” “The Moon”). When Chan engages in a tete-a-tete with a sprightlier version of herself, it feels like I’m listening to a battle between her ego and her id.

As sultry as Chan’s voice is, I could never imagine myself using any of her past work as a soundtrack to physical intimacy. On the other hand, “Living Proof” and “Could We” are the first songs in Chan’s repertoire in which she sounds intentionally sexy. On the former, Chan reassures a doubtful lover with some of her most direct lyrics (“You’re supposed to have the answer/You’re supposed to have living proof/Well, I am your answer/I am living”) and some shockingly bluesy singing. On the latter, Chan sings about a great date with a simplicity (“What a dream/In the grass/We kissed/Fell in love too fast”) that would ring false were it not for the gliding guitar and horn interjections that support her. “Empty Shell” is a final goodbye to a man who has left Chan for another woman. The violins in the introduction seem to announce the arrival of yet another moping country song, but Chan’s cutting lyrical inversions (“Do not hate her/For to leave her is to love her/The same as you and I”) sound more angry than sad.

If the rest of The Greatest maintained the quality of its first six songs, the album would be worthy of the comparisons it has received to Dusty in Memphis. Unfortunately, Chan begins the second half with “Where Is My Love,” the most saccharine song she has ever written. On it, the piano playing is only a couple of notes removed from “Chopsticks,” the strings sound corny when they should be classy, and the lyrics read like something a grade-school girl would write (“Horses running free/Carrying you and me”). The lyrics to “After It All,” which plead for reconciliation after a violent lovers’ quarrel, are much better. It’s a shame that they’re wasted on a one-chord plod that seems edited down from a particularly drowsy jam session. “Hate” sounds like a parody of an earlier Cat Power song. It consists of little more than Chan playing a few chords on her guitar and mumbling Kurt Cobain’s favorite phrase (“I hate myself and I want to die”) over and over again. These three songs are the biggest deviations from the template established in the album’s first half. Chan’s desire to avoid monotony is commendable, but she could’ve written some better songs to break up the pace with. Listeners shouldn’t have to choose between being bored and being irritated.

Fortunately, The Greatest ends strong with “Love and Communication.” On this song, Chan and her backing band push each other a bit. Guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges turns up the fuzz, pianist Rick Steff switches to a funky clavinet and Chan’s words start tumbling out at a faster pace. For the first and only time on the album, it sounds as if Chan’s trying to fuse the dissonance of her early material with the smoother sounds that she’s currently fascinated with. It isn’t the album’s best song, but it’s definitely the most promising...which makes me hope that The Greatest is more of a work-in-progress than a one-off experiment. I want Chan to stick with this group of musicians and delve deeper into this sound. If she does, her followup to The Greatest could find her truly earning the superlative.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.catpowerthegreatest.com
Label Website: http://www.matadorrecords.com

February 07, 2006

The Constantines "Tournament of Hearts"

Three years before the Arcade Fire set the indie-rock world ablaze, the Constantines represented hard for the Great White North with a distinctive Springsteen-meets-Fugazi sound, a near-classic debut album and a raucous live show. Two years later, followup Shine a Light turned up the energy level and successfully integrated Stax-style keyboards into the mix. The only thing that kept them from making their second consecutive masterpiece was perennially tone-deaf lead guitarist Steve Lambke’s occasional stabs at singing. In 2005, the Constantines gave us their third album, Tournament of Hearts, which found the band further tinkering with its sound to mixed results. This time around, the band curbed its tendency to make every song explode into a fist-pumping climax, opting instead to craft songs that build up a lot of tension, but don’t always offer release.

Opening track “Draw Us Lines” is constructed from one chord, a mammoth tom-driven rhythm and a woozy guitar drone. Like most great Constantines songs, it’s a hedonistic clarion call for listeners to throw caution to the wind and take life into their own hands. “Seeking strength in misery,” lead vocalist Bry Webb croaks, “let us feel the air inside the clothes we wear.” Unlike most great Constantines songs, though, “Draw Us Lines” never gives us the kind of chorus that could rile us into taking Webb’s advice. This frustrating trick is repeated on the second song “Hotline Operator.” During the third verse, Webb starts wailing in his upper register and the band starts rocking out behind him. Unfortunately, the song ends just four bars after Webb and Lambke finally step on their distortion pedals. Two years ago, they would’ve given us another minute or two of music to jump around to.

Just when you think that they’re going to spend the whole album giving you the aural equivalent of blue balls, the Constantines throw in a batch of songs that at least come close to the rabble-rousing rockers of old. On “Love in Fear,” bassist Dallas Wehrle and drummer Doug McGregor lock into a lopsided groove that would give Sandinista-era Clash pause. This song has an actual CHORUS, with a four-on-the-floor disco rhythm that is sure to get crowds moving during their live shows. “Lizaveta” is a distortion-drenched crawl with horn bleats that are just as lurid and boozy as the protagonist Webb sings about in the lyrics (“Attraction lures the sot to drink, to all his troubles drown/But when his legs give way, he falls, and attraction keeps his down”). On the next song, “Soon Enough,” Webb sings the chorus like it’s a threat: “Soon enough, work and love will make a man out of you.” The band plods and jangles behind him with the weariness of men who suffer from broken backs and broken hearts. “Working Full Time” beats listeners upside the head with staccato organ chords, while Webb admonishes listeners not to let the nine-to-five grind steal their zest for life: “Vigilant people on the cult of enterprise/Lean into the day with all your heart and mind/We were not meant to fear the morning.”

As usual, the songs that Steve Lambke “sings” end up being the weakest. “Thieves” escapes mediocrity through an excellent horn arrangement and Steve’s decision to recite the lyrics instead of singing them. On the other hand, the solo acoustic ballad “Windy Road” ends the album on a very sour note due to cliched lyrics and crappy singing. It’s what a Boy Named Thor would sound like if he didn’t have cuteness on his side. Bry Webb doesn’t have the smoothest voice, but at least he can carry a tune. Between the decline in energy and the spottiness of Lambke’s contributions, Tournament of Hearts ends up being the Constantines’ weakest album. Nonetheless, the strong batch of songs in its middle section make it a worthy purchase.

-Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.constantines.ca
Label Website: http://www.subpop.com

New Radiant Storm King "The Steady Hand"

Okay, so, like, you remember the 1990s, right? Well, guess what, my friend, it seems like the 1990s are back! Every week it seems like there's a once-neglected 90s band reunting, reforming, and releasing new material. Even more surprising is that some of these reuniting bands have released records that are as good as--if not better than--the first time around. My theory about why this phenomenon is happening is this: mid-90s bands tended to get caught up in the big, bad music industry, which often tore them apart and left them for dead. After a few years (and expired contracts) had passed, the bands felt safe to come out of their hidey-hole, because, well...nobody cared.
Or maybe the musicians just needed the money.

Sadly, some people might only know New Radiant Storm King for their song, "The Opposing Engineer (Sleeps Alone)," a song that appeared on the excellent early 1990s sampler Buy This Used CD, and which was latered covered by Guided By Voices. Of course, there's more to this veteran indie-rock band than one song; they have a pretty impressive discography, and many of those who fell in love with the band years ago are still in love with them. They're one of those bands that inspire fan devotion. But the band had a string of bad luck, from label woes and financial frustration to personnel upheaval, and though respect and fame came to their contemporaries Archers of Loaf, Guided by Voices and Pavement, NRSK never received the acclaim they deserve. But that was then, this is now, and where are those contemporaries of theirs?


The Steady Hand is the band's seventh album, and it's not so much a new album as it is a fresh new start. Though the album starts off on a soft, gentle, lush note with "Overture," the band quickly punches the listener in the stomach with an onslaught of big, blaring ROCK. "The Winding Staircase" is a sleek, powerful number that kicks all doubters in the teeth. The next song, "Accountant of the Year," proves that the previous song's power was no fluke, but they supplement that power with a heavy dose of melody--but melodicism is not a polite way of saying "soft." The rest of The Steady Hand follows that very basic formula, rewarding listeners with great songs like "Fighting Off the Pricks" and "Hands and Eyes." It's quite clear that Peyton Pinkerton and Matt Hunter's songwriting ability hasn't withered with age; had they had some stability in the 1990s, The Steady Hand might have been stiff competition for Do the Collapse and Brighten The Corners.

"The feeling is back again, it was never really gone," Pinkerton sings on "Come On and Let Yourself Win," and it's quite obvious, too. Considering the band's back-story (a comedy of errors that simply defies description--check out the time line on the band's website), it's surprising that there's even a seventh New Radiant Storm King album. Their perseverence is admirable--and considering the overwhelming odds they've faced, some might have considered the band foolish for continuing on--and The Steady Hand is proof that good things come for those who soldier on. Thus, The Steady Hand isn't so much a 'comeback' or a 'return to form' as it is a tabula rasa. For those who have never heard of New Radiant Storm King, the album is a wonderful introduction; for those who have loved them from the beginning, it is a vindication of their greatness.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.furnacerock.com
Label Website: http://www.darla.com

February 06, 2006

Ticondergoa "The Heilig-Levine LP"

Not many bands have the balls to kick their career off by releasing two albums in one year...but when you’ve got as much talent and as many ideas as Ticonderoga, you can do whatever the hell you want! All three members sing, write their own songs, play a multitude of instruments and have an encyclopedic knowledge of the last few decades of indie-rock. The songs on their self-titled debut (which was released last March) were characterized by jarring stylistic shifts and a steadfast avoidance of obvious chord progressions and hooks, which ended up being a double-edged sword. On one hand, Ticonderoga’s ability to channel three or four of my favorite bands at once made listening to their debut an exciting experience; on the other hand, it didn’t give me much to latch onto once the album ended. It took multiple listens for their songs to sink in, which is probably how the band wanted it. However, in an increasingly crowded scene where bands must fight to seize the ever-shortening attention spans of hipsters, the last thing a band needs is for their debut album to be called a “grower.” Seven months later, though, Ticonderoga released a slightly more accessible follow-up that extended a few olive branches to its listeners.

The Heilig-Levine LP isn’t a “pop” album by any means. There are still loads of shape-shifting arrangements, and moments in which the instruments seem to operate in simultaneous yet independent motion. Although the beginning of “Centipede” is played with traditional rock instrumentation, it changes into an electronic twin of itself after the first verse. The band then throws in an acapella breakdown before picking up their guitars and drums again. After two of the members play simultaneous drum solos, the music meanders to a quiet finish. “Flippin’ Burgs” sports an instrumental passage in which the pitter-patter of a synthesizer is paired with a cacophony of screeching violins straight from the shower scene of Psycho. The album’s most unorthodox song might be “Town.” The bass line is played on the lower-register keys of a piano; the over-compressed acoustic guitars get drowned out by flatulent horns, wheezing organs and severely clipped drums.

Unlike their debut, though, this album has a number of songs that could instantly hook listeners who’ve never used the word “post-rock” in their lives. Opening song “Fucking Around” is a brief and catchy kiss-off (“Your long-winded cliches won’t make you different/They’ll just prove you desperate/And like the sunset, you’ll be gone”) that only needs one verse and one chorus to get stuck in your head. “Poison Control,” my personal favorite, shifts from keyboard-driven instrumental passages to crunchy fuzz-guitar verses; if Silkworm and Stereolab collaborated, I think that songs like this would be the result. “They Can Run” and “Why Do You Suppose?” are understated ditties that suggest what the Decemberists would sound like without the adenoids and literary ambitions. Then, there’s the album centerpiece “Country Mouse,” a long acoustic ballad that is occasionally interrupted by Microphones-like bursts of fuzz guitar and out-of-tune piano.

The Heilig-Levine LP refines Ticonderoga’s sound by pairing their already evident strengths — an ear for good melodies, superb musicianship, wicked production skills — with the eagerness to write an actual chorus once in a while. It’s as if the guys suddenly realized that people outside of the rehearsal space they named this album after are listening to their music now. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they have in store for us in 2006!

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.ticonderobics.com
Label Website: http://www.fiftyfourfortyorfight.com

February 03, 2006

The Strugglers "You Win"

Okay, so, like, on a cynical level, I could say that The Strugglers sounds like Songs:Ohia, which is a roundabout way of saying that The Strugglers sounds like Will Oldham. You know the drill: it’s a guy with a guitar, a bit of a country twang to his singing voice, and dark, dusty melodies that sound like something from the closing credits of a 1970s Western. Sometimes these artists are convincing, and sometimes…well, let’s just say that those artists will give you no reason to allow your copy of Lost Blues to gather dust. While that may seem a bit unfair, then you haven’t been subjected to an onslaught of Bonnie Prince Wannabes.

Brice Randal Bickford II is the man behind the name, and his seems to be a lonely trail. Though it might be unfair to lump him and his music into the categories mentioned above, after listening to his third album, You Win, it’s rather hard not to think about his place among the legions of those following in Oldham’s footsteps. That’s not to take away from Bickford’s talent; it’s simply placing him in context of the genre—a context that’s impossible to ignore, as it’s blatantly obvious where he finds his influences. But being influenced by a particular artist or a genre is not necessarily a damnable offense, and You Win doesn’t necessarily suffer from such comparisons.

Despite the fact that the record might sound quite familiar, it doesn’t really distract from the beauty of his songs. His voice is gravelly, but it’s not haggard; it’s rough, yet it’s still somewhat pretty, and though it’s occasionally wobbly, it’s not off-putting. He’s joined by a tasteful string section, and his songs are accentuated by some gorgeous piano playing, too--a rarity among many musicians of this particular persuasion. The gorgeousness of the depressing “A Rejection Letter” sets the tone for You Win, but the delicate arrangements of songs like “Distant Demands,” “Being Shown Blues,” and “The Disappeared” instantly creates a touching, funereal mood. At times, such as on “I Tried to Repair,” he’s joined by Heather McIntire, and their vocal interplay gives his sad songs a new dimension. If there’s one complaint to make, it’s that the songs occasionally drag; taking off a few seconds here and there wouldn’t hurt, especially in the longer, extended instrumental sections.

It’s hard not to feel a little bit miserable after listening to You Win, and it’s certainly not a shiny, happy people record. But for those who enjoy darker music, or simply like their music a little sad, then this record’s worth seeking out.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.thestrugglers.org
Label Website: http://www.acuareladiscos.com

February 02, 2006

Valina "epode"

There are certain labels that fill a specific niche like no other, churning out record after record of the same sound until they end up on the wrong side of the divide between predictability and boredom. The sophisticated soul of 1960s Motown and the grunge of 1990s Sub Pop are but two of the biggest examples. It seems as if the 54'40" or Fight! label is shooting for that kind of brand equity, albeit on a much smaller scale. You already know what you’re going to get when you buy any of their releases: another infinitesimal variation on the math-rock template that bands all around the Midwest and the East Coast helped create during the last two decades. You’re going to hear the kind of music that makes critics use adjectives such as “angular” and “dissonant,” and namedrop any of the five trillion bands that Steve Albini has ever recorded. Let’s not damn the critics too harshly, though. If it’s a 54'40" or Fight! release, chances are that the music contained therein will be angular and dissonant, and the words “recorded by Steve Albini” will appear somewhere in the liner notes.

Austrian two Valina fits the bill to a T, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have new tricks up their sleeves. The first two tracks on their latest EP Epode sound like lost Mission of Burma songs. Anatol
Bogendorfer sings in a voice that’s surprisingly calm when placed in contrast to the band’s aggressive playing. While he plucks out busy arpeggios on his guitar, drummer Claus Harringer plays like a more hyperactive version of MoB’s Peter Prescott. He always sounds like he’s about to lose the beat, but he never does...at least not on these two songs. “Envy” is the moodier of these two songs. Bogendorfer’s guitar is de-tuned to woozy effect, and Harringer plays spastic drum fills at all the “wrong” moments.

Things start getting weird at the EP’s halfway point. “81 Men Without
History” is an acoustic ballad with weepy strings, and ends with an out-of-nowhere cacophony of backwards drumming. “Escort of Soda” begins with a verse sung entirely a capella, only to turn into a saxophone-driven skronk-fest, the likes of which I haven’t heard since...well, the last Kash record that 54'40" or Fight! released. It is worth noting that this is the only song on the EP in which Harringer’s drumming falls flat. The final song, appropriately titled “The Epilogue,” is nothing more than bassist Florian Huber shredding classical-style on his upright for three minutes.

Epode is definitely of a piece with the rest of the 54'40" or
Fight! catalog, but Valina’s baroque ambitions set them slightly apart from the pack. This EP boasts a surprising amount of variety, and I look forward to seeing how the trio can reconcile the disparate elements of its sound over the course of a full album.

—Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.trost.at/valina
Label Website: http://www.fiftyfourfortyorfight.com

The Caribbean "Plastic Explosives"

When the Caribbean released its debut album Verse by Verse in
2001, much attention was paid to the band’s unorthodox working method: all five members traded Zip disks of their performances to each other in order to assemble the songs. Because of this method, their music came across as both malleable and detached. The songs could go anywhere, and often did. The lyrics read like codes never to be cracked, chord progressions took longer than expected to resolve and few real hooks arrived to tie the songs together. At no point did the songs make an obvious attempt to draw listeners in. Many rock records try to make you feel like you’re in the same room as the band. In the Caribbean’s case, there was no room to speak of. Because of this, Verse by Verse was the kind of record that was easy to like, but required a lot of patience and repeated listening to love.

Of course, the concept of mail-based collaboration stopped seeming as new once the Postal Service and the Fading Captain Series took it and ran with it. The Caribbean responded by taking gradual steps toward becoming a “proper” band. Their second album History’s First Know-It-All and its followup EP William of Orange boasted increasingly sharper writing, stronger musicianship and more assured singing. With their new album Plastic Explosives, the Caribbean has honed its sound to the point where it’s possible to tell one of their songs apart from any other band’s within seconds. Almost every Caribbean song is built around Michael Kentoff’s nasal voice and gently played acoustic guitar. Skilled yet skittish drumming propels the songs, while dreamy keyboards, psychedelic sound effects and irritating glitches are used to fill in all the nooks and crannies. It’s the sound of breezy folk-pop updated for the Clicks and Cuts generation. Hell, the album even begins with an Oval sample!

Kentoff’s lyrics are as oblique as ever, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make any sense. Details that initially seem random and meaningless end up being the linchpins to some cool stories once you start paying attention to them. “Interfaith Roommates” is a portrait of a hermit who uses the Internet as a substitute for the real world. “Tarmac Squad” tells the story of a group of friends who conspire to hijack an airplane. The protagonist of “Calla Lilies” finds a book about plants that triggers memories of his last good date. In “First and Apple,” a detective gets ambushed as soon as he gets close to finding the person he’s looking for. The album’s catchiest song, “The Truth Hurts Jamie Green,” laments the plight of a failed hairdresser. Other songs are sung from the point of view of men who are bored with corporate life (“French Radio”) and battling mid-life crises (the title track, “Great!”). For the first time on a Caribbean record, Kentoff’s singing is just as strong as his writing. A voice that is as limited in range as his shouldn’t be able to navigate such odd chord progressions that adeptly, but it does.

As always, part of the joy of a Caribbean record comes from listening to the songs go slightly haywire. “Interfaith Roommates” ends with a cute and brief exchange between Kentoff and his cat. On “French Radio,” the guitars are gradually drowned in reverb and backwards tape loops. The drum machines on “Great!” experience sudden changes in volume, as if a hyperactive child kept messing with the faders during the mixing process. The album’s weirdest head trip comes with “On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess.” On that song, Kentoff’s voice is run through a thick syrup of reverse reverb, and there’s a long section in which the drummer plays an eighth-note out of sync with the rest of the band. You’ve gotta love any band that understands the value of happy accidents, and there are many of them scattered throughout Plastic Explosives. This is the band’s best and most interesting record yet, and I recommend it to everyone who reads this

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.thecaribbeanisaband.com
Label Website: http://www.home-tapes.com

February 01, 2006

The Weird Weeds "This Is Not What You Want"

Last year, Austin group the Weird Weeds released Hold Me, a debut album that went above and beyond mere excellence by forcing me to reconsider everything I knew about music. If you think that sounds hyperbolic, either you haven’t heard this album yet, or you have no idea just how much I listened to it in 2005. Ask my former roommate Dave, who couldn’t initiate a conversation with me until I deigned to turn my headphones down while listening to it. Ask my best friend Niema, who has watched me fall asleep many a night with it in the background. Ask my friend Brittany, who watched me struggle to hold back tears while we watched the band’s set at South by Southwest. (And let's not forget this editor's own experience, watching the band play a particularly dense song, only to interrupt the sustain of one of its songs by yelling "HI, SEAN!" when he entered the club.) This trio consists of a singing drummer who uses his kit as both timekeeper and sound effects generator, a singing guitarist who uses her instrument to emit iridescent drones and a guitarist who holds everything together with melodic, nimble finger-picking. Together, they split the difference between psychedelic folk and experimental noise to create a sound that is simultaneously beautiful and tense.

On January 3rd, the Weird Weeds released the five-song EP This Is Not What You Want as a free download on the Sounds Are Active website, cementing its status as 2006's first great release (beating even my hero Robert Pollard to the punch). On it, the trio strips down their already minimal setup by using acoustic instrumentation and placing less of an emphasis on singer Nick Hennies’ percussion. In spite of that, these songs sound fuller than anything on Hold Me. One reason for this is that the band is taking a more democratic approach to their vocals. Nick Hennies and Sandy Ewen sing together more this time around. They also harmonize now (instead of merely singing in unison), which makes songs like “The Butcher” and “Broken Arm” sound even more gorgeous than they already are. Another reason is that the production sounds more intimate. Hennies’ voice is placed front and center, and Aaron Russell’s guitar sounds rich enough to be a 12-string (even though I know it isn’t).

On opener “See the World,” Hennies and Ewen sing about a beautiful pastoral scene. The last two lines of the song are a poignant and succinct comment about man’s insistence on dominating nature: “If I could erase the tower to the west/It would be the most beautiful sight in the city.” The song changes both key and tempo shortly after they sing those words. The next song, “The Butcher,” is built around a one-chord drone that Russell plays with one of the strings intentionally tuned flat. “Salt Shaker” is the first Weird Weeds song to boast lead vocals by Sandy; her high, pretty voice is pitted in stark contrast against the hissing, scraping noises that she and Nick coax from their instruments. The EP peaks with a cover of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing.” The combination of Nick’s unsteady voice and Sandy’s subtle fret-board slides imbues what used to be a fanciful love song with an undercurrent of creepiness. It’s the sound of a man standing on the thin line that separates love from obsession.

In short, This Is Not What You Want gloriously fails to live up to its title. These five songs serve as even more proof that the Weird Weeds are the most creative rock band in the Austin music scene. The longer this band goes without the recognition they deserve, the more I question the already-suspect judgment of the city’s hipsters and tastemakers.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.weirdweeds.com
Label Website: http://www.soundsareactive.com