Monday, June 30, 2008

Nine Inch Nails - 'Year Zero'

Nearly 20 years after he began Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor continues to find new things to itch his craw. On his new album, Year Zero, these things happen to be the United States government and RIAA. A concept album, Year Zero tells the (hypothetical) story of what will happen in the year 2022 if the U.S. government's rampant religious zealotism is not checked (apparently, Reznor thinks this will bring about the apocalypse). Despite the dark subject matter, Year Zero is one of the strongest, sexiest NIN releases in quite some time, offering a bundle of danceable grooves. At the same time, though, it manages to also be Reznor’s most experimental release since his underappreciated 1999 album, The Fragile. Either way, it’s a huge step up from the good, but tame, NIN-by-numbers of the 2005 comeback album With Teeth.

In a way, Year Zero is the real NIN comeback album. With Teeth was good enough in that it offered a few catchy singles, but it’s Year Zero which finds Reznor exploring new territory, not only as a songwriter, but as an all around entertainer. Furthermore, while With Teeth had flourishes of political outrage, such as on lead single “The Hand That Feeds,” Year Zero is completely dedicated to sticking it to the man.

Even before popping in the disc, Year Zero comes with a slew of backstory. In an effort to circumvent RIAA, Reznor went so far as to leak his new album piece by piece to fans at concerts via thumb drives. He eventually leaked the entire thing online for all to stream, which RIAA promptly, and idiotically, tried to shut down. Even Year Zero’s packaging thumbs its nose at the organization.

As with all major label releases, the album comes with an FBI warning dictating the illegality of file sharing. Like all the other FBI warnings stamped onto albums, it’s gaudy and obscures the artwork. But, right next to this label is another warning, this time from the “United States Bureau of Morality,” which reads, “Consuming or spreading this material may be deemed subversive by the United States Bureau of Morality. If you or someone you know has engaged in subversive acts or thoughts, call: 1-866-445-6580. BE A PATRIOT - BE AN INFORMER!” What’s more, both the labels are removable so that one may see the back artwork of Year Zero as originally intended.

But enough with bashing RIAA; back to hating on the government. Year Zero opens with the instrumental “HYPERPOWER!” The title is apt, as the militant/electronic grooves of the tune set the mood of the album while also rocking the heck out. Fans of the old, discordant NIN will love this one. But from all of this chaos comes the simple yet catchy drum track of the next song, “The Beginning of the End.”

Rocking and powerful, Reznor shows a flair for the dramatic with the opening lines, “Down on your knees, you’ll be left behind/This is the beginning.” The song further sets the Orwellian theme with lyrics describing an oppressive, fascist government. It’s beautifully paranoid. Near the end of the song comes the album’s first burst of computer noise — a recurring sound on Year Zero — symbolizing the album’s futuristic, technophobic elements.

Less than three minutes go by and “The Beginning of the End” segues into the album’s lead single, “Survivalism.” Boasting a weird army boot stomper of a tongue twisting chorus, “Survivalism” takes a few listens before its hooks really sink in. Reznor and his band of Nailers shout the chorus so hard that their words are almost obscured. But the rhythm of the shouting is too hypnotic to be ignored: “I got my propaganda/I got revisionism/I got my violence in high def ultra-realism/All a part of this great nation/I got my fist/I got my plan/I got survivalism.” While the completely computer-generated instrumentation may turn off fans of live hard rock, “Survivalism” is one of the most infectious tracks on Year Zero.

After this trinity of rock and/or roll, Year Zero shifts into groovier territory. Think The Downward Spiral’s “Piggy” spread out and funked up. First comes “The Good Soldier,” which shows the same sort of pseudo-free association shown long ago on Pretty Hate Machine’s “Down In It,” albeit not quite as hip-hop-esque. The groove gets darker on “Vessel,” and sexier on “Me, I’m Not.” Reznor cranks the bass and explores the space on this track. The focus turns away from what he’s saying and more towards how he’s saying it here, as Reznor’s voice mixes with a wall o’ reverb to generate a psychedelic dance-fest.

Year Zero temporarily picks up glam rock on the sarcastic “Capital G.” It’s the only track to feature mostly live instrumentation, but it fits in nicely with Year Zero’s cold-but-dance-tastic vibe. Reznor muses over how the simple push of a button can alter the course of life — “I pushed a button and elected him to office and a/He pushed a button and it dropped a bomb/You pushed a button and could watch on the television/Those motherf-----s didn’t last too long ha ha” go the opening lines.

“My Violent Heart” brings back the loose beat of earlier songs, but merges it with some crazy noises for a new flavor. The track again reminds listeners that this is computer music through and through, and, on an instrumental level, hints at what's come on the album. Later tracks like “The Warning,” in which aliens try to dissuade Americans from their current self-destructive treatment of the environment, and “The Greater Good” hint at a violent backlash, but it’s not until “The Great Destroyer” that Year Zero really drops the Armageddon imagery full force.

Like most of the song names on the album, “The Great Destroyer” is a literal title. The lyrics aren’t quite clear regarding the destroyer’s identity, but there’s a strong indication from the rest of the album that it’s a power-mad American dictator or perhaps a terrorist.

“I hope they cannot see/The limitless potential/Inside of me/To murder everything” says the antagonist before he reveals himself to be “the great destroyer.” The near-metal cry this madman gives out is followed by a lengthy breakdown made entirely of harsh computer bleeps, bloops and blips. All this digital freaking out sounds like a series of bombs detonating, wiping the United States off the face of the earth. It’s the most difficult listening portion of Year Zero, but also one of the coolest.

After this man-made Armageddon, the piano interlude of “Another Version of the Truth” comes on. The arrangement’s soft fuzz creates an image of aftermath, and should symbolize the end of the album. But a nuclear holocaust isn’t the only thing Reznor has in store for his characters — there’s still the end of the whole world to address on tracks “In This Twilight,” in which the sun is about to explode, and “Zero-Sum,” in which Armageddon finally happens for realsies.

But these last two tracks feel tacked on. They’re not as musically interesting as the rest of Year Zero, and they force the story’s ending to drag. “Zero-Sum” even rips off the piano pattern from With Teeth’s “All the Love in the World.”

Outside of an overshot ending, Year Zero is an invigorating piece of electronic music. While it may test the patience of casual NIN fans, the more dedicated should be pleased to see their beloved Reznor once again pissed off and pushing forward. After overcoming drugs and poor record sales, Reznor has once again found his rhythm and delivered another brilliant album. Year Zero is not only the strongest NIN release in almost a decade, it’s also one of the most righteous political pieces of art in that same span of time.

William Tell - 'You Can Hold Me Down'

I hate it when bands implode. Case in point: Something Corporate. Arguably one of the strongest piano rock groups of the new millennium, the perpetually touring band finally took a hiatus in 2004, and a swell of con artists like The Rocket Summer and Mêlée have risen up in the band’s absence. Meanwhile, SoCo’s primary songwriting team of frontman/pianist Andrew McMahon and lead guitarist Josh Partington have focused their attentions on a side project, Jack’s Mannequin. With Something Corporate stalled, rhythm guitarist William Tell, whose songwriting skills were severely underutilized in SoCo, opted to pursue a solo career in 2004. On the plus side, the split has proven amicable, as demonstrated by Tell’s finally-released solo debut, You Can Hold Me Down. The album boasts strong performances from McMahon, SoCo drummer Brian Ireland and, of course, Tell himself.

At 10 tracks, You Can Hold Me Down walks the middle between the soft-spoken singer/songwriter style of Howie Day and the slick pop rock of Something Corporate. Light and tuneful, it makes for good summer music.

The album opens with the mid-tempo rocker “Jeannie.” Tell proves himself a VH1-ready singer on this track while Ireland, who performs percussion on the entire album, ably keeps time and bashes around a bit. “Jeannie” is an atypical rock song about a girl who finds love in all the wrong places, but it’s got a winning formula.

Potential single “Slipping Under (Sing Along to Your Favorite Song)” follows “Jeannie,” and while it veers into extra-rote territory, it’s still catchy. But it does mark the first half of the album’s shift towards a more Starbucks-y singer/songwriter style, one which is further propagated by track three, “Trouble.” You Can Hold Me Down’s weakest track, “Trouble” is painfully melodramatic, something that Tell later further exudes on lame numbers like “Like You, Only Sweeter” and “Maybe Tonight.” Amid all this melodrama, though, is track four, “Fairfax (You’re Still the Same).”

“Fairfax” is three-fifths of a SoCo song. It’s got Tell, Ireland and a special guest appearance from McMahon on piano. Oddly present beneath the three is the beatboxing of Ryan Tedder, which is annoyingly spread throughout the song. Regardless, “Fairfax” is a slightly funky, mostly fun Something Corporate tune for fans who miss Something Corporate.

The rest of You Can Hold Me Down’s middle sags a bit. Tell and SoCo can both deliver quality pop, but this stuff is too heavy on the fluff. Things start to get interesting again, though, with track seven, “Young at Heart,” but really take off on the following song, “Sounds.”

Originally released online to SoCo fans as “Radio Sound,” “Sounds” details Tell’s mixed feelings about leaving Something Corporate, among other things, and it is unquestionably the best song on all of You Can Hold Me Down. It rocks like a Jimmy Eat World single, with a closing chorus that is truly righteous, blending a cornucopia of voices into a wall of delicious sound. The album then gradually cools off with its last two tracks, “Just For You” and “You Can Hold Me Down.” But while they don’t quite top “Sounds,” they’re still mighty anthemic.

You Can Hold Me Down is a tight album, unfurling 10 tracks in 32 minutes. While at times too predictable, it does reveal Tell was an untapped talent during his Something Corporate days. Tracks like “Sounds” and “Jeannie” are ready-made summer anthems begging to be played at the beach.

Love of Diagrams - 'Mosaic'

After generating a decent amount of hype in Collegian (a total of four articles in one semester? Yowza!), Australian post-punk act Love of Diagrams has released its Bob Weston-produced Matador debut, Mosaic. Chock full o’ swirling guitars, ambient noises and No Wave-style singing, Mosaic delivers everything promised by the band’s promotional EP, Love of Diagrams, released back in January. While the album is at times derivative of the early ’80s New York No Wave movement, Mosiac is still at least a promising stateside debut from one of Australia’s more popular post-punk bands.

Mosaic opens with “Form and Function.” For new listeners, the track might prove confusing, if for no other reason than that it’s not sung by the group’s frontwoman/bassist, Antonia Sellbach, but rather by backup vocalist/guitarist Luke Horton. Regardless, Horton leads the track well, and the playing on the tune is a good summation of Love of Diagrams’ sound: slightly dreamy, kinda rocking and generally jawesome.

Tracks two and three, “The Pyramid” and “Pace or the Patience,” should be familiar to those who already purchased Love of Diagrams, as they were originally made available there. At times recalling a less-reggae influenced version of The Slits, the two tunes are perhaps some of the strongest ones Mosaic has to offer, and are again atypical of the post-punk style.

Aside from the odd choice of opening the album with “Form and Function,” Mosaic is sequenced fairly well. The post-punk pep of “Pace or the Patience” segues adequately into the more primal, punk-y number “At 100%,” which in turn leads nicely into the instrumental interlude entitled, aptly enough, “Interlude.” The trio briefly jams out while Sellbach drops some sweet, succulent melodica over the whole thing.

By this point, however, Mosaic will have become a tad predictable, perhaps even stagnant, to listeners. “Ms Vs. Export,” “Confrontation” and “All the Time,” while adept, are also interchangeable. Slight variety shows up on tracks like “Double,” which ups the haunting reverb that hangs over the entire album, while the bonus track “Bonus Track” (how about them direct titles?) turns the whole thing down to a whisper.

In comparison to most new millennium post-punkers, Love of Diagrams seems ahead of the curve. But compared to the group’s forebears like Wire or Sonic Youth, the trio still has a ways to go. Mosaic is an entertaining enough listen, but Love of Diagrams has yet to progress beyond their influences.

Bright Eyes - 'Cassadaga'

Being a Bright Eyes fan, and by association a Conor Oberst fan, is kind of like standing next to a pendulum. In one swing, everything is fine, but then the next swing comes back and hits you right in the nards. I first became an Oberst fan around the time of the release of his second album, Fevers and Mirrors. The record’s collection of psychedelic folk and meta-self-conscious/self-lacerating, angst-filled lyrics grabbed my attention right away, so much so that I actually purchased the album on the strength of the lyrics alone without having heard a single note of the songs.

But the pendulum swung back and hit me with the release of Bright Eyes’ next album, the excruciatingly long (both in song durations and name) Lifted, Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground, which was a painful, melodramatic failure in songwriting. Bloated and stupid, Lifted saw Oberst’s lyricism hit levels of lameness not even poetry-writing 10th graders dared to tread.

Things have been back-and-forth since then. The double release of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn yielded two good albums. But then Oberst decided to become a sloppy, public drug addict, acting like a jerk to many. He even went so far as to drunkenly mock the crap out of legendary U.K. DJ John Peel right after his passing. Also, he gave my Aunt Janet the “bad touch” at the “Vote for Change” tour with Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. True story.

Oberst’s rampant public self-destruction and all-out jerkery was enough to turn me off as a listener, as I skipped out on his rarities compilation, Noise Floor. But then, I found a surprise — the new Bright Eyes single “Four Winds.” The video, and its accompanying promotional EP, was a refreshing burst of verbosely folky fervor. I was hooked again.

The “Four Winds” EP, released in March, was a great promotional device for Oberst’s full length Cassadaga. While only the EP’s title track was to be featured on Cassadaga, the accompanying five tracks were all brilliant and diverse, showcasing a firm, delightful grasp of rock and/or roll and folk.

If the throwaway tracks of The “Four Winds” EP could be so good, surely Cassadaga’s content would be stunning. On top of that, Oberst had cleaned up his act, abandoning alcohol for… whatever sober people drink. Milk, maybe. Perhaps lots of water.

After quite a bit of anticipation, Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga was released last week, and it is neither good nor bad. It is simply mediocre, especially in its middle.

The opening song, “Clairaudients (Kill Or Be Killed),” begins with a series of audio clips, a Bright Eyes trademark. It’s a little by-the-numbers for Oberst. The album really hits the listener, though, with track two, “Four Winds.”

Built around a sweet mandolin hook, “Four Winds” is one of the few rollicking tracks on Cassadaga. Musically, it’s a solid country rocker. Lyrically, Oberst picks up some of the social incisiveness of previous songs like “Road to Joy” and “When the President Talks to God.” This time, the guy takes aim at organized religion, singing, “The Bible’s blind, the Torah is deaf, the Qu’ran is mute/If you burned them all together you’d get close to the truth.”

The album gets more country-oriented on track three, “If the Brakeman Turns My Way.” The style may turn off fans more accustomed to Lifted’s orchestral indie/folk, but the song is still awfully catchy in a Bob Dylan-ish sort of way. The following song, “Hot Knives,” is just as infectious. But then comes the first snag: “Make a Plan to Love Me.”

“Make a Plan to Love Me” isn’t just boring, it’s ridiculously sappy. A love song, Oberst, backed by the DuPree sisters from Eisley, delivers a series of awful, banal sentiments. Sample lyric: “Do what you feel/Whatever is cool/But I just have to ask/Will you make a plan to love me?”

The malaise of “Make a Plan to Love Me” carries over a few tracks. “Soul Singer in a Session Band” isn’t really all that soulful, “Classic Cars” stalls and “Middleman” is middling.

Cassadaga starts to reengage around track nine, “Cleanse Song.” It’s an autobiography of sorts about Oberst’s attempts to kick the habit, and it has to be one of the catchiest songs about detox ever written. But it proves to be an island in a sea of mediocrity.

“No One Would Riot For Less” is another dull love song. On top of that, it kind of apes the horn section from Morning’s “Old Soul Song (For The New World Order)” just a tad too much. Meanwhile, “Coat Check Dream Song” is certainly dreamy, but that’s partially because it will put the listener to sleep.

There’s one last good track on Cassadaga, and it’s “I Must Belong Somewhere.” It’s a slow building country tune, but even its quiet intro is far more energetic than many of the songs preceding it. The tune finds Oberst renouncing just about everything in his possession, from his house to his guitar. By this point in the album, he’s dealt with his addictions; now he’s just trying to find a place to hang. It’s an admirable quest, made even more endearing by Oberst’s forceful, determined emphasis on the line “Everything it must belong somewhere.” He needs to believe it, for his own sake.

“Lime Tree” closes out the album. It’s really depressing, partially because it’s a sad song, and partially because it’s badly written and arranged.

So, there it is, a track-by-track breakdown of the new Bright Eyes album. Of the 13 songs on Cassadaga, there are five good ones, one OK one and a whole lot of filler. But maybe that’s sort of the point. Cassadaga’s lyrics read like a step-by-step account of what rehab is like, and I’m told that it’s a thoroughly depressing process. On the plus side, though, the album comes with a decoder for finding hidden images on the album’s artwork. So, that’s kind of cool.

Big D and the Kids Table - 'Strictly Rude'

Like zombies, tax forms and Jason from the Friday the 13th series, ska just won’t stay dead and gone. Luckily, this isn’t such a bad thing, thanks to Boston ska masters Big D and The Kids Table. The group has been turning out all types of ska/punk gems for over a decade now, and has just returned with their fifth full length, Strictly Rude. While slightly uneven, Strictly Rude is a great album, not just from Big D and The Kids Table, but for the ska genre in general. For the most part, the band has dropped its punk edge in order to create a purely ska record, a la The Specials or The Toasters.

“Steady Riot” literally sets the scene for the album with its opening lines, “Lower Allston Rising/The music’s made on Boston’s dejected streets/In polluted rooms and sweat dripping ceilings.” On a lyrical level, Big D is still the same — the songs all still deal with jerks, poverty, good music, girls and having fun. Frontman David McWane sings here about how music keeps him from getting sucked down by lowlifes/funds. “Music, a steady riot in my soul” goes the chorus.

Strictly Rude hits its first snag with “Deadpan Face.” While by no means a “bad” track, “Deadpan Face” is certainly weak compared to the album’s other songs. Lyrically concise and instrumentally haunting, Big D tells a tale of looking at a creepy girl’s face. That’s it. Oh yeah, and it's really, really heavy on the reverb. “Deadpan Face” segues into “Snakebite,” a similarly decent tune.

However, after this double dosage of “eh,” the excellent title track follows. “Strictly Rude” is the most reggae song on the album, providing positive vibes as McWane courts a lovely Boston lass over a groovy bass line and melodica. It’s nice to see the Big D boys aren’t just aping Jamaican rhythms — they legitimately know their ska.

The tempo picks up a bit with the political “Try Out Your Voice.” While it lacks the anger of How It Goes’ incisive “President,” it substitutes vitriol for hope. The song concludes with, “Truth in the State of the Union address/Truth in this political process/I should not have to sing for this/Try out your voice/Now use it, use it/We are the people.”

In complete contrast to “Try Out Your Voice” is the incredibly sarcastic “Hell On Earth.” McWane throws his hands up in the air, frustrated with everyone and everything. Apparently, he wasn’t feeling the positivity of “Try Out Your Voice,” hence lyrics like, “Pro-life be carnivores/Pro-choice be whores/Let’s never help the bums.” Things even out later, but man, is McWane a bitter dude. Lines like “So let the damn cows moo/Let the children get abused/Let the goldfish swim outside” kind of weird me out.

While there are other solid tracks at the album’s second half, the best are the closing two — “The One” and “She Knows Her Way.” “The One” is a stunning, slow ska number in which McWane beseeches a friend, “I know you want to love her for the rest of your life/But man, this woman, her intentions ain’t right.” With its Caribbean orchestration, “The One” comes off like a B-side to The Little Mermaid’s “Kiss the Girl,” only like, you know, without the kissing. Or mermaids. Or anthropomorphic animals. But the reggae vibes are neat. Plus, I like to think of McWane as our generation’s Sebastian the crab.

The album’s seven-and-a-half minute closer, “She Knows Her Way,” is a lengthy but zesty number. Everyone shines here — Rogan’s guitar playing continues to morph and dance, the horn section (Stoppelman on trumpet, Ryan O’Connor on sax and Paul E. Cuttler on trombone) adds flavor and the rhythm section of bassist Steve Foote and drummer JR hold it all together in a most funky fashion. The highlight is perhaps JR’s snare drum rim solo because, c’mon, he’s soloing just on the rim. I don’t care if that’s false logic; that’s just cool.

Ska is often thought of today as a stagnant musical style. The third wave ska subgenre, otherwise known as “modern ska,” has existed for about 20 years or so with minimal improvement. But Big D and The Kids Table have plowed through mediocrity to craft a series of revolutionary and brilliant albums which single handedly reinvigorate the ska genre. Boston may be one heck of a ways away from Kingston, but Big D and The Kids Table have still mastered Jamaica’s eclectic musical style, as proven by Strictly Rude.

Arcade Fire - 'Neon Bible'

Contrary to what logic might tell you, becoming wildly successful is one of the worst things to happen to a band’s career. Oh sure, making money is, generally speaking, a good thing (if you’re a capitalist dog). But by becoming so popular, artists are then faced with soul crushing scrutiny for their next album.

Such a problem faced indie rockers The Arcade Fire. So sudden was the commercial and critical success of the group’s debut full length, Funeral, that it was as if the band members had sprouted from the Canadian arctic fully formed and ready to rock. But there was actually a heck of a lot of work put into Funeral. It was an incredibly personal album whose subject matter was concerned with the deaths of several of the group’s family matters. When you pour that much of your sorrow into a record, it must be hard to find more essence for a second one. But despite this, The Arcade Fire manned up and put out its sophomore effort, Neon Bible. Having debuted at number two on the Billboard charts, second only to Notorious B.I.G.’s greatest hits collection, it’s clear that a lot of people were waiting for Neon Bible to come out. The album (almost) lives up to such expectations.

Funeral and Neon Bible are both exactly the same and completely different. Again, you’re going to have to do away with logic here. Instrumentally, the two albums are of a piece — the band still makes French Canadian orchestral indie rock, although Neon Bible sounds a bit cleaner and fuller. On a lyrical level, the two albums are both still incredibly personal.

But there’s one huge overlapping difference between the two, and it is themes. Where Funeral was about familial loss, Neon Bible is more of a big-important-political-statement kind of record. It’s got less of the U2-ambience and more of the U2-pomp going on. Frontman Win Butler is still an ace pop songwriter; he’s just turned his focus inside out. On tracks like “Intervention” and “(Antichrist Television Blues),” Butler harshes on things that itch his craw, like the U.S. government and Jessica Simpson’s daddy, Joe. While it’s awfully incisive, it doesn’t quite connect on the same personal level as older Arcade Fire tracks like “Rebellion (Lies)” or “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” But hey, the song-length crescendo of “Intervention” is rather moving.

I don’t mean to imply that Neon Bible is a bad album. It’s just merely an OK one. Album opener “Black Mirror” is an OK folk/country/indie tune; “Neon Bible” is an OK, quiet indie pop song; album closer “My Body is a Cage” is an OK collection of organ swells and choir flourishes.

But the most damning part about Neon Bible is that its best track, “No Cars Go,” is also a recycled one. Appearing originally on the EP The Arcade Fire, “No Cars Go” gets gloriously updated, with a peppier tempo and fierier vocals. Unfortunately, this old tune knocks over the new material a little too well. Neon Bible sounds like what an Arcade Fire album ought to sound like. It’s much lusher sounding than Funeral or The Arcade Fire, but it lacks the emotional resonance of such past works. It is merely good.

Jesse Malin - 'Glitter in the Gutter'

One glorious day, bands like Nickelback and Hinder will be purged from the good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll radio. Perhaps NYC native Jesse Malin will step up in their stead to assume the mantle of “modern rock dude.” But although his latest album, Glitter in the Gutter, is chock full of standard modern radio rock stuff, Malin provides quality jams in the tradition of classic rock vets like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen (who also duets with Malin on “Broken Radio”).

Like the Boss’s own The River, Malin’s Glitter in the Gutter tries to devote time and space to both quiet, introspective ballads and bombastic anthems about this-and-that. “Don’t Let Them Take You Down” kicks the album off, with Malin providing his best Young impersonation. The song carries a message of positivity over a middle-of-the-road acoustic strum. After Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War (both of which get mentioned here), this sentiment for 2007 is certainly welcome, if not a bit trite compared to Springsteen's post-9/11 activism.

“In the Modern World” kicks things up a gear or two, and showcases more accurately Malin’s gift for hooks. Single-worthy and totally peppy, “In the Modern World” glides by effortlessly in under three minutes, and gosh darn does it demand repeat listens. While “Don’t Let Them Take You Down” tries to rally people lyrically, “In the Modern World” gets it done with sheer pop rock pacing and infectious singing.

Later tracks like “Prisoners of Paradise” (which borrows a little too much from The Knack’s “My Sharona” for, like, three seconds) and “Little Star” recreate this energy with expert precision.

The slower tunes come in two forms: ambient or classic rock. “Lucinda” is a pretty ’70s-style love song about a woman with the aforementioned name. “Tomorrow, Tonight” comes off distant and dreamy. Piano ballads “Bastards of Young” (a Replacements cover) and “Broken Radio” get by on sappy sentiment and Bruce-style gruff emoting. They’re pretty, but they’re also a tad bit melodramatic.

But just like most other radio rock albums, Glitter in the Gutter has a few faults. Malin’s Neil Young whine can get annoying at certain points in the album’s 44-minute running time. It doesn’t matter much on rockin’ tracks like “In the Modern World,” for they are far too catchy to be held down, but on lesser tracks, Malin’s voice can expose a few cracks in the structure. Mid-tempo ditty “Black Haired Girl” rocks like Ryan Adams (another guest on the album), but Malin’s singing lacks the force and enchantment of a classic rocker like, say, Roger Daltrey, which in turn makes the song’s repetitive AABB rhyme scheme all the more aggravating.

Glitter in the Gutter is a decent collection of rock songs. Boasting guest work from Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Adams, Chris Shiflett, Josh Home and Jakob Dylan, it’s clear that Malin has friends in high alt-rock places. But he hasn’t yet matched his friends’ level of songwriting. Malin rocks better than Springsteen circa Human Touch, but he’s miles away from Born to Run.

Ferocious Eagle - 'The Sea Anemone Inside of Me is Mighty'

There’s a clear line between showing your influences and blatantly ripping off and watering them down. Unfortunately, Portland, Ore.’s Ferocious Eagle settles for the latter. Their debut album, The Sea Anemone Inside of Me is Mighty, is a deliriously unimaginative piece of no wave/post-punk tripe.

The most obvious comparisons one can make to Ferocious Eagle are ’80s Sonic Youth (think pre-Daydream Nation) and older Modest Mouse (This is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About). The guitars are noodley, the drumming is loose and the vocals are spastic and ever so whacky. What separates Ferocious Eagle from those other two bands, however, is their songs’ brevity — only a third of the tracks here make it past the two-and-a-half minute mark. A few of the tracks benefit from such restraint, as the album’s opener/title track is a tight and grungy ditty. Most of the time, though, the short songs end without really going anywhere.

The Sea Anemone Inside of Me is Mighty is best summed up by track two, “Dinosaur.” It’s just over two minutes long, and crams a decent amount of no wave-style rocking (plus handclaps!). But the song has no purpose. Its sole lines, “There’s a man with a plan and he’s leaning on me,” mean nothing. The thrashing that follows said lines is barely compelling. It could certainly pass for a Sonic Youth song, but a piss poor one. If Ferocious Eagle aren’t going to bother improving their minimalist approach to lyrics, the least they can do is cook up a decent instrumental. Track after track here repeats the same sloppy post-punk formula. From “Dinosaur” all the way to album closer “I Just Don’t Care,” there’s little variation or improvement.

Well, okay, there is one song that deviates from the formula: “Be Not Weary, Be Not Weak.” Although it begins with the same no wave formula, the song switches over to a gentler style 30 seconds in. It’s much more reminiscent of The Weakerthans or Death Cab For Cutie. It’s a slightly refreshing reprieve from the wall of noise present on the rest of The Sea Anemone Inside of Me is Mighty, and it even comes complete with a full set of lyrics. There are even verses! They detail a holy vision with Jesus Christ about life and death, which is trippy in its own way. After Christ tells his tale, Ferocious Eagle proceed to rock out and actually do so kind of well.

What ruins The Sea Anemone Inside of Me is Mighty is its thrown-together feel. Sure, the production is great, and the band plays with conviction, but the songwriting could use some more effort. Ferocious Eagle just need to try just a scootch bit harder. Tunes like “Dinosaur,” and especially all of tracks eight through 11, sound less like songs and more like practice sessions, ideas waiting to form.

Anti-Flag/Big D and the Kids Table/Set Your Goals live March 9, 2007

According to some boring ol’ cliché, variety is the spice of life. That maxim certainly held true March 9, when the “War Sucks, Let’s Party” tour came to the Theatre of Living Arts. Consisting of Set Your Goals (pop punk/hardcore), Big D and The Kids Table (ska/punk), Alexisonfire (screamo) and Anti-Flag (punk, straight up and simple), the tour enveloped all gathered in a sweet, sweaty layer of punky awesomeness.

Up-and-coming act Set Your Goals opened the show with a resounding dosage of energy and sheer, unadulterated glee. With a sound that bridges Gorilla Biscuits and New Found Glory, or, more simply, brings Set Your Goals-era CIV to the masses, SYG burst forth with the triumphant “This Very Moment.” For the next half hour, the band entertained the crowd with a mix of songs from both their full-length, the stellar Mutiny!, and their EP, Reset (which Collegian’s Eric Jaen highly approved of in the April 26, 2006 issue).

While the show was most likely the first time most of the crusty punks in attendance had heard of/from Set Your Goals, the band managed to win over a lot of converts with catchy numbers like “This Song is Definitely Not About a Girl” and “Flight of the Navigator.” Frontmen Matt Wilson and Jordan Brown kept the crowd moving with their own bits of jumping, yelping and general rocking. Set Your Goals further appealed to the crowd with an Operation Ivy cover (“Jaded”), revealing the group’s strengths with cover songs as well as original material. After closing with the oddly appropriate “To Be Continued,” Set Your Goals bowed out and made room for Big D and The Kids Table.

Having already released a bevy of brilliant ska albums, such as How It Goes, Good Luck and The Gypsy Hill EP, Big D and The Kids Table have established themselves as one of the best members of the umpteenth ska wave. While the band’s new album, Strictly Rude, won’t be released until later in March, fans got a taste of the work. The first half of Big D’s set consisted of new material, and it was all amazing. After playing a few peppy songs which incorporated ska and punk elements with great results, Big D slowed things down with “Strictly Rude,” a jammed-out reggae track that featured more of that delicious melodica, courtesy of frontman David McWane. Also played from the upcoming album was “Noise Complaint,” which has been a Big D live staple for over a year now.

The second half of Big D’s set delivered older songs, thereby allowing the crowd to actually sing along. “Girls Against Drunk Bitches” and “The Checklist” caused skanking to erupt all over the TLA’s floor. “LAX,” which has pretty much been the band’s official set closer since the release of How It Goes in 2004, united all assembled in a mutual, punk rock hatred of wealthy jerks. This was yet another great Philly set from Big D and The Kids Table; hopefully, they’ll finally headline the TLA (or another venue) once Strictly Rude comes out.

Third up was Alexisonfire (yes, it’s one word. There’s been several pronunciations. I prefer “Alexi Sonf Ire.”). While the eclecticism of the bill for “War Sucks, Let’s Party” had thus far been a boon, the screaming emotional hardcore (ya know… “screamo”) of Alexisonfire tested the crowd’s patience. While applause was generally polite, one annoyed fan let the band know that they “f------ suck,” to which frontman George Pettit replied, “Ha ha, you wish buddy, we’re awesome!” Unfortunately, Pettit was wrong. They were not awesome.

Luckily, Alexisonfire’s set eventually ended, and politi-punks Anti-Flag took to the stage. Anti-Flag have often been flagged for writing cookie cutter lyrics and oversimplifying politics, especially when compared to smarter bands like, say, Propagandhi. But what Anti-Flag lack in depth, they more than make up for with heart and cajones.

Opening with “War Sucks, Let’s Party!” from For Blood and Empire, Anti-Flag set the crowd of 14-year-old Misfits lovin’ pseudo-crusties and older, less violent punks ablaze. Songs such as “Underground Network,” “You Can Kill The Protester, But You Can’t Kill The Protest” and “Smash It to Pieces” left a ripple effect on the crowd, forcing the entire floor to mosh, pogo or get knocked the hell over. The band tempered down such fervent movement, though, with impassioned speeches every few songs, reminding fans to maintain an international social awareness while at the same time looking out for their own personal communities. However, Anti-Flag didn’t just preach solidarity; they practiced it as well.

About halfway through the group’s set, the TLA’s soundman asked Anti-Flag to stop playing, as someone in the building was having an asthma attack. Frontman Justin Sane removed his guitar and quickly walked offstage, only to reemerge a few minutes later. Turns out Sane is an asthmatic, and he lent his inhaler to TLA security to give to that one stricken individual.

Anti-Flag kept on rocking their tuneful brand of punk rock once everything was taken care of, providing more angry tracks like “Turncoat,” “No Borders, No Nations” and “Confessions of an Economic Hitman.” The Flag fans on the floor followed suit, never flagging but always moving and singing. The communal aura between the band and the crowd seemed genuine and passionate, as well as hell bent on taking down The Man ASAP. After Sane, Chris Head, Chris #2 and Pat Thetic provided a stellar encore of “You’ve Got To Die For The Government,” the night finally ended.

The “War Sucks, Let’s Party” tour was a great show. Alexisonfire aside, the bill was tight and rocking, providing a diverse array of tunes. Set Your Goals and Big D and The Kids Table are both slated to have good runs in 2007, and need to return to Philadelphia as quickly and as often as possible. As for Anti-Flag, the sincerity and passion in every note and line invigorated and then devastated the crowd, leaving throats raw and bodies sore. That’s quite a party.

Smoke or Fire - 'This Sinking Ship'

Richmond, Va. transplant Smoke or Fire has been mostly ablaze in the last few years. The band signed to punk rock powerhouse Fat Wreck Chords in 2004, and then released its Fat debut, Above the City, in 2005. Above the City was a stunning album, merging punk rock vitriol with some Southern bar band sensibility. The group’s 2007 follow-up, This Sinking Ship, expands on Above the City’s promise with more bravado and better production.

This Sinking Ship’s opener, the energetic “What Separates Us All,” kicks things off right away. The band’s Hot Water Music-like style and sociopolitical beliefs are more focused on this track, as frontman Joe McMahon sings “So ask the pro-life, pro-war, right-wing Christian how their rationale makes sense/Should they decide whose children live or die/And whose rights we should defend?”

The righteous anger and self-determination McMahon spews forth on “What Separates Us All” is spread throughout the rest of This Sinking Ship. It would appear that the Fat budget has finally caught up with Smoke or Fire, resulting in a much cleaner, “Fat-sounding” record. There’s a larger dosage of pop mixed with the band’s punk, and the production by sound engineer Matt Allison allows the listener to make out each instrument. As great as Above the City was, it still sounded like crap — you couldn’t distinguish the drums from the bass from the guitars — so it’s nice to hear some more division between the band’s instruments. The album is cohesive, although it could use a bit more diversity. Above the City at least had the acoustic drinking song, “Cryin’ Shame,” to break up all of the louder punk tunes.

All the same, though, there’s no denying the quality of such post-hardcore/punk gems as “Life Imitating Art” or the title track. McMahon screams himself raw on these songs. But while these tunes are tough bar brawlers, McMahon is still a Springsteen-ian songwriter on the inside, and he fills each of This Sinking Ship’s 12 tracks with big, juicy choruses.

McMahon’s pop subconscious does dominate even more on a few tunes, though. The album's third track, “Melatonin,” could easily be the theme song for 2007’s Warped crowd. Punk has always thrived on an “us versus them” ethic, and McMahon taps into that with the song’s chorus: “It’s the world that has to change, not me/I’m fine with where I stand/These conversations are all about nothing/Forget these opinions they put in your head.” “Melatonin” is a pop-punk call-to-arms.

Smoke or Fire’s This Sinking Ship is a solid release. It follows the ’90s punk template laid out by such bands as Avail and Face to Face a little too closely at times, but at least it does it well.

Brain Failure/Big D and The Kids Table - 'Beijing to Boston'

The super duper neat-o thing about punk rock is that its ideology is supposed to be all-inclusive — anyone can pick up an instrument and bash out a punk rock tune about any topic of interest, from the political (i.e. - The Clash’s “White Riot”) to the not-so-much (i.e. - The Ramones’ “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”). To that end, punk rock has spread around the globe, as evidenced by the recent split album Beijing to Boston, co-released by Chinese punk rockers Brain Failure and American ska masters Big D and the Kids Table. The split is a bit uneven, but still a solid purchase for punk/ska fans. It's repetitive at times, but at least it does it well.

Beijing to Boston is split down the middle with six tracks from each band. Brain Failure starts things off with “Coming Down to Beijing.” Right away, it’s obvious who Brain Failure’s influences are: Rancid and Operation Ivy. Basically, Brain Failure is a Tim Armstrong tribute band. But what the dub-tinged punkers lack in originality, they make up for in conviction. Besides, Indestructible was kind of crappy and I could use a good Rancid album, even if it isn’t actually written by Rancid per se.

Regardless, “Coming Down to Beijing” is a solid opener. Boasting a duet of sorts between Brain Failure frontman Xiao Rong (whose Armstrong impersonation is flawless) and Mighty, Mighty Bosstones boss Dicky Barrett, the song reveals BF’s firm pride in China and three-chord guitar parts.

Tracks two and three, “Living in the City” and “Time to Go,” follow the same Rancid-rock formula. Guitarist Dee Dee Wang Jian lends his gruff baritone to “Time to Go,” making him the Matt Freeman to Rong’s Armstrong. Sure, it’s been done before, but not quite to death.

Brain Failure missteps just a tad on the next track, “Fall in Love 2008.” The band focuses more on Rancid’s dub side on this one, and while the Mandarin verses have a great groove to them, the English choruses come off as too sleepy and limp. Thankfully, after four-and-a-half minutes, “Fall in Love 2008” segues into the more rocking “City Junk.” It’s incredibly catchy. Finally, there’s the awkward “You’re Gonna Die” to close out Brain Failure’s half of the split. A diatribe against moochers and deadbeats who don’t pay off debts, “You’re Gonna Die” reminds listeners not to “rip off money from your friends/ You’re gonna die.” Seriously: Rong says it like 30 times in the span of two minutes.

While Brain Failure’s half of this album will grow on listeners over time, Big D and the Kids Tables’ half disappoints a little bit more with each spin. “Faded” starts off promisingly enough, with the first half of the song showcasing a very slow, hazy reggae instrumental. Heavily affected guitar and a classic reggae bass line groove along while some melodica floats over it, making for an excellent chill track. Halfway through, though, the song shifts into pure punk/ska territory, with frontman David McWane shouting a list of reasons why he hates playing shows with crappy bands. While McWane’s hatred of watered down screamo and liquored up drunk people is certainly empathetic, after a while it begins to grate. “Taking Back the Rhythm” continues to berate “the scene” for its unoriginality, but without any convincing hooks, McWane sounds just like the sneering hipsters at whom he’s aiming.

“I’m Yours Boston” is a poppier track, detailing Big D’s love of a certain Mass. city. It’s ska-punk-by-numbers, with barely-there lyrical effort and standardized horns. “Running Young” follows the same formula, albeit faster and punker.

The second-to-last track, “Digging in Your Nails,” is perhaps the most frustrating song on Beijing to Boston. Instrumentally, it’s incredible. Starting off with searing punk and then later transitioning into a more dub-style bridge (complete with more sweet, sweet melodica, courtesy of guitarist Seth P. Rogan), “Digging in Your Nails” sounds like a great, catchy rude boy song. But on a lyrical level, it blows, thanks to McWane’s economic approach to songwriting, as he repeats the title over and over. It’s as if McWane wanted to top the repetitive nature of Brain Failure’s “Your Gonna Die.” But, at least the melodica and horns sound cool.

“Ruin You” caps off Beijing to Boston, as McWane awakens from a night of alcohol absorption. It’s more dub, D-style.

Overall, Beijing to Boston is a mixed bag. Brain Failure’s half is good, but unoriginal. Big D and the Kids Table’s half is original, but kind of lame for a band that has previously turned out such umpteenth wave ska gems as The Gypsy Hill EP and How It Goes. Then again, Big D’s full-length, Strictly Rude, is just a month away, and a second proposed work, Strictly Dub, is still incubating. Perhaps the D has simply stretched its creativity too far in 2007. I supposed we’ll find out when Strictly Rude drops in March.

Minus the Bear - 'Interpretaciones del Oso'

“Remixing a song is like admitting you were wrong.” - Indie Rock Pete, Diesel Sweeties

It’s rarely a good idea for artists to revisit and rework their creations. In the case of musicians, this means they shouldn’t put out remix albums. With a few exceptions scattered among the vast collection of records drifting out in the ether, remix albums suck. There are basically two kinds of remix albums — the dance-y, techno kind and the difficult, experimental kind. The techno types are usually annoying, while the experimental ones settle for being frustrating.

Nonetheless, rock band Minus the Bear have decided to defy conventional music wisdom and put out a collection of remixes entitled Interpretaciones del Oso, which reworks their 2005 release, Menos el Oso. Now, despite the intricate, time signature juggling nature of their music, Minus the Bear are a catchy pop rock band. Their songs are ridiculously hard to play on guitar, but they sure are fun to hear. So, given the already infectious nature of Menos el Oso, Intrepretaciones del Oso aims for the more experimental route. Each of the album’s 11 tracks was sent to a different artist for reconfiguration, with mostly crappy results. But there are some solid remixes on Interpretaciones del Oso as well, and when they crop up, they not only complement their subject matter, but stand on their own as good songs. Not just “good for a remix,” but “good,” without qualifications tacked on, even though I kind of added one here just now.

The album starts off promisingly enough with a reworking of “Drilling,” provided by P.O.S. It’s also the only track that attempts to increase the band’s catchiness. P.O.S. accomplishes such a goal by streamlining the rhythm section, giving “Drilling” a more hip-hop-oriented percussion section. There’s other bits of remixing on the song, but the “goo-goo kah, goo kah-goo” of the drums are what the listener will be sure to remember. P.O.S.’ take on “Drilling” is an amazing opening track.

But the momentum P.O.S. builds is quickly killed off by the second song, FOG’s remix of “Memphis and 53rd.” FOG lives up to its name by increasing the haze of the track, taking it to shoegaze-like levels of guitar squall. But without a cohesive melody, it just sounds like noise. The same problem later crops up on the IQU 06 mix of “This Ain’t a Surfin’ Movie.”

The rest of the first half of Interpretaciones del Oso plays it a bit safer by trying to turn Minus the Bear into a druggy club-mix band. But, again, that’s redundant, and irksome to boot. The remixes of “Fulfill the Dream” and “The Fiz” are grating and unoriginal.

A reprieve comes in the form of “Hooray [Dark Baby Remix].” Rather than tweak the structure of “Hooray,” Dark Baby cuts out the vocals and takes Lego-like pieces of the song in order to build something totally new. It’s electronica in the style of Daft Punk, with a slight 8-bit video game vibe to it. But as niche as that might be, it works.

More haze accompanies the second half of the disc, but there are two more songs worth mentioning to MtB fans — “Pachuca Sunrise” and “The Pig War.” The Alias take on “Pachuca Sunrise” is unquestionably the best remix on Interpretaciones del Oso. Like P.O.S., Alias dims down the guitars and puts the emphasis on the drums and vox. The result is a much more chilled out version, one that gently rolls along. It also complements the lovesick lyrics about separation and broken promises which frontman Jake Snider sings about. Alias’ “Pachuca Sunrise” is so good that it even bests its source material.

The other interesting remix is “The Pig War,” as arranged by O, Hunter (aka Morgan Henderson of The Blood Brothers). Henderson creates a sleepy, minimalist song here. Mixing the slightest snippet of vocals (Snider’s lonely “Oh” alone) with a heck of a lot of wind instruments, acoustic guitars and, later, synths, Henderson creates a gorgeously orchestral number. It’s a lot mellower, though, which might turn off some listeners. It’s compelling along the same lines as Björk’s experimental remix album, Telegram. But the adjustments made aren’t just liberal: they’re liberating.

Overall, Interpretaciones del Oso is kind of boring and uninspired. But, the four good tracks discussed here are just enough to make it essential for Minus the Bear fans. “Drilling,” “Hooray,” “Pachuca Sunrise” and “The Pig War” were already great on Menos el Oso, but Interpretaciones del Oso gives them a second, equally brilliant aspect.

Bloc Party - 'A Weekend in the City'

One of my biggest beefs with British music magazines is that just about every gosh darned band that comes off that island is supposed to be “The Next Big Thing.” Most of the time, the press is totally off (The Horrors, Kasabian, etc.), but the law of averages means that sometimes they’re right about something (In this case, Bloc Party). Bloc Party’s 2005 full-length debut, Silent Alarm, was a stunning collection of post-punk, Gang of Four-loving tunes. All 14 of its tracks could have been hits. Given that half of the album ended up being released as singles, that isn’t much of an exaggeration.

But, to paraphrase an old saying, while the band members had their entire lives to write their first album, they only had six months (or something like that…) to write their second one. Due to low amounts of time, high amounts of pressure and a heck of a lot of growing pains, the band’s sophomore release, A Weekend in the City, is a bit of a mixed deal.

A Weekend in the City is 11 tracks of awkward dance music. But, it’s not awkward in the herky-jerky, angular post-punk way that the band displayed on Silent Alarm. Oh no, it’s awkward in a “man, these lyrics would blow my mind if only I was still 14” way. It’s as if frontman Kele Okereke raided his (live)journal for song ideas. The result is a batch of thoroughly sullen, albeit groovy, tunes.

The most embarrassing tracks here tend to be the slower ones. They expose Okereke more. The album’s opener, “Song For Clay (Disappear Here),” starts off with just Okereke’s voice, plus some guitar and organ. Now, Bloc Party have always been pretty good at writing anthems. Older songs like “Two More Years,” “This Modern Love” and “Like Eating Glass” are all infectiously catchy and all boast self-contained messages: “Life and love are good, we are bad dancers who bump into things a lot,” basically.

But, somewhere, sometime, the Party goers decided that they needed to be much broader with their statements. Hence, a song like “Song For Clay (Disappear Here)” doesn’t just tell a story, it attempts scathing criticism of the status quo. “I’m trying to be heroic in an age of modernity,” Okereke begins in a painfully strangulated voice. The song sums up Okereke’s disgust with how pathetically retro life for young hipsters seems to be, how everything has that numb, “it’s been done before” pseudo-ironic feeling.

But rather than turn that nihilistic attitude on, say, the current international political climate, he settles for complaining about his dinner. I’m entirely serious — “I order the foie gras and I eat it with complete disdain/Bubbles rise in champagne flutes, but when we kiss I feel nothing.” Dude needs to mellow out, maybe grab a burrito or something. “Song For Clay (Disappear Here)” is supposed to be a critique of how snide young people are these days, but it’s so joyless that it becomes part of the crowd instead of rebelling against it.

But, luckily, A Weekend in the City has enough quick-tempoed tunes to keep listeners’ brains too occupied with dancing to notice the lame lyrics. “Hunting For Witches” and “Waiting For the 7:18” are both catchy tunes. Drummer Matt Tong has often been called Bloc Party’s “secret weapon,” and it’s obvious why — he keeps the beat awesome in any capacity. He can rock, groove, whatever, and his playing perpetuates both of these tracks into dance-tastic territory.

Things get a bit more club-oriented with “The Prayer.” “Lord, give me grace and dancing feet,” Okereke sings. He’s a little less sullen here, but only fleetingly. Mostly, “The Prayer” is about wanting to be really, really cool. “I will charm/I will slice/I will dazzle them with my wit” goes one line from the chorus.

The last few tracks of A Weekend in the City are the pandering ones. “I Still Remember” attempts to recreate the romantic new wave feelings of “This Modern Love,” with creepily sexual results. “You should have asked me for it/I would have been brave,” Okereke sings. Later, he recalls hanging out with his love on trains and in parks, but there’s still that lingering awkwardness of lines like those quoted above.

There’s only one word needed to describe A Weekend in the City — awkward. Musically, the band is still tight and danceable. The songs here are less post-punk and more synth-y, pop rock sounding. It’s a different style, but a good one. Think Kenna’s New Sacred Cow or perhaps The Faint’s Dance Macabre, only not as great. On an instrumental level at least, Bloc Party have distanced themselves from the new new wave bands kicking around Europe and the United States. What destroys A Weekend in the City is the lyrics. The writing is spotty, bratty and lackluster when it wants to hit U2-levels of bravado, self-righteousness and conviction. Here’s hoping Bloc Party learn how to have fun on album number three.

Alkaline Trio - 'Remains'

Rarities records suffer from the same problem as greatest hits compilations — fans don’t get anything new. However, a rarities record does usually gather together a ton of hard-to-get material and assemble it all in one place. Such is the case with Alkaline Trio’s Remains, which is actually the band’s second rarities disc, after 2000’s Alkaline Trio. While Remains consists mostly of previously released material (and three new live cuts taken from the band’s recent “Occult Roots” tour), its convenient packaging makes it a solid purchase for Alka-holics (I am clever).

Remains kicks off its 23-song track list with “Hell Yes,” originally from the now-out-of-print Lookout! Records seven-inch of the same name, and follows up with its B-side, “My Standard Break From Life.” The first has guitarist Matt Skiba on lead vocals and bassist Dan Andriano takes over on the second. Both brilliantly display the Alkaline Trio formula. Skiba’s song combines Satanism with Chicago pop punk for maximum effect. Andriano aims for something less dark (getting old and sucking at life), but provides just as catchy of a tune. Both continue to be popular Trio songs to this day, as proven when “My Standard Break From Life” shows up again later on Remains, this time in acoustic form.

But while Andriano is a great songwriter, the equally talented Skiba dominates a great deal of this album. He turns in a solid cover of Berlin’s “Metro” (aka – the only other Berlin song people can reasonably be expected to know). It’s second only to the System of a Down version (r.e. – Dracula 2000 soundtrack, dude) in terms of giddy rocking. Then comes one of the band’s strongest, but rarely played, numbers, “Jaked on Green Beers.”

Originally released on the first Atticus: Dragging the Lake compilation, “Jaked on Green Beers” reveals that Alkaline Trio don’t always put their best songs on their full-lengths. Clocking in at just under three-and-a-half minutes, it pummels the listener with its rolling bass line and quick, punchy drumming. “Jaked on Green Beers” is one heck of a kiss-off song, delaying the full effect of its chorus (“I hope this is goodbye”) until the very end, at which point listeners get treated to some of the most intense vocals from Skiba and Andriano since… well, ever.

Alkaline Trio have put out two split EPs in the past few years. One, with Hot Water Music, is amazing from start to finish. The other, with One Man Army, was only half-good. Luckily, the good half was provided by the Trio. Both are fully represented on Remains. “Queen of Pain” pulls the same trick as “Jaked on Green Beers.” It’s an awesome pop song throughout, but Skiba doesn’t really rock out the chorus until the last minute of the song. “While You’re Waiting” and the HWM cover “Rooftops” are similarly rocking.

All six of the songs from the band’s One Man Army split show up here, effectively making that BYO release obsolete. These tracks are interesting, and reveal how good the lackluster Crimson, which followed not long after the split’s release, could’ve been had the band not spread itself so thin with OMA. The Alk3 formula is so standardized-in-a-good-rock-way that the simplest of changes, like adding castanets to “Fine Without You,” shifts the focus of the song entirely. In this case, it means focusing less on the ho-hum “Meh, I don’t need you, meh” lyrics and more on how cool castanets sound in a punk song. Seriously, castanets rule.

A few more B-sides and compilation tracks appear on Remains as well. Crimson’s “Time to Waste” B-sides, “We Can Never Break Up” and “Don’t Say You Won’t,” are catchy, new wave-y ditties. “Don’t Say You Won’t,” in particular, stands out as a great, Cure-inspired tune. The use of synths, galloping bass and, of course, catchy hooks give it the same feel as such Robert Smithian tunes as “Just Like Heaven” or “Punish Me With Kisses.”

Also included are the B-side “Buried” and compilation tracks “Warbrain” from Rock Against Bush and “Old School Reasons” off of Oil. Finishing off the disc are live versions of “Dethbed,” “My Standard Break From Life” and “I’m Dying Tomorrow.” They’re all decently recorded, but are still inferior to their studio-made counterparts.

Remains also comes with a DVD, which is stuffed mostly with forgettable tour footage (how many shots of Skiba warming up his voice and screaming in German do we need?). But, it does contain all of the band’s videos from “Stupid Kid” up through “Burn” (aka – now), which is a nice visual addition.

Alkaline Trio have done little to switch up their gloomy pop-punk style during their 10 years of rocking. But for the most part, this dedication to similarity has served the band well. At least the song they keep rewriting is a good one. Remains, though it offers nothing new in terms of songs or artistic risks, is still a worthy purchase for punk fans.

Camera Obscura - 'If Looks Could Kill'

The world sure could use more workman-like songwriters. Luckily, there’s Traceyanne Campbell and her band of merrymakers, Camera Obscura. Fresh off of last year’s indie pop release, Let’s Get Out of This Country, Camera Obscura have released an EP single, If Looks Could Kill. The EP picks right up where the band’s last full-length left off, continuing their trend of sweeping, gorgeous pop music. While not quite as stunning as Let’s Get Out of This Country, If Looks Could Kill still provides 10 minutes of enjoyment for CO fans jonesing for a fix.

If Looks Could Kill opens with the song of the same title, which originally appeared on Let’s Get Out of This Country. Rollicking drums lead the band into a full-on swingin’ jam that will appeal to fans of catchy acts like Neko Case, both with and without The New Pornographers. Marinated in sweet, juicy reverb and romantic advice, “If Looks Could Kill” is a shining example of how a pop song should sound. Campbell dispenses wisdom to an unnamed love interest who needs to tame his temper, reminding him that, “if it’s true looks can kill and you will be the first to make me mad/Then you’ll have to go.” This is an elegant single.

But while “If Looks Could Kill” is clearly a winning pop number, the accompanying B-sides fail to make as great of an impression. Part of this is to be blamed on the production – it’s cleaner and lamer. But that doesn’t mean the two songs are completely without merit. “Hands Up Baby” features prominent vocals from Kenny McKeeve, who also penned the track. McKeeve’s voice isn’t nearly as enchanting as Campbell’s, but luckily she pops up too. String arrangements help embellish the song as well. Somber and mellow, “Hands Up Baby” continues the theme of putting haughty (ex-) lovers in their places that began with “If Looks Could Kill.” It’s a bit of a downer on account of all of its references to death, but at least it sounds pretty.

The final track, “Alaska,” breaks out of the EP’s mold by discussing… trees. “I’m in love with the Hawthorn/Sure I like the Birch/I need a hand, a volunteer/Why does the Sycamore mean so much?” I’m not entirely sure what that means. But the song’s got quite a bit of cowbell and country twang to compensate.

“Alaska” and “Hands Up Baby” are both good orchestral indie pop songs, but it’s obvious why they’re B-sides. They don’t outshine the solid collection of songs on Let’s Get Out of This Country as “If Looks Could Kill” proves right away. It’s a solid EP for Camera Obscura fans, but those looking to hear the band for the first time would be better off checking out their full-lengths.

Foo Fighters - 'Skin and Bones'

It must be nice to be a rock and/or roll elder statesman — just look at Dave Grohl. The man’s been rocking out for almost two decades with such seminal acts as Scream, Foo Fighters and, oh yeah, Nirvana. Having accrued so much alt-rock cred, Grohl has spent the last few years fulfilling any and all of his ambitions. He’s laid down tracks for other great acts like Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, Cat Power, Tenacious D and even the thin white duke himself, David Bowie. After honoring his metal roots with Probot and further pursuing his ambitions with the half-electric/half-acoustic Foo Fighters double album In Your Honor, Grohl has expanded with the live acoustic album Skin and Bones.

At first, Skin and Bones comes off as the Foo Fighters’ equivalent of Nirvana’s phenominal and intimate work, Unplugged in New York, which isn’t a bad comparison. But it does overlook a lot of Skin and Bones’ qualities. Its track list is more predictable than Unplugged — it’s mostly Foo hits mixed with some of the already-acoustic material from the second half of In Your Honor. But the material comes from a totally different place now. You can expect to hear “Everlong” or “My Hero” at a Foo Fighters concert, but you’ll still be surprised by how different they are here.

Grohl has had to face Nirvana comparisons ever since the band’s demise in 1994, but now he deserves a different assessment. On Skin and Bones, Grohl delivers a bluegrass-esque performance in the tradition of Bruce Springsteen’s recent Devils and Dust and We Shall Overcome albums.

Track four, “Marigold,” will certainly please older Grohl fans. A B-side from the Nirvana “Heart-Shaped Box” single, “Marigold” benefits from the additions provided by Foo Fighters. It’s a bit livelier (no pun intended). Then the first hit comes — “My Hero.”

Grohl and his guitar start it off, but the full band peeks through during the first chorus, and then jumps out in full force for the second. It doesn’t hit as hard as the studio version, but the energy is still there. Extra props go to Rami Jaffee for his wonderful piano solo. Although his playing makes it even more obvious and easy to compare Skin and Bones to the Boss, Jaffee gives this live cut its own full identity.

Though the album’s ditties are all nice listens, it’s the last few tracks of Skin and Bones that will make a lasting impression. One by One hit “Times Like These” builds upon itself, rocking a little harder with each chorus, as if the band means it more and more. The players jam out an ethereal vibe. Even the triangle playing of percussionist Drew Hester is awesome.

“Friend of a Friend” repeats more of the same chilled out strumming, which by this point may lose a few listeners. But then, unleashing a fire that must have been building inside him during the rest of the set, Grohl shouts out the words to “Best of You” like Springsteen did on “Born in the U.S.A.” — with all his heart. A testament to his ability as a musician, “Best of You” still seethes with power even when it’s just Grohl and his guitar. Closing out the album is Foo Fighters’ best song (no contest), “Everlong.”

Starting off with a whisper, “Everlong” is as mind blowing and gleefully chilling here as it is on The Colour and the Shape. With each verse, the crowd becomes more and more enthusiastic. Grohl starts off leading them, but it soon turns around. The audience urges him onward. When the rest of the band joins in halfway through, the whole thing turns to ecstasy.

While Skin and Bones is a must-have for Grohl acolytes, it might not do well with the average rock fan. Most of the album is much more subdued than, say, The Colour and the Shape or One by One, but that’s the fun of it. Skin and Bones showcases Grohl chasing his whimsy for about 73 minutes, and the results are beautiful.

Brand New - 'The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me'

Last time we heard from NY rockers Brand New (long, long ago… in 2003), “emo” and “screamo” were just being forced into the mainstream consciousness. But a mere three years after their last album, Deja Entendu, it seems as if every band from the tri-state area has jumped on the genres’ bandwagons with eyeliner firmly applied, 10-year-old girls’ jeans tightly pulled up and emotionally stunted lyrics about bleeding, heartache and selfishness haphazardly assembled.

But not a single one of these bands can emote on the highly placed, deeply weird level of Brand New’s frontman, Jesse Lacey. A worshipper of the almighty Morrissey, Lacey takes narcissism to new levels on Brand New’s brand new (ha ha!) album, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me.

This collection of 12 tracks is a step up from the often awkward, overly self-indulgent blathering of Deja Entendu. Where Deja was chock full of Lacey singing about how awesome, yet jerk-tastic, he was, Devil and God finds him grappling with fame, drugs and, especially, God. “Millstone” forces all three worries into one dark gem, as Lacey recalls how things used to be. Lines like “I used to be such a burning example. I used to be so original” and “I used to pray a God was listening. I used to make my parents proud. I was the glue that kept my friends together. Now they don’t talk and we don’t go out” reveal the man’s distaste.

Older Brand New songs like “Am I Wrong” hinted at Lacey’s Catholic guilt/obsession, but “Jesus Christ” lays it all out. An offshoot of punk/hardcore, emo has always been about the personal and the philosophical, and Lacey certainly sticks to both here. Over Brian Lane’s steady drum beat, he discusses not his fear of death, but of the afterlife.

Other standout tracks include the album opener, “Sowing Season (Yeah),” “Degausser” and “You Won’t Know.” These rockers overcome Lacey’s melancholy and stir up a storm of anger and frustration. “You Won’t Know” is particularly searing, with some of the most pissed off guitar work from the band ever. Its only equal is the track after it, the instrumental “Welcome to Bangkok.”

But while this is a solid Brand New album, it does bear a few faults. For a guy who jocks the crap out of The Smiths, Lacey sure does seem to channel more Conor Oberst than Moz on some tracks, like the pathetic ending to the otherwise brilliant “Degausser,” or just about any measure of the mellower songs “Luca” and “Handcuffs.” They’re still good songs, but man, can they be grating sometimes. The Smiths had a sense of humor and biting political commentary, you know.

The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, in addition to having a silly title, is a difficult album. Clocking in at nearly an hour, its pseudo-prog rock moments may scare away some and irritate others. But those who dare to make it through the whole thing will be rewarded with one of the best Brand New songs ever — “The Archers Bows Have Broken.” Lacey spent too much time on Deja Entendu talking about how he could’ve been a great songwriter if he actually tried. But “The Archers Bows Have Broken,” with its quick pace and unyielding sense of U2-style bravado, is proof that he wasn’t lying. The song, and the whole album, is stunning.

+44 - 'When Your Heart Stops Beating'

Second chances and non-sucky super groups are rarities in rock and/or roll. Yet somehow, former blink-182 members Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker, along with guitarists Shane Gallagher (ex-The Nervous Return) and Craig Fairbaugh (ex-almost every Rancid side project ever), have managed to score both with their new band, +44. While fellow blinker Tom DeLonge took his ego to new extremes with the meandering and self-indulgent Angels and Airwaves, Hoppus and Barker have gone the opposite route. The tracks on their new album, When Your Heart Stops Beating, are self-contained pop confections that further explore the Cure-inspired punk vibes of blink-182’s eponymous final album while cutting out DeLonge’s shoddy songwriting.

When Your Heart Stops Beating is a solid, cohesive album from start to finish. However, it can be broken down into three separate styles — the songs recall Duran Duran, The Cure or blink-182. But, these labels aren’t meant to imply that +44 is derivative, for the band has managed to sound new wave without blatantly ripping off past new wave acts.

A decent chunk of the record reveals ties to blink-182. Album opener “Lycanthrope” recalls the fury and desperation of tracks like “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Go.” The second track, “Baby, Come On,” offers solace to blink fans while using the blink trademark (pretty picking for the verses, powerful strumming on the choruses). The closing track, “Chapter 13,” has the same epic sense of finale as “I’m Lost Without You” did on blink-182.

In the middle, though, is where Hoppus shows his flare for creating synthy, danceable pop music. Lead single “When Your Heart Stops Beating” and potential singles “Cliff Diving” and “155” are as catchy as any Duran Duran hit. They’re perfect radio-ready numbers — you can memorize the chorus after one listen, and you’ll be sure to shout it out every time afterwards.

The Cure-inspired songs on When Your Heart Stops Beating are the mellower ones. They provide diversity to the album, as well as accentuate the punch of more intense tunes like “Lycanthrope” and “Cliff Diving.” On “Little Death,” “Lillian,” “Interlude” and “Weatherman,” the soft noodling and gloomy outlook of The Cure’s Disintegration comes out. However, Barker’s love of hip-hop also mixes into these tracks, as his beats manage to make them livelier as well as darker.

Barker’s drumming on the whole album needs to be commended. On record at least, he has finally stopped overplaying and started providing Hoppus with some awesome percussive structures from which to hang his catchy hooks.

Perhaps as a way of distancing itself from blink-182, +44 was originally conceived as an electronic group with (now former) member Carol Heller. These qualities still poke through on the Rio-inspired tracks mentioned above, but is most brilliantly presented on “Make You Smile.” Beginning with only a simple piano part, it quickly turns into a Postal Service-style ditty, with Heller and Hoppus coyly flirting over electronic drums.

There is one drawback to When Your Heart Stops Beating, though: the sullen lyrics. Nine out of the 12 tracks are downers (and one of those remaining three is an instrumental), pouring bile and hate over some unnamed person. Except, given how ugly things are among blink-182’s former members, it’s hard to think of the album as anything other than a “forget you” directed at DeLonge. It works well on the scathing “No, It Isn’t,” but all of the references to slitting wrists, burning down beautiful things and being left alone overwhelm the experience. Hoppus may have cut down on the penis jokes of his blink days, but he still comes off as too immature at times. It’s like listening to Alkaline Trio z-sides.

Even though Hoppus copies a bit too much from Matt Skiba’s gloomy diary, +44 still provides some catchy jams. Much like AFI’s recent Decemberunderground, When Your Heart Stops Beating combines punk, new wave and electronic flourishes into one easy-to-digest album. In addition to getting a second chance and forming a super group, +44 have pulled off one other rarity — an entire album that will get stuck in your head simultaneously.

Jeremy Enigk - 'World Waits'

Unstable band relations, an ever-changing musical landscape and a conversion to Christianity haven’t altered the focus of former Sunny Day Real Estate frontman Jeremy Enigk. Since the earliest days of his now-defunct emo rock band, Enigk has always written abstract portraits, creating scenes within a listener’s mind, while still providing specific emotional depth and a strong and distinct voice to carry the whole thing. Such honest storytelling applied to his post-SDRE project, The Fire Theft, and it certainly applies to his recently released second solo album, World Waits.

Although Enigk drops the grunge and prog rock qualities of his other bands, he still provides Sunny Day Real Estate fans with a solid collection of songs to obsess over. In comparison to his previous solo effort, 1996’s The Return of the Frog Queen, World Waits is less influenced by chamber and orchestral music, and driven more by a controlled rock sensibility that sometimes comes unhinged. However, though downplayed, those elements do still manifest throughout the album.

World Waits opens with the aptly titled “A New Beginning.” Epic and powerful, guitars and bells crash over a string section, one-upping Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s mix of rock and classical music in under 90 seconds. The following track, “Been Here Before,” is slightly toned down by comparison, but no less enthralling.

While fellow ’90s rock vocalists like Dave Grohl and Scott Weiland have aged, their voices losing both their edge and even their ability to hit notes, Enigk’s remains in fine form. His immaculate voice glides just as well over the soaring organs and pounding drums of “Been Here Before” as it did on his first SDRE seven-inch, Thief, Steal Me a Peach.

The acoustic strum of “River to Sea” allows Enigk to mellow out as he reflects, “Turn around, your life is in your hands.” The statement is simple, but true, especially for him. World Waits was actually released on Enigk’s own label, Lewis Hollow Recordings.

Midway through the album, “Damien Dreams” showcases the kind of fervor Enigk hasn’t truly worked up since Sunny Day Real Estate’s first full-length, Diary. Actually, a decent chunk of the material on World Waits dates back to 1995, when SDRE was still kicking out emotive jams. The vocal pyrotechnics only last a few seconds, but they’re some of the best seconds any Enigk fan could hope for.

The title track and “Wayward Love” have a sort of Peter Gabriel vibe, but with a bit more whine to them. “Wayward Love” has some of the underlying percussive power of the Gabriel tune “Solsbury Hill,” while “World Waits” has the sentimental message and subdued instrumentation of something like “Don’t Give Up.” They are also like the aforementioned Gabriel songs in that they are beautiful to hear.

Going farther with the Gabriel comparison, Enigk has crafted a lush and intricate album on par with So or Peter Gabriel 1: Car. World Waits has 10 tracks of smart, well-crafted pop music. Like The Return of the Frog Queen, it’s a brief affair, closing in at around 36 minutes. But man is it a good, honest effort.

Dresden Dolls live October 28, 2006

Punk cabaret outfit The Dresden Dolls brought a whole circus of performers to the Theatre of the Living Arts on Saturday, Oct. 28. The event boasted a main attraction (The Dresden Dolls), a ringleader (MC Sxip Shirey), a supporting attraction (The Red Paintings) and even a freak show (Titler… I’ll explain later). DD fans, often referred to as The Brigade, were out in full gothic garb, dressed as mythical creatures, torture victims and even a jack-in-the-box. An unusual crowd for an unusual show, surely, but the night was still predictable in one sense: The Dresden Dolls are still one of the best live bands today.

The master of ceremonies, Shirey, opened the night with a few jokes, anecdotes and quirky song performances. Adept at working a crowd of any size, he entertained with his original compositions written for (among other things) a slide whistle, a broken flute and a bowl with a marble. Ever inventively, he used gaffer tape (“It’s super duct tape!” he exclaimed) to combine three whistles together.

These whistles, mixed with Shirey’s impressive beatboxing ability and vocal effects, created some of the best dance tunes of the night. Shirey ended his first set with some help from Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione for a hip-hop-influenced jam session. Having successfully energized the crowd, Shirey introduced the first act of the evening, The Red Paintings.

Hailing from Australia, alternative rock band The Red Paintings opened strong, but their initially interesting sound soon fizzled out thanks to instrumental repetition, lame crowd interaction and just simply awful lyrics. But what they lacked in chops, they compensated for with a colorful, vibrant presentation.

Comprised of guitar, bass, drums and violin, the band members adorned themselves in kabuki clothing, while frontman Trash McSweeney presented himself as an all-green Mad Hatter. The swirling distortion of McSweeney’s guitar created a rocking atmosphere for violinist Ellen Stancombe’s own instrumentation to glide over. Like a dirtier, trashier and punker Camper Van Beethoven, The Red Paintings thrashed about for the enthusiastic crowd. Meanwhile, the band surrounded itself with painters, one working with canvas and two with human bodies, for the entirety of their set.

It made for decadent, gaudy performance art, which was cool for the first 20 minutes. Then, the band’s set took a wrong turn with the song “Redneck.” It was the first time in the set that McSweeney’s words were actually decipherable, which is a shame considering the song’s chorus was, “You’re a redneck, you’re a redneck, you’re a redneck, you’re a redneck.” Underneath all of the layers of kitschy color, The Red Paintings are just another band with very little to actually say.

Following a cover of The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” featuring Viglione on guitar, and their own nihilistic anthem, the epic “The Revolution is Never Coming,” The Red Paintings walked off stage, to great applause.

MC Shirey then stepped back out with a few more of his whimsical tunes, and then introduced another side performer, Titler. Titler’s act is pretty basic shock value — he looks like Adolph Hiter and he has… “titular assets.” Clad in a black dress, Titler’s entrance was the funniest moment of the night. Then he stuck around for another 10 minutes. After butchering Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” and unrolling two horrid originals, Titler wrapped up his centimeter-thin premise.

Finally, Shirey came out to introduce the headlining act, The Dresden Dolls. Amanda Palmer and her “rock love” companion, the ever resourceful Viglione, came out to thunderous applause and then launched into “Sex Changes,” the first track off of Yes, Virginia..., their latest album. Palmer’s piano and Viglione’s drums and guitar danced around each other with plenty of space to move. Punk rock and ferocious, Palmer is as fierce a frontwoman as Patti Smith or Debbie Harry. Viglione, meanwhile, pounds and picks like alt rock icons Dave Grohl or Gavin Rossdale.

Song after song, The Dresden Dolls wowed the crowd. Among choice cuts from Yes, Virginia… and The Dresden Dolls like “Dirty Business” and “Coin-Operated Boy,” the band slipped in some rarities and covers. The unreleased punk tune “Lonesome Organist Rapes Page Turner” sped along brilliantly, while the group’s acoustic rendition of Cabaret’s “Mein Herr” proved equally entertaining. Though the set was a little bogged down by sub-par Virginia material like “Modern Moonlight, “Mrs. O.” and “Mandy Goes to Med School,” the fervor of the playing compensated.

The Dresden Dolls are one of the best bar bands in America, and they can rock and/or roll any which way they please. While they played the epic “Delilah” note-for-note like the recorded version, they gave “Half Jack” an intense, lengthy and improvised rock intro.

Like any good bar band, they also busted out some surprising covers. Aside from the aforementioned “Mein Herr,” The Dresden Dolls also covered “Mad World” by Tears For Fears. With the help of The Red Paintings’ McSweeney, they began in the style of the soft Gary Jules version of the song. After the first chorus, however, the tune took a dramatic twist, as the Dolls and McSweeney rocked the tune out in trademark punk cabaret fashion. Other excellent performances included “The Jeep Song,” “Backstabber” and “Shores of California.”

After ending their encore with “Half Jack” and “Girl Anachronism,” The Dresden Dolls concluded their carnival ride of rock. The sold-out audience was more than merely satisfied by the dark, twisted performers. Sympathy goes out to the girl dressed as Eve, though. It must have been cold walking back to her car with only her bush to keep her warm.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Changes - 'Today is Tonight'

Chicago’s The Changes want you to get up and dance. Not an ironic Electric Six dance epidemic, or an awkward Pixies shamble, but a simple, fun, jubilant dance. One of two signees to the new record label Drama Club Records, along with the indie/electronica band Paper Route, The Changes have managed to accomplish quite a bit. In 2005, they were the only unsigned band to take the stage at Lollapalooza, and have since garned a decent amount of buzz from NME, USA Today and the oh-so-finicky Pitchfork.

While most indie pop bands try to rehash Radiohead, The Changes go their own route, combining pop, soul, R&B, rock and just a dash of disco to create their stunning full-length debut, Today is Tonight.

The self-produced album opens with the infectious organs of “When I Wake.” It’s sort of a new wave/new romantic kind of track, but possesses the kind of pop craftsmanship exemplified by The Beatles. The keys provide atmosphere, but the song is propelled by peppy drums and guitars. “When I Wake” is a dreamy confection, and a solid introduction to the band.

“On a String” steps down on the pep a bit, creating a tune on par with anything Death Cab for Cutie has created. Elsewhere, “Water of the Gods” brings things back to full-on ’60s pop perfection, complete with “whoas” and handclaps over Cure-like guitar work.

“Sisters,” meanwhile, tries out a different kind of dance style, with a more funkified drum beat and a soulful piano part. This is the ideal wedding song for underground hipsters, with loving lyrics like “We’re together again, after so long. The beating of a heart beats for one song” to let your thrift store-loving significant other know that he and/or she is your one and only.

Later, tracks “House of Style,” “Modern Love” and “The Machine” blissfully return to the pace of “When I Wake,” with the moody disco theme of “Twilight” interjecting some variety among the three.

While most of Today is Tonight is composed of tight pop songwriting, The Changes reveal they can loosen up and jam for a bit on “Her, You and I.” It’s the longest song on the album, clocking in at over six minutes, but it’s still just as infectious as the other 11 tracks. Sexy, rollicking drums mix with some dirty guitar licks to create a sweaty, throbbing rising action for Today is Tonight. The mellow finale, “When I Sleep,” brings the album around to completion.

On Today is Tonight, The Changes manage to merge the pop classicism of The Smiths with the radio-ready tunefulness and hopeful earnestness of The Cure. It’s Staring at the Sea, only The Changes managed to make it on their first try. Every track here could be a single as is, except for “Her, You and I,” but only because of length restrictions. A thrilling debut, Today is Tonight is sure to please indie pop fans.

Kaki King - '...Until We Felt Red'

Usually, when one thinks of ridiculously intricate songwriting, his or her first thoughts are of jam, prog or metal bands. It’s dead guys, Dead Heads or Evil Eddie. But Atlanta, Ga. native and New York City transplant Kaki King has found a way to go musically deep without fitting into any three labels. Over the course of three albums, King has found new ways to grow as a musician while using one of the most conventional of modern day instruments: the guitar.

On her 2003 debut, Everybody Loves You, King revealed some of her skill. Over the course of 10 tracks, she unleashed song after song of intense, vibrant acoustic guitar tunes. Her most difficult album, Everybody Loves You, incorporated almost every guitar technique there is, without the use of an actual pick — bass slapping, fret tapping and percussive rapping combined in free form displays of dexterity.

King’s follow-up, Legs to Make Us Longer (2004), expanded on the promise of Everybody Loves You. This time adding a backing band, King aspired for more than displays of power, aiming for subdued ditties over more technically-intricate ones. That does not mean she dumbed herself down as she tried out new styles to avoid the label of “the girl who plays weird stuff on an acoustic guitar.”

Over the summer, King released her latest album, …Until We Felt Red. It continues in a style similar to Legs to Make Us Longer. Backed mostly by multi-talented percussionist John McEntire, King fluctuates between pretty ambiance and teetering dissonance. This dichotomy is revealed within the first two songs, “Yellowcake” and “…Until We Felt Red.”

“Yellowcake” opens with King’s near-trademark acoustic guitar work, but then introduces something new to her fans: vocals. Soft and gentle, King’s voice mixes well with acoustic and lap steel guitars, creating a mellow, pleasing vibe. “Yellowcake” is a glass of warm milk in song form.

But while her voice is certainly pleasing, she’s by no means a rocker like Janis Joplin. Well aware of this, King keeps her more rocking tunes instrumental, like on track two, “…Until We Felt Red.” Though it starts off with the same smooth sound as “Yellowcake,” it quickly crescendos into an explosion of cymbals and dirty, distorted electric guitar. Like a pendulum, the title track swings between these two styles, and they work surprisingly well together.

The third track, “You Don’t Have to Be Afraid,” finds a balance between the styles of “Yellowcake” and “…Until We Felt Red.” Soft but energetic, the slightly-over-eight-minute song is powerful and anthemic, especially when King gets to her hopeful chorus of “You don’t have to be afraid of the pain inside you.” King herself plays most of the instruments on this track, with support offered by McEntire and horn player Dan Brantigan. Brantigan’s flugelhorn, in addition to being fun to say (go on! try it!), adds an extra layer of pleasing sound.

The rest of …Until We Felt Red continues along the same style. Bells, drums, flugelhorn (such a great word) and King’s seasoned guitar make the album an alternately soothing and rocking listen. Mostly instrumental, …Until We Felt Red should prove to be good studying music for those gearing up for midterms.