Friday, August 29, 2008

Oceana - 'The Tide'

I hate when people say, “Oh, I like everything, except for country (and/or rap)” when discussing music, for a few reasons. First, such a statement implies that you have almost no taste in and no opinion on music whatsoever, except for country. This means you rank The Beatles on the same level as your average white supremacy band like Prussia Blue. This means you like Limp Bizkit’s last album as much as The Clash’s first one. And I know you don’t mean that. Secondly, I hate it because I know you’re lying. There is no way you like For the Fatherland as much as Rubber Soul. No freaking way. And finally, I hate this sort of statement because it implies it is possible to hate an entire genre. Thinking in those terms is demeaning to art. Musicians should not be guided by genre labels, because that is too restrictive, and neither should listeners. Listen to bands, not genres.

Now, folks, when I say I hate Oceana’s The Tide because it’s a stupid piece of screamo bullshit, I don’t mean to imply that I hate screamo as a whole. Just because I shuddered when I read online comparisons between Oceana and Burden of a Day, another bad screamo band I had to write about for this Web site, doesn’t mean I’m biased against the entire genre. Taking Back Sunday’s first record has held up for me. And I think Thursday has actually gotten better with each album, although some would argue that A) I’m wrong, and B) Thursday isn’t really a screamo band anymore and that they’re happy to lose the designation. But I just want you, the lip ring-wearing, faux-hawk styling, black-clad masses, to know that I’m not trying to shit on your face.

I just really, really, really don’t like Oceana’s The Tide. It sucks.

After a brief, bland intro track, The Tide kicks into rock mode with “The Accountable.” The first line listeners hear is “The truth is found six feet underground or laying at the bottom of the sea.” Oddly enough, I’m wearing a black Plea for Peace t-shirt right now, so I’m probably not the right demographic for this song about suicide. I can’t quite figure out if frontman Keith Jones is arguing for or against it, and this really isn’t the sort of thing I like left ambiguous. Amid angular guitar parts and that nasally singing/gruff screaming combo that is screaming emotional hardcore’s trademark, Jones advises that “Misguided truths are right here within these walls / And to speak of them is a sin against the ones you swear to the most.” OK, so don’t discuss your family problems? Are you pro- or anti-discussing rape/incest? “To purge one’s self in such a misleading way is just a shame.” If that’s a suicide reference, then I think Jones is coming out against it. But then the alternative Jones comes up with is to “only wither away.” It’s a bit muddled, and the music’s piss poor use of breakdowns and machine gun bass drum hits isn’t really interesting enough to keep me invested.

After “The Accountable,” The Tide provides 10 more competent, yet annoying, screaming emotional hardcore jams. The variation is slight, the frustration great. Jones suffers from the same problem as a lot of this genre’s vocalists; he’s trying too hard to be heavy. While his screams are devoid of the whine of Taking Back Sunday or The Used, they’re so monolithically geared towards sounding deep and guttural that the record sounds like a 42-minute bowel movement. Somebody get this guy a laxative.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Eternal Lord - 'Blessed Be This Nightmare'

Iron Maiden. DragonForce. Black fucking Sabbath. Great Britain has turned out some great metal bands. Ferret Music signees and “Dirty South, United Kingdom” residents Eternal Lord, however, are not among such elite. The group’s new album, the laughably titled Blessed Be This Nightmare, cycles through the metal/hardcore playbook quickly and efficiently. But as a listening experience, it’s a total death march, melodramatic yet ultimately tame.

Admittedly, Eternal Lord has some decent musical ideas; like any metal band, they are technically adept. Tunes like “Get to Fuck” and “I, the Deceiver” cycle through riffs and pounding double kick drums well enough. Guitarists Shaun Zerebecki and Chris Gregory show a solid range, mixing their chugging with some sweet harmonics and the occasional ambient part. If nothing else, Blessed Be This Nightmare is 38 minutes of adequately skull splitting, fairly face melting metal.

But the band is also entirely forgettable. There are countless metal/technical hardcore bands out there running the same plays, and better too. But more importantly, where the band really fails is in the lyrical department.

I gravitate towards intelligible singing. Operatic vocals in metal are A-OK with me, but what I really love is someone who yells with righteous fury but still manages to sound like a human being. Eternal Lord frontman Edward Butcher goes for the Marlboro-loving-grizzly-bear-masturbating-with-a-chainsaw sound, and it’s the kind of vocal approach that sounds demonic initially and then too much like a novelty after a while. It’s grating, yet also kitschy. Given the Org’s roots in punk and hardcore, I hope I’m not stretching too far in attempting to compare Butcher to, say, Henry Rollins or Ian MacKaye.

When I spin a record like Black Flag’s My War or Fugazi’s 13 Songs, I am met with a force far greater than anything Butcher can conjure. The fury that emanates from “My War” or “Waiting Room” is an all-encompassing energy, transcendent yet very much tethered to a human form. Because while these men express power in a brilliant way, their vocals still sound like they are coming from a human being. It is this quality, coupled with thought provoking lyrics, which makes such works so compelling. So while Butcher’s voice might sound “heavier” to some, to me it simply sounds cartoonish. I would much rather listen to someone like Rollins, who sounds like a pissed off man with (and this is important) something to say.

Ultimately, Eternal Lord is trying twice as hard to be half as good as a Metallica or a Strike Anywhere or a Minor Threat. This music does not move me in any possible way, whether musically, lyrically, or even ironically.

Monday, August 25, 2008

1990 - it's a liar's quirk

While their debut full-length only comes in at number seven here, Jawbreaker, and more importantly Blake Schwarzenbach, is one of the most important, influential bands for me. Hearing Dear You and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, along with Jets to Brazil’s catalog, changed my life in high school. Schwarzenbach’s lyrics, eloquently descriptive in a way that was both dramatically poetic and journalistically direct, were mini-epics inside my head that felt written specifically for me, even if they detailed events I would never see. I totally get why Jawbreaker gets the emo tag; there’s a lot of angst in these songs. But the details set this band apart. Emo as a genre has gotten more and more reductive (or, ya know… sexist), to the point where women are either whores or saviors. Blake never went that route, showing an understanding for both sexes rarely heard in rock and/or roll. Blake is of a handful of musicians I want to interview one day, along with Robert Smith, John Darnielle, and J. Robbins. I mean, I’ve already bothered learning how to spell his last name, which is more than can be said for Andy Greenwald in Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo. He’s still a great writer and it’s a great book, but he spells Blake’s last name as “Schwartzenbach.” I prefer the Nate Adams spelling, “Shwarzenblat.”

10. Soul Asylum – And the Horse They Rode In On

Soul Asylum had already cranked out three albums and a B-sides collection in the ’80s before dropping And the Horse They Rode In On, but it wasn’t until this album came out in 1990 that the band began to emerge from the shadow of other Minneapolis bands (*kaff!* The Replacements! *kaff!*). While the band would go on to even better things on 1992’s Grave Dancers Union, Soul Asylum’s mix of alt-rock and alt-country was already nearing its potency here. Songs like “Spinnin’” and “Gullible’s Travels” contained twangin’ and stompin’ and some sweet guitar atmospherics. Frontman Dave Pirner was already on his way to sad sack wonderdom with lines like “Everything’s turning / but mostly just turning out wrong.” Overall, Horse turns out to be an underappreciated gem from an underappreciated band.

9. Social Distortion – Social Distortion

Ah, Mike Ness, you charmer you. Despite being a Californian, Ness has a great suggestion of a Southern twang. Social D’s bluegrassy punk rock picks right up where X left off, swapping the urban fallout for more personal demons like drinking and ex-lovers. Social Distortion is another of those albums where I can’t believe it’s not a best of. “Let It Be Me,” “Story of My Life,” and the awesome Johnny Cash cover “Ring of Fire” all originate here. The top track for me, though, is “Ball and Chain,” perhaps the penultimate “I don’t want to be here” song. Ness says it’s about fighting drug addiction, but you could just as easily take it as a song about breaking free from bad relationships. Either way, it’s a great song.

8. The Sundays – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

Tagged as a less bitter, lady-version of The Smiths, The Sundays emerged and returned to seeming nothingness during the late ’80s and ’90s. The group’s first album, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, pretty much set up the band’s M.O. – dreamy guitar leads over an acoustic strum, coupled with frontwoman Harriet Wheeler’s adorably British vocals. While The Smiths comparison really only extends to the music, there’s still plenty for me to love about The Sundays. I was introduced to the band through the Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack, and re-educated by the lovely and/or talented Michelle K. Muir. I honestly can see The Sundays as a precursor to the female singer/songwriter boom of the ’90s just as folks like Iggy Pop or Jim Morrison were to punk. Of course, the quality of The Sundays’ output (three immaculate pop albums) far exceeds the likes of Paula Cole or Joan Osborne. While I’m glad the band eventually broke up so that Wheeler and husband/guitarist David Gavurin could focus on raising children, I hope they take a crack at another LP once the kids get a bit older.

7. Jawbreaker – Unfun

Formed in 1988 and disbanded in 1996, Jawbreaker put out four amazing alternative/punk records, each of which has powerfully affected my life. Their first album, Unfun, took the longest for me to appreciate. Each Jawbreaker album has its own identity, but Unfun catches the band developing an one. Sure, many key elements are in place: Drummer Adam Pfahler’s forceful flash is already there, and you can tell bassist Chris Bauermeister has serious muscle to bend his metal strings. But frontman Blake Schwarzenbach’s lyrics are less driven by guilt and scene politics here. They have more of a college literary magazine quality to them – dense and dark and fairly hard to remember in entirety – but he still knew how to craft a hook or two, like on opening track “Want,” a song that is insanely catchy despite its off-kilter chorus, or on the religious “Eye-5.” After sitting with the record for a few years, I’ve come to love Unfun’s resistance to certain standards. It’s punky and unwieldy like Nirvana’s Bleach, and similarly a prequel to something even greater.

6. Jane’s Addiction – Ritual de lo Habitual

For a long while, Ritual de lo Habitual was the masterstroke finale to an L.A. band obsessed with sex and decadence and drugs and rock and/or roll. Of course, the 2003 reunion record Strays fucked that up for everyone. But it’s still fun to listen to the original Jane’s Addiction line-up on Ritual, so alive and ready to rock. The band was still writing kitschy novelty songs in 1990, a la hit single “Been Caught Stealing,” but listeners get plenty of more serious material too. Opening number “Stop” is a hodgepodge of California metal, frontman Jerry Perrell’s skewed worldview – almost child-like in its innocence – and Latino leanings. The epic “Three Days” captures the band at its most expansive, revealing that, for all of their hip trappings, Jane’s Addiction was really just a very sexy band of old souls.

5. Green Day – 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours

Pop punkers Green Day (née Sweet Children) were secretly schooled in The Beatles’ pop leanings, something evident in frontman Billy Joe Armtrong’s clean and clear choruses. While the band would get catchier, and really, better, with Kerplunk! and the albums that followed it, 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours shows how much of the band’s aesthetic was already in place from the beginning. A collection of early EPs, Slappy Hours is steeped in Lennon/McCartney songwriting, with a dash of Descendents and Stiff Little Fingers thrown in. People give Armstrong grief for singing with a British accent, but really, can you blame him when his best influences were from across the pond?

4. Depeche Mode – Violator

The last truly great Depeche Mode record found the band getting darker and more withdrawn. Gone are the socio-political commentaries and personal outreaches. This record is focused solely on the self-absorption of a sexier idea of Depeche Mode. Make them your personal Jesus and they’ll show you the world in their eyes. Alan Gore’s sonic experimentation was streamlined here as well, focused on moods more than textures, if that makes any sense.

3. Sonic Youth – Goo

Goo has my favorite Sonic Youth song: “Kool Thing.” “Hey Kool Thing,” Kim Gordon dares him. “C’mere, sit down beside me. There’s something I gotta ask. I just wanna know… what are you gonna do for me? I mean, are you gonna liberate us girls from male, white, corporate oppression?” Chuck D, of all people, cheers her on from the sidelines with “Tell ‘em where it hurts. Let er’rybody know!” Stomp and noise, Sonic Youth’s best known qualities, are still here, but they’re coupled with a more pointed mania.

2. Concrete Blonde – Bloodletting

I love this moody, gothic piece of awesomeness. On tracks like “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)” and “Sky is a Poisonous Garden,” Concrete Blonde crafts this sort of glam rock/goth hybrid, black and delightful in its execution. Of course, any good gothic masterpiece (oh hey Disintegration, what’s up?) needs some dreamy pop soundscapes as well. Concrete Blonde ably delivers such treats with “Caroline,” “Lullabye,” and my favorite CB song, the soothsaying “Tomorrow, Wendy.” I’d love for indie to take a sonic turn away from easy listening towards this particular avenue of songwriting. In the meantime, I’m just going to have to sleep with this record on repeat, hoping it lends my dreams a romantic sensibility and a handful of choice guitar chords.

1. Fugazi – Repeater

Perhaps more brutal than the band’s debut, Fugazi’s Repeater is just as brilliant. By this point in the band’s life, Guy Picciotto was a full-time member, even rocking a six-stringer right next to Ian MacKaye. Picciotto’s songwriting took a huge leap forward after his time with emocore fathers Rites of Spring. I hesitate to call it smarter lyrically… less visceral, more polychromatic, maybe. Whatever the case, Picciotto continued to grow and rule hard here. MacKaye meanwhile, continued to dominate. His voice has an everyman anger to it. I understand why some metal/technical hardcore bands go for a deeper growl, something akin to a grizzly bear having hate-sex with a chainsaw. But ultimately, that style sounds too forced and jumbled to me. When I hear MacKaye shout on Repeater, I hear palpable rage and righteous humanity. I feel like I’m actually communicating with a person, lending extra force to lyrics like “You are not what you own.”

NEXT WEEK: teen spirit and the meaning of swirling, 1991.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

regarding the epic beach adventure of two thousand aught eight

[I was at the shore for about a week or so. I kept a journal in a spiral notebook, which you can read below. It's mostly just a list of what albums kept me company. The weather was nice too.]

8/8/8 (this is significant). Pre-flight entertainment (actually, I drove)
-The Mountain Goats - Nine Black Poppies
Bruce Springsteen - Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.
Bruce Springsteen - The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle

the 1st trip to Brigantine.
-Soltero - Hell Train
-Against Me! - Searching For a Former Clarity (important bridge music! See "Even at Our Worst...", "Problems")
-Minus the Bear - Menos el Oso
-Allister - Before the Blackout

...then I sat in front of a stranger's house and read and wrote and waited.

the morning after, wasted and ready (for butter/croissants)
-Band of Horses - Everything All the Time
-Protest the Hero - Sequoia Throne Remix EP

a boy had a boogeyboard with a great white shark on it. According to Eric, G.W.s mate off the coast of New Jersey. I can only assume that the boy was sexed to death and eaten. Later, watched The Office season 3. Jim is a womanizer. Acetaminophen takes the edge off of my hangover.

"Urkel, did you shit on the floor again?"
"Did I do that?"
"Got any cheese?"

the 1st trip to N. Wildwood and/or Stone Harbor
-Buzzcocks - Singles Going Steady

Garden State Parkway S
exit 6 - N. Wildwood
2 bridges
L blue roof
2404 147E
2nd building

New Yorkers hate turn signals, breaking distances.

-Songs to Wear Pants To - stwpt 2

Olympics world records with new suits. Bernie Mac died.

-The Cure - Disintegration

rescuing Maria from hurricane
-The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers - The Mother of Love Emulates the Shapes of Cynthia

watching the horizon
-The Rentals - The Last Little Life EP
-The Gaslight Anthem - Senor and The Queen
-Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Global A-Go-Go

driving to Stone Harbor. Saw Pineapple Express.
-Bjork - Debut

diner for breakfast. hair in the butter. straight, not mine.

more skylines
-Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Rock Art and the X-Ray Style

"It came along this way: We were a strange bunch of kids." Richard Brautigan - Trout Fishing in America, p. 37.

-New Found Glory - Tip of the Iceberg

Michelle's car to Stone Harbor
-Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Stone Harbor shops were a bust, but found a cool vegetarian restaurant, Green Cuisine. Orange Sunrise smoothie tastes like starburts/skittles. California sandwich: avocado, veggies, cheese. rye. fruit on the side. so good! asparagus dill. also good! chocolate peanut butter cake. also good!

NJ liquor stores are awful.

-Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Streetcore
-Against Me! - New Wave

driving to pick up Sam from Avalon
-Protect: A Benefit for the NACP

Reading Brautigan
-The Aquabats - Charge!!
-The Clash - London Calling

people gather on sand dunes, away from the lifeguards. private islands made public. Went to Green Cuisine again. Mediterranean pizza and iced black tea. Pesto, mozzarella, artichoke hearts, and roasted red peppers on a pita, w/ fruit on the side!

-The Beatles - Revolver
Michelle just left. Focus on reading.

The water is gorgeous from a distance, blue slighted by gray. Sky is soft today. Gentle breeze. Still bitter about the $1 toll to get into Stone Harbor, but it doesn't matter. The bay is a mix of depths - I could sink forever here, hit sand 6 inches in there. Finished Trout Fishing in America. The title is symbolic for a lot of things, including war protesters, hobos, children, sex, and actual fishing.

-Ben Kweller - On My Way
-Starting Brautigan's The Pill vs. the Springhill Mine Disaster. It's poetry.

"I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace."

Richard Brautigan - "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace"

-Big D and The Kids Table - Strictly Rude

"When you take your pill / it's like a mine disaster. I think of all the people / lost inside of you." Richard Brautigan - "The Pill vs. the Springhill Mine Diaster," p. 100
Finished the poems. Some of them were gorgeous, and some of them were about Brautigan's dick. Boat leaving a purple wake before the sun sets. Started Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar.
-The Bouncing Souls - The Bouncing Souls

Michael Phelps is an Olympic champion. I love how I'm watching the Olympics for the first time since like Atlanta, and it's in a country whose government I absolutely condemn.
-Flaming Lips - Soft Bulletin

Today is National Southpaw Day, according to ESPN. Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan were both left-handed. I feel good about that.

-Guster - Lost & Gone Forever
-Band of Horses - Cease to Begin

finished In Watermelon Sugar. Brautigan was a crazy bastard. Started Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.
-Dennis Wilson - Pacific Ocean Blue

...gave up on Naked Lunch. 10 pages in, I really couldn't give two shits about heroin culture.

The drive home.
-Sleater-Kinney - All Hands on the Bad One
-KingGOD - Is That Blood on Your Sleeve?
-CSS - Donkey

Friday, August 22, 2008

Subwaste/Tommy Gustafsson & The Idiots - 'Split'

New-ish record label Warbird Entertainment dropped a double dose of ’77 punk with their Subwaste/Tommy Gustafsson & The Idiots split. Boasting 12 tracks from two Swedish bands, it’s a pretty good collection of retro punk jams.

Subwaste, the lesser of the two groups, takes care of the first six songs up front. They’re adequate and rough and they pass by easily enough, but there’s really nothing much going on. The best compliment I can offer Subwaste is that they’re at least as good as anything on Hellcat Records. Ultimately, though, songs like “Barely Eighteen” and “Final Blackout” never transcend the era they’re influenced by. I’d rather just listen to the real thing than a tribute act.

Tommy Gustafsson & The Idiots, though, make a bigger impact through a synthesis of punk, rockabilly, and general catchiness. Owing as much to The Blasters as he does to Lars Frederickson and The Bastards, Tommy Gustafsson and his stupid friends are a band worth checking out for those of the punk rock persuasion. The highlight of their half is “Love of My Life,” a Rancid-esque tribute to the power of music. It’s frenetic and passionate, and while it’s still not the most original style ever, it’s certainly fun.

While not a perfect split - I’d be just as happy if Subwaste was cut in order to make this a Gustafsson EP – it does offer some gems. At the very least, I’ll be keeping an ear or two trained to whatever comes from The Idiots later in life.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rookie of the Year - 'Sweet Attention'

I finally found my guilty pleasure (other than kind of still liking Dashboard Confessional…), and its name is Rookie of the Year. Started as a side project for some guy named Ryan Dunson in 2002, Rookie of the Year is now a fully fledged band, with bass and drums and stuff. The band dropped Sweet Attention, its third full-length, this month, and its fusion of Joy Electric-like pop-techno and Daphne Loves Derby-esque emo is way catchier than I care to admit.

I’ll admit I listen to some fairly loathed bands (check the DC reference above). I spin Third Eye Blind a bit. The first two System of a Down records are OK. But Rookie of the Year marks a new, strange realm for me and my music fandom, because they ostensibly recall something I swore to destroy: nu-emo.

Sweet Attention kicks off with “Feel Like New,” and the comparison between Dunson’s vocals and those of Moog-advocate Ronnie Martin are strong. Smooth, kind of slithery, and just shy of hitting a nasally whine. The instruments aren’t too heavily important - the vox are key - although there is way more tambourine on this track than there needs to be. What sets Martin apart from the Secondhand Serenades and the Crash Romeos of the world, though, is that he actually knows how to write hooks. Rookie of the Year understands the meaning of a pop song.

While the second half of the album devolves into an indistinct electro-pop hodgepodge, I can find merit in the opening tracks. “Asleep With You” is as an adequate a pop rock song as anything else on VH1, and the same goes for numbers like “Falling From the Sky” and “What is Love,” which boasts cowbell. That’s noteworthy, right? I’ll give credit where it’s due, and say that Rookie of the Year ain’t that bad. Hell, maybe they’ll open for Maroon 5 sometime.

Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band live August 19, 2008

All photos from

Bruce Springsteen must wear really comfortable shoes. My black and battered Ben Shermans didn’t quite offer me the comfort and arch support needed to withstand the Boss’ three hour set at Hershey Park, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 19, and I had a slight limp walking out of Hersheypark Stadium. Bruce’s body never flagged, though, and he had to do a lot more than just stand. Accompanied by a Patti Scialfa-less E Street Band, Springsteen was a throbbing mass of high spirits, high energy, and raging sexuality onstage. With summer’s end impending, the set seemed concocted to end the season properly. Sprinkled among covers of rock staples and requests were true rarities, which I’ll get to later.

The show started with a rousing rendition of “Summertime Blues,” the first of several covers that revealed Bruce’s rock roots. Hersheypark Stadium is really nothing more than your average college-level football arena, but it was perfect for Bruce and his band. Aside from some muddled sound early on – Clarence Clemons’ sax solo on “Radio Nowhere” was almost completely buried in the mix – the acoustics were top notch for such a big show. Visually, the show benefitted from three jumbo screens, two of which displayed the band for those of us 80 yards away. Granted, Bruce is pretty dang personable, and he’s the only man I’ve ever seen pull off a two-hour, solo/acoustic set at a venue like the Wachovia Spectrum, but the screens helped clue us in to what other concertgoers were feeling.

Last year’s Magic didn’t dominate the set list too much, allowing the band to take requests from the audience after solid performances of “Out in the Street,” “Spirit in the Night,” and “Promised Land.” Bruce and “Little Stevie” Van Zandt pulled signs bearing song titles from the crowd, and while some of the choices were weird (“Darlington County?” Freaking “Part Man, Part Monkey?” Raise your hand if you didn’t think he’d play “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” anyway. Anyone? Anyone?), fans also got a cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” and an amazing rendition of Nebraska’s “Reason to Believe.” Bruce’s voice isn’t quite worn enough to give “Boom Boom” the bite it needs, but his radical reinterpretation of “Reason to Believe” was the first of several revelations for me.

Beginning with distorted harmonica and yells, “Reason to Believe” recalled the grainy yet powerful aura one gets from spinning old blues recordings. When the band joined Bruce, it got even better. “At the end of every hard-earned day / people find some reason to believe” is repeated throughout the song, something Springsteen clearly wanted to impart on people this Tuesday night. He’s finally managed to integrate some hope into his more politically leaning songs (People unite under anthems, you know), allowing his introductory speech about the meaning of “Livin’ in the Future” (The Patriot Act is bad) to not drag as much. “Reason to Believe” is also a cousin of sorts to “American Land,” which was performed during the encore with its lyrics on the screen, allowing all in intendance to sing about hard work and honesty. As the Bush administration’s reign winds down (January 20, 2009, you cannot come soon enough), those are some surprisingly rare virtues.

Of course, another way to make people feel hopeful is sex. I’ve read on the Internets that it makes folks feel mighty fine. At 58 years old, Bruce Springsteen is still sexy. Not just in his tender odes to loving (“Prove It All Night,” “She’s the One,” and a holy-shit-this-really-happened performance of the Springsteen/Patti Smith tune “Because the Night”), but in his demeanor. Bruce plays up a preacher persona on stage, but less discussed is how damn flirtatious he can be. Three thoughts were visible on a blonde woman’s face as the television screens displayed Springsteen, dressed in a tight black button-down and jeans, sprawled out in front of her: 1) I could felate Bruce Springsteen, 2) Everyone can see me thinking about felating Bruce Springsteen, and 3) I could felate Bruce Springsteen. Hearing 30,000 people laugh at the same time is quite the sound, and Bruce played it up. Side note: Did I mention Patti wasn’t here?

Aside from a beyond bizarre performance of the obscure “Part Man, Part Monkey,” a song Bruce liked enough to put on not one, but two rarities compilations, the second half of the regular set was perfect. Magic’s “Last to Die” and “Long Walk Home,” along with “Badlands,” closed it out, but the best moments came from two of the stronger songs from The Rising, “Mary’s Place” and “The Rising.” “Mary’s Place,” in particular, got some fans choked up over its religious imagery. It seems like the easiest way to get up front for a Bruce show is to bring your kids – the Boss loves giving them the mic – but a few adults popped up on the screen during this number. Again playing the preacher (“Tell ’em, brother, tell ’em,” said Clemons), Bruce brought the entire stadium to silence before launching into the song’s final verse. A master showman, he knows when he’s locked in with a fan. When he looked one older woman right in the eyes and sang “I keep a picture of you in my locket / I keep it close to my heart / A light shining in my breast / Leading me through the dark / Seven days, seven candles / In my window light your way / Your favorite record’s on the turntable / I drop the needle and pray,” the only thing keeping her from crying was the thought of 29,999 people seeing her do so. And while it’s sad that the screens toned down that woman’s moment, I’m grateful for the chance to have experienced it with her.

As great as the two-hour regular set was, and it was pretty flippin’ great, the encore was somehow even better. Hearing the twinkling piano of “Because the Night” was a big moment for me, but hearing a certain other twinkling piano part, this time accompanied by harmonica, was even bigger.

Thunder Road” kicked off the encore, resulting in 30,000 collective sighs of disbelief and joy. This was, of course, followed by 30,000 people singing “The screen door slams / Mary’s dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch…” The band is older, but the sense of wonder in the lyrics is still there, and there are few song measures as triumphant as that closing coda. Ba da da da daaaaaaa…

Given that there’s only one road to get to and from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I can understand the logic behind leaving at any point during the encore. However, anyone that did so is still a massive fool. Following “Thunder Road” was my favorite Bruce song of all time, the epic “Jungleland.” As it appears on Born to Run, it clocks in at 9:35, and they’re the fastest nine-and-a-half minutes I’ve ever experienced. Packed with the Boss’ rock ‘n’ roll imagery – kids flashing “guitars like switchblades,” beautiful girls, desperate deals, cops buzzing, cities limping – “Jungleland” is the perfect ending to Born to Run, from its brilliant piano parts to its guitar and sax solos to its dramatic, melancholic lyrics. Live, though, it wasn’t enough to send The E Street Band out. After a one-two shot of “Seven Nights to Rock” and “Born to Run,” during which the house lights came on to illuminate all of the “tramps like us,” came a song that fans have clamored for often, yet heard maybe once a year, if that.

The set-up was perfect: As they dragged out the clamor of “Born of Run,” Springsteen and Van Zandt pointed stage left, out to the bleachers. The cameras cut to a hand-made banner saying “Rosie.” Back to Bruce and Stevie, pointing more emphatically. Back to the banner. The fans go crazy. Back to the band, nodding their heads in affirmation. Cue the jangly guitar and the funky sax and that ever-lovin’ organ that mark the opening to “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” Like the sighting of a rare white elk, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band tore through this beloved classic. Adding some more funk via “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” ensured that this would be the most spoiled crowd ever. At least until Bruce decides to play Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. in its entirety.

In spite of all of these jaw-dropping choices, the show still wasn’t over (I know!). There was a pointed performance of “American Land,” as hopeful a drinking song as any, and a stunning take on “Gloria.” Springsteen’s old friend Patti Smith may have rewritten the tune for her punk classic Horses, but Bruce preserved its soul, giving concertgoers one last tune, of 29 total, to hum on the way out. Not that they needed it, though. As I walked with my family to our car, I could hear traces of “Jungleland,” “For You,” and “Thunder Road” from stereos.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Gaslight Anthem - 'The '59 Sound'

I’m always wary when I check out a Recommended If You Like description of a band. It sets the bar too high. Sorry, gravelly voiced punk band that writes songs about feeling guilty and getting drunk, but you don’t sound enough like Jawbreaker and/or Hot Water Music. Same goes for you, female-fronted pop punk band that doesn’t really sound that much like Discount. The worst possible thing you can tell me in an attempt to turn me on to a new band, though, is compare them to Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, and yet that is exactly how I’m going to describe The Gaslight Anthem’s The ’59 Sound.

Formed in 1972, The E Street Band provided the musical muscle needed for frontman Springsteen to concoct his elaborate love letter to rock ‘n’ roll, soul, folk, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, and blues. Music became Bruce’s own church, something he now plays up live with promises of a “rock ‘n’ roll baptism.” As a lyricist, Bruce remains a top tier, highly descriptive narrator of losers and misfits. From Nebraska’s economic fallout to Born to Run’s get-rich-quick desperation to The Rising and Devils & Dust’s more politically minded tales, Springsteen is a master chronicler of failed romances, business schemes, and family ventures. Sometimes all that’s keeping him, and his characters, alive, is hope and a song.

It is with slight hesitation that I apply those same virtues (life is rough, but music is good) to The Gaslight Anthem on what is arguably their finest release to date, The ’59 Sound. Frontman Brian Fallon is one of the finest lyricists in punk rock today, and we’re lucky to have him. While Bruce strove, and continues to strive, to showcase his musical roots instrumentally, Fallon vocalizes his many loves. Miles Davis and Tom Petty get shout outs on “Mile Davis & the Cool” and “Even Cowgirls Get Blues,” respectively, but where Fallon really succeeds at honoring his influences is on his Counting Crows ode, “High Lonesome.”

“High Lonesome,” like a lot of TGA songs, is about girls and trying to get by. “Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand / I always kinda, sorta wished I looked like Elvis,” Fallons says, mimicking Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz from “Round Here.” In “Round Here,” Maria wishes she could meet a boy who looks like Elvis Presley. While I feel it’s kind of lame for Fallon to nick someone else’s lyric for a chorus, I also love this cohesive moment of pop music fandom. Fallon doesn’t rip off Counting Crows; he defines life’s many moments through pop songs. Songs can convey more in three minutes than films can do in three hours or books in 300 pages. Like Fallon says himself in the track, “It’s a pretty good song / Maybe you know the rest.”

But enough with the music history and English class interpretations: Let’s talk about rocking. The ’59 Sound is a massive improvement over debut Sink or Swim, a record that was merely good, and lives up to the promise generated by perfect EP Señor and The Queen. The ’59 Sound is chock full of mournful vocals, bluesy guitar work, and some of the best damn songs this side of Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s always exciting to catch a band in the middle of their development, and right now, it feels as if The Gaslight Anthem is invincible. Whether they’re kicking out the jams like on the lead single/title track, or getting extra melancholy and mellow on “Here’s Looking at You, Kid,” the band simply cannot fail. RIYL if you like Bruce Springsteen, punk rock, well-told stories, memorable lyrics, and things that are ridiculously awesome.

1989 - tin roof rusted / there's something burning in my eye.

In 1989, my sister was born, and we’ve had our fair share of familial fights. Sharing a car has been a bitch… she also tends to make fun of my politics, religious beliefs, and work ethic. She’s still in her late teens (a.k.a. – “I like to be controversial all the time” phase), so I try to deal. What really irks me, though, is how she scored such a got-damn awesome birth year.

When filling out the original survey that sparked this series, 1989 was the first year where I actually had to think hard about my top album. In a lot of ways, this top 10 is really a collection of number ones and twos, split down the middle. My sister got (arguably) the best records by The Cure, The B-52s, Fugazi, The Stone Roses, and Pixies. Operation Ivy and Gorilla Biscuits revolutionized the punk/hardcore scene with their first and only full-lengths. Nirvana was just getting started, and Joe Strummer began to find a musical life without Mick Jones. And of course, Nine Inch Nails kicked off its brilliant legacy that year with Pretty Hate Machine. My sister got spoiled right out of the gate… er, womb.

Kid sisters always have it so easy.

10. Nirvana – Bleach

Listening to Bleach, it’s hard to believe Nirvana ever wrote Nevermind. Bleach seems almost willfully uncommercial. Trafficking in the sludgy Black Flag/Sabbath formula that bands like The Melvins and Mudhoney were developing, Nirvana joined the fray with this 13-song distortion-fest.

In high school, I worked backwards through Nirvana. I purchased Nevermind and In Utero used simultaneously from my friend Rob Ferrier and loved them equally. Every time I try to pick a favorite, I end up changing my mind a few months later. Right now I prefer Nevermind. Bleach, on the other hand, was not an instant hit with me. While Steve Albini’s production on In Utero gave it a brutal heft that my fragile 14-year-old mind hadn’t really encountered before, that record’s songs still had pop hooks steeped in the Beatles tradition. Bleach has none of that. It’s all garage rock squawking and slightly off lyrics. Kurt Cobain’s words here are weird, occupying a surreal space that is not artsy, epic, or emotional. The scenes are simple – schoolyards, girl’s rooms, etc. But it’s all so strange and frenetic and savage.

9. Operation Ivy – Energy

My favorite Opy Ivy memory is from high school, when The Baffles, a punk band that was feuding with my first real band, tried covering “Caution” to make fun of us. “Caution is a word that I can’t understand” is a key line in that song, which also happens to be the name of my band from the time. This cover wasn’t really the sick burn they had hoped, but it forced me to get off my duff and buy the Operation Ivy collection from Lookout! Records.

Energy’s sound quality is pretty rough; it almost sounds like a bootleg. But that’s part of its punk charm. Another key component is its emphatic take on the ska tradition. Guitarist Lint (you might know him as Tim Armstrong) and frontman Jesse Michaels wrote romper stompers that espoused unity, equality, and aversion to acting like a dick, and packaged them into quick ska-punk bursts. Few bands have been able to improve on this righteous blend. In SAT terms, Operation Ivy is to ska-punk what Richard Pryor is to black comedy.

8. Gorilla Biscuits – Start Today

I’m not a big fan of NYC hardcore. Gorilla Biscuits are one of my exceptions, though. Like Op Ivy’s Energy, Start Today was one of those era-defining records. Also like Energy, Start Today serves as the last will and testament of its creators. While GB’s members went on to further success with bands like Quicksand, Rival Schools, and CIV, Gorilla Biscuits, as a unit, never managed to crank out a second full-length.

But really, how could one follow up Start Today? It stands as a testament on its own. Start Today predicts hip-hop technique’s crossing over into hardcore with the samples on opening track “New Direction.” Sadly, no one really picked up the best album’s best innovation, which is the random harmonica solo on the title track (I am not kidding).

Fast and blistering, and saved from the “NYC hardcore yeah!” chants that mar a lot the area’s bands, Start Today is a punk/hardcore classic whose influence can be felt on many ’90s punk bands like H2O and Bouncing Souls, not to mention on new millennium upstarts like Set Your Goals and Energy.

7. Joe Strummer – Earthquake Weather

Poor Joe had a rough going during the second half of the ’80s. He fucked up The Clash something fierce by listening to his manager instead of his heart, leading to the departure of guitarist/co-songwriter Mick Jones and drummer Topper Headon. After bombing with the band’s tepid swansong, Cut the Crap, a record so loathed that I didn’t even know it existed until I read a Strummer biography, and suffering condemnation every time someone jocked Jones’ new act, Big Audio Dynamite, Joe needed a hit badly.

Sadly, he didn’t get it with his first solo album, Earthquake Weather. Unfairly maligned (and compared to B.A.D.) upon its release, the record eventually achieved somewhat of a cult following among Strummer enthusiasts like myself. Of course, when you’re the guy who wrote London Calling, I imagine a lot of your other stuff seems petty by comparison, but even Strummer's lesser releases are better than most.

Earthquake Weather is perhaps best explained as the prequel to Joe’s run with The Mescaleros, filtered through cheesy ’80s production. The album transcends its studio limitations, however, showcasing the hurricane of influences that coursed through Joe’s veins. Elements of punk, rockabilly, reggae, folk, ska, and pop intertwine. At times delirious, Earthquake Weather also feels like a Brian Wilson moment for Joe. It’s crammed with instruments and changes, as if the man never could make up his mind on how to go solo. Outside of scoring films, it would take him another decade to release another album. I hope more people tune in to Joe’s post-Clash work.

6. Pixies – Doolittle

Ah, the more assured follow-up. Doolittle is a little less ramshackle than Pixies’ seminal Surfer Rosa, which in this case works out A-OK. Frank Black is no less insane here, as evidenced upon track one, “Debaser.” Essentially just an excuse for Frank to scream the title while bassist/co-vocalist Kim Deal tries to keep everything sensible, “Debaser” is a giddy/angry rock gem in a collection rife with ‘em. This is the same album that gave us “Here Comes Your Man,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and “Wave of Mutilation.” A Pixies best of seems almost redundant. All shouts and freak outs, Pixies are the disorder to The Beatles’ order.

5. The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses

I tend to hate musicians who act like larger-than-life rock stars. There’s a few exceptions, obviously, like Bono. Really, I just hate prima donnas. But it’s this very loathing that makes me love The Stone Roses even more, as the first track off their first album, “I Wanna Be Adored,” plays with bravado while at the same time showing a heck of a lot of cajones. Frontman Ian Brown plays the slinky rock poet well, skewering rock ‘n’ roll’s association with Satanism with lines like “I don’t have to sell my soul / He’s already in me.” And they made this a freaking single! The lyric is delivered so smoothly over a gothic/new wave set-up. Really, it’s not that different from The Cure or The Jesus and Mary Chain post-Darklands. But it is a lot more fun.

The Stone Roses bridges the gap between new wave and Britpop, The Smiths and Oasis, and psychedelia and rave. Reserving long-form jamming for the album-ending “I Am the Resurrection,” The Stone Roses focused on hooks and the will to use them for most of their eponymous debut, although there are flourishes here and there, like on “Don’t Stop” and “Waterfall.” Makes me wish they followed that same path on the crushingly terrible The Second Coming. As is, though, I’ll settle for this darkly sexy masterpiece.

4. Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine

While my love for some bands has waned over time (Sorry, Sonic Youth), my appreciation for others has only grown stronger (NIN! NIN! NIN!). Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor started his long tenure as commander of all that is angry yet depressed yet danceable with Pretty Hate Machine. For all of its aggression, NIN’s core has always been in club music. This is perhaps made most clear on NIN’s first album. While the songs have evolved into a more rock-centric live setting, their original constructions bear ’80s pop production, making for a record that, for all of its “Head Like a Hole” bluster, really isn’t so removed from, say, Depeche Mode. It’s just better.

Aside from the awkward rapping on “Down In It,” Pretty Hate Machine is a stunning opening salvo. The record combines Reznor’s blunt lyricism with bombastic beats, resulting in an angst-filled mindblower. Cuts like “Sanctified,” “Something I Can Never Have,” and “Ringfinger” perverted new wave catchiness into new, more frightening territories. The ’80s more or less implied that the keyboard was superior to the guitar. Pretty Hate Machine is one of the few albums to actually offer that argument some support.

3. The B-52s – Cosmic Thing

For a long time, The B-52s were just a decent singles band (so says me). Tunes like “Private Idaho” and “Rock Lobster” were fun, to a point, but they weren’t the kind of pop music I could spin over and over. It might be redundant to say this band is too kitschy, but they are. Cosmic Thing, then, is a “stars aligning” moment in The B-52s’ history. The production/sound is fuller, the retro feel somehow sounds richer, and the hooks are ridiculously awesome. Besides the immaculate singles “Love Shack” and “Roam,” listeners get a slew of funky gems like “Dry Country,” “Junebug,” and “Deadbeat Club.”

Cosmic Thing marked probably my first celebrity crush, as vocalist Kate Pierson was quite the cutie in ’89. She’s got a powerful set of pipes too. Her contributions to “Love Shack” and “Roam” give the songs so much more force. Not that she outshines the rest of the band – Fred Schneider’s arty/flamboyant/Southern spoken word style is just as crucial – but she’s my favorite.

2. Fugazi – 13 Songs

One of the bands I regret missing out on the most is Fugazi. Listening to 13 Songs was a revelation to me in high school. Its mixture of hardcore aggression and Rastafarian grooves was perfect. Sure, Bad Brains blended the two first, but Fugazi did it better, without the homophobia or reggae hang-ups. 13 Songs was the first Fugazi release I ever bought, and while I’ve since acquired their complete discography, it’s still my favorite. Somehow, I always end up listening to it when I get lost on family vacations. After missing the bus to our hotel room during a Disney World trip, splitting up during a Delaware tax-free shopping excursion, etc., 13 Songs was my way of fending off abandonment issues.

The album kicks off with the band’s best song, “Waiting Room.” It’s all groove and muscle while Ian MacKaye spits flames. Co-vocalist Guy Picciotto is right there in the fire with him on tunes like “Burning” and “Give Me the Cure.” I’ll always respect Fugazi for their staunch independence and incorruptible views, but it’s these furious jams, part dub and part punk in ways The Clash never could have comprehended, that make me love them. I’m fine with The Stone Roses or Operation Ivy breaking up, but I think indie music needs Fugazi to kick its ass and get it away from the neo-America/Eagles soft rock avenue it’s going down.

1. The Cure – Disintegration

As I’ve written before, I really, really, really love The Cure. My favorite album is constantly in flux, but for the last month or so, I’ve been heavily grooving on Disintegration. It’s just a perfect record. Perfect for sleeping, driving, awkwardly making out. The record marks a shift away from The Cure’s occasionally psychedelic leanings towards more ethereal realms, and I love how otherworldly it sounds.

There’s some great singles to be had here. No “Just Like Heaven,” but you get “Pictures of You” and freaking “Love Song” instead. I swear, for a sad bastard, Robert Smith writes some of the best love songs (and he’s still going! Have you heard “The Only One?”). Of course, he writes pretty good surreal, weird songs too, like “Lullaby.” And rockers like “Fascination Street.”

Some albums are nostalgia trips for me. Pretty Hate Machine reminds me of high school (and Michelle. But mostly high school). The Stones Roses reminds me of college. Disintegration is one of a few albums which I’m still attaching memories to. I have this desire to be enshrouded in its dark, swirling waters.

NEXT WEEK: Enter the Schwarzenbach, 1990.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Winter Sounds - 'Porcelain Empire'

[NOTE: This ran a year ago. Michelle and I are even more obnoxiously cute now.]
My girlfriend, Michelle, and I reached our one year anniversary recently, and to celebrate, we went to see the mighty Bloc Party at the Tower Theater about a week ago as of this writing. The Macabees and The Noisettes (whom Dan Brian simply loves) were good, but it was the Party that got the er… um, “party started.” Jangley guitars swirled all around us as frontman Kele Okereke enchanted us with his British accent. So charming!

What my love of Bloc Party has to do with Athens, GA indie rock band The Winter Sounds is this – the TWS debut, Porcelain Empire, wants to be Bloc Party some of the time, and, coincidentally, that’s when it’s at its strongest. Sometimes, it wants to have a more dialed-down cool like Interpol, and that’s kind of neat too. But deep down, the secret shame of Porcelain Empire is that it wants to be The Killers circa Hot Fuss. This explanation is a round-about way of saying that Porcelain Empire is continually trying to be anthemic, and that, more often than not, it’s bland, dull, radio-fodder.

The record hits it creative peek right away – the album cover depicts a fire-breathing swan, and that’s awesome. Track one, “Windy City Nights,” is slightly less awesome, but just by a hair. It’s got that great New Romantic vibe that the kids have been diggin’ on these days, and a killer hook to boot. While admittedly hokey, the heights Patrick Keenan and his bandmates soar to during the chorus are ridiculously uplifting. The song’s blend of guitar, drums, and keyboard is hypnotic. In short, “Windy City Nights” is a great song.

After such a strong opening, though, Porcelain Empire just kind of… phones it in. “Gone to Save Mankind” ups the spastic post-punk ante, “A Call to Arms” proves that the band can jam out a lil bit, and “Poor Sailors” shifts the band’s dramatic element slightly with some violin, but mostly the record is new wave-y indie rock by numbers. The group claims to be influenced by “early ’70s underground rock, punk, anti-folk, chamber pop, and early-00’s indie rock,” but it’s hard to discern anything outside of that last attribution. By the time the second half of the record comes around, the swelling of each chorus, plaintive twinkling of each keyboard part, and the ethereal swirl of each guitar line becomes so predictable that there’s barely any reason to listen to the album at all.

Call It Arson - 'The Animal Strings Album'

The world could use more smolderingly political musical acts. Hailing from over yonder in Connecticut, rock act Call It Arson eschews a crap load of influences to create a wholly new sound. They fill the ’90s gap between Gin Blossoms and Sunny Day Real Estate; the band’s songs are sort of rocky, sort of folky, and mostly good. On top of all that is a lyrical approach that’s kind of Jackson Browne-y, kind of Minor Threat-y. Basically, Call It Arson is an awesome rock band with lyrics that are politically incisive while remaining vague enough to apply to a wide range of listeners. The band’s latest release, the EP The Animal Strings Album, showcases the band’s many influences.

Bookended by unplugged folk/country numbers, The Animal Strings Album opens with “Eliza.” The song’s chorus of singers and midtempo acoustic guitar has an instant campfire feel to it. That the track is about working up self-determination - as singer Ryan White recalls, “That I should start doing all of those things I’ve been singing about,” knowing that he’s, “stronger now from the spark/And I glow, maybe I’m already home,” just makes it an extra endearing anthem.

The cutting fuzz of James Downes’ electric guitar and the pounding power of session player Brian McOmber’s drums are thoroughly bombastic in an alt-rock way on the political second track, “The Unmanageable Superstate.” SDRE (err “The Fire Theft”) would be proud. White’s voice is just as compelling here as it is on “Eliza,” although the lyrics could use a bit of tweaking. Mark Twain once said that, “Patriotism is loving your country all the time and your government when it deserves it.” Call It Arson approximates that sentiment with lines like, “This is where I was born and I’m proud to call this mound of dirt that I live on my home/This is where I belong/With that pride I renounce all that my ‘leaders’ have done.” But other sections of the song, like the opening lines of “Fuck the poisonous food that you feed us/Fuck the pills that you push to cure resulting disease” could use some work. Profanity is a crutch that Call It Arson needs to drop ASAP. Props for the harmonica, though.

Tracks three and four, “Animal Strings” and “On the Run,” show more of the band’s range. “Animal Strings” morphs from a warbling Bright Eyes-esque number into a classic rock jam over the course of five minutes. “On the Run,” meanwhile, is a terse radio-ready pop rock tune.

The EP’s final two tracks are perhaps its strongest. The slightly-over-six-minutes “Places” is an epic piece of songwriting. It continues The Animal Strings Album’s theme of restlessness and traveling. Call It Arson’s emocore sensibilities poke through here, as White sings “I’ll do me damage all on my own if my presence is an issue then I’d rather just steer clear.” But at the same time, White distances himself from such sentiments, as he grows tired of “the same old song and dance: using pain and fear as romance.” Having graduated beyond emo self-loathing, Call It Arson proceed to rock the heck out, which is always appreciated.

The Animal Strings Album concludes with a second acoustic ditty, “Hoopin’ and Humpin.’” While the title’s visual image is far more graphic than I’m sure was intended, “Hoopin’ and Humpin’” is in fact a pleasant lil folk song about a tiny town called New London, combining old school bluegrass music with contemporary language. It’s sort of like if Woody Guthrie were 19 today, I guess.

Call It Arson’s The Animal Strings Album is a refreshing EP for music fans looking for something as emotive as, say, the Saddle Creek roster but with a tad bit more energy. Sure, there’s always Cursive, but, hey, feel free to branch out.

Our American Cousin - 'How's This for a Diploma?'

Hey, remember American Football? Kansas City natives Our American Cousin sure do. Their debut EP How’s This for a Diploma?, off of No Sleep Records, combines the instrumentals of AF/caP’n Jazz with a touch of Cute is What We Aim For-style vocals. It’s a good enough con deal, overall, mixing alternately dirge-y and squealing angular guitars with a bits of string arrangements here and there.

How’s This for a Diploma? starts off with the pseudo-indie/punk of “Ernesto Perez One. Ernesto Perez Two.” It pretty much sets the M.O. for the rest of the EP, as frontman Kurtis Viers screeches and thrashes his guitar around while the rest of the band does the same. It’s refreshingly dirtier than your average emo band these days.

While some may fault Our American Cousin for being too derivative, having plundered a lot of their tricks from the ’90s emo era, at least the group has figured out how to get dissonant and harsh without going the screamo/metalcore route. At the same time, though, the band could still use a bit of seasoning. Sample lyrics from “Ernesto Perez One. Ernesto Perez Two”: “Let’s keep each other sweet/Comets tell of the moonshine/And prove how deep our pockets are.” The group’s lyricism is sort of ethereal, sort of a high school poetry session. But, if the listener can step back from the corniness of those lines, he and/or she may just notice the simple yet elegant piano line gliding underneath of them.

Our American Cousin delivers more in the same vein of “Ernesto Perez One. Ernesto Perez Two.” with the EP’s other two tracks, “Think I May Have an Ego?” and “Lights Out (Sock Full of Batteries).” “Think I May Have an Ego?” rocks a multi-part vocal line for maximally weird effect while needling guitars, crashing cymbals, and a quaint lil organ line pop up throughout. The band’s solid sense of instrumentation is further complemented by Parker Viers’ cello playing in the track’s triumphant build-up. Remember, ya’ll: Cello + snare roll = epic x sweet.

“Lights Out (Sock Full of Batteries)” closes out the disc, and reveals Our American Cousin’s grasp of the ambient as well as the rocking. It quickly heads back towards OAC’s emo-rock comfort zone, though. It’s more of the same; not that that’s a complaint.

How’s This for a Diploma? shows a lot of promise for Our American Cousin. The group’s mix of rock with more classically-oriented instruments like cello and piano make for an enticing 14 minutes of indie/punk/emo. While the EP is by no means perfect, as the lyrics could use work and drummer Adam Park still needs to figure out if he wants to play loose or sloppy/behind the rest of the band, it is still a good start all the same. [NOTE: This band broke up soon after releasing this EP. Chumps.]

Pizzasaurus Rex - 'Traveling Today on Yesterday's Maps'

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that doesn’t stop people from discarding bands based on their name alone - I’m sure your mother hates your Genital Hercules and Rotting Christ records without knowing what they actually sound like. But, sometimes, a band’s name works. Sometimes, it’s so mind-blowingly awesome, nay, jawesome that it acts like a lure for listeners. It just sucks ‘em right in. In this case, I’m talking about one such band, and their name is Pizzasaurus Rex. Sure, it kinda bites Cheesasaurus Rex’s style, much to Kraft’s chagrin, I’m sure, but c’mon. Pizza and rock and/or roll always make for fun times, regardless.

Pizzasaurus Rex has existed in one form or another for about five years now [NOTE: This article ran over a year ago.] After all that rockin’, these indie-punk vets finally got off their duffs and put out a CD, Traveling Today On Yesterday’s Maps. At nine tracks, the album showcases the band’s various influences. It’s mostly rollicking rock fun. But sometimes, like your average Domino’s pizza pie, things turn out a bit stale. Also, they might give you cramps and this weird vertigo sensation that just makes your stomach... nevermind.

Traveling Today On Yesterday’s Maps starts off with “Banana Phone.” While listeners may initially be disappointed over it not being a sweet post-rock Raffi cover, Pizzasaurus Rex quickly compensates by offering a delicious alternative. Alt-rock guitars and rough-yet-catchy vocals abound on this one. Vocalist Barker Gee, in additional to having an awesome name, makes for a great gruff frontman. There’s a strong old school college rock vibe here; Replacements fans should enjoy it. Track two, “Touch,” keeps up the same style with the same solid results. A bit of a Bruce Springsteen influence crops up on “Touch” as well; think of it as Paul Westerberg and The E Street Band.

But as good as Pizzasaurus Rex is at such a style, it seems as if the band can’t break out of that comfort zone with tripping up. The ballad-y “Drown” sinks under its own slow melancholy. By the time the song’s haunting piano coda sets in, listeners may already be comatose. The band tries another musical shift later on the disc with “Emily,” which sounds disturbingly like Rod Stewart. The acoustic guitars make it sound as if the band is shooting for their own “Maggie May,” but the world already has one of those. Luckily, the single-worthy “Into the Sunset” separates the two, injecting some much needed pep.

The band finally breaks out of its Replacements mold on “Harp Song” by turning up the Springsteen. The song’s 30-second intro of guitar and harmonica has the same ethereal quality as the Boss’ Nebraska. But when the song transitions into a more rock-oriented number, the shift is so incredibly catchy that no one can fault them for dropping the folkier angle altogether. “Harp Song” is another alt-rock gem waiting for a mix-tape. The song’s insistent chorus of “absence makes the heart grow fonder, don’t it?” and kickass guitar solo are moving in a “yay life” sort of way.

The album runs into trouble on its last two tracks, though. Now, “Puerto Rico” and “Kick Out the Bags” are both solid garage rockin’ tunes, but both cutout too early. I don’t mean that they lack something in terms of songwriting; I mean they literally just end early. The fadeout on “Puerto Rico” comes just a few seconds too soon. You have rocking and suddenly you don’t. Heck, “Kick Out the Bags” cuts out mid-jam. Both songs are good, but that just makes me hate them even more for blue balling me.

Overall, though, Traveling Today On Yesterday’s Maps is a good record. It’s slightly tossed off in spots - the sloppy production ruins the album’s conclusion - but that won’t stop you from head bobbin’ to “Into the Sunset” or “Harp Song.”

Various Artists - 'Brats on the Beat: Ramones for Kids'

It’s amazing that, for all of the hullabaloo about punk rock’s desire to act rebellious and “up the punx,” one of the genres originators, The Ramones, were acolytes of the classic pop song. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy wanted to be as sweet as The Bay City Rollers, but they sorta kinda maybe couldn’t play their instruments. Such lack of ability would cause most bands to suck mightily, but The Ramones’ unskilled style allowed them to tap into a sort of primal rock and/or roll spirit. The band could rock thoroughly, but all of their songs were covered in a sugary pop sheen. Ramones tunes were every bit as catchy as The Beatles' catalog, just sped up a few hundred RPMs. And just as kids from the last few generations can claim to have been raised on The Beatles (lucky whippersnappers!), so too could the same be said for The Ramones. Both bands crafted perfect, self-contained singles that continue to appeal to youngins’.

The kiddie appeal of The Ramones hasn’t gone unnoticed, as a few recent children’s albums have tried to Kidz Bop-ercize the work of those blessed pinheads. One such compilation is Brats on the Beat: Ramones for Kids (it’s a play on words! Yay!), from Go Kart Records. Where the barely intelligible Rockabye Baby!: Lullaby Renditions of The Ramones converted the tunes into incoherent crap designed to render infants comatose, Brats on the Beat plays it safe. Though the recordings are much cleaner, this compilation is pretty faithful to the original versions of the 12 songs collected here. But that proves to be just as big of a weakness. Brats on the Beat tones down The Ramones, and in so doing becomes ditties just as sterile as the Icelandic dance-pop of Lazy Town.

Jim Lindberg of Pennywise leads the family-friendly charge with an army of children on gang vox. But while he does “Blitzkrieg Bop” justice, the kids themselves aren’t alright. In fact, they suck. “Blitzkrieg Bop,” along with the rest of the album, is riddled with kids singing out of time, with school bells ringing sporadically. It’s cool for us adults to hear Matt Skiba and Tony Reflex “do it for the kids,” but the studio recordings they sing over are painfully processed. Also, the kids are fucking annoying.

There is one track where the “kids punk rock” formula works, though. Bouncing Soul and all-around good guy Greg Attonito leads the kids in a sloppy yet rollicking rendition of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio.” Extra props go to the boy who hams it up in the beginning with “Let’s rock all roll with The Ramooooooones.”

What really kills off Brats on the Beat is that parents could just as easily give their spawn a Ramones record. Sure, Brats on the Beat skips out on inappropriate songs like “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” or its sequel, “Carbona, Not Glue,” but then again, so does Ramones Mania. Ramones Mania also boasts over twice as many tracks to boot. Sure, “responsible” parents might not want to play “Chinese Rock,” “Somebody Put Something in My Drink,” or “The KKK Took My Baby Away” in front of the young ones, but a lil editing on a CD-R should fix that.

Real Space Noise - 'Radio Method'

Consisting of studio vet Chan Blinman and his buddy Steve Ashburn, Real Space Noise lives up to its name - They make really spacey noise. Electronic and pretty, their full-length Radio Method combines rock and electronic flourishes. But what kills the album off is the duo’s reliance on Blinman’s old recording buddies from Face to Face/Viva Death, Trevor Keith and Scott Shiflett, for vocals on almost half of the album. That’s not to say that they do a bad job; on the contrary, Keith and Shiflett do a better job fronting their respective RSN tracks than Blinman himself. In doing so, Keith and Shiflett upstage the main band.

The album has four lead singers divided among 12 tracks. Blinman helms six, Keith three, Shiflett two, and alt-indie singer Monica Richards closes out the album on the final track, “Quietus.” Blinman himself does a decent job, although his faux-British singing grows old halfway through tracks like “The New Machine Age” or “Sky Collector.” The music, at least, is still solid.

Electro beats and new wave ambiance are the hallmark of Radio Method. Described by the band’s website as having “themes of man’s relationship with technology, reason and faith, and the broken promise of the future,” Radio Method adds on cold computer programmed instrumentals accordingly. It’s at least as decent as Orgy’s techno-paranoid piece Vapor Transmission but when compared to the king of industrial terror, Trent Reznor, Blinman’s beats and obsessions don’t compare. The music lacks anger. Pretty Hate Machine without the “hate” just isn’t all that compelling.

There is some hope offered in the form of Trevor Keith, though. Not hope in the lyrical sense, because Keith’s contributions are just as chock full o’ loathing and nihilism as Blinman’s stuff. Keith has got years of experience belting out hits, though; his work with Face to Face yielded such seminal punk albums as Big Choice and Face to Face. His experimental (for a punk band) FtF album, Ignorance is Bliss, revealed that Keith could do more than just play three chords in a circle over and over. The same can be said for his new band, Viva Death, of which Blinman is also a member. Viva Death could also be described as rock/electronic, so Keith and Blinman’s work here doesn’t stray too far from that so much as check out the flip side. Viva Death rocks; Real Space Noise tries to groove.

Keith only sings on three tracks (”A Pleasant Confinement,” “Are You Uncomfortable?” and “The Quickening”), but they’re all classy cuts that are good enough to raise this album’s score a whole notch. “A Pleasant Confinement” starts off with the best audio sample of the whole album (”So maybe the moon is made of green cheese”) and quickly establishes itself as the best song on the album with its punchy drumming and sharp pace.

Radio Method is a decent experimental music release from Blinman and Ashburn. But at times, it feels more like just an experiment, and not enough like fully developed music. Blinman’s got a ton of punk credentials from recording Face to Face, The Get Up Kids, and Senses Fail, plus from his work with Viva Death. Real Space Noise feels like an attempt to break out of that mold, and while his efforts are amicable, they are far from “great.”