Wednesday, February 25, 2009

regarding your favorite band.

I want you to think of your favorite band. Think of how that band's songs have defined your life. How many times you saw them live, and what the rest of your week was in comparison to each night out. How old were you when you first heard them? Do you treasure their rarities, or champion their biggest successes?

I want you to think of how much your favorite band means to you, and then I want you to watch this clip of my lady friend's nephew Michael watching the Doodlebops take the stage for the first time in his very young life. Fast-forward to 2:15, and then replay it over and over. Close your eyes and pretend you're listening to a pterodactyl. Or just revel in the pure joy. Also, check out the lady sitting next to Michael. She is scurred.

'Define the Meaning' gangbang #4

Define the Meaning sent me another round of albums to review. This batch was a little less interesting, although I do dig Defeater's joint. Feel free to let me know if I sound like a twat, ya dig?

Defeater – Travels

Blistering, passionate, and highly literate hardcore that falls somewhere between Have Heart, Crime in Stereo, and This is Hell, Defeater’s Travels is a disarming record on every level – the rockers will grind your bones, the lyrics go way beyond “you abuse us / we will fight!” hardcore clichés, and that Saddle Creek-style acoustic surprise in the countdown between “Prophet in Plain Clothes” and “Carrying Weight” is both random and awesome. Defeater lives up to their name; these jams outpace lesser stompers by miles. Travels rarely lets up and never disappoints. Overall, a great ass-kicker.

Liquid Limbs – Orquid

This Tool-loving twosome shares not only Maynard James Keenan’s fondness for choir crooning and metal shredding, but his dumb/absurd sense of humor as well. Orquid (the cover features orchids and a squid, ya see) often settles for sub-par Puscifer jokes and even weaker Undertow rips. The lyrics will occasionally garner a chuckle – what is “the virgin kamikaze prize?” Is it bad? Closing cut “Whole Universe” attempts to contemplate all of existence, which provokes vocalist/guitarist Kevin Nowak to scream “holy fuck!” a lot. These aren’t the smartest songs out there, and the lack of band members limits the instrumentation a bit. For a hard-rocking, grungy duo, you’re better off checking out Big Business.

The Motorcycle Industry – Electric Education

“Let’s spend some time on the Internet / tell the message board kids what they already know,” goes one memorably snarky line from “Lesson One,” the opening track from The Motorcycle Industry’s Electric Foundation. Believe me, the record’s got more of ’em, operating a mildly dorky space left vacant by Harvey Danger. The acoustic guitars and keys’ prominence gives the songs a more indie rock vibe, but frontman John Langan uses uncomplicatedly catchy pop punk hooks to get his points across. If you’re reading Define the Meaning (and if not, what the eff, bra?), then chances are you’ll dig the topics: shitty kids at shows, colored vinyl, killing time at parks, and drunk roommates.

The Number 12 Looks Like You – Worse Than Alone

I’m sure Worse Than Alone will get props for the barrage of time changes and dissonance, but it lacks cohesion. The record violently shifts from prog to thrash on a dime, which could be great if there was any attempt to blend the two. As is, I hear a handful of decent ideas (the first half of “To Catch a Tiger”) and a handful of stupid ones (the second of half of “To Catch a Tiger”). “Given Life” has some sweet finger-tapping, but for like one second. The Number 12 Looks Like You gets points for having solid technical skills, but loses twice as many for having no got-damn sense at all.

Shirock – Everything Burns

Shirock occasionally aims for Paramore’s adrenaline-fueled pop rock and The Hush Sound’s lush guy/girl pop classicism, but more often they come off as ham-fisted as The Fray. Co-vocalists Chuck and Pap Shirock have pretty voices and sound great together, even if Charles does slur a bit too obnoxiously at times, but that doesn’t save the over-the-top stadium band production or limp songwriting. And without any clear cut hooks, these songs won’t even qualify as guilty pleasures. This will be your summer jam if you love teen dramas.

Sugarhigh – Box Office Poison

In what I super hope is an Empire Records reference, Sugarhigh offers us listeners Box Office Poison, an awfully amateurish EP of pop punk tunes. The songs don’t stray too far from sunny ’90s Cali-punk. It’s kind of hard to hate something this bouncy, although the recording quality is so rough I almost don’t believe it was done in a studio. The cymbals on “Quickest Way Outta Town” all have the same shrill, hollow sound, forcing me to think that some of these drum parts were programmed with an old keyboard. Lyrical clunkers like “I wish that I could tell you / that you’re important to me / but you’re not” don’t help either. Still, though, it’s pop punk! Let’s have some fun!

Tall Ships – Voyages

Ah God. Ah Jesus no. Sweet Piss Christ no. Voyages’ lyrics sheet is like one long, directionless rant. Tall Ships frontman Brett Dierolf notes that “everything in sight has gone dim, and the only thing I’m able to see is illuminated by starlight.” Ergo, he must “search for the answers to questions… of everything. But all to no avail.” Regardless, “I open up my eyes and see again. See what this all means.” However, “I cannot comprehend. What is all of this?” Therefore, who gives a shit? If the backbeat is your bottom line, then Tall Ships will get you by, but I swear I’ve heard these kinds of rants from homeless guys bumming around Market East station.

Playlist: Ben Kweller

[Playlist is an attempt to distill my favorite artists to 80-minute compilations. If someone asked me to burn them a mix of ____, I would give them this collection.]

S'been a while since the last playlist, kiddos. After a few aborted playlist attempts (Yeah Yeah Yeahs only have like two hours of music out right now), I figured I'd whip something up in honor of my old flame, Benjamin Thaddeus Marjorie Kweller [note: some parts of that name are not accurate]. BK is playing the TLA this Friday, which I'm juiced on, and he's touring on a pretty dang excellent new album to boot. Kweller is part of a subset of artists whom I've always felt were "mine" (see also New Found Glory and Against Me!). That is, I got into them in my youth, near the start of their careers, and, like an old friend, been through some good and bad patches. I've actively disliked BK at times, as I was bitterly disappointed by his self-titled third LP (I got over it). But I've never been able to completely quit him, as of opposed to, say, Alien Ant Farm.

Kweller's professional music career began in the '90s with Radish, a grunge act from Texas that pretty much got signed because they sorta sounded like Nirvana and Kweller was a teen (prodigy marketing angle! Yes!). Radish did some touring, recorded some decent songs, and then broke up after their label, Mercurcy, ate shit and died. Kweller some heat at the time since he was supposed to be a savior of rock or whatever, but the fade from spotlight suited his upcoming musical growth. Dude start self-releasing anti-folk EPs like Bromeo and Freak Out It's... Ben Kweller and in the new millenium, put out the Weezer-y alt-rock gem Sha Sha.

Sha Sha came out in 2002. I was 16 or so, I believe. Sam Goody had it for $9.99. The night I bought, my friend Tim and Steph, his girlfriend an the time, got into a fight and drove out to a park in Conshohocken, with me in tow, to sort out their issues. Three things teens are good at: Driving aimlessly, trespassing, and having stupid fights. Tim and the soon-to-be-dubbed "Crazy Ex-Steph" left the car to sort out their issues while I sat in the passenger seat and played Sha Sha on the stereo. A lot of people from my given demographic (r.e. - the angsty] think about Pinkerton as the penultimate emo record. I always think about how I started my love for Ben Kweller with a car stereo, by myself, while my best friend had anger sex in the woods.

BK release another excellent album during my high school years, 2004's On My Way, which geared more towards indie rock. As it turns out, each BK album has its own genre. 2006's Ben Kweller honored sunny '60s pop rock, while this year's Changing Horses is a country/bluegrass album on par with Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline. I've tried to respect each era of Kweller's songwriting with this playlist while also tossing in some rarities. As a die-hard, I think there's some missing spots: On My Way deserves way more face time, I really wanted to fit in BK's duet with Adam Green on "Kokomo," there's no Bens songs (side project with Ben Folds and Ben Lee), and I had to cut BK's spastic/psychedelic side when I took "Launch Ramp" and "Tylenol" off the list. Oh well; here's "Little Pink Stars."

Little Pink Stars
1. Ben Kweller - "How It Should Be (Sha Sha)," Sha Sha
2. Ben Kweller - "Wasted & Ready," Sha Sha [How could I not open with the first two songs from Sha Sha, in sequence?]
3. Radish - "Little Pink Stars," Restraining Bolt [BK still gets requests for this one. I'm sure it still annoys him, but to be fair, this is the best pre-solo song he ever released.]
4. Ben Kweller - "I Need You Back," On My Way
5. Ben Kweller - "The Rules," On My Way
6. Ben Kweller - "Jerry Falwell Destroyed the Earth," Future Soundtrack for America
7. Ben Kweller - "Commerce, TX," Sha Sha
8. Ben Kweller - "On Her Own," Changing Horses
9. Ben Kweller - "Sundress," Ben Kweller
10. Ben Kweller, "Penny on the Train Track," Ben Kweller
11. Ben Kweller - "Gypsy Rose," Changing Horses
12. Ben Kweller - "BK Baby," Freak Out It's... Ben Kweller [ This Vanilla Ice reimagining also gets requested at shows a lot. It's kind of awesome.]
13. Ben Kweller - "On My Way," On My Way
14. Ben Kweller - "Family Tree," Sha Sha
15. Ben Kweller - "In Other Words," Sha Sha
16. Ben Kweller - "Thirteen," Ben Kweller
17. Ben Kweller - "Different But the Same," On My Way
18. Ben Kweller - "Undone (The Sweater Song)," bootleg [Kweller's got some great covers; I also dig his version of Lemonheads' "Buddy."]
19. Ben Kweller - "Harriet's Got a Song," Sha Sha
20. Ben Kweller - "Falling," Sha Sha [Gotta close with the same ending from Sha Sha... almost]
21. Guster w/ Ben Kweller - "I Hope Tomorrow is Like Today," Keep It Together [This bittersweet gem got some face time in the hit summer comedy Wedding Crashers. Guster and BK did not play this song when I saw them play together at Penn's Landing. Weak sauce!]

I'll be the first to admit that I rely too much on Sha Sha at seven songs (out of a possible 11), but I did the best I could to "find a box to put BK insides," as some might say.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thursday - 'Common Existence'

OK, hands in the air; who thought Thursday was going to bounce back from the major label death machine this well? More importantly, who thought that Epitaph Records was ever going to sign a good act again? Ever since the label tried “expanding” a few years back, their roster has been cluttered by shitty acts from all walks of life: rap, metal, and whatever the frick Panic at the Disco clones like The Higher count as have been diluting a once vital punk organization. Thursday’s true return to indie-dom, Common Existence, is a good fit for Epitaph. Both sides prove they still know what good post-hardcore music sounds like.

But enough expounding on Epitaph’s poor life decisions. Common Existence washes the bad taste of Sage Francis and Escape the Fate right out. The record is somehow forward-thinking, further pushing the more atmospheric approach glimpsed at on the band’s split with Envy last year, yet speckled with retro stylings of previous albums. The leading track (and single) “Resuscitation of a Dead Man” is arguably the closest thing the band has done to revisiting their old (pardon the term) screamo sound. There are gang vox and harsh riffs and even some full-on screaming from Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath. In truth, it’s a lot more fluid than Full Collapse ever was – flush with needling guitars and floating keyboard lines – but that chorus is pure 2001.

Hopefully, all those wieners who thought Thursday peaked early (you fools!) will be stroked enough by McIlrath, because Common Existence runs the heck away from that sound for a little while. “Last Call” is a lumbering behemoth of song that has more in common with Ride and Deftones than it does Taking Back Sunday or Hawthorne Heights. “As He Climbed the Dark Mountain” gets recycled from the Envy split, which is only half-disappointing since it’s still a killer tune. “Friends in the Armed Forces” revisits some of War All the Time’s ethereal/heavy attitude. Frontman Geoff Rickley gets as explicit as he can with lines like “I’m sick of tying yellow ribbons / Praying not to see / Another folded flag to a mourning mother / He was an army of one but they’ll find another.” We’ve had plenty of anti-war and pro-soldier anthems in the last six years; this is one of the better songs to blend the two.

The record’s middle drops hardcore for an almost shoegazey effect. “Beyond the Visible Spectrum” starts out rocking, but fades into haze. “Time’s Arrow” cuts through some of the fuzz to offer an acoustic contemplation on abuse in reverse, with some trippy backwards audio to boot. “Unintended Long Term Effects” goes back to rocking balls. Partnered with the more ethereal “Love Has Led Us Astray” (the only song here that feels undercooked) and “You Were the Cancer” later on, it gives the record a pleasing ebb and flow. “Circuits of Fever” opens with eerie feedback, throws in some pounding drums, and then takes its time finding its groove. It starts off like a standard rocker before bassist Tim Payne leads it into a second life as a triumphant toe-tapper.

So, what is Common Existence? Perhaps I can define it by what it isn’t. It doesn’t constantly pummel, which would have been great but grating. Common Existence tries to explore as many vibes as possible for a broader picture. It’s a pretty expansive album. It’s neither Thursday’s darkest (that would be War All the Time) nor their most anthemic (A City By the Light Divided, son!). It’s a bit more distorted than that, and like the black and white photos included, it can get pretty haunting.. Rickley is a little more buried in effects, with the reverb pushed up. The guitar parts are less distinct, blurring together into a beautiful mess. And that’s kind of like life, our common existence, in general.

Fake Problems - 'It's Great to Be Alive'

Released in 2007, Fake Problems' full-length debut How Far Our Bodies Go was an infectious folk-punk/Southern rock hybrid jam-packed with witty asides and howling passion. Bodies’ 2009 follow-up, It’s Great to Be Alive, asks the question, “What if we just did the same thing, but bigger? Like Jerry Bruckheimer bigger?” The result is questionable.

It’s Great to Be Alive follows How Far Our Bodies Go’s playbook by opening with a quick mission statement, with “1 2 3 4” replacing “How Far Our Bodies Go.” Instead of singing about scraping by and fucking up (my favorite punk rock topics besides, like, unity and stuff), Alive seems set on detailing raunchy raunchiness and bewitching women. Oh, and cramming as many instruments in as possible. Here’s a list: guitar, banjo, organ, piano, synth, dobro, mandolin, glockenspiel, vibraslap, bass, violin, drums, marching snare (cause a kit’s snare just won’t do!), trombone, flute, baritone saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, cello, mellotron, trumpet, and of course trumpets. The result: It’s Great to Be Alive feels fucking cramped.

Another hindrance is the core songwriting. Frontman Chris Farren has flirted with bar band cock rock before (Check the kitschy ode to Evel Knievel “How Do You Spell Hero (E-V-E-L)?”), but he goes too deep here. There’s so much clumsy sex/religion imagery (and glockenspiel) it’s like a younger Meatloaf. When Farren runs out of hackneyed things to say, he settles for that old rock ‘n’ roll staple, the non-word. Such Little Richard-esque non-words presented here include “doo doot doot doo doo” and “a-doot doot doot doot doo-doo.” It’s no "womp-bomp-a-loom-op-a-womp-bam-boom," but whatever.

Beneath its superfluous layers, It’s Great to Be Alive’s biggest fault is its homogeny. Sure, the band explores disco punk on songs like “Diamond Rings” and “You’re a Serpent, You’re a She-Snake” and gets their most thrillingly epic (and even romantic) on closer “Heart BPM.” And “The Dream Team” is an incredible Ramones-y cut. But for the most part, It’s Great to Be Alive sounds like overproduced versions of Fake Problems songs I like. And there’s little point in playing approximations when I can just put on the real thing. Which is funny, since Farren straight up says “I hate repeating myself release after release” on “Level With the Devil.” I guess hating it doesn’t stop him from doing it. Fake Problems is a fantastic live band, one of my current favorites, so maybe this new material will win me over once it sheds its strings. For the time being, though, I’ll have to settle for hoping this is a mere sophomore slump and that LP #3 will be better.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Morrissey - 'Years of Refusal'

Years of Refusal, the title of Morrissey’s latest release, could easily describe my feelings for the guy’s entire solo career. While I’m a Smiths fan through and through (“I Know It’s Over” is the saddest, bitterest song ever. This is not a debate), it’s always irked me that Moz basically shit-canned his Smiths songwriting partner Johnny Marr only to keep writing Johnny Marr-esque songs, all jangly and sarcastic and blissfully theatrical and what-not. So it’s fitting for me that the album should open with “Something is Squeezing My Skull,” a rollicking rocker about tripping balls. The first verse feels like Morrissey specifically telling me (and maybe you) to get bent: “I’m doing very well / I can block out the present and the past now / I know by now you think I should have straightened / myself out / thank you, drop dead.” It’s with these lines, and the remaining 42 minutes and 49 seconds of music after them, that Steven Patrick Morrissey proves, with or without The Smiths, he’s still a vital force of sardonic wit and rocking tuneage. Besides, if new songs like “You Were Good in Your Time” and “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” are any indication, dude will always be better at hating himself than I ever could be.

Years of Refusal finds ol’ Mozzy Bear reteaming with the recently deceased producer Jerry Finn, who provided the similarly slick power behind Morrissey’s 2004 comeback album, You are the Quarry (other credits include Green Day’s Dookie, Rancid’s …And Out Come the Wolves, and Jawbreaker’s Dear You!). As one of Finn’s final projects, it’s a great album to go out on. As for Morrissey, it feels like the real comeback album fans have been waiting for. Quarry had a handful of fast/pounding/biting numbers like “Irish Blood, English Heart.” Well, imagine if every song on Quarry was that catchy and kick-ass. Years of Refusal is that album, aside from the string-laden “You Were Good in Your Time.” It’s like a glam rock Smiths love-in, and it’s awesome.

The record opens with the previously mentioned “Something is Squeezing My Skull,” and it’s clear right away the Morrissey really is “doing very well” with his gang of youngsters, drummer Matt Walker, bassist Solomon Walker, and guitarists Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias. Boorer and Tobias share co-songwriting credits with Morrissey on several tracks, and thanks is due to them for keeping everything from getting too maudlin or syrupy. Morrissey is famously a New York Dolls fan; this album confirms that fandom. The guitars are constantly thrashing, and Matt Walker infects everything with a nervous energy. Solomon, meanwhile, has an endlessly deep, grungy bass to lay down for any situation, as is revealed time and again on Years of Refusal.

“Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed” briefly recalls The Smiths, if only for that Strangeways, Here We Come-style piano. That’s not a complaint, just an observation. It’s still just as riveting, as are “All You Need is Me,” “I’m OK By Myself,” and “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore.” That last one might just be the highlight of the record. It starts out subdued, with the drum beat slowly fading in, until Morrissey hits the chorus, at which point Matt lets loose a build-up barrage on his kit. Moz takes an unspoken party to task for trying to bask a little too long in the limelight (“There’s no need to be kind to you / And the will to see you smile and belong has now gone”). Besides, “all of the gifts that they gave can’t compare in any way / to the love I am now giving to you right here, right now.” It all careens towards a final exhalation of that old pop-punk standard, the “whoa.” Morrissey really belts it out over cut time drums and a meandering keyboard line by Roger Joseph Manning Jr. This is what scientists and lovers call “the good part.” And Years of Refusal has plenty of other ones: The punter “hey”s of “Something is Squeezing My Skull” the distorted freak-out of “I’m OK By Myself,” pretty much any time Solomon gets to hold down the rhythm. Maybe it’s best to let the Marr years be what they are; Morrissey’s doing A-OK with Years of Refusal.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - s/t

[Dedicated to Nate Adams. Sometimes I DO like new bands, ya handsome jerk.]

I’ll start by saying that The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s eponymous full-length debut sounds like a tribute album to The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Ramones by Belle & Sebastian, and finish by defending that statement.

Hailing from New York, The Pains have crafted a tasty 10-song collection that, while sorta kinda maybe derivative, is infectious and accessible. They’ve been tearing up those Interwebs lately, earning a slew of somewhat unearned My Bloody Valentine comparisons. While this four-piece doesn’t explore guitar textures nearly as much as Loveless, they do share a lousy name and a penchant for borderline Gothic romantic pop songs like MBV circa Ecstasy and Wine, which is a roundabout way of saying they’re not as noisy as The Jesus and Mary Chain circa Psychocandy, but they’re not as cleaned up as the Chain circa Darklands either. The lo-fi vocals are fuzzed out a bit, obscuring specific lyrics (which might be for the best; nothing on “This Love is Fucking Right!” lives up to such a great title) in favor of mood and melody. You can’t always tell what co-vocalists Kip Berman and Peggy Wang-East are singing, but you can feel where they’re going. I’m hesitant to use the phrase “noise pop” to describe The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, because at their heart, they feel a little too safe, a little too twee, a little too Belle & Sebastian to ever be dangerous or, ya know… noisy.

This band writes simple pop songs and then adds a lo-fi layer of atmosphere to the mix, making the tracks feel dark but quite danceable. That B & S comparison hangs over the album constantly, and might end up being the one deal-breaking quality for some. That’s because these songs are secure and warm like your grandmother’s embrace. Depending on your perspective, that makes the record either repetitive or cohesive; I’m leaning towards the latter. Truth is, sometimes I just don’t give a shit about Dillinger Escape Plan’s time signatures or Ponytail’s anti-pop approach (that’s not a dig at either band, mind you). But I’m always down for four-on-the-floor pounded out love songs.

As for the Ramones bit, well I know this stuff ain’t pop punk. But try to ignore that The Ramones “invented” punk. Forget the raw live shows. Go back to the studio recordings of “Don’t Come Close” or “She’s a Sensation” or “Daytime Dilemma (Dangers of Love);” you’ll hear a budding pop mastery akin to what’s going on in The Pain of Being Pure at Heart’s songs like “Hey Paul” or “Come Saturday.” Berman’s guitar even has some of the same chugging rhythms as Johnny Ramone’s style, albeit with different tonal results; which is doubly interesting (at least to me) since My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields lists Johnny as one of his primary influences. Everything is connected.

So that’s what I hear when I play The Pains of Being Pure at Heart; a bunch of bands I love, plus Belle & Sebastian. Somewhere in there, I even found some songs that stand out on their own. Opener “Contender” is a cute/fuzzy/warm ditty with a dash of tambourine and a splash of haunting vocals. “Come Saturday” is the surprise rocker that keeps the vocals twee but makes the music go bang. And “Stay Alive” is the epic and exciting pulse-pounder; Berman lets off some shimmering guitar pyrotechnics to make listeners swoon. As a 35-minute blend of dreamy pop music, though, there’s little point in singling out tracks. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart works as a whole, so play it over and over.

regarding gang vocals.

Last night I recorded some gang vocals with my friends in The Next Big Thing over at Dome Sound Studios. We did five takes of singing for one song (Anyone who's played non-Megadeth songs with me on Rock Band knows that sounds like a bad idea, but I didn't fudge the song up too bad, oddly enough) and five takes of guttural skull-crackin' screamin' on another. It was a lot of fun, and my head hurt from all the shoutin'. I don't know how my more hardcore acquaintances do this stuff year round.

Anyhoozle, three things I wanted to mention: 1) I sound badass for four seconds of this recording. 2) The guy recording/mixing the whole sheboinga is Rich Gavalis. He's worked with Bloodhound Gang, Chumbawumba, and Vanilla Ice when he switched to nu-metal. He's got over 50 gold records to his credit; I have no idea why he's working with my crumb-bum friends. 3) The new Next Big Thing album, whenever it comes out, will be awesome. You will laugh at the skits. You will pump your multiple fists to the rockin' bits. And you will cry, when you realize that it's over and you have to play the album again. I know these are my friends and I'm therefore biased, but whatever. The rough mixes sound incredible; it could be pressed as is and still be some of the best pop punk this side of Face to Face.

The Lonely Island - 'Incredibad'

Q: If you make an album that parodies obnoxious top 40 crunk rap but keep the sound exactly the same, what percentage of that album will still suck?

A: If The Lonely Island’s debut Incredibad is any indication, it’s about half and half. Saturday Night Live star Andy Samberg and writers Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone have been satirizing popular culture for years with Internet videos like “The ’Bu” and “Awesometown,” but on Incredibad, the guys hit a wall: How do you make bad rap more ridiculous? “Who Said We’re Wack?” takes on diss tracks while “I’m on a Boat” mocks tunes about extravagance. The jokes never go beyond those titles, though, and thus never go too deep. E-40 helps the trio out on “Santana DVX,” a song about drankin’, and it helps that the song actually has a narrative with multiple jokes to throw at the listener.

While the opening tracks feel underwritten, the album picks up as it progresses into SNL material. Granted, they also give the album a slight “you’ve heard the best, here’s the rest” feel, but at least it’s something. “Lazy Sunday” (with Chris Parnell) and “Natalie’s Rap” (with Natalie Portman and Parnell) both went over well on TV, and they still stand out on Incredibad. Same goes for “Ras Trent” and “Dick in a Box,” which show a comedic depth lacking on “I’m on a Boat.” “Ras Trent” runs a gamut of Jamaican references from the obvious (“a DVD of Cool Runnings!”) to the obscure (Chaka Demus’ “Murder She Wrote” and Gregory Isaacs’ “Night Nurse” both get shout outs).

The record closes out with some lesser tunes (“Natalie’s Rap”'s hilarious violent diatribe aside). “Punch You in the Jeans” and “Space Olympics” are more title-driven sketches that fail to conjure up the mirth, while “Incredibad” is the Lonely Island origin story no one ever wanted to hear (spoiler alert: They triple-teamed a robot/alien… thingy). But while the CD is a great 20-minute comedy album burdened with another crappy 20-minute comedy album, the accompanying DVD is much more consistent. Some of the better SNL Digital Shorts show up, like “Jizz in My Pants” and “Lazy Sunday.” A couple of the Island’s online videos are available as well. “Just 2 Guyz” and “We Like Sportz” work an awkward dork rap angle, while “Bing Bong Brothers” takes Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song)” to its most absurdist extreme (sample lyric: “I like your boobies in your shirt / Please let me show you my penis”). In a sense, Incredibad lives up to its title; it’s tasteless and, well, bad in a lot of places, but it’ll occasionally get a chuckle. And hey, releasing “Lazy Sunday,” which aired on SNL in 2005, on a 2009 album isn't too late, right?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ben Folds - 'Stems and Seeds'

Despite earning Ben Folds his best chart position (solo and with Ben Folds Fives. I know!), last year's Way to Normal marked a major slip in songwriting for the piano-meister. The songs were homogeneous, the production was sterile, and the lyrics were bland yet bitter. In short, Way to Normal was an artistic stumble. And yet, while poor reviews from A.V. Club, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, AbsolutePunk, and others were plentiful (Entertainment Weekly liked it?), Folds (or at least his label) saw fit to release Stems and Seeds, a collection of alternate mixes, demos, and bonus tracks from the last year or two.

On one level, Stems and Seeds feels like an admission from Folds that Way to Normal was overproduced. On every other level, though, it's hard to give a shit. The record offers vocal mixes for fans to remix (another acknowledgment that it have been done better?). There are also a few live cuts, which is great for listeners who wish they could hear their favorite songs with worse audio quality and more clapping.

What began as a pleasant surprise (Ben Folds odds/ends collection? Yes please!) quickly turns out to be a double disc crap-fest with Stems and Seeds. It's so lame, it doesn't even deserve a full-length review.

O Pioneers!!! - 'Neon Creeps'

Some punk bands’ albums don’t have release dates so much as release periods. First the record leaks online, then the band starts selling advance copies at shows. Then a few indie stores and Web merchants start carrying it. Finally, somewhere, somehow, some way, an official release date (heh, neon) creeps in for all the mom-n-pop corporate giants to hop on.

Such is the case for Neon Creeps, the latest and greatest from Texan trio O Pioneers!!!. The record’s release has been delayed a few times, so much so that by the time the official release date passes by, I’ll have been sitting this legally purchased folk-punk gem for close to two months, thanks to the magic of online commercialism.

So, will Punknews be stoked? Yes sir and/or madam, Punknews will be totally stoked on Neon Creeps. Guitarist/vocalist Eric Solomon’s voice keeps getting better. Here, he comes off like Chuck Ragan, meaning his pipes are strong and gruff, with a dash of the sexies. Dude twists and shouts like a chain-smoking coal miner. I hope he grows a sweet beard. The other members, Aaron Ervin (drums) and Zak Klaine (bass), give their best performances with O Pioneers!!! yet, which doesn’t actually mean anything since they’re both new. But they’re still good, sleek and assured. Old drummer Chris Ryan is out, which will please fans of steady time-keeping. This new version of the band also boasts 100 percent more bass.

Thankfully, this solid band of merry gentlemen has some great tunes to serve up. “Chris Ryan Added Me on Facebook” harshes on the ex-member’s mellow, but if you ignore the title, you have a relatable, deliciously biting kiss-off to a former friend. It’s bitter like a Morrissey song (or at least a Jesse Lacey one). Which is fitting, since another standout is “My Life as a Morrissey Song,” a 57-second blast of self-doubt in which Solomon tries to analyze the emptiness within his soul before opting to just get the eff over himself. It makes a logical jumping point to the next track, “Stressing the Fuck Out.” With frantic repetition of the phrase “Everything will be alright,” “Stressing the Fuck Out” is in the running for Positive Jam 2009.

Of course, sometimes the songs could stand to have a little more lyrical variety. Opening number “Saved By the Bell was a Super Good Show” tries to get a little too much mileage out of the word “drama” (42x), running on fumes by the time its three minutes are up. I’d love to see him work “disagreement,” “quarrel,” and “existential dread” into the song. Actually, “quarrels” would work syllabically. So would “squabbles.” And “baubles,” but that’s not really relevant.

The repetition trick does work to some songs’ advantage, though. Solomon taunts Ryan on “Facebook” by ending almost every sarcastic line with “just like in high school,” liberally spritzing the song with disdain and condescension. The same goes for the closing track “Cool Kid City,” in which Solomon cleanses himself of scene politics, hipster douchebaggery, and that all-encompassing drama from the first track. Neon Creeps, in that sense, is like a loose concept album about growing up but still loving the music. Learning to let go, earning independence, and such. If you dig Hot Water Music’s vocals, Against Me!’s early tunes, and Dillinger Four’s song titles, then just might be able to mildly tolerate Neon Creeps.

The Von Bondies - 'Love, Hate and Then There's You'

I’d like to think that one day The Von Bondies will get their due as underrated pop rock band. For three albums now, the VBs have been one of the better bluesy garage bands to come out of Detroit. They’re not as punky as The White Stripes or as raw as, ya know, The Stooges, but their songs are solid. Time and again, though, misfortune has struck the band. Just as the group started to make room in the mainstream with infectious single “C’mon C’mon,” bassist Carrie Ann Smith quit. Founding member Marcie Bolen followed two years later. Then Sire Records dropped the band from its roster, resulting in a five year silence between 2004’s Pawn Shoppe Heart and 2009’s Love, Hate and Then There’s You. And then there’s that one stupid incident where frontman Jason Stollsteimer badmouthed White Striper Jack White and his abilities as a producer – and then promptly got the shit punched out of him by ol’ Jackie Boy. It’s bad enough that the Bondies haven’t gotten their due; that they’ll probably live on as an embarrassing footnote in The White Stripes’ history is worse.

It’s with all of the above baggage that Love, Hate and Then There’s You comes off as a pleasant surprise – a pop rock record that’s slicker yet more ambient than what the band’s done before, and somehow better for it. Pawn Shoppe Heart is a solid blues rock piece, but at times it comes off a little too much like BluesHammer from Ghost World – the riffs could be too cock rock-y; the lyrics too “this is the blues, man!” cliché. And since going back to the (quite good) raw power of the White-produced Lack of Communication would in some small way be admitting defeat, Stollsteimer, drummer Don Blum and new members Leann Banks and Christy Hunt fully embrace glossy radio rock. A lot of Pawn Shoppe’s nervous energy is gone, but Blum insures that tracks like “This is Our Perfect Crime” get a little bit of percussive energy underneath all those layers of vocals.

Carrie Ann Smith’s “Not That Social” aside, The Von Bondies have always been Stollsteimer’s pulpit. And while he takes sole songwriting credit in the album’s liner notes, Hunt and Banks make their presence felt throughout. The duo chimes in on cuts like “Shut Your Mouth” and “Chancer,” showing a range that escapes Stollsteimer. Where Jason pretty much only has the haunted croon thing going, these ladies can go from rock to bubblegum pop in a second’s notice.

In the end, Love, Hate and Then There’s You isn’t too mind-blowing. It’s still just another pop rock record, and what Stollsteimer and co. say isn’t as important as how they say it. It’s short at about 35 minutes length, but consecutive spins might leave some listeners bored. But for a group that seemed dead and adrift three years ago, this record is surely a triumph. At times flirting with goth (“Pale Bride”), glam (“Shut Your Mouth”) and pure, unadulterated power pop (“21st Birthday”), Love, Hate and Then There’s You is a good, not great, return for The Von Bondies.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ben Kweller - 'Changing Horses'

Plenty of people made a stink about Bob Dylan going electric, but how many will flip assorted lids over Ben Kweller (ex-Radish, “your favorite sugar-metal band”) going acoustic on new album Changing Horses? Probably not many, and while it might seem unfair to draw a line between Kweller and a legend like Dylan, it’s hard not to think of the two here. See, with Changing Horses, Kweller has essentially made his own Nashville Skyline, a brief, easy going country record. It’s charming in its simplicity, honest in its intent. And while Kweller completely drops the vestiges of his old alt-rock style here, the change isn’t nearly as abrupt as one might think.

Older Kweller cuts like “Family Tree” and “Living Life” were always flecked with country/bluegrass hints, so Changing Horses is more an exploration of his influences than anything else. And where some former rockers have flailed a bit in the genre (Oh hey Jenny Lewis! No I didn’t buy Acid Tongue, why?), Kweller sounds, ironically, more assured with his laidback delivery. It helps that, lyrically, the songs are still more or less in keeping with BK’s style post-Sha Sha. He gets a little less silly with each release, that’s for sure, but ultimately these are still songs about wanderin’ ladies (“On Her Own”) and dudes hangin’ out (“Homeward Bound”).

By this point, I don’t think Kweller is ever going to record another album of grungey Weezer-esque loser jams, but I’m finally OK with that. Dude still has a thing for hooks (again I cite “On Her Own”). Just because Changing Horses is loose doesn’t mean it’s lazy – the guy still writes pop songs. “Fight” is a rousing call to action; Kweller is sure to get toes a-tapping when he hits the lines “Playin’ every card that’s been dealt to me / Ya know, some days are aces and some days are faces / Well, some days are twos and threes” during the third verse. Same goes for opening track “Gypsy Rose,” which constantly fluctuates between loud/fast and slow/quiet (It’s almost like bluegrass Nirvana!).

Of course, for all its lack of fuss, there are plenty of aspects to Changing Horses that might turn folks off. First off, it’s a country record. So those who “like everything but country” are going to be stereotypically disappointed. Plus, Horses isn’t much of a rocker, although a few of these songs do kill live. Older fans might not be turned off by the new sound, but they may be dismayed that, all these years later, Kweller is still rerecording his early songs – “Wantin’ Her Again” is back. Finally, sometimes Kweller gets a lil too cutesy. Lines like “I like likin’ you” from “Things I Like to Do” or “I never wanna be the old hat you put on your pretty head” from “Old Hat” might taste too saccharine for some.

Still, though, it’s great to have the guy back. All these years after “Wasted & Ready” (and, uh, “Little Pink Stars”), Kweller is still turning out pop tuneskis that are catchy, fun, and heartfelt. While reality occasionally creeps into his lyrics (“On Her Own” uses Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath as a backdrop), and that twang has gotten a wee bit stronger, Kweller still knows how to write a good pop song.

regarding Tom Gabel covering Bruce Springsteen

It's the frontman from Against Me! covering one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, "Reason to Believe," from one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen albums, Nebraska. While it doesn't top the original, you best believe I'm stoked on this rendition (and that salmon-colored golf shirt).

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Christian Bale remixxx

By now you've prolly heard about Christian "Batman" Bale's latest anger issues. And that's not music-related, so I won't bother explaining/linking it if you're unfamiliar. BUT WHAT IS MUSIC-RELATED (AND KIND OF AWESOME) is this remix of Bale flipping his shit by DJ RevoLucian. He's also producing RuPaul's new album, Champion. Huzzah! I'm a celebrity blogger now! I'm gunnin' for ya, TMZ! In other news, Jessica Simpson is of a controversial weight! And Britney Spears has mind problems! AND AND AND howsabout that Michael Jackson, huh? You know what I'm talking about. With the kids.

...he diddles kids, you see! S'what I heard.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Jack Terricloth (W/IFS) is coming!

[In a meager attempt to start writing for City Paper again, I whipped out this show preview for Music Editor Pat "PaRappa the" Rapa. The show's already sold out, so, uh... anybody got a ticket?]

When not asking crowds to “Circle that ‘A’, motherfucker” with his main squeeze The World/Inferno Friendship Society, frontman and former Sticks and Stones guitarist Jack Terricloth likes to get intimate with a few friends. In this case, 50 of them, as that’s how many tickets R5 Productions are selling for this seated show. Expect punk songs, cabaret humor and maybe even some spoken word in the vein of Terricloth’s novellas from The Collected Cloth.

Fri., Feb. 13, 8 p.m., $8-$10, The First Unitarian Church’s Chapel, 2125 Chestnut St., 1-866-468-7619,

The Loved Ones - 'Distractions'

Three cheers for compromise. The Loved Ones have dropped two full-lengths in the last three years – the punk rock fan favorite Keep Your Heart and the polarizing, classic rock-tinged follow-up Build & Burn. This year, the group found a happy medium in Distractions, an EP that combines Heart’s fervor with Burn’s sense of grandeur. Boasting three originals and three covers, the EP should win back a few of the older fans. It’s not perfect – that Springsteen cover is shit – but it’s a good holdover until LP #3.

“Distracted” kicks off the EP. Frontman Dave Hause tells a tale of spousal abuse and one woman’s fight to break free. The band, accompanied by Franz Nicolay on keys, pounds the song out thrillingly. “Distracted” would’ve been a welcome rocker on Build & Burn; when the guitar solo and snare drum build-up kick in, everything is perfect. Nicolay plays a dramatic piano intro to lead into track two, “Last Call,” and while it’s a little less memorable than “Distracted,” it’s still a solid cut. “Spy Diddley” should be familiar to anyone that downloaded Fat Wreck’s online Christmas compilation a few years back. Recorded way back when Michael “Spider” Cotterman was still in the band, it’s in tune with Keep Your Heart’s stompers. So for all the whiners, here’s your throwback.

The covers are a mixed bag. Things start off poorly with Hause covering Bruce Springsteen’s “Johnny 99” solo, just like the original. Unfortunately, nothing beats the acoustic guitar and old four-track that formed the haunting Nebraska tune. Hause’s use of an electric guitar and a full recording studio lose the atmosphere, and the slightly slurred vocals and wobbly tempo (According to the liner notes, Hause went in with a bottle of whiskey) don’t help either. Depending on your perspective, it’s either sacrilege or complete genius for The Loved Ones to play Billy Bragg’s “Summer Town Revisited” like it’s a Screeching Weasel song. Discount already proved that Bragg works in a pop punk setting, so I’m leaning toward the latter.

The EP closes out with an acoustic take on “Coma Girl” by Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros. The Loved Ones reduce the energy and tempo a little bit, so it might be jarring at first for fans of the original. After a few spins, though, listeners should begin to realize why Hause thinks that “playing one of [Strummer’s] greatest songs as a campfire hymn befits his legacy.” Like Chris Salewicz wrote in Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, ol’ Joe thought his Glastonbury campfires would be what he was truly remembered for. While The Loved Ones strip the Jamaican rhythms from “Coma Girl,” guitarists Dave Walsh and Chris Gonzalez adds plenty of texture to compensate. This kumbaya flavor is both homage and original take.

Distractions isn’t perfect – “Johnny 99” is redundant and “Last Call” gets corny at times – but it’s the honest-to-gosh rock and/or roll that The Loved Ones have always dependably turned out. The disc bridges the gap between the band’s two albums, shows some of their roots, and even manages to have its own identity. The title might imply that it’s a stalling slight of hand, but Distractions is a solid addition to The Loved One’s discography.

Regarding Bruce Springsteen at the Superbowl

SECOND UPDATE: The show prolly wasn't live. So, for those keeping score at home, Bruce Springsteen's Working on a Dream sucks, doing an exclusive "best of" for Wal-Mart is an aesthetic betrayal of his blue collar roots, and he pulled an Ashlee Simpson with a backing track. Everything is crazy here in Crazy Land!

UPDATE: Click here for a full-screen shot.

I'm a casual sports fan at best, but I kinda dug last night's Superbowl. It helped that Pennsylvania's own Pittsburgh Steelers were there - anyone else man-crushing on James Harrison for his 100-yard return for a touchdown? - but of course the main attraction was really Bruce Springsteen's triumphant halftime show.

Working on a Dream might be a dud, but The E Street Band's live set isn't. Sexist commercials aside, this was probably my favorite Superbowl in a while. Great halftime show, a home team that actually got the job done, and a pretty close game overall. And for those looking for a repeat of Bruce's crotch slide into the camera, here's an animated GIF:


Franz Ferdinand - 'Tonight: Franz Ferdinand'

Scottish post-punkers and former “It” band Franz Ferdinand returned this year after a four year absence with LP #3, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, and for the first three minutes and 11 seconds, listeners might suspect they’ve lost their G.D. minds. Where 2006’s You Could Have It So Much Better was brawny and brazen, mightily dishing out sarcastic quips and bashing out chords ‘n drum skins, Tonight tempers down the punk to focus on the post-. Synth and bass lines are pushed up in the mix and the dance beats are more obvious. And for track one, “Ulysses,” that’s just plain jarring. The Franz have always had an affection for repeating phrases a heck of a lot (What’re the words to “Take Me Out” again?) but frontman Alex Kapranos does the song little favors by hissing “C’mon let’s get high!” It’s all a bit processed and goofy.

But then the track ends. “Turn It On” kicks in with a snare fill. The song’s a standard “Hey girl” cut, but stylistically it’s the same as “Ulysses” – atmospheric yet pulsating, spacey yet rocking. It’s a fine line. “No You Girls” follows in those steps with an even bigger, catchier chorus. By this point, it becomes clear that, hey, Tonight is just as good as You Could Have It So Much Better, just different. It’s arguably the closest the band has come to making a straight dance record, filtered through post-acid Beatles and pre-Afro-Beat Talking Heads. It becomes clear, then, that “Ulysses” might have gotten a raw deal on first listen. Sure, it’s not the strongest track on the record, but it still has to bear the brunt of frustrated expectations with that opening slot.

Tonight’s first half plays with Franz’s dance rock sound by emphasizing synthy pop. The album’s second half then pushes that experiment to its farthest reaches. “Bite Hard” goes for a quiet piano line introduction that’s more John Lennon circa Imagine than Gang of Four, and then uses a searing guitar solo for its conclusion. “Lucid Dreams” is the real test, though; cycling through every move Tonight has tried. At nearly eight minutes in length, it’s twice as long as anything else on the album. There’s some of the minimalism from “Bite Hard,” some of the oversexed synth stomp from “Ulysses,” and a bit of the pep from “Turn It On.” Oh, and a four minute psychedelic/electronica mash-up halfway through. Album ender “Katherine Kiss Me” is the final shocker, an honest-to-God acoustic ditty.

If you like Ziggy Stardust Bowie, Thin White Duke Bowie, Talking Heads: 77, M83, Scottish accents, Revolver, and, uh, the other two Franz Ferdinand albums, you should be able to get behind Tonight. It circumvents fans expectations, gives detractors something new to consider, and is generally pleasant to listen to as well.