Tuesday, March 31, 2009

regarding All Points West Music & Arts Festival


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Strung Out - 'Painkillers and Prototypes'

While they’ve been busy working on their upcoming eighth studio album and breaking their bones by rocking too hard, the fellas in melodic hardcore outfit Strung Out also found the time to crank out a second rarities compilation, this month’s Prototypes and Painkillers. At 25 tracks, it’s packed with demos, alternate takes, comp tracks, covers, and even a few rarities. The collection proves to be eclectic, going from metal to pop punk with little notice. And while the sequencing is sometimes jarring – that cover of Descendents’ “I’m Not a Loser” never sounds right sandwiched between the ever so slightly harder-edged “Novacain” and “Novella” – it ultimately just proves just how far Strung Out’s grasp extends. If you like pop punk, metal, hardcore, and a fusion of any of the three, you’ll find something to love here.

Prototypes and Painkillers ignores chronology in favor of some semblance of a rise and fall motion, which applies as much to the audio quality as it does to the playing style. For the most part, though, the songs are unified by thundering drums and crunchy riffs. There are a slew of comp tracks to choose from – Beyond Cyberpunk’s “Betrayal,” Short Music for Short People’s “Klawsterfobia,” and “Lost Motel” from a Fat Club seven-inch. Of particular note is a cover of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark at the Moon.” It starts out pretty straight, but quickly morphs into a punk rock stomper before adding a late game soft jazz break. It’s an abrupt shift that makes the song all the better.

The collection cheats a little by padding itself with demos and early versions of previously released material, though. It seems unlikely that a devoted Strung Out fan would need a rough cut of “Mad Mad World” or “Just Like Me.” But, these demos are mostly near the end. They don’t interrupt the listening experience whatsoever; think of ‘em as a bonus greatest hits sneak peak. Newcomers get a peak at other Strung Out albums and Protypes and Painkillers gets to stay relevant after they buy Twisted By Design.

For the devotees, there are some previously unreleased tunes as well. Aside from that Descendents cover, “Pleather,” “Sinner or Coward?,” “Night of the Necro,” and “Forever is Today,” while bootlegged, have never had an official release until now. Throw in the bevy of non-album tracks like “Your Worst Mistake” and that no-seriously-this-rules version of “Bark at the Moon,” and Prototypes and Painkillers is another successful release from Strung Out. It gets a bit long at 67 minutes, but that’s part of the album’s beauty – it represents so many different styles that it nearly demands you tear it apart and digest it track by track anyway. The new album will come when it does; Prototypes and Painkillers already marks 2009 as a strong year for Strung Out.

Ace Enders & A Million Different People - 'When I Hit the Ground'

Who knew the guy that recorded a cover of “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & The News would go on to make an overproduced pop rock record? About two years after the emo boy geniuses in The Early November played their oddly chipper farewell show, the band’s former frontman Ace Enders (and A Million Different People) has dropped When I Hit the Ground, his first solo full-length (I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody’s Business notwithstanding). Like TEN’s triple-disc The Mother, The Mechanic, and The Path, the record is an uneven collection. Unlike Mother, however, When I Hit the Ground is only 14 songs long, so every clunker hurts a bit more.

Not that the record disappoints early on. Indeed, the double shot of “Reintroduction” and “Take the Money and Run” bears The Early November’s nervous energy with a dash of scene criticism. Lines like “You made a fortune off of me / Singing everyone around me looks the same” don’t cut too deep, bordering on mere bellyaching, but the hooks are too good to ignore. Track three, “New Guitar,” is a brief acoustic interlude almost on par with “1000 Times a Day” or “Never Coming Back.” Almost. The record starts to give off suspicious vibes with the next song, “The Only Thing I Have (The Sign).” Its 16-note dance rock feel still works, but the vocals are a little too layered, creating a distracting army of synthetic Aces.

After “The Only Thing I Have,” When I Hit the Ground never really recovers. “Where Do We Go From Here,” easily the album’s best track, gets buried beneath middling pop like “Sweeter Light” and “Bring Back Love,” or worse, power ballads like “When I Hit the Ground.” Here’s a quick shorthand for When I Hit the Ground: If the song has piano, it sucks. Enders has always been willing to explore rock’s every nook and/or cranny, but the string-n-piano half-time of “When I Hit the Ground” is overwrought and underwritten. While it’s the only legitimately annoying song on the record, most of the remainder is forgettable, which is hardly an improvement.

Getting back to “Where Do We Go From Here,” though, we see a bonafide late period rock gem from Enders. It’s epic and rocking. Enders gets to play around with various rhythms and really opens up his throat on the chorus. It’s a roller coaster of a song – here’s the big crunchy opening riff, aw but here’s the soaring chorus, oh OK here’s the chillout bridge and what the hey now we’ve got a guitar and a drum solo. Yes. Sweet Christ yes.

But the joys of “Where Do We Go From Here” are rarely recreated on the rest of When I Hit the Ground. At its best, the record is comparable to Dashboard Confessional’s Dusk and Summer, an overly slick batch of hack radio rock concealing a few true, resonant gems. At its worst, well… it’s kind of like The Fray. It’s worth mentioning that the strongest tracks tend towards The Early November’s brand of emo, so take that as you will.

I mean, reunite already, geez.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

regarding The Rentals in 2009

So while I've been sitting around like a schmuck trying to think of something nice to say about the new Ace Enders album and secretly waiting for the follow-up to 2007's The Last Little Life EP, Moog enthusiats The Rentals have been busy planning an ambitious multimedia artistic statement for 2009. Check out www.therentals.com for some info about Songs About Time, a title which reflects both the subject matter and the fact that, yeah, it is about time the world got some new Matt Sharp jams. The project consists of three main parts:

1. Photographs About Days - 365 photographs plus one roll of undeveloped film shot each day by Matt Sharp.
2. Films About Weeks - 52 short films with music and scores exclusive to the films.
3. Songs About Time - three mini-albums to be released in April, July, and October as digital downloads.

You can score these beauts in three formats:
1. Digital download
-DRM-free mp3s
-music videos
-digital artwork and computer-y thingies like wallpaper, banners, and icons

2. Limited edition box set
-multiple 180 gram vinyl box set
-original artwork
-DVD video collection of Films About Weeks
-CDs o' music
-The whole is individually numbered and autographed by The Rentals

3. Limited deluxe edition (a.k.a. - The one I fucking want. 365 copies will be produced. Please don't let this be a Ghosts I-IV all over again. My heart can't take it.)
-All the stuff from the box set
-One undeveloped roll of 35MM film taken by Matt Sharp for the project.
-Two V.I.P. backstage passes to an upcoming Rentals show of your choice.
-More info to come April 7.

If you join the band's mailing list (click "Music Store" on the site), they'll send you a free song from the project, "Fall Into Eve," plus some photos. The song is a brief instrumental, but it sounds gorgeous. So uh... go download it. Now.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Morrissey at the Academy of Music

Morrissey and his boys recently followed up Years of Refusal, the best album of 2009 (so far), with the best show of the year (so far) with the “Tour of Refusal” at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music Sun., March 22, which also featured a competent opening set from post-punk purveyors The Courteeners. In front of a banner of a topless young man chomping on a cigar (phallic-tastic!), Morrissey swore early on that “You know, academy is Greek for school, learning, and I promise you… you won’t learn anything.” He was right to the extent that I didn’t learn anything with heavy social relevance, like how to file my taxes or the significance of Eli Whitney’s inventions, but I did walk away with a few lessons:

1. Morrissey has one of the best touring bands right now. Guitarists Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias, bassist Solomon Walker, multi-instrumentalist Michael Farrell, and most of all drummer Matt Walker – he had a gong and he used it, clam flammit – know how to put on a show just as much as their theatrical frontman.

2. Just because Morrissey built his fan base on the strength of songs like “I Know It’s Over,” “Asleep,” and “I Won’t Share You” doesn’t mean he can’t rock. The guy’s punk and glam roots were evident with every rocking note. He really honored the New York Dolls, whose “Looking For a Kiss” played before the show.

3. More orchestral/ballet-minded venues like Academy of Music will always be better than rock venues because they’re actually built for live music.

4. Apparently, just because it’s a rock show doesn’t mean you don’t have to dress up. Old folks and young bucks alike were decked out in their Sunday’s finest. I almost felt like a schmuck for wearing jeans and an X-Men track jacket. Almost.

5. I have to see Morrissey live every chance I get until one of us dies.

The Wizard of Moz stunned the crowd pretty much from start to finish, inspiring scattershot attempts from fans to jump the stage and hug their beloved icon o’ misery. Most of them were shoved off the stage by an increasingly ornery Academy staff. It got a little bit funnier each time, and ol’ Grand Moz Tarkin kind of encouraged it by throwing his shirt into the audience and/or touching er’rybody who reached out to him. Morrissey was always energetic, quick witted with hecklers, and speedy with mic tricks and shirt changes (four in total, all different colors).

Of course, it helps that the set was strong, with a decent mix of Smiths and solo material. Overall, the band didn’t rely too much on ’80s tunes, with only four Smiths songs showing up – Matt Walker rocked the balls off of set-opener “This Charming Man” while his sibling and Boorer brought plenty of dissonance to “How Soon is Now?” and “Death of a Disco Dancer.” “Ask” finished off the Smiths references; each performance inspired dancing among the venue’s many balconies. Solo cuts included “Billy Budd” from Vauhall and I and “Seassick, Yet Still Docked” from Your Arsenal. 2004’s You Are the Quarry and Years of Refusal got the most representation, with five and six songs each.

The new material sounds great live, so much so that I was a little bummed I didn’t get to hear more of it. Still, though, hearing songs like “Something is Squeezing My Skull” and “One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell” was a joy. Same goes for “Irish Blood, English Heart” and the sole song from the encore, “First of the Gang to Die.” Morrissey barely made it through the opening lines before audience members haphazardly tried to tackle him with ravenous fan boy/girl lust. Think Duck Hunt on easy. By the time Morrissey was able to focus back on singing, the tune was nearly over. But man was it great watching him duck and weave.

While the Academy had excellent acoustics, the show wasn’t quite perfect, as Mozzy Bear occasionally fudged his own lyrics. Additionally, the pitch on the keyboards for “Death of a Disco Dancer” was off, which was distracting but by no means a deal-breaker for the performance. Morrissey was such a charismatic performer that it didn’t matter what he played; everything sounded rich and stirring, and I know plenty of people at the venue agreed.

Morrissey puns sadly unused for this article: Moz Scaggs, Moz-ter Squad, Moz-zy Star, and High School Moz-ical. Feel free to post your own awful puns!

Friday, March 20, 2009

regarding the return of 'Behind the Music'

VH1 is finally breaking away from its shitty "Celeb-reality" programming ever so slightly by reviving its Behind the Music series. The show certainly got formulaic in its heyday - there were way too many stories about drug addicts. But it's still great to have some music discussions on a friggin' music network. Expect new episodes about Lil Wayne and Scott Weiland (really?) this summer. Wikipedia claims we can also expect eps on Tori Amos, Counting Crows, and Beck. When the show ended its run in 2006, I could've sworn it had covered every band ever, but a quick glance at the episode list shows a lot of gaps. I know VH1 has done a ton of specials that mention Queen in some way, but how did they not score a BtM ep? Here are some other bands I'd like to see covered on the show's second run off the top o' my head; feel free to post your own secret desires.

-David Bowie [2-part special?]
-Mott the Hoople
-The Cure
-The Smiths
-Tito Jackson and Tito Jackson only
-Joe Jackson
-Nine Inch Nails
-The Clash
-The Specials
-Black Flag
-The Minutemen
-Husker Du
-The Replacements
-New Found Glory
-Fugees and/or Lauryn Hill
-White Stripes
-The Percentages?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Bouncing Souls - '20th Anniversary Series: Volume One"

New Jersey punk rock lifers The Bouncing Souls have always been nostalgic, among other things. The band’s catalog is filled with love songs to their friends (“Lamar Vannoy,” “Kate is Great”), their friendship (“Manthem”), even their favorite inanimate objects (“Streetlight Serenade (To No One)”). The group celebrated its 15th anniversary with the very excellent award-winning documentary Do You Remember?: 15 Years of The Bouncing Souls. The doc was a well-made testament to The Bouncing Souls, who have enjoyed a longer creative streak of great albums that exceeds those by The Clash, The Ramones, Rancid, Jawbreaker, and many more. To commemorate the band’s 20th anniversary this year, The Bouncing simultaneously embraced new and old audio technology: On the first of every month in 2009, the band will release a new mp3 for sale. Every third month, the band’s personal label, Chunksaah, will release a seven-inch collecting the three songs released online thus far, plus a bonus track. It’s both new-fangled yet very retro.

Well, it’s March, and the Souls have released the aptly titled 20th Anniversary Series: Volume One. This 33 1/3 beauty comes on colored wax (mine is black and maroon), and the cover forms part of a Souls anniversary logo created by bassist Bryan Kienlen and Arturo Vega. Now, I haven’t been keeping up with the band’s online releases (I also wait for my favorite TV shows to come out on DVD. Watching three seasons of How I Met Your Mother within like a week is awesome), so Volume One was a surprise for me. The first side, featuring January’s “Gasoline” and February’s “We All Sing Along,” is standard pogo-ready punk from one of the best Jersey bands of all dang time. “Gasoline” is a bitter missive against all of the paranoid, hateful news bites floating on television, radio, and the Internet. Drummer Michael McDermott gives the song a driving pulse, fighting off the darkness in vocalist Greg Attonito’s vocals. “We All Sing Along” is almost more positive by default. It’s another rocker, this time describing how music keeps a cast of characters from completely buckling under the tyranny of the sort of unforgiving world mentioned in “Gasoline.” These first two songs complement each other well; both in terms of sound (bithin’!) and perspective (shit’s fucked but we got a song!). While it doesn’t quite match the fury and hooks of, say, How I Spent My Summer Vacation or Maniacal Laughter, the A side is still a solid double shot of Bouncing Souls goodness.

The B-side, featuring March’s “Airport Security” and the bonus track “A Life Less Ordinary,” tweaks the Souls’ formula a bit. “Airport Security” is a pretty light, mid-tempo track. It has more in common with mid-’90s alt-rock than, say, Lifetime or Face to Face. It’s a decent track, but not terribly memorable. Also, the lyrics have a slightly rambling, directionless bent. “A Life Less Ordinary” is a little more interesting, with a haunting, acoustic tone previously hinted at on the seminal Anchors Aweigh record (and, apparently, the band’s recent live shows). Attonito has always been an iconic punk singer to me, articulate and powerful but with a much more relaxed delivery than most punk/hardcore vocalists. “A Life Less Ordinary” feels like a much more natural fit for him. It’s a good chill-out song after the record’s rock-centric cuts, and the guitar solo at the end is sweet.

Volume One is an all too brief listening experience – I want a new Souls full-length and I want it right now. And, compared to the band’s wealthy discography, it doesn’t top what they have done before. But it’s still The Bouncing Souls singing punk rock songs about struggling against a fucked up American current, and that gives me great comfort. I’m always gonna love these mooks. Happy birthday. Now please fast forward to June so I can get Volume Two.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

NOFX - 'Backstage Passport'

Last year, Fuse aired a mini-series on NOFX entitled Backstage Passport, which scored an official DVD release this week. The show covered the band’s attempts to tour countries they’ve never visited before (Check out the deleted scenes on the second disc – the band has sold less than 80 CDs in each of the countries featured), and the result is pretty mixed. There’s tons of footage of NOFX playing to crowds – dig that acoustic version of “Franco Un-American” in front of a hotel in Peru – and plenty of breathtaking shots from around the globe. But as a whole, the show gets repetitive really fast.

Each episode is set in a different country, but the plot remains the same – the band rolls in, deals with a shady promoter, and complains about sound problems/bad crowds/missing home, and then all of the money generated from the show disappears. Sometimes it gets better than that; the Peru show ends in riots, with NOFX’s crew encircled by police and forced to escape by hiding in a truck. The last episode of the series, set in South Africa, is also pretty good. The band’s crew meets some school children who are completely blown away by their tattoos, and the band clearly loves exploring African culture, from the wild life preserves (and voodoo magic, if you’re watching the deleted scenes) to the various nooks and crannies of places like Johannesburg and Cape Town. But for the most part, NOFX uses the show’s “road diary” concept to complain: They miss their kids, they hate the bad shows for sucking, they hate the good shows for being predictable, and they sure hate guitar problems.

Given how arduous the tour was (NOFX receives a few death threats and police scares throughout), it’s understandable that the band and crew would be on edge and therefore a bit testy. But the show really doesn’t offer much else. Backstage Passport rarely analyzes the cultures visited outside of A) how the show went and B) how many cops were present. Sure, the Israel episode takes viewers to the Wailing Wall, and there’s a brief but interesting exchange with an Islamic audience in which the band’s snarky humor goes too far. But as a whole, the show is pretty much about how much it sucks to be on the road. Even when the band gets philosophical, like in the South Africa episode when they discuss how they can find so much black culture everywhere except at their shows, it’s so awkwardly, succinctly worded that it sounds borderline racist. My point here is that when the band wishes for more black-centric crowds, they elevate one race over another, which is more or less what racism is, albeit without any animosity.

Like the band’s perpetually drunk-yet-hard-working manager Kent, Backstage Passport is funny in doses. But when taken all at once, it becomes a blur of drunken whining. The show’s thesis statement, if it has one, comes from bassist/frontman “Fat” Mike in the first episode: “When you play weird, crazy cities, crazy shit’s gonna happen.” Unfortunately, scumbag promoters, drug managers, and talking head shots explaining off-camera hijinks just aren’t crazy enough for me.

Propagandhi at The Trocadero

The Beatles, The Ramones, Minor Threat. These are bands I will never see live. They all broke up a long time ago, and some of their key members are even deceased. Until this past weekend, there was another band on my woulda-coulda-but-won’t-see wish list that was actually still together, Propagandhi. Propagandhi spent the last 150 years (well, it’s actually like eight….) shunning the United States, but with a new record (the OK comeback Supporting Caste), I suppose those crazy Canadians decided to conquer the States one more time. The result: A tight hardcore bill at the Trocadero featuring Philly locals Witch Hunt and Paint It Black that pretty much rocked my face from start to finish on March 14.

2009 has been a somewhat unexciting year for music so far; I haven’t been this apathetic about punk rock since high school. Up-and-comers Witch Hunt completely changed my mind, though. This co-ed quartet ripped through a tasty 30-minute set of blistering punk/hardcore in the vein of Choking Victim, Black Flag, and The Melvins. Oscillating from black thrash to street punk, Witch Hunt won me over with their eclectic chaos and passion. All three bands talked about scene unity that night, but Witch Hunt frontwoman Janine was the only one to take it a little further. She introduced the song “Slow Decay” with an entreaty for more open discussion about depression and addiction. Listing the pros to both therapy and simply talking to your friends, her anti-suicide/anti-abuse speech scored a round of applause from the crowd. As for the songs, they ripped and rocked. With a new record on the horizon, Witch Hunt is a crust punk band to watch in ’09.

Witch Hunt was my pleasant surprise of the night; Paint It Black was my old reliable friend. I’ve never seen them put on a bad show, and they came through yet again, although sound issues early in the set left the band sounding a little hollow. Paint It Black deals in short, fast hardcore hits, and the boon of writing 90-second songs meant that the band drew from all three of their albums well. New Lexicon shone through, with highlights including “The Ledge,” “Missionary Position,” and “Shell Game Redux.” Bassist Andy Nelson was quick with the quips while gangly yet muscled frontman Dr. Dan Yemin awkwardly tore about, frequently leaving the stage to share his mic with the crowd. It didn’t always work – The Troc was too big for the mic-less gang vox renditions of set enders “Atticus Finch” and “Memorial Day” to be heard passed the first few rows of bodies, making the band’s finale somewhat anti-climactic. But for the most part, Paint It Black kicked rump. They even debuted a new song from the band’s upcoming seven-inch. It still sounds like Paint It Black (Sorry, Kid Dynamite fans), although it’s much slower and more controlled. You feel it every time drummer Jared Shavelson hits his kit. Think of the second half of Black Flag’s My War.

Then came Propagandhi.

Anticipation was heavy; there was a huge forward surge of bodies as soon as the lights cut out. One brave kid jumped from the Troc’s balcony to the stage. The band plugged in and kicked off a string of Supporting Caste cuts and… proceeded to suck. Now, I’ve seen opening acts outperform headliners, but March 14 marks the first time I ever felt like the sound guy was deliberately favoring the opener over the main attraction. Witch Hunt’s sound was flawless, Paint It Black took a few seconds to congeal, but Propagandhi’s first few songs were all bass-n-drums, burying all of those nifty guitar tricks from the band’s pseudo-recent metal direction. Whoever was manning the boards eventually got his and/or her shit together, but for those first few minutes were scary. Despite this little stumble – which didn’t seem to bother those in the pit anyway – Propagandhi took off. Supporting Caste sounded pretty good live, especially cuts like “The Banger’s Embrace” and “Dear Coach’s Corner.” Drummer Jord Samolesky introduced the latter with a discussion about hockey, discussing how he put a curse on New York Rangers fans at the band’s previous show for being dicks. Lo and behold, my town’s very own Philadelphia Flyers trumped the Rangers 4-2 earlier that day. That in turn segued into a conversation about how, back in 2008, Republican Vice Presidential failure Sarah Palin visited a Flyers game on the campaign trail. The crowd was obviously booing, though close camera shots and some audio edits attempted to convince viewers at home otherwise.

Clearly, the guys had a lot to talk about since their last Philly visit.

The set list attempted to blend in aspects of each of the band’s albums – “A Speculative Fiction” from Potemkin City Limits, “Hallie Sallasse, Up Your Ass” and “Anti-Manifesto” from How to Clean Everything, and “…And We Thought Nation States Were a Bad Idea” and “Apparently I'm A P.C. Facist” from Less Talk, More Rock all went over well. Today’s Empires, Tomorrow Ashes seemed to get the biggest reaction, with the crowd lapping up “Fuck the Border,” featuring Dan Yemin, and “Back to the Motor League.” Bassist Todd Kowalski teased the audience with references to “Come to the Sabbat,” the ridiculously awesome hidden track from Supporting Caste. While the band didn’t play nearly enough of the songs I wanted to hear – how could they? – I still felt generally stoked to have witnessed this rare show, regardless of the sound issues and thoroughly stinky fans. After a quick encore, the band asked concertgoers to check out some of the political literature they brought along, as well PETA’s booth (Man, those folks really hate Kentucky Fried Cruelty, eh?). With G7 gone, I hope Propagandhi can dig deep and hit up Pennsylvania a few more times. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I really, really want to meet Hannah in a VFW hall and have him scream, “My brown power ass in your white power face,” you know, in my face.

Monday, March 16, 2009

New Found Glory - 'Not Without a Fight'

Epitaph dropped its second comeback album of 2009 this month with New Found Glory’s Not Without a Fight. Now, it’s not NFG’s best (that would be either Nothing Gold Can Stay or New Found Glory; take your pick). But it’s the sort of catchy, modest success that’ll remind fans why they loved the band in the first place. Lyrically, the record is a bit darker than the average NFG anti-love song. The band’s hardcore roots are slightly more prevalent, at least to the extent that there are way more gang vocals. But mostly, it’s just a great NFG pop-punk record, uncomplicated and ready to rock.

The album’s packaging promises that “the undisputed heavyweight champions of pop punk are back,” and for the first half, that sounds totally accurate. “Right Where We Left Off” lives up to its name, delivering the same driving pop-punk of The Tip of The Iceberg EP, only better. “Don’t Let Her Pull You Down” is another rocker, every bit as catchy as “My Friends Over You” or “Hit or Miss.” Same goes for lead single “Listen to Your Friends,” a ribald tale of poor life decisions that warns listeners to always heed their friends’ advice when dating batshit insane curb-stompers. Past and future blink-182 member Mark Hoppus feels barely present in the producer role. Not Without a Fight is crisp but not overproduced. The record occasionally comes out a little dry – like a really, really good demo – but as a whole, the album is rocking in its stripped down format, a complete reversal from the overstuffed Coming Home album.

The lyrics are still pretty juvenile, though, so if you never liked NFG before, chances are slim that this will change your mind. Clichés abound with lines like “serious like a heart attack” and “It’s time I rain on your parade.” But frontman Jordan Pundik sings it so gosh dang well. I hate championing music whose message I don’t really care about, but Not Without a Fight is too infectious to ignore. That said, another turn-off for some might the album’s slightly soggy middle. “47” is an early weak point, as is the unremarkable “I’ll Never Love Again.” “Reasons” is a ballad, and that’s just not something NFG was ever good at. The band has always been slightly hokey; “Reasons” tips into the negative.

However, these lesser tracks are broken up by songs like “Truck Stop Blues,” a poppy tour song, and “Tangled Up,” which takes all of the frustration of “I’ll Never Love Again” and adds a kickass mall-punk chorus. So while Not Without a Fight isn’t a perfect record, it never lulls for too long. It’s a 12-song collection, 36 minutes long, and extremely satisfying for old and new fans alike. This album dropped the same day as Cursive’s Mama, I’m Swollen and Propagandhi’s Supporting Caste, and I feel no shame in labeling Not Without a Fight as my favorite release of that week. The guys in NFG have always been great pop songwriters with a punk bent, and even after their major label fallout, they’re still crafting jawsome jams six albums in.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cursive - 'Mama, I'm Swollen'

Cursive’s uneven new album Mama, I’m Swollen makes me think of two things: frontman Tim Kasher’s complete discography (no shit) and Michael Jordan (wait, what?). The discog comes into play in that Mama, I’m Swollen feels like its cobbled together from bits of other Kasher compositions. As for the Jordan comparison, I’m not sure if it reminds me of when Jordan dropped out of the NBA to play for the Birmingham Barons in a troubled bid to reclaim his childhood or when Jordan came out of basketball retirement a second time to play for the Washington Wizards and ended up embarrassing himself. Like the former, Mama, I’m Swollen sometimes feels like a bid for the searing angst of old days, but like the latter, I kind of wish Cursive had just gone away.

Mama, I’m Swollen opens with “In the Now,” a rock track with squealing guitars and thoroughly repetitive lyrics. It’s reminiscent of the needling, nervous energy of Domestica or The Ugly Organ. It’s a fantastic driving song, and since there’s only like eight words to it, it’s a great singing one too. But it’s an early sign that Kasher is still suffering from the writing fatigue that plagued Help Wanted Nights, the watered down last album from his other band The Good Life. Kasher’s albums have always had a somewhat literary quality; he writes great songs, sure, but they’ve always added up to form semi-cohesive stories. But Mama, I’m Swollen is the first time Kasher’s ever riddled his stories with so many clichés: “roll around the hay / roll around the sun,” “we’re going to hell,” “I couldn’t love you anymore,” “I’ve gotta snap out of this,” “You’re gonna be someone,” etc. They’re not the most obvious clichés out there, but they still fill up a lot of space, making this the first Cursive record that’s only interesting for its music. Or at least, it would be, if the record didn’t feel like a retread.

Mama, I’m Swollen’s opening tracks feel like Domestica throwbacks, while “Donkeys,” “Caveman,” and “We’re Going to Hell” mimic the shambling indie country rock of The Good Life circa Album of the Year. And that last third is… well, it’s kind of indistinct, really. There are some horns buried in the mix, so feel free to draw a loose Happy Hollow connection. But throughout this disjointed effort, the same thought pervades: “I could be listening to so many other, better Cursive/Good Life records.” Mama, I’m Swollen isn’t half-bad, but it’s certainly disappointing coming from a writer like Kasher. Right now, I think the best career move he could make would be to take a vacation. I know Cursive’s albums have been coming out three years apart, but given how busy Kasher is with touring and other musical ventures, he’s not really taking any breaks. Dude needs to follow his own advice on “Donkeys” and really go to Pleasure Island and chillax for a bit. Recharge his thesaurus, maybe try out some new chord progressions. His comeback could be like when Michael Jordan returned to the Chicago Bulls with a number 45 jersey.

And then… Space Jam!

Propagandhi - 'Supporting Caste'

ATTN P.C. Fascists: Propagandhi finally went full-on Metallica with its new record Supporting Caste. The signs were there pretty much after bassist John K. Samson, the band’s weary brain to guitarist/lead vocalist Chris Hannah’s raging heart, split to form The Weakerthans. Samson moved on to more mature songwriting (r.e. – less tunes about anal penetration), and Hannah has followed that path too, in a more metal way. With each subsequent release, Propagandhi has seemingly stripped itself of the NOFX-style hyper man-child humor that balanced the band’s pointed social criticisms. Goodbye “My brown power ass in your white power face!”, hello “History exalts only the pornography of force, that of murderers and psychopaths.” This more thrash-based style brings some pros (Hannah doesn’t rely on profanity as much, the riffs are way better) and cons (it’s not funny or skate-punk-y anymore, there are way too many guitar interludes). Perhaps the biggest con of all, though, is that while it’s great to have Propagandhi back, both in the studio and on the road no less, there’s that unshakeable feeling that, even by the band’s new metal standards, they’re still treading on old ground. 2005’s Potemkin City Limits was a solid skull-cracker, but its follow-up Supporting Caste rehashes the same tone with less intensity.

At the same time, though, there’s that nagging thought, “But it’s Propagandhi! They’re back!” And that feeling is somewhat validated. Supporting Caste is a pretty rockin’ disc with loads of introspection. “Without Love” examines death, aging, and senility. Hannah wonders if the human consciousness is just a by-product of our mechanical bodies with lines like “Is breathing just the ticking of an unwinding clock?” “Dear Coach’s Corner” actually takes sports commentators to task for forcing political messages (supporting the Iraq War) where they don’t belong (a hockey game). And the band even shows a flash of that old oddball humor with a straight-faced cover of Black Widow’s “Come to the Sabbat” at the album’s end. The punks in Propagandhi have been slowly going metal this decade; a ’70s prog cover (with synths!) is sensible yet silly, and that’s the sort of description that used to fit the band all the time. Side note: “Come to the Sabbat” is totally the best track on the album (best line: “Satan’s there!,” with “ASTAROTH!!” a close second).

Supporting Caste doesn’t ruin the band’s punk rock legacy so much as blur it a little bit. Nothing here is as anthemic or satirical as “Ska Sucks” or “Nailing Descartes To The Wall/(Liquid) Meat Is Still Murder,” but it’s still better than most of the harder rocking albums coming out lately. And a quick glance at the lyrics sheet shows that the guys are still smarter than the mooks in the pit. What fans get with Supporting Caste is a solid comeback disc in the vein of Dillinger Four’s C I V I L W A R or even The Weakerthans’ Reunion Tour: Each of those albums makes you remember why you loved those bands without embarrassing anyone involved, even if, ultimately, you’d rather be spinning How to Clean Everything or Versus God or Left and Leaving.

Monday, March 9, 2009

regarding Damn the Lions

So I've been listening to a CD-R from the acoustic-for-lovers triumph that is Damn the Lions, aka Robb Masters (some people are spoiled with great names) on and off for the last two weeks. Dude used to live with Nate Adams of The Percentages and Sam Fran Scavuzzo of Pat Rush Band, and like those guys can grow a sweet beard and write even sweeter tunes. Click the link above if you enjoy Iron & Wine, Kimya Dawson, and Nick Drake. What's in the water in New Jersey that makes 'em such good songwriters?

Neko Case - 'Middle Cyclone'

Three years after the excellent Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, alt-country siren Neko Case returns this month with the eco-friendly Middle Cyclone. Combining Case’s famously rich voice with Captain Planet sloganeering, the record occasionally gets a little too preachy (Lead single “People Got a Lotta Nerve” chides people who act surprised when carnivores like killer whales attack) and little too hookless. But even a decent Case album is worth a couple of spins, if only to hear to those pipes. Granted, there’s something hypocritical about releasing a pointed album about saving the environment and NOT printing it with recycled materials, but at least Case is trying to start a dialogue.

Middle Cyclone opens with arguably its strongest track, “This Tornado Loves You.” Featuring contributions from fellow New Pornographers member AC Newman, the cut blasts through banjo and drums on its quest for the ultimate hook. You’d think it would be the chorus (“My love I am the speed of sound”), but the outro, with its insistent repetition of the title, proves the mightier moment. Nothing quite hits the same after that, although cuts like “People Got a Lotta Nerve” and “I’m an Animal” come close.

But for all its charms, the record occasionally comes off as too forceful and self-indulgent. The album nearly doubles its length with the 31-minute conclusion, “Marais La Nuit.” It’s a recording of birds chirping. It makes Middle Cyclone a double album: half songs and half nature sounds. I dare anyone to listen to the track in its entirety; even if you do, I doubt you’ll be willing to play it more than one. I get that it’s supposed to complete the album’s nature imagery with literal nature sounds, but it’s super boring. Like the previously mentioned “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” a cover of “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Nature” is too cheesy. Same goes “Prison Girls,” which I can only assume is a love song for a raccoon with lines like “I love your long shadows / and your gun powder eyes.”

While there aren’t any clear duds, a lot of the record is easy to listen to but hard to recall, aside from “This Tornado Loves You” and the pounding “I’m an Animal.” On the latter, Case states her, uh, case: We’re all of the same Earth and we’re the same organism (at least in terms of kingdom). Middle Cyclone is definitely a good country album for people who don’t like country. It isn’t too twangy. It doesn’t obsess over drinking or pick-up trucks or adulteress women. But it’s also not that fun either.

The Bird and The Bee at The Tin Angel

Two things I want you to understand up front: 1) The Bird and The Bee put on a decent show and 2) I don’t usually complain this much about venues in show reviews. See, I’ve accepted that, say, The Electric Factory will always have poor sound, crappy parking, and way too much space. But when it comes to a place as willfully lame as The Tin Angel, I gotta piss and moan about it. The venue combines the cramped confines of an underground show with the expensive tickets and uncomfortable seating of a stadium.

Two tickets for the show cost $53.50. Lot parking was $22 (turns out the bars on 2nd Street are popular). Pints of Smithwicks were $6 each and flat. While the event was seated only, tickets were sold as General Admission, meaning that you had to reserve your seats separately from purchasing them. This was not advertised on the venue’s Web site, which would have been convenient since fans weren’t allowed to stand, even when by their chairs, and dancing was generally discouraged by staff. The Tin Angel is an awfully narrow bar, with enough room for about two tables or three chairs per row. So even though the venue can fit probably less than 100 people (I’m guessing here), my girlfriend and I still had the lovely advantage of sitting all the way in the back with a thick wall of heads to block the barely elevated stage. Packing drunk people into a shoebox is never a good time; stuffing it with drunk hipsters and creepy old guys looking for jailbait is even worse.

A poor view would’ve been somewhat more acceptable had the sound been good. But it wasn’t. At some point during opening act Obi Best’s set (think of a less interesting version of The Bird and The Bee where all of the songs are about the same European ex-boyfriend), the sound technician decided to crank up the decibels a bit. While he increased the music’s output, he didn’t really compensate on the vocals, drowning out Obi Best’s cutesy lyrics in repetitive beats. The same problem popped up a few times during The Bird and The Bee’s set. Given that everything but the keyboards and a handful of bass lines was preprogrammed, I feel kind of miffed that the levels were still off.

Now, given the circumstances, the duo of Inara George and Greg Kurstin played a solid set. It was an hour long, and leaned a little too heavily on new release Ray Guns are Not Just the Future. But Kurstin is a great keyboardist; George is an even better dancer (think Charlie Brown and friends). She was constantly interacting with the fans, running around the packed bar and high-fiving everyone within her grasp. The synchronized movements with her three back-up singers (featuring Obi Best’s members), what little I could see of them, were also nice.

But George’s classy stage presence was a poor consolation prize for the $75+ my girlfriend and I paid to be there. I would definitely consider seeing the band again, though I might check out tour set lists to confirm if they’re playing more old material. My personal highlights were performances of the single “Again & Again” and the sole encore number “How Deep is Your Love.” As for the Tin Angel, it can go straight to hell.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

regarding Staggered Works

Living in the suburbs is slightly less boring thanks to the folks behind Staggered Works, a collective fighting to bring those of us who can't make it out to all of the R5 Philly shows art and music. Dudes recently started up their own Web site to help spread the good word. Check out staggeredworks.org for some DIY shows in the Bucks County area. If you like metal and hardcore, yer in luck. If you like anything else, well, sometimes they cover that too. Staggered Works is even looking to release music from the local artists. Look for War Pigs to drop some tunes in the spring. ART!

Playlist: U2

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

I harbor two great, Irish guilts: Catholicism and U2. One is hopelessly outdated, incapable of dealing with the new challenges and advances of the 21st century. Sure, I applaud its humanitarian efforts, but most of its greatest contributions happened so long ago. All I hear now is epic failure.

Oh, and the other is Catholicism.

U2 released its 12 album this week, No Line on the Horizon, and I've been trying to think of a way to write about the band without actually having to listen to the got-damn record. If you've heard the cluttered mess of a lead single "Get On Your Boots" (linked above), then you know the album is going to suck, without question or apology. If you're a steadfast U2 fan, though, you're faced with a more intricate situation: How do you defend it? The band has squandered pretty much all of the good will it earned with the more modest, quiet success that was 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind by going back the "experimental" techno-pop of, uh, Pop.

I want you to think of the most famous U2 songs. At what point does Pop pop into your head? Can you name any songs off of Pop, besides maybe "Discotheque?" Pop was a huge failure for U2, burdened with too much half-baked irony and dance beats. I have no idea why bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. would put up with The Edge's stupid electronic experiments on No Line on the Horizon, when they almost left the band in the mid-'90s for the exact same reason.

To help promote the new album, Comcast's OnDemand service is currently offering all of U2's music videos (Yes, even "Discotheque"). Since I was still stupidly interested in writing about the band this week, I opted to watch all the vids and discuss that experience. This was a bad idea. Sometimes it was awesome ("I Will Follow" has great dancing, Larry fucks a mermaid in "Electrical Storm," and "All I Want is You" is perfect on every level), and sometimes it was awesomely bad ("Lemon," the be-leathered "Elevation"), but mostly it was just badly bad ("All Because of You," the 103 different versions of "One"). I quit halfway.

I went into that experiment trying to figure out why people hate U2's music. My girlfriend is extremely vocal about U2's suckitude, and for a while I thought maybe it was because, being a little older than me, she's more a '90s kid than I am. And the '90s are when U2 really did not rock (Do I have to trot out "Discotheque" again?). Now I realize it's something else: U2 simply wrote a lot of shitty songs, many of which ended up as singles.

Right now, I'm sitting my family room, wearing jeans and a brown Beach Boys t-shirt with the Endless Summer album cover. The Beach Boys, or what I wear on my days off from work, isn't too relevant, but what the The Beach Boys' music represents is. As you may or may not remember, The Beach Boys and The Beatles had a creative rivalry for a brief period in the '60s. It ended when The Beatles responded The Boys' Pet Sounds, itself a reaction The Beatles' Rubber Soul, with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. BB mastermind Brian Wilson collapsed under the pressure of trying to complete his answer, Smile (which eventually came out in 2004). The Beatles continued to drop classic, perfect records for a few more years before dissolving, while most people considered The Beach Boys to be, a-heh, washed up. Only here's the thing: The Beach Boys kept writing great songs. Check out Surf's Up or Sunflower sometime. Those records boast the same kind of earnest, pure, sunny pop music found on Pet Sounds or Surfin' U.S.A. The Beach Boys were still great; they just weren't a singles band anymore.

And that's what I think U2 might be as well. Now, my favorite U2 song is still a hit ("Sunday Bloody Sunday"). But, my new theory is that maybe people hate U2's music because all of their songs are either A) massively overplayed or B) not played enough. It was in that vein that I crafted this playlist. It was the most difficult one to form yet, as U2 has quite a few songs. I tried avoid singles if possible, which is why I cut The Joshua Tree out pretty much altogether, but I ended up breaking that rule a lot (Look, "Beautiful Day" is a good song, clam-flammit). If my special lady friend ever lets me, I will sit her down and play this mix. It leans pretty heavily on War, but that's because it's one of the best freaking rock records of all dang time.

She's Gonna Live in America
1. "A Sort of Homecoming," The Unforgettable Fire
2. "Sunday Bloody Sunday," War
3. "I Will Follow," Boy
4. "Gloria," October
5. "Beautiful Day," All That You Can't Leave Behind
6. "An Cat Dubh," Boy
7. "Zoo Station," Achtung Baby
8. "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses," Achtung Baby
9. "Grace," All That You Can't Leave Behind
10. "Sweetest Thing," The Best of 1980-1990
11. "All I Want is You," Rattle and Hum
12. "In a Little While," All That You Can't Leave Behind [FACT: Joey Ramone was listening to this song when he died.]
13. "Stories for Boys," Boy
14. "Like a Song...," War [Here's a War block for ya.]
15. "The Refugee," War
16. "Surrender," War
17. ""40"," War
18. "Mlk," The Unforgettable Fire