Sunday, April 26, 2009

regarding Cetus.

[My friends in Cetus asked me to write a bio for their new Web site. I finally got around to it today. Here's the uncut version. Is it lame that I quoted my own article?]

“The whole point was to have fun and play stuff we were excited by. It’s not stripped down… but there’s an element where we don’t use many effects. It’s a guitar in an amp. It’s raw and meant to be played live.” – Matt Hollenberg.

Gradually shuffling off their jokester persona DKD – “We just kept writing songs that were cool and not funny anymore” says drummer Matt Buckley – Cetus has emerged as a bastion of Pennsylvania metal/hardcore excellence. The group’s full-length debut, These Things Take Time, scored a nod on one of’s best albums of 2008 lists with the tag that it “grinds my bones, melts my face, and openly mocks my mother.”

With one other EP, 2004’s Archaic, a slew of stunning live shows, and dozens of other band credits that include Leavenworth, Forever I Burn, Ancestor, and The Prize Fight, Cetus continues to earn its place among the Philadelphia hardcore faithful. As the band’s pending five-track EP Centrifuge looms, Cetus is set to take its music to a new level: the gosh dang Internets.

“One of my favorite EPs ever is Is In Times of Desperation by All Else Failed, says Buckley. “It’s three songs long, but I still think it’s the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s an onslaught. It gets all the emotions you need from a heavy CD; you’re sweating by the end. Short and sweet, and you’re always ready to put it on again.” The same could be said of Centrifuge.

“We think we’re doing something really cool and that not a lot of people have heard yet,” says Buckley. “We want to play as much as possible in spite of what real life hits us with. I have to play live; I’ll be old as shit and still doing this. But even more than that, we need to get this music out.” The band has little pretensions of making music for cash, which why all five members agreed that a free online download would be the best option. hosts all five of Centrifuge’s songs. Visitors can download them for free; they’re not even expected to leave a donation. Just listen.

“Giving it away is the only way we can make sure it reaches its full potential,” says Hollenberg.

Regardless of how many downloads the EP nets, Cetus will continue to write, record, and play.

“We’re already ready for the next CD. We’re about to put this out,” says Buckley. “We wanna start recording by the end of the summer. Those songs are coming together pretty easily.”

The band’s songwriting process has sped up incredibly; complex songs are ready within weeks. Evolving from a groove or a riff to a full-on rockfest with lyrics that are both meaningful and esoteric.

“‘Clock for Chaos’ [from These Things Take Time] is pretty much about my frustration with people who take a very stubborn view with atheism, putting all their faith in science. I’ve actually had some people completely misinterpret that and think it’s a fairly Christian song. [Some people] took it the extreme and thought I was a fundamentalist,” says frontman Erich Kreibel. The band writes for essentially two reasons: 1) Because the members all love different types of metal and 2) Because there aren’t a lot of bands pushing themselves lately.

“Most metal bands to me are not fun or exciting or extreme. And that’s why we need to push ourselves, because I’m not impressed with a lot of what’s going on,” says Hollenberg. “After the end of the world, there will be cockroaches and metal bands going ‘chun-chun, chun-chun.’ I feel like people who take metal too seriously are missing the point. I mean, I take playing seriously, but I also do it for fun. It’s caveman Neanderthal stupid. It’s like a bad Schwarzenegger action movie or musical Red Bull.”

RIYL: Messhugah, Jesu, Deftones, Godflesh, Botch, Converge, Deadguy and zombie giraffes. That last one is not a band.

NOFX - 'Coaster'

Is there anything about NOFX that Mitch Clem hasn’t said better than I ever could? Those drunken California punks dropped Coaster, their 11th studio album, this year, and just about any and all conventional wisdom about the band holds true. Coaster boasts 12 technically proficient, lyrically stunted anthems about boozing and/or using, mocking religion and/or politics and creeping out Tegan and/or Sara. The political songs are significantly dialed down compared to The War on Errorism and Wolves in Wolves’ Clothing. But there is a touching personal song from frontman “Fat” Mike called “My Orphan Year” that stands next to his past work like “Falling in Love.” Ultimately, the disc is somewhat of a non-entity; it doesn’t tread new territory but it doesn’t embarrass the band worse than their live antics ever could. It’s punk rock, clam flammit.

Coaster feels plagued by a lack of identity, repeating postures from older songs. The album art is a joke about how compact discs are slowly losing value as music collections, though the track it refers to, album-ender “One Million Coasters,” never lifts off. It’s a bum ending about the fading music industry that, compared to say, “Dinosaurs Will Die,” lacks bite. “First Call” and “I am an Alcoholic” recycle drunk humor. “We Called It America” predicts the U.S.’s decline, but it’s neither as angry as “Franco Un-American” or, uh, “The Decline,” nor at least funny like “Murder the Government.”

Speaking of funny songs, the band might get a laugh out of “Eddie, Bruce, and Paul,” a homoerotic thriller rife with Iron Maiden references. Plus, there’s some sweet shredding and falsetto at the end. The this-isn’t-actually-a-diss-track diss track “Creeping Out Sara,” a lazily assembled piece about, well, creeping out one of the Quinn sisters, isn’t that funny though. It pretty much comes down to how funny you find incest and/or lesbians.

Then again, while its lyrics are somewhat weak, Coaster’s music is still top-notch NOFX-style punk. “Best God in Show” and “I am an Alcoholic” are tasty ska-punk concoction. “We Called It America” is a catchy toe-tapper. “Fat” Mike gets some sweet bass lines on “My Orphan Year” and “Suits and Ladders.” Coaster has a few tracks I wouldn’t mind hearing live, provided it doesn’t dominate the set list. Taken as a whole, it’s a decent 25th anniversary release from NOFX. Is it irreverent? Yeah. Is it irrelevant? A little bit. Is it NOFX? Of course.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Silversun Pickups - 'Swoon'

Usually when a band repeats itself on an album, it admits to creative bankruptcy. When Silversun Pickups do it, they’re exploring their sound’s borders. Part amorphous/androgynous shoegaze by way of Autolux or Ride, part triumphant guitar rock circa Smashing Pumpkins, Silversun Pickups effectively remade their 2006 sleeper hit Carnavas and called it this year’s Swoon. Guitarist Brian Aubert and bassist Nikki Monninger still trade ethereal, interchangeable vocals. Drummer Chris Guanlao still pounds out monotonous drum beats, adding some psychedelic stomp to the songs’ drone. And keyboardist Joe Lester is still the band’s secret centerpiece, filling in gaps in guitar work with ambient lines. Though Swoon never provides anything as immediate and touching as Carnavas’ big hit “Lazy Eye,” it does offer 10 more reasons to love the band’s ambient alternative rock. This time with strings! A style this good bears repeating.

The record opens with “There’s No Secrets This Year,” its second single and arguably most assured track. Shoegaze usually succeeds more based on what the listener can’t hear than what he and/or she does hear, but Swoon’s cleaner vocal takes mean everyone can join in when Aubert hits the thrilling chorus of “I’ll tell you a secret / I’ll make it perfectly clear / There’s no secrets this year.” Given the band’s upcoming festival itinerary, it feels like a statement of purpose, a welcome sign to fans from all four corners.

There are moments when that cleaner recording style works against Swoon, though, like when Aubert’s lyrics aren’t particularly invigorating. Lines like “How many times do you wanna die? / How many ways do you wanna die?”, from “The Royal We,” come off too melodramatic and clunky, and the instrumentation sounds overcompressed in spots as well. A thicker fog of audio haze could’ve saved the song, but “The Royal We” rocks well enough to compensate on its own terms. A string section adds a second layer of squall in ways Pikul never thought about.

Other songs are easy to love unconditionally. “Growing Old is Getting Old” slowly, epically builds from a quiet bassline to a roaring cascade of drums and guitar. Aubert and Monninger beautifully trade vocals back and forth on “It’s Nice to Know You Work Alone.” It’s not necessarily about what each individual part sounds like but where they all dreamily meet. Swoon puts a lot of work, successfully, into its ambience, but those looking for a little more stomp like “Secrets” finally get paid off with “Substitution” and “Surrounded (or Spiraling).”

The two biggest slags against Silversun Pickups are usually the lyrics and the Pumpkins connection, which is funny given that Billy Corgan took plenty of grief for his own word choices. Swoon isn’t going to sway many away from those accusations, although it doesn’t embarrass itself too much lyrically and certainly beats everything Corgan has done post-MACHINA. For those already in the know, though, relax. Swoon is a worthy follow-up to Carnavas. If the cliché about sophomore albums being cleaned up repeats of debuts is true, imagine what the Pickups’ challenging third LP will sound like.

Metric - 'Fantasies'

Metric self-released its fourth album Fantasies this month, and I have no idea how it goes. I mean, I’ve played it quite a bit. I’m listening to opening track “Help I’m Alive” right now. But at its best, Fantasies unremarkably slips by, background music to my online Scrabble games and Gmail chats. Without Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?’s wit and hooks or Live It Out’s muscle, Fantasies stands as another substandard indie dance-rock record in a sea full of ’em. Compared to the band’s previous output, and to the genre as a whole, it is irrelevant and erroneous. This is unfortunate, given that it’s the band’s first DIY release, another early sign that while bands might not need labels, they still need editors.

“Help I’m Alive” starts the record with a series of mini-suite-like hooks. There’s the anticipatory booming drum intro, followed by what feels like 50 different variations of the phrase “My heart is beating like a hammer.” It’s gratingly repetitive, and too slow to warrant much dancing. Same goes for most of the rest of the album. Its strongest moments, like “Gimme Sympathy” and “Stadium Love,” win using cheap tricks. “Gimme Sympathy” settles for comparing The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, effectively stuffing its lyrics with references to other, better songs, over a tepid 16-note dance beat. “Stadium Love” drops cohesive storytelling for rhyming non sequiturs and “woo”s. It’s nonsense, but at least “Stadium Love” is catchy, and even refreshingly unhinged compared to Fantasies’ more canned moments.

Fantasies brings little to old fans and potential new ones alike. Metric has written better choruses, beats, and riffs than anything presented on this bland, safe collection. It’s too boring to rock, too wooden to be ambient. While the band will hopefully remain a stunning live act, all Fantasies brings to the touring circuit are a few more bathroom break opportunities.

Friday, April 17, 2009

regarding Record Store Day

Record Store Day, easily one of my top five favorite holidays, is tomorrow. Indie stores are pulling out a bunch of awesome deals - Siren Records in Doylestown is having a massive vinyl sale, for example - and there are plenty of exclusives being issued. I'm looking forward to seven-inches from Camera Obscura and Flight of the Conchords. There have been a few bloggings about the event today, the best of which comes from Spin's Charles Aaron. Cut through the cynicism - this event is meant to take your money, make no mistake about it - and Record Store Day is a celebration of our bond with music, however tenuous and fluctuating it might be. Aaron's article taps into that joy, listing his favorite stores and memories and why in-store purchasing means connecting to people and art, something that's lost in the point-n-click approach of online shopping.

The hunt is part of the ecstasy, and while I'm a sucker for eBay as much as the next record nerd, I can't think of a better place to spend Record Store Day than at Repo Records on 538 South St. It's one of the first stores I ever fell in love with in high school, and while lesser favorites have passed on - Disc was too sketchy anyway, Spaceboy's clerks were dicks and liars, and my former employer Sam Goody was riddled with corporate tools - Repo has remained. When I moved to Philadelphia for college, Repo trips became a weekly occurrence. The clerks know who I am and what I like. They make recommendations, but don't get so uppity about it that I can't browse. I love the cozy feeling of walking past the shelves. The feel of musty vinyl in my hands. And I'm sure one day I'll even appreciate that guy who sits outside mangling Beatles, Deep Purple, and Jimi Hendrix tunes on guitar for change.

Convenience shouldn't be allowed to co-opt good aesthetics. Repo has a great Nick Hornby quote on their site:

"Yes, yes, I know. It's easier to download music, and probably cheaper. But what's playing on your favourite download store when you walk into it? Nothing, that's what. Who are you going to meet in there? Nobody. Where are the notice boards offering flatshares and vacant slots in bands destined for superstardom? Who's going to tell you to stop listening to that and start listening to this? Go ahead and save yourself a couple of quid. The saving will cost you a career, a set of cool friends, musical taste and, eventually, your soul. Record stores can't save your life. But they can give you a better one."

Repo has been my guiding light for underground music for about nine years now. They've operated in one form or another for over 20 years. Shopping there is always a pleasure, and unlike online ordering, I don't have to pay for shipping and handling or get ripped off on record quality. I like physical music over digital because it's physical; it hits all of my senses (well, minus taste. But man those Bowie covers are sexxxy...). And Repo is an extension of that.

And shopping local is American, got-dammit!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Rentals - 'Story of a Thousand Seasons'

Part one of The Rentals’ proposed three part Songs About Time project dropped this month with The Story of a Thousand Seasons EP, and with it a preorder for the whole shebang. 2009 finds The Rentals at their slimmest – Jamie Black, Lauren Chipman, Dan Joeright, and Matt Sharp, with Pixies alum Joey Santiago guesting on “Song of Remembering,” are all that remain from the band’s reunion on 2007’s The Last Little Life EP. It’s fitting, in that Thousand Seasons is easily the most stripped down Rentals release. Mellow and pretty, it downplays most of The Rentals previous strengths. It’s not nearly as synth-driven and the melodies are colder. And yet, The Story of a Thousand Seasons works.

It opens with “Song of Remembering,” an electronic ditty that doubles as Songs About Time’s pseudo-mission statement. The project revolves around three areas – music, photos (Photographs About Days), and short films (Films About Weeks). The band is shooting/posting a film for every week, and frontman Matt Sharp is snapping shots for every day of the year. Chipman hits a fantastic hook over an electronic drum beat – “Not everyone moves beyond the past / Everything moves / But outside these photographs everything dies / Cycles of time / Everyone is passing, passing, passing, passing through.” It’s sad and mournful and obsessive and beautiful. Which is kind of like the overall project; it’s an attempt to catch and catalog as much of 2009 as possible. Which more or less correlates with the title track, which follows.

“Story of a Thousand Seasons Past” adds another layer to the first song’s recordkeeping. Among shining piano and violin lines, Sharp bemoans how “we have this technology to send apologies that swim inside our heads.” He believes that this instant availability devalues communication – and he’s kind of right, ya Facebook stalkers – and settles for writing all his thoughts down, to be read at another date, when he’s more removed from the experience.

“All I Have” reaffirms the EP’s obsession with records of any sort, this time harkening back to Last Little Life’s synth-y indie rock while recalling the seduction of city streets that was best captured on Seven More Minutes. It’s the dreamiest of the new tracks, and an excellent segue into the last song, “Seven Years,” which is darn right driving compared to the more ethereal previous material.

The Story of a Thousand Seasons takes a few listens to warm up. It’s colder and more understated compared to Return of The Rentals or Seven More Minutes, and the hooks are less obvious. But that’s what gives it distinction. This EP edges into territory The Rentals never fully embraced before – the electronic music, guitar squalls, and honest-to-gosh piano on “Song of Remembering” certainly stand out. Time will tell whether or not this is the new direction of Songs About Time or just one avenue. Check out to stream/purchase the tunes on mp3, FLAC, or CD. The next chapter is due in August.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Hold Steady - 'A Positive Rage'

Talk about a bait-n-switch: The main drawing power behind A Positive Rage, the new live CD/DVD documenting the exploits of the joyful noisemakers in The Hold Steady circa 2006, should be the tour documentary. Generally speaking, live albums tend to be geared towards hardcore fans to begin with, either because of nostalgia (my mom was at the taping of David Bowie’s David Live; I was at tapings for Bouncing Souls and The Early November) or rarities. Sure, some artists like Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and James Brown cut legendary live albums, but most of the time the buyer ends up with tinny-sounding versions of previously released/better recorded songs. And while A Positive Rage the CD isn’t as good as Live at the Apollo or as bad as, say, any live Aerosmith record ever, it’s still not transcendent enough to warrant purchasing. That’s why A Positive Rage the DVD needs to be great. What it ends up being is repetitive and mildly hammy.

There’s showing and there’s telling, and A Positive Rage does a whole lot of the latter. Spliced between genuinely good live footage are discussions about the band’s appeal. Most of these clips are reiterations of “They’re fun/happy/drunk!” Some people mention the band smiling a lot. And it gets old 15 minutes in. Far more fascinating are the all-too-brief deeper glimpses into the band, like when Craig Finn breaks down his musical influences (This guy loves The Replacements) and how he found his singing voice. He’s honest enough with himself to even discuss the limitations and attractions of his speak/sing style. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay, who coined the collection’s title, offers way more eloquent explanations of why the band is fun regardless of which side of the stage someone is on. And that mustache! Exchanges between the band and kids are also funny. But the majority of the clips are redundant, almost cocky, in their love for the group. It’s like an infomercial.

Even though the documentary is a dud, though, those who’ve already committed to A Positive Rage can enjoy the live record, which was recorded in Chicago. The quality starts out iffy on “Stuck Between Sessions” – the sound is ho-hum and Finn flubs a few lines – but it recovers quickly. Once it congeals, fans get all of the things they love about The Hold Steady – big guitars, chiming piano, and master storyteller Finn. While the listener won’t always necessarily feel it, he and/or she can tell it was a good night. The live setting peels back some of Boys and Girls in America’s sheen, but replaces it with way drunker, more slurred vocals. It’s faster and sloppier; more alive but less cohesive. What it isn’t, however, is something worth recommending to the uninitiated or the devoted. There’s a better way to hear “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” or “First Night,” and it involves buying the studio albums bearing them.

Monday, April 6, 2009

PJ Harvey and John Parish - 'A Woman A Man Walked By'

Retreads have never been Polly Jean Harvey’s thing. None of her albums sound alike; each offers its own beguiling charm and haunting beauty. Her discography’s lone rehash, 2004’s Uh-Huh Her, attempted to recycle the bluesy guitar dirges and wounded feminine snarl of early works Dry and Rid of Me, and it kind of sucked. We all pretended otherwise at the time, but it’s easily the weakest release in her healthy catalog. 2007’s White Chalk marked a new direction for Harvey – still lovelorn and haunting, but piano-based. It was beautiful. 2009 brings another new highlight for Harvey, and her quickest turnaround yet this decade: A stylistic repeat that’s actually awesome.

A Woman A Man Walked By finds Harvey again teaming up with John Parish, who co-wrote 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point and produced and played on White Chalk. Unsurprisingly, the record feels like a mash-up of the two. It explores two extremes – crazy/loud and eccentric/mellow – further than Dance Hall ever did. Its quietest moments, like “Leaving California” or “Cracks in the Canvas,” recall White Chalk’s torment and ambience. As for the rockers, like lead-off “Black Hearted Love” or “Pig Will Not,” well, they’re loud and surreal and psychedelic. Harvey hasn’t cut loose electric howls like these in 15 years. It’s a welcome return.

The album gets the whole “accessibility” thing over with up front with “Black Hearted Love.” It’s a solid blend of everything to come – the choruses rock and shriek while the verses float by. Harvey’s voice is given more room to flex than on White Chalk, where it was always high-pitched and restrained. Here, she’s shouting. And Parish shreds the whole dang time. “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen” is an acoustic barn-burner – think To Bring You My Love’s “Send His Love to Me.” From track three onward, though, the record starts to test the listener. The songs become less catchy or pop-oriented, but they’re certainly memorable.

Harvey pushes her register on “Leaving California” and “April,” and her unconventional delivery warps the songs a bit. Parish keeps the music slow and understated. It’s too discordant to be soft, too soft to be truly discordant. The record’s second half pushes the album further by upping the musicianship and impressionistic lyrics. The tranny-toting title track has more weird delivery from Harvey coupled with funny lyrics – the way she grunts lines like “I want your fucking ass” is artful yet completely silly. It’s a refreshing dash of surrealism after White Chalk’s downer-thon.

White Chalk stills hovers over A Woman A Man Walked by, however. “The Soldier” examines a dream in which the narrator yearns to share his/her suffering – “Send me home damaged / Send me home disposed / Send me home damaged and wanting” goes the climax. “Passionless, Pointless” covers a failing relationship, and the sparse imagery that emerges hits hard. The intro is all about trying to cut through tensions and talking, but the line that ultimately sticks the most is “I slept facing the wall,” later changed to “you.” Breaking up the two is “Pig Will Not,” a chaotic crasher in which Harvey moans and groans and lurches about possessed and Parish places searing guitar/thundering drums side-by-side with plaintive piano lines.

A Woman A Man Walked By’s ebb and flow keeps the listener recovering from each previous track. It constantly circumvents PJ fans’ expectations by both embracing and rejecting templates established by White Chalk and Dance Hall at Louse Point. It’s self-lacerating yet giddy, fiery yet contemplative, fluctuating from moment to moment. Parish’s compositions are solid throughout, although the sparse first half can get tedious at times. Still, though, he’s clearly a great force for Harvey to play against. Harvey struggled to find new creative directions for most of this decade, but her last two Parish team-ups have been fantastic. She’s the sort of artist who needs to constantly shift – like a Bowie. And like a Bowie, she just might bring her best out when those around her do the same.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - 'It's Blitz'

Have Yeah Yeah Yeahs ever released a unanimously loved record? I can remember (somewhat apt) criticisms about their debut Fever to Tell being an uneven, overhyped dance-punk mess. Their 2006 follow-up, Show Your Bones, split fans and critics down the middle – It was too calculated! They were better when they were messy and uneven! I can remember discussing the album with my friend Paul (we both liked it) and how, in interviews, band members Brian Chase and Nick Zinner seemed to hate frontwoman Karen O. for making them do everything on her terms but not enough to quit the group. At the time, Paul was OK with the band splitting up and going out with a solid discography. I thought they had another record in ‘em, though, and was really pulling for a third LP.

I was fucking wrong.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs pulled another Karen-dictated sonic shift on their new full-length, It’s Blitz!. Zinner’s otherworldly guitar sound is mostly replaced with synths and Chase’s loose, booming percussion is gone in favor of drum machines. That these fellas are forced to downplay their strengths takes some adjusting. But repeat lessons don’t dull the lack of compelling songwriting. This post-punk record boasts few flashes of brilliance or intensity; it’s too often a cold, uninspired listening experience. With Zinner relegated to keyboards and Chase stuck in a limited run of disco dance beats, there’s just a tad too much minimalism employed, leaving O. to save the show. She doesn’t.

At 10 tracks, It’s Blitz! can’t afford much filler. Track two, “Off With Your Head,” squanders the good will generated by lead single “Zero,” which gets a little bit catchier each time, with it’s hedonistic redundancy. The lyrics are dumb, the beats are weak, and it doesn’t rock. There is no reason to like this song. “Runaway” rambles on, directionless and hookless. “Dragon Queen” is stereotypical disco. I get Karen’s desire to expand her musical range, but the results here are too lackluster. And the band’s attempts at even the slightest amount of aggression, like on the comparatively peppy guitar track “Dull Life,” sound uninspired and flat.

“Zero” aside, the record’s quietest moments are what stand out. I hate to draw a parallel between “Hysteric” and “Maps,” the band’s lone mega-hit, but it’s got a similar heartfelt yearning and track placement. Musically, it’s closer to “Modern Romance” but with better pop instincts. “Soft Shock” introduces the record’s airier, dreamier aspects early on. “Skeletons” preserves the vibe with some underlying percussion to give it a small dramatic quality. Pick your favorite ambient comparison – Postal Service, M83, High Places – you might like some of these songs, but make sure you preview the tracks online first.

I’ve got three scenarios for how It’s Blitz! is going to be remembered: For a select few, it’ll be Wire’s 154, a dancey post-punk secret success, even though most people will still prefer the band’s punkier debut (Pink Flag/Yeah Yeah Yeahs). For others, it’s The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds; it’s an OK record that’s frequently too formless; but hey, maybe there’s a Pornography in the future. Personally, though, I see It’s Blitz! as comparable to U2’s Pop (and maybe this year’s No Line on the Horizon) – it’s a shitty dance record.