Monday, February 28, 2011
[myPod is an attempt to edit down my CD collection as I import my music on to my brand new 160 GB iPod.]
It’s amazing what a few years’ distance can do for one’s clarity. I heard Broadway Calls’ self-titled debut back when I interned for Wonka Vision Magazine back in the summer of 2007. At the time, I thought of them as more of a pop group than a punk band. I was listening to a lot of Paint It Black and Propagandhi at the time, and BC isn’t nearly as hard. Now, though, I realize how indebted this record is to Dookie. This is classic ’90s pop-punk. I have no idea why I didn’t pick up their breakthrough follow-up. Anyway, their cover of The Smiths’ “A Rush and A Push and the Land is Ours” remains ballsy, but the Green Day harmonies on “Bad Intentions” are killer.
Proto-Lawrence Arms band from Brendan Kelly and Chris McCaughan. Basically, they were TLA without choruses or Neil “Tennessee” Hennessey. Still pretty good, though, and way more political than TLA.
There are three James Brown albums everyone needs to own: Live at the Apollo is the best live album of all time. Live records tend to be for hardcore fans only, but Apollo improbably improves all of Brown’s songs. It contains arguably the best version of “Please, Please, Please,” and it’s actually only part of a medley. It’s that good. Brown was a prolific composer, but his live show is where he reached his full potential, and Apollo reflects that: The 30-minute set is a tightly wound machine, running through hits at a fierce clip while boosting the ballads’ desperation and desire ten-fold. Still, it’s important to cover Brown’s studio output, and Gold, a two-disc, 40-track collection, covers a great amount of work from the “hardest working man in show business.” The first disc takes a while to truly get great – Brown needed a few years to invent funk, the only genre that could suit a voice so gruff yet so polychromatic. Gold’s curse, though, is that it reveals Brown’s shortcomings. After a while, you realize that most of his songs consist of him screaming nonsense, albeit over some of the best beats ever conceived.
That’s why I tend to spin In the Jungle Groove, a collection of studio outtakes that coheres into a perfectly funky record. As far as I’m concerned, it carries the definitive versions of “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” and “Soul Power.” And it’s got “Funky Drummer,” which has been sampled by every rap group ever (TRUE STORY!). Between these three releases, you get a solid view of Brown. Sometimes he could be political (“King Heroin,” “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”), but he mostly just turned out tight party starters with the best band available.
Verdict: Keep, although I’m going to sell Sex Machine, a faked live record that just doesn’t compared to Apollo. The 11-minute version of the title track is sooooo repetitive.
Too hard for the yacht-rock crowd but still too sensitive for the Bruce Springsteen/Tom Petty set, Jackson Browne occupies a weird space in rock ‘n’ roll. Or, he would, if his songs weren’t so effortless appealing and poetic. “Running on Empty” and “Doctor My Eyes” get me stoked on life. “These Days” and “The Next Voice You Hear” get me mellow. Sometimes Browne was a little too in love with his lyrics – FIVE VERSES FOR “Empty?!” – but overall he was one of the better songwriters in the ’70s and ’80s, wedding evocative imagery about love and loss to his gorgeous voice and guitar. AND he’s handsome. Lucky bastard.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Album
It really bums me out to say I’m not that into the Buffy soundtrack anymore; the same good be said for the TV show itself. This disc got me into Face to Face, The Sundays, and Garbage. And it’s got “Teenage FBI” by Guided By Voices! That song rules! But the bulk of the album consists of female-fronted singer/songwriter late ’90s post-Alanis Morissette drivel. This shit is mind-numbingly mid-tempo. But I love how petulant Superfine’s break-up anthem “Already Met You” gets. Also, Bif Naked’s “Lucky” is a guilty pleasure – the chorus is so perfect, but the verses are so terrible (“Remember when we made love in the roses / And you took my picture in all sorts of poses?” That would hurt).
Built to Spill
If my favorite Built to Spill song is the “Preview,” from There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, where the band plays a bunch of joke songs in rapid succession, does that make me less of a BtS fan, or more? I think more. I’m all about indie rock bands that actually know how to play guitar.
Steve from Blue’s Clues got obsessed with The Flaming Lips a little while ago and tried recreating The Soft Bulletin. What’s weird is that he succeeded a couple of times (“Mighty Little Man,” “>1”), but overall, Songs For Dustmites is a little too obsessed with quiet melancholy for my tastes. After “Mighty Little Man,” it’s kind of disappointing hearing anything else.
On the one hand, Bush was an underrated grunge band. They consistently wrote pretty catchy songs, made some cool videos, and they put on one heck of a live show. I saw the band in concert just two months after 9/11 and Gavin Rossdale gave this amazing speech about strength through unity. Sure, I guess it was kind of a vague argument, but he was electric all the same. Sometimes I think critics ripped on Bush because Rossdale is a handsome dude who showed up late to the party. On the other hand, dude stole from the best – “Everything Zen” cribs from Bowie, “Glycerine” from The Beatles. So maybe they’re rated perfectly – pretty good, but they’ll never be Nirvana.
The Button Mashers
You Can Never Have Enough Ninjas was a gift to me from Mike Zakrewski in high school. They are/were a video game cover band, and they love the shit out of Mega Man. Good times.
Singles Going Steady is required listening for fans of punk and pop alike. Buzzcocks had such an insane knack for hooks, as evidenced by songs like “Orgasm Addict,” “Harmony in My Head,” and the mega-popular “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?.” They had punk energy alright, but members were much more adept at their instruments than the average Sex Pistols clone. The result is a stunning series of songs filled with pent-up sexual frustration and furious drum beats. At their best, Buzzcocks outmaneuver even Elvis Costello. This record puts most contemporary music to shame.
NEXT TIME: C is for... country gals 'n' Counting Cows.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
If The People’s Key really is the final Bright Eyes release as alleged, then it’s a fitting finale. It deviates a bit from the traditional Bright Eyes formula – it’s more electronic than acoustic – but combined with Desapericidos’ Read Music/Speak Spanish and Bright Eyes’ black sheep record Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, forms an unofficial electronic trilogy. Despite its sonic deviation, the lyrical content covers traditional Conor Oberst themes (clocks, the passing of time). Even criticizing the record for sounding too different from the majority of Bright Eyes releases seem irrelevant given the record’s preoccupation with the path not taken.
But then, Bright Eyes never truly stuck to one given sound, morphing from lo-fi bedroom pop to country/bluegrass with detours in indie rock and electronica. It’s odd, then, that Oberst would retire the Bright Eyes moniker, especially since we already went through this with the release of Conor Oberst by Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band in 2008.
Whatever. If you’ve had a love/hate relationship with Oberst like I have over the last decade (and sometimes it really was easier to hate him), then The People’s Key should be a rewarding listen. It’s not a return to politics or folk music, but it shows that Oberst still has a way with words. On a personal level, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself relating more and more to Digital Ash, an electronic-tinged indie record about the passage of life and death. Key isn’t as good or as deep, but tunes like “Shell Games” and “Ladder Song” carry that same love and longing. It’s the sort of late period turnaround that could only appeal to old fans.
The record has a haze to it with computer bleeps punctuating Oberst’s quavering voice. It’s sequenced well enough, although “Approximate Sunlight” sucks out all of the energy of the first three songs. Detractors and jaded ex-fans will be bothered by the record’s insane spoken word segments. I almost didn’t buy the album after streaming opener “Firewall” on NPR only to find out that the first four minutes or so consist of a crazed voice talking about lizard men who can jump between dimensions. But taken overall, The People’s Key is a solid goodbye for fans who might have dismissed Oberst after 2006’s underwhelming Cassadaga.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Did you know Talons released one of the best albums of 2010? Neither did I until just now. They’re in the post-rock/math rock realm, combining Torche’s sludginess and Russian Circle’s technicality with Fang Island’s insistence on having fun all of the time forever. Hollow Realm is a non-stop party jam, friends.
At 40 minutes, Hollow Realm shouldn’t be this fun of an instrumental record. The eight songs are similar in structure, with drums a-bounding and guitars a-blazing. But the songs rock, and they rock thoroughly. “St. Mary Will Be the Death of Us All” opens the record with a stunning display of gravitas and crunch, and things just keep going from there.
Perhaps it’s the band’s secret ingredient, violinists Reuben Brunt and Sam Little, who sets the group apart from the post-rock pack. Brunt’s playing elevates the songs to truly great status. It’s an old rock ‘n’ roll cliché that strings make songs more epic. They make ballads get ballad-ier; they turn Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me” into the greatest song about Godzilla’s hatred for hoes. Here, Brunt and Little glide over all of the dissonance with deft hands, lending the songs a certain beauty when needed, like when they contrast with all of the noise that closes out “An Expected Future Event."
Then again, guitarists Sam Jarvis and Oliver Steels provide so much contrast for Brunt and Little to work with. Their guitars serve up crunch and melody in alternate moves. Bassist Chris Hicks and drummer Alex MacDougall give the rhythm section plenty of heaviness. In short, the band locks together to form a powerful force. Hollow Realm is technical enough for metal geeks without overplaying and propulsive enough for casual rock fans. It is, per my analysis, a darn good time.
[Vinyl Vednesday is a weekly feature about three favorite vinyl finds. It’s not meant to be a dick measuring contest, but it usually turns out that way. In a couple of hours, I’m going to propose to my girlfriend. In anticipation of that, here are three records I know she hates but will have to tolerate in the name of love. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your own big finds!]
Records: Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade (1984) on black, Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) on black, and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. (1984). I didn’t plan on all of these being from the same year, but there you go.
Place of Purchase: Zen Arcade came from Mad Platter Compact Discs in West Chester. Prince was purchased at the defunct comics ‘n’ vinyl mecca Legends at the Plymouth Meeting Mall. Bruce was inherited from my folks.
Thoughts: Music has played a crucial role in the relationship between my girlfriend and I. She’s almost as big a music fan as I am. Almost. And yet, I don’t think Michelle understand just how much time I dedicate to listening to music. I play it as much as I can, and there have been times when she can’t believe how obsessive I am. Something as insignificant as a two-minute car ride still requires the perfect soundtrack. One band I went through a fierce infatuation with is Hüsker Dü. Michelle doesn’t like them because of Bob Mould’s singing voice (Too much like The Hold Steady, whom she also dislikes). Which is a shame, because I’m going to blast the shit out of Zen Arcade when we move in together. The dissonance and feedback that created “Reoccurring Dreams” will surely soundtrack many a shelf-building. Besides, it was my first Dü record. That’s a special moment for every little boy and girl.
My girlfriend loathes Prince. Truthfully, I’m not sure how any woman could love Prince. He’s been terrible to most of the women in his love life. But… but… his music from 1980 to ’87 is unimpeachable, and sporadically great after that. I started my Prince collection with a greatest hits package. When I started digging deeper, I was surprised to learn that half of Purple Rain ended up on that compilation. Then again, it’s Prince’s crossover record, by which I mean his most rock-indebted. “Let’s Go Crazy” is one of my favorite Prince songs, thanks to its propulsive drum beat and shredding guitar, although “Purple Rain” is a close second. The Prince’s vocals and guitar work are so raw on that track. Sign O the Times is better, but Purple Rain is Prince’s most accessible album.
The real test of our relationship, though, came via Bruce Springsteen. Having come of age in the ’90s, Michelle dismissed Springsteen as a joke. And to be fair, the ’90s were the worst decade for Bruce, commercially and creatively. But Michelle’s preconceptions of Bruce were ill-informed, stemming mostly from his hammy videos for MTV circa the mid-’80s. Born in the U.S.A. may have been good to Bruce monetarily, but it’s been hell on my relationship. Springsteen is a big deal on my dad’s side of the family, with U.S.A. being a sore subject. Basically, in my family, you’re a poser if you like Born in the U.S.A., with its overbearing ’production and delirious abundance of synthesizers. But it’s got some good songs. The title track is still one of Bruce’s best, angriest tunes, while “My Hometown” is a somber reflection that closes out the record beautifully. And then there’s the pop perfection of “No Surrender” and the longing of “I’m on Fire.” Truthfully, I think U.S.A. gets derided, both from hardcore fans and detractors, for two songs, sequenced back to back: “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark.” I’ve shown Michelle how many songs Bruce has that are far superior to those. Now I just need to sell her on his voice.
UPDATE: SHE SAID YES.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Seattle’s Gladiators Eat Fire sound like a lot of bands. Not in a derivative way, though. Rather, their self-titled album pulls in plenty of influences into a post-hardcore nexus. At times they match the technicality of Dillinger Escape Plan, at others they mirror Refused’s passion. Other moments still recall a more intricate late period Crime in Stereo, and every so often they pull off The Church’s brand of ambient psychedelia simply because they can. Hell, sometimes Gladiators Eat Fire sounds like two records playing at once.
The truth is that, while the record could probably most easily be called “technical hardcore,” it incorporates enough elements from other styles that it could either repulse strident fans of the genre or act as a gateway to other sounds. “This Shit is Christmas” starts off as a blistering rocker, but by the end it hits a quieter, experimental stride. Things get psychedelic on a whim or, in the case of “Kid, I’m Johnny Appleseed,” an acid-drenched dancepocalypse.
Gladiators Eat Fire never commits to one sound, which keeps their songs fresh despite some lengthy running times. But the record never comes off as self-indulgent, even though I imagine this review reads like a Mars Volta article. Granted, GEF sometimes overplays an idea, but never to the point of exhaustion. Even things that seem dull serve a purpose. “Appleseed” could be two minutes shorter, but the protracted ending segues perfectly into the whistled intro of “Arcane Silva.” These are fairly anti-commercial songs, but they’re not alienating either. If nothing else, they advertise what I imagine to be an insane, unique live show.
Friday, February 18, 2011
[myPod is an attempt to edit down my CD collection as I import my music on to my brand new 160 GB iPod.]
I wish more emo bands sounded like Braid circa Frame & Canvas – catchy, fervent, emotional. Hell, I wish more of Braid’s songs sounded like Frame & Canvas. That record is such a perfect composition of the raw and the pop. The Age of Octeen and other earlier records can’t live up to it, which is why I’ve opted to hold on only to Frame and the group’s two singles collections. Braid wrote a ton of songs in their six years together, and lots of them ended up on seven-inches and compilations. Movie Music Volume One boasts some of their best material; Volume Two has amazing covers of classics by The Smiths, Billy Joel and Pixies. It’s great how the band can do such a serious, emo spin on “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” and then turn around and play an uber-party rendition of “This Charming Man,” complete with a kazoo and handclaps.
Verdict: Half and half.
While they began as a tribute to The Get Up Kids and Hot Rod Circuit, Brand New quickly morphed into something much more ethereal yet powerful. Not that there was anything wrong with their hero worship; Your Favorite Weapon was a catchy collection of zingers and hum-dingers. It gets a little repetitive in spots, but overall is a nice shot of poppy emo rock. Deja Entendu managed to be both better and worse than its predecessor. Musically, it’s much more accomplished and original. Lyrically, well… it’s a little rough in spots. Self-indulgent, even by emo’s standards. For a time, frontman Jesse Lacey was one of the best lyricists in ’00s emo, but he could also go on lengthy rants about himself. Entendu is good, but a couple of bum tracks keep it from being great.
The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me takes the style and renders it more raw, to great success. It’s a much more lumbering record, but man does it hit these stellar, wide open post-rock passages. “The Archers Bows Have Broken” is just about the most triumphant song they’ve ever written. I didn’t bother with Daisy – it’s nowhere near as compelling as Devil – but I still hold out hope for a good follow-up.
FUN FACT: I just realized that Safety in Numbers, who appeared on an early split with Brand New, was a HRC side project.
Essentially, The Breeders are for people who think Pixies didn’t have enough Kim songs. The side project is a little weirder than Pixies. Well, not weirder lyrically – Frank Black always had a knack for disturbingly sexual lyrics – but the song structures often defy traditional pop conventions. Not sure if the reunion albums are worth anything, but Pod and Last Splash are essential ’90s alternative listening. “Last Splash” is the best, although that cover of The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is a mighty fine too.
Bridge and Tunnel
While I still miss Latterman, the bands that splintered off from that punk band have been pretty great too. Bridge and Tunnel, featuring Latterman drummer Pat Schramm, is a little bit slower but still quite good. They’ve got more of a post-hardcore sound, reminiscent of Nakatomi Plaza and Small Brown Bike. Sometimes the lyrics get a little too self-righteous, but somebody’s gotta call the punx on their bullshit.
I got into Bright Eyes because my high school crush was obsessed with Fevers and Mirrors, which means I became obsessed with Fevers and Mirrors, especially “The Calendar Hung Itself…” due to its “Your boyfriend sucks, I’m awesome and/or emotionally unstable” element. I still like the record, but I see a lot of Conor Oberst’s bad tendencies building up. Now that I’m a little older, some of his lyrics come off as self-absorbed, melodramatic, or, worse, stupid. The record isn’t quite as heavy as I remember it being. I already sold Lifted, Or This Title is Long So Fuck It a while ago. Double albums that weren’t written by The Clash or The Cure tend to suck, and Lifted has about 35 minutes of amazing songs strangled by 40 minutes of other stuff. Oberst started to focus by, oddly enough, releasing a double album Use Your Illusion-style in 2004. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is a country/folk record that made waves for being totes political and anti-Bush. Looking back… like four of the songs are political. The rest are about love. And that’s fine, it’s still a great, balanced record, and it was heralded as such at the time.
Its companion, the experimental/electronic album Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, was derided at the time as being the lesser record, but it’s actually way better. The textures he got on that record are stunning, and the lyrics, so obsessed with time and death, really started to hit me hard after Mike died. “I didn’t believe in a God / Until we put him in the ground.” Right now it’s my favorite Bright Eyes record, even though it’s the least representative of his sound. Cassadaga, written post-rehab, seems unfocused and vague. Oberst starts to fizzle out here, although the Four Winds EP he released just prior to promote Cassadaga is amazing. The title track is a rousing country-rocker with a message, the B-sides rule, and my homeboy Ben Kweller plays on a track. Speaking of which, Bright Eyes’ EPs are generally great across the board.
Verdict: Keep some, sell some.
NEXT TIME: B is for... best of the rest.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Mogwai’s new album Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will has a lot working against it. It’s less anthemic than its predecessor, the underrated The Hawk is Howling. It’s yet another record that defies the heavy rock of Mogwai’s debut, Young Team. And on top of that, it takes a hilariously hardcore title and wastes it on a delicate post-rock album.
Speaking as a fan of Young Team’s heaviness and Hawk’s expansiveness in equal measures, I found Hardcore middling. Opener “White Noise” is hypnotically droning and announces a newfound love of electronics, but “Mexican Grand Prix” takes that love too far, with organ blaring and syncopated beats bumping. The whispered, Vocoder-tweaked vocals seem superfluous. I’d rather just hear the keyboard line. Still, this makes for excellent background music.
Mogwai likes to rock, though, so Young Team fans should enjoy the lumbering “Rano Pano.” This tune is slow and heavy, and while it could use a nice guitar freakout, there’s something comforting about the way Mogwai adds layers and layers of noise in a nice succession.
But that’s Hardcore’s problem. It’s too nice. It’s not the worst Mogwai record (I’d go with Come On Die Young personally), but it’s certainly not their best either. The record passes by pleasantly while it’s on, but after a week of listening I’m still not retaining too much. Sure, it’s instrumental music, but any Mogwai fan should be able to recall the guitar work on “Like Herod” or the way the drums and synth intertwine on “The Sun Smells Too Loud.” Hardcore is perhaps too good at being subtle.
But hey, this is Mogwai we’re talking about. Hardcore has plenty of ethereal charm coupled with the occasional foray in rawkin’. A limited edition bonus disc, featuring music for an art installation by Douglas Gordon and Olaf Nicolai, is appealing in an ambient way. At this point, Mogwai is just playing for the converted, but I’d still put their last three albums up against their first three any day.
PJ Harvey has been on a hot streak since she returned in 2007 with White Chalk. Let England Shake, her third album in four years, is arguably the best of her new work, taking experimental approaches to conventional styles. Clearly, she is the Christopher Nolan of rock ‘n’ roll. Overall, the record is anti-war lyrically, ethereal in a folk/shoegaze fashion musically and haunting all around. Over shimmering autoharp and hazy production, England buries deep and stays there.
England draws a lot of imagery from World War I, but in a way that could be applied to any war scenario. In war, nations glorify their soil, but as “The Glorious Land” points out, such prizes are soon ruined: “What is the glorious fruit of our land? / Its fruit is deformed children.” “On Battleship Hill” talks about how land can, in turn, ruin wars. The song is almost a battle from WWI involving Australian and New Zealand armies that got bloody and bungled thanks to rough terrain. As an American, I’d compare it to Vietnam.
Still, WWI works because it is remembered as such a demoralizing war, “The War to End All Wars.” It ruined the winning nations economically; set Germany on the path to Hitler, genocide and World War II; and took so many years and lives to resolve that it temporarily killed any desire for fighting. That said, the album’s standout track, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” hits hard with lines that should apply to anyone. The lyric that’s been quoted most frequently from England in articles, and with good reason, comes from this song: “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat.” That line is so visceral, so unavoidably direct and frightening. That the song is driven by a propulsive folk/bluegrass backbeat is almost unnerving.
“Murder” ends glibly with the quote “What if I take my problems to the United Nations” from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” It’s one of several instances where Harvey quotes, references and samples other works. Each one is more out of artistic need than plagiarism, although I’m not entirely sure what significance the Police’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” should hold.
Those looking for a return to Harvey’s heavy guitar days will again be disappointed. But then, it’s been a long time since Rid of Me, and her work here is just as intense as “Rid of Me” or “Rub ‘til It Bleeds.” On White Chalk, Harvey opted to write for piano so as to see if it would alter her songwriting process. She applied the same trick to England, composing songs on autoharp and saxophone simply because she had never done that before. It’s such a small shift, yet it resulted in a huge, rewarding departure. Hell, she even wrote a reggae tune (“Written on the Forehead”), and it’s amazing. In a year that’s already seen plenty of stellar releases, Let England Shake is tops.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
For their last three albums, Foo Fighters have promised to rock harder every time. Then another album comes out and they're all like, "Oh we'll totally rock harder this time.!Last time was bullshit!" Granted, they've only made one truly bad album (the last one, the one with the stupidly long title), but I rolled my eyes when I read their press release and they again promised to rock more efficiently.
Then Scott showed me the video for "White Limo." This song rocks. It rocks hard. It rocks so hard that it's actually noncommercial, which secretly means it's better than anything that's popular. And the video is hi-larious! And it's got Lemmy from Motorhead! That guy rocks hard too!
I'm not saying "White Limo" is indicative of the new Foo Fighters album overall. Nor am I saying it should be. What I am saying is that this video reminds me that, sometimes, the world can be an alright place.
[Vinyl Vednesday is a weekly feature about three favorite vinyl finds. It’s not meant to be a dick measuring contest, but it usually turns out that way. I just got back from a business trip to D.C., so all of the picks this week come from Washington/Virginia. E-mail email@example.com with your own big finds!]
Records: Cloak/Dagger’s “Kamikazes” seven-inch (2007) on black, Fugazi’s Steady Diet of Nothing (1991) on black, and Strike Anywhere’s Iron Front EP (2009) on clear green.
Place of Purchase: Cloak/Dagger came from Smash Records in D.C. Fugazi was a Repo purchase. Strike Anywhere was ordered directly from Bridge Nine Records.
Thoughts: Even though I only had 24 hours to conduct business in D.C., I still found time to hit up a record store. I picked Smash Records since it was only a few blocks from my hotel (Later I found even more stores nearby. Clearly I need to investigate). One of my picks was this seven-inch from Cloak/Dagger. The A-side, “Kamikaze,” comes from the band’s Jade Tree debut, We Are. The B-side, “She Cracked,” is just as good. Both tunes are very much in the Black Flag/Stooges vein, which has always been C/D’s strength. Not that I’m trying to be hyperbolic, but these tunes sum up rock ‘n’ roll’s entire history.
Any post about music from D.C. needs to mention Ian MacKaye. So here you go. A Steady Diet of Nothing took me a little longer to get into than 13 Songs or Repeater, if only because it’s a little bit slower and more dissonant. But it’s still Fugazi –post-hardcore starts here. MacKaye’s song “Reclamation” always stayed with me: “There are our demands / We want control of your bodies / Decisions will now be ours / You carry out your noble actions / We will carry our noble scars.” Mix those words with shredding guitar.
Good God I listened to so much Strike Anywhere yesterday. The one thing I was missing, though, was Iron Front EP, a collection of two songs from the band’s last full-length of the same name and two left off. All four rock face hard. What I loved about Strike Anywhere is two-fold. 1). Their songs are so fast and melodic and loud. Frontman Thomas Barnett sings every line with the utmost urgency and sincerity. 2). No matter how bad the world seems in the band’s songs, there’s always a tinge of hope for a better tomorrow.
Friday, February 11, 2011
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Rebounding quickly from their fallout with Sire Records, Against Me! issued an acoustic seven-inch on frontman Tom Gabel’s label Sabot Productions. Some folks weren’t too keen on the group’s last full-length, White Crosses. And by some folks, I mean me. This guy. That record broke my heart. But not even a Twitter-lashing, which is surely the most responsible and levelheaded way to air grievances, from Gabel himself could stop me from checking out what else AM! had going on.
“High Pressure Low” was one of the stronger tracks on White Crosses, and it’s actually better in acoustic form. This version adds some wood blocks, vibraslap and electronic flourishes. It was this kind of adornment that rendered Crosses tunes like “Ache With Me” silly, but here it makes the song a little more fun. Boosted by gang vox and political fervor, “High Pressure Low” is good plugged in, but darn near amazing acoustic.
The same cannot be said for B-side “Strip Mall Parking Lots.” It’s just Gabel with an acoustic guitar, which is fine, but the lyrics are infuriatingly empty. They’re all scene description, no plot. The song is about having nothing to do in south Florida, and it proves the point a little too well. Gabel tosses out a bunch of images, like smoking cigarettes and cops being jerk-butts, but nothing really comes into view. The song is about nothing. Without a big chorus to prop it up, “Strip Mall Parking Lots” comes off as filler.
It’s because of this, then, that the seven-inch becomes a placeholder. It’s neither as good nor as bad as fans may claim White Crosses to be. It doesn’t redeem/diminish the group, but it might appeal to collectors and apologists.
[Vinyl Vednesday is a weekly feature about three favorite vinyl finds. It’s not meant to be a dick measuring contest, but it usually turns out that way. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your own big finds!]
Records: Paul McCartney’s Ram (1971) on black, Torche’s Meanderthal Demos ten-inch (2009) on black, and The White Stripes’ “Conquest” single (2007) on clear red.
Place of Purchse: McCartney came from a recent Siren Records run. Torche was delivered to by my door step via No Idea’s wonderful mailorder system. White Stripes came from my other lover, Repo Records in Philadelphia.
Thoughts: I like The Beatles a whole lot. I like that I can put on any of their albums and get a string of well-crafted pop songs. Getting through the members’ solo records, meanwhile, has been a stumble. I’m at a point where I think I own all of the essential George Harrison and John Lennon albums, but up until now I’ve stayed away from Paul McCartney. I always planned on getting Band on the Run at some point, but generally speaking, I haven’t really liked any of his post-Beatles songs. How could he top John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band or All Things Must Pass?
CUT TO A MANAYUNK SOCIAL GATHERING. I’m slaying some wine with Sam Fran Scavuzzo and Pat Rush (of Pat Rush Band Fame). We’re talking about records, as nerds are wont to do, and I casually said something to the effect of “I do not enjoy the works of Paul McCartney post-1970.” I can’t remember if I mentioned “The Girl is Mine” from Thriller as an exception or not. Anyhoozle, Rush looked me straight in the soul and told me to check out Ram. He told me it wasn’t as great as other records in the Beatles universe, but that it would be a pleasant listen. He was right. Ram consists of a bunch of silly love songs, but it flows nicely and the arrangements manage to be epic and slight at the same time. This is how I wish more twee bands sounded.
So… any recommendations for a Ringo Starr record?
I fell for Torche pretty hard in 2010. Songs For Singles dominated my ears, and I quickly tore through their discograpy. This year, I’m filling in the margins, starting with Meanderthal Demos. I love all of the group’s full-lengths (Right now the self-titled is my favorite), but I was surprised by how much I prefer these demos to Meanderthal proper. The tunes here aren’t too differently, just slightly fuzzier ‘n’ grainier, which suits Torche’s knack for penning metal tunes that blend sludge, alternative, and acid rock. I really, really need to see this band live.
Speaking of getting hip to old acts, I didn’t really appreciate The White Stripes in their heyday. Icky Thump turned me around on them, though, and I eventually found myself delighting in the band’s sense of humor. I dig the album version of their cover of Corry Robbins’ “Conquest,” but the acoustic Mariachi version on this single is pretty great too. B-side “Cash Grab Complications On the Matter” complements the song well. The single also comes with a poster and trading card!
Monday, February 7, 2011
The Go! Team was never a subtle band. They deal in energetic dance beats. But it’s the details that make or break their records. Debut Thunder, Lightning, Strike exploded with funk, rap, rock, big band and pop. Follow-up Proof of Youth sounded like the work of a sub-par Go! Team tribute act – they got the notes right, but man did it sound cluttered and empty at the same time. With the release of Rolling Blackouts, however, the Team doubles down on fun and comes out a winner.
Maybe it’s because I haven’t paid attention to them for a while, but opener “T.O.R.N.A.D.O.” made me dance right away. Granted, I was driving and I’m one awkward white fellow, but the song is propulsive, enthusiastic and, oh yeah, fun. “Secretary Song” repeats the trick. But by the time “Apollo Throwdown” comes on, it becomes apparent that The Go! Team has learned a new trick: Quiet/loud dynamics. As much as I love Thunder, that album is pretty much on all the time (aside from “Everyone is a V.I.P. to Someone,” I guess).
Blackouts explores tempos more slightly at first before going into a bubblegum pop tune called “Ready to Go Steady.” It’s straight out of the ’60s and stripped down compared to the band’s more contemporary arrangements but it’s actually pretty good. Of course, “Bust-Out Brigade” amps up the energy levels back up with a marching band-style stomp, but the give and take freshens up the band.
Perhaps what sunk Proof of Youth was that it was too similar to Thunder, Lightning, Strike. For all the changes made, like raising hype woman MC Ninja higher in the mix, the record didn’t break enough from Thunder’s formula, and it sure as hell didn’t improve it. Blackouts reminds me what worked then (big beats, hummable hooks and lots o’ pep) and where the band could go today.
I’ve been all over the spectrum as a Go! Team fan, from eager convert to jaded, jilted ex-lover. Rolling Blackouts restarts the affair all over for me. It ain’t subtle, but it works.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
You know that guy in your dorm that keeps playing “Wonderwall” by Oasis incorrectly on his acoustic guitar? Fuck that guy. Acoustic singer/songwriter outfit The End of America is way better than that douchebag, and they don’t have to rely on The Beatles, Tom Petty or Natty Light to get your interest.
Presumably good acquaintances Brendon Thomas (Foreverinmotion), James Downes (Call It Arson) and Trevor Leonard (Triangle Shirt Factory) formed the group around one nifty idea: Travel somewhere in the Estados Unidos, let inspiration strike and then thrown down some tracks on a home recording device. In this case, the trip traveled to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. While camping, they conceived and recorded the nine songs that constitute Steep Bay.
This rapid fire writing style means Steep Bay is at times easier to respect than it is to like. While the acoustic sound is all over the place (Opener “Are You Lonely” = Elliot Smith, whereas “Running” = Dispatch), the album generally has a lived-in feel, stemming from the organic quality of the recordings. You can hear the guys count in from song to song. Sometimes the levels aren’t quite right. Sometimes the lyrics lack depth. But the harmonies and passion are tight.
In spite of it quickie roots, Steep Bay is an earthy record that I suspect will play a lot better once the snow melts for good. These sons were written round a campfire, and they could like it. While the album could use some of the grit that made Call It Arson compelling, its frills-free aesthetic has a charm all its own.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
[Vinyl Vednesday is a weekly feature about three favorite vinyl finds. It’s not meant to be a dick-measuring contest, but it usually turns out that way. E-mail email@example.com with your own big finds!]
Records: The Cars’ The Cars (1978) on black, The Extra Lens’ Undercard (2010) on black, and Franz Nicolay’s St. Sebastian of the Short Stage (2009) 10-inch on black.
Place of Purchase: Cars came from Disc World in Conshohocken (R.I.P.), Repo Records in Philadelphia, and Franz was a promo sent my way for review.
Thoughts: The Cars’ self-titled debut plays like a greatest hits package. Hits include “Good Times Rolls,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Just What I Needed,” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.” While it’s a littler slower than what Elvis Costello was doing at the time, this might be the best power-pop record of all time. It’s jittery enough to appease post-punkers, but catchy enough for pop fans. The band fizzled out during the ’80s, but this record is just inhumanly good. I know I’m getting repetitive here, but got-damn. These dudes spat out “Just What I Needed” and buried it in the middle of the album like it wasn’t that big of a deal.
Undercard took a while to grow on me. The last time that happened to me with a John Darnielle release, it was The Sunset Tree and I was being an idiot. I suppose I could connect it to The Cars in that while neither record is particularly heavy on an emotional level, both crank out infectious hits with ease. “Rockin’ Rockin’ Twilight of the Gods” is my jam. I regret missing out on The Extra Lens’ intimate show at the Tin Angel, because I don’t think Darnielle is going to play a venue that small in Philly for a while, but then again, I was in Europe. My life rules.
I love how instead of labeling the sides of his 10-inch [That sounds weird out of context], Franz Nicolay opted to use pictures of gnomes smiling/crying to let you know what kind of songs you’re going to hear. I’m not too keen on the depressing side, but the fun side has a cover of “New England” with The Dresden Dolls that’s giddy and silly and awesome. The other track is a song written about Hollis Wadsworth Mason Jr. from Watchmen. NERD ALERT!
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
[myPod is an attempt to edit down my CD collection as I import my music on to my brand new 160 GB iPod.]
New Jersey college rock band that existed somewhere between early R.E.M. and Adam Ant. Their first record, Drums Along the Hudson, is something of a lost post-punk classic. The lyrics are a little boring sometimes, but frontman Richard Barone had a knack for hooks, as revealed on insanely catchy yet dissonant numbers like “Glow in the Dark” and “In the Congo.” They also do a great job with “Mambo Sun” by T. Rex. The re-release is unfortunately crammed with useless live tracks, but the original album, bolstered by unreleased track “Nuts & Bolts,’ is stellar.
I don’t know why Bon Jovi ever qualified as a metal band in the ’80s, because in truth they were just like all the other schmaltzy soft rockers like Foreigner and R.E.O. Speedwagon (The ’80s were a weird time for genre classification). They just happened to write better songs. Whether it was rockers (“Wanted Dead or Alive,” “Blaze of Glory”) or ballads (“Bed of Roses,” “Prayer ’94”), they were just better. I would never put Jon Bon Jovi on the same level as his New Jersey neighbor Bruce Springsteen, but I at least get why people like him. Dude wrote some great songs about being a faux-cowboy. And c’mon, you like “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Don’t front.
The Bonebrake Syncopators
There are a handful of musicians whose career paths I would love to follow. One of them belongs to D.J. Bonebrake, a classically trained percussionist who wound up the drummer for the seminal West coast punk act X. He later went on to join Auntie Christ and Devils Brigade. Bonebrake’s talents extend beyond punk, as evidenced by The Bonebrake Syncopators, who play lounge-y jazz. Their record, That Da Da Strain, is light and airy and pleasant. I’m not sure I’d own it if Bonebrake wasn’t involved, though. I just get a kick out of my hero having fun.
I like Boris Smile because they write catchy indie-folk songs about awesome topics like bears (“Beartooth”), robots (“Program Me to Love”), and outer space (Rockets EP). Unfortunately, they catch a lot of flak because their name references the Japanese metal band Boris, who put out a record called Smile, despite sounding nothing like that band/album. I think the name is going to hold them back, but the tunes are solid.
I dip into technical hardcore every so often, so you best bet I know a thing or two about the genre’s most important band, Botch. As much as I love Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch did it first. American Nervoso and We Are the Romans still carry an otherwordly aggression to them, simply by virtue of being so loud and so technical. I can’t handle listening to this music too much, but when I’m in the mood to get my ass kicked, Romans works out well.
Verdict: Keep, although I don’t see the point in uploading the demos from the American Nervoso re-release.
In high school, I worked at Sam Goody. I got a 40 percent employee discount on CDs, which meant I could check out whatever I wanted on the cheap. Intrigued by her single “Another White Dash,” I picked up Butterfly Boucher’s Flutterby back in 2003. I was kind of indifferent towards the album then, and now I realize that I probably should have gotten rid of it a while ago. It’s actually a pretty catchy, pseudo-electronic record. But Boucher’s lyrics are so clumsy and awful. Sample lyric: “I think I’d like my soul back.” Here’s another one: “That’s the way the cookie crumbles / But in whose hand?”
The Bouncing Souls
The Bouncing Souls were one of the first punk bands I loved, nearly 10 years ago. At this point, I’m a lifer for their pogo-worthy pop-punk. It’s not entirely hyperbole for me to call them one of the best punk bands of all time. I first heard the group through the compilation Punk-O-Rama Volume 6, which featured “True Believers” from How I Spent My Summer Vacation. That comp. served as a primer for Epitaph’s punk roster, and I soon picked up Summer Vacation. The band’s hooks and humor remain true throughout their discography, but it’s the drummers that define two separate eras. Michael McDermott, the group’s current drummer, has a tight and technical style, and it serves as the basis for the Souls in the new millennium. His four records with the group – Summer Vacation, Anchors Aweigh, The Gold Record, and Ghosts of the Boardwalk – turned the Souls into a muscular, taught punk act.
Shal Khichi, their original drummer, had a looser style, and the songs he played on have a rougher, easier style. Again, there’s a clear progression through the Souls’ songs, but you can instantly tell which decade the songs are from. I love Khichi’s records – The Good, The Bad, and The Argyle, Maniacal Laughter, The Bouncing Souls, and Hopeless Romantic – but my favorite album is constantly up in the air. For the longest time it was Summer Vacation, then Maniacal Laughter. Lately, I’ve found myself gravitating towards the band’s short, hilarious, awesome self-titled full-length. Other punk bands write about problems, be they with girls or the government. And the Souls touch on those issues too. But ultimately, they’re a band I associate with positivity, fun, and kicking ass. They are possibly the greatest East coast punk band of all time, with apologies to Against Me!, The Clash, and every band Dr. Dan Yemin has ever been in.
Verdict: KEEP MOTHERFUCKER.
David Bowie is a genius. Detractors have tried to knock him down over the years – he peaked a long time ago, depends on collaborators for ideas, etc. – but you can’t stop “Changes.” Dude laid the groundwork for punk rock, only to start working on post-punk by the time everyone else caught on. For a few years, my entryway into Bowie was Changes, a CD best-of that I listened pretty much every day in my best friend Tim’s car. I eventually picked up Best of Bowie, which covered a greater area of his discography.
When I got a record player, I started venturing into studio album territory. I think I’ve more or less purchased every essential Bowie record – Space Oddity through the Labyrinth soundtrack, plus some live albums and a collection of his early novelty singles. Since then I’ve started purchasing some of my favorite Bowie albums on CD as well. Space Oddity will always be underrated because of what came later, and while it’s not perfect, there are some lesser known songs like “Janine,” “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” and “Memory of a Free Festival” that I need at my disposal at all hours. Aladdin Sane is Bowie’s underrated glam album. Ziggy gets all the love, but Sane is better recorded and starts to incorporate Bowie’s love of soul music. Low is his best album of all time, although Station to Station comes close, as the recent box set re-release revealed. I’ve had “TVC15” stuck in my head for weeks. I also have a couple of live albums on CD. Bowie’s style constantly evolved, and he altered his catalog to suit whatever sound he was pursuing, which is why I’m OK with having like five different versions of “Changes.” Like I said before you can’t stop that song.
Verdict: Keep… can we get a Low deluxe edition? Maybe finally release the soundtrack to The Man Who Fell to Earth?
I just realized I don’t like Billy Bragg as much as I thought. I went through an intense phase of dedication back in college, circa the summer of 2007. Bragg started off as a solo performer in the ’80s, a Woody Guthrie antidote in a vapid pop climate. He eventually started adding a full band on later records, but he found the perfect mix on his first full-length, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, which blends in acoustic stringed instruments and percussion with his electric guitar and charmingly British voice. This is how folk music should have always sounded, with songs jumping from the sexual to the political and back with ease. Back to Basics covers the EPs leading up to Taxman, but they don’t quite carry the same dosage of wit, humor, and action. Don’t Try This At Home is probably the best Bragg-with-a-band record. Bragg is known for his political songs, as he should be, but not enough gets said about his humor. “Sexuality” is a pro-equality anthem for the LGBTQ crowd, but it’s also pretty campy (in a good way). “Accident Waiting to Happen” is the song that got me into Bragg, and it remains my favorite. Home is a little unfocused musically, but it’s still great. The same can’t be said for later records, as Bragg’s success ratio starts to dim. William Bloke and Mr. Love and Justice are still solid, but songs like “The Johnny Carcinogenic Show” and “The Space Race is Over” aren’t nearly as clever as he thinks they are.
Verdict: Sell Back to Basics, edit the rest. Outside of Don’t Try This At Home, I don’t really need any of the bonus disc demos.
NEXT TIME: B is for... boring TV soundtracks, British grunge bands, and Buzzzzzzzzzzcocks.
2010 was the year I broke up with Against Me!. 2011 is the year we get back together so we don't die alone in 2012.
ALSO, I love when some random guy screams "Get off the stage!" during "Black Me Out." The chorus is weird but the hook is undeniable.