Thursday, March 31, 2011

myPod: Ca-Ce

[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 weird listening to Caution!, my high school band. The group represents a compromise of the different genres my friends and I were into, and it shows. Ultimately, I realize that we would probably be called an emo band in the mallcore sense of the term. There are breakdowns and angsty lyrics galore. We wrote a song called “Bleeding From the Inside Out” and it sounds like the last Linkin Park album. But while there are plenty of embarrassing moments, I’m still proud of us for self-releasing a seven-song EP. “Where You Are,” the first song we ever wrote together, holds up. “Clearview” has one of my favorite piano hooks off all time. “Falling On My Face” was a tossed-off punk tune, but we added an R&B-style spoken word bridge that still cracks me up. I hear a lot of mistakes when I play these songs, but I hear a lot of passion too.

Verdict: Keep. Besides, who would buy this from me?

John Cena

My love of John Cena left the confines of irony long ago. So it was only a matter of time before I picked up his rap album. It’s hilariously awful. The music is indistinct, the rhymes are simplistic, and most of the lyrics are contradictory (“Just Another Day
posits Cena as being both poor and rich at the same time) and silly (“Don’t Fuck With Us” explains that Cena is badass like a well-stocked deli, meaning he is prepared for any situation. In this metaphor, the cheese selection represents guns and/or sick rhymes). I can’t get through this album in one sitting, but when broken up, it’s up there with anything Hulk Hogan ever put out.

Verdict: Edit.


Cetus is the catalyst into my newfound love of metal. While they are a cornerstone for the Lansdale hardcore scene, their technicality and rhythm set them apart. The band’s debut EP Archaic was promising, but the group hit on something fierce with their first full-length, These Things Take Time. Drummer Matt Buckley once told me that what he loves about Meshuggah is that as intricate as their songs get, there’s always a discernible downbeat to anchor everything together. That’s how I feel about Time and its follow-up, Centrifuge. For all the passion and anger and musical dexterity, there’s a groove that flows through the songs. I get sent a lot of technical hardcore albums for review, and most of them come off as masturbatory compared to Cetus, all math and no heart.

Verdict: Keep.

The Changes

Yacht-rock-tinged indie popsters. They put one pretty nifty album and then vanished. Just listened to it at work and, five years later, it’s still pretty great.

Verdict: Keep.


Channels were a short-lived project from husband/wife duo J. Robbins (ex-Government Issue/Jawbox/Burning Airlines) and Janet Morgan. Darren Zantek from Kerosene 454 played drums. Robbins solidified his songwriting style by Jawbox’s third album, so folks of that band or Burning Airlines will enjoy Channels’ slinking guitar dirges and pulsating drums. There are little differences, though. Channels were arguably Robbins’ most danceable project, thanks to Zantek’s beats. The songs dip into indie rock territory more than post-hardcore. And Channels’ full-length Waiting For the Next End of the World is easily Robbins’ most political album. My only real complaint is that Channels didn’t last long, but that’s because Robbins and Morgan’s son, Callum, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy in 2007. The band fell by the wayside so the pair could be full-time parents.

Verdict: Keep.

Cheese on Bread

So, in high school I was good buds with a fellow named FITZ!. FITZ! had a sister. This sister of his was one-half of an anti-folk duo known as Cheese on Bread. He gave me his sister’s album. I enjoyed it, what with the humorous lyrics and pretty harmonies. I still bust it out on occasion when I need to hear a good tune about veganism vs. cheese. Favorite lyric from the record: “If I ever let you kiss me again / We’ll have to change your whole personality.”

Verdict: Keep.

Chemical Brothers

One day I realized I knew at least four Chemical Brothers songs, so I purchased a greatest hits package from the group. It’s missing “Salmon Song,” but I get “Galvanized” and “Let Forever Be,” which I used to watch obsessively on Tunez (serving the Burlington and Delaware Country areas!). Those two songs are so good for driving that they’re almost dangerous. I’m not the biggest fan of electronic music, but between Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk, I get my fix of repetitive beats.

Verdict: Keep.

The Chickpeas

A few of my friends circa high school were in a jam band called The Chickpeas. The ’peas put on insanely fun shows. They’d crack jokes in between songs and serve baked goods to the crowd. It was like a variety show. Their recorded output never matched their live show, but their first full-length Lickety Split has some catchy tracks, like “Rock Stars Are Dead” and “Back From the Dead Again.” Listen to it all these years later, though, a lot of faults crop up. The drums are a little buried in the mix. The lyrics are a little too nonsensical. I graduated high school in 2004. It’s time to move on.

Verdict: Sell.

The Chinkees

Some people look to Jesus or Buddha for inspiration. I look to Mike Park. Dude’s tongue-in-cheek ska band The Chinkees wrote socially/politically aware tunes that were very, very danceable. Some of them were just full band versions of Park’s solo stuff, but c’mon. I love the organ sound they got here. PICK. IT. UP.

Verdict: Keep.


Hindsight is a weird thing. Chisel was a critically appreciated indie rock band in the ’90s, but when I listen to them, all I hear is a dry run for frontman Ted Leo’s run with The Pharmacists. The songs aren’t as big or as well-produced (In fact, some of Nothing New sounds like ass), but it’s still Leo.

Verdict: Keep.

The Church

As prolific as they are, I’ve only latched on to a handful of releases from the psychedelic alt-pop act The Church. My collection is mixed between vinyl and CD, and the only compact disc to stay in my collection is arguably their best work, Starfish. The one benefit of working inventory in the CD/DVD section of Barnes & Noble, back when they still had a listening section, was that I could check a variety of music easily. If an album cover caught me, I’d look into it. Starfish looks like a classic, with its faded black and white photos arranged in a square. The songs contained within confirmed my notion. The band’s biggest U.S. hit, “Under the Milky Way,” is here, as are shimmering shoulda-been hits like “Reptile” and “North, South, East, and West.” My favorite right now is the surprisingly rocking “Spark.”

Verdict: Keep.

NEXT TIME: C is for... comedians, corrosive punk bands, and core, hard-.

Versus: Bruce Springsteen March Madness Round 4

[Versus pits two of an artist’s classic albums against each other even if they’re stylistically different, because that “you can’t compare apples and oranges” bullshit is for people without balls, spines, or all those other things that separate us from the villainous jellyfish. This month, Versus is hosting a March Madness/Mortal Kombat tournament of Bruce Springsteen's 16 finest studio albums.]

Final Round: Nebraska v. The Rising


At this point, the more obvious Springsteen favorites (Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born in the U.S.A.) have fallen by the wayside, leaving behind two albums that I think get overlooked in the Bruce canon. That doesn’t necessarily negate the point of Versus, which is the pursuit of rock ‘n’ roll truth or whatever, but I honestly didn’t think I would discuss any of Springsteen’s work post-1984 when I came up with this tournament.

I kind of always knew Nebraska would come up, though. It will probably never be as big as Born to Run, but its influence on indie music has been huge over the last 30 years. It began life as a demo collection of songs for the next E Street Band album. But practices yielded versions that lacked the demo’s haunting, sparse quality. Eventually, Bruce opted to just release the songs as they were, minus “Born in the U.S.A.” The resulting record took elements that had been present in Bruce’s work since at least Born to Run – the darker failings of America – and pushed them to the forefront.

The songs have various energies, but they’re all just different kinds of desperate. “Atlantic City” is the closest thing to a rocker, a strummed out ode to a failing romance. “Highway Patrolman,” “Johnny 99,” and “State Trooper” form a trilogy of bad dealings with the law. Familial strains come up as well, again on “Highway Patrolman,” as well as “Used Cars” and “My Father’s House.” The closest thing to uplift comes on the concluding track, “Reason to Believe.” Over a bluesy riff, Bruce is confronted with a litany of disturbing images and realizes that faith is meant to placate. It’s a stark conclusion to a stark record.

Nebraska gets by on minimalism and good lyrics. It also birthed a new genre, lo-fi. By utilizing lower fidelity, artists can create a haze for listeners to get lost in. Monster movies are more effective when the creature is hidden, a la Jaws or The Thing, and the same could be said of lo-fi. The tones implied are just as important as the ones heard. Springsteen has tried a few times to recreate Nebraska’s indie-folk, with mixed results, but it truly is a one-of-a-kind record in his discography.

The Rising is, in some ways, Nebraska’s opposite. It’s like 15 tracks’ worth of “Reason to Believe.” Released nine years ago (Holy shit) just after 9/11, the record is loaded with hope and rumination. While some of the songs date back to the late ’90s, The Rising took on an instant political context. Springsteen was one of America’s great rock heroes in the ’70s and ’80s, and here he was, back again to comfort us and prop the country back up.

Now that 9/11 is nearly a decade behind us (Holy shit 2x), I can listen to Rising without the political pull and just hear a solid collection of songs about getting better. Plenty of Bruce albums mix joy and desperation. Nebraska tipped towards the desperate; Rising is like the day after, the realization that the past is done and the future can still be glorious. It acknowledges hard times, but it’s still a midtempo party record, thanks to tunes like “Lonesome Day” and “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.” Clarence “Big Man” Clemons provides fun sax solos while Bruce chimes in with goofy platitudes. One of the songs is straight up called “Let’s Be Friends.” This is a beers ‘n’ brats record.

The album deals with religious imagery at times, beautifully so on “Mary’s Place” and “My City of Ruins.” In fact, “Mary’s Place” might be one of the best Bruce songs of all time. I’d put it up against “Thunder Road” or “Rosalita” any day. That song just builds and builds to this epically huge chorus. It simmers on the bridge before exploding one final time. If you’ve seen it performed live, you know “Mary’s Place” drives the crowds crazy.

But what ultimately gives Nebraska the edge of Rising is consistency. Nebraska is fat-free. The Rising was Bruce’s comeback album, his first release of all new material since 1994’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, and while I can see the appeal in getting 72 minutes of new music, it just doesn’t need to be that long. Maybe if it had been trimmed to 10 tracks, like Nebraska, this would be a harder decision, but The Rising does not need to be 15 songs deep. No one needed the world music via Sting-ism of "Worlds Apart;" cutting that song along would save six minutes.

The clear winner in this round and this tournament is Nebraska, a subtle acoustic record that has lost none of its power. It’s the least representative of Bruce’s overall sound, but it’s the best.

[For Michael. I’m sorry Darkness got knocked out in the first round.]

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Mountain Goats - 'All Eternals Deck'

Never one to rest for long, John Darnielle is back with yet another amazing full-length. Just five months after The Extra Lens dropped Undercard, Darnielle returns with All Eternals Deck, courtesy of his regular thing, The Mountain Goats. Recorded in spurts while on the road, the record has a loose cohesion and a bevy of tonal shifts.

At this point, The Mountain Goats’ M.O. should be understood: Darnielle writes the best lyrics and sings them like a pro. He used to play minimalist acoustic lo-fi recorded on boom boxes, but then he started cooperating with larger indie labels like 4AD and, lately, Merge Records. Bassist Peter Hughes and relative newcomer Jon Wurster (three albums and counting for the Superchunk drummer) provide the rhythm.

Perhaps due to its start-stop creation, All Eternals Deck feels underwritten in spots. Darnielle usually cranks out a couple of songs with big hooks every album. There are always a handful of tunes you know you can scream regardless of your blood alcohol level. Previous winners include “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” “Heretic Pride,” and the almighty “This Year.” I only get that feeling from this record fleetingly. In fact, the most rocking tune, “Estate Sale Sign,” left the least impression on me. It’s energetic and what-not, but I don’t get much of a thrill out of it while driving. Good, not great.

But then, the record picks up considerably in its second half, starting with the goofy/awesome barbershop harmony of “High Hawk Season.” “Prowl Great Cain” packs a massively catchy fit of nihilism (“I feel guilty but I can’t feel ashamed / Prowl through empty fields Great Cain”) and a nifty piano line. Much like on The Life of the World to Come, TMG utilizes piano to great effect here, whether it be on the rockin’ murder party “Cain” or the delicate Life throwback “Outer Scorpion Squadron.” “For Charles Bronson” and “Liza Forever Minnelli” deal with encroaching doubts. Between the two is “Never Quite Free,” and its got such a darn nice outro, the kind that could end an uplifting movie about failure.

I don’t mean to paint All Eternals Deck as a disappointment because it’s not. It’s surprisingly unified despite being a tour record with four producers. It’s up there with David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty. Oddly enough, after reading the liner notes, I realized that all my favorite songs on the record were helmed by John Congleton (“Prowl Great Cain,” “For Charles Bronson,” “Never Quite Free,” and “Damn These Vampires,” which is somehow better than every song on every Twilight saga soundtrack).

But coming off such a stellar run of albums last decade – a flawless chain from 2000’s The Coroner’s Gambit to 2009’s Life that is without filler or failure – All Eternals Deck feels like a solid “B.” The first half goes by in a blur, the second half is solid. It’s Mountain Goats. You don’t like this album? Darnielle probably already has something new in the chamber.

Vinyl Vednesday 3/30/2011

[Vinyl Vednesday is a weekly feature about three favorite vinyl finds. It’s not meant to be a dick-measuring contest, but usually turns out that way. With April Fools looming, Vinyl Vednesday is going humor-based this week. LAUGH DAMN YOU. E-mail with your own big finds!]

Alvin & The Chipmunks’ Chipmunk Punk (1980) on black, Flight of the Conchords’ Flight of the Conchords (2008) on black, and the Top Gun Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1986) on, um, black.

Place of Purchase: Chipmunk Punk and Top Gun came from Impact! Thrift Store before it moved from East Norriton to Norristown. Flight of the Conchords was purchased at a.k.a. music in Philadelphia.

Thoughts: I bought Chipmunk Punk as a joke. A stupid, $0.25 joke. The record is more new wave than punk, and even then it fudges the numbers with a Tom Petter & The Heartbreakers cover. Still, I have a weird affection for this LP [NOTE: Chipmunk Punk went gold in the ’80s, rekindling the public’s love affair with the Chipmunks and paving the way for the second, and arguably superior, animated television show]. The Chipmunks’ joke – pop songs with the vocals sped up – gets old after a while, but I put this on every once in a while when I wanna feel tru punx. It’s mostly harmless fun, although their cover of “Refugee” gets really mean out of nowhere when the Chipmunks start ripping on the lyrics.

The first U.S. Flight of the Conchords album, much like the first season of their U.S. TV show, is just about a perfect collection of pop songs that also happen to be hilarious. The record jumps from style to style – Serge Gainsbourg French pop on “Foux du Fafa,” Depeche Mode faux-political synth-pop on “Inner City Pressure,” three phases of Bowie on “Bowie.” Best line of the record : “No one cares / No one sympathizes / You just stay home and play synthesizers.” Well, that and “She’s so hot she’s making me sexist.” And “Yes I know sometimes my lyrics are sexist / But all you lovely bitches should know that I’m trying to correct this.”

It seems like my joke albums break up my legitimately good albums. Chipmunk Punk comes between Castevet and The Church; Top Gun separates Tool from Torche. The Top Gun soundtrack has one amazing song – “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins – and then lots of embarrassing ’80s pop rock. But in college my roommates and I bumped this far more frequently than I care to admit. That “Danger Zone” hook is just too big to ignore. And that guitar solo! It’s all “bow bow aousdbvofsubvouvbouv dow-now-now!” Also worth a spin is Teena Marie’s “Lead Me On.” Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” was a monster hit, but I’d rather listen to “The Metro” or “No More Words” any day. But hey, some of these songs don’t require any opinion whatsoever. I’ve had this record for about seven years now and I still don’t remember how Cheap Trick’s “Mighty Wings” goes. Now Loverboy’s “Heaven in Your Eyes,” that’s something I carry with me at all times. “There’s a first in the sky tonight!”

Monday, March 28, 2011

Various - 'Born to Kill'

With its seven-inch compilation (or four-way split if you prefer) Born to Kill, One Percent Press highlights some substantial up-and-coming talent. Tony Flaminio leads the charge with the strongest track, “Hard to Sea.” Flaminio singer the jangly tune like a folksier Bridge and Tunnel. The lyrics are awfully lovelorn, but the guy sells the heck out of the hook “If you don’t like it / Don’t get good at it.” Fences Make Good Neighbors nearly matches Flaminio with “Loosen the Grip.” Their tune is more in the indie pop vein a la the Changes or late period Wrens.

The flipside doesn’t quite top the first half. Tracy Morrow sings “Cold Comfort” with a little too much twang. Additionally, the track is too sparse. It’s not bad, but it’s such a whisper of a song with its mellow drums, guitar, and violin. Ellen West sends the seven-inch off on a better note, though, with “Loss of Momentum.” A haunting acoustic tune, “Momentum” shimmers and shines musically while West sings about failure. Pretty songs about failure are pretty much the best.

A download code doubles the comp’s track listing, making this vinyl a deal in stereo at just $5.

Various - 'New York Rules'

With vinyl sales on the rise, it looks like cassettes are the new “difficult/retro/obscure format” of choice for music. Cassettes have a much short lifespan (10-30 years, compared to compact discs which are estimated to last up to 200 years. Vinyl can last for decades if you clean it properly). In the case of Burn Books’ New York Rules mix tape, audio degradation might be a strength, as the compilation showcases eight skuzzy, fuzzy, proto-punk acts. More tape hiss means more noise to dive in.

Pregnant opens the comp with “Tootache” and “Help!”, two cuts from their mighty fine self-titled full-length debut from last year. Both songs are in the Stooges vein – loud, brief and fun. Aside from Night Birds, Pregnant is arguably the poppiest act on the tape, relatively speaking, Nomos and Hank Wood & the Hammerheads take things in a much more brutal, lo-fi hardcore direction. Night Birds inject a little bit of Fat Wreck-style pop-punk with their tunes, and they even bump up the production a couple of notches. Nude Beach closes out side A with a nifty, quasi-psychedelic cover of Alex Chilton’s “Hey Little Child.”

The B side’s winner is clearly the Men, who do an amazing cover of Devo’s “Gates of Steel.” That’s one of the best Devo tunes and they rock it out nicely. Byrds of Paradise makes a good showing with garage rock numbers “Members” and “Home and Garden,” though. Dawn of Humans closes out the tape. Taken as a whole, New York Rules is a solid introduction to a lot of up-and-coming bands, and even throws in some nice rarities. Now get to work on an eight-track.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Heat Tape - 'Raccoon Valley Recordings'

I remember the first time I heard about lo-fi as a genre. I was talking to a young indie gal who swore up and down that it was a more honest form of songwriting. She made me a mix CD of bands to check out, and all I could hear was badly produced pop-punk. Besides, nothing will ever beat All Hail West Texas for lowest of the lo-fi. My feelings towards the genre feel even more appropriate with the introduction of Raccoon Valley Recordings by the Heat Tape, featuring Brett Hunter of the Copyrights. Here’s the proof I was looking for.

Semantics aside, Raccoon Valley Recordings is a super catchy, fun record. It basically sounds like a slower Copyrights record with grainier production but the hooks still intact [Side note: They recorded this record in Hunter’s trailer. DIY]. It’s 24 minutes of sad lyrics put to bouncy music, and that’s where the best pop-punk comes from. Tunes like “Spend It” and “Ah Ha Ah” shimmer with energy.

Perhaps the biggest departure for Hunter is the slower songs, like “Grandma’s Guns,” a tune about his grandmother’s hypothetical gun collection. Coupled with the low fidelity, the tune takes on a thundering, monolithic quality. Other tunes just feel like pop-punk songs slowed down. “Feel No Good” is propelled by the line “It’s a beautiful day for a hangover today,” and it just feels like the BPM needs to get cranked up.

Perhaps the best argument for lo-fi is that it makes pop-punk more interesting. Criticisms against the genre – infantile lyrics, repetitive song structures, overproduction – don’t apply to Raccoon Valley Recordings. The songs are economical in length and structure, but the sequencing breaks things up into a nice ebb and flow. Hunter seems to have a sense of humor about the whole thing (per the liner notes, three songs are about “being a piece of shit”), but this is the sort of modest, straightforward songwriting that always wins.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Teenage Bottlerocket - 'Another Way' re-release

Over the years, Teenage Bottlerocket has steadily built up a fanbase through consistent touring and devotion to a pure form of pop-punk that mirrors the Ramones, Mr. T Experience and the much maligned Screeching Weasel. The band turns out consistently strong, catchy records with little stylistic deviation, something the group acknowledges by simply palette-swapping the same crossbones album cover over and over. This is the Mortal Kombat of pop-punk.

That said, the recent re-release of TBR’s full-length debut, Another Way, on Red Scare is a surprising listen. Certain elements have clearly carried over to later albums – the primal guitar chords, the snotty vocals – but it’s still shocking to hear how young the group sounds. I can’t imagine something like “Senior Prom,” about how you totally don’t have to go to the senior prom, ending up on They Came From the Shadows. Comparing Another Way to Shadows reveals a bit of artistic growth, at least as much as a pop-punk band can grow.

That doesn’t mean Another Way is bad. Quite the opposite, as the group nearly had their sound in place by this point. The tunes are catchy, the guitars snarl (dig that dissonance on “Opportunity”) and the beats are always kickin’. Sure, there are some clunkers like “Rathead,” but tunes like “Another Way” and “Patrick” rank among the band’s best. There are little things that needed tweaking and were corrected on subsequent releases, but not much.

Another Way is not ideal for a first TBR purchase – Shadows or Warning Device would be better. But those already down with the Ramones fest will be pleased with this re-release. The remastering gives the songs a little more clarity. The bonus tracks nearly double the record’s running time, boosting the original albums 11 songs with six more tunes culled from the band’s A-Bomb EP and Why I Let You Get Away, a split with Bill the Welder. The band’s early output from 2002-2004 is nicely assembled. Now get to work on a deluxe edition of Total.

Vinyl Vednesday 3/23/2011

[Vinyl Vednesday is a weekly feature about three favorite vinyl finds. It’s not meant to be a dick-measuring contest, but usually turns out that way. This week’s is Bruce Springsteen-themed, on account of Versus this month. E-mail with your own big finds!]

Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (1973) on black, Born to Run (1975) on black, and a live bootleg (date unknown) on black.

Place of Purchase: Wild and the bootleg were inherited from my Uncle Mike. Born to Run came from Legends at the Plymouth Meeting Mall (R.I.P.).

Thoughts: In case you missed my thoughts on The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle earlier this month, here’s a recap. Wild is a little more confident than Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and better produced to boot. Its got some of Bruce’s best songs (“Rosalita (Come Out Tonights),” “The E Street Shuffle”), but some of the material is also a little too jammed out compared to what Bruce did before or after this record. Still, ’70s Bruce is unimpeachable, Wild included.

That said, I’ll always prefer Born to Run. I can’t figure out which side is better, though. Side 1 has the grand “Thunder Road” the boogie-woogie of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” but side 2 feels like a perfect mini-opera. “Born to Run” establishes young, desperate characters in love,” “She’s the One” takes it to the next level, and “Meeting Across the River” sets the lovers up for a fall. And then there’s “Jungleland.” An epic piece of songwriting, it’s got guitar, saxophone, organ, and piano solos galore. [SPOILER ALERT] When the guy dies at the end, it hits me hard every time.

My uncle’s live bootleg has been a beguiling gift. It’s a single, unlabeled LP from what is presumably a two- or even three-piece set. The E Street Band sounds on fire during “Born to Run,” but then they chill it out with a lengthy reinterpretation of “The E Street Shuffle.” The set is clearly before Darkness on the Edge of Town, but it feels like something totally different. It’s looser in structure; the drumming reminds me more of Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez than it does Max Weinberg. Either way, the live version of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” is killer.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Versus: Bruce Springsteen March Madness Round 3

[Versus pits two of an artist’s classic albums against each other even if they’re stylistically different, because that “you can’t compare apples and oranges” bullshit is for people without balls, spines, or all those other things that separate us from the villainous jellyfish. This month, Versus is hosting a March Madness/Mortal Kombat tournament of Bruce Springsteen's 16 finest studio albums.]

Round 3, Bracket 1

  1. Born to Run v. Nebraska

Here we find perhaps Bruce’s sound best distilled into two different styles: The joyous, thunderous glee of The E Street Band on Born to Run and the stark, acoustic minimalism of Nebraska. I’m generalizing, of course, but when I originally thought about doing a Versus on Springsteen, these two albums first came to mind. Born to Run is perhaps the most classic of Bruce’s classic albums. Born in the U.S.A. sold more, but if you’re looking for a single record that best encapsulates all of Bruce’s influences – top 40 ’60s pop, ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, noir movies – this is the record to buy. It’s the best introduction, it’s filler-free, and it’s got the best saxophone parts from Clarence “Big Man” Clemons. From “Thunder Road” to “Jungleland,” Springsteen paints a series of vignettes about love, loss, and cars, and while being stuck somewhere in the swamps of Jersey. This is how you shut up detractors.

But once you’ve absorbed Born to Run, where do you go from there? Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. is a little more fun and Darkness on the Edge of Town is a little heavier. But Nebraska is the only record Bruce ever tried to remake (Although I guess you could argue that Human Touch and Lucky Town were a River retread). Most of Bruce’s albums were homages to his favorite styles. With Nebraska, he invented one of his own, lo-fi. Lo-fi is marked by low fidelity recording quality, which lends songs a hazy atmosphere. It forces listeners to imagine more about what’s going on, creating sounds that aren’t there. It’s like keeping a monster in the darkness: More effective. Born to Run is stuffed with instrumentation, but it’s the same listen every time. Nebraska constantly shifts its shape, lending already amazing songs like “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99” an extra enticing quality. At this point in the tournament, there are no real losers, but let’s be clear: Born to Run is a great record. Nebraska is a better.

Winner: Nebraska

Round 3, Bracket 2

  1. Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. v. The Rising

is a party starter. It’s a euphoric romper-stomper that rarely lets up. Even when it does, it’s for emotionally resonant stuff like “For You.” Propelled by Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez’s loose, kinetic style, the songs are a little sloppy, but in a good way. The songs are played with conviction, and that’s what sells the record. Springsteen was still finding his voice as a songwriter, but as a singer he was already world-class.

Much like Born in the U.S.A. last week, The Rising has Greetings outgunned in terms of lyrics (and production quality too). Greetings is certainly catchy, but it’s also the sound of Springsteen before he got any real life experience. The tunes aren’t really about anything. Oh sure, some are about love or death, but in a vague sense. Rising, meanwhile, was an extended hand to help the country out post-9/11. The songs didn’t start out that way, but by the time the record was released in 2002, The Rising became something else: A call to hope. From “Lonesome Day” to “My City of Ruins,” the record acknowledges that hard times have come and will come again, but it finds a peace through determination.

The Rising isn’t just about big issues either. Some of the songs are out-and-out fun. I’ve seen people lose their shit for “Mary’s Place,” a six-minute epic about, well, having a party, just as much as they do for “Rosalita.” With just that one song, Bruce takes everything he did on Greetings and betters it. “Mary’s Place” packs a huge hook second only to that build-up of a bridge. The lyrics provide respite from all the chaos going on in the world, blending religious imagery with a reminder that we’re still alive. Greetings is fun, but it comes off as a little empty compared to Rising.

Winner: The Rising

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The World/Inferno Friendship Society - 'The Anarchy and The Ecstasy'

It’s been four years since the last World/Inferno Friendship Society album, Addicted to Bad Ideas. After all that anticipation, The Anarchy and The Ecstasy needed to be huge. Luckily, it’s every bit as catchy and fun as previous W/IFS releases. It’s a little bit slower, but the hooks are still huge and the lyrics are still ridiculously maudlin in the best of ways. The Society is back, thankfully.

I’m interested to see how fans react to the record, though. Anarchy generally sounds like an Inferno release, in that Jack Terricloth’s outsize personality still dominates and the music is still in the punk rock cabaret vein. But there are still some tweaks to the formula that separate Anarchy from previous releases. These songs are slower. Some, like “Thirteen Years Without Peter King,” start off like a whisper. Bassist Sanda Malak and pianist Raja Najib Azar play a larger role. Indeed, the biggest hooks come from female lips this time around.

The album is much more horn-laden in a Hunky Dory sense. The horns provide extra badassery on opener “I Am Sick of People Being Sick of My Shit,” but they create a wall of dissonance on “They Talk of Nora’s Badness.” Yet the record isn’t all noise, opting for a slightly slower approach. That’s not to say songs like “Shit” or “The Politics of Passing Out” would clash with older material live, but the record definitely marks a new phase in the Society’s sound.

At only 34 minutes, Anarchy feels a little too short, but only because each song segues into the next so nicely. By the time “The Mighty Raritan” provides an acoustic comedown to the riotous “The Apple Was Eve” [Side note: The way the band sings “I will spit on your grave when the winter comes” is awesome], I’m already restarting the record. Replayability is certainly a strength, but part of me wishes Inferno would try making another double album on par with Red-Eyed Soul. Still, Anarchy is a fine addition to the group’s discography, and a welcome return. 2011 continues to be overstuffed with gems, it seems.

Friday, March 18, 2011

regarding Record Store Day.


Dum Dum Girls - 'He Gets Me High'

Less than a year after their solid debut I Will Be, Dum Dum Girls show marked improvement on their new EP He Gets Me High. At just four songs, the release plays to the Girls’ strengths – dissonant guitars, cooing vocals, and lovelorn lyrics – while avoiding the tedium of repetition that accompanied I Will Be.

The first two tracks, “Wrong Feels Right” and “He Gets Me High,” can and should be singles. They’re tightly wound love songs with a garage rock bent. The biggest changes in Dum Dum Girls’ sound come in clarity and confidence. The tracks are mixed better, burning off any lingering lo-fi inclinations. But while murky atmosphere was part of the Girls’ charm, He Gets Me High benefits from better recording quality. The drums sound thunderous, the guitars roar, the vocals soar, and the low end is mighty fine. On these first two tracks, at least, He Gets Me High is perfect.

I’m of two minds on track three, “Take Care of My Baby.” It’s a well-placed ballad that dials down the energy before rocketing it back up for track four, a cover of the Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.” But it’s such a hazy, indistinct trifle that takes four minutes to resolve itself. That Smiths cover recovers nicely, though. Structurally, it’s not too different from the original, just louder. But the group adds some nice twists, contrasting ’60s girl group harmonies with guitar squalls and adding a new, otherworldly guitar part.

Whether or not the group can sustain this kind of invention on their next full-length, due later this year, is still uncertain. But He Gets Me High circumvents any hipster backlash by bettering I Will Be in every way. Definitely recommended for fans of the Raveonettes.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Vinyl Vednesday 3/16/2011

[Vinyl Vednesday is a weekly feature about three favorite vinyl finds. It’s not meant to be a dick-measuring contest, but usually turns out that way. This week’s entry features three Irish bands in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. I’m half-Irish and all-ignorant of my cultural identity. Have a Smithwick’s and e-mail with your own big finds!]

Flogging Molly’s Drunken Lullabies (2002) on clear green, My Bloody Valentine’s Things Left Behind (2001) on black, and U2’s Boy (1980) on black.

Place of Purchase: Flogging Molly came from Hot Topic (Remember when they sold good vinyl?). MBV from Repo Records. I believe U2 came from Disc World in Conshohocken (R.I.P.), but it could have been Legends from the Plymouth Meeting Mall (also R.I.P…. sigh, I’m getting old).

Thoughts: Flogging Molly gets slagged for rehasing The Pogues Celtic folk + punk formula, but honestly, I always kind of preferred Molly. They just rock a little harder on record, and frontman Dave King has a knack for lyrics that alternate between tear-in-your-beer sadness and all-out glee. And hey, Steve Albini recorded them! That guy did In Utero, so that’s cool. Drunken Lullabies has some of Flogging Molly’s most popular tunes, including “Drunken Lullabies,” “What’s Left of the Flag,” and “Rebels of the Sacred Heart.” Really, I could just type the tracklisting and some people would assume it was a greatest hits package. I plan to blast the complete Flogging Molly discography tomorrow for maximum fun.

Things Left Behind captures My Bloody Valentine before they really became My Bloody Valentine. While regarded by some as the greatest shoegaze band and creators of one on the best albums of the ’90s, MBV started off as a fuzzed out horror-punk band (hence the ’80s horror movie reference in their name). They were never The Misfits, though, so MBV had something of a twee bent to them. You can hear them trying to play like The Jesus & Mary Chain, but they’re not quite there. For a more contemporary reference, they sound like the first Pains of Being Pure at Heart album. A lot. MBV got way better from here, but I like visiting their roots on occasion. Things Left Behind collects some of their earliest EPs, such as Geek! and The New Record by My Bloody Valentine.

With every passing year, it gets harder for me to defend U2. But the band’s records up through 1991’s Achtung Baby are mighty fine [Although Zooropa and All That You Can’t Leave Behind are good too]. My second favorite album of theirs, besides War, is Boy. U2 started out as a Clash-inspired punk band, but by the time they got to Island Records, they skewed more towards post-punk. That phase ended after War, but here they mix jittery angles and passionate yells to great effect. “I Will Follow” is a catchy single, while “An Cat Dubh” reveals the more ethereal places U2 could go when they weren’t obsessed with being the Biggest Band in the WorldTM.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

myPod: Ca

[myPod is an attempt to edit down my CD collection as I import my music on to my brand new 160 GB iPod.]

Camera Obscura

I fell in love with Camera Obscura thanks to their 2006 breakthrough, Let’s Get Out of This Country. Five years later, that record still crackles with energy, hooks, and putdowns ‘n’ come-ons galore. It’s a perfectly catty/catchy pop record about falling in love and occasionally being a real bitch. Its sequel, My Maudlin Career, is a little bit sadder but just as fine.

I feel weird calling myself a CO fan, though, because outside of those two records (and their assorted singles), I’m not too keen on the band’s discography. Country is everything a twee record should be – sassy and ’60s-indebted – but its predecessor, Underachievers Please Try Harder, is awfully dull. I put it on for this essay and I realized two things almost immediately:

  1. I don’t remember any of these songs.

  2. I never listen to this album because Country is infinitely better.

2006 is when Camera Obscura tapped into their inner Northern Soul; everything prior is just bland.

Verdict: Purge pre-Country affairs.

Cap’N Jazz

Spastic indie/punk from before it was cool. Chicago has given the world plenty of A-class punk group, but it took a new generation of bands to give Jazz their due. Analphabeta-whatever-the-hell, a two-disc set from Jade Tree, collects the band’s complete recordings. Side note: Promise Ring frontman Davey von Bohlen did time with CJ near the end.

Verdict: Keep.

The Cardigans

Part of what makes The Cardigans’ discography so compelling is the way they tweaked their sound over the years. It’s all generally pop, but the group flirted with twee (Emmerdale, Life), disco (First Band on the Moon), krautrock (Gran Turismo), and country (Long Gone Before Daylight). Their final album, Super Extra Gravity, synthesized all those elements. All of the records are united by a shared love of hooks and depressing imagery, so maybe they’re really just the most chipper goth band ever. Regardless, they’re one of the smartest pop bands ever, whether it’s converting Black Sabbath to twee or filming ridiculously over-the-top, awesome videos. Weird enough to keep me guessing, traditional enough to feel comfortable. And their cover of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” with Tom Jones is pretty great.

Verdict: Keep.

Neko Case

I respect Neko Case. I first fell for her as a member of The New Pornographers, then started exploring her solo material starting with the nifty live album The Tigers Have Spoken. Her voice is glorious and strong, but there are a couple factors working against her: Her lyrics can get either too self-righteous or too clumsy (“The Next Time You Say Forever” is both). Each of her records contains at least one song I’m obsessed with (“This Tornado Loves You,” “If You Knew”), but there’s one important factor: My girlfriend hates the shit out of Neko Case. Sigh. There are other artists I can get my country fix from, but this one is on the verge. Still, I came to the same conclusion as I did with Camera Obscura’s Underachievers Please Try Harder: I don’t listen to these albums often.

Verdict: Sell.

Johnny Cash

Almost everything I listen to stems from Johnny Cash. He was political (“Man in Black,” “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”), he was emotional (“I Walk the Line”), he was religious (“Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)”), and, every once in a while, he was funny (“The One On the Right is On the Left”). His voice and words carried such a weight and force to them that even his pop efforts (“Hey Porter,” “Get Rhythm”) are still kind of heavy. Personally, I like his love songs best. “I Walk the Line” has such a simple, unbreaking logic to it – I love you, therefore I do not stray.

Even his tribute album, All Aboard: A Tribute to Johnny Cash, is pretty neat. The compilation features amazing cuts from The Bouncing Souls, MxPx, and The Dresden Dolls, and while other tracks are too traditional for their own good, the CD is solid overall.

Verdict: Keep.


Mogwai + Hot Water Music = Oh hell yes.

Verdict: Keep.

Catch Phrase

Oh man… It’s weird reviewing my friends’ bands, but here goes. Catch Phrase was a pop-punk band made up of dudes from La Salle College High School. They started off as a blink-182-indebted pop-punk band on their self-titled debut EP. By the release of its follow-up, Coloring Outside the Lines, CP had started to find its own sound while still filling the pop-punk niche. At seven songs, it was probably the best document any of my friends achieved at that point in time. Then things fell apart. The Perfect Form skewed towards screamo/metalcore ever so slightly, the band changed names, and finally broke up. Three-quarters of the band’s final line-up went on to form The Next Big Thing, a group dedicated to writing kickass Lifetime-esque jams.

I’m not going to say Catch Phrase is the best thing ever, and I don’t think the members would say that either, but they’re the sort of artifacts from my youth that I can’t easily discard. If nothing else, it’s interesting for me to hear the evolution in my friend Nick’s singing voice. Dude started out extremely nasal, but this grit slowly crept in. In my head, NBT is a return to Catch Phrase’s roots. But when I listen to the material back-to-back, I see how far these guys have come.

Verdict: Keep.

Cat Power

Seeing how scatterbrained Chan Marshall has become in the last few years has really shaken my love for who she used to be. I could put up with her flakey approach to live shows, in fact I actively avoided seeing her perform so as to preserve my fandom, but Jukebox shattered it all. Her music has always been pretty mellow, but one day it got boring and weighed down by idol worship. Still, there are three Cat Power releases I’m holding on to: Moon Pix, because it starts and ends wonderfully despite some bullshit warbling in the middle; The Greatest, a light, breezy soulful record; and You Are Free, which is unquestionably her best work. “He War” is my jam. Remember when Chan would occasionally rock?

Verdict: Edit.

NEXT TIME: C is for... crappy rappers, curious local acts, and concise discographies.

The Ginger Envelope - 'Invitation Air'

Some of the best American music is coming out of Georgia right now, whether it be metal, indie, or, in the case of the Ginger Envelope, country. The five-piece, aided by a few friends, crafted a solid alt-country album called Invitation Air. Calling to mind Mazzy Star’s Americana cool and the quieter moments of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Invtiation Air breezes by in an easy half-hour.

The record has a warm, homey feel to it. It’s studio-quality, but it feels like a live performance from a couple of friends. Patrick Carey’s raspy, almost androgynous vocals match the mellow playing nicely, and his interplay with backing vocalist Page Campbell works well. This sort of folksy country is experiencing a comeback with the kids these days thanks to acts like Mumford & Sons – soaring harmonies, gentle guitars, and the presence of a banjo.

Unlike Mumford, though, the Ginger Envelope never attempt rocking out. Air moseys on by without much fanfare, which works for and against it. The record never tries on a disingenuous pose, but it also never deviates from its set path. Opener “Turn Into Tempests” gently rolls along. Middle track “Pinned Down” gently rolls along. Closer “Invitation Air” gently rolls along.

Still, it’s hard to hate Invitation Air, simply because it’s a beautiful record. The lyrics are pleasant. Matt Stoessel’s pedal steel adds a shimmering layer to songs that are already pretty dreamy. This album is good for the beach and the bed in equal measure.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Versus: Bruce Springsteen March Madness Round 2

[Versus pits two of an artist’s classic albums against each other even if they’re stylistically different, because that “you can’t compare apples and oranges” bullshit is for people without balls, spines, or all those other things that separate us from the villainous jellyfish. This month, Versus is hosting a March Madness/Mortal Kombat tournament of Bruce Springsteen's 16 finest studio albums.]

Round 2, Bracket 1

  1. Tracks v. Born to Run

has a wealth of secret Springsteen material and takes a long time to fully digest. There’s B-sides and unreleased alternate versions galore. The Nebraska version of “Born in the U.S.A.” is chilling, while tunes like “Dollhouse,” “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” and “Thundercrack” are among his catchiest, so much so that it’s crazy that these tunes never made it onto a proper album before 1998. That said, Tracks eats shit on its fourth disc, which covers Bruce’s fallow ’90s period. For proof, check out “Part Man, Part Monkey,” a reggae/bar band hybrid that kills all the good times the first three discs cultivate (And yet somehow fans actually requested this when I saw Bruce at Hersheypark Stadium!). Tracks is good, but it ain’t perfect.

But you know what is perfect? Born to Run. Eight songs. No filler. No reggae bullshit. The record practically plays like a greatest hits package on to itself, from the opening swells of “Thunder Road” to the closing piano lines of “Jungeland.” A concept album about being young, in love, and broke, Run is an untouchable rock record. When people tell me they hate Bruce, I bide my time until I can casually quote a line or two from Run. Sooner or later they come around on the Boss’ poetry and realize there’s more to him than just “Glory Days.”

Winner: Born to Run

  1. Devils & Dust v. Nebraska

Devils & Dust
is a fine display of Bruce’s political and religious imagery, but musically, it’s a Nebraska retread. What’s funny is that Nebraska didn’t even sell that well when it came out in 1982. Granted, it went gold, but The River went quintuple times platinum. Born in the U.S.A. went 15x platinum. Nebraska is a cult record by comparison, albeit a mainstream, critically successful. Which is probably why Springsteen has attempted recreating it a couple of times, first with The Ghost of Tom Joad and then with Devils & Dust. Those records are good, but they can’t touch the raw feeling one gets from Nebraska. The lyrics are among Springsteen’s darkest, which the grainy, lo-fi recording quality aids. Darkness on the Edge of Town at least had “Prove It All Night;” Nebraska’s lone source of hope is that, through all the shit its characters endure, they must persevere simply because there are no alternatives. Joad and Devils are sparse albums, but they still come off as overproduced by comparison. Nebraska started off as demos, but Bruce realized that the songs sounded perfect as they were. None of his other acoustic albums can claim that.

Winner: Nebraska

Round 2, Bracket 2

  1. Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. v. Born in the U.S.A.

U.S.A. was a huge record for Bruce. Hell, it was big for the ’80s in general, along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Prince’s Purple Rain. Yeah, it’s a little cheesy in places, but it deserved those big numbers. The record was honest and heartfelt as always, but it focused Bruce’s blue collar perspective into these tight pop gems like “No Surrender” and “My Hometown.” It’s also one of the few political records that broke into the mainstream. Hip-hop and hardcore were too underground at the time to take the U.S. government to task the way “Born in the U.S.A.” did. When President Ronald Reagan tried co-opting the song for re-election, only to find out that the song is actually an indictment of the U.S. government and its handling of the Vietnam War, it made the song all the more powerful, as if to say, “These dumb fucks really don’t get it.”

Born in the U.S.A. has the edge on Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. lyrically. U.S.A. is focused and makes big statements. Greetings is more of a nonsensical party record. Springsteen was once dubbed “the New Dylan,” and in a way Greetings is his most Dylan-esque record lyrically. The words just kind of flow out and fill space. The choruses usually give the songs a purpose (“For You,” “Growin’ Up”) while the verses meander. Question: What is a “Go-kart Mozart?” Still, the songs pack resonance. Part of the power of Springsteen’s words comes from how he says them, and that’s especially true of Greetings. He delivers each song with energy and emotion. On top of that, these tunes are fun. U.S.A. may be more important on a soci-political scale, but musically it just can’t top “Blinded By the Light” or “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City.” It’s a fun listen, and that goes a long way.

Winner: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.

  1. Magic v. The Rising

When Magic came out, all I could do was compare it to The Rising, so this seems appropriate. Rising arrived just when it was needed. It had been a while since Springsteen soothed Americans’ collective conscience, but here he was after 9/11 to remind us that life does and must go on. Truthfully, most of Rising was written before 9/11, but the themes Springsteen dealt with – failure and redemption – were so universal that it took on an instant context anyway. Magic was the belated E Street sequel after Bruce explored folk music on Devils & Dust and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, and I tend to judge the two as a piece anyway. Magic ultimately can’t compete with Rising on any level. Yeah, it’s got some good rockers like “Radio Nowhere,” but it’s all over the place stylistically, as if Bruce was trying to sum up his entire discography through “Livin’ in the Future” and “Terry’s Song.” It doesn’t comment on the times quite as well as Rising does, but then again Magic still took heat from conservative fans, so maybe Bruce applied just the right amount of political protest. Still, it’s too glossy and unfocused, whereas Rising has a warm sound and plenty of pep.

Winner: The Rising

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Run, Forever - 'The Devil, and Death, and Me'

Looks like the Menzingers have got company. Fellow Pennsylvania punkers Run, Forever dropped The Devil, and Death, and Me late last year, and much like Chamberlain Waits, it drips with all the passion associated with the Clash/Billy Bragg playbook. Tunes like “A Sequence of Sad Events,” “When It Won’t Leave,” and “Graves” pulse with power and energy.

Frontman/guitarist Anthony Heubel has an Oberstian quality to his singing, and I mean in that in ways both complimentary and critical. His style is raw to the point of quavering. When he digs into a topic, his imagery hits hard. Opener “A Sequence of Sad Events,” about the death of close friend Corey James Wolfram, to whom the album is dedicated, feels like a gut-punch. At the same time, cavalcades of words spew out of Heubel without cadence. It works on “Sequence” because of the pain, but songs like “The Grand Illusion” suffer from a lack of grace. I know this is punk rock and all, but these feel like mad rants.

Still, at 34 minutes in length, Devil could hardly be called bloated. Run, Forever just add a few Saddle Creek touches to their punk, which means they might garner comparisons to Anti-Flag but are secretly like Cursive. Devil is full of youthful energy, but it’s a concept album of sorts about growing up and the people who get left behind. It’s folk-punk obsessed with death, but it sounds very much alive.

Rival Schools - 'Pedals'

The last time Rival Schools put out an album, it was 2001 and I was 15. I liked System of a Down and Tool (and The Bouncing Souls!) and didn’t understand frontman Walter Schreifels’ legacy. Now, I realize that he’s one of the most important punk songwriters of the last 20 years, having penned amazing material for NYC hardcore legends Gorilla Biscuits, the heavier-than-metal Quicksand, and even his buddies in the pop-punk-ish CIV. That my discoveries would be bookended by the first and second Rival Schools records has to mean something.

Yet for all the years between United By Fate and Pedals, little seems to have changed for Rival Schools, and that’s a good thing. RS was perhaps Schreifels’ most consciously commercial project, but only slightly. Quicksand was too heavy for radio; Rival Schools falls into the Sunny Day Real Estate vein of 120 Minutes-style alternative. It’s more mainstream by comparison, but only by comparison.

There are little differences that separate Pedals from Fate. The guitars chug less. The tunes occasionally cultivate a more psych-rock feel. But generally speaking, this is the sequel fans always wanted, better than the band’s shelved album from a few years back (Although that’s a nifty bootleg).

Pedals takes a few spins to adjust to. It’s catchy without being poppy (Although "Choose Your Own Adventure" does seem overtly funky), noisy without being dissonant. At times it’s dancier (“69 Guns”) and garage rock-ier (“Shot After Shot”) than one would expect, yet the album overall is thrillingly cohesive.

Just like United By Fate, Pedals invites music obsessives to reconsider Schreifels’ legacy. He’s been cranking out great music for decades now, and Pedals reminds me that maybe I should set aside a day to rip through his collected works. It’s good to have Rival Schools back. I just hope I hear their next album before I turn 35.