Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Death Cab for Cutie - 'Codes and Keys'

Sometimes writing an album review means telling a band they’re wrong. They’re not necessarily bad at songwriting, just in explaining their body of work. It means telling Weezer which album actually was their best since Pinkerton (It’s “Red Album,” but that’s not saying much) or ranking Foo Fighters album by loudness (It’s actually a loop that begins and ends with In Your Honor). The same holds true for Codes and Keys by Death Cab for Cutie.

The two things DCFC are pushing in Codes’ promotional cycle are 1) This is a keyboard record, not a guitar-centric record like Narrow Stairs and 2) This is their first truly “happy” record and therefore a big emotional departure for fans of the group’s output. While I agree with the former, I don’t necessarily agree with the latter.

As far as instrumentation goes, Codes is a departure. The record is indeed more keyboard heavy, and while guitar occasionally plays a significant role on tunes like “You Are a Tourist,” the album overall is dominated by piano and synths. This new approach yields the closest thing to a Postal Service throwback in the form of danceable tracks “Home is a Fire” and “Some Boys.”

As far as statement number two goes, the one about Codes being a happy record, well, they sort of got it right. On a lyrical level, Gibbard is more unabashedly gleeful on tracks like “Stay Young, Go Dancing” and “Monday Morning.” He doesn’t cushion his love songs with the macabre here like he did on “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” or “Transatlanticism.” But this is still a Death Cab album. It’s not like frontman Ben Gibbard reinvented his singing style. The tunes still bear more of a resemblance to Narrow Stairs than advertised; they’re just played on different instruments.

Codes is not a pizza party or anything. It still sounds like Death Cab. If anything, the happy tag is misleading in that it implies the songs will be catchy pop ditties, when in fact the record is far more subtle in its melodies than Narrow Stairs or Plans. While that makes it a little less enjoyable at first, repeat listens yield a fitting addition to the DFCF catalogue.

The Slow Death - 'Turnstile Comix #1'

Not sure if you were aware of this information, but Mikey Erg is in a band (besides Star Fucking Hipsters, Psyched to Die, The Ergs!, The Measure [SA], Dopamines, House Boat, Used Kids and Brook Pridemore). They’re called The Slow Death, and they include bassist/vocalist Jesse Thorson (Pretty Boy Thorson and The Fallen Angels), guitarist Dave Strait (also from PBT ‘n’ TFA) and guitarist Johnny C (ex-The Rest of Us). According to cartoonist Mitch Clem, “The Slow Death are a veritable punk rock super group, except more super because they’re actually really good.”

Speaking of Clem, the mastermind behind Nothing Nice to Say and My Stupid Life is also the founder of the new comic/seven-inch series Turnstile Comix. Issue #1 happens to sport a trio of stories about plus a blue seven-inch from the aforementioned Slow Death. It’s a neat project for people who like fun.

Clem and his fiancée, Nation of Amanda, turn in a solid debut issue. The best humor comes from failure, which is generally what #1 focuses on. Clem introduces The Slow Death by talking about he completely embarrassed himself at a show they played. Thorson then spins a couple of tales about touring (One of them is about pee!).

The stories have a certain rambling quality, only to just sort of end abruptly, but they’re still funny and the art looks good. But in order for the comics to really, truly matter, the included seven-inch needs to rock faces. Accordingly, The Slow Death included four top notch tunes about drinking and failing. They’re the kind of tunes that need to be played loud/fast to avoid bumming everyone out.

“Poor Little Fool” opens the vinyl with a burst of big hooks and Lucero-ish instrumentation. “Bart’s People” boasts a super catchy chorus and the most depressing verses this side of The Smiths. Sample lyric: “There is no happy ending / This ain’t no fairy tale / There is no heaven up above us / There is just this living hell / And you die at the end.” Huzzah! “A Little Bit More” goes from atheism to drinking, and drinking a lot. “Punchlines (Suck My Ass, It Smells, Pt. 2)” is (probably) about getting fired. But it goes on a great, throaty gang vox part, so clearly Thorson wins out in the end.

Turnstile Comix is pretty dang promising, both as a comic book series and as a debut from The Slow Death. Here’s hoping for more from Clem and TSD, and soon.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Flogging Molly - 'Speed of Darkness'

While I have been a Flogging Molly fan for about a decade now, I have gone through the same hem/haw scenario over every album post-Drunken Lullabies. More specifically, I’m waiting for this band with a very niche sound to start sucking. While I would never dismiss Flogging Molly’s Irish folk-punk as a novelty, I certainly understand why others would. FM has dropped four great records so far, but there’s only so far they can take their amped up Pogues worship before they hit a wall.

Speed of Darkness is that wall. It’s doubly unfortunate, given that it’s the band’s first self-released record since Alive Behind the Green Door back in 1997. But the album just can’t find a clear direction, despite many tunes exploring paths beyond the traditional FM style. While some tunes repeat the super fast, super Irish route like the opening title track and “Saints & Sinners,” a decent chunk of the record actually goes towards new territory.

The album’s first half is stronger. “Revolution” is a jubilant working class anthem with an insistent bassline. “The Heart of the Sea” has a really catchy cut time break in between verses. It’s actually a bit of a surprise coming from Flogging Molly, since slowing down isn’t really their deal, but the groove is infectious. Also enjoyable: The folksy duet near the end of the album between frontman Dave King and wife/violinist/tin whistler Bridgette Regan on “A Prayer For Me in Silence.” It’s just cute.

But Speed of Darkness doesn’t have enough of those successes. The album’s second half is too heavy on slower tunes. “The Cradle of Humankind,” for example, is a lengthy, dull piano ballad. A surprise coming from Flogging Molly certainly, but good luck with that one live. At the same time, the new songs that mimic old material pass by without much notice. Granted, punk rock has a limited number of moves, and a subgenre with the genre like Celtic punk has even fewer, but it’s still weird to finally, finally be disappointed by Flogging Molly. While I’m sure plenty of fans will still be on board with the band’s latest, I think I need to sit this one out.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Against Me! - 'Total Clarity'

Initially, Against Me!’s new demo collection Total Clarity looks exactly like 2009’s The Original Cowboy, that is, a companion piece one of the band’s proper studio albums. But they’re actually divergent in content. Original Cowboy is, arguably, a superior, more raw performance of the material that became Eternal Cowboy. Total Clarity instead offers lesser quality versions of old material, boosted by some tunes that have never been available commercially.

Total Clarity does not best Searching For a Former Clarity. But it is an interesting curio for the most devoted AM! fan. Some tunes, like “Miami” and “Searching For a Former Clarity,” here retitled “Total Clarity,” sound about the same as their finished versions, minus audio fidelity and a lyric tweak or two. Other tunes, like “Mediocrity Gets You Pears (The Shaker)” and “How Low,” actually do sound different enough, either through a tempo shift or a new approach to the chorus. But these demos aren’t on par Original Cowboy. That release faster, louder, and angrier, therefore making it better. Total Clarity is built on reference tracks that don’t quite warrant a separate release.

The collection’s selling point, then, is the “new” material. Total Clarity boasts two previously unreleased tunes, plus a cover of The Brains’ “Money Changes Everything.” The cover is pretty catchy. “Exhaustion & Disgust” is pretty thoroughly OK. It sounds on par with the kind of songs AM! was writing at the time, but compared to Searching’s solid tracklisting, I understand why it was left off. Searching was essentially AM!’s Lola Versus Powerman, an indictment of the music business and music fans alike, but “Exhaustion” is a little too on-the-nose. Besides, “Problems” and “Even at Our Worst We're Still Better Than Most (The Roller)” are catchier.

The other new old track, “Lost and Searching in America,” might have had a chance though. As is, it’s a little muddled lyrically and musically, but there are some great parts that could have been scavenged for another song. That intro is just fireworks. “Lost” was maybe a revision or two away from being great; as is, it’s a couple of good verses in search of a chorus.

Original Cowboy at least kind of made sense, even if it was still a cash grab on Fat Wreck Chords’ part. Total Clarity is a little less essential, although diehards will surely be grateful for the smidgeon of new music, at least until the new AM! seven-inch drops next month.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

myPod: Da

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

Daft Punk

I got into the French techno robot duo Daft Punk in high school via the anime music videos for their second album Discovery. I’ve even got the collected film Interstella 5555 on DVD. Discovery remains my favorite DP record, a joyful blend of dance-friendly hooks and up-with-people lyrics. It’s a pick-me-up for sure, but it also kept me from checking out the rest of the band’s discography, as most writers agree that Discovery is far and away the best DP release.

While I agree with that conventional wisdom, I have been surprised and delighted by the group’s other records. Homework’s songs are a little bit longer and more repetitive, but it’s another party starter. Human After All, meanwhile, gets a bad rap. Released after the critically and commercially successful Discovery, Human was a 180 that alienated many. Where Discovery was a lush, intricate, warm work, Human was recorded quickly in six weeks with just guitar, keyboard, and a drum machine. It’s a very retro-minded, minimalist electronic record, and it’s not nearly as bad as reviews suggest. But it’s still a bit of a disappointment after Discovery, something the group rectified with its live show.

Alive 2007 captures an amazing Daft Punk set that remixed the first three full-lengths to great success, and proves that Human wasn’t so bad after all. The Tron: Legacy soundtrack followed a few years later, and it’s another stylistic departure, taking the original Tron score and streamlining it with a digital cool. It’s not a party record, but it combines orchestral and electronic music beautifully. It was actually one of my favorite albums of 2010.

Verdict: Keep.

Damn the Lions

Adorable, acoustic indie-pop from New Jersey’s beloved Robb Masters. RIYL Elliot Smith and Bright Eyes.

Verdict: Keep.

The Darjeeling Limited

I love Wes Anderson’s movies, and Darjeeling Limited might be my favorite, although The Royal Tenenbaums is obviously up there too. The soundtrack follows some of Anderson’s twee conventions – like half of The Kinks’ Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround shows up – but it also includes some neat French and Indian tunes. And the movie ends with “Les Champs-Élysées!” How cool is that?!

Verdict: Keep.

The Dark Knight

I am all about Hans Zimmer’s work with Christopher Nolan. His work on The Dark Knight actually holds up outside of the film, especially his riveting theme for the Joker. That song communicates a reckless danger so beautifully. I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with for The Dark Knight Rises.

Verdict: Keep.

Dashboard Confessional

As an American youth, it’s important that I define myself through the pop culture I enjoy. Hence, I have, at various points in my life, been emo. It’s kind of like being Catholic, where you know a couple cool acts like Sunny Day Real Estate and/or Jesus Christ but mostly just apologize for all the dumb shit other emo kids/Catholics do. Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba has always been a controversial figure despite his seemingly innocent songwriting. The dude writes sappy love songs and bitter break-up ballads. That’s all he does, but DC continues to draw criticism for…

  1. Sucking.

  2. Being one of the first emo figureheads to really reduce women to the Madonna/whore status emo took on during the ’00s.

  3. Sucking.

I’m not going to apologize for the second allegation. Yeah, DC doesn’t offer much insight into women. But when I was 14, DC gave me a place to hide out in. Swiss Army Romance was a collection of raw, acoustic love songs that I used to defend for years. So Impossible was even better, a mini-concept album about one really good date. In between the two came DC’s big break, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, which added a full band and fleshed out Carrabba’s songs. This was the period people my age might call “the good years.”

2003’s A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar had bigger pop rock aspirations, which means emo kids hated it even though it took DC’s best song, “Hands Down,” and made it better. Everything after that was intermittently good (“So Long, So Long!”), but generally speaking Carrabba has been stuck in an adolescent holding pattern. Still, I held on to the early years.

Then a funny thing happened. I actually put the old records on and found out that Carrabba’s lyrics were clumsy and cliché and always had been. While I can still get behind other sad sack acts like Bright Eyes and The Cure, I have aged out of Dashboard Confessional’s demographic. Part of me can’t let go of So Impossible, though. It’s an emo touchstone and the songs remind me too much of who I was. I’m not ready to erase that just yet, but let’s see where I’m at in five years.

Verdict: Sell everything besides So Impossible.

Miles Davis

One day I bought Birth of the Cool for the heck of it. It’s one of Miles Davis’ first albums, and while it’s pretty tame compared to what he achieved in jazz in the decades to come, I still think it’s a really good starting point (Aside from maybe Kind of Blue), in that it’s a pleasant-sounding record that mellows me out. The two albums that made me fall in love with Davis’ work and jazz in general (at least potentially, since I really only know Davis and Charles Mingus at this juncture) are Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Bitches Brew is this otherworldly cacophony that makes most experimental records sound stupid by comparison. Johnson skews more towards jazz/rock fusion, which works even though it shouldn’t. The album is only two songs long, but opener “Right Off” is an amazing James Brown-indebted rocker. I think of Johnson as more of a guitar album than I do a trumpet one, as John McClaughlin’s raw playing carries the record. I still have a long ways to go in Davis’ discography, but so far it’s been a rather rewarding journey.

Verdict: Keep.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Vinyl Vednesday 5/25/2011

[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 pelonej1@gmail.com with your own big finds!]

Records: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Creedence Clearwater Revival (1968) on black, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (1970) on black, and Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Combination in 12 Bursts (1998) on CAN I SCREAM?! WOOOOOO.

Place of Purchase: CCR came from Siren Records in Doylestown. The Quiet One was purchased at Hideaway Music in Chestnut Hill. Refused burst through my face via Repo Records in Philadelphia.

Thoughts: The first Creedence Clearwater Revival album has “I Put a Spell On You” and the full 8.5-minute version of “Suzie Q.” It’s pretty a pretty got-damn good collection of American rock and/or roll. I hate sounding like an old fart, but CCR makes almost every rock group currently in the mainstream sound dumb as butts. Guitarists John and Tom Fogerty have such a raw sound, yet the tunes still have such a great groove to them. This record sounds good at any volume.

Up next on your classic rock block is George Harrison’s first proper solo album (excluding the experimental records Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound) All Things Must Pass. It’s the arguably the best of the Fab Four’s post-Beatles work, although John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band is close. Still, I can’t argue with what might be the only good triple-album besides The Clash’s Sandinista!. All Things Must Pass is full of big Phil Spector Wall of Sound touches and Beatle melodies. It gets heavy at times (“Let It Down,” the instrumental third LP), but its best moments are its most contemplative, whether it be the religious peace of “My Sweet Lord” or the calm acceptance that nothing lasts forever on the title track. This one’s just a great, lush-sounding record, perfect for the warm weather.

In complete contrast to all those good vibes mentioned above is Refused’s best album, The Shape of Punk to Come. Essentially taking Nation of Ulysses’ style to a bigger, louder level, this is still, 13 years later, one of the best hardcore records ever. It’s heavier than your mother but with a groove. It’s punk with soul rhythms. I had an important meeting at work a couple of weeks ago scheduled for 6 a.m. I was supposed to give a couple of presentations, so to get myself amped up at such a godless hour, I put “New Noise” on repeat. I blew my voice out before I even got to work, but I put on a heck of a show.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Face to Face - 'Laugh Now... Laugh Later'

In a sense, Face to Face’s break-up never quite felt real. The band called it quits after the 2003 Warped Tour, then decided to reunite a year later for a proper farewell tour. Two years later, they released Punk Rock Eats Its Own, a documentary about the group’s history. Just two years after that, the group reunited and started touring again. Now in 2011, Face to Face has finally issued a follow-up to their supposed swansong, How to Ruin Everything.

While it wasn’t billed as such when it was released in 2002, Ruin sounds like a fitting final record, and its legacy looms over new record Laugh Now… Laugh Later. Ruin had a raw, live sound and the band’s fastest songs in years. Some tunes had a nostalgic air to them, like “Shoot the Moon.” The acoustic concluding title track had finality to it. The record just felt like such a great closing chapter.

Laugh Now thus has a few strikes against it. Self-produced by members Trever Keith and Scott Shiflett, the record lacks the punch Chad Blinman brought to Ruin. Face to Face always had a strong bass presence, but the low end doesn’t strike me anything special this time out. Laugh is also a lot slower, something made more obvious when hearing the new material performed live. Maybe it can be chalked up to time away from the studio, but it’s not like the members stopped making music. Really, the Face to Face moniker was just retired so Keith and Shiflett could return to exploring the more experimental, ambient textures of Ignorance is Bliss with acts like Viva Death and Real Space Noise.

But forget the whole “preserving the legacy” thing and Laugh Now becomes something else: A pretty catchy pop-punk album. It’s definitely more melodic than Ruin. It even boasts a first for Face to Face; “All For Nothing” is a genuine ’80s style love song on par with Modern English or Psychedelic Furs. There are glimmers of aggression on opening track “Should Anything Go Wrong.” Taken overall, it’s a solid record.

Laugh Now isn’t the worst F2F release (My pick: Reactionary), but it also doesn’t dislodge their finest works either. But for those of us missing them something fierce, it’s a welcome return from one of the ’90s best punk bands. I can only hope it educates a new generation of fans.

Face to Face / Rise Against - split

Welcome to facetofacenews.org, your source for all things Face to Face, from pop-punk to pompadours. The California quartet has been on a heck of a comeback in 2011, with an amazing new tour and a solid new album. Further sweetening the deal is a split with Rise Against in which the two bands cover each other. While the seven-inch is a little uneven, it’s still a fun listen. Like the Bouncing Souls/Hot Water Music split from earlier this year, it’s a neat release for fans of both groups.

Face to Face’s take on “The Good Left Undone,” from The Sufferer & The Witness, is straightforward, almost to the point of redundancy. But it has two things going for it: Trever Keith’s voice and a slightly quicker tempo. It’s in keeping with the band’s other covers, in that it’s a solid, faithful job and a catchy tune to boot.

The same cannot be said for Rise Against’s take on “Blind,” from Face to Face. One of Face to Face’s strengths is uncomplicated songwriting. Keith finds a melody, the band adds some catchy chords and then they rock it out. Rise Against takes a bells ‘n’ whistles approach to “Blind,” and it just sounds inferior. Everything from the acoustic intro/outro to the added breakdown distracts from what was originally a simple, fun pop-punk song. Put it another way, now that I’m done reviewing this split, I will probably never listen to the Rise Against side again.

Still, this split is part of the celebration of Face to Face’s return, and it’s a good curio for fans. Just don’t spend too much time on the Rise Against side.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Face to Face / Strung Out at the Trocadero

The drunks were at the bar; the punks were in the pit. Between the two there was a clear divide in energy levels at the Face to Face/Strung Out show Sat., May 21 at Philadelphia’s Trocadero. Kids on the floor maintained a constantly swirling mass for both bands without tiring (and surprisingly few fights). The old heads up at the balcony drank their drinks and took some abuse from the bands. There wasn’t any real hostility, though, just a kinship formed over fast beats and snotty vocals.

After opening sets from the Darlings (SoCal pop-punk) and the regrettably named Cerebral Ballzy (thrash punk), Strung Out emerged to big applause and an even bigger mosh pit. While the band has tweaked its sound over the years, the tunes segued nicely into each other as guitarists Jake Kiley and Rob Ramos peeled off solo after solo. Frontman Jason Cruz frequently interacted with the crowd during and between songs, offering high fives and fist bumps while occasionally tweaking the adults at the bar. After a tight 45-minute set, the band bowed out to make room for the night’s main event, Face to Face.

While Face to Face has officially been reunited since 2008, 2011 feels like their true comeback. Their new, pretty good album Laugh Now… Laugh Later just dropped. More importantly, their promotional tour for the record boasts the best Face to Face set I have ever seen.

I’m not going to pretend to be an old vintage punker, but I did catch the band twice before their break-up, and while both performances were exemplary, tonight had a raw energy and enthusiasm that surpassed previous stops in Philly. Maybe it was the rambunctious crowd. Maybe it was the fact that the returning members look exactly the same (Well, Trever Keith and Scott Shiflett anyway. Drummer Danny Thompson is new and I don’t know who the second guitarist was, but he wasn’t Chad Yaro). Or maybe it was just a really, really well-picked setlist.

Tonight, the band played “the hits.” That means a lot of stuff off the first three records, plus “Bill of Goods” from How to Ruin Everything. Four tracks from Laugh Now were shown off (Set opener “Should Anything Go Wrong,” plus “It’s Not All About You,” “Bombs Away” and “All For Nothing”), and they sound much better in a faster, live setting. I’m one of the few who actually loves the group’s experimental Ignorance is Bliss record, but I didn’t mind seeing it passed over, along with Reactionary, in favor of tracks like “Won’t Lie Down,” “A-OK” and “Walk Away.”

The band kicked things off with new tune “Should Anything Go Wrong” and the crowd erupted. They didn’t quite know the words yet, but they sure kept time. Then Keith counted into Don’t Turn Away’s “You’ve Done Nothing,” and the audience sure knew the words to that one. The show seemed to deal out songs by period. A Face to Face suite yielded “Ordinary,” “Walk the Walk,” “Won’t Lie Down” and a particularly roaring version of “Blind,” for example. Big Choice, of course, got the biggest reaction, with songs like “Disconnected” and “Big Choice” setting off the crowd.

Keith took the time to chide the drunks, galvanizing them to a minimal amount of exercise by standing up for the entirety of “Bill of Goods.” But after an hour-long performance plus a two-song encore, Face to Face left the stage to applause from everyone in attendance. Fans were promised another show within a year, plus they scored Laugh Now for free if they bought anything at the merch table. All kidding aside, Keith and co. were good to Philadelphia.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Vinyl Vednesday 5/18/2011

[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 pelonej1@gmail.com with your own big finds!]

Marvin Gaye’s Anthology (1974) on black, The Promise Ring’s Boys + Girls seven-inch (1998) on black, and the We Do What We Want zine/seven-inch comp (2008) on black.

Place of Purchase: Marvin Gaye came from Repo Records in Philadelphia. Promise Ring was an eBay find. The Olympia punk comp was purchased directly from Matt Canino (RVIVR/ex-Latterman/ex-Shorebirds) via mail.

Thoughts: Marvin Gaye has been on my radar for a long time, but his massive discography always seemed a little daunting. I knew I wanted to start with either What’s Going On or Let’s Get It On, but the guy released so much music that I didn’t know where to go beyond the obvious masterpieces. I was crate-digging in Repo one day when I spotted Anthology, a triple LP greatest hits package from Motown that covers Gaye’s run from 1961-1974. It’s still missing some of Gaye’s later hits like “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing,” but based on Motown’s excellent similarly themed triple LP for Stevie Wonder’s early work, Looking Back, I knew the set would be the best entryway. Gaye’s list of styles and contributors is stunning; this triple LP showcases one gorgeous R&B classic after another, and I look forward to further exploring Gaye’s canon. However, that inspiration quote from O.J. Simpson in the liner notes is a little awkward.

The Promise Ring’s Boys + Girls is significantly shorter than Marvin Gaye’s Anthology, but just as perfect. Three tunes, 11 minutes. “Tell Everyone We’re Dead” opens the seven-inch; it’s one of my favorite TPR tunes. Frontman Davey von Bohlen always had a knack for cadence in his lyrics, and I love the line “I’m gonna grow wings / And sing / Amen I’m checking out,” and it’s not even the chorus. “Best Looking Boys” is pretty good too, gradually building into an infectious blend of needling guitar and vox. “American Girl [Version 02]” hints at the quieter, more experimental path von Bohlen would pursue in the 00s, but in ’98 it was just a mellow way to close out a great release.

While they weren’t together for long, the idea of Matt Canino (see above) and Chris Bauermeister (ex-Jawbreaker) collaborating in Shorebirds gave me chills. While I found their eventual full-length to be a little underwhelming, the group issued a string of great seven-inches beforehand. Their tune doesn’t disappoint, nor does Canino’s other band, Hooky. I thought Black Bear beat them both, though. “We Fight This With Our Flesh” simultaneously recalls Hot Water Music and Ugly Organ-era Cursive. Awesome.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Jesu - 'Ascension'

Just as the even-numbered Star Trek films are best (minus Nemesis), a similar constant governs Jesu releases. The full-lengths are always better. While frontman/multi-instrumentalist Justin Broadrick has released a string of EPs since 2007’s shoegaze/metal masterpiece Conqueror ranging in quality, his new full-length Ascension is the true sequel fans have waited for. It’s a mighty fine record, proving that Jesu isn’t just noise and stoner drone rock.

It takes a couple tracks to prove that, though. Opener “Fools” toys a little with the Jesu formula via acoustic guitar, but it still sounds like typical Jesu: Lengthy intro, long dirges and Broadrick’s plaintive vocals guide the track. “Birth Day” sounds like a Conqueror B-side, laden with ambient keyboards and the slowest drum beat of 2011. Then “Sedatives” kicks in.

The production on the first two Jesu tracks has a certain J. Robbins (ex-Jawbox/Burning Airlines/Channels/Government Issue) vibe. “Sedatives” is a straightforward rocker cloaked in shoegaze guitar, and it has all the uplift I associate with Robbins’ later work, even if it is a few BPMs short Jawbox territory. Jesu is known for being experimental, but “Sedatives” is a rock throwback that reaffirms Broadrick’s mastery. The lyrics are a little on the goth side (“You give life and then don’t feed it”), but they suit the style. “Sedatives” is a big surprise after a seemingly endless string of 20-minute ambient electronic song structures over the last few years.

“Broken Home” returns to classic Jesu, but “Brave New World” and “Black Lies” kick the record’s second half back into the Jawbox vein before “Ascension” calmly plays the listener out. Ascension’s biggest asset is its energy. While the casual listener will probably go, “Yep, this is Jesu,” fans should be excited by the sense of purpose in these songs. The drums are thunderous; the guitars roar. Broadrick keeps the vocals a little low in the mix in true shoegaze fashion, striking a balance between ambience and dissonance.

When Jesu dropped the 50-minute, single track Infinity in 2009, Broadrick insisted that it wasn’t the true sequel to Conqueror. At the time, I tried taking that on good faith, even though part of me thought he was backpedaling since Infinity wasn’t nearly as good as Conqueror. With Ascension’s release, I see that he wasn’t lying. It really is the sequel that took four years to complete.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

myPod: Cr-Cu

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


Cansei de ser Sexy, or CSS, needs to be better. Their self-titled debut boats some sexy dancefloor pop confections like “Patins,” “Alala,” and “Art Bitch.” But the record is mostly frontloaded with the good stuff; the second half is indistinct. Donkey is more even, but that’s almost a disappointment. It’s not boring, but it never tops “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death From Above.” It also occasionally edges into yacht rock territory, weirdly. Still, if I combined the best tracks from each album, I’d have one unimpeachable dance record.

Verdict: Keep Cansei. Dump Donkey.

Rivers Cuomo

Ever the Kiss devotee, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo is a savvy businessman who never puts all his great songs on one album (At least, not since Pinkerton). That’s the only reason I can come up with to justify his refusal of breaking up the lost Weezer album, Songs From the Black Hole, over several releases, including his solo demo series Alone. To be fair, Alone’s installments have both been strong so far, but the cynic in me thinks he couples newer demos like “This is the Way” and “Can’t Stop Partying” with “Longtime Sunshine” and “I Was Scared” because he knows hardcore/old school Weezer fans will have to buy them. Weezer hasn’t been great in a long time, but these demos sets are great, lo-fi additions. Man, now I feel bad about being a dick about them.

Verdict: Keep.

The Cure

I love The Cure. Robert Smith is one of the best songwriters of all time. I put him on a pedestal the way some people treat The Beatles. In the ’80s, Smith released eight full-lengths with The Cure, as well as albums with The Glove and Siouxsie & the Banshees. The dude just straight up shat out golden pop tunes. And for a while, Smith burned with so many musical ideas that The Cure’s sound constantly evolved.

It seems impossible now, but the group began as a punk outfit. Three Imaginary Boys has art school leanings, but the band didn’t completely make the jump to post-punk until Seventeen Seconds. TIB was retooled for the U.S. as Boys Don’t Cry with some of The Cure’s poppier singles like “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” rotated in, but I honestly prefer Three Imaginary Boys thanks to its sequencing and daring anti-commercialism (The original version didn’t include a tracklisting and, in the case of “Subway Song,” went out of its way to be noisy). Joy Division seems to have had a big influence on Smith, though, and the band started evolving as his tastes diversified, to the point that original drummer Lol Tolhurst moved to keyboards because he couldn’t keep up. Seventeen Seconds and Faith are ominous and hazy, but Pornography packs a dark bluster that makes it the best of The Cure’s first run. Smith’s lyrics have always been strong, but this is where he starts to really step it up. Pornography is laced with despair and longing.

A devoted Jimi Hendrix fan, Pornography also marks a turn in Smith’s guitar playing, as “One Hundred Years” sounds psychedelic and satanic as fuck, perhaps aided by Smith’s insane drug consumption at the time. The Top is the flipside – the drugs bleed into the lyrics, resulting in some of Smith’s dumbest/trippiest imagery. It’s not a bad record, but coming off of Pornography, it’s something of a disappointment. Still, The Top translates well to the group’s live show caught on Concert. “Shake Dog Shake” is so heavy.

Smith regrouped via The Glove and The Banshees and returned with The Head on the Door. A step away from psych-pop and copious amounts of LSD, Door is a collection of great pop songs (“Inbetween Days,” “Push,” “Six Different Ways,” “Close to Me”). Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me marries those pop leanings (“Why Can’t I Be You?”, freaking “Just Like to Heaven”) to psychedelia (“The Kiss,” “Like Cockatoos”) in a sprawling double-album that doesn’t suck.

The best Cure album overall is Disintegration. It sustains a gloomy, ambient mood throughout, delivers a perfect pop song in “Lovesong,” and manages to be trippy without being too trippy. Unfortunately, Disintegration also ruined The Cure. Most ’80s artists struggled in the ’90s (Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen), and while The Cure did better than most, they still took a notable downturn. Wish strains to rock super hard while preserving Disintegration’s longer songwriting, almost as if it were a reaction to the grunge movement, but it comes off as bloated. Compared to Pornography or Three Imaginary Boys, it just doesn’t deliver enough oomph. 1996’s Wild Mood Swings was widely loathed upon its release. Admittedly, it is the worst Cure album, but I still think it gets a bad rap, even if the Caribbean vibe of “The 13th” feels really weird coming from a goth icon.

The Cure turned things around creatively in the new millennium, though. Bloodflowers matches the band’s ’80s output. It’s also the muscular display Wish strived to be while delving into Disintegration’s murky depths [Side note: Smith has called Bloodflowers the conclusion to the “Dark Trilogy” of albums he began with Pornography and Disintegration. It strikes me as something of a gimmick, in that Seventeen Seconds, Faith, and Pornography form a better trilogy musically, but the sonic connections between Disintegration and Bloodflowers are undeniable).

The Cure and 4:13 Dream followed. The Cure is a Wish retread: Watered down and louder. It’s got some good songs, but nothing truly great. I love Dream, though, even if it does sound cater to the Hot Topic crowd a little too much on tracks like “The Real Snow White.” Dream has some of Smith’s best songs ever, like “The Hungry Ghost” and “The Only One.” While his output has slowed down since the ’80s, Smith still knows how to write a ridiculously great love song.

That said, I am going to prune my collection slightly. While I’m keeping Concert, I’ve decided to sell off my other live records, Show and Paris, as well as a promotional single I bought “Pictures of You.” The B-side, “Fear of Ghosts,” is amazing, but I already have it on the stellar boxed set Join the Dots.


Verdict: Keep.


There once was a time where I lived for Cursive’s passionate, discordant brand of emo. Then, like a lot of artists from the Saddle Creek scene, frontman Tim Kasher ran out of songwriting ideas. Now he’s kind of like the Woody Allen of indie rock, in that he keeps creating simply to create. But for a while, Kasher burned with ideas. I still don’t have Cursive’s first album, but their Saddle Creek debut, The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song, is a stunning burst ’90s emo with some post-hardcore touches. It’s not as removed from Hot Water Music as some may pretend. Kasher tends to write albums around central themes, and Domestica is the first time that theme evolves into a concept album. Bolstered by the addition of cello, Domestica chronicles the pitfalls of a relationship between the characters Sweetie and Pretty Baby. It’s full of anger and resignation. The Ugly Organ repeats that idea to great effect.

Unfortunately, Kasher’s brain has rarely gone beyond sex, limiting his music. 2006’s comeback Happy Hollow is the point I cut myself off from Kasher. It’s another concept album; this time he takes on the Christian Right (with horns!). It’s a little long but still pretty good. But everything Kasher has done with his bands (Cursive, The Good Life) and solo has revolved around his dick, and what was once clever and concise has become tedious and dull. Still, I treasure Cursive’s run from 1995-2006.

I also have some odds ‘n’ ends to fill in the margins, including singles and a few EPs like Burst and Bloom and a split with Eastern Youth. They’re not as essential as the albums, but they’re still good.

Verdict: Keep.

Vinyl Vednesday 5/11/2011

[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 pelonej1@gmail.com with your own big finds!]

Records: Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True (1977), Miles Davis’ 12 Sides of Mile (1980), and The Mr. T Experience’s Big Black Bugs Bleed Blue Blood (1989), all on black wax.

Place of Purchase: My Aim is True came from Philadelphia Record Exchange while Davis ‘n’ T came from Siren Records in Doylestown.

Thoughts: While it’s not his finest moment (That would be either Get Happy!!! or Blood & Chocolate or Armed Forces or…), My Aim is True announced Elvis Costello as an angry young man who was a little more literate and indebted to traditional pop and rock ‘n’ roll than the punk revolution allowed. “Alison” was the big hit, but I prefer the bitter pills like “Welcome to the Working Week,” “Miracle Man,” and “Waiting For the End of the World.” These tunes are snotty, but even this early in his career you can hear the blues and country underpinnings Costello had brewing, especially on “Blame It On Cain.”

I’m a total novice to jazz overall – I have only just recently become an old man – but I really, really like Miles Davis. I had a fair amount of store credit with Siren, so I put $50 of it towards 12 Sides of Miles, a six-LP boxed set containing Sketches of Spain, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Kind of Blue, and my favorite Miles release, Bitches Brew. Spain has touches of flamenco, which I dig, as well as the cool jazz of Miles, Porgy, and Blue, although each has the occasional big band leaning. None of them compare to Bitches Brew, though. A cacophony of funk, jazz, and noise, Bitches Brew is a dissonant masterpiece in a league with other disorienting, loud records like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless or Jesu’s Conqueror. It’s just all over the place, and gloriously so.

Can I just say it’s really weird shifting from Miles Davis to The Mr. T Experience? Because it is. Bugs contains a solid set of Gilman St. style pop-punk. Basically, it sounds like early Green Day. Side 2 has the big hits, first with the rocker “Dictionary Girl,” then with the pretty Ramones-y “End of the Ramones.” It’s an ode to Ramones concerts, which I hear were pretty fun. It was meant to be cute at the time, but now I just feel nostalgic for a life I never had. Better put on some Teenage Bottlerocket.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Vinyl Vednesday 5/4/2011

[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. I’m reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, about her time with Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she also commemorated on Coral Sea, right now, so this week’s edition is all about her. It’s weird/cool looking through the liner notes and realizing how many pictures Mapplethorpe took for Smith’s albums. E-mail pelonej1@gmail.com with your own big finds!]

Patti Smith’s Horses (1975), Easter (1978), and Wave (1979) on black.

Place of Purchase: Horses came from Legends in the Plymouth Meeting Mall (R.I.P.), while Easter and Wave were purchased from good ol’ Siren Records in Doylestown.

Thoughts: It took me a while to get on board with Patti Smith. I bought Horses on vinyl because of Smith is just as important to the creation of punk as The Stooges or MC5, but her tunes, while primal, were not easy rockers. Iggy Pop just wanted to tear things down; Smith was an artist, and her tunes invoked a lot of strange imagery that put her in league with Jim Morrison. Punk rock was supposed to tear down rock ‘n’ roll in ’77, but Smith already did it in ’75 when she took Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and rewrote the whole damn song. The whole record is electrifying, but nothing tops that moment when she intones, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / But not mine.”

Horses was and is a critical darling, but it didn’t exactly move units. Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Iovine came on board to make Smith a pop sensation. They almost pulled it off with “Because the Night,” a catchy ode to forbidden love, but Smith pretty much undoes Easter’s commercial appeal with “Rock n Roll Nigger.” That one will never be ready for radio. The record as a whole is louder than Horses, but it lacks some of the bite.

Easter is all over the place sonically. The songs certainly sound of a piece, but it certainly took cajones for Smith to get from poppy opener “Frederick” to the searing dissonance of “Seven Ways of Going.” That experimental sax solo devastates me. Know what else grabs me? The way Smith’s oscillates from a bark to a girlish coo. Compare the spooky spoken word on “Wave” to the masculine roar of “Rock n Roll N-WORD PLEASE DON’T HATE ME.” This woman was weirder than The Ramones and heavier than The Clash.

It all comes back to “Gloria,” though, at least for me.