June Music Reviews
drummers. Sometimes three. And even more chaotic moments,
an entire band of percussionists bang in unison, blasting
tribal post-punk projectiles at the willing crowd of over-stimulated,
beat hungry kids. That's the modus operandi of Black Eyes,
the newest post-punk live phenomenon signed to the ever-reliable
Dischord label. Produced by longtime label head and Fugazi
member Ian MacKaye, Black Eyes channel the political ardor
of early DC hardcore into a percussive whirlwind more similar
to the art-dub of 80s acts like 23 Skidoo or England's Swell
Maps but wait... hmmmm, do they have the big drums? Check.
Dubbed out bass? Check. Rival vocalists armed with agitated
screams and arty inflected shouts? Check. And it's on Dischord?
Check. But it doesn't sound exactly like Fugazi? Right.
Let me explain.
With longtime Fugazi engineer Don Zientara manning the
board, he and MacKaye have made the interesting and intelligent
decision to flood the bass and drums high into the mix,
occasionally drowning out the vocal tracks (liner notes
list all five members as "vocalists") focusing
the sound squarely where it should be. Being next to impossible
to sufficiently capture the maelstrom that Black Eyes conjure
up live, MacKaye instead chose to keep the music rooted
to rhythm; a sound decision because the earnest screams,
although sincere and peppered with the requisite vitriolic
Dischord jingoism, grate over the course of an entire record.
Pardon me if I'm not fully sold on the white middle class
idolatry of esoteric African-American poets, but I'm sure
if I were 16, I know that I too would be jumping off stages
declaring my support of Baraka's Jersey poet-laureate ousting.
Really, Black Eyes are sort of like Helmet or The Melvins
or Unsane or Don Caballero - bands known for writing songs
that sound basically the same. Good bands who incorporate
sonic formulas that offer little room for deviation. Whether
five guys are all rolling snares or jamming on triangles,
the bottom line is a moving percussive clamor that is much
more suited for the live medium. Not to say Black Eyes isn't
a satisfying listen. It is. But it is also testament to
the dizzying effect of the bands live performance that MacKaye
and Zientara, two of post-punk's finest soundsmiths, cannot
fully capture their complex melange of polyrhythmic shouts
Pinback has consisted of a rotating cast of performers,
the duo of Rob Crow and Armistead Burwell Smith IV have
been its trusted battery since the band's inception in '98.
Evolving out of a part-time project for the two songwriters,
Pinback has grown into one of the indie world's more dependable
and innovative pop outfits, garnering critical success and
comparisons to such acts as Built to Spill, The Shins and
Death Cab for Cutie. Things are certainly progressing well,
yet to arc the current trajectory of the band may be premature,
as their new EP is their finest, most polished output to
date and only a brief glimpse of the heights to which they
can ascend. Adding lush pop arrangements and layered percussive
elements to their dueling vocals and indelible guitar melodies,
the five tracks on Offcell show how Pinback possess an ambition
that certainly exceeds their budget. The EP's title track
"Offcell" stays true to the successful formula
of their last record, Blue Screen Life, by placing an indelible
guitar melody over a simple programmed hip-hop break. "Microtonic
Wave," "B" and perhaps one of the most listenable
10-minute tracks released in some time "Grey-Machine"
hint that given enough time (and the requisite financial
support) Pinback may possibly have a chance to reach the
large audience their ubiquitously appealing pop deserves.
Shit, it took the Flaming Lips how long before they headlined
at Roseland? Be patient guys.
One Word Extinguisher
is a Celtic religious myth which states that for an individual
to be included in the canon of saints, he must exercise
devotion of a heroic degree by performing three miracles.
Let's count One Word Extinguisher, Scott Herron's second
full-length release under his Prefuse 73 guise, as his second
step toward full inclusion in Warp Records' holy trinity
of Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards of Canada. By both solidifying
and expanding his voice within the cacophonous electronic
universe, Herron has indeed produced a small miracle - a
sophomore effort sure to delight eager fans and dumbfound
disbelievers expecting yet another forgettable follow-up.
While Herron's trademark of challenging MPC-powered collages
once again form the spine of the album, each track displays
the confidence and emotional maturity usually employed in
compositions written by one his other pseudonyms, Savath
+ Savalas. Thickly layered and intricately programmed (without
using a computer), Herron has mastered the ability to keep
his formula of accessible experimentalism moving forward
without being too heady; and although comprised of mostly
instrumentals, One Word Extinguisher is anything but boring.
While tethered to unforgettable melodies, richly looped
double bass and hip-hop time signatures (ala DJ Shadow),
Herron's frenetic sampling and use of singing snares and
cymbals can at times provoke comparison to label-mate Tom
Jenkinson (aka Squarepusher). Yet while connections can
be made to Herron's production-related oeuvre, his sound
is uniquely engaging, instantly recognizable, and a perfect
canvas for collaborative efforts (this time around he's
joined by Mr. Lif, Dabrye, Tommy Guerrero and Daedelus).
And in a time when new albums are dropping at staggering
rates, I'd call that about as close to a miracle as we can
Hebden seems to be a man of few words. On stage, over a
year or so ago, he barely addressed the Knitting Factory
crowd before settling down in front of his Powerbook and
doing his solo thing as Four Tet. His records, while largely
absent of vocals, are rich with the DIY laptop texture and
melodic sensibility that have elevated him to the next plane
in both the electronica and indie circles. And although
his newest offering Rounds may not hit listeners with the
same immediate accessibility as its precursor Pause, it
is a stunning contribution nevertheless, replete with Hebden's
highly stylized and wildly syncopated jazz drumming, frustratingly
enigmatic sound design (how did he construct that sound?)
and an expressive undertow that touches the emotional terrain
of his other project, the post-rock band Fridge. Despite
a pair of otherwise forgettable experimental sound pieces
("First Thing" and "Chia"), the eight
remaining tracks hop-scotch from the vintage Four Tet hard-stepped
breaks of "Hands," "She Moves She" and
the album's sure-fire single, "As Serious as Your Life"
to the reflective, experimental downtempo of "My Angel
Rocks Back and Forth" and the Fridge-inspired "Slow
Jam." What Rounds lacks in words, it more than makes
up for by the starkly cinematic beauty of "Unspoken,"
a simple instrumental hip-hop composition formed around
a piano/guitar melody soon to be your favorite subway headphone
accompaniment. Although there's little actually said in
any of Hebden's tracks, part of the enjoyment of listening
to Four Tet is that he has left it up to you to fill in
the blanks. I guess if he wanted just a thousand words,
he'd have become a photographer.
Turning It Down Since 2001
Noxagt - pronounced 'noxact' - weighs in with one of the
heaviest records you're sure to hear this year. Their debut
full-length is a brutish tour-de-force of steadfast, crushing
rhythms, heavy-gauge bass, and bowed viola. This instrumental
three-piece, which features Kjetil D. Brandsal on bass,
successfully summons the repetitive power and domineering
spirit of early Swans and Skullflower.
"Turning It Down Since 2001" is not an entirely
ironic title for their debut, as their sound, while heavy
as hell, downplays the wailing feedback and crunchy distortion
so relied upon in heavy, doom rock. The bass sound is so
deep it's almost dubby, and the viola's steady, euphoric
melodies cradle the listener like a gypsy mother's lullaby.
Noxagt's slow grooves ooze their way into your ears and
into your soul and may require a priest to have them expelled.
On "Gravy & Blood," Noxagt cranks out a slow
and lurching, elephant-sized rhythm, tied tight and strung
together by Nils Erga's bowed mantra. Occasionally, the
pace perks up, like on "Manhood Lessons," but
Noxagt's debut is mostly a zoned-out power trip - an almost
tangible power that stretches and breathes. Turn it up.
Now are purveyors of fine screamo thrash, an American hardcore
phenomenon exalted by young, sneaker-wearing punks who wear
their studs on the inside. These bands are often too earnest
for their own good, but they can also be downright dead-tight
and over-the-top climactic. The Now test positive on both
counts - a clear sign that they do it up right, exalting
screamo as the sound of now as if it's always been that
The Now's endearing earnestness is reflected in their song
titles. The six-song single's lead-off track, entitled "They
Don't Call Him Columbine Because He Wears A Trenchcoat,
They Call Him Columbine Because He Kills People," combines
technical-metal movements with rasping vocals, and begins
and ends from one boiling point to another.
The tension wires connecting the different parts of each
song often break away from the standard hardcore playbook
and include death-metal guitar leads, group chants, bludgeoning
blastbeat breakdowns - even the occasional pensive, emo-strum.
Screamer/songwriters aren't for everyone, but there's no
denying The Now's chops are big'n'chunky and well executed
- you can feel their pain.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Fever To Tell
several years now the media has been obsessing over the
notion that some type of rock revolution a rock renaissance
or revival depending on which rag you read is underway
in New York. Polling from their own hype, it seems, the
press often credit the Strokes as one of the progenitors
of this movement and name-check the band endlessly when
spouting off on other New York-based acts such as the Walkmen,
the French Kicks, and, of course, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. That
some great rock music has been coming out of New York in
recent years goes without saying. But calling it a resurgence
is ridiculous. New York is rife with good rock bands and
has been as long as I can remember. Though, if we are simply
talking about good bands getting the ink they deserve, then
I suppose we are experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Which
brings us back to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a good band awash
in heaps of hype. ("...What odds favor to be the best
punk rock album of 2003," cooed Rolling Stone in an
article published prior to the release of their debut album
Fever To Tell.) At the right place, at the right time you
could say of the bands media-fueled flight from anonymity.
On Fever To Tell, frontgrrrl Karen O yelps, howls, and
wails her way through a collection of high-energy rock numbers
strewn with bursts of controlled noise, careening hooks,
and distortion-heavy refrains. As drummer Brian Chase clobbers
his kit and guitarist Nick Zinner manipulates a sonic caterwaul
from his six string, Karen O shrieks into the fray, her
vocals remaining impassioned and soulful even as she proclaims,
convincingly, that we're all gonna burn in hell,
as she does on Man. At times evoking strains
of Sonic Youth, the John Spencer Blues Explosion, Mudhoney,
and even Bikini Kill, Fever To Tell is a promising debut,
ably realized by a talented trio whose massive sound belies
their size. Though not exactly the monumental opus the hype
would have you believe, and at times a bit forgettable,
the album contains a few real gems, most of them occurring
when the tempo downshifts and the raucous melodies are replaced
by tuneful new wave themes, as on Maps and the
album's closer Modern Romance.
Is the concept of a New York rock revolution
silly and fundamentally false? Yes, I think so. But if it
gives bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs an audience for their
music, and incentive to live up to the hype, then, what
can I say but viva la revolucion!
the pitfalls of the current day retro posturing that has
infected many a rock band within the past two years, San
Francisco's Pleasure Forever, veer towards the gritty, propulsive
and glaringly decadent forward thinking side of rock and
roll. Their latest Sup Pop LP, Alter, showcases a band emerging
from a hardcore past with a vision of a rock fueled cabaret
show fronted by the bastard offspring of Marc Bolan and
Jacques Brel. Vocalist and piano player Andrew Rothbard
shouts and sings with the inflection of a two pack a day
Mick Jagger, but instead of coming across as another strutting
peacock with his rock and roll plumage on display, Rothbard
and the rest of the band create a sound that is altogether
as dark as it is melodic, epic and accessible. With song
titles like "Tempest II" and "Wicked Shivering
Columbine", Pleasure Forever take the notion of a piano
and keyboard driven song to the darker edge of music and
turn an instrument that is frequently used for pop escapism
into a melancholy and haunting voice surrounded by aggressively
muscular drumming and a wall of guitar that is as ethereal
as it is grandiose and captivating. Pleasure Forever remind
us that a band does not have to sound like they were transported
from 1981 to the 21st century in a silver Delorean to be
relevant, thought provoking and compelling all at the same
time. In the end, all one needs to know is that Pleasure
Forever know how to rock and they don't need a pair of vintage
converse and a shag haircut to do so.
Living in America
has historically been known as a manufacturer of disposable
Euro-pop, and while the last few years have revealed a garage/classic
rock element to the country's musical output, the bubble
gum pop niche would not hide for long. Once again it has
arisen in The Sounds debut, Living in America. Yet instead
of taking their cue from classic Euro-fluff stalwarts like
ABBA, the Swedish quintet attempt to bring in elements as
varied, or similar, as Blondie, Duran Duran, The Cars and
any other new wave power pop band that one can think of.
While the Blondie comparisons make for an easy reference
point for many a reviewer, due to bleach blonde front woman
Maja Ivarsson, the results are a far cry from anything Debbie
Harry's posse ever produced. The Sounds attempts to wear
their influences on their leather and denim sleeves results
in a musical output that falls closer to Bon Jovi's "Runaway"
fronted by ABBA than Blondie's "Heart of Glass".
The band struggles to come across as the legitimate heirs
of a long line of innovative keyboard driven punk derived
pop bands, but instead reveal themselves as the musical
descendants of second tier new wave acts who eventually
evolved into pop-metal behemoths like the aforementioned
New Jersey quintet. Blonde hair, high cheek bones, stylish
clothes and an attractive backing band may help The Sounds
market themselves to an eagerly retro-minded listening audience
but, like Ace of Base before them, it does not necessarily
make for an enduring career.
the opening licks on Grand Mal's Bad Timing, you know you're
in for a raucous treat. A honky-tonk swagger pervades the
air as the guitars begin to pound away. It slips into groovin'
rock tune and then Bill Whitten begins singing in a gravely
sneer: "It was a first round knockout / She was a beauty
school dropout / Sprung forth from the fat of the land."
For the most part, Bad Timing is a good thing. Grand Mal
is a combination of Cheap Trick, MC5, Action Figures, and
The Rolling Stones (Exile and Some Girls era) with The Black
Crowes and The Kinks as the backing bands. These guys like
to drink whiskey, smoke cigarettes, and close bars down.
Not necessarily in that order. They have dirty hair and
wear dark sunglasses they glare at you through. They like
their rock and roll loud.
The whole album has a cohesive feel, without all the songs
sounding exactly the same. The tunes move along quickly
and make you want to wear a leather jacket and jeans and
smoke. Sneering is important when you sing along, and an
air guitar just feels right. And the lyrics from Whitten
should be bronzed and sent to rock heaven.
From "1st Round K.O." with its beautiful changes
around the chorus to "Old Fashioned," a white
trash romp with a wall of distorted guitar ("I'm in
love with the trashman / 'cos he's so old fashioned / a
pack of smokes rolled up in his T-shirt sleeve / and he
looks like Rock Action / Like a space/time contraction /
Back to the year of our lord, 1973") to "Disaster
Film," which I can't seem to get enough of. Starting
with piano and a subdued electrified vocal, the song is
moody and sparse, until they decide to crank it up a bit.
This is their anthem.
"I just got back from out west, a funeral for a friend
/ The man's despair was contagious / If he heard me singing
this song / he'd call me a traitor
Baby, run for your
life, you know my friends are gonna eat you alive / They're
out of their minds on pills, their lives are like disaster
films / They're never gonna win no Nobel prizes
it's four in the morning but of course come on in / Well
here's my beer and tobacco / Don't burn my house down, don't
OD in my bathroom."
The first time I had heard of these guys was on Arena Rock's
This Is Next Year, where they performed "Hey Man."
That song blew me away, and I can say the same about Bad
Timing. It is catchy, run-down, real, bluesy, guitar-laden
rock with lyrics you want to sing along with. Some songs
come at your full force, and others creep up on you with
a slow build. Either way, in today's world of music, their
timing couldn't have been better.
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