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June Music Reviews

BLACK EYES
Black Eyes

(Dischord)

Two 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 and skins.

--Steve Marchese

PINBACK
Offcell
(Absolutely Kosher)

Although 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.

--Steve Marchese

PREFUSE 73
One Word Extinguisher
(Warp)

There 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 come.

--Steve Marchese

FOUR TET
Rounds
(Domino)

Kieran 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.

--Steve Marchese

Noxagt
Turning It Down Since 2001
(Load)

Norway's 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.

--SK

The Now
CDEP
(Robotic Empire)

The 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 way.

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.

--SK

Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Fever To Tell
(Interscope)

For 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 band’s 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!

--Daniel Schulman


Pleasure Forever
Alter
(Sub Pop)

Avoiding 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.

--Charles Ubaghs

The Sounds
Living in America
(New Line/Scratchie)

Sweden 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.

--Charles Ubaghs

Grand Mal
Bad Timing

(Arena Rock)

From 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 … Well, 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.

--Grant Moser

 

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