Friday, November 2, 2007

#24: Forgotten Classic>Firehose>If'n

Artist : Firehose
Album : If'n (2nd Domestic LP)
Release : 1987
Year Founded : 1986
Label Name : SST
Catalog # : 115
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : Ed Crawford, George Hurley, Mike Watt
Runtime : 39:02
Sound Season : Summer, Autumn

I first encountered Firehose by being completely obssessed with an 1988 skate video called Streets on Fire, which was Santa Cruz's balls-out, badass sequel to Wheels of Fire. It starred Jason Jesse, whom I idolized at the time, and featured on its soundtrack almost all SST records bands such as Black Flag and Sonic Youth and had heavy doses of Descendents, Minutemen and Firehose throughout.

My brother and I watched this video incessantly and devoured every trick, every note, every goofy moment. We would pause and rewind and pause the credits over and over again to find out who did our favorite songs. Firehose was the clear winner for us across the board (Minutemen became huge for us only after Firehose). The greatest thing about it was that all the other bands were really pretty harsh, and then here was this band playing this rhythm-heavy folk-rock. It was epiphanous for us that music could mean so much without being so overtly rebellious.

It was around this same time in that our pépère (grandpa, for the non-french) had suffered a stroke. He had survived it, but was never able to make a full recovery. I remember visiting him in the hospital and seeing how confused and scared he was. He often couldn't remember his own sons and daughters. I had to be reintroduced to him. He had to relearn just about everything, which meant that he became a new and different person, often not resembling the pépère that I had come to know and love, although I knew that he was still in there somewhere. A short time after Thanksgiving, we got the news that he had died. Both versions of my pépère were gone.

The day of his wake, my brother and I came home from school and waited for our parents to come home early from work. I'm not sure how or where or who he got it from, but my brother J had come home with the If'n record. We had waited so long to hear it and here it finally was. We put it on the player in the living room and listened quietly while we stared out the window, waiting and watching for car lights coming up the driveway.

In the video, the songs were so exuberant and celebratory. They underscored the freedom and the kinship exemplified in the scenes of Ben Schroeder and Klaus Grabke traipsing across Western Europe or of Natas Kaupas tricking off of everything in San Francisco. They were like a rallying call, a musical "carpe diem!" "Windmilling" was particularly joyous.

Two of us windmilling, swirling in another time
Let my feet touch the ground, the doors revolve and choirs sing
Two of us windmilling, wheels in motion
What life you draw through me, the doors revolve and choirs sing
Two of us windmilling, wrap me in barbed wire
You bring out the sting in me, the doors revolve and choirs sing

But in the fading daylight of that gray day, they had become more like pleas and eulogies. The wistful "In Memory of Elizabeth Cotton" will always bring this moment back.

Every song on the record is brilliant in its own way from the morose "Backroads" to the jabbing "For the Singer of REM" to the dark chant "Thunder Child." This was a band that existed and subsisted on heart and soul. They were blue-collar, modest and, above all, honest.

And If'n is forever a wonderful way to remember.

Friday, October 26, 2007

#23: The Forms>The Forms>Follow Function

Artist : The Forms
Album : The Forms (2nd Domestic LP)
Release : 10.23.07
Year Founded : 2003
Label Name : Threespheres
Catalog # : 0115
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Digipak
Members : Brendan Kenny, Jackson Kenny, Alex Tween, Matt Walsh
Runtime : 29:44
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Autumn, Winter
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Knowledge in Hand, Red Gun, Bones, Blue Whale
Sounds Like : Bats & Mice Believe it Mammals
Rating : B+

Truthfully, the only reason The Forms' new album stood out to me from amongst all the crap promos that come our way is because of the 'recorded by Steve Albini' note on the inside cover. Now, Mr. Albini is not infallible, and, last I heard, he still will record anyone's album provided they wait their turn. But, 75 percent of what he touches is typically worth seriously listening to. I also immediately noticed that Matt Talbott of Hum gets a credit as an 'additional engineer.' That sealed the deal.

Well, what really sealed the deal was playing the record. I was unable to have any preconceived notions about this band. Their name does not immediately give away their sound and, as I said, Steve Albini has worked with everyone from The Frames to Mindless Self Indulgence, so that isn't giving anything away. Neither does the nondescript album art or the label to which they belong. With nothing to go on, the vocals hit me first.

Alex Tween has a vocal sound similar to Aqueduct's David Terry. He sound like he might be your wiseass best friend who just started a band to prove that he could. More striking than that though is the way the vocals stick right to the guitar melody, or vice versa, which is a feat in itself considering "Knowledge in Hand"'s disjointed rhythm. Tween's desperate yell is a perfect counterpoint to the decorum of his casual, matter-of-factness.

Brendan Kenny plays guitar as if his hand is glued to the fretboard. Everything is a slide or a bend ("Blue Whale") or a Möbius strip ("Focus") and there are little or no moments without notes. And there is something distinctly 90's about this band. There is a simplicity and a naïve innocence about them that calls to mind that time when major labels were scrambling to sign bands even the underground hadn't heard of in hopes of finding the next Nirvana. They're catchy, but not poppy. They're a little dark, a little sinister, but not out to scare anyone. They sound like they have ideals.

The one thing missing from the album is variety. All the songs sound pretty similar. That phenomenon fades a bit as you listen and become more familiar, but it remains at least in part after repeated listening. The tone of the instruments never change. If the album were longer, it may have turned into a fatiguing listen, no matter how satisfying each song might have been on its own.

Friday, October 5, 2007

#22: Junior Senior>Hey Hey My My Yo Yo>Somebody's been snorting pixie dust

Artist : Junior Senior
Album : Hey Hey My My Yo Yo (2nd Domestic LP)
Release : 08.31.07
Year Founded : 2003
Label Name : Ryko
Catalog # : 10927
Packaging Type : Dual-Disc Digi-Pak
Members : Jeppe Breum Laursen, Jesper Mortensen
Runtime : 34:19
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season :
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Hip Hop a Lula, Can I Get Get Get
Sounds Like :
Rating : B

Junior Senior are pretty creepy. One of them looks like he's about to gather up the Lost Boys and fly off to fight Captain Hook and the other kind of looks like a kid toucher who lives in a van behind Savers — a frightening combination if you ask me. If you can make it past that though, they do kick out some jams that despite (or perhaps due to) their incredible flamingness are pretty catchy and really fun.

Hey Hey My My Yo Yo starts with "Hello," which is just that — a cordial 'hello!' from the band followed by an invitation to 'put on your pants ... because you might want to dance.' They sound eerily and hilariously just like the famous Mario Twins. Coming straight off that intro is "Hip Hop a Lula," which is very reminiscent of something off of the recently released Go! Team's album. It's got a very bass drum/snare drum dependent verse with a surging stop-start cut up synth that takes the place of a scratching DJ followed by a party chorus with guitar and horns and handclaps. Lots and lots of handclaps.

The album takes a marked nu-disco turn at "Can I Get Get Get" that persists through "We 'R the Handclaps." If the Scissor Sisters are a hybrid of the Bee Gees and Elton John, then Junior Senior and special guests Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson (of the B-52's) are a cross between their Scandinavian ancestors Abba and Kool and the Gang on "Take My Time." (Le Tigre and the Velvelettes also hold guest spots on the record.)

The album takes yet another turn at "I Like Music (W.O.S.B.)." This time though, it's something closer to a very poppy Motown. The basslines get less funky and the guitar and vocal harmonies come closer to the front, eliminating most if not all of Senior's role in the affair. Something like "No No No's" comes close to sounding like Elliot Smith's only most positive and airy efforts. This block of songs isn't particularly bad, but doesn't really fit in and ends up feeling like filler. Hey Hey My My Yo Yo and Senior return in the end to the nu-disco/hip-hop combination with the final "Happy Rap."

Junior Senior are all about being positive about life and music and having fun. In pursuit of that end they end up being at least a little creepy and — this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone — very very faggy. But sometimes, if you want to have real no inhibitions who gives a fuck fun, you have to just accept that you're going to look like a homo.

Friday, September 28, 2007

#21: Iron & Wine>The Shepherd's Dog>I shall not want

Artist : Iron & Wine
Album : The Shepherd's Dog (3rd Domestic LP)
Release : 09.25.07
Year Founded : 2002
Label Name : Sub Pop
Catalog # : 710
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Digipak
Members : Sam Beam, Sarah Beam, Jim Becker, Rob Burger, Joey Burns, Brian
Deck, EJ Holowicki, John Katke, Matt Lux, Patrick McKinney, Paul Niehaus
Runtime : 49:45
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : White Tooth Man, Lovesong of the Buzzard, Carousel, House by the Sea, Boy with a Coin
Sounds Like : Nick DrakePink Moon
Rating : A

Iron & Wine's The Shepherd's Dog maintains the same emotional, thematic and artistic arc as his previous album, Our Endless Numbered Days. While it maintains — like Endless — a melancholic moodiness, it will not likely induce fits of weeping as did Sam Beam's shockingly stark introduction to the music world The Creek Drank the Cradle. The new album also continues the trend toward fuller, more complex arrangements and clearer, more inclusive production.

Still firmly at the epicenter though is Beam's whispery and warbly yet confident voice and his uncanny ability to twist his lachrymose words around the song's edges like tendrils around a fencepost. In short, his phrasing is flawless and adds even more gravity to the already leaden tales he tells.

"Lovesong of the Buzzard" is the first song that is perhaps surprising in the weight of its sound, as it is suffused with a summery lightness. The propulsive percussion and the boomy and bouncy addition of upright bass conjures Sam Prekop's solo work, which is interesting because the very next song, "Carousel," immediately brought to mind similar sounds from Archer Prewitt's seminal In the Sun. It is simple and focused and lonely and the effects applied to the vocal only increase the song's distance. And "House by the Sea" creates an immensely enjoyable swampland chorus of toads, crickets and cicadas by treating nearly everything, even the stringed instruments, as percussion.

The album's single, "Boy with a Coin," is unavoidable. It is The Shepherd's Dog's most haunting and delicately displayed piece. It is not only the album's best song, but one of Beam's best ever and certainly one of this year's best. Handclaps are so simple a device and yet so effective here as they march through the verse and do double-time through the "ooh" and "ahh" chorus. The guitar, with its curlicue pulls and deft slides, sounds like a cat trying to tip-toe through a nighttime stempede. It has perhaps the fewest words of all the songs, but there isn't a wasted phrase among them.

A boy with a coin he found in the weeds, with bullets and pages of trade magazines
Close to a car that flipped on the turn when god left the ground to circle the world
A girl with a bird she found in the snow, then flew up her gown and that's how she knows
That god made her eyes for crying at birth and then left the ground to circle the earth
A boy with a coin he crammed in his jeans, then, making a wish, he tossed in the sea
And walked to a town that all of us burned, when god left the ground to circle the world

No Iron & Wine album will ever be so startlingly intimate as The Creek Drank the Cradle. You just can't recapture the circumstances surrounding that album and how it came to be. But often that's exactly what Beam's most heart-wrenching songs are about — the inability to recapture or relive life's most precious moments — in a word, impermanence. The diversity of Beam's sound has certainly grown since the early days when he thought music might just be a nice hobby, but the feelings that his work evokes are as real as ever.

Friday, September 14, 2007

#20: The Go! Team>Proof of Youth>White men can't jump, but white boys and girls can make you want to

Artist : The Go! Team
Album : Proof of Youth (2nd Domestic LP)
Release : 09.11.07
Year Founded : 2005
Label Name : Sub Pop
Catalog # : 750
Packaging Type : Double-Disc Jewel Case (Album Disc w/Bonus Disc)
Members : Jamie Bell, Sam Dook, Ian Parton, Chi Fukami Taylor, Kaori Tsuchida, Ninja
Runtime : 36:20
Area Tour Dates : 10.25.07 @ The Paradise, Boston
Sound Season : Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Grip Like a Vice, Titanic Vandalism, Flashlight Fight
Rating : A-

The Go! Team are the perfect soundtrack to a Dr. J highlight reel. The kind where cartoon stars shoot out of the net.

The songs often have a synthesized old school hip-hop handclap beat, with live drums over the top to fill out the energy. And lots more — I mean, this stuff is seriously dense, like grandma's meatloaf.

There are empassioned blasts of funk-inspired horns, and things like recorder, glockenspiel and harmonica that add flourishes of psychedelic detail. The bouncy bass really gives the groove a spine and the guitar lends melody support and texture behind the vocals, which are clearly the focal point (with the exception of occassional instrumental tracks, which are fewer in number and less developed than on Thunder Lightning Strike).

The vocals are really what makes The Go! Team stand out as something different. They're part old school hip-hop (think J.J Fad), part cheerleading squad and part double-dutch team. They're recorded and presented in such a way that the listener can't really distinguish them from the samples that burst around them. And just in case you didn't make all the painfully obvious hip-hop connections all over Proof of Youth, Chuck D comes in to school your ass on "Flashlight Fight," easily the most kickass, nod your head, all-out slam dunk anthem ever.

The only thing that works against the team with this release is that is has lost some of its diversity of sound. There are only two instrumentals on this album as compared with the five on their debut album and rather than using the time away from the vocals to do something a little different, it is instead pretty much just another party song minus the "rah, rah, rah." Thunder Lightning Strike had a lot more garage band sound, which really was a great contrast to the hip-hop elements. And although Proof of Youth is still decidedly rock, I can't help feeling that some of the great songwriting has been squashed in favor of creating a battering ram of happy.

The Go! Team do what they do really well, and that is make you want to go out and take over the world by shooting everyone with your fun laser. Sad emo boys would become chimps wearing beanies riding mini-motorbikes, stuffy company execs would become pro laser tag players and we'd all be basejumping off of chocolate mountains into rivers of pudding. Who can't see the beauty in such a world?

Friday, August 31, 2007

#19: Minus the Bear>Planet of Ice>Hibernation has something to do with it

Artist : Minus the Bear
Album : Planet of Ice (3rd Domestic LP)
Release : 08.21.07
Year Founded : 2001
Label Name : Suicide Squeeze Records
Catalog # : 065
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : David Knudson, Cory Murchy, Alex Rose, Jake Snider, Erin Tate
Runtime : 47:58
Area Tour Dates : 00.00.00 @ Venue, City
Sound Season : Fall, Winter
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Knights, Dr. L'Ling
Sounds Like : Cave In Antenna
Rating : C+

Minus the Bear's newest effort sounds a bit like complacency. Maybe its maturation (their song titles have gotten far less ridiculous: compare "Let's Play Guitar in a Five Guitar Band" to "Knights" and "Lotus") or maybe its a desire for more radio play or maybe its just stagnation, but Planet of Ice sounds like it has frozen the band's creative drive.

All the great elements from Menos El Oso are still there — the cross-hatched guitar that rips into the doorbell chimeyness of the other guitar, set off by slightly dreamy, slightly abrasive soaring vocal delivery — except the bass and the drums have been pushed back in the mix and get no extra attention in post production. They've been almost completely neglected. The drums simply sound like drums and the bass simply sounds like bass. Their character is gone. As a result, all of the moments that make your ears prick up are gone. There's really not much in the way of interesting song crafting, which — if anything — is the band's major draw. Instead, it's slightly psychedelic and jammy, sort of a bit like the Mars Volta before they got too crazy for their own straitjacket.

Songs like "The Fix" used to sound very tight, very compact, as if adding one more note or bend or flourish would burst the song's seams, like a little kid who cleans up his room by stuffing everything into the closet and then hopes it holds long enough for his mom to see. But Planet of Ice has so much extra room they could sub-let it to another band. "Part 2" for instance, is so open and airy it sounds like an entire fleet of paper airplanes could circle it skies.

Minus the Bear sound bored with themselves. The band is at its darkest and most galactic on this album. Menos El Oso was kind of like bringing a laptop to the beach whereas Planet of Ice is more like eating an ice cream cone in a cemetery.

Friday, August 24, 2007

#18: Savath & Savalas>Golden Pollen>Masseusical

Artist : Savath & Savalas
Album : Golden Pollen (2nd Domestic LP)
Release : 06.19.07
Year Founded : 1998
Label Name : Anti
Catalog # : 86839
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : Guillermo Scott Herren
Runtime : 52:29
Area Tour Dates : 09.30.07 @ Paradise, Boston
Sound Season : Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Estrella de Dos Caras, Olhas, Faltamos Palabras, Era Tu
Sounds Like : Air Premiers Symptomes
Rating : B

OK, there are some prerequisites to listening to and liking Savath & Savalas's Golden Pollen. Number one: You must like The Beach Boys, especially Smile. Number two: You must be traveling to an exotic destination — preferably a tropical island, but, really, any island would work. Number three: You must be on some sort of downers.

Knowing nothing about the band, you may picture a bronzed, dark-haired, bikini- and speedo-clad duo — not married, but certainly lovers — who don't look at eachother, but writhe with an insouciant sexual anticipation. But, alas, Savath & Savalas is actually just Guillermo Scott Herren, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and Georgian (yes, Georgian). And he uses this project to create lush, exotic, meditative flickerings of songs.

His breathy, layered vocals swirl around acoustic guitars, sensual bass, fluttery flutes, subdued drums and skittish electronics. There are several guest musicians (Jose Gonzales, Tyondai Braxton, Danny Bensi, Laurence Pike, Mia Doi Todd, plus producer John McEntire) scattered throughout the album, but you would never know it by just listening.

Herren's (mostly known for his work as Prefuse 73, but my favorite artistic incarnation of his is as Piano Overlord) previous album under this moniker, Apropa't, was like the Spanish answer to Air. This album has a similar bent, but it also incorporates some psychedelic leanings.

Most of the best moments come in the middle of the album, which is even more of a barrier to entry. It's like Golden Pollen is Herren's island, and, as much as he wants to share the beauty with others, he also doesn't want just any schmuck showing up and mucking the place up as tourists — particularly American ones — are wont to do.

The point is, you really have to be in the mood for something like this, and even then, it might become too firm in its insistence that you just relax. Eventually you get around to thinking, 'Jesus, I may just lie here and die in this hammock.'

Friday, August 17, 2007

#17: Travis Morrison Hellfighters>All Ya'll>Ketchup leaves a nasty stain

Artist : Travis Morrison Hellfighters
Album : All Ya'll (1st Domestic LP)
Release : 08.21.07
Year Founded : 2004
Label Name : Barsuk Records
Catalog # : 67
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : Saadat Awan, David Brown, Brandon Kalber, Travis Morrison
Runtime : 41:45
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : I'm Not Supposed to Like You (But), As We Proceed, East Side of the River, I Do
Sounds Like : Enon Believo!
Rating : B+

I guess this is the Travis Morrison Hellfighters' first record, although Morrison does have one other post-Dismemberment Plan solo album. Lineup changes end up being the major difference though, because both albums could easily pass for an album by his former band, The Dismemberment Plan. That's not so much a bad thing (The Dismemberment Plan were catchy, exciting, and, above all, innovative), it just illustrate's how one-sided the songwriting process must have been for them.

All Ya'll starts off strong with the quick "I'm Not Supposed to Like You (But)," and the jumpy "As We Proceed." The former features a slithery and persuasive bassline and snappy, propellant drumming, but its greatest asset is when the verse goes double-time, which it does every third measure. The former switches focus, putting the onus on the guitar to deliver its bouncy energy, after which it beats a hasty retreat, returning only to join forces with the bass in order to power an anthemic chorus. Consider also the drums and percussion as their own heroic entities and you have a indie rock Voltron of sorts. The second verse gets perhaps a little self-referential about Morrison and the eventual collapse of The Dismemberment Plan, although it's equally as likely that it's about reconciling being religious and a rock star.

Breezin' in, breezin' out, livin' life full of doubt
It's nothing that a Catholic boy should fuck with.
'99, that's the year, I figured out
that I'd have to make it work my own way

After this excellent beginning duo, All Ya'll absolutely screeches to a halt with "Catch Up," which tries to be playful and quirky (a milieu that Morisson has pulled off before), but quickly turns into a circus of disassociative ideas. It sounds like a pig pile of scraps from the cutting room floor, which reaches its ineffectual pinnacle at a little over the three and a half minute mark when the barrage includes (from what I can discern) guitar, bass, drums, percussion, three keyboard tracks, and two unrelated vocal tracks, which mesh with eachother in no way, shape or form.

Thankfully, Morrison comes to his senses again with the lucid and calming "East Side of the River" and never falters again. The rest of the album is a great balancing act. If a song is exceedingly dancy, it's lyrics are acerbic and subversive. When the vocals get eccentric, the music stays sober and to the point. Despite the strengths of the later songs, it's almost as if they are somehow tainted by the buffoonery of "Catch Up." They fail to captivate the way the first two tracks do.

Travis Morrison Hellfighters manage — like The Dismemberment Plan — to continue to carry the torch of keeping things fun and still respectable. All Ya'll would be immensely improved with the omission of "Catch Up," but I have to give him credit for trying something different and failing rather than delivering eleven tracks of safe sameness. Just don't let it happen again.

Friday, August 10, 2007

#16: Pinback>Autumn of the Seraphs>The second screen

Artist : Pinback
Album : Autumn of the Seraphs (5th Domestic LP)
Release : 09.11.07
Year Founded : 1999
Label Name : Touch and Go Records
Catalog # :
Packaging Type :
Members : Roberdale Rulon Crow Jr., Chris Prescott, Mario Rubalcaba, Zach Smith
Runtime : 44:05
Area Tour Dates : 10.10.07 @ Roxy, Boston
Sound Season : Autumn, Winter
iTunes Worthy Tracks : From Nothing to Nowhere, Barnes, Good to Sea, Walters.
Sounds Like : Black Heart Procession Amore Del Tropico
Rating : A

Admittedly, I haven't ever disliked a Pinback release. Liked some songs less than others? Sure. But ever since I heard "Loro" one day — I guess eight years ago now — I've been hooked. So I can't exactly say that I am an unbiased listener. All that aside though, Autumn of the Seraphs, despite its unfortunate cover art (and title, for that matter), is truly a success that stands not on the shoulders of previous albums, but all on its own. This album is almost as good as hearing them for the first time all over again.

My favorite Pinback song has always been "Prog" off of Blue Screen Life, which is their defining album. The sense of urgency in that song, with its short, stabby vocals weaving their way in and out of the traffic of muted guitar riffs and plentiful drum fills, always just gets me every time. I've always been left wanting more of that and it finally comes through on "Barnes." Even though its tempo is markedly slower than "Prog," it has the same Morse code style vocals (dot, dash, dot, dash, dash, dot, dash, dot) and it has the same acute, zig-zagging guitar/bass interplay that gets you all pumped for the sing-along chorus.

There's also the "Penelope"-esque "Good to Sea" and "Blue Harvest," which seems to immediately conjure Police comparisons (there seems to be at least one of these on each of their albums). The exquisite melancholy of "Walters" and its yawning guitar and lullabye piano lines is wonderful too, but even better when it is later smashed to pieces by the drums, which drop into the song with all the grace of an anvil.

Autumn of the Seraphs contains some of Pinback's best songwriting. The diversity of tone, vocality, mood and tempo is seemingly effortless and the attitude, intent and character of the guitar and bass are so skillfully meshed that it sounds like one instrument. The only thing I dislike about the album is that it is going to be exceedingly more difficult to get into one of their shows now. But your tickets early.

Friday, July 27, 2007

#15: Slaraffenland>Private Cinema>The little engine that really wasn't sure what he wanted to do

Artist : Slaraffenland
Album : Private Cinema (2nd Domestic LP)
Release : 06.26.07
Year Founded : 2005
Label Name : Hometapes
Catalog # : 016
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Bi-Fold Hardcover Slipcase
Members : Niklas Antonson, Bjørn Heebøl, Jeppe Skjold, Christian Taagehøj, Mike Taagehøj
Runtime : 50:26
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season :
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Show Me the Way, Watch Out
Sounds Like : Broken Social Scene Broken Social Scene
Rating :

Also the name of an amusement park in Denmark, Slaraffenland means "land of milk and honey," and the art of Private Cinema is laden with odd, but nonetheless adorable creatures happily carousing across a starkly grassy landscape, with all the charm of the classic Golden Books.

The band begins the album, however, with "Sleep Tight," which — ironically — is a dark and moody prelude. A giant dark cloud suddenly sweeps into view, engulfing the once brightly-colored and idyllic cartoon landscape, turning the cute and fuzzy creatures into deformed, flesh-hungry abominations. But as a flute flutters, one gets the sense that there is a survivor among them — that there is yet hope for the syrupy sweet and inherent goodness of the cute-sy woot-sy. And, indeed, the track does end on a light note. The horns herald the dawning of a new day. The world has been changed, but life continues.

There is no grand moment of overcoming though. No triumph. This world is doomed to live in the shadow of its former self. "Watch Out" makes that alarmingly clear with its instruction to "run for cover," its caution that "out there you'll get hurt" and its exclamations of "better watch out!"

Most often Slaraffenland's vocals, like in "Show Me the Way," are more like chanting. There's only maybe four to eight lines of lyrics often repeated twice. There is no singular voice, no frontman, and they contain no personal investment and no narrative. The vocals act more as texture and to keep the listener from floating off into the music's broad openness. Stylistically, the music could be compared to Broken Social Scene, especially on a track like "Polaroids." It is dense, often primal, exotic, and energetically anxious. But the mood is entirely different. Replace the spontaneous joyousness of BSS with the haunting sadness of Sigur Ros and add in a paranoic and anarchic unease and that would bring you to the outskirts of Slaraffenland. Nothing like an amusement park.

Much of the Slaraffenland is incongruous unfortunately. It becomes hard to reconcile one moment feeling alone, one moment feeling safety in numbers and the next moment believing that those numbers may just be a figment of your crippled imagination. The opportunity for the listener to settle in to this record never presents itself. As if backed into a corner, the band flails it arms and launches projectiles — does whatever it can, really — to keep its potential fans at a distance. And although there is that frustration from being unable to penetrate Private Cinema's true meaning, there is still the intriguing draw — as is the case with any coded communication — of the story behind its suffering.

Friday, July 20, 2007

#14: Spoon> Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga>Do what you do because you do do it well

Artist : Spoon
Album : Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (6th Domestic LP)
Release : 07.10.07
Year Founded : 1994
Label Name : Merge Records
Catalog # : 295
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Digipak
Members : Britt Daniel, Jim Eno, Eric Harvey, Rob Pope
Runtime : 36:26
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Spring
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Don't You Evah, Rhythm & Soul, The Underdog, Finer Feelings
Sounds Like : Alfie A Word in Your Ear
Rating : B

If Spoon are anything, they are consistent. From song to song and from album to album, they deliver catchy, hooky, memorable music with no big learning curve and no hipper-than-thou fakery. Their more than adequate formula for success includes punk rock swagger, pop levity and indie smarts.

That being said, there is a fine line between consistency and resting on your laurels. I don't think that they've crossed that line just yet though.

There is plenty of material on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga to be excited about like the immediately cool shoulder-shaker "Don't You Evah" (after which the album really kicks into high gear) and "The Underdog," which has overtones of Stranger-era Billy Joel.

However, I'm inclined to think that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is comprised of songs that didn't make it to Gimme Fiction. I'm not sure that this is evidence of my theory, but the cloaked figure on the cover of their previous album also appears on the bottom right of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga's back cover. The "leftovers" album theory would explain both the brevity of the album (or is this just a larger trend in the industry, because I've been seeing a lot of it lately) and its static trajectory. Nonetheless, Spoon don't seem capable of writing a truly bad song and, thus, they can get away with doing that sort of thing.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga has its shortcomings, but it is as worthwhile a listen as nearly anything in Spoon's celebrated catalog. Fans can be finicky creatures — always wanting something new and different while still wanting more of the same. So although Spoon have shown little inclination for making any drastic changes, we can at least be happy they're still making good music.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

#13: Blktop Project>Blktop Project>This is not smooth jazz, but my dad might like it anyway

Artist : Blktop Project
Album : Blktop Project (1st Domestic LP)
Release : 06.12.07
Year Founded : 2002
Label Name : Galaxia
Catalog # : 25
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Digipak
Members : Ray Barbee, Tommy Guerrero, Matt Rodriguez, Doug Scharin, Chuck Treece
Runtime : 24:48
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Blkwater Blues, From Here to Where, Last Call
Sounds Like : Six Parts Seven Casually Smashed to Pieces
Rating : B

The Premise: Three pro skateboarders meet a zany scientist who builds them a way old-school board (I mean, like, 9 inches wide with mad concave, no nose and a huge tail) that also is a time machine, which the guys use to travel back to the 70s to record soundtracks for blaxsploitation films ("Beans for Breakfast"), and maybe some porno ("Rained Out").

Seriously though, Barbee, Guerrero and Rodriguez are all skateboarders who moonlight heavily as musicians and who actually do have quite a bit of talent and are rather prolific to boot. If the eighties were their true heyday for skating, then now is their heyday for music.

As much as this is a collaborative effort, it sounds very much like Guerrero's solo albums minus the samples and generated beats. The songs are bass heavy and groove-based and frighteningly smooth — serious lounging by poolside kind of music. If the music was a layer cake, the bass would be the cake parts and the drums would be the frosting in between with whipped cream guitar dolloped on top.

Though some folks can make a solid album from 8 tracks, this is more like a long EP (which may actually be the case). My other gripe is that this album could have benefited greatly from some more adventurous production. All of the sounds almost sit in the same field, making for a relatively flat listening experience. There is so much opportunity for creating textural boundaries which goes unrealized except perhaps for when foreign elements such as electronics or trumpet are thrown into the mix, such as on "Blkwater Blues."

For an album that was created as a sort of aside to a magazine-sponsored skateboarding tour (see notes on the back cover), it still hits most of its marks, especially for mood. Its shortness almost precludes it from attaining its full potential, but it is an able outing nevertheless and a more focused and fully-formed version would be a welcome development.

Friday, July 6, 2007

#12: The Self-Righteous Brothers>In Loving Memory Of ... >Googly eyes!

Artist : The Self Righteous Brothers
Album : In Loving Memory Of... (1st Domestic LP)
Release : 06.26.07
Year Founded : 2003
Label Name : Black & Greene Records
Catalog # : 005
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : Jake Hall, Max Koepke, Justin McLean
Runtime : 40:17
Area Tour Dates : 07.19.07 @ PA's Lounge, Boston
Sound Season :
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Floyd, Lee Torsee, Alan Watts, Graduated Cylinder, Concerto in Drop D
Sounds Like : Stephen Malkmus Face the Truth
Rating : A-

The Self Righteous Brothers come out of left field with nothing preceding them — no PR blast, no sticker on the album telling you they are the best thing since The Beatles, no endorsement from indie rock stars or outcasts. Nothing. Nothing except a chuckle-to-yourself band name and a picture of the band in head costumes reminiscent of any of the Sid & Marty Krofft shows.

My extensive research (and by 'extensive research' I mean I made this up) indicates that they are a bunch of twenty-something Jimmy Buffett liking high school dropouts from the Boston area, and not these forty-something Jimmy Buffett worshipping cover creeps.

These musically-inclined bastard children of R. Crumb's "Mr. Natural" and Gilbert Shelton's "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" are best on jams like "Lee Torsee," which features strained and shouting vocals that exude a faint whiff of J Mascis. But the song has a damn lot of character, what with the funky bassline and the spasmodic guitar solo and all-out freak out with horn section during the song's latter half.

The rest of the songs are both internally and externally diverse as well. The trio seem to write a full song amongst themselves, then write another song with their backing band and then marry the songs together in a kind of Frankensteinian I'm-enraged-because-I'm-not-a-whole-man-and-not-because-I'm-really-a-monster kind of thing. Take for instance the transformation of "Diana" from a soulful slow jam into a harmonic pop song which melts into "Concerto in Drop D" as a hyper indie-pop thrasher and finally into a mobius strip of bass and lilting guitars bringing to mind one of the more meditative Modest Mouse songs.

With so many bands nowadays sounding so much like everyone else, In Loving Memory Of... has a sort of "anything goes" attitude that doesn't think twice about mixing funk with ska with garage with country-twinged rock. You get the sense that these fellas have the ADD, but they're taking their medication semi-regularly enough that you don't need to grab them by the shoulders and give them a good shake to get them to focus.

The Self Righteous Brothers are capable musicians (they make that immediately clear on the instrumental opener "Floyd") having fun and not taking themselves too seriously, as is so often the case these days (emo-goth-hipsters, I'm looking at you). They even have a video for "Alan Watts" that is a claymation of miniature people stabbing eachother with stuff. They may be a little funny and a little weird, but they are not a joke band. They're just different — in a good way.

Friday, June 29, 2007

#11: A Band of Bees>Octopus>Something old, something new, something borrowed, something tentacled

Artist : A Band of Bees
Album : Octopus (3rd Domestic LP)
Release : 06.26.07
Year Founded : 2002
Label Name : Astral Werks
Catalog # : 92788
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : Paul Butler, Kris Birkin, Michael Clevett, Aaron Fletcher, Warren Hampshire, Carly Lacey, Heather McCallum, Andy Parkin, Itchy Parkin, Tim
Runtime : 39:18
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Spring, Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Love in the Harbour, Got to Let Go, End of the Street
Sounds Like : The Sadies Favourite Colours
Rating : B+

Anyone who listened to A Band of Bees' (also known as simply "The Bees") last album, Free the Bees, probably experienced the sort of deja vu that I did. Hearing the album for the first time actually felt like I was hearing it for the first time in 10 years. The songs were immediately familiar even singing and humming along. From song to song, the album was a mish-mash of styles ranging from 60s garage to 60s soul to 60s pop rock, but always sounding distinctly 60s. So much so, in fact, that you often had to wonder if they weren't just playing covers, or if the band was in fact a band from the 60s whose tapes had fallen behind the shelves only to be unearthed 40 years later.

Octopus continues that trend, but has A Band of Bees getting a little more creative. Regardless of the fact that Free the Bees was an absolutely stellar album, one gets the sense that the band caught a lot of flak for sounding too much like their forefathers. So, instead of playing what could be construed by some as sound-alikes of popular tunes from back in the day, they try to forge their own way. They end up sounding quite the same stylistically, but the songs are less familiar. The listener now has to work a little in order to grow into the songs. And The Bees make it worth it.

The opener is a merry jaunt not dissimilar to (aptly enough) "Octopus's Garden." That is followed by "Love in the Harbour" which has a very Byrds-esque folk-rock twang and sing-along chorus to it. "Got to Let Go" is a powerful song in the sense that it just makes you shake. The combination of the busy rhythm, the catchy horn and organ melody, and the punctuational bass really infiltrates your nervous system and for that five and a half minutes your motor functions are at the mercy of The Bees. The lyrics then seal the deal with their wit and fancy.

I've got a job back in Texas
cutting the grass before breakfast
cleaning the park
I'm there till it's dark
but I'm saving up for a Lexus

The album hits a bit of a lull with the soulful slow-burner "Listening Man" and continuing through the groovy "(This Is for the) Better Days." The latter being the only one out of the three that continues to not sit well with me. The guitar is so soft and smooth I think Kris Birkin may have been playing a jar of Vaseline. Having said that, the song isn'y nearly a failure, it just that its redeeming qualities don't effectively nullify my discomfort. But whatever aftertaste is left by the slimy "Better Days" is quickly neutralized by the mouthwash of the bi-lingual "The Ocularist" and the especially fun "End of the Street."

Whereas Free the Bees was all old, Octopus is both old and new, and in that sense A Band of Bees have challenged their fans. They want to see who among them likes them for who they are rather than who they remind them of. And anyone who is looking for more than just a nostalgic rehashing should be happy with Octopus.

Friday, June 22, 2007

#10: Maserati>Inventions for the New Season>A world laid to waste

Artist : Maserati
Album : Inventions for the New Season (3rd Domestic LP)
Release : 06.19.07
Year Founded : 2000
Label Name : Temporary Residence
Catalog # : 120
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : Matthew Cherry, Coley Dennis, Gerhardt Fuchs, Steven Scarborough
Runtime : 46:28
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Winter
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Show Me the Season, The World Outside
Sounds Like : Explosions in the Sky Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever
Rating : A-

Instrumental music ought to be engaging enough to make your brain try to illustrate the sound. Anything that I imagine while listening to Maserati's Inventions for the New Season ends up being cinematic. It's usually aerial views from a plane or a helicopter of bombs being dropped, things blowing up, people fleeing, enveloping chaos. It's apocalyptic. The moments of serenity are as frightening as the moments of upheaval. Sometimes it's time-lapse photography of animals or insects preying on eachother. Sometimes it's simply the opening credits — a landscape at dawn, the view out a car window. Most important to note is that there is always a passage of some sort, whether it be of time or of place or of mind.

In this way, Inventions for the New Season offers little in the way of instant gratification. Everything takes time. Everything is a development of what has come before. Everything is a natural progression. Whether that progression is toward the ultimate destruction or salvation of the world that Maserati helps create is open to interpretation.

Musically, Maserati sound like the dark side of The Mercury Program (who they appeared on a split EP and LP with). They use layers of either prickly and delayed or fuzzy and omnipotent guitar, swirling bass, and unifying drums.

Previous albums had slightly more defined edges. They were more contained, less massive. It's like 37:29:24 (their debut album) was the isolationist Maserati and Inventions for the New Season is the world-view Maserati. The bass was more talkative, more loopy — it broke up the sound a bit more than it does here. It provided much-needed contrast to the drenched aural field. Scarborough gets back to that aesthetic somewhat on "Show Me the Season," but otherwise is mostly status quo.

Although there are some departures, Inventions for the New Season is a significantly satisfying album. With fewer and fewer of the post-rock set interested in or able to tell these stories of cataclysm, Maserati are certainly among the ruling class.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

#9: Bumps>Bumps>Polyrhythms are my peanut butter

Artist : Bumps
Album : Bumps (1st Domestic LP)
Release : 06.19.07
Year Founded : 2007
Label Name : Stones Throw
Catalog # : 2157
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : Dan Bitney, John Herndon, John McEntire
Runtime : 31:48
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Winter
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Biotic Discussion, Baby Johann, Dawn at Dawn, Don't Cry My Son, Swingland Hit
Sounds Like :
Rating : A-

Bumps, being the 3 rhythmsmiths from Tortoise (among others), have issued a record soon to be in the crates of all self-respecting turntablists out there. You might be confused if you aren't familiar with the Chicago boys' other forays into the indie-hop world, but let's be clear right up front — Bumps is a breaks record.

Records like this aren't typically meant to be listened to. They are most often just a source from which to sample and build other music from — a library of possibilities for a producer. Bumps is entirely listenable though. Despite being all one type of thing over and over with variations, the players have enough creativity and imagination to minimize the monotony. Its like breaks is the language of the record and each song is a different dialect.

Bumps is like a sentient drum sequencer enjoying a night on the town. He's just hoppin' and boppin' down the street with a big ol' grin on his speakerface. Not only are the beats flawless, but they're also full of character. The songs are all basically one movement with fills flooding all the corners and in-betweens. They're quick, they're deft, and they're bright. The snare is skittery, the hi-hat tight-lipped, the bass drum glowing with tone.

In short, this short gem offers a lot. Tortoise fans will appreciate Bumps as a showcase of the percussion section's abilities ("Can You See" is unmistakably a taken right from the heart of Standards "Seneca"), drummers will appreciate it as a superb study of the form, and indie-minded hip hoppers will appreciate it as a nasty collection of breaked-up beats.

Friday, June 15, 2007

#8: Queens of the Stone Age>Era Vulgaris>Vulgarity is boring

Artist : Queens of the Stone Age
Album : Era Vulgaris (6th Domestic LP)
Release : 06.12.07
Year Founded : 1997
Label Name : Interscope
Catalog # : 9039
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : Joey Castillo, Joshua Homme, Troy Van Leeuwen
Runtime : 47:24
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publicationSound Season : Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : 3's & 7's
Sounds Like : Party of Helicopters Please Believe It
Rating : C+

What throws me about Queens of the Stone Age is that I did not like their last album right away. It was one of those records that grows on you. It was the follow-up to a masterpiece of a rock record and it was a bit more understated. But there were absolutely singles that just popped out at you. So you had to go back for more. And then you realized even the less obvious songs were excellent. All of this has me second-guessing my initial assessment of Era Vulgaris.

The songs on Era Vulgaris aren't terrible. They all contain at least one nugget — either musically or lyrically — that makes you stop a second and say, "huh. that was cool." So why does the album end up being so boring?

It's possible that the flat, everything-is-in-the-same-sound-field production is to blame. It's possible that Josh Homme and company have spread themselves so thin across side-projects that the quality of song they're bringing to the table for their main gig is suffering. It's possible that all the lineup changes have really diluted the Queens' focus. Or it could be just as simple as a band can't put out this many records in a ten-year span and have them all be scorchers.

There aren't any real obvious singles like there was on Songs for the Deaf or Lullabies to Paralyze. "3's & 7's" is undoubtedly the only real contender. Homme's voice finally comes to the fore in the jumpy verse. A rattlesnake tambourine rears its head every now and again. The second guitar yelps like a frightened dog. And then the chorus comes along with a real disco bass line on one hand and a real pump-your-fist-and-sing-along moment in the other. But — and this is a big 'but' — it stands alone among less-inspired yawners that just drift by without making their mark.

Who knows? Maybe more of Era Vulgaris will grow on me. Its entirely possible, but it has got less on it that would make me come back for more in the first place. Right now though, if someone asked me, I would advise that they download "3's & 7's" and skip the rest.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

#7: Shellac>Excellent Itlaian Greyhound>Good dog

Artist : Shellac
Album : Excellent Italian Greyhound (4th Domestic LP)
Release : 06.05.07
Year Founded : 1992
Label Name : Touch & Go
Catalog # : 303
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Bi-Fold Sleeve with Wrap Sleeve
Members : Steve Albini, Todd Trainer, Bob Weston
Runtime : 42:19
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Fall, Winter
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Steady As She Goes, Elephant, Boycott, Spoke
Sounds Like : The Jesus Lizard Shot
Rating : A-

Interior cover
Interior back

If one engages in the habit of judging albums by their covers, one might think that the Jay Ryan-penned illustration adorning Shellac's new album cover would indicate that they have gotten soft, maybe even cuddly.

Don't believe it for a second.

Listening to Shellac, one gets the sense that something bad is about to happen. That something is looming — better yet — lurking nearby. Their songs seem to be either depictions of despicable characters, unfit for society (and their sound supports that characterization), or contemptuous diatribes formulated to expose the phoniness in everyone and everything. In other words, Shellac can see right through your bullshit, man.

The band typically writes pummeling rock songs with several distinct parts. If the verses and choruses are not clearly defined, then they, at the very least, exhibit a vocal thematic progression. They also are known for their songs with no changes except for a couple of emphatic moments and a more sermonic vocal approach. The album starts with "The End of Radio," which is one of these unflinching testimonies. It is not wholly unenjoyable, but it does continue a bit longer than it should.

Excellent Italian Greyhound's only other instance of this less song-focused writing is on "Genuine Lulabelle." The first couple minutes are very typically structured as a song, but it turns into a patchwork monologue (seemingly delivered by a "John" in regards to a prostitute) at about the 3 minute mark. Around minute 7, it turns back into a song. It is a less enjoyable foray into this style of songwriting and is the low-point of the album.

The remainder of the album's songs completely deliver. "Boycott" reminds me of early Minutemen tunes, but with a twisted, unstable dynamic. "Kittypants" unexpectedly tears a page right out of Dianogah's melodic and syncopated notebook (two Jay Ryan references on one album? Man, that guy is blowing up). The name even sounds like it might correspond to one of Ryan's prints. They follow up "Paco," the lone instrumental, with the furious "Spoke," with flaring vocals unlike any other Shellac song. Sort of like Nirvana's "Negative Creep."

Steve Albini has for a long while been known as a great producer. Excellent Italian Greyhound should cement his reputation as a great musician as well.

Friday, June 1, 2007

#6: Cougar>Law>Just a cub

Artist : Cougar
Album : Law (1st Domestic LP)
Release : 04.24.07
Year Founded : 2004
Label Name : Layered Music
Catalog # : 012
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Gatefold Digipak
Members : Todd Hill, Joseph Hulbert, D.H. Skogen, Aaron Sleator, TrentJohnson, Dan Venne
Runtime : 47:38
pictureArea Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Summer, Winter
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Atlatl, Pulse Conditioner, Your Excellency, Merit
Sounds Like : Couch Figur 5
Rating : B

Cougar's debut album, Law, was, according to the liner notes, recorded three years ago. I'm more than a bit curious to know why then the band did not choose to record new material to release as their debut and use tracks from Law later on in their career as an "early, unreleased, rare recordings" album for fans. Three years is a substantial amount of time. Some bands can release two successful albums in the span of three years. I almost feel cheated by being given the old material (I may be wrong, but I suspect that the album was on hold as the band waited for it to be mixed by John Mcentire of Tortoise and The Sea and Cake fame, who probably has a substantial waiting list. After all, being able to have his name on the album might be enough to get people to buy a record by an otherwise unheard of group). It's like eating leftovers. Like I am listening to the old Cougar when I could really be listening to the new Cougar, which may show some of the growth and refining that Law needs.

The album begins well enough with "Atlatl," which is dainty at first with only a simple melodic guitar line, but builds steadily, adding elements until the song breaks and launches into what seems to be simply another delicate variation. But the band instead takes that variation and ups the volume and roughens the edges. It really grabs your attention. But, unfortunately, that goes on for 10 measures before the drums drop out. Then the guitars echo the same part alone for another 5 measures before the drums finally come back in, this time with the bass, and the band finally rock the same part again for the rest of the song. It is a great motion in the song, and worthy of showcasing, but the band's approach in its songwriting makes it a little unsatisfying.

In addition to some great — if fleeting — rock moments, like "Pulse Conditioner," which features an agile guitar line offset by jarring tinny drumming, there's also plenty of pretty on Law. "Lifetime Ranger," "The Mosaicist" and "Black Dove" all have wonderful pieces. But Cougar seem content to sit on their hands once those pieces are in place. They lay some beautiful foundations for what could be compelling instrumentalism, but end up being more like pleasant background music. This is not the "epic emergency rock" that they claim to be.

The Cougar that listeners are presented with on Law is in its infancy. It's a bit clumsy, a bit unfocused, and — when it is able to muster a roar — unsure of its own ferocity. All of the band's songs are interesting, but not all of them remain interesting. Cougar is at its best when it avoids subtlety and goes right for the jugular.

Monday, May 28, 2007

#5: Mice Parade>Mice Parade>Short and sweet

Artist : Mice Parade
Album : Mice Parade (7th Domestic LP)
Release : 05.08.07
Year Founded : 1998
Label Name : Fatcat Records
Catalog # : 63
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : Dylan Cristy, Jay Israelson, Brendan Knights, Josh Larue, Dan Lippel, Adam Pierce, Doug Scharin, Kristin Anna Valtysdottir
Runtime : 35:28
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Spring, Autumn
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Sneaky Red, Tales of Las Negras, The Last Ten Homes, Satchelaise, The Nights After Fiction
Sounds Like : F.S. Blumm Sweite Meer
Rating : A-

Mice Parade's newest album is nothing new. But that's okay, because they do everything right.

Adam Pierce, the main mastermind of the group (he has a history in several groups including the Swirlies, Him and Múm; while Scharin has been in Him and June of 44; and Cristy spearheaded The Dylan Group), seems to realize that this is the case. Why else would he have decided to make this, his 7th release, the self-titled album? It's because there is something defining about a self-titled album. It is the litmus test by which by which future albums will be compared. He knows that he and his ensemble have now finally found their place in themselves, and have carved out a cozy niche that no one else can so masterfully occupy.

I would argue that this moment came two albums ago with Obrigado Saudade. In fact, the last three albums (the middle one being Bem-Vinda Vontade) play to me like a trilogy. There is growth and differences across the albums, but that is what should happen, and there is a strong common thread that clearly unites them.

Their formula (and I say that only in the most positive way) has been layers of strum-heavy vinyl-string acoustic guitar, interjections of fuzzy electric guitar, calm but affected vocals, and rhythmic-to-the-extreme drumming, all enveloped by rich, sun-drenched arrangements. With vibes and zither and other exotic instruments, this is as close to world music as post-rock could get. The lyrics, typically, are heart-felt and personal without giving too much away. Their imagery and language evoke enough sentiment to make you care, but not so much that it becomes a sappy confessional (a practice which has become a plague in popular music).

The second track, "Tales of Las Negras" (possibly the album's most worthy single), features drumming to make DJ Shadow envious and special guest vocals by Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier (incorrectly credited to track 3 in the liner notes). I have to say that I prefer her vocals over Kristin Anna Valtysdottir's (also from Múm). I am more comfortable with them. Valtysdottir, appearing prominently on this release only on "Double Dolphins on the Nickel," sounds like a whispering 6-year-old and though in most instances it doesn't detract from the feeling of the song, it also doesn't add anything that couldn't be gotten from someone else slightly more forceful.

Given the strength of the perfomances, I can hardly fault Pierce for making his self-titled album so short. Surely it wasn't for lack of material. But the caliber of Mice Parade releases being what they are, I won't mind waiting patiently for the next one to appear.

Monday, May 21, 2007

#4: Battles>Mirrored>There can be uniqueness in music

Artist : Battles
Album : Mirrored (1st Domestic LP)
Release : 05.22.07
Year Founded : 2004
Label Name : Warp Records
Catalog # : 156
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Double-Pocket Sleeve
Members : Tyondai Braxton, Dave Konopka, John Stanier, Ian Williams
Runtime : 51:52
Area Tour Dates : 07.18.07 Paradise, Boston
Sound Season : Summer, Winter
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Atlas, Ddiamondd, Tonto, Leyendecker, Snare Hangar
Sounds Like : Crime in Choir Crime in Choir
Rating : A

Whenever one of my favorite instrumental bands tries to add vocals, I get worried. It often does not work out well. Nor should it. Any band that has as much going on as Battles do in their songs in terms of layering, virtuosity (without solos, mind you), and composition should refrain from even trying to throw vocals into the mix because the only way it can work out — the only way it can be good — is if you make damn sure the focus of the vocals is the sound that they make and not the words.

This is what Battles does. They have figured it out. Braxton's mostly unintelligible, chipmunkish vocals are the only way to take proggy, experimental math rock and make it catchy, not only for the veteran dorks, but for anyone.

It's so catchy, in fact, that I almost don't have to listen to Mirrored anymore. A good portion of it is playing on infinite loop in my brain. I believe that "Atlas" may be some kind of hypnotic mind melding catalyst, which is meant to incite the Battles minions. A call to arms in code (oddly enough, there's several elements in this song that you could very quickly pick out of any number of Primus songs. But don't try to take take that comparison too far, because it should and does end right there).

"Atlas" is quickly followed by "Ddiamondd." This is my favorite track for its maniacal pace and mechanical precision. Here you are afforded a chance to pick out some real words out of the vocals except that the first verse is over before you've figured out the first line. Brilliant. And the sexy, thumpy allure of "Leyendecker," which features what seems to be Braxton's take on Mariah Carey, pounds so consistently that I dare say it could even make indie hipster kids dance (as long as it doesn't mess their hair).

Battles excel at looping and layering and just building a song brick by brick until they've built a skyscraper around you and people come from all around to get a look at it because its an architectural anomaly and then the band busts out a wrecking ball and demolishes the monolith and you're left under the rubble all like, "holy crap, do it again!" And then they do.

The album falters just a bit on "Rainbow," languishing in an attempt to put too many disparate movements into one song, and "Bad Trails," which is just too sparse. I can see that maybe they wanted to throw in a palette cleanser, something to give you a break from the awesomeness, but it wasn't necessary. More insanity would have been perfectly acceptable.

Battles are exceptional players from exceptional backgrounds (Helmet, Lynx, Don Caballero) and they have created in Mirrored one of the most exceptional albums in recent memory. It has completely convinced me that they can accomplish just about anything that they put their minds to.

#3: The Bad Plus>Prog>Not so full of sound and fury

Artist : The Bad Plus
Album : Prog (4th Domestic LP)
Release : 05.08.07
Year Founded: 2003
Label Name : Heads Up International
Catalog # : 3125
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson, David King
Runtime : 1:04:46

Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Winter
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Tom Sawyer, 1980 World Champion
Sounds Like : Medeski Martin & Wood Friday Afternoon in the Universe
Rating : B-

I'm not at all sure what The Bad Plus were going for when they decided to call their new album Prog. "Prog" has a lot of connotation and means many things to many people, but the closest the band comes to that genre of music is their cover of Rush's "Tom Sawyer." The most accurate name they could have given the album is "Tame."

Known for their raucous original compositions and deconstructionist renditions of well-known tunes that other jazz trios would never touch like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," Prog is really missing the impact that the band usually is able to infuse into a genre typically rife with soft, unchallenging elevator-ready schlock.

The really great thing about this band has always been that they were heavy. Their dynamic range was giant — that is to say, they would go from really soft passages to absolute eruptions of discordancy, rhythm, and power. But what the listener ends up with this time around is a very "normal" jazz record that contains elements that would be familiar to those acquainted with past records, such as Give, but little of the furor.

The band-penned songs are either slow to develop or spend too long on a particular phrasing. "Physical Cities," for instance, contains a minute and a half passage of syncopated stabbing in unison, which is as obnoxious as it is impressive (I can imagine this song being incredible live, but it stumbles as an album track).

The remaining covers on the album (Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," David Bowie's "Life on Mars," and Burt Bacharach's "This Guy's in Love with You") don't even come near to toeing the prog line in their original form and The Bad Plus' interpretations of the songs end up being very nearly straight-ahead covers, with some meandering solos or protracted introductions thrown in to shake things up slightly.

The Bad Plus are without doubt one of the best contemporary jazz outfits playing today, but Prog just didn't excite me the way I hoped it would.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

#2: Paul Duncan>Above the Trees>Gorgeousity isn't a word, right?

Artist : Paul Duncan
Album : Above the Trees (3rd Domestic LP)
Release : 05.01.07
Year Founded: 2001
Label Name : Hometapes
Catalog # : 017
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Digipak
Members : Chris Bear. Josh Berman, Ken Champion, Tim Daisy, David Daniell, Adam Heathcott, Fred Lonberg-Holm, NathanLepine, Doug McCombs, Joe Stickney, Jess Stover, Nate Swanson, Adam Wills
Runtime :41:30
Area Tour Dates : None
Sound Season : Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Red Eagle, The Fire, The Lake Pt. 2, Country Witch, High In the Morning
Sounds Like : Andrew Bird Weather Systems
Rating : A

As the album art for this record indicates, there is a bucolic serenity to Above the Trees that immediaely captures and captivates. Which would make Paul Duncan a breath of fresh air so to speak.

His plaintive vocals are equally familiar and mysterious right at the outset. The pedal steel yawns. Snare drums flit across the landscape of the song like a butterfly through the tall grasses. Duncan's voice is a campfire smoldering in the morning light. And the lyrics, well — consider this from "The Lake Pt. 2:"

Down by the lake--the thunder booms and clouds cascade
Grass overflows--the water rises through your toes
You fit this place--the way you breathe--your hair--your face
You are a ghost--standing still in opaque clothes

Like all great art, the record and all of its elements are kept in a delicate balance between darkness and light. Spoiler warning: light wins out on this one. There's just too much love and warmth pulsing through Above the Trees' beautiful veins for it not to.

I have no idea who Paul Duncan is. I've never heard his other albums, I've never seen his name in anyone's liner notes. And yet, some may recognize the album's major players from other distinguished acts such as Jim O'Rourke (Champion, Lonberg-Holm) and Tortoise (McCombs). Frankly, with friends like these, who needs notoriety?

Although, if Paul Duncan isn't a next big thing in indie-folk, I'll eat a Devandra Banhart record (it'd be better than listening to one).

Again drawing conclusions from the album art, one gets the sense that in listening to Above the Trees he is witnessing something stunning and memorable because of (or in spite of) its fleeting nature. Like even a quick glimpse into the world which we have by our own accord distanced ourselves from is something to be cherished — and truly a bittersweet moment worthy of chasing again and again.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

#1: The Sea and Cake>Everybody>An upturn on the downslope?

Artist : The Sea and Cake
Album : Everybody (7th Domestic LP)
Release : 05.08.07
Year Founded: 1994
Label Name : Thrill Jockey
Catalog # : 186
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Digipak
Members : Eric Claridge, John McEntire, Sam Prekop, Archer Prewitt
Runtime : 36:32
Area Tour Dates : 06.05.07 @ Paradise, Boston
Sound Season : Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Crossing Line, Exact to Me, Left On
Sounds Like : Sam Prekop Who's Your New Professor
Rating : B

If ever The Sea and Cake put out an "it'll-grow-on-you" album, this is it.

As much as I hate to admit it, I don’t know that I ever won’t be disappointed by their future albums. My expectations are too high and they've grown too mature and sophisticated (but not too sophisticated). They have developed a knack for smooth and balmy indie soft rock, which — in its own right (if there is such a thing) — is enjoyable and well presented and crafted with all capability.

But, honestly, with every new release, I'm always hoping for a return to form à la Nassau, when everything was brash and raw and really propelled. For instance, I remember listening to Nassau for the first time and being like, "Geez, what the hell is this guy doing yelling like this," and now it has just become a signature style of the band — another part of their sound palette that just kind of gets placed into the song instead of casually tossed in when the energy of the song dictates. Additionally, except for a few choice moments, John McEntire's drumming on this record is really toned down despite not being behind the boards as he usually has been. Eric Claridge's bass isn't so heavily depended upon as it once was either, which is a real let down when you consider the genius of his performances on The Fawn.

Let's just say that albums pre The Fawn made me want to get up early, take a brisk walk and maybe not come back. Albums post The Fawn make me want to lay back in a hammock and watch the birds. You get the point.

All I really want is the true rock record that I know this band can deliver.

Don't get me wrong, there's some really great moments on this record, but they're easy to miss and quick to fade. Regardless, Everybody is the strongest of their last three albums, but only marginally more rocking than Oui and One Bedroom, contrary to what Thrill Jockey would have you think. And, yes, "Exact to Me" and "Crossing Line" are two of the coolest and groove-laden songs they’ve written over that same span, but they aren’t the triumphant return that I’ve been crossing my fingers for.

The Sea and Cake is a band that relies on nuance and subtlety and I wouldn't ever expect them to do anything too heavy-handed. And I'm completely aware it is unfair to fault a band for making a good record just because I long for a version of the band that I fell in love with more than 10 years ago. But until the time that they abandon some of their grown-up restraint, they're being too easy on themselves and their audience.