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.