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.