Friday, May 2, 2008

#26: Make Believe>Going to the Bone Church & Joan of Arc>Boo Human>Two Many Faces

Artist : Make Believe
Album : Going to the Bone Church (3rd Domestic LP)
Release : 04.29.08
Year Founded : 2004
Label Name : Flameshovel Records
Catalog # : DIG045
Packaging Type : Vinyl
Players : Bobby Burg, Nate Kinsella, Tim Kinsella, Sam Zurick
Runtime : 35:05
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Winter
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Ooo-Yum; Just Green Enough; For Lauri Bird; Taste, Touch, Smell, Deceit, and Touch
Rating : B

I wish that I had an outsider's perspective on the Make Believe. As it stands, I've come to know them and their tricks. But as much as I know what to expect from them, they still keep me guessing. New albums always still have a slight learning curve. But still, sometimes I wish I could once again be as naïve as I was before I unwittingly gave myself to the Make Believe.

On the other hand, I've been more of a prude around Joan of Arc. I've shied away from their advances, allowing myself to listen to little more than specks since How Memory Works and even then feeling that I had done wrong and that someone had seen. And I knew full well what they were after. I have perhaps teased them with my appreciation and — sometimes — my full-fledged, doe-eyed adoration. But I believed it would never work between us. They understand me so much better than I could ever understand them. And so I pushed them away, even as I longed to embrace them.

Everything is different now though. I am ready. Whether it's because Boo Human is almost radio-ready in a similar way that Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News was (in the sense that the way that it sounds belies the twisted, wretched darkness that it contains) or because I am not scared of being confused by their avant garde-ism anymore doesn't matter.

The fact of the matter is that Boo Human is a great album whereas Going to the Bone Church has only great moments and somehow stands alone. It is also shrouded in darkness, not a darkness that one endeavors to explore and understand, but one in which they teeter closer to the edge of insanity than madness. There is almost a feeling of despondency in the long trails of vocal veils.

The Make Believe have always been confoundingly complex structurally. There is no more unorthodox and singular sounding guitarist than Sam Zurick, evidenced similarly by Ghosts and Vodka, among others. More than ever though, his playing sounds like someone drowning, gasping for breath and choking on an unfamiliar oxygen-delivery medium.

I think that the difference lies not in his playing, but in drummer Nate Kinsella's. Rather than playing unaffected, as herring flowing through the tangled net thrown starboard by Zurick, Kinsella now seems irreversibly caught (especially on "Wearin' Torn"), a grouper now able to go only where the net wishes to take him, which is presumably to the deck of the boat, where he will choke to death or perhaps be pitifully bashed about the head. Alright, so it isn't so bad as all of that sounds, but there is a palpable difference between what we hear rhythmically on say, Shock of Being, and what we hear here.

There are, as I said earlier, some moments of greatness though. "Just Green Enough" should perhaps only be listened to after a healthy dose of Dramamine®, but the pitch and roll of the vocals — contrary to my previous oceanic metaphor — are one of the album's most clarifying moments. And Zurick may possibly be sending a Morse code message signaling for help with his playing during the chorus (?) of "For Lauri Bird."

So if Going to the Bone Church occurs on the open ocean, then Boo Human happens in a humble home where its comfortable and warm and only as lonely as you want it to be. And if the former's breathing is rushed and fitful, then the latter's is even, measured, mantric.

What the band says in those breaths though is often accusatory and condescending. It's like we're listening to the quietly exasperated explanation of a man whose been willing to look past a lot of things for a lot of time and that same lot of time has eroded his patience. These are perhaps some of Tim Kinsella's most direct, decipherable and personal — or, at least, personalized — lyrics ever. Consider these from "Laughter Reflected Back:"

The best friend I ever had, was the worst fucking thing to ever happen to me
One can never guess what a willingness, to do anything for another may require
And now it seems she needs me, even to call it quits with me for her
She can't see inward, So she's the last to know she'll get to this point in herself again
But at least we can each count on all this shit to be reflected back at us
In the depths of our laughter

I'm sure it doesn't hurt that there are a bevy of talented Chicagoans that help bring the record together. The scathing "9/11 2" for instance drops the regular JoA lineup (except for Tim) in favor of an anxious string section that serves to highlight the vocal dramatics. Continuing on the theme of being pissed off, Kinsella here bites, "being the center of everything to me just wasn't enough for you." It's this catastrophic ditty that also contains my favorite lyric of the entire outing — "the future is gone and the past won't stop happening." Contrast that with "Insects Don't Eat Bananas," which sounds like the band's version of a song they would have liked to contribute to Disney's Jungle Book soundtrack.

So Boo Human succeeds where Going to the Bone Church fails: in variety, mood and relatability. Of course, no one can deliver on all fronts all the time and Bone Church is nowhere near a bad record. But perhaps for every letdown, there is a triumph, for every pleasant surprise, an indifferent prediction. And the entropy of the Kinsella universe thereby rights itself once again.

Rating : A
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Laughter Reflected Back, Just Pack or Unpack, 9/11 2, A Tell-Tale Penis, Vine on a Wire, The Surrender #2
Sound Season : Winter
Area Tour Dates : 07.19.08 @ Middle East Upstairs
Runtime : 38:41
Players : Josh Abrams, Leroy Bach, Bobby Burg, Evan Hydzik, Emmett Kelly, Mike Kinsella, Tim Kinsella, Paul Koob, Todd Mattei, Liz Payne, Elizabeth Remis, Mark Trecka, Ben Vida, Sam Zurick
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Catalog # : PRC152
Label Name : Polyvinyl Record Company
Year Founded : 1995
Release : 05.20.08
Album : Boo Human (11th Domestic LP)
Artist : Joan of Arc

Monday, March 17, 2008

#25: Why?>Alopecia>Bald-faced truths

Artist : Why?
Album : Alopecia (3rd Domestic LP)
Release : 03.11.08
Label Name : Anticon
Catalog # : 0080
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Players : Andrew Broder, Mark Erikson, Doug McDiarmid, Josiah Wolf, Yoni Wolf
Produced By : The Wolf Brothers
Runtime : 44:56
Area Tour Dates : 03.24.08 @ Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton & 03.25.08 @ The Middle East, Cambridge
Sound Season :Spring, Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : The Vowels Pt. 2, These Few Presidents, The Hollows, Fatalist Palmistry
Sounds Like : Subtle For Hero: For Fool
Rating : B-

For the best, most engaging music makers, genre labeling is often a fruitless labor. A "file under rock" sticker on an album is almost always a sign of unique promise. The Anticon label, most often associated with indie-hop purveyors like Jel, Odd Nosdam and 13 & God here puts out something really not so far removed from all that, and yet, very different sounding.

The difference lies in the delivery. Why?'s lyrics sound like they were intended to be rapped (I'm talking rap as poetry — as art — rather than as gangster posturing), but are instead sung. At their best they are fluid, unconfrontational, memorable and they tell a story or at least provide a vivid vignette. At their worst they are loose and spastic, seemingly disconnected. Yoni Wolf's voice is almost like Stephen Merrit doing an impression of John Linnel (he's fairly nasal, but not annoyingly so), especially on "These Few Presidents" when he sings:

I thought I had a pebble in my sock, I pulled it off and shook out a wasp
It stumbled out lost and without a pause, unstung as I was, still I stomped it

It's geeky, quirky and clever and — if you're like me — it gets your attention. It makes you want to listen closely to see what else you might be missing.

It's perfect then that it is followed by the particularly brilliant "The Hollows," which is the highlight of the whole outing, owing to the genius of this verse:

In Berlin I saw two men fuck in a dark corner of a basketball court, just the slight jingle of pocket change pulsing
In the tourist part I lost fifty Euros to the guy with the walnut shells and the marbles, it really pissed me off so I thought I'd go back to get my money, but all my homies warned me, "Oh no, those gypsies probably got knives"

The instrumentation on this song is excellent too. It's sneaky and dark — precisely appropriate for slinking through alleyways, trailing someone who's got information you need. The humming bass and tip-toe guitar always provide a satisfying punctuation to precede the chorus.

The rest of the album is entirely listenable with many moments of inspired clarity like the poppy, upbeat "Fatalist Palmistry." But the slower songs like "Good Frida" and "The Fall of Mr. Fifths" can tend to fall into a much more typical hip-hop rut. The lines take on a rhythmic, lulling swing. It is by no means a bad thing for a song to do this, but the hammock laziness of it fades perception. It's like laying back looking up at nothing but blue sky. Its a pleasant monotony, but monotony just the same.

This fusion that artists like Busdriver and Why? are creating is of particular interest to me because I love the lyrics-as-a-puzzle mentality of hip-hop and the emotive organics of rock. Bring it together with a poppy chorus that can't be unstuck from your brainfolds and I'll listen all day, and I think a lot of other people will too.