December 1, 2009
2009 | Self-Released
I don’t think a single period of pop history was forgotten faster than the late nineties – no, I’m not talking about Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, or Radiohead; they have all cemented themselves firmly into indie rock history. I’m talking about pop-rock, post-alternative; the Counting Crows, Third Eye Blinds, and Eagle Eyed Cherries that came, left infectiously innocuous songs ridden with overproduction, and reverted back to the musical hell from whence they came (well, at least most of them). Where did they come from? I mean, they must have heard punk-rock, right? Were the Replacements really enough to fuel an entire eight-year movement of shamelessly clever modern rock? And, as more and more musicians choose to dig deeper into the one-hit-wonder crates, pulling back toward disco, glam, and other once-hated genres, when will the 90s all-stars have a chance to shine? Who will be the Patrick Wolf to Stephan Jenkins’ David Bowie?
The answer, in my opinion, is dwelling somewhere under the surface of Ludlow Lions’ No Stories. The album, from opener “Keyboard Teeth” and onward, moves disjointedly through different genres. They touch on angular Pinback riffs, garage-fuzz, Replacements style hooks, R.E.M. delivery, and the occasional crunched distortion that could be stripped straight out of “Semi-Charmed Life.” And the lyrics move fluidly from intelligent and thought provoking (“Scopes Climbs a Tree,” which, from what I can gather, is actually inspired by the Scopes Monkey Trial) to the banal and innocuous (“I want a new Cold War/ I felt much safer before” is fine, but “If there’s a new Cold War/ I’d be so captivated” seems like the band may not actually understand what the Cold War was) to the completely meaningless (a soaring, layered chorus of “We’re so proud/ We’re so proud/ We’re so proud of…doom”).
More on Ludlow Lions | No Stories
November 19, 2009
Spit In the Face of People Who Don’t Want to Be Cool
2009 | Captured Tracks
Listening to The Beets’ debut album, my initial crotchety-old-man reaction is, “Who wants to sound like that?”
Drenched in reverb, the 12 songs on Spit In The Face of People Who Don’t Want to Be Cool can be lazily referred to as garage rock, but they are actually more reminiscent both of The Velvet Underground’s first couple of albums and of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound recordings – that is, if Spector allowed his let-all-the-instruments-bleed-together approach apply to the vocals too.
I’m frankly baffled by this choice to bury the vocals and make it all sound like a murmuring radio on the opposite side of the room. After all, if you can spare enough dough to have someone put your album out on vinyl, why can’t you spare a little bit more to have someone mix the recordings so they don’t sound like they were made with a tape player stuck in a burlap sack?
Granted, that was my initial reaction. I’ve listened to the album about 4 or 5 times now (it clocks in at less than a half-hour, so that’s not hard to do), and the songs themselves are memorable enough to make me respect The Beets as a band. Heck, I’ll probably keep this album in regular listening rotation.
More on The Beets | Spit In the Face of People Who Don’t Want to Be Cool
October 13, 2009
2009 | Matador Records
Kurt Vile is a confident guy – with a name like that, he has to be. On his newest album, Childish Prodigy, the Philadelphia singer/songwriter (and Williamsburg/
Woodsist/Market Hotel staple) swaggers between fuzz and folk without much effort. At times the transitions seem appropriate: opening track “Hunchback” is as sexy and playful as centerpiece “Blackberry Song” is sweet and soothing. But even with the added polish, some of the softer songs feel unfinished.
Almost all of the lyrics sound improvised, which for the most part is fine. When his vocals mesh with layers of distortion Vile sounds off the cuff, but when his singing is front and center, he sounds like he doesn’t have anything to say. A line like, “I ain’t never been so insulted in my whole life/ Shit!” is easy to ignore when it’s buried under the Kraut-rock kaleidoscope of “Freak Train,” but when something as clichéd as “You better get your head re-screwed on,” is clearly repeated over and over (and over) on “Heart Attack,” it’s harder to ignore.
Childish Prodigy is cleaner than last year’s lower-fi Constant Hitmaker and 2009’s God Is Saying This To You, but that isn’t necessarily an improvement. Vile is at his most effective when he’s strutting his stuff and stumbling through a wall of sound; on the quieter tracks he sounds like he’s pacing.
None of these songs ever really progress or move forward. The same notes swirl around and around, paired with either belligerent yelping or overwhelming neuroses. On “Inside Lookin Out” Vile’s “Got the blues so BAAAAAD,” and on “Monkey” he admits, “I was so sad/ I swear I held my own hand/ Pretending it was yours.”
The whole record is like a drunken ride on a carousel: the exciting moments are dizzying and colorful, but when things slow down regret sinks in.
by Kyle McGovern
October 5, 2009
Are Fast Cars
2009 | Ashley’s Dollar Store
The drunken stumble is among the most under recognized frameworks for modern pop. A band goes slightly out of tempo, write simple, depressing songs, and are called geniuses for it, as if it’s the first time it’s ever happened. By just dropping the tempo, keeping the instruments minimal, and stomping on the kick drum in a waltz, your band can sound like they’re leaving a party, without even getting invited. It’s that simple – try it at home. See? It sounds like you’re in The Walkmen already.
“Caterpillar,” the first song on The Morgues’ debut three-song EP, Are Fast Cars fits into this formula almost exactly, with bells lightly jangling in the background, a simple guitar strum, and principle band member David King’s vocals desperately level. He stumbles, “My face on the floor/ Talking to leaves/ And crawling like dead bees.” It’s a simple, four and a half minute track that barely moves away from it’s initial structure, and feels like it could go on forever. In a lot of ways, it’s something heard a million times before.
But there is something at play in “Caterpillar” that makes it special, and immediately endlessly listenable. As many times you may feel like you’ve heard it before, it still seeps down into your consciousness. King’s lyrics are immediately innocuous, off-handedly observing “there is a light in the hallway” more than once, but upon repeated listens, grow more and more endearing. It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s residing under the surface of “Caterpillar” that causes it to be more than it’s composite parts. Maybe it’s that once going through the song, it becomes noticeable that King calls back almost every banal observation he makes, and you subconsciously realize there’s depth in these banalities. Maybe it’s that a sense of regret is immediately noticeable in the song, but it’s written in such a vague way that it becomes universal and important. Maybe it’s just the tone, the entire thing feeling like a few minute shoulder shrug. Whatever it is, “Caterpillar” opens Fast Cars with an apathetic bang.
More on The Morgues | Are Fast Cars
September 25, 2009
2009 | City Salvage
Brooklyn’s retro country band The Defibulators reminds me of Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and all those other bands that tried to bring the swing sound back into the mainstream of pop music back in the mid-‘90s. There are a couple of reasons for this, not the least of which is the couple of tracks where the band bends its sound to include jazz elements, like the appearance of a clarinet on “Honey, You Had Me Fooled.”
One of the other main reasons, however, is that the band comes off as gimmicky – attempting to sound old-timey and homegrown, and possessing exemplary chops to approximate the real thing expertly, but creating a feeling that’s too slick and fails to capture the organic spark that far less skilled bands were able to commit to scratchy old 78s way back in the day.
Now, let me make this clear: everybody in this band is a monster. The lead male and female singers have some sweet sets of pipes, the guitarist can pull off a perfectly executed Chet Atkins-style guitar run, the fiddler has more dexterous fingers than a twelve-year-old playing Tekken 6, etc. etc. But this doesn’t change the fact that, for most of the band’s new album Corn Money, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
More on The Defibulators | Corn Money
September 11, 2009
Hank and Cupcakes
2009 | Self-Released
Power duos have a way of cutting the bullshit – it’s pretty hard to noodle around or have a mach II jazz odyssey with only two people – and Hank and Cupcakes make no exception. Comprised of just drums, psyched-out bass, and foxy vocals, the two aren’t looking to remake Sgt. Peppers, they’re just searching for a solid groove. It’s a modest ambition, and the duo won’t immediately be setting the world on fire, but their debut EP, Pleasure Town, does have the stuff to get some hipsters moving.
The EP has some elements of good ol’ fashioned indie songwriting, particularly on songs like “Stay” and “New Day,” complete with attempts at heart-filled lyrics and emotional depth. But Cupcakes isn’t quite good enough a songstress to keep things pithy with the band’s chosen simplicity. It’s when Hank and Cupcakes are punchy that they hit their stride, and with their obvious musical chemistry, that’s usually the case.
The title track bustles the most with energy. Its bass line, warped with effects, twists seamlessly between hard hitting funk and hip disco while Cupcakes’s drums bounces off it and her own sassy vocals. “Beat” and “Ain’t No Love” take a more direct and rugged approach, but Hank’s synth-like bass effects and Cupcakes’s vocal style adds some flavor.
Their energetic style, however, doesn’t come quite to task when undertaking Joy Division’s “She Lost Control.” The cover opens the song up with a fierce funk groove that makes it a bit more danceable, but it also loses the original’s tension, which was vital in connecting the song with its subject matter and making it such a freighting classic. Hank and Cupcakes’ cover just doesn’t have nearly the character of the original, and the misstep shows a weakness.
Hank and Cupcakes’ Spartan approach may have kept their sound muscular, but it hasn’t yielded much depth, and when you take out the kicking beats and popping baselines there isn’t much left behind. “New Day” does a good job keeping things murky, but that’s about it, and as much as Cupcakes’ crooning of “I never want you to go!” means to her, it’s never given the emotional context to resonate with the listener. “Sweet Potion” fares better with Hank getting in a cool progression with bass, but aside from that the song resembles a brooding the Ting Tings song (which isn’t an entirely bad thing, just doesn’t speak much for depth of character). Thankfully, the Pleasure Town relies more on its groove making than songwriting, and in that regard it remains successful, especially considering that all this energy comes from only two people.
by Geoff Anstey
May 28, 2009
The follow-up album to a band’s breakthrough record is always a tricky one. How does a group keep their sound fresh without alienating their core fans or turning off newly converted listeners? Most people stumble with the second album, the sophomore slump – it’s the norm, not the exception. Look at the mighty Strokes, kings of the new garage rock scene in 2001, then declared stale when their second album, Room on Fire, toyed with their formula, just a little. Tragic.
The same can be said for The Lemonheads, who’s breakout, It’s a Shame About Ray, basically defined alternative culture in the early 90s. Predating the trend of ironic rock/punk covers of earnest but dated songs, Evan Dando and Co. were years ahead of their time with their ridiculous-but-fun cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” And “It’s a Shame About Ray,” the album’s biggest hit, was pretty much exactly on par with everything else on MTV in 1992 – before the record industry hit the bottom of the alternative rock barrel, this kind of hook-y, fun music was the norm.
More on The Lemonheads | Come On Feel…
The Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice
Moon Colony Bloodbath
2009 | 4AD
Another quarter, another Mountain Goats record. On the heels of their one-two Satanic Messiah EP and Kaki King collaboration, Black Pear Tree, they’ve got another tour-only release, a collaboration with songwriter, producer, and Tiny Telephone Studio owner John Vanderslice. I’ve always loved – loved – Vanderslice’s production technique, and the sounds produced through Tiny Telephone. And way back when, I was pretty impressed by Time Travel is Lonely and Cellar Door. But neither held my attention for very long. I’ve yet to explore his more recent, even more acclaimed, albums. I will now. Moon Colony Bloodbath isn’t very good. It feels strange typing that – it is a John Darnielle project – but it’s true. It’s pretty slight. It’s still good enough to warrant a serious listen though – and Vanderslice is good enough to shame me for ignoring him.
More on The Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice | Moon Colony Bloodbath