Matt Medlock



Okkervil River - The Stand Ins Review

Album sequels can be iffy territory (Reload, anyone?), but in the case of Okkervil River’s The Stand Ins, I can’t really figure out why it wasn’t released as a second disc with the acclaimed The Stage Names. It was apparently recorded at the same time, and was intended to be packaged together. Even the album art is consistent, particularly when laid together with Stage. It might also be a rare time when part two eclipses the original (just barely).

Okkervil River has the sound of a band that found its identity in roadhouses and small venues across the country. Like the Hold Steady, even their studio albums feel plucked from live performances, with all the rough folkish charms, the genial stomp that would come from rowdy crowds and the plaintive pleas of the faux-humblest of singer-songwriters. Unlike the Hold Steady, Okkervil River is a downer. Mood-wise, that is. Looking for a good time? Unless you entirely ignore every word being sung, this is not the place to go. Although not as depressing as their Black Sheep Boy, this is alternately sad and angry music, the thoughts of an observer who’s sick of what he sees. That observer is Will Sheff who, despite able support from other bandmates (especially Patrick Pestorius and his bass), is clearly the leader of this outfit.

After a brief intro track, we plunge into “Lost Coastlines,” a song dominated by a bouncy bassline, shuffling rhythm and a false sense of joy. Sheff paints a melancholy picture of a sea voyage—a figurative reference to life on the touring road—before concluding the last two-and-a-half minutes with repeated la-la-la’s, proving that not all bleak songs must be played over an atmosphere of gothic gloom. The country-fried “Singer Songwriter” follows that up with acidic declarations of, “You come from wealth, yeah, you've got wealth/What a bitch they didn't give you much else,” and, “You’ve got taste, you’ve got taste/What a waste that that’s all that you have.” Musically and thematically, both songs succeed, but “Singer” feels a bit petty. In comparison, the tragedy of “Blue Tulip” is shallow rejection, one a bit more universal, even if the music is too slow for all of its six minutes (the more rousing instrumental close is effective, though).

We’re thrown a twist in the form of “Pop Lie,” another bitter and virulent track, but one driven by a punchy pop rock melody (it even starts off sounding like a slower-by-half-a-beat version of Soundgarden’s “No Attention” and adds synths and handclaps). It’s no news that a pop singer lies (truth doesn’t usually sell records), but when he accuses us of the same lie for singing along, that sort of attack cuts deeper—not offended, just amused. Anyone seduced by the slower pace of “On Tour with Zykos” and expecting something warmer won’t be pleased when Sheff begins with, “He gets close but I choke/Take your shit/Take your clothes and get out of my home.” Along with the break-ups of “Singer Songwriter” and the organ-driven “Calling and Not Calling My Ex,” this is clearly a fellow who makes bad choices in women—or is simply doomed to be eternally incompatible. It’s no pop lie that even someone who exposes the narcissism in others might very well be a narcissist him/herself.

Sheff’s job is to find some sort of humanity in these tales of almost universally unlikable characters and he frequently succeeds. It’s not easy to spin positive feelings towards spoiled celebutantes, porn stars, vapid musicians, even more vapid groupies and the like. The strongest tale comes at the end with “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979,” a tale of an AIDS victim in a time before most understood the disease and a homosexual before many came to grips with unfounded prejudices and learned to accept them as they would anyone else (at least I hope we’ve come so far). The gentle, blues-ish melody helps wrap us around Sheff murmuring, “Old times, hello, hey, I've missed you/Old life, hey now, let me in/Because you win on every issue/Now, can I kiss you?” The track is capped by, “Stars hold him in all around/‘Til he forgets the ground/‘Til he forgets the crawling way/Real people sometimes are.” It’s a fine finish to a fine album.

Although it’s missing a lot of the rousing, sing-along moments that made Okkervil River a relatively big name in indie music, it almost seems fitting considering Sheff’s openly hostile view towards the “plastic” music community. These are songs that will improve in the more personal but spontaneous environment of a (preferably intimate) live showcase. Luckily, most of the tales he tells are worth hearing no matter where. Even though it’s not an album that demands immediate replays, it’s one that gets better over time. Though Sheff might resist it, there’s no reason why Okkervil River shouldn’t be household names. Along with The Stage Names, The Stand Ins will make you reconsider the hollow and heartless things in our celeb-obsessed culture that others might worship. Could cynicism be our only hope?

Sep
19
2008

Parenthetical Girls - Entanglements Review

On Entanglements, Zac Pennington’s Parenthetical Girls (now a more solidified band after co-founder Jeremy Cooper dropped out) is apparently trying to out-SMiLE Brian Wilson. His efforts are founded on fragmentation—piecing together sounds into different songs and trying to make something even marginally sensible out of them. He’s also clearly obsessed with a great variety of instruments, ignoring guitars in favor of whatever little thing he can find in a high school music room. And I can certainly imagine him going through Wilson-esque freakouts when it doesn’t sound just right. Maybe he needs more cowbell.

But Wilson’s abstract obsessions grew out of natural sequencing; I can’t help but think that Pennington and company are just showing off. Very few of the album’s sudden stop-starts (usually swooning Spector-esque strings abruptly segueing into tinkling pianos or erratic plucking sounds and vice versa) make any logical sense. I can stomach almost any sort of tentative “indie posturing” so long as it springs naturally from the material. While Pennington’s songwriting is aided by instrumental arrangements courtesy of Matt Carlson and jigsaw-mixing from producer Jherek Bischoff, there’s still no doubt where the focus of Entanglements comes from. The addition and deletion of instruments to this degree of self-made intimacy is meant to be surprising but natural. Mostly, it surprises on Entanglements but it rarely feels natural.

Inspirations here abound everywhere from Burt Bacharach’s lush and excessive 60s era pop tunes, the skewed storytelling and musical bravery of Fiery Furnaces, Van Dyke Park’s overt sentimentality, the hyper-literate lyricism of the Decemberists and any number of ambitious and experimental pop records from the mid-to-late 60s (obviously, Wilson & his Boys and Sgt. Pepper chief among them). But instead of merging what he likes in something focused and personal, he borrows and mangles them, turning any subtle inspirations into obvious derivations. It’s tough not to admire the adventurous spirit of such an aberrant effort, but instead of crafting something that might be considered art it ends up a frustrating, only sometimes wonderful, and perhaps even intentionally muddled mess.

The album opens with “Four Words,” a song that exposes all of the album’s future quizzical choices by beginning with a spare piano and eventually erupting in a broad and bombastic orchestral orgasm that would sound more at home in a 1940s cartoon short or a mediocre off-Broadway musical than on any pop record. As Pennington archly trills, “A swell of strings sing beneath the pleats of my dress/And speeds what beats beneath my breast,” I can’t help but shrug.  The fact that nearly every word sung on Entanglements is going to be delivered in the same wistful and quivering tone is a bit depressing. I don’t despise Pennington’s voice nor do I detest the matter-of-fact writing, but without different degrees to his method, even the relatively brief album running time is too long to spend in its company.

And “Four Words” is still one of the more successful tracks. Its come-and-go galloping beat and the earnestness of Pennington’s pronouncements remind me of early Decemberists (not bad company to be in). But Colin Meloy’s steadier and more grounded voice can sell words like these; Pennington tries too hard for an emotional pull by lilting to the heavens, wavering most inflections like he feels just too darn much. But, to be fair, it must be nearly impossible to deliver lines like: “As sure as you are pure my love/A touch is good and so its done/And woe spoke in tongues my love/Would surely not send from above.” Not even a lovelorn Jane Austin heroine could say that without trembling from its over-earnest appeal.

After the overbearing accordion appearance on “Gut Symmetries,” the album does settle in during the middle section for some of the record’s smarter and more instinctive musical directions. “A Song for Ellie Greenwich” and “Young Eucharists” are both among the best cuts on the album, and although neither could possibly be defined as traditional, the quirkiness of their identities are completed by singular and centered melodic lines that compliment the audacious musical choices. They don’t stretch too far to make sure that the baroque pop identity of Entanglements is properly baroque. It’s short-lived, though—following “Eucharists” is “Entanglement,” a minute-and-a-half instrumental that has wild and uncanny mood swings that make no sense at all. Hey, they’re doing things differently, but hey, it’s not always working.

Closer “This Regrettable End” is another of the few tracks that feels whole both in concept and execution, wiping away the syrup dripping from each note before it lands. I don’t even mind the potential brow-creasing really? reaction to Pennington’s crooned, “Could those strings swell again/Lest mine eyes well instead?” By that point, we’ve forgiven Pennington his effusive, warbling tendencies. It’s all about the mood evoked by the instruments. And it ends the album on a much-needed high note.

The quaint intimacy of Entanglements makes the album sound like just another of the slew of recent indie chamber pop records, but Pennington’s ambitions keep the listener off guard. Even though this is not even close to being a wholly successful album, it is one that benefits from multiple listens. I may not be able to get behind nearly half of the songs on here, but they’re not ignoble failures. Since this is so different than Parenthetical Girls’ last album, Safe Houses (I haven’t heard their debut, though), it can be considered a self-reflective experiment. But he needs to do less tinkering and more conceptualizing. His Girls might have a great record in them sometime in the future, but this one isn’t it.

Sep
13
2008

Made Out of Babies - The Ruiner Review

After years of endless nu-metal bands and wholly disposable sound-alike jokes that completely ignore the force of true face-melting riffs and buried, intricate melodies, when a band comes along that effectively discovers the right way to do the hard rock/metal thing, it’s not only a pleasant surprise but also a primal exciter. The once always-reliable Tool flirted with mediocrity on 10,000 Days (hopefully they’ll recover). System of a Down’s once electrifying rhythm shifts have grown a bit stale of late. Underoath ain’t too shabby, but it’s too tough to get past the whole Christian Metal joke. Mastodon shows a lot of promise but can’t deliver an album without at least a couple of true groaners. And after Oceanic, Isis’ next two LPs can be viewed as nothing short of disappointments. Where else can we turn?

Brooklyn has the answer with Made Out of Babies, a group that’s been around for a few years but have never released anything as cohesive, accomplished or tooth-rattling as The Ruiner. Not only are they heavy and forceful, but they’re also inherently tuneful and unpredictable. And on Ruiner they merge all of their strengths into a completely focused four-part attack. The rhythm section knows how to bury their support when noisy guitars are in charge (the almost-industrial sonic wall on “Cooker” is front-loaded) and come to the front when the beat demands a proper stomp to the throat (Matthew Egan’s martinet pounding punches up “Bunny Boots”). Brendan Tobin’s guitar attack can segue effortlessly from something intricate and melodious to a full force titanic pummeling. And the vocals, in something of a willful resistance to the sonic barrage, go against the musical instincts to simply wail shrilly and instead goes from whisper and growl to locked, full-on scream—riveting stuff.

Pretty much any metal group can be loud and heavy, but shredding throats, tuneless and blood-stained guitars, and entirely obscured (and useless) bass lines are as dull and annoying as anything that comes from metal enemies such as, say, Mariah Carey or Michael Bolton. Made Out of Babies never falls into the rut of been-there, done-that repetition. They have no quiet songs in their catalog, but they know that neverending noise is monotonous. The muscle of heavy riffs doesn’t come solely from the volume, attitude and precision—it also requires the competition of comparison. The epic “Stranger” works almost solely because the song’s bridge lets the fat-backed groove rise to the surface and then builds subtly in force before exploding at the song’s climax. Without the relative quiet, the seven-minute track would have dragged mightily before the end. Natural musical instincts like that make The Ruiner effortlessly stirring.

Opener, “Cooker,” begins with a ravenous but fluid noise pattern circulating on magnetic guitars while wiry, mad hatter vocals twist around it before unleashing the thunder. “Grimace” continues from there to rattle the senses with a non-stop assault that switches from rumbling noise rock to a driving, chunky riff  where the vocals are issued solely as another instrument; Cooper’s bassline is especially strong and authoritative here. “Invisible Ink” flirts with a hazy, psychedelic bottom layer as the cannons reduce the rising friction to dust. Expansive and ambitious, “The Major” builds steadily to its forceful chorus and “Buffalo” begins with a gentle strum and a sweet melody (I think it’s a warped little love song of sorts, but I could be way off) before hitting a towering riff and eventually finishing in the second half with a provocatively menacing guitar-driven battering as brazenly confrontational as anything that preceded it. These two songs are critical to the album’s success—by utilizing quieter passages (without making them a musical crutch), they effectively dispel any sense of monotony. Following that up with album highlight “Bunny Boots” only seals the deal.

Of the lot, the only song that doesn’t demand multiple listens is “Peew,” which is consciously hostile with its tuned-down guitars, muddy production and indiscernible vocals. At a mere two-and-a-half minutes, it’s a brief scorcher, but a rather ineffectual one, relying more on a post-hardcore slaughter than the more developed nuance of the rest of the album’s semi-hesitant tonal shifts. They can turn four-minute rockers into mini-epics, the way System of a Down could compose a whole album worth of signature changes in the same amount of time on the best cuts of Toxicity. Even at that, “Peew” can still rank as a modest success; it’s a nice break between the longer marathons of “Stranger” and stunning closer, “How to Get Bigger.”

It’s pretty much impossible to discuss Made Out of Babies without mentioning (or even centering on) vocalist Julie Christmas. Not only is it rare to find a feminine force in metal, but it’s even rarer to find one with the power she can summon through melodic ferocity. Her ability to jump straight from an almost seductive throaty whisper to a feral howl makes for several potent moments. She’s been called something of an art-metal Bjork, and it’s an apt comparison, but she also has more than a hint of Corin Tucker, Kat Bjelland and PJ Harvey, particularly in the latter’s ability to make each coo alluring and each scream severe. Despite the occasionally unfortunate tendency for her voice to be mixed at the same level as the thunderous guitars (making it difficult to understand some of the words even on a third and fourth listen), her voice has a shattering power that rivals any piercing roar the instruments can summon. The only possible fault here is that she’s not as playful as some of the others could be; perhaps it’s the fault of the sometimes-too-serious (and seriously enigmatic) lyrics, but to be truly twisted, a sense of humor is needed. Who’d have thought an outfit called Made Out of Babies would be so solemn? Tool, a clear inspiration for Ruiner, knew that a little dark humor can go a long way in deflating the potential Spinal Tap-esque monstrosity of the genre.

The Ruiner is a statement album, one that brings the band together as a concise unit, despite the fact that it was created while the band members worked as a fractured whole (then again, one of the great musical masterpieces of all time, The Beatles (White Album), was crafted this way along with countless other great LPs). The band’s earlier records were sometimes spectacular, but too uneven both in quality and overall sound. But this one solidifies all early potential and delivers a focused and brazen punch to the gut. Those who find the genre mostly uninspired and shapeless these days (myself included) may realize that when it’s done right, its power is downright unearthly. The Ruiner is one of the best albums I’ve yet heard this year; there might be hope for arty metal after all.

Sep
11
2008

Sound and Fury - Sound and Fury Review

Music needs not always be a transcendental experience; it rarely is. Nor does it need to seek lofty goals of manufacturing art via a unique sound and/or attention-grabbing messages of society, politics and the like. Sometimes we’re in it just for a good time. Heavy metal and punk thrive on this—some go for statements, most just go for the throat. Plastic pop is the same way, and let’s not forget disco (no matter how much we might want to). Heck, most of mainstream radio is full of cliché-ridden power ballads, vapid dance tracks and lifeless and generic party anthems. Kids are force fed “education” in school. When class is over, it’s time to turn off the brains.

With brains on neutral, Sound and Fury may be a decent choice. They’ve already been labeled AC/DC meets the Misfits elsewhere, and the description is apt, but also with a few dashes of Motorhead, the Stooges, the Ramones, Thin Lizzy and any number of (mostly better) hard rock acts. Nothing on their self-titled debut can match the best of those other bands, but with precious few exceptions (obviously, the short-lived and untouchable Stooges), none of those same groups can claim career consistency. Back in Black, Ace of Spades, early Ramones LPs…all great efforts, to be sure, but each group also has just as many (if not more) duds as winners. Blame it on repetition, I suppose, since none of them evolved their sound much at all during their long tenure. Ignoring the Ramones' brief near-metal phase, the closest may be Iggy Pop who, once removed from the Stooges, mixed things up a bit along the way for better or worse.

Sound and Fury rely on the standard three chord pyrotechnics to get things done. The only variety comes from the tempo—it’s frequently fast but does take the occasional mid-tempo dirge break. Much of the running time is closer to the torn-to-pieces fury of early 80s West Coast punk than to the slightly more controlled and menacing rumble rock of crotch rockers that hit it big in the late 70s. The fuel that powers this machine is sweat, sex, anger and attitude. But the best of punk typically dealt with youth angst and social upheaval. The best of swaggering hard rock was dominated by powerful roof-burning riffs and bottom heavy hooks so fluid they seemed to erupt straight from the band members' tight denim and leather dungarees. This band has no discernable message and the guitars, while amped to 11, rarely do anything that truly catches you so steadfastly that it’s impossible not to bob your head along to it.

“I got the bad touch that feels so good,” declares frontman, Luke Metcalf. “Tell all the girls in your neighborhood/I got the bad touch that feels so right/I’m gonna make you burn tonight.” Any less sophisticated than AC/DC? Of course not, but it’s the journey and not the statement that makes Back in Black a perfect barroom album. There’s no denying that Sound and Fury can tap into the primal essence of rock and roll, but delivering isn’t guaranteed. The always-chugging guitars dominate every note, and the dual attack of Griffin and Coppins, while lacking many particularly memorable turns, rarely fails to reach the fever pitch. As for Metcalf, he has the high-reaching, essentially toothless voice found in almost every good time metal outfit, but it doesn’t fit with the faster, more punk-ish tracks and reminds us too much of mid-80s spandex rock when they slow things down a beat. Trying it both ways might not be the wisest decision. After all, don’t most punks and metalheads hate each other’s music?

This certainly wouldn’t be the first band to stick to their guns while embracing their musical heroes. And if there’s something lacking in today’s modern music climate, it’s good hard rock bands. But in picking apart their inspirations, they seem to have forgotten that it’s a thin line between old school classics and the endless morass of been-there-done-that yawn rock. Sound and Fury needs to breathe new life into the old workhouse; they’ll leave few bored but even fewer astonished. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the untouchable skill and grinding grooves of Queens of the Stone Age, but this album didn’t make me want to get up and throw limbs around too much.

When priming the old sound for a new age, there needs to be an angle. With the Darkness aping 80s hair metal, they knew a layer of cheese was inevitable and kept their tongues firmly in cheek. Wolfmother couldn’t sound more like a hybrid of Sabbath and Zeppelin if they tried, but more than half the cuts on their debut worked because of the tenacity of their performance. Sound and Fury do little to distinguish themselves from other party rockers like Andrew W.K. and Tower of London—rock, yes, but also dumb as one. Sound and Fury’s inability to frequently grab ahold of the essence of that catchy swagger that made those late 70s/early 80s bands popular is the chief failure of this album.

It’s not a total loss, though. “Teenage Rampage” does what a lot of faceless pop-punk bands miss out on (including current tour partners, the oft-risible Sum 41): delivering a catchy chorus without sacrificing intensity. “Runaway Love” features the vintage fast and repeating riffs of the Ramones. And closer, “Hellhound,” finally mixes things up with a bottom-dwelling beast riff that has a sinister edge lacking elsewhere on the album (Metcalf lowers his voice to a growl on the verses; maybe he should keep it there). On the other hand, “High School Hotbox” is too reminiscent of groups like Motley Crue and Twisted Sister, territory that wasn’t fun the first time out, and “Supercharged” mixes sub-human behemoth rock with the echoing chants of old-school Kiss, territory that may even be worse.

The audience for this sort of album will probably disagree emphatically with my reaction. Less discerning fans of old-fashioned, balls-to-the-walls rock n’ roll may indeed have a rollicking good time. And I won’t deny that Sound and Fury have the fundamentals down; they’re just missing the extra punch needed to turn the primitive into a powerhouse. It’s a mildly promising debut full-length, but Sound and Fury only hints at future success. In the meantime, it’ll collect dust alongside the forgettable fare of the band’s heroes. There’s a reason why I haven’t spun Pleasant Dreams or For Those About to Rock in quite some time.

Sep
10
2008

The Union Trade - Everyday Including Review

Post-rock bands existed long before the genre was ever given a name; in subsequent years, many have expressed indignation that such a label would be stamped upon them. And for a specific subset of the larger gamut of experimental rock music, describing a band as post-rock certainly doesn’t pigeonhole anyone’s sound. While the Union Trade is described as post-rock, I doubt that they embrace the label either. They can be detached and emotional, loud and gentle, engaging and diverting. While their sound is nothing new, at least they’ve made it inviting and (gasp) catchy enough for those who don’t even know what post-rock is.

The band’s debut LP, Everyday Including, is an album full of rising approaches, whispers turned to roars, rarely arriving at the appropriate pinnacle, and often ending without visceral satisfaction. Unpredictability can be an admirable trait, and it’s not an absolute defeat here, but by treading the waters between a full-circle anthem and an intentionally bluff bathos, they risk disappointing their audience. It’s tough to decide whether a rebellious spirit keeps them from the sometimes commonplace formula of a pop song or if its simple indifference, but since the Union Trade is clearly attracted to melody far more than most other post-rock heroes (and losers), it is a curio.

Opener “Self Possession” builds to what could have been a striking climax, but in true genre form, it never soars, choosing instead to remain grounded within the humbling haze of disinterested guitar fuzz. But then “Talk” goes for the gusto, sending the once impenetrable musical wash high above, guitars screaming in the arcing sound that Secret Machines aimed for on Ten Silver Drops. But again, the climax never truly arrives, ending just when you think the “grand moment” was at the doorstep. At least they understand that an epic rock song need not stretch into double digit minutes; maybe it’s best that the grand choruses are missing. If it took four minutes to build up to that point, imagine if they followed the standard ABABCB structure.

Later tracks mostly function as slow-build, shoegaze-lite anthems that struggle against the conceited rules of the genre—no hooks. The repetition of “She likes the sound” at the culmination of “Strings Break” acts like a rallying cry, but is unworthy of the once sparse and now dense guitar triumph. “The Nights Are Getting Longer” lasts a minute—it’s all buildup, no payoff; in context with the rest of the record, this track feels even more incomplete than any other anti-climactic moment. “Crescent” ignores these restrictions almost entirely, even embracing the tried-but-true method of repeating words to keep up with the rhythm of the sparkling guitars that open most of these songs.

Most of these treatments follow a pattern: open intimate, end epic. While hardly a unique method, it’s more intriguing than sounding like so many other dime-a-dozen rock bands out there. But the sameness of this approach, while never dull, makes it difficult to separate some of the songs. Granted, that might have been the Union Trade’s intention, but if so, why not let the tracks flow into each other instead of often ending rather abruptly after the reverb turns down and the towering wail flashes its late-song dominance? A broad lyrical theme might have helped pull it all together, but it’s difficult to make any sense out of the words other than that singer Nate Munger “cares” but can do nothing about it.

Post-rock in all of its forms is rarely remembered for lyrical milestones. On the rare occasion when words are used at all (this is, after all, music more interested in the landscape than any foreground companions), it’s usually cryptic poetry half-mumbled as forgettable cues to their “avant-garde” predilection. Munger murmurs, “I wish I would not break/Every time you trust/But sometimes I embrace/The darkness and the rush” on “Accident Prone.” The overly self-aware and turgid statement of “Caught between myself and each defeat/Despite all odds/Hope against hope against hope” on “For the Resilient” is hardly a groan-worthy declaration, but it certainly doesn’t summon up a rash of thoughts and emotions in the listener. They’re vague statements only half-sung beneath distortion. If they’d been delivered with angst-ridden soppiness or aching sincerity, they’d be laughable. That they’re little more than a guide pin for the next direction the music takes, they fit in just fine.

What makes the Union Trade stand apart from most of their post-rock brethren such as Slint, Cul de Sac and Mogwai is an inherent tunefulness. Even when the songs end in anti-climactic disappointment, the journey is still worth taking. At times, Everyday Including even brushes up against pop music, particularly on the practically predictable but fervently melodic “For the Resilient.” Most of the other groups that managed to exist within post-rock’s broad definition while remaining willing to adhere to pop’s most basic and fundamental laws did so with the experimental instrumentation, structuring and recording (Laika and Stereolab especially). But the Union Trade, despite the occasional touch of piano keys and the frequent drum pounding, is a guitar-driven outfit.

Actually, the Union Trade most resembles a kinder and gentler version of the early days of Spacemen 3 and Ride. Those groups knew how to push walls of huge, trembling guitars against the front of the speakers so the drone of the vocals was little more than an extra instrument. But despite loud sonic experiments on “Violent and Beautiful” and “Like Minded,” the Union Trade sacrifices originality for classical texture; true-fashioned rock songs awash in the so-called misery of the noise rock aesthetic. Maybe they’re just making the dinosaur of rock and roll sorta interesting again. If it was their intent to make spacey, cinematic music into something like Coldplay by way of indie noise pioneers, they have succeeded.

In the glut of generic formula in rock music, the Union Trade is a welcome relief. Although they haven’t crafted anything truly remarkable here, it’s impossible to deny that the vibrant guitars craft some lush and enveloping soundscapes. Ambitious and musically blunt, Everyday Including lacks grandness and originality, but this is a complete album, which, despite an unfortunate lack of variety, keeps the listener’s attention all the way through without ever becoming truly immediate or mesmerizing.

Sep
09
2008

Robots in Disguise - We're in the Music Biz Review

Robots in Disguise follow in the tradition of so many other bands that seem created solely to cash in on the glib fads of the day by borrowing from their betters. They mime Elastica, Stereo Total, Le Tigre, etc. and add to that the snarky, gigglish and exploitative duo-in-lust “hook” that t.A.T.u. exploited several years ago. What does this inevitably lead to? A fast-approaching expiration date. Either that, or a mandatory overhaul. Stunned that they’ve lasted this long, I wouldn’t bet on seeing too many new LPs from this group in the next decade. Unless they decide it’s rebellious to stick around.

Rebellious. By that I, of course, mean the sort of rebellion defined by committee. If they see media and followers jeering their choices, they’ll decide that continuing their packaged passions are just what they need. Flip a finger, bite a thumb, kiss off, ain’t-we-a-couple-of-troublemakers sort of thing.

Based on the evidence of We’re in the Music Biz, Robots in Disugise indeed are all surface, designed and packaged no matter the cost to any original vision. The ladies are named Dee Plume and Sue Denim (obviously fake) and there’s also assistance in the studio from someone named Ann Droid. Usually the only time when such name changes work are when they’re done for the sake of “family” group aesthetic (Sly & the Family Stone, the Ramones, et al). But maddening monikers are the least of their problems.

The music itself is the sort of soulless post-punk, new wave, electro, dance fusion that passes itself off as deliciously retro. They find ways to twist angular rhythms without mining the stop-start method employed a thousand times before. Spiky melodies pulse as severely as anything found in a hundred Euro dance clubs. Any true heart or soul has been clipped away to make sure that each song clocks in at under four minutes—the ecstasy pills will wear off eventually, after all. Thank goodness that there’s room in the music industry for utilitarian and shiny fluff; that’s pretty much what makes up any major radio station’s entire playlist.

The lyrics are virtually all clichés and obvious statements. Attempts to be witty and sardonic fall flat; since they’re about hyperpower instead of detachment, it’s impossible not to believe them at face value. And the subjects skip right past irony and land at trivial. Can we make “edgy” anthems to both the joys and regrets of partying (“Can’t Stop Getting Wasted,” “Sex Has Made Me Stupid”)? Can we be “cool” by confronting/embracing the sentiment that some critics find them obnoxious (the title track)? Can we finally give atheists/agnostics the opportunity to rave (“I Don’t Have a God”)? Done. It’s the Euro-trash “standard”; really no worse than vapid American appeals, just alien to us.

But the European stereotypes exist for a reason. Germans have loved electronica since Kraftwerk flung open those doors thirty years ago. The French love their Euro-trashy exercises in style over substance in almost all forms of media. Brits are musical gods but personally are self-obsessed, egotistical complainers. They’re all chain-smoking, superior and rude. Stereotypes to be certain, but they’ve come about the same way Americans are blamed for…well, every lousy fad in the last forty years—kernels of truth, if waaaay too broad for true definition. Robots in Disguise seem to embrace their own plasticity the way so many other European bands are viewed. They show up to give us a good time and disappear before your tummy aches from the sugar rush.

Pre-packaged fun is difficult to endure, but easy to swallow upon first handout. Robots in Disguise could be a pretty good opening act—they’ll probably never master the climax but they’re foreplay professionals. All attitude, energy and half-joking sneers, they can get you going, but there’s no aftertaste. It’s gone in seconds. We’re in the Music Biz sums up their entire cheeky existence. It’s as if they’re so surprised that they might make it that they feel forced to pose instead of play.

The call-and-response vocal delivery makes them sound more immediate…and perhaps even dumber. There are “deep” statements in here (snicker), but this is all about the beats. After all, dance music need not make us think. It’s hard enough to remember footwork without having to think about how no one should be ripping off the spirit of Robots in Disguise (the laughably hypocritical theme of album closer, “Don’t Copy Me”). At a sheer visceral level, the rhythms and basslines in many of these tunes indeed are infectious. But is there a reason beyond that most basic reaction for such enthusiasm in goofy and/or ultra-obvious observations like “Tequila's made me stupid/The grass had made me stupid/Stupid, stupid, stupid” and “Shake your hands/Get ready for the crazy dance”?

Even at a mere thirty-four minutes, Music Biz overstays its welcome. The performance is essentially two-note: whether it’s fast or really fast, jokey or semi-serious, flashy or fluorescent, it is hollow and driven by the percussive force of serrated beats. The closest they come to going in a different direction is the synth-rock “Tears,” which borrows from the go-to musical inspiration of the last five years, Joy Division.

It’s almost painful to give this record a pass. In the after thought, I can’t believe I found it mildly entertaining during the first listen. Even the second had me nodding along on a couple of (admittedly brief) occasions. If they borrow from better bands, they can’t completely fail on a primal level, right? Even She Wants Revenge, the kings of recent ultra-derivative music, dropped a few really catchy tracks. Robots in Disguise could also be someone’s guilty pleasure, and although the guilt is certainly there, it would be hard to deny the pleasure part.

Sep
05
2008

GZA/Genius - Pro Tools Review

GZA, in addition to being one of the best talents in Wu Tang Clan, is also one of the more subtle big names in the hip hop community. Let’s be honest: the vast majority of the genre in the mainstream is utterly useless. Rap is little more than rough rhyme poetry and beats, and most of the MCs that pop up on MTV and the like are solely interested in bragging, posing and degrading women. So when GZA uses his distinctively driving yet laid-back drawl to say things, it’s important what he says. He may not be as socially-conscious or original as some others, but he’s as clever as anyone else in the hip hop industry.

Language is important for the man also known as Genius. With the minimalist, scratchy and soulful beat production found on many of his records (often courtesy of fellow Wu mastermind RZA and other Wu producers), he’s not going to blow many away with musical verve. He’ll never release a “Hey Ya!” or a “Lose Yourself” or any other energetic hip hop anthem so huge that it can be heard in the houses of all but the most uptight music fans. In GZA’s solo canon (thinner than it ought to be, but you can’t hate him for that), only “Cold World” from Liquid Swords can be truly called an amazing individual moment that can stand alone from the rest (controversial statement, I know). He should be congratulated for it, though—even rarer than a truly great artist in the genre is a truly great hip hop album (they too often suffer from too much filler and lame interlude conversation/skit tracks).

Pro Tools gives us plenty of great rhythms but almost no sample-laden refrain changeovers. A track like “0% Finance” could have benefited from such a switch, but a lot of the songs on this album are brief enough to avoid stale repetition (and perhaps to let GZA take a breath after a nearly endless stream of words and phrases). Then on tracks like “Short Race,” “Life Is a Movie” and “Columbian Ties,” the breaks come courtesy of guest stars such as Rock Marcy, True Master and Masta Killa. The RZA-driven music on “Life Is a Movie” (borrowing from Gary Numan) is one of the rare moments when the background truly comes alive instead of existing as a living, breathing metronome for GZA to spit against. But as GZA says: “I am an MC. It has always been about the lyrics.” There’s little room for in-song sonic progressions and tempo changes. When the rhymes are as frequently good as they are here, that’s not a problem.

Among the strongest moments, GZA takes on the usual broad topics of politics, street life, corruption, society, etc. and filters them through his sensibility and admiration for martial arts flicks/mythology, chess and the like. Two tracks alone are dedicated to the destructive pall over inner city youth (“Path of Distruction,” “Short Race”). He even takes the time for the rap go-to move: dissing another rapper. In this case, it’s 50 Cent and G-Unit—is it really fair for someone like GZA to go after someone like 50? The quality divide is ridiculous. That’s like the Beatles calling out the Bee Gees.

It’s difficult to single out strong individual lyrical moments since GZA is all about the flow. There aren’t many choice one or two-liners showcasing his talents. In fact, most of his rhymes fall apart when they’re broken up. “Alphabets” involves a progression through the letters of the alphabet and “0% Finance” compares women to cars at some length—pieces of these tracks seem silly and forgettable, but in the mix of his fast-slow delivery, they’re amusing and sharply intricate. One of the few brief snippets that does stand out is from the already almost-infamous attack on 50 Cent (“Paper Plate”): “One verse will shatter your spine and crush your spirit/ No matter what you still window-shop for lyrics.” GZA may be aging, but he clearly has more bite in his attack than most artists half his age.

Those awaiting another GZA solo record of the strength of Liquid Swords will need to continue waiting. While Pro Tools is a very solid effort all around, its brevity keeps it feeling almost quaint. It’s rare for a hip hop record to truly leave you wanting more: too many drag on too long. Pro Tools joins Nas’ Illmatic and Black Star from Mos Def and Talib Kweli as one of the few hip hop albums to have virtually no filler. Even the interlude tracks are short and work with the sound and themes of the cuts that follow. Since it may be a long time before Wu Tang is at full strength again (if that day ever comes), Pro Tools will keep fans more than happy in the meantime.

Sep
04
2008

Brian Eno & David Byrne - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today Review

Brian Eno. David Byrne. Say those names and people rejoice. While their names will never get the same widespread adoration as the living Bonos and the dead Cobains will, they are no less respected and important. Besides, Bono’s band is currently in a bland funk and Cobain ain’t raising from the dead anytime soon, so even though it’s been more than two decades since these two have collaborated, at least they’re still working and working well.

1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was always easier to admire and revere from a distance; the sort of effort that many call great even though it’s spun on much rarer occasion as most Eno solo and Talking Heads LPs. With Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, though, it’s a much different story. In construction, they eschewed close collaboration for the sort of back-and-forth deliveries that made the Postal Service’s Give Up partnership such a fine product—the best of Dntel and Death Cab without the aimless noodling of the former and the occasional over-reliance on swoony vocals and paeanic balladry of the latter. Likewise, Everything benefits from the warmth and pop basics of Byrne with the more clinical and experimental distancing of Eno’s canon. The results are a left turn from Ghosts—this is ultra-catchy stuff.

From the opening moment, we know that it’s going to be a different experience. The first note we hear comes from an acoustic guitar, the polar opposite of Eno’s electronic bread-and-butter. But immediately after we feel the pulse of the machine that will drive later tracks. As opener “Home” expands, we realize that Eno is inviting us in. And as we effortlessly move from “Home” into the more efficient “My Big Nurse” we suspect something special might happen.

Then we reach “I Feel My Stuff” and “Eveything That Happens,” two back-to-back tracks that sound almost nothing alike. The former begins with pianos and becomes an epic, semi-industrial stomp with vocals that alternately echo and clack away with staccato precision. But “Everything That Happens” is almost gospel-ish with its distant melodic pattern floating high in the sky like a chorus from the heavens and vocals that build upon each other until the final refrain is delivered in the same framing as an entire choir. Neither song is truly great (the spoken word stuff on “Stuff” is too staged and bizarre; “Everything” lacks a remarkable hook to make it memorable) but even when Eno and Byrne stumble a bit, they make the mistake both slight and forgivable.

The mélange of the warm, emotional pop and the processed rhythms of electronic music continues throughout the record. In what might be the album’s finest moment, “Strange Overtones” evokes the finest inclination of both giants the way Postal Service did. “Strange overtones in the music you are playing/We’re not alone; it is strong and you are tough/But a heart is not enough”—it’s a song about writing a song, specifically about the two worlds they inhabit. As Byrne himself said: “It's quite easy to make just digital music and it's quite easy to make just human music, but to try and make a combination is sort of, exciting, I think.” “Overtones” is also the album’s first single, so obviously I think they chose a good one, not just as a stand alone great track but as a broad representative of the album as a whole (even if it’s also the only track not authored exclusively by Eno and Byrne; Leo Abrahams helped).

When the two work together in creating a consistently engaging sound bringing together the opposites is when the album works best. “Poor Boy,” for example, sounds like it could have been a revamped leftover from Ghosts, the closest relative to their last collaboration, but it’s also one the album’s only lesser tracks. Not so much because it’s not very good but because it’s out of place near the end of the record following exciting and accessible fluid rockers like “Wanted for Life” and “One Fine Day.” And then closer, “The Lighthouse” is essentially hook-less, but a dreamy, lilting background and the subtle way Byrne evokes the imagery of the words along with Eno’s hazy melody makes it a worthy end, if still a little out of place considering the way the second half proceeded before it.

Even though Everything That Happens Will Happen Today isn’t a groundbreaking album and almost certainly won’t be held in the same esteem as Ghosts is after almost thirty years, it’s an album that warrants replays a lot more than the other. The level of influence can’t be registered here; too many artists already ape much of Eno and Byrne from the 70s and 80s. And their melding of the “digital” and the “human” isn’t original; it’s just that these old pros can do it better than almost anyone else making music these days. Their greatest and most important years are behind them but Everything proves that they’re still viable and valuable to anyone that will listen.

Sep
03
2008


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