Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 20

In the dual interests of 1) feeding the end of the year's appetite for lists, and 2) writing a post without having to do too much work on New Year's Eve, I've decided to provide what my iPod tells me are my top 20 most frequently listened to songs.

1. The Thermals, "Pillar of Salt" (from The Body, the Blood, the Machine)

2. Kanye West, "Can't Tell Me Nothing" (from Graduation)

3. LCD Soundsystem, "All My Friends" (from The Sound of Silver)

4. Arctic Monkeys, "From the Ritz to the Rubble" (from Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not)

5. The Hold Steady, "Massive Nights" (from Boys and Girls in America)

6. Los Campesinos!, "You! Me! Dancing!" (from Sticking Fingers into Sockets EP)

7. The XYZ Affair, "All My Friends" (from A Few More Published Studies)

8. Guided by Voices, "Gold Star for Robot Boy" (from Bee Thousand)

9. Let's French, "Your Name Here" (from Victory)

10. Leaders of the New School, "A Quarter to Cutthroat" (from T.I.M.E.)

11. Los Campesinos!, "Frontwards" (from Sticking Fingers into Sockets EP)

12. The Twilight Singers, "Bonnie Brae" (from Powder Burns)

13. Phoenix, "Long Distance Call" (from It's Never Been Like That)

14. The Breeders, "Safari" (from Safari EP)

15. Guided by Voices, "Buzzards and Deadly Crows" (from Bee Thousand)

16. The Thermals, "Returning to the Fold" (from The Body, the Blood, the Machine)

17. The Hold Steady, "You Gotta Dance With Who You Came to the Dance With" (from Live at Fingerprints EP)

18. I'm From Barcelona, "Treehouse" (from Let Me Introduce My Friends)

19. Morrisey, "Last of the Famous International Playboys" (from Bona Drag)

20. Arctic Monkeys, "A Certain Romance" (from Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not)

So there you have it. Have a happy new year, best wishes for 2009, and Act Surprised will be back with a regular post on Friday, January 2.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Beck. Sea Change (Geffen, 2002)

"It's only lies that I'm living/ It's only tears that I'm crying/ It's only you that I'm losing/ Guess I'm doing fine."

Beck is kind of a bummer these days. He used to be hobo boho visionary, with crisco-disco dance moves, an invention up each sleeve, and a seemingly bottomless supply of casual genius. Now he's a Scientologist who's apparently content to endlessly sample himself while trying to up his clear rating or whatever.

But it wasn't always so. The '90s saw Beck working at a feverish pace to produce some of the decade's best albums. From 1994's psych-blues Mellow Gold, through the epochal cut-n-paste mindfuck of Odelay, the bossanova-flavored meltdown of Mutations, and the Prince-tastic R&B pisstake/homage of 1999's Midnite Vultures, Mr. Hansen was on a serious goodtime roll, flaunting his considerable creative powers in a variety of directions and hitting anything he aimed at. And then came the 21st century, and Beck decided to bring it down a little bit.

2002's Sea Change is the last great Beck album, and so unlike its predecessors that its sound came as a real shock upon first listen. Absent are the samples and beats that were a signature of Beck's previous efforts. Gone are the po-mo allusions and smirking self-references. Instead, we get Beck as emotionally naked balladeer, a sad-eyed poet with a guitar, a string section, and a trunk-full of heartrending melodies. It's a breathtaking LP, and as raw a display of loss and regret as one could reasonably expect from the guy who brought us "Sexx Laws."

Sea Change was produced by fin-de-siecle engineer extraordinaire Nigel Godrich (the dude behind OK Computer and -- perhaps less significantly -- Pavement's last LP, Terror Twilight), and it sounds great. It's a rich, resonant album, with thick strings wrapping snugly around sparkling acoustic guitars, twinkly keys, and slightly echoey vocals. Cosmic pedal steel runs and occasional electronic flourishes are peppered throughout this collection of mostly down- and mid-tempo tracks, and Beck sings in a thoughtful, almost morose baritone far removed from his familiar hipster inflections.

All of which sounds kind of boring on paper, but isn't boring at all in practice. The melodies are heaven-sent, the hooks are undeniable, and the lyrics are simple yet affecting. It's one of the most straitforwardly enjoyable albums of the decade, an LP that reveals new charms upon multiple listens and never grows old. Sea Change is by all reports a break-up album, composed and recorded in the wake of some sort of interpersonal implosion, and every note sounds it, brilliantly.

Album opener The Golden Age ushers in the album with bright acoustic strums and an upscale country lilt. "Put your hands on the wheel," Beck croons. "Let the golden age begin." It's dreamy, nighttime desert driving music; you can feel the heat of the day giving way to the evening's chill as the steady rhythm section marks out a lonely beat beneath the luminous instrumentation.

"Paper Tiger" uses a spry drum track and stabbing, unleashed strings to dress a down-in-the-mouth cautionary tale. Electric guitar pinprick licks pierce the heavy fabric here and there, letting the sun shine through. Guess I'm Doing Fine is exquisitely haunting, probably the saddest song on the album, and the prettiest. The rhythm section drags the beat behind a simple chord progression as Beck mourns, "All the battlements are empty/ And the moon is laying low/ Yellow roses in the graveyard/ Got no time to watch them grow." The longing is plain, the melody sterling.

"Lost Cause" finds Beck as an amiable troubadour with a heart of barbed wire, an upbeat (for Sea Change) aire built around bouncy acoustic fingerpicking. Round the Bend channels Nick Drake splendidly, ominous string swells and a half-whispered vocal turn the definition of autumn gloom. Elsewhere, "Already Dead" is spot-on Harvest-era Neil Young, with a pastoral, meandering cadence and mellow snare hits, and "Side of the Road" is broken down, cockeyed blues, handsomely outfitted in lazy slide runs and crippled-sounding organ bleats.

I was completely taken aback by Sea Change the first time I heard it, mainly because I was expecting more of Beck's savant-spazz beatsmithery. Instead, I got an at times painfully direct account of a relationship in ruins riding uncomplicated acoustic guitar compositions. And it works effortlessly. So even if Beck seems to have gone off the deep end in recent years, we can at least go back to Sea Change and before to remind us of why, once upon a time, this guy seemed so important.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Act Surprised is taking this week off, and will return with a new post on Monday, December 29.

Happy holidays.

Friday, December 19, 2008

High on Fire: Death is This Communion (Relapse, 2007)

"Speaking the words of the sorcerer's tongue/ No one can stop what's already begun/ Follow the footsteps and unlock the door/ The giant you face has awakened."

As you can tell from the general nature of the entries on Act Surprised, I'm a big fan of sunny pop hooks and major-key chords. Gimme catchy any day and I'll be happy. A shimmering verse-chorus-verse hung on a king-sized riff? Sold, friend.

But sometimes I'm looking to get my head rocked clean off my effing shoulders. I wanna be pummeled and punished, mercilessly blasted by thrash-tempo double-bass kicks, distorted bass lines, and relentlessly drop-tuned, palm-muted, Gibson-played and Sunn-amplified shredding. And when that mood strikes, I know I can always turn to High on Fire's 2007 metal masterwork Death is This Communion (produced ably by grunge and indie maestro Jack Endino) to satisfy my dark desires.

High on Fire are Matt Pike on guitar and vocals, Des Kensel on drums, and Jeff Matz on bass. Pike was in the legendary doom/stoner metal outfit Sleep before founding High on Fire. If you've never heard Sleep and have any interest in high-caliber high-volume drone rock, you should check them out, especially Dopesmoker: that album -- which consists of one 70 minutes+ doom jam -- got them dropped from London Records, and was eventually released by Tee Pee in 2003. It's an exercise in bad vibes, but manages to be monumentally compelling by virtue of its inventiveness, weight, and sheer volume.

High on Fire, while often placed into the doom/stoner bin, spends a lot more time thrashing than droning, which is pretty awesome. Death is This Communion is High on Fire's fourth LP (their first, The Art of Self Defense, came out on Man's Ruin in 2002), and it's a powerful, marauding behemoth, refreshing in its aggressiveness and sheer energy. And as a power trio, Pike, Kensel, and Matz straight wail, utilizing breakneck, constantly shifting rhythms and lightning-quick solo runs to keep the listener spinning.
Add some lyrics drawn from the Dungeons and Dragons/H.P. Lovecraft well, and you've got some prime metal mayhem to deal with.

Fury Whip introduces the record with a savage opening salvo, an iron-heavy chord progression giving way to nimble up-tempo riffery and surging drums. Pike sings in a Cookie Monster-by-way-of-Lemmy growl, bellowing lines like, "Killed dead, splitting head, making sure the lion's fed/ Hanging by a thread that holds your life." "Fury Whip" is one of the best songs on the album, angry and grating, but also incredibly dynamic and hooky. It never lets up, leaving the listener bruised and breathless. Check out the molten solo at the 5:08 mark for proof of Pike's chops. Incredible.

"Death is This Communion" is another highlight, sheets of distortion riding a heavy martial beat. Kensel and Matz are the heroes of the track, their locked-in groove giving the song a chance to breath and saving it from oppressive claustrophobia. What could have been stifling becomes rousing and nearly buoyant. Rumors of War is the best cut on the album: the most Motorhead-esque entry, fueled by bad speed and cheap whisky, it blitzes forward on diesel wheels, a frenzied juggernaut boasting the best solos on the LP and the catchiest melody.

Though Death is This Communion is dominated by urgent aural assaults, High on Fire occasionally switch it up. "Headhunter" is a syncopated, polyrhythmic drum attack. "Khanrad's Wall" is an eastern-tinged rave up, and Cyclopian Scape begins with a delicate , folky passage lifted from Led Zeppelin III before descending into the churning, turbulent abyss. These ponies know more than one trick.

Sharp hooks and luminous melodies can get you pretty far in this world. But sometimes something heavy -- really heavy -- is the only thing that'll scratch the itch. So if you dig Sabbath, Slayer, Kyuss, the Melvins, Earth, Boris and the like, you should check out High on Fire and Death is This Communion. But buy a neck brace first.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Juno and the Dismemberment Plan: Split EP (DeSoto, 2000)

"Unstable but ingenious/ How we built this wall between us/ Unmiraculous but swift/ How it came to an end."

The DeSoto label was started in 1989 by Bill Barbot and Kim Coletta from Jawbox, adding to an already impressive list of DC-based indie labels like Dischord, TeenBeat, and Simple Machines. And like its mates, DeSoto released albums from excellent DC acts like the Dismemberment Plan and Faraquet, but also looked beyond the District's borders to add bands like Compound Red, Shiner, and Juno. Seattle's Juno were particularly impressive, a four-piece specializing in king-sized walls of sound and epic melodies tinged with tension and dread. A Future Lived in the Past Tense and This is the Way it Goes and Goes are two of the best guitar albums of the late '90s/early aughts.

So I was especially stoked back in 2000 when DeSoto released a split EP featuring Juno and the Plan, a nice chocolate-and-peanut butter combo mixing the Plan's brilliant spazzcore with the leviathan emo of Juno. The release finds each band contributing one original and one cover, and each tune is a gem.

The Plan starts things off with tongues planted firmly in cheek, as The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich comes blaring out of the speakers double-time in a flurry of bells and whistles. The track is a feverish daydream of international intrigue and blackmarket financeering, as Travis Morrison excitedly explains, "In early '95, well, we got the dough so we could diversify/ Had a lot of money up in bio-weapons which has low liquidity/ Sold a lot of Krugerrands and rubles to a bunch of really weird Swiss guys/ And we were rockin'." The drums and bass maintain a relentless spring, with sheets of briarpatch distortion thrown in for good measure. It's hyperactive and hyperaddictive, a Ritalin-fueled joyride into self-delusion.

Juno's original entry is a career highlight: the stunning Non-Equivalents conjures up millennial tension and wounded anger, a thrashing tower of riffs with a thrilling vocal melody desperately bellowed. As was always the case with Juno, the rhythm section more than holds up its end, laying down a rock-solid foundation for the chiming, churning guitars. "Goddammit, don't you ever listen?" urges Arlie Carstens before admitting, "No, we're never even/ And I can find no simple reason for this." This song is reason alone to check out the EP.

As for the covers, both the Plan and Juno acquit themselves admirably. Juno hands in a shockingly spot-on instrumental cover of the DJ Shadow cut-and-paste turntable masterpiece "High Noon." The drummer kills it, frankly, perfectly recreating the rhythm and feel of the original, while the guitars (with Sunny Day Real Estate's Nate Mendel sitting in on bass, incidentally) manage an awesome stuttering approximation of the original's sampled melody.

The Plan chooses Jennifer Paige's dancepop trifle "Crush," but take it in a nice direction by slowing it down to quarter time and stripping it of its club-ready disco punch. The end result is a smoldering, sinister crawl, with slickly shimmering chords and Morrison's dazed, resigned vocals darkening the lyrics.

This EP was one of the last releases from each of these bands, as each would release their final albums in 2001 before breaking up. We're just lucky they held it together long enough to collaborate on this, an endlessly enjoyable East Coast-West Coast meeting of the minds and a perfect example of why DeSoto is a great label.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bruce Springsteen. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (Columbia, 1973)

"Well now wild young Billy was a crazy cat/ And he shook some dust out of his coonskin cap/ He said, Trust some of this, it'll show you where you're at/ Or at least it'll help you really feel it."

When I was a kid, my dad had a mixtape he'd compiled from a bunch of his records. It was called Party Tape, and it was awesome. Lots of Stones and Bowie, plus some Cat Stevens, Springsteen, and Tom Petty. I used to listen to it a lot: I liked the crackle and hiss from the vinyl dubbing, and the songs were pretty great, as well. And by far my two favorite cuts on the whole mix -- "Spirit in the Night" and "For You" -- were from Springsteen's 1973 debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

Greetings From Asbury Park is a fantastic record, and an early testament to Springsteen's gifts as a composer and lyricist. This record, more than any other, I think, paints the Boss as the street smart Jersey Dylan wannabe, a scruffy kid with a love of beat poetry, cars, and girls and the skill to transform that love into a purely American kind of hyperverbal musical art. Greetings from Asbury Park sounds exciting and excited, combining feverishly overflowing, nearly stream-of-consciousness lyrical assaults with a loose, mosaic instrumental approach, the end result being an LP whose words and music sync up perfectly.

Springsteen's penchant for inventing hilariously-named characters and speaking about them like they're some kind of universal catch-all is in full effect here. Here are a few of the guys and girls populating these ten tracks:
  • Go-cart Mozart
  • Early-Pearly
  • Mary Queen of Arkansas
  • Jimmy the Saint
  • Crazy Janey
  • Hazy Davy
  • Wild Billy (with his friend G-man)
Given this cast of characters, you can see why Springsteen has been ripe for spoofing: Bob Dylan allegedly wrote the Traveling Willbury's song "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" as a gentle mockery of the Springsteen style, and if Charlie's song Night Man from it's Always Sunny in Philadelphia isn't spot-on early Bruce, I don't know what is. It's totally goofy, but really fun, and gives the impression that Springsteen has invented an entire universe in his head. The Hold Steady's Craig Finn has moved in this same direction, constantly referencing people like Hallelujah, Gideon, and Charlemagne (in sweatpants) in his songs, giving them personalities and histories and motives.

Musically, this first Springsteen isn't nearly as muscular as later material, especially when compared to 1975 breakthrough Born to Run. Instead, this early incarnation of the E Street Band embraces a kitchen sink approach, with melodies and hooks scattered willy-nilly throughout the songs. It's a freewheeling ride, and a lot of it has to do with the rhythm section. Initial E Street drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez (who would be kicked out of the band after the second LP, 1973's The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, for reasons that are still disputed) has a very distinctive style, forgoing straightforward timekeeping in favor of an impressionistic, intuitive percussive technique. It's relentlessly busy and driving, and nicely complements the manic lyrical delivery and rich (sometimes cluttered) multi-layered production (courtesy of Jim Cretecos and Louis Lehav).

Song-wise, there are some career highlights here. Opener Blinded by the Light (which would be made into a #1 hit in 1977 by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, who would also re-record this album's "Spirit in the Night" and "For You") is a revved-up hallucination hung on an addictive hook, with brilliant nonsense lyrics: "Some brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone preacher from the east/ He says: 'Dethrone the dictaphone, hit it in its funny bone, that's where they expect it least,'" and, "Oh, some hazard from Harvard was skunked on beer playin' backyard bombardier/ Yes and Scotland Yard was trying hard, they sent a dude with a calling card/ He said, do what you like, but don't do it here." It's an avalanche of images and ideas, most of which amount to nothing but easily convey youthful exhilaration and wide-eyed joy.

"Mary Queen of Arkansas" is a stripped-down ballad, using a stark acoustic guitar and harmonica arrangement to express heartbreak and emotional devastation. It's a peek into later Springsteen directions, particularly 1982's Nebraska, and probably the album's most Dylanesque song.

The pianos of Lost in the Flood invest a certain majesty into this bleak appraisal of America in the early '70s, where the "
countryside's burnin' with wolfman fairies dressed in drag for homicide" and "nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleadin' immaculate conception." The character of Jimmy the Saint ("that pure American brother, dull-eyed and empty-faced") racing his muscle car on weekends to outrun his haunted past, is a tragic abstraction of the kids in "Born to Run" and "Thunder Road."

"For You" and "Spirit in the Night" are the two best songs here. The first is another frenzied rush, with an insanely hooky melody and vaguely great lyrics. The kiss off of "
Don't give me money, honey, I don't want it back/ You and your pony face and your union jack/ Well take your local joker and teach him how to act/ I swear I was never that way even when I really cracked" is priceless, as is the line about the "metal-tempered engine on an alien, distant shore." Vini Lopez's drumming here is, as always, a big part of why this song works so well. Spirit in the Night takes Clarence Clemons's snakey sax hook and builds it into a sexy, nocturnal beauty, one of the most thrilling, achingly pretty songs Springsteen has ever written. It's the embodiment of adolescent lust and mystery, small-town boredom translated into epic emotion.

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. is the sound of Springsteen finding his voice. It's not a perfect album, and it doesn't sound too much like the Boss of Born to Run or the River or Born in the U.S.A. But it's a bracing, astonishing collection all the same, the work of an adroit, distinctly American blue collar balladeer coming quickly and surely into his own.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Castanets. Cathedral (Asthmatic Kitty, 2004)

"A trip out of town/ As the moon goes down/ And the faster we move/ The faster we’re found."

I wasn't a huge fan of that whole Devendra Banhart/Sufjan Stevens freak folk thing when it first reared its weird beard a few years back. It seemed hyper contrived and, well, real hippy-dippy. Lazy, patchouli-scented psychedelia. No thanks.

In the years since, I find that 1) I still don't like Banhart, 2) I've developed an appreciation for Stevens's baroque pop abilities, and 3) some of the bands thrown into the freak folk basket I actually really enjoy. Castanets would be one of the latter, essentially a one-man show fronted by Brooklynite-by-way-of-San Diego Raymond Raposa that's put out some highly haunting and resoundingly pretty albums since first surfacing in 2003. It's pretty simple stuff, but inventive, and delivered with an intensity that manages to stick with you long after the album's ended.

I started following Castanets with their 2004 release Cathedral, and was immediately drawn in by Raposa's odd, and at times lazy, approach, which seems to mask desperation with weariness. He's got a far-from-perfect singing voice, an unsteady, creaky tenor that brings to mind Will Oldham. In fact, Castanets (like much of the freak folk movement, to my ears) treads a lot of the old Palace and Bonnie "Prince" Billy ground, but does it in a pretty compelling way. Plus, Cathedral has a habit of moving from high-lonesome wind-blown stagger to tempos and volumes which nearly qualify as rocking out, which keeps the record interesting and the listener awake.

The LP opens with a wheezing horn section on the verge of collapse, propped up with a ghostly organ and gently plucked guitars as Cathedral 2 makes its deliberate way -- via occasional electronic squelches and an unsteady snare -- into the world. You know what you're getting into at first listen: pretty, shadowy folk with a spectral edge played at mid-to-low speed. Luckily, the rest of the album manages to stay in this mold without boring anyone to tears.

"Industry and Snow" picks up the tempos quite a bit, with madly strummed guitars, more unhinged electronic noise, and excited harmonicas emerging from the simple toy piano assisted verses. "You are the Blood" is one the album's best tracks, turning echoey boy-girl vocals, a steady thumping rhythm section, and shimmery open chord into a beautiful elegy, Raposa singing to his partner, "You are the blood/ Flowing through my fingers/ All through the soil/ Up in those trees," as a spooky horn section floats through the room.

No Light to be Found is an epic devastation, a starkly unfurling dirge in the old timey murder ballad tradition, kept aloft by Raposa's heartfelt delivery, a tale of loss and regret resting atop a gently chiming guitar line and little else. "Take me down to your river/ I want to see how it runs/ Down to your river, darlin'/ I want to know just how it runs," Raposa pleads before worrying, "But if that man/ Waits on the path/ Then I know for good/ That I'm done." The power's all in the speaking, Raposa's voice sounding so exhausted, worn out by emotion and love and despair.

The guitar solo at the 1:29 mark of Three Days, Four Nights is a hidden gem, an economical little display of skill and timing which makes the song, already a standout, that much better. "As You Do" is downright sunny, a loosely sauntering ballad with a nice countryesque feel and an easy melody. "The Smallest Bones" is a mournful hymn, holding a dark grace in its sorrow. Closer "Cathedral 4" ends things on a surprising note, employing a snappy electrobeat to lighten the mood in the LP's final moments, sparkling dawn rays bringing the inky night to a close.

Cathedral is a quietly powerful record, ideal for fans of Will Oldham, Black Heart Procession, and other sinister-minded balladeers. If you like your songs creaky with a side of ominous, then Castanets are for you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Black Grape. It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah (Radioactive, 1995)

"You do nothing but socialize/ And become a menace/ Put on your Reeboks, man/ And go play fuckin' tennis."

I heard Black Grape before I ever listened to the Happy Mondays, Shaun Ryder's previous, much celebrated Madchester band. In high school, the whole Madchester scene kinda passed me by since I listened pretty exclusively to good ol' Amurcan indie rock from DC, Chapel Hill, Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston, etc. I didn't much truck with the UK bands at the time, and thought they all sounded pretty fruity (I was dumb, of course: Stone Roses, Blur, Pulp, Teenage Fanclub, and a bunch of other UK groups were making some pretty fantastic records in the early '90s, which I didn't come to appreciate until college).

But even after I'd listened to the Happy Mondays, I wasn't all that impressed. I mean, Pills 'n' Thrills 'n' Bellyaches is ok, with one or two fairly kick-ass tracks ("Step On" rules, for instance), but that's their best record, and today it sounds dated and highly goofy. The songs are heavy-handed and only clever if you're ripped to the tits on ecstasy. Which was kinda the point, I guess, but that doesn't make it any easier to enjoy.

But Reverend Grape's 1995 debut LP, It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah, is an entirely different matter. Far more focused than anything the Happy Mondays ever put out, with virtuoso instrumental performances, cleverly constructed arrangements merging samples and live band tracks, and a brilliant, almost subtle turn from main Monday, lead vocalist, and confirmed madman Shaun Ryder, It's Great is one of the '90's hidden gems, an unfairly overlooked party record with deep grooves and serrated hooks by the yard. Where the Happy Mondays were content to neck the pills and snort the coke and and get on with it already, Black Grape were willing to take some time to plot out their moves, and It's Great bears all the fruit of this (comparatively) steadier approach.

Which isn't to say the album isn't high as a fuggin' kite. It is. Everyone playing on the record sounds like they just raided an all-night chemist's. It's a druggy, exultant jam, man, which somehow manages to ooze inebriation while always staying right on track. It's the controlled bedlam that makes it so great.

And the fact that nearly every song in the collection is a scorcher doesn't hurt, either. Reverend Black Grape opens the record on a hopped up and hectic harmonica riff, with layers of chunky chords and a mercilessly funky backbeat. It's one of the most exciting songs I've ever heard, and when the band crashes into the chorus ("Can I get a witness?!? I said, CAN. I GET. A WITNESS?!?") and the drummer starts to get some for real over a nice acid slide guitar part, the song goes from awesome to AWWWWESOME.

"In the Name of the Father" uses a hallucinatory, swirling sitar riff to nice effect as driving raver beats shove the song out of the speakers and into your head. The dancehall-style toasting at the 2:30 mark, courtesy of some dude named Psycho, is a nice touch, as are the soul-sister backing vocals slathered throughout. Kelly's Heroes boasts the album's best guitar parts, with a glammy main rhythm riff and an uplifting, unfurling solo at 3:28. "Don't talk to me about heroes" sneers Ryder in his Mancunian rasp, "Most of these men seem like serfs."

The nimble, Stones and Beatles-mugging "Submarine" finds Ryder shamelessly, enthusiastically stealing vocal melodies and lyrics from a handful of older songs, stitching them together into a hilariously catchy crazy-quilt of Brit rock references while the rest of the band feverishly pounds away.

Album highlight Shake Your Money begins with a delicately pretty organ refrain before transforming into a dark celebration of the casually and chaotically criminal life of the habitual drug user/dealer. "Everybody wants to get busy/ Counting money makes me fucking dizzy," growls Ryder. "A million years old, and still in trouble/ Puts down his fists and hits you with a shovel." It's an impressive performance, funny and kinda depressing when it's not rocking your face off.

Black Grape suffered a pretty severe sophomore slump with their 1997 follow-up Stupid, Stupid, Stupid. Which was to be expected, frankly. Groups like Black Grape are erratic at best, and can't be counted on to consistently crank out records as stellar as It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah. Plus, Shaun Ryder's myriad drug problems pose a significant obstacle to any kind of longevity. But they made this record, which is better than good enough, believe me.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Pernice Brothers. Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont, 2003)

"It's hard to understand/ The cruel, cruel summer of a water ban/ A dead grass cradle and a water can/ To hold our prayers for rain."

Some enviable musicians can pull timeless melodies, addictive hooks, and effective lyrics out of apparent thin air with as little effort, it seems, as breathing or blinking. They make stellar songwriting seem natural, a reflexive action requiring little to no concentration or sweat, an involuntary nervous process.

And though this is usually not the reality -- in truth, it's hard to make things look easy -- it invariably sounds great. Joe Pernice, formerly of the mighty Scud Mountain Boys, is just such a musician: on record after record, the post-Scud Mountain Pernice Brothers (Joe's brother Bob is in the band, as well) have released some of the most exquisitely constructed, flawlessly delivered, and powerfully lyrical indie pop I've ever heard. The sound is lush, and the words are simultaneously personal and universal, and isn't that pop perfection?

The Pernice Brothers came together sometime in or around 1996, after the Scud Mountain Boys released their final record (Massachusetts) and disbanded. 1998 saw the Pernice Brothers' debut, Overcome by Happiness, released on the Scuds' old label, Sub Pop, followed by a string of LPs from Pernice's own Boston-based indie imprint Ashmont: The World Won't End in 2001, Yours, Mine & Ours in 2003, Discover a Lovelier You in 2005, and their latest, Live a Little, in 2006.

Where the Scud Mountain Boys had a distinctly alt-country vibe, the Pernice Brothers put away their boots in favor of an orchestral, sophisticated guitar pop sound, extremely easy on the ears and devoid of any and all pretension. There's a lot of Smiths in the Pernice palette (in fact, Joe Pernice wrote the Meat is Murder installment of the 33 1/3 series), and some Big Star, Beach Boys, Elvis Costello, and Nick Lowe, too. Some solid building blocks, certainly, and each Pernice Brothers record is a testament to Pernice's superior sonic craftsmanship. And of all the Pernice Brothers' sterling LPs, Yours, Mine & Ours shines the brightest.

Each of the ten tracks in this collection is enough to stake a reputation on, so I'll just mention the highest lights in an album full of highlights. Opener The Weakest Shade of Blue ushers in the album with a crisp four count, some luminescent chords, and a whipcrack beat. "I'm as lonely as the Irish Sea and as willing as the sand" croons Joe Pernice (who sings all of these songs) in his rich, emotive baritone, evoking heartfelt longing and deep self-doubt in the subtle turns of phrase and melody. In one of the album's best lines, Pernice warns/cajoles, "This love I have for you is ruinous and true," breaking hearts and raising alarms at the same time.

Water Ban is a haunting, lilting lullaby marked by some nicely reverbed lead guitar and a heavenly, weightless chorus: "I'm the same, though we've severed every courtesy we've made." "Baby in Two"'s casually strummed acoustic main melody provides for the foundation for one of Pernice's best vocal performances (which cribs awesomely from David Essex's "Rock On"). The loose wah of "Blinded by the Stars" is essential, and matches the quietly assertive rhythm track and Pernice's chiming falsetto turns perfectly. "How to Live Alone" is beautiful and devastating, with a wide-open, spacey sound and a dolorous melody tinged with radiant instrumental flourishes. Like a gift-wrapped switchblade, final track Number Two is pretty and inviting with a deadly edge. "I hope this letter finds you crying/ It would feel so good to see you cry," Pernice whispers over the acoustic guitars and tinkling pianos, as the song builds and builds until collapsing back into calm at the 3:32 mark.

Joe Pernice is a national treasure. An insightful, modest, and truly gifted songwriter and composer, I have no doubt that folks will someday look back on this New England-bred troubadour as one of the best pop masterminds America had to offer at the turn of the 21st century. Start listening now so that you can tell folks you were into him way back when.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Jeremy Enigk. Return of the Frog Queen (Sub Pop, 1996)

"Open eyes to see it all/ I've known you at six feet tall."

Sunny Day Real Estate were one of the '90s' best groups, turning out epic, incredibly inventive and compelling emo, with a large sound and larger hooks. They were the happy union of Fugazi and Queen, and frontman Jeremy Enigk -- he of the histrionic vocal style and Christian tendencies -- was a huge part of their sound and image. Sunny Day were technically tight, no doubt, but Enigk's high school genius lyrics and helium voice breathed life and light into the razor sharp compositions. On 1994's Diary and 1995's unnamed "Pink Album," songs like Seven, "In Circles," and "8" whipped indie kids everywhere into a frenzy, and for good reason. The sound was stadium-sized guitar rock minus the overbearing pomposity and plus some considerable lyrical and instrumental intelligence.

After releasing the "Pink Album," Sunny Day took a break, and rumor had it that Enigk had found Jesus (the rumors turned out to be true). I was pretty bummed, figuring that would be the end of the band. I was wrong, of course: they returned a few years later with 1998's passable How It Feels To Be Something On, and again with the not-so-hot The Rising Tide in 2000. My ambivalence to these records is no doubt informed by the sheer awesomeness of Sunny Day's first two LPs and the unreasonable expectation that their later work could live up to them.

However, Jeremy Enigk was up to something during Sunny Day's '95-'98 hiatus. And here's a brief story about how I found out about it:

In 1996, I was a sophomore at William & Mary. One fall weekend, I and some friends decided to roadtrip up to Charlottesville to see Soul Coughing (I know, I know: college). We were killing time before the show, doing some record shopping at Plan 9, and there was a poster for the show in the window, indicating that Jeremy Enigk was gonna be opening for Soul Coughing. I was stoked (and confused: Jeremy Enigk with Soul Coughing? Weird), and started looking forward to some Sunny Day-style emo guitar heroics. Later, though, as we piled into the club, there was some unnerving evidence on display: Enigk was helping a string quartet and some woodwind players get settled before his set. Clearly Sunny Day this was not. I was skeptical.

And I shouldn't have been. Though it certainly sounded nothing like Sunny Day Real Estate, what Enigk gave us was effing fantastic. Largely acoustic, augmented with cellos and violins, upright bass, flutes, piccolos, horns, harps, and other non-rock instruments, it was quietly bombastic and incredibly resonant. And hooky. And haunting. I bought the record then and there.

And the record was Return of the Frog Queen. Over the years, I've repeatedly returned to this baroque, chamber-emo collection, and every time I'm blown away by how hard it hits without resorting to extreme amplification or distortion. All of its considerable powers lie in its structure and delivery. On song after song, Return of the Frog Queen hands over the goods, a subtly devastating LP that sounds not only unlike what you'd expect, but unlike much of anything before or since, testament to Enigk's unique vision and talents.

Album opener Abigail Anne is intensely engaging, building two rickety chords into a towering beast of a song. It's got a casually catchy melody and a relentless mid-tempo momentum that's impossible to put out of your head, using crashing drums and a pizzicato string section to transform the tune from a delicate melody into a rousing, unnerving shanty. "Return of the Frog Queen" is a sweet-n-sad shamble, moving from loose acoustic strums into driving orchestral pop. The delicate melodies of "Lewis Hollow" and "Lizard" give way to the darkly percussive "Carnival," a song whose airy woodwind and string sections undercut the angry vocals and dirty electric rhythm guitar. "Explain" is probably the brightest song on the record, a sunny six-string ramble hinting at clouds on the horizon, while the piano-driven Shade and the Black Hat is oversized
drama, complete with sweeping cellos and Enigk's most heated vocal delivery of the LP.

Return of the Frog Queen is one of the most pleasant surprises of my listening life, an album that utterly confounded my expectations but has nevertheless become a favorite. If you've ever listened to Sunny Day Real Estate (which, if you haven't, you should do post haste) but never given this album a spin, think again and track it down. Though it's lacking Sunny Day's amplified sonic punch, it manages to pack an audible wallop.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Arctic Monkeys. Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino, 2006)

"Well they might wear classic Reeboks/ Or knackered Converse/ Or tracky bottoms tucked in socks/ But all of that's what the point is not/ The point's that there ain't no romance around there."

Here's the thing about the UK music press: it has its head up its collective ass. You can't turn around over there without NME feverishly hyping some godawful group like Menswe@r, Gay Dad, or Starsailor. It's incredible. Bands go from the gutter to the Top of the Pops in a matter of days, it seems, and usually on the basis of little more than some scrivener hoping to break the next big thing. But more often than not, the next big thing turns out to be the next big bust, releasing some gloriously underwhelming garbage before sinking back into obscurity. For a country responsible for some of the best music of the last 50+ years, it's tastemakers are pretty tonedeaf.

Which is why I was initially skeptical about the Arctic Monkeys. When their highly anticipated debut LP Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (the title is lifted from a line spoken by angry young man Albert Finney in the coolly devastating 1960 kitchen sink drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) was released in January 2006, it became the fastest selling album in UK history, moving over 360,000 units in its first week. The stage seemed set for another entry in a long series of wind-ups and let-downs. Could it be that good? Could it be any good?

Well, I don't know about 360,000 units in one week, but this album truly rules. A four-piece from the industrial city of Sheffield, the Arctic Monkeys offer up some wryly observational, bitingly abrasive, and mercilessly hooky guitar pop gems on Whatever People Say I Am. It's an invigorating collection, played with style and wit, and if you like your rock catchy, bouncy, and funny (but not Weird Al funny), then you need to check it out.

Generally speaking, the songs on the record trace the course of a weekend, beginning in the afternoon of the first day and moving through the night into the morning after. In between first track "The View From the Afternoon" and closer "A Certain Romance," the band captures the nervous anticipation of a good night out, the frenzied fun and slightly disappointing reality of the subpar shows and overcrowded bars, the sweat and smoke and promise of sex, and the come down that inevitably arrives with the sunrise. It's Saturday night and Sunday morning condensed into 44 thrilling minutes, and it's worth the hangover.

The View From the Afternoon rips and roars from the very first notes, snarling guitars and pounding drums rushing from gnarled thrash to spry, angular sprint, the notes ping-ponging off the walls as singer Alex Turner barks, "Anticipation has a habit to set you up/ For disappointment in evening entertainment but/ Tonight there'll be some love/ Tonight there'll be a ruckus yeah/ Regardless of what's gone before." It's a nice note to begin on, and hints at the crackerjack crunch confections of the rest of the LP.

"I Bet You look Good on the Dancefloor" turns frantic strums and dumb-genius rhythms into a rousing club jam spiked with lines like, "I said I bet that you look good on the dancefloor/ Dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984/ From 1984!" The trudging funk of Fake Tales of San Francisco takes the piss out of all the "weekend rockstars in the toilets practicing their lines" before exploding into a ragged rush at the 1:40 mark, the bass doing its best Entwhistle impression behind furious snare beats. "Dancing Shoes" uses a disco hi-hat shuffle and stabbing guitar lines to get the moneymakers shaking , with a slightly bluesy, scorched-earth solo to keep things from getting too fruity.

Riot Van offers a brief respite from the breathless riffery of the album's first half, a gorgeous down-tempo ballad to police brutality and drunken public hijinx. "So up rolls a riot van/ And sparks excitement in the boys," murmurs a resigned Turner. "But the policemen look annoyed/ Perhaps these are ones they should avoid." Of course, no cops are avoided, and to no one's surprise it all ends badly: "Thrown in a riot van/ And all the coppers kicked him in/ And there was no way he could win/ Just had to take it on the chin." Throughout, the lovely, jazzy chords give the tune an air of sadness, a nice counterpoint to the aggressive laddishness of the rest of the record. "Riot Van" proves that these boys have some heart.

Whatever People Say I Am ends on two extremely strong notes. From the Ritz to the Rubble captures perfectly the over-articulate rage of the idle young man, and the desperation inherent in his nights out. "Last night what we talked about/ It made so much sense/ But now the haze has ascended/ It don't make no sense anymore," says Turner, as the band goes into full-blown Pixies mode behind him. It's the album's best rocker. "A Certain Romance" starts with brash bluster and smoothly segues into a charming, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" semi-ska number, slightly goofy but highly heartfelt.

So it seems like the music press got this one right. The Arctic Monkeys' debut is as addictive a platter of Brit-rock as I can remember, steeped in the best traditions of UK guitar pop and rich in cleverly constructed and expertly delivered lyrics. So believe the hype and buy this record.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Q And Not U. Power (Dischord, 2004)

"And all this beautiful is smuggled like a secret/ And it doesn't have to be that way."

The indie ears of the early aughts were ceaselessly besieged by the sounds of a newly-named -- if not newly-conceived -- genre: dance punk. Though the idea of marrying funky-drummer rhythms and disco beats to crankily distorted guitars was nothing entirely new (see: Gang of Four, ESG, Fugazi, the Dismemberment Plan, many, many others), for whatever reason, the idea seemed novel in the light of the new millennium. Who knows why? Maybe folks felt like dancing away the tension and dread of the early 21st century, but without actually having to listen to techno (like we did in the '90s).

At any rate, a bunch of dance punk bands started popping up, many of them based out of NYC (Brooklyn, to be exact): groups like Liars, the Rapture, LCD Soundsystem, !!!, Out Hud, and Radio 4 took indierock and post-punk's eggheaded self-absorption to the dancefloor, crafting groovy, spiky tracks for all the clever kids in the coastal cities. And it was a pretty good sound, to be perfectly honest: fun to listen to, good to see live, and, at its best, catchy and smart (at its worst, goofy, drug-addled, and pretentious). And though dance punk will likely always be associated with the Big Apple, DC's Q And Not U were some of the sound's foremost stylists: over the course of three LPs, these Dischord signees produced some of the hookiest, most engaging tracks of the brief era, and Power, their 2004 swansong, is one of the best testaments to the possibilities of the form.

Q And Not U arrived on the scene in 2000, first with the DeSoto EP Hot and Informed, and then with the debut long player No Kill No Beep Beep on Dischord. This first album was beyond impressive, a deft mix of DC-style righteous, overeducated anger and dance party beats which came across as the best prom music ever. 2002 follow-up Different Damage was more of the same, betraying zero signs of a sophomore slump and demonstrating a clear sense of musical progression and stylistic forward motion. Q And Not U were Dischord's flagship band at the time, one of the best groups in the city, and a reason to be excited. Which was why the announcement of their breakup, shortly after the release of Power in fall 2004, stung so sharply. But at least they got Power out: it's a fitting memorial to a much missed band.

From Power's opening track, you can tell this is gonna be a party. "Wonderful People" crashes through the speakers with a heavy, infectiously syncopated beat and trebly, Booker T and MG's-aping rhythm-guitar scratches, livened up with
West Coast G-funk synth stabs and a falsetto vocal line to make Prince proud. It's a pretty intoxicating brew and sets the bar high for the rest of the album.

Wonderful People

Luckily, the album doesn't disappoint. "7 Daughters" is a sinister plodder, eerily insistent and heavy-footed. "L.A.X." is nervy and rushed, one the album's more headstrong tracks. LP standout "Wet Work" is a joyous, ass-shaking jam, with addictive guitar breakdowns and ferocious drumming by John Davis (later of the similarly-short-lived Georgie James). When the song slides into its final movement at the 2:47 mark, it's one of the best musical moments of 2004.

Wet Work

Elsewhere, "Collect the Diamonds" is built around a pounding piano section, adding bright melodies and a gently unraveling guitar line to nice effect. "Beautiful Beats" is stellar, with glowing chords and darkly expansive keyboard fills fighting for center stage over the Studio 54 thump-and-grind. The high-octane "Book of Flags" is top-notch 21st century punk-funk, and finds the band essentially building a house and raising a family in the pocket.

Beautiful Beats

Dance punk came and went, but it left a handful of good records in its wake. The best of these don't sound dated, and instead can conjure up some vaguely wistful memories of GW's first administration. And I'll tell you this: there's nothing vague about my wistful memories of Q And Not U. I loved this band, and was (am) proud that they came from DC. Power is as good a reason as any to stay proud.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Act Surprised is on Thanksgiving break, and will return on Monday, December 1.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

PAS/CAL. I Was Raised On Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura (Le Grand Magistery, 2008)

"Short pants are a sign of weakness/ Sunglasses hide a mental vacuum/ The summer is almost here."

The debut LP (following a handful of EPs stretching back to 2002) from Detroit's PAS/CAL is one of the most pleasant surprises of recent memory, an irresistible collection of lovingly crafted, meticulously constructed chamber pop masterpieces. These guys never met a la-la-la, a whoa-oh-oh, or a handclap they didn't like, and have clearly invested a deep love of all things major-key into these grand mini-epics, combining a multi-instrumental kitchen-sink philosophy with an inborn knowledge of what it means to rock one's socks off. These songs are intricate without being precious, pretty without being delicate, joyous without being toothless. It's a day at the beach with a vicious undertow. And it's effing great.

From the initial piano chords of I Was Raised On Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura's opening volley "The Truth Behind All The Vogues She Sold," we know we've stumbled onto something pretty special. It's an elegant, beautifully arranged song which uses subtle tempo and tonal shifts to build into a ruthlessly tuneful anthem that brings slashing guitars into the mix at the 3:12 mark to carry the song through to its rousing conclusion.

Next up is "You Were Too Old For Me," one of the best songs I've heard in 2008 from anybody. Over gently choppy rhythm guitar swagger, PAS/CAL vocalist Casimer Pascal weaves a vocal hook vehement in its catchiness, violent in its crusade to be memorable. The track is a tour-de-force of multipart songcraft; at the excellent bridge, Pascal croons, "Everybody needs someone they can pray to/ Everybody needs the one thing that's untouchable," following up with the fondly mocking, "And I've got you, and if anything I know is true/ You ain't goin' anywhere soon." The delivery is flawless, and shines with an almost blinding pop perfection. It's enough to elicit the most overwrought, breathless hyperbole.

You Were Too Old For Me

Though it's a tall order to live up to the impeccable melodiousness of "You Were Too Old For Me," PAS/CAL try their best over the course of the album's remaining ten tracks, and do a pretty admirable job. "Summer is Almost Here" is a jaunty, sun-dappled ode to the hottest season shot through with pleasantly snarky lyrics and welcome bursts of prickly guitars. "Glorious Ballad of the Ignored" finds the band providing a stable platform for the slightly sour lilt of Pascal's vocal lines, moving from mid-tempo canter to full-bore gallop and back again without breaking a sweat. "O Honey We're Ridiculous" uses enthusiastically explosive power chords and slamming drums to build one of the more powerful, hard-hitting tracks on I Was Raised. The twisted guitar solos and heavy thump of "Dearest Bernard Living" transform a wistful remembrance into a blustery celebration of knuckle-dusting rawk at the 3:05 mark. The three-song "Suite Cherry" is a sophisticated mini-rock-opera, full of charm, wit, and a dreamy sensibility that stops well short of tiresome. Costello-like burner "Citizen's Army Uniform" brings the album to a biting conclusion, using a buzzy organ and barbed six-string distortion to sharpen the bite even as the melodies go down smooth as honey.

Throwing on I Was Raised On Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura for the first time, I wasn't sure what to expect. Little did I know that I was getting ready to hear some of the best songs I've heard in quite some time. For folks who dig the New Pornographers, Beulah, the Minus 5, Stars, and other purveyors of elaborate, next-level pop precision, PAS/CAL are sure to be a welcome discovery. And if this first long player is any sign of things to come, then we should thank our stars and garters for these Motor City maniacs and their high-performance melody machines.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Death Cab for Cutie. The Forbidden Love EP (Barsuk, 2000)

"And as the summer's ending/ The cold air will rush your hard heart away."

I'm a big fan of the EP format. EPs tend to be really focused works, with clear positions distinctly and succinctly conveyed in a handful of tracks, effective and potent distillations of ideas and concepts. Sometimes the ideas work and sometimes they don't, but there's only a few songs on the thing, so it'll be over soon either way. For this same reason, EPs have been, I've found, a good way to determine whether or not you're gonna like a band in its full-length incarnation.

Plus, some of my favorite releases from some of my favorite bands have been EPs: Pavement's Watery, Domestic, Polvo's Celebrate the New Dark Age, the Afghan Whigs' Uptown Avalon, Golden Smog's On Golden Smog, a bunch of others. EPs often find bands showing off their influences, or setting the tone for future long players. And sometimes an EP gives a band the chance to release some high quality material that simply couldn't fit on the preceding or succeeding LPs. Death Cab for Cutie's intoxicating The Forbidden Love EP is a case of the latter, a brief glimpse into what earned this band its early reputation for expertly constructed, introverted indie pop. Forbidden Love is, to be perfectly honest, as strong a collection as Death Cab have ever put out.

This EP features three previously unreleased songs and two reworked tracks from Death Cab's genius 2000 full length We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, one of the best albums of the aughts, in my opinion. The three new tracks are to a man amazing. "Photobooth"'s metronomic cadence, soaring strings, and shimmering chords are autumn twilight encapsulated, the melody and arrangement brilliantly capturing the bittersweet sentiment of the lyrics as Benjamin Gibbard wistfully murmurs, "And this is all that's left/ The empty bottles, spent cigarettes/ So pack a change of clothes/ 'Cause its time to move on."

The majestic "Technicolor Girls" finds stately, glacially plucked guitars etching out a gently devastating air, the subdued tempo underscoring the sadness and desperation embraced by the finely drawn, high school confidential verses: "Patiently you wait/ For a courting boy's embrace/ Then everyone would know/ But the letter jacket wasn't yours to own/ And it proves to be on a temporary loan." "Song for Kelly Huckaby" lopes and crashes before bursting into the EP's heaviest hitting number, a towering, teetering shrine to abrasive distortion.

As good as the new songs are, the two reworked tracks can't be dismissed. An acoustic version of We Have the Facts's "405" reveals the song's undeniable beauty as well as Death Cab's considerable vocal harmony abilities. An alternate take of "Company Calls Epilogue" casts the tune in a more detached, emotionally taciturn light, the echoey production and deep-space-transmission vocals emphasizing the disenchantment of lines like, "When they lay down the fish will swim upstream/ And I'll contest, but they won't listen/ When the casualty rate's near 100%/ And there isn't a pension for second best/ Or for hardly moving."

In the years since Forbidden Love was released, Death Cab for Cutie albums have yielded increasingly diminished returns. The band unfortunately seems to have surrendered to its blander nature, turning out pleasant, competent, not overly captivating records distinguished chiefly by their failure to live up to Death Cab's initial output. But The Forbidden Love EP, like We Have the Facts, is unassailably great, and is a good enough reason for Death Cab to have won some recognition. It's vast talent wrapped in a tiny package, and if this is the only Death Cab you ever hear, then that'll do nicely.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Georgie James. Places (Saddle Creek, 2007)

"Ambition runs from our family/ We don't like anyone to disagree."

Power pop sometimes gets dismissed by the brainiacs. It's not overly serious, not too complicated, and is by nature incredibly eager to please. Take a few chords, lay 'em over a peppy backbeat, and there you go, right? Maybe. But honestly, who doesn't like power pop? Especially when it's expertly crafted, bedecked in layer after layer of shiny hooks and unforgettable major key melodies? 'Cuz here's the thing: great power pop isn't complicated, but it's not easy, either. Case in point: it takes some serious chops to come up with a collection as instantly enjoyable and profoundly catchy as Places, Georgie James's single (sadly) release.

The criminally short-lived Georgie James popped onto the DC scene in late 2005, following the break-up of the much-missed capitol city dance-punkers Q and Not U. John Davis, who had previously supplied the habit-forming drum tracks for Q and Not U, decided to pick up guitars and bass, hooked up with vocalist/keyboardist Laura Burhenn, and hit the studio to record a demo, which they self-released in 2006. Places, put out on Omaha's Saddle Creek label (home to Bright Eyes, Cursive, etc.) followed in fall 2007. They played a bunch of shows, won the hearts of loads, and then announced their demise in August 2008. Boo.

But at least we'll always have Places, in all its grinning, sun-drenched glory. This was one of my favorite albums of 2007, an insanely satisfying forty minutes of pure pop for now people. And I think I like it all the more because it doesn't sound like much else coming out of DC, now or ever: it's got one foot in the District's staunchly rhythmic, hard-charging territory, certainly; but Georgie James had their sights clearly set on '70s touchstones like Big Star, the Raspberries, Badfinger, and early Todd Rundgren. The tunes are lovingly crafted and pleasantly straightforward, with subtle instrumental filigrees to keep your attention riveted from first song to last.

Laura Burhenn is a big part of why Georgie James works so well. She shares vocal duties with Davis throughout, and she has pipes to die for. Amazing range, and a soulful, intimate delivery that insinuates itself into your braincase and pretty much sets up shop there for the long-term. Plus, she contributes piano, Rhodes electric piano, and wurlitzer to a bunch of the tracks, and the Rhodes, especially, dresses the songs in a rich, warm tone that beautifully burnishes the compositions.

Every track, practically, is a stand out. "Look Me Up" is the well-chosen opener, with ringing clarion chords out of the gate and a herky-jerky tempo and crashing drums. "Cake Parade" makes excellent use of the cozy Rhodes and Burhenn's voice, as she delivers vaguely political (hey, they're from DC) lines like, "The sun is up, looks like a perfect day/ To put our soldiers on a cake parade/ We can line them up and march them down the hall/ Where they can play at guns and/ We don't have to look at all." It's protest with a smile on its face, the melody the definition of radiant.

Single "Need Your Needs" is the most Q and Not U-like track here, with an aggressively dancey beat and the best guitar work on the LP (check out the scampering, fleet-fingered solo at the 0:32 mark). "Long Week" is a clear highlight, with heartbreakingly beautiful vocals from Burhenn and bluesy, lilting hook on the chorus: "So cry your eyes out, pretty baby/ Hold my hand and try your tongue/ Oh, it's been heavy 'round here lately/ And you'll feel lighter when you're done." Elsewhere, the bouncy "Comfortable Headphones," the sprinting, cheerily spiteful "Cheap Champagne," and the hand-clappy stomper "Only 'Cause You're Young" (with its upbeat warning of, "Yeah, you can live with violence/ You can live with silence/ Only 'cause you're young, you know," and its Who-checking final verse) elevate the collection to bulletproof status.

If you like top-drawer power pop with a bracingly acerbic edge (and you should, by the way, if you have functioning ears), try Georgie James on for size. Listen to Places and feel ecstatic to have found this record, and simultaneously crushed by the knowledge that it's the only one they'll likely ever put out.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Nation of Ulysses. 13-Point Program to Destroy America (Dischord, 1991)

"When I say I'm in love you better believe I mean I'm in LUV, L-U-V!"

DC post-hardcore of the late '80s and early 90's, while undeniably awesome, could be a bit dire. Bands like Fugazi, Jawbox, Hoover, and loads of others were true innovators: they mapped out an exciting new musical territory informed by the energy of punk, the dedication of hardcore, and the tunefulness of pop, but they often did it with studious frowns. This was work, dammit, and important work at that, so wipe that smile off your face and put your back into it.

Which is why Nation of Ulysses were so welcome. Fronted by the preening, perfectly-coiffed, fetchingly over-bitten, and perennially deranged Ian Svenonius (named Sassy Magazine's Sassiest Boy In America in 1991), NOU were a five-man army clad in sharp suits and spouting a revolutionary youth manifesto founded on sleep deprivation, parent destruction, and insurrectionary separatism. It sounded cracked and brilliant, the product of over-educated, over-talented, and over-caffeinated punks flying on uppers and down with classic soul and r&b. NOU wanted to burn down the palace, dance on the ashes, and build a fresh new society. And they wanted to do it all for the kids, man.

Not only did they have a compelling schtick, but NOU could play, which is always a bonus. Listening to their 1991 debut long player 13-Point Program to Destroy America, it's hard to imagine this much quality racket being kicked up by kids barely out of their teens (or even in their teens, in some cases). NOU had a fairly sophisticated sound for the time, bolting hardcore tempos and distortion to bruisingly hip-shaking rhythms, finding the wide-eyed amphetamine fervor in the Stax/Volt template and upping the aggression considerably. Mouthpiece Svenonius spews the lines in a raspy, unhinged howl, and occasionally splatters some trumpet mess all over everything; guitarists Tim Green and Steven Kroner trade live-wire riffs and frantic rhythm chops; bassist Steve Gamboa and drummer James Canty (brother of Fugazi's Brendan Canty and currently bassist for the Pharmacists) supply the armored undercarriage, keeping things swinging even as they dish out black eyes and bruises. It's unrelenting and unsparing, a half hour of hooky, hair-raising pandemonium.

Album highlights include opener "Spectra Sonic Sound," a rushing mauler of an opener and sign of things to come. "Look Out! Soul Is Back" is as much a warning as a sinister, chiming statement of purpose. "Today I Met the Girl I'm Going to Marry" is a love letter from an asylum inmate, a stalker's anthem crooned creepily by a clearly enthused Svenonius. "A Kid Who Tells on Another Kid is a Dead Kid" bursts forth on waves of surfy crunch, a nimble, Descendents-like bassline providing bouncy propulsion. "Diptheria" slows things down considerably while retaining the LP's intensity, a slow-fuse of a song punctuated by eruptions of mid-tempo mayhem. "You're My Miss Washington, D.C." is a loving tribute to the District, a hometown shout-out masquerading as an urgent call to make-out. "So many things I'm dying to show you!" bleats Svenonius breathlessly, over and over. Run, girl, run.

13-Point Program was produced by DC legend and Fugazi main man Ian MacKaye, and he more than ably captures the urgency and directness of the band. Plus, the album's recently been remastered by the good folks over at Silver Sonya, so it connects even better than ever. The riffs are rawer, the drums are heavier, and the vocals are brasher. The latest reissue of the album adds 1990's three-song Nation of Ulysses EP, originally released jointly by Dischord and Olympia's K Records. A nice little gift.

NOU were a shining star in the bright night sky of early DC post-hardcore. They had the chops and the passion, but they also kept their sense of humor. They hit on a sound and style that has aged incredibly well, as amusing and exhilarating now, almost twenty years on, as it was the day it dropped. Listen to 13-Point Program and hear why the kids in the know used to mutter the timeless mantra, "Ulysses, Ulysses, little flower, beloved by all the youth."

Friday, November 14, 2008

Act Surprised is heading out of town for a few days, and will return with a new post on Wednesday, November 19.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Modest Mouse. The Lonesome Crowded West (Up, 1997)

"I was in heaven/ I was in hell/ Believe in neither/ But fear them as well."

There are essentially two eras of Modest Mouse: Before Moon and Antarctica (BMA) and After Moon and Antarctica (AMA). AMA Modest Mouse is a powerful animal, no question, and has released some great records since their 2000 signing to major label Epic. The Moon and Antarctica, Good News for People who Love Bad News, and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank all boast thrillingly abrasive blasts of blitzkrieg guitar and alarmingly sophisticated song structures, moving Modest Mouse well beyond their "See a retarded boy sing Pixies songs" (thanks, Band-a-Minute: beginnings. Modest Mouse have calmed down a little bit, hired Johnny Marr, and remain an enjoyable, engaging band, one of the best major label outfits working today. Well done.

But BMA Modest Mouse... man oh man. Now there was a mightily talented group, frightening in its abilities and relentless in its attack. When I first heard The Moon and Antarctica, I thought, "Wow, these guys have chilled the eff out," because it was such a smoother, less caustic collection than 1996's This is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About and especially 1997's The Lonesome Crowded West. Both of those records find guitarist/singer Isaac Brock, bassist Eric Judy, and drummer Jeremiah Green bringing forth harsh, pitilessly hooky post-hardcore creations informed by Neil Young, Built to Spill, and, yes, the Pixies, with moebius-strip melodies and gifted-stoner observational lyrics obsessed with wide-open spaces and their tendency to drive people to abstraction.

I thought Modest Mouse were great when I was first introduced to them via Long Drive, but affection blossomed into full-blown infatuation with the emergence of The Lonesome Crowded West. From first note to last, Modest Mouse's second full-length demands the listener's attention, as chock full as it is with unforgettable riffs, clever lyrical motifs, and awe-inspiring feats of instrumental prowess. Brock, Judy, and Green are here at the height of their collective powers, playing off each other to magnificent effect, reading each other's thrusts and feints, creating a feedback loop of pure rock power, and creating one of the finest testaments to the power trio on record. There are tracks on Lonesome Crowded so sonically arresting and monumental, at times it's hard to believe that there's just three of them playing.

"From the top of the ocean — Yeah!/ To the bottom of the sky — Goddamn!" shrieks Brock by way of introduction on the album's first track "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine," which, like so many songs on Lonesome Crowded, moves effortlessly between thrashing, distorted tantrums and quieter, almost elegiac passages of thoughtful reflection. "The malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns," goes the subdued bridge. "Well so long, farewell, good-bye." Modest Mouse return to this dynamic time and again, and it never ceases to excite. When things finally come to a head at the 5:16 mark, the band sets to destruction with abandon, Brock's high-on-fire harmonic guitar squeals projecting anger and confusion.

"Heart Cooks Brain" buries itself in a mid-tempo groove, Judy and Green laying down a bulletproof rhythm track underneath Brock's looped riffs and some lazily delivered turntable scratches. The song also features some of the album's best lyrics, including lines like, "My brain's the cliff/ My heart's the bitter buffalo," and, "They tore one down and erected another there/ Match of the century, absence versus thin air." Brock has always had way with words, twisting stock phrases into druggily profound aphorisms and finding the mystery and dread in the commonplace. "Cowboy Dan," an unassailable album (and, frankly, career) highlight, contains gems like, "Cowboy Dan's a major player in the cowboy scene/ He goes to the reservation drinks and gets mean/ I didn't move to the city, the city moved to me/ And I want out desperately," and "Every time you think you're walking/ You're just moving the ground," delivered in an unhinged, vengeful croak as the bass, drums, and guitar steadily ratchet up the tension through ferocious tempo and tonal shifts.

With regards to the rhythm section, respect is clearly due. Judy's agile bass keeps the melodies in play even as Brock murders his guitar and buries it in a shallow grave, and Green's drumming is some of the best of the decade. Check out "Trucker's Atlas" (another career-making turn) for proof of his leviathan chops: for over 10 minutes, Green is the engine for an epic statement of purpose, hitting every drum in his set seemingly all at once, and never coming close to falling out of the pocket. Here Green proves that he is Modest Mouse, in the sense that Modest Mouse's sound couldn't have existed without him. He's integral, the not-so-secret weapon, similar to what Janet Weiss was to Sleater-Kinney.

I've liked Modest Mouse since they left Up to record on Epic, and I'm glad they've managed to carve out some mainstream success without becoming lame. But in the days before The Moon and Antarctica, Modest Mouse sounded perilously close to flaming out on each record, managing to reign in their destructive impulses only by the grace of God, and repeatedly capturing lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance. The Lonesome Crowded West may be a surprise to folks who have never heard this incarnation of Modest Mouse, but I guarantee it won't be a disappointment.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bargain Bin/Super Saver: Soul Asylum

Bargain Bin/Super Saver is a series in which guest writer Oliver Jones reconsiders the work of artists reviled, forgotten, and/or underexposed. In this inaugural entry, Soul Asylum spends some time under the microscope.

"Fifteen years later, caught in time's incinerator/ Yesterday's worries are today's/ But the good times are so near, just sitting back and drinking beer/ You know I'm halfway down the road, but I know that I still ain't there."

I. Apologia

If I mention the band Soul Asylum, you’re bound to respond, “Runaway Train.” It’s an almost Pavlovian response in most people, largely because in 1993 and for most of ‘94 you heard that song roughly 100 million times. It was everywhere. They played it at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, and the song – and its public-service-message video – seemed to reflect the ethos of a generation’s coming of socio-political consciousness. Of course, when you hear that song on the radio now, you change the station, because that shit is going to stick in your head, like, all day.

When I entered high school in 1991, I gravitated towards a loose coterie of flannel
-clad, shaggy haired kids who, like me, played instruments (back in the day when teenagers actually started rock bands). The older kids in this group introduced me to groups that upon first listen blew me away and who I still love today: the Minutemen, the Replacements, Naked Raygun. But of all these worthy outfits, they loved one above all others: Soul Asylum.

Soul Asylum’s stage banter, transcribed off scratchy bootleg cassettes, became the unofficial lingo of our clique, and I learned the lingo mostly just to understand what was being said. But when it came to their adoration of Dave, Dan, Karl, and Grant, I really, really just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Soul Asylum were weird and kind of hokey, veering casually between Hüsker and Al Green, playing earnest straightforward rockers followed by weird free-jazz story songs like “Artificial Heart.” It just didn’t make much sense to me.

And then Grave Dancer’s Union came out in 1992. At first, our little group praised Soul Asylum’s major label debut. But it quickly became clear that the curse of success would affect Soul Asylum as poorly as it had the other indie bands grappling with m
ajor label sell-out syndrome. Ironically, in hindsight, it may have been Soul Asylum’s eclecticism that was their downfall. It’s only speculation, but it seems feasible that Columbia Records, unsure of how to market a band that fluctuated so wildly in tone and approach, insisted on branding the band in a singular style, that of the album’s second single, “Runaway Train.” The similar-sounding “Black Gold” was pushed as the third single. And the first single, the electric opening track “Somebody to Shove” (which was far more representative of who Soul Asylum had been as a band) was virtually withdrawn from playlists.

With Grave Dancer’s Union, we were given a new version of Soul Asylum: the band as earnest, message-bearing rockers, a Midwestern U2 in shredded jeans. Dave Pirner dropped his girlfriend of many years to date (ever so briefly) one Winona Ryder, just as her movie, Reality Bites (in which Pirner cameos), was effectively commodifying what Richard Linkl
ater had given name to just four short years before with Slacker.

So I effectively stopped thinking about Soul Asylum, as did most everyone else. They did a pretty popular and entertaining cover of Victoria Williams’ “Summer of Drugs” for a tribute album. Grant left and was replaced with a studio drummer. They released another album to the wi
despread disinterest of a culture that had moved on to the loathsome “ska era.” The magic, ever elusive, was gone. They were dropped by their label after another album failed. Karl got cancer and eventually died. They inexplicably still release albums every five years or so, though it is unclear who, aside from close family members, listens to them.

Throughout this ignoble fall from grace, I kept in my car a brutalized, overplayed bootleg of Soul Asylum live in Ann Arbor, MI. This I excused as proof of the oft-cited defense that S
oul Asylum, say what you will, had been one of the best live bands ever. But the truth is that I really loved the songs in that set. Mostly a sampling of the band’s A&M era albums, Hang Time and And The Horse They Rode In On, there's also a smattering of examples of the band’s talent for surprising covers. There’s a grinding, stomping cover of “I Put A Spell On You” that’s virtually screamed from beginning to end. There's the comically tender cover of “To Sir With Love.” The set ends with the 11 minute medley “James at 16,” which highlights the best of ‘70s radio, segueing from stadium rock into frantic disco and ending with a surprisingly touching, un-ironic rendition of the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

II. The Albums

Say What You Will Clarence...Karl Sold the Truck (Twin/Tone, 1984)

Earlier this year, I found a copy of Soul Asylum’s debut Say What You Will Clarence
...Karl Sold the Truck in a box of cassettes being put out on the street. And seeing as how it was free, I picked it up. To my surprise, I found myself listening to it over and over again. In their first incarnation, circa 1984, Soul Asylum is a band solidly under the influence of early Replacements. Even the album’s title is evocative of the Replacements' equally wordy first release, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. The album is also clearly standing in the shadow of that other great post-hardcore Minneapolis band, Hüsker , which isn’t surprising seeing as Bob Mould produced it.

Say What You Will is raw and noisy, with brilliant flashes of melody, especially on songs like “Long Day" and “Broken Glass.” On "Stranger" one hears a rust-belt city’s homage t
o Motown, saxophone swooning over grim depictions of city life. The recording might sound a bit dodgy to modern ears, but low-fi production values can be synonymous with authenticity and a time when bands used to record entire albums in a matter of hours. And this plays to Soul Asylum’s strength of churning out live, energetic rock. This chance encounter convinced me that there was more to salvage from the band’s back catalogue.

Advice: Pick it up if you can find it and don’t mind garage-quality production. It’s out of print and badly needs to be remastered.

Made to Be Broken (Twin/Tone, 1986)

Made to Be Broken’s production values are better than Say What You Will’s, but without smoothing over the rough edges which gave early Soul Asylum their charm. “Can’t Go Back,” the album’s third track, shows off the band’s ability to harmonize vocally without sounding like a barbershop quartet. Like many of the songs on this record, the lyrics point to the age-old conflict of youth, feeling like one’s life is wasting away but being unable/unwilling to do anything about it. On “Never Really Been,” Pirner poses the ironically prophetic question, “And where will you be in 1993? / Still sitting in the same chair?” Sadly, by 1993 Soul Asylum were both at the height of their popularity and losing their souls.

The strange coincidence of this band is that they so consistently predict the corrupting influences of success only to fall prey to those same influences themselves. On “Ain’t That Tough,” a personal favorite, Pirner, although he is undoubtedly referring to the lack of success Soul Asylum was having in 1986, aptly responds to critics of Soul Asylum’s later success when he croons in the chorus, “I didn’t turn out the way you thought I would be/ No, you
can’t take that out on me.” It’s true. We can’t.

Advice: It might take a few listens, but this is a good place to begin.

While You Were Out (Twin/Tone, 1986)

Following Made to Be Broken in quick succession later the same year was While You Were Out. After listening to this album a few times, I feel fairly confident in saying that it was recorded the day after a night of cheap booze and Cheap Trick. A single propulsive force moves through the eleven tracks. Each tune is packed so tight with riffs that at times it’s a little overwhelming. If there is any criticism of this album, it's this: it is so ambitious that it gets a little murky, like they’re trying to do so much they occasionally leave the audience behind.

Telling both of their thrift store aesthetic and of their unabashed love of ‘70s guitar rock, the opening track “Freaks” comes together around the “different and defiant” mantra, “They’re laughin’ at you/ Talkin’ about you/ All these new things/ All these new things/ I found
them used.” This is followed by the catchiest number on the album, “Carry On.” While tracks like “Crashing Down” and “The Judge” are solid mid-album burners, the single that always gets pulled from this album is “Closer to the Stars.” Personally, I find that the first lyric on the song kind of ruins it for me. Pirner can write some godawful lyrics, of which I submit for your consideration: “Caterpillar crawling up the big phone pole / Is there somebody that you want to talk to?” At his best, he creates borderline mad lib prophecy, colliding clichés into each other until they show some new truth. But sometimes, as seen above, it skews goofy. However if you can gloss over the occasional flat one-liner, it’s well worth it, as this, musically, is the band’s masterpiece.

Advice: Buy it tomorrow, stick it in your car stereo, and break your car stereo so you can’t get it out.

Hang Time (A&M, 1988)

Hang Time came in 1988 on a new label, Soul Asylum having moved on from Twin/Tone to the greener pastures of A&M, making this album technically their first major label release. It’s not surprising, then, that the production is way cleaner on this album. It’s also paced better than While You Were Out. Finally, the band is also obviously writing to produce singles.

As a new found fan of the first three albums, it is with this album that Soul Asylum start to fall out of my favor. To use their own words, they’re “a little too clean.” Nonetheless, th
eir quest to write great stand-alone songs continues, and this album has some of their best singles. “Sometime to Return” is probably the quintessential Soul Asylum song and it's a delight. “Cartoon” is straight up classic rock written ten years too late. “Marionette” is infectious and up-beat. The problem is all the stuff in between. There’s a lot of George Thorogood-esquebloozey” stuff (which, for me, is not a good thing), found here on tracks like “Down on Up to Me,” “Jack of All Trades,” and the CD-only “bone-us” track “Put the Bone In.” Also, there’s this creepy ballad smack dab in the middle of the album, “Endless Farewell,” and the equally weird folk-jam “Twiddly Dee.”

Advice: Forgo the album and buy the singles on this one.

And the Horse They Rode in On
(A&M, 1990)

As far as I’m concerned, much the same can be said of Soul Asylum’s fifth and final “independent” album, And the Horse They Rode in On. Download “Spinnin’,” “Nice Guys Don’t Get Paid,” and “Gullible’s Travels.” The best song on the album is “Easy Street.” The rest of the collection has its moments, but keep in mind this is a band on the verge of writing “Runaway Train,” and those same excesses are beginning to make themselves seen here. Also, that eclecticism I was praising earlier feels here like something of a contrivance.

Advice: Heed the advice I gave about Hang Time.

III. Conclusion

Soul Asylum were a great band that stopped being a great band. It’s not entirely their fault; you can’t blame them for wanting to succeed. And in the end it’s a question of the chicken and the egg: Were they ruined by their success, or were they successful because they started to lose their roguish flare, thereby ruining themselves?

And it’s a shame, because when Soul Asylum were young and playing to the back of the bar, they were unstoppable. When they were writing songs because they were geeking out over Thin Lizzy riffs, they wrote amazing stuff. When they were playing to the twenty other guys in the room, when they were playing with something to prove, they brought it consistently. They wrote an astonishing amount of good music in a six-year period. If only they had left well enough alone.