Friday, August 29, 2008

Phoenix. It's Never Been Like That (Arts and Crafts, 2006)

"I'm far gone, but your long distance call/ And your capital letters keep me asking for more."

Phoenix follow Daft Punk, Air, and virtually no one else in the brief tradition of French bands not being terrible. Seriously, I usually can't be bothered with anything from the continent, which I understand is an extremely ethnocentric point of view (I went to grad school, see), but one that has been forged by years of pop and rock appreciation. What's with all the techno? So crap. But at any rate, Phoenix is the exception that proves the rule, I guess, because they are fantastic, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Plus, they sing exclusively in English. Result.

After getting a few records under their belt, including their 2000 debut United, a pretty schizophrenic record which dabbles in some exceptional electro-pop and stadium rock (?!?) -- see the song "If I Ever Feel Better," especially -- Phoenix apparently decided to turn their considerable powers exclusively to the guitar, producing one of the sharpest, smartest, most overtly enjoyable guitar records I care to remember. And I don't mean "guitar record" in a Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen wank-fest way, but rather in a "pay attention to the guitars, because the guitars are really good" way. Seriously, among the ten tracks on 2006's It's Never Been Like That are some of the most thrilling, sugar-high inducing songs you're likely to hear from anyone on either side of the Atlantic.

Hooky power pop and infectious, insistent melodies are the order of the day here. It's relentless. "Napolean Says" starts off the album right away with a driving beat and dual guitars trading clarion riffs. And the riffs just don't let up, at all, ever: "Consolation Prizes," "Long Distance Call," "Courtesy Laughs" and "Second to None" are riff repositories. Phoenix's two guitarists weave their lines together to create a cool, street smart strut, skipping distortion in favor of a clean, bright tone that's on time, every time. Ted Leo once called Phoenix "the Strokes, but really good" (I'm paraphrasing here -- he said it in a Pitchfork interview a while back), and that's pretty much right on.

Thomas Mars's vocals (all he does is sing, by the way, which would usually be a strike against these guys -- I take an instant distrust to the "I only sing" singer setup -- but the tunes win out, so Phoenix gets a pass) are pretty good: he can more than carry a tune, and even though his range isn't so hot, this is rock 'n' roll, so who cares? At least he doesn't sound like some lame Euro dude. And the lyrics are clever, especially for an ESL speaker. Fun Fact: If you're interested in this sort of thing, Mars is married to Sofia Coppola, and they have a kid together. Phoenix appeared in her movie Marie Antoinette, I hear.

Like I said, I'm typically really wary of any music that doesn't come from the U.S., the UK, and lately Canada. But Phoenix do France proud, so overcome your (legitimate and often well-earned) prejudice against Euro rockers and buy this album. It's tres boss. Soopare-cool!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Oxford Collapse. Remember the Night Parties (Sub Pop, 2006)

"We're cracking champagne because/ We became what we never thought we would."

Brooklyn-by-way-of-Pittsburgh three piece Oxford Collapse clearly love '90s indie rock. In their triumphant guitar clatter, you can hear hints of Chavez, Pavement, Archers of Loaf, and probably some other bands that I'm not bright enough to mention. It's pretty great, and it's an exciting listen because these guys are clearly excited to be playing. Their enthusiasm is as obvious as their inability to sing in key.

2006's Remember the Night Parties is the third album from Oxford Collapse, and the first one I ever heard. Hearing it, I got that rush you get whenever you listen to a band for the first time and think, "Oh, hey, I think I just discovered a new favorite band." It's that good. Album opener is the lilting, down tempo "He'll Paint While We Play," and though it's a fair introduction, it doesn't really prepare you for the awesomeness that is the album's second track, "Please Visit Your National Parks." It's a classic jam, each player so busy kicking ass that at times the song sounds on the verge of falling part. But it never does. Instead, it rocks your face off, the see-sawing main riff and scrambling solos placing the song squarely in the "Best Song I've Heard in a Long Time and I Think I'll Listen to It Again Right Now" category.

And the thing is, most of the songs on this album are in that category. The rushing "Loser City;" the clattering, percussive, hypnotic "For the Khakis and Sweatshirts;" the endearingly tone-deaf "Lady Lawyers," a track that turns at the 1:27 mark from a hurried, double-time jumble into an inspiring, kinda-feminist anthem with an incredible hook and shout-along chorus ("And on Saturday we become lady lawyers!"). And the beautiful "Forgot to Write," with its steady drumming, chiming guitar, and plaintive melody, is not dissimilar to Reckoning-era R.E.M., but more muscular and less Stipe-y.

Also, Remember the Night Parties' album art is awesome. Photos taken in the '80s of dudes named Troy and Kenny and Tracy hanging out, shirtless and barefoot and in Jams, at the lake and the public picnic area and the pool, getting up to all kinds of shenanigans. The Noid features prominently, and the Noid was great.

I love this record. The Oxford Collapse just released a new one, Bits, and it's not too shabby, either. But Remember the Night Parties made a real impression. On this album, the Oxford Collapse sound like a bunch of my favorite bands mixed into one catchy, intensely-listenable package. And I like that. I think I'll listen to it again right now, actually.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Future of the Left. Curses! (Too Pure, 2007)

"Face the facts we're back in luck/ Turn on the light and wake me up/ Now we are not burdened by love."

I miss few bands the way I miss Mclusky. Those Welsh freaks cranked out some of the most harrowing, howling, punishing guitar rock in recent memory. They sounded like the Pixies in full-on redline mode at all times. 2002's Mclusky Do Dallas alone is so full of contemptuous, razor sharp wit delivered with the instrumental subtlety of a Mack truck, it's bound to leave an impression on anyone with the good fortune to stray into its path. Its incredibly loud, terrifying, and hilarious path. Some choice Mclusky bon mots:
  • "Nicotine stained on account of her crutch and I'm aching from f**king too much."
  • "It's easy to say now their trainers seemed fine and their hair was a f**king delight."
  • "My band is better than your band/ We've got more songs than a song convention."
  • "All of your friends are c*nts/ Your mother is a ball point pen thief."
  • "Our old singer is a sex criminal."
And while these lines are pretty impressive (offensive?) on paper, you really need to hear them delivered from the mouth of singer/guitarist Andy Falkous to get the full effect. His derisive, sneering, sometimes frantic wail fit the words perfectly.

Alas, after releasing their swan song, The Difference Between Me and You Is That I'm Not on Fire, in 2004, Mclusky parted ways, its members going on to form two new bands. Bassist and occasional singer Jon Chapple re-emerged in Shooting at Unarmed Men (see their decent LP, 2006's Yes! Tinnitus!), while Falkous now heads up Future of the Left, who released their first record, Curses!, on Too Pure last year. And listening to Curses!, there's no doubt that Falkous was the key component of Mclusky's brilliance: Future of the Left brings back much of Mclusky's lyrical genius and musical aggression, a soothing balm to those of us left licking our wounds after Mclusky dissolved.

Though Future of the Left is less straightforward than Mclusky, occasionally introducing pianos and keyboards into the mix, the overall approach is basically "Mclusky with some pianos and keyboards." The guitars twist and slash, and the rhythm section is always set to "pummel," the distorted bass and gut-punch drums relentlessly blasting away. Check out the churning guitars on "The Lord Hates a Coward" and "Fingers Become Thumbs!" for the archetype. The stop-start dynamics, caterwaul guitar solo, and frenzied shouting of "Small Bones Small Bodies" probably comes closest to capturing the old Mclusky magic, though the slightly gentler, more melodic "Suddenly It's a Folk Song" gets my vote as the best tune on the album.

And, perhaps most importantly, Falkous delivers some choice lines throughout the LP. Some of my favorites:
  • "Violence, she solved everything."
  • "Why put the body where the body don't want to go?"
  • "All he ever wanted was a detonator."
  • "Kept by bees in a glass case/ Next to Atlantis rendered badly by my oil paints."
  • "Your pity sets the bar so high/ I can't believe it believe it myself/ What a guy!"
Again, you can't really get the full impact without hearing Falkous. He's got one of the best voices out there, and his sense of timing and delivery is enviable.

So, if we have to soldier on in a world without Mclusky, Future of the Left is a pretty good substitute, I suppose. And Curses! is, no question, a great record. But man, I miss Mclusky. Sniff.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Beulah. Yoko (Velocette, 2003)

"All right/ Forever's on your side/ Oh, it's only time/ It's longer than you think."

I always wonder why more people aren't, like me, huge fans of the much-missed Beulah. Is it the incredible melodies? The massive hooks? The clever lyrics? The multi-instrumental Pet Sounds-era pocket symphonies? It's a mystery, is what it is. 'Cuz these guys were phenomenal, and their break-up after the release of Yoko, their fourth and final album, was a real loss. Especially to fans of extremely catchy, melancholy chamber pop.

Beulah were from San Francisco, though they were part of the Athens, Georgia-based Elephant 6 collective (, along with other analog eccentrics like Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo, and Elf Power. Being from the West Coast, these guys always had a distinct Bacharach-Beach Boys sensibility, producing sunny-but-sad little masterpieces, complete with horns and strings and whatever else was lying around. A real kitchen sink plan of attack. The melodies were mainly major key, and the tempos were up, but there was always an underlying bitterness giving the songs an edge. Listening to Beulah is like going to the beach on a sunny fall day: there's sun and sand and waves, but it's chilly, too, and kinda lonely.

Though Beulah started off as a lo-fi outfit, their production values steadily improved, and by Yoko, their songs had taken on a distinct studio polish. Nothing distracting or cheesy, but they no longer sounded like a bunch of guys, some of whom were armed with harpsichords and french horns, playing in someone's garage. They sounded more focused, and this focus, coupled with stunning songcraft and a fuming anger lurking just below the surface of nearly every song, makes Yoko a fitting parting shot from a band at the height of its powers.

Yoko (the title simultaneously references Yoko Ono and is an acronym for "You're Only King Once," the album's third track) is a break-up record. Some of the band members had gone through divorces between 2001's The Coast is Never Clear and Yoko, and it shows. Plus, the band was getting ready to implode, various internal band slights, resentments, and pressures (all of which are on display in the Beulah tour documentary A Good Band is Easy to Kill) finally sinking the ship. Most of the songs deal with splintering relationships and bitter feelings, the lyrics standing -- in typical Beulah fashion -- in stark contrast to the bright, sparkling melodies. On "Landslide Baby," singer Miles Kurosky spits out, "It's a lie, it's a cop-out, and I know you know I know why/ You won't try, cause you're scared and you're weak/ And you don't give a fuck about me/ And I do believe that you hate yourself." That's the chorus, sung to an incredibly upbeat, shimmering chord progression that makes you think of Sunday afternoons filled with hammocks and icy cold beers.

The clear highlight of the album is "Me and Jesus Don't Talk Anymore," an infectious account of one man's loss of faith and cheerful surrender to the man downstairs. The subject is as dark as it gets, but the song's vaguely country-and-western feel, all roadhouse piano, pedal steel, and shuffling drums, makes it one of the catchiest, breeziest songs from a band that made catchy and breezy its stock in trade. As Kurosky sings, "Can you give me that, friend?/ Without a soul to sell along the way/ The devil rides with me again/ He always says things are okay," it's hard not to think, "Hey, yeah, that sounds like a pretty good deal." And that's before the song joyously declares, "Woke up today/ Just called to say/ Your body's cold and you're going nowhere" in a tone more suited to telling your mom you just got a big promotion.

So I'm pretty bummed that Beulah isn't around any more. I always loved the way they could juxtapose resentment with the blithe, carefree joy of loose, sunny pop. Yoko is a great record to remember them by. This October, put on your headphones, cue up Yoko, and head down to the shore.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Superchunk. Here's to Shutting Up (Merge, 2001)

"Why so serious?/ When it's only your life that's at stake?/ Why so serious?/ When your life is the art that you make?"

I first heard Superchunk when most folks should first hear Superchunk: in high school. And I thought they ruled. "Slack Motherfucker" (the kind of anthem most bands would kill to write) sounded so amped up and exciting and smart. And the band sounded real young, too, with the buzzy guitars and Mac McCaughan's high-pitched yelp blaring out of the speakers in double time. Like so many great indie bands of the early 1990s, Superchunk made you want to get up off your ass and make your own songs, already. I mean, not only did they crank out killer record after killer record, but they even founded the Merge label ( And unlike Pavement, Superchunk didn't sound like you'd be too dumb to hang out with them; they'd be nice guys, funny, with great record collections and beer.

So I listened to a lot of Superchunk in high school. On the Mouth was on constant rotation, and Foolish after that. But just like me, Superchunk got older, and started to become interested in more grown-up stuff. And its sound changed accordingly. By 1995's Here's Where the Strings Come In, Superchunk had developed way beyond its early clever kids persona and turned into a pretty mature sounding bunch of indie adults. 1999's Come Pick Me Up even saw production being handled by Chicago post-rock-dude at large Jim O'Rourke, a pretty grown-up move.

But the records always stayed quality. I guess I understand when folks complain that Superchunk always sounds the same, it's just that I take "the same" to mean "consistently great." Which brings us to 2001's Here's to Shutting Up, the last proper LP Superchunk released (they haven't broken up, but the various band members have been involved in other projects, like McCaughan's Portastatic), and another solid effort. By this time, the Superchunk model had been firmly established: catchy, straightforward indie pop played with enough aggression to keep things moving. But like Come Pick Me Up before it, Here's to Shutting Up incorporates some elements -- strings, electronic programming -- that sets the record apart from run-of-the-mill guitar records.

"Late-Century Dream," with its mid-tempo pace and snakey keyboard and guitar lines, starts the record off with a sober reflection on contemporary American culture, as McCaughan sings, "Everybody's trying to make space around what they think they've got." It never sounds preachy; more resigned, even amused. "Rainy Streets" and "Out on the Wing" are classic over-caffeinated Superchunk, all flailing drums, punchy bass, and rushing hooks, while the loping strums and pedal steel on "Phone Sex" lend the track a melancholy countrypolitan feel.

But the gem of the album is without a doubt "Art Class (Song for Yayoi Kusama)." I have no idea who this Yayoi Kusama dude/chick is, but he/she should be stoked to have such a rad jam dedicated to him/her. Quite simply, it's one of the best songs these guys have ever written. The main riff is a stuttering beauty, and the rhythm section backs it up with an insanely danceable backbeat. Add a couple face-melting guitar solos, and you've got a stone classic on your hands. Honestly, I listen to this song all the time, and each time I find the affectionate/piss-taking lyrics (about, duh, art class) pretty funny.

So, yeah, these guys have been around for a long time. And yeah, they've never really changed their sound. But I'll take well over a decade of consistent rocking, thanks. The fact that they could make a record as good as Here's to Shutting Up twelve years and seven records (not to mention loads of EPs and singles) after their debut is pretty great. Listen to the record and hear the greatness.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Child Ballads. Cheekbone Hollows (Pop. 1/2 Life) EP (Gypsy Eyes, 2008)

"Your heart goes boom/ My heart goes boom, too/ We walk into the room/ All the wallpaper comes in bloom."

I think I speak for everyone who ever heard Jonathan Fire*Eater's Tremble Under Boom Lights EP when I say that Tremble Under Boom Lights fucking ruled, man. The dirty garage rock buzz, the fuzztone organ, the huge drums, the paranoid panoramic lyrics, and especially Stewart Lupton's voice: raspy, sexy, insinuating, confident to the point of cocky. And awesome, especially on that EP's lead off track "The Search for Cherry Red." The way Lupton sang about damaged Hollywood starlets, valuable ashtrays, and overwrought studio parties made "The Search for Cherry Red" the soundtrack to every adventure I wished I'd ever had but didn't.

Alas, after one indifferently-received major label release, 1997's full-length Wolf Songs for Lambs, Jonathan Fire*Eater broke up, taking their sound with them. Rats. Most of the band went on to form the oft-lauded Walkmen, while singer Lupton -- in my opinion Jonathan Fire*Eater's best and signature feature -- went on to do not much of anything at all. But now Lupton and his voice are back with the Child Ballads, who released their first EP this past spring on Washington, DC's Gypsy Eyes Records ( And it's a welcome return.

Cheekbone Hollows (Pop. 1/2 Life) is a compact six song introduction to the Child Ballads which never wears out its welcome. First off, the most this new band has in common with Jonathan Fire*Eater is Lupton; the Child Ballads aren't some sort of rehashed retread or an attempt to regain past glory. Where Lupton's previous band refitted vintage garage and soul for a more modern and jaded ear, the Child Ballads have a more innocent and easygoing approach. The sound is a lot more loose and jangly, and has sort of a Sticky Fingers-era Stonesy vibe. The folk and blues influences can't be dismissed. This isn't heavy music, but it's never boring.

The strongest song in a strong collection is the title cut. Kicking off with a shambling boom-chicka-boom beat, the primarily acoustic track provides a solid setting for Lupton's vocals, which still sound great. Throughout the song, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Judah Bauer adds some nice chicken-scratch rhythm guitar, which gives it a nice Stax swing. Elsewhere, Betsy Wright's viola and airy backing vocals give "They Hunt Us We Run" a mournful, autumnal quality, and EP closer "Laughter From the Rafters" is rollicking singalong that ushers out the Child Ballads' opening bid in style.

In short, it's great to hear Stewart Lupton again, especially at the helm of a project with as much promise as the Child Ballads. Here's looking forward to the full length, and hoping that this time there will be more than one.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Afghan Whigs. Black Love (Elektra, 1996)

“It was a Saturday/ I came home early drunk with love/ And other things/ I must confess/ I love it all.”

In 1993, the Afghan Whigs released one of the darkest (if not the darkest; I’m hard pressed to think of darker) albums of the ‘90s with Gentlemen, an open wound of a record, a searing examination of emotional and chemical abuse and the wreckage it leaves behind. By Gentlemen, the Whigs had evolved from a good-but-not-great Sub Pop mainstay (and one of the label’s first non-Seattle signings: they were from Cincinnati) into a formidable mixture of brooding anger and soulful swagger, as the fairly generic grunge tendencies of their initial releases were finally (thankfully) overtaken by their Motown and Curtom influences. The result was one of the most distinctive musical statements of the decade.

However, while many would consider Gentlemen to be the Whigs’ best, my money is on the follow-up, Black Love. Released in 1996, it’s Black Love that best expresses the band’s mission statement, mining ‘60s and ‘70s soul for its inherent darkness and vulnerability and forging the results into a mixture of heavy rock and hip-shaking R&B (more Sam Cooke than Boyz II Men). I’d been a huge fan of Gentlemen, and was hoping for more of that same tuneful menace. I wasn’t disappointed: Black Love is basically Gentlemen’s sequel. If Gentlemen was a long day’s journey into night, Black Love is the next day, and things don’t look any better in the sun. “Step into the light, baby,” singer Greg Dulli pleads at one point, “and see the trouble I’m in.”

The liner notes to the album read that Black Love was “shot on location,” underscoring the cinematic nature of the songs. The Afghan Whigs trafficked in character studies and scenarios set to music, offering the listener an open window into a variety of fucked up situations and abusive relationships made worse by infidelity, drugs, alcohol, suspicion, jealousy, and/or a combination thereof. Each track on Black Love is like a little vignette, a self-contained little world of damage and decay.

None of which, admittedly, would be any fun to listen to if the music wasn’t so effing great. Most of the songs are built around driving, repetitive riffs lifted from the Stax/Motown fakebook, augmented with well-placed string stabs and organ rave-ups. The blaxploitation strings and congas on “Blame, Etc.,” and the stagger-step guitar pushing “My Enemy,” to take just two examples, are exciting and dynamic, stealing from classic soul while simultaneously worshiping at its altar. And even the pretty bits sound pretty evil: the shimmering chords in “Going to Town” shimmer like an oil slick.

While the lyrics can at times wander uncomfortably close to genre-aping self-parody (“Got you where I want you, motherfucker/ I’ve got five up on your dime” – take it easy, guy. Shaft was just a movie), Dulli’s vocals demonstrate impressive range, climbing from rich baritones to delicate upper-register croons and hitting pretty much everything in between. Furthermore, it's on this record that Dulli's sinister Lothario persona reaches full bloom, the singer as charmer with a heart of glass and a mouthful of bile.

I’m a fan of Dulli’s post-Whigs project the Twilight Singers, which retains the Whigs’ twisted rhythms while incorporating more electronic elements. However, the Twilight Singers is essentially a Greg Dulli vehicle; the Afghan Whigs were an actual band, with everyone pulling their own weight and making a distinct contribution. And Black Love is their high-water mark. It’s been over a decade, and I still turn to Black Love every time I need a dose of darkness wrapped in the unassailable cool of vintage soul and R&B.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The XYZ Affair. A Few More Published Studies (Self Released, 2007)

"Dare I say my education/ Was less than I'd hoped it would be?"

In a funny coincidence, my two favorite songs of 2007 each shared the same name: "All My Friends." One, by LCD Soundsystem (from the stellar Sound of Silver) is a heartbreaking paean to aging hipsters. The other, from Brooklyn four piece The XYZ Affair's debut A Few More Published Studies, is a glorious miniature rock opera touching on -- in just over four and a half minutes -- prep school shenanigans, Central Asian Great Game politics, the cinema classic Major League, and Altamont. It's no small feat, and upon first listen you're gonna want to hear it over and over again. When everything goes into overdrive at the 1:30 mark, I dare you to keep your heart rate in check and a smile from spreading across your face (check out the video -- starring Double Dare's Marc Summers, no less! -- at

"All My Friends," like the rest of A Few More Published Studies, finds a band punching way above its weight, and doing it in style. I stumbled across this record when Insound ( named it as one of 2007's best, and I'm glad I took their advice. The XYZ Affair's sound can be described as grandiose, with soaring melodies and massive hooks. Think a rougher-edged Queen, especially since singer/guitarist Alex Feder's vocals have two settings: reedy and falsetto. It works, though, especially since the cockeyed power pop compositions consistently rise to the occasion, keeping the listener in a perpetual state of surprise. Everything about this band's sound is big: the drums echo, the guitars sustain. They're stadium-ready, right out of the box.

Songs like "Little Fool" and "The Professional" periodically burst into full-band sing-alongs reminiscent of that scene in The Hunt for Red October when all the Russian sailors (and their Scottish captain --that was weird) are singing the Soviet national anthem, only better and less communist. These guys are clearly having fun with it. And the half-baked, half-serious guitar heroics which burst from the speakers at the 2:31 mark of "Ideals" are nearly worth the price of admission alone.

The XYZ Affair's lyrics come across as literate to the point of eggheadedness, as is to be expected from a band named after an 18th century diplomatic incident between France and the U.S. But that's ok; none of the words distract from the rad melodies, which is all one can ask, really. It's not quite Dennis Miller calling Monday Night Football, but a history degree might help you make sense of some of the more abstract references.

I first saw these guys play last fall at the Black Cat in DC, on a Sunday night on the small stage. The crowd was, er, sparse: me and literally eight other people, five of which were family of the band. Regardless, they brought their A game and played as though in front of a sold out crowd. Respectable, especially after a 200 mile van ride down 95. You gotta hand it to guys with that kind of heart. So go see them if they pass through your town. And more importantly, buy this album and say hello to one of your new favorite bands.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Knapsack. This Conversation is Ending Starting Right Now (Alias, 1998)

“We are arrows to the action/ It never happens/ The way I think it should.”

I was in college in the mid- to late-1990s. Many indie kids were under the delusion that "guitar music" was dead. Lots of electronica (shudder) was being listened to, by yours truly included. I actually bought a Propellerheads record, described it as "awesome" to several people, and wore the free XL size t-shirt (one size fits none!) that came with it draped over my bony frame like a soon-to-be-dated tent. We listened to Roni Size drum-n-bass records all the way through, heads nodding like we were into it. Tortoise (whose Millions Now Living Will Never Die I’ll admit still holds up) was considered to be the future of music by a good number of indie rock enthusiasts. "Post rock" was yet to be, in a phrase coined by a friend, "post good." Remixes were flying off the independent music store shelves.

That said, this was also a time when "emo" was not yet a dirty word, didn't conjure up images of Hot Topic cashiers, and could still be used to describe some really great bands like Jawbreaker, the Promise Ring (well, early Promise Ring. We'll say their first two records, anyway), and Knapsack. Case in point: This Conversation is Ending Starting Right Now is one of my favorite records from the late 1990s, by anyone, period. The first time I heard it, I was a fan. Today, it's one of those records that I throw on occasionally and immediately think to myself, "Oh, yeah. This record is incredible. How come I don't listen to this all the time?" It's also the only thing by Knapsack I've ever heard. I think I'm hesitant to tarnish the sterling reputation they've garnered in my mind by being disappointed by their other records.

Knapsack emerged out of the University of California at Davis in the early '90s. They signed to Alias (, home of underground undergrad heroes Archers of Loaf) and put out a couple of records before This Conversation, which would be their last. After some lineup changes, they settled on Blair Shehan (vocals and guitar), Sergi Loobkoff (guitar), and Colby Mancasola (drums). Bass duties were shared, I guess. By 2000, the band had broken up and reformed into The Jealous Sound, which I've also never heard.

This Conversation has a lot of things going for it. First off, the album title is clever, but not too clever. It sounds like something you'd say to your girlfriend in the middle of a fight, trying to buy some time (it wouldn't work). Also, the album art is pretty cool: tastefully drawn silhouette of a bereft indie kid, classy understated color scheme, the sans-serif font a nice touch. I like looking at this record.

Then comes the music. Hooks for days, and right out of the gate. The guitar sound is punchy and melodic, immediately memorable. The first song on the album sets the template: “Katherine the Grateful” is alternately choppy, driving, and soaring, a beautifully crafted indie gem. Ditto my favorite song on the album, “Arrows to the Action.” The main riff is a spiraling, off-kilter beauty, pushing the song through its paces, pausing only for the delicate, rhythm-egg-assisted bridge before crashing back into the verses. And speaking of delicate, “Cold Enough to Break,” with its Christmas bells, strings, and mournful melody, sounds like the saddest sleigh ride ever. But catchy.

The drums on this record sound amazing. They’ve got a real Albini-esque feel, pushed way to the front. It sounds like the drummer’s in the same room with you, basically. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that the album was produced by Mark Trombino, drummer for San Diego legends Drive Like Jehu. Plus, Colby Mancasola can play. The drumming on “Arrows to the Action” and album closer “Please Shut Off the Lights" is worth highlighting: the drum bits are deceptively simple, but still inventive, and fit the melodies perfectly.

You can listen to several tracks from This Conversation is Ending Starting Right Now at the Alias website, here: You can also buy the record from Alias, or from any number of other places. Like I said, every time I return to this record, I love it. It reminds me of all the good stuff I was listening to in college, and helps me forget all the block-rockin’ beats. Oh, the beats.