Monday, September 29, 2008

Dinosaur Jr. Green Mind (Sire, 1991/ Reissue 2006)

"There's a place I'd like to go/ When you get there then I'll know/ There's a place I know you've been/ Here's a wagon, get on in."

In his liner notes for the reissue of Where You Been, Dinosaur Jr.'s 1993 follow-up to the epic Green Mind, rock critic/journalist Byron Coley observes, "The rule seems to be that whichever [Dinosaur Jr.] album a particular fan heard first is his/her favorite." Pretty good observation, and one that certainly applies to me. As a freshman in high school, a friend's band did a cover of Green Mind's title track, and I though it was awesome. Consequently, having never heard Dinosaur Jr. before, Green Mind was the first of their albums I bought, and I wore it out. And having listened to a lot of Dinosaur Jr. in the years between then and now, to include the "classic" pre-'91 albums with Lou Barlow on bass, I still consider it the band's best record, and certainly my favorite.

As any indie rock nerd worth his salt will tell you, to claim Green Mind as your favorite Dinosaur Jr. record is tantamount to blasphemy in some circles. This was the first album after Lou Barlow's unceremonious booting from the band, and the album that basically saw Dinosaur Jr. complete its transformation into the J Mascis Show. Pre-Green Mind, Dinosaur Jr. was far more impressionistic and experimental, with Mascis's '70s-era guitar workouts crowding for space among hardcore noise blasts and Barlow's more subdued folk explorations on albums like You're Living All Over Me and Bug. Pre-'91, the band was essentially two bands, with Mascis and Barlow each moving in decidedly different directions. That tension produced some amazing material, but eventually was too much for the group to bear. So Mascis fired Barlow, who went on to form Sebadoh and its many offshoots, and began to perfect his own Neil Young/Foghat/Frampton-cum-Black Flag idolization. And that's where Green Mind comes in.

Green Mind was Dinosaur Jr.'s first major-label album, having moved to Sire from the esteemed indie SST, where they'd been since 1987. It's worth noting that the year of its release, 1991, was a seminal year for '80s-era indie rock, "The Year Punk Broke," to borrow the title of the Sonic Youth tour film in which Dinosaur Jr. feature prominently. Sonic Youth had released Goo on Geffen in summer 1990, and Geffen would release Nirvana's Nevermind in September 1991. Along with those records, Green Mind (released February 1991) hammered some nails into the coffin of hair metal and bland corporate rock, and helped to define the cool-kids' aesthetic for much of the coming decade. For many, J Mascis's mopey, blurry, mumblecore shamble punctuated by moments of sheer rock-god brilliance would define the style of the '90s: yeah, this is great, but whatever, man, I don't know. Who cares?

And make no mistake, Green Mind is brilliant. Mascis wrote all of the songs, and played almost all of the instruments (with some help from Dinosaur Jr. stalwart Murph on occasional drums and Don Fleming on bass and guitar here and there). Gone are the distractions/abstractions of the Barlow days: Mascis is free to let the guitar heroics and fiercely melodic riff-fests fly. These songs are polished, focused, and tight, informed as much by classic AOR wankery as by punk and hardcore aggression. The end result is an almost impossibly listenable record, each instrument crisply recorded and mixed for maximum punch.

This being a Dinosaur Jr. record, the guitar sounds great (Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars played through Marshall stacks, big, thick slabs of distortion, overdriven tones and crazy sustain), but the drums are the secret weapon. Murph plays drums on three tracks, and Mascis handles the rest. Mascis started out as a drummer, and has effing incredible chops (it's also, I think, why his guitar style is so rhythmically informed). He plays really hard and really loud, but has a highly developed sense of timing and phrasing, which means that oftentimes the beats fail to land where you'd think they should, but always land in the right place. It's badass, and keeps the listener guessing in the best of ways.

Oh, right: the songs. Well, there's not a bad one on here, to be perfectly honest. Album opener "The Wagon" is a Dinosaur Jr. classic and concert staple, and rightly so. Flanged guitar kicks in right away, the drums drive the song in all the right directions, and Mascis turns in some fundamental face-melting. "Ring the doorbell in your mind/ But it's locked from the outside/ You don't live there anyway/ But I knock on it all day" whines Mascis in pitch-perfect slacker tones as everything just wails behind him. "Puke + Cry" mixes acoustic strums and a plodding beat with spry electric rhythm guitar. "Blowing It" segues seamlessly into "I Live For That Look," soaring leads piercing the jaunty jangle of the main melody. "How'd You Pin That One on Me" is the most hardcore track here, thrash and burn and thrash again, Mascis wailing, "How'd you pin that one me?/ I haven't even done it yet!" before sickly murmuring, "Get me a bucket." "Water" could be Green Mind's prettiest song, a delicate tune covered in underwater reverb and some of Mascis's most vulnerable lyrics. "Thumb," with its plaintive recorder line, is a heartbreaker, as well. And the album-closing title track, obviously, is a gem, a straight rocker with searing solos and era-defining lyrics like "
If I keep stewin’ ’bout how I feel/ Eventually you'll split, then I won’t have to deal/ Sounds like a plan."

The 2006 reissue of Green Mind (which you should get, 'cuz it's been remastered and is bargain priced at around $10) adds three bonus tracks, one of which is a devastating cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers' ""Hot Burrito #2." Well worth a listen, as Mascis' interpretation of the Burritos' spaced-out country fits just right. The other two are pretty standard-issue Dinosaur Jr. tunes, which is to say, they rock pretty hard but don't leave much of an impression.

Some of my favorite memories of high school involve driving around in my first car (an '84 Subaru hatchback, maroon) blasting my worn, clear plastic tape of Green Mind. Back then, these guys seemed like everything that was great about guitars. And listening to it today, I still feel that way. This is guitar rock in one of its best, most thrilling, inspiring incarnations, noise and hooks for the sake of noise and hooks, distortion as an end and a means. And loud, too.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Polvo. Celebrate the New Dark Age (Merge, 1994)

"I won't get out/ I'd rather burn/ I won't trust scarred survivors/ And I will never learn."

Polvo's patented brand of atonal, angular, vaguely eastern rock fury is one of my all-time favorite sounds, and Celebrate the New Dark Age is an ideal distillation of what made this Chapel Hill four-piece such a force to be reckoned with. The oddly-tuned twin-guitar attack of Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski is some of the most alarming kick-assery ever laid to tape, and the fact that the rhythm section (Steve Popson on bass and Eddie Watkins on drums) could keep up with the whiplash time changes and breakneck stop-start dynamics -- let alone excel at keeping the songs anchored firmly in the realm of the listenable -- is a testament to its abilities. Listening to Polvo is like getting a glimpse into what rock and roll sounds like in an alternate, non-Euclidean universe, where math and physics and gravity don't operate according to our rules. It's Lovecraftian postpunk.

This seven song EP was released shortly after Today's Active Lifestyles, Polvo's second full-length and the album where they really started to nail their sound and style. By Celebrate the New Dark Age, Polvo were in full control of their abilities, and it shows right away. Lead off track "Fractured (Like Chandeliers)" is a straight classic, careening wildly as Bowie and Brylawski trade off anti-leads and pry alien tones from their instruments, bending the notes to the breaking point but never abandoning the hooks that nail the tune in place. The bass and drums here as in most Polvo songs are a big part of what makes the tune such a great listen: while the guitars twist and flail and generally push the boundaries of good sense, Popson and Watkins stay firmly in the pocket, adding some flourishes here and there but otherwise plowing straight ahead and keeping the parameters in place.

The more subdued "City Spirit," with its rubbery lead lines and slightly spacey vocals reminiscent of Thurston Moore, provides a nice breather between the first song and the third, the monumental "Tragic Carpet Ride." Introduced with an electrified jangle of dissonance, "Tragic Carpet Ride" in short order plunges headlong into three minutes and twenty seconds of unmitigated unsanity, an oscillating wall of distortion underpinned by driving drums and pulsing bass. It's a relentless riff fest, as Bowie and Brylawski take turns churning out unnatural lead lines, their guitars sounding terrified and confused. And when Bowie sings, "Tell me that you understand/ Tell me why you look concerned/ Tell me that you know/ Or I will never learn," he could be speaking directly to the listener, puzzled and, sure, concerned, but also enthralled.

"Every Holy Shroud" is another overwhelmingly awesome offering, essentially three or four songs in one. The band switches up tempos and melodies at the drop of a hat, never losing the plot or making it look anything less than effortless. The half-Asian tonal excursions are on full display here, but the grinding primary chords are good ol' steak-and-potatoes rockness. And Bowie shows off his sense of humor and self awareness on this track, opining, "And now we just brought a sitar/ So be prepared/ Apologetic trips to make you sick/ Now I'm toking from this bag of tricks." Clearly a band that knows what it's on about.

Polvo were true guitar pioneers, making decidedly eggheaded, post-grad music that was exceedingly exciting and, most importantly, fun to listen to. And on Celebrate the New Dark Age, all of Polvo's disturbing and stupefying abilities are laid bare. This stuff is an exhilarating math problem that you want to drink to. As a new dark age descends upon us, check out this EP and find a reason to celebrate.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Los Campesinos!. Sticking Fingers into Sockets (Arts and Crafts, 2007)

"And yeah it's sad that you think that we're all just scenesters/ And even if we were it's not the scene you're thinking of."

It's a nice thing when a band's enthusiasm and sheer joy in rockingness shine through on an album. When the band sounds completely stoked to be playing, it's hard for the listener not to feel completely stoked about listening, and the band and the audience unite in a state of stoked that's pretty exciting. This is what it's like listening to Welsh group Los Campesinos!'s short LP (long EP? At six songs, it's kind of a gray area) Sticking Fingers into Sockets, a handful of songs wearing its feverish pop passion on its sleeve, failing wonderfully to show any restraint at all.

Los Campesinos! pack a lot into each tune, with boy-girl vocals trading off on sing-along melodies, fuzz-tone guitar, sprinting rhythms, frantically pounded keyboards, and sporadic strings. The end result is a busy, overstimulated sound that goes straight for the pleasure center of your brain. Towards the end of each song, the group tends to go completely nuts until everything just sorta collapses in on itself. And then a new song starts. It's a cycle of sonic addiction.

Album opener "We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives" sets the party atmosphere right away, as the singer exhorts, "I'll sing what you like/ if you shout it straight back at me," and the song bursts into a rousing chorus driven by crashing drums and airy girlgroup vocals. Next up is "It Started with a Mixx," a nostalgic ode to the lost art/frustrations of mixtape alchemy, handclaps and plucked strings underscoring a wistful melody as the singer pines, "Trying to find the perfect match between pretentious and pop/ Some crappy artwork that took way way too long to draw/ Handwritten tracklisting restarted every time the pen smudged/ Encoded title doesn't give away as much as it should." Remember that? When a 90 minute mixtape took, like, three hours to make and seemed really important? Los Campesinos! do.

"Don't Tell Me to Do the Math[s]" is a charmer, as well, as the stampeding beats and spiky guitar workouts make room for toy piano interludes and lilting strings. An effing adorable cover of Pavement's "Frontwards," from the classic Watery, Domestic EP (which is probably due for a writeup of its own one of these days), is a highlight of this collection. Los Campesinos! play it pretty straight, but the song comes across like they must have felt the first time they heard it: charged, elated, caught up in its pure hooky genius. It's an exuberant, instantly endearing take on the tune, and it's over before it even begins. "You! Me! Dancing!" follows "Frontwards" with another stunner, a celebration of basement parties and being too young to care about the terrible, insanely fun decisions you inevitably make. The main riff is inspired chunky distortion, thrusting the song onto the listener with willful abandon, the background singers going all "ooooh-ooooh" all over the place and your ears exploding from the sugar high.

Los Campesinos! are really, really excited to be here, man. That's pretty obvious. And you should be, too, because Sticking Fingers into Sockets is an exhilarating slice of indiepop. Have some.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Act Surprised is taking a couple of days off to go to the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in New York, and will return on Wednesday, September 24.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Silver Jews. The Natural Bridge (Drag City, 1996)

"Cause I'm a man who has a wife who has a mother/ Who married one when she loved another/ You're a tower without the bells/ You're a negative wishing well."

Every year when cooler weather brings an end to summer and introduces fall -- my favorite season -- I invariably turn to The Natural Bridge, the Silver Jews' second LP. There are a couple of reasons for this: first, this album was released in the fall, I bought it as soon as it came out, and listened to it constantly. So, the sense of hearing being especially evocative, I associate the sound of this record with gradually shortening days, falling temperatures, and burning leaves. Second, the album itself -- lyrically, musically -- has a distinctly autumnal quality, capturing the beauty and sadness of the season in DC Berman's laconic drawl and melancholy airs.

The Natural Bridge was the first Silver Jews record that didn't feature any Pavement personnel, putting the "Silver Jews is just a Pavement side project" theories to rest. Though Pavement's Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich made serious contributions to 1994's Starlite Walker and the no-fi EPs that preceded it, it was clear even then that the Silver Jews belonged to Berman. His style and approach are different from Malkmus's, less arch and more direct, and the tunes have a mellower, easier feel to them, without any of Pavement's more jagged aspects.

However, just because the Silver Jews aren't especially rocking doesn't mean they don't pack a punch. Far from it. Especially on The Natural Bridge, the naked loveliness of the songs and sublime genius of the words hit like a freight train, the excellence of the record made manifest immediately. There's power here.

Musically, The Natural Bridge is awash in loose, country-rock atmospherics, mid-tempo acoustic strums, and relaxed lead guitar runs. The drums tend to lope, dragging just enough behind the beat to underscore the LP's casual mood. But instead of the unhurried attitude resulting in a boring, lukewarm listen, what you get is a warm, open record, the easy pace allowing the songs to settle in and make themselves comfortable. Listening to The Natural Bridge is like putting on your favorite sweater for the first time all year, luxuriating in its cozy comfort and perfect fit.

Because the songs do fit perfectly. From opening track "How to Rent a Room"'s initial snare crack and gentle jangle, it's clear that this is going to be a singular listen. The hypnotically chiming "Pet Politics," the twangy "Black and Brown Blues," the tenderly mocking "Dallas," and the sadly elegant "Albemarle Station" are all highlights, but they're just the best of an exceptional batch. The tunes throughout feel familiar and lived-in in the best way, as though Berman has hit upon some sort of sonic universal, a series of notes and their arrangement that appeals intrinsically to the human ear.

And it's impossible to talk about this album without talking about the lyrics. Berman is a poet (like, a real poet, who's published books of poetry and all) of some talent, and his lyrics show it. Lines like "Chalk lines around your body/ Like the shoreline of a lake," or "I passed an abandoned drive-in/ With ivy growing over the screen/ It was like I caught Hollywood sleeping/ Sleep without the dreams" connect in subtle but intense ways. Images like "the jagged skyline of car keys" or the "hundred gutters" of a corduroy suit are clear and simple but finely observed, too, demonstrating a unique and gifted perspective on the everyday which allows Berman to extract the beauty from the most common and banal and shine a light on it for our benefit. It's an honest and useful art.

Fall is here, jackets are out, and The Natural Bridge is on. I listen to this record all the time, but it feels most right right now. Do yourself a favor and get it immediately, play it nonstop until Thanksgiving, and give your brain a warm fall sweater. Your brain will thank you.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Destroyer. This Night (Merge, 2002)

"Oh, you should have been a clerk/ You should have stayed a stranger/ You should have just done the work/ But it's too late now/ School's out."

Dan Bejar sounds like a total fruitcake. His voice has a high-pitched cracked wizard/weird elf tenor to it, and his lyrics are pulled from the "what the f*ck are you talking about?" box. That said, the songs he contributes to the New Pornographers are consistently my favorites off those records, especially "Jackie" and "Execution Day" from Mass Romantic, "Testament to Youth in Verse" from Electric Version, and "Streets of Fire" from Twin Cinema. Those tunes manage to place Bejar's singular batshit vision into the New Pornographers' polished power-pop context, and the end result is pure magic.

But where the New Pornographers (and especially that band's key player, AC Newman) serve to reign in Bejar and temper his more eccentric/indulgent tendencies with tight verse-chorus-verse structures and razor sharp hooks, Bejar is on his own in Destroyer. He's running the show here, and so things tend to get pretty weird pretty quick. I mean, it's guitar rock, and there's no sound-collage/ambient/noise core crap or anything, but Destroyer songs meander and mosey, and they get where they get when they get there. Since 1996, Bejar has used Destroyer to channel his unique strain of expansive psychedelic indie pop, and the results are always interesting, sometimes frustrating, and often completely kick-ass.

2002's This Night is kick-ass, and is by far my favorite Destroyer album. This Night's songs are relatively tight and focused for Destroyer, reminding me a lot more of Bejar's New Pornographers output than the tracks on the other Destroyer records I've heard. Take album opener "This Night," which dresses the verses in a few jaggedly jangled chords and some tinkling piano keys before bursting into a majestic rouser of a chorus. "Here Comes the Night" is a stunner, its serpentine riffs and chugging rhythms occasionally making space for what sounds like a melodica. "Trembling Peacock" is a stately stumbling beauty, gently plucked notes and weeping strings mapping out a delicately breathtaking melody, while "Students Carve Hearts Out of Coal" has a nice jazzy, late night feel to it, with just enough reverb on the guitar and a warm organ line underneath. "Goddess of Drought" is a charming acoustic campfire sing-along where every camper is Dan Bejar.

Bejar's guitar playing on these songs, like pretty much everywhere else on this record, is strictly impressive: he's got an intuitive, ragged style, and it all sounds great without sounding exactly right. It's not guitar heroics, it's guitar foolhardiness, and it's pretty thrilling.

Lyrically, good luck. You can parse through this stuff if you want, but I wouldn't spend too much time with it. The words fit the music, not the other way around. Bejar may be trying to convey some messages or themes here, and they occasionally surface before plunging back into the depths of willful obfuscation, but Destroyer isn't a band too concerned with getting you to figure them out. Basically, the lyrics, like the melodies and song patterns, are all over the place. The fun is in trying to pin them down and never really being able to. "Hey, Snow White, it's gonna be alright/ How can you win some?/ When the Company goes public/ You've got to learn to love what you own," cries Bejar on "Hey, Snow White." Hey, I hear you, man. And uh, no, I don't have any change. Sorry.

Every Destroyer record is an adventure, and like many adventures, some of them end badly. Not This Night. Here you'll find in bulk the stuff that makes Destroyer great: headcase solos, leftfield song structures and progressions, and moonman lyrics. But unlike many Destroyer albums, This Night doesn't skimp on catchy, and provides a perfect blend of Destroyer Bejar and New Pornographers Bejar. Two great tastes, one great album.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Scud Mountain Boys. Pine Box (Chunk, 1995)

"Bring your guns, bring out all your ammunition/ Meet me at the old haunt where we hanged/ You're so pretty, you've got money and ambition/ Will you think of me when two weeks pass?"

I received the Pine Box LP a few years ago as a gift, having up to that point never heard of the Scud Mountain Boys, and being only vaguely aware of Joe Pernice -- the Scud Mountain Boys' primary singer and songwriter -- through his band the Pernice Brothers. As I recall, my friends handed me the CD, I asked, "What's it sound like?" and they said, "Heaven." And they were right. This is one of the most gorgeous albums I've ever heard, with songs so simple and direct in their beauty and delivery that at times they're almost too much to bear. Over the years, it's become one of the most treasured records in my collection, and something I never, ever get tired of listening to.

If the Internets can be trusted, the Scud Mountain Boys were born from the Scuds, a Massachusetts punk band who discovered that they preferred the acoustic songs they played after shows in their friend's kitchen to the electric stuff they played on stage. And so they became the criminally short-lived Scud Mountain Boys: in 1995 they released their first and second LPs -- Dance the Night Away and Pine Box, respectively -- and in 1996 they released their third and last, Massachusetts. In 1997, Sub Pop put out Dance the Night Away and Pine Box together in one budget-minded collection, The Early Year. And that's how I got Pine Box, and how you can, too.

Dance the Night Away is a solid set of tunes, don't get me wrong, but it really doesn't hold a candle to Pine Box. And man alive, how could it? First, let's talk about how this record sounds, recording-wise. The liner notes say, "Pine Box recorded live in Bruce Tull's kitchen using one microphone." Well, was it Jesus Christ's microphone? For the love of God, this record has such a warm, resonant tone, it's like being wrapped in the coziest quilt the sweetest grandmother who ever lived ever made. Every instrument (bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar -- no drums) sounds perfect, each note blended just right and given enough space to breathe. Ditto the vocals, provided mainly by Joe Pernice, who has a rich baritone borrowed from '70s AM radio. As a matter of fact, the entire album sounds like a transmission from 1975's best AM station.

And the songs. Album opener "Silo" is devastating, combining a spry main line with lilting descending chords and a vocal melody as sad as it is lovely. "'Cuz I'm halfway drowned in this sorry little town," Pernice laments, "and I can see the silo on the rise," conveying a sense of anguish and loneliness mirrored in Bruce Tull's dolorous lead guitar runs. Next up is "Resevoir," in which the narrator -- a spurned lover? a discarded corpse? -- asks "Where's my world?/ Did you forget me when they came to flood the town?" before pleading, "Don't leave me in the resevoir/ 'Cuz I don't belong," and all the while the chords cascade like the floodwaters of the lyrics. "Freight of Fire" makes you marvel at what passes for country music today, because there's no reason why it couldn't be a radio hit if all were right in the world. I mean, a couplet like, "Love, it came like a burning freight of fire/ Love, it dies just like three days without water"? C'mon. Pure gold. Oh, and guess what? It's catchy, too, with a nicely strummed verse marking time 'til the crystalline harmonies of the chorus.

There are some well-chosen covers on Pine Box, as well. Glenn Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" -- a song for which the fine people of Wichita should be eternally grateful -- is given a touchingly affectionate rendering, and the vocals (provided not by Pernice, but by either Bruce Tull or Stephen Desaulniers, the liner notes aren't clear) find just the right balance of hope and romantic resignation. "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" is slowed down and scrubbed of the disco glitter coating Cher's version, revealing the desperation and dread of the singer's tale and the haunting prettiness of the tune. And "Please Mr. Please," from Olivia Newton-John's 1975 MOR hit parade Have You Never Been Mellow, is transformed into a touching country gem.

Pine Box is beautiful, an instantly engaging collection of well-crafted and lovingly-executed songs. It is not a complex record, to be pondered and examined and unwrapped layer by layer; rather, its charms -- exquisite melodies, thoughtful lyrics -- reveal themselves immediately upon first listen. And again and again and again, as many times as you return.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Auteurs. After Murder Park (Hut, 1996)

"And the Major's really nervous/ When he's walking 'round the airport/ You know your Master's Card is marked/ Your upstart charge is cool and smart."

From what I've heard of the Auteurs, singer/guitarist Luke Haines sounds like a real jerk. He sings through a relentlessly snide, insinuating sneer, and at times it's clear that he's suppressing some pretty serious anger. And the fact that he always stays in control and never flies into a full blown rage gets increasingly unnerving the longer you listen. Word on the street is that even though London's Auteurs sprang up in the heyday of Britpop (their first album, New Wave, came out in1993), Haines made it a point to publicly slag off his peers in Blur, Oasis, and Pulp, and never wanted his band associated with them or the genre they ruled. Uh, no problem there, Luke. No one would ever confuse a record as bitter, spiteful, and barbed as After Murder Park with Parklife, What's the Story (Morning Glory)?, or even Different Class. It's a completely different animal altogether.

Mind you, it's a pretty awesome animal. This is a nasty, mean-spirited assortment of songs, but bracing, too, and supremely catchy. There's no question that Haines is a powerful songwriter who draws inspiration from his misanthropy and general low opinion of his fellow man, and on After Murder Park (the Auteurs' third LP) he consistently manages to channel his terrible attitude into slab after slab of first class post-punk commotion.

Steve Albini produced After Murder Park, and as one of American indierock's foremost cranks, he clearly gets where Haines and company are coming from. This album -- like many albums described as "Albiniesque" -- has a live, simple, dry sound, with the drums high in the mix for maximum impact. The guitars are given a harsh serrated edge which suits
Haines's buzzing, jagged guitar tone and tightly-wound riffs just fine. The sonic textures of the album complement Haines's vocal style, amplifying its unsettling qualities and allowing the instruments -- not just bass and six-string and drums, but cellos and organs, too -- to weave themselves between the lines he spits from his mouth like poison.

The dynamics of songs like "Light Aircraft on Fire" and "Land Lovers" are jarring, careening between raucous assaults and string-laden passages which could almost be described as delicate. "Everything You Say Will Destroy You" is the best song here, by far: a stomping, snarling exercise in aggression that saunters into the room with a handshake and a smile before punching you in the face circa the 0:53 mark. Haines's solo towards the end of the plodding, furiously melancholy "Married to a Lazy Lover" is pure pent-up malice, each note grabbed by the collar, wrenched forward, and thrown at your feet. Even the relatively jaunty "Tombstone" carries undertones of violence, physical and otherwise.

But "Unsolved Child Murder" is easily After Murder Park's most disturbing song: on top of a bright major key acoustic ramble cribbed from the Kinks, Haines sings, "Better move on with the good stuff/ Better move on right away/ Sod this town and people's pity/ Let's get on with the nitty gritty/ Presumed dead, unsolved child murder." Another folky cut, "Child Brides," sounds like it was written by the townspeople from that weird Scottish island in The Wicker Man: "Bride of Christ, bride of Jesus/ Bride of the fish when you're fathoms down/ And the uncles and the brothers/ With their Sunday suits on/ Search the villages and towns." Pretty creepy, especially since it's so pretty.

Luke Haines's music is a lot like I imagine Luke Haines to be: ill-tempered, vitriolic, and fucking smart. It's an explosive combination, and After Murder Park is guaranteed to be one of the most explosive records you're likely to hear. It's not Britpop, that's for sure. The Auteurs would eat Blur for snack.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Jam. Extras (Polydor, 1992)

"Both life and death are carried in this stream/ That open space you could run for miles/ Now you don't get so many to the pound."

They never made a huge impact in the U.S. charts, but the Jam were hit-making monsters in the UK. Between 1977 and 1982, the Paul Weller-led mod revivalists scored eighteen consecutive Top 40 singles (three at number one), all of which placed in the top 60 when they were re-released after the band's '82 break-up. Numerous Jam compilations and greatest hits collections have placed in the top 20 in the UK: Greatest Hits placed #2 when it was released in 1990, Extras was #15, The Very Best of the Jam was #9 in 1997, and The Sound of the Jam got to #3 in 2002.

It's easy to see why Weller's outfit is such an enduring presence across the pond: the Jam's mixture of sharp, amphetamine-fueled punk and driving soul and R&B is an undeniably winning sound, and continues to inspire folks today, most notably, perhaps, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Weller, though a middling lyricist in my estimation, has an incredible sense of melody, composition, and style (his next band would be named the Style Council, as a matter of fact), and possesses one of the strongest and emotive voices in rock. He can do punk bark and soulful croon equally well, and has a nice way with his phrasing.

Extras is, as you can probably guess, a collection of B-sides, outtakes, covers, and demos. However, instead of being a completists-only cash-in, it's a remarkable testament to just how good this band was: when your second string material is this strong, you've got an embarrassment of riches on your hands. Plus, Extras shows off a more freewheeling and experimental side of the Jam, a band having fun, exploring their boundaries, and paying respect to their influences and idols, giving the listener a clearer picture of where the Jam came from and where they wanted to go.

B-sides like "Tales from the Riverbank," "Shopping," and "The Butterfly Collector" put a far more introspective and softer side of the Jam on display, and prove that they could slow down the tempos and remain compelling. "Shopping," in particular, is simply gorgeous, a waltzing pastoral reminiscent of something off Nick Drake's Bryter Layter or Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, its warm, jazzy bass and guitar lines floating over a hypnotic flute and horn melody. It's honestly the last thing you would think of when thinking of the Jam, but telegraphs where Weller would go later, especially on solo efforts like Wildwood. Elsewhere, "The Great Depression" and demo "A Solid Bond in Your Heart" (which would later become a Style Council tune) have Weller wearing his soul influences on his sleeve, with Motown rhythm tracks and horn stabs taking center stage, like Elvis Costello on Get Happy!!.

The covers on Extras are all pretty great, showing off some obvious influences (the Who on "Numbers" and "So Sad About Us," the Small Faces on "Get Yourself Together,") and not-so-obvious (the Beatles on "And Your Bird Can Sing"), but seeing the Jam nail each one. The soul covers on Extras explain Weller's next incarnation as the Style Council: the band tackles Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up" (given a quicker tempo and an abbreviated running time, but retaining the brilliant horn lines and melody of the original, which is one of the most perfect songs ever written, so why mess with it?) and the Chi-Lites' "Stoned Out of My Mind," suggesting that Weller was tiring of the straight ahead guitar bashing most closely associated with the Jam and was itching to stretch out a bit. Demo versions of "Boy About Town" and "Thick as Thieves" are a little rougher than the album versions, but still make for great listens (the way the subtle minor key inflections of "Boy About Town" undercut the song's major key charge justifies repeated spins).

Paul Weller is a god in his native land. In the U.S., he's basically a footnote. And that's too bad, because though there's something distinctly British about his style and approach, his pure pop brilliance is universal. Extras probably isn't the best place to start if you've never heard the Jam (go with All Mod Cons or Sound Affects or Snap!), but it proves how deep this band's bench really was.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Britta Phillips & Dean Wareham. L'Avventura (Jetset, 2003)

"You can cut my hair, you can fill my cup/ You can tell me lies, you can make it up/ We're gonna make it after all."

In addition to jazz, bourbon, and napalm, America invented cool. The current distillation of the concept arrived early in the second half of the 20th century, a mix of Miles Davis, James Dean, and heroin. Today, it's our number one export behind political instability and ill will. And even though he's originally from New Zealand, I always think of Dean Wareham as having a voice that embodies cool, specifically of the NYC variety. Wareham's laconic baritone is the sound of nonchalance and tossed-off elegance, all inspiration, no perspiration. He cops his style and limited vocal range directly from proto-hipster Lou Reed, and over the years has evolved from a spaced out Harvard student playing murky dream-pop into the picture of sophisticated (if a bit ghoulish, judging by recent photos) Gotham cool.

Wareham headed up Galaxie 500 from 1986 to 1991, and broke up the band after releasing three pretty good records. I like Galaxie 500 (you can buy all of their albums separately or in one box set) but they had a tendency to wrap decent melodies in a heavy layer of audio fog and wear the welcome out of good ideas through repetition. Listening to those guys is like having a boring fever dream. In 1992, after giving the heave-ho to Galaxie 500's rhythm section (who stayed together to form Damon and Naomi), Wareham put together Luna, a group which traded in Galaxie 500's sonic narcotics for a sharper, more polished, and way hookier sound owing a lot to the Velvet Underground and late-'70s downtown guitar gods Television. As if to drive home the point of their influences, Luna collaborated with both the Velvets' Sterling Morrison (on 1994's great Bewitched) and Television's Tom Verlaine (on 1995's even greater Penthouse -- seriously, if you haven't heard Penthouse, go buy it).

I loved Luna, even if they never really changed their sound or pushed any real boundaries. At their worst, they were pleasant, and at their best, they were awesome. Plus, they sounded like a warm bath, so comforting, so soothing. Perfect for chilling out or coming down. When Luna finally called it quits in 2005, I would have been a lot more bummed had Wareham not already started putting out records with Luna's final bassist, stone fox, and voice of the animated female rocker/superhero Jem (it's true; look it up), Britta Phillips. The duo's 2003 debut L'Avventura is an electro-poppy hit parade, full of sparkling melodies and lush arrangements, and it sounds like a Dean Wareham record.

L'Avventura is bright and shiny, which has a lot to do with fact that it was produced by Tony Visconti, who has worked with folks like T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, Morrissey, and loads of others. He clearly knows what he's doing. Everything in its right place, so to speak, and it feels pretty good. Lots of strings, too, to class it up a bit. The vocals take center stage, and Wareham trades off singing duties with Phillips. She sounds sexy. Really, really sexy. And smoky. And a little tired, maybe, but really, really sexy all the same.

There are a lot of covers on this record, which I guess has become Wareham's thing. Luna did a version of "Sweet Child o' Mine" a few years back, making it sound like a Luna song, and that was ok. They did a version of Serge Gainsbourg's "Bonnie and Clyde," too. So I guess Wareham fancies himself somewhat of an interpreter, which is fair, because he has a distinctive sound and leaves his mark on whatever he touches. Or maybe he's just running out of his own ideas. At any rate, he covers Madonna's "I Deserve It," making it a far better song, in my opinion. And he does a great version of the Silver Jews' "Random Rules," which is a bold move because "Random Rules" is one of the strongest tunes from a really strong band. But Wareham makes it his own, so hats off. He also does the Doors' "Indian Summer" here, which works mainly because Wareham sings in the same octave as Jim Morrison and otherwise nails the blissed-out/junksick vibe of the original. The best cover here (and an album highlight) is "Threw It Away," first recorded by some band called Angel Corpus Christi, who I've never heard. Anyway, this one gives Wareham a chance to show off his formidable guitar skills, which are, uh, formidable.

And between the covers, the originals on this album stand out.
Album opener "Night Nurse" sets the tone of the record right away: shimmery, dreamy, easy on the ears. My favorite song here by a wide margin is "Ginger Snaps," which brings a crisp four-on-the-floor beat, rubbery bass, and crybaby guitar together with a once-in-a-blue-moon melody. Plus, like many of the tracks here, it's a duet, and Wareham and Phillips (who are married, by the way) sound like they're getting ready to go to bed. It gives you ideas. On her own, Phillips knocks the sleepwalking cadence and lilt of "Out Walking" out of the park; it's a perfect vehicle for her seductive chanteuse pipes.

Check out L'Avventura if top-shelf melodies and a slightly loungey sound are your thing. So what if Dean Wareham looks like a fancy zombie, sings like he's asleep, and ditched his wife and kid (true story) to shack up with the cartoon character who plays bass in his band? He's cool, man.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Mountain Goats. We Shall All Be Healed (4AD, 2004)

"There must be diamonds somewhere/ In a place that stinks this bad/ There are brighter things than diamonds/ Coming down the line."

The voice of John Darnielle, onetime mental hospital attendant and perennial primary personality in the Mountain Goats, can be an acquired taste, I'll grant you. His thin, nasally tenor is a close cousin to the high-lonesome wail of old-timey bluegrass and mountain music, pitched somewhere up above reedy and marked by a wavering shakiness that's pretty unsettling at times. It's a haunted voice, custom built for ghost stories and murder testimonies. But I've gotta tell you, from the first few listens of We Shall All Be Healed -- the Mountain Goats' brilliant 2004 addition to a lengthy catalog stretching back to 1991 (sixteen LPs and counting, and way more EPs and singles) -- it's a taste that I acquired, and I've come to consider Darnielle one of the best personal musical discoveries I've made in recent years.

Like I say, Darnielle has been recording as the Mountain Goats for nearly two decades. The king's ransom of his catalog is exceedingly lo-fi, in the "I've got this guitar and this boombox and I'm not too sure if the boombox's mic works right" vein.
By the time I stumbled onto them (having never really been aware of the band until coming across We Shall All Be Healed basically by chance), the Mountain Goats had a vibrant fan base of folks dedicated to collecting Darnielle's sounds as quickly as he could release them. Only rarely did other instruments or voices join Darnielle and his acoustic, and the poor recording quality gave many of his albums an almost found art feel.

With 2002's Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats acquired a major label (4AD), a comparatively sophisticated studio sound, and the occasional bass, drums, and piano to keep the still mainly acoustic guitar company. Tallahassee proved that Darnielle wasn't hiding behind the lo-fi approach, passing off crap songs as something better by wrapping them in tape hiss and background noise. We Shall All Be Healed, the follow-up to Tallahassee, saw Darnielle and company sticking around the studio, and we're all better off for it: it's as memorable a batch of catchy, quirky genius as you're likely to find.

The Mountain Goats often work unifying themes into their records (a collapsing marriage in Tallahassee, child abuse in The Sunset Tree), and the loose theme of We Shall All Be Healed is meth and meth addiction. Many of these songs focus on how meth affects its users, making them fixate on the bizarre minutiae of the everyday. Sad and disturbing, sure, but fascinating and eerily hilarious, too. "Send somebody out for soda/ Comb through the carpet for clues/ Reflective tape on our sweatpants/ Big holes in our shoes," wails the narrator of "Palmcorder Yanja" (incidentally the first Mountain Goats song I ever heard, and the one which made me want to investigate further). Later, the loping fever dream of "Letter From Belgium" talks about "Susan in her notebook/ Freehand drawings of Lon Chaney/ Blueprints for geodesic domes/ Recipes for cake," before Darnielle announces, "When we walk out in the sunlight we tell everyone we know it hurts our eyes/ When the real reason we don't like it is that it makes us wonder if we're dying."

I've mentioned Darnielle's voice, but his guitar playing and sense of arrangement are something to behold, too. He's got a straightforward, expressive style which captures the mood and tone of the songs perfectly. Check out the urgent, desperate strumming of "Home Again Garden Grove," pulling the listener along as the car barrels past the strip malls and convenience stores, as the narrator draws closer to his destination, exulting in his imminent victory/self-destruction, crowing "I can remember when we were in high school/ Our dreams were like fugitive warlords/ Plotting triumphant returns to the city/ Keeping Tec-Nines tucked under the floorboards!" Ditto the syncopated rattle of "Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into the Water, Triumph Of," which finds an exultant Darnielle explaining "But you're going to do/ What you want to do/No matter what I ask of you/ And you send your dark messengers to tempt me/ I come from Chino, so all your threats are empty."

There's a lot of Mountain Goats out there to discover. John Darnielle has a pretty unique (not to mention prolific) vision and talent, and it would be a shame not to check out at least some of it. We Shall All Be Healed -- in all its addled, adenoidal glory -- is a great place to start.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Thermals. The Body The Blood The Machine (Sub Pop, 2006)

"God reached His hand down from the sky/ God asked Noah if he wanted to die/ He said 'No, Sir. Oh no, Sir'/ God said 'Here's your future/ It's gonna rain...'"

My disdain for overtly political bands can be neatly summed up in this anecdote I heard about a U2 concert in Glasgow: At one point during the show, Bono steps to the edge of the stage and, clapping along to the beat (I don't know which song, but I always imagine it to be "Bullet the Blue Sky") announces to the crowd, "Every time I clap my hands, a child dies in Africa," to which a dude in the front row shouts, "Stop fuckin' clappin' 'em, then!" Too right. In the words of the Hold Steady (a band that could never be accused of being too political), "This was supposed to be a party." Lighten up.

Of course, there are some bands whose overwhelming rockingness more than makes up for their occasional preachiness. The Clash, of course. Fugazi. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. And add to this list the Thermals. Man oh man, can these guys kick ass. 2006's The Body The Blood The Machine is a record about 1) God, and 2) Republicans. The Thermals have a lot to say about both, most of it (you guessed right!) critical. But the message comes drenched in some of the most energetic, jagged, hook-filled punk I've ever heard, so I swallow it every time. Spoonful of sugar and all that, I suppose.

The Thermals, a three-piece from Portland, Oregon (which somewhat explains the lefty leanings), fill The Body The Blood The Machine, their third LP, with religious and political themes and loads and loads of catchy, bouncy tunes. I've always been a fan of the power trio approach (to include early ZZ Top. I'm serious. Ask my wife), 'cuz I think it forces bands to do more with less. And the Thermals definitely do more. Singer/guitarist Hutch Harris strums his guitar furiously, picking out solos catch as catch can from between the thrashing chords. Lots of single note riffing and wailing sustain, nothing too fancy. "A Pillar of Salt" and "Here's Your Future" offer perfect examples of this brilliance-through-forced-simplicity phenomenon. The rhythm section pushes everything right along, the drummer not taking it too easy on the snare or the cymbals. Harris sings in a nasally whine, sounding like a pissed off radical librarian, or maybe a deranged street prophet.

Fugazi's Brendan Canty manned the boards on this one, and his production captures the rushed urgency of the music real well. The whole record's got a compressed, pressurized sound, with lots of punchy midrange, especially on the drums and bass. The vocals are right up front, too, so the music connects like power pop. It's not exactly a Cars record or anything, but still.

And now, the Message. The Thermals are pretty preoccupied with the Bible here, and use Biblical stories (Noah's ark, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) to comment on the American political scene, as they see it, in the first decade of the 21st century. Christianity as a tool used by the haves to keep the have-nots down, essentially. Lines like, "We are old as hell/ We are old and tell the children/ When to kill, when to sit still," from "Power Doesn't Run on Nothing," or "Good luck getting God on the phone/ Good luck getting even a tone" from "An Ear for Baby" sum it up pretty well. That said, these guys seem to disdain a complete rejection of religion, as well: in album highlight "Returning to the Fold," Hutch laments "I regret leaving at all/ I forgot I needed God/ Like a big brother." Complicated!

Bono is annoying. He's insufferably self important and his band is nearly 20 years past its prime. The Thermals have a lot to say, too, but their music -- stripped down, vital, endlessly compelling -- is the utter antithesis to U2's bloated dad rock. So if you want a political lesson, look to Oregon, not Ireland. You won't be sorry.