Friday, October 31, 2008

Act Surprised is taking the day off, and will be back with a new post on Monday, November 3.

Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead EP (Lookout!, 2003)

"And your crying won't make you a dime/ It's just like any other job where they're gonna pay you for your time."

What's not to love about Ted Leo? Not only does he seem like a genuinely nice dude, smart and passionately political without being a jerk about it, but he's one of the most blindingly talented songwriters out there right now, with an incredibly well-developed sense of timing and melody and hands that sound like they were born holding a guitar. After infusing the somewhat self-serious DC postpunk scene of the '90s with some welcome levity in the jumped-up mod-revival outfit Chisel, he set out to singlehandedly save rock and roll with the Pharmacists, reminding indie nerds everywhere that Thin Lizzy were awesome and cranking out album after album (The Tyranny of Distance, Hearts of Oak, Shake the Sheets, and, most recently, 2006's Living with the Living) of mind-blowing hit parades.

Like virtually everything else Ted Leo has released (with the glaring exception of his very first Pharmacists release, the experimental bedroom bummout Tej Leo(?), Rx/Pharmacists, about which the least said the better), the 2003 EP Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead is solidly top shelf. The roaring title track, originally from the classic Hearts of Oak LP, is the only full-band offering in the set, with the rest of the collection dedicated to stripped down guitar-and-vocals takes on Ted Leo originals and a few well chosen covers. It's basically Ted Leo going Back to Basics, Billy Bragg style, armed only with his axe and his voice. And guess what? It's great, and exhibits Leo's innate ability to simultaneously rip out stunning guitar lines (which sound like they're being played on some sort of semi-hollow electric, like a Gibson ES or a Gretsch) while belting out his always-memorable vocal parts in an electrifyingly youthful tenor.

The solo versions of the originals shine a fresh light on some already strong material. "The High Party" alternates between slithering lead lines and chugging rhythm, Leo handling both while also dealing with the complex vocal duties. It's a pretty stunning display, as the original album version (from Hearts of Oak) is a multi-part mini-epic with handful of movements; Leo juggles it all here, alone, without breaking a sweat. "Bleeding Powers," which would eventually show up in full-band form on 2004's Shake the Sheets, is a rousing ballad that finds Leo wearing his Celtic roots on his clover green sleeve; when the twin solos rear their cranky heads a minute in (Leo on left speaker, Dan Littleton on right), things get thrillingly twisted.

"Sword in the Stone" and "Loyal to My Sorrowful Country" are Tell Balgeary's two original cuts, and both are impressive. "Sword in the Stone," especially: over a chunky, Townsend-esque chord progression and a glaringly sunny vocal melody, Leo caustically cuts a pretender down to size. "And if that's all you make of your time," Leo spits, "Then I'm not wasting anymore explaining what I've made of mine." At the 1:27 mark, the foot-stamping temper tantrum of a solo comes in, making mincemeat of the speakers. "Loyal to My Sorrowful Country" is a tuneful, biting protest anthem: "In the days when we were young, we were free, we were free/ With each new day that's begun, we won't be, we can't be, so/ No more shall I be loyal to my sorrowful country." It's a roaring monster with a sad heart of glass, the choppy chords underscoring the indignant rage.

Three covers are sprinkled throughout the EP, and each one makes perfect sense. The Pogues' "Dirty Old Town" is given a loving treatment (complete with an amplified, tangled jangle of a solo), as is Paul Weller's "Ghosts." And a spare version of "Six Months In a Leaky Boat" is a better introduction to New Zealand's Split Enz than, frankly, the Split Enz -- occasionally brilliant, too often clever to the point of abstraction -- could provide. In Leo's hands, "Leaky Boat" goes from new-wave bauble to hook-filled diamond in the dirt, and is all the better for it.

Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead is far more than a placeholder between LPs. It's a generous 30-minute testament to Leo's considerable skills as a songwriter, guitarist, and interpreter. And at this point, I'm fairly convinced that Ted Leo can do no wrong. As long as he stays away from the ambient noise experimentations. Those are terrible, Ted.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Television. Marquee Moon (Elektra, 1977)

"I remember how the darkness doubled/ I recall lightning struck itself."

Despite being widely considered a true punk classic, Marquee Moon isn't punk at all, at least not in the narrow stylistic sense of the word. Instead of rushed "1-2-3-4-!" beats, thrashing distortion, and barked/screamed vocals, we have densely composed guitar symphonies and nervously spoke/sung impressionistic lyrics verging on the poetic, all riding on nimble, interlocking drum-and-bass platforms. If Marquee Moon is punk, it's because it so thoroughly bucked punk convention at a crucial point in the music's development, standing up for technical ability in the interest of boundary-smashing techniques and visionary musical configurations.

The heart of the issue is this: Television could play. Led by guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, Television sprung up out of the late '70s downtown NYC scene centered around CBGB's. And like fellow punk-weird-not-punk-hard brainiacs the Talking Heads, they consistently challenged people's conceptions of just exactly what punk was supposed to be. But unlike the Talking Heads, who embraced punk's amateurism and married it with postgrad theory, Television threw amateurism off a cliff. Lloyd and Verlaine wailed, trading lead and rhythm constantly, taking cues from Thin Lizzy's twin-guitar attack and largely favoring clean, luminous tones over fuzzed-out crunch.

And they weren't afraid to jam, either. Like an angry East Coast Grateful Dead raised on bad speed, china white, and paranoia (look at that cover photo!) instead of peace, love, and grass, Television constantly stretched out into jazz-savvy sonic explorations, but without sounding like some insufferable "jam band." It's the dread and fear permeating so much of Television's music that keeps these instrumental interludes from becoming boring or self-indulgent; every note sounds necessary and immediate, vital in some sinister way. Plus, the rhythm section is always tight enough to rein things in and keep Lloyd and Verlaine from wandering too far off into the ether, which always helps. Today you can trace Television's DNA in bands like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, who similarly embark on extended instrumental expeditions while retaining a sense of purpose and melodic discipline.

And punk or no, Marquee Moon is a stone classic, a constantly unfolding collection of compelling epics. It sounds timeless and of a place all at once, and offers something new and awesome every time I listen to it. "See No Evil" brings the rad right away, rising up around a crazily corkscrewing central riff on the sturdy scaffolding of Fred Smith's bass and Billy Ficca's kit. Tom Verlaine's high pitched, high anxiety vocals belt out in a amphetamine stutter, "I wanna fly, fly a fountain/ I wanna jump jump jump a/ Jump a mountain," with the rest of the band occasionally throwing out some call-and-response backing shouts. And then comes the 1:50 mark: pure shredding, courtesy of Richard Lloyd. The notes fly out in a relentless flurry, hot lava and acid spray. Shield your eyes.

And that's just for starters. Marquee Moon rolls on for seven more tracks, each one alone reason enough to elevate the band to the realm of the chosen. "Venus" is a creepily giddy excursion into hallucinatory revelry, with a ringing primary motif and vaguely martial drumming. "You know it's all like some new kind of drug / My senses are sharp and my hands are like gloves," exclaims Verlaine. "Friction" is a spy theme for a junkie James Bond, taking a mutant Peter Gunn bluesiness into some troubled territory. "My eyes are like telescopes," Verlaine warns, before muttering, "If I ever catch that ventriloquist/ I'll squeeze his head right into my fist." Slashing chords interact with Verlaine's serpentine lead guitar lines, as the song gradually, jerkily builds into a towering monument to reverb and bad vibes.

The title track is a gorgeous saga, and at almost ten minutes, never feels labored or overdone. It drifts from movement to movement like mercury, rooted in an infectious, coiled-spring chord progression and rocksteady primitive-disco rhythms. For the first few minutes, it's an exercise in bottled tension, with the occasional blinding guitar flourish to help you catch your breath. And then, at the 4:27 mark, "Marquee Moon" heads for the stratosphere, where it stays just long enough for Lloyd and Verlaine to wring out a career's worth of terrifyingly brilliant sounds before exploding into fireworks at 8:42, and bringing the band back down to terra firma. Incredible.

Though it's tough to follow up a song as genre smashing/defining as "Marquee Moon," the rest of album is first class all the way. "Elevation" uses a morse code melodic signature and plaintive single-note yowls to unearth a disquieting prize. "Guiding Light" is heartbreakingly pretty ballad, with a gently ping-ponging riff lifted from prom night 1960 and a central solo guaranteed to cut glass. "Prove It" would be a trifle in any other hands, but here it's a goofily inspired moment of lighthearted fun, and keeps the album overall from getting too serious (it's only rock 'n' roll). "Torn Curtain" brings everything to a close in harrowing fashion, a massive stomper hung with sheets of minor key gloom and Tom Verlaine's rusty scalpel guitar work.

The first time I heard Marquee Moon, I knew I had never heard anything like it before. And when I found out these guys were supposed to be punk, I was confused. But then I realized how well the punk label fits, in the right light: these guys were virtuosos, but not out of sheer wankery. They played long and hard because they were full of ideas and feelings and had to get them out, or else. Marquee Moon is the sound of demons and ghosts breaking the surface, just in time and at just the right angles. And somehow they got it all down on tape. And it sounds amazing.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Les Savy Fav. Go Forth (French Kiss, 2001)

"Apocalypse can go down easy/ You gotta know it's an acquired taste."

I haven't heard a whole lot of Les Savy Fav; Go Forth is the only record I own, and I didn't get it too long ago. So I'm no authority on this Brooklyn post-punk outfit. I will say this, though: I
am an authority on a lot of DC post-punk outfits, and Les Savy Fav reminds me of a bunch of them. The sharp-edged guitars, all elbows and knees; the pulsing bass lines pointing the melodies along the way; and the bruising heavyweight drums laying down complex, articulated rhythms that walk the line between danceable and threatening.

Essentially, these guys trace a parallel path as Fugazi, the Dismemberment Plan, Faraquet, Smart Went Crazy, and, especially, Q and Not U. And that's a pretty great path, 'cuz DC post-punk is one of my favorite styles, exciting and paranoid and smart and dangerous. Les Savy Fav are clearly influenced by one of DC's signature sounds, and they could be influenced by a lot worse.

Go Forth comes off the blocks in a dead sprint with "Tragic Monsters," featuring an aggressively hip-shaking beat, ricocheting guitar lines, and a sing-song vocal lead from unhinged frontman Tim Harrington. "What we don't know," he chants, "can't hurt us yet," in what sounds like a deranged bit of wishful thinking. Turns out we're usually hurt by what we don't know. "Reprobate Resume" pummels and pounds as sheets of raygun guitar reverberate and radiate. "The devil goes out dancing/ On the angel's perceived needs," Harrington squawks, "Please go easy on me," sounding not unlike prog-punkers At the Drive-In before it segues into "Crawling Can be Beautiful" with a Soft Cell electronic thump, a darkly disco-fied track that bursts into a major key anthem at the 1:41 mark, ringing notes breaking through the gloom like sun through smog.

The opening notes of "Daily Dares" are a plaintive searchlight, scanning the darkness for the rhythm section; when it finally arrives at the 2:17 mark, it comes rushing out of the darkness with balaclavas and billyclubs, poised to do some damage. It's a nerve-racking exercise in tension built and released.

"One to Three" grinds forward like gears on a factory floor, interlocking machine-like drums and clockwork guitars underpinning a tired-sounding Harrington as he observes, "This racket takes it's toll/ My scams are smooth and cold/ I'm bathing in a fountain/ And I'm not getting old," even as he ages in front of our ears. "Pills" starts off on pins and needles, a prickly handful of broken-glass notes stabbing through the speakers before the rest of the band catches up to lay down a brittle, hopped-up groove to carry the song through.

"Adopduction" is my favorite track on the album, as much for the slashing hooks and monster drums as for the priceless lyrics. ""I dreamed I was kidnapped/ By a guy with a mustache/ And a chick with an eyepatch," the story begins, "who thought they could trade me back/ For some quick cash/ But when they relayed the bargain/ My family said/ 'We'll pay half that.'" It's a great example of Harrington's skewed humor, tied to a buoyant and bouncy arrangement.

So I'll probably listen to some more Les Savy Fav, if only because they sound like some of the best music my city has ever produced. The District has a lot to answer for, certainly, and can be a hard place to live at times. But it's been the incubation chamber for a lot of awesome musical ideas, rhythm-heavy, dub-inflected post-punk among them. It's nice to see the influences reach as far as Brooklyn.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Swearing at Motorists. More Songs From the Mellow Struggle (Secretly Canadian, 2000)

"Wish wish wishing that I could just play my guitar/ But you'll find me on the freeway getting high up in my car."

I've seen Swearing at Motorists live a handful of times, and at each show, it's essentially the same deal: half the crowd is really, really into it, and the other half is solidly ensconced somewhere on a spectrum ranging from This Isn't Very Good to I Hate This. I'm always really, really into it: I connect pretty strongly with Dave Doughman's lo-fi guitar theatrics and Raymond Carveresque observations about the romance and wonder buried in the mundane minutiae of the everyday. Plus, despite small crowds -- many members of which are at times openly hostile to his act -- Doughman always carries himself like he's fronting the Who at Leeds, completely oblivious to the fact that significant portions of the audience don't think he's effing amazing. And I admire that kind of confidence.

Swearing at Motorists began in Dayton, Ohio (home of such rock luminaries as the Pixies' Kim Deal and Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, and, coincidentally, the setting of Family Ties) in the early 1990s as a two piece outfit, with Dave Doughman on guitar and vocals and onetime GBV drummer Don Thrasher behind the kit. While Doughman tends to flesh out the band a bit on the albums with visiting guests and collaborators, Swearing at Motorists is essentially a guy with a guitar backed by a guy on drums (no bass!). It's rock stripped down to its altogether, and Doughman's emotions tend to be as naked as his compositions and delivery are raw. Singing in a soulful slacker tenor, Doughman delivers observations on friendship, relationships, and life in small places that not too many people care to think about, but which fundamentally shape and influence the characters of his songs. And yet, as emo/Dashboard Confessional as all that sounds, Swearing at Motorists maintain a finely-honed edge, and Doughman's lyrics are always refreshingly straightforward and plainspoken, and occasionally hilarious.

2000's More Songs From the Mellow Struggle is, I think, an exemplary Swearing at Motorists LP, in the sense that if you like this album, you will definitely like this band and their other records; if not, Swearing at Motorists probably aren't for you. To be perfectly honest, all these guys' albums have pretty much the same things to offer; opinions may vary, but their approach does not. Again, it's a guy singing over guitar and slightly-better-than-Meg-White drums; sometimes the songs are quiet and slow, sometimes they're loud and slow, and sometimes they straight rock. Though that said, Doughman does capture an elemental dynamic that invests surprises in even the most bare-bones arrangements. And the basic production approach milks the most out of the spare instruments, packing them with a satisfying wallop.

"East of Biloxi" is typically great. The guitars lazily chug and the drums hammer out an idly mammoth rhythm, not sparing the cymbal crashes. Doughman's vocal lines closely follow the catchy main melody with a little help from a wayward organ. It's a lumbering beauty, surprisingly big-sounding for such a minimal set-up, and effortlessly easy to enjoy, with its crashing chords and serpentine guitar solos. "I'll Only Sleep" is a harrowing rush of heartsickness and suicidal self-doubt: Doughman declares, "Look look looking, staring at this gun/ Reflection in the mirror/ Where'd you hide my mother's son?/ Got a funny way of thinking this shit will never end," as frantic strumming and a brisk beat amplify the desperation of the words.

"No More James Dean," with its thunderous drum rolls, is another stirring number, and "Oxygen Please" is likely the best rocker of the album: with a halting, stop-start crunch evocative of Rust Never Sleeps-era Crazy Horse, the song alternates between leviathan stomp and nimble sprint, and features some of Doughman's fieriest guitar playing, which tends to be intuitive and naturalistic, making up for any limited technical proficiency with an abundance of enthusiasm. If you need proof that Swearing at Motorists could burn down your house if necessary, this is it.

However, Mellow Struggle saves the best for last: "Neighborhood of Sirens" is quite simply one of the most stirring, overwhelmingly tender songs I've ever heard. Building around the plaintive, two-note keen of what my Nebraska-born, Wisconsin-bred wife informed me is actually a tornado warning siren, Doughman uses the alarm's languid rhythms and natural melody to construct a hypnotic acoustic hymn, demonstrating both his inventiveness and his ability to find beauty in commonplace surroundings. It's endlessly affecting, lent powerful emotional resonance by its elegant simplicity. "Neighborhood of Sirens" is the stuff that fandom is made of.

Swearing at Motorists keep it uncomplicated, letting the listener find his or her own reasons to accept or reject where they're coming from. Theirs is an emotionally naked sound, with lots of wide open spaces and unembarrassed barings of the soul. Heartbreaking and bracing. And whenever they come to town, I won't be bothered by the naysayers. They'll just leave more for the rest of us.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ugly Casanova. Sharpen Your Teeth (Sub Pop, 2002)

"Opened up a can of loud mouth malted/ High-fives in your eyes/ Push the gas and now I'm kissin' good-byes/ Looking for a purpose/ How the hell'd we get here?"

Ugly Casanova is a side project from Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock, and an interesting entry into the Modest Mouse pantheon. Like many side projects, it stands simultaneously as a sort of stylistic curio and road map, a forum for the artist to get something off his chest, maybe work out some demons, and even test the waters in a desired but uncertain direction.

In this case, Sharpen Your Teeth sounds ultimately like a Modest Mouse record -- Isaac Brock is a pretty singular talent with a broken-mold voice and vision, so it'd be pretty hard for him to make it sound otherwise -- but like a weird Modest Mouse record, even by Modest Mouse standards of weirdness. There's none of the unhinged guitar heroics and displays of rhythmic virtuosity that marked early Modest Mouse records like The Lonesome Crowded West and Building Nothing Out of Something. It's a got a far more rustic, casual, acoustic vibe, with lots of fiddles and banjos, all of which are nicely contradicted by the unsteady electronic touches scattered throughout.

Also, there's a bit of a backstory. Initially, Brock claimed that Ugly Casanova was the nom-de-rock of a Mr. Edgar Graham, a slightly unstable man who first approached Brock at a Modest Mouse concert in 1998 and, after establishing a shaky familiarity with the band, started sharing some of his songs, many of which eventually developed into Sharpen Your Teeth. Just as suddenly as he appeared, the story goes, Graham vanished, never to be heard from again, his songs his only remaining legacy. Spoooooky.

It's a crock, of course. Isaac Brock wrote all of these songs, and was using Ugly Casanova as a production company title as early as 1996. Whatevs. It doesn't really matter. Though it's always interesting when an artist goes through the trouble of concocting and disseminating a backstory like that in an effort to distance himself from the work. Why put yourself through the hassle? Is it to downplay your involvement in the project, or to hype the project through the use of a well-placed ghost story? Both at the same time? Who knows?

Like I said, it doesn't really matter. Sharpen Your Teeth, while not as immediately impressive as the best Modest Mouse, is an exceedingly solid LP, with a downbeat, haunted drift and some highly memorable melodies. Plus, Ugly Casanova features the pinch-hitting of some indierock landed gentry: Tim Rutili (Red Red Meat, Califone), Pall Jenkins (The Black Heart Procession), and Brian Deck (also of Red Red Meat and more recently an in-demand producer. Deck handled Modest Mouse's breakthrough The Moon and Antarctica). Given the Califone and Black Heart Procession personnel, it's no wonder this record has a kinda windswept desperation blowing through it, replacing Brock's usual wild-eyed fervor with a more sober, hungover sound.

The backwards-looped guitars of "Barnacles" christens the album, bleeding into a supple mid-tempo blues lurch fitted with some pleasantly thorny solos and damaged genius lines like, "I don't know me and you don't know you/ So we fit so good together 'cause I knew you like I knew myself," and, "Saw it as satellite, constant unblinking as/ Buried in the bottom of a bottom of a brackish lake." "Parasites" is a rousing ballad to the decomposition process bolstered by a sickly cheerful horn loop, a staggering electro beat, and piercing guitar plucks. "We're all a punchline to a joke that they won't let us in on," Brock demures. "And all your thoughts, they rot."

"Hotcha Girls" is the gem of the album, a gorgeous acoustic piece that fills the room with the smell of burning leaves and autumn rains, a pensive and exquisitely morose reflection on the passing of time and aging. "Suck it up, take a ride and take a walk/ And don't you know that old folks' homes smell so much like my own," Brock murmurs over a loping kick-snare beat and a gently rolling, finger-picked chord progression. The end result is one of Brock's most starkly pretty tunes.

"Cat Faces" is a simply strummed rambler with a winning melody that sounds like Brock wrote it in about five minutes, and it still manages to stick in your head long after the album ends. "Ice on the Sheets" points the way to the more Tom Waits-influenced tracks Modest Mouse would dabble in on Good News for People Who Like Bad News, as Brock tries on his high-pitched hexed hobo persona in the interest of a creepily catchy electronic fever dream. It's compelling if not entirely pleasant. "Smoke Like Ribbons" is probably the most cheerful song on the LP, and sounds like a nice Band outtake, with a breezy front-porch feel and offhand charm. "Singing 'Lawty lawty loved him'/ Stark don't give a flat fuck," Brock mumbles good-humoredly behind a staccato fiddle line and what sounds like a musical saw.

"Things I Don't Remember" stands out on Sharpen Your Teeth as the LP's closest thing to a party jam. It's got an insistently pounding drum line, martial march vocal sections, and delightfully nonsensical lyrics. It's the one track on the album where everyone seems to be in a genuinely good mood, and sheds the rest of the collection's melancholy for a hallucinatory joy. "So Long for the Holidays" closes out the album with a sweet drone and subdued John Bonham drums, lulling the listener into a pleasantly narcotized fugue state, a nice note to end on.

Ugly Casanova gets unjustly overlooked, I think. And that's probably just the nature of the side project. That's why it's called a side project. But don't overlook this album. It's got a disquieting grace that you don't want to miss.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Replacements. Hootenanny (Twin/Tone, 1983)

"Yesterday's trash/ Too bored to thrash."

Common rock cognoscenti opinion maintains pretty steadfastly that the Replacements' third album, 1984's Let it Be, is their best. And there's no question that it's a great album (my favorite 'Mats song of all time, "We're Coming Out," is on Let it Be, after all). Let it Be saw the erratic-but-brilliant Twin Cities upstarts settle down a bit and evolve from insanely talented amateurs into insanely talented songwriters and musicians, giving them an air of professionalism and seriousness almost entirely absent from 1981 debut Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash or 1983's Hootenanny. By Let it Be, they were the real deal, comparatively marketable, and more mature.

Which is probably why Hootenanny is my favorite Replacements record. Who wants mature 'Mats? I'll take the hard-partying, dangerously cavalier version every time. Besides, Hootenanny is a perfect blend of Sorry Ma's barely-contained chaos and Let it Be's more thoughtful songcraft. It sounds ragged and angry, but also wise beyond its years, like a band of misfits and fuckups getting older and better in spite of themselves and not really sure what to do about it. Hootenanny is a shockingly sharp snapshot of a brilliant band going through severe growing pains, and it captures all of the excitement and lightning-in-a-bottle charm of the Replacements on the verge of hitting the midtime.

In a clear sign of the band's disposition circa Hootenanny, the album kicks off with a title track that finds each band member playing the others' instrument, and not doing it very well. The song is in constant danger of collapsing entirely, and it's the album opener. Welcome aboard; the captain's plastered and the first mate's jumped ship. A bold -- or simply careless-- way to start, but it works, setting the tone of the album right away: this is gonna be fun, and catchy, but also pretty shoddy in a thrilling way. And hey man, isn't that rock and fucking roll?

And then comes "Run It," perhaps the best punk the 'Mats ever put to tape. It's a double time scorcher coated in Bob Stinson's amazing, casually molten guitar solos. Plus, the Inspector Gadget breakdown in the middle is boss. "Color Me Impressed" is an endearingly poppy, sneering outsider's anthem hung on a king-sized hook, the sound of the high school drunk crashing the rich kids' party to see what he might be missing and realizing (blessedly) that he's not missing much. "Everybody at your party/ They don't look depressed," spits Westerberg suspiciously, seemingly amazed that anyone could be having a good time or even be happy at such a soiree, in such a town, in such a world. "Everybody's dressin' funny/ Color me impressed."

All of the rockers on this album rule. "Take Me Down to the Hospital"'s jumpy, half-assed boogie is undercut with some pretty dark stuff, as Westerberg's wail betrays the desperation of someone too familiar with late-night emergency rooms and casualty clinic visits. "You Lose" is pissed off and amped up, with a nicely cribbed "Helter Skelter" riff injected into the choruses (the Replacements rip off the Beatles all over this record, incidentally. They even do it twice in one song: "Mr. Whirly" starts with "Strawberry Fields," goes hardcore, then shamelessly reverts back into "Oh Darling"). "Hayday" is the antithesis to "Color Me Impressed": a hectic car crash of a tune about a good party, the trashed kind, the best kind. It's joyous and headstrong and couldn't care any less.

On Hootenanny, Westerberg began to demonstrate his nascent ability to write a heart-rending love song with "Within Your Reach," which offers a glimpse into the future of Westerberg-as-perpetually-wounded-troubador. It's proof that the 'Mats had quivering, perilously sensitive hearts beating behind their self-polluted bravado, a breathtaking display of emotional vulnerability set to a tick-tocking beat box, flanged guitars, and a Cure-informed wall of synth. Gorgeous and devastating.

Even the goofs on this album are pretty damn great. "Buck Hill" is a rad surfy instrumental (which I think is an ode to native DC tenor saxophonist Walter "Buck" Hill, who, despite playing with Charlie Parker and other jazz legends, always kept his day job as a mailman), and "Love Lines" proves that these guys had some serious chops: as Westerberg reads aloud from the personals ("Slightly overweight girl seeks sex"), the Brothers Stinson and Chris Mars lay down an impressive, loose-limbed, jazzy little accompaniment, nailing the phrasing and timing on what sounds like a wholly improvised lark.

Album closer "Treatment Bound" is essentially a chronicle of where the 'Mats saw themselves at the time: smarter than everyone else (but no one else knew it), reckless, and royally fucked up. Over an acoustic folk-punk shanty, Westerberg bellows lines like, "First thing we do when we finally pull up/ Get shit-faced drunk, try to sober up," and he doesn't make it sound like that much fun. At all. There's a lot of bitterness, too: "We're getting no place as fast as we can/ We get a nose-full from our so-called friends." The way Westerberg slurs, "We go from town to town/ Duluth to Madison," traces the stifling boundaries of the ultimately small world
(the upper Midwest) of these bleary-eyed savants, and makes him sound resigned to a pretty bleak, cold life. It's quiet desperation hiding behind drunken bluster and teary aggression, and it makes me catch my breath every time it comes on.

Hootenanny is, for my money, the most pitch-perfect testament to the Replacements in all of their stumbling, thrashing, lovelorn glory. It's a portrait of sad, lonely kids who want to believe that rock can save them, but are having doubts all along the way. It's intoxicated and intoxicating. It's my favorite.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pavement. Watery, Domestic EP (Matador, 1992)

"I've got style for miles and miles/ So much style that it's wasting."

There was a period in my youth when, if it it wasn't Pavement, I probably wasn't interested. I fell for these guys quickly and completely, and believed that anything Steven Malkmus and his merry band of over-educated Fall-aping conspirators produced was nothing short of sheer genius. Pavement's music connected with me in a powerful way, satisfying my cravings for instantly engaging melodies with an arch, semi-detached playfulness and smart-assery I thought was incredibly cool. Pavement were the gold standard.

And if someone were to ask me, "What's so effing great about this band, anyway?" I would gently place a finger over their lips and hand them a copy of 1992's Watery, Domestic EP. In eleven minutes and twenty-seven seconds, Pavement wheels out four songs that eloquently express the essence of their style: supremely clever, direct, and compelling lo-fi guitar-guided indierock, with nothing/everything lyrics straight from a comp lit grad seminar. Each one of Watery, Domestic's tracks is Pavement's best song ever, depending on what day I'm listening. It's a stunning release, its brilliance matched only by its brevity.

Watery, Domestic was recorded during the Slanted and Enchanted sessions, and is the last Pavement product to feature the drum work of erratic middle-aged bachelor and early Pavement patron Gary Young. Legend has it that Young initially allowed Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs) to record in his studio on the condition that he could play drums. Malkmus and Kannberg agreed, and early Pavement -- to include Watery, Domestic (Young would be history by the time 1993's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain rolled around) -- bears the stamp of Young's slightly unhinged, to-hell-with-it percussive style. And frankly, Young is a key component of early Pavement's magic, his disjointed, impressionist beats matching the cracked mosaic melodies hand in glove.

"Texas Never Whispers" is the first track out of the gate: as a heavily distorted, droning handful of notes gives way to the crystalline primary tune, it's clear that we've got something of substance staring us in the face. A chugging fuzz-tone rhythm spiked here and there with treble-heavy lead stabs, agile, barely-keeping up drums, and a bass line constantly pushing the song where it needs to go. "Frontwards" is up next, hyper-hooky sheets of sonic crunch held in place by a steady-as-she-goes rhythm section and a woozily ringing guitar line. "Into the homes of plastic cones/ Stolen rims, are they alloy or chrome?" asks Malkmus before observing, "Now she's the only one/ Who always inhales/ Paris is stale/ And it's war if we fail." Superior nonsense has never sounded so good.

"Feed Them to the (Linden) Lions" is a crashing ode to high school football, marked by Young's spastic drum rolls and yet another irresistible sing-song vocal line and well-placed six-string freakouts. "Shoot the Singer" is the best song R.E.M. never wrote, a slightly down-in-the-mouth, sharply-drawn chimer with an elastic bass bit and gently rolling guitar parts occasionally overwhelmed by wrenching noise. "Someone took/ In these pants," Malkmus mopes. "Someone painted over paint/ Painted wood." And when it's over, so is the EP. And then you have to listen to it again.

Watery, Domestic is currently out of print, but you can find it used online any number of places (Amazon, etc.), though I can't imaging why anyone would ever give this up. It's also included in the expanded reissue of Slanted and Enchanted, so you can get it that way, too. If you've never heard Pavement before, this EP is an excellent place to start, and demonstrates clearly and succinctly why so many people were so enamored of this band. If you're a Pavement fan, go back and listen to it again today, and be reminded why it once seemed like this group could be creating perfect sounds forever.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Minus 5. Down With Wilco (Yep Roc, 2003)

"There's too much time for us to crack/ I want my money back/ One thing I guarantee/ It's so hard trying to be a little less like me."

In hindsight, the title of The Minus 5's 2003 symphonic pop opus Down With Wilco seems eerily prophetic. In 2002, Wilco released one of the finest albums of the decade in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, completing a trifecta of genius which includes 1996's Being There (awesome) and 1999's Summerteeth (so awesome). In 2004, Wilco followed up Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with the supremely disappointing and, at times, seemingly willfully unlistenable A Ghost is Born. And last year out came Sky Blue Sky, comparatively more enjoyable than A Ghost is Born but in the final analysis a pretty boring stab at '70s AOR. Since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I've found myself unable to get excited about Wilco -- a band I used to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking and talking about -- in any serious way. They've fallen almost completely off my radar. It's a king drag.

Which makes me wonder if Scott McCaughey -- formerly of Seattle's The Young Fresh Fellows and currently the mastermind (along with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck) behind The Minus 5 -- placed some kind of hoodoo curse on Jeff Tweedy and Co., because Down With Wilco is the last album Tweedy worked on that I have unequivocally enjoyed.
The Minus 5 is McCaughey's outfit, but Jeff Tweedy provides some songwriting support to Down With Wilco, plays guitar all over the record, and turns in a bunch of vocal performances. It's an instantly engaging, clever, and captivating album of immediate pop-rock nuggets, gilded with subtle multi-instrumental flourishes, and it's the kind of stuff that used to be Tweedy's bread and butter.

Down With Wilco is the eighth release from The Minus 5, a group conceived by McCaughey as a rotating band of like-minded musicians focused around core personnel McCaughey and Buck. Members of the Posies have frequently been involved, as have Robyn Hitchcock and American Music Club's Mark Eitzel. The guiding principle is golden-hued, highly melodic indiepop with a serrated edge. McCaughey is a first rate songwriter and composer, with a gift for taking the sonically simple and elevating it to the realm of the sublime. The tunes on Down With Wilco are easily grasped and guileless, universally pleasing like the best popular music, with bold hooks and assertive melodies that aren't easily forgotten. Add to this McCaughey's clever-but-never-precious turns of phrase, and you've got a rare listening pleasure on your ears.

"Days of Wine and Booze" introduces the LP with the sounds of a warming-up orchestra, a gentle, classical piano line, and a wistful McCaughey singing, "I know once the feeling flows, it's a long hard way/ Still I never want to lose the days of wine and booze." As the song moves forward, bass and drums are gradually added to the mix, creating a coolly captivating aural palette and a nice calling card for the rest of the record. "Retrieval of You" picks up the pace considerably, using a jaunty, alt-country-esque bit of jangle pop to tell an unnerving/ridiculous story of hard feelings and revenge. "Now you're a fabled rekkid star/ And I'm DJ Mini Mart/ 'Cause that's where I work," recounts McCaughey in the guise of a jilted sideman plotting the kidnapping and captivity of a former musical collaborator. "Everybody knows I fell afoul of fame/ And you're to blame that I'm What's-His-Name." The 3:28 mark sees Tweedy turn in some nicely thorny guitar commotion that works in the context of the pure pop of this track, but would unfortunately develop into irritating abstraction on A Ghost is Born.

"Daggers Drawn" is a sweeping, piano-driven ballad, with a stately main section and lovely descending bridge. The guitars gleam throughout, the notes dripping from the main melody like dew from a flower. "Where Will You Go" is underpinned by a skipping xylophone and a sweetly unraveling main riff. The drums go tom-heavy in the verses, giving the tune a slightly spaced-out, cavernous feel before the sharp vocal lines of the chorus bring everything back into focus. It's a compelling build-and-release dynamic.

Tweedy assumes lead vocal duties on "The Family Gardener," a glimmering acoustic pastoral that seems to expand upon his preoccupation with the Peter Sellers film "Being There," in which an innocent manchild attains political fame and power through his simple, agricultural-based aphorisms. It's a beautiful song, and wouldn't have sounded at all out of place on Wilco's Being There. "The Old Plantation" is set to a gentle martial march and reinforced by McCaughey's cheerfully melancholy singing and lyrics about inertia and inevitable decay. "The old plantation has been abandoned/ The love is gone, yeah, the love is gone/ New hieroglyphics braid the columns/ Kids on the M-Train baptize the lawns."

Perhaps the album's most honest pleasure comes at the very end with "Dear Employer (The Reason I Quit)." Over easily overlying chords and a sweetly exhausted vocal refrain, McCaughey turns in his resignation: "Dear employer, when you hear the news/ Please save the saintly words for saintly souls/ I'll be long gone, long gone and rotten/ Long gone and ulcerous, nothing untold." "That's the reason that I quit," the singer intones over and over, as the song and the album fade into a tender silence.

Wilco used to move me. Now they just bore me. And maybe it has something to do with The Minus 5. Did Down With Wilco somehow seal Tweedy's fate, dooming him to forever fail to live up to his previous glory? I don't know. But you know what? If it did, it was worth it. This album is that good.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Zwan. Mary Star of the Sea (Martha's Music/Reprise, 2003)

"Everyone is not as one/ Everyone's the same."

I fully realize that, from an indie snob perspective, I'm not supposed to like this album. At all. It is not generally considered to be remotely cool. Its release was greeted with some initial interest -- the band was, after all, a supergroup of sorts, featuring Billy Corgan, Chavez's Matt Sweeney, Slint's David Pajo, Paz Lenchantin from A Perfect Circle, and the Smashing Pumpkins' tremendous junkie drummer Jimmy Chamberlin -- followed by disappointment, disinterest, and in some cases, anger.

Why the backlash? Most of it had to do with exceedingly high expectations -- "This is gonna be so rad, man! Corgan and the dude from Chavez AND one of the dudes from Slint?!? AWESOME!" -- dashed against the craggy rocks of reality, and, let's face it, inevitability: "Dude, this just sounds like a Smashing Pumpkins record. Drag." What else was it gonna sound like? Chavez? Slint? Slintvez? Nopes. Billy Corgan is at the helm, after all, and he's a notorious control freak. The band -- like many a supergroup before it, I might add -- quickly disbanded due to internal tensions, a nation shrugged, and everyone went about their business as though nothing had ever happened.

So yeah, this album sounds like a Smashing Pumpkins record. But here's the thing: it sounds like a really KICK-ASS Smashing Pumpkins record. It's huge, bloated stadium rock, full of pretentious proggy philosophizing and half-baked themes and theories. It's trying really hard to be important and profound. It's neither. But what it is is an overwhelmingly enjoyable -- if a bit too long (Corgan was never much for self-editing; Mellon Collie had like 16 sides or something) -- set of '70s throwback, oversized powerpop jams, man. These tunes pump from the stereo in a steady stream of sweet 'n' sour triple guitar crunch. Just turn it up.

Because let's not forget, Zwan did have the dude from Chavez (guitar), one of the dudes from Slint (also on guitar), and Jimmy Chamberlin, who's an alarmingly mighty drummer. Even Corgan's monolithic ego can't drown out the awesomeness of that combo. Matt Sweeney is an incredible guitarist (Chavez is one of the most exciting, flat-out rocking, and underrated bands of the '90s), and it comes through time after time in Zwan, despite Corgan's tendency to hog the spot light with his Boston-biting bombast. Plus, I get the feeling that the rest of the band brought some good ideas to the table that helped shape Mary Star of the Sea into something far more interesting and fun than any normal Corgan solo project could hope to be.

There's nothing subtle about any of these songs. They are heavy-hitting hook collections in afterburner mode, nearly every one. "Lyric" sets the pace with a galloping slab of riffery, introduced with a thickly distorted jangle and shot through with Sweeney's wandering, spiky leads. "Settle Down" is a stiffly syncopated stomper coated in dense power strums and searing solos as Corgan (who handles all of the lead vocals) belts out, "Never lose that feeling!" It's more than a feeling, right Billy? And check out the wicked shredding that begins at the 4:39 mark and sticks around for the remaining forty-odd seconds. Totally sweet.

"Declarations of Love" is almost laughably epic, with a massive sound and dynamic shifts straight from the Rush rule book. It's also insanely catchy and thrilling in its towering grandiloquence and ridiculous rock majesty. "Honestly" is a spry, elastic anthem, Chamberlin's drums and Lenchantin's bass mapping out the blast zone before Corgan, Sweeney, and Pajo burn everything inside it to the motherlovin' ground. The scorchingly melodic guitar three-way that begins at the 2:44 mark is basically everything that's great about the record compressed into thirty seconds.

"Ride a Black Swan" is one of the two best songs on the album, an unceasingly pounding pleasure, featuring an enthralling, circular main riff and some of the most enjoyably goofy lyrics on the whole record, with Corgan pondering, "As the world goes 'round, it's got me thinking/ That the things I want, they just keep me sinking/ Down." Whoa, bruh. Like, whoa. "Yeah!", the other best song here, is where the album should have ended, a sunny, charmingly bright and joyous little sparkler, with an infectious vocal hook and some blinding shredding. But instead of ending with "Yeah!," the eleventh song, Mary Star of the Sea continues on for twenty-two more minutes and wears out its welcome.

My advice to you is this: ignore the anti-hype and get this record. You can get it for pennies, basically. And stop listening after "Yeah!" 'cuz after that you'll probably start getting bored and a little irritable. But up to and including that track is a gem of an album, an unapologetically backwards-looking treasure trove of shaggy, six-string-slinging bliss. I promise.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Jawbreaker. 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (Tupelo/Communion, 1994)

"You're not punk, and I'm telling everyone/ Save your breath, I never was one."

As I mentioned when discussing Knapsack a while back, there was a time (the '80s and '90s, to be specific) when the term "emo" was not strictly pejorative. Not so nowadays. Nowadays "emo" is, like, Dashboard Confessional and My Chemical Romance and Good Charlotte and eyeliner and side-worn belt buckles and shit. Complicated hair. TRL (RIP). Whine + piss-poor glam. Epically lame.

But that's not how it used to be. When emo first rolled out of its chronically unmade bed, it was hardcore's thoughtful, bespectacled cousin (who drank before classes), with slower tempos and a more thoughtful (ie.,"concerned about things other than parents, Reagan, conformity, and drunk jocks") approach. Plus -- and this is the crux -- emo was
melodic. It was catchy. You could sing -- not just shout and punch -- along to it. It maintained the raw energy of punk and hardcore and combined it with the thrilling, joyful hookiness of new wave and pop. Perfect.

And some of the best purveyors of golden-era emo were the guys in San Francisco's Jawbreaker. Starting with 1990's Unfun, singer/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach, bassist Chris Bauermeister, and drummer Adam Pfahler cranked out some of the catchiest, hardest-hitting power trio bluster around, and left a string of great albums to show for it. Unfun, 1992's Bivouac, and, most importantly, 1994's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy are as bracing a trio of heart-on-sleeve indierock platters as you're likely to find (underwhelming final album Dear You, released in 1995, unfortunately saw these guys go out with a whimper instead of a bang, but knowing Jawbreaker, they did it on purpose just to be Hollow Men).

24 Hour Revenge Therapy is an incredibly solid set of songs. The entire album hangs together expertly, each tune moving from one to the next in logical succession, establishing a thrilling dynamic over the course of its 37+ minutes. It sounds great, as well: in what seems to be becoming an Act Surprised tradition, this record was produced by Steve Albini (though the liner notes credit the album's engineering to Albini's cat Fluss). The guitars have that dry, harsh edge to them, tempered only by the strong melodicism of the lines. The bass and drums are aimed at the gut, insistently high in the mix. This is especially satisfying where the drums are concerned: Pfahler's chops are a thing of wonder. His eight-armed octopus style hits hard but displays the virtuosity and timing of jazz. The guy's all over the place and right where he needs to be every time.

Schwarzenbach is lucky enough to possess one of the most distinctive voices in the biz, to boot (which you can also hear in his subsequent band Jets to Brazil -- named after a poster hanging in Audrey Hepburn's apartment in Breakfast at Tiffany's. How emo!). I once read that he was inspired by the Psychedelic Furs' Richard Butler, and it shows: his hoarse, sandpaper rasp makes me want to buy a lozenge every time I hear it (Schwarzenbach actually had to have an operation on his throat to heal the damage before recording 24 Hour Revenge Therapy). But it conveys an eloquently wounded aggression, wrapping his smarty-pants lyrics in a nice barbed-wire bow for your listening pleasure.

And there's plenty of pleasure to go around on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. Album opener "The Boat Dreams From the Hill" gets things started with a distorted wash of thrusting guitar and manic drum fills; the hectic ride cymbal hits of the chorus make the song. "I wanna be a boat," sings Schwarzenbach, "I wanna learn to swim/ Then I'll learn to float/ Then begin again." It's melancholy and triumphant all at once. "Indictment" is an accusatory finger pointed straight at the hardcore doctrinarians, as Schwarzenbach admits, "I just wrote the dumbest song/ It's gonna be a sing along" before declaring, "It won't bother me, what the thoughtless are thinking/ I am more concerned with what we're drinking" as the band bounces along happily. "Boxcar" is a withering mission statement: "You don't know what I'm all about/ Like killing cops and reading Kerouac."

Kerouac, incidentally, shows up again a little later in one of the album's most affecting passages: on album centerpiece "Condition Oakland," the band integrates snippets of the beatest Beat reciting portions from his "Lonesome Traveler" on the Steve Allen show. It sounds like the twee-est thing ever, I know, but it's actually breathtaking: Allen's tinkling piano and Kerouac's weary-child inflections mix with the jagged Jawbreaker instrumentation in a charming bit of alchemy. Pure gold.

"Ache" and "Do You Still Hate Me?" are two of the most typically emo tracks in the collection, focusing on that old chestnut: girls and their tendency to break up with boys. "Lean your head on mine like you used to do," Schwarzenbach pleads on the former, "Used to your lean/ I don't mind if you're faking it." Ouch. Chin up, guy. On "Do You Still Hate Me?" a rush-and-punch guitar gallop keeps the singer company as he cries, "Are we talking?/ Are we fighting?/ Is it over?/ Are we writing?" The last 23 seconds of the song slay, as Schwarzenbach's guitar rides out the wreckage on a wave of trebly mutilation.

Listening to Jawbreaker (and living through the last eight years in America) makes me pine for the '90s. It was awesome: everyone loved us and the Internets were brand new! And if someone asked, "What do they sound like?" you could say "They're pretty emo" without getting laughed at/beat up. And for good reason. Jawbreaker and their fellow travelers were the best of the emo lot, and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is the best Jawbreaker ever gave us. Thanks, you sad sappy suckers.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Various Artists. Turn 3 (Almost There, 2007)

"Well along came the rain/ Man, it wouldn't let up/ And in my crazy get-up/ I believe I blew my own damn mind."

Having lived there for a few years, Austin's status as the "Live Music Capital of the World" is, in practice, both a blessing and a curse. There's a lot of clubs and a lot of bands, which is great if you like going to shows, but not so great if you don't like hearing a bunch of bullshit. Seriously, for every Spoon or American Analog Set or Grand Champeen, there's dozens of rehashed blooze-jam, SRV-worshiping a-holes (and I don't even hate SRV: "Texas Flood" and "Crossfire" are pretty good songs, and his guitar playing on Bowie's Let's Dance is great, but there's just way too many ponchos and statues and dumb hats down there), with their Strats and Mesa Boogie amps set squarely on suck. It's enough to make yer heart heavy, believe me. If I never hear "Hey Joe" again, that'll be just fine.

Which is why Almost There, both as a label and a loose community of like-minded Austin and elsewhere-based bands, is so handy. Almost There (full disclosure: I'm friends with guys in several Almost There bands) encompasses some of the best amped up, wide-eyed, straightforward rock n' fuggin' roll coming out of Austin or anywhere else these days. Like any good label, it smacks a seal of quality on its acts: if it's affiliated with Almost There, it's gonna be good. And nary a blooze-jam there will be. That's the Almost There promise.

Every summer since 2005, Almost There puts out a Turn compilation, providing a State of the Union overview of its friends and associates. August 2007 saw Turn 3 make its way into the world, and it's as strong a collection of bands and tunes as Almost There has ever released. Which is to say, there's some real gold on here, and an opportunity to hear some fine acts churning out some of the most heartfelt rock ruckus to be found in these Unites States.

1986 opens the door with "Habits," a squalling, feedback-soaked chunk of aggro indiepop, hard candy with a battery-acid center. Catchy, confectionary, pissed off. Semi-serious cock rockers the Rockland Eagles follow it up with one of the best songs of the comp, "S.O.B. Tattoo": it's pure sing-along swagger, with a muscular main melody and and a lumbering rhythm section bringing the noise like it's 1976. And batting third is the Tammany Hall Machine's "Anti-Gospel (It Turns Me On)," a pumping, piano-and-horn-driven onslaught that gobsmacks the listener with a killer guitar attack circa the 1:30 mark and collapses into a sweaty heap after three minutes. Effin' A. So Turn 3 gets off to a real strong start.

And the hits just keep on coming through the twenty-one songs on here. The mighty Mandible offer up some of their Sgt. Pepper/ Supertramp magic on "Prelude to Rusty Air in D# / Rusty Air," psychedelic mariachi trumpets and bad-trip organ washes making you feel all funny inside. One Mississippi's "16 Ships" is a pure scorcher, its charging, Superchunk-informed crunch doing plenty of awesome damage in just over two and a half minutes. Li'l Cap'n Travis's patented space-twang surf-rock is as welcome as ever, and "Down the Hall From the Mountain King" is a sparkling head-trip of a treat. Grand Champeen's entry rules, of course: "Destructive Ear" features one of these guys' more memorable hooks, which is saying a lot, as GC's cranked out more catchy hooks than you've had hot dinners.

The Solace Brothers lead the way into the second half of the collection with "Shame on You," an aggressively pounding work-out that's sure to leave a bruise. The Remainders heap on the turned-to-eleven guitar pop and the baa-da-baas on "Wayside," with Keith Moon drums flailing and the singer shouting out like he's got the gospel truth. Youngmond Grand's "Forever From Here" is one of Turn 3's most interesting, inspiring tracks: a fuzzy-headed, sprawling rocker, kept in place by an insistent piano loop, slowly driving drums, and searing, transmission-from-the-outer-limits guitars. It's a hypnotic, blissed-out jewel of a tune.

And those are just the highlights on a collection devoid of lowlights. Turn 3 (available here: is beyond solid, and the Almost There folks are doing the Lord's work by putting this stuff out. Someone's gotta lead the fight against dad rock in A-Town, and it might as well be these guys. Onward, gentlemen.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Constantines. Kensington Heights (Arts and Crafts, 2008)

"We've been told pleasure kills/ We don't get nervous/ You can tell/ You can tell by the way we walk/ We've got hard feelings."

When the Constantines first surfaced out of Guelph, Ontario in 2001, the common rock crit analysis of these guys was that they sounded like Fugazi with Bruce Springsteen on vocals. With their cranky post-punk racket -- heavy, semi-angular rhythms and scorched earth guitars -- fronted by singer/guitarist Bryan Webb's raspy voice and literate lyrics, that seemed an accurate enough shortcut to describing their sound. And hey, who wouldn't want to hear "Born to Run" played by the guys who brought us "Waiting Room"? That would rule. And rule it did.

And even if a few records on I think that the Fugazi-cum-The Boss comparisons are wearing a bit thin, I still think the Constantines rule. I fell in love with their second LP, 2003's Shine a Light (the stunning "Nighttime, Anytime" is one of the best tracks of the decade, no question), and my affection for them only grew with 2005's Tournament of Hearts, where the Constantines tempered their fiery immediacy with occasional touches of almost folky delicacy, all the while keeping their sights set on "rawk." Their latest, Kensington Heights, is another winning entry, finding the band exploring the quieter aspects of Tournament of Hearts and churning out another round of epic burners.

"Hard Feelings" starts things off in fine style, a nervous keyboard line matching the slashing guitars and driving drums nicely, adding to the tune's desperate paranoia and hopped-up energy. At the 2:15 mark, the band breaks into full-gallop breakdown mode, and it's a thing of beauty. "Million Star Hotel" is next in the rotation, and arrives with crash and bombast before settling down to smolder and smoke, Bryan Webb crying, "I'd just like to see you in a natural light" before demanding, "Where's my black water?/ Where's my loving cup?" as the twin guitars scream and cry. "Trans Canada" finds the bass and drums steadily stalking the melody while the guitars trade off between crunch and chime. "Brother Run Them Down" is another amazing charger, steadily pounding snare setting the pace for the rest of the band, the defiant "You are not your generation!" of the chorus a rousing call to arms. This might be the most Bruce-esque track of the record, combining working-class anger ("Days of doubt can ruin men") with a faith in stoic perseverance ("Live and let your hand undo them/ Brother run them down") in a way that makes you want to throw a brick through a window.

As I said, the Constantines have been getting better and better at the quieter stuff, managing to tone it down while keeping things interesting and even exciting. "Time Can Be Overcome" is a perfect example. Webb turns in a wistful, soulful vocal over a slightly behind the beat drum plod and thick, slowly strummed chords, sounding weary and hopeful all at once, declaring, "What do you know?/ Still living so young/ Tomorrow's no burden/ Time can be overcome" with a triumphant bellow. "I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song" is another softer, top shelf turn, country guitar twang grounded by Webb's gravelly delivery.

But of the quieter tunes on Kensington Heights, "New King" is the clear winner. Over a light acoustic progression bolstered by easy organ lines, Webb delivers a beautiful ode to parenthood and family without falling into preciousness. And when the rest of the group steps in at the 1:51 mark, the songs develops into a gorgeous, punchy, loose-limbed charmer. "Your mother and father/ Walked out of the city/ Bound together/ As they were bound to be."

I first heard the Constantines when they played a short set at South by Southwest in 2004, and got that thrilling feeling you get when you realize you've just discovered something great. Four years and several albums further on, these guys have never let me down. To my ear, they just keep getting better, and Kensington Heights is the latest in a series of amazing collections of indierock inspiration. On "Life Or Death," Webb recounts a near-fatal experience, crying "I was lucky to get out alive!" And we were lucky he made it, too.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Palace Music. Viva Last Blues (Drag City, 1995)

"We all know what we know, it's a hard swath to mow/ When you think like a hermit you forget what you know."

In 1987, a young Will Oldham played a teenage preacher in John Sayles's 1920s-era West Virginia labor drama Matewan, and in a sense he's never stopped playing him. It was an incredibly affecting performance (perhaps the best in a film not hurting for great performances), and one in which Oldham -- with his lantern jaw and slightly feverish, bulge-eyed demeanor -- clearly felt comfortable with, so comfortable, perhaps, that he just decided to be that guy forever.

Under the various monikers Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Bonny Billy, and, most often, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Oldham -- a Louisville, Kentucky native who, incidentally, took the photograph adorning the cover of Slint's epochal Spiderland -- has produced album after album of country-inflected, folk-damaged Americana, beginning with 1993's There is No-One What Will Take Care of You. I'm a pretty big fan of Oldham's many incarnations, but Viva Last Blues, his third album and the second using the Palace Music alias, is far and away my favorite, featuring all of Oldham's best tendencies (abstract yet achingly evocative lyrics, timeless-seeming melodies that feel dredged up from the earth itself) with few of his more common shortcomings (preciousness, forced authenticity). Viva Last Blues is a gorgeous, well-paced, almost cinematic assembly of songs preoccupied with death, loneliness, and deliverance.

"More Brother Rides" kicks off the Steve Albini-produced album with a woozy beat (drums are handled throughout by Sebadoh's Jason Lowenstein), sporadic barroom piano, and wavering guitar, as Oldham -- his voice recalling backwoods Appalachian winds and haunted wilderness homesteads -- croaks along with building fervor, "Friends come by and spend some hours/ And then back down to working/ At night, things come and have a life/ Not so silly, walking." The song sets the tone for the rest of the record: desperate, antiquated, celebratory, cracked.

"The Brute Choir," with its haunted waltz cadence and gently troubling melody is desolate and beautiful, Oldham mourning, "I never hurt someone so young/ And I never held someone so sweet/ Makes me want to holler with them/ All the way down." It's an album highlight. The next track, "The Mountain Low," is pretty hilarious, and sounds like Oldham poking fun at his own old-timey high-lonesome persona, as he sings (with a barely concealed smile), "If I could fuck a mountain/ Lord, I would fuck a mountain/ And I'd do it with a woman/ Of value." It's a lighthearted moment on an album heavy with foreboding and dread, a ray of light into an abandoned and darkening room.

A dolorous ballad of betrayal and revenge, "Tonight's Decision (And Hereafter)" is one of the most gutting tunes on Viva Last Blues. As the various instruments piece together a rickety accompaniment, Oldham asks "Where are my friends?/ And where is my family?" before desperately answering his own question: "They've all gone away/ And it is I who have left them." "Work Hard/Play Hard" follows it up with a far brighter tone and a rollicking rhythm, joyously crunchy guitars and crashing cymbals punctuating Oldham's crazily uplifting vocals. It's what passes here for a party jam.

And then comes "New Partner," one of the best songs Oldham -- or anyone, really -- could ever hope to compose. It's a gently driving lullaby, with an otherworldly melody and incredible lyrics mapping out a faltering relationship with alarmingly precise images and phrases. "Well I would not have moved if I'd known you were here/ It's some special action with motives unclear/ Now you'll haunt me, you'll haunt me 'til I've paid for what I've done/ It's a payment which precludes the having of fun" crushingly declares Oldham, laying the listener to waste with his wounded delivery. A thing of rare and perfect beauty, this, to which the remainder of the record -- while certainly excellent -- cannot help but pale in comparison.

I've listened to a lot of Will Oldham over the years, much of which I've found irritating even as I've enjoyed it. Viva Last Blues is different, though, capturing Oldham at the height of his powers, nailing his specific shtick with a grace and elegance he's never attained, in my humble opinion, again. This is his Platonic ideal.