Friday, November 28, 2008

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

You Were Too Old For Me

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 21, 2008

Georgie James. Places (Saddle Creek, 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 14, 2008

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bargain Bin/Super Saver: Soul Asylum

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

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

I. Apologia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. The Albums

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

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

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

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

Made to Be Broken (Twin/Tone, 1986)

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

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

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

While You Were Out (Twin/Tone, 1986)

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

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

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

Hang Time (A&M, 1988)

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

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

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

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

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

Advice: Heed the advice I gave about Hang Time.

III. Conclusion

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

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

Friday, November 7, 2008

Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Trust (Columbia, 1981; Rykodisc, 1994)

"Are you so superior, are you in such pain?/ Are you made out of porcelain?/ When they made you they broke the cast/ Don't wanna be first, I just want to pass."

From 1977 to 1982, Elvis Costello could do no wrong, and it wasn't for lack of trying. Beginning with the debut My Aim is True and ending with the baroque, Sgt. Peppers-esque Imperial Bedroom, this period was astonishing both in the quality (high to mindbendingly high) and quantity (seven LPs in five years, impressive by anyone's standards) of Costello's output. You'd be hard pressed to find any pop/rock artist past or present who managed to produce as many truly classic albums in such a short amount of time: the clever country-cum-pub rock of My Aim is True in '77, followed the next year by the timeless scorcher This Year's Model, followed the very next year by Armed Forces' livid new wave genius.

Costello could have stopped there and proudly called it a career, but instead he continued his campaign to conquer the freshly postpunk world with the Stax/Motown amphetamine reverie of Get Happy!! in 1980, the lush chamber punk of Trust and (and!) the underrated country tribute Almost Blue in '81, running out of steam (comparatively) only after the career highlight of Imperial Bedroom in '82 (and then catching his breath to release some pretty great records over the course of the rest of the decade). Whew. It's enough to make any aspiring songwriter hang his head in shame and just call it a day.

And of all the records released in this early Costello-as-terrifyingly-talented-enfant-terrible period, Trust is, I think, the most interesting. For one, it's a stellar collection, bursting at the seams with top-drawer songcraft and savant-level arrangements. However, it's also an incredibly giant step forward musically, stylistically, and conceptually. Prior to Trust, Costello was essentially playing Mensa-level punk and new wave, taking the vitriol and aggression of the Class of '77 and turning it inward, giving it a powerful emotional edge and a far more accomplished instrumental dimension. The songs on This Year's Model and Armed Forces are the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks as played by a pissed-off honors student with a boulder on his shoulder and incredible chops. And Get Happy!!, Costello's take on classic American soul and R&B, is the best party record ever made, primarily because he was able to deftly demonstrate that punk and soul are but a tempo apart.

But Trust is different. For one thing, the songs are much slower, generally speaking. With one or two exceptions, these are mid-tempo to down-tempo numbers. Also, though Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve had been a fundamental part of the Costello sound since This Year's Model, his contributions had tended towards nervey, high-tension synth lines; Trust finds Nieve playing sweeping piano passages, brought to the front of the room by Nick Lowe's and Roger Bechirian's epic production. Costello's guitar, on the other hand, is pushed down in the mix, well below the as-always masterful rhythm section of Bruce (bass) and Pete (drums) Thomas. In other words, this is basically a piano-drums-bass record with guitar thrown in for flavor. And yet, Costello manages to retain his rage and amplify it using multi-layered, complex arrangements, the end result being one of his most engaging records ever. And that's saying something.

Track-wise, there's not a bad one on here, so I'll just hit the highlights (they're all highlights). Opener "Clubland" is a pounding, brutally rhythmic joy, marked by Nieve's echoey, shabby nightclub piano flourishes and Bruce Thomas's rubbery, insistent bass lines. "Thursday to Saturday/ Money's gone already," Costello shouts desperately. "Some things come in common these days/ Your hands and work aren't steady." "Lovers' Walk" takes Pete Thomas' tribal, octopus-armed drumwork as its starting point, and moves into a skittering, anxious shuffle before throwing a beautiful fit at the 0:58 mark, with Costello angrily asking the crowd, "Will you look what the lovers' done?" The mid-tempo, sadly triumphant gem "You'll Never Be a Man" is a razor sharp exercise in claustrophobic tension, and features one of Costello's best vocal performances; the way he sings the last several measures is a feat of phrasing and time.

"Strict Time" is one of the more guitar-oriented tracks, another excessively beat-driven burner. The rockabilly throwback of "Luxembourg" hints at the retro directions Costello would take later on in his career. "Watch Your Step" is an Attractions masterpiece, an enigmatically sinister slow-fuse of a song, with an impossible-to-forget creeping bassline and eerie big top organ motif. "Bye," croons Costello bitterly. "I send you all my regards/ You're so tough/ You're so hard/ Listen to the hammers falling in the breaker's yard/ You better watch your step." "New Lace Sleeves" is a dubby loper with a sterling melody, scratchy guitar work, and a nearly disco swing. "From a Whisper to a Sceam" finds the Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook helping out on vocals, joining Costello on a good natured (for Costello) rave up. Closer "Big Sister's Clothes" is a sophisticated, haunting ballad with a stripped-down arrangement that shifts from elegy to jaunty toe-tapper in just over two minutes.

Trust is a pretty complicated record. Not in terms of enjoyment; it's easy to enjoy. That's simple. But it's complicated in terms of tone and intent, especially given Costello's output up to that point. It's as though Costello was saying with Trust, "Look, I've got a lot of bright ideas and I've got a lot of anger and resentment. And I don't need to play especially loud or fast to prove it." And he was right. Trust in Trust.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Versus. Secret Swingers (Caroline/TeenBeat, 1996)

"Be my island/ Be my lighthouse/ In the dark closet/ Look behind the presents."

While most of DC-based enclave TeenBeat's bands put the emphasis on the "pop" part of indiepop, Versus were a little different. While label mainstays like Velocity Girl and Unrest tended towards hyper-catchy, semi-saccharine sparklers tinged with bitterness, NYC's Versus were noisier, thornier, and bigger-sounding. Versus could craft kingsized hooks with the best of them, but there was always a blistering sonic assault lurking just behind the curtains. Maybe New York's cranky downtown noise scene rubbed off on the Brothers Baluyut (Richard, Edward, and James) and their bass-playing knockout, the impossibly named Fontaine Toups, 'cuz there's definitely some Sonic Youth and Television swirling around in there somewhere. Either way, Versus are responsible for some of the most memorable and immediate ruckus of the '90s, and 1996's Secret Swingers is their crowning glory.

The songs on Secret Swingers at first listen sound deceptively simple, built on solid melodic foundations that let the drums, guitars, and bass (with occasional help from organs and keyboards) build to great heights. But Versus consistently exceed expectations with ingenious instrumental flourishes and, again, surprisingly abrasive blasts of furious noise. And that's what set these guys apart time and again: their ability to shape and control chaos, making the maelstrom into something well beyond easy on the ears, planting a flag in compelling territory on song after song.

Let's take album opener "Lose That Dress." It's an impressive calling card: using a loose-wristed, hipsprung strum to set bright major key chords tumbling, the mid-tempo tune has sunny "yeee-ahhhh"s hanging in the background, drumming that shifts between ramshackle (dig the ride cymbal bell hits on the off-beat) and incredibly tight , and a bassline which refuses to be pushed around. The verses are sung by Richard Baluyut with casual longing, while the chorus moves into a slightly sinister sprawl: "I can really like you when you’re sleeping/ I don’t know what you’ve been dreaming," mutters Baluyut in eerie desperation, "I guess I’ll just call you up this weekend."

"Yeah You" finds Toups taking vocal duty, and its a barnstormer of a track, with abrasively pinwheeling rhythm guitars and a singsong cadence delivering barbed accusations of betrayed trust; at the 3:08 mark, the song hits the wall, going from mad dash to drunken stagger in a tangle of abused strings. It's a jarring dynamic shift, and another of Versus' bright ideas.

And then comes one of the best songs of the decade: "Glitter of Love," with its soaring, starry-eyed vocals, Ritalin-ready surf beat, and instantly endearing ricochet hook. The way the two guitars bounce off each other, mixing and mingling and arguing, while the drums -- handled by Edward Baluyut with effing untouchable snare rolls and an admirable sense of timing and invention -- stake their claim for "best part of the song" is thrilling, and makes for a fitting testament to the band. If Versus had recorded only "Glitter of Love" and then vanished forever, that song alone would have been enough to enshrine them in the hallowed halls of indierock legend.

Though "Glitter of Love" is (clearly) the high point of the record, the rest of the collection doesn't disappoint. "Ghost Story" plods along innocently enough for two minutes, and then lets loose the dogs of distortion and turns into a terrifyingly fierce exercise in sonic destruction. "Double Suicide" employs boy-girl vocals and slow fuse build-up to dramatic effect, with a guitar tone borrowed from Daydream Nation and a satisfyingly raucous payoff.

"Shower Song" is supremely unnerving, immersing a snarling vocal melody in buzzsaw guitar bluster, with relentlessly insistent drumming and awesome/horrifying lines like, "You're the lying king/ You're the number 13/ You're the death of fuck/ You just ran out of luck." It's an unchained act of melodic aggression, and it makes me want to put my fist through a wall every time I hear it. "Angels Rush In" finds Toups and Richard Baluyut trading vocals as the see-sawing track periodically trades pretty for tortured and the band guts the melody with dull knives. "A Heart is a Diamond" is a gleaming, chiming anthem, and ends Secret Swingers on a high note with crashing guitars and pounding drums ringing in your ears.

Versus were probably my favorite TeenBeat band, and were certainly one of the most formidable acts on the '90s indierock scene. Secret Swingers makes it clear why. Innovative, monumental songs spiked with caustic layers of expert noise? What's not to like?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Thin Lizzy. Johnny the Fox (Mercury, 1976)

"Don't believe a word/ For words are only spoken/ Your heart is like a promise/ Made to be broken."

Writing about Ted Leo last week made me want to listen to some Thin Lizzy, so over the weekend I threw on 1976's Johnny the Fox, the follow up to their breakthrough LP, Jailbreak. And in listening, I was reminded again of just how much these dudes brought to the table. The indie world has, for a few years now, been conducting a bit of a reassessment of Thin Lizzy, with the Pharmacists and the Hold Steady, especially, finding a lot to lift from the twin guitar fireworks, tightly controlled rhythms, and literate lyrics. Bassist/singer/key songwriter Phil Lynott was a singular talent, marrying the hyper-verbal storyteller style of Dylan and Springsteen to a muscular, Celtic-derived blues-rock sound founded on the incredible, intertwining chops of dual lead guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson. Plus, Lynott could more than find his way around a melody, producing some of the catchiest, heartfelt jams of the '70s.

These days, Thin Lizzy is regarded by too many as a beer commercial band, with Jailbreak's "The Boys are Back in Town" having been plundered by company after company to shill all manner of crap. The thing is, "The Boys are Back in Town" is an incredible song, with a champion hook and grin-inducing lyrics that have more than stood the test of time. It's just been overplayed. Which is too bad, because Thin Lizzy -- while a great singles band -- had a lot to offer over the course of entire albums, and put together collections that were largely devoid of the filler common to the AOR era.

Johnny the Fox is a perfect example, a stellar record overflowing with infectious grooves and ear-catching melodies, with a tendency to mix the sweetly vulnerable with the vaguely threatening in a way that makes the music incredibly compelling. There's nothing goofy here (well, almost nothing: last track "Boogie Woogie Dance" is about as good as its title suggests), and overall the LP has aged incredibly well. It's no wonder that bands today are looking back at Thin Lizzy as a valuable stylistic touchstone. There's a lot to learn here.

The album can essentially be divided into two sets of songs: the straight rockers and the slow burners. Both sets are pretty solid. As for the straight rockers, leadoff track "Johnny" sets the pace right away with a tense rhythm guitar melody and precision drum rolls, the lead guitar lines essentially going wherever they want to go, which in this case is to the moon and beyond. The wah pedal puts in some overtime, and the general effect is of barely controlled chaos, which is always welcome. The simple horn chords that come in about halfway through the song add a welcome R&B element that contrasts nicely to the sleeveless rawk of the rest of the tune.

"Don't Believe a Word" deserves to be a classic, a beautifully constructed, fiercely played warning to a potential conquest, with a vocal melody delivered by Lynott with a sadness bordering on anger. It's swaggering rhythms and lazerbeam guitar salvos (seriously, this is why Guitar Hero was invented) run rampant, but never overshadow Lynott. "Fool's Gold" starts off with a brief voiceover about Irish immigration to America and then (before things take a turn to the ridiculous) bursts into a brightly crunching glam stomper, complete with quicksilver solos and triumphant Lynott bellows. "Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed" is marked by a lethally funky breakbeat and a evil acid scratch rhythm guitar, backalley music for getting up to no good, while "Massacre" is a frantic battle anthem played at breakneck speed, pausing only to let Gorham and Robertson blaze away.

The slower tracks on Johnny the Fox reveal that, despite the rock bombast they excelled at, Thin Lizzy was a damn fine soul band. Lynott's voice was capable of conveying wounded sincerity and intense heartbreak, while the rest of the band could slow it down without losing any of their power or finesse. "Borderline" is a countrified ballad dressed in a delicate acoustic lead lines and wailing electric solos. "Old Flame" is a touching exercise in regret and longing, with a punchy drum and bass bit, gently slashing chords, and a warm multi-part harmony chorus. And "Sweet Marie" takes an amplified sitar foundation and builds one of Lynott's best compositions on top of it; the way the chorus crashes into each verse as the tune goes from a soulful drift into a more focused attack is genius. Plus, I like how Lynott betrays his endearingly confused conception of U.S. geography when he croons, "Somewhere out in Arizona/ Such a long way from California/ I felt so alone there/ I was two thousand miles away from home there." Adorable.

If the last time you listened to Thin Lizzy was during a Coors Light commercial, you need to listen again. These guys were the real deal, and ahead of their time in a way that's only now being recognized. Johnny the Fox makes it clear how tight and focused Thin Lizzy could be, while also displaying both sides of their sound: scorching rockers and solid soul masters. Lynott and Co. have been grossly underestimated, as this LP will make clear upon first spin. Rediscover them for the first time and see what you've been missing.