Friday, June 19, 2009

Statehood. Lies and Rhetoric (Self-Released, 2007)

"I feel confused because there's no sensation/ We lack a motive and we change our roles."

In February 2008, Statehood's lead singer Clark Sabine was diagnosed with cancer. On June 17, 2009, Sabine passed away at the tragically young age of 33, and the DC scene lost a true talent.

Statehood, a four-piece boasting the devastating ex-Dismemberment Plan rhythm section of drummer Joe Easley and bassist Eric Axelson, along with Sabine on vocals/guitars/keys and Leigh Thompson on guitars/keys, released their self-titled debut in 2007. The LP is a spot-on collection of classic DC-post-punk-style burners, with an emphasis on pummeling syncopation and a taut, live wire guitar attack, super tight and super catchy. Statehood bring a serious sound to the table, steeped in righteous anger and amorphous paranoia, with Sabine's edgy tenor delivering the vaguely political lyrics with force and desperate conviction.

Not surprisingly, Axelson and Easley are key to the band's success. One of the mightiest drum and bass duos of recent memory, these guys have an intuitive understanding of each other's approach and style, crafting rock solid rhythmic foundations on top of which Sabine and Thompson erect galvanized towers of six-string treble. Axelson, in particular, with his distinctly dub and reggae-informed playing, injects each song with a manic, basement-frequency energy, keeping the melodies deep deep deep in the pocket and freeing the guitars -- played by Sabine and Thompson with just the right blend of control and chaos, dual lines feeding off each other in a compelling serpentine system -- to slash and burn at will.

Each song on this LP stands in the shadow of District giants like Fugazi, Jawbox, Burning Airlines, and Faraquet. Plus, it was produced by ex-Dismemberment Plan guitarist Jason Caddell at Dischord's house studio Inner Ear, so this is about as DC as it gets. And that's just great, especially when you've got tunes like the throbbing opener "Story's End," flinty, panicked standout "Save Yourself," and the bracing "No, I Don't Think You Want to Know" up your sleeve. "Hidden Views" wraps jagged, hacking chords around fluid bass lines and chattering hi-hats, while "Disconnect" bobs along over waves of punchy low end as the riffs stab and echo and richochet, sawing ragged, awesome holes in the song's fabric.

According to a statement on their website, Statehood plan to release 10 songs recorded before Sabine's passing. Here's hoping those tracks see the light of day, and here's wishing Sabine's family and friends the strength to deal with their loved one's untimely demise.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Act Surprised is taking the day off and will return with a new post on Friday, June 19.

Monday, June 15, 2009

National Skyline. This = Everything (File 13, 2001)

"They can fill my lungs with air/ They can tell I barely care."

National Skyline sprang from the fertile post-punk breeding ground of Champaign-Urbana, IL, home to '90s semi-stars Braid, the Poster Children, Castor, and Hum. In fact, National Skyline boasts refugees from several of those acts: bassist Jeff Dimpsey did time in the Poster Children and Hum, and singer/guitarist Jeff Garber used to be in Castor. That qualifies as a supergroup, in some admittedly tight circles.

Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Hum's patented spaceface drone, National Skyline's sound leans heavily on glitchy digital rhythms, haunting, breathy vocals, and smooth-to-abrasive guitar work. The end result is darkly atmospheric and surprisingly hooky, a unique listening experience and beautiful in a sinister way, like gleaming, winterbright ice masking the dark and deadly waters of a frozen lake.

This = Everything is National Skyline's second full length, following 2000's self-titled debut, and it's a pretty intriguing piece of work. Over the course of 10 songs and 40 minutes, these sons of the Land of Lincoln articulate their singular vision, in turn crafting a collection of tunes calling to mind the more tuneful aspects of post-rock and the cheerful dance floor knowhow of New Order. Rhythm is king throughout, as live drums and programmed beats blend to provide a solid foundation for the fluid, minor key-dominated bass and guitar interplay. Garber delivers the lyrics in a dreamy, blissed out exhale of a voice, adding to the outer limits feel of the LP.

"Some Will Say" herky-jerks the album off to a nice start, Dimpsey's rich bass line bolstering off-kilter beats behind chiming loops and Garber's swelling guitar. "Reinkiller" charges forward, its dubby momentum and pinballing riffs giving way to digitally-inflected power chords. The delightful bounce and swagger of "A Night at the Drugstore" is an album highlight, its effortless buoyancy providing one of the few downright cheerful periods of an otherwise pretty shadowy album.

"A Million Circles" ropes you in with its hypnotic melody and crisp syncopation, waves of synth gone glassy and smooth, shattered at the crucial moment by Garber's frantic solo. The acoustic "Cadence of Water" provides a welcome organic counterpoint to the rest of the LP's mechanistic sheen, weaving poignant strums around lilting ebb-and-flow vocals, delicate and wounded.

National Skyline aim for a kind of desolate, gorgeous soundscape, and inevitably hit the mark. This = Everything conjures up the beauty of an oil refinery at night, its smokestacks and halogen lights in full man-made bloom, artificial in every way but sublimely stunning all the same.

a night at the drugstore - national skyline

Friday, June 12, 2009

Grandaddy. The Sophtware Slump (V2, 2000)

“Last night something pretty bad happened, we lost a friend, all shocked and broken, shut down exploded.”

Formed in 1992, Grandaddy really nailed the Y2K zeitgeist with their particular brand of hippie-robot-rock. In my opinion, they hit their peak on 2000’s Sophtware Slump, a gorgeous landscape of techno-waste featuring android poets, emoting machinery, and a forest full of rusting abandoned appliances. It’s a bleak landscape, to be sure, but in lyricist and lead singer Jason Lytle’s capable hands, it’s a place you won’t mind visiting for the duration of Sophtware Slump.

Beginning with a lush 9-minute (yes, 9-minute) space-trip-opera, you’ll find yourself traveling along with 2000 Man in “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot.” Before you write this off as hippie bullshit (I know, it’s tempting; Lytle is a little too into hackey-sacking-back-packing for my taste, and I’m pretty sure he rides his bike barefoot, but all of that aside) just give it a chance and try not to be swept into 2000 Man’s world.

Once there, you’ll next meet “Hewlett’s Daughter,” leaving a trail of broken hearts in her digital wake as the machine-pocalypse unfolds. With lazy drums, occasionally crashing guitars, and un-parse-able lyrics, it’s probably safe to presume Grandaddy was pretty high while recording this record, and it makes for pretty fun listening.

“Jed The Humanoid” tells the sad tale of a robot created from spare parts, initially loved, ultimately abandoned by his creators, and finally destroyed by alcoholism. Go ahead and laugh, but I promise you will never be more moved by an alcoholic android’s story. Seriously, on the right day, this song can make me cry. But don’t worry, you’re spirits will be lifted with “The Crystal Lake”’s synth-lament for simpler times.

“Chartsengrafs” is one of the harder rocking songs on this record, with driving drums and guitars. It’s followed by “Underneath The Weeping Willow,” a simple piano/vocal combo, which serves as a sweet rest stop before you are dropped into the “Broken Household Appliance National Forest,” the catchiest anthem on global warming you’ll ever sing along to.

Next up is a posthumous poem from our ill-fated humanoid friend Jed about his descent into destruction, appropriate titled “Jed’s Other Poem”: “You said I’d wake up dead drunk/ Alone in the park/ I called you a liar/ But how right you were.” The “E. Knievel Interlude” is a quick synth-bit on the way to meeting the “Miner At The Dial-A-View.” I’ve listened to this song an awful lot, and I’m still not sure exactly what the “Dial-A-View” is, but I am sure our miner has been stuck there for a really long time (forgive the cheesy spoken interlude obviously provided by one of Grandaddy’s girlfriends).

“So You’ll Aim Toward The Sky” rounds out Sophtware Slump on a hopeful note, albeit a note that sounds a bit about colonizing a new planet to replace this dump called Earth that humans have wrecked. Okay, so Grandaddy’s enviro-evangelizing is pretty fierce on this records, but keep in mind this was waaaaaaay back in 2000 before Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore made it cool to give a shit about planet Earth. So put on your time-travel helmet, and just give in to the hippies already. It’s so beautifully crafted, you’ll be hard-pressed to fight it.

Sadly, Grandaddy broke up in 2006, with Jason Lyttle relocating to Montana, ostensibly to live a simpler, greener life, or whatever. Thankfully, he left a trail of great Grandaddy records, including the genius Sophtware Slump, in his wake. -- Anneke Chy

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Manishevitz. City Life (Jagjaguwar, 2003)

"Back in the day/ We were willing to play/ The songs that/ You'd never forget."

I have a special place in my heart for Manishevitz, mainly because they hail from my home state -- Virginia, that dear Old Dominion -- and are affiliated with one of my favorite labels, Bloomington by way of Richmond-based Jagjaguwar.

When I was in college, I was always proud of Jagjaguwar: it was a great label representing a region (my native central Virginia) that too often got overshadowed by the NoVA-DC axis, home to relative giants like Dischord and Teenbeat. Jagjaguwar signed bands from Charlottesville and Richmond, bands like Drunk and the Curious Digit that played in the basement at Tokyo Rose, bands someone who grew up in the middle of nowhere could boast of.

Adam Busch was a founding member of the Curious Digit before he broke off to mastermind Manishevitz, taking slow-core Americana outfit Drunk's guitarist Via Nuon with him. In Manishevitz, Busch set off to satisfy his eccentric psych-pop sensibilities, crafting fractured indie oddities underpinned by Nuon's fleet-fingered axemanship. Manishevitz specializes in out-there mini-symphonies, instruments layered one upon the other and injected with a strange and ear-catching euphoria. Not for everyone, no, but impossible to forget.

2003's City Life is Manishevitz's third LP, and as bizarre a statement as Busch has made. A lot of the weirdness comes from Busch's vocal delivery: an arch, fey, hilariously fakey pseudo-British hiccup which bounces from the speakers in bursts of artifice. But behind the voice is an advanced songwriting sensibility which shines through time and again on City Life's nine songs and nearly 36 minutes. This is essentially guitar pop, nicely art damaged and skewed, never trading experimentation for a good tune and never wearing out its welcome.

Stylistically, City Life's songs range from the more or less straightforward mid-fi rock of opener "Beretta," its chiming riffs, fuzzy solos, and bouncy hand clap beats setting the stage for a bright and shiny pop holiday, to the semi-drone of "Hate Ilene," which nearly abandons its charming sprawl of a melody shortly after the minute mark, content instead to float into the ether on waves of gentle chords, unspooling single note sustains, and languid drum fills. It's Spiritualized on a budget, and it's far more appetizing than that sounds.

The rollicking barrelhouse piano adds a tuneful touch to the album's title track, as Nuon distinguishes himself with an endless series of abstract-yet-unannoying guitar passages and Busch spins out nonsensical observations on the urban condition -- "You hammer and you nail/ But you've got to be kidding/ Over the oxygen/ You're flipping a dime" -- while investing every line with a crackpot urgency. "Mary Ann" employs horns and woodwinds and punchy drums to craft an asylum inmate's sock hop anthem, and "Colorado Shore" chugs with rock in its heart and God-knows-what on its mind, boasting Warren G-funk keys and one of the catchiest hooks of the collection.

Manishevitz certainly let the freak flag fly, coming at conventions from unusual and untoward angles. But they consistently ground their sound in classical pop territory, and never lose sight of the listenable. And I can say with confidence: Virginia is for lovers of Manishevitz. Or at least it should be.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Harvey Danger. Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? (Arena Rock, 1997)

"Here's a fact you cannot rise above/ We'll have problems and then we'll have bigger ones."

Harvey Danger were victims of their own success. Having toiled in the Seattle club scene for the better part of the '90s, the guitar pop quartet barged into the mainstream on the strength of their 1997 single "Flagpole Sitta," which was featured in the post-Scream teen horror hit (and Katie Holmes vehicle) Disturbing Behavior and quickly ensconced itself as a staple/bright spot of Clinton era alt-rock radio.

Shortly thereafter, Harvey Danger found themselves selling a crap ton of their debut LP Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? (the title is taken from a line slurred by a blotto Shelley Winters in the 1966 thriller Harper, starring Paul Newman as the titular private eye. You should see it, it's good), becoming hopelessly overexposed, and thereafter sinking into commercial oblivion having achieved the unenviable position of being forgotten by the fickle masses and written off as mainstream one-hitters by the cognoscenti.

Which is way too bad, seeing as 1) "Flagpole Sitta" truly rules, and 2) the rest of Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? is pretty effing great. Harvey Danger deserved the attention, but didn't deserve the backlash, and their debut still stands as a forgotten indie gem, an example of a quirky, smart band obtaining massive mainstream attention.

Let's just start with "Flagpole Sitta." You remember it: a galloping, feverishly hooky mammoth jam, buoyed by a bouncing bassline and irresistibly propulsive drum track, all snappy snares and slamming kickdrum hits. Singer Sean Nelson channels Elvis Costello as he spits out frenzied paranoia like, "Hear the voices in my head/ I swear to God it sounds like they're snoring/ But if you're bored then you're boring/ The agony and the irony, they're killing me," in an adenoidal singsong that's impossible to forget. On top of that, Jeff J. Lin turns in some satisfyingly thorny guitar work, twisting the main riffs to the breaking point and wringing some impressive chaos from his instrument. This is no Eve 6/Marcy Playground/Dishwalla wannabe: it's a song that most bands would kill to write.

And then there's the rest of the album, which adds up to a consistently solid collection of samurai-sharp indie pop. These guys had apparently been listening to the right stuff along the way, from the Attractions to Unrest to the Pixies, steeping their sound in punchy melodies and advanced-class song structures, getting loads of mileage out of the loud-quiet-loud dynamic and wrapping the tunes in just the right amount of smart-assery. The production, by John Goodmanson (who's manned the boards for such indie luminaries as Sleater-Kinney, Pavement, Blonde Redhead, Bikini Kill, and Los Campesinos!) does Harvey Danger all kinds of favors, nailing and amplifying the essential tunefulness of the songs and delivering them like a roundhouse to the jaw.

The first half of the record is gold. Besides the aforementioned "Flagpole Sitta," there's the sugar rush of "Carlotta Valdez," floating on agile strums and catchy bass work until the power chords add menace and weight, and the slow build of "Woolly Muffler," which bides its time until exploding into pure rock fury (well, annoyance, anyway) at the 1:44 mark, guitars blaring and cymbals crashing. "Friends will turn against you/ People disappoint you every time/ So if you've got greatness in you/ Would you do us all a favor and keep it to yourself," sneers Nelson before expounding on a "belabored expat fantasy." The soaring "Private Helicopter" marries ex-girlfriend fantasies to serrated hooks and on-a-dime time changes, while "Problems And Bigger Ones" is the album's most successful down-tempo number, a smoldering, bruising elegy for lost love and missed chances that wouldn't sound out of place on the Promise Ring's emo triumph Nothing Feels Good.

Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? loses a little steam in the back half, but there's nothing embarrassing here. A few too many slow jams, but the rockers are beyond competent, especially the swinging "Old Hat" and "Terminal Annex," with its vaguely Cure-like sparkle and fade, blown-amp solos, and genius put-downs: "You complain about an overflowing cup/ Don't forget that I'm the one who filled that fucker up."

If you'd forgotten about Harvey Danger or written them off, you owe them another listen. You can find Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? for about one cent on Amazon or whatever, and believe me: Harvey Danger's thoughts are worth your penny.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Act Surprised will return with a new entry on Monday, June 8.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

El Perro Del Mar. El Perro Del Mar (Memphis Industries, 2006)

“This loneliness ain’t pretty no more.”

Hailing from the dolorous Nordic climes of Gothenburg, Sweden, El Perro Del Mar, aka Sarah Assbring, is a one-woman show of delicious lo-fi pop melancholia. Who knew such sonic grief could flow from a place that gets 17 hours of sunlight a day every summer? But flow it does, and after a listen to 2006’s self-titled LP, you’ll be happier for it. Backed by what sounds like the world’s saddest girl group, El Perro Del Mar delivers devastatingly lush vignettes that you’ll inevitably find yourself ooh-ing and bebop-a-loo-ing along to.

"Candy" gets things dirge-ing with a woe-is-me tale of a people-pleaser who has had it up. to. here. and flip-flops into a sighing hedonism, if only for one night. Trust me, you’ll want to be along for the ride, especially as "Candy" gives way to album hit "God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get)." This girl is carrying around some serious guilt, which she channels beautifully into this Shangri-La’s-esque number.

"Party" invites you along to the drama club festivities: “Is it so hard to see/I don’t want to be your friend/I just want to be a part of you.” And following that, "People" declares all human beings simply impenetrable: “I can’t understand people/ But I guess that’s all right/ 'Cause they can’t understand me.” Does it get any more dire? Oh yeah, it does. "Dog" finds our El Perro being treated like a mongrel by some ne’er-do-well, and liking it.

"I Can’t Talk About It" will have you hand-clapping along as our drama queen clams up: “Lately there’s been a lot going on/ I can’t really talk about it.” Luckily, "Coming Down The Hill" finds our Swedish chanteuse skipping around proclaiming to the world that she’s got good news. What could it be? “I’ve lost the blues for you.”

Never fear, before you can get used to that high note, she’s back to plumbing the nadir of "This Loneliness," which is seriously impairing her social life. Even "It’s All Good," perhaps the cheeriest ditty on the record (“It’s all good to take a new road and never look back") can’t hide the edge in Assbring’s voice, and while the good vibes float almost to the surface, they never quite emerge from the deep. The horn-happy "Here Comes That Feeling," will have you dancing along before you realize that the feeling she’s talking about is soul-crushing depression.

By the end of this LP you may just get the sense that Ms. Assbring has let you in on a personal therapy session in which her hopelessness is best medicated with a dose of doo-wop. But she walks an exquisite tightrope of letting you see and hear the depths of her misery while at the same time buoying you gently out of reach of her gloom.-- Anneke Chy

Monday, June 1, 2009

LCD Soundsystem. Sound of Silver (Capitol/DFA, 2007)

"And yeah we knew you were tired, but then/ Where are your friends tonite?"

LCD Soundsystem is the Robocop of indie rock: half man, half machine, all great. The brainchild of knob-twiddler and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire James Murphy (Robocop's real name was Murphy, too), it's a brilliant amalgamation of krautrock-inspired electro and meat-and-potatoes FM radio rock, insistent programmed beats and shimmery synths fighting for space around live bass, drums, and guitar. Plus, Murphy is a piss-taker of the first order, investing his songs with a nice mix of pathos, humor, dread, and regret.

Before becoming one of dance punk's most sought after producers as half of dynamic duo the DFA (with Tim Goldsworthy, himself a co-founder of the UK's Mo' Wax imprint), Murphy did time in post-punk outfits like Pony and Speedking, manning the drum kits and honing his timing. He made his sound design bones by handling the sound set-up for keyboards 'n' coke visionaries Six Finger Satellite, helping those dudes scare the hell out of a bunch of unsuspecting college kids.

By 2001, Murphy had teamed up with Goldsworthy to create DFA (that's Death From Above) Records, cranking out early-aughts classics by benighted Brooklynites like the Rapture, the Juan Maclean (aka John Maclean from Six Finger Satellite), Black Dice, and Radio 4, helping guitar-wielding post-millennial punks with Saturday night fever shake their asses in shitty basements all over Williamsburg. It was Gang of Four all over again, minus the politics, plus the drugs, as chronicled by Vice. And it sounded pretty great.

LCD Soundsystem arrived shortly thereafter, as Murphy took to penning his own tracks and playing his own instruments, pulling from pop, garage, disco, techno, psych, new wave, no wave, and whatever else lay at his fingertips. Debut single "Losing My Edge" arrived in summer 2002, an effing brilliant chunk of driving dancefloor gold with a spoken word lament from an incredibly hip hipster mourning his increasing irrelevance but defending his bonafides, declaring that, "I was there at the first Can show in Cologne," "I was there in 1974 at the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City (I was working on the organ sounds with much patience)," "I used to work in the record store. I had everything before anyone." It's hilarious and sad, and you can hear the pride and desperation in every nonchalantly uttered syllable.

Some more singles followed, like "Daft Punk is Playing at My House" and the creepily engaging "Yr City's A Sucker"; in early 2005, the eponymous debut LCD Soundsystem LP, which gathered these singles and more on to a two-disc set, was released on Capitol/DFA, and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Electronic/Dance Album in 2006. At one point, even Britney Spears wanted a DFA remix (it didn't work out). Murphy was riding high.

Sound of Silver, LCD Soundsystem's second full-length, dropped in 2007 and immediately proved that Murphy wasn't running out of good ideas. It's one of the most solid LPs of the aughts, an irresistible collection of heavy hooks laid over instantly enjoyable beats, marked by sorrow and a certain world weary joy.

The LP's standouts are "North American Scum" and "All My Friends." The former is a cheerily jingoistic anthem sung by someone self-conscious of his continent and trying to defend his culture from a bunch of skeptical Euro types, shot through with a relentlessly driving beat and pulsing guitars. The latter is probably my favorite song of 2007, a heartbreaking tale of the inexorable journey beyond cool and into old age. It's impeccably constructed, repeating a two chord build-and-release progression and layering instruments gradually, gaining melodic momentum as the vocals become increasingly desperate and distraught. "You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan/ And the next five years trying to be with your friends again," cries Murphy, perfectly articulating the pain and confusion inherent in the maturation process, and nearly making me cry every time. By the end, Murphy is spitting lines like, "When you're drunk and the kids look impossibly tan/ You think over and over, 'Hey! I'm finally dead!'" and, "Oh, if the trip and plan come apart in your hands/ You can turn it on yourself, you ridiculous clown," and it's like a dark prophecy from the land of the terminally stylish. There but for the Grace of Eno go we all.

Though the aforementioned are the high points, Sound of Silver holds little filler. "Get Innocuous" ushers in the album with a hearty throb, laying the groundwork for the treasure to unfold. "Someone Great" pulses on cardiac rhythms, darkly magisterial keys, and trebly squelches, salvaging a notable hook from the sonic soup. The straightforward thump of "Watch The Tapes" punches through to the solemnly smirking chant of the title cut: "Sound of silver, talk to me/ Makes you want to feel like a teenager/ Until you remember the feelings of/ A real live emotional teenager/ Then you think again," as a Kraftwerky bleepscape bumps and whirs in the background. Album closer "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down" is a simple, analog piano ballad (and one of the few tracks where Murphy is joined by some other folks), a paean to pre-Giuliani/Bloomberg Gotham. ""New York, you're safer but you're wasting my time," Murphy croons sweetly, "Our records all show you were filthy but fine." It's willfully naive but catchy as hell and sweet, too; it's hard not to share in the blind nostalgia for a place that never really was.

LCD Soundsystem is the sound of the Big Apple's indie hipster cognoscenti at the start of the 21st century, untouchably cool and consistently impressive. Sound of Silver will, I have little doubt, age well, a sonic scrapbook of troubling times, with echoes of post-9/11 anxiety and post-90s hangovers preserved for future listeners. This is historic music, the sound of a generation crippled by self-awareness and irony but trying to move beyond that stuff to someplace better. Trying and usually failing, but trying all the same.

LCD Soundsystem

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Jayhawks. Blue Earth (Twin/Tone, 1989)

"You got the time ahead to pay."

Alt-country or roots-rock or No Depression or whatever can be kinda tiresome. For every Uncle Tupelo or Scud Mountain Boys, there's some shaggy band of dad-rockers with more flannel than chops, whining about how no one makes good music anymore, everything's plastic and overproduced, there's no heart, blah blah blah. Frankly, the self righteousness and old-fogeyism is a turn off, especially when the complainers are churning out twangy, fiddle-haunted, dead dull dirges and wondering why no one wants to hear 'em.

That said, the punk-inspired DIY aesthetic combined with the handcrafted honesty and often breathtaking imagery of country and folk can be a heady concoction when done right. There's
a power and a weight peculiar to the music of Americana, a special kind of beauty to be found. And the Jayhawks found it.

Emerging from the Minneapolis scene of the '80s, birthplace of post-hardcore prodigies the Replacements and Husker Du (among others), the Jayhawks found a home on the city's legendary Twin/Tone label. From the beginning, they wore their love of old-timey music on their jean jacket sleeves, reveling in homespun harmonizing and ragged guitars, taking cues from country-rock-inflected outfits like the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds, the Band, and CCR, and staking their own rootsy territory in the Great White North. And they excelled at their approach right from the start, cranking out their accomplished self-titled debut in 1986 and following it up with the superlative Blue Earth in '89.

Of course, it helped that, at the time, the Jayhawks were saddled with an amazing songwriter in Mark Olson, who was occasionally helped out by lead guitarist Gary Louris (no slouch). Olson boasts a nicely expressive voice, a knack for imagery, and an ear for hooks. Louris knows his way around the frets, and, on Blue Earth, Marc Perlman and Thad Spencer (bass and drums, respectively) more than hold the rhythm section down.

Blue Earth (named, I assume, after the river in Minnesota) was actually a bunch of demos designed to land a Twin/Tone signing, a fact that belies the upper-deck songcraft and altogether self-assuredness of this collection. It's hard to describe these songs without using the word "beautiful" or its synonyms. Pretty doesn't cut it. On track after track, the Jayhawks manage to deliver beautiful sentiments wrapped up in gorgeous melodies, set off by the simplicity and sincerity of the arrangements. And there's enough distortion to remind you that, in the end, it's only rock 'n' roll, tarnished and torn in all the right spots but maintaining its crystalline tunefulness throughout.

The LP is a 12-song parade of standouts. "Two Angels" (which was re-recorded for the more polished Hollywood Town Hall, the Jayhawks' relative breakthrough on Def American) shuffles its way through its jaunty lament, snares snapping and pedal steel keening behind soaring dual vocal harmonies. The blinding guitar lines and brash harmonica of "Will I Be Married" never fail to raise a smile, and the contemplative "Commonplace Streets," with its loser's laments and self-doubt bolstered by Louris's crazymaking leads, is hypnotically thrilling. "Ain't No End"'s mournful air devastates: "Oh Lord," wails Olson, "Ain't no end/ Left in one thing you try to kill," as chords build steadily to a rousing crescendo, finally collapsing on themselves in a baleful racket.

Blue Earth is one of the finest alt-country LPs ever released, the transcript of a band perfecting its sound. Here, on a batch of songs
redolent of long distances, empty spaces, gravel roads, shabby boarding houses, and broken hearts, the Jayhawks straddle perfectly the line between rock and country, delivering each line like they've lived it. No depression, indeed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Reigning Sound. Time Bomb High School (In The Red, 2002)

"It's a well-known drag, but it brings me down."

Hailing from North Carolina by way of Memphis, down 'n' dirty garage blasters the Reigning Sound specialize in a soul and vintage rock-inflected racket coated in fuzzy, buzzy chords and punk-timed tempos. Like the Ramones and countless other wild-eyed pop historians, this southern-fried quartet looks backward for inspiration, mining the classic sounds of the '50s and '60s for nuggets of melody and attitude, taking cues from the rougher edges of an antique approach and infusing what's old with a thrillingly up-to-date feel. The key to the Reigning Sound's success is their lack of piss-taking or posturing, never resorting to buffoonish genre-aping or rockabilly play acting. There's nothing goofy about these cats' game, just helping after helping of soulfully ragged rock.

Time Bomb High School (a title seeming to deftly merge the Ramones and Rancid) is the Reigning Sound's second LP, a sterling collection of joyously raucous originals and a handful of well-considered and re-engineered covers. Throughout the album's 15 songs and 37+ minutes, lead singer/guitarist Greg Cartwight, guitarist/organist/singer Alex Greene, bassist/singer Jeremy Scott, and drummer Greg Roberson wail away with bruising precision, roaring through the numbers with an excitement that bleeds through the speakers in waves. Power chords and kick-drum flurries push the tunes through their paces, as Cartwright -- channeling the Small Faces' mighty Steve Marriott -- delivers his vocals in a fearsome, gravel-encrusted croon that elevates the whole endeavor to the realm of the kick-ass. In the immortal words of MG Duck Dunn, it's a sound powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline.

Dusty standard "Stormy Weather" kicks things off in fine style, given a reverent treatment by the boys, retaining an aching vulnerability and sweet sentimentality underneath its tattered denim and torn leather. Other interpretations include the biting, taunting "Brown Paper Sack," with its stabbing organ lines and pounding Stax rhythm, and the jaunty, infectious "I Don't Believe," a brilliantly lilting vocal melody running counter to the thick, distorted instrumentation.

But the originals are the thing. The Reigning Sound, as enthusiastic as they are about their history, are clearly comfortable with their own songwriting abilities. "Straight Shooter" is awesomely propulsive bash and pop, shaggy-haired and shambling; "You're Not As Pretty" is Dylan-damaged invective, gentle tempos making the accusations that much sharper ("You're not as pretty as you thought you were"); "I Walk By Your House" is a keenly observed requiem for aging and lost love. The album's title track is a killer lark sung from the perspective of a charmingly disenchanted teenager. "Well I ain't a jock and I ain't a geek/ And I ain't no computer geek/ I don't seem to fit in down at the Time Bomb High School," laments Cartwright over doubletime Chuck Berry riffs, just like they used to make 'em. Last chance for a slow dance comes with "I'm Holding Out," a prom theme for the switchblade set, a dead sharp ballad blending menace and hurt.

The Reigning Sound might be retro, but they aren't gimmicky schtick-slingers. Instead, they take what's old and turn it into something vital and fresh, one of rock's oldest -- and best -- tricks. And more power to 'em, because on Time Bomb High School the Reigning Sound rule.

Monday, May 18, 2009

On second thought, Act Surprised is taking a vacation, and will return on Wednesday, May 27. Happy Memorial Day.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Act Surprised is taking the day off, and will return on Monday, May 18.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Belle & Sebastian. Legal Man EP (Jeepster, 2000)

"You're the Legal Man, you've got to prove that you're no liar/ I'll render services that you may reasonably require."

Legal Man marked a significant stylistic shift for Glasgow mopesters Bell & Sebastian, injecting confident swagger and a far more aggressively upbeat approach into their expertly twee sound. The period leading up to Legal Man saw Stuart Murdoch and his cohort of overcast accomplices perfecting their Nick Drake worship, turning in LPs (Tigermilk, If You're Feeling Sinister, The Boy With The Arab Strap, and Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant) and EPs (the uniformly excellent Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, 3...6...9 Seconds of Light, and This Is Just A Modern Rock Song) that continue to set the bar for folky, delicate, heartbreakingly catchy indie pop. B&S sounded like B&S, and that sounded great.

But Legal Man -- with its groovy retro cover art, beatnik chicks looking to hold some cute mod waif as a sexy hostage -- was different. A three song EP featuring the title track, the cheekily-titled instrumental "Judy Is A Dickslap," and the bouncy "Winter Wooskie," it seemed to announce a new, different kind of B&S. Not exactly a seismic shift, no; but this was not exactly the Caledonian crew of the 20th century. A new millennium seemingly spelled changes for the frequently morose lads and lassies.

"Legal Man" shows B&S's newfangled colors right away, opening with kingsized echoey amplified sitars out of a John Barry spy score, punchy, propulsive drums, spiky power chords, rave-up organs, and a crowing female chorus exclaiming, "L-O-V-E love/ It's coming back/ It's coming back!" Well, great! The bass line gets all Bootsy as Murdoch spells out terms of affection in the best barrister manner: "Not withstanding provisions of clauses 1,2,3 and 4/ Extend contractual period, me and you for evermore." It's B&S as reimagined by Curtis Mayfield or Isaac Hayes, a sunny, grin-inducing delight, breathlessly admonishing listeners (and typical B&S fans, conceivably) to, "Get out of the city and into the sunshine." A new leaf turned to the sunny side.

The other two tracks stay on the positive tip, keeping the tempos up and the mood light. "Judy Is A Dickslap" rides a springy rhythm guitar line and thrusting drums, drenched in cheery synth runs. "Winter Wooskie," while boasting some of that old B&S melancholy magic, nevertheless remains a track to warm the cockles, a winter reverie, a sweet meditation on far off infatuation. "And maybe I'm in love," go the wistful vocals, "And maybe that's enough." Awwww is right.

The first time I saw Belle & Sebastian was in 1998, right after If You're Feeling Sinister started to make waves in the States. That night, Stuart Murdoch was a mess, painfully shy and mumbling incomprehensibly between songs, with a band that seemed to only tentatively know its material. It was adorable. The last time I saw B&S was in 2003 or so, during the Dear Catastrophe Waitress tour, and it was a whole 'nother story: Murdoch has metastasized into a preening showman, cocksure and hipsprung, and the band played a set that emphasized their dancier, more beat-oriented tunes, evincing an outright distaste for their earlier, more fragile sound. I think Legal Man marked the beginning of B&S Mark II, the B&S I saw that night. And as irritated as I was by that performance, I still love this EP, a signpost to a new direction, a work that captures the shift and makes it sound exciting.

Belle & Sebastian

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Futureheads. The Futureheads (679/Sire, 2005)

"If the least you can do is show some restraint/ Then the most you can do is get carried away."

Every once in a while, an album comes along that makes you thank your head for having ears. An album so raucous, joyous, and undeniably ace that its greatness cannot be easily dismissed. It's a good thing when those albums make it into the world, and I can testify, on pain of death, that the Futureheads' 2005 self-titled debut is just such an album. It's as propulsive, perspiring, and savagely melodic as post-punk has gotten in the last ten years, at least (when was the last Fugazi album, anyway?).

The Futureheads hail from Sunderland, on England's east coast, and seem whole-heartedly committed to furthering the UK's reputation for tuneful clatter. Having initially sprung from the City College of Sunderland, the band slowly amassed a rep for brilliance over the course of the early aughts, perfecting their approach and polishing their chops to a high sheen. By 2003 or so, the band had settled into their current line-up (Ross Millard: guitar/vocals, Jaff Craig: bass/vocals, Dave Hyde: drums/vocals, and Barry Hyde: guitar/lead vocals), and were poised to conquer.

And their 2005 debut was an astounding triumph. The LP is almost impossibly focused, teeming with good ideas and infectious melodies, held up and pushed along by a rhythm section bent on destruction and boasting the skills to carry through. Tight is the name of the game, and each song is damn near waterproof, displaying an astounding command of composition, timing, and precision belligerence. The Futureheads' layered sound, with multiple vocal and instrumental lines intersecting and colliding, strikes the right balance between complex and fun, complicated and accomplished.

The quartet's clearest touchstones are Fugazi, early XTC, and Gang of Four. In fact, Gang of Four's Andy Gill produced several tracks on the album, coaxing the legendarily danceable agitpunker's influence to the forefront, emphasizing edgy propulsion and caustic, barbed guitars. That said, melodically the Futureheads are far more lush than Gang of Four ever were, laying rich vocal arrangements over the punchy, wound-up playing.

"Le Garage" opens the album on gentle chimes; soon enough, though, jumpy, martial snare hits set the tempo and flurries of frantic, distorted strums take the track from pretty to pretty abrasive. It provides an excellent first impression, nicely showing off the group's fearsome capabilities for toothsome pop and fearsome riffage.

Track after track lives up to the promise of "Le Garage." "Robot" bounces and seethes, "A to B" piles rigid chording behind multipart vocal harmonies brilliantly, and "Decent Days And Nights" slashes holes in your speakers with its saber-like central riffs. The pounding kick drums of "Meantime" prop up the fret-melting guitar work, as Hyde sneers hilariously, "And you thought that I was joking/ When I said you were a moron/ When I said it I was smiling/ So you'd think that I was joking." "Alms" rides waves of overdrive and pinballing guitar counterpoints, while the post-punk a capella of "Danger Of The Water" sounds like an accident waiting to happen but ends up being a luminous showcase of these guys' vocal abilities. Undiluted blitzkrieg bop, "Carnival Kids" is an arms-aloft gem, rushing, breathless, and radiant.

When this album first came out, the Futureheads garnered a lot of attention for their cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds Of Love," and rightfully so: the group transforms Bush's synth-damaged vamp into an amphetamine-and-panic driven anthem, adding muscle and bluster but retaining the haunting, romantic aspects that make the song memorable. The way Hyde exclaims, "Help me, someone/ Help me please!" as the band blasts away behind him is effing incredible, conveying desperation and terror effortlessly, lending the song new found urgency and fire.

I've liked the LPs the Futureheads have released since their debut, but for me they perfected their sound the first time out. Nothing since has sounded as hungry or as sharp as this, as effortlessly in focus. The Futureheads is straight genius, drawing from all the right source material while adding a healthy dash of fresh ideas, lending itself to repeat listens and endless admiration.

The Futureheads

Friday, May 8, 2009

Turin Brakes. The Optimist LP (Astralwerks, 2001)

"My friends are all junkies/ But they're still my friends."

A friend from London brought me this record, the debut from duo Turin Brakes, when he came to visit in 2003, breathlessly singing its praises. I have to admit, I was a bit wary at first. Olly Knights's and Gale Paridjanian's voices seemed a tad much - high, arch, overtly DQ, maybe even slightly grating. But after a couple of listens, and due to my friend's glowing reviews, this record grew on me like a fungus, and has since become an indispensable part of my record collection.

Turin Brakes are usually classified as folk pop or as part of the slowcore/sadcore genre. Any of the above are apt descriptions, as even their slowest/saddest works are pierced through with poppy, hummable hooks. The Optimist LP was released in 2001 to critical acclaim, though word on the street is that the supporting tour was unfortunately scratched due to 9/11. No matter; the band went on to release several other celebrated records and they continue to tour regularly (though they haven't been through the U.S. in some time).

The Optimist LP features several hits, though the first four songs are probably the best: "Feeling Oblivion," "Underdog (Save Me)," "Emergency 72," and "Future Boy." "Feeling Oblivion" starts the collection off with a yearning sigh and keening, nearly hypnotic vocals, begging over and over, "So don't leave me here on my own," and at this point you would feel guilty if you turned off the record and didn't give it a fighting chance.

"Underdog (Save Me)" follows with a driving beat that quickly becomes irresistible. By the end you'll be screaming "Save me!" right along with the track. Things quiet back down a bit for "Emergency 72," which seems to suggest our singers may literally die if they don't get a phone call from a crush. It's an adolescent sentiment paired with mature, jaded music, which is sort of what Turin Brakes does best.

"Future Boy" may be the best song on the record, a lilting, pouty trollop of a torch song. Any tune that can effectively work in such enticingly degenerate lyrics wins my immediate respect: "Syphilis is a bitch/ But contracting HIV is much worse." I mean, come on. And this song has the best sing-a-long ending on the record, to boot.

Again, Turin Brakes's sound may not be for everyone, but I urge you to give The Optimist LP a chance. It manages to feel lonely and cozy at the same time, a good long-distance nighttime driving or reading the paper on a lazy Sunday morning record. Especially for disease-riddled junkie wrecks chronically down in the mouth. -- Anneke Chy

Turin Brakes

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Burning Airlines. Mission: Control! (DeSoto, 1999)

"And now we're learning/ About the charity that costs/ But we could do without/ The education."

DC hardcore vet J. Robbins spent time in seminal '80s District punk outfit Government Issue and headed '90s post-punk giants Jawbox before forming Burning Airlines (with fellow Jawboxer Bill Bardot and ex-Government Issue drummer Peter Moffett) at the end of the century. Burning Airlines (lifting their title from the 1974 Brian Eno track "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More" and betraying a bit of their artier tendencies) followed in Jawbox's footsteps, cranking out brutally melodic compositions delivered with an abundance of raw power, precision, and rhythmic authority. The sound was epic, unnervingly catchy, and big enough to take your block off at thirty paces.

Debut LP Mission: Control!, released on Robbins's own DeSoto label in 1999, is a mammoth calling card and one of the finest indie rock albums of the decade, demonstrating the full potential of the DC approach when done just right. Demonstrating an expert command of timing and dynamics, each track is impossibly tight and impressively hooky, built around Barbot's and Moffet's complicated interlocking drum (Moffett is a machine behind the kit, whipping out complex beats and counterbeats at will, playing off his bandmates and forging brave new sonic paths, a Bonham-level engine of timekeeping power) and bass interplay and Robbins's virtuoso guitar lines, which manage to thrash and smolder with an aching urgency.

But at its core, Mission: Control! is a simple guitar pop record, albeit one that you wouldn't mind backing you up in a bar fight. It sounds tough and takes its rocking so so seriously; but the sheer tunefulness of the songs saves it from humorlessness. Make no mistake: as accomplished as the instrumentation is throughout, Mission: Control! is a damn good time, a party record for the fitted-shirt-and-hornrims-set.

To say that there's a bad song on here would be perjury, but there are some notable highlights. Opener "Carnival" charges out of the gate in a flurry of roaring chords and bouncy syncopation, guitar lines chiming and slicing beautifully. "Wheaton Calling" unwinds around a choppy gallop, the choruses soaring and shimmering behind Robbins's cries of, "Repeat/ Times ten/ You're happy again/ Sinking where you lay."

Maybe Burning Airlines' single greatest song, "Pacific 231" is a model of its kind, an irresistible anthem with a hook impossible to ignore or forget, tense and coiled until the sun breaks through at the 1:56 mark. The plush "3 Sisters" finds Burning Airlines edging off the throttle a bit, proving that they can do tender without sounding like wallflowers. Over waves of reverb and clockwork rhythms, Robbins, Bardot, and Moffett craft a gorgeous post-hardcore ballad, marked by a bracingly corrosive solo from Robbins.

I once saw Burning Airlines open for emo poster boys The Promise Ring, and to say that the latter seemed anemic in comparison doesn't come close. It wasn't even a fair fight. Mission: Control! ably captures the potency and muscle of what were some of the finest purveyors of the DC sound to ever rise from the shores of the mighty Potomac, a trio for which power would be a shameful understatement.

Pacific 231 - Burning Airlines

Monday, May 4, 2009

Japandroids. Post-Nothing (Unfamiliar, 2009)

"She had wet hair/ Say what you will/ I don't care/ I couldn't resist it!"

The title of Post-Nothing, Vancouver duo Japandroids' debut LP, betrays a certain amount of impatience. Impatience with rock classifications, with post-rock and post-punk and post-hardcore; impatience with theories and overthought; impatience with patience. This is rock'n'fuggin' roll, after all, not math class or grad school. Let's hurry up and lighten up, plug in, and just play, man.

Which is just what Japandroids commence to do over the course of Post-Nothing's eight tracks and 35+ minutes, whipping a righteous racket of guitars and drums, injecting each tune with a sweaty, hoarse exuberance that belongs to the young and the young at heart. Brian King (guitar/vocals) and David Prowse (drums/vocals) keep things loud and simple, mining Superchunk, Guided by Voices, Chavez, My Bloody Valentine, and loads of untold hometown gararge heroes for blueprints and battleplans, cranking amps and punishing skins to create a direct, vital noise that's always aimed for the back of the room.

The guiding principle is intensity. King and Prowse play for the joy of playing, stoked simply to be recording their sounds for posterity, wide-open grins and breathless abandon as integral to the music as the instruments. Each blown out, distortion-drenched massive jam comes across as a rallying cry and a call to arms, a hooky entreaty to shout along at the top of your lungs. Lyrics revolve around youth, being young, and the drag of growing old, eternal themes warmed over awesomely. Smart melodies keep things from getting dumb, while the punishing volume and blistering beats save the project from being too cute. It's a fine line between clever and stupid, and Japandroids trace it.

Thin Lizzy prequel "The Boys Are Leaving" starts off like a Loveless demo before the drums roll in to give shape to the shimmer and roar, monster fills bleeding into the melodies to form an instinctively catchy anthem. "The boys are leaving town," shouts King before wondering desperately, "Will we find our way back home?" The track mixes wanderlust and reminiscence expertly, anticipation and loss duke-ing it out over twisted, burning chords.

"Young Hearts Spark Fire" is a timeless tune, the embodiment of juvenile elation and the sadness that comes with its eventual, inevitable loss. "Ohhhhhhh, we used to dream!" goes the chorus, "Now we worry about dying." Has there ever been a better middle finger to mortality than, "I don't wanna worry about dying/ I just wanna worry about sunshine and girls." It's "My Generation" for every generation, unburdened by boomer entitlement and other gross baggage. It's genius.

Throughout Post-Nothing, Japandroids return again and again to living in the present and letting the future take care of itself. Each song is a self-contained ode to wasting time and having a blast doing it, and the music underscores the point. The guitars buzz and crackle and blast, frantic strumming the backdrop for stun-ray acid surf solos, distortion hiding the cracks and flaws. "Wet Hair," with its exhortation to "French kiss some French girls," is a perfect distillation of the Japandroids' sound: simple changes played loud and fast, floor toms and kick drums and cymbals all elbowing their way into the mix, lyrics a hectic shout over the turbulence. "Rockers East Vancouver" stays tense and tight, opening up but never letting up, switching tempos to vary the abuse. "I Quit Girls" rides a wave of phase like the best early Pavement, a surprisingly beautiful dose of naive guitar delinquency shot through with trebly spikes and thorns.

Post-Nothing trades in simplicity and timelessness, its greatness grounded in a faith in extreme volume and hooks. This is honest music about being young and playing music, performed with an utter lack of self-consciousness or giving-a-shit. Japandroids just wanna rock you, and on Post-Nothing they succeed admirably. Plus, the cover of the album looks like the cover to Television's Marquee Moon, and they occasionally play the immortal McLusky's "To Hell With Good Intentions" during their live sets, both of which are totally worth a few points. It's like they're trying to be the best band ever.